Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 24, 2012

A Diminished Obama Strikes a Tepid Tone

President Obama launched his re-election campaign tonight with a State of the Union speech that attempted to conjure up the spirit of an earlier era of national unity even as he sought to focus national resentment on wealthy Americans and his political opponents in Congress.

With no record of accomplishment to his credit, other than the unpopular Obamacare and stimulus, Obama put forward a limited agenda of government intervention in the economy and the tax code in a laundry list of initiatives that did little to break new ground on any issue and was bereft of the passion and vision that drove his 2008 campaign for the presidency. All in all, it was 65 minutes that ought to worry Democrats more than it annoyed Republicans.

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President Obama launched his re-election campaign tonight with a State of the Union speech that attempted to conjure up the spirit of an earlier era of national unity even as he sought to focus national resentment on wealthy Americans and his political opponents in Congress.

With no record of accomplishment to his credit, other than the unpopular Obamacare and stimulus, Obama put forward a limited agenda of government intervention in the economy and the tax code in a laundry list of initiatives that did little to break new ground on any issue and was bereft of the passion and vision that drove his 2008 campaign for the presidency. All in all, it was 65 minutes that ought to worry Democrats more than it annoyed Republicans.

The president knows he will get nothing passed this year, and his speech reflected that reality. He began and ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden. In between he spoke of a peace dividend from the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he would use on building projects and green energy production. He called for a massive bailout of homeowners even as he pandered to public opinion by saying there would be no more bailouts for banks. He vowed to prosecute those responsible for the mortgage crisis and said teenagers would no longer be allowed to drop out of high school, no matter how much trouble they were causing. No mention was made of either Obamacare or the stimulus. Nor did he speak of the Keystone XL pipeline project that he cancelled. He called for lower taxes, less regulation and more exploitation of our natural resources even though he has raised taxes, increased regulation and made it more difficult for the nation to use more of its oil and gas and that of our neighbor Canada.

On foreign affairs, Obama spoke of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan and pretended he had increased Iran’s isolation rather than wasting three years on failed engagement and feckless diplomacy that gave the Islamist regime more time to build a nuclear weapon. He claimed to be Israel’s greatest friend even though he has used his time in office to pick constant fights with the government of the Jewish state. The shout out to wavering liberal Jewish Democrats betrayed an administration clearly worried about November.

The only substantive portion of the speech dealt with his desire to raise taxes on millionaires. Even if he got his way and raised the rates for millionaires to 30 percent it would do little to deal with the deficit or pay for the runaway costs of entitlements. But that isn’t really the point of his advocacy. Obama isn’t interested in raising those taxes to achieve an economic purpose. He has seized on this phony issue in order to exploit it politically this fall. For all of his talk about unity, his decision to let loose the dogs of class warfare rhetoric doesn’t so much seek division as to treat it as his golden ticket to re-election.

While Democrats may have been encouraged in recent weeks by the spectacle of Republican presidential candidates tearing each other apart, often employing the rhetorical devices of the left, they could not have been encouraged by the tepid tone and lack of vision in Obama’s speech. His unwillingness to speak about what he has done and instead concentrate on bashing the rich seemed to be more the strategy of a challenger rather than an incumbent.

His claim that America “is back” was empty braggadocio that makes little sense given the grave state of the economy. Obama’s rally cry about American greatness seemed stuck in nostalgia for a bygone era of massive government spending projects and an economy based in manufacturing rather than information and technology. The result of this empty talk was a speech that struck a sour, flat note just when he needed to inspire.

All of this should cause Democrats to worry just at the moment when they were starting to feel good about 2012. Though the president has many advantages heading into the campaign, including weak potential opponents, his inability to stand on his record and his loss of faith in the grand vision he ran in 2008 foreshadows serious problems later this year.

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Details Unfold About Gingrich’s Freddie Mac Role

New details are trickling out about Newt Gingrich’s role at Freddie Mac, and the latest reports continue to contradict his claim that he objected to the mortgage giant’s business model while serving as an advisor.

Last November, Gingrich’s campaign said that “on numerous occasions in meetings with Freddie Mac, Speaker Gingrich advised that a business model that involved lending money to people with bad credit and no money down was unsustainable and a bubble, and that it was dangerous to buy securities made up of these mortgages.”

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New details are trickling out about Newt Gingrich’s role at Freddie Mac, and the latest reports continue to contradict his claim that he objected to the mortgage giant’s business model while serving as an advisor.

Last November, Gingrich’s campaign said that “on numerous occasions in meetings with Freddie Mac, Speaker Gingrich advised that a business model that involved lending money to people with bad credit and no money down was unsustainable and a bubble, and that it was dangerous to buy securities made up of these mortgages.”

But according to Politico, his activities weren’t just confined to advising and lobbying on behalf of Freddie Mac. He also rallied an audience of Freddie Mac political action committee donors in 2007:

New details from Newt Gingrich’s $35,000-a-year contract with Freddie Mac show that the Republican hopeful wasn’t just a boardroom consultant, but served as a high-profile booster for the beleaguered organization. He even gave a rallying speech to dozens of the group’s political action committee donors in the spring of 2007.

Shortly after the “rah, rah” speech, as one source described it, Gingrich gave an interview for the Freddie Mac website, where he supported the group’s model at length. The interview is no longer on Freddie’s site.

If Gingich was supposedly the internal critic of Freddie Mac, what was he doing giving speeches to the group’s PAC donors? The story doesn’t add up. Of course it’s possible that Gingrich brought up his concerns at some meetings, but he gave no public indication that he was trying to reform the group at the time. Everything that’s been released has shown the opposite – him praising Freddie Mac’s business model and trying to boost the group’s reputation.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported more details about the lobbying expert who Gingrich says advised him back in 2000:

“He hired me to give him advice on state and federal lobbying requirements,” [lobbying expert] Thomas Susman said.

