Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 14, 2013

Who Speaks for the GOP Base?

The CPAC conference has come in for a lot of justified criticism about excluding popular Republicans like Governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell. The annual right-wing jamboree is being trashed in the mainstream media as the living, breathing example of why the GOP loses elections since it is oriented toward ideological activists rather than expanding the party’s big tent. But such jibes miss the point about the event. It is by and for the party’s base, not independents, and like any similar gathering of liberal Democrats the response of participants to speakers is a fair measure of what will fire up the people who will do the groundwork in any future election. While the Republicans need to work at recasting their image if they are to win the White House again, no party can succeed without being able to energize their core supporters.

That’s why one shouldn’t dismiss the cheers received today at CPAC by two of the leading contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination as mere noise. Both Marco Rubio and Rand Paul were in good form, articulating some of their favorite themes to the faithful. But while Rubio’s speech seemed aimed exactly at those swing voters, or at least those who might be persuaded to back a presentable Republican, Paul’s remarks—like his filibuster earlier this month—seemed geared more toward winning over the people who vote in Republican primaries. While Rubio’s speech was on point and well received, there isn’t much doubt about who is the senator that can best be described as the GOP flavor of the month.

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The CPAC conference has come in for a lot of justified criticism about excluding popular Republicans like Governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell. The annual right-wing jamboree is being trashed in the mainstream media as the living, breathing example of why the GOP loses elections since it is oriented toward ideological activists rather than expanding the party’s big tent. But such jibes miss the point about the event. It is by and for the party’s base, not independents, and like any similar gathering of liberal Democrats the response of participants to speakers is a fair measure of what will fire up the people who will do the groundwork in any future election. While the Republicans need to work at recasting their image if they are to win the White House again, no party can succeed without being able to energize their core supporters.

That’s why one shouldn’t dismiss the cheers received today at CPAC by two of the leading contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination as mere noise. Both Marco Rubio and Rand Paul were in good form, articulating some of their favorite themes to the faithful. But while Rubio’s speech seemed aimed exactly at those swing voters, or at least those who might be persuaded to back a presentable Republican, Paul’s remarks—like his filibuster earlier this month—seemed geared more toward winning over the people who vote in Republican primaries. While Rubio’s speech was on point and well received, there isn’t much doubt about who is the senator that can best be described as the GOP flavor of the month.

Rubio’s CPAC address seemed very much like a rehash of his response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech with an extended appeal to the concerns of the middle class. Along with the now obligatory jokes about drinking water (which are getting a little tired), Rubio scored by pointing out that the working poor aren’t freeloaders or natural liberals. His rhetorical point that the old GOP ideas about freedom don’t need revising was both true and appealed to the best instincts of conservatives.

Rubio burnished his conservative bona fides while also demonstrating his mainstream appeal, but Paul’s speech showed that he knows how to throw red meat to a crowd that is starving for a leader who will directly confront President Obama and the liberals. From its start, it was a challenge to the president and seemed more like an audition for a caucus or primary audience than a conference address. Sounding the same themes that made his filibuster such a hit, Paul seems to have hit a nerve with conservatives who are tired of compromise and long for someone to stand up against the pull of big government. Republicans of all ages, and not just the kids in college dorms, also like his calling out the party leadership as being “stale and moss-covered.” By combining his libertarian domestic agenda with an attack on foreign aid to countries like Egypt and the mythical threat of domestic drone strikes, he has also managed to make his outlier views on foreign policy seem mainstream. It lacked everything but an open declaration of his candidacy and, as reports indicate, the professionally-made “Stand With Rand” signs show that he is already in full campaign mode.

As Paul’s father Ron knows all too well, winning the CPAC straw poll is no guarantee of winning the White House. But it is a start. Comparing any of the other potential contenders to Paul at this point is unfair since he is obviously committed to a run while the others, included Rubio and Christie, seem nowhere close to a decision as to whether to throw their hats in the ring. But it would be folly for any Republican—especially the large number of conservatives who disagree strongly with Paul’s neo-isolationist approach to foreign policy—to ignore the fact that he seems to have a leg up on everyone else in the long slog toward 2016.

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Are Iranians Buying Obama’s Tough Talk?

President Obama ensured himself an even warmer welcome in Israel next week by ratcheting up his rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear threat in an interview. Speaking with Israel’s Channel 2 television network, Obama did something he had never done before in more than four years of promises and threats about Iran: he gave a precise time frame about how long he thinks the West has before Tehran could realize its nuclear ambition.

The president said that U.S. intelligence believes Iran requires “over a year or so to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” That is a bit more optimistic than the red lines warnings issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which first said the danger zone would be this spring and then revised the estimate to later this year. But it does make it clear that he doesn’t believe negotiations have unlimited time to succeed and, combined with the accompanying warning that the U.S. didn’t want to “cut it that close” and that all options including force remained on the table, constituted the sort of explicit warning that Tehran had never previously received.

But the question hanging over this statement, as well as the good will trip to the Jewish state that seems designed to reassure the Israelis, is whether the Iranians are buying it.

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President Obama ensured himself an even warmer welcome in Israel next week by ratcheting up his rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear threat in an interview. Speaking with Israel’s Channel 2 television network, Obama did something he had never done before in more than four years of promises and threats about Iran: he gave a precise time frame about how long he thinks the West has before Tehran could realize its nuclear ambition.

