Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 5, 2013

Va Lessons: ObamaCare v. the Tea Party

The Virginia governor’s race was supposed to prove how the Tea Party destroyed the GOP. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was supposed to be too extreme and too much of a right-winger to be competitive. McAuliffe, who had a double-digit lead as late as two weeks ago, was coasting to victory on the strength of the national disgust over the government shutdown that hit Northern Virginia with its large number of federal employees hard. But once the shutdown ended and the country began to take notice of the ObamaCare rollout fiasco, the dynamic in Virginia changed. While liberal pundits will probably be tying themselves in knots to discount the ObamaCare factor, there’s little question that Cuccinelli’s big comeback that wound up turning a rout into a narrow election was primarily due to the way the president’s signature health-care legislation changed the political mood of the nation. A website that didn’t work was one thing. But the last week, during which the president’s broken promises about keeping coverage were exposed (a problem made worse by the disingenuous spin by the president and his press spokesman), not only motivated more of the GOP base to turn out in Virginia but had to have lost Democrats some swing voters.

The real lessons from the Virginia vote turn out to be a lot more complicated than the simplistic idea that the Tea Party’s rise would lead to a permanent Democratic majority. The reason why Cuccinelli fell short in Virginia was due in part to the way the national party abandoned his cause and allowed him to be massively outspent. This is something angry Tea Partiers won’t forget. But they should also realize that the hole Cuccinelli was in two weeks ago was also due to the shutdown they had recklessly engineered. In the end, the two factors may have balanced each other out, leaving the real problem for the GOP the same one that sunk Mitt Romney there in 2012: changing demographics that have transformed a once red state into a purple or light blue one.

That factor will reassure Democrats that they are still the wave of the future. But rather than celebrate, they should be thinking about the way anger about ObamaCare can transform elections. Liberals may still be clinging to their belief that eventually the website will be fixed and everyone will love it. But the last week of anger about broken promises and dropped coverage should alert them to the likelihood that it will not only continue to be unpopular but will grow more so as its impact on rising premiums and the economy becomes more pronounced in 2014.

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The Virginia governor’s race was supposed to prove how the Tea Party destroyed the GOP. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was supposed to be too extreme and too much of a right-winger to be competitive. McAuliffe, who had a double-digit lead as late as two weeks ago, was coasting to victory on the strength of the national disgust over the government shutdown that hit Northern Virginia with its large number of federal employees hard. But once the shutdown ended and the country began to take notice of the ObamaCare rollout fiasco, the dynamic in Virginia changed. While liberal pundits will probably be tying themselves in knots to discount the ObamaCare factor, there’s little question that Cuccinelli’s big comeback that wound up turning a rout into a narrow election was primarily due to the way the president’s signature health-care legislation changed the political mood of the nation. A website that didn’t work was one thing. But the last week, during which the president’s broken promises about keeping coverage were exposed (a problem made worse by the disingenuous spin by the president and his press spokesman), not only motivated more of the GOP base to turn out in Virginia but had to have lost Democrats some swing voters.

The real lessons from the Virginia vote turn out to be a lot more complicated than the simplistic idea that the Tea Party’s rise would lead to a permanent Democratic majority. The reason why Cuccinelli fell short in Virginia was due in part to the way the national party abandoned his cause and allowed him to be massively outspent. This is something angry Tea Partiers won’t forget. But they should also realize that the hole Cuccinelli was in two weeks ago was also due to the shutdown they had recklessly engineered. In the end, the two factors may have balanced each other out, leaving the real problem for the GOP the same one that sunk Mitt Romney there in 2012: changing demographics that have transformed a once red state into a purple or light blue one.

That factor will reassure Democrats that they are still the wave of the future. But rather than celebrate, they should be thinking about the way anger about ObamaCare can transform elections. Liberals may still be clinging to their belief that eventually the website will be fixed and everyone will love it. But the last week of anger about broken promises and dropped coverage should alert them to the likelihood that it will not only continue to be unpopular but will grow more so as its impact on rising premiums and the economy becomes more pronounced in 2014.

