Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 2, 2013

Did Hamas Win the Last War?

Israel and its supporters have spent most of the weeks since the conclusion of the latest round of fighting with Hamas pointing to the great success of the Iron Dome missile defense system. The improved ability of Israel’s Defense Forces to render harmless the bulk of the rockets launched from the terrorist enclave in Gaza has enhanced the country’s security, even if the spectacle of a sizable portion of the population cowering in shelters cheered Palestinians. But the notion that the prolonged exchange of fire in November that saw hundreds of missiles fired into Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense was an unalloyed success is being undermined by the concessions that Israel has made since the cease-fire.

In the days following the dustup, it was clear that Gaza fishing craft were being allowed to sail further into the Mediterranean by the Israeli Navy, but this might have been dismissed as unimportant since the blockade of the region was still intact. However, the news that Israel is now allowing in construction materials that it had heretofore prevented from entering Gaza must be regarded as yet another indication that Hamas’s own claims of victory were not empty boasts. Though it may be argued that neither of these measures seriously degrades Israel’s security, they both make it clear that Israel paid a not insignificant price for the cease-fire brokered by the Obama administration and the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt.

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Israel and its supporters have spent most of the weeks since the conclusion of the latest round of fighting with Hamas pointing to the great success of the Iron Dome missile defense system. The improved ability of Israel’s Defense Forces to render harmless the bulk of the rockets launched from the terrorist enclave in Gaza has enhanced the country’s security, even if the spectacle of a sizable portion of the population cowering in shelters cheered Palestinians. But the notion that the prolonged exchange of fire in November that saw hundreds of missiles fired into Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense was an unalloyed success is being undermined by the concessions that Israel has made since the cease-fire.

In the days following the dustup, it was clear that Gaza fishing craft were being allowed to sail further into the Mediterranean by the Israeli Navy, but this might have been dismissed as unimportant since the blockade of the region was still intact. However, the news that Israel is now allowing in construction materials that it had heretofore prevented from entering Gaza must be regarded as yet another indication that Hamas’s own claims of victory were not empty boasts. Though it may be argued that neither of these measures seriously degrades Israel’s security, they both make it clear that Israel paid a not insignificant price for the cease-fire brokered by the Obama administration and the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt.

At the time the cease-fire was arranged, both the Israelis and the Americans issued statements that were aimed at making it seem as if the shooting was ended with no concessions made by either side. But the looser naval blockade and the end of the ban on construction material gives the lie to the notion that Israel didn’t pay a ransom in order to get the Islamist terrorist group to stop shooting.

Given the flow of all sorts of material into Gaza via smuggling tunnels linked to Egypt, it’s not clear that the ban on gravel and cement meant much anymore. The rationale for the measure was that Hamas was using these products to rebuild the reinforced tunnels and hardened bunkers that make up the warren of defensive positions that had been destroyed in the fighting during the last big Israeli counter-offensive in 2008. While Israel did great damage to Hamas’s arsenal of missiles imported from Iran during the recent fighting, the maze of terrorist hideouts appears to be still intact.

Seen in that light, these concessions may be dismissed as meaningless in a military context. But they are one more indication that Israel has conceded what became obvious a long time ago: The Hamas regime in Gaza is an independent Palestinian state in all but name that no IDF offensive or defensive measures are going to erase.

If Hamas really did win the last war, or at least didn’t lose it as Israel had claimed, it is understandable that there will be consequences from this that will affect Israeli policy as well as public opinion. It may be that Prime Minister Netanyahu had no choice but to accept the deal that called for these concessions if he was to stop the shooting. But these revelations help explain why so many Israelis have not only given up hope for peace with moderate Palestinians but are also prepared to vote for parties to Netanyahu’s right in this month’s Knesset election.

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Boehner’s Enemies

John Boehner isn’t resigning from his position as House speaker–despite dubious Internet rumors to the contrary–but there is clearly a campaign to try to push him out. Breitbart’s website, RedState, and a group called American Majority Action seem to be at the forefront.  

Boehner was already under attack from the right over last night’s fiscal cliff deal. It didn’t help that he punted on a Hurricane Sandy aid bill, sending cable-soundbite kings Chris Christie and Rep. Peter King into histrionic fits. Boehner likely calculated that the pork-filled Sandy aid bill would hurt him with conservatives after the fiscal cliff deal, so he sought a delay. But Breitbart’s website speculates that Boehner had more sinister motives:

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John Boehner isn’t resigning from his position as House speaker–despite dubious Internet rumors to the contrary–but there is clearly a campaign to try to push him out. Breitbart’s website, RedState, and a group called American Majority Action seem to be at the forefront.  

Boehner was already under attack from the right over last night’s fiscal cliff deal. It didn’t help that he punted on a Hurricane Sandy aid bill, sending cable-soundbite kings Chris Christie and Rep. Peter King into histrionic fits. Boehner likely calculated that the pork-filled Sandy aid bill would hurt him with conservatives after the fiscal cliff deal, so he sought a delay. But Breitbart’s website speculates that Boehner had more sinister motives:

Cantor wanted the bill passed before the new Congress starts on Thursday, too. And it looks like Boehner was going to go along with it and let the vote happen but canceled it all of a sudden out of bitterness after his top two deputies–Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy–voted against the “fiscal cliff” deal that passed late Tuesday. Boehner voted for the fiscal cliff deal, and Cantor’s and McCarthy’s move may mean they’ll challenge Boehner’s speakership.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel downplayed the Speaker’s reversal on providing aid to Sandy victims quickly. “The speaker is committed to getting this bill passed this month,” Steel said. Aides to leadership have confirmed Boehner has killed any effort to provide Sandy victims aid until next Congress.

I don’t know if Eric Cantor is actively trying to unseat Boehner behind the scenes. But if he’s not, stories like the one above make it seem like he is–and that can’t be helpful for him. It’s true that he’s the one of the few members who would have a real shot at Boehner’s position, but Boehner will most likely prevail. If it looks like Cantor’s stabbing the speaker in the back–and then loses–that’s a problem.

