Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 6, 2012

Live Blogging the GOP Debate

Join us Saturday night as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the latest Republican presidential debate from New Hampshire. So tune in to ABC at 9 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the remaining GOP contenders have at it yet again.

Join us Saturday night as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the latest Republican presidential debate from New Hampshire. So tune in to ABC at 9 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the remaining GOP contenders have at it yet again.

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Weekend Debate Doubleheader Preview: Santorum May Relish the Attention

Major League baseball gave up scheduled doubleheaders decades ago, but the Republican presidential contest is serving up what amounts to one this weekend on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. The remaining contenders will face off at 9 p.m., on Saturday night at Anselm College in Manchester. The same sextet will repeat the exercise less than 12 hours later on NBC’s “Meet the Press” at 9 a.m., on Sunday. But while some observers will be looking for signs of fatigue on the weary candidates, the main focus will be on two men: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

The pair were separated by only eight votes in the final results in Iowa this past Tuesday, and both are hoping for strong performances this weekend in order to maintain their momentum. Romney is a prohibitive favorite in New Hampshire and will, as he largely has done in the past, try to remain above the fray and concentrate his fire on President Obama. While Santorum is in no position to challenge Romney for the top spot in the Granite State, if he can somehow parlay the buzz about Iowa into a second place finish that would put him in a strong position for the crucial contest in South Carolina on January 15. That means he, and the rest of the field  — and especially Newt Gingrich, who blames Romney for the collapse of his campaign — will probably be attacking Romney in the two debates. But Romney won’t be the only one in the crosshairs. Both Rick Perry and Ron Paul will likely concentrate their fire on Santorum as they try to keep him from turning the GOP battle into a two-man race.

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Major League baseball gave up scheduled doubleheaders decades ago, but the Republican presidential contest is serving up what amounts to one this weekend on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. The remaining contenders will face off at 9 p.m., on Saturday night at Anselm College in Manchester. The same sextet will repeat the exercise less than 12 hours later on NBC’s “Meet the Press” at 9 a.m., on Sunday. But while some observers will be looking for signs of fatigue on the weary candidates, the main focus will be on two men: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

The pair were separated by only eight votes in the final results in Iowa this past Tuesday, and both are hoping for strong performances this weekend in order to maintain their momentum. Romney is a prohibitive favorite in New Hampshire and will, as he largely has done in the past, try to remain above the fray and concentrate his fire on President Obama. While Santorum is in no position to challenge Romney for the top spot in the Granite State, if he can somehow parlay the buzz about Iowa into a second place finish that would put him in a strong position for the crucial contest in South Carolina on January 15. That means he, and the rest of the field  — and especially Newt Gingrich, who blames Romney for the collapse of his campaign — will probably be attacking Romney in the two debates. But Romney won’t be the only one in the crosshairs. Both Rick Perry and Ron Paul will likely concentrate their fire on Santorum as they try to keep him from turning the GOP battle into a two-man race.

Perry, who seemed to be considering abandoning his campaign after his disastrous fifth place finish in Iowa, needs to cut Santorum down to size if he is to have a shot at holding on to his share of the social conservative vote. Paul is running in second place but might be vulnerable to a late charge from Santorum. Both Perry and Santorum will blast the former Pennsylvania senator as a “big government conservative” who supported earmarks and is part of the Washington problem rather than the solution.

But the problem for Perry and Paul is this is the first time in the series of GOP debates that Santorum will not fight for attention. I expect him to relish the attacks, which will give him more time to make his own points. Instead of diminishing him, the blasts at Santorum may help more than they hurt in much the same way the focus on Romney has reinforced his position as the frontrunner. Indeed, the best thing that could happen to Santorum this weekend will be a barrage from lesser candidates that will only confirm what the latest polls have already told us: Santorum’s surge may just be getting started.

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Don’t Sell Defense Secrets to Turkey

Against the backdrop of the Pentagon budget cuts, recouping several hundred million dollars by selling the new generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to allies might at first glance make sense. Certainly, there will be no shortage of trustworthy customers, not only in Western Europe but also in Israel and Japan. Yesterday, Turkey announced that it plans to purchase the plane as well. While Turkey is part of the consortium which constructed the plane, the contract to have Turkey contribute to the fuselage was more a diplomatic bone to throw than a necessity. Turkey, however, has had no role in the stealth aspect of the plane nor the cutting edge software and electronics which make the F-35 possible.

Since that original deal was struck, the Turkish intelligence service has been taken over by a pro-Iranian functionary; the Turkish military which the Pentagon saw as a strategic asset has become a shadow of its former self; the Turkish Air Force has conducted war games with China; and the Turkish government has threatened military action against both Cyprus and Israel. To sell Turkey technology upon which the U.S. national defense will depend for a generation to come makes about as much strategic sense as selling Pakistan the home addresses of CIA operatives, or selling blueprints for nuclear warheads.

