Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 28, 2012

Chris Christie’s Republican Party

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s speech tonight was not your standard convention keynote address. He did not use his time to attack President Obama directly. Even more curiously, he did not mention the man he’s supporting for president — Mitt Romney — until the end of the speech. But he did put forward a vision of governance that could serve his party and the country well.

Christie is known for his YouTube clips where he takes down his liberal critics and earns kudos for his take no guff style. But his convention speech was not that of the angry guy who we saw on those videos. Rather, he was a thoughtful exponent of ideas about how the seemingly intractable problems facing the country can be solved given sufficient will on the part of its leaders. Christie said the difference between the two parties was that the Democrats believe Americans don’t want to hear the truth about out of control entitlements but that Republicans are willing to confront problems head on. In doing so, he threw down a challenge that showed his party is not going to evade Democrat class warfare tactics but is prepared to hazard the election on their being willing to listen to reformist arguments such as the ones he’s used in New Jersey.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s speech tonight was not your standard convention keynote address. He did not use his time to attack President Obama directly. Even more curiously, he did not mention the man he’s supporting for president — Mitt Romney — until the end of the speech. But he did put forward a vision of governance that could serve his party and the country well.

Christie is known for his YouTube clips where he takes down his liberal critics and earns kudos for his take no guff style. But his convention speech was not that of the angry guy who we saw on those videos. Rather, he was a thoughtful exponent of ideas about how the seemingly intractable problems facing the country can be solved given sufficient will on the part of its leaders. Christie said the difference between the two parties was that the Democrats believe Americans don’t want to hear the truth about out of control entitlements but that Republicans are willing to confront problems head on. In doing so, he threw down a challenge that showed his party is not going to evade Democrat class warfare tactics but is prepared to hazard the election on their being willing to listen to reformist arguments such as the ones he’s used in New Jersey.

This probably disappointed some of the speech’s viewers who were hoping to see the loud-mouthed  guy who tells impertinent questioners to shut up on YouTube. He also suffered the misfortune of having to follow Ann Romney’s eloquent and touching speech in praise of her husband that immediately preceded Christie’s address.

But Christie’s discussion about taking on teacher’s unions but still supporting teachers and of being willing to touch the “third rail” of politics with entitlements showed that this no longer the big government Republican Party that spent the public’s money like drunken sailors before being tossed out in 2006 and 2008. Christie’s Republican Party is the same one that produced GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and his reform agenda.

Christie’s Republican Party is one that actually believes they can talk about changing Medicare and still not be successfully demagogued by their opponents because senior citizens are not as “selfish” Democrats think them to be. That’s a political gamble but one that governors like Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker — perhaps the most popular officeholder at the convention — have met successfully.

In making such a speech, Christie was perhaps aiming more at the future of the party — and perhaps his own — than its present. As such it cannot be judged as completely successful since he spent so little time extolling Romney’s virtues, as one would expect a keynoter to do. But there’s little doubt that Christie’s ideas — like those of Ryan — are the ones that will animate Republicans in the years to come.  Whether or not Romney wins in November, Christie set the tone for the future of his party.

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The Networks Don’t Even Try to Hide the Bias

Having decided they would not show more than three hours of the conventions, the networks have just begun their 10 pm broadcasts as follows. ABC ran a chyron as George Stephanopoulos spoke that read: “Breaking: Romney Unfavorable 51 Percent.” On CBS, Scott Pelley turned to a correspondent on the floor and said, “Mitt Romney is behind Barack Obama by 10 points among women.” NBC focused exclusively on the hurricane—when, during a dead TV week, it could easily have done a special report on the hurricane in the half hour before the convention coverage.  Nice going, fellas.

Having decided they would not show more than three hours of the conventions, the networks have just begun their 10 pm broadcasts as follows. ABC ran a chyron as George Stephanopoulos spoke that read: “Breaking: Romney Unfavorable 51 Percent.” On CBS, Scott Pelley turned to a correspondent on the floor and said, “Mitt Romney is behind Barack Obama by 10 points among women.” NBC focused exclusively on the hurricane—when, during a dead TV week, it could easily have done a special report on the hurricane in the half hour before the convention coverage.  Nice going, fellas.

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Artur Davis: The Fun Speech

Former Democratic congressman Artur Davis, who was an Obama co-chair in 2008, came on to play the now-standard role of rueful turncoat who knows better than anybody else how problematic his own party’s choice and conduct is. What came out was the first really fun speech of the convention, a lively and punchy sing-song that began by making fun of the Greek columns at the 2008 convention and ends with Obamacare as a betrayal of the bipartisan spirit of JFK and Bill Clinton. Of the convention next week in Charlotte, he said, “The theme song should be this year’s hit, ‘Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.'”

“This is no dark hour,” he said. “This is the dawn before we remember who we are.” Now that’s how you give a stemwinder.

Former Democratic congressman Artur Davis, who was an Obama co-chair in 2008, came on to play the now-standard role of rueful turncoat who knows better than anybody else how problematic his own party’s choice and conduct is. What came out was the first really fun speech of the convention, a lively and punchy sing-song that began by making fun of the Greek columns at the 2008 convention and ends with Obamacare as a betrayal of the bipartisan spirit of JFK and Bill Clinton. Of the convention next week in Charlotte, he said, “The theme song should be this year’s hit, ‘Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.'”

“This is no dark hour,” he said. “This is the dawn before we remember who we are.” Now that’s how you give a stemwinder.

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Re: The Importance of Ann Romney

I agree with Jonathan that the most important role Ann Romney will play tonight is helping to humanize Mitt, and tell the personal stories about him that he’s either been too modest or too uncomfortable onstage to talk about himself. From the excerpts released by the Romney campaign, it sounds like that’s exactly what Ann plans to do (h/t Playbook):

“Tonight I want to talk to you from my heart about our hearts. I want to talk not about what divides us, but what holds us together as an American family. I want to talk to you tonight about that one great thing that unites us, that one thing that brings us our greatest joy when times are good, and the deepest solace in our dark hours. Tonight I want to talk to you about love.”

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I agree with Jonathan that the most important role Ann Romney will play tonight is helping to humanize Mitt, and tell the personal stories about him that he’s either been too modest or too uncomfortable onstage to talk about himself. From the excerpts released by the Romney campaign, it sounds like that’s exactly what Ann plans to do (h/t Playbook):

“Tonight I want to talk to you from my heart about our hearts. I want to talk not about what divides us, but what holds us together as an American family. I want to talk to you tonight about that one great thing that unites us, that one thing that brings us our greatest joy when times are good, and the deepest solace in our dark hours. Tonight I want to talk to you about love.”