As Mark Levin writes on Facebook ,“I’m told Cantor’s office is leaking all over Boehner today, hoping to replace him as speaker. As far as I am concerned, Boehner, Cantor, & McCarthy need to go. All 3 of them.”

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Historical Ignorance and Utopian Dreams

There is something almost charming about the left’s habit of using childish name-calling in the service of declaring their political opponents to be intellectually unserious. And so we should probably have expected nothing less (or nothing more) in Michael Lind’s Salon essay explaining why he has moved away from the American right. But conservatives shouldn’t be deterred by the headline, “Right-wing dreams of demented utopias,” because it isn’t at all clear that Lind knows what the word “utopia” means.

Lind, the author of a clumsy and error-riddled new book on American economic history, sets out to demonstrate that conservatives have inherited the left’s predilection for the pursuit of transformative utopian politics. But, as one might expect, Lind ends up making a powerful case against his own thesis.

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There is something almost charming about the left’s habit of using childish name-calling in the service of declaring their political opponents to be intellectually unserious. And so we should probably have expected nothing less (or nothing more) in Michael Lind’s Salon essay explaining why he has moved away from the American right. But conservatives shouldn’t be deterred by the headline, “Right-wing dreams of demented utopias,” because it isn’t at all clear that Lind knows what the word “utopia” means.

Lind, the author of a clumsy and error-riddled new book on American economic history, sets out to demonstrate that conservatives have inherited the left’s predilection for the pursuit of transformative utopian politics. But, as one might expect, Lind ends up making a powerful case against his own thesis.

The intellectual dishonesty comes early and often, beginning with this gem: “Before the cult of gun ownership became identified with the far right, there was a far left that idolized communist revolutionaries like Che and was fond of quoting the mass murderer Mao: ‘Power grows from the barrel of a gun.’”

You’ll notice that Lind makes two obvious mistakes here. First, he confines support for Second Amendment rights to the “far right,” but of course he could simply have a look at the polling data that shows this contention to be ridiculous. But more useful for conservatives is that Lind likens support for gun ownership to the support for “mass murderer Mao.” This is instructive: leftist radicals, even by Lind’s own recitation, support mass murder; conservative radicals support the right to own a firearm.

This sort of moral equivalence reasserts itself throughout the piece. Later, when explaining why modern liberals are more rational than conservatives, Lind writes:

Unlike utopian movements, campaigns against specific evils — the sale of assault weapons or the death penalty, for example — are attempts to eliminate specific, limited evils, not efforts to remake society as a whole according to this or that supernatural or secular scripture.

Note the equating of the sale of rifles with the death penalty and the categorization of “the sale” of guns—not the use of guns—as a “specific evil.” Additionally, what if those reformist bullet point campaigns that Lind loves so much are part of an attempt to overhaul or “transform” the country according to an ideology? For example, when Barack Obama said in 2007 that “We will stand up in this election to bring about the change that won’t just win an election, but will transform America,” was Lind not at all concerned that this wasn’t exactly the language of a man set out to achieve limited aims? When the following year he said his own nomination was “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” did Lind notice that the leader of his new party was a messianic demagogue? Too subtle, perhaps.

As for the three “utopias” Lind says conservatives have tried to establish in recent history, he doesn’t provide much detail of what those utopias were supposed to look like, so the reader may actually miss the fact that Lind is making it up as he goes along. Apparently unable to distinguish Plato from Augustine, Lind advances his belief that the religious right was a utopian project. The second utopian movement, according to Lind, was the neoconservative movement–which Lind says had nothing to do with transforming America anyway. And then there was the libertarian utopian project, which gave us the Tea Party. All three failed, says Lind.

The libertarian utopian movement, according to Lind, is led by people like Paul Ryan. You know, the guy who supported last night’s tax-hiking compromise, voted for TARP and the auto bailout, and supported the expansion of Medicare. What do you suppose will happen when Lind learns more about Paul Ryan than his name, and discovers Harry Reid’s pro-gun rights record? It’s almost as if the world is a more complex place than leftists are ready to accept. I, for one, dream of a political sphere in which leftists like Lind can progress beyond name-calling and bad history and simply partake in an honest debate. Call me a utopian.

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The Mentally Ill Don’t Have Motives

Last week local papers in New York City were captivated by yet another senseless killing. A 46-year old Indian immigrant, Sunando Sen, was pushed onto the subway tracks as a train was pulling into the station by a woman standing nearby. He was killed by the collision and initially, the woman, with whom he had not visibly communicated in any way, fled the scene. The city was left asking what many communities affected by senseless violence ask: Why?

Interviews with police after the perpetrator’s capture indicated that she harbored hatred toward Muslims and Indians since the attacks on September 11, 2001. Immediately the fingers of blame settled on Pamela Geller, the creator and funder of controversial subway ads about Muslims earlier this year. Her detractors called them incendiary and warned of potential violence; this incident was the moment they were waiting for–a chance to say “I told you so.” And they did.

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Last week local papers in New York City were captivated by yet another senseless killing. A 46-year old Indian immigrant, Sunando Sen, was pushed onto the subway tracks as a train was pulling into the station by a woman standing nearby. He was killed by the collision and initially, the woman, with whom he had not visibly communicated in any way, fled the scene. The city was left asking what many communities affected by senseless violence ask: Why?

Interviews with police after the perpetrator’s capture indicated that she harbored hatred toward Muslims and Indians since the attacks on September 11, 2001. Immediately the fingers of blame settled on Pamela Geller, the creator and funder of controversial subway ads about Muslims earlier this year. Her detractors called them incendiary and warned of potential violence; this incident was the moment they were waiting for–a chance to say “I told you so.” And they did.