Anyone who thinks this won’t be a factor a year from now as control of the Senate hangs in the balance is not paying attention to the reality of a dysfunctional program and a White House still wrapped up in denial of the larger problem. The growing unpopularity of the president and ObamaCare complicate any Democratic plans for the midterms. Democrats had a huge financial and demographic advantage in Virginia as well as a divided GOP and a false flag Libertarian candidate that might have taken votes away from the Republicans. But they still only managed a narrow victory. That’s a result that ought to convince many in the GOP that 2014 may still be a good year for them.

As for Tea Partiers, they will be right to be angry about the way some in the GOP were ready to let Cuccinelli lose. But they need to take responsibility for their own role in his defeat. While the liberal media will continue to beat the drums for the Democrats’ talking point about the faux GOP war on women, the shutdown is what killed Cuccinelli. The Tea Party is not the kiss of death some on the left contend it is, but the suicidal tactics it has urged on the GOP are a real problem. Without it, the nation would have been focused on ObamaCare weeks earlier and might have given him more of a chance. A repeat of that tactic in the coming year—something that Ted Cruz and others won’t take off the table—would be exactly what the Democrats need to get the public’s minds off Obama’s lies.

In other words, both parties have much to learn from the results. The party that absorbs these lessons best will likely triumph 12 months from now.

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Matthew Continetti: Why COMMENTARY Matters

Why does COMMENTARY matter? Since 1945, no other monthly magazine has so consistently published serious, provocative argument and analysis. No other monthly magazine has viewed America and the world through such a wide angle, encompassing economics, politics, society, culture, religion, and diplomacy. No other monthly magazine has published such a celebrated and wide-ranging list of editors and contributors. Cerebral, critical, and committed, the point of view found in its pages is as unique as it is formidable. And in a world of Iranian nukes, rising anti-Semitism, radical Islam, American disarmament, bipartisan neo-isolationism, and disintegrating institutions, reading COMMENTARY is more than a pleasure. It is a necessity.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

Why does COMMENTARY matter? Since 1945, no other monthly magazine has so consistently published serious, provocative argument and analysis. No other monthly magazine has viewed America and the world through such a wide angle, encompassing economics, politics, society, culture, religion, and diplomacy. No other monthly magazine has published such a celebrated and wide-ranging list of editors and contributors. Cerebral, critical, and committed, the point of view found in its pages is as unique as it is formidable. And in a world of Iranian nukes, rising anti-Semitism, radical Islam, American disarmament, bipartisan neo-isolationism, and disintegrating institutions, reading COMMENTARY is more than a pleasure. It is a necessity.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Is the U.S. Too Engaged in Peace Talks?

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

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Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

A large majority of Americans believe the U.S. should have minimal involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to the results of a new survey released by the Anti-Defamation League.

Some 62 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis to solve their own problems. Any lasting peace agreement between them must be reached with minimal involvement from the U.S.,” while only 29% agreed with the statement, “Peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will never take place without the leadership and involvement of the U.S. government.”

A few caveats: we don’t know what “minimal involvement” means exactly, so there is only so much we can take away from such results. Additionally, the ADL’s report on the poll seems to present only two options, so how the choices are phrased could make a real difference. And finally, it’s impossible to know just how much of the response to this question is intended as a referendum not on the broad contours of the peace process but on the hapless and often clueless chief American diplomat leading the charge, John Kerry.

With that said, the peace process fatigue is a good instinct. The series of events that led to Oslo and the famous handshake at the White House between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were part of a conscious peace process, admittedly, but one without the attention of later years. It’s no coincidence that this period was also the most productive diplomatic push of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even after the formal process got underway, the two sides were doing two things that were crucial to progress: keeping expectations modest and talking directly. And this was at a time long before the Likud Party officially adopted the model of “two states for two peoples” as its guiding force for the talks–even Rabin was famously uncomfortable with the idea of an independent Palestinian state–so there was plenty of reason on the Palestinian side to doubt Israel’s ability to carry out any comprehensive deal.

The problem is that when the sole superpower becomes closely involved (and at the time of the Madrid conference the Soviet Union was well on its way to dissolving, leaving the U.S. alone on the world stage), everyone’s incentives change. For the Americans, there is the lure of legacy. President George H.W. Bush was less susceptible to this than his successors because he already presided over America’s official emergence as the world’s great power. But politicians are only human, and the longer the conflict drags on, the more impressive “peace in the Middle East” appears.