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Against the backdrop of the Pentagon budget cuts, recouping several hundred million dollars by selling the new generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to allies might at first glance make sense. Certainly, there will be no shortage of trustworthy customers, not only in Western Europe but also in Israel and Japan. Yesterday, Turkey announced that it plans to purchase the plane as well. While Turkey is part of the consortium which constructed the plane, the contract to have Turkey contribute to the fuselage was more a diplomatic bone to throw than a necessity. Turkey, however, has had no role in the stealth aspect of the plane nor the cutting edge software and electronics which make the F-35 possible.

Since that original deal was struck, the Turkish intelligence service has been taken over by a pro-Iranian functionary; the Turkish military which the Pentagon saw as a strategic asset has become a shadow of its former self; the Turkish Air Force has conducted war games with China; and the Turkish government has threatened military action against both Cyprus and Israel. To sell Turkey technology upon which the U.S. national defense will depend for a generation to come makes about as much strategic sense as selling Pakistan the home addresses of CIA operatives, or selling blueprints for nuclear warheads.

Make no mistake: Put the F-35 in a room with Chinese and Iranian scientists for a week, and they will be able to reverse engineer it, even if the White House convinces itself that certain software keys and codes are unbreakable. If the Obama administration is intent on undercutting America’s strategic standing, it behooves Congress to step up to the plate to just say no.

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The Defense Budget and America’s Decline

There are many salient points to make about President Obama’s terribly unwise plan to cut $500 billion in defense spending during the next decade. But I want to focus on what I think it reveals about the worldview of America’s 44th president.

The one unequivocal area in which the federal government should be involved in is national defense. And our military is the one area which Gallup reports Americans trust more than any other American institution. According to a recent survey, 78 percent of those polled say they have a great deal of confidence in the U.S. military (versus 12 percent for Congress). And that trust is well-earned; the military has performed its tasks with extraordinary skill. And yet it is the military, more than any area in the federal government, that is now being asked to absorb the brunt of budget cuts – even though we’re still a nation at war. It is a striking thing to witness.

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There are many salient points to make about President Obama’s terribly unwise plan to cut $500 billion in defense spending during the next decade. But I want to focus on what I think it reveals about the worldview of America’s 44th president.

The one unequivocal area in which the federal government should be involved in is national defense. And our military is the one area which Gallup reports Americans trust more than any other American institution. According to a recent survey, 78 percent of those polled say they have a great deal of confidence in the U.S. military (versus 12 percent for Congress). And that trust is well-earned; the military has performed its tasks with extraordinary skill. And yet it is the military, more than any area in the federal government, that is now being asked to absorb the brunt of budget cuts – even though we’re still a nation at war. It is a striking thing to witness.

I’ve argued before that the Obama presidency, animated by a progressive impulse, wants to punish success. Rewarding human excellence is in many respects an alien concept to this president (see his repeated attacks on wealth creators). It’s therefore not surprising the president would decide to target the military when it comes to budget cuts. Its achievements have earned it a reduction in its budget, much like bad schools are rewarded with more money (the theory being that their failures are due to parsimony).

And then there is the point made by the estimable Charles Krauthammer, who said on Fox News last night that Obama’s budget strategy “is a roadmap of American decline.” I quite agree, and I would simply add that it’s intentional. For those who dissent from this judgment, I would point them to an important article by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker that includes this paragraph:

Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the president’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”

Declining power, a reviled reputation, modesty, and leading from behind: Obama sees his task as shepherding what he deems to be this deeply imperfect nation – one he repeatedly apologized for during the early months of his presidency — through its inevitable descent.

Unfortunately for us, with Obama at the helm, America’s decline is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. You need look no further than the defense budget for confirmation of that.

 

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Will Iran’s Latest Move Motivate Obama?

The latest signs that Iran is getting closer to achieving its nuclear ambitions will test President Obama’s obvious reluctance to enforce crippling sanctions against the Islamist regime. Reuters reports the Iranians are taking steps to commence nuclear enrichment at a plant inside a mountain.

The activities at the site, a hardened bunker at Fordow, is near the Shiite holy city of Qom, make it harder for the West to pretend Iran is not getting closer to nuclear capability. It also ought to increase pressure on the Obama administration to start using the tools Congress has given it to put pressure on Iran.

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The latest signs that Iran is getting closer to achieving its nuclear ambitions will test President Obama’s obvious reluctance to enforce crippling sanctions against the Islamist regime. Reuters reports the Iranians are taking steps to commence nuclear enrichment at a plant inside a mountain.

The activities at the site, a hardened bunker at Fordow, is near the Shiite holy city of Qom, make it harder for the West to pretend Iran is not getting closer to nuclear capability. It also ought to increase pressure on the Obama administration to start using the tools Congress has given it to put pressure on Iran.

According to Reuters:

One Vienna-based diplomat said Iran was believed to have begun in late December feeding uranium gas into centrifuges as part of final preparations to use the machines for enrichment.

“They are close to being able to begin enriching,” the diplomat said. “They have to do some experimenting and refining to get it right.”

An official of another country said he believed Iran was carrying out “passivation,” a technical step involving putting nuclear material into the centrifuges to prepare them to be activated for enrichment. …

Iran is already refining uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent — far more than the 3.5 percent level usually required to power nuclear energy plants – above ground at another location.

The switch to a site at a mountain is a clear sign Iran is hoping to make it impossible for either the West or Israel to bomb their nuclear plants.

