Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 20, 2013

Fancy Dining, Dorms Not What’s Ailing Higher Education

I love stories like this one from the New York Times, about the ever more luxurious facilities certain college students enjoy. The story focuses on private complexes, like the Grove, in which residents enjoy “Friday pool parties with a D.J., free food and snow cones, spiked with rum for those of age.” Perhaps more troubling than the amenities themselves is the comment of one 19-year-old who was mulling a stay at the Grove: “It’s like a vacation, almost,” he said. “I’m not going to go to class — that’s how I look at it.”

Such stories have been making the rounds since at least 1996 when Mark Edmunson, in an excellent article for Harpers, complained that the University of Virginia was beginning to resemble a “retirement spread for the young.” More recently, Jeffrey Selingo has drawn attention to the lazy rivers and climbing walls that are increasingly part of the elite and even not-so-elite college experience. To be sure, the Times story focuses on private developers, rather than campus dorms, but it is part of a narrative that has something to it: colleges competing for good students, and especially good students who can pay full tuition, often sell themselves on bases quite apart from the rigor of their academic programs.

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I love stories like this one from the New York Times, about the ever more luxurious facilities certain college students enjoy. The story focuses on private complexes, like the Grove, in which residents enjoy “Friday pool parties with a D.J., free food and snow cones, spiked with rum for those of age.” Perhaps more troubling than the amenities themselves is the comment of one 19-year-old who was mulling a stay at the Grove: “It’s like a vacation, almost,” he said. “I’m not going to go to class — that’s how I look at it.”

Such stories have been making the rounds since at least 1996 when Mark Edmunson, in an excellent article for Harpers, complained that the University of Virginia was beginning to resemble a “retirement spread for the young.” More recently, Jeffrey Selingo has drawn attention to the lazy rivers and climbing walls that are increasingly part of the elite and even not-so-elite college experience. To be sure, the Times story focuses on private developers, rather than campus dorms, but it is part of a narrative that has something to it: colleges competing for good students, and especially good students who can pay full tuition, often sell themselves on bases quite apart from the rigor of their academic programs.

Still, one can get carried away, as Walter Russell Mead does in the wonderfully titled “College Students Live Like Kings, College Grads Like Paupers.” Mead observes that “private developers aren’t simply competing with one another. Public colleges, fueled by readily available student loan money, have built luxurious dorms to attract students from across the country.”

Mead singles out the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where students in one dorm can enjoy “salmon filet, lamb, or even shark.” He also describes high living at the less-well-known University of Cincinnati and Kennesaw State. He concludes this way: “College students today live a bit like Cinderella, though. With a little government fairy dust, they land in the lap of luxury, enjoying a four year ball. But once the clock strikes graduation, they’re immediately chained to a pumpkin of debt.” Mead implies that public universities are now spending irresponsibly and billings their students, who, when they graduate, are saddled with unsustainable loan debt. How well does this claim hold up?

With respect to Mead’s examples, the answer is not at all well. Neither the University of Michigan nor the University of Cincinnati are typical publics. The University of Michigan has the highest endowment among public universities, in the top ten of all colleges and universities. University of Cincinnati comes in at 75th. While one might wish these two universities did not spend their money on Disney dorms, they can well afford to do so without saddling their students with excessive debt. Of the three schools named, only the University of Michigan leaves its graduates with higher than average debt ($22,000 according to the College Scorecard). But it also leaves its students with much higher than average salaries ($51,300 according to payscale.com). A rule of thumb is that one should not borrow more than one will make in the first year out of college. None of the three colleges in question comes close to breaking it.

Kennesaw State, with its 40.6 percent six-year graduation rate, is a hard case, and their take on dorms could hardly be more out of touch with the times: “The old-fashioned dorm experience is not something students ever had to experience at KSU,” says Michael Sanseviro, university dean of student success (university dean of student success?). But spending on the dorms has not prevented Kennesaw from keeping its tuition and student loan indebtedness below average.

Lavish dorms make a good story and in a new era of price sensitivity, some colleges may do well to sell themselves, with apologies to Michigan State, as spartan enterprises, in which students accept fewer premium cable channels in return for a rigorous education. But such dorms do nothing to explain loan indebtedness. Indeed, as the Delta Cost Project argues, they do not explain rising tuition, especially at state universities, which have gone through a long period of defunding. The typical public university is expected to serve more and more first generation students with fewer state dollars. Perhaps they should be expected to do more with less, but (sorry sharks) if we are concerned about the future of higher education we cannot afford to pretend that high student loan indebtedness has much of anything to do with shark being served at the University of Michigan.

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Hamdallah, We Hardly Knew Ye

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas thought he was getting a pliant, user-friendly prime minister when he appointed Rami Hamdallah to replace Salam Fayyad. But two weeks after Abbas replaced the Western favorite who tried to rid the PA of corruption with what was thought to be a reliably pro-Fatah academic, he now finds himself looking for another replacement. Hamdallah quit today and, according to Reuters, posted an explanation on his Facebook page that said the decision was due to “outside interferences in his powers and duties.” In other words, even though, unlike Fayyad, Hamdallah was a Fatah Party member with no known political ambitions of his own, he still found it impossible to act as a façade for the PA kleptocracy.

Contrary to the slant of the Reuters piece, the main complication of this event for the PA isn’t the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry will be going back to the Middle East soon in his quixotic effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Palestinians aren’t going to go back to the table to negotiate with Israel no matter who is their prime minister and everyone except Kerry knows it. Abbas’s problem is finding a respectable front man for the PA in order to keep foreign aid pouring in to his government. With Fayyad, who was the first Palestinian leader to ever try to improve the lot of his people, there was a hope that the PA could be transformed from the corrupt fiefdom created by Yasir Arafat. Without him, all Abbas has to offer the West are Fatah functionaries who know their only job is to make sure the theft and graft that Fayyad tried to stop resumes.

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Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas thought he was getting a pliant, user-friendly prime minister when he appointed Rami Hamdallah to replace Salam Fayyad. But two weeks after Abbas replaced the Western favorite who tried to rid the PA of corruption with what was thought to be a reliably pro-Fatah academic, he now finds himself looking for another replacement. Hamdallah quit today and, according to Reuters, posted an explanation on his Facebook page that said the decision was due to “outside interferences in his powers and duties.” In other words, even though, unlike Fayyad, Hamdallah was a Fatah Party member with no known political ambitions of his own, he still found it impossible to act as a façade for the PA kleptocracy.

Contrary to the slant of the Reuters piece, the main complication of this event for the PA isn’t the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry will be going back to the Middle East soon in his quixotic effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Palestinians aren’t going to go back to the table to negotiate with Israel no matter who is their prime minister and everyone except Kerry knows it. Abbas’s problem is finding a respectable front man for the PA in order to keep foreign aid pouring in to his government. With Fayyad, who was the first Palestinian leader to ever try to improve the lot of his people, there was a hope that the PA could be transformed from the corrupt fiefdom created by Yasir Arafat. Without him, all Abbas has to offer the West are Fatah functionaries who know their only job is to make sure the theft and graft that Fayyad tried to stop resumes.