The president said that U.S. intelligence believes Iran requires “over a year or so to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” That is a bit more optimistic than the red lines warnings issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which first said the danger zone would be this spring and then revised the estimate to later this year. But it does make it clear that he doesn’t believe negotiations have unlimited time to succeed and, combined with the accompanying warning that the U.S. didn’t want to “cut it that close” and that all options including force remained on the table, constituted the sort of explicit warning that Tehran had never previously received.

But the question hanging over this statement, as well as the good will trip to the Jewish state that seems designed to reassure the Israelis, is whether the Iranians are buying it.

President Obama has been promising that Iran would not get a bomb on his watch since before he was elected president. Over the course of the last four years his rhetoric on this point was consistent. But it has been undermined by a series of feckless diplomatic initiatives that seems to have convinced the ayatollahs Obama’s bark was worse than his bite. Years wasted on engagement and assembling an international coalition that could only agree on weak sanctions did more than give Tehran more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. They also emboldened the Iranians to hang tough in negotiations and to believe that the West would never make good on threats to use force to stop them.

Obama can blame no one but himself for reinforcing that Iranian conviction in recent months. He did it first by choosing a new defense secretary in Chuck Hagel who has been an opponent of the use of force against Iran. He compounded that blunder by going along with a series of concessions offered to Iran at the latest edition of the P5+1 talks, which raised the possibility that it could hold onto the nuclear program that he has vowed to shut down while eliminating some sanctions. The Iranians didn’t bite in no small measure because a decade of negotiations with the West have persuaded them that the longer they hold out the more likely they are to get their bomb.

The president’s apologists may see these two trends—tough talk about the subject aimed primarily at an Israeli audience and olive branches lobbed at the Iranians in the talks—as compatible, but they are actually working against each other. He may think that reassuring the Israelis that he has their back may win him extra time to talk to the Iranians. It is probably true that every such statement makes it more unlikely that Israel would consider acting against Iran on its own. But though the president has often acted as if his main problem was keeping the Israelis in line, what he has done is paint himself into a very uncomfortable corner.

The latest reassurance that he will act and act decisively if necessary is good news if only because it makes it that much more difficult for the administration to wiggle their way out of the president’s commitment to spike Iran’s nuclear program when push comes to shove. By establishing a timeline, Obama has taken one more step toward action that ought to get the attention of the ayatollahs and convince them they must give in. But it is unclear whether this increased resolve comes too late to alter the Iranian perception that they have all the time they need to go nuclear before the West wakes up and realizes this grave threat to their security as well as to Israel’s is imminent.

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UN Chutzpah and the Refugee Racket

Between the national security cuts in the sequester and the new scrutiny to which foreign aid is being subjected in a time of budget belt-tightening, those abroad looking for American taxpayer cash have something of a hill to climb. And just like with any foreign affairs issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict commands its fair share of attention. With regard to foreign aid to Middle East governments, it can be argued that while such aid should come with strings, those checks should still be signed lest rogue regimes fill the vacuum with their own cash and influence.

This is certainly the argument that usually prevails when it comes to the Palestinian Authority. Though some in Congress considered punishing the PA for its unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN, even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued against cutting their funding, which could risk the collapse of Mahmoud Abbas’s government and speed up the rise of Hamas in the West Bank. But there’s another Palestinian interest group in Washington this week to lobby for taxpayer cash, and it will likely not find nearly so sympathetic an audience: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has worked for decades to keep Palestinians in squalid refugee camps and radicalizing schools while helping to prop up Hamas, provide terrorists with jobs, and fleece American taxpayers–all while utilizing a definition of “refugee” at odds with American law and practice. Josh Rogin reports on his interview with UNRWA commissioner general Filippo Grandi:

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Between the national security cuts in the sequester and the new scrutiny to which foreign aid is being subjected in a time of budget belt-tightening, those abroad looking for American taxpayer cash have something of a hill to climb. And just like with any foreign affairs issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict commands its fair share of attention. With regard to foreign aid to Middle East governments, it can be argued that while such aid should come with strings, those checks should still be signed lest rogue regimes fill the vacuum with their own cash and influence.

This is certainly the argument that usually prevails when it comes to the Palestinian Authority. Though some in Congress considered punishing the PA for its unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN, even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued against cutting their funding, which could risk the collapse of Mahmoud Abbas’s government and speed up the rise of Hamas in the West Bank. But there’s another Palestinian interest group in Washington this week to lobby for taxpayer cash, and it will likely not find nearly so sympathetic an audience: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has worked for decades to keep Palestinians in squalid refugee camps and radicalizing schools while helping to prop up Hamas, provide terrorists with jobs, and fleece American taxpayers–all while utilizing a definition of “refugee” at odds with American law and practice. Josh Rogin reports on his interview with UNRWA commissioner general Filippo Grandi:

Grandi said that U.S. contributions to UNRWA, which are voluntary, are needed more than ever due to the dire situation of Palestinian refugees caught up in the Syria crisis. Right now, the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration require that all accounts be cut evenly, but Congress is expected to provide the State Department flexibility in deciding what to cut. Grandi said he feels confident State won’t choose to disproportionately cut money for UNRWA.

UNRWA and the refugee issue have been in the news over the past year, as Illinois Senator Mark Kirk has sought to clarify the actual number of refugees from the standpoint of American policy and how they are counted. It’s controversial because UNRWA counts refugees differently than the U.S. does, and in fact differently than other UN agencies do for other refugee populations. Neither UNRWA nor its supporters at the State Department want to conduct such a count, because it would reveal that UNRWA is overcounting refugees by several hundred percent in order to gain funding for them. American taxpayers might wonder why UNRWA is allowed to make up its own rules in order to gain access to more of their money. They might also object to the fact that UNRWA has thrust itself into the conflict as a partisan actor and not as an “independent” or “nonpolitical” aid organization, and ask why they should have to fund its efforts to delegitimize Israel and prolong the conflict on which it depends for its money.