“The subject matter,” he added, “was simply to advise him and his associates in his business what the lobbying laws were because he did not want to have to cross the line to register as a lobbyist in any of those jurisdictions.”

Which sounds like confirmation that Gingrich hired an expert to avoid crossing the 20 percent threshold that would require him to officially register as a lobbyist.

The drip-drip-drip will likely keep this issue in the news for awhile, but it remains to be seen if Romney can make the controversy stick to Gingrich. He’s certainly been trying, and today his campaign sent surrogate Rep. Connie Mack to a Gingrich rally to raise the issue. But at least one of Romney’s attacks could end up backfiring. His campaign sent an email out to supporters today promising a “$1.6 million reward” – the fee Gingrich collected from Freddie Mac – for any information on Newt’s lobbying documents. It’s clearly supposed to be a joke, but it’s also yet another reminder of Romney’s $10,000-bet faux pas and his substantial wealth.

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The Palestinian Authority’s ATM

In a further sign of the ascent of radicalism in Palestinian politics, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told the Washington Times he would not run for the post of president. Fayyad, a favorite of the West due to his preference for nation building and improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians rather than promoting terror and hatred of Jews and Israel, is on the chopping block as prime minister because Hamas insists the unity pact with Fatah will not be fulfilled until his ouster. Fayyad knows better than to try his luck with the Palestinian electorate. Despite an unparalleled record of fighting corruption and promoting prosperity, he hasn’t a chance against the gunslingers of both Fatah and Hamas.

Even more interesting is his insistence he will not serve as finance minister, the job he held previous to his current post. To his credit, he doesn’t like the idea of being a front for a Hamas government whose respectability would be pimped abroad in order to continue the flow of aid from the United States and Europe.  “I do not really view myself as an ATM for the Palestinian Authority,” said Fayyad.

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In a further sign of the ascent of radicalism in Palestinian politics, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told the Washington Times he would not run for the post of president. Fayyad, a favorite of the West due to his preference for nation building and improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians rather than promoting terror and hatred of Jews and Israel, is on the chopping block as prime minister because Hamas insists the unity pact with Fatah will not be fulfilled until his ouster. Fayyad knows better than to try his luck with the Palestinian electorate. Despite an unparalleled record of fighting corruption and promoting prosperity, he hasn’t a chance against the gunslingers of both Fatah and Hamas.

Even more interesting is his insistence he will not serve as finance minister, the job he held previous to his current post. To his credit, he doesn’t like the idea of being a front for a Hamas government whose respectability would be pimped abroad in order to continue the flow of aid from the United States and Europe.  “I do not really view myself as an ATM for the Palestinian Authority,” said Fayyad.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a man like the American-educated Fayyad would be in a Fatah-Hamas unity government. Though their Palestinian apologists and western cheerleaders would have us believe Hamas has become a non-violent political organization, Fayyad senses that Palestinian unity bought at such a price will lead to more conflict and doom for his development projects. Moreover, he understands that Hamas is unlikely to ever make peace with Israel or give up terrorism.

Though Hamas’ Palestinian and foreign apologists are trying to persuade the West to view it as no different from the ruling party of Turkey whose leader is so chummy with President Obama, any move that would bring it to power would mean an end to all hope of peace in the Middle East. That the Obama administration views this possibility with so little alarm says a lot about how little Washington understands the Palestinians or the region. But once Fayyad is gone, those who seek to keep American taxpayer dollars flowing to a government that subsidizes hate, such as Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, will have to find a new local front for their ATM.

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“I Am Jewish” — Remembering Daniel Pearl

Ten years ago this week, the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. Nine days later he was murdered–beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. Before being killed, he was forced to make a statement on a video that the terrorists subsequently distributed to the press. Though he was forced to make criticisms of the United States, he died expressing pride in his identity. “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish,” he said.

Pearl’s abduction and murder was a heinous crime that came to symbolize the barbarity at the heart of the Islamist movement. But Pearl’s final words, though spoken under duress and with the shadow of death hanging over him, are also a symbol of the spirit of a people that hate cannot extinguish.

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Ten years ago this week, the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. Nine days later he was murdered–beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. Before being killed, he was forced to make a statement on a video that the terrorists subsequently distributed to the press. Though he was forced to make criticisms of the United States, he died expressing pride in his identity. “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish,” he said.

Pearl’s abduction and murder was a heinous crime that came to symbolize the barbarity at the heart of the Islamist movement. But Pearl’s final words, though spoken under duress and with the shadow of death hanging over him, are also a symbol of the spirit of a people that hate cannot extinguish.

Ten years after Pearl’s death, there are many in this country who believe the “war on terror” is something for the history books, put on a shelf and forgotten. Al-Qaeda has received severe blows. Mohammad was subsequently arrested and after much legal wrangling, will eventually face trial before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay for his role in Pearl’s death as well as the 9/11 attacks. But the terrorists are still out there and, with their allies the Taliban still holding their own in Afghanistan, hold out hope for a revival of their cause.

Even more to the point, Islamists who sympathize with Pearl’s killers and share much of their ideology–such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Palestinian group Hamas–are on the upswing. The Brotherhood controls Egypt’s new parliament with other Islamists while Hamas appears poised to expand its sway over Palestinian society from Gaza to the West Bank via a unity pact with Fatah.

The anniversary of Pearl’s abduction should remind us that those who spread hatred of the West and of the Jews are generally not satisfied with merely talking about killing Jews. These groups pose a direct threat to world peace, and the United States must not be gulled into seeing them as people with whom we can do business. For them, Daniel Pearl’s admission of his Jewish identity and his ties with the people and the land of Israel justified his death. For us, they are an expression of pride.

Daniel Pearl was an open, inquisitive and honest journalist who bore no grudges against those of other nationalities and faiths. For this as well as for his American and Jewish identities, those for whom such qualities are anathema marked him for death. But though this anniversary is a sad one, his last words must also serve as a reassurance the Islamists who murdered him will not prevail. Though an Islamist winter has followed the Arab spring, the words “I am Jewish” resonate today as the cry of a Jewish people who will not perish. May Pearl’s memory be for a blessing.

