Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 2012

Booker’s Spokeswoman Walks the Plank

Newark Mayor Cory Booker is apparently still paying penance for his blasphemy against the Obama campaign on “Meet the Press” last week. NJ.com reports that Booker’s Communications Director Anne Torres stepped down today:

“I just decided it is best if I pursued other opportunities,” Torres said by phone. “We have very different views on how communications should be run.”

While a crucial part of the administration’s public face and dealings with the press, Torres’ role is strictly confined to city business. It is unclear what role, if any, she would have had in preparing Booker’s remarks on “Meet the Press,” wherein the mayor said he had “personal” problems with President Obama’s attacks on Bain Capital — problems he called nauseating.

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Newark Mayor Cory Booker is apparently still paying penance for his blasphemy against the Obama campaign on “Meet the Press” last week. NJ.com reports that Booker’s Communications Director Anne Torres stepped down today:

“I just decided it is best if I pursued other opportunities,” Torres said by phone. “We have very different views on how communications should be run.”

While a crucial part of the administration’s public face and dealings with the press, Torres’ role is strictly confined to city business. It is unclear what role, if any, she would have had in preparing Booker’s remarks on “Meet the Press,” wherein the mayor said he had “personal” problems with President Obama’s attacks on Bain Capital — problems he called nauseating.

As NJ.com reports, it’s not clear what part Torres would have played in Booker’s “Meet the Press” remarks. The implication here is that Booker’s comments didn’t accurately reflect his own beliefs, but were instead a communications blunder by his staff. Which is ridiculous – this wasn’t a speech, it was a panel discussion. Whether or not Torres prepped the mayor on the negativity in the Obama anti-Bain ads, Booker was clearly speaking for himself when he criticized them.

While the comments weren’t particularly damaging for Booker, at least not with his constituents, they did hurt Obama and are continuing to drag down his anti-Bain strategy. Did Booker part ways with his communications director under pressure from the Obama campaign, or was it a decision he came to on his own? There’s always the possibility that Booker and his communications staff clashed over the way the initial response to the controversy was handled — the creepy hostage video, for example.

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ObamaCare and the War on the Church

It may be that the Supreme Court’s pending decision on the constitutionality of ObamaCare will render moot the controversy about whether Catholic institutions can be compelled to pay for practices that they oppose on religious grounds. But no matter how the court rules, the impact of the increasingly nasty effort to discredit the church’s effort to defend itself will still be felt. A good example of how liberals are trying to brand the church’s defenders as “partisans” when the opposite is true, came in the editorial in Sunday’s New York Times that branded the lawsuit launched by church institutions as a “stunt.”

The Times argues that the government’s attempt to compel the church to violate its principles was not a violation of its rights and further claims the inadequate “compromise” proposed by the White House should have silenced their concerns. This is an absurd distortion of the facts, but far worse is the way the Times — following the Obama campaign’s playbook — tries to claim that Catholics seek to impose their beliefs on others. Quite the contrary, it is the government fiat that employees at Catholic institutions are provided with free contraception that is the imposition. The point here is not so much to advance the cause of women’s health — the justification advocates of the government’s position seek to use — but to demonize a faith group that has the temerity to stick up for its rights.

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It may be that the Supreme Court’s pending decision on the constitutionality of ObamaCare will render moot the controversy about whether Catholic institutions can be compelled to pay for practices that they oppose on religious grounds. But no matter how the court rules, the impact of the increasingly nasty effort to discredit the church’s effort to defend itself will still be felt. A good example of how liberals are trying to brand the church’s defenders as “partisans” when the opposite is true, came in the editorial in Sunday’s New York Times that branded the lawsuit launched by church institutions as a “stunt.”

The Times argues that the government’s attempt to compel the church to violate its principles was not a violation of its rights and further claims the inadequate “compromise” proposed by the White House should have silenced their concerns. This is an absurd distortion of the facts, but far worse is the way the Times — following the Obama campaign’s playbook — tries to claim that Catholics seek to impose their beliefs on others. Quite the contrary, it is the government fiat that employees at Catholic institutions are provided with free contraception that is the imposition. The point here is not so much to advance the cause of women’s health — the justification advocates of the government’s position seek to use — but to demonize a faith group that has the temerity to stick up for its rights.

Religious freedom is not just the right to, as the Times puts it, “preach that contraception is sinful and rail against Mr. Obama for making it more readily available” (though in fact, the Church is not seeking to curtail the availability of contraception to the general public). It is also the right not to have its institutions forced to either pay for or facilitate the receipt of services that run contrary to its principles.

It bears repeating that one needn’t share the Vatican’s views on contraception to understand that a government dictat that would coerce churches to dispense it is a violation of their religious liberty. Nor would a so-called “compromise” that would maintain the imposition but shift its cost reduce the threat to freedom. But the fact, as the Times points out, that even most Catholics support contraception does not mean the church and those who agree with it should be stripped of their rights. Allowing their institutions to abstain from providing contraception coverage does not make the church a law unto itself or impose its views on others; it merely leaves them alone. Nor does the government’s obligation to advance a “compelling interest” grant it the latitude to violate those rights. Those who wish to receive free contraception don’t have to work for the church. The idea that a fanciful constitutional right to such services should trump religious freedom is the product of a mindset in which all freedoms can be annulled for the sake of some mythical and unproven greater good.

Far from the church behaving in a partisan manner by imposing the president’s fiat, it is simply standing up for itself against a government that is determined to squelch dissent on the administration’s unpopular signature legislative achievement. The Supreme Court will determine ObamaCare’s fate. But the determined campaign to silence the church and to delegitimize its attempt to defend its rights will resonate for some time.

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There’s More to the “Flip-Flopper” Label

In March 2010, Jim Geraghty published what was, to that point, “The Complete List of Obama Statement Expiration Dates.” It listed about 25 or so promises the president broke in his first year in office, plus an addendum of about 20 promises that “expired” during the campaign. In the two years since, there have been more, which Geraghty has documented as well. And the most recent of these has also become the most famous: President Obama’s self-proclaimed “evolution” on the issue of gay marriage.

Unlike his opponent, however, the media has resolutely refused to trifle the president with the appropriate label: the president is quite clearly a “flip-flopper.” Why the double standard? There is more to it than the obvious media bias.

As the Washington Post notes in an interesting article on the subject (please ignore the Post’s unforgivable headline), since John Kerry and, to a lesser extent, Al Gore, were cast as craven opportunists, it is not enough that Romney is a Republican and Obama a Democrat. But those party tags do actually factor into it, the article finds, though not simply because of the visible press bias. The article describes a new study based on an experiment testing voters’ reactions to flip-floppery, in which they are asked to react to one political type who promises to change his positions as the people do, and the other who promises to stay true to his principles:

These candidates represent a classic argument in political philosophy between the view of John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher who said that democratically elected officials should reflect constituents’ views, and that of Edmund Burke, the Irish-born political thinker who argued that we elect representatives with strong values so they will follow their principles.

Voters who preferred Candidate B — Burke’s view — responded much more negatively to candidates who changed their minds on issues, said Barker, director-designate of the Institute for Social Research at California State University at Sacramento. Those voters generally prefer conservative Republicans and are more likely to rely on religious faith to guide their political choices.

Voters who preferred Candidate A — Mill’s view — were much more accepting of candidates who flipped on issues. These voters, mostly drawn to more liberal, Democratic candidates, tend to be more secular and believe that as the people’s views shift, so should their leaders’.

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In March 2010, Jim Geraghty published what was, to that point, “The Complete List of Obama Statement Expiration Dates.” It listed about 25 or so promises the president broke in his first year in office, plus an addendum of about 20 promises that “expired” during the campaign. In the two years since, there have been more, which Geraghty has documented as well. And the most recent of these has also become the most famous: President Obama’s self-proclaimed “evolution” on the issue of gay marriage.

Unlike his opponent, however, the media has resolutely refused to trifle the president with the appropriate label: the president is quite clearly a “flip-flopper.” Why the double standard? There is more to it than the obvious media bias.

As the Washington Post notes in an interesting article on the subject (please ignore the Post’s unforgivable headline), since John Kerry and, to a lesser extent, Al Gore, were cast as craven opportunists, it is not enough that Romney is a Republican and Obama a Democrat. But those party tags do actually factor into it, the article finds, though not simply because of the visible press bias. The article describes a new study based on an experiment testing voters’ reactions to flip-floppery, in which they are asked to react to one political type who promises to change his positions as the people do, and the other who promises to stay true to his principles:

These candidates represent a classic argument in political philosophy between the view of John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher who said that democratically elected officials should reflect constituents’ views, and that of Edmund Burke, the Irish-born political thinker who argued that we elect representatives with strong values so they will follow their principles.