There’s no telling what Hamdallah might have accomplished had he stayed in office and tried to follow in Fayyad’s footsteps. But even before, as scholar Jonathan Schanzer said on Twitter, New York Times pundit and Fayyad cheerleader Thomas Friedman got a chance to write a column praising Hamdallahism, the new PM realized that he was there to play the fool for Abbas and his cronies and wouldn’t play along.

But before we waste too much time lamenting yet another lost opportunity for the Palestinians to change their lives, let’s understand that Hamdallah would have faced the same problem that sunk Fayyad had he stayed in office. The Palestinian political culture remains one in which a focus on good government or transparency is a minor concern. Fayyad was a man without a party or a political constituency when he tried to change the West Bank. That doesn’t just mean that he was without the support of a major faction such as Fatah. It means that by stopping corruption he placed himself in a position where he threatened the vast network of no-show and no-work jobs (paid for with foreign contributions) that employ a significant percentage of the Palestinian workforce. Not only could Fayyad not count on any organization or grass roots groups with Palestinian society to support him, he knew all too well that the organizations and people that run things were determined to stop him. No amount of Israeli or American support could have saved Fayyad, and the same would have been true of Hamdallah.

A PA that is too belligerent and too weak to make peace with Israel is a bad bet for foreign donors, but don’t expect that to stop the Europeans and perhaps even Kerry from continuing to try to bribe the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table or to create a viable government. It won’t work. As Fayyad and Hamdallah learned, the point of Palestinian politics is to perpetuate the conflict with Israel and to enrich Fatah officials. Anyone who gets in the way of that will last as long as Hamdallah did. 

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Rubio, Ryan and the Excommunication Impulse

National Review’s Katrina Trinko wrote a piece on a Tea Party gathering in Washington that turned into an anti-Rubio rally. According to Ms. Trinko:

Rubio, who has been attempting to sell the Gang of Eight bill to conservatives for months, came under fire during the rally. Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector, the co-author of a report estimating the net costs of illegal immigration and amnesty to the taxpayer, took aim at the Florida senator. “No matter what Marco Rubio says, who has not read his own bill, incidentally . . . ” was how Rector began a criticism of the immigration legislation. At one point, when Rector mentioned Rubio, the assembled tea partiers booed loudly, with at least one person shouting, “Traitor!” One sign read, “Rubio Lies, America dies.” Another read, “6.3 Trillion $, Cost of Marcos Amnesty Bill. (Net.)”

I have a few thoughts on this, beginning with pointing out that Senator Rubio has handled himself superbly during this whole debate. At the outset of the debate many on the right who were highly skeptical of immigration reform treated him respectfully because of Rubio’s conservative credentials. But the mood has shifted in a much more negative direction in the last month or so. Increasingly this has the feel of 2007 all over again, at least in some quarters. Which means it’s getting ugly and, especially if immigration legislation passes in the Senate, will get uglier. 

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National Review’s Katrina Trinko wrote a piece on a Tea Party gathering in Washington that turned into an anti-Rubio rally. According to Ms. Trinko:

Rubio, who has been attempting to sell the Gang of Eight bill to conservatives for months, came under fire during the rally. Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector, the co-author of a report estimating the net costs of illegal immigration and amnesty to the taxpayer, took aim at the Florida senator. “No matter what Marco Rubio says, who has not read his own bill, incidentally . . . ” was how Rector began a criticism of the immigration legislation. At one point, when Rector mentioned Rubio, the assembled tea partiers booed loudly, with at least one person shouting, “Traitor!” One sign read, “Rubio Lies, America dies.” Another read, “6.3 Trillion $, Cost of Marcos Amnesty Bill. (Net.)”

I have a few thoughts on this, beginning with pointing out that Senator Rubio has handled himself superbly during this whole debate. At the outset of the debate many on the right who were highly skeptical of immigration reform treated him respectfully because of Rubio’s conservative credentials. But the mood has shifted in a much more negative direction in the last month or so. Increasingly this has the feel of 2007 all over again, at least in some quarters. Which means it’s getting ugly and, especially if immigration legislation passes in the Senate, will get uglier. 

Yet Senator Rubio–along with Representative Paul Ryan, who has become a visible advocate for immigration reform–has not returned the vitriol. Both men have spoken in calm, measured and gracious ways, taking into account the views of their critics while offering informed arguments on behalf of reform. They have refused to attack or thunderously denounce those who hold a position different than theirs. In fact, they have bent over backwards to make it clear they understand conservative skepticism on matters related to immigration reform.

Observation number two: Whether or not conservatives support immigration legislation is not a matter of principle. It’s a prudential judgment on whether the legislation that is debated improves the current situation–not whether the legislation that is written is flawless. This tendency to judge legislation (and individuals) against a mythical ideal is not only misguided; it’s antithetical to conservatism itself. 

A third observation: Even if one disagrees with Rubio and Ryan on immigration, the attempt to portray them as traitors to the conservative cause is ludicrous. By those standards, Ronald Reagan would have been excommunicated from the conservative movement even before he ran as president on grounds that as governor he had (a) supported the largest tax hike of any governor in history at that point and (b) signed into law “a liberalization of abortion that led to an explosion of abortions in the nation’s largest state.”

Those who are drawn in the direction of purity or excommunication, who seem intent on elevating every difference into an apocalyptic battle over principle, are doing the work of liberals, which is to diminish the appeal of conservatism.

Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan may be right or they may be wrong on immigration reform. But they are among the most impressive and appealing conservatives in the land. If their stance on immigration reform leads some on the right to turn on them with a vengeance, it will be far more of an indictment of their critics than it will be an indictment of Rubio and Ryan. 

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Dems Treat Hillary As Their Party Leader

The Hill reports that Democrats are trying to get Hillary Clinton to appear on the campaign trail for midterm elections next year. The second-term congressional elections are often trouble for the party that controls the White House, and the Obama administration is beset by scandals that may curb the enthusiasm of the party’s base and thus liberal turnout on Election Day.

Republicans continue to press their advantage in the House and Democrats will be on the defensive in the Senate as well. If the Democrats’ liberal base is in danger of apathy from the fuss over the NSA’s data collection, the other scandal–the IRS’s targeting of Tea Partiers–is likely to have the opposite effect for many Republicans. That means Democrats may need some extra help in many races, but those same races will be for districts or states where a visit from President Obama won’t help. Often Bill Clinton will pitch in to such efforts, but apparently that’s not the Clinton congressional Democrats have in mind:

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The Hill reports that Democrats are trying to get Hillary Clinton to appear on the campaign trail for midterm elections next year. The second-term congressional elections are often trouble for the party that controls the White House, and the Obama administration is beset by scandals that may curb the enthusiasm of the party’s base and thus liberal turnout on Election Day.

Republicans continue to press their advantage in the House and Democrats will be on the defensive in the Senate as well. If the Democrats’ liberal base is in danger of apathy from the fuss over the NSA’s data collection, the other scandal–the IRS’s targeting of Tea Partiers–is likely to have the opposite effect for many Republicans. That means Democrats may need some extra help in many races, but those same races will be for districts or states where a visit from President Obama won’t help. Often Bill Clinton will pitch in to such efforts, but apparently that’s not the Clinton congressional Democrats have in mind:

“It’s almost universal,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.). “Members would like her to drop by for a visit or two.”

He said he spoke to Clinton about helping Democrats retake the House. 

