Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 7, 2012

Bonne Chance, M. le President

The French have a genius for many things: food, art, couture, wine, décor among them. There is no city on earth—except my native New York—that I enjoy being in more than Paris. But not even the greatest admirers of la belle France would say the French have a genius for politics. Ever since a revolution based on liberté, égalité , fraternité produced only—in Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase—“a pile of corpses and a tyrant,” French politics has been, more often than not, a mess. Three kingdoms, two empires, and five republics have yet to produce long-term democratic stability of the sort the English-speaking peoples have taken for granted for generations.

Yesterday, the French electorate gave Nicolas Sarkozy the boot from the Élysée Palace and voted in François Hollande, a socialist who admits that he “doesn’t like rich people.” Sarkozy’s loss is not altogether surprising, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this morning, because he failed to keep nearly all his election promises from five years ago.

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The French have a genius for many things: food, art, couture, wine, décor among them. There is no city on earth—except my native New York—that I enjoy being in more than Paris. But not even the greatest admirers of la belle France would say the French have a genius for politics. Ever since a revolution based on liberté, égalité , fraternité produced only—in Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase—“a pile of corpses and a tyrant,” French politics has been, more often than not, a mess. Three kingdoms, two empires, and five republics have yet to produce long-term democratic stability of the sort the English-speaking peoples have taken for granted for generations.

Yesterday, the French electorate gave Nicolas Sarkozy the boot from the Élysée Palace and voted in François Hollande, a socialist who admits that he “doesn’t like rich people.” Sarkozy’s loss is not altogether surprising, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this morning, because he failed to keep nearly all his election promises from five years ago.

But Hollande wants to raise taxes on those earning more than 1,000,000 euros to 75 percent, and repeal one of Sarkozy’s few accomplishments, increasing the retirement age for young people from 60 to 62. With the French government already controlling 56 percent of the country’s GDP, Hollande wants to increase the size of France’s notorious civil service to stimulate the economy. (It’s not a coincidence that English borrowed the word bureaucrat from the French.)

Even Barack Obama, the most profligate, statist, and stimulus-mad president in American history, has urged Hollande not to abandon austerity, although White House motives might not be wholly selfless here.

It will be interesting to see if Hollande has any real choice. When François Mitterrand tried to implement a traditional socialist agenda after winning the French presidency in 1981, the currency markets tanked the French franc and forced him to back off. Thirty years on, Hollande faces many more problems than Mitterrand did: still stronger markets; the fact that France is now part of the euro system, limiting its ability to play currency games; Angela Merkel (how would you like to bring a bad report card home to her?); and the fact that France does not tax its citizens living abroad. The French expatriate community in Britain is large and will, undoubtedly, get still larger and quickly, if Hollande passes confiscatory taxes on the rich.

With the European crisis by no means at an end, the new président de la République has his work cut out for him, to put it mildly.

 

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Why Are We Releasing, Not Exchanging, Taliban Prisoners?

Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

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Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

Almost exactly four years ago, in May 0f 2008 during an address before the Israeli Knesset then-candidate Barack Obama stated,

George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.

Besides a general easing of tension which this policy is trying to foster, there is one very real concession that the president has seemed to ignore in his concessions to the devil (they’re only called deals if you get something in return, which we have not).

On June 30, 2009, almost three years ago, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho was kidnapped by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. He is the only prisoner of war currently held by the Taliban and recent video releases seem to indicate that he is being kept alive for ransom by the group. A month after his capture the president issued a statement, explaining that he was “heartbroken” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s situation and vowed to bring him home. In three years, this seems to be the only public statement made by the President about Bergdahl.

In December, The Daily Beast was the only outlet to report on a heroic escape attempt by the sergeant. After working for over two years to gain the trust of his captors, Bergdahl jumped out of a first-story window, running into the wilderness. The Daily Beast tells the story,

Mullah Sangin and his brother Mullah Balal, who had been put in charge of the prisoner, organized a search as soon as the escape was discovered. Nevertheless, the sources say, Bergdahl successfully avoided capture for three days and two nights. The searchers finally found him, weak, exhausted, and nearly naked—he had spent three days without food or water—hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands and covered with leaves.

Even then, he put up a ferocious fight. The two gunmen who found him first were unable to subdue him. “He fought like a boxer,” Hanif was told. It took five more militants to overpower him. Now back in custody, he is kept shackled at night, and his jailers are taking no chances.

This is the caliber of soldier that the United States and its military produces, the American that the president seems to have forgotten about for almost three years.

Shortly before Bergdahl’s kidnapping, the United States was comfortable negotiating the release of terrorists in exchange for British hostages. Andrew McCarthy at National Review made the connection:

And although the administration has attempted to pass off Laith Qazali’s release as a necessary compromise of American national interests for the purportedly greater good of Iraqi reconciliation, the camouflage is thin indeed. Transparently, the terrorist has been freed as a quid pro quo for the release of British hostages. According to the New York Times, Sami al-Askari, another Maliki mouthpiece, told an interviewer:

This is a very sensitive topic because you know the position that the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British governments, and all the governments do not accept the idea of exchanging hostages for prisoners. . . . So we put it in another format, and we told them that if they want to participate in the political process they cannot do so while they are holding hostages. And we mentioned to the American side that they cannot join in the political process and release their hostages while their leaders are behind bars or imprisoned.

