Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 21, 2013

The Significance of Obama’s Inaugural Address

President Obama’s inaugural address was eloquent and moving in parts. It was also deeply partisan and polarizing, something that is unusual for a day normally devoted to unity and common purpose.

But not in Barack Obama’s America. In his inaugural speech he did what he seemingly cannot keep himself from doing: portraying himself and his followers as Children of Light and portraying his opponents as Children of Darkness.

You are either with Obama–or you are with the forces of cruelty and bigotry. In Obama’s world, there is no middle ground. He is the Voice of Reason; those who oppose him are the voice of the mob. They are the ones who (to cite just one passage from his speech) mistake absolutism for principle, substitute spectacle for politics, and treat name-calling as reasoned debate.

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President Obama’s inaugural address was eloquent and moving in parts. It was also deeply partisan and polarizing, something that is unusual for a day normally devoted to unity and common purpose.

But not in Barack Obama’s America. In his inaugural speech he did what he seemingly cannot keep himself from doing: portraying himself and his followers as Children of Light and portraying his opponents as Children of Darkness.

You are either with Obama–or you are with the forces of cruelty and bigotry. In Obama’s world, there is no middle ground. He is the Voice of Reason; those who oppose him are the voice of the mob. They are the ones who (to cite just one passage from his speech) mistake absolutism for principle, substitute spectacle for politics, and treat name-calling as reasoned debate.

In that sense, Obama is the perfect president for our current political culture. And for all of his self-perceived similarities with Abraham Lincoln, he is the antithesis of Lincoln when it comes to grace, a charitable spirit and a commitment to genuine reconciliation. Mr. Obama is, at his core, a divider. He seems to relish it, even when the moment calls for a temporary truce in our political wars.

Which leads me to my second point.

Mr. Obama’s speech was not a call to unity; it was a summons to his liberal base to fight–on global warming, for gay rights, for gun control, for renewable energy, and for a diminished American role in world affairs. And the president’s speech also signaled that he will oppose, with passion and demagoguery, anyone who attempts to reform our entitlement programs. He is fully at peace with running trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. He not only won’t lift a finger to avoid America’s coming debt crisis; he will lacerate those who do.

A final point: Mr. Obama’s speech was a highly ambitious one intellectually. What he was attempting to do was to link progressivism to the American political tradition, to the vision of the founders and the Declaration of Independence. “The greatest progressive arguments throughout the country’s history have been rooted in the language of the Declaration of Independence,” Michael Waldman, who was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton, told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent. “This speech was really rooted in that tradition.”

The key to understanding the president’s inaugural address, then, was this line: “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words [from the Declaration] with the realities of our time.”

Mr. Obama views himself as America’s bridge, the modern-day interpreter of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson. Mr. Obama’s agenda is their agenda. Or so says Obama.

Mr. Obama is a Man of Zeal. He believes the currents of history are swift, powerful, and on his side.

What we are seeing is the authentic Obama, a liberated and fiercely committed progressive who believes he is an agent for social justice and fairness. He feels the election completely vindicated him and his agenda. He has sheer contempt for his opponents. And in his second term he will crush them if they stand in his way.

Call it the transmogrification of Hope and Change. 

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The Markets Vote For Netanyahu

Israelis go to the polls tomorrow and, as we’ve noted previously, there’s not any doubt about who will lead their next government. The voters appear poised to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a qualified endorsement, and while his own party appears to be getting fewer votes than expected, the factions that made up his current government will collectively get what amounts to a landslide victory over the prime minister’s left-wing and Arab critics in the Knesset. But the financial sector’s approval of his performance in office appears nearly unanimous. As Bloomberg News reports, the country’s bonds have gone up 36 percent in dollar value since he took office in 2009 as opposed to a 22 percent average rise for global government debt. The shekel has also gained 13 percent against the dollar in that period and is, according to financial experts, the second-best performing currency in Europe, Middle East and Africa during this time.

