Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 25, 2012

GOP Student Loan Bill Would Tap ObamaCare Funds

Despite what you may have heard from President Obama, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress favor extending low interest rates on student loans that are set to expire in July. The problem is they’re conflicted over how to pay for it. While Democrats support a payroll tax hike on certain businesses, the House GOP is planning to introduce a bill that would pay for the extension with some of the advanced appropriations included in ObamaCare. Politico reports:

House Republicans will announce by the end of this week their own bill to keep student loan rates from doubling, several Republican leadership sources said.

The GOP will offset its cost with money from what they dub a “slush fund” in the Democrats’ 2010 health care law. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is holding a media availability in the Capitol Wednesday afternoon to announce the effort.

The specter of government-subsidized student loan rates doubling is the most recent attempt by the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill to paint Republicans as the model of inaction. President Barack Obama is on a nationwide college tour, slamming congressional Republicans for allowing the Stafford loan rate to jump on July 1. In reality, Republican leadership on Capitol Hill didn’t address how they would deal with the July 1 deadline, which would have allowed government subsidized student loan rates jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

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Despite what you may have heard from President Obama, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress favor extending low interest rates on student loans that are set to expire in July. The problem is they’re conflicted over how to pay for it. While Democrats support a payroll tax hike on certain businesses, the House GOP is planning to introduce a bill that would pay for the extension with some of the advanced appropriations included in ObamaCare. Politico reports:

House Republicans will announce by the end of this week their own bill to keep student loan rates from doubling, several Republican leadership sources said.

The GOP will offset its cost with money from what they dub a “slush fund” in the Democrats’ 2010 health care law. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is holding a media availability in the Capitol Wednesday afternoon to announce the effort.

The specter of government-subsidized student loan rates doubling is the most recent attempt by the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill to paint Republicans as the model of inaction. President Barack Obama is on a nationwide college tour, slamming congressional Republicans for allowing the Stafford loan rate to jump on July 1. In reality, Republican leadership on Capitol Hill didn’t address how they would deal with the July 1 deadline, which would have allowed government subsidized student loan rates jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

Democrats are reportedly claiming Republicans are only making a fuss about how to pay for the extension because they secretly want to raise interest rates on students. Right, because Republicans have never in the past had ideological objections to using tax hikes to pay for subsidy programs. The left is also pointing to quotes from random Republicans who oppose the student loan rate extension as evidence of party-wide opposition. But that ignores that the student loan bill wasn’t a particularly divisive issue in the past – it originally passed the Senate by a vote of 78 to 18 and was signed into law by President Bush in 2007.

The House will vote reportedly vote on the GOP bill on Friday. Then the Senate may pass the Senate Democrats’ student loan bill with some Republican support. Both sides will scramble to gain political leverage, and eventually there will be some sort of compromise, because neither party will want to be the one responsible for increased student loan rates. Of course, this process probably would have been much less partisan and volatile if President Obama hadn’t spent the last two days claiming Republicans are “obstructing” the extension because they support higher interest rates for college graduates.

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Reports of Tea Party’s Demise Premature

Because the Republican Party will nominate the one candidate who, at least at the outset of the contest, Tea Partiers seemed to have the least affinity for, many political observers have concluded that the movement’s time has come and gone. But as the results from a number of Senate races testify, reports of the Tea Party’s demise are, at best, premature. In Utah, longtime incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch is being forced into a Republican primary to hold on to his seat. But an even better argument for the group as a force that should be reckoned with came in Pennsylvania, where the state GOP establishment’s choice was humiliated in a primary yesterday to determine the party’s nominee to oppose Senator Bob Casey.

While the Pennsylvania GOP Senate race received minimal attention even in the Keystone state, the collapse of Governor Tom Corbett’s attempt to handpick an unknown for the nomination is noteworthy. Corbett and the state party wanted Steve Welch, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who was a registered Democrat as recently as 2009. But Tea Party activists embraced Tom Smith, a coal millionaire from the Western region of the state. Though Smith, 64, was a lifelong Democrat, he was able to harness the anger of the party’s grass roots and won by a huge margin over Welch, and Sam Rohrer, a state representative who also sought to appeal to Tea Partiers.

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Because the Republican Party will nominate the one candidate who, at least at the outset of the contest, Tea Partiers seemed to have the least affinity for, many political observers have concluded that the movement’s time has come and gone. But as the results from a number of Senate races testify, reports of the Tea Party’s demise are, at best, premature. In Utah, longtime incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch is being forced into a Republican primary to hold on to his seat. But an even better argument for the group as a force that should be reckoned with came in Pennsylvania, where the state GOP establishment’s choice was humiliated in a primary yesterday to determine the party’s nominee to oppose Senator Bob Casey.

While the Pennsylvania GOP Senate race received minimal attention even in the Keystone state, the collapse of Governor Tom Corbett’s attempt to handpick an unknown for the nomination is noteworthy. Corbett and the state party wanted Steve Welch, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who was a registered Democrat as recently as 2009. But Tea Party activists embraced Tom Smith, a coal millionaire from the Western region of the state. Though Smith, 64, was a lifelong Democrat, he was able to harness the anger of the party’s grass roots and won by a huge margin over Welch, and Sam Rohrer, a state representative who also sought to appeal to Tea Partiers.

Though Casey is closely identified with President Obama and might be vulnerable if the Democratic ticket faces a strong challenge from Mitt Romney, he is probably not in much danger of being defeated. Casey, who remains popular despite a lackluster record in the Senate, has enough resources to match Smith’s wealth, and the GOP candidate is not likely to gain much traction outside of western Pennsylvania.