In 2008 it was Barack Obama’s policy not to engage with terrorists under any circumstances. In 2009, his administration was comfortable exchanging American prisoners for British hostages. In 2012, it has become clear it was the long-standing policy of the administration to release American-held terrorist prisoners while asking for nothing in exchange, not even an American POW.

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Another Unscripted Moment Hurts Romney

At this point in the presidential campaign we know Mitt Romney is not necessarily at his best when interacting with audiences or reporters in unscripted appearances. Though the wonkish candidate can be an effective when he has the time to apply his formidable powers of analysis and management skills to a problem, speaking off the cuff can lead to trouble. It did this afternoon when a woman asking a question at a campaign rally said President Obama was guilty of treason and Romney failed to disassociate himself from the accusation.

As Politico reports:

“We have a president right now who is operating outside the construction of our Constitution,” the woman asked Romney during a town hall in Euclid, Ohio. “And I do agree he should be tried for treason. But I wanna know what you are going to be able to do to help restore balance between the three branches of government and what you’re going to be able to do to restore our Constitution in this country?”

While Romney later told reporters at the event that he did not agree Obama should be tried for treason, he did not say that when answering the woman with a response that centered on his reverence for the Constitution. This will allow the Obama campaign to hit Romney for refusing to put any distance between himself and those on the right with over-the-top views of the president. Rather than swiftly reprove the woman and tell her that disagreements on the issues should not be criminalized, Romney provided Democrats with some fodder for their effort to portray the GOP as a band of extremists. While this moment is hardly a major gaffe and was quickly corrected by the candidate himself, it does show once again that Romney is vulnerable when forced to think on his feet in public.

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At this point in the presidential campaign we know Mitt Romney is not necessarily at his best when interacting with audiences or reporters in unscripted appearances. Though the wonkish candidate can be an effective when he has the time to apply his formidable powers of analysis and management skills to a problem, speaking off the cuff can lead to trouble. It did this afternoon when a woman asking a question at a campaign rally said President Obama was guilty of treason and Romney failed to disassociate himself from the accusation.

As Politico reports:

“We have a president right now who is operating outside the construction of our Constitution,” the woman asked Romney during a town hall in Euclid, Ohio. “And I do agree he should be tried for treason. But I wanna know what you are going to be able to do to help restore balance between the three branches of government and what you’re going to be able to do to restore our Constitution in this country?”

While Romney later told reporters at the event that he did not agree Obama should be tried for treason, he did not say that when answering the woman with a response that centered on his reverence for the Constitution. This will allow the Obama campaign to hit Romney for refusing to put any distance between himself and those on the right with over-the-top views of the president. Rather than swiftly reprove the woman and tell her that disagreements on the issues should not be criminalized, Romney provided Democrats with some fodder for their effort to portray the GOP as a band of extremists. While this moment is hardly a major gaffe and was quickly corrected by the candidate himself, it does show once again that Romney is vulnerable when forced to think on his feet in public.

The comparison with a similar moment in 2008 when a questioner told John McCain that Obama was an Arab is instructive. The feisty McCain reproved that questioner and then moved on. While some on the right will claim that such gentlemanly behavior didn’t help McCain win, Romney cannot afford to allow himself to play into the Obama campaign’s hands and help them paint him as too weak to stand up to marginal elements in his party.

Republicans will complain with some justice that President Obama has led the way with efforts to demonize the Republicans and the Tea Party movement. They will also note that the president’s misstatements never generate the same heat caused by Romney’s gaffes. But if Republicans haven’t figured out by now that they are playing on a field that tilts left, it’s about time they woke up. Yet even with these factors acknowledged, it must be admitted that Obama has rarely found himself in this sort of a tangle, largely because even when he was just a candidate four years ago, he did not engage in such exchanges with the public except with hand-picked audience members and with his trusty teleprompter in front of him. Until Romney learns to think faster, his campaign is going to have to learn to limit his exposure to moments such as these.

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“Clear Distinction” Between Romney and Obama on Gay Marriage?

The White House is still mopping up after Joe Biden’s comments on gay marriage yesterday. At today’s press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney batted down questions about whether President Obama has changed his stance on gay marriage, saying he had “no update on the president’s personal views.”

Meanwhile, David Axelrod sought to change the subject by highlighting the “very clear distinction” between Romney and Obama on the issue:

Though Axelrod sounded reluctant to discuss the issue again Monday — after tweeting about it Sunday— he quickly contrasted the Obama administration’s position on gay rights with Romney’s record.

The former Massachusetts governor “has funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California and other places,” Axelrod said, adding that Romney “believes that we need a constitutional amendment banning the right of gay couples to marry and would take us backward not forward. There’s a very clear distinction in this race.”

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The White House is still mopping up after Joe Biden’s comments on gay marriage yesterday. At today’s press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney batted down questions about whether President Obama has changed his stance on gay marriage, saying he had “no update on the president’s personal views.”