Though Obama’s rhetoric about Iran has been consistently tough, it has not been matched by action. Last week, the president signed a bill setting in motion a ban on transactions with any entity that did business with Iran’s Central Bank. The measure would make an embargo on all oil Iranian sales viable, but Obama’s signing statement indicated that he would use a waiver to avoid enforcement of the legislation. But with each new sign of Iranian progress towards weaponization of their nuclear program, the ability of the administration to go on pretending that diplomacy, rather than seeking a full embargo on Iran, will achieve anything diminishes. As the move at Fordow indicates, the Iranians are moving ahead while the United States dithers.

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With Just Days to Go, Romney Widens Lead, Santorum Surges in NH

With just days to go until the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney has widened his lead on the rest of the field, and Rick Santorum has seen a sizeable post-caucus bump, according to today’s Rasmussen poll. This makes it all but certain Romney will have a substantial victory next week:

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Republican Primary Voters in New Hampshire finds Romney earning 42 percent support. Texas Congressman Ron Paul is a distant second with 18 percent of the vote, followed by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, hot off his photo finish with Romney in the Iowa caucuses, at 13 percent. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has focused his campaign efforts on New Hampshire, captures 12 percent support.

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With just days to go until the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney has widened his lead on the rest of the field, and Rick Santorum has seen a sizeable post-caucus bump, according to today’s Rasmussen poll. This makes it all but certain Romney will have a substantial victory next week:

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Republican Primary Voters in New Hampshire finds Romney earning 42 percent support. Texas Congressman Ron Paul is a distant second with 18 percent of the vote, followed by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, hot off his photo finish with Romney in the Iowa caucuses, at 13 percent. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has focused his campaign efforts on New Hampshire, captures 12 percent support.

Santorum has climbed 10 points since last month’s Rasmussen poll, despite the fact that he hasn’t spent much time in New Hampshire. Other pollsters, like Suffolk University, have reported the spike happened during the last couple of days. This also coincides with Newt Gingrich’s collapse in the state, down to eight percent, from 22 percent last month.

Unlike Iowa, there won’t be much of a contest for first place in New Hampshire. Santorum is currently the only candidate who’s rising, and it would be all but impossible for him to overtake Romney at this point. With the primary four days away, most New Hampshire voters say they’re already certain about which candidate they’re voting for, while just 33 percent say they may still change their minds. If Santorum managed to pull off an unbelievable feat and win every single voter in the “may change their minds” category, he could overtake Romney – but even then, he would only just squeak by.

Of course, that’s pretty implausible. A much more realistic scenario is that Santorum beats out Ron Paul for second place, which could conceivably happen – Santorum only trails Paul by five percent right now. If Santorum does take second place in New Hampshire, it will be a major boost for his campaign leading into South Carolina, especially because he hasn’t even really tried to compete in the state.

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Santorum’s Gay Marriage Conundrum

Yesterday, Rick Santorum was jeered when he told a crowd of college students in Concord, New Hampshire, that legalizing gay marriage was no different from legalizing polygamy. The exchange brought into focus the former Pennsylvanian senator’s strength of convictions and solid powers of reasoning. But it also illustrated why his social conservative views that were so helpful to his solid performance in the Iowa caucuses may be a liability in a general election.

In the course of a question-and-answer session with students at New England College, Santorum asked a student who criticized his opposition to gay marriage if it was okay for two consenting adults of the same sex to marry, why not three or five? The students didn’t seem willing to concede the logic of his reasoning, but even if he’s right, given the sea change in mainstream America about gay rights, Santorum was making a stronger argument for legalizing polygamy than banning gay marriage.

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Yesterday, Rick Santorum was jeered when he told a crowd of college students in Concord, New Hampshire, that legalizing gay marriage was no different from legalizing polygamy. The exchange brought into focus the former Pennsylvanian senator’s strength of convictions and solid powers of reasoning. But it also illustrated why his social conservative views that were so helpful to his solid performance in the Iowa caucuses may be a liability in a general election.

In the course of a question-and-answer session with students at New England College, Santorum asked a student who criticized his opposition to gay marriage if it was okay for two consenting adults of the same sex to marry, why not three or five? The students didn’t seem willing to concede the logic of his reasoning, but even if he’s right, given the sea change in mainstream America about gay rights, Santorum was making a stronger argument for legalizing polygamy than banning gay marriage.

Santorum was correct when he said if society changes the definition of marriage from one man to one woman to one that is accepting of other definitions, then it is hard to argue that some new definitions of marriage are more acceptable than others. If the decision to marry of any two people, regardless of sex, should be legal, then there is no secular legal principle that I know of that ought to forbid marriage between any number of persons so long as the relationship(s) is consensual.

There was a time not so long ago when that assertion would have closed the discussion about gay marriage. But though acceptance of this change is far from universal, all Santorum’s logic gets him here is a “Big Love” style appeal for legalizing polygamy. That is, of course, not his intent.  This is a bit less controversial than the former Pennsylvania senator’s infamous 2003 reaction to the Lawrence v. Texas case that overthrew sodomy laws in which he seemed to compare consensual same-sex relations as comparable to polygamy, incest, bestiality and adultery. But the point is largely the same about what he believes to be the danger of throwing out traditional moral standards.