“When Mitt and I met and fell in love, we were determined not to let anything stand in the way of our life together…I read somewhere that Mitt and I have a ‘storybook marriage.’ Well, in the storybooks I read, there were never long, long, rainy winter afternoons in a house with five boys screaming at once. And those storybooks never seemed to have chapters called MS or Breast Cancer. A storybook marriage? No, not at all. What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage…At every turn in his life, this man I met at a high school dance, has helped lift up others. He did it with the Olympics, when many wanted to give up.”

“…This is the man America needs. This is the man who will wake up every day with the determination to solve the problems that others say can’t be solved, to fix what others say is beyond repair. This is the man who will work harder than anyone so that we can work a little less hard. I can’t tell you what will happen over the next four years. But I can only stand here tonight, as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, an American, and make you this solemn commitment: This man will not fail. This man will not let us down. This man will lift up America!”

The delivery of the speech will, in some ways, be more important than the content. Of course she’s going to say wonderful things about Mitt; she’s his wife, and he’s running for political office. But Ann Romney has been such a key surrogate to her husband throughout the campaign because of her demeanor; where he’s been awkward and stiff, she’s been charming and genuine. That’s what her task will be tonight.

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Santorum’s Disastrous Speech

Rick Santorum, the passionate conservative, just gave a heartfelt speech at the Republican Convention. Heartfelt—and very bad. It was bad because of its central metaphorical conceit—hands. Santorum informed America that he had “shaken the hand of the American dream,” and then went on to talk about shaking the hands of farmers and the hands of this guy and that woman and so on. Rhetorical conceits work when they are unnoticed, when they are introduced almost (forgive me) off-handedly and then begin to broaden and deepen as the speech itself does. The problem is that you can’t shake the hand of a dream—a dream is something abstract, hands are real, the metaphor simply doesn’t work, and you notice it the way you notice a hangnail. Then, every time it comes back, you’re reminded of the original bizarrerie and you feel uncomfortable and confused. Santorum pulled himself out of the ditch by bringing up the condition of his disabled daughter Bella, an undeniably touching story, and then tying that to his pro-life message. But before that, Santorum gave the world a master class in how not to give a convention speech.

Rick Santorum, the passionate conservative, just gave a heartfelt speech at the Republican Convention. Heartfelt—and very bad. It was bad because of its central metaphorical conceit—hands. Santorum informed America that he had “shaken the hand of the American dream,” and then went on to talk about shaking the hands of farmers and the hands of this guy and that woman and so on. Rhetorical conceits work when they are unnoticed, when they are introduced almost (forgive me) off-handedly and then begin to broaden and deepen as the speech itself does. The problem is that you can’t shake the hand of a dream—a dream is something abstract, hands are real, the metaphor simply doesn’t work, and you notice it the way you notice a hangnail. Then, every time it comes back, you’re reminded of the original bizarrerie and you feel uncomfortable and confused. Santorum pulled himself out of the ditch by bringing up the condition of his disabled daughter Bella, an undeniably touching story, and then tying that to his pro-life message. But before that, Santorum gave the world a master class in how not to give a convention speech.

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Why “We Built It” Is So Effective

We’re only a few hours into the Republican National Convention and journalists are already getting sick and tired of the party’s “We Built It” theme. The incessant use of the phrase and the drumbeat of reminders of President Obama’s gaffe may be wearing on some viewers too. No tag line has ever been beaten down harder at a national convention. But Democrats who assume that the Republicans are overdoing it are probably mistaken. The line works. Even more important, despite the arguments from liberals that it was taken out of context, the more the full sound clips are played, the more its clear that it represents a window into the president’s core philosophy.

The Obama campaign is happy with the idea of this election being a choice between competing visions rather than merely a referendum about the president’s conduct in office. They believe that means they can frame the presidential contest as being between what the president claims is his moderate agenda against an extreme Republican program. The Todd Akin fiasco was a huge boost for this strategy since it plays into the fake “war on women” line that will, no doubt, be the theme song of next week’s Democratic convention. But the “we built it” line is the way Republicans re-focus Americans on what they already dislike about the administration.

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We’re only a few hours into the Republican National Convention and journalists are already getting sick and tired of the party’s “We Built It” theme. The incessant use of the phrase and the drumbeat of reminders of President Obama’s gaffe may be wearing on some viewers too. No tag line has ever been beaten down harder at a national convention. But Democrats who assume that the Republicans are overdoing it are probably mistaken. The line works. Even more important, despite the arguments from liberals that it was taken out of context, the more the full sound clips are played, the more its clear that it represents a window into the president’s core philosophy.

The Obama campaign is happy with the idea of this election being a choice between competing visions rather than merely a referendum about the president’s conduct in office. They believe that means they can frame the presidential contest as being between what the president claims is his moderate agenda against an extreme Republican program. The Todd Akin fiasco was a huge boost for this strategy since it plays into the fake “war on women” line that will, no doubt, be the theme song of next week’s Democratic convention. But the “we built it” line is the way Republicans re-focus Americans on what they already dislike about the administration.

Americans know that the president who rammed ObamaCare and the so-called stimulus down the throats of a reluctant country is addicted to big government solutions. The president was only speaking from his heart when he gave his memorable critique of individualism. It wasn’t really a gaffe because it was just Obama discussing his core philosophy about society. “We built it” sticks because it is nothing more than an illustration of the real divide between the two parties. Journalists and maybe even some in the television audience may be weary of it, but not as much as the president will be before this campaign is over.

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Rising Political Stars: Love and Valenzuela

One of the purposes of conventions is to highlight impressive political talent displayed by state-level officials who may rise to the top in years to come—the ur-example of this being, of course, State Senator Barack Obama, whose 2004 speech at the Democratic convention was even more important to his eventual election in 2008 than his Senate victory later that year. Tonight, the Republican party unveiled two potent new personalities, Mia Love and Sher Valenzuela. Love, who is 36 years old and the child of Haitian immigrants, is the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah and a candidate for Congress. Valenzuela is the owner of a small business running for lieutenant governor of Delaware.

Love’s talk was an upbeat tribute to the United States, lively and biting and cheerful. Valenzuela’s was without question the first really dynamic speech of the convention—combining a story about starting her business with her husband to find the funds to pay for the education of their autistic child (now a college student) and then connecting that experience with the regulatory nightmare that besets those who want to start and maintain businesses. Delaware is an odd state for Republicans, but if Valenzuela can win her office and find a way to rise higher, she is exactly what the Republican party will need over the coming decades—an intelligent, well-spoken, resourceful politician who can speak with particular clarity to Hispanics and women.

One of the purposes of conventions is to highlight impressive political talent displayed by state-level officials who may rise to the top in years to come—the ur-example of this being, of course, State Senator Barack Obama, whose 2004 speech at the Democratic convention was even more important to his eventual election in 2008 than his Senate victory later that year. Tonight, the Republican party unveiled two potent new personalities, Mia Love and Sher Valenzuela. Love, who is 36 years old and the child of Haitian immigrants, is the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah and a candidate for Congress. Valenzuela is the owner of a small business running for lieutenant governor of Delaware.