Meanwhile, David Axelrod sought to change the subject by highlighting the “very clear distinction” between Romney and Obama on the issue:

Though Axelrod sounded reluctant to discuss the issue again Monday — after tweeting about it Sunday— he quickly contrasted the Obama administration’s position on gay rights with Romney’s record.

The former Massachusetts governor “has funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California and other places,” Axelrod said, adding that Romney “believes that we need a constitutional amendment banning the right of gay couples to marry and would take us backward not forward. There’s a very clear distinction in this race.”

No argument there – Romney and Obama have taken different positions on gay marriage-related policy. And while the president hasn’t explicitly spelled out his support for gay marriage, the Obama team has made sure that even the slowest learners recognize his true position on the issue, which he can’t take publicly (yet) because of “politics.”

But the Romney-Obama comparison is also a distraction, and it’s one that’s seemed to have worked so far with Obama’s liberal supporters. The question at hand isn’t whether Obama has taken more laissez faire positions on gay marriage than Mitt Romney. It’s whether he’s finally going to dispense with the charade and publicly acknowledge his own personal opinion on it. So far, many liberals have given Obama a pass because his policies are supportive of gay rights and (for the most part) gay marriage. Because gay marriage is chiefly a state-by-state issue right now, does it really matter what the president thinks?

Yes – it matters because he’s using it as a dodge. If Obama had never mentioned the issue, then there would be far less interest in his personal views. But he said he believed that marriage is between a man and a woman multiple times during his 2008 campaign. He then claimed his position was “evolving” during a meeting with bloggers in October 2010. That was more than a year and a half ago. How long does it take for one to “evolve”?

It’s time for Obama to clarify his position, particularly because it could have an impact on the way some of his supporters vote. The media wouldn’t let Romney get away with such evasiveness on the issue, and it shouldn’t allow it from Obama.

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Obama Will Miss Sarkozy’s Stand on Iran

Much of the analysis of the victory of Francois Hollande and the Socialists in the French presidential election will focus on the impact of the change in power on the European economy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably miss Nicolas Sarkozy more than many of his compatriots as she attempts to hold the line for a fiscal policy that will try to save Europe and the euro from being dragged down by spendthrift nations like Greece. But President Obama may wind up missing him just as much if not more.

While some American liberals may assume that President Obama’s affection for the spirit of European social democracy will put him in natural sympathy with Hollande, there is no telling whether the chemistry between them will turn out to be positive. More important than that is the fact that Sarkozy’s leadership on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat allowed Obama, as he said of his stance on Libya, to “lead from behind.” Without Sarkozy pushing the European Union toward tough sanctions on Tehran, the West would not have gone as far as it already has toward pressuring the Iranians. With Sarkozy gone that will put more pressure on Obama to assume a leadership role as the P5+1 talks proceed this summer that he would probably prefer not to take.

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Much of the analysis of the victory of Francois Hollande and the Socialists in the French presidential election will focus on the impact of the change in power on the European economy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably miss Nicolas Sarkozy more than many of his compatriots as she attempts to hold the line for a fiscal policy that will try to save Europe and the euro from being dragged down by spendthrift nations like Greece. But President Obama may wind up missing him just as much if not more.

While some American liberals may assume that President Obama’s affection for the spirit of European social democracy will put him in natural sympathy with Hollande, there is no telling whether the chemistry between them will turn out to be positive. More important than that is the fact that Sarkozy’s leadership on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat allowed Obama, as he said of his stance on Libya, to “lead from behind.” Without Sarkozy pushing the European Union toward tough sanctions on Tehran, the West would not have gone as far as it already has toward pressuring the Iranians. With Sarkozy gone that will put more pressure on Obama to assume a leadership role as the P5+1 talks proceed this summer that he would probably prefer not to take.

The assumption up until now is that President Obama was going to spend the next six months hiding behind the ongoing negotiations with Iran and allow the EU to take the lead as it has throughout this process. To the surprise of many, the Europeans have been consistently ahead of Washington when it came to doing more than talking about stopping Iran. For this, Sarkozy deserved much of the credit. But his exit will create a void on the issue that Hollande is not likely to fill even if, at least on the surface, his position is not much different from that of his predecessor.

That will leave EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is already in charge of the P5+1 talks, with a much freer hand to craft a deal that will please the ayatollahs more than President Obama. Though few believe the Iranians would actually make good on any promises made in the talks, there is a strong possibility they would be willing to agree, at least in principle, to an accord that would satisfy Europeans who are eager to back down from their threat of an oil embargo later this year. No other European leader, including a beleaguered British Prime Minister David Cameron, is likely to fill Sarkozy’s shoes on this point and stop Ashton from playing the Iranians’ game.

A deal with Iran that leaves their nuclear program intact with only promises about the export of refined uranium might be something a re-elected Obama would approve but not while he is fighting for re-election. The president has been defending the “window of diplomacy” that he thinks has opened up with Iran, but it is doubtful he would want to defend a flawed or weak deal with Tehran on the campaign trail. It would serve his purposes far better for Ashton to keep talking than to be faced with her acceptance of something that he would be hard pressed to justify to the American public. If that happens, it will be Obama who is left holding the bag on a diplomatic disaster and ruing the day the French electorate sent Sarkozy packing.

