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Posts For: January 27, 2012

The Most Polarizing President Ever

It’s official now. Barack Obama’s ratings are “historically polarized,” according to a new Gallup survey.

Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup organization writes, “The historically high gap between partisans’ job approval ratings of Barack Obama continued during Obama’s third year in office, with an average of 80 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans approving of the job he was doing… The 68-point gap between partisans’ approval ratings of Obama last year is nine points higher than that for any other president’s third year.” Obama, by the way, holds the record for the most polarized first and second years in office, too. Which means Obama has set a record for polarization every year he’s been in office.

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It’s official now. Barack Obama’s ratings are “historically polarized,” according to a new Gallup survey.

Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup organization writes, “The historically high gap between partisans’ job approval ratings of Barack Obama continued during Obama’s third year in office, with an average of 80 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans approving of the job he was doing… The 68-point gap between partisans’ approval ratings of Obama last year is nine points higher than that for any other president’s third year.” Obama, by the way, holds the record for the most polarized first and second years in office, too. Which means Obama has set a record for polarization every year he’s been in office.

So now is as good a time as any to remind people one of the core claims made by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign wasn’t simply that he would heal the planet; he would also heal the nation’s political breach. He would elevate the national debate. Reason would prevail over emotion. He would do away with what he called the “50 plus one” style of governing. Obama would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” He would “cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past.”

“I will listen to you,” Obama said on a stage in Grant Park on the night of his election, “especially when we disagree.”

His election, he informed us, was a sign we had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” On the day of his inauguration he came to proclaim “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

“The time has come to set aside childish things,” he told us on the day of his inauguration. And to paraphrase the Book of Isaiah, a community organizer shall lead us.

Where Obama has led us, it turns out, is to as much polarization as we have ever seen. Our divisions are deeper than they were. Our common ground is less than we could have imagined. Conflict and discord prevail over unity of purpose. Petty bickering characterizes our politics. Obama has wrapped himself in worn-out ideas and the politics of the past. And we have not even fully engaged in the 2012 presidential campaign, which will make our present disunity look like the land of milk and honey.

Whatever the cause of our divisions – and they are many and complicated – it was Barack Obama who said he would bind up the wounds. This promise was at the centerpiece of his campaign, the heart of his appeal, the meaning behind “hope and change.” And now it lies in ashes.

 

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Who Cares About Penn BDS?

Yesterday, the organizers of an upcoming boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) conference at Penn published an op-ed in the university’s Daily Pennsylvanian explaining their effort, which promotes the economic isolation of the Jewish state. In this, they will near-undoubtedly fail.

They may succeed, perhaps unintentionally, however, in another way: by attracting the attention of campus Israel advocates toward them and away from the more subtle and far-reaching problem Israel faces at American universities.

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Yesterday, the organizers of an upcoming boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) conference at Penn published an op-ed in the university’s Daily Pennsylvanian explaining their effort, which promotes the economic isolation of the Jewish state. In this, they will near-undoubtedly fail.

They may succeed, perhaps unintentionally, however, in another way: by attracting the attention of campus Israel advocates toward them and away from the more subtle and far-reaching problem Israel faces at American universities.

In a decade of efforts, BDS campaigners have practically zero victories at American universities. Only the student governments of Evergreen State College (the alma mater of anti-Israelism’s poster child, Rachel Corrie), Wayne State University, and University of Michigan-Dearborn have passed divestment resolutions directed against Israel. Because they are passed by students and not administration, they have no practical impact on their schools’ finances. The schools’ administrations have also pointedly not followed their students’ advice that they cut whatever slight financial ties they may have to the Jewish state.

Practical effects, of course, aren’t really the intent of BDS, since even an effective divestment of Israel by every American university would likely have little effect on the country’s bottom line. The point is the symbolism of the thing.

But the schools in question are marginal to local and national conversation, the refusal to accept the calls by university administrators has a symbolism of its own, and even these small successes have little chance of being replicated at Penn or any other school. Last year, a laughably watered-down student referendum at Princeton that called only for the dining hall to provide alternatives to Sabra hummus was soundly defeated.