The incentive structure got no better for the U.S. as time dragged on because of the natural evolution of the process. At first, vague notions of “peace” were seen as the objective. But after Bill Clinton left office and George W. Bush took over, the creation of a Palestinian state became the benchmark by which the conflict would be deemed “resolved.” The race to create a Palestinian state has run up against a by-now familiar obstacle: the sense of urgency among world opinion for a Palestinian state progressed while the actual task of state-building in the West Bank and Gaza stagnated.

The expectations game has been managed terribly by all involved, and the high profile of the peace process has become an obstacle. With their domestic populations–and the world–following along, Israeli and Palestinian leaders behave as though their every step is being watched closely, because it is. All the American attention has resulted, finally, in needing to lure the Palestinians to the table.

This is insanity. If the Palestinians have to be bribed to even enter negotiations, then they don’t have a desire to end the conflict. And Israeli leaders are not going to take major diplomatic risks if they’ve already spent their political capital on freeing Palestinian terrorists from jail or halting construction in Jewish communities for a process that keeps going nowhere. The United States has a constructive role to play in the peace process, but it’s not the one Kerry envisions. And the ADL polls suggests Americans are starting to agree.

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Islamist Tyrant Morsi’s No Martyr

The optics weren’t ideal for Secretary of State John Kerry. The day after he visited Egypt to try and mend fences with the country’s military government, deposed President Mohamed Morsi went on trial in Cairo during which he challenged that regime’s legitimacy and defied the court’s right to try him. The juxtaposition of these events was enough to earn Kerry a rhetorical spanking from the New York Times editorial page that chided him for backtracking on the administration’s effort to distance itself from the military after it deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in July. Kerry’s effort was late and clumsy, especially coming only a week after National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the Times that Egypt was just not a priority for Washington in the wake of its decision to cut military aid to Cairo. But however inept this administration’s Egypt policy has been, there should be no doubt about one thing: no one should be buying Morsi’s martyr act.

There’s little doubt that, as the Times indicated, the generals are hypocrites for trying Morsi for inciting the killing of protesters when they have been guilty of treating the Brotherhood in the same manner. The military is determined to crush the Brotherhood and Morsi has no chance of being acquitted of the charges. But even those like the Times and the people inside the administration that were happy to embrace the Brotherhood during its year of power need to admit that the deposed leader is almost certainly guilty. Moreover, though his deposition was the result of a coup, Morsi’s defiance of the court told us all we need to know about why the military decided to act after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his ouster.

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The optics weren’t ideal for Secretary of State John Kerry. The day after he visited Egypt to try and mend fences with the country’s military government, deposed President Mohamed Morsi went on trial in Cairo during which he challenged that regime’s legitimacy and defied the court’s right to try him. The juxtaposition of these events was enough to earn Kerry a rhetorical spanking from the New York Times editorial page that chided him for backtracking on the administration’s effort to distance itself from the military after it deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in July. Kerry’s effort was late and clumsy, especially coming only a week after National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the Times that Egypt was just not a priority for Washington in the wake of its decision to cut military aid to Cairo. But however inept this administration’s Egypt policy has been, there should be no doubt about one thing: no one should be buying Morsi’s martyr act.

There’s little doubt that, as the Times indicated, the generals are hypocrites for trying Morsi for inciting the killing of protesters when they have been guilty of treating the Brotherhood in the same manner. The military is determined to crush the Brotherhood and Morsi has no chance of being acquitted of the charges. But even those like the Times and the people inside the administration that were happy to embrace the Brotherhood during its year of power need to admit that the deposed leader is almost certainly guilty. Moreover, though his deposition was the result of a coup, Morsi’s defiance of the court told us all we need to know about why the military decided to act after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his ouster.

While denouncing his captors, Morsi declared that he was still the president of Egypt in the courtroom. Though his claim of a democratic mandate was undermined by his distinctly undemocratic behavior, he probably can make some claim to still hold office until a successor is elected. But the conceit of his stand is not so much that the coup is wrong, as it is that no one had a right to judge him: not the court, the military, nor the millions of protesters who sought his ouster.