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Coming Soon: The Romney-Gingrich Collision

I agree with Jonathan’s assessment of last night’s GOP debate. The only important part of the debate occurred in the first half-hour, when Mitt Romney aggressively prosecuted his case against Newt Gingrich. Gingrich clearly decided he didn’t want a confrontation, probably assuming that doing so would endanger his lead in Florida. The former speaker wanted to float above it all, as best he could, in hopes of selling to the public the narrative of a “new” Newt – a candidate calm, disciplined, and in control of himself.

I’m not sure that strategy is a particularly good one. Gingrich tried that once before, in Iowa, and finished in fourth place after leading by double digits in December. And last week Romney tried the same approach, trying to keep his attacks focused on President Obama even as Romney’s opponents went after him hammer and tong.

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I agree with Jonathan’s assessment of last night’s GOP debate. The only important part of the debate occurred in the first half-hour, when Mitt Romney aggressively prosecuted his case against Newt Gingrich. Gingrich clearly decided he didn’t want a confrontation, probably assuming that doing so would endanger his lead in Florida. The former speaker wanted to float above it all, as best he could, in hopes of selling to the public the narrative of a “new” Newt – a candidate calm, disciplined, and in control of himself.

I’m not sure that strategy is a particularly good one. Gingrich tried that once before, in Iowa, and finished in fourth place after leading by double digits in December. And last week Romney tried the same approach, trying to keep his attacks focused on President Obama even as Romney’s opponents went after him hammer and tong.

Most commentators seem to think Romney bested Gingrich last night. If so, the win wasn’t by a decisive margin, and there were no dramatic moments that matched what Gingrich did twice last week in South Carolina. It certainly won’t change the trajectory of the race in Florida like last week’s debates changed the trajectory of the race in South Carolina. But it may not have to.

The question for the Romney campaign is whether the former Massachusetts governor’s line of attack in the debate, combined with very tough ads being run in Florida, will raise substantial doubts about Gingrich’s public character. My hunch is that what Romney achieved last night is he stopped the bleeding and regained some balance. The polls will probably close a bit in Florida during the next few days. As a result I’d be surprised if, during Thursday’s debate, Gingrich is as passive in the face of Romney’s attacks as he was last night. Gingrich is no fool; he must know that being on the defensive on ethics charges isn’t where he wants to be.

So far in this campaign Romney and Gingrich have taken turns being the aggressor against the other. What will be fascinating to watch is if and when they decide, in the same debate, to go after one another hard, butting heads like a couple of rams. I’d lay some pretty good odds on such a collision happening soon, meaning as early as Thursday night in Jacksonville.

 

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Romney’s “Electability” Argument Collapsing

Now more than ever, Mitt Romney needs to hammer home the argument that he’s more electable than Newt Gingrich in a general election. But it will be increasingly difficult for him with polls like these:

Among overall Americans, Romney’s favorability rating — a measure of broad acceptability — has dropped eight points since earlier this month, to 31 percent. His unfavorable rating has jumped 15 points, to 49 percent. That’s a net swing of 23 points. His negative rating now tops 50 among independents.

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Now more than ever, Mitt Romney needs to hammer home the argument that he’s more electable than Newt Gingrich in a general election. But it will be increasingly difficult for him with polls like these:

Among overall Americans, Romney’s favorability rating — a measure of broad acceptability — has dropped eight points since earlier this month, to 31 percent. His unfavorable rating has jumped 15 points, to 49 percent. That’s a net swing of 23 points. His negative rating now tops 50 among independents.

Romney’s unfavorables aren’t much higher than President Obama’s (currently 43 percent), but his favorable ratings are also much lower than Obama’s have ever been in the Washington Post poll. Since 2006, the percentage of Americans who view Obama favorably hasn’t dropped below 44 percent.

This could definitely change if Romney secures the nomination and Republicans begin rallying behind him. But it makes it harder for him to argue the case that Gingrich is a less viable candidate in the general election. His net favorables-unfavorables are now nearly tied with Gingrich’s. While the Post poll doesn’t explain what’s causing Romney’s negatives to soar during the past few weeks, his rivals could easily chalk it up to Bain Capital and the attacks on Romney’s wealth — assaults that would increase substantially during a general election.

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Don’t Penalize Tea Party Goalie for White House Boycott

The custom of championship sports teams visiting the White House and the ceremonial gift of a jersey to the president dates backs several presidencies and is generally considered above politics. But one member of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins decided he wasn’t going to be a prop in a photo-op for Barack Obama this year. Goalie Tim Thomas, whose heroics in the net made the difference for the Bruins in last spring’s National Hockey League playoffs, boycotted yesterday’s White House ceremony in which his team was honored.

Thomas absented himself from the celebration as a protest against the size of government and issued a tasteful if pointed statement explaining his actions were not about “politics or party.” For this, he is being roasted in the hometown press for behavior that Boston Globe columnist Kevin Paul Dupont called “Shabby. Immature. Unprofessional. Self-centered. Bush league.” But the Globe and other liberal outlets that claim Thomas politicized something that had nothing to do with partisan strife are wrong. The business of schlepping team members and officials and their trophy for photos with the president months after their triumph may be a harmless tradition, but as much as the president serves as head of state as well as head of our government, no one should feel obligated to play along with the charade. Thomas was fully within his rights and is no more at fault than any left-wing actors who denied themselves the pleasure of a visit with George W. Bush.

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The custom of championship sports teams visiting the White House and the ceremonial gift of a jersey to the president dates backs several presidencies and is generally considered above politics. But one member of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins decided he wasn’t going to be a prop in a photo-op for Barack Obama this year. Goalie Tim Thomas, whose heroics in the net made the difference for the Bruins in last spring’s National Hockey League playoffs, boycotted yesterday’s White House ceremony in which his team was honored.