In May 2012, Rogin reported on the initial controversy. The State Department criticized Kirk’s legislation, saying Foggy Bottom “cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees.” The State Department then expressly contradicted itself by telling Rogin that there were 5 million Palestinian refugees and that the State Department agrees with UNRWA in how to count them, despite being inconsistent with American law. In other words, the State Department absolutely believes the U.S. can and should “make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees,” as long as that judgment accords with what these individual officials believe, and that the outcome of certain final-status issues should be pre-judged, as long as those issues are pre-judged in the Palestinians’ favor.

Of course, there’s a reason those considered by UNRWA to be refugees need aid–and it’s not the behavior of Israel or the U.S. Leila Hilal of the New America Foundation told Rogin that (emphasis mine) “to honestly determine which Palestinians remain refugees, one would have to wade into a long, complicated legal and factual analysis about which Palestinians in the region have adequate national protection that would end their refugee status.” And a State Department official told Rogin that Palestinian refugees remain under refugee status “until they return home or are resettled in a third country.”

That is, as long as the Arab states in the region mistreat them, the Palestinians will remain eligible for American “refugee” cash, which will be distributed by agencies who work with the regimes responsible for this racket. As you can see, it isn’t easy to justify making exceptions to American budget cuts to preserve cash that incentivizes and rewards Arab states’ abuse of Palestinian migrants and is distributed to and by Hamas and its allies. But I suppose you can’t blame UNRWA for trying.

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Can Israel’s Coalition Survive?

A last-minute glitch appears to be holding up the signing of the coalition agreement that would put Israel’s next government in place in time to greet President Obama next week. According to reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to deny Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett the largely symbolic title of deputy prime minister has jeopardized the deal. While minor issues such as this one have the potential to cause big problems in any political setting, the real clue to the seriousness of this dust-up is the fact that most people seem to be blaming it on, of all people, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

If true, it points to the fact that while the Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett have much to gain from cooperating with each other, at least one of them hasn’t been able to rise above the personal feuds that seem to characterize relations between Israel’s leaders. That means that although all of the four parties (Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua) that have united to form Israel’s 33rd government since the first Knesset was elected in 1949 have every reason to keep it in office for a full four-year term, the jealousies, lack of trust and downright antagonism between the major players may cause its premature demise. Netanyahu’s ability to transcend petty tiffs in the coming days may tell us a lot about whether his second consecutive and third overall term as prime minister will last as long as he’d like.

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A last-minute glitch appears to be holding up the signing of the coalition agreement that would put Israel’s next government in place in time to greet President Obama next week. According to reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to deny Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett the largely symbolic title of deputy prime minister has jeopardized the deal. While minor issues such as this one have the potential to cause big problems in any political setting, the real clue to the seriousness of this dust-up is the fact that most people seem to be blaming it on, of all people, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

If true, it points to the fact that while the Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett have much to gain from cooperating with each other, at least one of them hasn’t been able to rise above the personal feuds that seem to characterize relations between Israel’s leaders. That means that although all of the four parties (Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua) that have united to form Israel’s 33rd government since the first Knesset was elected in 1949 have every reason to keep it in office for a full four-year term, the jealousies, lack of trust and downright antagonism between the major players may cause its premature demise. Netanyahu’s ability to transcend petty tiffs in the coming days may tell us a lot about whether his second consecutive and third overall term as prime minister will last as long as he’d like.

Netanyahu’s been in a downward spiral as he went from a position of unchallenged strength last spring to his current ridiculous predicament as he must embrace a trio of political rivals that he (and apparently his wife) abhor. The prime minister has made a series of political blunders in the last year that resulted in his party getting a far smaller share of the vote than it might have won only a few months before. While that didn’t prevent his re-election, it did create a situation where he had to find common ground with partners who were in a position to exact a high price for their cooperation.

But the curious thing about the abnormally long coalition talks and the arguments between the leaders that are obviously not fully resolved is that none of this really has anything to do with the key foreign and defense policy questions facing the country that remain at the core of the prime minister’s agenda. Nor is it related to the economic and social issues on which the election was largely fought.

While the rest of the world interprets everything that happens in Israel through the prism of the debates about the peace process with the Palestinians or the Iranian nuclear threat, there isn’t much difference on them between Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett–or even Livni, despite her claim to be the avatar of peace. Nor do the members of this fractious quartet have any real disputes about the need for a more equitable draft system or the need to avoid a retreat from the progress the country has made under the free market model that replaced the old socialist approach that once governed the nation.

Instead, their problem is mainly with each other. Netanyahu not unreasonably fears the ambitious and charismatic Lapid’s plans to supplant him at the next election. The prime minister and his wife also seem to hold a grudge against Bennett, who was once his chief of staff but bolted as a result of an as-yet-unspecified quarrel that may not have been directly related to policy disagreements. Livni is still seething over her failure to defeat Netanyahu in the 2009 election and her foolish decision to stay out of his government. Netanyahu is deeply distrusted by the other three and all–except perhaps for Bennett, who seems to have risen above the personality clashes to be the broker who made the deal–think Lapid is a vain television-created celebrity devoid of substance.

How can these four people live with each other and keep a government going? No one’s sure about the answer to that question as Israel appears to have elected itself a government that seems more like a reality show than a political coalition.