That’s a message that gets drowned out by complaints about the rise in the cost of living that generated street protests in Israel in the summer of 2011. Yet for all of the country’s problems, including a deficit that is fueled by Israel’s need to spend a disproportionate amount on defense, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu’s administration has been economically sound and that the country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership. His commitment to maintain the Jewish state’s commitment to a free-market model and the stability that his leadership has given the nation are not the only factors behind the growth numbers, but Israel has become an even better bet for investors in the past four years. The near-certainty that he will stay in office will ensure that this will continue.

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Israelis go to the polls tomorrow and, as we’ve noted previously, there’s not any doubt about who will lead their next government. The voters appear poised to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a qualified endorsement, and while his own party appears to be getting fewer votes than expected, the factions that made up his current government will collectively get what amounts to a landslide victory over the prime minister’s left-wing and Arab critics in the Knesset. But the financial sector’s approval of his performance in office appears nearly unanimous. As Bloomberg News reports, the country’s bonds have gone up 36 percent in dollar value since he took office in 2009 as opposed to a 22 percent average rise for global government debt. The shekel has also gained 13 percent against the dollar in that period and is, according to financial experts, the second-best performing currency in Europe, Middle East and Africa during this time.

That’s a message that gets drowned out by complaints about the rise in the cost of living that generated street protests in Israel in the summer of 2011. Yet for all of the country’s problems, including a deficit that is fueled by Israel’s need to spend a disproportionate amount on defense, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu’s administration has been economically sound and that the country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership. His commitment to maintain the Jewish state’s commitment to a free-market model and the stability that his leadership has given the nation are not the only factors behind the growth numbers, but Israel has become an even better bet for investors in the past four years. The near-certainty that he will stay in office will ensure that this will continue.

Those who only know Israel through stories about the conflict with the Palestinians see the country through a prism that doesn’t take into account the amazing progress it has made in recent decades, as it was transformed from a third-world economy to one of the most dynamic markets in the world. It may be that not all of this has trickled down yet to many of Israel’s citizens who rightly complain about crony capitalism and high prices. But Israel’s strength is not only measured in the vaunted abilities of its armed forces. If it has been able to shrug off the disappointments of a peace process in which the country traded land for more terror rather than peace, it has been because its start-up nation economy has become a model for the world in terms of innovation.

This happened for a number of reasons, but the chief one was a commitment by its leaders to shedding the old socialist Labor Zionist model that helped create the nation but ill prepared it to compete in the global economy. Netanyahu played a key role in this change during his first term as prime minister in the 1990s and his years as finance minister under Ariel Sharon. But as prime minister he has continued this progress, keeping a steady hand on the tiller and avoiding many of the problems experienced elsewhere in a challenging environment.

Stuck in a region with neighbors who won’t make peace and still besieged by terrorist movements that launch missile barrages into the country whenever they want to heat things up, Israel doesn’t have a normal economy or a normal political culture. But in spite of that, Netanyahu has received good marks for keeping the economy sound and largely resisted the demands to reverse course. That might have appeased some of his critics, but it would have set the country back. That took exactly the sort of political courage that, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama thinks he lacks. As Netanyahu embarks on his third overall and second consecutive term in office, the one certainty amid so many variables is that Israel’s finances are in good hands. 

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A President Who Has Learned Nothing

President Obama’s Inaugural Address was well delivered and, as we have come to expect from him, quite eloquent. It had the usual obeisance to the traditions of American democracy and the virtue of relative brevity. Yet there was nothing in it that showed that he had learned a thing in the four years since he first took the oath of office.

The address was a clarion call for the country to get behind the liberal agenda he supports. Fair enough. But, like much of what has come from the White House since November, it illustrated that this president was not interested in compromise or listening to any views but his own. If this speech is to be treated as sign of what will come, the next four years will be filled with more bitter partisan argument and ideological intransigence from the president. Even as many Americans were reveling in the feelings of unity that this ceremony engenders in all patriots, President Obama was throwing down a gauntlet to his foes and saying that he will redouble his efforts to demonize Republicans.