Although the Brotherhood attained power via an election, their ouster should in no way be considered a blow to democracy. The Islamist leader seems to be taking the line that he is above the law. The Islamists have always refused to play by anyone’s rules but their own, so while it is true that his treatment may seem harsh, it is in keeping with the methods he sought to employ against his rivals. He is simply a tyrant who failed in his attempt to impose a totalitarian system on Egypt, not a martyr.

This is the core issue behind the debate about whether to punish the military for its efforts to crush the Brotherhood. Once in power, Morsi and his party had one goal: the imposition of its Islamist beliefs on the entire country and ensuring that no opposition would ever be allowed to make them accountable or to evict them from office. If the military has been able in the four months since the coup to decapitate the once popular Islamist party and to ensure that it has not been able to mount a serious terrorist threat against the new government, it is because many Egyptians who supported the Brotherhood as the only alternative to the Mubarak dictatorship now see that the cure was worse than the disease.

The conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game in which the only choices available to the West are the Brotherhood and the military. That’s why Kerry is right to start and retreat from the president’s foolish decisions on Egypt. As Eric Trager writes in The Atlantic, the Brotherhood is far from dead, and it will require vigilance in order to ensure that it will not again become a serious threat to Egypt or the region. But it should gain no traction or sympathy from Westerners who are moved by Morsi’s pleas and crocodile tears about the democratic process.

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Heather Mac Donald: COMMENTARY’s Inestimable Gift

Anyone looking for a definitive exposition of a significant historical moment—whether UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, say, or the battles over “general education” at Harvard—has at his fingertips an inestimable gift: COMMENTARY’s archives, which contain countless gems of reporting and analysis. Today’s generation of COMMENTARY writers is building an equally invaluable store of knowledge for future researchers and scholars. 

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

Anyone looking for a definitive exposition of a significant historical moment—whether UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, say, or the battles over “general education” at Harvard—has at his fingertips an inestimable gift: COMMENTARY’s archives, which contain countless gems of reporting and analysis. Today’s generation of COMMENTARY writers is building an equally invaluable store of knowledge for future researchers and scholars. 

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Get Ready for Christie Bashing

It is a cliché that failure is a better test of a person’s character than success. Like most clichés, there’s a lot of truth in this one. But as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is about to find out, there are certain kinds of success that bring with it even sterner tests than he might have faced had his career not been on the upward trajectory that it currently finds itself.

At this point, it seems certain that Christie’s landslide reelection tonight will be the start of a long run toward 2016 in which the governor will attempt to build on the idea that his triumphs in New Jersey are a harbinger of what he and his party can achieve on a national stage. But, as I first noted on Sunday, this will mean that his current status as the shining example of a reasonable, effective, and electable Republican in which he has been held up as an alternative to the Tea Party will probably change as far as much of the media is concerned. Once the dust settles from tonight’s celebration and probably even before that, taking down Christie may well replace attacks on Ted Cruz as the idée fixe of liberal journalists and pundits.

An earlier indication of that is the scuttlebutt coming out the new political book Double Down about the Mitt Romney camp’s vetting of Christie as a vice presidential candidate as well as Politico’s piece today alleging that the governor has a “tax problem.” The point is, the love that Christie has been getting from the mainstream media, while the right was blasting him for embracing President Obama after Hurricane Sandy or for criticizing House Republicans, is coming to an end as he transitions to being the most likely member of the GOP to replace the president.

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It is a cliché that failure is a better test of a person’s character than success. Like most clichés, there’s a lot of truth in this one. But as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is about to find out, there are certain kinds of success that bring with it even sterner tests than he might have faced had his career not been on the upward trajectory that it currently finds itself.

At this point, it seems certain that Christie’s landslide reelection tonight will be the start of a long run toward 2016 in which the governor will attempt to build on the idea that his triumphs in New Jersey are a harbinger of what he and his party can achieve on a national stage. But, as I first noted on Sunday, this will mean that his current status as the shining example of a reasonable, effective, and electable Republican in which he has been held up as an alternative to the Tea Party will probably change as far as much of the media is concerned. Once the dust settles from tonight’s celebration and probably even before that, taking down Christie may well replace attacks on Ted Cruz as the idée fixe of liberal journalists and pundits.

