Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 4, 2012

The Miracle of Modern Jewish Experience

News about the Jews these days is dominated (for good reason) by negatives. Their homeland is threatened by an Islamist regime in Iran that openly seeks its destruction while rushing to acquire the means to do the job. Meanwhile, their other great population center in the United States slowly withers, lacking the confidence or will to do much about it.

Yet it’s worth taking a step back to wonder at the many miracles of contemporary Jewish life. A video posted recently by Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, is an opportunity to do just that.

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News about the Jews these days is dominated (for good reason) by negatives. Their homeland is threatened by an Islamist regime in Iran that openly seeks its destruction while rushing to acquire the means to do the job. Meanwhile, their other great population center in the United States slowly withers, lacking the confidence or will to do much about it.

Yet it’s worth taking a step back to wonder at the many miracles of contemporary Jewish life. A video posted recently by Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, is an opportunity to do just that.

Goldstein begins the video by quoting Yaakov Emden, an 18th century German rabbi, who wrote in a siddur he published that he considered the simple existence of the Jewish people in his own day a greater miracle than all those performed by God in the Exodus from Egypt. Why? Because the continued survival of a people thousands of years following its dispersion from its homeland and persecuted across the globe was a historical fact without precedent.

Emden lived in the period of the aftermath of the rise and fall of Shabbetai Tzvi, who for a brief period in the 17th century was hailed – likely by a majority of the world’s Jews – as the messiah. His ultimate forced conversion to Islam forced most of his many followers to reassess his significance, the entire episode representing perhaps the greatest collective spiritual crisis in Jewish history. The affair rose not long after (and was likely, as drawn immortally in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first novel Satan in Goray, influenced by) the Chmielnicki Massacre, a series of pogroms accompanying a nationalist uprising in the Ukraine that killed as many as 100,000 Jews and that stood, for 300 years, as the greatest collective murder of Jews in Europe.

Emden, in other words, had immediate reasons for feeling satisfied solely by continued Jewish survival.

As Goldstein notes, we today have our own reasons and many more of them. We are the generation that has merited to see the Jewish state reborn in the Land of Israel, and to watch it flourish culturally, economically, and scientifically in ways past counting. So too in an extraordinarily short period of time have we witnessed the explosive rebirth of a world of traditional Jewish learning decimated by the Holocaust.

Many Jews, especially those of the United States, may be put off by an Orthodox feel to the video. That quibble though shouldn’t rightly dissuade anyone from enjoying the video’s celebration of a Jewish era whose heights match any other.

For all the problems, the world today is witness to a perhaps unprecedented flourishing of one of its most ancient peoples. The festival of their original redemption should serve as an inspiration to all.

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Another Liberal Libel of the Court

John wrote yesterday in the New York Post about the “unerring liberal inability to accept the substance and merit of opposing arguments,” a phenomenon that has produced preemptive attacks on the integrity of the Supreme Court after the ObamaCare oral argument.

The distinguished law professor, Ronald Dworkin, is the latest liberal to libel the Court. At the New York Review of Books blog, he asserts the legal issues in ObamaCare “are not really controversial;” that “basic constitutional principle” and Court precedents “obviously” support it; that conservative justices are ignoring “text, precedent and principle;” and that the distinction between regulating commerce and making everyone buy a product is “pointless.” Perhaps he missed the point in the colloquy between Justice Breyer and Michael Carvin; or skipped the Eleventh Circuit’s 207-page opinion (jointly written by Democratic and Republican appointees); or perhaps he lacks the ability to accept the substance and merit of opposing arguments.

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John wrote yesterday in the New York Post about the “unerring liberal inability to accept the substance and merit of opposing arguments,” a phenomenon that has produced preemptive attacks on the integrity of the Supreme Court after the ObamaCare oral argument.

The distinguished law professor, Ronald Dworkin, is the latest liberal to libel the Court. At the New York Review of Books blog, he asserts the legal issues in ObamaCare “are not really controversial;” that “basic constitutional principle” and Court precedents “obviously” support it; that conservative justices are ignoring “text, precedent and principle;” and that the distinction between regulating commerce and making everyone buy a product is “pointless.” Perhaps he missed the point in the colloquy between Justice Breyer and Michael Carvin; or skipped the Eleventh Circuit’s 207-page opinion (jointly written by Democratic and Republican appointees); or perhaps he lacks the ability to accept the substance and merit of opposing arguments.

His post is not even internally consistent. He asserts conservative justices are relying on “the strict and arbitrary language of an antique Constitution,” which seems to cut against his argument that they are preparing to rule “in spite of text.” His real problem is the text itself, not justices who think they must stay within it. Stripped of his tendentious adjectives (“strict,” “arbitrary,” “antique”), Prof. Dworkin is criticizing judicial reliance on the “language of [the] Constitution.”

That reliance was inherent in Justice Kennedy’s first question to the Solicitor General: “Can you create commerce in order to regulate it?” The answer is not obvious, nor non-controversial, nor addressed by any prior Court precedent.

Which suggests that the place to start the analysis is the text of the constitutional provision. In A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law: Federal Courts and the Law (Princeton University Press: 1998), Justice Scalia writes:

If you … read a brief filed in a constitutional law case, you will rarely find the discussion addressed to the text of the constitutional provision that is at issue, or to the question of what was the originally understood or even the originally intended meaning of that text. The starting point of the analysis will be Supreme Court cases, and the new issue will presumptively be decided according to the logic that those cases expressed, with no regard for how far that logic, thus extended, has distanced us from the original text and understanding.

In the case of Obamacare, the prior precedents do not “obviously” support the law, which accounts for the fact that the plaintiffs are not asking the Court to overrule any prior case. The argument instead is that the Commerce Clause, by its terms, gives Congress the power to regulate commerce, but not to force every individual into it — to regulate those engaged in commerce, not to require every person to buy whatever Congress wants them to buy. Prior case law allows Congress to regulate farmers engaged in producing wheat, not to require every person in the country to buy Wheaties.

The Court can decide this case either way precisely because the issue has not previously been addressed. But the text and original understanding of the Commerce Clause suggest the answer to Justice Kennedy’s question is “no,” and Dworkin’s citation of “basic constitutional principle” (he neither cites nor discusses any actual Court precedents) suggest he is appealing to some uber-concept outside the text of the law.

Perhaps he shares the view that Senator Barack Obama expressed at the time of Justice Roberts’ confirmation hearing: that in important cases justices should rely not on the language of the law, but on what is in their wise hearts. We can see the problem with this approach in Prof. Dworkin’s post, which impugns the integrity of the justices who might disagree with his heartfelt position. Rather than demonstrate that the problem is the Court (it is not), he has provided an extraordinary example of the trait John noted.

 

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Washington Helpless as Islamists Play for Keeps in Egypt

How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.

During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency. Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed American influence in Egypt.

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How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.

During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency. Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed American influence in Egypt.

Should the Brotherhood candidate for president succeed, it would create a dangerous situation in which this Islamist party would control both the executive and the parliament. This would place intolerable pressure on the army — which remains the sole force in the country that could act as a check on the Islamists — to back down and allow the Brotherhood untrammeled power.

Washington seemingly has no problems with this happening as it has bought hook, line and sinker, the Brotherhood’s claims it is now ready to embrace peace with Israel, avoid persecution of Egypt’s Christian minority, and promote a free enterprise model for economic development. As Eric Trager writes for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s website, the Brotherhood’s “détente” with the army command, in which they had promised not to try and run roughshod over secularists or to take over the country, is now in tatters, as their drive for power goes into overdrive. There is also the possibility the Salafis will beat the Brotherhood candidate anyway, in which case the country would drift even farther to the extremes.