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President Obama’s Inaugural Address was well delivered and, as we have come to expect from him, quite eloquent. It had the usual obeisance to the traditions of American democracy and the virtue of relative brevity. Yet there was nothing in it that showed that he had learned a thing in the four years since he first took the oath of office.

The address was a clarion call for the country to get behind the liberal agenda he supports. Fair enough. But, like much of what has come from the White House since November, it illustrated that this president was not interested in compromise or listening to any views but his own. If this speech is to be treated as sign of what will come, the next four years will be filled with more bitter partisan argument and ideological intransigence from the president. Even as many Americans were reveling in the feelings of unity that this ceremony engenders in all patriots, President Obama was throwing down a gauntlet to his foes and saying that he will redouble his efforts to demonize Republicans.

The president had a lot to say about gay rights and global warming, but for those wondering if he had any new ideas about working with his opponents in an era of divided government, there was little sign that he cared do so. He ignored the problems of a weak economy, instead merely saying that it was recovering. Those looking for an indication that he intends to address the deficit—the greatest long-term threat to our continued prosperity and security—got no comfort. Indeed, the president seemed to say that entitlement reform was a nonstarter in a second Obama administration and that class warfare will be a constant. His hypocritical attack on those who engage in name-calling, which he views as the preserve of Republicans, was a graceless note coming from a man whose campaign devoted itself to smearing his opponent last fall.

Looking abroad, President Obama may believe that his second term will be one in which there will be no more war. Unfortunately, the Taliban and al-Qaeda may think differently. So, too, may the leaders of the Islamist regime in Iran whose efforts to get to get a nuclear weapon may have more to say about the success or failure Obama’s second term than anyone else. His mention of “engagement” was particularly ominous, since it was his foolish attempt to make nice with Iran (prominently mentioned in his first Inaugural Address) that wasted most of this first term and brought us even closer to nuclear peril.

But the main takeaway from this speech is that the president isn’t prepared to give an inch on his desire for more spending and taxing or to contemplate the reform of Medicare and Social Security that would allow those programs to endure. If his first term was marred by anger and arguments in which the president rarely treated the opposition as either legitimate or worthy of consideration, the second term may be even worse. The bottom line here is that a re-elected Obama is determined to take this country to the left with a big-government liberal agenda and will not consider any alternative. Elections do have consequences, but no one should think this will or should be accepted by Republicans.

A wise president would take the lessons of the past four years and adjust his policies and shift away from the ideological blinders that he came into office with. But Barack Obama is not such a president. The speech had all the signs of hubris that often lead presidents into the arrogant assumption that they can as they like in their second terms. That leads more often than not to disaster. He may think he can take us back to the era before Americans realized that liberalism was a god that failed. But those who see this backward-looking and extremist stand as a threat both to our liberty and our future should take it as a reason to redouble their efforts to oppose his plans.

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The Great Ceremony of Democracy

Many Americans love to watch the ceremonies that attend to the doings of British royalty as well as the United Kingdom’s elaborate method for opening the sessions of its parliament. For the most part, our more simple republican (with a small r) traditions are less photogenic as well as less tourist friendly. There is something slightly unseemly, albeit understandable, about this American love of the trappings of monarchy.

Yet Inauguration Day is the exception to this rule. The swearing-in of our president and vice president, accompanied by the ceremonial playing of “Hail to the Chief” and the firing of salutes, gives us a little taste of tradition even if it falls short of the “Masterpiece Theatre” level that they maintain on the other side of the Atlantic. But the true resonance of the day’s proceedings lies in its symbolic reaffirmation of the core values of our democracy and the peaceful way in which we transfer and maintain power in our republic. Inauguration Day is a sacred day in our secular calendar, not just because of who is honored but because it recalls the day in 1801 when, for the first time, one party peacefully handed over the presidency to its rival.