Love’s talk was an upbeat tribute to the United States, lively and biting and cheerful. Valenzuela’s was without question the first really dynamic speech of the convention—combining a story about starting her business with her husband to find the funds to pay for the education of their autistic child (now a college student) and then connecting that experience with the regulatory nightmare that besets those who want to start and maintain businesses. Delaware is an odd state for Republicans, but if Valenzuela can win her office and find a way to rise higher, she is exactly what the Republican party will need over the coming decades—an intelligent, well-spoken, resourceful politician who can speak with particular clarity to Hispanics and women.

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The Roll Call

As I write, Mitt Romney has just received a sufficient number of delegates and is now the formal nominee of the Republican Party. The process by which the delegates are counted is the state-by-state roll call. This is the last echo of the old pre-primary political system, when party leaders came together at conventions to choose a nominee—and often needed several ballots before the backroom deals finally came together and the party closed ranks around its standard bearer. Of course, without the drama, the convention is nothing more than a pageant.

But as this afternoon’s delightful goings-on revealed if you were watching them on C-SPAN, they’re a splendid pageant. High-spirited folks from around the country present 50-plus short tributes to their home states (“The 43rd star on the flag, and the first to sue over Obamacare,” said the representative of Idaho), often surprisingly witty, pointedly partisan, and full of good cheer, and offer a stark reminder that even in this increasingly homogenized nation, there are still profound differences of style, character, accent, and comportment. There’s something beautiful about it even in its meaninglessness.

As I write, Mitt Romney has just received a sufficient number of delegates and is now the formal nominee of the Republican Party. The process by which the delegates are counted is the state-by-state roll call. This is the last echo of the old pre-primary political system, when party leaders came together at conventions to choose a nominee—and often needed several ballots before the backroom deals finally came together and the party closed ranks around its standard bearer. Of course, without the drama, the convention is nothing more than a pageant.

But as this afternoon’s delightful goings-on revealed if you were watching them on C-SPAN, they’re a splendid pageant. High-spirited folks from around the country present 50-plus short tributes to their home states (“The 43rd star on the flag, and the first to sue over Obamacare,” said the representative of Idaho), often surprisingly witty, pointedly partisan, and full of good cheer, and offer a stark reminder that even in this increasingly homogenized nation, there are still profound differences of style, character, accent, and comportment. There’s something beautiful about it even in its meaninglessness.

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More Blue State Warning Signs for Obama

I noted last week that a Rasmussen poll showing Republican Linda McMahon in the lead in the Connecticut Senate race and wondered how she could be doing so much better in 2012 than she did in 2010, when she lost another Senate race in a landslide. There was some reason at that time to think that poll was an outlier since the former pro wrestling mogul had polled badly all year in general election matchups prior to winning the GOP primary last month. But yet another poll has just been released, this time by the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University that again shows McMahon beating Rep. Chris Murphy by a 49-46 percent margin. At this point, even those like myself who have been skeptical about the idea that a deep blue state could possibly send a Republican to the Senate this year, let alone one with as dubious a background as McMahon, have to concede that she has an excellent chance of winning.

However, I’m still somewhat skeptical about the idea floated that the sole explanation for this is that in the past two years the brash businesswoman has been able to alter her image. It may well be that after three years in politics, voters in the state that calls itself the “land of steady habits” may be getting used to McMahon and no longer associating her primarily with the misogyny, drug use and violence of the WWE. But there’s another hint in both the Quinnipiac and Rasmussen polls. If, as they show, even the top of the ticket is losing ground in deep blue Connecticut, the Obama re-election campaign may be in bigger trouble than many of us thought.

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I noted last week that a Rasmussen poll showing Republican Linda McMahon in the lead in the Connecticut Senate race and wondered how she could be doing so much better in 2012 than she did in 2010, when she lost another Senate race in a landslide. There was some reason at that time to think that poll was an outlier since the former pro wrestling mogul had polled badly all year in general election matchups prior to winning the GOP primary last month. But yet another poll has just been released, this time by the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University that again shows McMahon beating Rep. Chris Murphy by a 49-46 percent margin. At this point, even those like myself who have been skeptical about the idea that a deep blue state could possibly send a Republican to the Senate this year, let alone one with as dubious a background as McMahon, have to concede that she has an excellent chance of winning.

However, I’m still somewhat skeptical about the idea floated that the sole explanation for this is that in the past two years the brash businesswoman has been able to alter her image. It may well be that after three years in politics, voters in the state that calls itself the “land of steady habits” may be getting used to McMahon and no longer associating her primarily with the misogyny, drug use and violence of the WWE. But there’s another hint in both the Quinnipiac and Rasmussen polls. If, as they show, even the top of the ticket is losing ground in deep blue Connecticut, the Obama re-election campaign may be in bigger trouble than many of us thought.

Quinnipiac shows President Obama leading Mitt Romney by only seven points in Connecticut. That 52-45 margin doesn’t look very good when compared to the stunning 61-38 point victory he won there in November 2008. Connecticut may not truly be in danger of going Republican but if the president’s margin of victory there this fall is only in single digits, it’s going to be a long night for the Democrats.

McMahon may have rehabilitated herself to the point where she’s competitive, but her lead may be due more to the enthusiasm gap between the two parties this year than her own efforts. Nevertheless, with her enormous financial edge, having a lead heading into the fall is a big deal for McMahon. It also shows that Democrats are going to have to work to hold onto Connecticut. And that’s good news for Romney even if Obama winds up winning there.

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The Point of Chris Christie’s Keynote

As Jonathan mentioned, aside from the as-yet-unidentified “special guest” speaker at this week’s GOP convention, the most anticipated speech is probably tonight’s keynote from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie has certainly raised expectations, not just for the speech but for his gubernatorial tenure as well. Famous for his confrontational style and honesty, there is a certain degree of pressure on Christie to leave a legacy in New Jersey that matches the rhetoric.

But what those tempted to dismiss his tough talk as mere bluster don’t quite seem to understand is that, in many ways, the rhetoric has already fundamentally altered the state’s politics and the national conversation on important issues. As Jonathan Last wrote in a dispatch from the convention this morning:

Since 1954 the Garden State had had only two successful Republican governors. Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman were both impressive politicians, yet they were technocrats. They made the state government function by maneuvering within the existing political culture.

Christie is different; he’s remade New Jersey’s political landscape. “The political culture has changed,” says state senator Joe Kyrillos. “People aren’t afraid to talk about things that were once taboo.” Public-sector unions, deficits, spending—subjects that used to lurk in the shadowy mists of abstract policy discussion—are now the meat and potatoes of New Jersey politics. And that’s all because of Christie, who possesses the political version of Steve Jobs’s legendary reality-distortion field. “Through the sheer force of his personality he has reshaped the political culture of the state,” Kyrillos says. And Kyrillos isn’t just saying that. He’s testing the hypothesis by running against incumbent Democratic senator Bob Menendez.