Washington’s thinking appears to be that they would prefer an Islamist government along the lines of Turkey — which is what they assume the Brotherhood’s goal is — to one that is modeled after Iran. But either choice would be terrible. An Egypt in which the Brotherhood had a monopoly on power would not be friendly to the United States. And because the administration has discouraged the army from acting to head off the danger, it is difficult to see how any of this will turn out well unless the secular candidate, Amr Moussa, beats both Islamist candidates.

Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak last year. With our embassy now backing the Brotherhood, secularists and the army must assume the president means to ditch them, too. In the meantime, Washington has failed to promote secular democratic groups and then appeased the military by not putting hold on U.S. aid when Americans were prosecuted for aiding dissidents. In other words, the only thing consistent about U.S. policy toward Egypt in the last year has been its inconsistency.

The result is that Egypt, once a staunch U.S. ally, has now fallen into the grip of competing Islamist parties while Washington foolishly tries to play favorites among a group that has little use for American interests or values. The rise of the Islamists in Cairo strengthens the hand of extremists like Hamas among the Palestinians and reduces the already minimal chances for peace with Israel.

President Obama chose Cairo as the venue for his vaunted attempt at outreach to the Muslim world while slighting Israel. Yet, if there is anything we can conclude from the past year it is that Egyptians and other Muslims who are embracing Islamist parties throughout the Middle East have no interest in Obama’s ideas and no use for the United States. That Cairo will soon be in the hands of competing factions of Islamists is a sobering but fitting epitaph for the administration’s feckless foreign policy.

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Santorum May Win PA, But Lose Delegates

It looks like Rick Santorum is committed to a slow death crawl to the Pennsylvania primary, but even if he manages to maintain his modest lead in the polls and pull off a victory, it could be meaningless in terms of his delegate count. The Huffington Post reports the delegates aren’t required to support any candidate, and there are signs Mitt Romney may be further ahead in collecting potential delegate support in Rick Santorum’s home state:

Bob Asher, as one of the state’s national committee members, is one of three Pennsylvania super delegates. He’s also a Romney supporter. Asher told the Morning Call that, “Based upon what I have heard, I think Gov. Romney will likely win the majority of the delegates in Pennsylvania.”

The Romney campaign declined to release a list of delegates in Pennsylvania who they believe will support the former governor, but Reps. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) are both running to be national convention delegates, and both have come out in support of Romney. …

Campaign organization once again comes into play in these states with unbound delegates. Romney started collecting delegates in Pennsylvania back in 2011 when Santorum had a far smaller campaign, according to the Morning Call.

Santorum supporter State Sen. Jake Corman (R-34) said the Santorum campaign did court potential delegates to get them to commit to the former Pennsylvania senator.

“The problem is, when you’re running a low-budget campaign, you have to focus on the states in front of you, not 20 states in front of you,” Corman told Morning Call.

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It looks like Rick Santorum is committed to a slow death crawl to the Pennsylvania primary, but even if he manages to maintain his modest lead in the polls and pull off a victory, it could be meaningless in terms of his delegate count. The Huffington Post reports the delegates aren’t required to support any candidate, and there are signs Mitt Romney may be further ahead in collecting potential delegate support in Rick Santorum’s home state:

Bob Asher, as one of the state’s national committee members, is one of three Pennsylvania super delegates. He’s also a Romney supporter. Asher told the Morning Call that, “Based upon what I have heard, I think Gov. Romney will likely win the majority of the delegates in Pennsylvania.”

The Romney campaign declined to release a list of delegates in Pennsylvania who they believe will support the former governor, but Reps. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) are both running to be national convention delegates, and both have come out in support of Romney. …

Campaign organization once again comes into play in these states with unbound delegates. Romney started collecting delegates in Pennsylvania back in 2011 when Santorum had a far smaller campaign, according to the Morning Call.

Santorum supporter State Sen. Jake Corman (R-34) said the Santorum campaign did court potential delegates to get them to commit to the former Pennsylvania senator.

“The problem is, when you’re running a low-budget campaign, you have to focus on the states in front of you, not 20 states in front of you,” Corman told Morning Call.

The Morning Call has more on Santorum’s alleged lack of organization in the state, where ground game is crucial becausedelegates are elected on the day of the primary. In a sense, candidates have to run a dual-campaign in the state, with one part focused on typical get out the vote activity and the other focused on winning support from potential delegates.

One Pennsylvania Republican operative who asked for anonymity said Romney and Ron Paul were the most organized in rallying delegates. “I’ll be perfectly honest with you,” the person said. “The Santorum campaign wasn’t involved in the delegate process whatsoever.”

G. Terry Madonna, a veteran political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said Santorum and his campaign will attempt to spin it that, as in other states, he’s the grassroots guy the establishment is trying to stop. But in Pennsylvania, it’s a harder sell because for a long time Santorum was a leader in the state Republican Party.

“If in fact he does not win the lion’s share of delegates, it continues to show their lack of resources to organize, but you would think in Pennsylvania he wouldn’t need a lot of resources, that he would have support in county organizations,” Madonna said.

The number of delegates Santorum picks up is obviously much less critical for him at this point than simply winning a state, any state, in the hopes that it will give his fading campaign a shot of momentum. But it does go to show how unrealistic Santorum’s chances at the nomination are at this point. Struggling to win your home state, with the chance that it might not even add much to your delegate count, is a sign quitting time is getting close. The question is whether he does it before Pennsylvania, or after. And that’ll likely depend on whether he’s able to stay above water, or at least close to the surface, in the state polls during the next few weeks.

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Iran’s Stalling Tactics Humiliate Obama

The Obama administration has spent the last few months furiously arguing that diplomacy backed up by tough sanctions is the only possible path to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear capability. But in agreeing to a new round of negotiations with the Iranians, Washington has set itself up to be made to look ridiculous. The ayatollahs have shown themselves to be masters of diplomatic gamesmanship as they have repeatedly made fools out of the European negotiators who have sought in recent years to craft some sort of compromise on the nuclear issue.

But anyone in either the White House or the State Department who thought this latest round of diplomacy would go differently got a shock today when the Iranians made it clear that as far as they were concerned the agreement to talk was merely a signal for the games to begin. As the New York Times reports, the Iranians have already started to stall by insisting on changing the venue of the talks. Though the negotiations were scheduled to begin next week in Turkey, a country that is openly siding with the Iranians, having as their host another Islamist government wasn’t good enough for Tehran. They are now suggesting Iraq or China as alternatives. To show just how far the Iranians are prepared to go to turn this process into a farce, they are also considering suggesting the talks be held in Syria, where, presumably, negotiators can witness Iran’s ally mowing down dissenters in the streets.

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The Obama administration has spent the last few months furiously arguing that diplomacy backed up by tough sanctions is the only possible path to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear capability. But in agreeing to a new round of negotiations with the Iranians, Washington has set itself up to be made to look ridiculous. The ayatollahs have shown themselves to be masters of diplomatic gamesmanship as they have repeatedly made fools out of the European negotiators who have sought in recent years to craft some sort of compromise on the nuclear issue.