“I had a conversation with her where she said she needed time to see to some personal interests and I said, ‘The second you are ready — and I do not mean the minute and I do not mean the hour — but the second you are ready, I hope you will call me,’” Israel said.

[Ed] Rendell said if he were running again, he’d want Clinton over Obama to campaign for him because “President Obama is so identified with healthcare” and other controversial policy issues. 

“Hillary comes in as a white knight with little downside.”

That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually a lot to ask of Hillary Clinton. If a Democratic candidate is fighting an uphill battle to hold or win a seat, it doesn’t make much sense for Clinton to swoop in and get associated with the loss. If that happened on a large scale, Clinton would, to follow Rendell’s metaphor, dent her suit of armor. She wants to clear the field of serious primary competition for 2016, and she won’t do that by making the rounds on the campaign trail for losing efforts or controversial or unpopular candidates.

Some candidates will have more of a chance to get Clinton to show up for them, of course, for the same reason others won’t: self-interest. One such politician is New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who is running for reelection in 2014. As the Hill notes: “If reelected, Shaheen is expected to be a major player in the 2016 first-in-the-nation presidential primary in her home state. Her husband, William Shaheen, served as Clinton’s co-chairman of her national and New Hampshire campaigns in the 2008 contest.” In other words, they can call in Clinton because two years later she’ll be calling them for their help.

In fact, not to be cynical about it but the Hill annotates its quotes throughout the piece with helpful hints about the motivations of each person they spoke to on the record. As Jonathan wrote the other day, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill became the first high-profile endorsement for the Clinton campaign that the Clintons insist is not yet a campaign. The Hill notes that McCaskill made a nasty remark about Bill Clinton during her 2006 campaign, and adds:

Some have viewed the Missouri Democrat’s move as a way to make amends with the Clintons, who are known to have long memories. It’s likely that other Democrats who criticized the Clintons during the 2008 race will follow McCaskill’s lead. That group could include lawmakers, lobbyists and Hollywood figures.

Sure, put the band back together. The Hill gets a quote from Ed Rendell predicting a momentum shift within the party to Clinton. But Rendell, we are reminded, “as a staunch Clinton supporter, has an interest in seeing his forecast come true.”

Just as interesting as the names that appear in the story are the names that don’t–the most notable absentee being Joe Biden. Though he is currently the vice president, he doesn’t even merit a mention. Of course, in part that’s because he is representing this White House, but Biden can be much more useful to candidates away from the coasts where his Amtrak-riding, blue-collar appeal can actually help Democratic candidates distance themselves from their party’s coastal elites.

They may resort to asking Biden anyway since Hillary is unlikely to accept the invitations of her party’s underdog candidates. But in the meantime, the coronation of Hillary Clinton seems to be in full swing.

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Jimmy Carter Gives Seal of Approval to Venezuela Election

When the Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez passed away back in March, one notably unctuous commemorative tribute came from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen,” the statement, carried on the website of the Carter Center, intoned. Carter then praised the “positive legacies” of a man famous for embracing genocidal dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, before ending with a vague plea to Chavez’s successors to forge a “new consensus” in taking the country forward.

Three months and one disputed election later, has Carter revised these views? As the Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer discovered this week when he interviewed Carter, the answer is a resounding no.

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When the Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez passed away back in March, one notably unctuous commemorative tribute came from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen,” the statement, carried on the website of the Carter Center, intoned. Carter then praised the “positive legacies” of a man famous for embracing genocidal dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, before ending with a vague plea to Chavez’s successors to forge a “new consensus” in taking the country forward.

Three months and one disputed election later, has Carter revised these views? As the Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer discovered this week when he interviewed Carter, the answer is a resounding no.

“Would Carter now approve of the results of Venezuela’s April 14 elections, which according to the pro-government National Electoral Council (CNE) were won by Chavez protégé Nicolas Maduro?” Oppenheimer asked. “Would he give some credence to opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ claims that the election had been stolen from him?” Carter’s responses on these matters were an artful fusion of tired platitudes with flagrant untruths.

“Venezuela probably has the most excellent voting system that I have ever known,” Carter began, referring to the electronic voting machines that require voters to select their favored candidate on a touch screen, before collecting a paper receipt which is then deposited in a ballot box. Well, yes, we can all agree that technology is great. But it’s what you do with it that matters.

Then there was this gem: “So far as I know, Maduro did get 1.5 percent more votes than his opponent, [Henrique] Capriles,” Carter told Oppenheimer, “and that has been substantiated by the recount of paper ballots.” And finally, the clincher: “Asked… whether Venezuela’s election process was clean, Carter asserted that ‘the voting part’ of it was ‘free and fair.'”

Actually, it was anything but. On election day, opposition monitors recorded around 6,000 violations, including red-shirted Chavista activists shepherding voters into polling booths, threats both physical and verbal against voters deemed to have opposition loyalties, and, most ludicrously, several polling stations in which Maduro’s vote was astronomically higher than that achieved by Chavez in the previous, October 2012, election, which the ruling United Socialist Party won by a comfortable margin of 11 points.

Contrary to Carter’s claim, there was never a comprehensive matching of the ballot papers to the votes registered electronically. There was, earlier this month, a cursory, partial recount whose sole purpose was to validate the original announcement of a Maduro victory.

Now, it’s possible that Carter didn’t want to rely on data provided by the opposition in asserting claims of electoral fraud (though he apparently is willing to take the evidence provided by the chavistas at face value). But if that’s the case, then the logical conclusion would be to urge Maduro and his cohorts to permit credible and independent observers to monitor the elections, so that reliable field reports are available in the event of a dispute. As Andres Oppenheimer pointed out in the preamble to his interview with Carter, “the Venezuelan government did not allow independent international election observers for the elections. It only allowed electoral tourists from friendly regional groups who arrived shortly before the voting.”

There are those who will say that however outrageous Carter’s views are, they don’t really matter. In fact, they do. Much of the Carter Center’s work involves international election monitoring, since, as the Center itself says, “more governments than ever recognize democratic elections as essential to establishing their legitimate authority.” What’s therefore shocking in the Venezuelan context is that Carter, whose organization didn’t monitor the April election, has now issued Maduro with a clean bill of health.

As a result, the chavistas now have even less incentive to admit observers to monitor the forthcoming municipal elections, currently scheduled for December. Given the likelihood that the opposition will attempt to turn this next contest into a referendum on Maduro’s rule, we can confidently expect a repeat of the violations of this past April. And we can be just as confident that Jimmy Carter will emerge, once the dust has settled, to assure us that the ballot was “fair,” “legitimate,” “free” and all the other words that give succor to those autocrats who decide what the result of an election will be before they hold one.

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Border Surge Puts Gang’s Critics to the Test

Opponents of the bipartisan gang of eight immigration reform bill have spent the last few months blasting it as a scam. Their primary argument has been that the legislation was cooked up by Democrats to push legalization of the status of illegal immigrants without doing anything to deal with border security, and that Republican members of the gang like Senator Marco Rubio were either sellouts or dupes. Rubio lent some weight to this talking point when he admitted that enforcement provisions needed to be strengthened in order for it to gain more support or even get his own vote. But an agreement between the gang and two key Republican critics of their work to include an unprecedented buildup along the border with Mexico may have taken the air out of the anti-reform forces’ case.