As I wrote earlier today, there is an argument to be made that an authentic conservative who sticks up for his beliefs can win elections, because even if voters don’t share all of the candidate’s convictions, they respect someone who stands up for their beliefs more than one who trims them to win votes (i.e. Mitt Romney). However, it is one thing to ask moderate Democrats and independents to vote for a conservative who is pro-life on abortion or opposed to gay marriage (a stance that even Barack Obama took in 2008), it’s quite another to ask them to back someone who seems to be at war with gays. Granted, the conflict is more about gay anger at Santorum than the other way around, but so long as he keeps emphasizing these issues that is the way he will be portrayed.

As Politico noted in a feature describing the way his 2006 landslide loss haunts his presidential ambitions, Santorum’s emphasis on social conservative advocacy during his second term in the Senate helped sink his hopes of re-election. Whereas in 2000, liberals wouldn’t work for his pro-life, anti-gun control Democratic opponent, in 2006, they enthusiastically supported a Democrat (Bob Casey) with those same credentials. While cultural conservatism provided a link between Republicans and working class Democrats, Santorum’s appeal on these issues came to be seen as excessive. Though he has an opportunity to break out of the pack and become a credible conservative alternative to Romney, exchanges such as the one in Concord will help pigeonhole him as a rabid cultural warrior.

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Will Iran Lobby Next Embrace David Irving?

Late last month, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) tweeted an endorsement of an article by Gareth Porter regarding political myths about Iran. Porter’s methodology is questionable, but for NIAC the conclusion is more important than the evidence. Embracing Porter’s work is curious, however, for a group that purports to be mainstream. After all, Porter is best known for his apologetics for the Khmer Rouge’s mass murder and genocide.

Hint to NIAC: If you want people on Capitol Hill to listen and become more sympathetic to the Islamic Republic’s policy positions, there are probably better ways to go about it.

Late last month, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) tweeted an endorsement of an article by Gareth Porter regarding political myths about Iran. Porter’s methodology is questionable, but for NIAC the conclusion is more important than the evidence. Embracing Porter’s work is curious, however, for a group that purports to be mainstream. After all, Porter is best known for his apologetics for the Khmer Rouge’s mass murder and genocide.

Hint to NIAC: If you want people on Capitol Hill to listen and become more sympathetic to the Islamic Republic’s policy positions, there are probably better ways to go about it.

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Our Lawless President and the Recess Appointment Fight

I agree with Pete and Alana–and many others around the blogosphere–that Obama’s mini-Putsch two days ago was both lawless and typical of this administration. Obama only cares about his re-election at this point, and if that requires the Constitution to be trashed in the process, well, so be it.

As Alana pointed out, Charles Krauthammer thinks it might be clever politics, however cynical, because the president is arguing he has to get things done and it’s all the Senate’s fault for being obstructionist. I’m not so sure. The American people take the Constitution seriously and have a limited tolerance for
politicians who try to evade it for political purposes. FDR, just off a triumphant re-election (46 of 48 states), tried in 1937 to “pack” the Supreme Court that had been obstructing his programs by adding an extra justice for every justice over 70 years of age. That would have been perfectly constitutional, as Congress has the power to set the number of justices. (There were originally six, and there were 10 after 1863. The number has been fixed at nine since 1869.) But the people would have none of it, and Congress, responding to public opinion, refused to act. It was a devastating political defeat for FDR.

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I agree with Pete and Alana–and many others around the blogosphere–that Obama’s mini-Putsch two days ago was both lawless and typical of this administration. Obama only cares about his re-election at this point, and if that requires the Constitution to be trashed in the process, well, so be it.

As Alana pointed out, Charles Krauthammer thinks it might be clever politics, however cynical, because the president is arguing he has to get things done and it’s all the Senate’s fault for being obstructionist. I’m not so sure. The American people take the Constitution seriously and have a limited tolerance for
politicians who try to evade it for political purposes. FDR, just off a triumphant re-election (46 of 48 states), tried in 1937 to “pack” the Supreme Court that had been obstructing his programs by adding an extra justice for every justice over 70 years of age. That would have been perfectly constitutional, as Congress has the power to set the number of justices. (There were originally six, and there were 10 after 1863. The number has been fixed at nine since 1869.) But the people would have none of it, and Congress, responding to public opinion, refused to act. It was a devastating political defeat for FDR.

A lawsuit would be necessary here, and I very much doubt an individual senator has standing. The Senate as a body might, but since it’s controlled by Democrats that won’t happen. However, a company ordered to do something by either the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (isn’t there something Orwellian about that name?) or the National Labor Relations Board might well have a case.

There are good arguments to present. Laurence H. Tribe, a liberal law professor at Harvard, makes the case for Obama in today’s Times, but it seems to me a pretty weak one. He basically argues that as the Senate was only in pro forma session, designed to obstruct the president’s recess appointment power, the president was justified in ignoring it. But as PJ Tatler points out, the Congressional Record shows the Senate actually conducted business during at least one of these pro forma sessions. He also argues that the Senate was in an extended recess, thus justifying the president’s action in order to assure the public’s business got done. But in fact, the pro forma sessions had only begun on December 17. The nominees to the NLRB had only been nominated on December 15. The Senate could not possibly have acted on those nominations, so its power to advise and consent had been nullified by the president’s action.