Just as it would be a mistake then to worry too much about campus BDS, though, it would be a mistake to take this record of failure as a sign all is well at America’s universities when it comes to Israel. For while students may not be lining up to sign off on divestment petitions, they are in many cases receiving the clear message the Jewish state is uniquely flawed.

The content of the critique or even its stated aims don’t matter as much as its ability to create, in many places, a campus environment of pervasive negativity toward Israel. Students at most schools these days don’t come away learning much. But many do pick up the idea that to be a member in good standing of the political left positive concern for the Jewish state is beyond the pale.

That is why the ongoing Center for American Progress affair should not be surprising. Many educated in a milieu negative to Israel are now finding themselves increasingly with something to say about the direction of the core institutions of the mainstream political left, and are turning them in a direction less sympathetic to Israel.

This, not BDS, is the true fight on campus. Turning the atmosphere in a more positive direction toward Israel will be a generational effort. It is also an essential one for those who hope to maintain the longstanding bipartisan consensus on the Jewish state.

 

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Read it and Weep

I had some critical things to say about President Obama’s State of the Union address. But the evening was not a total waste, thanks to the response by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

Looking at it simply from the craftsmanship of speechwriting, it’s quite impressive. Several things stand out about it, starting with its tone at the opening, which showed genuine good will toward the president. Grace notes like these are not in oversupply these days. There’s also an economy of words in Daniels’s address, which helps create a sense of movement. One paragraph builds on another.

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I had some critical things to say about President Obama’s State of the Union address. But the evening was not a total waste, thanks to the response by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

Looking at it simply from the craftsmanship of speechwriting, it’s quite impressive. Several things stand out about it, starting with its tone at the opening, which showed genuine good will toward the president. Grace notes like these are not in oversupply these days. There’s also an economy of words in Daniels’s address, which helps create a sense of movement. One paragraph builds on another.

But beyond the rhetoric is the analysis, which is both sophisticated and honest. Governor Daniels resists the temptation to overstate the blame that rests with the president, even while offering a substantive, and at times a withering, critique of Obama’s failures. And Daniels offered something the president’s State of the Union address didn’t, which is an actual theory of government. And Daniels did all this in a fraction of the time and words used by Obama.

Mitch Daniels turns out to be not only the best governor in America, but also perhaps the best writer among America’s major political figures. George Will, in describing Daniels, refers to his “low-key charisma of competence.” True enough, but there’s also an understated elegance to Daniels’s words.

Needless to say, those of us who wanted Daniels to run for president this year were reminded why. In that sense, listening to Daniels’s speech left some of us more depressed than listening to Obama’s speech.

 

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Spencer Ackerman: Progressives Need to Reject “Israel-Firster” Comments

As the months-long debate dragged on over the term “Israel-firsters,” I’ve wondered when someone on the left would actually stand up and directly condemn it as the anti-Semitic charge that it is. Spencer Ackerman, a national security reporter at Danger Room, is the first to do just that. His essay at Tablet today is sure to draw blowback from his fellow progressives, but it’s an honest and important piece that clearly took a lot of guts and integrity to write.

Read it in full, but here’s a key passage:

Throughout my career, I’ve been associated with the Jewish left—I was to the left of the New Republic staff when I worked there, moved on to Talking Points Memo, hosted my blog at Firedoglake for years, and so on. I’ve criticized the American Jewish right’s myopic, destructive, tribal conception of what it means to love Israel. But it doesn’t deserve to have its Americanness and patriotism questioned. By all means, get into it with people who interpret every disagreement Washington has with Tel Aviv as hostility to the Jewish state. But if you can’t do it without sounding like Pat Buchanan, who has nothing but antipathy and contempt for Jews, then you’ve lost the debate.

This is tiresome to point out. Many of the writers who are fond of the Israel-firster smear are—appropriately—very good at hearing and analyzing dog-whistles when they’re used to dehumanize Arabs and Muslims. I can’t read anyone’s mind or judge anyone’s intention, but by the sound of it these writers are sending out comparable dog-whistles about Jews.