After his 2009 victory, Netanyahu appeared to have learned from the mistakes he made in his first term as prime minister in the 1990s when he seemed to have alienated every friend and political ally he had by the end of his three years in office. But he seems to have forgotten these lessons in recent months as he finds himself with a Likud filled with resentful members who think the prime minister has slighted them and a cabinet full of rivals who don’t like him either.

As I wrote yesterday, this government has an opportunity to do great things. The absence of the ultra-Orthodox parties means it can, among other things, go a long way toward creating a more equitable draft system and make much needed education reforms. It should also be equipped to hold the country together in the face of the Iranian threat as well as pressure to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that isn’t interested in peace. But it will do none of these things and may crash and burn long before its term is up if the quarrelsome foursome can’t learn to get along.

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Carping About Obama’s Israel Itinerary Misses the Point

The announcement of the itinerary of President Obama’s visit next week to Israel has produced a predictable kerfuffle. With every possible site rife with symbolism, the omission of some places of interest and the inclusion of others is the sort of thing to send the already hyperactive sensitivities of Israel’s supporters into overdrive. Given the history of the past four years during which the president has lost few opportunities to slight Israel and its government, it’s understandable that the decisions about the trip will be examined with a fine-tooth comb and that each element would be suspected as yet another example of Obama’s hostility.

But while I’ll admit I raised my eyebrows about some of the choices, carping about the schedule misses the point. The only real symbolism of this visit is that he will be there. Though there are strong disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem on some vital issues, the Obama trip remains a nightmare for Israel-bashers. There has been no U.S. president who has been less sympathetic to Israel than Obama in a generation. Yet he will be journeying to the Jewish state to unequivocally pledge his nation’s support for its security. If the tone of the foreign policy of his first term was set by his 2009 Cairo address where he pointedly snubbed Israel and treated the complaints of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to the Holocaust, it is to be hoped that the sight of showing respect for symbols of Jewish sovereignty over the land will be just as influential.

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The announcement of the itinerary of President Obama’s visit next week to Israel has produced a predictable kerfuffle. With every possible site rife with symbolism, the omission of some places of interest and the inclusion of others is the sort of thing to send the already hyperactive sensitivities of Israel’s supporters into overdrive. Given the history of the past four years during which the president has lost few opportunities to slight Israel and its government, it’s understandable that the decisions about the trip will be examined with a fine-tooth comb and that each element would be suspected as yet another example of Obama’s hostility.

But while I’ll admit I raised my eyebrows about some of the choices, carping about the schedule misses the point. The only real symbolism of this visit is that he will be there. Though there are strong disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem on some vital issues, the Obama trip remains a nightmare for Israel-bashers. There has been no U.S. president who has been less sympathetic to Israel than Obama in a generation. Yet he will be journeying to the Jewish state to unequivocally pledge his nation’s support for its security. If the tone of the foreign policy of his first term was set by his 2009 Cairo address where he pointedly snubbed Israel and treated the complaints of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to the Holocaust, it is to be hoped that the sight of showing respect for symbols of Jewish sovereignty over the land will be just as influential.

The most controversial aspect of the Obama itinerary is the decision for him to drop the seemingly obligatory visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. That smacks of a lack of respect or support for Israel’s claims to the Old City of Jerusalem as well as to Judaism’s holiest site. That he will go to the Church of the Nativity in Palestinian Authority-controlled Bethlehem while also avoiding any Muslim sites will also raise the hackles of some.

The other sore point will be the fact that the president will not address the Knesset but will instead give a major address to an audience largely composed of students—as was the case in Cairo—at Jerusalem’s convention center (though students from Ariel in the West Bank were not invited).

Obama’s decision to speak at a religious university in Cairo was fitting because it was the perfect symbol of Egyptian society. But the Knesset is living proof of Israel’s status as the sole real democracy in the region. But given the president’s belief that he knows what’s good for Israel better than its democratically elected leaders, it’s hardly surprising that he would have little interest in paying homage to that institution. However, to be fair, it is also possible that the motivation for the snub had more to do with Obama’s notoriously thin skin than his contempt for the country’s representative government. Unlike Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was repeatedly cheered to the echo when he addressed a joint meeting of Congress in 2011, the president knows there is every chance that he will be heckled or jeered by some members of the raucous and unruly parliament.

That said there will still be plenty for friends of Israel to cheer in the visit.

Obama will not only go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, he will also make a stop to Israel’s version of Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. That will be a telling rebuke to the increasing chorus of those who wish to delegitimize Israel and its reason for being. Also important will be a visit to the Israel Museum where he will view the Dead Sea Scrolls, a telling reminder of Jewish history and claims to the land that no amount of Palestinian revisionism and propaganda can erase. This, as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire to show the president the new high-tech industries, helps establish the justice of Israel’s cause.

One element of the trip will be entirely self-serving. Obama will inspect an Iron Dome anti-missile battery. That will be a not-so-subtle reminder of his attempt to claim sole credit for the creation and funding of the vital defense system. However, Obama won’t bother to visit an Iron dome at its normal station but will instead take a look at one that will be towed to Ben-Gurion Airport to save him time.

Obama’s predilection for moral grandstanding and condescension is well known, and that means there is every chance he will say some things that will offend Israelis and give comfort to their enemies. But no matter what he says, his long awaited trip tangibly reaffirms the alliance between Israel and the United States that can’t be ignored.