The deal with Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven calls for what its sponsors are calling a surge that will nearly double the number of border patrol agents deployed in the south as well as drones and mandating the completion of another 700 miles of fence separating the United States and Mexico. While no army or barrier can hermetically seal a frontier that crosses nearly half a continent, this will make it much harder for illegals to cross into the United States and go along way toward satisfying the justified worries about the security of those who live in the path of the migrants and those who bring them to this country. More to the point, it puts immigration reform foes to the test. With this kind of language and funding put into the bill, it is no longer possible to pretend that this is a repeat of the 1986 reform package that failed to stop the flood of job seekers from Mexico despite promises to do so. With enforcement of this kind, we have a right to ask those who oppose the bill: what are they really worried about? If they’re not protecting the border or the rule of law (which is flouted by the continuation of the current failed system), what bothers them about the idea of making it possible to create a viable scheme for legal immigration and the gradual legalization of those who are already here?

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Opponents of the bipartisan gang of eight immigration reform bill have spent the last few months blasting it as a scam. Their primary argument has been that the legislation was cooked up by Democrats to push legalization of the status of illegal immigrants without doing anything to deal with border security, and that Republican members of the gang like Senator Marco Rubio were either sellouts or dupes. Rubio lent some weight to this talking point when he admitted that enforcement provisions needed to be strengthened in order for it to gain more support or even get his own vote. But an agreement between the gang and two key Republican critics of their work to include an unprecedented buildup along the border with Mexico may have taken the air out of the anti-reform forces’ case.

The deal with Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven calls for what its sponsors are calling a surge that will nearly double the number of border patrol agents deployed in the south as well as drones and mandating the completion of another 700 miles of fence separating the United States and Mexico. While no army or barrier can hermetically seal a frontier that crosses nearly half a continent, this will make it much harder for illegals to cross into the United States and go along way toward satisfying the justified worries about the security of those who live in the path of the migrants and those who bring them to this country. More to the point, it puts immigration reform foes to the test. With this kind of language and funding put into the bill, it is no longer possible to pretend that this is a repeat of the 1986 reform package that failed to stop the flood of job seekers from Mexico despite promises to do so. With enforcement of this kind, we have a right to ask those who oppose the bill: what are they really worried about? If they’re not protecting the border or the rule of law (which is flouted by the continuation of the current failed system), what bothers them about the idea of making it possible to create a viable scheme for legal immigration and the gradual legalization of those who are already here?

The answer we’ll get from many immigration foes is that there is something deeply wrong with “rewarding” those 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country with a chance for eventual citizenship. That’s understandable up to a point. Illegal immigrants did break the law. But if they’ve come here to work (generally in jobs that Americans didn’t want) and lead decent crime-free lives, doesn’t it make sense to bring them in out of the shadows and have them paying taxes (as well as fines before they can become citizens) rather than remaining outside the law? Perhaps some still claim that the illegals will, in Mitt Romney’s unfortunate phrase, “self-deport” back to wherever they came from. But we know that won’t happen. Nor will the United States deport 11 million people, many of whom have children that are American citizens. As Rubio has stated again and again, fears about “amnesty” are misplaced since that is what we have now.

Those who also claim that there is a third choice between the status quo and legalization are not being serious. That is not politically possible. Like it or not, the choice is between the gang’s compromise bill—which with its emphasis on border security and steep burdens on those illegals who want to be citizens represents a stark departure from what President Obama and liberal Democrats would like to do—and what we have now.

In the absence of a viable argument about security, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there are some among the bill’s opponents who have a deeper objection to immigration reform. Some of them just don’t want to fix a broken system because they don’t want to do anything that facilitates legal immigration. They forget that immigration has always been an engine of American prosperity, not our impoverishment. They confuse the need to reform our runaway entitlements with the needs of people who come here to work. Even worse, some express worry about the growing number of Hispanics and the political implication of immigration.

Suffice it say that these are not the sorts of points that will win many arguments outside of the hard right. The bill is, like all pieces of legislation on this scale, complicated, too long and stuffed with deals to gain votes. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. That may not be enough to convince House Republicans who are convinced the party base is anti-immigration. But stripped of a defensible concern about the border, these GOP members need to understand that they are hurting both the country and their party by resorting to less presentable arguments.

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A Poor Argument Against Syria Intervention

It tells you something about the composition of the Obama administration in its second term—without Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, or David Petraeus—that the leading hawk is now Secretary of State John Kerry. But so it appears to be, at least if Jeff Goldberg is right in reporting that at a recent “principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.”

The plan went nowhere because of the opposition of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reportedly argued “that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.”

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It tells you something about the composition of the Obama administration in its second term—without Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, or David Petraeus—that the leading hawk is now Secretary of State John Kerry. But so it appears to be, at least if Jeff Goldberg is right in reporting that at a recent “principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.”

The plan went nowhere because of the opposition of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reportedly argued “that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.”

As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams has astutely noted, this is a policy disagreement masquerading as a technical judgment. In point of fact, Israel has attacked Syrian installations at least three times, apparently using aircraft that never penetrated Syrian airspace. The U.S. could easily do the same—and more, if we were to employ cruise missiles and other stand-off weapons fired from warships in the Mediterranean or from heavy bombers such as the B-52 flying safely outside Syrian airspace. More to the point, whether it would take 700 sorties or not, taking down the Syrian air-defense network is well within American capabilities, especially if we were to act before the more advanced Russian S-300 system is online. The Pentagon claims this would be a formidable undertaking; the ease with which U.S. aircraft took down the similar air-defense systems of Iraq and Libya suggests otherwise. The Pentagon, recall, made similar arguments against intervention in the civil war of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, yet American intervention helped tip the balance and make a durable settlement possible. Dempsey is right to be worried about the cost of such an operation at a time of sequestration, but presumably Congress could pass a supplemental appropriation to pay for the added expense.

The real nub of the issue is a policy disagreement: Should we use our airpower to attack Syria? The case that Kerry makes, as outlined in a subsequent Jeff Goldberg column, is, to my mind, powerful and persuasive. Some of his key points: “The administration can’t sit idly by as the civil war claims hundreds of victims a day. … For negotiations to work, the regime of Bashar al-Assad must feel that its existence is threatened…Whether we like it or not, we are in a conflict with Iran, and our credibility is on the line….President Obama threatened unspecified, but dire-sounding, action against Assad if he deployed chemical weapons (or even if he shifted them around)…. The Israelis did it, and so can we. …The rebels aren’t the lunatics the Pentagon believes them to be. The State Department has been working for some time with the more moderate leaders among the fractured and disputatious rebel alliance. It believes not only that it can do business with many of these leaders, but also that by doing business with them it will strengthen them.”

To all this one should add the obvious: that providing small arms to the rebels will not stop the regime, which is reconquering territory in northern Syria. More dramatic action is needed to tilt the balance of power.

The argument against this is essentially Realpolitik on steroids: the notion that both Assad and the rebels are bad news and we should just let them fight it out indefinitely, providing only enough aid to fuel the conflict but not enough to allow the rebels to win. That is a deeply amoral argument—it suggests that we should allow thousands more Syrians to be slaughtered every month—and its strategic rationale is, at the very least, questionable. Given the progress Assad is making on the ground, absent more American aid the government could very well win this war—and that in turn would represent a big victory for Iran. Conversely, if Assad were to fall, that would be a big blow for Iran.

