Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 5, 2012

Obama’s Indifference to the Law

I wanted to add to Alana’s post  regarding what has been aptly termed the “lawless” recess appointments by President Obama. (The president has a right to make recess appointments, but the Constitution says the recess appointment can only happen when Congress is in recess, and the Senate was not in recess when Obama made his appointments. Even the liberal Obama supporter Timothy Noah of The New Republic has conceded, “I just don’t see how these appointments can be legal.”)

The actions by Obama were clearly driven by political calculations. And perhaps, as Alana argues, they were politically smart, though my guess is this decision will make no difference, and not sway a single vote, in 2012. But for now I simply want to focus on what this action tells us about the president.

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I wanted to add to Alana’s post  regarding what has been aptly termed the “lawless” recess appointments by President Obama. (The president has a right to make recess appointments, but the Constitution says the recess appointment can only happen when Congress is in recess, and the Senate was not in recess when Obama made his appointments. Even the liberal Obama supporter Timothy Noah of The New Republic has conceded, “I just don’t see how these appointments can be legal.”)

The actions by Obama were clearly driven by political calculations. And perhaps, as Alana argues, they were politically smart, though my guess is this decision will make no difference, and not sway a single vote, in 2012. But for now I simply want to focus on what this action tells us about the president.

I have argued before that Obama is governing in a post-modern manner, in which what matters isn’t truth but narrative, not rules but will. And that is precisely what this action highlights. It doesn’t matter if what the president is doing is blatantly unconstitutional and in contempt of Congress; Obama has a campaign to run and an election to win. And so the Constitution be damned. This is, after all, about political power. Now in this case the president will argue that he’s violating the Constitution over a small procedural matter. But who exactly is the arbiter of which laws to violate and which laws to abide by? I gather for Obama the answer is Obama. That is not terribly comforting to the rest of us.

It is not a good thing, and it can even be a frightful thing, when we have as president a man who seems to reject the idea (at least when re-election is at stake) that we are a nation of laws, not of men. But that is where we are, given Obama’s casual indifference to our laws and traditions.

Today it is recess appointments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board. But what will it be tomorrow?

 

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Partisan Politics and Vicious Assaults

First it was Alan Colmes; now it is Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, who went on MSNBC to mock Rick Santorum for how he and his wife Karen dealt with the death of their son Gabriel. (A severe prenatal development led to his very early delivery, and Gabriel died two hours after his birth.)

“He’s not a little weird, it’s that he’s really weird,” Robinson said of Santorum. “And some of his positions he’s taken are just so weird, um, that I think that some Republicans are gonna be off-put. Um, not everybody is going to, going to be down, for example, with the story of how he and his wife handled the, the, the stillborn ah, ah, child, ah, um, whose body they took home to, to kind of sleep with it, introduce to the rest of the family. It’s a very weird story.”

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First it was Alan Colmes; now it is Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, who went on MSNBC to mock Rick Santorum for how he and his wife Karen dealt with the death of their son Gabriel. (A severe prenatal development led to his very early delivery, and Gabriel died two hours after his birth.)

“He’s not a little weird, it’s that he’s really weird,” Robinson said of Santorum. “And some of his positions he’s taken are just so weird, um, that I think that some Republicans are gonna be off-put. Um, not everybody is going to, going to be down, for example, with the story of how he and his wife handled the, the, the stillborn ah, ah, child, ah, um, whose body they took home to, to kind of sleep with it, introduce to the rest of the family. It’s a very weird story.”

On these comments I have three observations to make, the first of which is that spending time with a stillborn child (or one who died shortly after birth, as in the Santorum case) is commonly recommended. The matter of taking the child home for a few hours is less common, but they did it so that their other children could also spend a little time with the deceased child, and that is definitely recommended. For example, here’s the official page of the American Pregnancy Association (an association of health-care providers that treat pregnant women) about stillbirth. It recommends that parents spend time with the child, as the Santorums did, and the APA writes:

With the loss of your baby, your family members will also grieve. Your baby is someone’s granddaughter, brother, cousin, nephew or sister. It is important for your family members to spend time with the baby. This will help them come to terms with their loss. If you have other children, it is very important to be honest with them about what has happened by using simple and honest explanations. It is your decision whether you would like the children to see the baby. Ask for a Child Life Specialist at the hospital; these are trained professionals who can help you prepare your children for the heartbreaking news, and prepare them to see the baby if you wish.