Voters who preferred Candidate B — Burke’s view — responded much more negatively to candidates who changed their minds on issues, said Barker, director-designate of the Institute for Social Research at California State University at Sacramento. Those voters generally prefer conservative Republicans and are more likely to rely on religious faith to guide their political choices.

Voters who preferred Candidate A — Mill’s view — were much more accepting of candidates who flipped on issues. These voters, mostly drawn to more liberal, Democratic candidates, tend to be more secular and believe that as the people’s views shift, so should their leaders’.

That conservatives were more drawn to a Burkean philosophy on governing isn’t too surprising. Far more interesting is the finding that liberals are much less likely to object to flip-flopping in the first place.

This helps explain why someone like John Kerry–a starkly unlikable figure for whom the label “flip-flopper” seemed particularly apt–could win the Democratic nomination despite all the obvious red flags of his candidacy. It also helps explain why Mitt Romney had such difficulty winning the Republican nomination even though he had a four-year head start and aside from Rick Perry, who possessed a strong record but who stumbled badly in the debates, the path seemed clear for Romney. He struggled not against other strong candidacies but the popular composite candidate known as Not Romney.

It is conservatives, therefore, who branded Romney a flip-flopper long before he had the chance to face John Kerry’s fate of being so labeled during the general election. The right, not nearly so tolerant of unprincipled politicians as the left, immediately flagged what seemed like Romney’s politics of convenience.

The other key takeaway from this is that it surely depends on which issues a candidate flip-flops. The Post article, to emphasize this, begins with Abraham Lincoln’s flip-flop on federal intervention to free slaves. But here is how the Post frames the other element in choosing the “right” issue on which to evolve:

In the end, voters are especially willing to accept a shift in politicians’ positions “if it’s an issue where the public has evolved in its own thinking,” Garin said.

With this in mind, it’s useful to look at two of the candidates’ more controversial changes. Obama’s switch on gay marriage, polls indicate, show him to be swimming with the tide. The public on the whole may not be overwhelmingly in favor of gay marriage, but the trend is toward wider acceptance. It is logical to expect those who have undergone similar “evolutions” on the policy to give the president the benefit of the doubt here.

Romney’s more controversial change, however, is on abortion. It’s true that he has embraced the pro-life position, but voters–especially those on the right–remain skeptical. As such, he may be swimming with the tide–self-identified pro-life voters are increasing, while pro-choice voters are decreasing–but conservative doubt prevents him from fully capitalizing on the switch.

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Who’s Afraid of Mitt Romney?

John Heilemann has a big-picture report on the Obama campaign’s shift from hope to fear. Rather than focusing on an affirmative reelection message, Obama’s strategy is to paint Mitt Romney as a composite of various nightmarish right-wingers in the hope that it will scare off independent voters and shore up the progressive base:

Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago—running more negative ads than any campaign in history—what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”

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John Heilemann has a big-picture report on the Obama campaign’s shift from hope to fear. Rather than focusing on an affirmative reelection message, Obama’s strategy is to paint Mitt Romney as a composite of various nightmarish right-wingers in the hope that it will scare off independent voters and shore up the progressive base:

Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago—running more negative ads than any campaign in history—what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”

As I’ve written before, the problem with this is that it’s not believable. Romney was the governor of Massachusetts for four years, and held pro-choice positions until 2004. Even under President George W. Bush, who was staunchly pro-life since his teenage years, and a majority-Republican Congress, abortion remained legal. The idea that it would likely be criminalized under Romney is absurd. The same goes for denying women contraceptives. If Romney is so radical that he opposes birth control, how on earth did he get elected governor of arguably the most liberal state in the country?

Beyond Romney’s record, his personality doesn’t fit the stereotype of the extreme right-winger. He’s mild-mannered and accentless, and walks without swagger. He chooses his words carefully and rarely goes off message. The Obama campaign can compare him to fringe characters like Joe Arpaio all it wants, but the disparity is unmistakable.

The progressive media outlets will definitely pick it up, but, again, it’s hard to see Comedy Central, “SNL” and late-night talk shows buying into the Romney-the-Tea-Party-Extremist narrative. Even when these shows do take shots at Romney, they steer clear of that line. For example, here are some lyrics from Mick Jagger’s performance on “SNL” last week:

“Mr. Romney, you know, he’s a mensch. But he always plays a straight affair. Yes, Mr. Romney he’s a hard-working man, and he always says his prayers. Yeah, but there’s one little thing about him – don’t ever let him cut your hair.”

The hair cut part is a reference to the Romney high school bullying story, but take a look at the rest of the lyrics. A mensch, who plays a straight affair, is hard-working and says his prayers? That’s it? The Obama campaign has a lot of work ahead if they’re going to turn that guy into a boogeyman.

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Dead-End Diplomatic Initiatives in Syria

Last Friday, in a village near the Syrian town of Houla, a horrifying massacre unfolded. After government forces attacked an opposition rally, they shelled the town and then sent in the shabiha, the notorious Alawite-dominated, pro-government militia that carries out the same role in Syria as Serbian goon squads did during the Bosnian civil war. The shabiha went door to door, killing people either by shooting them or slitting their throats. At least 108 people were killed, among them 49 children and 34 women.

Given the terrible nature of these atrocities, the response from what is known as the international community is almost comically ineffectual. The UN Security Council voted to condemn the massacre–but not to do anything about it. Now UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan has traveled to Syria to try to “salvage” his ineffectual peace plan. He thunders from his high perch:

“I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully, and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process.”

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Last Friday, in a village near the Syrian town of Houla, a horrifying massacre unfolded. After government forces attacked an opposition rally, they shelled the town and then sent in the shabiha, the notorious Alawite-dominated, pro-government militia that carries out the same role in Syria as Serbian goon squads did during the Bosnian civil war. The shabiha went door to door, killing people either by shooting them or slitting their throats. At least 108 people were killed, among them 49 children and 34 women.

Given the terrible nature of these atrocities, the response from what is known as the international community is almost comically ineffectual. The UN Security Council voted to condemn the massacre–but not to do anything about it. Now UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan has traveled to Syria to try to “salvage” his ineffectual peace plan. He thunders from his high perch:

“I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully, and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process.”

Were this quote not contained in the New York Times, I could swear that it came from the Onion–it is such a pitch-perfect parody of the weasel words that international bureaucrats use to avoid assuming responsibility for doing something about an assault on human rights. (What steps could the government of Syria possibly take to convince Annan that it’s NOT serious about resolving “this crisis peacefully,” short of using chemical weapons on the protesters?) Only it’s not a parody.

And nor is this Times headline: “U.S. Hopes Assad Can Be Eased Out With Russia’s Aid.” The administration must be living in some alternative universe if it thinks that Russia–Syria’s second-closest ally (after Iran) and one of its chief sources of weapons–will suddenly turn on the Assad regime after having stood by it during the massacres of the past year.

All of the attention being devoted to such dead-end diplomatic initiatives is simply indicative of the fundamental lack of seriousness in Washington regarding events in Syria. President Obama may have created an Atrocities Prevention Board, but he is doing nothing serious to prevent the ongoing atrocities in Syria.

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GOP Rolls Out Attack Ad on Equity Failures

American Crossroads is out with a new ad today pushing back on President Obama’s Bain Capital attacks by assailing his own epic “public equity” failures, such as Solyndra and the auto bailout:

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American Crossroads is out with a new ad today pushing back on President Obama’s Bain Capital attacks by assailing his own epic “public equity” failures, such as Solyndra and the auto bailout:

So far, Mitt Romney has steered clear of negative attacks when responding to the Bain Capital criticism. Instead, he’s highlighted his record of achievement at Bain, and pointed out that even top Democrats and Obama campaign surrogates have called the president’s attacks on private equity unfair. But, as the American Crossroads ad shows, there’s also plenty of ammo to strike back with. While Bain Capital may not have succeeded at turning around every company it bought – such is the nature of the business – at least it wasn’t playing recklessly with taxpayer money. Kimberly Strassel argued this point in the Wall Street Journal last week:

All those Republicans grousing about the president’s attacks on private equity might instead be seizing on this beautiful point of contrast. Mr. Obama, after all, is no mere mortal president. Even as he’s been busy with the day job, he’s found time to moonlight as CEO-in-Chief of half the nation’s industry. Detroit, the energy sector, health care—he’s all over these guys like a cheap spreadsheet.