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Many Americans love to watch the ceremonies that attend to the doings of British royalty as well as the United Kingdom’s elaborate method for opening the sessions of its parliament. For the most part, our more simple republican (with a small r) traditions are less photogenic as well as less tourist friendly. There is something slightly unseemly, albeit understandable, about this American love of the trappings of monarchy.

Yet Inauguration Day is the exception to this rule. The swearing-in of our president and vice president, accompanied by the ceremonial playing of “Hail to the Chief” and the firing of salutes, gives us a little taste of tradition even if it falls short of the “Masterpiece Theatre” level that they maintain on the other side of the Atlantic. But the true resonance of the day’s proceedings lies in its symbolic reaffirmation of the core values of our democracy and the peaceful way in which we transfer and maintain power in our republic. Inauguration Day is a sacred day in our secular calendar, not just because of who is honored but because it recalls the day in 1801 when, for the first time, one party peacefully handed over the presidency to its rival.

Many of us may have hard feelings about President Obama’s policies and are licking our wounds after his re-election. But on Inauguration Day, we put those feelings aside for a few minutes and thank the Almighty for the preservation of our republic and its Constitution. We can and should cheer Barack Hussein Obama’s taking of the oath and swear allegiance along with him to the document to which he has pledged his fealty.

After doing so, we will begin again the task of speaking up for the principles which we believe will best secure our nation’s future and preserve its liberties. But as we do so let us understand that the institutions that today honor President Obama should never be diminished in the name of partisan argument. In doing so, we can enjoy the ceremony and remember that what unites us as Americans should always be greater than what divides us.

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Truman’s Lesson for Presidents: Imagine the Farewell Address

Today President Obama’s second term begins in earnest, with a public swearing-in ceremony and a traditional inaugural address. There is and will be much written about what Obama said and what he should have said. No doubt the president has his plans for a second term, and his inaugural address was shaped in large part by his intentions. But another way to prepare such an address is for the president to imagine what he would want to be able to say in his farewell address, or his last remarks as president.

As it happens, this past week marked the 60th anniversary of Harry S. Truman’s farewell address to the American people, as he prepared them for the transition of power from the Democratic Party’s Truman to the Republican Party’s Dwight D. Eisenhower. As is often the case, Truman offers lessons of his own for modern presidents, but because of certain historical conditions he probably has even more to say for someone like Barack Obama. Both Truman and Obama had taken over from presidents who began their term in peacetime and would go on to prosecute America’s participation in a war that necessitated major changes in the country’s approach to national security, leaving that legacy to senators who rose suddenly and unexpectedly to the White House.

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Today President Obama’s second term begins in earnest, with a public swearing-in ceremony and a traditional inaugural address. There is and will be much written about what Obama said and what he should have said. No doubt the president has his plans for a second term, and his inaugural address was shaped in large part by his intentions. But another way to prepare such an address is for the president to imagine what he would want to be able to say in his farewell address, or his last remarks as president.

As it happens, this past week marked the 60th anniversary of Harry S. Truman’s farewell address to the American people, as he prepared them for the transition of power from the Democratic Party’s Truman to the Republican Party’s Dwight D. Eisenhower. As is often the case, Truman offers lessons of his own for modern presidents, but because of certain historical conditions he probably has even more to say for someone like Barack Obama. Both Truman and Obama had taken over from presidents who began their term in peacetime and would go on to prosecute America’s participation in a war that necessitated major changes in the country’s approach to national security, leaving that legacy to senators who rose suddenly and unexpectedly to the White House.

Of course, while Truman may have even more in common with Obama’s predecessor, it is the nature of Truman’s experience in office that makes him the natural model for a certain kind of president: one who battles low approval numbers while in office, reshapes American policy in some fundamental way, especially with regard to national security, and sees himself as somewhat ahead of his time and destined to be vindicated by the history books and appreciated in hindsight. But most of all, Truman’s farewell address can serve as a guide for a course correction from Obama’s disappointing, highly partisan first term.

