Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 2013

This May Last Longer Than You Think

Barring some miraculous turn of events, it appears the government shutdown will happen tonight. President Obama is confident that the majority of the public will blame Republicans for this and isn’t budging. House Speaker John Boehner may not be so sanguine about the political wisdom of his course of action, but he is also determined to follow the desires of his members to make a stand against the implementation of ObamaCare. Moreover, he seems to feel that after weeks if not months of searching for the right way to make this stand, his party has found two issues—a call for delaying the president’s signature health-care bill and a demand that Congress, its staff, and those that work in the White House not be exempt from it—that are eminently defensible reasons on which to stand their ground.

But just because both sides in this confrontation are finally where they want to be doesn’t mean that they are prepared to stick out a shutdown that will last longer than a day or two. What we will learn in the next 48 or 72 hours is which (if any) of the two parties will blink first once a government shutdown becomes a reality. Most in the press as well as Congress are betting it will be the Republicans. They reason that the pictures of closed national parks and other alleged hardships, not to mention falling stock prices and the potentially dangerous impact of the standoff on the economy will cause the GOP to crack even if they manage to get to midnight without surrendering.

But having come this far, Boehner may think that it would be more dangerous for his party to have gone to the brink for a day or two only to wave the white flag once the consequences of a shutdown raise the political stakes. If a shutdown happens, he may decide it will do the GOP less harm to stick it out than to have put the country through the wringer again only to give in once the going got tough.

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Barring some miraculous turn of events, it appears the government shutdown will happen tonight. President Obama is confident that the majority of the public will blame Republicans for this and isn’t budging. House Speaker John Boehner may not be so sanguine about the political wisdom of his course of action, but he is also determined to follow the desires of his members to make a stand against the implementation of ObamaCare. Moreover, he seems to feel that after weeks if not months of searching for the right way to make this stand, his party has found two issues—a call for delaying the president’s signature health-care bill and a demand that Congress, its staff, and those that work in the White House not be exempt from it—that are eminently defensible reasons on which to stand their ground.

But just because both sides in this confrontation are finally where they want to be doesn’t mean that they are prepared to stick out a shutdown that will last longer than a day or two. What we will learn in the next 48 or 72 hours is which (if any) of the two parties will blink first once a government shutdown becomes a reality. Most in the press as well as Congress are betting it will be the Republicans. They reason that the pictures of closed national parks and other alleged hardships, not to mention falling stock prices and the potentially dangerous impact of the standoff on the economy will cause the GOP to crack even if they manage to get to midnight without surrendering.

But having come this far, Boehner may think that it would be more dangerous for his party to have gone to the brink for a day or two only to wave the white flag once the consequences of a shutdown raise the political stakes. If a shutdown happens, he may decide it will do the GOP less harm to stick it out than to have put the country through the wringer again only to give in once the going got tough.

Republicans leading the charge for a shutdown have been insisting all along that the president would be the one to blink if only Republicans stayed united and hung tough. That proposition is about to be tested, and based on President Obama’s late Monday afternoon appearance in which he once again dared the GOP to try him, it seems unlikely that he will fold so long as the liberal press is prepared to depict conservatives as a bunch of clowns.

He has been courting a shutdown since 2011 and clearly appears to believe that he can turn his sagging second term around by facing down the GOP and winning. Since he thinks the worse things get the better it will be for Democrats, he has no incentive to compromise even on the most reasonable of Republican demands about not exempting federal employees from the joys of ObamaCare.

But what the president may be about to discover is that he has backed the Republicans into a spot they also have no great incentive to abandon. The assumption that the Republicans will quail in the face of media opprobrium and sob stories about furloughed federal employees doesn’t take into account the fact that having stuck their necks out this far, a quick retreat may do them more harm than good. Not only would their base not forgive Boehner for cracking, but independents prepared to blame the Democrats or both parties equally for the problem might think worse of them for acting as if the whole thing was a charade.

If so, we may be in for a longer confrontation than anyone thought with consequences for both sides that are equally unpredictable. Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy shutdown.

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Dems Need to Be Careful on Shutdown

With only a few hours before the congressional standoff leads to a government shutdown, Democrats are in the awkward position of having to publicly declare their sorrow and disgust about the situation while inwardly celebrating. After more than two years of dueling with the GOP over budgets and debt-ceiling rises and daring them to do something like this, the president and his party have finally fished their wish today. Their assumption all along has been that, like the government shutdown of 1995, the public will blame the Republicans while Democrats can pose as the voices of reason. That’s the way it will be played on most broadcast networks and newspapers and there’s very little the GOP can do about it.

This strikes most conservatives, even those who disagree with the strategy of threatening a shutdown unless ObamaCare is defunded or delayed, as unfair. They’re right. It is unfair. The president and the Senate Democrats are being just as unreasonable and ideological as the Republicans when they say they won’t compromise and throw the GOP even a bone in exchange for a continuing resolution from the House funding the government. But who said life had to be fair? Anyone who hasn’t already figured out that the liberal mainstream media ensures that the D.C. battleground is not a level playing field isn’t smart enough to be in Congress.

But even though polls appear to vindicate the conventional wisdom about the blame for the shutdown tilting against the Republicans, Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky about any of this. A shutdown will work in their favor, but perhaps not as much as they might have thought. A lot will depend on how the coming days and weeks play out politically and which party blinks or makes a grave tactical error. But as much as they stand to gain from goading the GOP into making an almost certainly futile last stand on ObamaCare, there are dangers for the Democrats that they may be ignoring in their jubilation.

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With only a few hours before the congressional standoff leads to a government shutdown, Democrats are in the awkward position of having to publicly declare their sorrow and disgust about the situation while inwardly celebrating. After more than two years of dueling with the GOP over budgets and debt-ceiling rises and daring them to do something like this, the president and his party have finally fished their wish today. Their assumption all along has been that, like the government shutdown of 1995, the public will blame the Republicans while Democrats can pose as the voices of reason. That’s the way it will be played on most broadcast networks and newspapers and there’s very little the GOP can do about it.

This strikes most conservatives, even those who disagree with the strategy of threatening a shutdown unless ObamaCare is defunded or delayed, as unfair. They’re right. It is unfair. The president and the Senate Democrats are being just as unreasonable and ideological as the Republicans when they say they won’t compromise and throw the GOP even a bone in exchange for a continuing resolution from the House funding the government. But who said life had to be fair? Anyone who hasn’t already figured out that the liberal mainstream media ensures that the D.C. battleground is not a level playing field isn’t smart enough to be in Congress.

But even though polls appear to vindicate the conventional wisdom about the blame for the shutdown tilting against the Republicans, Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky about any of this. A shutdown will work in their favor, but perhaps not as much as they might have thought. A lot will depend on how the coming days and weeks play out politically and which party blinks or makes a grave tactical error. But as much as they stand to gain from goading the GOP into making an almost certainly futile last stand on ObamaCare, there are dangers for the Democrats that they may be ignoring in their jubilation.

Let’s specify that any attempt to completely discount the advantage Democrats will gain for this is pure spin. By demanding that the president pay a high price in order to fund the government, Republicans make themselves look like hostage takers. Again, this is mostly unfair, especially since Democrats have tried the same tactic in the past without being labeled as terrorists. The dynamic of the confrontation is that by asking for government funding without any conditions, the president places himself in a position where he can play the grown up in the room, even if that is a distortion of the truth. Even if most Americans oppose ObamaCare, using that issue to create a deadlock that causes a government shutdown is political poison. Letting someone like Senator Ted Cruz, whose personality is easy to skewer and positions are perceived as extreme, be seen as the face of the party makes it harder for the GOP to evade responsibility for the mess.

But Democrats shouldn’t be too cocky. The same polls that show Republicans being killed by the public for their involvement in the showdown also show Democrats and the president getting low marks for their role in the shutdown. In fact, today’s Washington Post poll on the subject showed that although 46 percent of Americans would blame the GOP more, 49 percent either blame the Democrats more (36 percent) or say both parties deserve the blame (13 percent). That’s an edge for the Democrats, but not enough in itself to change the political equation in 2014 when a new Congress will be elected.

It should also be understood that President Obama could lose this advantage as easily as the Republicans can make it worse by what he does in the next few days. If the president were acting as if he was really trying to avert a shutdown by working hard to compromise, he would be in a powerful position. But as everyone knows, while the nation spent the weekend worrying about the impact of a shutdown on the economy, he was playing golf.

The problem for the president is that by digging in his heels in this manner and contemptuously refusing to move an inch toward the Republicans, he has undermined his pose as the man who eschews petty partisan warfare. Nor does having Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as their lead spokesman help the Democrats. Reid’s angry and confrontational tone is every bit the match of Cruz’s snarky contempt for the left.

Despite having worked so hard and waited so long to get to this moment, Democrats and their media cheerleaders are also showing a bit too much satisfaction about the way things have gone. They’re so sure that a shutdown is a political bonanza that they’re getting sloppy. The more they crow and issue partisan demands or act as if the world is coming to an end, the less they will gain from the shutdown.

While the shutdown is a more serious problem than the sequester that we were also told would be the end of civilization, Democrats may also find that many citizens won’t be fazed by this development–and not all of them will be Tea Partiers.

There is also the very real possibility that the ObamaCare rollout, which will begin tomorrow whether there is a shutdown or not, will undermine the Democrats’ position rather than enhancing it as they’ve believed all along. The impact on the economy and the rising costs of health care may prove to be more of a liability for the left than even conservatives have believed possible. Nor is there any reason to believe that any of the Republicans who have engineered the confrontation will suffer next year when they face the voters again. But those members—principally Democrats—that insist on giving themselves federal health-care subsidies that the general public is denied may well have good reason to regret their votes next year.

Nevertheless, any competition between a president and a divided Congress is one in which the politician with the biggest megaphone tends to win, and that is President Obama. As much as ObamaCare should be repealed, it isn’t going to happen and threatening a shutdown is going to hurt Republicans. However, the assumption that a presidential position of shut up and simply pass along the money will work indefinitely is untested. Barack Obama is entering the lame-duck portion of his presidency. Democrats who assume they don’t have to compromise may find that this stand is as unproductive for them as the shutdown is for the GOP.

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NY Times Suddenly Concerned About Leaks

It’s nice to see the New York Times—one of the publications that has served as a megaphone for Edward Snowden—is concerned about the damage that leaks can do to national security. At least when they come from other publications.

The Times this morning featured a front-page article reporting: “Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.”

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It’s nice to see the New York Times—one of the publications that has served as a megaphone for Edward Snowden—is concerned about the damage that leaks can do to national security. At least when they come from other publications.

The Times this morning featured a front-page article reporting: “Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.”

The “news report” in question, naming Zawahiri and Wuhayshi, appeared in McClatchy newspapers on Aug. 4. Two days earlier the Times itself had reported on the foiled terror plot, a victory which it attributed to the American interception of “electronic communications … among senior operatives of Al Qaeda.” The Times now reveals that it too knew the identity of the operatives in question but chose to withhold them on security grounds at the request of senior U.S. officials, at least until McClatchy came forth with its own, more specific revelations.