An earlier indication of that is the scuttlebutt coming out the new political book Double Down about the Mitt Romney camp’s vetting of Christie as a vice presidential candidate as well as Politico’s piece today alleging that the governor has a “tax problem.” The point is, the love that Christie has been getting from the mainstream media, while the right was blasting him for embracing President Obama after Hurricane Sandy or for criticizing House Republicans, is coming to an end as he transitions to being the most likely member of the GOP to replace the president.

Instead of basking in the adoration of his fans on YouTube, the coming months and years will find Christie increasingly in the cross-hairs of a liberal media that is hoping that someone like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul is the GOP nominee in 2016. Part of this focus will simply come with the territory of being a presidential candidate instead of a governor, albeit of a state that abuts the media capital of the nation. He will also suffer the burden of being the early front-runner in the Republican nomination race. While that is not always a kiss of death—despite his numerous problems and the burden of his own health-care bill, Romney survived to go on to win the GOP nomination—it is a lot harder to win from the pole position in politics than coming from behind because of the intense scrutiny that it brings.

This means that although Christie is right to say all the issues raised about his background have already been litigated in two statewide elections, every charge will be hashed and rehashed endlessly by journalists who paid little attention to what was said in New Jersey in 2009 or 2013. That will include legitimate questions about policy questions as well as the usual smears and distortions that are part and parcel of political debate.

To date, Christie has shown he has the intestinal fortitude to stand up to being vivisected by the press and to shine on the big stage of national politics. But what he has endured in the past will be nothing to what will follow this evening’s festivities. Liberals who have spent the last year trying to paint Cruz as the new Joe McCarthy won’t give up on that theme, but they will also be working hard to chip away at Christie’s well-earned reputation as a straight talker and man of integrity.

Moreover, instead of using his example to show up Cruz and other Tea Partiers, they will now try to link him to them. Part of this will be justified, since as New Jersey Democrats have asserted and as Christie will tell Republican audiences, he is a conservative and has largely governed as one.

But from this point on, the focus of Christie’s mainstream media coverage will increasingly turn from one burnishing his credentials as a politician that can reach across the aisle to one of damaging the Republicans’ best hope of winning the White House in 2016.

This is the sort of thing that would test the patience of any man. But it will be a crucial indication as to whether the notoriously thin-skinned Christie is ready for the trials of politics on a national level.

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Michael Oakeshott and Modern Conservatism

In a speech he presented to the biennial meeting of the Michael Oakeshott Association in September, the intellectual historian Wilfred McClay pointed out that conservatism is very much in a state of flux and uncertainty, even inner turmoil.

In the course of his remarks, McClay reflected on what Oakeshott’s understanding of conservatism might have to contribute to what passes as conservatism in the present day. Here, in part, is what Bill McClay said: 

Russell Kirk liked to cite a phrase of H. Stuart Hughes—an apt phrase from a most unlikely source—to the effect that conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” That may sound more like an admonition than a definition, but if so, such a warning would be fully in order. The lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism, as for any other modern political or social disposition, and there is even a danger that it can harden into a form of rationalism. Here is one place where the voice of Oakeshott can be of great help to us, in reminding those who associate themselves with conservatism that they betray their calling if they allow this hardening to occur unchallenged, and wed themselves to the application of abstract propositions without a consideration of the context and contingencies that affect their application. And his voice can remind them that prudential nimbleness and openness are things very different from unprincipled opportunism.

This is a very important point beautifully stated. And Professor McClay is quite right; the lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism (and for any political and religious movement, for that matter). The temptations of those of us who are committed to a political and religious philosophy/cause, always, is confirmation bias; that we go in search of facts to support pre-existing views; and that we self-segregate and inhabit a closed mental world in which we simply don’t allow counter-arguments and contrary empirical data to penetrate the walls we erect. We simply refuse to hold up our views to refinement and revision. (The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has spoken about this phenomenon with real insight.)

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In a speech he presented to the biennial meeting of the Michael Oakeshott Association in September, the intellectual historian Wilfred McClay pointed out that conservatism is very much in a state of flux and uncertainty, even inner turmoil.