But no matter what happens in November in this race, the idea that the Tea Party is a spent force in the GOP is not realistic. We may get even more evidence of this when Indiana Senator Richard Lugar faces off in a May 8 primary with State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Unlike a marginal figure like Smith or Tea Party favorites who crashed and burned in the general election in 2010 such as Utah’s Sharon Angle or Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Mourdock has a good chance of holding the seat for the GOP if he beats Lugar. If Tea Partiers can topple a Senate institution like Lugar, it will be more proof of the staying power of the movement. As Pennsylvania Governor Corbett and his cronies can tell Lugar, underestimating the Tea Party is a mistake experienced politicians should try to avoid.

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Arizona Immigration Law: Verrilli Strikes Out Again With SCOTUS

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. may have been outclassed when he went up against Paul D. Clement arguing the case to uphold the constitutionality of ObamaCare before the Supreme Court of the United States. But today, when the pair once again matched up in the same forum when the high court met to hear arguments about the state of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, it appears that the result was no different. As the New York Times reports, even the liberal justices inclined to be on the same side of the administration, which wants the law struck down, gave the impression that they thought the solicitor general was something of a flop.

While Verrilli’s second humiliation — even Justice Sonia Sotomayor was so unimpressed with his presentation that she felt the need to tell him,  “You can see it’s not selling very well” — was noteworthy, even more important was the fact that it appeared that the key provision of the Arizona law would not only be upheld but that most of the justices — even the liberals — seemed to agree that there was nothing unreasonable about it. Given the opprobrium that the mainstream media has heaped on Arizona and the way that most of the chattering classes had spoken of the law and its supporters as racists, the reaction of the court must be a shock to the administration and to its liberal supporters.

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Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. may have been outclassed when he went up against Paul D. Clement arguing the case to uphold the constitutionality of ObamaCare before the Supreme Court of the United States. But today, when the pair once again matched up in the same forum when the high court met to hear arguments about the state of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, it appears that the result was no different. As the New York Times reports, even the liberal justices inclined to be on the same side of the administration, which wants the law struck down, gave the impression that they thought the solicitor general was something of a flop.

While Verrilli’s second humiliation — even Justice Sonia Sotomayor was so unimpressed with his presentation that she felt the need to tell him,  “You can see it’s not selling very well” — was noteworthy, even more important was the fact that it appeared that the key provision of the Arizona law would not only be upheld but that most of the justices — even the liberals — seemed to agree that there was nothing unreasonable about it. Given the opprobrium that the mainstream media has heaped on Arizona and the way that most of the chattering classes had spoken of the law and its supporters as racists, the reaction of the court must be a shock to the administration and to its liberal supporters.

At the heart of the debate is the question of whether Arizona was within its rights when it mandated that law enforcement officials must seek to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop if there is reason to believe the individual is not legally in this country. Though other parts of the law — including provisions that treat illegals working or to failing to register with federal authorities as crimes — might not be upheld, the inability of Verrilli to assert that inquiring about the immigration status of a person already detained was a form of racial profiling was a glaring weakness in the government’s case.

Though the Arizona law was condemned by the president and overruled by a federal appeals court, the justices seemed to agree that states were entitled to pass laws that require local officials to make mandatory inquiries to federal authorities. Moreover, it is clear that such provisions are actually quite common. All of which means the effort to demonize the Arizonans and their effort to, as Clement put it, deal with a crisis not of their own making, was deeply unfair.

What’s more, the arguments also seemed to bring out the strange inconsistency in the administration’s case. While claiming only the federal government had the right to pass laws that deal with immigration, they seemed to extend that unexceptionable principle to demanding that local authorities ignore the situation entirely. As Chief Justice John Roberts said, “It seems to me that the federal government just doesn’t want to know who is here illegally or not.” Even as hardcore a liberal as Justice Stephen Breyer said he would vote in favor of the constitutionality of this point in the law so long as it was proven that the process of checking immigration status would not result in “detention for a significantly longer time” than might happen in any other circumstance.

One needn’t necessarily agree with those who promulgated the law about the impact of illegals to understand that there is nothing wrong with the state trying to determine if someone already in custody is an undocumented alien. If the court rules (as seems likely) to uphold the provision — and does so with a comfortable majority that includes liberals as well as conservatives — then President Obama and a long list of other liberals who have vilified Arizona will owe the state, its governor, legislature and citizens a big apology.

As for Solicitor General Verrilli, he may have made himself the poster child for the Obama administration’s utter incompetence. As the Times notes:

At one point Justice Sotomayor, addressing Mr. Verrilli by his title, said: “General, I’m terribly confused by your answer. O.K.? And I don’t know that you’re focusing in on what I believe my colleagues are trying to get to.”

President Obama’s positions on his health care law and the Arizona immigration law were weak to start with. But with a champion as hapless as Verrilli, the government’s already weak position was made even more vulnerable.

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Rubio Blasts Republican Isolationists

Jonathan is right, Marco Rubio is far more prepared for the VP slot than Sarah Palin in 2008. Case in point: he delivered an impressive speech on foreign policy earlier today at the Brookings Institute. He even lost the last page of his remarks (every speaker’s nightmare) but managed to take it in stride.

The full text of the speech is worth reading here, but his direct repudiation of the isolationist streak within his own party is drawing the most attention:

I am always cautious about generalizations but until very recently, the general perception was that American conservatism believed in a robust and muscular foreign policy. That was certainly the hallmark of the foreign policy of President Reagan, and both President Bush’s. But when I arrived in the Senate last year I found that some of the traditional sides in the foreign policy debate had shifted.