The Times would now have you believe that all of the resulting damage was due to the McClatchy leak, not to the Times leak, and moreover that the damage incurred was considerably more substantial than that caused by Snowden—whose latest revelations concerning NSA mining of metadata appeared on the Times front page as recently as Sunday. No wonder McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief finds the Times article an “odd” one.

There is certainly room to debate whether the Times, too, has caused damage to national security with its leaks not only of the Zawahiri-Wuhayshi intercepts but also of Snowden’s revelations more generally. As the Times’s own story today concedes: “Shortly after Mr. Snowden leaked documents about the secret N.S.A. surveillance programs, chat rooms and Web sites used by jihadis and prospective recruits advised users how to avoid N.S.A. detection, from telling them to avoid using Skype to recommending specific online software programs like MS2 to keep spies from tracking their computers’ physical locations.”

The article also quotes anonymously some “senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials” who say “that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the impact of the messages between the Qaeda leaders from Mr. Snowden’s overall disclosures, and that the decline [in intercepts] is more likely a combination of the two.”

It is pretty rich of the Times, then, to be piling blame on a rival news organization when it has done as much as any media outlet to publish government secrets that can be of use to our enemies.

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The Government Shutdown: The Sky is Falling! (Or Maybe Not)

The Democrats and the mainstream media (but I repeat myself) have been carrying on as if a shutdown of the federal government would be a catastrophe for the country and the economy, perhaps even pitching us back into recession while little old ladies starve in their beds and children die of neglect.

That won’t happen. While it is embarrassing that the politics of the world’s most powerful country are in such disarray that a defunding of the government could happen, we’ve been similarly embarrassed before with few if any long-term consequences.

Non-essential government workers will be furloughed and not paid for the duration of the shutdown. Whether they will be paid for those days eventually is up to Congress. But air-traffic controllers, border and prison guards, and weather forecasters will all be on the job. As will the military.

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The Democrats and the mainstream media (but I repeat myself) have been carrying on as if a shutdown of the federal government would be a catastrophe for the country and the economy, perhaps even pitching us back into recession while little old ladies starve in their beds and children die of neglect.

That won’t happen. While it is embarrassing that the politics of the world’s most powerful country are in such disarray that a defunding of the government could happen, we’ve been similarly embarrassed before with few if any long-term consequences.

Non-essential government workers will be furloughed and not paid for the duration of the shutdown. Whether they will be paid for those days eventually is up to Congress. But air-traffic controllers, border and prison guards, and weather forecasters will all be on the job. As will the military.

Those parts of the federal government that are not funded by annual appropriations (which is, in fact, most of the government, at least as measured by cash flow if not personnel), such as Social Security and Medicare, will tick along as usual.

Non-essential workers make up about 825,000 workers out of 2 million. So it’s not a shutdown of the government, it’s a shutdown of 40 percent of it.  The National Labor Relations Board will furlough all but 11 of its 1611 employees, while the EPA will lay off about 97 percent of theirs. In both cases that strikes me as good news, not bad news.

Still, the average man in the street, unless he wants to apply for a passport or visit a national park or museum, will not notice much of a difference in his quotidian routine. Police, firemen, train conductors, etc. are all state or local employees. Even Amtrak will continue to chug along.

As Jonathan noted earlier, any shutdown will be blamed by the media 100 percent on the Republicans. If you’d like to see just how biased the MSM has become, read this AP “news” article (h/t Powerline) on the impending shutdown. Such AP copy is used by nearly every news organization that does not maintain its own Washington news bureau. So it will be presented in hundreds of newspapers and local TV news shows as simply news. But it’s not. It’s so slanted that were it to come in as a press release from the Democratic National Committee, is there an editor in the country that would doubt its authenticity as such?

Perhaps that’s why Obama, Harry Reid, etc., are being so intransigent and refusing to negotiate. They know they can’t lose the public opinion battle.

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Iran Danger Is Delay, Not Deal

President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today and reportedly sought to reassure him that the Iranian charm offensive wasn’t working. Despite the way the administration welcomed the alleged moderation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its determined efforts to initiate some form of dialogue with Tehran—Rouhani refused to meet or shake hands with the president in New York last week but deigned to accept a phone call from Obama before he left New York—the president is trying to convince Netanyahu that he isn’t budging from his pledge that Iran won’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and he won’t be fooled by Iran’s negotiating strategies. Despite expressing a desire for accelerated talks with the Iranians, the White House and the State Department are also trying to calm down Israelis and others who rightly see the way much of the mainstream media swoon for Rouhani as indicative of a desire to appease Tehran.

But the problem here isn’t just the obsequious manner with which the administration has pursued Iran but the cost of the diplomatic process they are trying to reboot. Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue—openly expressed by Rouhani—may well make a deal impossible. Iran has had many such offers in the past decade, including some that were highly favorable to the Islamist regime that would have enabled them to go on enriching uranium and to keep up the pretense that this activity was aimed at peaceful uses of atomic energy and always turned them down in the end. It is also possible that a principled and tough-minded American negotiating strategy would eventually expose the Rouhani initiative as a fraud.

But by going down the garden path with Iran again, President Obama is both buying time and lending much-needed credibility to an Islamic regime that deserves none. In doing so, he will make it even more likely that the Iranians will be able to reach their nuclear goal and is undermining support for any future action that would hold them accountable for their actions. Even if the talks fail, by falling prey to the Rouhani gambit, the president has already handed Iran a crucial victory.

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President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today and reportedly sought to reassure him that the Iranian charm offensive wasn’t working. Despite the way the administration welcomed the alleged moderation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its determined efforts to initiate some form of dialogue with Tehran—Rouhani refused to meet or shake hands with the president in New York last week but deigned to accept a phone call from Obama before he left New York—the president is trying to convince Netanyahu that he isn’t budging from his pledge that Iran won’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and he won’t be fooled by Iran’s negotiating strategies. Despite expressing a desire for accelerated talks with the Iranians, the White House and the State Department are also trying to calm down Israelis and others who rightly see the way much of the mainstream media swoon for Rouhani as indicative of a desire to appease Tehran.

But the problem here isn’t just the obsequious manner with which the administration has pursued Iran but the cost of the diplomatic process they are trying to reboot. Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue—openly expressed by Rouhani—may well make a deal impossible. Iran has had many such offers in the past decade, including some that were highly favorable to the Islamist regime that would have enabled them to go on enriching uranium and to keep up the pretense that this activity was aimed at peaceful uses of atomic energy and always turned them down in the end. It is also possible that a principled and tough-minded American negotiating strategy would eventually expose the Rouhani initiative as a fraud.

But by going down the garden path with Iran again, President Obama is both buying time and lending much-needed credibility to an Islamic regime that deserves none. In doing so, he will make it even more likely that the Iranians will be able to reach their nuclear goal and is undermining support for any future action that would hold them accountable for their actions. Even if the talks fail, by falling prey to the Rouhani gambit, the president has already handed Iran a crucial victory.

It is entirely plausible to argue, as Aaron David Miller does in Foreign Policy today, that it would be very difficult if not impossible for President Obama to get away with an accord with Iran that would enable the Iranians to continue on their nuclear path. After the Syria fiasco where his indecisiveness led him to hand a victory to Russia and its ally Bashar Assad, the president can’t afford to “play the fool” on Iran. He has staked his credibility on the issue. Given his domestic political problems and the growing signs that he is becoming a lame duck, Obama would also be foolish to pick another fight with Israel and its supporters. Moreover, even with the press and much of the foreign-policy establishment cheering the idea of backing away from confrontation with Iran, as Miller notes, “the mullahs aren’t going to charm anyone for very long, let alone transform public attitudes in Israel or America without significant and tangible deliverables.”

So what’s wrong with making nice with Rouhani and giving diplomacy another try? Plenty.

It should first be understood what Iran is seeking to accomplish. Their primary goal is to separate the U.S. from Europe on the nuclear issue. The Europeans have always been more eager to compromise with Iran than the U.S., and if they can weaken international support for the economic sanctions that were belatedly implemented by President Obama, they will do so. They also want to drive a wedge between Obama and the Israelis.

Equally important is that after repeatedly demonstrating their unwillingness to negotiate in good faith, the Iranians’ charm offensive looks like it will gain them more precious time to get closer to their nuclear goal. The Iranians are past masters at drawing out diplomatic proceedings and one should expect that the talks that Obama and Kerry say must be “swift” would undoubtedly drag on for many months and perhaps longer than that, with no guarantee of a successful outcome. The president is already prepared to wait until mid-October for an Iranian response to his outreach. That will be followed by more delays that will lead us into 2014 and beyond.

Then there is also the damage the willingness to buy into Rouhani’s faux moderation does to the Western consensus about eventually holding Iran accountable. His defenders argue that by giving diplomacy more chances, he will strengthen his ability to increase sanctions or even use force once the initiative is seen to have failed. But in the world of Barack Obama, diplomacy never really fails even if that is the only rational conclusion to be drawn from events. Each diplomatic failure will lead to another try that will also fail with the only result being that more time will be wasted, just as the president wasted his first five years in office on tactics that played into Tehran’s hands. Moreover, having allowed Rouhani to get away with playing the moderate even when it is obvious that this is a ruse, the president feeds the perception that Iran is the victim of Western pressure rather than a sponsor of terrorism that is seeking to expand the reach of its tyrannical regime.

So even if an administration desperate for a compromise solution is unlikely to get one from Rouhani, the charm offensive is still working very nicely to achieve Iranian goals. The danger here is not so much a deal but the delays that will bring us that much closer to an Iranian bomb. 

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Compromise and the American Constitution

In a fascinating essay in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch writes in praise of compromise, saying that “in our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good.” Rauch argues that compromise is part of the Madisonian framework–“the most essential principle of our constitutional system.” He adds, “Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.”

In his essay, written with conservatives in mind, Rauch represents, in a fair-minded way, the Tea Party case against compromise. And to be sure, the virtue of compromise depends on circumstances and the nature of any given deal. It’s also quite possible to become so enchanted with the idea of compromise that we undervalue or, in the name of compromise, erode the principles that ennoble politics. Still, Rauch is on to something important when he warns against those who ideologically oppose compromise; who view it per se as suspect. That attitude is particularly problematic for those who refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

Why? Because anyone familiar with the history of the Constitution understands the central role compromise played in its creation. For example, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and on the verge of being derailed until the so-called Grand Compromise–offered up by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth–reconciled the interests of small and large states. (Each state’s House members would be elected by the people and based on state population while each state would be represented by two senators chosen by the state legislatures.) As John J. DiIulio Jr. and the late James Q. Wilson argue in their textbook American Government, “After the Great Compromise many more issues had to be resolved, but by now a spirit of accommodation had developed.” The electoral college was the result of compromise; so was determining how Supreme Court justices were picked and the length of time a president could serve. And then there was the thorniest issue of all, slavery.
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In a fascinating essay in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch writes in praise of compromise, saying that “in our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good.” Rauch argues that compromise is part of the Madisonian framework–“the most essential principle of our constitutional system.” He adds, “Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.”