This is basically what the Santorum family did. They also had a funeral, which is often done in these kinds of situations. It seems to be enormously helpful to people in a moment of terrible pain. So Robinson, like Colmes, was speaking out of a seemingly bottomless well of ignorance.

The second point is the casual cruelty of Robinson and those like him. Robinson seems completely comfortable lampooning a man and his wife who had experienced the worst possible nightmare for parents: the death of their child. It is one thing to say you would act differently if you were in the situation faced by Rick and Karen Santorum; it’s quite another to deride them as “crazy” and “very weird,” which is what commentators on the left are increasingly doing, and with particular delight and glee.

We are seeing how ideology and partisan politics can so disfigure people’s minds and hearts that they become vicious in their assaults on those with whom they have political disagreements. I would hope no one I know would, in a thousand years, ridicule parents who were grappling with unfathomable human pain. Even if those parents were liberal. Even if they were running for president and first lady.

The third point is it tells you something about the culture in which we live that in some quarters those who routinely champion abortion, even partial-birth abortion, are viewed as enlightened and morally sophisticated while those grieving the loss of their son, whom they took home for a night before burying, are mercilessly mocked.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the times.

 

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GOP In Tough Fight Against Appointments

President Obama’s controversial “recess” appointment strategy was underhanded, politically-motivated, an abuse of power, potentially unconstitutional, and pretty much every other label Republicans have thrown at it. But perhaps the worst part for the GOP is that it was also clever – and Republicans could have a tricky time fighting back.

Charles Krauthammer touched on the crux of the problem on Fox News last night (transcript via NRO):

It’s cynical and it works. Look, [opponents like me are] talking about process and procedure and what would look like arcana. And [the president is] arguing “I am protecting the little guy against the Republicans, who [use] constitutional niceties to protect the rich and the 1 percent, the ones who have robbed you.” It’s a good argument [politically]. He wins it. But I think it’s disgraceful.

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President Obama’s controversial “recess” appointment strategy was underhanded, politically-motivated, an abuse of power, potentially unconstitutional, and pretty much every other label Republicans have thrown at it. But perhaps the worst part for the GOP is that it was also clever – and Republicans could have a tricky time fighting back.

Charles Krauthammer touched on the crux of the problem on Fox News last night (transcript via NRO):

It’s cynical and it works. Look, [opponents like me are] talking about process and procedure and what would look like arcana. And [the president is] arguing “I am protecting the little guy against the Republicans, who [use] constitutional niceties to protect the rich and the 1 percent, the ones who have robbed you.” It’s a good argument [politically]. He wins it. But I think it’s disgraceful.

Republicans are on the right side of this issue, but they may have a hard time winning over the general public. Typically, you oppose appointments because of problems with the appointees, but here the GOP is opposing them because of problems with the agencies themselves. They don’t want the agencies to be able to operate, which sounds obstructionist on its face, and it doesn’t help that these agencies are ostensibly focused on issues like labor and consumer protection. This situation is tailor-made for Obama’s reelection strategy.

The Wall Street Journal recommends that Congress start looking for other ways to push through the necessary reforms:

Congress can’t do much immediately to stop these appointments, but it ought to think creatively about how to fight back using its other powers—especially the power of the purse. However, private parties will have standing to sue if they are affected by one of Mr. Cordray’s rule-makings, and that’s when the courts may get a say on Mr. Obama’s contempt for Congress.