But anyone in either the White House or the State Department who thought this latest round of diplomacy would go differently got a shock today when the Iranians made it clear that as far as they were concerned the agreement to talk was merely a signal for the games to begin. As the New York Times reports, the Iranians have already started to stall by insisting on changing the venue of the talks. Though the negotiations were scheduled to begin next week in Turkey, a country that is openly siding with the Iranians, having as their host another Islamist government wasn’t good enough for Tehran. They are now suggesting Iraq or China as alternatives. To show just how far the Iranians are prepared to go to turn this process into a farce, they are also considering suggesting the talks be held in Syria, where, presumably, negotiators can witness Iran’s ally mowing down dissenters in the streets.

The excuse for the last-minute change supposedly stems from Iran’s irritation with the Turks because of their stands on the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria as well as its membership in NATO, because of that alliance’s role in promoting missile defense systems to guard against possible Iranian attacks. But these flimsy excuses should fool no one. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was feted just last week in Tehran where he pledged to support the Iranians against “Western arrogance.”

The only possible reason to demand a change in the venue of the talks is to delay the process. Even if the West were to agree to this request — and it shouldn’t — it would only be followed by further stalling tactics straight out of the North Vietnamese handbook. Don’t be surprised if the shape of the table is raised. And then even if an agreement on some unsatisfactory compromise is reached, we should expect the Iranians to stall on its implementation and then renege on it altogether as they have done more than once with the Europeans.

Iran’s negotiating partner, the P5-plus 1 countries — Britain, China, France, Russia, Germany and the United States — have painted themselves into a corner in these talks. They have, as President Obama has stated repeatedly, pledged themselves to stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But if, as is almost certain, the talks with the Iranians get nowhere, if indeed they ever get started, then what will the president and his European colleagues do?

It is not exactly a secret the only reason the U.S. and the Euros have agreed to enforce tough sanctions and threatened an oil embargo of Iran is their fear that absent such efforts, Israel would have no choice but to attack in order to remove an existential threat to its existence. To that end, the Obama administration has gone all out to pressure Israel to hold off on any attack this year while what the president calls a “window of diplomacy” is explored. But if the diplomatic window is publicly seen to be only a ruse on Iran’s part, what then will Washington tell Israel or the American people?

If the Israelis have agreed, as reports claim, to hold off on a military solution to the Iran problem, they have, in effect, put responsibility for stopping Iran clearly on the shoulders of President Obama. But by agreeing to deal with the diplomatic tricksters in Tehran, the president has in effect made himself a hostage to the ayatollahs’ caprices. Though the administration has placed a priority on measures that will enable them to kick the Iranian can down the road until after the November election, the president may soon discover that his negotiating partners in Tehran have no intention of sparing him the embarrassment that is an inevitable part of dealing with them.

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Maureen Dowd, Light as Air

It’s no secret, and it’s no surprise, that liberal commentators have become enraged at the conservative members of the Supreme Court, who exposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as an unconstitutional and unholy mess in last week’s oral arguments. It would be a full-time job keeping track of the invective. But one person does deserve special mention: Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.

In her column, she says of the current Court, “It has squandered even the semi-illusion that it is the unbiased, honest guardian of the Constitution. It is run by hacks dressed up in black robes.”

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It’s no secret, and it’s no surprise, that liberal commentators have become enraged at the conservative members of the Supreme Court, who exposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as an unconstitutional and unholy mess in last week’s oral arguments. It would be a full-time job keeping track of the invective. But one person does deserve special mention: Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.

In her column, she says of the current Court, “It has squandered even the semi-illusion that it is the unbiased, honest guardian of the Constitution. It is run by hacks dressed up in black robes.”

Now that is rich. Dowd’s columns are, without exception, an intellectual content-free zone. They are mood-pieces, a window into the unstable emotional state of liberal east coast elitists. Her words are unburdened by facts, reason, or analysis.

That isn’t a crime, and it even serves a purpose of sorts. But she’s impossible to take seriously. And for her to criticize Antonin Scalia’s grasp of the law is like a third-string quarterback in middle school criticizing Peyton Manning’s grasp of football.

Dowd is as light as air.

 

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Time to Take Action in Pakistan

David Ignatius has a good column today pointing out that Pakistan has a lot to answer for in its relationship with al-Qaeda. As he notes: “Osama bin Laden lived in five houses in Pakistan, fathered four children there, kept three wives who took dictation for his rambling directives to his terror network, had two children born in public hospitals — and through it all, the Pakistani government did not know one single thing about his whereabouts?” That strains credulity as does the fact that numerous other senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad were able to live in Pakistan for years.

Of course, Pakistan’s links with terrorists hardly end with al-Qaeda. The Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, has notoriously close ties with such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the deaths of numerous American and Afghan soldiers as well as Afghan civilians, and Lashkar e Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 murder spree in Mumbai and whose founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, now has a $10 million American bounty on his head. Saeed, by the way, lives and travels quite openly in Pakistan; he must know he has nothing to fear from his confederates in the Pakistani security establishment.

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David Ignatius has a good column today pointing out that Pakistan has a lot to answer for in its relationship with al-Qaeda. As he notes: “Osama bin Laden lived in five houses in Pakistan, fathered four children there, kept three wives who took dictation for his rambling directives to his terror network, had two children born in public hospitals — and through it all, the Pakistani government did not know one single thing about his whereabouts?” That strains credulity as does the fact that numerous other senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad were able to live in Pakistan for years.

Of course, Pakistan’s links with terrorists hardly end with al-Qaeda. The Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, has notoriously close ties with such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the deaths of numerous American and Afghan soldiers as well as Afghan civilians, and Lashkar e Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 murder spree in Mumbai and whose founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, now has a $10 million American bounty on his head. Saeed, by the way, lives and travels quite openly in Pakistan; he must know he has nothing to fear from his confederates in the Pakistani security establishment.

Yet why does the U.S. still insist on treating Pakistan as a wayward ally—a difficult friend but a friend nevertheless? It is well past time to wake up from this delusion and start to take actions the Pakistani army may adamantly oppose—such as using drone strikes to target Haqqani and Afghan Taliban leaders living in Pakistan—but that are essential to protect our troops in Afghanistan and our interests in the region.

Instead, we continue to subsidize the very Pakistani state which is making war on us and our friends. As commentator Sarah Chayes noted in an article about Afghanistan (which I took some exception with): “Imagine Washington openly financing North Vietnam in 1970.”

 

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Ruling: Senate Can’t Dodge Unpopular Budget Votes

Senate Democrats hoped to avoid voting on any controversial budget resolutions, claiming the debt ceiling deal last summer already deemed a budget for the next two years. But the new Parliamentarian disagreed, and issued a ruling that will give Republicans more power to force budgetary votes that the majority party wants to avoid:

Newly appointed Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, whom [Sen. Harry] Reid recommended for the job, has decided that last summer’s deal on the debt ceiling and spending caps does not preclude the Senate from taking up other budget resolutions this year. The ruling could force vulnerable Democrats to cast tough votes that hurt them in November, a situation Reid and other leaders are eager to avoid as they work to protect their fragile majority.

The written opinion, shared late last week with a handful of Democratic and GOP senators, gives Republicans significantly more leverage to push for votes on budgets of their choosing. It could mean roll calls on Rep. Paul Ryan’s House-passed GOP budget plan and others offered by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Democrats would gladly vote down the Ryan blueprint, which Obama described Tuesday as a “radical” vision that guts funding for Medicare and education.