On the one hand, I found liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and staying out of Libya. On the other hand, I found myself partnering with Democrats like Bob Menendez and Bob Casey on a more forceful foreign policy. In fact, resolutions that I co-authored with Senator Casey condemning Assad and with Senator Menendez condemning fraudulent elections in Nicaragua were held up by Republicans. I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left.

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Jonathan is right, Marco Rubio is far more prepared for the VP slot than Sarah Palin in 2008. Case in point: he delivered an impressive speech on foreign policy earlier today at the Brookings Institute. He even lost the last page of his remarks (every speaker’s nightmare) but managed to take it in stride.

The full text of the speech is worth reading here, but his direct repudiation of the isolationist streak within his own party is drawing the most attention:

I am always cautious about generalizations but until very recently, the general perception was that American conservatism believed in a robust and muscular foreign policy. That was certainly the hallmark of the foreign policy of President Reagan, and both President Bush’s. But when I arrived in the Senate last year I found that some of the traditional sides in the foreign policy debate had shifted.

On the one hand, I found liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and staying out of Libya. On the other hand, I found myself partnering with Democrats like Bob Menendez and Bob Casey on a more forceful foreign policy. In fact, resolutions that I co-authored with Senator Casey condemning Assad and with Senator Menendez condemning fraudulent elections in Nicaragua were held up by Republicans. I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left.

The far-left and far-right don’t just agree on the embrace of American decline, but also on the other problematic attitudes that tend to go along with isolationism and non-interventionism, including antipathy toward Israel and indifference to human rights in other countries. As a young senator elected with Tea Party support, Rubio is in a prime position to rebut creeping isolationism/non-interventionism among the conservative grassroots.

Rubio gave a broad outline of his vision for U.S. foreign policy, which is heavily influenced by Robert Kagan’s arguments on the myth of American decline (Kagan has also advised Romney on foreign policy). Rubio spoke passionately about human rights and called the spread of political and economic freedom across the world “a vital interest” for the U.S. He acknowledged that working in coalitions with other countries is often helpful, but added that these coalitions are most successful when the U.S. takes the lead. And he argued that if military action needs to be used against Iran, then Israel shouldn’t be left to shoulder the burden on its own.

Still, this is a speech that Rubio could have delayed for a few months. The fact that he decided to give it today, at the height of speculation over his possible VP nod, seems to indicate that he’s either interested in the job, or just wants to give the impression that he is.

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America’s Slowing Economy

Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that seasonally-adjusted annual rate of sales fell 7.1 percent from February. The March figures for home sales were the lowest in four months. Today, we learned that new orders for manufactured durable goods in March decreased $8.8 billion — or 4.2 percent — to $202.6 billion. And this comes after a jobs report that showed in March we produced only 120,000 new jobs, as more and more people continued to drop out of the labor force.

As this McClatchy Newspaper story puts it:

Rather than a breakout surge in economic growth, mainstream forecasters say, Americans should expect the U.S. economy to slog forward for another couple of years.

The economy grew at a subpar annual rate of 1.7 percent last year, down from 3 percent the year before. The consensus forecast for this year now is for growth of 2 to 2.5 percent.

The U.S. economy is expected to slow later this year… A spate of recent indicators punctuated fears that the economy is stalling. March delivered only 120,000 new jobs, and the latest manufacturing and real estate data softened.

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Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that seasonally-adjusted annual rate of sales fell 7.1 percent from February. The March figures for home sales were the lowest in four months. Today, we learned that new orders for manufactured durable goods in March decreased $8.8 billion — or 4.2 percent — to $202.6 billion. And this comes after a jobs report that showed in March we produced only 120,000 new jobs, as more and more people continued to drop out of the labor force.

As this McClatchy Newspaper story puts it:

Rather than a breakout surge in economic growth, mainstream forecasters say, Americans should expect the U.S. economy to slog forward for another couple of years.

The economy grew at a subpar annual rate of 1.7 percent last year, down from 3 percent the year before. The consensus forecast for this year now is for growth of 2 to 2.5 percent.

The U.S. economy is expected to slow later this year… A spate of recent indicators punctuated fears that the economy is stalling. March delivered only 120,000 new jobs, and the latest manufacturing and real estate data softened.

We’re already experiencing the weakest economic recovery since after World War II — and the latest data points to a further slowdown.

No wonder the president’s campaign would rather talk about contraception, Warren Buffett’s secretary, and the Irish setter Mitt Romney owned 30 years ago.

 

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Romney’s Dignified Speech

Mitt Romney’s speech after the primaries last night contained language that was simple, straightforward, and at times elegant. But there was also an impressive political intelligence behind the address.

Take as examples these three sentences:

* “Everywhere I go, Americans are tired of being tired.”

* “The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it’s not the best America can do.”

* “Tonight is the beginning of the end of the disappointment of the Obama years and the start of a new and better chapter that we will write together.”

These sentences tapped into the mood of the public, taking pre-existing sentiments of many Americans, giving voice to them, and channeling them to Romney’s advantage. While most Americans don’t dislike President Obama personally – quite the contrary — they are deeply disappointed in his record. They are tired. They are ready to move on. And they are ready to write new and better chapters in the American story.

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Mitt Romney’s speech after the primaries last night contained language that was simple, straightforward, and at times elegant. But there was also an impressive political intelligence behind the address.