Like Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama has presided over bankruptcies, layoffs, lost pensions, run-ups in debt. Yet unlike Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama’s C-suite required billions in taxpayer dollars and subsidies, as well as mandates, regulations, union payoffs and moral hazard. Don’t like “vulture” capitalism? Check out the form the president’s had on offer these past three years: “crony” capitalism.

This is a line of attack the Romney campaign has been waiting to roll out for awhile. It looks like American Crossroads and other outside groups will be doing the heavy lifting for now, but Mike Allen reports that Romney is planning a targeted campaign against specific stimulus projects in individual states:

A senior aide tells us Mitt Romney plans to begin hitting specific stimulus projects as he travels, arguing that President Obama has actually subtracted jobs: “Were these investments the best return on tax dollars, or given for ideological reasons, to donors, for political reasons? He spent $800 billion of everybody’s money. How’d it work out? It was the mother of all earmarks, not a jobs plan. By wasting all of this money, you had the worst of all worlds: It destroyed confidence in the economy, and makes people less likely to borrow money. Dodd-Frank has been a disaster for the economy. Where are the steady hands? Who’s in charge of energy? Where’s the strong, confident voice on the economy?”

Smart points. The last thing the Obama campaign wants to bring up now is Solyndra, drawing attention to its failures on both energy and the economic stimulus. The more Romney talks about this, the more it seems like the Obama campaign severely underestimated its opposition.

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Why Trump Doesn’t Hurt Romney

During the weekend, George Will noted on ABC’s “This Week” that Donald Trump is a “bloviating ignoramus.” Trump later replied on Twitter saying, “George Will may be the dumbest (and most overrated) political commentator of all time. If the Republicans listen to him, they will lose.” Suffice it to say that only one of them is right, and it isn’t Trump. But the point of this contest of intellect versus celebrity cash — whether Mitt Romney is making a huge mistake by allowing Trump to host a Las Vegas fundraiser for him today at which an estimated $2 million may be raised — isn’t so easily decided.

There’s no question that Romney does not enhance his prestige by associating with Trump. The real estate mogul turned television celebrity is a buffoon, and his much-publicized dabbling in birther theories is an embarrassment. The fact that he is still raising doubts about President Obama’s birthplace ought to make the Republican candidate unwilling to be seen anywhere near him. Romney’s willingness to accept Trump’s endorsement (while stating that he entertains no doubts about the president having been born in the United States) in the heat of the GOP primaries might have been excused, because at that time, he needed any help he could get. But with the nomination in hand and the general election campaign already begun in all but name, Will’s befuddlement about his judgment is understandable. However, there are two explanations which, while not providing much reassurance about Romney’s taste, should calm his supporters.

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During the weekend, George Will noted on ABC’s “This Week” that Donald Trump is a “bloviating ignoramus.” Trump later replied on Twitter saying, “George Will may be the dumbest (and most overrated) political commentator of all time. If the Republicans listen to him, they will lose.” Suffice it to say that only one of them is right, and it isn’t Trump. But the point of this contest of intellect versus celebrity cash — whether Mitt Romney is making a huge mistake by allowing Trump to host a Las Vegas fundraiser for him today at which an estimated $2 million may be raised — isn’t so easily decided.

There’s no question that Romney does not enhance his prestige by associating with Trump. The real estate mogul turned television celebrity is a buffoon, and his much-publicized dabbling in birther theories is an embarrassment. The fact that he is still raising doubts about President Obama’s birthplace ought to make the Republican candidate unwilling to be seen anywhere near him. Romney’s willingness to accept Trump’s endorsement (while stating that he entertains no doubts about the president having been born in the United States) in the heat of the GOP primaries might have been excused, because at that time, he needed any help he could get. But with the nomination in hand and the general election campaign already begun in all but name, Will’s befuddlement about his judgment is understandable. However, there are two explanations which, while not providing much reassurance about Romney’s taste, should calm his supporters.

The first and most obvious explanation is that Trump’s help as a fundraiser is not inconsiderable. Romney entered this race determined not to be outspent the way John McCain was four years ago, and it is clear that in his mind the money Trump is helping to raise for him is worth the media kerfuffle that is sure to follow anytime the famous developer opens his mouth. It might be argued that at this point Romney doesn’t need Trump. But perhaps Romney thinks the $2 million Trump is putting in his hand far outweighs the negative impact of the controversy.

But the other reason may show that Romney is not quite as out of touch as he may at times seem. Though Trump is an absurd figure whose public behavior has always been better fodder for the tabloids than the op-ed page, Romney may understand that he is not quite as toxic as most of us who think and write about politics believe. To the vast majority of the American public, Trump is first and foremost the star of a reality TV show, not a birther. Indeed, his overbearing persona and egotism was perceived as an act long before anyone ever saw “The Apprentice.” Though he may say ridiculous things and promote moronic causes like birther theories, its pretty clear most Americans see him as an inside joke that they have been made privy to, not a vicious hater. Put me down as one of those who find it disconcerting that so many people find him entertaining. And there’s no question that Trump will feed into the Obama campaign’s effort to demonize Republicans as a bunch of extremist fools. But Romney’s probably right to think he is not quite as radioactive to the voting public as my instincts say he is.

Just as it would be better if President Obama kept his Hollywood fan club at a further distance, it would be beneficial for the state of the nation’s political health if Romney stayed away from Trump. But I doubt that Romney will lose many votes because he accepts Trump’s embrace. These are mere sideshows that will only affect the outcome of the contest in the center ring.

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Truth About Abortion?

Reading about the movement toward some version of a pro-life view that Alana, Jonathan and Pete discussed last week, it struck me that there’s such a squishy amorphous center, with the only clear positions on the issue at the fringes.

It seems to me that the general vagueness can be put down to the fact that even after four decades of debate, we still haven’t given ourselves really honest answers to the stark questions surrounding abortion. And I’m not talking about the constitutional issues.

Does life begin at conception? If life doesn’t begin at conception, when does it begin, and what do we mean by “life” anyway? Is it a “fetus” in there, or a baby human being?  Is it painful for the “fetus” to be chopped up and vacuumed out?

The fact is, these aren’t difficult questions to answer.

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Reading about the movement toward some version of a pro-life view that Alana, Jonathan and Pete discussed last week, it struck me that there’s such a squishy amorphous center, with the only clear positions on the issue at the fringes.

It seems to me that the general vagueness can be put down to the fact that even after four decades of debate, we still haven’t given ourselves really honest answers to the stark questions surrounding abortion. And I’m not talking about the constitutional issues.

Does life begin at conception? If life doesn’t begin at conception, when does it begin, and what do we mean by “life” anyway? Is it a “fetus” in there, or a baby human being?  Is it painful for the “fetus” to be chopped up and vacuumed out?

The fact is, these aren’t difficult questions to answer.

Of course life begins at conception.  That’s so obvious that claiming anything else is an absurdity. If it isn’t life that’s conceived when sperm meets egg, then what the hell is it?

What is life, and when does a baby become a baby? Well, maybe we can’t define it very well, but we know it when we see it. And, as Pete pointed out, ever-more sophisticated sonography is allowing us to see it earlier and earlier in the process.

Because, duh, a baby is a baby is a baby. It may not be a full-fledged, kicking and screaming infant until after it’s born, but, I ask again, if it’s not a human baby before that, then what on earth could it possibly be? Some kind of misplaced gallstone?

And, yes, given that this is a human being we’re talking about, one who reacts to the world in many ways, inside and outside the womb, it seems reasonable to believe it hurts, doesn’t it?

The problem is, if we really told ourselves the truth about this, everyone would be against abortion. Wouldn’t they?

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Space Ship Launch Opens New Vistas

It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of what Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation did a few days ago when it launched a space ship that docked with the international space station. It is as significant, in its way, as the first commercial airline flight in the U.S. which was undertaken in 1914 by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Air Boat Line. It heralds the moment when space flight is moving out of the domain of government and into the private sector, potentially opening vast new vistas of travel.

There are, to be sure, significant differences between the history of flight inside the Earth’s atmosphere and outside of it. The former was, from the start, a private undertaking launched not by the Theodore Roosevelt administration but by the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics. The latter was, famously, a NASA mission undertaken beginning in 1958 by an Eisenhower administration eager to match Soviet achievements in space. But aviation, too, received a significant boost from the government–aircraft design took a major leap forward because of the efforts of various air forces to build more efficient aircraft in World War I and thereafter, commercial airlines developed either under state ownership (as in Europe with the forerunners of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, etc.) or with major state subsidies (as was the case in the U.S. where the Postal Service paid airlines to carry the mail).

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It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of what Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation did a few days ago when it launched a space ship that docked with the international space station. It is as significant, in its way, as the first commercial airline flight in the U.S. which was undertaken in 1914 by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Air Boat Line. It heralds the moment when space flight is moving out of the domain of government and into the private sector, potentially opening vast new vistas of travel.