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Senate Democrats hoped to avoid voting on any controversial budget resolutions, claiming the debt ceiling deal last summer already deemed a budget for the next two years. But the new Parliamentarian disagreed, and issued a ruling that will give Republicans more power to force budgetary votes that the majority party wants to avoid:

Newly appointed Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, whom [Sen. Harry] Reid recommended for the job, has decided that last summer’s deal on the debt ceiling and spending caps does not preclude the Senate from taking up other budget resolutions this year. The ruling could force vulnerable Democrats to cast tough votes that hurt them in November, a situation Reid and other leaders are eager to avoid as they work to protect their fragile majority.

The written opinion, shared late last week with a handful of Democratic and GOP senators, gives Republicans significantly more leverage to push for votes on budgets of their choosing. It could mean roll calls on Rep. Paul Ryan’s House-passed GOP budget plan and others offered by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Democrats would gladly vote down the Ryan blueprint, which Obama described Tuesday as a “radical” vision that guts funding for Medicare and education.

Ryan’s budget would be good to bring up for a vote, though nobody expects it to actually pass. But Republicans will likely try to force a vote on Obama’s budget, which already failed unanimously in the House, and would likely go down in flames for the second year in a row in the Senate.

That is, if Reid would ever agree to bring the president’s budget to the floor. As Politico notes, if Reid refuses to do so, that’s a potentially damaging political move in itself. What’s worse though? For Reid to block it from a floor vote – a clear acknowledgement that it won’t pass – or to allow the vote and let the White House go through the embarrassment of a (likely unanimous) rejection once again? It seems like there’s a good chance the budget will never actually make it to the floor, despite the Parliamentarian’s ruling.

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Afghan Deal Would Be a Win-Win

Chalk it up to Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–our dynamic duo in Kabul. They can get results even in the most unpromising circumstances.

Recently, they completed a deal to transfer custody of the main U.S. detention facility to Afghan control while maintaining American oversight and an American veto on any prisoner releases. Now they appear to be on the verge of concluding an agreement that would allow “night raids”–heavily criticized by President Hamid Karzai for their supposed infringement on Afghan sovereignty–to continue with only mild modifications. Afghan judges will be required to approve the raids but their approval apparently will be obtainable after the fact–which means that the secrecy essential for these operations will not be compromised.

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Chalk it up to Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–our dynamic duo in Kabul. They can get results even in the most unpromising circumstances.

Recently, they completed a deal to transfer custody of the main U.S. detention facility to Afghan control while maintaining American oversight and an American veto on any prisoner releases. Now they appear to be on the verge of concluding an agreement that would allow “night raids”–heavily criticized by President Hamid Karzai for their supposed infringement on Afghan sovereignty–to continue with only mild modifications. Afghan judges will be required to approve the raids but their approval apparently will be obtainable after the fact–which means that the secrecy essential for these operations will not be compromised.

Assuming the deal is sealed, this will be an important victory that will allow coalition forces to continue employing one of their most effective counter-terrorist tools while still giving the appearance of respecting Afghan sovereignty.

 

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McCain Weighs in on the Veepstakes

Who better understands the stakes of the vice presidential choice than Sen. John McCain, who still gets to see his own decision played out repeatedly on HBO? When asked on CBS about whether the GOP nominee should “go rogue” with the VP choice this year, McCain gave a wink to his own 2008 choice:

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Who better understands the stakes of the vice presidential choice than Sen. John McCain, who still gets to see his own decision played out repeatedly on HBO? When asked on CBS about whether the GOP nominee should “go rogue” with the VP choice this year, McCain gave a wink to his own 2008 choice:

McCain then went on to name all the obvious picks: Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels. All good choices, but with due respect to the argument that the dullest veep is the best veep, a Romney-Daniels ticket might be pushing it.

Rubio is obviously the odds-on-favorite. Then again, Christie’s visit to Israel yesterday – and meeting with Netanyahu – is fueling speculation that he’s trying to boost his foreign policy cred for some sort of high-profile national role.

Someone McCain left out who has been getting more VP buzz than usual today is Rep. Paul Ryan, who delivered a scathing speech blasting President Obama last night, after the president publicly criticized Ryan’s budget proposal.

Ryan challenged Obama for his “broken promises” reminding voters that he would try to divide Americans because he could not run on his record.

“I seem to remember him saying that he was going to be a uniter, not a divider,” Ryan said. “Frankly this is one and the worst of his broken promises. We do not need a campaigner-in-chief, we need a commander-in-chief, we need a leader that America deserves.”

“The presidency is bigger than this. He was supposed to be bigger than this.” Ryan continued, “We need solutions, not excuses. We need a president who takes the lead in not one that spreads the blame. We need someone who appeals to our dreams and aspirations, not to our fears and anxieties. We as Americans deserve to choose what kind of country we want and what kind of people we want to be.”

Obama’s direct attacks on Ryan this week have been fascinating. It’s not often the president of the United States gives speeches calling out the chairman of the House Budget Committee. But it’s a sign that Ryan’s desire to focus this election on the ideological differences between the parties on economic issues is working.

Choosing Ryan for VP could help cement that focus – but it would also carry risks. As a vice presidential candidate, Ryan would instantly become a more polarizing figure. His charisma and status as a conservative rising star could also end up overshadowing Romney in some ways. Ryan may actually be able to play a more supportive role for Romney outside of the campaign than in it.

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Friedman’s Clueless Middle East Twofer

After so many years of being wrong about the Palestinians being ready to make peace with Israel, it is difficult to take New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s Middle East advice columns seriously. But his latest effort in this genre contains some whoppers that got our attention even if they only provide more proof  the veteran writer is still hopelessly out of touch with reality.

Today’s “twofer” of Friedman gems starts out with praise for imprisoned Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti. Friedman gives a testimonial to Barghouti as an “authentic leader” and describes his call from prison for a new campaign of “non-violent” protest against Israel as just the ticket to bring peace. But what Friedman doesn’t understand is what makes Barghouti “authentic” to Palestinians is his role in the murder of Israeli civilians (for which he is currently serving five life sentences), not his notions about a switch to Gandhi-style activism.

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After so many years of being wrong about the Palestinians being ready to make peace with Israel, it is difficult to take New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s Middle East advice columns seriously. But his latest effort in this genre contains some whoppers that got our attention even if they only provide more proof  the veteran writer is still hopelessly out of touch with reality.

Today’s “twofer” of Friedman gems starts out with praise for imprisoned Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti. Friedman gives a testimonial to Barghouti as an “authentic leader” and describes his call from prison for a new campaign of “non-violent” protest against Israel as just the ticket to bring peace. But what Friedman doesn’t understand is what makes Barghouti “authentic” to Palestinians is his role in the murder of Israeli civilians (for which he is currently serving five life sentences), not his notions about a switch to Gandhi-style activism.

Friedman advises Palestinians to take up Barghouti’s plea for “non-violence” (which according to Friedman includes the throwing of lethal rocks at Israelis as well as a campaign of economic warfare against the Jewish state) but to accompany it with specific maps showing what peace terms they will accept from Israel. On the surface that makes sense, because as Friedman says, Israel would then be faced with a tangible peace proposal that it would likely accept. Yet Friedman ignores the reason why the Palestinians have never made such a practical proposal and are unlikely to do so now.

The problem from the Palestinian point of view with Friedman’s advice to throw rocks wrapped in maps showing possible territorial swaps is that to do so means recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state. And that is something no Palestinian leader has ever had the courage to do no matter where Israel’s borders would be drawn or how many settlements would be uprooted.