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Ken Livingstone’s Defeat and the Jews

Politically, Boris Johnson’s victory over his challenger and former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, in last week’s London mayoral election means two things. First, it is a repudiation of Livingstone, to the point that his mercilessly long career has (if we can rely on his announcement) met its long overdue expiration. To add insult to this injury, embarrassingly, he will now not preside as mayor over the city’s Olympic Games this summer that he championed during his two terms in office. Second, it is an important endorsement of Boris Johnson, who secured a critical victory in the capital despite a tide of Tory defeats nationwide. The talk of Boris eventually leading the Conservative Party itself will now only get louder.

But Boris’ victory was closer than predicted. This was likely because Red Ken was better at getting his supporters to the voting booths. But does the closeness of the call make it possible that London’s Jewish community played a pivotal part in the election, and in Ken’s defeat? Read More

Politically, Boris Johnson’s victory over his challenger and former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, in last week’s London mayoral election means two things. First, it is a repudiation of Livingstone, to the point that his mercilessly long career has (if we can rely on his announcement) met its long overdue expiration. To add insult to this injury, embarrassingly, he will now not preside as mayor over the city’s Olympic Games this summer that he championed during his two terms in office. Second, it is an important endorsement of Boris Johnson, who secured a critical victory in the capital despite a tide of Tory defeats nationwide. The talk of Boris eventually leading the Conservative Party itself will now only get louder.

But Boris’ victory was closer than predicted. This was likely because Red Ken was better at getting his supporters to the voting booths. But does the closeness of the call make it possible that London’s Jewish community played a pivotal part in the election, and in Ken’s defeat?

The present paucity of polling data precludes analysis. This has not stopped the speculation, however, and some outlets have showered the Jewish community with blame or praise for the result: the leftist, Livingstone-supporting Guardian put his defeat down to the ‘‘Jewish political establishment,’’ a regrettable choice of phrasing which the newspaper surreptitiously scrubbed. And conservative pundits – as well as journalists in the Jewish community – are apparently happy to give credit to Jewish voters.

Such speculation only goes so far, though, and there are two other noteworthy and more interesting observations to be made.

First, Livingstone’s anti-Semitic comments before the election (for a recap, see here and here) – not to mention throughout his sorry career – courted not only controversy, but by design, the Muslim community. Of course, whether that community (a far larger demographic than London’s Jews) ultimately came to Ken’s support at the ballot box or not, and whether the Jewish community which Boris wooed came to his, is unclear, but the very obviously divergent electoral strategies are a lamentable reflection of London politics, ethnic relations, and the reality and expression of antipathy toward Jews and Israel in areas (and elections) where they should have no place. Moreover, these dynamics are not limited to London (as evidenced by George Galloway’s recent by-election victory), or merely to the UK.

Second, it was interesting to follow the Jewish reaction to events during the campaign. On the one hand — and encouragingly – some Jews apparently did, if not shift support from Labour, at least stay home. For example, take D.D. Guttenplan, the Nation’s London correspondent and a longtime Livingstone supporter, who withheld his support this time around, proclaiming that the Labour candidate’s defeat was the price of Jewish self-respect.

On the other hand, it also turns out that many Jews simply do not care enough about Ken’s attitude toward Israel and his comfort with anti-Semitic tropes to oppose him — and several of the high-profile community leaders involved in the original controversy still decided to support him. In part, this is down to a pathology of Anglo-Jewry, which, in its effort to be more British than the British, forgets it has other concerns as well. But it is also in part a worrying worldview particular to the Jewish Left, and unfortunately extends beyond the Anglo-Jewish community. If Ken Livingstone does not alienate such Jews, one wonders what it would take.

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Catholics Angered by Choice of Commencement Speaker

To be precise, it’s Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute that will reportedly host Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – the official behind the birth control mandate – as its commencement speaker.

As you might imagine, the Catholic Cardinal Newman Society is furious:

It is scandalous and outrageous that America’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university has elected to provide this prestigious platform to a publicly “pro-choice” Catholic who is most responsible for the Obama administration’s effort to restrict the Constitution’s first freedom — the right to free exercise of religion — while threatening the survival of many Catholic and other religious colleges and universities, schools, charities, hospitals and other apostolates.

Georgetown insults all Americans by this honor. The selection is especially insulting to faithful Catholics and their bishops, who are engaged in the fight for religious liberty and against abortion. The contrast is stark between Georgetown University and those faithful Catholic colleges and universities that have stood for faith and freedom.

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To be precise, it’s Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute that will reportedly host Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – the official behind the birth control mandate – as its commencement speaker.

As you might imagine, the Catholic Cardinal Newman Society is furious:

It is scandalous and outrageous that America’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university has elected to provide this prestigious platform to a publicly “pro-choice” Catholic who is most responsible for the Obama administration’s effort to restrict the Constitution’s first freedom — the right to free exercise of religion — while threatening the survival of many Catholic and other religious colleges and universities, schools, charities, hospitals and other apostolates.

Georgetown insults all Americans by this honor. The selection is especially insulting to faithful Catholics and their bishops, who are engaged in the fight for religious liberty and against abortion. The contrast is stark between Georgetown University and those faithful Catholic colleges and universities that have stood for faith and freedom.