While hatred of any large group after the destructive actions of few is irrational, the perpetrator’s hatred of Indians and Hindus is especially illogical–members of neither group were involved in the attacks. The Indian people have been recent victims of terror themselves and have assisted the U.S. government in the war on terror, especially after the attacks in Mumbai. The perpetrator’s motive in this instance show just how random and irrational the attack was.

Before pushing Mr. Sen to his death, the perpetrator had been seen nearby on the platform muttering to herself. This is characteristic of many recent such incidents. Instead of shock and surprise, many of the people familiar with the suspects in Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech and the Gabby Giffords shooting (to name a few) described ticking time bombs. They discuss how “creepy” they found these murderers beforehand, with some going to great lengths to avoid and report the suspects. (Two female Virginia Tech students reported the shooter’s behavior to the university the year before the shootings, and one of his professors removed him from her class in order to provide private tutoring away from other students.) What all of these murderers seemed to have in common beforehand were signs, and even diagnoses, of severe mental illness.

In a landmark decision in 1975 the Supreme Court ruled against involuntary hospitalization of the mentally ill, stating, “A finding of ‘mental illness’ alone cannot justify a State’s locking a person up against his will and keeping him indefinitely in simple custodial confinement… In short, a state cannot constitutionally confine without more a nondangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends.” After the latest subway shoving incident, the New York Post published a story about the estimated 11,000 homeless “psychotics” currently on the streets, more than 3,000 of whom may have violent tendencies. 

In one Manhattan neighborhood a homeless man spends the majority of his time standing in the subway entrance walkways of a few stations, with his fingers in his ears, talking to voices only he can hear. In the winter months when temperatures dip below freezing, he is still there, wearing a ratty t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. The only time I’ve seen him wearing a winter coat was in the middle of the summer last year. I have placed multiple calls to 9-1-1 to report his presence and lack of appropriate winter attire, yet he remains in the subway entrances day after day. While he doesn’t appear to be a threat to anyone but himself, his lack of weather-appropriate attire indicates an inability to care for himself adequately. To the untrained eye, it appears this gentleman is suffering from schizophrenia and is in no way living in “freedom,” but rather is a prisoner of his own mind and the voices that bombard it daily. The New York Post explained steps that could be taken within New York State to offer treatment to its mentally ill homeless population:

Jaffe [D.J. Jaffe, executive director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization] said steps must be taken to strengthen Kendra’s Law — a loophole-ridden 1999 measure intended to allow courts to forcibly treat the dangerously unhinged.

“We want mandatory evaluations of all mentally ill who are being released from jails, prisons or involuntary hospitalizations,” he said.

Even Andrew Goldstein, the schizophrenic man who shoved Kendra Webdale to her death in front of a train in 1999, is calling for tougher laws — to keep nuts like himself off the street.

“There should be stricter regulations,” he told The Post in his first-ever jailhouse interview.

If we want to put an end to these senseless tragedies, it’s time for the media to stop breathlessly analyzing the “motives” of the insane while splashing their names and faces across the front pages (I have purposefully not used the names of any of the murderers here). This latest subway pusher didn’t kill Mr. Sen because he was Hindu; Gabby Giffords’s shooter wasn’t reacting to a slight from the congresswoman; and the Aurora movie theater killer wasn’t motivated by violence in the “Batman” series. Those suffering from mental illness are not able to form appropriate responses to real or imagined situations. As a society, it’s time to start asking ourselves what we are doing to prevent tragedies like this in the future, and any solution has to include a more comprehensive and coherent treatment plan for our mentally ill.

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Sotomayor’s Blow to Religious Liberty

Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of ObamaCare ended the discussion about the president’s signature health care legislation as far as most of the media was concerned. But for Americans whose rights have been infringed by the bill’s mandate requiring business owners to pay for services that violate their religious beliefs, the issue remains a matter of vital concern. On January 1 the penalties associated with that mandate went into effect and the battle in the courts to head off this grievous infringement of religious liberty is meeting with mixed success.

One federal judge blocked the enforcement of the mandate in a lawsuit brought by the founder of Domino’s Pizza, saying the legislation “substantially burdens the exercise of religion.” In doing so, the court prevented the government from levying massive fines on Thomas Monaghan’s property management firm while his challenge to the constitutionality of the provision proceeds through the courts. That ruling comes in the wake of decisions from federal appeals courts in St. Louis and Chicago that stopped the Department of Health and Human Services from punishing those who are fighting the mandate to pay for contraception and abortion drugs. But in a signal defeat for the cause of freedom, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor turned down a similar request from the owners of Hobby Lobby stores and a Christian book store firm. That means these companies will be subjected to millions of dollars in fines for violating the law even though they claim it is a matter of conscience.

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Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of ObamaCare ended the discussion about the president’s signature health care legislation as far as most of the media was concerned. But for Americans whose rights have been infringed by the bill’s mandate requiring business owners to pay for services that violate their religious beliefs, the issue remains a matter of vital concern. On January 1 the penalties associated with that mandate went into effect and the battle in the courts to head off this grievous infringement of religious liberty is meeting with mixed success.

One federal judge blocked the enforcement of the mandate in a lawsuit brought by the founder of Domino’s Pizza, saying the legislation “substantially burdens the exercise of religion.” In doing so, the court prevented the government from levying massive fines on Thomas Monaghan’s property management firm while his challenge to the constitutionality of the provision proceeds through the courts. That ruling comes in the wake of decisions from federal appeals courts in St. Louis and Chicago that stopped the Department of Health and Human Services from punishing those who are fighting the mandate to pay for contraception and abortion drugs. But in a signal defeat for the cause of freedom, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor turned down a similar request from the owners of Hobby Lobby stores and a Christian book store firm. That means these companies will be subjected to millions of dollars in fines for violating the law even though they claim it is a matter of conscience.