Truman began by explaining the responsibilities of the office, and famously reminded the public that the president “can’t pass the buck to anybody.” There is much Truman could have blamed on his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt, who made key strategic and political mistakes that Truman had to fix, and for which Truman gets far less credit than he deserves. Obama, unfortunately, has taken exactly the opposite approach, blaming his predecessor for the failure of his own economic initiatives; blaming a GOP-controlled House even though the Democrats control the Senate and the White House; passing the buck on Benghazi, and others. (Keith Koffler has a handy list of 13 problems Obama has blamed on others, especially the GOP and George W. Bush, here.)

President Obama’s excessive partisanship and relentless demonization of his opponents and their motives stand in sharp contrast to not only the behavior of most of his predecessors and the expected dignity of the office, but to Truman’s plea for unity and support for his successor, who bested Truman’s own party a few months prior:

I want all of you to realize how big a job, how hard a job, it is–not for my sake, because I am stepping out of it–but for the sake of my successor….

Regardless of your politics, whether you are Republican or Democrat, your fate is tied up with what is done here in this room. The President is President of the whole country. We must give him our support as citizens of the United States. He will have mine, and I want you to give him yours.

In matters of war and peace, Truman put special emphasis on his decision to go to war in Korea, which he called “the most important in my time as President of the United States.” Here there is another important lesson for Obama, who has derided calls for military action as the rash actions of men who have not considered the horrors of war. Obama then chose as his defense secretary a man who had served in Vietnam heroically, and whose experience, he said, has taught him the futility of armed conflict to such an extent that he made it his practice to publicly take the military option off the table so as to try and ensure it won’t even be considered, whatever the progression of crisis.

Truman also served with distinction, but didn’t believe his service required him to refuse to send others into the field. “I was a soldier in the First World War, and I know what a soldier goes through. I know well the anguish that mothers and fathers and families go through. So I knew what was ahead if we acted in Korea,” Truman said. But he also remembered what came before the Second World War, and had to allow history into his decision making process as well: “The Japanese moved into Manchuria, and free men did not act. The Fascists moved into Ethiopia, and we did not act. The Nazis marched into the Rhineland, into Austria, into Czechoslovakia, and free men were paralyzed for lack of strength and unity and will. Think about those years of weakness and indecision, and the World War II which was their evil result.”

Individual liberty and religious liberty are not to be trifled with, Truman warned. They are in large part the reason he predicted the demise of the Soviet Union and the success of the American tradition: “In the long run the strength of our free society, and our ideals, will prevail over a system that has respect for neither God nor man.” Those around the world yearning to be free, fighting against oppression and the injustice of dictatorship, must know the president of the United States is in their corner. America will win the Cold War and the battle of ideals, Truman said, but not through a policy of nonintervention born of perceived futility.

Sixty years after that speech, Obama—and any president, really—should take to heart Truman’s message, and the way history judges a leader who can honestly deliver such a farewell address.

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A Liberal Argument Against Hagel

Chuck Schumer’s decision to give Chuck Hagel a kosher seal of approval last week seemed to take a lot of the steam out of the growing movement to stop his confirmation as secretary of defense. But, as Alana noted last week, there is still plenty of opposition to President Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon, and yesterday one of the more prominent liberal voices in the media voiced his doubts about the former senator. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller is as reliable a font of liberal conventional wisdom as can be found, but to his credit, he rejects as absurd the argument that Hagel’s military service during Vietnam qualifies him to lead the defense apparatus.