Let’s remember that Barghouti’s mass murder spree took place in the immediate aftermath of an Israeli peace offer that was not much different from the scheme Friedman now thinks the Palestinians will accept. PA leader Yasir Arafat turned down Ehud Barak’s offers of a state in 2000 and 2001 and answered it with a terror war that cost more than 1,000 Israelis their lives courtesy of killers like his Fatah cohort Barghouti. Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas walked away from another such offer in 2008. With the Islamists of Hamas now joining Abbas in a new coalition, the odds that the PA will be able to accept a similar offer are zero.

Yet Friedman still thinks the Palestinians can make Israelis “feel morally insecure” about holding onto territory by another bout of rock throwing. But the reason why Israelis don’t “feel morally insecure” is because, unlike Friedman, they aren’t prepare to ignore the results of two decades of Middle East peace processing during which they have traded land and received terror instead of the peace pundits like the columnist promised. He’s right that Prime Minister Netanyahu believes the Palestinians won’t make peace because he “thinks it’s not in their culture.” The problem for Friedman is they have already proven many times that it isn’t.

What makes this discussion so pointless is that the Palestinians don’t need a change in tactics. They don’t have to throw rocks or promote boycotts even if those activities are more attractive to their foreign supporters than suicide bombings. All they have to do is negotiate. Netanyahu has already said he’d accept a two-state solution and, as Friedman understands, the vast majority of Israelis would support him if he were presented with a deal that ended the conflict. Just as in 1977 when Egypt’s Sadat went to Jerusalem, the Israelis are ready to deal. The problem is not whether the Palestinians realize how best to make Israelis “morally insecure” — a point that is as meaningless today as it was 35 years ago — but that, unlike Sadat, they aren’t actually willing to live in peace alongside the Jewish state.

The other whopper in Friedman’s column is his second suggestion: a proposal that Israel assist in the creation of a viable secular Palestinian state in the West Bank that would promote a free-market economy that would be a model to the Middle East. He thinks this is essential, because if violence erupts, the new Islamist leadership in Egypt will exacerbate it.

For years, Friedman has been promoting Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and “Fayyadism” as the coming wave of Palestinian politics. But Fayyad’s name isn’t mentioned once in Friedman’s column. That’s because the moderate, who is a favorite of both the U.S. and Israel, has no constituency among his own people and is being chucked out of office by Abbas to appease his new Hamas partners. Israel would like nothing better than a free market-trading partner in the West Bank led by a man such as Fayyad as opposed to another Islamist wasteland such as currently exists in Gaza. The problem is the Palestinians prefer Hamas to Fayyad or the advice of the clueless Friedman.

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What Happens When You Assume

When I pulled up the home page of the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz this morning, I was greeted with a somewhat humorous sight. The top headline, in large print, was: “Israeli security forces evacuate settlers from Hebron house.” Immediately to the right of that headline was this one: “Haaretz Editorial: The Israeli government gave in to the settlers.” Oops.

It appears Haaretz was expecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to evict the residents of a house in Hebron who the government says are not there legally. So the editors wrote a blistering editorial excoriating Netanyahu for what they assumed he would (or would not) do. It’s true that Netanyahu had recently indicated that he was not yet ready to evict the settlers. But that is a common tactic used by the government to ensure that the soldiers carrying out the evictions are not met with organized resistance. It’s not the first time the Israeli authorities have done this–it’s not even the first time they’ve done this in Hebron. Should Haaretz have assumed that Netanyahu would not evict Jews from Hebron? Just the opposite–Netanyahu has a track record of willingness to move Jews out of Hebron. He even signed an agreement with Yasser Arafat during the Clinton administration relinquishing some control over Hebron.

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When I pulled up the home page of the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz this morning, I was greeted with a somewhat humorous sight. The top headline, in large print, was: “Israeli security forces evacuate settlers from Hebron house.” Immediately to the right of that headline was this one: “Haaretz Editorial: The Israeli government gave in to the settlers.” Oops.

It appears Haaretz was expecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to evict the residents of a house in Hebron who the government says are not there legally. So the editors wrote a blistering editorial excoriating Netanyahu for what they assumed he would (or would not) do. It’s true that Netanyahu had recently indicated that he was not yet ready to evict the settlers. But that is a common tactic used by the government to ensure that the soldiers carrying out the evictions are not met with organized resistance. It’s not the first time the Israeli authorities have done this–it’s not even the first time they’ve done this in Hebron. Should Haaretz have assumed that Netanyahu would not evict Jews from Hebron? Just the opposite–Netanyahu has a track record of willingness to move Jews out of Hebron. He even signed an agreement with Yasser Arafat during the Clinton administration relinquishing some control over Hebron.

Should Haaretz have assumed Netanyahu wouldn’t respond to political pressure to turn parts of Jewish holy cities over to the Palestinians? No again. As the editorial itself notes, during his first term as prime minister Netanyahu “ordered the settlers to evacuate Ras al Amud,” a neighborhood in Jerusalem. (Netanyahu once even indicated, in a 2010 speech, that Jerusalem could be on the table for negotiations–an unprecedented move.)

What else surprised the Haaretz editorialists? They write that Netanyahu was ignoring the West Bank military prosecutor’s opinion, which includes a “warning of violence.” Yet, as the article on the evacuation notes, the mission was carried out “without any unusual events”–code for “peacefully.” It continues to surprise the media that settlers aren’t violent fanatics. (The picture accompanying the article shows a young Jewish mother pushing a stroller with a couple of young children walking peacefully next to her. Because Haaretz would generally post the most violent picture they have of any incident involving settlers, it would appear they were unable to locate anything but peaceful cooperation.)

Personal dislike of Netanyahu by the left has, since the very beginning of Netanyahu’s career, perverted the newsgathering and political processes to such an extent as to present a picture wholly unrelated to reality. In November, after President Obama and French President Sarkozy were caught trying to prove to each other who dislikes Netanyahu more, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl asked a good question: “Why do Sarkozy and Obama hate Netanyahu?”

He argued that Netanyahu has been responsive all along to Obama’s initiatives, even when Netanyahu didn’t like them. He agreed to settlement freezes, declared he would evict squatters, agreed to immediate negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, and even announced his support for an independent Palestinian state. (The list is even longer than this, but Diehl was on the right track.) But what about the Palestinians? Diehl went on:

Abbas, it’s fair to say, has gone from resisting U.S. and French diplomacy to actively seeking to undermine it. Yet it is Netanyahu whom Sarkozy finds “unbearable,” and whom Obama groans at having to “deal with every day.” If there is an explanation for this, it must be personal; in substance, it makes little sense.

It is personal, not to mention petty and counterproductive. Netanyahu’s commitment to peace and the rule of law is only surprising to those, like the president and the Haaretz editorialists, who allow personal animus, rather than a fair reading of the facts, to guide them.

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Slaughter Spikes in Syria

What a surprise–not. Just days after former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan unveiled a supposed deal whereby the Syrian government would pull its forces back from cities it had been assaulting, the opposition reports that attacks are going on as heavy as before in four major cities: Hama, Homs, Idlib and Dara. The odds that a ceasefire will actually be observed on April 10 appear slim.

This is likely to be the latest of countless promises that Bashar al-Assad has broken. It is not hard to see the reason for his duplicity: nothing less than regime survival–and his personal survival–are at stake. Assad knows that if he calls off his troops, his people will continue to rise against him. Therefore, he has no choice if he is to remain in power but to continue the bloody work of repression. To think anything else is the height of naiveté.