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As the months-long debate dragged on over the term “Israel-firsters,” I’ve wondered when someone on the left would actually stand up and directly condemn it as the anti-Semitic charge that it is. Spencer Ackerman, a national security reporter at Danger Room, is the first to do just that. His essay at Tablet today is sure to draw blowback from his fellow progressives, but it’s an honest and important piece that clearly took a lot of guts and integrity to write.

Read it in full, but here’s a key passage:

Throughout my career, I’ve been associated with the Jewish left—I was to the left of the New Republic staff when I worked there, moved on to Talking Points Memo, hosted my blog at Firedoglake for years, and so on. I’ve criticized the American Jewish right’s myopic, destructive, tribal conception of what it means to love Israel. But it doesn’t deserve to have its Americanness and patriotism questioned. By all means, get into it with people who interpret every disagreement Washington has with Tel Aviv as hostility to the Jewish state. But if you can’t do it without sounding like Pat Buchanan, who has nothing but antipathy and contempt for Jews, then you’ve lost the debate.

This is tiresome to point out. Many of the writers who are fond of the Israel-firster smear are—appropriately—very good at hearing and analyzing dog-whistles when they’re used to dehumanize Arabs and Muslims. I can’t read anyone’s mind or judge anyone’s intention, but by the sound of it these writers are sending out comparable dog-whistles about Jews.

I don’t agree with Spencer on the issues. Attacking Iran’s facilities – a last resort that should be avoided if possible – isn’t “insanity” if we get to the point where the only alternative is a nuclear Iran. And while I also support a peaceful, two-state solution, the barrier is a lack of stable, moderate Palestinian leadership, not Israeli “recalcitrance.” Years of Israel trading land for peace that never came makes that clear.

But disagreement is fine, even if the arguments get heated. This isn’t elementary school, we don’t have to be nice to each other all the time, and name-calling happens.

What’s not okay is mainstreaming anti-Semitic slurs and sending out dog-whistles to Jew-haters in an attempt to bolster your side, or turning a blind eye when your political allies do it. Spencer’s column is important because it draws a line on the left between acceptable discourse – which includes plenty of discourse that may be stupid or inaccurate – and vulgar anti-Semitic fallacies that should be repudiated by all respectable progressive thinkers and writers. Every once in awhile, these lines need to be drawn. Just like William F. Buckley cast out the Birchers, and conservatives sidelined Pat Buchanan, the left needs to drain its own fever swamps. Spencer’s column is a good start.

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Democrats Irate at Problem-Solving Wyden

The last time a high-profile Democrat worked toward a bipartisan compromise on an important issue, instead of joining his party in using that issue as an opportunistic campaign ploy, he was run out of the party and had to register as an independent. It was Joe Lieberman’s principled support for the troops in the face of a party-wide Democratic flip-flop on the issue that earned him the title of “the last honest man.”

Now Democrats are witnessing a rerun of the episode on Medicare. Democratic leaders are furious at Oregon Senator Ron Wyden for working with Paul Ryan on a bipartisan Medicare fix–angry enough to go on-the-record with Politico about it. Their argument is they had planned to run more ads where they dress up as Paul Ryan and push a wheelchair-bound retiree off a cliff. Thanks to Wyden, however, their violent costumed fantasies may have to be taken off the table–or at least off-camera:

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The last time a high-profile Democrat worked toward a bipartisan compromise on an important issue, instead of joining his party in using that issue as an opportunistic campaign ploy, he was run out of the party and had to register as an independent. It was Joe Lieberman’s principled support for the troops in the face of a party-wide Democratic flip-flop on the issue that earned him the title of “the last honest man.”

Now Democrats are witnessing a rerun of the episode on Medicare. Democratic leaders are furious at Oregon Senator Ron Wyden for working with Paul Ryan on a bipartisan Medicare fix–angry enough to go on-the-record with Politico about it. Their argument is they had planned to run more ads where they dress up as Paul Ryan and push a wheelchair-bound retiree off a cliff. Thanks to Wyden, however, their violent costumed fantasies may have to be taken off the table–or at least off-camera:

Wyden and Ryan are floating an idea to allow seniors to choose between traditional Medicare and private insurance programs. Ryan is considering adding provisions in his 2013 budget that would pave the way for this approach….