The idea of a legal challenge against Obama’s appointments has been raised constantly during the last two days, though it would be much more effective if the lawsuit was brought by a private party without blatant political associations than by the Senate or Chamber of Commerce.

 

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Is Ron Paul the New Lyndon LaRouche?

Lyndon LaRouche was a prolific writer who developed a cult-like following and eight times, between 1976 and 2004, sought the presidency, seven times for the Democratic ticket. He wrote and spoke often about the economy and spun wild conspiracy theories. For example, he said Queen Elizabeth was a drug dealer. The Nation’s Bob Dreyfuss, a LaRouche acolyte who dedicated his first book to his former boss and had it published by LaRouche’s publisher, argued in it that Bernard Lewis, perhaps the most influential living historian of the Middle East, was a nefarious force behind Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

LaRouche achieved a particularly loyal following among college students. He anchored enough of his writing in fact that the 30 percent or so that was pure bunk became, for the gullible or willingly blind, believable. His writings adhered to the idea that falsehoods spoken with conviction and precision became credible. Like Ron Paul, he certainly was consistent in his willingness to believe the worst motivations of government officials or his opponents. While LaRouche reached the pinnacle of his influence in the pre-internet age, he managed to spread his conspiracies not only through teaching classes, but also through myriad pamphlets, leaflets, and newspapers. LaRouche is still around, of course, but a conviction for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and tax code violations has undercut his credibility among the young and disaffected enough so that he has returned to purely marginal status.

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Lyndon LaRouche was a prolific writer who developed a cult-like following and eight times, between 1976 and 2004, sought the presidency, seven times for the Democratic ticket. He wrote and spoke often about the economy and spun wild conspiracy theories. For example, he said Queen Elizabeth was a drug dealer. The Nation’s Bob Dreyfuss, a LaRouche acolyte who dedicated his first book to his former boss and had it published by LaRouche’s publisher, argued in it that Bernard Lewis, perhaps the most influential living historian of the Middle East, was a nefarious force behind Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

LaRouche achieved a particularly loyal following among college students. He anchored enough of his writing in fact that the 30 percent or so that was pure bunk became, for the gullible or willingly blind, believable. His writings adhered to the idea that falsehoods spoken with conviction and precision became credible. Like Ron Paul, he certainly was consistent in his willingness to believe the worst motivations of government officials or his opponents. While LaRouche reached the pinnacle of his influence in the pre-internet age, he managed to spread his conspiracies not only through teaching classes, but also through myriad pamphlets, leaflets, and newspapers. LaRouche is still around, of course, but a conviction for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and tax code violations has undercut his credibility among the young and disaffected enough so that he has returned to purely marginal status.

Into the vacuum left by LaRouche came Ron Paul. Without doubt, some of what Paul says makes sense. Americans are concerned with tremendous government waste and the intrusion of nanny-state governance into our daily lives. But, on foreign policy and defense, Paul supplements his isolationism with the same mold of conspiracy as LaRouche. Many of “the Bush lied, Americans died, Cheney led a secret cabal” conspiracies which Paul’s followers—if not Dr. Paul himself—seize upon have their origins with LaRouche acolytes like Dreyfuss or former Pentagon official and congressional candidate Karen Kwiatkowski, who seemingly hopped from the LaRouche bandwagon to Paul’s. Paul may not publish so many newsletters any more—with good reason—but his followers have certainly taken full advantage of cyberspace to connect imaginary dots and weave creative conspiracies that put the old LaRouchites and even Maxine Waters to shame.

The Iowa Caucus results suggest Paul has peaked. Good conspiracies never die, however. Paul has become the Lyndon LaRouche of the 21st century, an increasingly marginal figure with a disproportionately poisonous and vocal following, one which will never win elections, but will satisfy itself by spinning wild conspiracy theories and trolling comments pages on internet news sites for decades to come.

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Santorum: Do You Really Want a Boring Career Pol Like Romney?