In the course of his remarks, McClay reflected on what Oakeshott’s understanding of conservatism might have to contribute to what passes as conservatism in the present day. Here, in part, is what Bill McClay said: 

Russell Kirk liked to cite a phrase of H. Stuart Hughes—an apt phrase from a most unlikely source—to the effect that conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” That may sound more like an admonition than a definition, but if so, such a warning would be fully in order. The lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism, as for any other modern political or social disposition, and there is even a danger that it can harden into a form of rationalism. Here is one place where the voice of Oakeshott can be of great help to us, in reminding those who associate themselves with conservatism that they betray their calling if they allow this hardening to occur unchallenged, and wed themselves to the application of abstract propositions without a consideration of the context and contingencies that affect their application. And his voice can remind them that prudential nimbleness and openness are things very different from unprincipled opportunism.

This is a very important point beautifully stated. And Professor McClay is quite right; the lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism (and for any political and religious movement, for that matter). The temptations of those of us who are committed to a political and religious philosophy/cause, always, is confirmation bias; that we go in search of facts to support pre-existing views; and that we self-segregate and inhabit a closed mental world in which we simply don’t allow counter-arguments and contrary empirical data to penetrate the walls we erect. We simply refuse to hold up our views to refinement and revision. (The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has spoken about this phenomenon with real insight.)

This in turn can set off a mental and epistemological chain reaction, one in which we find ourselves eschewing, in principle, compromise (which would have one directly at odds with the framers of the American Constitution, which was itself a product of extraordinary compromises); celebrate pugilism above prudence; and find a kind of psychic satisfaction in attacking and excommunicating the impure within one’s ranks. This drift toward unconservative habits of thought is precisely why conservatism needs the influence of Oakeshott, whom McClay says is best understood as a corrective thinker rather than a foundational one.

Of course most discussions of Oakeshott are bound to touch on the importance of disposition, the way we view ourselves and the world around us. Which leads me to another scholar who has written wonderfully on Oakeshott.

In her 1975 essay (which is reprinted in this collection) on Oakeshott–one of the most respected intellectual spokesmen for 20th century British conservatism–the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said the key word describing the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.”

“The ‘conservative disposition,’” Himmelfarb wrote, “the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be, to appreciate the givens and the goods of life without wanting to subject them to social or political validation – that is a perfect description of his own temperament… Oakeshott’s conservatism, like his temperament, is something of a rarity these days.”

That is perhaps truer now than it has been in the past.

My impression is that among some on the right there is an increasing sense of around-the-clock agitation and desperation, which translates into shrillness and brittleness. One can sense, at least here and there, a spirit of ressentiment, or a “narrative of injury.” It’s the feeling that conservatives are a persecuted minority, combined with a growing rage and weariness with what they perceive to be the multiplying failures all around us.

What is missing, I think, is the sense of enjoyment, of gratitude, of what one writer of Oakeshott, Elizabeth Corey, has called the “disposition of delight.” (In describing the attitude of what Oakeshott called the Rationalist, who is the antithesis of the conservative, Corey writes, “The Rationalist is constitutionally incapable of contentment with any present state of affairs, because everything always falls short of his ideal and therefore is constantly in need of improvement.”)

In saying all this I don’t mean to underestimate the challenges our country faces (though it needs to be said that we have certainly faced graver situations than we find ourselves in right now). My point is simply that the disposition and temperament we bring to the task matters quite a lot.

Conservatives would be wise to unlearn the art of discontent and replace it with an undercurrent of hope. This is, after all, America.

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NY Times’s Sudden Aversion to Calling the President a Liar

Barack Obama’s election neatly coincided with the liberal left’s rediscovery of the value of civility in the public square. The time for derangement was over. Liberals remembered that they have had only modest success in outlawing political speech, and that when tempers flared they could be on the receiving end of overheated criticism now that they were back in power.

Among the results of the left’s newfound distaste for dissent was a suddenly self-censoring media. And, as evidenced by the New York Times’s rather amazing Sunday editorial on ObamaCare, giving the president the benefit of the doubt is back in vogue. The Times explained that when President Obama said that if you liked your health-care plan you could keep your health-care plan, period, he simply “misspoke.”

Believe it or not, the Times’s Andrew Rosenthal is defending the word choice. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a post yesterday afternoon responding to the criticism the Times has received on the editorial. She asked Rosenthal for an explanation. Here is his response:

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Barack Obama’s election neatly coincided with the liberal left’s rediscovery of the value of civility in the public square. The time for derangement was over. Liberals remembered that they have had only modest success in outlawing political speech, and that when tempers flared they could be on the receiving end of overheated criticism now that they were back in power.