It should be noted that the constitutional section in question (II/2/3) gives the president power to make recess appointments “during the recess of the Senate.” Not “a recess” but “the recess.” To me, that implies the time when the Senate has finished its business and gone home until the next regular session, which used to be long periods, not a temporary break during the holidays.

It has also been pointed out that the law establishing the CFPB states that the director cannot act until he has been “confirmed by the Senate,” and clearly he has not been.

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out. Hopefully there will be enough happening to keep the story in the news, demonstrating just how arrogant and lawless this president is.

 

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Were Gingrich’s Food Stamp Comments Racially Insensitive?

The NAACP has already slammed Newt Gingrich’s comments as going “right to the heart of real racism – that African Americans are lazy and don’t want to work and depend entirely on handouts.” But Gingrich maintains that his words are being distorted by the media. See for yourself; here’s what the candidate said while stumping in New Hampshire yesterday:

“And so I’m prepared if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” Gingrich said earlier today in Plymouth, N.H.

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The NAACP has already slammed Newt Gingrich’s comments as going “right to the heart of real racism – that African Americans are lazy and don’t want to work and depend entirely on handouts.” But Gingrich maintains that his words are being distorted by the media. See for yourself; here’s what the candidate said while stumping in New Hampshire yesterday:

“And so I’m prepared if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” Gingrich said earlier today in Plymouth, N.H.

First, it needs to be pointed out that the majority of Americans on food stamps are white, though black people do participate disproportionately in the program. Gingrich seems to be arguing this is because it’s culturally acceptable to receive government benefits in the African American community. Many would counter that a growing cultural acceptance of food stamps can be found among all low-income groups, regardless of race.

But wherever you stand, it’s more than a little presumptuous for Gingrich to say he’s going to go explain to the black community why they “should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps” at the NAACP conference. It’s not just tone-deaf, it’s astoundingly condescending.

Probably the most irritating part of Gingrich’s comments is the fact that he’s so concerned with Americans collecting food stamps (a problem that shouldn’t be diminished), but has no qualms about Midwestern farmers taking in ethanol subsidies. How can he steadfastly defend one government benefit, while decrying another? It’s hypocrisy at its worst, and Gingrich shouldn’t be given a pass on it.

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Is Romney Really More Electable?

A constant refrain from conservatives in the past few months has been that Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy is merely a re-run of past failed runs by GOP moderates like Bob Dole and John McCain. According to their reasoning, a candidate like Romney can’t fire up the Republican base and get them to turn out (the conceit behind Karl Rove’s successful campaigns for George W. Bush) in large enough numbers to win in November. Even more than that, conservatives assert that more Americans will be attracted to a conviction conservative (i.e. Ronald Reagan) than to a wishy-washy Republican who tried to be all things to all people. Romney’s centrist appeal to independents is, they claim, a snare that has trapped the GOP into putting up certain losers.

While Romney and his supporters have treated this line of attack as more the result of self-interest by his rivals than genuine analysis, these are serious arguments, and the former Massachusetts governor’s chance to win the nomination will turn on his ability to answer such challenges. Even more importantly, with the rise of Rick Santorum, it must be conceded that Republicans now have someone who is, as Charles Krauthammer noted this week on Fox News, plausibly presidential and who might actually test the conservative thesis.

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A constant refrain from conservatives in the past few months has been that Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy is merely a re-run of past failed runs by GOP moderates like Bob Dole and John McCain. According to their reasoning, a candidate like Romney can’t fire up the Republican base and get them to turn out (the conceit behind Karl Rove’s successful campaigns for George W. Bush) in large enough numbers to win in November. Even more than that, conservatives assert that more Americans will be attracted to a conviction conservative (i.e. Ronald Reagan) than to a wishy-washy Republican who tried to be all things to all people. Romney’s centrist appeal to independents is, they claim, a snare that has trapped the GOP into putting up certain losers.

While Romney and his supporters have treated this line of attack as more the result of self-interest by his rivals than genuine analysis, these are serious arguments, and the former Massachusetts governor’s chance to win the nomination will turn on his ability to answer such challenges. Even more importantly, with the rise of Rick Santorum, it must be conceded that Republicans now have someone who is, as Charles Krauthammer noted this week on Fox News, plausibly presidential and who might actually test the conservative thesis.

Conservatives are right to point out that without the enthusiastic support of his party’s base, Romney will be fatally handicapped in a general election. Though it is unfair to paint him, as some have done, as a closet liberal, Romney’s image as a technocratic problem-solver who eschews ideology is not unfair and has made him a hard sell for Tea Partiers and social conservatives. The belief in his electability rests on the assumption that the desire to unseat Barack Obama is so strong among conservatives that it will overwhelm their reluctance to back Romney. That makes Romney’s ability to win the support of independents and even some disillusioned centrist Democrats who would be unlikely to pull the lever for a hard-core conservative a formula for Republican victory in 2012.