At stake in this battle is whether the Religous Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress will prevent the government from compelling Catholics and others to violate the dictates of their faith. On the face of it, they have a strong case for striking this provision down, but the full power of the Justice Department and its army of lawyers who have the enthusiastic support of pro-abortion grops and much of the liberal mainstream media are arrayed against them. That’s why persons of faith who seek to overturn the law have always faced an uphill battle.

Sotomayor’s decision illustrates just how difficult that task may turn out to be. Even if the owners of Hobby Lobby eventually prevail in court and their rights are upheld, a vengeful Obama administration determined to make an example of anyone who crosses them could have already destroyed their business. By sinking them under the weight of fines, the government could drive them out of business before any final decision is handed down.

One needn’t agree with the religious beliefs of the Hobby Lobby owners, or those other individuals who have brought dozens of lawsuits in various federal courts to stop the mandate, in order to see the value of the principle they are attempting to uphold. Nor need one agree with them about abortion or share their qualms about the morality of contraception. The point here is that if ObamaCare is allowed to give the government the power to render Catholic doctrine beyond the pale in this manner, then no one’s faith is safe.

Sotomayor could have ruled in the same manner as some of the appellate panels have already done and simply held off any punishment of the petitioners until the courts decided the case. But in claiming that the rationale for their request was insubstantial, the Obama appointee signaled that she and other liberals view the question of religious freedom as irrelevant to their quest to impose their diktat of universal coverage for contraception and abortion. While Justice Roberts strove to have the courts rise above partisan politics by refusing to let the court stop ObamaCare despite the fact that it violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Sotomayor did not scruple from acting in a manner that seeks to ensure that the president will get his way on this issue one way or the other.

Should Hobby Lobby, Monaghan and other religious believers lose, the result will be a new, more cribbed definition of religious liberty that will bear little resemblance to the sweeping freedom promised in the First Amendment. Though some business owners may falter along the way toward the final resolution of these cases, it is to be hoped that in the end, the Supreme Court will not let this outrageous attack on the Constitution prevail.

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Will Crocker Endorsement Save Hagel?

This isn’t like most of the other Chuck Hagel endorsements, which have hurt him more than they’ve helped him. Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s support is actually meaningful, especially for someone like Hagel, who was a big critic of the Iraq war while Crocker was ambassador to that country. He pens a strong defense of Hagel at the Wall Street Journal today:

Mr. Hagel understands far better than most the evils of Hamas and Hezbollah, both backed by Iran. He also appreciates the importance of looking in and among those groups for fissures that might lead to internal debate, dissension or division—or even to areas of agreement with the U.S. In the months after the 9/11 attacks, I negotiated with Iranian officials regarding Afghanistan; it accomplished a little of both, spurring agreement on some issues and internal debate among the Iranians on others. 

Chuck Hagel understood this, as he understood the importance of the unsuccessful talks I had with the Iranians in 2007, when I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The failure of those talks helped convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that a diplomatic solution to Iranian interference in Iraq wasn’t possible, at which point he decided to use his army successfully against Iranian-backed militias.

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This isn’t like most of the other Chuck Hagel endorsements, which have hurt him more than they’ve helped him. Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s support is actually meaningful, especially for someone like Hagel, who was a big critic of the Iraq war while Crocker was ambassador to that country. He pens a strong defense of Hagel at the Wall Street Journal today:

Mr. Hagel understands far better than most the evils of Hamas and Hezbollah, both backed by Iran. He also appreciates the importance of looking in and among those groups for fissures that might lead to internal debate, dissension or division—or even to areas of agreement with the U.S. In the months after the 9/11 attacks, I negotiated with Iranian officials regarding Afghanistan; it accomplished a little of both, spurring agreement on some issues and internal debate among the Iranians on others. 

Chuck Hagel understood this, as he understood the importance of the unsuccessful talks I had with the Iranians in 2007, when I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The failure of those talks helped convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that a diplomatic solution to Iranian interference in Iraq wasn’t possible, at which point he decided to use his army successfully against Iranian-backed militias.

Most of the argument is made in personal terms that are moot; Crocker reassures that Hagel’s heart is in the right place on Israel, and that he understands the magnitude of the Iranian threat. But for the rest of us judging him based on his public record, the evidence just isn’t there.

The endorsement may also be too late to matter. Even if President Obama hasn’t made up his mind yet, both sides are digging in and the fight is becoming increasingly bitter. Obama wouldn’t just be picking a battle with Republicans. Plenty of liberal Democrats, most recently Barney Frank, have also opposed the possible nomination. The gay community is still wary of Hagel’s position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and women’s groups are lobbying for a female secretary of defense now that Hillary Clinton is leaving the State Department.

The longer Obama waits to make a decision, the more divisive the issue will become. And unless Hagel has a lot more supporters of Crocker’s caliber waiting in the wings, he’s not going to be able to match the level of the opposition. Maybe that doesn’t matter to Obama; at the end of the day, it’s still his choice. If he wants Hagel badly enough, then he’ll suffer through the fight.

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Ignoring the Rights of the Other Women at the Wall

Writing in the Jerusalem Post this week, public relations expert Laura Kam argued that the ongoing controversy over Women of the Wall is particularly harmful to Israel because it’s seen as an issue of women’s rights. I agree that Israel’s current policy unacceptably violates Women of the Wall’s rights in some respects. But there’s another group of women whose rights the organization’s overseas advocates too often overlook: the thousands of women who visit the Western Wall every day not to “see and be seen,” as Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman shockingly described her goal, but to pour out their hearts to God.

Because much of what the organization seeks to do at the Wall in no way disrupts other people’s worship, the existing ban on these activities is unjustified. A woman wearing a tallit or carrying a Torah, for instance, doesn’t impede anyone’s prayers: If you’re there to pray, your eyes should be on your prayer book, not on what other people are wearing or carrying. Even a full women’s prayer service complete with Torah reading wouldn’t necessarily be disruptive if it were quiet, as Orthodox worship often is: At many Orthodox services, you can’t even hear the Torah reading from more than a few feet away.