For all of the tension between the two countries in the last four years and whatever disputes will ensue in the next four, even Barack Obama feels compelled to pay tribute to Israel and some of its most important national symbols. Those in the Muslim and Arab worlds as well as in Europe and elsewhere who have been encouraged by the distance that the Obama administration has sought to create between the U.S. and Israel will be upset by his presence in the country no matter what Obama says.

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A Tea Partier Gets Some Unusual Defenders

Last week I wrote about the entertaining series of stories in which reporters asked Senate Democrats why they didn’t stand with Rand Paul during his filibuster of John Brennan over civil liberties concerns. I noted that congressional Democrats judge foreign policy stands on partisanship alone, and the Democrats’ confused responses to reporters last week signaled they thought reporters were in on the joke.

But there are Democrats outside of government starting to pipe up on the issue of drones and secrecy, and it suggests Paul’s filibuster was even more successful from a publicity standpoint than it seemed at the time. This is because when it began, Paul’s concentration on the seemingly farfetched possibility that the government would drone critics like Jane Fonda as they sat in Starbucks left the initial impression that the filibuster was going to be a political theater of the absurd. But Paul proved many doubters wrong not only by attracting other politicians and rallying support on Twitter, but because the drone-Fonda case highlighted something that made people uneasy: if the federal government couldn’t or wouldn’t clearly deny its right to zap nonviolent people on American soil, was there anything the Obama administration would rule out?

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Last week I wrote about the entertaining series of stories in which reporters asked Senate Democrats why they didn’t stand with Rand Paul during his filibuster of John Brennan over civil liberties concerns. I noted that congressional Democrats judge foreign policy stands on partisanship alone, and the Democrats’ confused responses to reporters last week signaled they thought reporters were in on the joke.

But there are Democrats outside of government starting to pipe up on the issue of drones and secrecy, and it suggests Paul’s filibuster was even more successful from a publicity standpoint than it seemed at the time. This is because when it began, Paul’s concentration on the seemingly farfetched possibility that the government would drone critics like Jane Fonda as they sat in Starbucks left the initial impression that the filibuster was going to be a political theater of the absurd. But Paul proved many doubters wrong not only by attracting other politicians and rallying support on Twitter, but because the drone-Fonda case highlighted something that made people uneasy: if the federal government couldn’t or wouldn’t clearly deny its right to zap nonviolent people on American soil, was there anything the Obama administration would rule out?

And that, in turn, led to many asking a related series of questions: what exactly do we know about the drone program? Does it have limits, and if so, what are they? Why, people wondered, didn’t they know exactly what the federal government’s guidelines are regarding these floating robot assassins suddenly the centerpiece of our anti-terror efforts? Sensing they were losing the spin battle, the White House had Attorney General Eric Holder finally respond with a terse note, basically saying the government cannot drone Fonda. Not good enough, says Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California who was the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and is now head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

Still, the letter left more questions unanswered than answered. Indeed, a simple “no” is hardly reassuring when the policy it supports is not clear.

In the domestic context, drones should never be used against citizens unless there is an armed conflict on U.S. soil….

Only the Federal Aviation Administration has been tasked with reviewing safety of domestic drones – nothing related to legal or security issues….

In the absence of congressional action, more than 30 state legislatures are banning or contemplating bills governing domestic drone use. But we need a national solution – not a fragmentation of state and local laws.

Harman’s CNN.com op-ed is titled “Rand Paul is Right.” In a similar op-ed in the Washington Post, former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta writes that “The Obama administration is wrong” to withhold documents being requested by Congress that would shed light on the secret drone programs. Podesta writes:

It is beyond dispute that some information must be closely held to protect national security and to engage in effective diplomacy, and that unauthorized disclosure can be extraordinarily harmful. But protecting technical means, human sources, operational details and intelligence methods cannot be an excuse for creating secret law to guide our institutions.

In refusing to release to Congress the rules and justifications governing a program that has conducted nearly 400 unmanned drone strikes and killed at least three Americans in the past four years, President Obama is ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days. And in keeping this information from the American people, he is undermining the nation’s ability to be a leader on the world stage and is acting in opposition to the democratic principles we hold most important.

And there is one Senate Democrat who isn’t dropping the issue, either. West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller objected to the freezing-out of Congress in a meeting with President Obama this week, Politico reports. According to those at the meeting, Obama offered a magnificently unserious and contemptuous response: “This is not Dick Cheney we’re talking about here,” the president said.

Perhaps the usually humorless Obama was trying awkwardly to make a joke, and just isn’t very funny. But the Democrats in the meeting, especially Rockefeller, weren’t amused. According to Politico, the senators reminded Obama that if he were in the Senate and a Republican were in the White House, he would be outraged by this behavior. Obama apparently acknowledged that, yes, he was being quite hypocritical. Rockefeller also objected to the fact that when he was finally allowed to see a couple of memos in a secure room, the White House sent a babysitter in to watch him.

The White House has tried to make it abundantly clear that they don’t appreciate oversight or transparency from Congress, least of all from members of the president’s own party. But those outside of Congress are starting to feel more comfortable openly challenging the president on executive authority, and going on record in support of Paul. The Kentucky senator is winning a second week’s worth of news cycles on this issue. The president may not consider himself accountable to Paul, but neither can he ignore him.

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Balancing the Budget

I certainly agree with Seth Mandel that the federal budget can never be brought under control without entitlement reform. Entitlements are well over half the budget. And the dates when each program will reach insolvency are all known. Those dates are not that far away, some less than 10 years.

He says there are only two ways to get to a balanced budget. One is a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that would force the government to spend within its means and the other is for the president and Congress to man up and just live within the government’s means, however inconvenient that will be politically.