Take as examples these three sentences:

* “Everywhere I go, Americans are tired of being tired.”

* “The last few years have been the best that Barack Obama can do, but it’s not the best America can do.”

* “Tonight is the beginning of the end of the disappointment of the Obama years and the start of a new and better chapter that we will write together.”

These sentences tapped into the mood of the public, taking pre-existing sentiments of many Americans, giving voice to them, and channeling them to Romney’s advantage. While most Americans don’t dislike President Obama personally – quite the contrary — they are deeply disappointed in his record. They are tired. They are ready to move on. And they are ready to write new and better chapters in the American story.

Now take this sentence: “I see an America with a growing middle class, with rising standards of living. I see children even more successful than their parents – some successful even beyond their wildest dreams – and others congratulating them for their achievement, not attacking them for it.”

This captured a crucial philosophical difference between Romney and Obama, with the former putting himself on the side of excellence and achievement while reminding the public that the president is a constant critic of those things. (For Obama, a progressive to his core, wealth is usually grounds for criticism, as if it’s a condition for which one ought to apologize.)

But perhaps the most effective part of Romney’s speech was this section:

Four years ago Barack Obama dazzled us in front of Greek columns with sweeping promises of hope and change. But after we came down to earth, after the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama? Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump? If the answer were “yes” to those questions, then President Obama would be running for re-election based on his achievements — and rightly so. But because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions, and distortions. That kind of campaign may have worked at another place and in a different time. But not here and not now. It’s still about the economy — and we’re not stupid.

Here Romney gently mocked the president without being mean (see the reference to the Greek columns) while also reminding his audience of the hope many people once placed in Obama. He then posed a series of devastating questions, playing off of the politically lethal question Ronald Reagan asked in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Romney then unmasked the Obama strategy, which is to run away from his record while tossing dust in the eyes of the electorate (in the form of the Buffett Rule, contraception, Sandra Fluke, oil speculators, references to “silver spoons,” and so forth). And he ended by echoing the famous line of Democratic strategist James Carville in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

The former Massachusetts governor fleshed out our understanding of him with references to his father becoming governor of the state in which he once sold paint from the trunk of his car. He articulated the different visions that are being offered in this election (a government-centered society vs. one based on freedom, enterprise, and achievement). And in a perfectly executed jujitsu, Romney took one of Obama’s main lines of attack, that Republicans are perpetuating unfairness, and turned it against the president.

We will stop the unfairness of urban children being denied access to the good schools of their choice; we will stop the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayer money to their friends’ businesses; we will stop the unfairness of requiring union workers to contribute to politicians not of their choosing; we will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve; and we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next.

Then there was the matter of tone.

Romney’s speech was dignified, never snide, and measured. It was free of the kind of vituperative comments that characterize Obama’s speeches and the comments of his top aides. Romney signaled he would be tough and take the high road while he ceded to Obama the low road. Romney was saying to the president that he can talk about “social Darwinism,” the “flat-earth society,” the “war on women,” cruel indifference toward autistic and Down syndrome children, the GOP’s “reign of terror” and lack of patriotism (“putting party above country” is the president’s locution) and Seamus the Irish setter to his heart’s delight. Romney will talk about the economy and Obama’s record, even if the president will not.

I told someone the other day that Mitt Romney seemed to me to be liberated and at ease. My sense is that he’ll be a better general election candidate than he was a GOP primary candidate, that a contest against Obama will play to his strengths better than a contest against other Republicans.

We’ll find out in due course. But if I were David Axelrod, I’d be concerned.

 

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Rubio’s No Cheney, But He’s Also Not Palin

Mitt Romney’s unopposed sweep of the five primaries yesterday brought him that much closer to the Republican presidential nomination that is already his in all but name. But it also will turn up the heat on the search for his running mate. With nothing else to discuss — other than the issues, that is — anyone whose name is under consideration can expect the sort of examination that has, up until now, been restricted to presidential contenders.

The chief recipient of this intense scrutiny will undoubtedly be the man many believe is the frontrunner for the number two spot on the GOP ticket: Marco Rubio. Along with the other main contenders, Paul Ryan, Rob Portman and Chris Christie, his career and life is going to get a going over with a fine tooth comb not just from Romney’s vetting team but from a press corps that no longer has a nomination battle to cover. One of the first shots at Rubio’s credentials came yesterday from John Dickerson at Slate, who attempted to tag the Florida senator as being another version of 2008 GOP veep pick Sarah Palin, which is about the most unflattering comparison possible.

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Mitt Romney’s unopposed sweep of the five primaries yesterday brought him that much closer to the Republican presidential nomination that is already his in all but name. But it also will turn up the heat on the search for his running mate. With nothing else to discuss — other than the issues, that is — anyone whose name is under consideration can expect the sort of examination that has, up until now, been restricted to presidential contenders.

The chief recipient of this intense scrutiny will undoubtedly be the man many believe is the frontrunner for the number two spot on the GOP ticket: Marco Rubio. Along with the other main contenders, Paul Ryan, Rob Portman and Chris Christie, his career and life is going to get a going over with a fine tooth comb not just from Romney’s vetting team but from a press corps that no longer has a nomination battle to cover. One of the first shots at Rubio’s credentials came yesterday from John Dickerson at Slate, who attempted to tag the Florida senator as being another version of 2008 GOP veep pick Sarah Palin, which is about the most unflattering comparison possible.