At the American Spectator, Quin Hillyer rightly wonders why Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech at Georgetown was criticized by 90 faculty members as anti-Catholic, but they have yet to object to the Sebelius invitation:

If 90 faculty members can protest a non-honorary speech by somebody who only arguably would violate interpretive church teaching, why aren’t they not just protesting but actually threatening to publicly demonstrate against honoring a speaker who is directly trampling upon central, doctrinal church theology and mission?

If there was any doubt that Georgetown’s PPI is intentionally trying to send a message by choosing Sebelius, consider the institute’s last controversial speaker. Georgetown law student and activist Sandra Fluke gave a lecture at the institute yesterday. This seems intended as some sort of protest of Georgetown’s birth control insurance policy, which the university has refused to change, despite complaints from activists.

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The Senate Will Survive Without Lugar

With polls showing six-term incumbent Republican Senator Richard Lugar to be a heavy underdog in his Indiana primary race with insurgent State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, many in the media are weeping bitter tears about the end of an era in Washington. After six terms in which he has increasingly come to be seen as part of the Senate furniture, it is not surprising that a likely plurality of Indiana voters are ready to turn him out. But to listen to the anguished reaction from pundits who are sympathetic to Lugar, his opponent’s supporters are nothing less than right-wing Jacobins who are sacrificing a sage statesman on the altar of extremism. But as much as that fits the mainstream media’s story line about the evil influence of the Tea Party on American politics, the truth is not quite that dramatic.

Lugar is the ultimate establishmentarian and the voice of conventional wisdom about any conceivable topic–especially foreign policy. He is also well-liked for his reputation for bipartisan cooperation. Though we are told Washington will be the poorer if there are fewer or no Lugars at all, the taxpayers as well as those sick of his knee-jerk foreign policy “realism” must be forgiven if they point out there is a difference between being the ultimate D.C. insider and the sort of politics of integrity we are told he embodies. Far from this being a case where the Tea Partiers are rolling out the guillotine for a brave voice of principle, what is going on in Indiana is merely the inevitable fate of any politician who overstays his welcome while standing for little but the continuation of business as usual on Capitol Hill.

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With polls showing six-term incumbent Republican Senator Richard Lugar to be a heavy underdog in his Indiana primary race with insurgent State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, many in the media are weeping bitter tears about the end of an era in Washington. After six terms in which he has increasingly come to be seen as part of the Senate furniture, it is not surprising that a likely plurality of Indiana voters are ready to turn him out. But to listen to the anguished reaction from pundits who are sympathetic to Lugar, his opponent’s supporters are nothing less than right-wing Jacobins who are sacrificing a sage statesman on the altar of extremism. But as much as that fits the mainstream media’s story line about the evil influence of the Tea Party on American politics, the truth is not quite that dramatic.

Lugar is the ultimate establishmentarian and the voice of conventional wisdom about any conceivable topic–especially foreign policy. He is also well-liked for his reputation for bipartisan cooperation. Though we are told Washington will be the poorer if there are fewer or no Lugars at all, the taxpayers as well as those sick of his knee-jerk foreign policy “realism” must be forgiven if they point out there is a difference between being the ultimate D.C. insider and the sort of politics of integrity we are told he embodies. Far from this being a case where the Tea Partiers are rolling out the guillotine for a brave voice of principle, what is going on in Indiana is merely the inevitable fate of any politician who overstays his welcome while standing for little but the continuation of business as usual on Capitol Hill.

Lugar is portrayed by normally sensible writers such as Peggy Noonan as the voice of reason in a town gone mad with ideologues. But as even she understands, the frustration of the GOP grass roots with people who call themselves conservatives but spend more time making nice with liberals and enabling the growth of the federal leviathan is not just a matter of Tea Party intemperance. It might be unfair to label Lugar a RINO, but to dismiss the refusal of many Republicans to bow to Lugar’s inflated Washington reputation as foolish populism says more about Washington than it does Indiana Republicans.

In the last two years as we have once again experienced the frustrations that attend to a divided government, those members of Congress who are less interested in agreement for its own sake than they are in fidelity to the ideas that they ran on have been demonized as extremists. President Obama has sought to brand GOP members who wouldn’t bow to his demand for tax increases as having put party before country, a theme the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank also uses in his hit piece on Lugar’s opponents. But the notion that government should be left to the so-called “adults” — a term that Noonan also uses to describe Lugar– is wrong.

It is true Congress must ensure the government functions, but Lugar’s fans seem to be saying the business of Washington is too important to be left in the hands of the people,  which is profoundly offensive. We have gridlock because we are currently stuck with a president who was elected in a liberal Democratic year with a House of Representatives that was swept in on a conservative Republican tide. That standoff should be resolved, one way or the other in November, as it should be, by the voters. But so long as people like Lugar, who, for all of their virtues, seem to be part of a permanent governing class, elections don’t count for much.

It is true that a Lugar defeat can be seen as part of a trend in which both parties have shed those members whose views deviate from those of their respective bases. That will lead, we are told, to politics where compromise is impossible. There is a cost to ideological politics, but there is also a price to be paid for Washington to be run by politicians whose primary loyalty is to the status quo rather than to the voters, and we have been paying for this for generations.