Thomas absented himself from the celebration as a protest against the size of government and issued a tasteful if pointed statement explaining his actions were not about “politics or party.” For this, he is being roasted in the hometown press for behavior that Boston Globe columnist Kevin Paul Dupont called “Shabby. Immature. Unprofessional. Self-centered. Bush league.” But the Globe and other liberal outlets that claim Thomas politicized something that had nothing to do with partisan strife are wrong. The business of schlepping team members and officials and their trophy for photos with the president months after their triumph may be a harmless tradition, but as much as the president serves as head of state as well as head of our government, no one should feel obligated to play along with the charade. Thomas was fully within his rights and is no more at fault than any left-wing actors who denied themselves the pleasure of a visit with George W. Bush.

Thomas, the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the 2011 playoffs, was one of only three American citizens on the Bruins and is also an active member of the Republican Party.  And because he sports the image of the Gasden flag (“Don’t Tread On Me”), the symbol of the Tea Party, on his goalie mask, it isn’t too hard to figure out where his political sympathies lie. But unlike some Tea Partiers who got in the face of politicians who voted for the bank bailouts, the stimulus or Obamacare, Thomas kept a respectful distance from the event.

Oddly enough, the Globe’s Dupont criticized Thomas as lacking the guts to criticize Obama to his face. Of course, creating an incident at the White House would have been in bad taste, embarrassed his teammates and spoiled their fun. Nor should, as Dupont claimed, his beliefs have obligated him to not represent his country at the Olympics, as Thomas has done. Reading this attack, one can’t help wondering whether he would not be praised in the Globe and elsewhere had his protest been against a Republican president.

One can argue Thomas could have just as easily played along with everyone else, shaken Obama’s hand and enjoyed his private tour of the executive residence. I believe he could have done so without compromising himself, but he thought differently, chose to make a statement about his principles and risked the opprobrium of the liberal press. For that he deserves our respect as a citizen and a man.

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“Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish”

In the Book of Proverbs we read, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” I was reminded of those words in reading this story from Politico, which begins this way:

Take this quiz: If President Barack Obama wins a second term, he has promised that he will do … what exactly? There are people who follow the president closely who couldn’t answer that question. And even those who try would surely find themselves disagreeing with one another. As he stands before the nation Tuesday evening to present his State of the Union address, Obama is a president whose positions may be well-known but whose agenda — what he actually intends and can reasonably expect to achieve if voters give him four more years — is blurry. …Obama has yet to outline in a concrete way what he will do, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian with Princeton University.“He is an enigma,” Zelizer said. “He is not a politician with a clear set of ideas.”

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In the Book of Proverbs we read, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” I was reminded of those words in reading this story from Politico, which begins this way:

Take this quiz: If President Barack Obama wins a second term, he has promised that he will do … what exactly? There are people who follow the president closely who couldn’t answer that question. And even those who try would surely find themselves disagreeing with one another. As he stands before the nation Tuesday evening to present his State of the Union address, Obama is a president whose positions may be well-known but whose agenda — what he actually intends and can reasonably expect to achieve if voters give him four more years — is blurry. …Obama has yet to outline in a concrete way what he will do, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian with Princeton University.“He is an enigma,” Zelizer said. “He is not a politician with a clear set of ideas.”

Traditionally, an incumbent president runs, at least in large measure, on his record and his vision for the future. But Obama can do neither. His record is more or less indefensible, and even the people who follow the president closely cannot even begin to sketch out what a second term would look like or what his presidency would be devoted to.

The only thing Obama can rely on in this election is to carpet bomb his opponent, which is exactly what he will try. It’s unclear whether or not this strategy will succeed – but it’s not too early to declare the Obama presidency to have been, by any objective standard, a failure. His presidency is out of energy and out of ideas. And Obama himself appears to be, at least right now, a shrunken figure who does best with the public when he’s out of sight and out of mind.

The heady days of 2008 – when Obama promised to repair not just America but the world — seems like a lifetime ago. He’ll deliver his State of the Union address and no one of either party will really care. His words are increasingly unserious, empty and partisan, and very nearly meaningless. Even the president’s strongest supporters must realize, at least in their quiet, honest moments, that the hope and promise of his presidency lies in ruins.

 

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Why Don’t Conservatives Care About Newt’s Narcissism?

Since the beginning of his political career, President Obama has had a particularly annoying habit of comparing himself to great historical leaders, including Ronald Reagan, Lincoln and JFK. Many politicians do this to a certain extent, but coupled with Obama’s thin resume and lack of substance, it played into the narrative that he had an inflated self-image.

Obama’s historical self-comparisons have become a running joke with conservatives. But why are Newt Gingrich’s even more outlandish personal assessments – that he’s just like Thomas Edison, the Duke of Wellington, or Henry Clay – not treated as equally ridiculous?

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Since the beginning of his political career, President Obama has had a particularly annoying habit of comparing himself to great historical leaders, including Ronald Reagan, Lincoln and JFK. Many politicians do this to a certain extent, but coupled with Obama’s thin resume and lack of substance, it played into the narrative that he had an inflated self-image.

Obama’s historical self-comparisons have become a running joke with conservatives. But why are Newt Gingrich’s even more outlandish personal assessments – that he’s just like Thomas Edison, the Duke of Wellington, or Henry Clay – not treated as equally ridiculous?

If anything, Gingrich’s comparisons are much more overt than Obama’s. “Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I’m such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I’m trying to do,” Gingrich told CNN.com last November.

In the same week, Gingrich made a similarly grandiose comment in a Washington Post article. “I am the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson,” he said.

And while Gingrich certainly had some great achievements during his time in Congress, even his most fervent supporters would have to concede that this assessment he gave to the Washington Post in 1995 is a bit over the top: “Obsessed recently with Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, [Gingrich] likened the appropriations triumph to the way the British expeditionary force maneuvered against the French during the Peninsular War, a campaign in Portugal and Spain in the early 1800s that eventually led to Wellington’s ascendance and Napoleon’s abdication.”