The question Republicans must answer in the coming weeks and months is whether there is a different and equally appealing alternative path to a GOP win. The problem for those who were appalled at the idea of nominating a moderate like Romney was that flawed contenders like Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Perry were fronting the conservative argument. Though Santorum also has liabilities, his serious approach to issues of governance and foreign policy as well as an exemplary personal life allows him to put himself forward as a candidate more in the conviction conservative mode of a Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush than Romney. Moreover, as David Brooks pointed out in a perceptive column in today’s New York Times, Santorum’s impassioned pitch to working-class voters fits exactly with the blueprint for GOP success in the past than Romney’s business executive image.

The potential flaw in this thesis however is that unlike the sunny Reagan or the amiable younger Bush, it is far from certain the preachy Santorum can connect with centrists. While both of those Republican presidents had impeccable social conservative credentials, they didn’t come across as fiery culture warriors the way Santorum does. Now that he’s out of Iowa, the former senator needs to work on scaling back the fire and brimstone and emphasize the compassionate element of his conservatism, as he did when he reacted movingly to criticisms of his family’s method of coping with the death of a child.

Given Santorum’s potential problems, it must be said that Romney still has the stronger argument for electability. But if Santorum can work on humanizing his image while somehow overcoming the enormous disadvantages he has in terms of money and organization to actually compete for the nomination, then it must be conceded he might also have a shot at beating Obama.

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The Latest Jobs Report

The monthly jobs report was released this morning at 8:30, and it showed a net of 200,000 new jobs and an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent.

That’s unequivocal good news for President Obama. The number of jobs was higher than economists were predicting (155,000) and the unemployment rate lower (8.7 percent was the consensus forecast). The rate is the lowest since February 2009, and 1.6 million jobs were added in 2011, although the country is still 6.1 million below where it was in December 2007, when the recession officially began. Even construction, a hard-hit sector, gained jobs last month.

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The monthly jobs report was released this morning at 8:30, and it showed a net of 200,000 new jobs and an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent.

That’s unequivocal good news for President Obama. The number of jobs was higher than economists were predicting (155,000) and the unemployment rate lower (8.7 percent was the consensus forecast). The rate is the lowest since February 2009, and 1.6 million jobs were added in 2011, although the country is still 6.1 million below where it was in December 2007, when the recession officially began. Even construction, a hard-hit sector, gained jobs last month.

The rate is down .6 percentage points just since August. If it continues to decline at that pace, the rate would be about 7.2 percent on election day, lower than the rate when Ronald Reagan was re-elected (7.4 percent). Of course, if the economy continues to improve, more people will re-enter the labor market and that could send the rate back up temporarily. Still, they must very happy in the White House this morning.

The Wall Street Journal, by the way, has a neat interactive chart that shows the unemployment rate for every month since January 1948.

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Turkey’s Coup

Last night, Turkish security forces arrested İlker Başbuğ, the former head of the Turkish General Staff. Headlines charge that Başbuğ was involved in a coup plot and emphasize that a civilian court handed down the warrant. This is like exculpating the Iranian judiciary for its targeting of liberals and secularists. After all, in Turkey, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Islamist ruling party long ago subverted the independence of the judiciary. Nor should liberals and proponents of democracy cheer Başbuğ’s arrest. Scratching beneath the headlines, the true charge is that Başbuğ criticized the ruling party’s turn away from secularism in writing.

Now, it may seem out of place in an American context for a senior military officer to criticize the ruling party, even if only in a memorandum. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s aides were quoted indiscreetly discussing politics, for example, President Obama sacked McChrystal and rightly so. But, Turkey has operated under a different system, one in which the Turkish military was the ultimate guarantor of the constitution. Turkey’s Islamists never honored the constitution, nor brought into the notion of democracy. As Erdoğan famously quipped, “Democracy is like a street car: You ride it as far as you need, and then you get off.”

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Last night, Turkish security forces arrested İlker Başbuğ, the former head of the Turkish General Staff. Headlines charge that Başbuğ was involved in a coup plot and emphasize that a civilian court handed down the warrant. This is like exculpating the Iranian judiciary for its targeting of liberals and secularists. After all, in Turkey, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Islamist ruling party long ago subverted the independence of the judiciary. Nor should liberals and proponents of democracy cheer Başbuğ’s arrest. Scratching beneath the headlines, the true charge is that Başbuğ criticized the ruling party’s turn away from secularism in writing.

Now, it may seem out of place in an American context for a senior military officer to criticize the ruling party, even if only in a memorandum. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s aides were quoted indiscreetly discussing politics, for example, President Obama sacked McChrystal and rightly so. But, Turkey has operated under a different system, one in which the Turkish military was the ultimate guarantor of the constitution. Turkey’s Islamists never honored the constitution, nor brought into the notion of democracy. As Erdoğan famously quipped, “Democracy is like a street car: You ride it as far as you need, and then you get off.”

With Başbuğ’s arrest, Turkey truly has suffered the final blow in a coup, only not the coup the Obama administration and the State Department—with their innate hostility to all things military—wish to acknowledge. Indeed, Turkey’s turn from a separation of mosque and state into an Islamist, undemocratic regime is a testament to the willful blindness of American diplomats and policymakers.