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I certainly agree with Seth Mandel that the federal budget can never be brought under control without entitlement reform. Entitlements are well over half the budget. And the dates when each program will reach insolvency are all known. Those dates are not that far away, some less than 10 years.

He says there are only two ways to get to a balanced budget. One is a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that would force the government to spend within its means and the other is for the president and Congress to man up and just live within the government’s means, however inconvenient that will be politically.

Unfortunately, neither of those will do it. In the latter case, human nature simply makes it impossible. Politicians, like everyone else, are motivated by self-interest and spending money is more likely to further that self-interest than fiscal restraint. Fiscal restraint is a long-term benefit, benefiting the population in general. Spending is a short-term benefit, usually benefiting a specific group, who will reward the politician with votes and campaign contributions. That means there is always a tide pushing in the direction of more spending. And with every politician’s short-term self-interest in tomorrow’s headline and the next election, that tide will, at least collectively, not be fought. And, of course, log-rolling is how things are done in Congress: You vote for my bridge to nowhere and I’ll vote for your useless airport.

Nor can a balanced budget amendment work as long as those who spend the money (members of Congress and the president) get to decide how to keep the books. As Seth points out, most states have balanced budget requirements in their constitutions and state governments often make end-runs around them in order to spend without having to raise taxes. Just this week, the SEC accused Illinois (to be sure, the poster child of state budgetary malfeasance) of securities fraud in regard to the information it gave investors about the bonds it issued to fund its pension system. State pension funds are often underfunded by the simple expedient of predicting rates of return that are unlikely to be achieved. This allows states to contribute less to those funds in the here and now, while the consequences are only apparent in the long term.

So what to do? If a balanced budget amendment won’t work as long as politicians have the choice of either balancing the budget or cooking the books to make it appear balanced, an amendment making it impossible to cook the books would. Such an amendment (or act of Congress) could set up an independent board, modeled on the Federal Reserve (which keeps the power to print money out of the hands of politicians). This board would have the power to establish the rules by which federal accounting is done, with a mandate to make the federal books honest, transparent, and complete. Corporations can’t make the rules by which they keep their books; why should government have that power? More, it would take over most of the functions of the OMB and the CBO, which are the creatures of the White House and Congress respectively. An independent agency should “score” legislation.

Second, make the president once more a major player in the budget negotiations.  The president is the only person in Washington whose political interests are the same as the interests of the country as a whole. The 535 members of Congress are more concerned with bringing home the bacon to their state or district, with its immediate political benefit to themselves, than in balancing the budget, however much lip service they give the latter.

The Budget Control Act of 1974 was perhaps the most misnamed piece of legislation ever to be signed into law, as it caused the budget to immediately and permanently spin out of control. A major reason is that it made the president a political eunuch in budgetary matters. He prepares a budget (well, the law requires him to, but Obama’s 2014 budget is a month and a half late and counting) but it is always more or less dead on arrival in Congress. And beyond that, his only budgetary weapon is to veto one or more of the 13 appropriations bills that fund the discretionary part of the budget, a very powerful but blunt weapon indeed. (It’s no weapon at all, of course, when there are no appropriations bills, only a continuing resolution to fund the entire discretionary budget, as has been the case in recent years.)

The Budget Control Act removed the president’s power to “impound” funds, i.e. refuse to spend them. Restoring that power or, better yet, giving him a line-item veto that would pass constitutional muster, would give him a powerful tool in budget negotiations (“I’ll give you your bridge to nowhere if you’re with me on entitlement reform”). Further, giving the president the power to limit overall spending, subject to a congressional override, would further strengthen his hand. None of this would be easy to achieve, as the very people who would have to pass the necessary amendments and acts would be the same people whose power would be greatly constrained by them. And, as James Madison explained, “Men love power.” Certainly as long as the economically illiterate and politics-obsessed Washington press corps fails to do its job, not much will happen. At least until the marketplace takes control and sends the cost of federal borrowing up to Greek levels.

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Obama’s Second Term Troubles Have Begun

In the aftermath of President Obama’s now-obvious-to-all sequester overreach–in which he first predicted the end of the world as we know it, then backed away from those claims once the cuts went into effect, then attempted to inflict maximum pain on the American people, and is now blaming the Secret Service for the stupid and unnecessary decision to shut down White House tours–something is changing.

President Obama’s RealClearPolitics.com approval rating is in the 40s. His disapproval rating exceeds his approval rating in three different polls (Fox, McClatchy/Marist, and Quinnipiac). Congressional Democrats are beginning to grouse. And according to a Washington Post story yesterday, Mr. Obama’s approval rating at this early stage in his second term is among the lowest of any president in the post-World War II era.

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In the aftermath of President Obama’s now-obvious-to-all sequester overreach–in which he first predicted the end of the world as we know it, then backed away from those claims once the cuts went into effect, then attempted to inflict maximum pain on the American people, and is now blaming the Secret Service for the stupid and unnecessary decision to shut down White House tours–something is changing.

President Obama’s RealClearPolitics.com approval rating is in the 40s. His disapproval rating exceeds his approval rating in three different polls (Fox, McClatchy/Marist, and Quinnipiac). Congressional Democrats are beginning to grouse. And according to a Washington Post story yesterday, Mr. Obama’s approval rating at this early stage in his second term is among the lowest of any president in the post-World War II era.

According to the Washington Post-ABC News poll, half of independents express a negative opinion of the president’s performance; just 44 percent approve.
 A majority of Americans give Obama negative marks on handling the economy. And the president has only a four-percentage-point lead over Republicans when it comes to whom the public trusts more to deal with the economy.