These are just three of the many self-comparisons to historical figures Gingrich has made over the years, which the Romney campaign compiled in a press release last week (and I wrote about previously here).

Gingrich’s capacity for humility is only slightly below Donald Trump’s. But for some reason, that hasn’t seemed to bother conservative voters. Despite all the attacks on Obama’s egotism, they actually seem to like this trait in Newt. It’s not completely incomprehensible — when somebody’s on your side, arguing for the same things you believe in, a little over-confidence doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

But if we’ve learned anything from the last three years, it’s that delusions of grandeur don’t translate well into governing. Many of Obama’s lofty campaign promises of 2008 – post-partisanship, government transparency, and so on – were never delivered.

And based on what we know about Gingrich, it’s unlikely he would even be able to deliver on the campaign promises he’s making for the general election. The seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates he vows to have with President Obama have almost no chance of ever happening. And even in the three regular debates, there’s no guarantee Gingrich would emerge a winner. He’s a good debater, not an extraordinary one, and the conduct that’s made him so popular at the GOP debates would likely only alienate independent voters.

You’d think a man with Gingrich’s personal and professional history – especially one who claims to be on a path to redemption – would be cautious before touting his own greatness. He compares himself to eminent historical leaders, but the greatest Republican presidents – Lincoln and Reagan – were notably humble and self-effacing. The more Gingrich tries to place himself on the same plane as these leaders, the faster he seems to shrink.

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Watch the Walker Recall Election

The unions that have been fighting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s reforms have submitted petitions with well over the required number of signatures to force a recall election sometime this spring. Assuming the petitions hold up (and the Walker forces will, needless to say, be going over them carefully), the election will be held perhaps as early as April or as late as June.

It will be the second most important election to be held in 2012 and should be watched closely. If Walker prevails, then other governors will be empowered to pursue reform of public service unions, which have been bleeding state and local governments (and thus taxpayers) dry. If he loses, this necessary reform will be set back severely and one of the most retrogressive forces in American politics–unions–will get a new lease on life.

His reforms are working, as a new article in City Journal demonstrates.

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The unions that have been fighting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s reforms have submitted petitions with well over the required number of signatures to force a recall election sometime this spring. Assuming the petitions hold up (and the Walker forces will, needless to say, be going over them carefully), the election will be held perhaps as early as April or as late as June.

It will be the second most important election to be held in 2012 and should be watched closely. If Walker prevails, then other governors will be empowered to pursue reform of public service unions, which have been bleeding state and local governments (and thus taxpayers) dry. If he loses, this necessary reform will be set back severely and one of the most retrogressive forces in American politics–unions–will get a new lease on life.

His reforms are working, as a new article in City Journal demonstrates.

I had the great good fortune to meet Governor Walker and even have a long conversation with him. He is a most impressive man. But what is perhaps most impressive is that he is so low-key, ego-free, ordinary-guy-type-guy. You would never guess he is a politician, let alone a sitting governor. He comes across as the sort of man you’d be delighted to learn has bought the house next door.

One story he told seems demonstrative. He was raking leaves this fall with a friend of his son who is living with them while he completes his senior year at school (his parents have moved). A car drove up and stopped. The driver rolled down the window, stuck his arm out, gave the governor a middle-finger salute, and drove off. Walker told the boy not to worry, that that sort of thing just comes with the territory. Then, a minute later, not one car but two stopped and their drivers rolled down their windows. “Oh, boy,” Walker thought, “Here we go again.” But instead of the bird, both men gave him an emphatic thumbs up before driving off. The boy turned to him and said, “Mr. Walker, did you arrange that?”

A recent poll, a random sample but admittedly one with a large margin of error, has him ahead by 2-to-1. If the poll this spring has him ahead by similar numbers, a new day in Wisconsin and even American politics will have dawned.

 

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Unleashing the Dogs of Class Warfare

For one day at least the national political spotlight returns to the man Republicans are vying for the chance to defeat: President Barack Obama. Tonight’s State of the Union speech will be the unofficial start of his re-election campaign, and there should be plenty of not-so-subtle hints about the direction he will attempt to take the country in the coming years. Moreover, the invitation to billionaire Warren Buffet’s secretary — whom we are told pays taxes at a higher rate than her boss — to sit in the gallery, will no doubt signal that “fairness” or to be more blunt, class warfare, will be at the top of the agenda.

The release of Mitt Romney’s tax returns today is a serendipitous coincidence for a White House that will be eager to paint a picture of the Republicans as the party of the rich who are indifferent to the sufferings of those less fortunate. Though he was elected promising an era of post-partisanship, this president has tilted heavily to the left throughout his first term, and tonight’s speech ought to serve as a reminder for GOP voters of what they seek to avert: a second term in which Obama’s vision of expanded government will be further entrenched.

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For one day at least the national political spotlight returns to the man Republicans are vying for the chance to defeat: President Barack Obama. Tonight’s State of the Union speech will be the unofficial start of his re-election campaign, and there should be plenty of not-so-subtle hints about the direction he will attempt to take the country in the coming years. Moreover, the invitation to billionaire Warren Buffet’s secretary — whom we are told pays taxes at a higher rate than her boss — to sit in the gallery, will no doubt signal that “fairness” or to be more blunt, class warfare, will be at the top of the agenda.

The release of Mitt Romney’s tax returns today is a serendipitous coincidence for a White House that will be eager to paint a picture of the Republicans as the party of the rich who are indifferent to the sufferings of those less fortunate. Though he was elected promising an era of post-partisanship, this president has tilted heavily to the left throughout his first term, and tonight’s speech ought to serve as a reminder for GOP voters of what they seek to avert: a second term in which Obama’s vision of expanded government will be further entrenched.