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As Jonathan mentioned, aside from the as-yet-unidentified “special guest” speaker at this week’s GOP convention, the most anticipated speech is probably tonight’s keynote from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie has certainly raised expectations, not just for the speech but for his gubernatorial tenure as well. Famous for his confrontational style and honesty, there is a certain degree of pressure on Christie to leave a legacy in New Jersey that matches the rhetoric.

But what those tempted to dismiss his tough talk as mere bluster don’t quite seem to understand is that, in many ways, the rhetoric has already fundamentally altered the state’s politics and the national conversation on important issues. As Jonathan Last wrote in a dispatch from the convention this morning:

Since 1954 the Garden State had had only two successful Republican governors. Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman were both impressive politicians, yet they were technocrats. They made the state government function by maneuvering within the existing political culture.

Christie is different; he’s remade New Jersey’s political landscape. “The political culture has changed,” says state senator Joe Kyrillos. “People aren’t afraid to talk about things that were once taboo.” Public-sector unions, deficits, spending—subjects that used to lurk in the shadowy mists of abstract policy discussion—are now the meat and potatoes of New Jersey politics. And that’s all because of Christie, who possesses the political version of Steve Jobs’s legendary reality-distortion field. “Through the sheer force of his personality he has reshaped the political culture of the state,” Kyrillos says. And Kyrillos isn’t just saying that. He’s testing the hypothesis by running against incumbent Democratic senator Bob Menendez.

Having grown up in the Garden State, and working as a reporter there as well, I can tell you that Last’s bit about the “reality-distortion field” is spot-on. There are times when something sounds great in your head, but significantly less so once you say it out loud. And then there are times when something sounds ridiculous until spoken aloud, when it suddenly makes perfect sense. Christie’s reforms, in the context of New Jersey’s political conversation, were an example of the latter.

And he is, of course, far from the only politician challenging the public union status quo. There are other Republicans, like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal, who have done so. And there are even Northeastern Democrats, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who may have only made modest changes, but in Albany that’s not nothing.

The point is not that the tough rhetoric is sufficient—Christie has already enacted meaningful reforms, as have Walker and Jindal. It’s that those reforms were made possible by first changing the conversation. Support for such reforms has grown nationally, and that’s not because the idea suddenly popped into voters’ minds—voters who just a few years ago would never have considered such proposals. Chris Christie may be entertaining to watch and listen to, but he isn’t at the convention this year to entertain. Everyone in that room tonight should be taking notes.

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Obama’s Three-Part Foreign Policy Record

Bret Stephens’ stellar column in the Wall Street Journal today succinctly summarizes President Obama’s record of foreign failures:

His failed personal effort to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. His failed personal effort to negotiate a climate-change deal at Copenhagen in 2009. His failed efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran that year and this year. His failed effort to improve America’s public standing in the Muslim world with the now-forgotten Cairo speech. His failed reset with Russia. His failed effort to strong-arm Israel into a permanent settlement freeze. His failed (if half-hearted) effort to maintain a residual U.S. military force in Iraq. His failed efforts to cut deals with the Taliban and reach out to North Korea. His failed effort to win over China and Russia for even a symbolic U.N. condemnation of Syria’s Bashar Assad. His failed efforts to intercede in Europe’s economic crisis.

Stephens credits Obama with success in Libya (although the kinetic military operation was conducted in “a reluctant, last-minute, half-embarrassed fashion”), eliminating Osama bin Laden and expanding drone strikes (although the “tawdry efforts to publicize them for political gain will forever diminish the achievement”).

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Bret Stephens’ stellar column in the Wall Street Journal today succinctly summarizes President Obama’s record of foreign failures:

His failed personal effort to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. His failed personal effort to negotiate a climate-change deal at Copenhagen in 2009. His failed efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran that year and this year. His failed effort to improve America’s public standing in the Muslim world with the now-forgotten Cairo speech. His failed reset with Russia. His failed effort to strong-arm Israel into a permanent settlement freeze. His failed (if half-hearted) effort to maintain a residual U.S. military force in Iraq. His failed efforts to cut deals with the Taliban and reach out to North Korea. His failed effort to win over China and Russia for even a symbolic U.N. condemnation of Syria’s Bashar Assad. His failed efforts to intercede in Europe’s economic crisis.

Stephens credits Obama with success in Libya (although the kinetic military operation was conducted in “a reluctant, last-minute, half-embarrassed fashion”), eliminating Osama bin Laden and expanding drone strikes (although the “tawdry efforts to publicize them for political gain will forever diminish the achievement”).

In between Obama’s long list of failures and short list of successes, however, is a third category — what might be called successes that were really failures. I would summarize them as follows:

His successful personal effort to insult the head of state and prime minister of America’s closest ally (as well as removing the bust of its wartime prime minister from the Oval Office); his successful personal effort to put daylight between the U.S. and Israel; his successful effort to ostracize Honduras for enforcing its constitution against a Hugo Chavez wannabe; his successful effort to become the first U.S. president to chair a UN meeting; his successful effort to ignore the efforts of Iranian citizens protesting the stolen 2009 presidential election and then ignore seriatim deadlines for Iran to accept his outstretched hand; his successful efforts to oppose Congressional attempts to strengthen Iran sanctions, while touting each round of non-crippling sanctions as the “toughest ever”; his successful effort to ward off pressure to visit Israel from liberal Israeli columnists, Jewish Democrats in Congress, and friendly rabbis; his successful effort to jettison a U.S. ally in Egypt and reportedly invite the new Pharaoh to the U.S.; his successful effort to set a Guinness Record for golf games by a wartime commander-in-chief; his successful effort to delay executing an already-negotiated free trade agreement with the closest U.S. ally in Latin America; his successful effort to improve relations with Mexico by suing Arizona on its behalf; his successful effort to build a knee-slapping relationship with Dmitri Medvedev to deliver a deferred flexibility message to Vladimir; and his winning a Nobel Peace Prize for not being Bush.

With respect to Iran and Syria, he currently assures allies and adversaries that all options are on the table, but has not convinced them they will ever actually be used. He sets “red lines” that effectively signal that no action will be taken: as long as we do not find out Iran has assembled a nuclear weapon, it can keep the centrifuges whirring, finish its illegal underground facility, and maintain its uninspected installations; as long as Syria does not use chemical weapons, it can keep killing its citizens by conventional means. All this does not even rise to the level of leading from behind.

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The Importance of Ann Romney

Most political observers are eagerly anticipating New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s speech tonight at the Republican Convention and speculating on how it will stack up against other famous keynotes, be they hits like Barack Obama in 2004 or flops like Bill Clinton’s in 1988. The bet here is that Christie will hit it out of the park as the crowd laps up his confrontational style as he tears into the Democrats and President Obama. But his won’t be the most important talk from the RNC podium. Ann Romney’s speech, moved from its original Monday night slot will be a lot more important in terms of the convention’s goal of re-introducing her husband to the American public.

