Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 30, 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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