This is clearly not where a president who is less than two months into his second term wants to be. But in some respects, it’s not all that surprising. Mr. Obama, while he won his contest with Governor Romney fairly handily, was not a particularly popular president for most of his first term–and the key elements of his agenda are decidedly unpopular.

It hasn’t helped the president that the transition period was characterized by a fractious debate with Republicans over the so-called fiscal cliff, followed by an equally fractious debate with Republicans over sequestration. The public appears to be tiring of these Obama-manufactured crises. And polling indicates that they are tiring as well of tax increases, which is at the heart of Obama’s economic theory, such as it is. So the president’s standing is fairly weak.

That could of course change; public opinion polls are ephemeral and the currents in politics can shift quickly. That said, I believe that one of the most important political facts of Obama’s second term will be the increasing unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act, which is the crowning domestic achievement of the Obama presidency.

It’s never been popular, even when it passed–and it’s gotten less popular over time. Moreover, it’s noxious effects are only now beginning to be felt–and they’ll get worse, not better, as more and more of this monstrously unworkable plan begins to kick in.

My assumption is that by the middle and end of Obama’s second term, reactionary liberalism, having been tried, will have failed. Badly. At that point the public will turn its lonely eyes to Republicans. They need to be ready. My guess is they will be.

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Jeb Bush and 2016

I’m a little late in doing so, but I wanted to circle back to Jonathan’s post on Jeb Bush, which praised his strengths but also stated “for good or for ill the next Republican presidential nominee will not be a retread. Neither the biggest publicity machine in the world nor the genius of his brother’s guru Karl Rove would be powerful enough to foist another Bush on the GOP in 2016.”

Is it true that Bush is “the GOP’s past, not its future”?

I have a few thoughts to that question, the first of which is that Jeb Bush (unlike some others) seems to me to be genuinely ambivalent about running and may well not. But for the sake of the argument, assume he does. Would he win?

I have no idea. It may well be that others like Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Paul Ryan run and would do exceedingly well and that Bush runs and does poorly. Or it may be that Bush does spectacularly well.

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I’m a little late in doing so, but I wanted to circle back to Jonathan’s post on Jeb Bush, which praised his strengths but also stated “for good or for ill the next Republican presidential nominee will not be a retread. Neither the biggest publicity machine in the world nor the genius of his brother’s guru Karl Rove would be powerful enough to foist another Bush on the GOP in 2016.”

Is it true that Bush is “the GOP’s past, not its future”?

I have a few thoughts to that question, the first of which is that Jeb Bush (unlike some others) seems to me to be genuinely ambivalent about running and may well not. But for the sake of the argument, assume he does. Would he win?

I have no idea. It may well be that others like Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Paul Ryan run and would do exceedingly well and that Bush runs and does poorly. Or it may be that Bush does spectacularly well.

The point is, we really don’t know. What we can say with some confidence, I think, is that Bush, if he decided to run, would be considered a major player and his fundraising would be formidable. As for the fact that he left office in 2007, his last name, and all the rest, those things matter a good deal more before a primary (when pundits speculate about the strengths and weaknesses of candidates) than they necessarily do during a primary.

That is to say, once you get into a presidential primary, what matters is how you conduct yourself–in debates, in retail politics, in organizing in key states, in the ad wars, and all the rest. Republicans will cast their vote on the person they see and hear in 2016. If that individual speaks and acts in a way that inspires them, it can overcome a lot of things. People tend to vote in the moment, in real time, on real records. And if Bush runs, they’ll judge him against his flesh-and-blood opponents.

Remember: In 1980, Reagan was no shoo-in. The concerns some people had about him at the time were his age (he was 69 years old at the time), that he was an ex-governor who had twice failed to win the nomination, that he was both too extreme and had deviated from conservative orthodoxy on raising taxes and signing pro-choice legislation, and more. (George Will wrote a Newsweek column at the time that I read as signaling he preferred Howard Baker to be the nominee.) But Reagan rose to the occasion and overcame several political near-death experiences. Reagan’s sheer talent, political and intellectual, carried the day.

That doesn’t mean the issues Jonathan raises about Jeb Bush aren’t important. It just means they aren’t insurmountable or dispositive. I’d be cautious at this juncture in making very many sweeping judgments about the 2016 race. Would Bush be a better nominee than Ryan, or Rubio, or Christie, or Jindal, or others? That’s what the primaries are for. (For the record, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, since several potential 2016 candidates are people I know, worked with, and admire.) I’ve been around politics long enough to know that what matters is how individuals perform once they’re on center stage–and you really don’t know how they’ll perform until they do.

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The Legacy of Faith

One didn’t have to be a Catholic to be impressed by the demeanor and grace shown by Pope Francis after his election yesterday at the Vatican. The media is full of pundits and so-called experts giving the pope advice as to how to deal with his church’s problems or even on how best to adjust its doctrines to suit their beliefs. That seems to me to be not only absurd but also a waste of time. As the first South American and the first Jesuit pope, Francis is a symbol of change. But if there is anything that observers should take away from the drama that has unfolded in Rome this last week it is that the Catholic Church remains firmly in the hands of those who love its teachings and are determined to both preserve them and to help ensure that they continue to serve the needs of the faithful and the world in general.

That is good news indeed, since in the last century the church has reasserted itself as a force for good. Especially under the leadership of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the church has become a beacon of conviction against anti-Semitism. As a disciple of John Paul II and someone who had warm relations with Argentine Jewry, Pope Francis appears to be very much part of that movement. While that might appear to be a parochial concern for Jews, it is actually very significant.