Romney’s biggest problem is the perception of him as a remote plutocrat. That means the usual effort to talk about Romney’s family and personal life is more important than it would normally be for a presidential candidate. Just as crucial is the fact that Ann Romney is probably her husband’s best surrogate. While it is doubtful that too many votes will affected by the question of who will be First Lady next January, Ann Romney’s discussion of who her husband really is can play an important part in not just humanizing him but in making him more likeable. Anything she does that takes down the liberal media’s portrait of the former Massachusetts governor as a heartless bean counter who tied a dog on the roof of his car will give his campaign more material aid than anything Christie says.

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Most political observers are eagerly anticipating New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s speech tonight at the Republican Convention and speculating on how it will stack up against other famous keynotes, be they hits like Barack Obama in 2004 or flops like Bill Clinton’s in 1988. The bet here is that Christie will hit it out of the park as the crowd laps up his confrontational style as he tears into the Democrats and President Obama. But his won’t be the most important talk from the RNC podium. Ann Romney’s speech, moved from its original Monday night slot will be a lot more important in terms of the convention’s goal of re-introducing her husband to the American public.

Romney’s biggest problem is the perception of him as a remote plutocrat. That means the usual effort to talk about Romney’s family and personal life is more important than it would normally be for a presidential candidate. Just as crucial is the fact that Ann Romney is probably her husband’s best surrogate. While it is doubtful that too many votes will affected by the question of who will be First Lady next January, Ann Romney’s discussion of who her husband really is can play an important part in not just humanizing him but in making him more likeable. Anything she does that takes down the liberal media’s portrait of the former Massachusetts governor as a heartless bean counter who tied a dog on the roof of his car will give his campaign more material aid than anything Christie says.

Appearances by wives at conventions have not always been that successful. In 1996, Elizabeth Dole did a star turn talking about her husband Bob and channeled Phil Donahue as she wandered about the convention floor. But the only thing that accomplished was to remind the public that the more articulate and appealing member of the Dole family was the one who wasn’t running.

There will be some of that kind of talk tonight when Mrs. Romney is speaking but unlike what happened with Liddy Dole, there won’t be a sense that she is competing with her husband. Indeed, if the speech ends with Mitt making a guest appearance on the podium it will put on display Romney’s most humanizing quality: his deep love for his wife. Every time I saw Mrs. Romney introduce her husband after a primary victory this past spring, the most striking thing about the exchange was the way Mitt looks at Ann. His lovestruck gaze was pretty much a carbon copy of the way Nancy Reagan used to look at Ronnie.

Mitt Romney won’t win the hearts of America with his wonkish ability to cite facts and figures, but his affection for his wife is a window into what is clearly his most attractive quality. The more Americans see Ann Romney and her husband with her, the more they are going to like Mitt.

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HuffPo or Obama Campaign? Hard to Tell

Have the Huffington Post and the Obama campaign spin doctors finally become indistinguishable? Today the site is breathlessly reporting on a statement made by Mitt Romney’s VP pick Paul Ryan that they believe should remove him from the ticket. The Huffington Post claims that Ryan “referred to rape as a ‘method of conception’” and that this should force him to resign. What did Ryan actually say? “The method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.” This statement is consistent with his pro-life stance barring abortion in all cases and is far from newsworthy. After Ryan’s extensive vetting, Romney and his team are most certainly aware of his well documented position on abortion and chose Ryan anyway.

The Huffington Post’s sensational headline “Paul Ryan Said Something That Should Force Him Off the Ticket, But You Probably Didn’t Hear About It” is purely an effort to sensationalize this Ryan interview in an attempt to keep rape and abortion in the headlines. The liberal media is playing along, predictably, trying to rebrand the Republican party as the Party of Rape, a party full of Todd Akins.

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Have the Huffington Post and the Obama campaign spin doctors finally become indistinguishable? Today the site is breathlessly reporting on a statement made by Mitt Romney’s VP pick Paul Ryan that they believe should remove him from the ticket. The Huffington Post claims that Ryan “referred to rape as a ‘method of conception’” and that this should force him to resign. What did Ryan actually say? “The method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.” This statement is consistent with his pro-life stance barring abortion in all cases and is far from newsworthy. After Ryan’s extensive vetting, Romney and his team are most certainly aware of his well documented position on abortion and chose Ryan anyway.

The Huffington Post’s sensational headline “Paul Ryan Said Something That Should Force Him Off the Ticket, But You Probably Didn’t Hear About It” is purely an effort to sensationalize this Ryan interview in an attempt to keep rape and abortion in the headlines. The liberal media is playing along, predictably, trying to rebrand the Republican party as the Party of Rape, a party full of Todd Akins.

Last week, the Huffington Post had another attention-grabbing–and completely factually incorrect–headline. They proclaimed, “Mitt Romney Campaign Forbids Reporter From Asking About Todd Akin, Abortion” and only well into the piece do they explain what actually transpired between the reporter and the Romney campaign. They admit, “Because they knew they wouldn’t get an answer out of Romney on abortion or Akin, [the station’s news director Tim] Wieland said the station decided to avoid the topics entirely, so long as they explained to viewers why.” Romney’s staff warned the reporters in question that he wasn’t interested in discussing Akin or abortion, and to the Huffington Post, that somehow forbade the reporters from ever asking. Whatever headline fits the Democratic narrative is posted on the Huffington Post, where incidentals like facts inevitably come later in the form of updates, if at all.

Back in the real world, all sectors of the GOP are still calling for Akin to step aside in the Missouri Senate race in an attempt to save the seat from near-certain defeat. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus was asked at the GOP convention yesterday if the party would support, financially or otherwise, the Akin campaign in the event of a close race. Priebus was unequivocal in his response, “No, no. No. He could be tied. We’re not going to send him a penny.” But don’t expect to see that reported in the Huffington Post, except maybe under the headline: “RNC Chairman Reince Priebus declares ‘Akin could be tied.'”

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Iran Drives Spike in US Arms Sales

The New York Times’ Thom Shanker cites a new Congressional Research Service report to make the startling claim that “weapons sales by the United States tripled in 2011 to a record high” of $66.3 billion, an “extraordinary increase” from 2010’s total of $21.4 billion and one that represents “three-quarters of the global arms market.” The full report, by Richard Grimmett and Paul Kerr, is available here. While the dollar figures that Shanker cites are accurate, the context he provides is not.

First, the CRS report is based on calendar year data, whereas most U.S. figures are based on the Federal Year. The difference this makes in calculating percentage changes is astonishing, because the data are dominated by a few large sales, especially a $29 billion deal with the Saudis. Thus, if measured from FY 2010 to FY 2011, the increase is about nine percent, not three hundred percent.