Yes, Mitt Romney is pretty boring, but is Rick Santorum really in a position to be throwing punches like this? He only caught on with voters after they’d exhausted every other possible option, and could barely draw a crowd a few months ago. But it sounds like Santorum’s chalking up his newfound popularity to his own personal charisma, according to an email blast his campaign sent out earlier today:

No more sitting on the sidelines. Now is the time to act or get stuck with a bland, boring, career politician who will lose to Barack Obama. Tomorrow will be too late. Will you unite with me, merge conservative support, and help us hold our banner high?

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Yes, Mitt Romney is pretty boring, but is Rick Santorum really in a position to be throwing punches like this? He only caught on with voters after they’d exhausted every other possible option, and could barely draw a crowd a few months ago. But it sounds like Santorum’s chalking up his newfound popularity to his own personal charisma, according to an email blast his campaign sent out earlier today:

No more sitting on the sidelines. Now is the time to act or get stuck with a bland, boring, career politician who will lose to Barack Obama. Tomorrow will be too late. Will you unite with me, merge conservative support, and help us hold our banner high?

What’s so bad about bland? Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were exciting, but they lacked any substance to back it up. The boring Santorum was great. He was serious and impressive at the debates, and best of all, he wasn’t gimmicky. He had an honesty to him that was refreshing.

George Will made the argument earlier this week that Santorum is the “fun” candidate, the one who will energize the Republican masses. Santorum’s campaign now seems to be running with that narrative, and you can’t exactly blame them – it’s quite a compliment. But Santorum should also remember what he told an Iowa audience just one month ago, back when he embraced his boring side:

“I’m confident that when [voters] do [take a second look at me], they’ll find one person who — maybe I’m not the flashiest person, I may be a little boring when it comes to, because I’m consistent,” he said. “My record isn’t Swiss cheese. I mean it’s solid, it’s a solid block of cheese.”

Santorum insisted he’s just the kind of boring Iowa likes.

“I’ve been married 21 years, got seven kids. Go home to my wife and kids at night and, you know, coach Little League. There’s not a lot of bling,” he said. “But we’re conservative, we’re consistent, we’ve led with principle, we’ve gotten things done and I’m fairly confident now that I’ve spent a lot of time in Iowa that’s what people want.”

Santorum isn’t flashy. And that’s fine. He won’t convince voters otherwise, and he’s better off focusing on the strengths he’s displayed through the race: consistency, strong values, and seriousness.

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Upcoming Election Will Determine America’s Standing as a Superpower

In the new COMMENTARY, I write that the coming election will determine the future of America’s defense spending–and hence of our standing as a great power able to shape events around the world in ways conducive to our security interests. Today’s press conference at the Pentagon only makes the choice even more stark. President Obama unveiled a strategy documents whose title I can only assume is ironic: “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” In fact, the $450 billion worth of cuts that will be spelled out in the coming weeks pose a serious threat to America’s ability to sustain our global leadership; if an extra $600 billion or so of cuts is added, as a result of the failure of the sequestration process, then America’s days as a superpower truly will be numbered.

Today’s event was heavy on questionable rhetoric. Obama, for instance, claimed the “tide of war is receding,” something that will be news to soldiers and Marines risking their necks every day in Afghanistan or to Iraqis whose countrymen are being blown up as an indirect result of America’s reckless withdrawal from their country.

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In the new COMMENTARY, I write that the coming election will determine the future of America’s defense spending–and hence of our standing as a great power able to shape events around the world in ways conducive to our security interests. Today’s press conference at the Pentagon only makes the choice even more stark. President Obama unveiled a strategy documents whose title I can only assume is ironic: “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” In fact, the $450 billion worth of cuts that will be spelled out in the coming weeks pose a serious threat to America’s ability to sustain our global leadership; if an extra $600 billion or so of cuts is added, as a result of the failure of the sequestration process, then America’s days as a superpower truly will be numbered.

Today’s event was heavy on questionable rhetoric. Obama, for instance, claimed the “tide of war is receding,” something that will be news to soldiers and Marines risking their necks every day in Afghanistan or to Iraqis whose countrymen are being blown up as an indirect result of America’s reckless withdrawal from their country.