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Writing in the Jerusalem Post this week, public relations expert Laura Kam argued that the ongoing controversy over Women of the Wall is particularly harmful to Israel because it’s seen as an issue of women’s rights. I agree that Israel’s current policy unacceptably violates Women of the Wall’s rights in some respects. But there’s another group of women whose rights the organization’s overseas advocates too often overlook: the thousands of women who visit the Western Wall every day not to “see and be seen,” as Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman shockingly described her goal, but to pour out their hearts to God.

Because much of what the organization seeks to do at the Wall in no way disrupts other people’s worship, the existing ban on these activities is unjustified. A woman wearing a tallit or carrying a Torah, for instance, doesn’t impede anyone’s prayers: If you’re there to pray, your eyes should be on your prayer book, not on what other people are wearing or carrying. Even a full women’s prayer service complete with Torah reading wouldn’t necessarily be disruptive if it were quiet, as Orthodox worship often is: At many Orthodox services, you can’t even hear the Torah reading from more than a few feet away.

But that isn’t what Women of the Wall want. What they want is to make a political statement by worshiping as loudly and publicly as possible–to “see and be seen,” in Hoffman’s words. And that most definitely is disruptive to other worshipers: It’s hard to concentrate on one set of words when someone else is chanting a different set at full volume nearby.

Indeed, even the limited activity the group is allowed to conduct at the Wall today is conducted in as loud, public and disruptive manner as possible: A New York Times article last month, for instance, described the women “dancing and singing hymns in the women’s section,” which would certainly be disruptive to other women trying to pray at the site.

Jonathan’s analysis last week of why Women of the Wall’s battle has little traction in Israel was spot-on from a political standpoint. But there’s another reason that has little to do with politics: Contrary to the myth that most Israelis are secular, a majority of Israeli Jews actually put themselves someplace on the spectrum between “traditional, but not very religious” and “ultra-Orthodox.” And even among the 42 percent that define themselves as secular, many observe certain Jewish traditions and even believe in God: A recent survey found that a whopping 80 percent of Israeli Jews overall believe in God; 66 percent light candles on Friday night; 68 percent fast on Yom Kippur; 67 percent avoid leavened bread on Passover; and so forth.

In short, most Israeli Jews respect the sincerity of those thousands of women who pray at the Wall every day even if they would never do so themselves. Consequently, they see no reason why these women’s heartfelt prayers should be disrupted by other women seeking merely to make a political statement.

If Women of the Wall were more interested in praying than politics, Israelis might be more sympathetic to their cause. But as long as their main goal is to “see and be seen,” Israelis will understandably give precedence to the rights of those women who just want to pray to God without disruption.

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The Cliff Vote and the Ryan-Rubio Race

It did not escape the notice of political observers that some of the leading candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination came down on opposite sides of the vote on the fiscal cliff deal. No one was surprised that an extreme libertarian like Rand Paul would be one of the eight no votes in the Senate on the pact. But the votes of Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan did raise some eyebrows, and could potentially impact the way conservative primary voters view the pair four years from now when Iowa and New Hampshire are again the center of the political universe.

Rubio’s decision to join Paul in opposition to the deal makes sense for those who remember that although he is a very mainstream figure today, just three years ago he was viewed in Washington as just another Tea Party insurgent determined to upset the plans of the establishment to make Charlie Crist the GOP candidate for a Florida Senate seat. However, the reaction to Paul Ryan’s decision to join House Speaker John Boehner in supporting the pact did create something of a stir. Ryan’s vote for a deal that he and most other Republicans despised might have been the responsible thing to do since the alternative was to let the taxes of all Americans go up. But in doing so he may have lowered his stock among conservative activists who preferred the futile gesture of protest that most House Republicans made when they joined Majority Leader Eric Cantor in voting against the bill. Though no one should be under the misapprehension that we can know what will determine the outcome of primaries that will be held so far in the future, there’s little doubt Ryan’s stand is going to be held against him by some segments of his party.

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It did not escape the notice of political observers that some of the leading candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination came down on opposite sides of the vote on the fiscal cliff deal. No one was surprised that an extreme libertarian like Rand Paul would be one of the eight no votes in the Senate on the pact. But the votes of Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan did raise some eyebrows, and could potentially impact the way conservative primary voters view the pair four years from now when Iowa and New Hampshire are again the center of the political universe.

Rubio’s decision to join Paul in opposition to the deal makes sense for those who remember that although he is a very mainstream figure today, just three years ago he was viewed in Washington as just another Tea Party insurgent determined to upset the plans of the establishment to make Charlie Crist the GOP candidate for a Florida Senate seat. However, the reaction to Paul Ryan’s decision to join House Speaker John Boehner in supporting the pact did create something of a stir. Ryan’s vote for a deal that he and most other Republicans despised might have been the responsible thing to do since the alternative was to let the taxes of all Americans go up. But in doing so he may have lowered his stock among conservative activists who preferred the futile gesture of protest that most House Republicans made when they joined Majority Leader Eric Cantor in voting against the bill. Though no one should be under the misapprehension that we can know what will determine the outcome of primaries that will be held so far in the future, there’s little doubt Ryan’s stand is going to be held against him by some segments of his party.

Portraying someone who has been the leading congressional advocate of entitlement reforms as just another DC establishment tax and spender may be a stretch. But that’s exactly the line taken by former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough on his “Morning Joe” show today as he abused Ryan for his vote. While the rantings of an MSNBC host shouldn’t be confused for a scientific sample of conservative opinion, right-wing websites are already chiming in on his theme that Ryan’s votes for the prescription drug benefit add-on during the George W. Bush administration and his backing of the fiscal cliff deal mark him as part of the government spending problem rather than its solution.

The Ryan vote is an example of the difficulty of running for president while attempting to govern. It is easy for conservatives to agree with the stand of Rand and Rubio in opposing legislation that gave President Obama most of what he wanted while getting the GOP almost nothing in return on spending or entitlements. But had all House Republicans followed their lead, the bill would have been defeated, ensuring that all Americans would get a massive income tax hike in addition to the hit they will take from the rise in payroll deductions and the impact of ObamaCare on their pocketbooks.