The point about the transformation of the church over the last century from an institution that fomented prejudice against Jews to one that is in the forefront of those fighting against anti-Semitism cannot be emphasized enough. The church has not only cleaned its own house with respect to a legacy of hate; it has become a stalwart partner in the struggle to eradicate it everywhere.

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One didn’t have to be a Catholic to be impressed by the demeanor and grace shown by Pope Francis after his election yesterday at the Vatican. The media is full of pundits and so-called experts giving the pope advice as to how to deal with his church’s problems or even on how best to adjust its doctrines to suit their beliefs. That seems to me to be not only absurd but also a waste of time. As the first South American and the first Jesuit pope, Francis is a symbol of change. But if there is anything that observers should take away from the drama that has unfolded in Rome this last week it is that the Catholic Church remains firmly in the hands of those who love its teachings and are determined to both preserve them and to help ensure that they continue to serve the needs of the faithful and the world in general.

That is good news indeed, since in the last century the church has reasserted itself as a force for good. Especially under the leadership of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the church has become a beacon of conviction against anti-Semitism. As a disciple of John Paul II and someone who had warm relations with Argentine Jewry, Pope Francis appears to be very much part of that movement. While that might appear to be a parochial concern for Jews, it is actually very significant.

The point about the transformation of the church over the last century from an institution that fomented prejudice against Jews to one that is in the forefront of those fighting against anti-Semitism cannot be emphasized enough. The church has not only cleaned its own house with respect to a legacy of hate; it has become a stalwart partner in the struggle to eradicate it everywhere.

The church’s turn against anti-Semitism and the Vatican’s recognition of the legitimacy of the State of Israel cannot be isolated from the role it played in standing for freedom against Communist tyranny during the Cold War. As that struggle recedes into memory, the church remains a bulwark for the cause of religious freedom throughout the globe. That’s why it is so disappointing that so many who are quite vocal about advocacy for religious freedom elsewhere were silent when it came to standing with the church as it sought to defend its own liberty of conscience against the federal government’s health care mandates.

Ironically, for much of the last century as the church did evolve to its current position on these issues, it has suffered from the abuse heaped upon it and other organized religions from intellectuals and the world of popular culture. Some writers have told us that ours is an age in which atheism has gone mainstream and a time when traditional faiths must abandon their beliefs in order to become more “relevant” to the young. But the outpouring of good will for the new pope shows that those who have predicted the decline of religion are almost certainly wrong.

Though it is beset with many problems as well as scandals that still hang over some of its leaders, the church’s legacy of faith is one that continues to nurture and inspire its believers as well as sympathetic observers from other faiths. All persons of faith should join with Catholics to pray for Francis’s success and to hope that the church will remain steadfast in its mission as a force for good.

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Academic Ghettoization of Conservatism?

I am all for universities hiring more conservative professors and Steven Hayward, author of a two-volume history of the “Age of Reagan,” should be considered a worthy candidate by any hiring committee. Yet I am dubious about the job he has just taken as a one-year visiting professor in “conservative thought and policy” at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The appointment is the result of well-intentioned work by conservative UC alumni who are understandably upset that conservative perspectives are under-represented on campus. But is the solution really to create a new academic ghetto–akin to African-American, Latino studies or, more recently, “white” studies–and place conservatives in it? And what the heck is “conservative thought and policy” anyway and who exactly is qualified to teach this subject?

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I am all for universities hiring more conservative professors and Steven Hayward, author of a two-volume history of the “Age of Reagan,” should be considered a worthy candidate by any hiring committee. Yet I am dubious about the job he has just taken as a one-year visiting professor in “conservative thought and policy” at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The appointment is the result of well-intentioned work by conservative UC alumni who are understandably upset that conservative perspectives are under-represented on campus. But is the solution really to create a new academic ghetto–akin to African-American, Latino studies or, more recently, “white” studies–and place conservatives in it? And what the heck is “conservative thought and policy” anyway and who exactly is qualified to teach this subject?

There are undeniably fine conservative scholars in many fields ranging from history to politics to law to economics, but “conservative thought and policy” is hardly a recognized academic specialty. It is hard to even know what it should consist of since there is no officially defined conservative canon. The “conservative” label in modern America covers a wide range of viewpoints ranging from libertarian to social conservative, from isolationist to internationalist. In fact most, but not all, American conservatives would be labeled “liberals” in the European context.

Once upon a time, William F. Buckley and National Review tried to create a common understanding based on reverence for the likes of Edmund Burke, Friedrich von Hayek, Russell Kirk, and other notable thinkers. Some neoconservatives prefer instead to refer to Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. Whatever one thinks of these seminal thinkers, their work is far removed from the kind of nuts-and-bolts scholarship produced by conservative scholars in many fields–all of these political thinkers are for the most part irrelevant to someone studying military history, Russian literature, archaeology, Middle East studies, or numerous other disciplines far removed from political theory.

Universities should be seeking ideological as well as racial and ethnic diversity in their hiring, and they should make a point of hiring conservatives with impressive scholarly credentials. Perhaps conservatives, like other under-represented minorities, should even become the beneficiaries of affirmative action in hiring. But conservatives should not be herded into separate professorships of “conservative thought” any more than there should be (at least not formally) professorships of “socialist thought” or “liberal thought.”

The best academic inquiry should break through rigid ideological classifications, not conform to it. Simply because so many professors do in fact teach only from politically correct texts does not mean that conservatives should replicate this mistake on the right.

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