The details of what this strategy document will mean for the armed services will emerge slowly, but already one piece of news has suffered–the army, currently at 569,000 active-duty personnel, will fall to 490,000. This was entirely predictable–the ground forces are being sacrificed to maintain air and naval forces to operate in the Pacific even though the major aircraft that will sustain American deterrence in the 21st century, the F-35, is also slated for cutbacks.

No doubt the president will argue–and the army leadership will faithfully repeat–the line that the army will still be a bit bigger than it was pre-9/11 when the active-duty strength was 480,000. That is hardly reassuring, however, because after 9/11 we quickly discovered the army was much too small to fight the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. The lack of force size made it almost impossible to stabilize those countries after the deposal of their dictators and practically guaranteed that soldiers and Marines would pay a heavy price to regain lost momentum. Is this really the model we want to follow in the future?

Apparently so, because of the fantastical belief current in Washington today that somehow we will not have to fight another major ground war ever again. The same illusion was popular before almost every one of our major wars–and each time we paid heavily in the early battles for our unreadiness. Today, looking around the world at hotspots from North Korea to Pakistan, Iran to Somalia and Yemen, who can confidently predict we will not face a situation that will necessitate the dispatch of substantial ground forces? Indeed, by not having sufficient forces at the ready we make another ground war more, not less, likely.

It is hardly reassuring to learn that in giving up our ability to fight two wars we will still retain the capability to win one war while acting as a “spoiler” in another. The new administration strategy states: “Even when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of – or imposing unacceptable costs on – an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” “Denying objectives”? “Imposing unacceptable costs”? Whatever happened to Douglas MacArthur’s famous dictum that in war there is “no substitute for victory”? The Obama Pentagon seems to be substituting like mad–and in ways that are unlikely to be convincing or deterring to potential adversaries.

Beyond the long-term consequences for American power, today’s announcement will have concrete consequences for the men and women who have served on the front lines for the past decade. We are going to reward years of sacrifice by throwing 80,000 soldiers out of work at a time when the unemployment rate is 8.6 percent. Some thanks for these distinguished veterans.

It bears repeating, however, that there is nothing foreordained about these deep, debilitating cuts. They are certainly not mandated by the debt crisis which was caused, and can only be resolved by, cuts in entitlement spending.

Mitt Romney, for one, is offering a different path. He pledges (full disclosure: I serve as a defense policy adviser to his campaign) to reverse the $450 billion in cuts along with another $70 billion that already came out of the budget almost a year ago. His commitment is to maintain defense spending at a minimum of at least 4 percent of GDP–which, in an economy of $14.5 trillion, means the budget would be higher than it is today. Whether he can make good on that pledge remains to be seen; but at least it is a level of commitment that was lacking in the current White House which acquiesced in a congressional deal this summer and is resulting in the steady evisceration of our hard-won military capabilities.

I do not by any stretch blame Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for the dismaying spectacle that unfolded today and will unfold during the next few weeks as specific programs are targeted for cuts and elimination. He was, by all accounts, a staunch defender of the armed forcs, but he was undercut by a lack of presidential leadership–something that can be corrected in November.

 

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Can Santorum Even Compete in Florida?

The good news for Rick Santorum is that he spent less than a dollar for each vote he received in Iowa. The bad news is that the money he saved (and has raised since) still puts him at long odds to beat Mitt Romney in Florida.

The Palm Beach Post has a good write-up of Santorum’s chances in Florida, which will hold its primary January 31. While the timing of Santorum’s poll boost was perfect for Iowa, it will now work against him in two ways. First, he obviously hasn’t had much time build an organization yet, and early voting in Florida begins January 21. Second, “momentum” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as the Post reports:

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The good news for Rick Santorum is that he spent less than a dollar for each vote he received in Iowa. The bad news is that the money he saved (and has raised since) still puts him at long odds to beat Mitt Romney in Florida.