Like the 2008 TARP vote that has been used to label some Republicans as sellouts, it’s likely that Ryan will never hear the end of this no matter how valiant his stands against Obama’s agenda in the coming months and years turn out to be. Though it is not a given that he or any of the candidates we currently assume will be the main choices in 2016 will actually run, it would be foolish to think this won’t be brought up in a future debate and have some impact on his prospects.

To be fair to Rubio, it would be wrong to paint his vote as a cynical pander to the GOP base since it is consistent with his past views on such inadequate compromises. Nevertheless, Rubio is giving us a clear indication that he is unlikely to cast any vote over the course of the next four years that can be portrayed as a betrayal of his Tea Party roots the way Ryan’s decision will be blasted. As a backbench member of the Senate minority, that’s easier for him than it would be for Ryan, who is chair of the House Budget Committee.

Four years is an eternity in politics and it may well be that when the GOP candidates are trudging through the snows in rural hamlets in Iowa and New Hampshire few will remember this week’s votes. A lot will happen between then and now to potentially alter the conservative base’s view of Ryan and Rubio. But right now it appears Rubio is staking out ground to the former veep candidate’s right. That can’t harm his chances of winning a future presidential nod.

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Newspaper that Printed Gun-Owner List Hires Armed Guards

This is ones of the best media stories so far to highlight the hypocrisy of the anti-Second Amendment crowd. After publishing the names of pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester, a local newspaper with a pro-gun control bent has decided to hire armed guards because of the negative backlash it received. The paper’s competitor, the Rockland Times, has the exclusive:

According to police reports on public record, Journal News Rockland Editor Caryn A. McBride was alarmed by the volume of “negative correspondence,” namely an avalanche of phone calls and emails to the Journal News office, following the newspaper’s publishing of a map of all pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester.

Due to apparent safety concerns, the newspaper then decided to hire RGA Investigations to provide armed personnel to man the location. …

The Journal News caused an international stir when they released an interactive map of pistol permit holders names and addresses in Rockland and Westchester counties last Sunday, December 23. The editors have said they believe knowing where guns are is in the public’s interest. The newspaper has also taken a strident editorial position in favor of strict gun control.

Rather than take the map down following the public uproar, the executive board at the Journal News has decided to “stick to their guns” and double-down on their original decision, as they have said a map listing all pistol permit holders in Putnam County will soon to be posted.

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This is ones of the best media stories so far to highlight the hypocrisy of the anti-Second Amendment crowd. After publishing the names of pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester, a local newspaper with a pro-gun control bent has decided to hire armed guards because of the negative backlash it received. The paper’s competitor, the Rockland Times, has the exclusive:

According to police reports on public record, Journal News Rockland Editor Caryn A. McBride was alarmed by the volume of “negative correspondence,” namely an avalanche of phone calls and emails to the Journal News office, following the newspaper’s publishing of a map of all pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester.

Due to apparent safety concerns, the newspaper then decided to hire RGA Investigations to provide armed personnel to man the location. …

The Journal News caused an international stir when they released an interactive map of pistol permit holders names and addresses in Rockland and Westchester counties last Sunday, December 23. The editors have said they believe knowing where guns are is in the public’s interest. The newspaper has also taken a strident editorial position in favor of strict gun control.

Rather than take the map down following the public uproar, the executive board at the Journal News has decided to “stick to their guns” and double-down on their original decision, as they have said a map listing all pistol permit holders in Putnam County will soon to be posted.

Note that the emails sent to the Journal News weren’t considered threatening enough for police to intervene, which is the why the paper ended up hiring private security. In places with strict gun control like the UK, where guns are prohibited even for private security guards, the Journal News would have been out of luck.

According to the paper, it was only publishing open source records that it felt were in the public interest. Obviously, it’s their right to print them for whatever reason. But it’s hard to understand how an interactive map of all gun owners in the area would benefit unarmed members of the public. The people who should be really angry about this aren’t the gun owners, but the non-gun owners. Criminals now have a map of every armed house they should skip in the neighborhood.

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Obama and the “Moral High Ground”

In April 2008, during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama criticized John McCain for seeming to favor economic policies of the Bush administration that McCain had once opposed. “Well, they may have stopped offending John McCain’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, but George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience, and they still offend yours,” Obama said.

The Bush tax cuts offended his conscience, and so did the Bush deficits. Well, they may have stopped offending Barack Obama’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, you might say, considering the fiscal cliff deal the Obama White House has agreed to. The reason conservatives enjoy pointing things like this out is not to play “gotcha” so much as to remind people why Obama was always so off-putting to non-liberals. To Obama, those who disagreed with him were cast as immoral. They weren’t simply political opponents of Obama’s; they were, to the current president, opponents of all that is good and righteous.

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In April 2008, during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama criticized John McCain for seeming to favor economic policies of the Bush administration that McCain had once opposed. “Well, they may have stopped offending John McCain’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, but George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience, and they still offend yours,” Obama said.

The Bush tax cuts offended his conscience, and so did the Bush deficits. Well, they may have stopped offending Barack Obama’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, you might say, considering the fiscal cliff deal the Obama White House has agreed to. The reason conservatives enjoy pointing things like this out is not to play “gotcha” so much as to remind people why Obama was always so off-putting to non-liberals. To Obama, those who disagreed with him were cast as immoral. They weren’t simply political opponents of Obama’s; they were, to the current president, opponents of all that is good and righteous.

Obama’s “fiscal cliff” deal to extend the Bush tax cuts comes, ironically, the same week he quietly signed an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act–another source of controversy during the Bush administration. Bush’s national security policies did not escape Obama’s moral judgment. In a 2007 speech, Obama said Bush “decided to take the low road” in its response to military threats: “We did not reaffirm our basic values, or secure our homeland. Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear.”