Asked if there was frustration among Senate Democrats with Wyden over Medicare, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told Politico: “I’ve heard that sentiment expressed.”…

Privately, the criticism is more biting.

“Democrats believe in Medicare and, rather than bolster it, Wyden undermined a great issue for us all so he could grab a couple of headlines,” one furious Democratic source said. “Just embarrassing.”

Yes, just imagine the Democrats’ humiliation when a single member of their party decided to try and fix a problem rather than demagogue it in an attempt to oust bipartisan, solution-oriented Republicans in future elections. What this tells you–aside from the crass opportunism of people like Durbin–is probably something you already knew: the “do-nothing” Congress is a misnomer. Republicans have been passing budgets, while the Democratic Senate, led by Harry Reid, have now passed the 1,000-day mark since their last budget. Entitlement reform is going to be a significant part of getting this country’s fiscal house in order, so Republicans like Paul Ryan have been floating solutions, while the Democrats sit back throwing life-size dolls off of cliffs.

The Democrats’ congressional leadership isn’t alone, however. The Obama administration also “lashed out” at Wyden for his bipartisan proposal. So will Wyden win his battle against the do-nothing Democrats and the obstructionist White House? The answer will tell us a lot about Wyden’s own party and the possibility of real reform in Harry Reid’s Senate.

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A Good Night for Conservative Principles

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had perhaps his best debate last night in Jacksonville. He was, for the most part, forceful and in command. He damaged his main rival, Newt Gingrich, on answers ranging from immigration to Gingrich’s investment portfolio. And Romney was particularly strong at turning the tables on the attacks on his wealth, saying this:

And I know that there may be some who try to make a deal of that [Romney’s wealth and investments], as you have publicly. But look, I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who have been successful and try and, by innuendo, suggest there’s something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments. Speaker, you’ve indicated that somehow I don’t earn that money. I have earned the money that I have. I didn’t inherit it. I take risks. I make investments. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America. I’m proud of being successful. I’m proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I’m not going to run from that. I’m proud of the taxes I pay. My taxes, plus my charitable contributions, this year, 2011, will be about 40 percent. So, look, let’s put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money, and let’s get Republicans to say, you know what? What you’ve accomplished in your life shouldn’t be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America.

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Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had perhaps his best debate last night in Jacksonville. He was, for the most part, forceful and in command. He damaged his main rival, Newt Gingrich, on answers ranging from immigration to Gingrich’s investment portfolio. And Romney was particularly strong at turning the tables on the attacks on his wealth, saying this:

And I know that there may be some who try to make a deal of that [Romney’s wealth and investments], as you have publicly. But look, I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who have been successful and try and, by innuendo, suggest there’s something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments. Speaker, you’ve indicated that somehow I don’t earn that money. I have earned the money that I have. I didn’t inherit it. I take risks. I make investments. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America. I’m proud of being successful. I’m proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I’m not going to run from that. I’m proud of the taxes I pay. My taxes, plus my charitable contributions, this year, 2011, will be about 40 percent. So, look, let’s put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money, and let’s get Republicans to say, you know what? What you’ve accomplished in your life shouldn’t be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America.

This answer reframes the issue of Romney’s success, away from a defensive, apologetic stance to a confident, assertive one. It also helped that Romney was right on the substance. It is quite important to push back against the mindset that assumes success and excellence are things for which one ought to apologize. I understand that many modern-day liberals believe people who are wealthy are by definition of a suspect class (unless, say, their wealth comes via Hollywood). The task of the rest of us is to shatter that myth, which is not only wrong but can also be pernicious. Governor Romney, I think, did a very good job explaining why achievement in business is, in fact, impressive (it’s often the result of hard work, persistence, creativity and drive) and an asset to America. This is a theme Romney needs to continue to build on. Rather than accept the premise of the attack, he decided to shred it.