According to Dickerson, Rubio is similar to Palin in that he hasn’t any executive experience. Therefore, because Romney is running on the issue of competence, Rubio’s presence on the ticket will undermine the Republican campaign. Of course, it should be pointed out that Palin actually had a lot more executive experience (both as mayor of Wasilla and her 19 months on the job as governor of Alaska when John McCain tapped her for the nomination) than Rubio. But the problem with this argument is the issue with Palin was not so much her relatively thin resume (though not when compared to Barack Obama) but her lack of comfort discussing the major issues of the day in depth and at length. Rubio is a relative newcomer, but he is not someone who will flame out and play the fool in a one-on-one interview with Katie Couric.

Rubio may not be the second coming of Dick Cheney — a man who was picked to run with George W. Bush because of his extensive Washington resume and ability to govern — but he is ready to debate on the national stage, something that, for all of her considerable political gifts, Sarah Palin was not prepared to do in 2008.

But Dickerson is on to something when he hones in on Romney’s obvious desire to have someone run with him who has executive experience or at least possesses the ability to approach the issues with the same systematic method Romney prized during his business career. If that is what Romney is looking for — and Cheney is right when he says the priority should not be on superficial political advantages that might attach to possible running mates — then the edge will go to the only sitting governor on the presumed short list: Chris Christie.

However, the other two main contenders also bring something to the table in this regard that should not be discounted. As the chairman of the House Budget Committee and the architect of the Republican proposals for entitlement reform, Ryan clearly has the vision and the understanding of how the federal government works to help Romney govern. And Portman, who currently sits in the Senate but was George W. Bush’s budget director, has the same sort of credential. But both also have negatives attached to their resumes. Ryan is considered radioactive to some because of the way Democrats have demonized his proposals, and Portman’s service in the last administration will link Romney to Bush.

Dickerson is also right to discount the edge that Rubio would bring with Hispanic voters. As I wrote yesterday, most of what is assumed by pundits about that is probably untrue.

As for Rubio, the jury is still out on whether his efforts to tamp down speculation about his candidacy were genuine. He had me convinced when he repeatedly said that “it wasn’t going to happen,” which sounded like he had a reason why he didn’t want to run (or why Romney shouldn’t pick him) rather than the usual coyness that we expect from vice presidential contenders. But his recent efforts aimed at self-promotion as well as a memorable Freudian slip about the subject have left me thinking maybe he wants it after all.

In the first century of the history of this republic, it was customary for presidential contenders to pretend they weren’t candidates and bad form to do anything that could be construed as campaigning for the job. But though that silly masquerade is no longer part of the presidential election process, it is retained for would-be vice presidents. But we’d all be better off if there was more candor about the veep search.

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Where is Atrocity Prevention on Syria?

Lee Smith has already noted at the Weekly Standard’s site the irony of the Obama administration creating the Atrocities Prevention Board at the very moment the administration is choosing to do nothing substantive to stop the atrocities being perpetrated in Syria.

There is another layer of irony, as noted by Michael Dobbs at Foreign Policy, namely that the driving force behind the Atrocities Prevention Board, NSC staffer Samantha Power, the author of an important history of American responses to genocide, had noted the propensity of U.S. officials to oppose “genocide in the abstract while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.” It is hard to better that as a description of the U.S. response, or lack thereof, to the massacres occurring in Syria.

The U.S. has responded with empty calls for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and tough sanctions which have done much damage to the Syrian economy but have not stopped the killing or shaken the regime, which continues to be supported by Iran, Russia, and other unsavory actors. The latest attempt to save the Syrian people has come courtesy of the UN, which is introducing monitors to Syria. Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime has not been cowed by the presence of these unarmed observers; Syrian security forces have cracked down hard in cities such as Homs where the people have dared to protest the regime during the fleeting visits of the UN observers.

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Lee Smith has already noted at the Weekly Standard’s site the irony of the Obama administration creating the Atrocities Prevention Board at the very moment the administration is choosing to do nothing substantive to stop the atrocities being perpetrated in Syria.

There is another layer of irony, as noted by Michael Dobbs at Foreign Policy, namely that the driving force behind the Atrocities Prevention Board, NSC staffer Samantha Power, the author of an important history of American responses to genocide, had noted the propensity of U.S. officials to oppose “genocide in the abstract while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.” It is hard to better that as a description of the U.S. response, or lack thereof, to the massacres occurring in Syria.

The U.S. has responded with empty calls for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and tough sanctions which have done much damage to the Syrian economy but have not stopped the killing or shaken the regime, which continues to be supported by Iran, Russia, and other unsavory actors. The latest attempt to save the Syrian people has come courtesy of the UN, which is introducing monitors to Syria. Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime has not been cowed by the presence of these unarmed observers; Syrian security forces have cracked down hard in cities such as Homs where the people have dared to protest the regime during the fleeting visits of the UN observers.

This is not a serious policy; it is in fact the absence of a policy. As Elie Wiesel said at the Holocaust Museum, in introducing President Obama to give a speech on how he would prevent atrocities, “How is it that Assad is still in power?…Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late.” (Wiesel also demanded to know how it is that Ahamedinejad remains in power in Iran and how it is that Iran is on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons.)

That situation does not appear likely to change anytime soon. Barring greater action led by the U.S., Assad will remain in power. And I fear that the U.S. may not do anything serious until after the November presidential election. Unfortunately, the way things are going, the killing will still be in full swing then.