Keller takes aim, as I did recently, at the idea that military valor is a qualification for high office. Even more interesting, while Keller approves of Hagel’s non-mainstream views about engaging Iran and other Islamist threats, he also directly acknowledges that the Nebraskan seems to have a classic case of Vietnam syndrome as well as being unlikely to be able to manage generals. If liberals like Keller are willing to air this kind of a critique of Hagel, then Republicans who are thinking about going to the mat in an attempt to stop his confirmation ought to be encouraged.

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Chuck Schumer’s decision to give Chuck Hagel a kosher seal of approval last week seemed to take a lot of the steam out of the growing movement to stop his confirmation as secretary of defense. But, as Alana noted last week, there is still plenty of opposition to President Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon, and yesterday one of the more prominent liberal voices in the media voiced his doubts about the former senator. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller is as reliable a font of liberal conventional wisdom as can be found, but to his credit, he rejects as absurd the argument that Hagel’s military service during Vietnam qualifies him to lead the defense apparatus.

Keller takes aim, as I did recently, at the idea that military valor is a qualification for high office. Even more interesting, while Keller approves of Hagel’s non-mainstream views about engaging Iran and other Islamist threats, he also directly acknowledges that the Nebraskan seems to have a classic case of Vietnam syndrome as well as being unlikely to be able to manage generals. If liberals like Keller are willing to air this kind of a critique of Hagel, then Republicans who are thinking about going to the mat in an attempt to stop his confirmation ought to be encouraged.

To his discredit, Keller dismisses the very serious critiques about Hagel’s bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and thinks his desire to talk with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah is “great.” Given that he supports these positions that are, at least on the surface, at variance with President Obama’s own views, it is curious that he chooses not to mention the fact that Hagel has completely disavowed these positions in a desperate effort to get the approval of senators like Schumer.

But Keller zeroes in on the idea that his courageous service in Vietnam tells us anything about Hagel’s abilities to carry out the job the president wishes him to fill. He notes that John Kerry’s attempt to run for president in 2004 with a “reporting for duty” theme was an embarrassing flop. He also rightly puts down attempts to disqualify liberals who didn’t serve as unworthy of giving orders to the military or to deride right-wingers who didn’t serve as “chicken hawks:”

Eliot Cohen, a neocon military historian with whom I do not often agree, wrote the following about the combat credential: “According to this view, to fill a senior policy position during a war one would of course prefer a West Point graduate who had led a regiment in combat, as opposed to a corporate lawyer turned politician with a few weeks’ experience in a militia unit that did not fight. The former profile fits Jefferson Davis, and the latter Abraham Lincoln.”

Keller also quotes an illuminating account of Hagel’s foolish criticism of our military in Iraq:

In “Endgame,” their history of the war in Iraq, Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor recount a trip then-Senator Obama and Senator Hagel took to Iraq in 2008. Obama deftly probes General Petraeus on the nuances of winding down the conflict. But Hagel comes across as prickly and inflexible. At one point, he seems to suggest that the general should be trimming his troop requests to fit the domestic political realities in Washington, and Petraeus takes offense. “I will do what you want me to do,” Petraeus retorts. “But I’m going to give my best military advice. You seem to want me to tailor my advice to a policy.”

Hagel shows, as Keller writes, clear signs of “Vietnam syndrome” whereby veterans or others scarred by that failure “recoil from conflict” even when it is both justified and necessary to preserve America’s security. Though Keller stops short of opposing the nomination, combined with his history of taking positions aimed at undermining the alliance with Israel and appeasing our Islamist foes, his column gives Democrats and Republicans one more reason to reject Hagel’s nomination.

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Republicans Avoid a Political Pickett’s Charge

Two-and-a-half weeks ago I wrote a post urging Republicans to back away from a confrontation with President Obama over raising the debt ceiling and warning them against engaging in high-profile confrontations and brinksmanship except on the most favorable terrain.

I was therefore quite relieved when Republicans announced that this week they will propose extending the federal debt limit by three months while also requiring that both the House and the Senate pass a budget for the next fiscal year. If either chamber failed to adopt a budget by April 15, that chamber’s members would then have their congressional pay withheld.