In his essay, written with conservatives in mind, Rauch represents, in a fair-minded way, the Tea Party case against compromise. And to be sure, the virtue of compromise depends on circumstances and the nature of any given deal. It’s also quite possible to become so enchanted with the idea of compromise that we undervalue or, in the name of compromise, erode the principles that ennoble politics. Still, Rauch is on to something important when he warns against those who ideologically oppose compromise; who view it per se as suspect. That attitude is particularly problematic for those who refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

Why? Because anyone familiar with the history of the Constitution understands the central role compromise played in its creation. For example, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and on the verge of being derailed until the so-called Grand Compromise–offered up by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth–reconciled the interests of small and large states. (Each state’s House members would be elected by the people and based on state population while each state would be represented by two senators chosen by the state legislatures.) As John J. DiIulio Jr. and the late James Q. Wilson argue in their textbook American Government, “After the Great Compromise many more issues had to be resolved, but by now a spirit of accommodation had developed.” The electoral college was the result of compromise; so was determining how Supreme Court justices were picked and the length of time a president could serve. And then there was the thorniest issue of all, slavery.
 The Southern delegates would never have supported the new Constitution if it meant the abolition of slavery. And so compromises were made in terms of representation (the South wanted slaves counted as full persons in order to increase their representation in Congress; eventually slaves were considered three-fifths of a person); in terms of delaying the prohibition on the importation of slaves (until the year 1808); and in dealing with escaped slaves (those who fled to non-slave states would be returned to their masters if caught).

Slavery was a moral obscenity–but in the words of Madison, “great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” What the more enlightened founders hoped is that the Constitution would put in place the elements to end slavery. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great abolitionist leader, would later say, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” 

In her splendid book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote, “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory. As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

I understand that among conservatives these days the idea of compromise is out of favor. And for understandable reasons: In Barack Obama the right is facing an unusually rigid and dogmatic individual, one who is himself averse to compromise and is intentionally polarizing. (Polarizing the electorate turned out to be his only ticket to reelection.)  

But perhaps because compromise as a concept is so unpopular these days–at least if my recent correspondence and conversations with those on the right is any indication–it is important that those of us who are conservative remind ourselves of its virtues. To point out that compromise is not always synonymous with weakness. That our problems, as significant as they are, pale in comparison to what the founders faced. And that compromise still belongs, in the words of Rauch, in the “constitutional pantheon.” Even the Obama presidency, as frustrating as it might be, cannot undo the marvelous handiwork and enduring insights of James Madison.

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Intransigent Democrats and the Shutdown

With only hours to go before a congressional standoff triggers a government shutdown, the mainstream media is virtually unanimous in allocating the blame for this mess: it’s the Republicans’ fault. By choosing to demand that the price of a continuing resolution to fund the government is a delay of the implementation of ObamaCare, the GOP caucus in the House of Representatives has set in motion a series of events that, barring a last-minute compromise, will lead to a shutdown. Count me among those conservatives who believe this is a tactic with little chance of success. But that doesn’t mean the narrative that blames the GOP for all the bad things that will result from this dispute is true. Senator Ted Cruz and the rest of those who have led the rush to this precipice can be labeled as intransigent. They refuse to consider any option that will allow the president’s signature health-care legislation to be implemented. But they aren’t the only ones who are digging in their heels and refusing to negotiate. Indeed, not only are Democrats behaving just as unreasonably as their foes, they have been working just as hard as Cruz to get us to this point.

The fallacy at the heart of the conventional wisdom about today’s dilemma is that the Democrats are the adults in the room who are working to preserve the government while Cruz and the Republicans are having a tantrum that may well damage the economy as well as cause suffering to those who depend on governmental largesse. But as Senator Chuck Schumer admitted on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program today, the Democrats are simply refusing to negotiate with Republicans. That’s also been the consistent stand of President Obama, who signaled again over the weekend that he would veto any spending bill that defunded or even delayed ObamaCare. Republicans can be faulted for acting as if they can dictate policy while Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. But it is time for those who have been dumping on conservatives to admit that it is just as unrealistic for the president and his party to behave as if the Republicans don’t control the House, where all spending bills originate.

Far from seeking to avoid a confrontation, the president and his followers have been seeking this day for years because they believe a shutdown will work to their political advantage. There is no guarantee that if the president had actively sought a compromise, a reasonable accommodation could have been found. But we do know that the president has never tried that route. What’s more, he has done virtually everything in his power to goad Republicans into a confrontation that would shut down the government while denouncing them for doing so. His position in which there can be no compromise on the rollout of the fiscal disaster that is ObamaCare is no less fanatical and just as much rooted in ideology as that of Cruz.

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With only hours to go before a congressional standoff triggers a government shutdown, the mainstream media is virtually unanimous in allocating the blame for this mess: it’s the Republicans’ fault. By choosing to demand that the price of a continuing resolution to fund the government is a delay of the implementation of ObamaCare, the GOP caucus in the House of Representatives has set in motion a series of events that, barring a last-minute compromise, will lead to a shutdown. Count me among those conservatives who believe this is a tactic with little chance of success. But that doesn’t mean the narrative that blames the GOP for all the bad things that will result from this dispute is true. Senator Ted Cruz and the rest of those who have led the rush to this precipice can be labeled as intransigent. They refuse to consider any option that will allow the president’s signature health-care legislation to be implemented. But they aren’t the only ones who are digging in their heels and refusing to negotiate. Indeed, not only are Democrats behaving just as unreasonably as their foes, they have been working just as hard as Cruz to get us to this point.

The fallacy at the heart of the conventional wisdom about today’s dilemma is that the Democrats are the adults in the room who are working to preserve the government while Cruz and the Republicans are having a tantrum that may well damage the economy as well as cause suffering to those who depend on governmental largesse. But as Senator Chuck Schumer admitted on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program today, the Democrats are simply refusing to negotiate with Republicans. That’s also been the consistent stand of President Obama, who signaled again over the weekend that he would veto any spending bill that defunded or even delayed ObamaCare. Republicans can be faulted for acting as if they can dictate policy while Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. But it is time for those who have been dumping on conservatives to admit that it is just as unrealistic for the president and his party to behave as if the Republicans don’t control the House, where all spending bills originate.

Far from seeking to avoid a confrontation, the president and his followers have been seeking this day for years because they believe a shutdown will work to their political advantage. There is no guarantee that if the president had actively sought a compromise, a reasonable accommodation could have been found. But we do know that the president has never tried that route. What’s more, he has done virtually everything in his power to goad Republicans into a confrontation that would shut down the government while denouncing them for doing so. His position in which there can be no compromise on the rollout of the fiscal disaster that is ObamaCare is no less fanatical and just as much rooted in ideology as that of Cruz.

Democrats can argue with some justice that the president’s reelection was based in part on his desire to preserve ObamaCare. But so long as he lacks a majority in both houses of Congress, the issue is not completely settled. Given that he has begun to postpone some elements of the program, it is not unreasonable that Republicans would seek more delay of a vast expansion of government power that may make health care less affordable despite the official title of the bill. Having passed it via a partisan vote after a ruthlessly cynical legislative process that did not correct its obvious flaws and unwieldy nature, Democrats are determined to carry ObamaCare through to implementation without ever listening to the other side. This may turn out to be good politics, but it is neither reasonable nor good policy.

There has been a good deal of criticism about Cruz’s tactics and the fact that he and other hardliners on the issue don’t appear to have a strategy to counter the Democrats’ intransigence. Whether or not it is fair, it is probably a fact that more Americans will blame the GOP than the Democrats for a shutdown. That’s why President Obama has been daring Republicans to do just that ever since the summer of 2011 when the first of a series of battles over the budget and the debt ceiling was fought.

But though Republicans might have been wise not to accept that dare, there should be no question about the fact that the president and his backers are just as responsible for the results of this brinksmanship as anyone in the GOP caucus. Had the president been willing to bend a bit on ObamaCare he would have enabled House Speaker John Boehner to come up with a deal that a majority of Republicans might have been able to live with. That he wouldn’t do so is the product not only of clever political strategy but his ideological inflexibility. Cruz’s belief that ObamaCare must be stopped at all costs has brought us to the brink today. But the same can be said of the president’s unwillingness to allow a delay in a job-killing program that is still opposed by the majority of the American public. He will stop at nothing to see it implemented. Democrats also won’t negotiate today because they fear it will set a precedent that will force them to compromise on other issues in the future. That may be clever politics but it should not be confused with good government.

We can hope that sanity will prevail in Washington today and that somehow a shutdown will be averted. But if it isn’t, Democrats will be every bit as responsible for that outcome as Republicans.

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Diplomatic Progress–Real or Imagined?

If good intentions and soaring rhetoric were enough to translate into diplomatic achievements, the Obama administration would have wracked up more achievements in the past week than any preceding presidency since Woodrow Wilson attended the Versailles conference.

First Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons. Now Obama chats with Hassan Rouhani in the first direct conversation between an American and Iranian leader since the 1970s. Add in a domestic achievement of sorts–goading House Republicans into an ill-advised showdown over Obama’s health-care plan that could result in a government shutdown that the president will try to wrap around the Republicans’ elephant ears–and it’s easy to see why White House aides are jubilant. Only a few weeks ago the president was being written off as a lame duck; now he has suddenly been transformed into a candidate for another Nobel Peace Prize.

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If good intentions and soaring rhetoric were enough to translate into diplomatic achievements, the Obama administration would have wracked up more achievements in the past week than any preceding presidency since Woodrow Wilson attended the Versailles conference.

First Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons. Now Obama chats with Hassan Rouhani in the first direct conversation between an American and Iranian leader since the 1970s. Add in a domestic achievement of sorts–goading House Republicans into an ill-advised showdown over Obama’s health-care plan that could result in a government shutdown that the president will try to wrap around the Republicans’ elephant ears–and it’s easy to see why White House aides are jubilant. Only a few weeks ago the president was being written off as a lame duck; now he has suddenly been transformed into a candidate for another Nobel Peace Prize.

Alas, it remains far from clear that the diplomatic breakthroughs of recent days will result in concrete changes on the ground. Rouhani certainly charmed politicians and pundits on his recent New York visit (I was among many who saw him speak) but he also refused to admit that Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon or to offer a halt in enrichment, which is drawing Tehran closer to its long-cherished goal. The phone call with Obama was nice, but there has been no sign of Iranian concessions yet, notwithstanding Rouhani’s promises to conclude a peace deal within months.

Over at the Weekly Standard, Reuel Gerecht makes a compelling case for skepticism about Rouhani’s intentions, noting that he has a long record as a regime stalwart and proponent of the nuclear program. As a tactical matter, Rouhani may well be willing to stop short of a nuclear weapon for now in return for a relaxation of sanctions, but it is doubtful he will abandon the revolutionary regime’s desire for the ultimate weapon which the mullahs see as the ultimate guarantor of their Islamic revolution.