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What a surprise–not. Just days after former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan unveiled a supposed deal whereby the Syrian government would pull its forces back from cities it had been assaulting, the opposition reports that attacks are going on as heavy as before in four major cities: Hama, Homs, Idlib and Dara. The odds that a ceasefire will actually be observed on April 10 appear slim.

This is likely to be the latest of countless promises that Bashar al-Assad has broken. It is not hard to see the reason for his duplicity: nothing less than regime survival–and his personal survival–are at stake. Assad knows that if he calls off his troops, his people will continue to rise against him. Therefore, he has no choice if he is to remain in power but to continue the bloody work of repression. To think anything else is the height of naiveté.

For outside powers watching the slaughter in horror, this means they have no choice but to push for Assad’s downfall; there will be no end to the violence and repression as long as he stays in power–or as long as the Syrian people have the will to resist his oppression. And they have shown plenty of will so far. The willingness of Gulf Arab states to pay salaries to Syrian rebel fighters and the willingness of the U.S. to provide them communications equipment are, as I have previously noted, positive steps forward. But they are not enough. More will be needed–from providing arms to the rebels to establishing safe zones where civilians can find refuge from Assad’s killers.

As it happens, the Turkish government is widely reported to be considering just such a step which would require some degree of Turkish military intervention on Syrian soil. This is something that Ankara is naturally reluctant to do, but all signs are that it could be pushed into action provided the U.S. takes a firm stance. That has, so far, been lacking. For all of the calls from Washington for Assad’s removal, President Obama has not been willing to do much to back up his words. The time for more robust action is well past given the continuing and predictable failure of diplomacy.

 

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Obama’s Inept Aides

Via Mediate, Bret Baier of Fox News, in the most professional way possible, destroys White House press secretary Jay Carney in an interview. Baier did the same thing to President Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod (see here). Chris Wallace tied top White House aide David Plouffe into knots in a recent interview. And Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was, by all accounts, wiped out during the Supreme Court’s oral arguments over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

I realize that we’re supposed to be enormously impressed with the intelligence and skill of this generation’s version of the Best and Brightest. But here’s the thing: these fellows are just not that good. Like the man they work for, they often come across as arrogant and inept, prickly and unable to directly answer questions. It’s a bad combination — and for top Obama aides, apparently, a widespread one.

 

Via Mediate, Bret Baier of Fox News, in the most professional way possible, destroys White House press secretary Jay Carney in an interview. Baier did the same thing to President Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod (see here). Chris Wallace tied top White House aide David Plouffe into knots in a recent interview. And Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was, by all accounts, wiped out during the Supreme Court’s oral arguments over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

I realize that we’re supposed to be enormously impressed with the intelligence and skill of this generation’s version of the Best and Brightest. But here’s the thing: these fellows are just not that good. Like the man they work for, they often come across as arrogant and inept, prickly and unable to directly answer questions. It’s a bad combination — and for top Obama aides, apparently, a widespread one.

 

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Appeals Court Orders DOJ to Clarify “Judicial Restraint” Position

An unusual request, but then again, the president’s critical remarks about the Supreme Court on Monday were also unusual. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, all Republican appointees, is requiring the Department of Justice to submit a three-page, single-spaced letter tomorrow on whether the Executive Branch believes that courts can strike down laws that are found to be unconstitutional.

CBS News reports:

In the escalating battle between the administration and the judiciary, a federal appeals court apparently is calling the president’s bluff — ordering the Justice Department to answer by Thursday whether the Obama Administration believes that the courts have the right to strike down a federal law, according to a lawyer who was in the courtroom. …

The panel is hearing a separate challenge to the health care law by physician-owned hospitals. The issue arose when a lawyer for the Justice Department began arguing before the judges. Appeals Court Judge Jerry Smith immediately interrupted, asking if DOJ agreed that the judiciary could strike down an unconstitutional law.

The DOJ lawyer, Dana Lydia Kaersvang, answered yes — and mentioned Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that firmly established the principle of judicial review more than 200 years ago, according to the lawyer in the courtroom.

Smith then became “very stern,” the source said, telling the lawyers arguing the case it was not clear to “many of us” whether the president believes such a right exists. The other two judges on the panel, Emilio Garza and Leslie Southwick–both Republican appointees–remained silent, the source said.

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An unusual request, but then again, the president’s critical remarks about the Supreme Court on Monday were also unusual. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, all Republican appointees, is requiring the Department of Justice to submit a three-page, single-spaced letter tomorrow on whether the Executive Branch believes that courts can strike down laws that are found to be unconstitutional.

CBS News reports:

In the escalating battle between the administration and the judiciary, a federal appeals court apparently is calling the president’s bluff — ordering the Justice Department to answer by Thursday whether the Obama Administration believes that the courts have the right to strike down a federal law, according to a lawyer who was in the courtroom. …

The panel is hearing a separate challenge to the health care law by physician-owned hospitals. The issue arose when a lawyer for the Justice Department began arguing before the judges. Appeals Court Judge Jerry Smith immediately interrupted, asking if DOJ agreed that the judiciary could strike down an unconstitutional law.

The DOJ lawyer, Dana Lydia Kaersvang, answered yes — and mentioned Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that firmly established the principle of judicial review more than 200 years ago, according to the lawyer in the courtroom.

Smith then became “very stern,” the source said, telling the lawyers arguing the case it was not clear to “many of us” whether the president believes such a right exists. The other two judges on the panel, Emilio Garza and Leslie Southwick–both Republican appointees–remained silent, the source said.

Was this an honest request, or a political stunt? Obviously, the Obama administration’s position on this is relevant in this case. However, this is only going to feed into the latest contention from Democrats that there’s too much politicization in the courts. At Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr writes that the 5th Circuit’s request was inappropriate, particularly since the DOJ lawyer had already responded to the question in court:

Having heard the audio, the tone of the questions was quite different from what I was expecting based on the story. It came off to me as earnest and genuine, not just an effort to score a cheap political point. With that said, the order still strikes me as highly inappropriate: The DOJ lawyer was quite clear as to DOJ’s position, and lower court judges deciding cases based on briefing and argument should not be going outside the record to come up with assignments to litigants based on press releases by politicians in such politically charged matters. It just makes the judges look like political actors themselves, which doesn’t help anyone.

President Obama has also clarified his comments since Monday, which could change the court’s mind about the order before the deadline tomorrow.

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Win in PA Isn’t Optional for Romney

While there are still plenty of states left to vote in the Republican presidential race and Rick Santorum is thinking as much about 2016 as 2012, the rest of the country is beginning to focus this morning on the only real matchup that is left this year: Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama. Romney’s three primary wins last night solidified his status as the inevitable GOP nominee, and President Obama acknowledged that fact with a blistering direct attack on the Republican frontrunner that laid out the outlines of his campaign strategy. With Obama and the Democratic campaign machine beginning to focus all of their attention on Romney, that will start to diminish interest in what’s left of the GOP race.

But though Romney may not mention Rick Santorum’s name again until the day the latter concedes the nomination to him, he’s going to need to take the upcoming Pennsylvania primary seriously. The temptation for Romney is to view it as merely the chance to administer the coup de grace to Santorum’s challenge. But it’s actually more serious than that.