As the Wall Street Journal put it,

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Two-and-a-half weeks ago I wrote a post urging Republicans to back away from a confrontation with President Obama over raising the debt ceiling and warning them against engaging in high-profile confrontations and brinksmanship except on the most favorable terrain.

I was therefore quite relieved when Republicans announced that this week they will propose extending the federal debt limit by three months while also requiring that both the House and the Senate pass a budget for the next fiscal year. If either chamber failed to adopt a budget by April 15, that chamber’s members would then have their congressional pay withheld.

As the Wall Street Journal put it,

The move represents the clearest sign yet Republicans are backing away from using the debt ceiling as the battlefield for their next budget fight with President Barack Obama. It’s also evidence of what top GOP leaders have been hinting in recent weeks: that the recurring cycle of fiscal crises isn’t helping the party politically, failing to give them substantive victories while sticking them with political blame… the concession indicates that GOP leaders would prefer to wage a budget fight with the White House on different and less fraught grounds: the automatic spending cuts that take effect on March 1 and a government-funding measure that expires weeks later.

This is the triumph of prudence and common sense. Republicans decided that Pickett’s Charge should remain a Civil War reference, not a political blueprint for the GOP.

It’s dawning on Republicans that it’s impossible for them to govern from the House. Nor are they in any position to extract large concessions from the president. It simply isn’t worthwhile for Republicans in this context to press for deep spending cuts and entitlement reforms when no such things will be forthcoming. To have pushed for a high-stakes showdown on raising the debt ceiling would have had very damaging political consequences for Republicans. They would have emerged from the battle looking ideological and irresponsible one the one hand (for forcing the fight), and weak and unprincipled on the other (for caving in).

During this political season, Republicans need to demonstrate patience and care. They need to avoid the traps being laid for them by the president. And they need to offer proposals (like the one House Republicans have) that are measured and realistic, politically intelligent, defensible and difficult to caricature.

Remember: President Obama’s aim is to portray House Republicans as extreme to the point of being nihilistic. His hope is to go to the country in 2014 and blame the GOP for standing in the way of reasonable proposals and progress. Republicans, on the other hand, need to point out that the House has been the responsible chamber, passing budgets on time and annually, while the Senate (controlled by Democrats) is acting in a wildly irresponsible and lawless fashion (for example, not passing a budget in nearly four years).

There is an intense battle over narratives taking place–and Republicans, in pulling back from an intense, high-stakes, down-to-the-wire battle with Obama over raising the debt ceiling, have avoided a huge setback. 

This isn’t all they need to do, of course–but Do No Harm is not a bad starting point. 

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Learning from Obama’s Campaign Victory

Immediately following the election, a great deal of attention was paid to the incredibly inept Romney GOTV effort by this blog and many others. The failure of the program Orca was almost too complete, too shocking to be believed and it left many, including myself, wondering what might have been if the Romney campaign had an effective GOTV effort on Election Day. Obama’s margin of victory was such that if there had been a GOTV and organizational effort by the Romney campaign even close to his opponent, there might have been a clear chance at victory in several swing states for the Republican nominee. 

After the election, Romney’s digital campaign staff conducted a post-mortem with leading GOP and conservative strategists and, shockingly, reportedly came out feeling “cheerful” despite their walloping not only at the polls, but also in the digital realm. How could these experts have reached a conclusion so far from reality? Simply, many of these digital consultants have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo. RedState’s Erick Erickson named names shortly after the election and explained how and why a group of strategists linked to the RNC and other conservative groups rake in millions every election season, despite their continued failures. There is one notable exception to that group of consultants and digital strategists: Patrick Ruffini. 

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Immediately following the election, a great deal of attention was paid to the incredibly inept Romney GOTV effort by this blog and many others. The failure of the program Orca was almost too complete, too shocking to be believed and it left many, including myself, wondering what might have been if the Romney campaign had an effective GOTV effort on Election Day. Obama’s margin of victory was such that if there had been a GOTV and organizational effort by the Romney campaign even close to his opponent, there might have been a clear chance at victory in several swing states for the Republican nominee. 