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The New York Times’ Thom Shanker cites a new Congressional Research Service report to make the startling claim that “weapons sales by the United States tripled in 2011 to a record high” of $66.3 billion, an “extraordinary increase” from 2010’s total of $21.4 billion and one that represents “three-quarters of the global arms market.” The full report, by Richard Grimmett and Paul Kerr, is available here. While the dollar figures that Shanker cites are accurate, the context he provides is not.

First, the CRS report is based on calendar year data, whereas most U.S. figures are based on the Federal Year. The difference this makes in calculating percentage changes is astonishing, because the data are dominated by a few large sales, especially a $29 billion deal with the Saudis. Thus, if measured from FY 2010 to FY 2011, the increase is about nine percent, not three hundred percent.

Second, the CRS report includes only data from the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system, administered by the Defense Department. It does not include Direct Commercial Sales (DCS), administered by State. In FY 2011, DCS authorizations–which do not necessarily result in sales–totaled $44.3 billion. Again, the percentage increase in U.S. arms exports from 2010 to 2011 would be a lot less dramatic if it included all authorizations.

Third, Shanker leaves the impression that the U.S. is unleashing a tidal wave of armaments into the developing world. But Grimmett and Kerr note that the U.S. total for 2011 “was especially high … the international arms market is not likely growing overall. The U.S. global total for arms agreements in 2012 seems a clear outlier figure.” And while the figure of $66.3 billion will grab the headlines, those are agreements for future deliveries, not actual deliveries to the developing world in 2011, which, via FMS, totaled $10.5 billion for the U.S., about a third (not three-quarters) of combined U.S., Russian, Chinese, and European exports.

If the media are going to take an interest in this subject, I hope they’ll report a few other nuggets from CRS’s excellent work. Much of the demand for the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty is driven by the wars of Africa. So from 2008-2011, who actually delivered more arms to Africa, the U.S. or Italy?  The answer (Table 17), the Italians, by a factor of three ($105 million for the U.S., $300 million for Italy).  Over that same period, who delivered more arms to Latin America, the U.S. or minor European suppliers? The Europeans, by $2.4 billion to $1.4 billion.

It’s no surprise that the U.S. is competitive in the arms business. The only reason the U.S. doesn’t do better is because we rightly refuse to sell to a lot of the world’s grubbiest regimes. And it’s equally no surprise that sales to our allies in the Gulf are spiking: they have a dangerous neighbor. That’s the irony of the Administration’s decision to disengage from Iraq, while at the same time nattering on about the need to control the conventional arms trade: U.S. disengagement makes our allies nervous and increases their desire to buy our arms. And while arms sales are an indispensable part of foreign policy, selling arms is no substitute for U.S. leadership around the world.

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U.S. Can’t Afford to be Out of Africa

There hasn’t much foreign policy discussion this election season, either in the Republican primaries or in the general election campaign. Certainly, there has been some lip service paid to Iran, but it is like pulling teeth to get either candidate to talk about Afghanistan, let alone any other country.

If there are two lessons policymakers across the aisle should learn from the pre-9/11 era, it is that problems ignored do not go away, and that no matter how remote a security vacuum is, it can still pose a threat to American national security.

It is time both the Obama administration and Romney’s foreign policy team take Africa seriously. Over the past four years, security has declined significantly across a continent too often forgotten in Washington’s policy debate.

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There hasn’t much foreign policy discussion this election season, either in the Republican primaries or in the general election campaign. Certainly, there has been some lip service paid to Iran, but it is like pulling teeth to get either candidate to talk about Afghanistan, let alone any other country.

If there are two lessons policymakers across the aisle should learn from the pre-9/11 era, it is that problems ignored do not go away, and that no matter how remote a security vacuum is, it can still pose a threat to American national security.

It is time both the Obama administration and Romney’s foreign policy team take Africa seriously. Over the past four years, security has declined significantly across a continent too often forgotten in Washington’s policy debate.

Take, for example:

  • Mali: Once labeled by Freedom House to be the most democratic, Muslim-majority country, a  March coup enabled Islamists and Taureg separatists to seize control over the Saharan north of the country. Not surprisingly, the alliance between Tuareg and Islamists did not last, and Islamists consolidated control, implementing strict Islamic law and destroying UNESCO world heritage sites. Northern Mali now threatens to become a safe-haven for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group which profits from drug smuggling networks as far south as Mozambique now has not only the material but also the territory to plot something bigger than beheading French tourists, all the more so since they seem to have taken possession of much of Muammar Qadhafi’s loose weaponry.
  • Nigeria: The seventh-most populous country on earth is also one of Africa’s most diverse. While counter-terror experts once celebrated the demise of al-Qaeda’s short-lived Nigerian affiliate, the rapid growth of the violent Boko Haram jihadist group should concern just about everyone. Boko Haram’s slaughter of Christians threatens to take sectarian violence to a new level. The spread of jihadism into Nigeria’s urban slums, let alone state failure, would also have profound repercussions.
  • Somalia has actually been somewhat of a good news story in recent months, although if there’s one lesson from recent Somali history, it is that no one should take positive security trends for granted in the Horn of Africa.

We can chase Joseph Kony around Africa’s Great Lakes region, and his capture or killing would strike a blow for human rights. But, while it’s all well and good to pursue a humanitarian policy, the White House should never forget those areas that could pose a growing threat to American national security. Radical Islamism and state failure is never a good mix. There is no easy answer about what to do in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia, but failing to have a conversation is policy malpractice.

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Possible Anti-Semitic Attack on Student

The Algemeiner reports on a terrible assault against a Jewish college student in East Lansing, Michigan. At a weekend party, a group of men allegedly asked Zachary Tennen whether he was Jewish before giving the Nazi salute and viciously assaulting him, according to his family:

Tennen, a sophomore at Michigan State University, was approached by the men at a party early on Sunday and asked if he was Jewish, his mother said.  The men proceeded to raise their right arms in a Nazi salute and said “Heil Hitler”, before beating Tennen unconscious.  According to Tennen’s mother, 20 people watched while her son had his mouth stapled by the two suspects.

“It’s an awful hate crime, and what he’s gone through emotionally and physically, it’s scary to put it into words,” Tina Tennen told the Indianapolis Star. “Hopefully the worst is behind us. It’s going to be hopefully not too rough.”

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The Algemeiner reports on a terrible assault against a Jewish college student in East Lansing, Michigan. At a weekend party, a group of men allegedly asked Zachary Tennen whether he was Jewish before giving the Nazi salute and viciously assaulting him, according to his family:

Tennen, a sophomore at Michigan State University, was approached by the men at a party early on Sunday and asked if he was Jewish, his mother said.  The men proceeded to raise their right arms in a Nazi salute and said “Heil Hitler”, before beating Tennen unconscious.  According to Tennen’s mother, 20 people watched while her son had his mouth stapled by the two suspects.