The best answer of the night in terms of political philosophy, however, belongs to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (who was excellent in the debate from beginning to end). When the candidates were asked by a Jacksonville resident what role religious beliefs would play in decisions they might make as president, Santorum said this:

Faith is a very, very important part of my life, but it’s a very, very important part of this country. The foundational documents of our country — everybody talks about the Constitution, very, very important. But the Constitution is the “how” of America. It’s the operator’s manual. The “why” of America, who we are as a people, is in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” The Constitution is there to do one thing: protect God-given rights. That’s what makes America different than every other country in the world. No other country in the world has its rights — rights based in God-given rights, not government-given rights. And so when you say, well, faith has nothing to do with it, faith has everything to do with it. If rights come… (applause) if our president believes that rights come to us from the state, everything government gives you, it can take away. The role of the government is to protect rights that cannot be taken away. And so the answer to that question is, I believe in faith and reason and approaching the problems of this country but understand where those rights come from, who we are as Americans and the foundational principles by which we have changed the world.

This is a wonderful articulation of America’s founding principle and a nice corrective to those conservatives who tend to focus only on the Constitution at the expense of the document (the Declaration of Independence) that dealt a crushing philosophical blow to tyranny and despotism.

In our time, it’s common for people to argue that religion is a source of political intolerance, and of course it can be. But it can also be a source of political tolerance precisely because it provides a firm grounding for human rights and a belief in human dignity. What Rick Santorum did last night was give voice to what Lincoln called our “ancient faith.”

There have been a lot of complaints made about the number of debates we’ve had in the GOP primary, and it’s certainly true that not all of them have been edifying affairs. But last night was an encouraging one for those of us who care about conservatism, if only because on several occasions we saw candidates for president dilate on important political principles.

 

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Actions Undermine Obama’s Words on America’s Greatness

It’s comforting to see President Obama resist talk of American decline. In the State of the Union, for example, he said: “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Obama is even going so far as to  tout a New Republic essay by Robert Kagan (like me a Romney adviser), based on his forthcoming book “The World America Made.”

Both are an extended–and convincing–argument against the thesis that there is anything inevitable about American decline. Kagan points out that there is nothing new about predictions that our best days are behind us–the same case could have been made, and was made, more convincingly in the 1970s. In fact by most measures of comparative power the U.S. is more powerful than ever today, with only one major rival on the horizon–China–which will have a hard time converting its growing economic power into geopolitical influence to match ours.

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It’s comforting to see President Obama resist talk of American decline. In the State of the Union, for example, he said: “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Obama is even going so far as to  tout a New Republic essay by Robert Kagan (like me a Romney adviser), based on his forthcoming book “The World America Made.”

Both are an extended–and convincing–argument against the thesis that there is anything inevitable about American decline. Kagan points out that there is nothing new about predictions that our best days are behind us–the same case could have been made, and was made, more convincingly in the 1970s. In fact by most measures of comparative power the U.S. is more powerful than ever today, with only one major rival on the horizon–China–which will have a hard time converting its growing economic power into geopolitical influence to match ours.

Aside from the logical power of the argument, there is another reason why Obama is embracing the anti-declinist case. As Foreign Policy’s website notes: “For the White House, the Kagan article, and the forthcoming book it’s based on, “The World America Made,” offer the perfect rebuttal to GOP accusations that Obama has willingly presided over a period of American decline or has been ‘leading from behind’ on foreign policy.” But of course, Kagan’s work contains no such rebuttal.

It simply says there is nothing inevitable about our decline–it does not say Obama’s policies are staving off that decline. Kagan’s essay (I haven’t seen the book yet) is entirely silent on the subject of the president’s policies. But even if Obama doesn’t believe the U.S. is fated to decline, one can easily argue that his policies–from racking up trillions of dollars in new federal debt to slashing the defense budget–are leading us in that direction.

I believe Charles Krauthammer is right when he writes “decline is a choice” but, as I have noted before, I dissent from his conclusion that Obama has made a conscious decision to minimize American power because he does not believe it is a force for good. This is utterly contrary to human nature–since Obama is the president of the United States, he has every incentive to maximize the power of his own government. But intentions are one thing; actions another. And even if Obama embraces the rhetoric of American greatness, you can make an excellent case, as Romney has, that his actions are undermining that very objective.

 

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