Then there is Syria. The UN passed a resolution calling on Assad to give up his chemical weapons. This was hailed as a “milestone after years of inertia,” which it arguably was, but the impact of this milestone was considerably vitiated by the fact that it was a Chapter VI resolution, not a Chapter VII, which means there are no automatic penalties for Syrian noncompliance. Getting authorization to compel compliance would require another UN Security Council vote which Assad’s buddy, Vladimir Putin, would almost certainly block.

Meanwhile the Syrian civil war continues unabated. At Foreign Policy’s website, Oubai Shahbandar of the Syrian Support Group, a pro-rebel organization, points out at that the Putin-brokered deal at the UN has unleashed Assad’s conventional military forces:

The Syrian regime’s Russian-manufactured battle tanks and Sukhoi air-to-ground attack aircraft, once hidden away when Western air strikes seemed imminent, are now once again relentlessly pounding towns and villages in liberated areas. Bombs are yet again being dropped on bakeries in rebel-held regions and residents in Damascus have noted the thunderous bombardments from Assad’s batteries as they target the eastern Ghouta district — the district hit in the horrific chemical attack of August 21.

Mass gassing has now been replaced by a systemic ghetto eradication campaign to close off, isolate, starve, and pummel the inhabitants of rebel neighborhoods.

In the past Obama has spoken of the need for the U.S. government to stop atrocities abroad; he even created an Atrocities Prevention Board for this purpose. But in Syria he has confined his attention to preventing one small set of atrocities–those committed with chemical weapons–while ignoring the far more pervasive atrocities carried out with conventional weaponry which might at least partially been stopped by American air strikes. The White House may be claiming success in its diplomatic offensive, but it is doubtful that many ordinary Syrians see it that way.

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Conservatives and the Excommunication Temptation

Earlier this week I appeared on a panel discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation on “The Conservative Mind at 60.” During the event I highlighted three themes that appear in Russell Kirk’s A Conservative Mind (published in 1953) and made the case for why those insights are still crucial to the health and wellbeing of modern conservatism.

As for the themes themselves, Dr. Kirk was a great proponent of prudence, so much so that he listed it among his canons of conservative thought. He wrote about the importance of recognizing that “change may not always be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.”

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Earlier this week I appeared on a panel discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation on “The Conservative Mind at 60.” During the event I highlighted three themes that appear in Russell Kirk’s A Conservative Mind (published in 1953) and made the case for why those insights are still crucial to the health and wellbeing of modern conservatism.

As for the themes themselves, Dr. Kirk was a great proponent of prudence, so much so that he listed it among his canons of conservative thought. He wrote about the importance of recognizing that “change may not always be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.”

Here is how the aforementioned Edmund Burke put it: “The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They admit of exceptions, they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic but by the rules of prudence.”



So prudence – not pugilism, not purity – is the cardinal political virtue. Practical wisdom, practical judgment, the ability to take the appropriate action at a given place and time, was considered by the ancient Greeks, by Christian philosophers, and by statesmen like Burke and Lincoln to be of supreme worth and value.

A second theme that runs throughout The Conservative Mind is the importance of taking into account particular circumstances when applying political principles. Dr. Kirk pointed out that Burke based his every important decision upon a close examination of particulars. Burke detested “metaphysical politicians” and “abstraction” – by which he meant, according to Kirk, “not principle, but rather vainglorious generalization without respect for human frailty and the particular circumstances of an age and nation.” And so, Kirk argued, principles are necessary but they must be applied discreetly and with infinite caution to the workaday world.

This leads to a third set of insights by Kirk, which is that human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults; that to aim for utopia is to end in disaster; that we are not made for perfect things; and that all we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society. In other words, we should not expect perfection in a fallen world – not from us, and not from others.

Which brings me to the here and now. There exists what might be called a conservative temperament. To be sure, such a temperament doesn’t preclude one from engaging in debates, with passion and conviction, to advance what one believes to be right. But what I do think is problematic are those who desire to excommunicate from the ranks those they perceive as apostates.

What do I have in mind? One example is the targeting of Representative Pete Sessions of Texas. As this article makes clear, Sessions, a rock-solid conservative who has a 97 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, is under assault from a super PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, for being a “Texas RINO” (Republican in Name Only) and a “wishy-washy” Republican who is willing to “destroy our freedoms.” And what is the grave and unforgivable offense committed by Sessions? He opposed the effort by Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and others to shut down the government if the Affordable Care Act isn’t defunded. (As the Wall Street Journal points out in this editorial, this gambit is premised on the belief that “if the House holds ‘firm’ amid a shutdown, then the public will eventually blame Mr. Obama and the Democrats, who will then fold and defund ObamaCare.” Which is about as likely as yours truly becoming the starting center for the Miami Heat next year.)

This excommunication impulse is becoming increasingly dominant within some conservative quarters. The issue is framed as a “litmus test” and conservatives are being told by prominent figures within conservatism that any Republican who votes against the Cruz strategy is not worth voting for ever again.

That position strikes me as injudicious. If a similar litmus test had been applied to Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California, when he signed into law a record tax hike and liberalized California’s abortion law, he would have been deemed insufficiently “pure” and unworthy of support.

Senators Tom Coburn, Jeff Flake, and John Cornyn – as well as scores of their colleagues in Congress – are hardly traitors to conservatism and the cause of self-government. They have not, in the words of a FreedomWorks fundraising e-mail, “betrayed you.” They simply opposed what they considered to be a bad (and fated-to-fail) idea. I believe they were right to do so; others obviously disagree. But the disagreement shouldn’t rise to the political equivalent of a capital offense.  

People should be judged in the totality of their acts. And the effort to portray the Cruz maneuver as a litmus test dividing real conservatives from RINOs is misguided. On some fundamental level it is also, I believe, at odds with conservatism as understood by many of its greatest exponents. It’s time to return prudence to its proper place in the conservative pantheon.

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Putting the ‘Mad’ in Maduro

It’s that time of year when the world’s tyrannies flock to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York with all the predictability of birds flying south for the winter. This year, however, their numbers were noticeably depleted.

True, the fork-tongued Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, was on hand to deny the Holocaust in one breath, while calling for “time-bound, results-oriented” talks on his country’s nuclear program in another. And the aging Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe gave a vintage performance denouncing the “illegal and filthy sanctions” imposed on his brutal regime. But the Sudanese leader, Omar al Bashir, stayed away, fearful perhaps that he would be arrested on war-crimes charges upon landing in New York. And so did Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, for reasons that will compel us to question whether he has lost his mind.

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It’s that time of year when the world’s tyrannies flock to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York with all the predictability of birds flying south for the winter. This year, however, their numbers were noticeably depleted.

True, the fork-tongued Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, was on hand to deny the Holocaust in one breath, while calling for “time-bound, results-oriented” talks on his country’s nuclear program in another. And the aging Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe gave a vintage performance denouncing the “illegal and filthy sanctions” imposed on his brutal regime. But the Sudanese leader, Omar al Bashir, stayed away, fearful perhaps that he would be arrested on war-crimes charges upon landing in New York. And so did Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, for reasons that will compel us to question whether he has lost his mind.

As I noted here recently, in the five months since Maduro won the presidency in an election widely regarded as fraudulent, barely a day goes by without him excitedly unveiling some new American plot to unseat him, or assassinate him, or destroy Venezuela’s groaning economy. Despite all these lurking dangers, Maduro nonetheless decided that he would attend and speak at this week’s 68th session of the General Assembly.

Winging his way to New York from a state visit to China, Maduro got as far as Vancouver. Rather than continuing eastwards, he elected to return to Caracas, where he visited a television studio to explain to a national audience why he was home early

One of the alleged plots could have caused violence in New York and the other could have affected his physical safety, Maduro said in a national address carried on television and radio yesterday. 

“The clan, the mafia of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega once again had planned a crazy, terrible provocation that can’t be described in any other way,” Maduro said, referring to two former U.S. officials he frequently accuses of plots against Venezuela.

Reich, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the George W. Bush administration, was accused by Maduro in March this year of planning the assassination of Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s opponent in the presidential election, as part of a plan to engineer a coup against the ruling chavistas. Reich’s rebuttal at the time is worth citing, simply because it is equally applicable now:

Though Maduro’s strategy is not original, it is not as dull-witted as it appears.  With the election in Venezuela scheduled for April 14, less than a month away, every day that the media focus on non–existent conspiracies is one day less that Venezuelans hear there may be a peaceful, honest, and democratic alternative to the Maduro regime.

Every day Venezuelans talk about foreign devils, they don’t discuss shortages of water and electricity, of cornmeal and cooking oil, of soap and diapers, of antibiotics and insulin.  It is one day less to wonder how Caracas became the third most violent city in the world and about the 150,000 Venezuelan victims of homicide in the 14 years of 21st Century Socialism.

Yesterday, Roger Noriega made much the same point as his ostensible partner in crime. “I think Maduro is under more pressure than I am, and his comments reflect that,” Noriega told the Miami Herald. “He needs a boogeyman.”

In Venezuela itself, there is increasing concern that Maduro’s confrontational stance towards the U.S., which imports around 900,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil on a daily basis, will carry negative economic consequences. In response, the Venezuelan regime is now orienting its foreign policy towards countries that are ideological bedfellows, but that won’t bleed the country dry at the same time—as does Cuba, for years the closest ally of the late Hugo Chavez, and the beneficiary of $7 billion worth of subsidized oil annually. 

Enter China. Maduro’s trip to Beijing quickly followed the announcement of a $14 billion deal with the China National Petroleum Corporation for a project to develop the Junín 10 block in Venezuela’s Orinoco region, an area that holds one of the largest oil reserves in the world. China currently imports 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Venezuela, a figure that Maduro wants to boost to the point where the Chinese, and not the Americans, are the biggest consumers of Venezuela’s main export. After all, breaking the economic dependency on the United States has been a central obsession of ruling Socialists since they came to power in 1999.

The Chinese also perceive important benefits. Suspicious of the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “pivot” to East Asia, Beijing is happy to seize on opportunities in America’s backyard. As the Mexican economist Enrique Dussel Peters noted in a recent paper on Chinese overseas investment, between 2000 and 2011, Latin America and the Caribbean became the second largest recipient of Chinese investment after Hong Kong. Dussel writes that 87 percent of this investment, directed mainly at raw materials, came from state-owned companies that are beholden to the Communist Party and its satellite institutions. In other words, the political imperatives here are as important, if not more so, than any fiscal considerations.

The Obama administration won’t be able to stop Maduro’s fulminations about assassinations and coups. Nor should it want to—the more frequent these accusations, the less that Venezuelans trust him. The real strategic challenge here is the relationship with China, and the lifeline that Beijing is dangling to the proponents of “21st Century Socialism” on the American continent. 