Among the results of the left’s newfound distaste for dissent was a suddenly self-censoring media. And, as evidenced by the New York Times’s rather amazing Sunday editorial on ObamaCare, giving the president the benefit of the doubt is back in vogue. The Times explained that when President Obama said that if you liked your health-care plan you could keep your health-care plan, period, he simply “misspoke.”

Believe it or not, the Times’s Andrew Rosenthal is defending the word choice. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a post yesterday afternoon responding to the criticism the Times has received on the editorial. She asked Rosenthal for an explanation. Here is his response:

“We have a high threshold for whether someone lied,” he told me. The phrase that The Times used “means that he said something that wasn’t true.” Saying the president lied would have meant something different, Mr. Rosenthal said — that he knew it was false and intended to express the falsehood. “We don’t know that,” he said.

It may be honorable for the media to be more sparing with accusations of outright lying. But that is most certainly not the Times’s standard. Rosenthal’s spin about the paper’s “high threshold” is arrant nonsense, and the paper’s readers presumably know this. In January 2006, the Times published an editorial criticizing George W. Bush and calling attention to what the Times pronounced as “a couple of big, dangerous lies.”

What were those two “lies”? The first was that the Bush administration’s domestic spying apparatus “is carefully aimed” at those working with al-Qaeda, when in fact by the Times’s lights the program “has violated the rights of countless innocent Americans.” That’s some fairly clumsy–and dishonest–sleight of hand from the Times in what amounts to a disagreement over just how “careful” the surveillance had been. What was the other “lie”? That with the domestic surveillance now in place 9/11 could have been prevented. Perhaps that is an unlikely justification, but any threshold which considers that a “lie” is low indeed.

The idea that Bush “lied” the country into war with Iraq has long since been debunked: Bush, like those around him and our allies, was fooled by the faulty intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But the Times editorial board painted Bush as a serial liar on the matter. In December 2008, reflecting on the Bush tenure, the Times published an editorial growling that it was by then public knowledge that “Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney manipulated Congress, public opinion and anyone else they could bully or lie to.” Does the accusation–again, by then conclusively debunked–that Bush was a compulsive liar meet the “high threshold” the paper now claims governs its use of the word? Of course not.

Two years earlier the paper’s editorial board lamented that Bush needed “a blue ribbon commission” to tell him that “Government officials should not lie to the public.” It appears that the left, including the Times, was quite liberal with its use of the “l” word to an extent that rivaled the left’s obsession with calling Bush a fascist.

Yet aside from the Times’s obvious hypocrisy on the issue, there is another critique of the Times editorial. Even if it isn’t true that the Times has a high threshold for calling someone a liar, we could argue that they should. As I noted earlier, it would behoove the Times to live up the standards to which it pretends to adhere. Yet even so, Rosenthal presents what the president might call a “false choice.” Certainly there is something in between “liar” and saying the president “misspoke.”

Sullivan pointed this out in her correspondence with Rosenthal:

But “misspoke” does suggest a one-time slip of the tongue.

Wouldn’t it have been better, I asked Mr. Rosenthal, if the editorial had said that Mr. Obama’s statements “clearly weren’t true,” or that the president “was clearly wrong” when he repeatedly made those statements?

He responded that the editorial’s language was fine, but he also allowed, “We could have done that.”

The president did not have a “one-time slip of the tongue,” of course. Obama made the promise repeatedly and without qualification. We now know that, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the decision to make this promise was made knowing that it was inaccurate and after a debate within the administration over whether to be frank about ObamaCare or not.

The president obviously decided that accuracy was a luxury the administration could not afford if it was to get its agenda through Congress. The Times should be encouraged to be discerning when accusing the president of being a liar. But were the Times to show such restraint, it would be new indeed.