 

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Beinart’s Universalists Strike Back

The discussion of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism is no longer a conversation about what Beinart wrote. It has morphed into what I believe is a much more useful conversation about the conception of Judaism that lies at the core of Beinart’s worldview and what I take to be his assault on it. In my review of his book in the Jerusalem Post, I suggested that part of what makes Beinart so uncomfortable with Israel is the fact that for Beinart and many like him, for whom the erotic draw of the sirens of universalism are too powerful to resist, Israel is a reminder of Judaism’s people-centeredness. In his book, Beinart used the word “tribal” for “people-centeredness,” so I did the same in my review. And I showed that every single time (not most times, but every single time) that Beinart used the word “tribal,” it had a distinctly negative connotation.

In his inevitable response, Beinart insisted, “I am a Zionist and a tribalist.” He did not explain why, if that is the case, every use of “tribal” in the book was negative, but such is invariably the nature of the “you said I said but I really said” of book reviews and responses thereto. Nothing particularly noteworthy there – except that Beinart has thankfully acknowledged that Judaism is tribal, and that (at least now) he thinks that’s a good thing.

But that is not so for Peter’s amigos. A brief glance at some of the responses to my response affords a sense of just how raw that universalist nerve is. “You can critique Beinart’s book all you want,” they essentially say, “but if you dare suggest that my abandonment of Jewish particularism is a departure from one of Judaism’s core values, well, then, I will come after you.”

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The discussion of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism is no longer a conversation about what Beinart wrote. It has morphed into what I believe is a much more useful conversation about the conception of Judaism that lies at the core of Beinart’s worldview and what I take to be his assault on it. In my review of his book in the Jerusalem Post, I suggested that part of what makes Beinart so uncomfortable with Israel is the fact that for Beinart and many like him, for whom the erotic draw of the sirens of universalism are too powerful to resist, Israel is a reminder of Judaism’s people-centeredness. In his book, Beinart used the word “tribal” for “people-centeredness,” so I did the same in my review. And I showed that every single time (not most times, but every single time) that Beinart used the word “tribal,” it had a distinctly negative connotation.

In his inevitable response, Beinart insisted, “I am a Zionist and a tribalist.” He did not explain why, if that is the case, every use of “tribal” in the book was negative, but such is invariably the nature of the “you said I said but I really said” of book reviews and responses thereto. Nothing particularly noteworthy there – except that Beinart has thankfully acknowledged that Judaism is tribal, and that (at least now) he thinks that’s a good thing.

But that is not so for Peter’s amigos. A brief glance at some of the responses to my response affords a sense of just how raw that universalist nerve is. “You can critique Beinart’s book all you want,” they essentially say, “but if you dare suggest that my abandonment of Jewish particularism is a departure from one of Judaism’s core values, well, then, I will come after you.”

And “come after you” they have. J. J. Goldberg, in a recent column in the Forward, says that I’ve become “unhinged.” But then he proceeds to illustrate what writing is like when context is ignored and honesty is no longer a value. He says I believe Judaism “mandates a xenophobic rancor” against non-Jews, when, in fact, I specifically asked whether the tribal-orientation of Judaism’s classic texts might contribute to “illegitimate Jewish senses of supremacy.” What I had written, then, was precisely the opposite of what Goldberg said that I said.

Goldberg also says, “Gordis even quotes approvingly the Talmud’s claim that ‘converts are as burdensome to [the people of] Israel as leprosy.’” But that, too, is completely false. I cite the phrase, but not approvingly. I simply note that Judaism’s classic sources are conflicted about converts, because there is something counterintuitive about people joining a tribe. Goldberg knows that my description of the phrase in the context of Jewish tradition is correct, and he surely knows that just days before my review of Beinart’s book I co-wrote a piece for the Times of Israel specifically advocating a warmer welcome of converts.

Distortions such as these make this a nasty piece of work, but if there is comfort in company, Goldberg should be feeling good. Shaul Magid, professor at Indiana University and until 2003 a member of the philosophy faculty at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, responded to Beinart’s book by essentially claiming that Beinart was too tribalist:

Intermarriage is a reality American Jews will have to deal with. It’s not going away nor, I would argue, should it. American Jews intermarry at a rate commensurate with many other minority populations in America (excluding blacks and Latinos), so is Beinart suggesting ethnic groups should only marry one another? Or is he saying that intermarriage between a Polish Catholic and a Korean Presbyterian is fine but that Jews should only marry other Jews? It may be that the intermarried Jew cares less about Israel, but rectifying this reality by making an exceptionalist claim about the Jews, making them “anomalous” (a label with ominous anti-Semitic coattails) is not the answer.

That’s an astounding claim for someone committed to a rich Jewish future. Magid then resorted to name-calling on Facebook. Responding to a Facebook posting about my upcoming debate with Peter Beinart at Columbia University, Magid wrote: “Why give voice to Gordis’ tribal fascism? Oh yeah, free speech.”

So, for having claimed that “tribalism” is a central facet of classic Jewish thought, and for having cited a relatively obvious laundry list of sources that make that clear, Magid decided that I’m a “fascist.” When I wrote Magid on Facebook saying, “You know I’m not a fascist, you know I advocate a two-state solution, you know that I’ve gone to protect Palestinians as they harvest their olives, you know that I’ve testified against settlers in Israeli court,” he responded by saying, in part, “It looks like I’m not the only one to use the ‘f’-word in response to your response to Beinart.” There’s a principled position: other people did it, too.