Do we have cause to be concerned about what kind of government will take over after Assad’s downfall? Of course. But, as suggested above, our best bet to shape the post-Assad Syria would be to help the moderate rebel factions now. Otherwise the Islamist extremists will be in control should Assad be toppled—and even if he stays in power the extremists might continue to exercise sway over a significant chunk of Syrian territory, as they do today.

We should never enter into any military intervention lightly, even if no one is proposing the dispatch of U.S. ground forces to Syria (beyond perhaps a few dozen Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries to work with the rebels). But the bulk of the evidence suggests we need to do more to end the civil war and prevent an Assad victory. Those who think otherwise, inside and outside the administration, need at the very least to make better policy arguments against further action instead of hiding behind a specious military analysis which claims that we have no military option. Even weakened as they have been by sequestration, the U.S. Air Force and Navy would have no trouble dispatching Syria’s air power and air defenses—and it is better to act sooner rather than latter because readiness will continue to fall as sequestration bites deeper.

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Iran President: a Terrorist, Not a Moderate

The chattering classes have been working overtime this week to sell Americans on the idea that Hassan Rowhani—the winner of the Iranian sham election for president—is not only a moderate but also the harbinger of a chance for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff between the Islamist government and the West. Even if one were to accept the idea that the moderate in a field of candidates hand picked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is actually a person worthy of the label, the notion that this post brings with it the power to either liberalize Iran or to end its nuclear program is simply false. But, as a report from our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman in the Washington Free Beacon points out, there’s more proof that Rowhani is up to his neck in the nefarious actions of the regime. It turns out that, as we’ve previously noted, Rowhani was not only an acolyte of Ayatollah Khomenei but deeply involved in the international terrorist wing of Iran’s Islamist movement. As Goodman writes:

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani was on the special Iranian government committee that plotted the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, according to an indictment by the Argentine government prosecutor investigating the case.

The attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) is one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent history with 85 killed and hundreds more wounded. After a lengthy investigation, the evidence uncovered by Argentine authorities pointed directly at the Hezbollah terrorist group and its Iranian masters who made the decision to launch the attack on the Jewish target at a meeting of a committee of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in August 1993. Khamenei was the head of the group, but one of its members was none other than the person that we are supposed to think is about to change Iran against the supreme leader’s wishes: Hassan Rowhani.

Though Iran’s apologists are unhappy about this revelation, there is no serious effort being made to claim that Rowhani is not guilty or that his role in the crime is being exaggerated. But some of those who have been advocating for the United States to embark upon a new round of dead-end diplomacy because of Rowhani’s rise are bound to argue that the evidence of his past should be ignored or treat it as irrelevant to the question of whether we should consider his election an opportunity for another round of engagement with Iran. That would be a colossal mistake. Understanding Rowhani’s background is crucial to the question of whether he is willing to move Iran back from the nuclear brink and what it tells us should put an end to any hope that he is anything like a moderate.

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The chattering classes have been working overtime this week to sell Americans on the idea that Hassan Rowhani—the winner of the Iranian sham election for president—is not only a moderate but also the harbinger of a chance for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff between the Islamist government and the West. Even if one were to accept the idea that the moderate in a field of candidates hand picked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is actually a person worthy of the label, the notion that this post brings with it the power to either liberalize Iran or to end its nuclear program is simply false. But, as a report from our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman in the Washington Free Beacon points out, there’s more proof that Rowhani is up to his neck in the nefarious actions of the regime. It turns out that, as we’ve previously noted, Rowhani was not only an acolyte of Ayatollah Khomenei but deeply involved in the international terrorist wing of Iran’s Islamist movement. As Goodman writes:

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani was on the special Iranian government committee that plotted the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, according to an indictment by the Argentine government prosecutor investigating the case.

The attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) is one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent history with 85 killed and hundreds more wounded. After a lengthy investigation, the evidence uncovered by Argentine authorities pointed directly at the Hezbollah terrorist group and its Iranian masters who made the decision to launch the attack on the Jewish target at a meeting of a committee of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in August 1993. Khamenei was the head of the group, but one of its members was none other than the person that we are supposed to think is about to change Iran against the supreme leader’s wishes: Hassan Rowhani.

Though Iran’s apologists are unhappy about this revelation, there is no serious effort being made to claim that Rowhani is not guilty or that his role in the crime is being exaggerated. But some of those who have been advocating for the United States to embark upon a new round of dead-end diplomacy because of Rowhani’s rise are bound to argue that the evidence of his past should be ignored or treat it as irrelevant to the question of whether we should consider his election an opportunity for another round of engagement with Iran. That would be a colossal mistake. Understanding Rowhani’s background is crucial to the question of whether he is willing to move Iran back from the nuclear brink and what it tells us should put an end to any hope that he is anything like a moderate.

We will be told that Rowhani’s participation in mass murder should not blind us to the fact that sometimes people change and that former terrorists can become responsible leaders. But such examples (which are rare and often misinterpreted) are generally the product of a genuine change of heart and an ideological shift. And there is no evidence that Rowhani has undergone either.

It should be remembered that Rowhani was an original and fervent supporter of the tyrannical Islamist regime. He has served it well over the decades, including a stint as Iran’s nuclear negotiator during which he bought the country’s nuclear program precious time to get closer to a bomb while pretending to be a reasonable interlocutor.

Rather than an independent force seeking to push the government to liberalize its theocratic control of virtually every aspect of Iranian life or to change its foreign policy, Rowhani has been part of its power structure from the start. This means that in addition to his part in keeping the country an Islamist tyranny, he’s also been part of its effort to commit terrorism in the Middle East and throughout the world. Operating with its Hezbollah auxiliaries, the long reach of Iran’s terror network has killed domestic opponents and Jews in Europe and South America, with the AMIA bombing and the attack on Israel’s Buenos Aires in 1992 being two of the bloodiest.

The mention of Rowhani in the AMIA indictment not only gives the lie to his pose as a moderate, it brands him as a criminal deserving of being tracked down and punished like the many al-Qaeda operatives that have been either captured or killed by American forces.

We doubt Rowhani will ever be brought to justice but the presence of his name on the indictment ought to complicate matters should he decide to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and visit the next meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. Rather than being embraced by an Obama administration that is desperate to avoid a confrontation over keeping the president’s promises to stop Iran, Rowhani must be treated as an international pariah who would be subjected to prosecution should he ever set foot on Western soil.

The AMIA bombing may have been forgotten by much of the Western press and foreign policy establishment that is eager to revive the cause of containing a nuclear Iran rather than preventing it from ever gaining a weapon. But an American government that still treats the battle against international terrorism as one of its priorities cannot afford to sweep this piece of intelligence under the rug. Rather than reach out to Rowhani, the United States must shun him as a murderer.

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Obama’s Rhetoric Then and Now

Five years ago, Barack Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, presenting himself as a “citizen of the world,” noting he didn’t “look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken” there, with a speech that failed to mention the historic Berlin addresses of his predecessors–John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). The signature line in 2008 was: “People of Berlin–people of the world–this is our moment. This is our time.” It was rhetoric that made people on two continents swoon back then.