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Santorum Resonates With Middle Class

After his near-win in Iowa, and his jump to the head of the “not Romney” line, Rick Santorum received the expected scrutiny of his record on conservative issues. While most of the candidates have a few spots on their records, a video making the rounds today demonstrates why Santorum’s conservative apostasies may be more difficult for the base to forgive: He seems to think there isn’t much room for Tea Party and libertarian priorities within the Republican Party.

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After his near-win in Iowa, and his jump to the head of the “not Romney” line, Rick Santorum received the expected scrutiny of his record on conservative issues. While most of the candidates have a few spots on their records, a video making the rounds today demonstrates why Santorum’s conservative apostasies may be more difficult for the base to forgive: He seems to think there isn’t much room for Tea Party and libertarian priorities within the Republican Party.

Today’s issue of the New York Times carries a story about conservative frustration with Mitt Romney’s management conservatism, which tinkers around the edges of problems that seem to need bold solutions. Santorum is certainly no more of a threat to the growing federal government than Romney is, and the lack of contrast between the two should benefit Romney, who has better name recognition in this race, more money, and more establishment support.

But there’s also a risk to Romney here. In recent weeks, David Axelrod has taken to mocking the idea that Romney could be an effective spokesman for the middle or working class. This calls to mind the “authenticity” argument that has been dogging Romney from the very beginning. Santorum, however, is a much more believable spokesman for Midwest voters hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs and who feel, not without some justification, their needs are never at the top of either party’s list of priorities.

Santorum speaks to this. The Obama campaign has acknowledged that, as its ally the Center for American Progress puts it, “the Republican Party has become the party of the white working class,” and Obama’s re-election efforts will not include much outreach to this cohort. But they have to like their chances in places like Ohio against Romney.

Santorum, however, has no such authenticity problem with working class voters. Over at National Review, Artur Davis, former Democratic congressman from Alabama, said Santorum’s Iowa speech “was simply the best Republican rhetoric in the last decade.”

Santorum is making working and middle-class voters the center of his campaign. In New Hampshire yesterday, while greeting voters in a diner, one woman said to him: “I listened to your speech in Iowa and that’s exactly what I’ve been waiting to hear. Thank you.” Another told Santorum she actually believed him when he talked about helping the working class. Santorum responded that people say, “You’re just doing it for political purposes.” He counters: “No, I’m doing it because that’s where I grew up.”

In the long run, Romney is likely to benefit from having Santorum as his primary rival by allowing him to tap into the conservative base that will no doubt be repelled by Santorum’s stated suspicion of the Tea Party. But Santorum’s rise has amplified one of Romney’s most daunting communication weaknesses. How Romney addresses that will go a long way toward determining what kind of swing state general election candidate he can be.

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Iowa Scrambles South Carolina Polls

In South Carolina, the polls are showing the same trend we’ve been seeing on repeat throughout the GOP race: the hot new rising star (in this case, Rick Santorum) is skyrocketing in the polls, while the old one (in this case, Newt Gingrich) is fading fast.

Exactly one month ago, Gingrich had peaked in South Carolina, leading the field at 42 percent in the NBC News/Marist poll. Today, he’s dropped down to third place, with just 18 percent in today’s Rasmussen poll. Meanwhile, Santorum – who was clocking in at 1 or 2 percent support last month – is now the frontrunner:

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In South Carolina, the polls are showing the same trend we’ve been seeing on repeat throughout the GOP race: the hot new rising star (in this case, Rick Santorum) is skyrocketing in the polls, while the old one (in this case, Newt Gingrich) is fading fast.

Exactly one month ago, Gingrich had peaked in South Carolina, leading the field at 42 percent in the NBC News/Marist poll. Today, he’s dropped down to third place, with just 18 percent in today’s Rasmussen poll. Meanwhile, Santorum – who was clocking in at 1 or 2 percent support last month – is now the frontrunner:

Rick Santorum, who two months ago had one percent support among likely South Carolina Republican primary voters, now is running a close second there with 24 percent of the vote.

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey in the Palmetto State finds former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney still in the lead, earning 27 percent support from likely GOP primary voters, up from 23 percent in early November. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is in third with 18 percent of the vote, followed by Texas Congressman Ron Paul at 11 percent.

Bringing up the rear are Texas Governor Rick Perry with five percent and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman at two percent. Another two percent of these likely primary voters like some other candidate, and 11 percent remain undecided.

If the race were a game of musical chairs, Santorum would have sat down at the exact moment the music stopped. His success in Iowa was more serendipity than anything else. He was literally the last Romney alternative left when all the other options had been exhausted, and he just had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. If the caucuses had happened one month earlier, does anyone doubt Gingrich would have finished at the top of the field?

And with two weeks to go until the South Carolina primary, Santorum is also perfectly timed to succeed in the state, if recent history is any indicator. The rise-and-fall arc of the other candidates has tended to last about a month and a half, which means Santorum should still be at the height of his popularity when South Carolina Republicans start heading to the polls. Of course, plenty can happen during the next 15 days. But so far in the race, it’s been pretty consistent.