After the election, Romney’s digital campaign staff conducted a post-mortem with leading GOP and conservative strategists and, shockingly, reportedly came out feeling “cheerful” despite their walloping not only at the polls, but also in the digital realm. How could these experts have reached a conclusion so far from reality? Simply, many of these digital consultants have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo. RedState’s Erick Erickson named names shortly after the election and explained how and why a group of strategists linked to the RNC and other conservative groups rake in millions every election season, despite their continued failures. There is one notable exception to that group of consultants and digital strategists: Patrick Ruffini. 

Since the election, while the attention of almost every other conservative strategist and activist was focused on the failure in the Romney campaign, Ruffini has spent a significant amount of time and effort deconstructing the incredibly successful Obama campaign. Ruffini, the founder and owner of the consulting firm EngageDC, sneaked into Obama For America (OFA) strategy sessions, live-tweeting and later collating his findings. He has also pored over information released by OFA about their organizational structure to learn how OFA operated so that a future GOP candidate wouldn’t find themselves so outgunned in future campaigns. In one large report, Going Inside the Cave, Ruffini’s team analyzed the organization, strategy and implementation of OFA’s digital efforts, explaining: 

OFA was, far and away, the most sophisticated political organization on the planet. And Republicans needed to learn from them. So we set about gathering insights, data, and anecdotes from hundreds of news articles, blog posts, interviews, podcasts, and presentations. 

The Cave is what OFA called the windowless room that housed their analytics team. Like digital in 2008, analytics came of age in the 2012 campaign. OFA’s analytics team had 50 staffers. By comparison, the Romney-Ryan campaign had a data team of 4 people.

Veterans of OFA have been surprisingly forthcoming in providing details on how they leveraged the latest in technology and digital strategy to make their campaign as effective and efficient as possible.

In 2016, Republicans can’t afford to fight the battles of 2012. We have to look forward to the future and start preparing now.

Last night Ruffini live-tweeted his analysis of the “OFA Legacy Report,” which he then compiled along with other digital strategists’s anecdotes. Why is Ruffini and his firm spending so much time deconstructing the reelection campaign of a second-term president? While this may be Obama’s last term in office, OFA isn’t going anywhere. Mother Jones reports:

Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign was the most technologically advanced political operation in American history. The campaign, led by Jim Messina, amassed and distilled vast quantities of voter data, built apps and networks to mobilize voters and enlist volunteers, and practically perfected the science of email fundraising. Post-election, Messina and his lieutenants weren’t about to let their data files, email lists, algorithms, and grassroots machine simply gather dust. Instead, they will soon launch Organizing for Action, a standalone advocacy group created to bolster Obama as he pursues his second-term agenda.

The new group will be used to mobilize Obama supporters around the key issues of Obama’s second term in office.

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi explained that the group “dwarfs any part of the Democratic coalition.” The LA Times was the first to report on the new group’s hypocritical tax status, given the Obama campaign’s demonization of “dark money” groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, a 501(c)4: 

The organization will be set up as a 501(c)4 social welfare group, according to top Democrats privy to the discussions. That structure allows it to accept unlimited contributions.

The Obama campaign’s data files — its most valuable assets — may be housed in a separate legal entity that would make them accessible to Democratic candidates and party committees, according to a source familiar with the plans.

If Republicans want to make this inauguration day the last of a Democratic president for quite some time, serious time and money needs to be invested in analyzing Obama’s efforts in order not to replicate them, but to best them. Ruffini’s work is a great first step, but instead of GOP consultants and strategists spending time meeting to pat each other on the back, it’s time finally admit how sweeping defeat was in 2012 in order to catch up enough to give the 2016 GOP nominee a chance at victory.  

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