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Cancel the Flood: Higher Education Isn’t a Scam

A dispute is emerging in conservative thinking about higher education. On one side are those who embrace “creative destruction.”  Nimble, cheap, online competitors will drive many brick-and-mortar institutions out of business, and good riddance to those bloated, government-backed guilds that care more about indoctrinating students than they do about preparing them to get jobs. Resisting the destruction of the old model is, on this account, both futile and “wicked.”

On the other side are those who acknowledge the defects, even the “decadence,” of much of higher education but worry that the “transformative agenda” is “about exploiting the decadence to root out the quality as well.” The “disruptive logic of the market” may lead not only to a comeuppance for conservativism’s many enemies in academia but also to the “disappearance of close reading of the ‘real books’ of philosophy, literature, theology, and so forth . . . because they’re unreliable and not cost-efficient.”

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A dispute is emerging in conservative thinking about higher education. On one side are those who embrace “creative destruction.”  Nimble, cheap, online competitors will drive many brick-and-mortar institutions out of business, and good riddance to those bloated, government-backed guilds that care more about indoctrinating students than they do about preparing them to get jobs. Resisting the destruction of the old model is, on this account, both futile and “wicked.”

On the other side are those who acknowledge the defects, even the “decadence,” of much of higher education but worry that the “transformative agenda” is “about exploiting the decadence to root out the quality as well.” The “disruptive logic of the market” may lead not only to a comeuppance for conservativism’s many enemies in academia but also to the “disappearance of close reading of the ‘real books’ of philosophy, literature, theology, and so forth . . . because they’re unreliable and not cost-efficient.”

A weapon of choice for the creative destruction camp is the claim that college is merely a very expensive screening device that flags not what students have learned in college but attributes they had before they got into college, which got them there. If college signals a student’s preexisting strengths rather than cultivating those strengths, then even those who are eager to preserve the study of great works may have to concede that they are better off finding another home than they are bunking with flim-flam artists.

Higher education is “worth it” for a lot of students because many employers prefer candidates with college degrees. But in a recent Minding the Campus essay, Richard Vedder argues, as he has before, that employers favor degrees only because they are not allowed to use better screening tests. In Griggs v. Duke Power Co.  (1971) the Supreme Court “outlawed testing that had a ‘disparate impact’ on minorities.” Since employers can’t give I.Q. tests to applicants, they use college degrees, whose cost is borne by students, parents, and taxpayers. Vedder explains that college degrees are reasonably good screening devices because degree holders have, on average, stronger cognitive skills and motivation than those without degrees. But they had those before they got into college, where students neither work hard nor learn much.

But this argument is specious. While we should be worried that students are not doing well on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), among other measures of achievement, employers seem to think that students do learn something in college.

First, it’s not true that employers use college degrees to screen job candidates because they have no other means of doing so. According to this Wall Street Journal story, reporting employer interest in the CLA, companies “such as General Mills Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co.” have developed “their own job-applicant assessments.” And according to a survey conducted by the Educational Testing Service, more than a quarter of businesses” are already using its Graduate Record Examination “to evaluate job applicants.”  Indeed, if employers can’t get away with using tests to screen candidates, why does Vedder recommend that employers use the CLA, which seems on its face as vulnerable to disparate impact complaints as other aptitude tests are?

Second, a recent survey of human resources professionals shows that employers discriminate among different kinds of education, and not merely on the basis of prestige. Most strikingly, when asked to choose between a candidate bearing a degree from an average school, completed entirely in the classroom, and a candidate with an online-only degree from a top school, 56 percent opted for the average but traditional degree. Only 17 percent went the other way. That finding holds even though 45 percent of the HR professionals surveyed thought that online degrees required more discipline than traditional degrees, compared to just 23 percent who thought online degrees required less discipline.

Perhaps employers think a traditional degree signals a candidate’s social skills, or that students learn more in traditional programs (43 percent think so, 49 percent think they learn about the same amount, and 4 percent think online students learn more). Or maybe they think that traditional programs are tougher (39 percent say online only programs are easier, 41 percent think they are about as difficult, and 13 percent think they are more difficult). Whether some or all these reasons are in play, hiring professionals think that college is not merely a measure of the talents students possessed before they enrolled but a measure of something they gain there, which programs can be more or less successful at providing.

While I am reporting the results of only one survey, there is little evidence that employers think students learn nothing in college. Employers unquestionably wish colleges were doing much better, but that is a far cry from the thesis Vedder and the partisans of creative destruction defend. Perhaps, then, those who care about the education of our young should identify and support the outposts of excellence in American higher education, rather than summoning a flood to wash the good away with the bad.

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Ted Cruz and the Conservatism of Illusion and Deception

I disagree somewhat with Jonathan’s earlier post on Ted Cruz. There are several things I found problematic about the effort by Cruz and Company to “defund” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but perhaps what was most alarming, from a conservative perspective, is that it was an effort utterly detached from reality.

As I’ve argued several times before (including here), this whole gambit was based on the fiction, perpetrated by Cruz and others, that the Affordable Care Act could be defunded (without even a single Democratic vote, according to Cruz). That was never true. That goal was an illusion. A mirage. A delusion. And surely Mr. Cruz, an intelligent and well-educated man, knew it. There was simply no way a Democratic Senate and Barack Obama would abolish his signature domestic achievement. And defunding the ACA would require just that.

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I disagree somewhat with Jonathan’s earlier post on Ted Cruz. There are several things I found problematic about the effort by Cruz and Company to “defund” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but perhaps what was most alarming, from a conservative perspective, is that it was an effort utterly detached from reality.

As I’ve argued several times before (including here), this whole gambit was based on the fiction, perpetrated by Cruz and others, that the Affordable Care Act could be defunded (without even a single Democratic vote, according to Cruz). That was never true. That goal was an illusion. A mirage. A delusion. And surely Mr. Cruz, an intelligent and well-educated man, knew it. There was simply no way a Democratic Senate and Barack Obama would abolish his signature domestic achievement. And defunding the ACA would require just that.

No matter. Senator Cruz, along with several of his colleagues, convinced many grassroots conservatives and Tea Party members that the end game was to put a stake through the heart of ObamaCare, once and for all. If you sided with them, you were a principled conservative who opposed ObamaCare; if you were against them, you were part of the “surrender caucus.” This was cast as a Moment of Truth. 

Now the whole thing is being exposed for what it was – a game. And the (inevitable) failure by Cruz and the others will leave these people crushingly disappointed and enraged. They were led to believe something that was simply not true – and many of them still don’t know they were misled.

Beyond all that is the damage this inflicts on conservatism. Conservatism, after all, is a political philosophy that is (or should be) anti-utopian, empirical, prudent, somewhat modest in its expectations and firmly grounded in reality. That’s certainly not all that conservatism is, but those elements comprise it. Yet here we are, with a large part of the conservative movement having taken a journey through the looking glass.

This whole episode was a low moment for genuine conservatism. 

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Cruz’s Grand Gesture Deserves Respect

In the end, Ted Cruz didn’t mean it. Neither he nor any of his colleagues that had been urging Republicans to filibuster the House bill that defunded ObamaCare and which they had been previously asking for voted to deny cloture on the measure. The 100-0 result in the immediate aftermath of Cruz’s 20-hour filibuster that wasn’t technically a filibuster showed that he and other GOP senators like Mike Lee hadn’t taken leave of their senses. Had 39 other Republicans listened to them—and their ardent followers on Twitter who called anyone who said they would approve a vote on the bill RINOs—then the GOP would have been launching a government shutdown by a procedural technicality that would have made for some very bad optics and an impossibly weak argument. That showed good judgment on their part. The same can be said for Cruz’s talkathon that stretched from early Tuesday afternoon to noon on Wednesday.

As Bethany noted earlier today, the almost universal hostility that Cruz’s publicity stunt generated is as blatant an example of media bias as we are likely to get. A few months ago, the press transformed Texas State Senator Wendy Davis into a national heroine for her equally pointless filibuster defending late term abortion. But since most of the media likes ObamaCare almost as much as they approve of any kind of abortion, Cruz was condemned for taking up the Senate’s time. But Cruz’s stunt wasn’t the disaster that his critics are calling it. I disagreed vehemently with the senator’s efforts to create a standoff that could shut down the government in order to defund ObamaCare. But his marathon speechifying was neither foolish nor did it hurt Republicans the way a shutdown would. Instead, it did exactly what the hashtag created by his followers to celebrate the event wished for: It made Washington listen to complaints about ObamaCare.

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In the end, Ted Cruz didn’t mean it. Neither he nor any of his colleagues that had been urging Republicans to filibuster the House bill that defunded ObamaCare and which they had been previously asking for voted to deny cloture on the measure. The 100-0 result in the immediate aftermath of Cruz’s 20-hour filibuster that wasn’t technically a filibuster showed that he and other GOP senators like Mike Lee hadn’t taken leave of their senses. Had 39 other Republicans listened to them—and their ardent followers on Twitter who called anyone who said they would approve a vote on the bill RINOs—then the GOP would have been launching a government shutdown by a procedural technicality that would have made for some very bad optics and an impossibly weak argument. That showed good judgment on their part. The same can be said for Cruz’s talkathon that stretched from early Tuesday afternoon to noon on Wednesday.

As Bethany noted earlier today, the almost universal hostility that Cruz’s publicity stunt generated is as blatant an example of media bias as we are likely to get. A few months ago, the press transformed Texas State Senator Wendy Davis into a national heroine for her equally pointless filibuster defending late term abortion. But since most of the media likes ObamaCare almost as much as they approve of any kind of abortion, Cruz was condemned for taking up the Senate’s time. But Cruz’s stunt wasn’t the disaster that his critics are calling it. I disagreed vehemently with the senator’s efforts to create a standoff that could shut down the government in order to defund ObamaCare. But his marathon speechifying was neither foolish nor did it hurt Republicans the way a shutdown would. Instead, it did exactly what the hashtag created by his followers to celebrate the event wished for: It made Washington listen to complaints about ObamaCare.

Cruz is the kind of politician for whom style often becomes substance. He is an equal opportunity bull in a China shop that has dissed GOP Senate elders as well as Democrats ever since he arrived on Capitol Hill. Though he is clearly as smart if not a lot smarter than most of his colleagues, his obnoxious personality is tough for most of them to take. The same goes for the media and even sections of the public. If I have doubts about him really being presidential timber it is not so much that I disagree with some of his stands but because I don’t believe anyone who comes across as a mean guy, as Cruz undoubtedly has to much of the public, could ever be elected president.

But this is a moment when credit must be given where credit is due. His filibuster was a model of reasoned argument in which he labored mightily to call attention to the fact that the American people are unhappy about the way a Democratic Congress forced ObamaCare down their throats. They are rightly worried about the way it will affect their own health care as well as the potentially devastating impact it will have on the economy as jobs are killed and costs rise. Call it what you like and acknowledge that like Rand Paul’s far less substantial argument about drone attacks in his filibuster earlier this year, his motivation had a lot to do with his desire to run for president in 2016.