Compromise is a tactic, not a vision for governance. Moderation has its uses but when it becomes a faith in of itself, it has little to offer but the defense of existing institutional imperatives. The Senate will survive without its Dick Lugars. Other adults, including those who have not lost touch with the sentiments of their party’s grass roots, will replace them. The result will not be the collapse of our republic. In fact, it just might be the first step toward its salvation.

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The White House’s Gay Marriage Dance

Vice President Biden kinda-sorta embraced gay marriage during an interview with David Gregory yesterday – which the administration promptly downplayed – and this morning Education Secretary Arne Duncan came out in favor of same-sex marriage on MSNBC (via Buzzfeed):

The Obama administration tiptoed even closer to supporting gay marriage today, with a second member of the Cabinet coming out flatly in support of treating same-sex couples the same as couples of opposite sexes.

TIME’s Mark Halperin asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today whether he believes “that same-sex men and women should be able to get legally married in the United States?”

“Yes, I do,” Duncan replied.

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Vice President Biden kinda-sorta embraced gay marriage during an interview with David Gregory yesterday – which the administration promptly downplayed – and this morning Education Secretary Arne Duncan came out in favor of same-sex marriage on MSNBC (via Buzzfeed):

The Obama administration tiptoed even closer to supporting gay marriage today, with a second member of the Cabinet coming out flatly in support of treating same-sex couples the same as couples of opposite sexes.

TIME’s Mark Halperin asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today whether he believes “that same-sex men and women should be able to get legally married in the United States?”

“Yes, I do,” Duncan replied.

This certainly gives the impression the administration is relaxing its gay marriage stance. But is it smart or not? Best case scenario for the Obama campaign is if gay marriage supporters take these comments as a winking endorsement from the White House, and leave it at that. It’s a bit risky at this point for the president to personally come out in favor of gay marriage, particularly when many black Democratic voters adamantly oppose it. But as we know, Obama would obviously have more “flexibility” –in this area and others – if he’s reelected. And he likely hopes that message has been subtly transmitted to gay rights advocates through Biden’s remarks.

The political downside of Biden and Duncan voicing their support for gay marriage is that there will no doubt be a frantic rush to parse out whether Obama has personally “evolved” any further on the issue. Stay tuned for Jay Carney fielding gay marriage questions at the briefing. Obama will almost certainly try to avoid taking a firm stance on this. But if frustrated gay marriage advocates get tired of letting him dance around the issue, that could cause problems for the president.

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The Shattering of the Putin Myth

“Iconic” images of significant political or military events are something of a trap. They are almost necessarily one-sided, and it is nearly impossible to capture true complexity in one snapshot. Nonetheless, they are often revealing. So when Russian journalist Julia Ioffe tweeted this photo yesterday with the heading “Russia’s Tiananmen image,” it did tell us something important about Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, even if it wasn’t a “Tiananmen image”:

The photo ran with Ioffe’s dispatch on the protests surrounding Putin’s official return to the presidency, and it was retweeted dozens of times (possibly hundreds by now). Reading the accompanying story, however, is essential to understanding why the photo matters. Ioffe’s article begins: “On Monday, just before noon, Vladimir Putin will get into a black limousine with black windows, and, flanked by a flock of cops on motorcycles — his cavalry — sweep into the city from the west, through empty, ghostly streets…. There will be no cheering crowds, no waving flags along his route. Instead, the images the world will see of Putin’s inauguration will be the walk down the opulent hall, the man with his hand on the Russian constitution, and the violent protests of the previous afternoon.”

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“Iconic” images of significant political or military events are something of a trap. They are almost necessarily one-sided, and it is nearly impossible to capture true complexity in one snapshot. Nonetheless, they are often revealing. So when Russian journalist Julia Ioffe tweeted this photo yesterday with the heading “Russia’s Tiananmen image,” it did tell us something important about Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, even if it wasn’t a “Tiananmen image”:

The photo ran with Ioffe’s dispatch on the protests surrounding Putin’s official return to the presidency, and it was retweeted dozens of times (possibly hundreds by now). Reading the accompanying story, however, is essential to understanding why the photo matters. Ioffe’s article begins: “On Monday, just before noon, Vladimir Putin will get into a black limousine with black windows, and, flanked by a flock of cops on motorcycles — his cavalry — sweep into the city from the west, through empty, ghostly streets…. There will be no cheering crowds, no waving flags along his route. Instead, the images the world will see of Putin’s inauguration will be the walk down the opulent hall, the man with his hand on the Russian constitution, and the violent protests of the previous afternoon.”

Ellen Barry’s report on the actual ceremony confirmed Ioffe’s prediction: “In a ceremony anchored less in words than the physical attributes of power, Mr. Putin’s motorcade glided soundlessly through a city that seemed emptied of people.” Putin has finally lost control over his own image and that of his rule. That is the story of the photo.

This story began, of course, more than a decade ago. In 1999 and 2000, as Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin, he released a campaign manifesto of sorts, and also agreed to a book-length series of interviews with a few handpicked Russian journalists. His biographer, Richard Sakwa, notes that Putin saw himself in the tradition of–as ridiculous as the comparison truly is, for all the obvious reasons–certain Western politicians:

Putin was one of the new breed of politicians of that time, such as Bill Clinton in America and Tony Blair in Britain, for whom news management often acted as the substitute for policy, and where policy development remains shrouded in a dense fog of spin and show. Popularity for these “post-modern” politicians is nurtured and tended like a delicate plant, with focus groups, private polling and the manipulation of information.