In 2008, Obama regaled the crowd with his agenda for the future: “defeat the Taliban … work with Russia … seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent … answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East … send a direct message to Iran … support the Lebanese who marched and bled for democracy …” and on and on. Five years later, the speech reads like a list of things not accomplished: the Taliban were not defeated; the Russian reset failed; Iran ignored the direct message; Hezbollah hijacked the Lebanese democracy; the “new dawn” in the Middle East saw a U.S. ally removed in Egypt (with U.S. assistance), a U.S. ambassador murdered in Libya (with no U.S. response), a U.S. stance in Syria that amounted to mere rhetoric; and on and on.

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Five years ago, Barack Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, presenting himself as a “citizen of the world,” noting he didn’t “look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken” there, with a speech that failed to mention the historic Berlin addresses of his predecessors–John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). The signature line in 2008 was: “People of Berlin–people of the world–this is our moment. This is our time.” It was rhetoric that made people on two continents swoon back then.

In 2008, Obama regaled the crowd with his agenda for the future: “defeat the Taliban … work with Russia … seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent … answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East … send a direct message to Iran … support the Lebanese who marched and bled for democracy …” and on and on. Five years later, the speech reads like a list of things not accomplished: the Taliban were not defeated; the Russian reset failed; Iran ignored the direct message; Hezbollah hijacked the Lebanese democracy; the “new dawn” in the Middle East saw a U.S. ally removed in Egypt (with U.S. assistance), a U.S. ambassador murdered in Libya (with no U.S. response), a U.S. stance in Syria that amounted to mere rhetoric; and on and on.

The 2013 Berlin speech consisted of warmed-over citizen-of-the-world rhetoric, poorly delivered, to a crowd 97 percent smaller than in 2008. The speech was replete with references to the Berlin Wall, but Obama again failed to acknowledge Reagan’s historic address. He proffered a historical account from which the American president’s contribution was absent (it was “citizens who choose whether to be defined by a wall, or whether to tear it down”). He intoned that since now “we face no concrete walls,” the new task involves less tangible ones: “as long as walls exist in our hearts to separate us from those who don’t look like us, or think like us, or worship as we do, then we’re going to have to work harder, together, to bring those walls of division down.”

The evening before the speech, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes briefed the press on it. He told reporters its “historical context” was important; it would be given at the “place where U.S. Presidents have gone to talk about the role of the free world essentially, whether it was President Kennedy or President Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate,” and that the Gate, “given its history of U.S. Presidents — President Reagan, President Clinton — speaking there … is an appropriate place to do the speech.” In the speech, however, Obama mentioned only JFK. For some reason, he chose not to mention his other two predecessors.

Kennedy and Reagan’s Berlin speeches were both aimed at a specific threat–the one posed by the Soviet Union. In 2013, the countries that arguably constitute the similar strategic challenge are Iran and North Korea (once considered part of an “axis of evil”–tyrannical regimes, seeking nuclear weapons, explicitly threatening the U.S. and its allies). Obama’s 2013 speech devoted one sentence to that subject. He asserted “we can forge a new international framework for peaceful nuclear power, and reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking.”

One suspects the “new international framework” is another Obama pipe dream, and that the key challenge is to enforce the existing one. But “rejecting” the Iranian and North Korean violations is going to take more than rhetoric.  

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The Costs of Obama’s Miguided Nuke Policy

I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he embraced Cold War symbolism on behalf of the West and acknowledged that Cold War tensions still exist and must be countered. Where once the president would knock Republicans for being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” he now criticizes Vladimir Putin for the mindset.

This was a welcome rhetorical adjustment. But in seeking to harness the heroism of the past for the challenges of the present and future, the president did focus on one misguided policy goal: U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reductions. It isn’t that the president is wrong when he says we may not need quite as many nukes as we have, but that he underestimates the benefits of those weapons and risks diverting attention away from much more pressing, and genuinely dangerous, perils of nuclear proliferation.

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I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he embraced Cold War symbolism on behalf of the West and acknowledged that Cold War tensions still exist and must be countered. Where once the president would knock Republicans for being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” he now criticizes Vladimir Putin for the mindset.

This was a welcome rhetorical adjustment. But in seeking to harness the heroism of the past for the challenges of the present and future, the president did focus on one misguided policy goal: U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reductions. It isn’t that the president is wrong when he says we may not need quite as many nukes as we have, but that he underestimates the benefits of those weapons and risks diverting attention away from much more pressing, and genuinely dangerous, perils of nuclear proliferation.

As I wrote last year when this issue surfaced, the argument in favor of nuclear reduction rests on faulty logic. We have been told time and again that one benefit of arms reduction would be the display of American leadership: other countries would be encouraged to follow our lead, and we can’t be accused (at least to the same degree) of hypocrisy when we advocate for nuclear nonproliferation abroad. This is untrue, because the U.S. has reduced its nuclear stockpile over the years and offered additional cuts, and yet China has continued over the years to increase its own stockpile and other nations have crossed the nuclear weapons threshold.

Additionally, nuclear weapons are just that–weapons. Rogue states have no “right” to those weapons just because we have them, and the U.S. has long possessed strategic advantages on the battlefield. Those advantages do not make us hypocrites; we have no moral obligation to permit those who seek to harm us to level the playing field. If we legitimize the argument for strategic parity then we would lay the groundwork for the argument that just reducing our stockpile is insufficient: if we have a thousand nukes, so should Pakistan and North Korea.

Not only does the case for cutting our stockpile ignore history, it misrepresents the concept of strategic deterrence. Once we reach a large number of nukes, could it possibly make a difference if we scrapped some of them? Well yes, actually, it could. As Georgetown’s Matthew Kroenig explains:

In an analysis of 52 countries that participated in nuclear crises from 1945 to 2001 (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), I found that the state with the greater number of warheads is over 17 times more likely to achieve its goals. In addition, there is qualitative evidence from these crises that leaders in nuclear-armed states pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe nuclear superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates directly into a geopolitical advantage. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued, “One thing Mr. Khrushchev may have in mind is that… he knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority…. He also knows that we don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent… that he has to live under ours.”

Even if Russia agrees to match the president’s proposed cuts, the nuclear reductions would attenuate our advantages vis-à-vis Russia and eat into our margin of superiority against other nuclear-armed states, such as China, possibly increasing the likelihood that the United States will be challenged militarily and reducing the probability that we achieve our goals in future crises.

Which brings us to the two other weaknesses of Obama’s push for arms reduction: opportunity cost and financial cost. Russia’s nukes are far less of a threat to American interests and security than those of North Korea or Pakistan (or even China), and the same is true for those states trying to obtain nuclear weapons, such as Iran and, until recently, Syria. If the Obama administration wants Russian cooperation on the issue of nukes, it should seek not mutual reductions but instead address Russia’s enabling of Iran’s nuclear drive and protection of regimes such as that of Bashar al-Assad. If it wants to make progress on the nuclear issue while being seen to help Russia as well, it should seek not American cuts but moderation on China’s militarization or China’s support for North Korea–two troublesome nuclear states on Russia’s increasingly vulnerable eastern flank.