There are, to be sure, significant differences between the history of flight inside the Earth’s atmosphere and outside of it. The former was, from the start, a private undertaking launched not by the Theodore Roosevelt administration but by the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics. The latter was, famously, a NASA mission undertaken beginning in 1958 by an Eisenhower administration eager to match Soviet achievements in space. But aviation, too, received a significant boost from the government–aircraft design took a major leap forward because of the efforts of various air forces to build more efficient aircraft in World War I and thereafter, commercial airlines developed either under state ownership (as in Europe with the forerunners of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, etc.) or with major state subsidies (as was the case in the U.S. where the Postal Service paid airlines to carry the mail).

After decades of government monopolization it appears that space flight is moving in the same direction as aviation, with NASA switching increasingly from an agency that does spacecraft design and launching in-house to one that provides subsidies to private companies such as a SpaceX to do the job themselves. To be sure, the U.S. military must and will remain a major player in space which has become vital for running communications and surveillance networks and could even be used to orbit strike platforms in the future. But the civilian role in space appears to be increasingly a joint venture between government and industry–and that is likely to prove a greater success in the long run than the exclusively NASA path which reached a dead end with the grounding of the last space shuttle last year.

It is good to see the rude energies of the private sector finally being directed beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. With passenger flights to space looming, the future of space travel looks bright for the first time since the launch of the initial space shuttle in 1982.

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Brothers Get a Second Chance

When Army Spc. John Thorne arrived at the hospital in Germany, he was taken into a room with a Navy Major chaplain and two military liaisons.

“We want to prepare you for what you’re about to see,” the chaplain told him.

John replied, “Sir, I’ve seen this shit before.” He’d been in the Army for three years at this point, and had seen combat. In fact, he’d been serving in Iraq when he received the news two days earlier that his younger brother, Army Spc. James Thorne, had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He thought he knew what to expect, but didn’t know how bad it would be.

When John got to his brother’s hospital room, it was pitch black. He put on a gown and gloves and a hat – obligatory when visiting burn victims – and walked in.

James was lying in the bed with a neck brace, hooked to a breathing tube and an array of monitors. His right leg all the way up to his pelvis was in an external fixator, which is like a metal cage with pins through it to hold the bones in place. He was suffering from tissue, ligament and muscle damage, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.

“I walk up in there and the only thing that’s covered is his groin area. And he’s just laying there, lifeless,” said John. “I walk up to the bed and I just broke down in tears. I tried to hold myself together.” He grabbed his unconscious brother’s hand, and says he felt him clench back.

James had a 35 percent chance of living, and John was terrified of losing him.

“I felt responsible for raising him, in a way,” John told me. “Because my parents were always working, they weren’t around.”

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When Army Spc. John Thorne arrived at the hospital in Germany, he was taken into a room with a Navy Major chaplain and two military liaisons.

“We want to prepare you for what you’re about to see,” the chaplain told him.

John replied, “Sir, I’ve seen this shit before.” He’d been in the Army for three years at this point, and had seen combat. In fact, he’d been serving in Iraq when he received the news two days earlier that his younger brother, Army Spc. James Thorne, had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He thought he knew what to expect, but didn’t know how bad it would be.

When John got to his brother’s hospital room, it was pitch black. He put on a gown and gloves and a hat – obligatory when visiting burn victims – and walked in.

James was lying in the bed with a neck brace, hooked to a breathing tube and an array of monitors. His right leg all the way up to his pelvis was in an external fixator, which is like a metal cage with pins through it to hold the bones in place. He was suffering from tissue, ligament and muscle damage, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.

“I walk up in there and the only thing that’s covered is his groin area. And he’s just laying there, lifeless,” said John. “I walk up to the bed and I just broke down in tears. I tried to hold myself together.” He grabbed his unconscious brother’s hand, and says he felt him clench back.

James had a 35 percent chance of living, and John was terrified of losing him.

“I felt responsible for raising him, in a way,” John told me. “Because my parents were always working, they weren’t around.”

But James did end up making it. I met both him and John at an event for wounded warriors in Las Vegas, sponsored by the Palazzo Hotel and organized by the Armed Forces Foundation. At first it was hard to believe they were brothers. John, 25, is broad-shouldered and expressive, barreling from one emotion to the other and dominating the conversation. James, 24, spends a lot of time sitting back and listening to his older brother talk. He’s wiry and has a neck tattoo (music notes) and wears a t-shirt advertising some hardcore metal band. His left leg was amputated, and he uses a wheelchair to get around. The first time I saw the resemblance was when they laughed – both tilt their heads back slightly and open their mouths into half-moon smiles. That, and when they finished each other’s sentences.

James was leading a foot patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED. He doesn’t remember much after the blast, except for his platoon sergeant yelling “lay on your stomach” and one of his friends calling out for him.

“All I hear is my buddy,” said James. “He’s just screaming out, ‘where are you buddy?’ and I’m screaming out ‘I’m here!’ That’s it.”

There is a lot James doesn’t remember because he was barely conscious for the first two months after his injury. Even when he began talking and asking for his family, his recollection of their visits is hazy.

“I was hallucinating so much,” he said. “I was thinking people were in the ceiling.” He said sometimes he saw Taliban up there.

Though John had joined the Army first, he was still anxious when his younger brother decided to follow him into it two years later.

“He’s always been the crazy one,” explained John. When they were kids in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it would snow five or six feet, John said his younger brother was always the one who wanted to jump off the cliff in the backyard. “I said ‘if you jump, I’m not going after you.’ He took a running start and off he went.”

James always landed fine. But Afghanistan was different.

“A lot of people look at me and think ‘oh, you just lost a leg, it’s not that big of a deal,’” James told me. “I have worse injuries than it looks like.”

Because of his injuries, James has to wear colostomy and urostomy bags. “I can’t use the bathroom. That sucks,” he said bluntly. “A lot of guys I see…they lose two legs, but they don’t have as bad an injury as I do. I’d rather have that any day.”

When James left the hospital, he was given a Purple Heart for his valor and extraordinary sacrifice. But his brother, John, was appalled by the medal. “For me, he deserves so much more than a Purple Heart,” he said. “I started looking at it, and I thought, man, this isn’t worth it.”

James has a more subdued take on the honor.

“Medals don’t mean much to me, I was just doing my job,” he told me. “What means more to me is that I’m still alive. I have a second chance to do what I want.”

What he wants to do is music – anything involving it. James plays guitar and piano, and his favorite genre is underground metal. He plans to go to college for it, and wants to end up working somewhere in the industry.

“It’s just something I’ve always had a passion for,” he said. “It’s like a drug. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do with my life. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be here right now, honestly.”

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Inhaling Fire in Afghanistan

Ask Marine Corps Cpl. Eric Hilton what it felt like to inhale fire, and he’ll say, “It was hot.” Ask him how Afghanistan was, and he’ll say, “I had a blast.” The 23-year-old Marine had stopped to buy cigarettes at a crowded bazaar in Kajaki, Afghanistan when he was hit by what he initially thought was a car. A few moments later he woke up on the ground.

“[The locals] can’t drive very well over there. They drive like idiots,” he told me. “I sat up, saw the blood on my leg, and I realized that’s not from a car accident.”

Eric had been hit by a suicide bomber in the middle of the teeming marketplace, only 10 days before the end of his seven-month deployment. The blast killed two other Marines and left 30 civilians dead or injured.

“We’re supposed to be coming home in ten days,” he said. “You don’t think anything’s going to happen to you.”

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Ask Marine Corps Cpl. Eric Hilton what it felt like to inhale fire, and he’ll say, “It was hot.” Ask him how Afghanistan was, and he’ll say, “I had a blast.” The 23-year-old Marine had stopped to buy cigarettes at a crowded bazaar in Kajaki, Afghanistan when he was hit by what he initially thought was a car. A few moments later he woke up on the ground.

“[The locals] can’t drive very well over there. They drive like idiots,” he told me. “I sat up, saw the blood on my leg, and I realized that’s not from a car accident.”

Eric had been hit by a suicide bomber in the middle of the teeming marketplace, only 10 days before the end of his seven-month deployment. The blast killed two other Marines and left 30 civilians dead or injured.

“We’re supposed to be coming home in ten days,” he said. “You don’t think anything’s going to happen to you.”

At the pool bar outside the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas last week, Eric showed me his injuries. A thick line of stitching scars about 10-inches long runs up his right leg where he took shrapnel; his ear drums were damaged in the blast. He also suffered second-degree burns on his face, abrasions on his arm, and temporary hoarseness in his throat from the fire.