And with that, Magid referred me to a column by Zachary Braiterman of Syracuse University. Braiterman does, indeed, use the “f”-word, but he also borrows some tactics from Goldberg’s playbook, namely, saying that I said what I didn’t say. For example, referring back to my review of Beinart, Braiterman says, “Gordis cites political philosopher Michael Sandel to claim that liberal American Jews feel no attachment to Jewishness and Judaism.” But that’s patently false. I cited Sandel to make a claim about human beings and the importance of ancestral moorings. Sandel’s quote says nothing about Jews, and I said nothing to imply that it did.

In a refreshing moment of honesty, though, Braiterman at least has the courage to admit that he knows that the “fascist” moniker is unfair. “I really don’t know what Gordis means by ‘tribalism.’ Are we going to see the distinguished American born rabbi joining the ‘death to Arabs’ crowd or the hill-toppers or price-taggers? I don’t know. I know I’m being unfair. But this is one possible endpoint to which this logic of tribalism leads.”

Ah, so there’s the issue. We’re afraid of … ideas? Tribalism has many dangers, as does the absence of tribalism. So because anything that could be taken to an extreme could be dangerous, these academics will label those who raise the idea as “fascists”?

For good measure, though, it’s worth noting that for Andrew Sullivan, “fascist” isn’t enough. No, in a column that might well have been requested by Beinart (both of them write at the Daily Beast, so this surely seems like a favor called in), Sullivan, who I’m sure has never read a word I’ve written, writes “Perhaps the most dishonest McCarthyite review was written by Daniel Gordis. … But Gordis is at least not hiding behind bullshit like so many of his fellow travelers. He wants an Israel, dedicated to survival as a Jewish state by means of ethnic and religious cleansing. He is a proud tribalist: ‘Do we aspire to America’s ideal of a democracy? Not at all. We’re about something very different.’”

So, because I defended Jewish particularism (using the tribal word that Beinart himself employed), I’m not only a fascist. I’m a “McCarthyite.” The mere notion that the very purpose of the re-creation of the State of Israel and its survival might be the revival of the Jewish people (and not simply “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) must mean that we’re heading right for ethnic and religious cleansing.

Even allowing for the likelihood that Sullivan was coming to the defense of his buddy and didn’t have a moment to read anything that I’ve written about Jewish particularism, we have here a not terribly flattering picture of the state of writing and thinking in our world. Goldberg distorts the truth. Magid invokes the “fascist” label and then, challenged on it, defends himself by saying that he’s not the only one who did it. Braiterman uses it but can’t help but admit that he knows it’s unfair, and Sullivan, without having read a word I’ve written beyond the Beinart review, lurches from “fascist” to “McCarthyite.”

Not a terribly promising foundation on which to build serious discourse, is it? Israel, the settlements and even Peter Beinart’s book may be the least of the problems we need to address.

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Romney’s Case for Romney

Mitt Romney is getting much, much better at addressing issues about his personal wealth and his history in the private sector. In his speech last night, there was none of the hesitancy that we saw when he tried to defend his Bain Capital record against Newt Gingrich’s attacks several months ago. And he showed that he will run unabashedly on his record as a turnaround artist, despite the fact that the Obama campaign will undoubtedly raise the Bain Capital issue again:

I’d say that you might have heard that I was successful in business. And that rumor is true. But you might not have heard that I became successful by helping start a business that grew from 10 people to hundreds of people. You might not have heard that our business helped start other businesses, like Staples and Sports Authority and a new steel mill and a learning center called Bright Horizons. And I’d tell you that not every business made it and there were good days and bad days, but every day was a lesson.  And after 25 years, I know how to lead us out of this stagnant Obama economy and into a job-creating recovery.

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Mitt Romney is getting much, much better at addressing issues about his personal wealth and his history in the private sector. In his speech last night, there was none of the hesitancy that we saw when he tried to defend his Bain Capital record against Newt Gingrich’s attacks several months ago. And he showed that he will run unabashedly on his record as a turnaround artist, despite the fact that the Obama campaign will undoubtedly raise the Bain Capital issue again:

I’d say that you might have heard that I was successful in business. And that rumor is true. But you might not have heard that I became successful by helping start a business that grew from 10 people to hundreds of people. You might not have heard that our business helped start other businesses, like Staples and Sports Authority and a new steel mill and a learning center called Bright Horizons. And I’d tell you that not every business made it and there were good days and bad days, but every day was a lesson.  And after 25 years, I know how to lead us out of this stagnant Obama economy and into a job-creating recovery.

He also contrasted his vision for America with President Obama’s (but honestly, does Obama even have anything that could qualify as a “vision” at this point? Beyond his reelection, that is?):

I have a very different vision for America, and of our future. It is an America driven by freedom, where free people, pursuing happiness in their own unique ways, create free enterprises that employ more and more Americans. Because there are so many enterprises that are succeeding, the competition for hard-working, educated and skilled employees is intense, and so wages and salaries rise.

I see an America with a growing middle class, with rising standards of living. I see children even more successful than their parents – some successful even beyond their wildest dreams – and others congratulating them for their achievement, not attacking them for it.

The key line: “We’ll stop the days of apologizing for success at home and never again apologize for America abroad.”

That’s the message that needs to be driven home: No apologies for greatness at home or abroad. It’s one that will resonate with independent voters just as much as it will with conservatives.

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Backlash Over “60 Minutes” Israel Report

“60 Minutes” is getting a lot of pushback for its recent “expose” blaming Israel’s presence in the West Bank for the dwindling population of Christian Palestinians in the area. The piece smacks of the sort of journalism in which the facts are assembled to fit some pre-conceived “fresh” storyline (Muslim extremists persecuting Christian Arabs? Dog bites man. Israel persecuting Christian Arabs – now that’s a story!)