As for the financial cost, there is only so much money to go around. It would be costly to reduce our nuclear arsenal, which also needs costly modernization. Such modernization is much more urgent than reduction. As the Washington Post reports, we’ve been kicking the can down the road on addressing “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex,” but each delay only increases the expense of the project, which the arsenal needs “to keep it safe and reliable.” Keeping our existing nukes “safe and reliable” should take priority over dismantling part of the arsenal. The president isn’t wrong to address issues relating to our nuclear stockpile and global proliferation. He’s just focusing on the wrong ones.

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Democrats Make a Farce of SNAP Challenge

This week the House of Representatives is set to debate the misnamed “Farm Bill,” which recently passed the Senate. According to Human Events, the majority of the debate will focus on the explosion of food stamp benefits, and how out-of-control spending on the benefits, officially called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), could be curtailed. Late last year the Weekly Standard reported that since 2009 food stamp rolls have increased at a rate of 75 times that of job growth. The Standard quoted Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee explaining that “Over time, these trends, if not reversed, spell economic disaster for the United States and its citizens.”

Spending for food stamps has increased 70 percent during the Obama administration and if the Farm Bill passes in its current form, those spending rates will be locked in place. In order to draw attention to the bill, it’s en vogue this week for Democrats to take up the “SNAP Challenge,” an experiment in shopping and eating on a budget of $4.50 a day, the amount that SNAP awards individuals on the program.

Even the Washington Post took the challenges to task, reminding lawmakers that the S in SNAP stands for supplemental. More than 70 percent of households on the program have school-aged children, thus qualifying them for free or reduced-price meals. While the average benefit for a one-person household is $4.50 a day, that figure increases with additional family members, especially if members of the family are receiving two meals a day for free at school. 

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This week the House of Representatives is set to debate the misnamed “Farm Bill,” which recently passed the Senate. According to Human Events, the majority of the debate will focus on the explosion of food stamp benefits, and how out-of-control spending on the benefits, officially called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), could be curtailed. Late last year the Weekly Standard reported that since 2009 food stamp rolls have increased at a rate of 75 times that of job growth. The Standard quoted Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee explaining that “Over time, these trends, if not reversed, spell economic disaster for the United States and its citizens.”

Spending for food stamps has increased 70 percent during the Obama administration and if the Farm Bill passes in its current form, those spending rates will be locked in place. In order to draw attention to the bill, it’s en vogue this week for Democrats to take up the “SNAP Challenge,” an experiment in shopping and eating on a budget of $4.50 a day, the amount that SNAP awards individuals on the program.

Even the Washington Post took the challenges to task, reminding lawmakers that the S in SNAP stands for supplemental. More than 70 percent of households on the program have school-aged children, thus qualifying them for free or reduced-price meals. While the average benefit for a one-person household is $4.50 a day, that figure increases with additional family members, especially if members of the family are receiving two meals a day for free at school. 

As to be expected when a $955 billion bill targeting the out-of-control welfare state comes up for a vote, political grandstanding has ensued. This week 36 members of Congress have taken up the challenge, and it seems they’re aiming to outdo each other in ridiculous stunts to showcase just how difficult they think living on a limited food budget is for average Americans. The blogger Sooper Mexican has an amusing rundown of the worst moments so far, which include shopping at a high-end supermarket and buying a single egg for $1.08. It seems that these politicians believe that Americans receiving public assistance should be able to shop for a single hard boiled egg at the time at Whole Foods, with their fellow Americans footing the bill. The Washington Post even offered a suggestion for the SNAP challengers, from the USDA’s own website:

[The] USDA also publishes an extensive list of recipes that can be used to produce a healthy low-cost meal. A search for dishes costing $4.50 or less turned up 444 options, many of which were for eight or more servings. Dishes costing less than $1.50 produced 116 results.

Many conservatives have also taken up the challenge, noting how, with smart shopping and advanced planning, families can easily and healthfully live solely within the SNAP allotment. With millions of American families living on budgets tighter than ever, it’s a message that resonates with voters. This, coupled with the fact that food stamps were never meant to supply a family’s full nutritional needs, are what conservatives should be emphasizing if they plan on voting against the bill. With the House Speaker John Boehner publicly stating that he plans to support the House’s version of the bill, which is only slightly less bloated than the Senate version, it’s unclear if conservatives will even try to block the bill’s passage. 

Instead of locking in current spending rates, some commonsense solutions to our food stamp epidemic can and should be implemented. Another government assistance program, WIC, limits spending to basic staples, something that those receiving food stamps should also be required to do. There are countless stories of those on the program going on spending sprees to use up their benefits, buying candy and sometimes even lobsters on their fellow taxpayer’s dime. Realistically, conservatives don’t have enough political capital or power to do anything to slow, let alone halt, these massive explosions of food stamp spending. If Democrats promoting the SNAP Challenge are unable to budget, both at the supermarket with their own credit card and while budgeting for our nation’s expenditures, it appears they’re also unwilling to ask their fellow Americans to do so, even if those Americans are spending taxpayer dollars. If that’s not the definition of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” what is?

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Pet Shop Boys vs. Alice Walker

There’s a popular saying in Israel that if you really want to know what’s going on, you should talk to the taxi drivers. That’s the Israeli version of a worldwide truth: Ordinary people sometimes have a better grasp of reality than intellectuals. A classic example of this truth played out in Western cultural milieus this week, when representatives of both highbrow and lowbrow culture coincidentally weighed in on the Israel issue.

On the highbrow end, we had American literary lion Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. She has just published a new book, and as Jonathan Tobin detailed here yesterday, it is so vile that even the Anti-Defamation League was moved to denounce its “vitriolic and hateful rhetoric” as blatantly anti-Semitic. As Jonathan noted, Walker also has a long history of anti-Israel activism: Last year, she famously refused to let The Color Purple be translated into Hebrew, to protest what she termed Israel’s “apartheid.”

Across the ocean, over in BDS Central (aka Great Britain), we had the lowbrow riposte, when boycott, divestment and sanctions activists tried to persuade the electronic pop duo Pet Shop Boys to cancel their planned appearance in Israel this weekend. That the group, considered “the most successful duo in UK music history,” rejected the activists’ demand isn’t in itself anything extraordinary: For all the publicity BDS activists receive whenever they do manage to get some performer to cancel an Israel gig, the vast majority of artists refuse.

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There’s a popular saying in Israel that if you really want to know what’s going on, you should talk to the taxi drivers. That’s the Israeli version of a worldwide truth: Ordinary people sometimes have a better grasp of reality than intellectuals. A classic example of this truth played out in Western cultural milieus this week, when representatives of both highbrow and lowbrow culture coincidentally weighed in on the Israel issue.

On the highbrow end, we had American literary lion Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. She has just published a new book, and as Jonathan Tobin detailed here yesterday, it is so vile that even the Anti-Defamation League was moved to denounce its “vitriolic and hateful rhetoric” as blatantly anti-Semitic. As Jonathan noted, Walker also has a long history of anti-Israel activism: Last year, she famously refused to let The Color Purple be translated into Hebrew, to protest what she termed Israel’s “apartheid.”

Across the ocean, over in BDS Central (aka Great Britain), we had the lowbrow riposte, when boycott, divestment and sanctions activists tried to persuade the electronic pop duo Pet Shop Boys to cancel their planned appearance in Israel this weekend. That the group, considered “the most successful duo in UK music history,” rejected the activists’ demand isn’t in itself anything extraordinary: For all the publicity BDS activists receive whenever they do manage to get some performer to cancel an Israel gig, the vast majority of artists refuse.