Eric was much more reserved than some of the other wounded warriors I met on the Palazzo-sponsored Salute the Troops trip. He’s tall and tan with closely cropped blonde hair and a habit of responding to questions with terse, sometimes inscrutable, answers (“cryptic” is how he describes himself). When he told me he uses humor as a coping mechanism for his experience, I asked him for a few examples. “I told them I wanted to leave Afghanistan with a bang,” he said, but he didn’t smile.

Eric joined the Marine Corps halfway through his junior year in high school, when he was 18-years-old. Out of a string of ambitions – lawyer, football player, computer engineer – joining the military was the one he’d always come back to. (Why the Marines? “It’s the best…Plus the uniform, the dress blues.”). While he doesn’t come from a military family, he is very close with his mother and siblings, who were with him when he deployed.

“They all cried when I was leaving,” said Eric. “And I wasn’t really able to handle it so I started laughing to keep from crying.”

After he was hit in Afghanistan and taken to a hospital in Germany, he said his family was anxious about how he would respond to the trauma. “They were a little paranoid about what to say, they didn’t know how I would react,” said Eric. “After they realized I would joke about it, they weren’t as timid.”

It took about a week of physical therapy before Eric was walking again, albeit with a limp and crutches. His second day, he tried to go through the physical therapy without pain medication – “That was a bad idea,” he said.

So why did he do it? “I’m a Marine. I gotta try it.”

Still, Eric stresses that he has no desire to return to combat. “Once is enough for me,” he said. “I was lucky to get out. If I go back I might not be as lucky.”

Instead, he wants to go to school for optometry – first to a local community college in Texas where he’s currently based, and then to Ohio State, which is closer to his family. He said he doesn’t expect to have problems finding a job, despite all the news stories about the high unemployment rate among young veterans.

“What are you most proud of about your experience?” I asked as we were wrapping up the interview, and immediately winced at the triteness of the question.

Eric paused for the longest time before answering: “Being alive.”

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Meet Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead

At the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, 20-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead is trying to explain a feeling he calls “the beast mode,” which is how he describes the rush of adrenaline he felt in combat.

“We always joke around whenever we’re really just getting it. You know, like trucking. Like, if we’re all in a Hawk or something, and somebody’s like…” he trails off. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just beast mode.”

That rush is one thing Trent seems to look back fondly on about his time in Afghanistan, the country where he spent three months in 2010 and lost his right leg.

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At the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, 20-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead is trying to explain a feeling he calls “the beast mode,” which is how he describes the rush of adrenaline he felt in combat.

“We always joke around whenever we’re really just getting it. You know, like trucking. Like, if we’re all in a Hawk or something, and somebody’s like…” he trails off. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just beast mode.”

That rush is one thing Trent seems to look back fondly on about his time in Afghanistan, the country where he spent three months in 2010 and lost his right leg.

I met Trent last week, at a Salute the Troops event sponsored by the Palazzo Hotel and organized by the Armed Forces Foundation. At around 5’5″ and lean, he doesn’t match the image of the stereotypical burly Marine. He has a heavy Alabama accent, and does a great impression of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the movie Sling Blade. He also has a prosthetic leg, though his one complaint is that he can’t wear boots with it.

Trent had no legal will when he arrived in Afghanistan in 2010. He’d joined the Marines right out of high school the year before, and, as he says, “I didn’t really have anything.” So when he got there, he just took out a notebook and wrote his parents a letter:

“Hey Mom and Dad, I just want you to know I love you. And if you’re reading this and I’m not there, I want you to know that you all did an awesome job raising me. I couldn’t complain about anything.”

He told me that this mentality of preparing for death is common among new Marines.

“It’s always a constant thought that the next step you’re going to take is going to be your last,” he said. “Because I guess if you believe that and really believe and wholeheartedly accept that fact that you’re not going to make it, it makes it a whole lot easier.”

Fortunately, Trent’s letter never had to be sent. But three months later, he did suffer a severe hit on a foot patrol when he stepped on a six-pound IED.

“Once the ringing stopped…I was kind of confused as to why I was laying on the ground,” he recalled. “The adrenaline lasted just a few seconds and then the pain started setting in.”

Initially, he didn’t realize his right leg below the knee was destroyed in the blast. He tried to tell the other guys he could walk it off. But that was obviously out of the question. To keep him calm and get him onto the medical chopper, his squad leader told him that he’d only lost a couple of toes. The IED had blown off Trent’s right foot and mangled his shin and calf. He had a broken arm, an abrasion on his eyelid and 50 percent hearing loss in one ear.

The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital in Germany. “I see my left foot sticking up, but nothing sticking up on my right side.”

His initial thought?  “I thought it was kind of badass, to be honest,” he said.

The more difficult part, Trent added, was seeing the worry and stress of his parents, who he’s very close to. Another challenge of coming home with an injury was dealing with the guilt of not being in Afghanistan to help his guys as they finished the remaining three months of their deployment.

“The hardest part had to be because my guys were still there and still going to be there for another three months — hearing about other guys getting injured and killed,” Trent explained. “‘Why did I only lose one leg and I’m still alive?’ That kind of guilt. ‘Why am I so privileged?’”

These are questions Trent said he’s asked himself a lot. But he’s also trying to plan the next step of his life. He’s interning at a Texas company that designs outdoor water features, and is planning to start college soon for graphic design. So far, Trent says he hasn’t run into the employment challenges that many young veterans have. “There’s so many opportunities it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’ve walked into stores with shorts on and had people say ‘Are you a combat wounded veteran? Here’s my card, here’s what I do.’…It’s crazy the support we have right now.”

I asked Trent if he feels that his sacrifice was for something good, and he pauses for a moment.

“I believe in fighting for the country and all that. All the cookie cutter statements and everything,” he said. “But really, just like I’ve more or less surrounded myself with such good-hearted people. I can say I’ve been fighting for my country but, really, I feel like I’m fighting for family.”

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My Week in Vegas With Wounded Troops

Since 2001, there have been 48,083 American service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many Americans hear very little about them. When the national media broaches the issue, it’s often in terms of statistics and connected to some sort of domestic challenge or burden: the high veteran unemployment, the cost of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or the military suicide epidemic.

At times, wounded warriors have been exploited for political agendas; they’re often used as props by the anti-war movement, which has characterized them as victims of imperialist U.S. government foreign policy. And while politicians love to tout their appreciation for veterans, they often gloss over the deeper challenges the wounded face after they return home.

There are a few reasons for the disconnect. For one, the all-volunteer military means that wide swaths of America have little interaction with service members in general, let alone wounded soldiers. And their injuries can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with. Wounded warriors represent both the horrors of war and the valor, and when they return home they force us to confront both. It’s impossible to see a 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and hold a romanticized view of war. And it’s impossible to listen to the story of how he got there and not be left humbled by his sacrifice.

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Since 2001, there have been 48,083 American service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many Americans hear very little about them. When the national media broaches the issue, it’s often in terms of statistics and connected to some sort of domestic challenge or burden: the high veteran unemployment, the cost of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or the military suicide epidemic.

At times, wounded warriors have been exploited for political agendas; they’re often used as props by the anti-war movement, which has characterized them as victims of imperialist U.S. government foreign policy. And while politicians love to tout their appreciation for veterans, they often gloss over the deeper challenges the wounded face after they return home.

There are a few reasons for the disconnect. For one, the all-volunteer military means that wide swaths of America have little interaction with service members in general, let alone wounded soldiers. And their injuries can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with. Wounded warriors represent both the horrors of war and the valor, and when they return home they force us to confront both. It’s impossible to see a 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and hold a romanticized view of war. And it’s impossible to listen to the story of how he got there and not be left humbled by his sacrifice.

I was able to spend last week with a group of 40 wounded warriors who served in Afghanistan and Iraq at a Salute the Troops event at the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas. What struck me at the beginning was how young some of them looked and how candid they were about their experiences: what it was like to suffer the loss of legs or arms, or permanent control of bladder and bowels; what it felt like to inhale the fire from a suicide bomb or to step on an IED plate; and the sense of guilt some felt because they were unable to go back and continue fighting alongside their friends.

But, for the most part, they didn’t dwell on their injuries. They spent the week hanging out at poolside cabanas, at the hotel sports bar, playing poker and dancing at the nightclubs. They joked around with each other, talked about sports, and commiserated over military hospital bureaucracy.

The four-day event was organized by the Armed Forces Foundation and sponsored by Southwest Airlines, Omaha Steaks and the Palazzo Hotel (which also paid for my trip). Three other bloggers, VodkaPundit, BlackFive’s Bruce McQuain, and Kristle Helmuth, were also on the trip (and I highly recommend reading their coverage as well).