The Palm Beach Post has a good write-up of Santorum’s chances in Florida, which will hold its primary January 31. While the timing of Santorum’s poll boost was perfect for Iowa, it will now work against him in two ways. First, he obviously hasn’t had much time build an organization yet, and early voting in Florida begins January 21. Second, “momentum” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as the Post reports:

Four years ago, Mike Huckabee got national buzz and a lift from second­-tier status after winning the Iowa caucuses.

But by the time Florida’s primary arrived 26 days later, a second-place finish in South Carolina had sapped Huckabee’s momentum and he lacked the money to compete in Florida’s 10 media markets and 67 counties. Huckabee limped to a fourth-place finish in the Sunshine State as John McCain effectively clinched the nomination.

“Florida’s an expensive state,” Huckabee’s 2008 campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, recalled Wednesday. “I remember specifically it was about a $4 million statewide (TV advertising) buy. … Whatever it was, we didn’t have it.”

This is one reason Rick Perry may have decided to stay in the race. Many candidates lacking strong fundraising simply cannot carry the early southern states on momentum alone. Huckabee, though he may have not even realized it, had to choose between South Carolina and Florida. Santorum is a significantly less formidable “not Romney” than someone like Perry with regard to fundraising.

The Huckabee comparison is instructive for another reason: Santorum’s claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney will only get him so far in the state. In 2008, Romney was both well-funded and considered more conservative than McCain, yet McCain won Florida anyway. Put simply, as the Florida campaign consultants made clear, Santorum needs to compete in the state’s media markets if he wants to win the state:

Another longtime Florida Republican consultant, Rick Wilson, said Santorum has “a high hill to climb” to mount an effective TV campaign to reach Florida’s 4 million registered Republicans.

“Can (Santorum) be up on TV in three weeks banging away? That’s a good question,” said Wilson, who isn’t aligned with any 2012 presidential campaign. “Romney has a lot of structural advantages going forward.”

Thinking of Santorum as the final “not Romney” is a mistake. Today’s Suffolk University tracking poll has Santorum ten points behind Ron Paul and only a point ahead of Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire. With Perry staying in the campaign, the second tier is still wide open.

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Gingrich Campaigns on “Electability”

According to Newt Gingrich’s new ad, Mitt Romney is far too “timid” to take on President Obama. But this charge seems odd coming from the guy who has seen his polling numbers decimated by Romney’s brutal attack ads during the past month. Not to mention that Gingrich’s big complaint recently has been that Romney’s been fighting too aggressively against him.

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According to Newt Gingrich’s new ad, Mitt Romney is far too “timid” to take on President Obama. But this charge seems odd coming from the guy who has seen his polling numbers decimated by Romney’s brutal attack ads during the past month. Not to mention that Gingrich’s big complaint recently has been that Romney’s been fighting too aggressively against him.

It’s not entirely surprising that Gingrich is attacking Romney’s electability while trying to play up his own. Electability is one of the few areas where Romney actually gets positive scores from Republican voters – and it helped propel him to victory in Iowa.

But if there is a case for Gingrich’s electability, Jeffrey Anderson makes one at the Weekly Standard:

The fact that Gingrich is from neighboring Georgia, as opposed to Massachusetts, would presumably help him in Florida, as would his demonstrated strength among senior citizens. (Gingrich is from the Silent Generation and is four years older than Romney, who is a Baby Boomer.)  Gingrich’s being from Georgia, as well as currently living in Virginia, would also presumably help him in the Old Dominion.  Moreover, a GOP candidate who loses in Virginia would also be in danger of losing North Carolina — which would essentially seal that nominee’s fate — so it’s an added advantage that Georgia borders the Tar Heel State.

Of course, if proximity is the issue here, then couldn’t Romney check that box by choosing the right VP? The concerns about Gingrich in the general election range from his excessive baggage to his penchant for providing the own rope for his hanging. And if his anti-Romney trantrums during the last few days are a preview of how he’d take on Obama, then the Republicans would be in serious trouble with him as the nominee.