The fight over FISA was a minor one in the grand scheme of things, but also a symbolic one. Obama staunchly opposed immunity to telecoms that had cooperated with the government–one Bush-era provision of the law. “I am proud to stand with Senator Dodd, Senator Feingold and a grassroots movement of Americans who are refusing to let President Bush put protections for special interests ahead of our security and our liberty. There is no reason why telephone companies should be given blanket immunity to cover violations of the rights of the American people,” Obama had said.

Pretty clear, right? That promise didn’t even make it through to the election.

Immediately upon taking office in 2009, Obama outlined exactly how he would take us from “the low road” to the “moral high ground,” and that included shuttering secret CIA prisons around the globe and ending long-term secret detentions. Upon signing that executive order, the moral preening was rewarded with applause. A new day had dawned. Yet as the Washington Post reported yesterday, Obama has relied on long-term secret detentions “without legal oversight” throughout his first term in office:

Defense attorneys and others familiar with the case, however, said the men were arrested in Djibouti, a close ally of Washington. The tiny African country hosts a major U.S. military base, Camp Lemonnier, that serves as a combat hub for drone flights and counterterrorism operations. Djibouti also has a decade-long history of cooperating with the United States on renditions….

The sequence described by the lawyers matches a pattern from other rendition cases in which U.S. intelligence agents have secretly interrogated suspects for months without legal oversight before handing over the prisoners to the FBI for prosecution.

Perhaps Obama just thinks the “moral high ground” is overrated. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has only the best interests of the country in mind, and that he is not the morally bankrupt, power-hungry, fear-mongering political opportunist he would accuse others of being if they were to follow his path.

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The Boehner-Cantor Rift and the Speaker Election

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor broke with Speaker John Boehner on the fiscal cliff deal vote yesterday, fueling speculation that he may challenge Boehner in Thursday’s Speaker election. At the Guardian, Jim Antle writes

It’s rare for the top two members of the House leadership to split on an important vote. Bob Michel, the hapless leader of the House Republicans during a long period in the minority, and Newt Gingrich voted differently on the 1990 “read my lips” tax increase. They split again over the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Even less common is a House speaker and majority leader going their separate ways on big-ticket legislation. The last major example is when the Democratic-controlled House debate funding President George W Bush’s surge in Iraq. House speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed the measure to proceed to the floor and voted no. House majority leader Steny Hoyer voted yes.

House speakers typically don’t even vote at all unless it is necessary to break a tie. So it may have been a clarifying moment when speaker of the House John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor parted ways on the deal that ended the long national nightmare known as the fiscal cliff. Boehner voted for the bipartisan agreement negotiated between Vice-President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; Cantor breathed the final moments of life into the opposition.

As Antle notes, despite conservative frustration with Boehner, Cantor is the only one who could potentially rally enough members behind him to seize the gavel. And Breitbart reports that there may be growing support for it:

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor broke with Speaker John Boehner on the fiscal cliff deal vote yesterday, fueling speculation that he may challenge Boehner in Thursday’s Speaker election. At the Guardian, Jim Antle writes

It’s rare for the top two members of the House leadership to split on an important vote. Bob Michel, the hapless leader of the House Republicans during a long period in the minority, and Newt Gingrich voted differently on the 1990 “read my lips” tax increase. They split again over the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Even less common is a House speaker and majority leader going their separate ways on big-ticket legislation. The last major example is when the Democratic-controlled House debate funding President George W Bush’s surge in Iraq. House speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed the measure to proceed to the floor and voted no. House majority leader Steny Hoyer voted yes.

House speakers typically don’t even vote at all unless it is necessary to break a tie. So it may have been a clarifying moment when speaker of the House John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor parted ways on the deal that ended the long national nightmare known as the fiscal cliff. Boehner voted for the bipartisan agreement negotiated between Vice-President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; Cantor breathed the final moments of life into the opposition.

As Antle notes, despite conservative frustration with Boehner, Cantor is the only one who could potentially rally enough members behind him to seize the gavel. And Breitbart reports that there may be growing support for it:

“At least 20 House Republican members have gotten together, discussed this and want to unseat Speaker Boehner–and are willing to do what it takes to do it,” [American Action Majority spokesperson Ron] Meyer said. “That’s more than enough to get the job done, but the one problem these guys face is they need a leader to coalesce behind.” 

Meyer said the conservatives have considered House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) to take the helm after Boehner is knocked out. His opposition from the right to the Senate fiscal cliff deal that Vice President Joe Biden cut with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a sign Cantor may try for the job. 

AMA is hardly the only conservative entity aware of the rekindled effort afoot to unseat Boehner. Another conservative with inside knowledge of the effort told Breitbart News that the movement has “new focus and juice,” and if enough members go to Boehner telling him they won’t support his re-election, that Americans should “watch for him to resign gracefully.”

AMA has been one of Boehner’s most vocal critics, so it’s not clear how much of this is just wishful thinking and how much reflects an actual burgeoning revolt. For one, Cantor’s office has downplayed his rift with Boehner, saying he stands behind the current speaker. And many members might be concerned about shaking up House GOP leadership right before the debt ceiling debate. 

Then there’s the question of how much of this the Boehner opposition brought on itself. After all, the speaker’s Plan B deal that was killed by his internal critics was better in comparison to what ended up going through yesterday. Conservatives have legitimate complaints about the final deal, and legitimate grievances about the closed-door process of negotiations. But Boehner had to play the hand he was dealt, and unfortunately for Republicans it’s been stacked against them since the November election.

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A Bad Deal Beats a Calamitous Outcome

The deal to avoid going over the so-called fiscal cliff was a lousy one: tax rate increases during a weak economy, no spending reductions, nothing on entitlement reform. And yet if House Republicans had succeeded in derailing this deal, negotiated between Senator Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden, it would have been disastrous. 