The premise of the “60 Minutes” piece is that Israel’s wall and checkpoints – security measures to prevent terrorism – are a real hassle for Palestinian Christians when they travel to Jerusalem to pray or visit family. There are waiting lines, permit requests, unaccommodating government administrators. It’s basically a bureaucratic nightmare. And that, according to “60 Minutes,” is why the Palestinian Christian population in the West Bank has decreased by two-thirds since 1964 (just ignore that annoying detail about Israel’s security fence being built in 2003).

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“60 Minutes” is getting a lot of pushback for its recent “expose” blaming Israel’s presence in the West Bank for the dwindling population of Christian Palestinians in the area. The piece smacks of the sort of journalism in which the facts are assembled to fit some pre-conceived “fresh” storyline (Muslim extremists persecuting Christian Arabs? Dog bites man. Israel persecuting Christian Arabs – now that’s a story!)

The premise of the “60 Minutes” piece is that Israel’s wall and checkpoints – security measures to prevent terrorism – are a real hassle for Palestinian Christians when they travel to Jerusalem to pray or visit family. There are waiting lines, permit requests, unaccommodating government administrators. It’s basically a bureaucratic nightmare. And that, according to “60 Minutes,” is why the Palestinian Christian population in the West Bank has decreased by two-thirds since 1964 (just ignore that annoying detail about Israel’s security fence being built in 2003).

Others have already written good takedowns of the story (see: Adam Kredo, Jen RubinMarc Tracy). There seems to be three basic contradictions that “60 Minutes” avoids:

  1. Palestinian Christians are fleeing the West Bank, but the Palestinian Muslim population is growing. Why is that? If Israel’s irksome presence were the chief driving factor for the migration, wouldn’t both populations be leaving the area at roughly the same rate?
  1. Christian communities are dwindling in size across the Muslim world.
  1. The Christian population inside Israel is growing.

Maybe the Palestinian Christians are fleeing because they’re fed up with the red tape and bleak economic prospects. Or, maybe their population is decreasing because they are trying to escape an increasingly extreme Islamic leadership in the West Bank that enforces strict religious laws while failing to protect Christians from intimidation and violence.

As Honest Reporting notes, Palestinian Christians have blamed Muslim persecution for their migration in numerous media reports. But they’ve mainly done so anonymously, out of fear of reprisal.

Did reporter Bob Simon ask any Palestinian Christians whether the rising influence of Hamas in the West Bank is contributing to the exodus? If so, why were the answers excluded from the final story? And if not, why did he neglect to ask such a basic and essential question?

The problem with Simon’s story isn’t just that he portrays Israel in an unfair light. It’s that he could have used the firepower of “60 Minutes” to do difficult reporting on the real persecution of Palestinian Christians, who mainly speak anonymously about their plight with the press. Instead, he decided to talk to the same anti-Israel activists who will gladly sit down with any reporter. It was a disappointing show, and a lazy one at that.

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Jimmy Fallon Shills for Obama

I understand that late-night comics can’t be expected to have anything more than a basic comprehension of the political issues they discuss. Their job is to be funny, not to grasp the details of a legislative bill, or understand the political posturing in both parties. But Jimmy Fallon and his producers got so spun up by the White House last night that it was embarrassing to watch.

President Obama appeared in Fallon’s “slow jam the news” bit to express his support for the student loan extension bill and blast the GOP for supposedly opposing the extension. Using a late-night show with a college-aged audience to push such a distorted, partisan message may be a little unseemly, but Fallon got in on the act too, shilling for the bill and basically endorsing the president’s claim that Republicans simply want to raise interest rates on students:

President Obama: Now there’s some in Congress who disagree. They say keeping the interest rate low isn’t the way to help our students. They say we should be doing everything we can to pay down the national debt. Well, as long as it doesn’t include taxing billionaires. But their position is that students just have to make this rate increase work. Frankly, I don’t buy it.

Jimmy Fallon: The Barackness Monster ain’t buying it. We all know our legislative bodies in the House tossing and turning late into the night. But Republicans disagree and could even filibuster. But if they do, the president said they’re gonna feel it buster.

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I understand that late-night comics can’t be expected to have anything more than a basic comprehension of the political issues they discuss. Their job is to be funny, not to grasp the details of a legislative bill, or understand the political posturing in both parties. But Jimmy Fallon and his producers got so spun up by the White House last night that it was embarrassing to watch.

President Obama appeared in Fallon’s “slow jam the news” bit to express his support for the student loan extension bill and blast the GOP for supposedly opposing the extension. Using a late-night show with a college-aged audience to push such a distorted, partisan message may be a little unseemly, but Fallon got in on the act too, shilling for the bill and basically endorsing the president’s claim that Republicans simply want to raise interest rates on students:

President Obama: Now there’s some in Congress who disagree. They say keeping the interest rate low isn’t the way to help our students. They say we should be doing everything we can to pay down the national debt. Well, as long as it doesn’t include taxing billionaires. But their position is that students just have to make this rate increase work. Frankly, I don’t buy it.

Jimmy Fallon: The Barackness Monster ain’t buying it. We all know our legislative bodies in the House tossing and turning late into the night. But Republicans disagree and could even filibuster. But if they do, the president said they’re gonna feel it buster.

In fact, Republicans in Congress aren’t opposed to keeping student loan interest rates low, and Mitt Romney has come out in support of the extension. Republicans mainly disagree with the way Democrats want to pay for it, which is by raising taxes on small businesses that make more than $250,000 a year.

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