But there is something grand about a filibuster and Cruz’s stand deserves the same applause that the media was willing to give to Paul as well as Davis.

As was the case with Paul—whose arguments I disagreed with—Cruz showed there is still space in our public square for principled and high minded debate on the issues. In an era in which sound bytes dominate and in which even most politicians generally shun traditional oratory with the gift for gab, filibusters are a unique opportunity for the participants to riff on big issues and do more than merely give cable news the catch phrases they are asking for. Filibusters give the Senate the kind of glamour that was once associated with it in bygone eras and even if we are well rid of some of the traditions of the past they raise the level of discourse in a way that should be applauded.

I still think Cruz’s efforts to galvanize support for what is, despite his denials, an attempt to shut down the government over the issue, are ill considered and seem mostly focused on increasing his own growing following. But the sniping at Cruz’s filibuster from a media that was ready to lionize Davis and focus on her fashion choices should be dismissed. So, too, should that coming from many of his colleagues among whom he has already worn out his welcome.

Republicans should not be trying to shut down the government but they should seize every opportunity to discuss the ObamaCare disaster. Though the Senate is now moving on and the House will have an opportunity to step back from the brink toward which Cruz has pushed them, the Texas senator deserves credit for stopping the machinery of the Senate for a day to highlight the assault on the nation’s liberties and its economy that ObamaCare represents. So long as the Democrats control the Senate and the White House, more than that is not possible. That frustrates conservatives and leads many to lash out and seek to do the impossible. But anyone who doubts that Cruz did himself a world of political good with this gesture misunderstands both the issue and the conservative movement. We can’t know for sure what the future holds for Cruz but in the last 24 hours we got a glimpse of his political talent. That should scare Republicans and Democrats who will clash with him in the years to come.

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Rouhani’s Holocaust Weasel Words

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may have snubbed President Obama yesterday but almost everyone is still giving him full credit for not being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The West’s favorite “moderate” mullah met with a gaggle of liberal mainstream media types Wednesday morning for a mostly off-the-record gathering and, despite being unwilling to pander much to their sensibilities, still left them thinking, in the words of New Yorker editor David Remnick, “That at least on the surface this is somebody who above all is interested in reversing the really consequential damage to the economy that sanctions have wrought over time.”

I’ve no doubt that is true, as the conceit of Rouhani’s mission is apparently to persuade the West that because he isn’t a raving lunatic like his predecessor Ahmadinejad, that should be enough to earn Iran the world’s trust. And the chief proof of this is his willingness to say that it was a bad thing that the Nazis killed Jews. At Remnick’s prodding, Rouhani said as much today. As Politico reports:

Toward the end of the meeting, Remnick, who had sparred with Ahmadinejad in past meetings, demanded to know if Rouhani would unequivocally reject his predecessor’s denial of the Holocaust.

Through an interpreter, Rouhani told Remnick and the other journalists that he condemned the “massacre” of Jews that took place during World War II but would leave it to historians to decide how many Jews had been killed.

While stopping short of condemning the Holocaust outright, Rouhani left Remnick with the impression that he was serious about improving Iran’s relationship with the West.

That’s nice and no doubt Rouhani’s dignified manner and trademark white turban are a big improvement over Ahmadinejad’s MAD magazine style charm, but if we’re really interested in the question of repudiating Holocaust denial, Rouhani’s response doesn’t quite cut it. Nor does his equally cagey answer to a similar question posed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in which he segued from a pro-forma condemnation of the “taking of human life, whether that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim” into saying his non-support of Nazi genocide shouldn’t be interpreted as being willing to recognize living Jews have rights, since that “does not mean that on the other hand you can say Nazis committed crimes against a group, now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it.” The point is, if you are agnostic about the scale of the Holocaust, you are, in effect, a denier. If you are against killing Jews but unwilling to grant that they may have rights to a country or the right to defend it, your supposedly moderate good intentions are meaningless.

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may have snubbed President Obama yesterday but almost everyone is still giving him full credit for not being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The West’s favorite “moderate” mullah met with a gaggle of liberal mainstream media types Wednesday morning for a mostly off-the-record gathering and, despite being unwilling to pander much to their sensibilities, still left them thinking, in the words of New Yorker editor David Remnick, “That at least on the surface this is somebody who above all is interested in reversing the really consequential damage to the economy that sanctions have wrought over time.”

I’ve no doubt that is true, as the conceit of Rouhani’s mission is apparently to persuade the West that because he isn’t a raving lunatic like his predecessor Ahmadinejad, that should be enough to earn Iran the world’s trust. And the chief proof of this is his willingness to say that it was a bad thing that the Nazis killed Jews. At Remnick’s prodding, Rouhani said as much today. As Politico reports:

Toward the end of the meeting, Remnick, who had sparred with Ahmadinejad in past meetings, demanded to know if Rouhani would unequivocally reject his predecessor’s denial of the Holocaust.

Through an interpreter, Rouhani told Remnick and the other journalists that he condemned the “massacre” of Jews that took place during World War II but would leave it to historians to decide how many Jews had been killed.

While stopping short of condemning the Holocaust outright, Rouhani left Remnick with the impression that he was serious about improving Iran’s relationship with the West.

That’s nice and no doubt Rouhani’s dignified manner and trademark white turban are a big improvement over Ahmadinejad’s MAD magazine style charm, but if we’re really interested in the question of repudiating Holocaust denial, Rouhani’s response doesn’t quite cut it. Nor does his equally cagey answer to a similar question posed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in which he segued from a pro-forma condemnation of the “taking of human life, whether that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim” into saying his non-support of Nazi genocide shouldn’t be interpreted as being willing to recognize living Jews have rights, since that “does not mean that on the other hand you can say Nazis committed crimes against a group, now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it.” The point is, if you are agnostic about the scale of the Holocaust, you are, in effect, a denier. If you are against killing Jews but unwilling to grant that they may have rights to a country or the right to defend it, your supposedly moderate good intentions are meaningless.

That these stands are calculated to convince Western elites that Rouhani is a decent person while still giving him cover at home is a tribute to the cleverness of the Iranian tactic. After all, contrary to some other statements uttered during the charm offensive, there is more to Iranian anti-Semitism than just Ahmadinejad’s personal obsessions. Iranian TV often broadcasts material that merges the two topics by claiming that Jews have exaggerated the extent of the Holocaust in order to “steal” Palestine from the Arabs and hoodwink the United States out of money. Rouhani’s mention of the doubts about how many Jews died is a signal to Iranians and other Islamists that he is very much on the same page as Ahmadinejad but knows how to talk to Westerners.

Seen in that context, far from Rouhani’s statements being a measure of his sanity or moderation, they are, in fact, an indicator that he is very much part of the same Islamist mentality that produced Ahmadinejad and his boss Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What is going on here is a carefully calculated ruse that is, even after Rouhani’s snub of Obama, working well to disarm the West of any sense of outrage about Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear capability.

That the mainstream media is willing to go along with this game shows just how uncomfortable many of them are with the need to honestly confront the issue of Iran’s nuclear capability and the transparently dishonest manner in which it has negotiated with the West for over a decade. 

UPDATE:

It turns out that Rouhani’s so-called condemnation of the Holocaust is even flimsier than we thought. After CNN broadcast its interview with Rouhani conducted by Christiane Amanpour, the FARS News Agency condemned their translation of his remarks about the Holocaust as largely a fabrication. The official organ of the Iranian government provided an exact translation of what he said and matched it with what CNN broadcast and then published on their website. When the two are compared it is clear that the network expanded on what he said to help convey the impression that he was condemning Holocaust denial when it is clear that he did no such thing.

Here’s the CNN account:

CNN Question: “One of the things your predecessor (President Ahmadinejad) used to do from this very platform was deny(ing) the holocaust and pretend(ing) it was a myth, I want to know you, your position on the holocaust, do you accept what it was, and what was it?”

CNN’s Translation: “I’ve said before that I am not a historian and then, when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that Nazis committed towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn, the taking of human life is contemptible, it makes no difference whether that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim, for us it is the same, but taking the human life is something our religion rejects but this doesn’t mean that on the other hand you can say Nazis committed crime against a group now therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This too is an act that should be condemned. There should be an even-handed discussion”.

Here’s what Rouhani actually said:

“I have said before that I am not a historian and historians should specify, state and explain the aspects of historical events, but generally we fully condemn any kind of crime committed against humanity throughout the history, including the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and non-Jews, the same way that if today any crime is committed against any nation or any religion or any people or any belief, we condemn that crime and genocide. Therefore, what the Nazis did is condemned, but the aspects that you talk about, clarification of these aspects is a duty of the historians and researchers, I am not a history scholar.”

While the two have similarities, there is no doubt that the news outlet airbrushed Rouhani’s comments to the point where they are far more acceptable for a Western audience. The actual remarks make it clear that Rouhani is as much of an agnostic about the extent of the Holocaust as Ahmadinejad. After all, Rouhani’s predecessor never said that no Jews were killed but said it was vastly exaggerated, the false argument that all Holocaust deniers try to make.

It is up to CNN to explain this attempt to falsify the content of the interview that goes beyond the usual discrepancies that often pop up in translations and crosses over into editorial malfeasance.

Added together with the other remarks uttered by Rouhani, this makes the claims of those who say Rouhani represents a genuine change in Iran even less credible than before.

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Cruz Waits for the Wendy Davis Treatment

Those of us paying attention this morning woke up to somewhat surprising political news: Ted Cruz was still talking, seventeen hours and counting after taking the Senate floor. One would have to be paying attention, as news of Cruz’s stand (it’s not technically a filibuster) hasn’t made the top of the news anywhere nationwide. A Texan senator has taken over the floor of the nation’s most powerful legislative body and that sound you hear is crickets from some corners of the media, derision from others. Compare this coverage to that of another Texan senator, this one a female state senator protesting late-term abortion restrictions, for yet another example of why the public’s trust in the media has plummeted. 

The filibuster undertaken by Wendy Davis and the floor speech of Ted Cruz are remarkably similar in their futility. Not a single legislature or informed observer actually expected either of the stunts to achieve anything tangible. They were planned for one reason: publicity. For Wendy Davis, it worked, catapulting her onto the national stage, setting the groundwork for the unknown state senator’s run for the governor’s mansion. The actual contents of Davis’s speech weren’t reported with nearly as much enthusiasm as her shoe choice, however. Given the grotesque nature of what Davis was fighting to protect (abortion via dismemberment of viable human beings capable of feeling pain), it’s understandable that the media chose to focus on fashion first and foremost. The inherent sexism of this choice was lost on a media cheering the rise of a woman in a male-dominated profession. 

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Those of us paying attention this morning woke up to somewhat surprising political news: Ted Cruz was still talking, seventeen hours and counting after taking the Senate floor. One would have to be paying attention, as news of Cruz’s stand (it’s not technically a filibuster) hasn’t made the top of the news anywhere nationwide. A Texan senator has taken over the floor of the nation’s most powerful legislative body and that sound you hear is crickets from some corners of the media, derision from others. Compare this coverage to that of another Texan senator, this one a female state senator protesting late-term abortion restrictions, for yet another example of why the public’s trust in the media has plummeted. 