Putin’s behavior toward journalists in Russia was far more than the “manipulation of information.” But this does describe how he is treated so often in the West. Ioffe’s article is harsh and unsparing about Putin, but the website publishing her article, ForeignPolicy.com, offers a link just to the right of her story. Follow that link to a slide show published there two days prior to Ioffe’s article. The slide show is called “Putin Forever: He’s the president of Russia. He’s a race-car driver. He’s a blackbelt in judo. He’s Vladimir Putin.”

He’s just so… cool. The first image in the slide show is of Putin with one hand on his tinted sunglasses, CSI-style. But don’t worry, it also includes a photo of him aiming a crossbow from the front of a speedboat, and another in which he is shirtless on horseback. (If you only saw this slide show, you could be forgiven for thinking Putin refuses to wear shirts as a matter of policy.)

Want to see him driving a racecar? Holding the head of a live tiger? Emerging from the water on the Taman Peninsula in a wetsuit triumphantly holding ancient artifacts? Bending a frying pan with his bare hands? Then head on over to the Atlantic, which beat Foreign Policy by eight months with its own slide show of Russia’s indispensible man, titled “Vladimir Putin, Action Man.”

It is this pseudoreality Russian journalists like Ioffe want to shatter. They want you to see, in Ioffe’s words:

the images that, in the era of Twitter and Facebook, have become instantly iconic: the black police batons slicing over the barricades and through the smoke to hack at protesters; the police special forces officer dragging a young woman by her neck; the police officer huffing after battle, his face streaming with blood. We’ll see the videos of the rocks flying and the bottles flying and the smoke bombs flying and the batons raining down on people’s kidneys. We’ll see the photos of toppled port-a-potties serving as makeshift barricades, of kicking young men, bellies and rumps exposed, being dragged by the police into waiting armored incarceration vans.

That’s not so cool. Sunday saw upwards of 70,000 protesters march through the streets, attempting even (unsuccessfully) to march on the Kremlin. Many of them chanted “Russia without Putin.” That day may come soon enough. But for now, there is anger and opposition and apathy, Putin’s speedboat caroming ahead, but with nothing in its wake. It’s not Russia without Putin yet, but it’s looking more and more like Putin without Russia.

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Negative Campaign Shows Obama’s Weakness

The formal kickoff events for President Obama’s re-election campaign this past weekend sounded themes that won enthusiastic cheers from his admirers. But despite the hoopla, the rallies in Virginia and Ohio also showcased his weaknesses. The president possesses formidable advantages in his battle with Republican opponent Mitt Romney, but his reliance on a purely negative approach demonstrates something that political observers have long understood: a man who cannot run on his record is going to have to spend most of the next six months attacking the opposition and attempting to define them as unfit to govern rather than talking about his own accomplishments and ideas.

With the national polls showing the race to be dead even, the Obama campaign finds itself in a difficult predicament. The economy is in poor shape, and the latest jobs numbers give little hope for the sort of summer recovery that could put the president in a commanding position. The White House is confident, as Mark Halperin writes in TIME, that they can define Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire who has swung to the right to win his party’s nomination. But though it is certainly possible for a politician to win re-election by framing the race as a referendum on his challenger, that generally only works when the opposition is an obvious outlier in the manner of a Barry Goldwater or George McGovern. Romney has his problems, but it will not be easy to portray such a mainstream and conventional person as a marginal figure. The dip in enthusiasm for the president, illustrated starkly by the empty seats at both rallies that few doubt would have been filled four years ago, shows the potential downside to this approach.

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The formal kickoff events for President Obama’s re-election campaign this past weekend sounded themes that won enthusiastic cheers from his admirers. But despite the hoopla, the rallies in Virginia and Ohio also showcased his weaknesses. The president possesses formidable advantages in his battle with Republican opponent Mitt Romney, but his reliance on a purely negative approach demonstrates something that political observers have long understood: a man who cannot run on his record is going to have to spend most of the next six months attacking the opposition and attempting to define them as unfit to govern rather than talking about his own accomplishments and ideas.

With the national polls showing the race to be dead even, the Obama campaign finds itself in a difficult predicament. The economy is in poor shape, and the latest jobs numbers give little hope for the sort of summer recovery that could put the president in a commanding position. The White House is confident, as Mark Halperin writes in TIME, that they can define Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire who has swung to the right to win his party’s nomination. But though it is certainly possible for a politician to win re-election by framing the race as a referendum on his challenger, that generally only works when the opposition is an obvious outlier in the manner of a Barry Goldwater or George McGovern. Romney has his problems, but it will not be easy to portray such a mainstream and conventional person as a marginal figure. The dip in enthusiasm for the president, illustrated starkly by the empty seats at both rallies that few doubt would have been filled four years ago, shows the potential downside to this approach.