The annual event was the brainchild of AFF founder Patricia Driscoll and billionaire casino mogul and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is someone even prominent politicians have a hard time securing meetings with, but he dropped by for dinner with the wounded warriors every night of the trip, often working the room on his motorized scooter.

“There’s one thing I know,” he told the group in a speech on Friday night. “When you volunteer, you don’t lead from behind. So you guys carry a sense of patriotism that is unbounded…You’re protecting us, and that’s something we can’t thank you enough [for].”

Over this Memorial Day weekend, I will share the stories of three of the wounded warriors I interviewed last week. I hope it will provide some insight into what they experienced in combat and what they’re struggling with and looking forward to as they transition out of military hospitals and return home.

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Keep Politicians Out of the Sanctuary

A Miami synagogue is the center of controversy this week for canceling an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The president of Temple Israel there said the invitation for her to speak after Friday night services was cancelled due to “security concerns.” But, as the Miami Herald reports, it’s no secret the real reason is that a prominent member of the synagogue had resigned because he was told there would be no equal time on the program for a Republican.

Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats are representing this as an attempt to prevent her voice from being heard and an instance of Republicans injecting politics into the situation. But the truth is just the opposite. As the congresswoman says, constituents should be able to hear their representative, but the Reform synagogue is not in her district. Even if it was, inviting an intensely partisan figure such as the DNC chair to speak at a religious service during an election year is inappropriate. Sabbath services should not be turned into rallies for the Democratic Party or President Obama or occasions for trashing the GOP, because we all know all too well that is what happens every time DWS opens her mouth. The same principle would apply were it House Majority Leader Eric Cantor being imposed on the congregation.

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A Miami synagogue is the center of controversy this week for canceling an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The president of Temple Israel there said the invitation for her to speak after Friday night services was cancelled due to “security concerns.” But, as the Miami Herald reports, it’s no secret the real reason is that a prominent member of the synagogue had resigned because he was told there would be no equal time on the program for a Republican.

Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats are representing this as an attempt to prevent her voice from being heard and an instance of Republicans injecting politics into the situation. But the truth is just the opposite. As the congresswoman says, constituents should be able to hear their representative, but the Reform synagogue is not in her district. Even if it was, inviting an intensely partisan figure such as the DNC chair to speak at a religious service during an election year is inappropriate. Sabbath services should not be turned into rallies for the Democratic Party or President Obama or occasions for trashing the GOP, because we all know all too well that is what happens every time DWS opens her mouth. The same principle would apply were it House Majority Leader Eric Cantor being imposed on the congregation.

Religious institutions with tax-exempt status are forbidden from conducting partisan activities, but this is a rule that is often observed in the breach in some communities, especially where one party predominates. The use of inner city African-American churches as platforms for Democratic politicians seeking to mobilize voters is a tradition that few question. The same is true in some evangelical churches for conservatives. That predominantly liberal American Jewish institutions would be tempted to play the same game is hardly surprising. But though Republicans are a minority in most Jewish communities, they still exist. In the case of Temple Israel, 85-year-old philanthropist Stanley Tate, the co-chair of the Romney campaign in Miami-Dade county is, or was, a member and asked to be able to respond to Wasserman Schultz’s remarks. When he was told that he couldn’t, he quite understandably resigned from the synagogue. Faced with the choice of losing a cherished and generous member, or an appearance by DWS, the temple discovered a “security problem” that forced their cancellation of the congresswoman’s visit.

Tate will be criticized for throwing his weight around and so will the temple leadership (the president is a prominent Democrat) for caving in to him. But Tate should never have been put in that position to begin with. Synagogues and churches should stay away from allowing their services to be commandeered by partisans, especially during a presidential election in which the considerable Jewish vote in Florida may be up for grabs.

The problem here though is not just poor judgment on the part of Temple Israel but the assumption on the part of many liberal Jews that there is no difference between their faith and their political party. Though the old joke persists that Reform Jews define Judaism as the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, Republican and independent members of Reform synagogues are rightly under the impression that they are there to practice their faith, not cheer for the Democrats. While we don’t blame Wasserman Schultz for seeking any opportunity to address an audience, Temple Israel owes Tate an apology. Other religious institutions similarly tempted to play politics in this manner should take a lesson from their embarrassment and resolve to keep partisanship out of the sanctuary at least until November.

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Defending the Breitbart Vetting

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes issue with the Breitbart.com vetting of Obama’s younger years, and argues that it’s just one example of the conservative media’s self-defeating behavior:

Perhaps “The Vetting” drives traffic to Breitbart.com. When it comes to giving insight into Obama’s actions, or the course his second term would be likely to take, or advancing conservative insights, it’s utterly pointless — it misleads more often than it clarifies, and whereas actually digging into Obama’s behavior during his first term, or his donors, or the gulf between his promises and actions might produce newsworthy scoops, Breitbart.com is spending its time digging up old play posters with Obama’s name on them and proving he once dressed patriotically. …

On Twitter yesterday, conservative journalist John Tabin took issue with my argument that these pathologies, common to many (though not all) conservative media outlets, are one obstacle to a conservatism that focuses on and achieves the passage of reform legislation on taxes, spending, and entitlements. So I’ll close by posing a question to him. Breitbart.com is read largely by movement conservatives. Does it help or hurt the conservative cause when they focus on the issues raised in “The Vetting” series?

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At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes issue with the Breitbart.com vetting of Obama’s younger years, and argues that it’s just one example of the conservative media’s self-defeating behavior:

Perhaps “The Vetting” drives traffic to Breitbart.com. When it comes to giving insight into Obama’s actions, or the course his second term would be likely to take, or advancing conservative insights, it’s utterly pointless — it misleads more often than it clarifies, and whereas actually digging into Obama’s behavior during his first term, or his donors, or the gulf between his promises and actions might produce newsworthy scoops, Breitbart.com is spending its time digging up old play posters with Obama’s name on them and proving he once dressed patriotically. …

On Twitter yesterday, conservative journalist John Tabin took issue with my argument that these pathologies, common to many (though not all) conservative media outlets, are one obstacle to a conservatism that focuses on and achieves the passage of reform legislation on taxes, spending, and entitlements. So I’ll close by posing a question to him. Breitbart.com is read largely by movement conservatives. Does it help or hurt the conservative cause when they focus on the issues raised in “The Vetting” series?

It’s true that digging into Obama’s past for insight into his second term is probably useless, and these issues shouldn’t be used as a serious conservative arguments against Obama’s reelection. But that’s not really the point of Breitbart’s vetting, which is aimed at holding the media accountable for what it missed in 2008 – as the Breitbart website explains, “to show that the media had failed in its most basic duty.” Whether it’s been successful is a matter of personal opinion, but the issue of the media’s double standard of scrutiny are certainly worth addressing.

So Obama wearing patriotic garb, and a copy of an old law school exam he gave may not be major bombshells. But is the story about Romney’s dog riding on the roof of his car decades ago really a groundbreaking revelation? Why have reporters dug up Romney’s prep school frenemies from half a century ago, while the mainstream reporting on Obama’s college and post-college years has largely been fawning and positive? Even David Maraniss’s book, which is expected to be the most exhaustive examination of Obama’s post-college years, sounds like it will also be a flattering portrayal. From Josh Wilwol’s review (h/t Mike Allen):

“Maraniss’s Obama is sympathetic, and in contrast to his exotic background, he emerges as a normal, well-adjusted guy. At Occidental, ‘Barry”s Mick Jagger impression was legendary, and as a teen at Honolulu’s Punahou School, he was known for snagging joints from his buddies’ hands and shouting ‘Intercepted!’ before taking an extra hit. Halfway through the book, Maraniss describes a day when a high-school teacher asked Obama what people should most fear. ‘Words,’ uttered the boy who would be known for his stirring speeches. ‘Words … can be weapons of destruction.'”

There’s no reason the conservative media can’t cover media bias issues, while also discussing policy — in fact, it already does that. Friedersdorf’s overarching implication, that the conservative media as a whole is obsessed with digging up Obama’s past and ignores more substantive debates, is just inaccurate. The Breitbart focus on media bias isn’t a threat to policy-driven conservatism, because it’s not necessary to choose one over the other. There are plenty of other conservative publications that cover fiscal policy, and that doesn’t mean important cultural issues have to be ignored.

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Obama’s Gift to Romney

This past week, the president and the vice president have made some rather curious arguments on their behalf.

“If your main argument for how to grow the economy is ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about,” Obama said. “It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity, but that’s not what my job is as president. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure that the country is growing not just now, but ten years from now and 20 years from now,” he said.