The filibuster undertaken by Wendy Davis and the floor speech of Ted Cruz are remarkably similar in their futility. Not a single legislature or informed observer actually expected either of the stunts to achieve anything tangible. They were planned for one reason: publicity. For Wendy Davis, it worked, catapulting her onto the national stage, setting the groundwork for the unknown state senator’s run for the governor’s mansion. The actual contents of Davis’s speech weren’t reported with nearly as much enthusiasm as her shoe choice, however. Given the grotesque nature of what Davis was fighting to protect (abortion via dismemberment of viable human beings capable of feeling pain), it’s understandable that the media chose to focus on fashion first and foremost. The inherent sexism of this choice was lost on a media cheering the rise of a woman in a male-dominated profession. 

It remains to be seen how much Cruz will profit from his stunt. Already a darling of his base, the Tea Party, Cruz is unlikely to gain much in the way of more notoriety, given the lack of media coverage. 

This morning, at around 7, Cruz discussed how the media should be covering his speech. He chided the impulse to discuss it in terms of Cruz’s possible presidential political ambitions and instead asked that the substance of his speech be the focus. A reporter for Politico, Ginger Gibson, tweeted that that was why reporters “mock” Cruz, a sitting U.S. senator. Gibson, rather unprofessionally, shed light on the usually unspoken impulses of her and her colleagues, who apparently demand reverence from the politicians they cover. Gibson was more than happy to contribute an evenhanded and favorable piece on Wendy Davis for Politico (one of several dozen the site ran on the state senator), which would indicate that she has no similar qualms about Davis’s level of respect for reporters’ integrity or professionalism. Davis, however, has no reason to heap scorn on how reporters do their jobs; she can rely on fair and usually favorable coverage from a media that holds her positions in higher esteem than those of conservatives. 

What we’ve learned here is a lesson everyone in the mainstream media and Washington already knows: When politicians play the game and fight for liberal causes, they are rewarded by their equally liberal friends in the press. What makes Cruz and his fellow conservatives the target of reporters’ scorn is their politics, not their lack of reverence for a profession that saw fit to obsess about the shoe choice of a woman who was fighting for access to a procedure so abhorrent that all but four countries in the world have made it illegal. 

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Obama’s Confused Foreign Policy

If there is one point that President Obama’s defenders have made in favor of his muddled Syria policy, it is its popularity. Not so fast. A new New York Times/CBS News poll finds “that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria.”

Moreover, Americans aren’t happy with Obama’s foreign policy in general: “Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved. The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.”

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If there is one point that President Obama’s defenders have made in favor of his muddled Syria policy, it is its popularity. Not so fast. A new New York Times/CBS News poll finds “that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria.”

Moreover, Americans aren’t happy with Obama’s foreign policy in general: “Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved. The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.”

With his mishandling of Syria, Obama appears to have thrown away, at least for now, the foreign-policy advantage he had wrested away from Republicans largely with the SEAL raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

I have previously written that presidents must not make foreign-policy decisions based on public opinion polls, so simply because the public thinks the Obama administration’s foreign policy is wrong doesn’t necessarily make it so. But in this case I think the public is onto something. What the public perceives–the same thing that much of the world perceives–is that Obama is weak and vacillating, deliberative but indecisive.

Obama’s plan to launch cruise missiles against Syria may not have been particularly popular, but pretty much everyone is still dismayed to see a president lay down a “red line” and then not enforce it. Instead, the president has grabbed a face-saving but probably unenforceable deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons while making a de facto commitment to keep the murderous Bashar Assad regime in power.

Obama’s defenders claimed that his flexibility on Syria would encourage a deal with Iran, but he was stiffed at the UN where Hassan Rouhani delivered a hardline speech and then refused to attend a luncheon where he might have shaken Obama’s hand–a handshake that the White House fervently desired. Administration insiders pooh-poohed this small defeat, explaining that Rouhani has to cater to his own domestic opinion and can’t be seen as being too eager to reach out to the United States. But if that’s the case–if Rouhani can’t even risk a handshake with Obama–what makes Obama think he will sign off on some kind of grand bargain that will force Iran to renounce its long-held goal of acquiring nuclear weapons? The general public is actually more realistic than the White House on the prospect of better relations with Iran: “Fewer than 1 in 4 think they will get better in the next few years, while a third think they will get worse, and 4 in 10 think they will stay about the same.”

Ironically, in pursuit of chimerical results in the Middle East, Obama has abandoned his long-standing desire to “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Pacific. Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group counted the number of time that in his UN speech Obama mentioned the following countries:

Iran 25
Syria 20
Israel 15
Palestine 11

Compare this with mentions of Asian countries:

China 1
Japan 0
India 0
Koreas 0

The focus on the Middle East isn’t wrong–I have long been skeptical of Obama’s professed desire to disengage from the region. But the fact that he is ignoring East Asia, something he attacked his predecessor for doing, is yet another sign of how confused his foreign policy has become. That’s something that Americans instinctively understand even if they don’t follow every nuance of foreign policy.

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Rouhani Treats Obama Like a Chump

Yesterday, President Obama was left with egg on his face. Administration officials had been telling the press for days that the president would meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations. But when it came time for the two to come together or to bump into each other and shake hands in an accidentally-on-purpose arranged encounter, the Iranians said nothing doing. The Iranians told the press that it was “too complicated” for the meeting to take place and administration officials were reduced to explaining the snub by saying that it would have caused political problems for Rouhani at home. Combined with Rouhani’s speech to the General Assembly of the U.N. that was something less than the olive branch that those hoping for a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic were expecting, the Iranians sent the administration an unmistakable message. If you want to appease us, don’t think we’ll make it easy on you.

There are many good reasons to distrust the Iranian charm offensive and Jeffrey Goldberg gives a few in his column at Bloomberg today. Rouhani’s goal is to lift the international sanctions on Iran while preserving its right to go on enriching uranium (as well as developing a plutonium option) and supporting terrorism around the globe, not to help Barack Obama bring peace to the Middle East. But yesterday’s events didn’t tell us as much about whether Rouhani is a sincere advocate of change as it did about the way the Iranians think about President Obama. The president’s apologists like Goldberg believe the Rouhani gambit we’ve been debating recently is the product of Obama’s toughness, much as they also cling to the illusion that the debacle in Syria stems from the president’s strength rather than weakness. But Rouhani’s behavior in New York yesterday showed that he did not come to the UN as a supplicant but as someone who knows that he has Obama just where he wants him. By demonstrating that he isn’t a cheap date but must instead be wooed by the West with concessions, Rouhani gave us a good idea of the course of the next round of negotiations that the United States is about to embark upon with Iran. Instead of being eager to embrace Obama in order to prove their desire for diplomacy and to avert the threat of Western force being employed to end their nuclear dreams, the Iranians know that Obama has already swallowed the bait. This wasn’t the first time Rouhani had humiliated the West since he is a veteran of past deceptive diplomatic encounters, but we also know it won’t be the last.

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Yesterday, President Obama was left with egg on his face. Administration officials had been telling the press for days that the president would meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations. But when it came time for the two to come together or to bump into each other and shake hands in an accidentally-on-purpose arranged encounter, the Iranians said nothing doing. The Iranians told the press that it was “too complicated” for the meeting to take place and administration officials were reduced to explaining the snub by saying that it would have caused political problems for Rouhani at home. Combined with Rouhani’s speech to the General Assembly of the U.N. that was something less than the olive branch that those hoping for a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic were expecting, the Iranians sent the administration an unmistakable message. If you want to appease us, don’t think we’ll make it easy on you.

There are many good reasons to distrust the Iranian charm offensive and Jeffrey Goldberg gives a few in his column at Bloomberg today. Rouhani’s goal is to lift the international sanctions on Iran while preserving its right to go on enriching uranium (as well as developing a plutonium option) and supporting terrorism around the globe, not to help Barack Obama bring peace to the Middle East. But yesterday’s events didn’t tell us as much about whether Rouhani is a sincere advocate of change as it did about the way the Iranians think about President Obama. The president’s apologists like Goldberg believe the Rouhani gambit we’ve been debating recently is the product of Obama’s toughness, much as they also cling to the illusion that the debacle in Syria stems from the president’s strength rather than weakness. But Rouhani’s behavior in New York yesterday showed that he did not come to the UN as a supplicant but as someone who knows that he has Obama just where he wants him. By demonstrating that he isn’t a cheap date but must instead be wooed by the West with concessions, Rouhani gave us a good idea of the course of the next round of negotiations that the United States is about to embark upon with Iran. Instead of being eager to embrace Obama in order to prove their desire for diplomacy and to avert the threat of Western force being employed to end their nuclear dreams, the Iranians know that Obama has already swallowed the bait. This wasn’t the first time Rouhani had humiliated the West since he is a veteran of past deceptive diplomatic encounters, but we also know it won’t be the last.

The White House’s disappointment at Rouhani being unwilling to shake hands with the president was absurd enough. But even the New York Times was unable to spin the Iranian’s speech to the GA as anything but a disappointment to those who have invested so heavily in the notion that he represents an opportunity for genuine change in Iran.

Rouhani’s address can only be seen as “moderate” when compared to the wacky rants of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He didn’t deny the Holocaust nor openly threaten Israel with destruction. But he gave little satisfaction to those expecting him to inaugurate a new age of understanding with a lengthy litany of complaints about the West as well as an almost impenetrable barrage of double talk about Syria, nukes, and terrorism.

Rouhani’s appeal for “tolerance” rang false, coming as it did from a government that persecutes religious minorities and continues to be a font of anti-Semitic incitement aimed at Israel and its supporters. The same can be said of his denunciation of terrorism, coming as it did from an official of a government that is the leading state sponsor of terror in the world.

Iran’s real boss, Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was wise to back Rouhani’s play since the charm offensive has given the Obama administration the excuse it needed to begin the process of backing away from its promise to confront Iran on the nuclear issue. But the snub and the cold speech show they have no intention of making it easy for Obama to appease them. The Iranians show every sign of understanding that the way to draw out the next round of talks is to play hard to get and make the Americans bid against themselves in an effort to entice them to play ball. By portraying Rouhani as being squeezed by hardliner rivals, they have provided the justification for Western concessions and excuses that will be portrayed as necessary in order to help him.

For five years the Iranians have been acting as if they thought President Obama was a paper tiger whose threats should be discounted. But yesterday they showed they think he isn’t just weak but a chump who can be played and reeled in slowly as they buy more time to achieve their nuclear ambitions.