Romney got a taste of the power of incumbency last week when the president was able to dominate a couple of news cycles with his secret trip to Afghanistan timed to coincide with the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The president can also count on the sort of kid glove treatment that he has received throughout his administration from a mainstream press that has observed Camelot-style rules when it comes to mockery of the chief executive and his family.

But the man who was catapulted to the presidency on a wave of optimism four years ago now is attempting something completely different. This time, instead of playing the post-partisan offering the nation “hope” and “change,” Obama will be spending much of his time on the stump blasting Romney and the Republicans. That, and not the achievements of his administration, are the only winning points in his political arsenal. This is driven in no small measure by the unpopularity of Congress and the fact that the GOP is blamed more than the Democrats for Washington gridlock even if that is more than a bit unfair.

But Obama, whom even the liberal New York Times described as playing the role of “an aging rock star” at his campaign kickoffs, is finding that like those faded personalities, it isn’t possible to recreate the buzz his debut on the national stage generated. That left him grasping at an effort to run on divisive social issues — such as the bogus “war on women” theme — and a somewhat pathetic call for his backers to tell their friends that his cause “was still about hope” and “still about change.”

But for an incumbent president to run away from the key issue of the day — a faltering economy — is counterintuitive to the mood of the electorate.

The Democrats have an easier path to an Electoral College majority as well as a candidate who can endlessly boast that he was the commander-in-chief who ordered the bin Laden slaying. But the lack of a positive rationale is a terrible handicap that has resulted in a situation where, despite a divisive primary season that weakened his opponent’s popularity and party, President Obama finds himself no better than even with Romney.

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A Beautiful Tribute

COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large, Terry Teachout, has just written an extraordinarily moving blog post on the passing of his mother, Evelyn, that deserves to be read and circulated. A taste:

 In 1947 she married a dashing Army Air Corps vet, bore him two sons, and spent the greater part of the next half-century working for a string of Smalltown accountants. Hers, I suppose, was a nominally uneventful existence, at least when judged by the short-sighted standards of the world. Yet Evelyn Teachout, who died peacefully last night after a long illness, loved her life and made a deep impression on everyone who met her, for she was a quick-witted, thoroughly decent person whose kindness and generosity were self-evident.

In nurturing Terry and giving him the sense of possibility that led him from that small town to the center of American culture, Evelyn Teachout did us all a service. May her memory be for a blessing.

COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large, Terry Teachout, has just written an extraordinarily moving blog post on the passing of his mother, Evelyn, that deserves to be read and circulated. A taste:

 In 1947 she married a dashing Army Air Corps vet, bore him two sons, and spent the greater part of the next half-century working for a string of Smalltown accountants. Hers, I suppose, was a nominally uneventful existence, at least when judged by the short-sighted standards of the world. Yet Evelyn Teachout, who died peacefully last night after a long illness, loved her life and made a deep impression on everyone who met her, for she was a quick-witted, thoroughly decent person whose kindness and generosity were self-evident.

In nurturing Terry and giving him the sense of possibility that led him from that small town to the center of American culture, Evelyn Teachout did us all a service. May her memory be for a blessing.

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Poll Shows Promising Signs for Romney

Mitt Romney leads President Obama slightly in this morning’s Politico/GWU poll of likely voters, which may not mean a whole lot at this point. But, during a time when Obama should be at an advantage (his opponent just came out of a bruising primary battle), Romney’s lead with independent voters and the fact that Republicans are quickly coalescing behind him is promising for his campaign:

The former Massachusetts governor has opened up a 10-point lead, 48 percent to 38 percent, among independents in a poll conducted Sunday, April 29 through Thursday, May 3 and a 6-point lead among those who describe themselves as “extremely likely” to vote in November. Obama led Romney by 9 points overall in Politico’s February’s poll. …

A full 91 percent of Republicans support Romney, slightly exceeding the percentage of Democrats who support Obama.

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Mitt Romney leads President Obama slightly in this morning’s Politico/GWU poll of likely voters, which may not mean a whole lot at this point. But, during a time when Obama should be at an advantage (his opponent just came out of a bruising primary battle), Romney’s lead with independent voters and the fact that Republicans are quickly coalescing behind him is promising for his campaign:

The former Massachusetts governor has opened up a 10-point lead, 48 percent to 38 percent, among independents in a poll conducted Sunday, April 29 through Thursday, May 3 and a 6-point lead among those who describe themselves as “extremely likely” to vote in November. Obama led Romney by 9 points overall in Politico’s February’s poll. …

A full 91 percent of Republicans support Romney, slightly exceeding the percentage of Democrats who support Obama.

The concern that Romney’s moderate record would hamper party unity hasn’t played out, at least not according to this poll. Another good sign for Romney: He now leads by nine points with independent women voters, a significant shift from Obama’s 23-point advantage in February. Those who cautioned Romney to avoid identity politics with women seem to have given wise advice.

Conventional wisdom also seems to be right that Romney will be most successful if he’s able to frame the race as a referendum on Obama’s record. In the survey, 59 percent of likely voters say the country is on the wrong track – and a majority of respondents say they feel this way strongly. Obama’s best bet is if the election is a character choice between him and Romney. Respondents said Obama is more likely to stand up for the middle class and share their values than his opponent – more reasons why the Romney campaign is trying to avoid any debates about who the “nicer” candidate is.

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