Vice President Biden, meanwhile, offered up this argument. “Your job as president is to promote the common good. That doesn’t mean the private-equity guys are bad guys. They’re not,” Biden said at New Hampshire’s Keene State College. “But that no more qualifies you to be president than being a plumber. And, by the way, there’re an awful lot of smart plumbers. All kidding aside, it’s not the same job requirement.”

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This past week, the president and the vice president have made some rather curious arguments on their behalf.

“If your main argument for how to grow the economy is ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about,” Obama said. “It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity, but that’s not what my job is as president. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure that the country is growing not just now, but ten years from now and 20 years from now,” he said.

Vice President Biden, meanwhile, offered up this argument. “Your job as president is to promote the common good. That doesn’t mean the private-equity guys are bad guys. They’re not,” Biden said at New Hampshire’s Keene State College. “But that no more qualifies you to be president than being a plumber. And, by the way, there’re an awful lot of smart plumbers. All kidding aside, it’s not the same job requirement.”

I suppose one could say that being a plumber makes you more qualified to be president than being a community organizer, but set that aside for the moment.

The case both Obama and Biden are making is that Obama (a) understands what the job of president entails and (b) is promoting the common good. And based on his record, it’s not clear Obama understands or is doing either one.

To sharpen the point a bit: How exactly is the common good being advanced when during the Obama presidency the number of people in the U.S. who are in poverty has seen a record increase, with the ranks of working-age poor approaching 1960s levels that led to the national war on poverty. In addition, the budget deficit and federal debt have reached their highest percentage since World War II. The same is true when it comes to federal spending as a percentage of GDP. During the post-recession period from June 2009 to June 2011, the median annual household income fell by 6.7 percent– a more substantial decline than occurred during the Great Recession. The Christian Science Monitor points out , “The standard of living for Americans has fallen longer and more steeply over the past three years than at any time since the U.S. government began recording it five decades ago.” The housing crisis is worse than the Great Depression. Home values worth one-third less than they were five years ago. The home ownership rate is the lowest since 1965. And government dependency, defined as the percentage of persons receiving one or more federal benefit payments, is the highest in American history.”

There’s more, but you get the point.

For Obama and Biden to lecture Romney on the qualifications for being president is like John Edwards and Bill Clinton lecturing us on the importance of fidelity in marriage. Their case is undermined by their record, their actions, and their failures.

I cannot imagine a greater in-kind gift to the Romney campaign than for the president and the vice president to run on their stewardship. But that is what they’ve decided to do, at least this week.

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Is Obama Not So Smart? Check Your Facts

Real Clear Politics this morning linked to a column by Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette entitled “Obama Is Not That Bright.” In it he wrote,

Could it be that Mr. Obama’s “superior intellect” is a myth created by journalists to mask what may be the thinnest resume of anyone ever elected president? An example of puffery is the description of Mr. Obama as a former “professor of constitutional law.” Mr. Obama was a part time instructor at the University of Chicago Law School, without the title or status of professor. And, according to blogger Doug Ross, he wasn’t very popular with the real professors.

“I spent some time with the highest tenured faculty member at Chicago Law a few months back,” Mr. Ross wrote in March 2010. “According to my professor friend, [Obama] had the lowest intellectual capacity in the building. … The other professors hated him because he was lazy, unqualified.”

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Real Clear Politics this morning linked to a column by Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette entitled “Obama Is Not That Bright.” In it he wrote,

Could it be that Mr. Obama’s “superior intellect” is a myth created by journalists to mask what may be the thinnest resume of anyone ever elected president? An example of puffery is the description of Mr. Obama as a former “professor of constitutional law.” Mr. Obama was a part time instructor at the University of Chicago Law School, without the title or status of professor. And, according to blogger Doug Ross, he wasn’t very popular with the real professors.

“I spent some time with the highest tenured faculty member at Chicago Law a few months back,” Mr. Ross wrote in March 2010. “According to my professor friend, [Obama] had the lowest intellectual capacity in the building. … The other professors hated him because he was lazy, unqualified.”

As readers of this blog have probably noticed, I’m not the national president of the Obama Fan Club, so this was music to my ears. But was it true? It’s the oldest dictum in journalism that, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out,” a splendid idea all too often honored in the breach. So I checked it out.

Fortunately for me, that was easy because the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School, Douglas G. Baird, is my first cousin (the “G” stands for Gordon). So I asked him about the quote and about the possibility that the reason Obama has refused to release his academic records was that his grades weren’t all that good. Here’s what he wrote back:

… The idea that Obama had lousy grades is demonstrably untrue. He graduated magna from Harvard Law, which means that he was at least in the top 15 or 20 percent of his class at HLS. Most of the exams are blindly graded. I don’t want to argue about the relevance of grades, but the idea that they weren’t very good is just not right.

It also mischaracterizes his position at Chicago to say that he was only a part-time instructor. Not being full-time was a matter of his choosing. (He wanted to pursue a political career. Our efforts to persuade him to teach fulltime at Chicago didn’t succeed. With respect to this, I should emphasize that I’m not speaking with second-hand knowledge. As dean at the time, I was the relevant decision maker.) Moreover, he was a “senior lecturer.” This is not your typical part-time instructor. At the time, it was a position reserved for people who would otherwise be full-time faculty, but who choose not to. (He got full medical benefits, large office, secretary, and faculty-type perks that were given only to [Richard] Posner and [Frank] Easterbrook [who are vastly distinguished appellate federal judges as well as senior lecturers at the law school], and not any other adjuncts.)

To say that some professors hated him because he was unqualified is mystifying. His credentials (president of HLR and magna) are completely traditional law professor credentials. His classes were consistently popular. He spent relatively little time schmoozing with faculty or hanging out with them (and this, at least in retrospect, has made at least one conservative colleague speak ill of him), but this is different from him being unqualified.

Someone who says Obama is not smart is someone who hasn’t met him. I’m completely confident you wouldn’t like him if you met him and you would think him ideological and not warm and fuzzy, but I would be stunned if you didn’t think he was smart.

Doug is undoubtedly right that I wouldn’t like Obama if I met him, which I haven’t (White House invitations have been notably sparse the last three years for some mysterious reason). And his ideological mindset is a big reason for that. A rigid ideology, after all, can make very bright people act stupidly.

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What Happened to Russia’s Grand Bargain?

In 1999, with Boris Yeltsin’s health failing and his need to produce a smooth succession the following year, Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin Russia’s prime minister and gave Putin an unprecedented free hand in making policy. From the beginning, Putin’s attitude toward his own stewardship of the Russian Federation was a grand bargain: Putin was to be unchallenged in the political sphere, and in return the Russian people would have security, stability, and non-political liberty.

To demonstrate this, Putin led a furious military effort to suppress Chechen separatism, earning briefly the nickname the “iron chancellor.” Putin biographer Richard Sakwa quotes Yeltsin’s explanation for Putin’s rising popularity: “Putin got rid of Russia’s fear. And Russia repaid him with profound gratitude.” Yet since December, Moscow has seen massive protests, and Russians were even galvanized by a hunger strike in the provinces. And this week, two studies indicate Russians’ gratitude toward Putin is broadly on the wane, and their desire for democratic institutions is rising. The reason is not because Russians are reneging on their half of the grand bargain. It’s because the grand bargain was always impossible.

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In 1999, with Boris Yeltsin’s health failing and his need to produce a smooth succession the following year, Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin Russia’s prime minister and gave Putin an unprecedented free hand in making policy. From the beginning, Putin’s attitude toward his own stewardship of the Russian Federation was a grand bargain: Putin was to be unchallenged in the political sphere, and in return the Russian people would have security, stability, and non-political liberty.

To demonstrate this, Putin led a furious military effort to suppress Chechen separatism, earning briefly the nickname the “iron chancellor.” Putin biographer Richard Sakwa quotes Yeltsin’s explanation for Putin’s rising popularity: “Putin got rid of Russia’s fear. And Russia repaid him with profound gratitude.” Yet since December, Moscow has seen massive protests, and Russians were even galvanized by a hunger strike in the provinces. And this week, two studies indicate Russians’ gratitude toward Putin is broadly on the wane, and their desire for democratic institutions is rising. The reason is not because Russians are reneging on their half of the grand bargain. It’s because the grand bargain was always impossible.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported on a Pew poll based on 1,000 in-person interviews in Russia. They found that while the word “democracy” still doesn’t score so high, the descriptions of democratic institutions do:

For instance, 71 percent of those polled said a fair judiciary is very important — and just 17 percent said Russia has one. Lesser but still significant differences showed up in respondents’ views on honest elections, uncensored media, a civilian-controlled military, free speech and religious freedom.