We can expect to hear a great deal more about “fairness” in the next nine months as Democrats attempt to rally their electorate behind a banner of protection for out-of-control entitlement spending that will be paid for by hiking taxes on wealthier Americans. Obama’s challenge is how to sell the country on this agenda when they are less interested in soaking the rich than they are in measures that will help revive an economy that has sagged under the burden of increased spending during his tenure. Though the president will be trying to channel Harry Truman by campaigning against a “do-nothing” GOP House of Representatives, the reason why Republicans won the 2010 midterm elections was widespread public dismay at the two signature achievements of his first two years: Obamacare and the massive stimulus spending package.

Thus, the president’s task tonight is to continue the work of distracting the voters from the cost and the impact of his ideologically driven agenda by scaring the elderly about Medicare and Social Security and feeding off resentment of the rich. But while such demagoguery can be successful, it is not so easy to sustain it when most of the voters, especially the independents who will likely be decisive in November, judge the president’s worthiness for re-election more on the performance of the economy on his watch than anything else.

Obama’s speech will excite his base, but it ought to concentrate the minds of Republicans on what they are up against this year. If they truly wish to avert a second term in which Obamacare will be made a permanent part of our infrastructure as well as unchecked taxes and spending, then they had better spend more time alerting the voters to this danger than echoing Democratic attacks on each other.

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Don’t Ignore Substance of Newt’s Campaign

In the past two weeks, conservatives began pushing back against the notion that the Republican nomination should be decided by debate performances. They note, as Guy Benson does, that there will be no Lincoln-Douglas debates in the fall, and that Newt Gingrich would be lucky if President Obama even honored the traditional three-debate custom.

This is true, as is the complaint that the ability to score points off of mainstream media moderators does not presage the ability to score points off of the president of the United States. Last night, with no audience participation, Gingrich seemed to show just how much he has benefited from it in the recent past. But while all this may be true, it’s important to reject the idea that Gingrich’s rise is due only to made-for-YouTube moments. His campaign is not free of substance, most notably the following.

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In the past two weeks, conservatives began pushing back against the notion that the Republican nomination should be decided by debate performances. They note, as Guy Benson does, that there will be no Lincoln-Douglas debates in the fall, and that Newt Gingrich would be lucky if President Obama even honored the traditional three-debate custom.

This is true, as is the complaint that the ability to score points off of mainstream media moderators does not presage the ability to score points off of the president of the United States. Last night, with no audience participation, Gingrich seemed to show just how much he has benefited from it in the recent past. But while all this may be true, it’s important to reject the idea that Gingrich’s rise is due only to made-for-YouTube moments. His campaign is not free of substance, most notably the following.

This morning, Jim Geraghty pointed to a post by Laura W. at Ace of Spades HQ, in which she discusses the fact that for many voters, Gingrich’s famous “food stamp” moment in the first South Carolina debate had nothing to do with race–it was about the value of work:

This administration seems to think that Americans should view work as a vampire perceives holy water, and nearly every policy out of D.C. reflects that.

Well, we don’t think that way. We’re Americans. We want to work. Dammit, we’re ready to get back to it. Give us the reins to our own lives, stick your food stamps back… where they came from, and get out of the way. You’re killing us.

This message resonates. That’s why Gingrich won. Not just the slap at ‘the elites,’ but the content of the slap.

Dan Foster wrote an essay in the last issue of National Review that, while predating the South Carolina debate, examined a crucial cultural component of the welfare state. It’s not online (and I left my copy at home), so I’ll quote a paragraph from this blog’s transcription of part of the essay:

Due in part to the very acceptance and perceived success of the New Deal and its progeny, the taint of shame associated with being on the dole has long since faded. What’s worse, this moral change has coincided with demographic and actuarial changes that have made entitlements more lopsidedly redistributive, and thus unsustainable. Now, dependence on the federal government — not just by the poor, but by the middle and even upper classes — for everything from health insurance to home ownership, college to retirement, is so complete that most of us don’t notice the stream of subsidies until it is interrupted. And worse, we’re not even ashamed of ourselves.

Again, aside from the discussion of race (which James Taranto defends, expertly and convincingly, in yesterday’s column), Gingrich is participating in a series of substantive discussions on the welfare state and the corrosive quality of an entitlement society. And it isn’t just the base, with its rapacious appetite for red meat. Here’s David Frum lamenting that “the president is championing a more active government, not as a way to meet social needs but as a permanent and growing source of middle-class employment”–a model that not only failed in Britain under successive Labour governments, Frum notes, but actually increased economic inequality without raising the poor out of poverty.

In other words, the Obama model is fatally flawed. And who is making this argument as well as Frum? Newt Gingrich–and in a very public venue. Those who worry that a Gingrich nomination would take the heat off the president and make the election a referendum on the Republican nominee are expressing well-founded fears–fears that Gingrich has not, but must, dispel if he is going to be successful. And there is certainly an element of showmanship to what Gingrich is doing. But I’ve just quoted a conservative blogger, National Review, and David Frum all making similar arguments to the former speaker.

There is no reason to ignore Gingrich’s flaws, and his critics (especially those who served with him in Congress) shouldn’t be dismissed. A truly transparent nomination process would air all this out. But the notion that Gingrich is waging a vapid campaign for the presidency is unfair and incorrect. The erratic behavior may be vintage Gingrich–but so is the culture warrior who has emerged. The discussion over the weaknesses of the messenger is part of the vetting process, and Gingrich knows that. But it’s hard to argue with the message.

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A Dog Named Hibuki

Writing about the significance of the fact that an Israeli university, the Technion, recently won a global competition in partnership with Cornell to establish New York’s planned NYCTech campus, David Suissa and Mitch and Elliot Julis eloquently captured the “cruel paradox” that defines Israel: “a country that is forced to use its wits to defend itself but would much prefer using its wits to save the world.” Yet in truth, these two halves of the paradox aren’t always at odds; Israel often succeeds in performing a kind of alchemy that converts the painful lessons learned from being perennially under attack into ways of benefiting humanity as a whole. Nothing illustrates this better than one of the most heartwarming stories I’ve read in a long time: the tale of how an Israeli-developed therapy technique utilizing a sad-faced stuffed dog named Hibuki (Hebrew for “huggy”) was used to treat children traumatized by last year’s tsunami in Japan.