What was extraordinary, however, was the reason the duo gave. Usually, performers offer some perfectly valid but neutral explanation, such as that boycotts are antithetical to art, or that boycotts impede efforts for peace. But Pet Shop Boys’ vocalist, Neil Tennant, chose instead to challenge the “apartheid” canard head-on. In a statement posted on the group’s website, he wrote:

I don’t agree with this comparison of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa. It’s a caricature. Israel has (in my opinion) some crude and cruel policies based on defence; it also has universal suffrage and equality of rights for all its citizens both Jewish and Arab. In apartheid-era South Africa, artists could only play to segregated audiences; in Israel anyone who buys a ticket can attend a concert.

I might quibble with the “crude and cruel,” but other than that, you couldn’t find a clearer and more succinct explanation of the essential difference between democratic Israel and apartheid-era South Africa.

As George Orwell once wrote of a previous intellectual fad, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Unfortunately, the “Israeli apartheid” canard appears set to become yet another example of this truth: It is increasingly becoming the bon ton among the global intelligentsia.

That makes it all the more important for the “ordinary man” to speak out against it. And Pet Shop Boys has just provided a welcome example of how to do so.

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Obama’s Reputation for Integrity Is Fading

A new poll from Scott Rasmussen finds that seven in 10 Americans believe the IRS decision to target conservatives groups was made in Washington, D.C. And more than four in 10 (41 percent) believe it was made in the White House. In addition, 82 percent of those surveyed are now following the IRS story, including 44 percent who are following the story “very closely.”

The Rasmussen poll should be viewed alongside a recent CNN/ORC International survey showing that nearly half of those surveyed (47 percent) say they believe the IRS anti-conservative (and probably illegal) operation was directed by the White House.

There’s no question that as the president is about to begin the first summer of his second term, the public’s respect for Mr. Obama’s integrity is melting away.

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A new poll from Scott Rasmussen finds that seven in 10 Americans believe the IRS decision to target conservatives groups was made in Washington, D.C. And more than four in 10 (41 percent) believe it was made in the White House. In addition, 82 percent of those surveyed are now following the IRS story, including 44 percent who are following the story “very closely.”

The Rasmussen poll should be viewed alongside a recent CNN/ORC International survey showing that nearly half of those surveyed (47 percent) say they believe the IRS anti-conservative (and probably illegal) operation was directed by the White House.

There’s no question that as the president is about to begin the first summer of his second term, the public’s respect for Mr. Obama’s integrity is melting away.

Fewer than half of those surveyed in the CNN/ORC International poll believe the president is honest and trustworthy (see here for more). And no wonder. Top officials in his administration (including Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper) have misled Congress, in the case of Mr. Holder on multiple occasions. The president and others in his administration repeated a fabricated story about the lethal attacks on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. The administration continues to stonewall and conceal key information related to congressional investigations. And there is broader contempt for the rule of law in this administration.

Will any of this, or all of this, badly damage the president’s second term? We’ll find out in time. But we do know that the founders believed that as president we needed individuals “most distinguished by their abilities and virtue, and in whom the people perceive just grounds for confidence.” In Federalist #64 we are further told that our leaders should be people “whose reputation for integrity inspires and merits confidence.”

Mr. Obama’s reputation for integrity that in turn inspires and merits confidence is eroding. That cannot be good for a president whose abilities and competence, at home and abroad, are already deeply in doubt. 

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Rowhani Takes a Leaf from the PA Playbook

Ever since Hassan Rowhani’s election as Iran’s new president last Friday, many Westerners have been enthusing over the prospects of a negotiated solution to Tehran’s nuclear program. But these enthusiasts should take a long, hard look at what Rowhani actually said at his very first press conference: Asked whether direct talks with Washington were possible, he replied, “First of all, the Americans have to say… that they will never interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. Second, they have to recognize all of the Iranian nation’s due rights including nuclear rights. And third, they have to put aside oppressive… policies towards Iran.”

In other words, the U.S. must first promise to let the nuclear program proceed unhindered, lift all sanctions and recognize the mullahs’ regime as legitimate. Only then, once there’s nothing left to talk about because America has already capitulated fully to Iran’s demands, can negotiations begin.

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Ever since Hassan Rowhani’s election as Iran’s new president last Friday, many Westerners have been enthusing over the prospects of a negotiated solution to Tehran’s nuclear program. But these enthusiasts should take a long, hard look at what Rowhani actually said at his very first press conference: Asked whether direct talks with Washington were possible, he replied, “First of all, the Americans have to say… that they will never interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. Second, they have to recognize all of the Iranian nation’s due rights including nuclear rights. And third, they have to put aside oppressive… policies towards Iran.”

In other words, the U.S. must first promise to let the nuclear program proceed unhindered, lift all sanctions and recognize the mullahs’ regime as legitimate. Only then, once there’s nothing left to talk about because America has already capitulated fully to Iran’s demands, can negotiations begin.

If this sounds familiar, it should: It’s the exact same tactic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been using to evade negotiations with Israel for four years now. As his Fatah party’s central committee reiterated for the umpteenth time yesterday, the PA won’t agree to talks unless Israel first freezes all settlement construction (by which the PA means even huge Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that everyone knows would remain Israeli under any deal), accepts the 1967 lines (including in Jerusalem) as the basis for the final border and releases Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails. In other words, it will agree to negotiate only after there’s nothing left to talk about, since Israel has already capitulated fully to its demands on several key final-status issues: borders, Jerusalem, settlements and prisoners.

As Alan Baker, a former legal advisor to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, explained in detail on Tuesday, these preconditions are completely groundless.

“Nowhere in the history of the peace process negotiations is there any commitment to the ‘1967 borders’,” he wrote. “The opposite is in fact the case. All the agreements between Israel and the PLO, as well as the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, base themselves in their preambular paragraphs on the call by the international community, in UN Security Council resolution 242 of 1967, for ‘secure and recognized boundaries.’”

And though Baker didn’t mention it, not only doesn’t that resolution demand a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, but it was explicitly worded to allow Israel to retain some of the territory it captured in 1967.

Baker also noted that “Israel has never, in any of its agreements with the Palestinians, undertaken to freeze settlement activity in territory it continues to administer pursuant to the agreements with the Palestinians.” Indeed, he wrote, the Oslo Accords explicitly permitted Israel to keep building in the part of the West Bank known as Area C, and designated the settlements as “one of the agreed-upon final-status negotiation issues, together with borders, refugees, water, Jerusalem and security.”

While Baker doesn’t address the prisoner issue, that, too, is a classic final-status one. In Northern Ireland, for instance–a precedent Westerners love to cite–the prisoners were freed only after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, not before negotiations even began.

Thus the PA’s insistence that Israel agree on all these final-status issues before talks even start effectively ensures that the talks never will start–and that is equally true of Rowhani’s preconditions.

But Rowhani has assuredly noticed that this tactic has worked beautifully for the Palestinians: Much of the world continues to insist that the absence of talks is Israel’s fault, for not accepting the PA’s preconditions. So who can blame him for hoping it will work equally well for Iran?

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