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The Birthright Invasion

Birthright Israel held its January “mega-event” Wednesday in Jerusalem. Attended by approximately 3,000 young Jews from 15 countries, it is one of a series of large-scale events Birthright occasionally puts on in order to bring together the various groups touring Israel at the same time.

Through it, it’s possible to glimpse the realities of an emerging diaspora Jewish identity that receives little attention and holds within it both positives and negatives for the Jewish future.

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Birthright Israel held its January “mega-event” Wednesday in Jerusalem. Attended by approximately 3,000 young Jews from 15 countries, it is one of a series of large-scale events Birthright occasionally puts on in order to bring together the various groups touring Israel at the same time.

Through it, it’s possible to glimpse the realities of an emerging diaspora Jewish identity that receives little attention and holds within it both positives and negatives for the Jewish future.

On the positive side of the ledger, you have the fact of Birthright itself. It has now brought nearly 300,000 young Jews to Israel, the vast majority of whom would not likely have ever gone. A 2009 report by Leonard Saxe and others at Brandeis University buttressed anecdotal evidence with figures that showed an increased feeling of attachment to the Jewish people by participants, as well as a deeper commitment to marrying other Jews and raising Jewish children.

This means all the more because of the general weakness of diaspora Jewish identity. Before Birthright, in the United States at least bar and bat mitzvah rituals with little connection to a larger Jewish life and the supplementary educational programs that precede them had long been the only shared touchstones for Jews living in increasingly isolated pockets. These served little better than as fodder for comedy or other pop culture products that mostly reinforce the notion that the ritual’s chief import is an excuse for a grand party.

To a notable extent, Birthright changes that by providing a shared experience at an older age in a living Jewish state. A new touchstone for Jewish identity is being created that, however hard some may try, is not nearly so easy to caricature.

Still, we can wonder what is being created. According to the same Saxe study, a “sense of belonging to the Jewish people” was the only measure by which the trip increased a participant’s connection. In other words, what the program is able to do, by design, is “create a sense of Jewish identity,” but, in only ten days, it cannot supply any real content to that identity. Participants return from Birthright trips probably with a deeper sense of themselves as Jews but with little to do with that desire and little knowledge upon which to base their feelings.

Now, it should be said it is difficult to overstate the importance of the creation of even this thin Jewish identity. This past summer in Israel I heard Natan Sharansky say Birthright gets its participants to realize that, simply by the fact of their Jewishness, they are part of a much more interesting story than they previously realized. It was, he said, the same awakening that he and his fellow Soviet Jews went through as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967.

The question American and other diaspora Jewry faces – those who have benefited from the trip first and the existing institutions of Jewish life second – is whether or not it can be content with this thin identity.

This isn’t the conversation we are having. Instead, far too much time has been spent on the question of whether or not a rightward shift in Israel’s politics is distancing young Jews from the country. As Haaretz unsurprisingly found in its account of the mega-event, few participants were even aware of the latest women’s rights controversy that is supposedly pushing them away.

Birthright has put a far more pressing issue on the table: will the rising generation of diaspora Jews be content with symbolic identification with a Judaism they don’t understand, or can they find in themselves the resources to create a Judaism of true meaning?

 

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The NYTimes’ Path of Deep Defense Cuts

The New York Times today has another example of my favorite kind of editorial–the self-refuting kind. The Times editors applaud President Obama’s new defense strategy for a “A Leaner Pentagon” and even fret that a renewed focus on the Pacific could justify “unrestrained” spending (this at a time of plummeting defense spending). Then the editors add what is known in the trade as a “to be sure” paragraph:

Still, the United States must be ready to face multiple contingencies. Our own chilling list includes a collapsing Pakistan, another state hijacked by al-Qaeda, Iran blocking oil shipping as it pursues its nuclear ambitions or a weak or unbalanced North Korean leader making a suicidal run across the South Korean border.

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The New York Times today has another example of my favorite kind of editorial–the self-refuting kind. The Times editors applaud President Obama’s new defense strategy for a “A Leaner Pentagon” and even fret that a renewed focus on the Pacific could justify “unrestrained” spending (this at a time of plummeting defense spending). Then the editors add what is known in the trade as a “to be sure” paragraph:

Still, the United States must be ready to face multiple contingencies. Our own chilling list includes a collapsing Pakistan, another state hijacked by al-Qaeda, Iran blocking oil shipping as it pursues its nuclear ambitions or a weak or unbalanced North Korean leader making a suicidal run across the South Korean border.

I agree these are all very real, very worrisome scenarios–and the editors have hardly exhausted the list. How about the possibility of a clash with China? Or the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack necessitating a massive response?

How, pray tell, is the U.S. supposed to get ready for dealing with all of these possible contingencies–much less for the prospect of more than one occurring at once–if the defense budget stands to be cut by as much as a trillion dollars during the next decade? The answer is, it’s impossible. Means don’t match ends. Resources are insufficient to safeguard against all these risks in a credible and convincing manner. Which is why we can’t afford to pursue the Times’ editors favored path of deep defense cuts.

 

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