“It’s an awful hate crime, and what he’s gone through emotionally and physically, it’s scary to put it into words,” Tina Tennen told the Indianapolis Star. “Hopefully the worst is behind us. It’s going to be hopefully not too rough.”

Tennen himself issued a statement to the Associated Press:

Zach Tennen told East Lansing police his attackers asked if he was Jewish, and when he responded “yes,” he was punched in the face.

The 19-year-old sophomore from the Detroit suburb of Franklin was recovering Tuesday from jaw surgery. He says the assault took place early Sunday at an off-campus party.

In a statement sent to The Associated Press, Tennen says “no one should ever be subjected to the horror” he experienced.

He says along with punching him, his attackers stapled his mouth.

We still need to wait for more details to come in from the police, but if this was an anti-Semitic attack then it’s one of the most disturbing U.S. incidents in awhile. Tablet reports that Tennen is recovering from his injuries, and he appears to be fully conscious from the photos. Obviously the big concern now is finding the perpetrators and figuring out the motivation behind the assault.

Anti-Semitic violence — if it turns out that’s what this was — is always abhorrent. The fact that these attacks happen rarely in the U.S. can’t be much comfort to the families of the victims. Every single incident is one is too many. But while you can’t completely eradicate bigotry or preempt every individual act of violence, you can hope for justice. And so far, police and MSU officials have reportedly been very responsive in this case.

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Pro-Israel Groups Flock to GOP Convention

One reason the Democrats keep hammering the GOP over the planned Ron Paul tribute video may be because they’re concerned about the major pro-Israel presence at the Florida convention this week. Republicans have reportedly been chipping away at Obama’s Jewish support in Florida, and they took advantage of the convention location to ramp up their Jewish outreach this week.

The Republican Jewish Coalition hosted a kick-off event at the home of Ambassador Mel Sembler on Sunday, with a surprise drop-in from pro-Israel actor Jon Voight. Other attendees included Reince Priebus, Karl Rove and Connie Mack. The group will also be hosting a “Salute for Pro-Israel Elected Officials” event, headlined by Eric Cantor. Thursday the group has a briefing with the Romney campaign, with Ambassador John Bolton, Jim Talent, and pollster Neil Newhouse, moderated by Ari Fleischer.

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One reason the Democrats keep hammering the GOP over the planned Ron Paul tribute video may be because they’re concerned about the major pro-Israel presence at the Florida convention this week. Republicans have reportedly been chipping away at Obama’s Jewish support in Florida, and they took advantage of the convention location to ramp up their Jewish outreach this week.

The Republican Jewish Coalition hosted a kick-off event at the home of Ambassador Mel Sembler on Sunday, with a surprise drop-in from pro-Israel actor Jon Voight. Other attendees included Reince Priebus, Karl Rove and Connie Mack. The group will also be hosting a “Salute for Pro-Israel Elected Officials” event, headlined by Eric Cantor. Thursday the group has a briefing with the Romney campaign, with Ambassador John Bolton, Jim Talent, and pollster Neil Newhouse, moderated by Ari Fleischer.

AIPAC has also had an active presence, including a Sunday event with speeches from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Bill Kristol. And the AJC has been hosting panels on the Middle East and other topics, reports the Forward’s Nathan Guttman.

The events have reportedly been packed, despite the travel delays from the storm.

The major display of Israel support at the GOP convention has to be a concern for the Democrats. The Obama campaign’s latest attempt at Jewish outreach blew up in its face after it was discovered that several members of its official “Rabbis for Obama” group were staunch anti-Israel activists.

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Exploiting Hurricane Will Hurt Dems

Yesterday I wrote that the inevitable analogies that will be drawn by the liberal media between Hurricanes Isaac and Katrina are a gift to the Democrats. Just how much the public will make of these specious comparisons has yet to be determined, but one must give those members of President Obama’s cheerleading squad who write the editorials at the New York Times credit for trying. The paper’s lead editorial today was exactly along the lines that I predicted. It pompously claimed the storm “is a powerful reminder both of Republican incompetence in handling Hurricane Katrina seven years ago” and then piled on to the mythology behind that clause by also asserting that the storm also spotlights “the party’s no-less-disastrous plans to further cut emergency-related spending.”

Suffice it to say that seven years later attempts to blame the Katrina disaster solely on President Bush and his party is absurd, since we now know that most of the problems stemmed from the incompetence, if not the moral turpitude, displayed by local and state authorities. The argument that GOP demands that other savings offset more FEMA expenditures is somehow an invitation to catastrophe is just as dishonest. But as much as liberals are chortling at the Republicans’ bad luck with the weather, they need to be careful not to overplay their hand. While the GOP needs to be aware that a potential storm disaster is more important than their gathering, President Obama must be mindful that any actions of his own this week that can be interpreted as trying to make political hay out of a tragedy will backfire.

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Yesterday I wrote that the inevitable analogies that will be drawn by the liberal media between Hurricanes Isaac and Katrina are a gift to the Democrats. Just how much the public will make of these specious comparisons has yet to be determined, but one must give those members of President Obama’s cheerleading squad who write the editorials at the New York Times credit for trying. The paper’s lead editorial today was exactly along the lines that I predicted. It pompously claimed the storm “is a powerful reminder both of Republican incompetence in handling Hurricane Katrina seven years ago” and then piled on to the mythology behind that clause by also asserting that the storm also spotlights “the party’s no-less-disastrous plans to further cut emergency-related spending.”

Suffice it to say that seven years later attempts to blame the Katrina disaster solely on President Bush and his party is absurd, since we now know that most of the problems stemmed from the incompetence, if not the moral turpitude, displayed by local and state authorities. The argument that GOP demands that other savings offset more FEMA expenditures is somehow an invitation to catastrophe is just as dishonest. But as much as liberals are chortling at the Republicans’ bad luck with the weather, they need to be careful not to overplay their hand. While the GOP needs to be aware that a potential storm disaster is more important than their gathering, President Obama must be mindful that any actions of his own this week that can be interpreted as trying to make political hay out of a tragedy will backfire.

Though President Bush’s appointees did a terrible job in 2005, it is long past time for liberal organs to stop trying to paint the failure of the levees in New Orleans as a Republican problem or a racist plot. It is equally absurd for the Times to paint battles over the FEMA budget in apocalyptic terms. To paint every dollar expended by the agency as somehow the difference between life and death is mere melodrama, since we know that the federal office is just as capable of inefficiency as it is incompetence. Nor was it improper for Republicans who are mindful of the way President Obama has ballooned the federal deficit in a way that makes Bush’s profligacy look like prudence to ask that any overspending by FEMA (which they were prepared to approve) be paid for by cuts in less essential programs that are liberal sacred cows.