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While there are still plenty of states left to vote in the Republican presidential race and Rick Santorum is thinking as much about 2016 as 2012, the rest of the country is beginning to focus this morning on the only real matchup that is left this year: Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama. Romney’s three primary wins last night solidified his status as the inevitable GOP nominee, and President Obama acknowledged that fact with a blistering direct attack on the Republican frontrunner that laid out the outlines of his campaign strategy. With Obama and the Democratic campaign machine beginning to focus all of their attention on Romney, that will start to diminish interest in what’s left of the GOP race.

But though Romney may not mention Rick Santorum’s name again until the day the latter concedes the nomination to him, he’s going to need to take the upcoming Pennsylvania primary seriously. The temptation for Romney is to view it as merely the chance to administer the coup de grace to Santorum’s challenge. But it’s actually more serious than that.

It’s true that Santorum has virtually no chance to win the nomination even if he wins his home state on April 24. But as Santorum made clear in his speech last night, a win in his home state — even if it is narrow and even if he doesn’t actually win a majority of the delegates at stake there — will be used as a launching point for continuing an insurgency whose aim will be more to tear down Romney than to actually supplant him as the nominee. Santorum seems to be thinking about picking up the pieces of the party in the event Romney loses in the fall. That means both men know that victory in Pennsylvania is an imperative.

President Obama and his various surrogates are already starting to execute a campaign strategy of mockery aimed at Romney whose purpose is to portray him as too rich, weird, square and out of touch to be president. As the president indicated in his speech to newspaper editors yesterday, he sees no reason why the press should attempt to report both sides of the debate on the budget or taxes because he believes he has a monopoly on truth and justice.

The commencement of a blizzard of Democratic invective against Romney and the Republicans makes it imperative that the GOP close ranks and start to return fire on the incumbent. But if Santorum is able to use a win in Pennsylvania to fuel continuing attacks on Romney throughout the spring and even the summer, he will be doing Obama an enormous favor.

That means the next three weeks are likely to be the nastiest yet in what has been a long, nasty Republican race. Romney knows he must squelch Santorum now while he has a chance to humiliate him at home or else face a difficult couple of months that will undermine his chances of victory in the fall. If the gloves weren’t already off between these two, they certainly will be now.

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Statistics Prove the Bias against Women in Literature

Or do they? At the New Republic this morning, Ruth Franklin picks up the now familiar complaint about the “bias” against women in literature. Statistics show that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” she observes, “and (not coincidentally) women’s books are reviewed far less often than men’s.”

But the “problem in fact goes deeper,” she adds. Or, if she were to fish Occam’s razor out of her drawer, she might say that the explanation is far simpler: “[P]art of the reason books by women are being reviewed in lower numbers is that they are being published in lower numbers.” The real question is why. (Maybe women are writing fewer publishable books?) Franklin is not interested in any such question, however. For her — for the literary feminist — the bias against women in literature is self-evident and requires no further proof:

Regardless of where it begins . . . it is clear from these statistics that the bias against women in publishing takes multiple forms. [Meg] Wolitzer argues that books by women tend to be lumped together as “women’s fiction,” which segregates women writers and prevents them from “entering the larger, more influential playing field.” Publishers perpetuate this bias in ways large and small. . . .

As it happens, the economist Thomas Sowell demolished this logical fallacy just yesterday. Only five of the top 20 hitters in the history of major league baseball were righthanded hitters, but it doesn’t follow from this that baseball is “biased” against them. “Human beings are not random events,” Sowell points out. “Individuals and groups have different histories, cultures, skills, and attitudes. Why would anyone expect them to be distributed anywhere in a pattern based on statistical theories of random events?”

But it is precisely this refusal to consider individual histories — this blind deference to statistical aggregates — that distinguishes the complaints about “bias” against women, as I tried to show on Monday. When Franklin goes beyond statistics to provide evidence, she is interesting (“Big novels by men often have text-only covers, while novels by women tend to be illustrated by domestic images”), but beside the question. Book covers have nothing whatever to do with literature. And when she enunciates a moral conclusion, she runs out of evidence:

The underlying problem is that while women read books by male writers about male characters, men tend not to do the reverse. Men’s novels about suburbia (Franzen) are about society; women’s novels about suburbia (Wolitzer) are about women.

As it so happens, I reviewed both Franzen’s Freedom and a novel by Meg Wolitzer’s mother Hilma Wolitzer for COMMENTARY. I much preferred Wolitzer’s An Available Man, which I described as a “refreshing comedy of regeneration after grief.” Freedom I dismissed as “just an old-fashioned adultery novel.”

Okay, one male critic is not a tendency. But the claim that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” advanced as if it were prima facie evidence of bias, obliterates the individual history of at least one man who has championed several women writers.

And that’s my whole point. Sweeping generalizations about what male and female readers “tend to do” completely overlook the unforgiving reality of literature — a reality, by the way, that Franklin herself never overlooks when she turns from speaking of tendencies to speaking of books. To consider a book or a person as a specimen of a class rather than a unique instance is the locus classicus of a critical and moral error. Marilynne Robinson is right: another human being is a mystery to me, and the wonder of literary texts is that they open the mystery a little. But if I wince at the cover, whether “text only” or a “domestic image,” and decide in advance that what I am holding in my hands is further evidence of a bias in publishing, then the book remains closed. And so does the mystery.

The job of the critic is to discover and praise good books, whether they are written by men or women. The job of the writer is to write them. And neither job is made any easier by complaining about the “place of women in the literary world.” What is relatively easy, and what Franklin supplies plenty of evidence for, is to write articles and compile statistics on the bias against women in literature. But this raises a question. Is there really a “bias” or only a critical discourse of bias?

____________________

Update: As an experiment, I examined the reviews and reviewers of Dana Spiotta’s wonderful Stone Arabia, published last summer. Of the 14 reviews in major publications or websites that I was able to track down via Google, eight were by men and six by women. Franklin’s observation that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications” is not incorrect in this case, then. Of the eight men who reviewed the novel, though, only one treated Spiotta’s novel, which is set in suburban Los Angeles, as “about women” (in Franklin’s phrase). John Strawn concluded his Oregonian review by describing Denise Kranis, the main female character, in terms of a woman’s traditional role as a nurturer: “Because Nik [her brother, the other main character] is mediated through Denise, with her large capacity to succor, he comes across not merely as vain and self-important, but as an artist of courage and conviction.”

The other male reviewers found pretty large themes in Stone Arabia, even if none of them quite said that the novel is “about society.” Ron Charles came closest in the Washington Post: “Spiotta explores . . . broad, endemic social ills in the small, peculiar lives of these sad siblings,” he concluded. “Her reflections on the precarious nature of modern life are witty until they’re really unsettling.” In the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin found that Denise stands for the external world — for something other than oneself as an “exclusive interest” — and I said something similiar here at COMMENTARY, suggesting that Denise represents “responsibility to others” and “submission to the real.” For William Giraldi, writing at Salon, Denise is more like her brother than Ulin and I let on, more inward-looking, a “brooding isolato in constant existential crisis,” given to “exacting introspection.” But Giraldi’s most important word was exacting. “Some of the sharpest observations in Stone Arabia involve her musings on memory,” he noticed.

These sweepings will be discarded as anecdotal evidence, but they suggest that gender difference in the “literary world” is a whole lot more complicated than Ruth Franklin is prepared to acknowledge.

Or do they? At the New Republic this morning, Ruth Franklin picks up the now familiar complaint about the “bias” against women in literature. Statistics show that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” she observes, “and (not coincidentally) women’s books are reviewed far less often than men’s.”