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Innocent Iraqis Paying a Heavy Price

The most telling comment I’ve yet seen on the fresh atrocities that have unfolded across Iraq–where someone, presumably Sunni insurgents, set off bombs that killed at least 60 Shiites today–comes from a humble bus driver in Sadr City. He is quoted in the New York Times as follows:

“When politicians have a problem, the citizens are usually the ones who pay,” said Abu Sajad, a minibus driver who was near the attack in Sadr City. “This has happened before and continues to happen.”

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The most telling comment I’ve yet seen on the fresh atrocities that have unfolded across Iraq–where someone, presumably Sunni insurgents, set off bombs that killed at least 60 Shiites today–comes from a humble bus driver in Sadr City. He is quoted in the New York Times as follows:

“When politicians have a problem, the citizens are usually the ones who pay,” said Abu Sajad, a minibus driver who was near the attack in Sadr City. “This has happened before and continues to happen.”

Precisely right. It should hardly be surprising that at a time when Prime Minister Malaki is trying to prosecute one senior Sunni politician (Vice President Tariq al Hashemi) and remove another one from office (Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq), and when deputies of the Iraqiya party which is popular with Sunnis are boycotting parliament–it is hardly surprising that a time like this, Sunni insurgents are setting off bombs. There is a worrisome potential for the current crisis to spiral out of control because the shock absorbers that once provided a measure of stability in Iraqi politics–that would be American troops–are now gone.

It has not taken long for innocent Iraqis to pay a heavy price for President Obama’s failure to renew the treaty that would allow an American force to remain in Iraq post-2011. The price is only likely to rise in the coming months–and  the increased instability will exact a heavy toll not only on Iraq but also on American interests in this vital region.

 

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The Endless Face-off Over the Veil

This week, a few hundred students and teachers at Manouba University in Tunisia demonstrated against the niqab, or veil, which is used by some ultra-conservative women to cover their faces. It has been outlawed in Tunisian schools and government offices for decades, ever since it was described by the modern republic’s secular founder Habib Bourguiba as “that odious rag.” One sign at the demonstration said “Science before the niqab.” Another said “no to shackles, no to niqab, knowledge is free.” The protest was a counter-demonstration against an Islamist sit-in at the humanities department.

I’ve seen a few women in Tunisian cities wearing niqabs, but not very many. That kind of headgear is far more common in the Persian Gulf nations than in North Africa. While having coffee at an outdoor café in downtown Tunis, the capital, a group of women with their faces covered walked past. All the locals sitting at tables near mine eyed the women as though they had been beamed in from another planet. I assumed these ladies weren’t even Tunisians, but Saudis. They could hardly have drawn more attention to themselves had they dressed like that in a small town in Bolivia.

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This week, a few hundred students and teachers at Manouba University in Tunisia demonstrated against the niqab, or veil, which is used by some ultra-conservative women to cover their faces. It has been outlawed in Tunisian schools and government offices for decades, ever since it was described by the modern republic’s secular founder Habib Bourguiba as “that odious rag.” One sign at the demonstration said “Science before the niqab.” Another said “no to shackles, no to niqab, knowledge is free.” The protest was a counter-demonstration against an Islamist sit-in at the humanities department.

I’ve seen a few women in Tunisian cities wearing niqabs, but not very many. That kind of headgear is far more common in the Persian Gulf nations than in North Africa. While having coffee at an outdoor café in downtown Tunis, the capital, a group of women with their faces covered walked past. All the locals sitting at tables near mine eyed the women as though they had been beamed in from another planet. I assumed these ladies weren’t even Tunisians, but Saudis. They could hardly have drawn more attention to themselves had they dressed like that in a small town in Bolivia.

I can certainly understand why conservative Muslims chafe against the ban on the headscarf and the veil. For them it’s a question of religious freedom. They don’t feel like they’re infringing upon anyone’s rights by dressing that way, but the state is infringing on their rights by not allowing it.