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that the bad timing of the storm and the attempts by liberals to wave the bloody shirt of Katrina won’t help Mitt Romney’s cause. It should also be specified that if federal authorities are seen to be doing their jobs in an appropriate manner during any relief operations in the Gulf it will be a boost for President Obama, who will be viewed as doing his job effectively.

However, the president needs to be careful about playing commander-in-chief in ways that are tangential or even a distraction from the real business of helping people. As President Bush noted in his memoirs, he waited to fly into New Orleans after the hurricane because he knew that a presidential visit with all of the attendant security and logistical complications that it would cause was the last thing the devastated area needed. The same standard would apply to any superfluous Obama fly-in to the storm areas this week. Once the crisis is over, a presidential visit is appropriate as a gesture of solidarity with those affected. But if President Obama seeks to use an unnecessary piece of stagecraft in the upcoming days merely to upstage the GOP convention or Mitt Romney’s acceptance of his nomination, it won’t do him or his party any good.

Americans are smart enough to know the difference between proper supervision of a crisis and political photo-ops. If the president opts for the latter, his fans at the Times and elsewhere, who are now barely containing their mirth at the GOP’s predicament, will be laughing out of the other sides of their mouths.

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Ayn Rand and the Academy

On The Corner, Andrew Stuttaford flays a Chronicle of Higher Education essay by Alan Wolfe for displaying all the “arid, stifling conformist atmosphere of the ivory tower.” Both Stuttaford’s flaying and Wolfe’s essay on Ayn Rand are worth a read. Though I like the sound of Wolfe’s course on “Liberalism and Conservatism”–less so if he places Edmund Burke, a Whig, firmly on the side of the conservatives–Stuttaford’s contempt for the way Wolfe dismisses Rand as a “nonperson” is well-expressed.

But Wolfe’s piece isn’t just about the atmosphere. It illustrates William F. Buckley’s argument that academic freedom, conventionally understood, is a superstition. Buckley contended that, because judgments about professional competence must be made–professors of English teach poetry, not pushpin–there is always an academic orthodoxy. What Buckley wanted was for that orthodoxy to be his, not someone else’s. By Wolfe’s huffy way of thinking–“American academic life still has standards”–Rand belongs outside the realms of worthwhile orthodoxy.

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On The Corner, Andrew Stuttaford flays a Chronicle of Higher Education essay by Alan Wolfe for displaying all the “arid, stifling conformist atmosphere of the ivory tower.” Both Stuttaford’s flaying and Wolfe’s essay on Ayn Rand are worth a read. Though I like the sound of Wolfe’s course on “Liberalism and Conservatism”–less so if he places Edmund Burke, a Whig, firmly on the side of the conservatives–Stuttaford’s contempt for the way Wolfe dismisses Rand as a “nonperson” is well-expressed.

But Wolfe’s piece isn’t just about the atmosphere. It illustrates William F. Buckley’s argument that academic freedom, conventionally understood, is a superstition. Buckley contended that, because judgments about professional competence must be made–professors of English teach poetry, not pushpin–there is always an academic orthodoxy. What Buckley wanted was for that orthodoxy to be his, not someone else’s. By Wolfe’s huffy way of thinking–“American academic life still has standards”–Rand belongs outside the realms of worthwhile orthodoxy.

I’m enough of a believer in academic freedom to think that if Wolfe doesn’t want Rand on his syllabus, that’s his call. But how he arrives at the judgment that Rand is beyond the pale is difficult to discern. As he notes, Jennifer Burns recently wrote an excellent book on Rand: should Burns be fired from Stanford for wasting her time? It’s a natural tendency to believe that authors with whom we agree are deep, while dismissing the ones we dislike as shallow. By disparaging them, we implicitly praise ourselves. But that’s a selfish way–a Randian way–to run a classroom, and it doesn’t do much to advance the historical understanding of the students.

It’s for this reason that borrowing Jonathan Chait’s description of Rand as a myopic “inverted Marxist” doesn’t get Wolfe very far. When I taught international relations I assigned Marx, not because I marveled at the sophistication of his thought (predictably, I did no such thing) but because it is important. If E.J. Dionne makes Wolfe’s reading list, is it possible to say with a straight face that Rand is too low-brow to merit inclusion? A course on liberalism and conservatism would not have to include Rand. But it would be better if it did. And so what if economics departments don’t think much of her? They don’t often teach the works of Adam Smith either, in spite of Wolfe’s praise for the great Scottish moral economist.

Predictably, Wolfe’s essay really isn’t about Ayn Rand. It’s about conservatives and Republicans in general and Rep. Paul Ryan in particular, and takes the predictable approach, to quote the approach that Wolfe himself dismisses, of attributing all “virtues to one group and vices to another.” Thus, it is “the Republican Party’s spending on defense” that Rand would reject, and “creationism” that is the nearest conservative analogy to Rand. How stale. Contra Stuttaford, the most stifling part of the ivory tower atmosphere is not the way it turns some authors into nonpersons. It’s the tedious artistry inherent in the way smart people write on interesting subjects only to serve the agenda of snipping at conservatives.

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Shows Go On, Despite Isaac

Both Romney and Obama are moving ahead with their scheduled campaign plans for the week, despite the storm set to hit the Gulf Coast early tomorrow morning, CNS News reports:

The White House announced on Monday that President Barack Obama plans to campaign in Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday–the day the National Hurricane Center predicts Hurricane Isaac will hit the Gulf Coast.

Wednesday, Aug. 29, is also the seventh anniversary of the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2005.

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Both Romney and Obama are moving ahead with their scheduled campaign plans for the week, despite the storm set to hit the Gulf Coast early tomorrow morning, CNS News reports:

The White House announced on Monday that President Barack Obama plans to campaign in Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday–the day the National Hurricane Center predicts Hurricane Isaac will hit the Gulf Coast.

Wednesday, Aug. 29, is also the seventh anniversary of the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Those who say the GOP should cancel the convention at this point are either delusional or acting in bad faith. Anyone can see that Republicans have no choice but to forge ahead. The entire Party is in Tampa, the convention is paid for, and the show has to go on. They couldn’t bump it back even if they wanted to — the Democratic convention is right on their heels.

Obama, on the other hand, can cancel his campaigning and jet to New Orleans if the hurricane is significant. It would be a presidential moment, and would surely draw attention away from the RNC. Republicans wouldn’t object — you can’t criticize a president for showboating because he’s rushing to a disaster scene.

The National Hurricane Center is still designating Isaac as a Tropical Storm, but the upgrade is expected soon, according to its website:

…RECONNAISSANCE AIRCRAFT FIND ISAAC NEARLY A HURRICANE… SIGNIFICANT STORM SURGE AND FRESHWATER FLOOD THREAT TO THE NORTHERN GULF COAST… …U.S. Warnings in Effect…

All the GOP can do is hope for the best.

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