Then yesterday, the Wall Street Journal carried a story on a respected Russian think tank’s report that support for Putin is dropping–possibly quite far–and that while they don’t see broad yearnings for the kind of democracy the protesters have been asking for, they did find frustration with the status quo:

At the same time, the prodemocracy agenda of the Moscow demonstrators doesn’t find broad support in the rest of the country. There, demands are more pragmatic, focused on better government services such as health care, education, law enforcement and infrastructure. But the government has for years failed to deliver on promises of improvements in these areas.

Part of this can probably be chalked up the paradox of progress—when you provide security and thus enable people to worry about other things, they will do so. But much of this has to do with the inherent falsehood of the grand bargain: You cannot separate political liberty from other forms of liberty. If Putin is to remain unchallenged politically, he needs a court system that will levy trumped-up charges and stiff, arbitrary prison terms to his rivals, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And a court system empowered to seize a company and send its executives away to Siberian prison for chirping at Putin cannot and will not work properly for the rest of the country. It is a thoroughly corrupted institution, and thus we see more than 7-in-10 Russians express their desire for a free and fair judiciary.

The same goes for law enforcement. Putin has given the FSB more power and less accountability than its predecessor, the KGB. The FSB answers only to Putin, and its scope has been widened to maximize its ability to take all necessary actions to protect Putin and his inner circle. Can you imagine trying to convince someone that an FSB so empowered will surely not tread on his civil liberties? Good luck with that. And wrapped up between the security services and the judiciary are the Russian police, who fall prey to the same pressures and temptations as the FSB and the courts.

Other areas get ensnared in the same trap. An education system, for example, in a country with Putin as its ruler will need to propagate the cult of personality and nationalism necessary to maintain Putin’s public image. That also applies to Russian broadcast media.

Between the polls and protests, there’s enough evidence Putin simply doesn’t have the support he once enjoyed. But it’s because of the inherent deception of Putinism, not an unwarranted lack of gratitude on the part of the Russian public.

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“Hardball” Host Can’t Answer the Question

If you’d like to see what happens when an arrogant, thin-skinned journalist is asked a legitimate question about a silly (but revealing) comment he once made, you can’t do much better than viewing this clip of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

C-SPAN’s Steve Scully—one of the most objective and decent journalists in America today—asked Matthews if he still felt toward Barack Obama today the same “thrill” that went up his leg in 2008.

The response by Matthews is filled with bitterness and self-righteousness. “If you had done your reporting over at C-SPAN, you would have checked that I said the exact same thing in 2004 after I heard his address up here in Boston,”” according to Matthews. “I want to help you with your reporting,” Matthews says later. And it gets worse from there, with Matthews—who for some inexplicable reason characterizes his work as “reporting”—constantly trying to put down Scully, including calling him a “jackass.” Matthews is enraged because Scully asked Matthews a question Matthews faces from “every horse’s ass right winger I bump into.”

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If you’d like to see what happens when an arrogant, thin-skinned journalist is asked a legitimate question about a silly (but revealing) comment he once made, you can’t do much better than viewing this clip of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

C-SPAN’s Steve Scully—one of the most objective and decent journalists in America today—asked Matthews if he still felt toward Barack Obama today the same “thrill” that went up his leg in 2008.

The response by Matthews is filled with bitterness and self-righteousness. “If you had done your reporting over at C-SPAN, you would have checked that I said the exact same thing in 2004 after I heard his address up here in Boston,”” according to Matthews. “I want to help you with your reporting,” Matthews says later. And it gets worse from there, with Matthews—who for some inexplicable reason characterizes his work as “reporting”—constantly trying to put down Scully, including calling him a “jackass.” Matthews is enraged because Scully asked Matthews a question Matthews faces from “every horse’s ass right winger I bump into.”

How dare one journalist read an accurate quote from another and ask if he still holds those same views.

The irony abounds. Chris Matthews hosts a show called “Hardball”—yet when asked about his previous statement, he whines and complains as if the question itself is illegitimate. And unlike Matthews, Scully is respectful to his guests and doesn’t constantly interrupt them.

Of all the people I have met in the political class over the decades, those with the thinnest skins tend to be journalists. They are antagonistic toward politicians and revel in their effort to “afflict the comfortable.” Yet when the tables are turned in even the most gentle of ways, many of them (though certainly not all of them) become petty, small-minded, and ad hominem in their response. It’s no wonder the American public holds journalists in such low esteem.

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While West Talks, Iran Gets Closer to Nuke

Most Western diplomats have spent the last day patting themselves on the back for showing a little spine during the latest P5+1 nuclear talks in Baghdad. Faced with yet another Iranian refusal to agree to the conciliatory proposal to ease the way toward an end to the crisis, the West did not give in and remove the tough sanctions that have been belatedly imposed on the Islamist regime. Nor did they promise not to implement the oil embargo on Iran that is supposed to go into effect in July. But by agreeing to another meeting next month in Moscow and the implicit promise to go on negotiating all summer and fall if need be, Iran knows that its centrifuges can keep spinning and they can get closer to their nuclear goal while they allow the clock to run out.

The West already knew this, but it appears t the danger is worse than anyone in the Obama administration or Europe thought. The Associated Press is reporting this morning that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have discovered  the Iranians are refining uranium at a rate of up to 27 percent at their Fordo enrichment plant. This is far higher than previous estimates of their capacity that was only at 20 percent. Because the West has been attempting to cajole Tehran into giving up refinement at that 20 percent level, the news that they have already far exceeded that level ought to dispel the administration’s complacent attitude that assumed Iran’s program was already operating at maximum capacity. Because the 20 percent fuel is already at the level where it can easily turned into weapons grade material, the uranium spike is a troubling sign for those who assume that the West has plenty of time to keep talking about the problem before the Iranians achieve their goal.

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Most Western diplomats have spent the last day patting themselves on the back for showing a little spine during the latest P5+1 nuclear talks in Baghdad. Faced with yet another Iranian refusal to agree to the conciliatory proposal to ease the way toward an end to the crisis, the West did not give in and remove the tough sanctions that have been belatedly imposed on the Islamist regime. Nor did they promise not to implement the oil embargo on Iran that is supposed to go into effect in July. But by agreeing to another meeting next month in Moscow and the implicit promise to go on negotiating all summer and fall if need be, Iran knows that its centrifuges can keep spinning and they can get closer to their nuclear goal while they allow the clock to run out.

The West already knew this, but it appears t the danger is worse than anyone in the Obama administration or Europe thought. The Associated Press is reporting this morning that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have discovered  the Iranians are refining uranium at a rate of up to 27 percent at their Fordo enrichment plant. This is far higher than previous estimates of their capacity that was only at 20 percent. Because the West has been attempting to cajole Tehran into giving up refinement at that 20 percent level, the news that they have already far exceeded that level ought to dispel the administration’s complacent attitude that assumed Iran’s program was already operating at maximum capacity. Because the 20 percent fuel is already at the level where it can easily turned into weapons grade material, the uranium spike is a troubling sign for those who assume that the West has plenty of time to keep talking about the problem before the Iranians achieve their goal.

Some nuclear experts were willing to discount this development as a mistake due to technicians overshooting their goal as they calibrated the refinement process. While that is possible, it is also just as likely that, contrary to the West’s expectations, the Iranians are secretly raising their enrichment threshold to a weapons-grade level.

While it would be comforting to accept the rationalizations about this finding or to believe that it is somehow a mistake, it is worth recalling that at every step of the way during this process, the West has underestimated Iran’s progress and its will to pursue its nuclear ambitions. The Iranians believe the events of the last few years prove that they can transgress any red lines set by the West and get away with it. Even the proposal at the P5+1 talks that they turned down this week confirms their dim view of Western resolve, as even this supposedly hard line stance would have allowed Iran to keep its nuclear program as part of a deal.

Many observers have noted that the Iranians share a common agenda at the talks with President Obama and the Europeans. Both sides want to keep the negotiations alive so as to make it impossible for Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. And both would like the process to drag on for a while. President Obama doesn’t want the situation to blow up during his re-election campaign. The Iranians are just trying to run out the clock the way they have been doing for years. The new uranium enrichment findings are troubling not just because they may show that Iran’s stockpile of refined uranium may be greater than we thought, but because it also may mean the sanguine assessment of western intelligence agencies about the time Iran needs to build a bomb may have been wildly optimistic. This should cause the West to give up any idea of more concessions to the Iranians. If the 27 percent uranium doesn’t illustrate the futility of the talks to President Obama, then perhaps nothing will.

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