But the “problem in fact goes deeper,” she adds. Or, if she were to fish Occam’s razor out of her drawer, she might say that the explanation is far simpler: “[P]art of the reason books by women are being reviewed in lower numbers is that they are being published in lower numbers.” The real question is why. (Maybe women are writing fewer publishable books?) Franklin is not interested in any such question, however. For her — for the literary feminist — the bias against women in literature is self-evident and requires no further proof:

Regardless of where it begins . . . it is clear from these statistics that the bias against women in publishing takes multiple forms. [Meg] Wolitzer argues that books by women tend to be lumped together as “women’s fiction,” which segregates women writers and prevents them from “entering the larger, more influential playing field.” Publishers perpetuate this bias in ways large and small. . . .

As it happens, the economist Thomas Sowell demolished this logical fallacy just yesterday. Only five of the top 20 hitters in the history of major league baseball were righthanded hitters, but it doesn’t follow from this that baseball is “biased” against them. “Human beings are not random events,” Sowell points out. “Individuals and groups have different histories, cultures, skills, and attitudes. Why would anyone expect them to be distributed anywhere in a pattern based on statistical theories of random events?”

But it is precisely this refusal to consider individual histories — this blind deference to statistical aggregates — that distinguishes the complaints about “bias” against women, as I tried to show on Monday. When Franklin goes beyond statistics to provide evidence, she is interesting (“Big novels by men often have text-only covers, while novels by women tend to be illustrated by domestic images”), but beside the question. Book covers have nothing whatever to do with literature. And when she enunciates a moral conclusion, she runs out of evidence:

The underlying problem is that while women read books by male writers about male characters, men tend not to do the reverse. Men’s novels about suburbia (Franzen) are about society; women’s novels about suburbia (Wolitzer) are about women.

As it so happens, I reviewed both Franzen’s Freedom and a novel by Meg Wolitzer’s mother Hilma Wolitzer for COMMENTARY. I much preferred Wolitzer’s An Available Man, which I described as a “refreshing comedy of regeneration after grief.” Freedom I dismissed as “just an old-fashioned adultery novel.”

Okay, one male critic is not a tendency. But the claim that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications,” advanced as if it were prima facie evidence of bias, obliterates the individual history of at least one man who has championed several women writers.

And that’s my whole point. Sweeping generalizations about what male and female readers “tend to do” completely overlook the unforgiving reality of literature — a reality, by the way, that Franklin herself never overlooks when she turns from speaking of tendencies to speaking of books. To consider a book or a person as a specimen of a class rather than a unique instance is the locus classicus of a critical and moral error. Marilynne Robinson is right: another human being is a mystery to me, and the wonder of literary texts is that they open the mystery a little. But if I wince at the cover, whether “text only” or a “domestic image,” and decide in advance that what I am holding in my hands is further evidence of a bias in publishing, then the book remains closed. And so does the mystery.

The job of the critic is to discover and praise good books, whether they are written by men or women. The job of the writer is to write them. And neither job is made any easier by complaining about the “place of women in the literary world.” What is relatively easy, and what Franklin supplies plenty of evidence for, is to write articles and compile statistics on the bias against women in literature. But this raises a question. Is there really a “bias” or only a critical discourse of bias?

____________________

Update: As an experiment, I examined the reviews and reviewers of Dana Spiotta’s wonderful Stone Arabia, published last summer. Of the 14 reviews in major publications or websites that I was able to track down via Google, eight were by men and six by women. Franklin’s observation that “men publish the majority of the reviews in American literary publications” is not incorrect in this case, then. Of the eight men who reviewed the novel, though, only one treated Spiotta’s novel, which is set in suburban Los Angeles, as “about women” (in Franklin’s phrase). John Strawn concluded his Oregonian review by describing Denise Kranis, the main female character, in terms of a woman’s traditional role as a nurturer: “Because Nik [her brother, the other main character] is mediated through Denise, with her large capacity to succor, he comes across not merely as vain and self-important, but as an artist of courage and conviction.”

The other male reviewers found pretty large themes in Stone Arabia, even if none of them quite said that the novel is “about society.” Ron Charles came closest in the Washington Post: “Spiotta explores . . . broad, endemic social ills in the small, peculiar lives of these sad siblings,” he concluded. “Her reflections on the precarious nature of modern life are witty until they’re really unsettling.” In the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin found that Denise stands for the external world — for something other than oneself as an “exclusive interest” — and I said something similiar here at COMMENTARY, suggesting that Denise represents “responsibility to others” and “submission to the real.” For William Giraldi, writing at Salon, Denise is more like her brother than Ulin and I let on, more inward-looking, a “brooding isolato in constant existential crisis,” given to “exacting introspection.” But Giraldi’s most important word was exacting. “Some of the sharpest observations in Stone Arabia involve her musings on memory,” he noticed.

These sweepings will be discarded as anecdotal evidence, but they suggest that gender difference in the “literary world” is a whole lot more complicated than Ruth Franklin is prepared to acknowledge.

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The Week Obama Jumped the Shark

In a press conference on Monday, President Obama said, “I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years, what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or the lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. And I’m pretty confident that this court will recognize that and not take that step.” Obama went on to say that the court would take an “unprecedented, extraordinary step” if it overturns the law because it was passed by “a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”

Set aside the fact that the House, despite a huge Democratic majority, passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by a margin of 219-212, hardly a “strong majority.” In fact, it barely qualifies as a plurality. Let’s turn instead to the substance of what the president said.

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In a press conference on Monday, President Obama said, “I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years, what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or the lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. And I’m pretty confident that this court will recognize that and not take that step.” Obama went on to say that the court would take an “unprecedented, extraordinary step” if it overturns the law because it was passed by “a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”

Set aside the fact that the House, despite a huge Democratic majority, passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by a margin of 219-212, hardly a “strong majority.” In fact, it barely qualifies as a plurality. Let’s turn instead to the substance of what the president said.

Obama, a former community organizer who is perhaps unaware of the finer points of the law, might want to acquaint himself with an obscure  19th century case, Marbury v. Madison, which established the doctrine of judicial review and grants federal courts the power to void acts of Congress that are in conflict with the Constitution. What Obama describes as “unprecedented” has, in fact, been done countless times since 1803.

Then there’s Obama’s confusion about judicial activism. It is not, as he insists, simply the act of overturning an existing law; it is when judges allow their personal views about public policy, and not the Constitution, to guide their decisions and often invent new rights out of thin air. For Justices to invalidate a law they deem to be unconstitutional is precisely what the Supreme Court is supposed to do. (“No legislative act … contrary to the Constitution, can be valid,” is how Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist #78.) If one takes Obama’s words literally, he believes an unjust and unconstitutional law, if passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress, cannot be overturned.

What the president said, then, was so ill-informed, so ignorant, that people assumed he must know better. There’s no way we can know. But whatever the case, this has been quite a bad stretch for the president. His comments about the Supreme Court, when combined with his astonishingly dishonest attack on the House GOP budget (see here for more), portray a president who is living in a fantasy world — a place where facts and history are inverted, lies become truth, where everything is subordinated to ambition and you simply make things up as you go along. Nietzsche referred to this mindset as the “will to power.” In American politics it’s known as The Chicago Way.

I don’t know what the political effect of all this will be. But intellectually, this is the week where Barack Obama jumped the shark. In a deep, fundamental way, he is no longer a serious man. Nor an honest one. His public words are now purposefully bleached of truth. And that is a painful thing to have to say about an American president.

 

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