It would have led to much higher tax increases on all Americans, even beyond the increase in payroll taxes that will now go into effect, and triggered decimating cuts in the defense department. And it would have done a great deal to advance the storyline that Republicans — at least House Republicans — are extremists enamored with nihilism.

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The deal to avoid going over the so-called fiscal cliff was a lousy one: tax rate increases during a weak economy, no spending reductions, nothing on entitlement reform. And yet if House Republicans had succeeded in derailing this deal, negotiated between Senator Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden, it would have been disastrous. 

It would have led to much higher tax increases on all Americans, even beyond the increase in payroll taxes that will now go into effect, and triggered decimating cuts in the defense department. And it would have done a great deal to advance the storyline that Republicans — at least House Republicans — are extremists enamored with nihilism.

I don’t believe that narrative for a moment. Most Republicans want to take meaningful steps to re-limit government, which is entirely admirable. But they faced a particularly bad set of circumstances, and it wasn’t at all clear to me what the game plan would have been if they had succeeded in blowing up the deal passed by an overwhelming margin in the Senate. 

To have amended the Senate deal with the most minor spending cuts–essentially pocket change, given the level of deficits and debt we’re dealing with–would have been fiscally meaningless. And if an amended deal had led to no deal at all–which is precisely what would have happened–it would have been calamitous for House Republicans. There is simply no way Republicans could extract a good, or even mediocre, deal from this situation. They had to hope they could minimize the damage, retreat to safer and better ground, and think through a strategy on how to more effectively wage future battles with the president. Republicans can also take some comfort in the fact that Democrats, after having spent a decade demagoguing the Bush tax cuts, made them permanent for 98 percent of Americans. And as the dust settles on this deal, it may dawn on Republicans that Democrats, who presumably were in a position of maximum strength, didn’t get nearly as much as they hoped for. (For more, see Yuval Levin’s excellent analysis here.)   

Congressional Republicans who wanted to amend the deal sent to them by the Senate may have been engaging in a primal scream of sorts. They are enormously (and understandably) frustrated at the president’s staggering indifference to our debt crisis and their inability to do anything about it. And because this deal is so bad in so many ways, they wanted to vote against it. But if more of them had voted the way Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Eric Cantor did, they would have badly damaged their party and their country.

I for one am glad that cooler and wiser head prevailed and that this bad deal didn’t give way to a much worse outcome. Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for in the aftermath of a damaging election loss.

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Cliff Win May Be Obama’s Last

President Obama got the best of both worlds with the passage of the deal to prevent the country from going over the fiscal cliff. He got the massive tax hike on wealthier Americans that he wanted and paid for it with no spending cuts. Though he acted throughout the crisis as if he might prefer the political advantage that he would gain by a Republican refusal to pass these measures, the avoidance of the cliff prevents the economy from going into a tailspin that would blight his second term. And he accomplished all this while making Republicans looking bad with the passage of the compromise being accomplished despite overwhelming opposition from the House majority caucus.

But the president’s claim that he wouldn’t have another debate with Republicans about taxes and spending in the future was a hollow challenge. House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans who voted for the unsatisfactory package and ensured its passage knew that the alternative was a devastating tax hike for all Americans that would harm the economy and hurt their party for years to come. Though liberals have often claimed that it was the GOP and its Tea Party faction that was holding the nation hostage, this time it was the Democrats who were the ones with a gun to the heads of the nation. It was either vote for a tax increase for some and no spending cuts or see middle class America pay a terrible price. These circumstances won’t apply in the coming months when the debt ceiling and other budgetary measures must be passed. Though the cliff bill was a win for the president, he isn’t likely to have one like this again.

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President Obama got the best of both worlds with the passage of the deal to prevent the country from going over the fiscal cliff. He got the massive tax hike on wealthier Americans that he wanted and paid for it with no spending cuts. Though he acted throughout the crisis as if he might prefer the political advantage that he would gain by a Republican refusal to pass these measures, the avoidance of the cliff prevents the economy from going into a tailspin that would blight his second term. And he accomplished all this while making Republicans looking bad with the passage of the compromise being accomplished despite overwhelming opposition from the House majority caucus.

But the president’s claim that he wouldn’t have another debate with Republicans about taxes and spending in the future was a hollow challenge. House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans who voted for the unsatisfactory package and ensured its passage knew that the alternative was a devastating tax hike for all Americans that would harm the economy and hurt their party for years to come. Though liberals have often claimed that it was the GOP and its Tea Party faction that was holding the nation hostage, this time it was the Democrats who were the ones with a gun to the heads of the nation. It was either vote for a tax increase for some and no spending cuts or see middle class America pay a terrible price. These circumstances won’t apply in the coming months when the debt ceiling and other budgetary measures must be passed. Though the cliff bill was a win for the president, he isn’t likely to have one like this again.

Before leaving the White House to continue his Hawaii vacation, the president spoke on Tuesday night as if the House vote settled for all time the question of whether he would have to deal with Republican objections to his decidedly unbalanced approach to balancing the budget. 

Far from silencing the Republicans, this debate will ensure that the House majority will be even more determined in the future to oppose the tax increases that the president has said he will push for in the future. Nor will they allow him to get anything passed without addressing the one thing that he has refused to contemplate in any serious manner: entitlement reform. He also won’t be able to count on dividing the GOP caucus as he did this time, as Speaker Boehner’s desire to do the right thing by the country estranged him from not only the Tea Partiers but much of his own leadership team. If there’s anything Obama should expect it is that this is the last time Boehner will allow House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to outflank him with most Republicans siding with him against the speaker.

That means this is also probably the last time there will be enough votes to raise taxes on anybody, especially with nothing being done about the spending problem that is at the heart of the nation’s fiscal ills.

President Obama should enjoy his victory on his plane ride to his island holiday. No amount of presidential bluster or bravado will be enough to get him another like it over the course of the coming years.

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