The technique, originally developed to treat Israeli children traumatized by rocket fire during the Second Lebanon War of 2006, enables children who would be reluctant to explain why they themselves are sad to instead tell parents and teachers why Hibuki is sad. Additionally, having the children “take care of” Hibuki helps them heal by diverting them from their own trauma.

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Writing about the significance of the fact that an Israeli university, the Technion, recently won a global competition in partnership with Cornell to establish New York’s planned NYCTech campus, David Suissa and Mitch and Elliot Julis eloquently captured the “cruel paradox” that defines Israel: “a country that is forced to use its wits to defend itself but would much prefer using its wits to save the world.” Yet in truth, these two halves of the paradox aren’t always at odds; Israel often succeeds in performing a kind of alchemy that converts the painful lessons learned from being perennially under attack into ways of benefiting humanity as a whole. Nothing illustrates this better than one of the most heartwarming stories I’ve read in a long time: the tale of how an Israeli-developed therapy technique utilizing a sad-faced stuffed dog named Hibuki (Hebrew for “huggy”) was used to treat children traumatized by last year’s tsunami in Japan.

The technique, originally developed to treat Israeli children traumatized by rocket fire during the Second Lebanon War of 2006, enables children who would be reluctant to explain why they themselves are sad to instead tell parents and teachers why Hibuki is sad. Additionally, having the children “take care of” Hibuki helps them heal by diverting them from their own trauma.

After the tsunami hit, an Israeli therapist who frequently accompanies the country’s medical missions abroad realized the technique might be well-suited to Japan, with its long tradition of puppetry. She proposed the idea to a Japanese colleague, who invited an Israeli team to come and explain the technique to the Japanese Puppet Therapy Association. The association was wowed, and the next day, the Israelis were asked to accompany Japanese colleagues to the stricken coast to begin the treatment. As Haaretz’s report related, “Japanese law prohibits anyone who didn’t study medicine in Japan from providing medical aid to a local resident,” but an exception was made for the Israeli delegation, “because of its experience in treating victims of mass trauma.”

Now the therapy is spreading to other countries as well, the report said: Cambodia has expressed interest, and “word of the Israeli project has even reached Tehran: The website Tehran Newsletter published an article describing the principles of Hibuki therapy and called on the Islamic Republic of Iran to adopt them as a means to help the country’s children.

But this is more than a heartwarming story of how Israel is helping to make the world a better place – even for its bitterest enemies. It also embodies Israel’s greatest strength: its adherence to the Biblical injunction, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing, therefore choose life.”

All too often, its enemies choose death, even boasting of it: As Hamas parliamentarian Fathi Hammad once put it: “We desire death like you desire life.” But Israel, faced with death on a daily basis, invariably chooses life – for itself and for the world. And by so doing, a country at war since the day it was born has not merely survived, but grown and thrived.

 

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Why the Debate Was Such a Snooze

In his live blogging of the debate last night, Jonathan noted, “If there was a more boring one than this, I don’’t remember it.” That’s for sure.

But why was that? The stakes were just as high as in the previous couple of debates, the debaters were the same (absent Rick Perry, a small loss), the need to strike a knock-out blow as great. So why was it such a snooze?

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In his live blogging of the debate last night, Jonathan noted, “If there was a more boring one than this, I don’’t remember it.” That’s for sure.

But why was that? The stakes were just as high as in the previous couple of debates, the debaters were the same (absent Rick Perry, a small loss), the need to strike a knock-out blow as great. So why was it such a snooze?

The reason, I think, was the audience was under strict orders to shut up and, unfortunately, they did. The seats might as well have been filled with shop-window mannequins. So the “actors” had no one to play against. It was the audiences clapping, laughing, cheering, and booing in the earlier debates that brought those debates to life and lifted the performances of the debaters in the process. It is the interaction between the audience and the actors, after all, that makes live theater so exciting and so different from the movies.

The best description of the interplay between audience and actors I’ve ever seen is by Oscar Hammerstein II, in one of his great, if now undeservedly forgotten, lyrics–“The Big Black Giant.”

A big black giant who looks and listens
With thousands of eyes and ears,
A big black mass of love and pity
And troubles and hopes and fears,
And ev’ry night the mixture’s diff’rent,
Altho’ it may look the same.
To feel his way with ev’ry mixture
Is part of the actor’s game.

If the remaining candidates have any sense, they’ll insist the audience in the Thursday debate be allowed to express their reactions to what the debaters have to say. They are, after all, voters, a rather important part of the democratic process.

 

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Don’t Return Detainees to the Battlefield

Last week, I argued the need for internationally recognized rules for the handling of terrorist suspects so as to avoid cases such as the one in Britain where one of al-Qaeda’s leading clerics in Europe may wind up being released after an EU court ruled he could not be deported to his home country, Jordan. Now comes another bit of news that underlines the need for some kind of solution for handling terrorists:

It seems the Obama administration wants to repatriate back to their home countries approximately 50 foreign detainees being held at the main U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, prior to handing it over to Afghan authorities who have little interest in, or capability of, holding these dangerous men. The problem is that many of the detainees are Pakistani or Yemeni, and there is scant cause to think either country will hold them securely. Yemen, which appears increasingly to be ungoverned, simply lacks the capability to hold dangerous detainees; Pakistan, or at least elements of its army and intelligence service, may be in collusion with them.