There’s a catch, though. Some men force women in their households to cover their faces against their will. For these women, the ban is a liberation.

The American way is to allow the veil. In his much-lauded Cairo speech, President Barack Obama said it should be the Arab way, too. He said so because in some Arab countries it isn’t the way. But what about the right of women to not dress conservatively in Iran and Saudi Arabia where governments force them? And what about the rights of women to not dress conservatively in Tunisia where family members might force them?

There is no quick and easy solution that guarantees rights and freedom for all. The Muslim world has almost no chance of resolving this issue during our lifetimes, but at least Tunisians are fighting about it–for now anyway–without shooting each other.

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Was There Too Much Free Speech in Iowa?

One of the standard tropes of reporting on the Republican presidential contest is that the race has been tarnished by the plethora of negative advertisements paid for by independent committees. For liberals, harping on this theme kills two birds with one stone, because it allows them to trash the GOP field while at the same time opening up a discussion about the evils of campaign finance and the need to further “reform” the use of money in politics. That was the theme of a recent New York Times editorial deploring the impact of “Super PACs” in Iowa. These groups were, the paper said, “septic tanks” financed by the wealthy which do the dirty work of unscrupulous candidates. The paper lamented that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision had, in effect, opened the floodgates to a tsunami of political slime.

But as Bradley Smith points out in a brilliant takedown of the Times and other critics of the court ruling in National Review, all such liberal complaints are a desire to limit the amount of political speech, especially when it is used by conservatives. The idea that citizens could actually speak out on issues and candidates without restrictions, a privilege that the Times would like to see reserved for the media, frightens liberals.

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One of the standard tropes of reporting on the Republican presidential contest is that the race has been tarnished by the plethora of negative advertisements paid for by independent committees. For liberals, harping on this theme kills two birds with one stone, because it allows them to trash the GOP field while at the same time opening up a discussion about the evils of campaign finance and the need to further “reform” the use of money in politics. That was the theme of a recent New York Times editorial deploring the impact of “Super PACs” in Iowa. These groups were, the paper said, “septic tanks” financed by the wealthy which do the dirty work of unscrupulous candidates. The paper lamented that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision had, in effect, opened the floodgates to a tsunami of political slime.

But as Bradley Smith points out in a brilliant takedown of the Times and other critics of the court ruling in National Review, all such liberal complaints are a desire to limit the amount of political speech, especially when it is used by conservatives. The idea that citizens could actually speak out on issues and candidates without restrictions, a privilege that the Times would like to see reserved for the media, frightens liberals.

Smith, the former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, has been the single most important voice in the fight to roll back restrictions on political speech. He makes it clear that the latest bout of squeamishness about campaign rhetoric is absurd. Contrary to the liberal lament about the low level of contemporary political discourse, our politics today is less dirty than that of previous generations. Moreover, what exactly is their problem, with groups highlighting the candidates’ records on issues of interest to the public? Is democracy tarnished by too much information and too much speech? On the contrary, it is up to the voters in a democracy to sort out the charges and counter-charges made by the candidates and their friends.

Advocates of laws such as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance provisions that were struck down by the High Court claim their goal is to clean up politics, but their real objective is to restrict political speech. A situation where any group of citizens can band together and use their resources to broadcast political messages on issues and candidates is one that scares much of the political class as well as elements of the mainstream media. Like all of the post-Watergate election “reforms,” McCain-Feingold not only failed in their quixotic quest to get money out of politics but actually made things worse.

But the removal of those restrictions has had the opposite effect. More political speech is good for the system and our democracy. Such speech isn’t the sole preserve of the liberal media or corporate interests. And liberal groups can just as easily employ it as conservatives. We may not always like what is being said, but in a free country the last thing we ought to be concerned about is shutting up those with an opinion about politics. It is a sad commentary on contemporary liberalism that making it harder to speak out remains their priority.

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