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Incitement Is the Obstacle to Peace

During the course of his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, President Obama repeated his evenhanded mantra about the Middle East peace process. The short version of it is to say that if you want Israel to survive you also have to support a Palestinian state. Both sides of the conflict have a right to live “in dignity and security” and both sides should be urged to make compromises and accept peace. But the problem with this formulation, which was repeated by many other world leaders at the UN podium, is that it reflects a false moral equivalence between the two sides. That false balance was reflected in the events last weekend that led to the murders of two Israeli soldiers in terrorist incidents.

As the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz wrote yesterday, these were not the acts of isolated extremists trying to undermine the peaceful intentions of Palestinian leaders. Responsibility for one of the murders was taken by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of the Fatah Party led by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was praised by President Obama for engaging in talks with Israel. The PA condemned neither killing. But even if it did issue some statement of regret, it would be pure hypocrisy since such acts are encouraged every day by the PA’s official media and education system which continues to laud terrorism and to treat murders of Jews and Israelis as the duty of every Palestinian.

Yet neither the Obama administration nor anyone at the UN ever bothers to point out that there is only one side in this contract that devotes its resources to inciting hatred and violence against their antagonists: the Palestinians. Until that imbalance is corrected, all the evenhanded rhetoric heard at the UN or anywhere else will be a waste of time.

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During the course of his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, President Obama repeated his evenhanded mantra about the Middle East peace process. The short version of it is to say that if you want Israel to survive you also have to support a Palestinian state. Both sides of the conflict have a right to live “in dignity and security” and both sides should be urged to make compromises and accept peace. But the problem with this formulation, which was repeated by many other world leaders at the UN podium, is that it reflects a false moral equivalence between the two sides. That false balance was reflected in the events last weekend that led to the murders of two Israeli soldiers in terrorist incidents.

As the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz wrote yesterday, these were not the acts of isolated extremists trying to undermine the peaceful intentions of Palestinian leaders. Responsibility for one of the murders was taken by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of the Fatah Party led by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was praised by President Obama for engaging in talks with Israel. The PA condemned neither killing. But even if it did issue some statement of regret, it would be pure hypocrisy since such acts are encouraged every day by the PA’s official media and education system which continues to laud terrorism and to treat murders of Jews and Israelis as the duty of every Palestinian.

Yet neither the Obama administration nor anyone at the UN ever bothers to point out that there is only one side in this contract that devotes its resources to inciting hatred and violence against their antagonists: the Palestinians. Until that imbalance is corrected, all the evenhanded rhetoric heard at the UN or anywhere else will be a waste of time.

Even dedicated peace processors like longtime State Department official Dennis Ross have long acknowledged that the principal failure of those pushing the implementation of the Oslo Accords was their decision to ignore Palestinian incitement. Back in the 1990s, discussions of how the Palestinians were laying the groundwork for a new campaign of terrorism was considered irrelevant or a distraction of the big picture in which Israel was being pressured to make more concessions to satisfy the Palestinians. That fatal mistake was Oslo’s undoing. But 20 years after the ecstatic reaction to the signing on the White House Lawn, President Obama is making the same mistake when he and Secretary of State John Kerry ignore the Palestinian campaign of hate.

Anyone who expects peace talks to succeed or to be meaningful when the same party that is supposedly negotiating with Israel is encouraging its people to treat terrorism against Jews as an act of heroism is deluding themselves. Allowing the PA to get away with saying one thing in English to the Western press and another in Arabic in their official media and school texts is a formula that will ensure that the mistakes of Oslo will be repeated.

The path to peace is not as simple as merely saying both sides have rights–though any formulation that accepts that Israel has rights in the dispute over Jerusalem and the West Bank rather than just security concerns, as Obama indicated, would be an improvement. But what is truly necessary is for the West to make it plain to Abbas and the PA that it cannot go on subsidizing terrorists like the Aqsa Brigades or eulogizing them when murderers are released from Israeli jails at the behest of the U.S. So long as that is the rule, it won’t matter what happens in the talks that Kerry has orchestrated with such great effort. Settlements can be negotiated and, as Israel has shown in the past, surrendered in the hope of real peace (a hope that has so far been disappointed). But the conflict will not end so long as the Palestinians and the rest of the Muslim and Arab world think there’s nothing wrong with killing Jews. If President Obama really wants to advance the cause of peace, he should focus on that point the next time he rises to the UN podium.

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Engagement Is Back

President Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran is back on track–this is the core message of the president’s speech earlier today at the United Nations General Assembly.

The president outlined his vision in January 2009, a few days before taking office, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, where he said that “We are going to have to take a new approach,” adding, “My belief is that engagement is the place to start” and that “a new emphasis on respect and a new willingness on being willing to talk” would guide his policy.

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President Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran is back on track–this is the core message of the president’s speech earlier today at the United Nations General Assembly.

The president outlined his vision in January 2009, a few days before taking office, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, where he said that “We are going to have to take a new approach,” adding, “My belief is that engagement is the place to start” and that “a new emphasis on respect and a new willingness on being willing to talk” would guide his policy.

But his “willingness on being willing” to talk got trampled over by the reality of Iran’s regime. Iranians rebelled against the regime’s blatant cheating at the June 2009 presidential elections, and blood started flowing. The president was initially incapable of denouncing the brutal repression in the streets of Tehran. After all, he was fresh from his barnstorming speech in Cairo, where he had publicly opened the door to Iran’s leaders for government-to-government engagement. He was just a few months away from his first Nowruz greetings in March 2009 when, for the first time since 1979, a U.S. president had spoken of “The Islamic Republic” of Iran, an implicit but important symbolic recognition that Iran’s regime was legitimate.

The protests against Iran’s fraudulent elections that broke out barely ten days after the Cairo speech did not square well with its underlying themes–and left the president in the embarrassing limbo of silence for far too long before a timid condemnation was finally uttered on June 20, 2009. But they were too hard to dismiss or ignore. It was heart-breaking, for those accustomed to seeing America as freedom’s sentinel in a world of tyranny, to compare the moral clarity of such leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or then French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Mr. Obama’s hesitation.

America’s novice president must have known that, because his tone got harder and his policy of engagement fell by the wayside.

But four years are long enough to paper over those turbulent days of June. Iran’s ruthlessness is nay a glitch for a president who, after passing on the opportunity to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians, has convincingly proven his talent for being morally outraged and politically callous at the same time. Besides, the culprits of that repression are no longer in power–Iran’s new president is only responsible for putting down rebellions in 1999 and 2003–far too long ago for anyone in a Western government to remember.

And so the president has come full circle, telling the world, from the UN podium, that “We are not seeking regime change” in Iran. Engagement is back.

The mullahs may rest assured–America is ready to throw the Green Movement and Iran’s jailed dissidents under the bus in exchange for resuming the engagement with Iran’s rulers, which President Obama had envisaged early on and which a stolen election and a cruel repression only temporarily derailed.

Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kerroubi can rot under house arrest–America is quite content to negotiate with their oppressors.

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A Leadership Vacuum? Obama Created It

President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations today contained much of the usual boilerplate material we’ve come to expect from any American president. The laundry list of international issues touched upon was voluminous. We learned that the president is almost as concerned about the situation in Mali as he is the Middle East peace process. He favors human rights whenever possible (no, we’re not cutting off ties with Egypt’s military government and rightly so) and would like very much to have some sort of diplomatic process with Iran so as to avoid having to keep his promise to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

There was much in the address that was commendable and some points that were risible, especially his insistence that diplomacy with Iran must be given a chance–as if more than a decade of futile efforts that have been used by Tehran to buy more time for their nuclear program had never happened. But one got the feeling that the most important audience for this speech was not so much at the world body but Congress and the American people. After Benghazi, the missteps in Egypt, the flubbed Syria crisis, and with every indication that he is about to punt on the imperative to stop Iran, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that the president has a coherent foreign policy that can be defended. But lost in the middle of his lengthy oration, Obama did at least try to come to grips with one of the core issues being debated in the country now: isolationism.

The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues aback home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.

Obama is largely right on both counts. But one of the main reasons why the spirit of isolationism is posing such a threat to a strong American foreign policy is five years of uninspiring leadership and administration failures that have made Rand Paul’s point of view look like a rational alternative.

Read More

President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations today contained much of the usual boilerplate material we’ve come to expect from any American president. The laundry list of international issues touched upon was voluminous. We learned that the president is almost as concerned about the situation in Mali as he is the Middle East peace process. He favors human rights whenever possible (no, we’re not cutting off ties with Egypt’s military government and rightly so) and would like very much to have some sort of diplomatic process with Iran so as to avoid having to keep his promise to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

There was much in the address that was commendable and some points that were risible, especially his insistence that diplomacy with Iran must be given a chance–as if more than a decade of futile efforts that have been used by Tehran to buy more time for their nuclear program had never happened. But one got the feeling that the most important audience for this speech was not so much at the world body but Congress and the American people. After Benghazi, the missteps in Egypt, the flubbed Syria crisis, and with every indication that he is about to punt on the imperative to stop Iran, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that the president has a coherent foreign policy that can be defended. But lost in the middle of his lengthy oration, Obama did at least try to come to grips with one of the core issues being debated in the country now: isolationism.

The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues aback home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.

Obama is largely right on both counts. But one of the main reasons why the spirit of isolationism is posing such a threat to a strong American foreign policy is five years of uninspiring leadership and administration failures that have made Rand Paul’s point of view look like a rational alternative.

Faced with a president who is committed to avoiding confrontation with the nation’s foes and rivals while also eager to use executive power to spy and employ drone attacks, it’s not hard to understand why so many Americans have grown weary and cynical about the need to engage with the world. Part of that was the fruit of the Bush administration’s unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But having run for office declaring his lack of interest in fighting terror or in promoting democracy abroad, it is difficult for this president to turn around and explain to the American people why the hated neo-cons were basically right to speak about American exceptionalism and the necessity for the U.S. to act on behalf of human rights.

If there is a potential leadership vacuum in the world it is the one that Barack Obama created with the incoherent zigzag course on which he has steered the country from crisis to crisis. After claiming credit for ending the war in Iraq that Bush had largely won by the time he left office, insulting allies like Israel and the Czech Republic, leading from behind in Libya, angering both the Islamists and the military in Egypt, and not leading at all on Syria and Iran, does Obama wonder why Americans think the government can’t be trusted to act abroad?

There is no doubt that the isolationist caucus in the Senate and House is gaining supporters on both sides of the aisle. But that is due as much to Barack Obama’s inability to make a case for a strong American foreign policy and to sustain it with action as it is to the ability of people like Rand Paul to call into question the need for the nation to remain engaged in the great struggle against Islamist terror and other totalitarian threats to freedom. But it is hard for the man who just got played like a piano by Vladimir Putin and seems ready to lie down for Hassan Rouhani’s fake charm offensive to issue a call to engage with the world that anyone can take seriously.

Rather than talking to his beloved U.N. about the need for a strong America in an address that was characteristically laced with caveats about grievances with the U.S. being justified, he should be telling this to Congress. Even better, perhaps he should give the same pep talk to himself the next time he feels himself about to punt on yet another foreign crisis.

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