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Last week, I argued the need for internationally recognized rules for the handling of terrorist suspects so as to avoid cases such as the one in Britain where one of al-Qaeda’s leading clerics in Europe may wind up being released after an EU court ruled he could not be deported to his home country, Jordan. Now comes another bit of news that underlines the need for some kind of solution for handling terrorists:

It seems the Obama administration wants to repatriate back to their home countries approximately 50 foreign detainees being held at the main U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, prior to handing it over to Afghan authorities who have little interest in, or capability of, holding these dangerous men. The problem is that many of the detainees are Pakistani or Yemeni, and there is scant cause to think either country will hold them securely. Yemen, which appears increasingly to be ungoverned, simply lacks the capability to hold dangerous detainees; Pakistan, or at least elements of its army and intelligence service, may be in collusion with them.

 So what to do? The obvious answer is to send them to Guantanamo, which was set up for precisely this purpose. But the Obama administration refuses to do so. Although it has not managed to close Gitmo, it will not send fresh detainees there either. That creates a difficult dilemma in dealing with these terrorists who are likely to return to the battlefield if released.

It would make a lot of sense to convene a new Geneva Convention so that the civilized nations of the world can agree on a body of law for dealing with them. That, of course, would take a while even under the best of circumstances. In the meantime, the administration needs to overcome its ideological predisposition against Gitmo and do what’s best for American security.

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Romney’s Low Tax Rate: Double-Edged Sword?

Mitt Romney is releasing his 2010 tax return Tuesday morning, but he gave several media outlets a sneak peek at the document and his 2011 tax return estimates late Monday. Based on the information released so far, it’s a wonder why he didn’t do this weeks ago. There aren’t many surprises here, unless it comes as a shock to some that Romney’s obscenely rich. He paid a 13.9 percent tax rate in 2010, mainly on capital gains, and expects to pay 15.9 percent in 2011. But the angle he’ll likely play up is his large charitable donations, which actually surpass the amount he paid in taxes:

The couple gave away $7 million in charitable contributions over the past two years, including at least $4.1 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Romney’s family has for generations been among the Mormon Church’s most prominent members.

The Romneys sent somewhat less to Washington over that period, paying an estimated $6.2 million in federal income taxes. According to his 2010 return, Romney paid about $3 million to the IRS, for an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent.

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Mitt Romney is releasing his 2010 tax return Tuesday morning, but he gave several media outlets a sneak peek at the document and his 2011 tax return estimates late Monday. Based on the information released so far, it’s a wonder why he didn’t do this weeks ago. There aren’t many surprises here, unless it comes as a shock to some that Romney’s obscenely rich. He paid a 13.9 percent tax rate in 2010, mainly on capital gains, and expects to pay 15.9 percent in 2011. But the angle he’ll likely play up is his large charitable donations, which actually surpass the amount he paid in taxes:

The couple gave away $7 million in charitable contributions over the past two years, including at least $4.1 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Romney’s family has for generations been among the Mormon Church’s most prominent members.

The Romneys sent somewhat less to Washington over that period, paying an estimated $6.2 million in federal income taxes. According to his 2010 return, Romney paid about $3 million to the IRS, for an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent.

Newt Gingrich declined to directly criticize Romney’s taxes at Monday’s debate, and instead coyly noted that under his own tax plan Americans would pay a 15 percent rate, which he dubbed the “Mitt Romney flat tax.” But Gingrich will have to be careful with how far he pushes this line of attack; if he goes after Romney’s tax rate too blatantly, he risks a conservative backlash like the one over the Bain Capital assault.

Democrats have already started blasting Romney for his low tax rate, which could be a double-edged sword for the former Massachusetts governor. While it’ll likely prompt conservatives to rally around him in defense, it could potentially raise electability questions in the minds of GOP voters. President Obama has already started setting the stage for an election-year class warfare battle, and he couldn’t have dreamed up a better foil than Romney.

Just like Bain Capital, this isn’t a fight conservatives should shrink away from. It’s true that Romney’s tax rate would make him particularly susceptible to Democratic attacks in the general election. But at the same time, defending low taxes is a core value issue for Republicans. If conservatives cut and run when it comes to this issue, then they can’t pretend to stand for anything.

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Newt Inadvertently Admits to Freddie Mac Lobbying

It’s pretty self-evident that Newt Gingrich lobbied on behalf of Freddie Mac, despite his repeated denials during the past few months. The former speaker prefers to use euphemisms like “historian” and “consultant” to describe his work, but he slipped up during a blistering exchange with Mitt Romney, and appeared to finally fess up to lobbying. BuzzFeed reports:

Tonight in Tampa, Newt Gingrich offered what he seemed to think was ironclad proof that he had never been a lobbyist: “We brought in an expert on lobbying law and trained all of our staff.”

That expert, he added, would “testify” to that point.

But to be forced to register under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act and to lobby aren’t the same thing. The LDA merely requires that anyone who spends more than 20 percent of his or her time on “lobbying activities” register.

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It’s pretty self-evident that Newt Gingrich lobbied on behalf of Freddie Mac, despite his repeated denials during the past few months. The former speaker prefers to use euphemisms like “historian” and “consultant” to describe his work, but he slipped up during a blistering exchange with Mitt Romney, and appeared to finally fess up to lobbying. BuzzFeed reports:

Tonight in Tampa, Newt Gingrich offered what he seemed to think was ironclad proof that he had never been a lobbyist: “We brought in an expert on lobbying law and trained all of our staff.”

That expert, he added, would “testify” to that point.

But to be forced to register under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act and to lobby aren’t the same thing. The LDA merely requires that anyone who spends more than 20 percent of his or her time on “lobbying activities” register.

Gingrich added that the expert taught the staff how to avoid crossing the “bright line,” an apparent reference to the 20 percent mark. If Gingrich’s firm hadn’t been engaged in any lobbying activities whatsoever, it wouldn’t need to have an expert come in and explain how to conform to lobbying rules (which are laxly enforced as it is).

Romney may not have had any knockout punches against Newt last night, but the former speaker handed him a lot of ammo for the next few days with that answer.

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