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Obama and Carney Talk Down to the Idiots

The viral political video clip of the day is the one in which White House Press Secretary Jay Carney loses it during his exchange with ABC’s Jon Karl when the latter pressed him about the latest twist in the ObamaCare fiasco. Karl pointed out that contrary to the assertion by President Obama, even those who bypass the dysfunctional website are forced to wait in the same line when they try to apply by phone or in person. Since those who assist the people who employ those methods must use the same website and thus be stuck in the same queue, Carney wasn’t quite telling the truth when he said it would take only 25 minutes to apply that way. In response, Carney began mocking Karl, condescendingly dismissing the question and acting as if somehow the veteran reporter wasn’t quite smart enough to understand his somewhat disingenuous spin of the president’s latest fibs.

That Carney lost the room a long time ago is well known. Rather than work with the press to explain the administration’s stands, Carney seems to spend his daily briefing lecturing them and barely containing his frustration and anger when they don’t buy his spin. But while this is pretty much the opposite of what a press secretary should be doing, Carney is merely reflecting the attitude of his boss. That was made plain by the president’s speech yesterday to an adoring crowd of Democratic party workers and health-care activists in which he used the same tone in explaining his infamous lie about promising Americans that if they liked their health-care plan, they could keep it under ObamaCare. Unlike Carney, who was just talking down to a room full of journalists, the president was talking down to the American people as if they were too stupid to follow along with the permutations of his tortured explanations.

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The viral political video clip of the day is the one in which White House Press Secretary Jay Carney loses it during his exchange with ABC’s Jon Karl when the latter pressed him about the latest twist in the ObamaCare fiasco. Karl pointed out that contrary to the assertion by President Obama, even those who bypass the dysfunctional website are forced to wait in the same line when they try to apply by phone or in person. Since those who assist the people who employ those methods must use the same website and thus be stuck in the same queue, Carney wasn’t quite telling the truth when he said it would take only 25 minutes to apply that way. In response, Carney began mocking Karl, condescendingly dismissing the question and acting as if somehow the veteran reporter wasn’t quite smart enough to understand his somewhat disingenuous spin of the president’s latest fibs.

That Carney lost the room a long time ago is well known. Rather than work with the press to explain the administration’s stands, Carney seems to spend his daily briefing lecturing them and barely containing his frustration and anger when they don’t buy his spin. But while this is pretty much the opposite of what a press secretary should be doing, Carney is merely reflecting the attitude of his boss. That was made plain by the president’s speech yesterday to an adoring crowd of Democratic party workers and health-care activists in which he used the same tone in explaining his infamous lie about promising Americans that if they liked their health-care plan, they could keep it under ObamaCare. Unlike Carney, who was just talking down to a room full of journalists, the president was talking down to the American people as if they were too stupid to follow along with the permutations of his tortured explanations.

The president claimed that there was no difference between what he was saying for three years about ObamaCare and today. After all, if the health insurance that people had was grandfathered in before the 2010 passage of the bill, they were OK. “What we said was you could keep it if it hadn’t changed since the law was passed,” Obama impatiently snarled. And didn’t people understand that there was always “churn” in insurance markets. The president didn’t bother to hide the thinly veiled condescension in these comments.

Of course, for three years he didn’t add the “if”–the guarantee was unconditional. But the point here is that this is a president who never thinks he should be called to account for his past statements or behavior. After all, this is the same man who claimed over and over again while he was in the Senate that the troop surge in Iraq in 2007 would lead to more violence and accomplish nothing. Yet once in office, he claimed the surge as his own and then pretended that everything he had said about it actually meant the opposite of what he meant at the time. The same rule applies to his Senate vote against raising the debt ceiling. In the past year, he has characterized Republicans who used the same tactic to try and stop his policies are nothing less than anarchists trying to destroy the government. But now he claims when he did exactly the same thing to George W. Bush, it was not only different but also somehow acceptable.

That this is hypocritical is obvious. But there is more to hypocrisy in the president’s explanations of the huge gap between what he says and the truth. Implicit in every explanation is his exasperation with those who won’t think along with him as he schemes his way through political controversies. It’s not just that the public and the press aren’t buying his spin, it’s that he seems to think we’re too stupid to understand that his noble motives and great intellect should allow him the sort of leeway that isn’t granted to lesser mortals. What the president—and his press secretary—is doing is not so much explaining the administration’s policies as talking down to the rubes that they govern. In doing so, Obama is playing not so much the democratic leader as the benevolent despot who knows what’s best for the peasants.

That presidents and their minions eventually become so accustomed to power and so frustrated with the need to be accountable in a democracy isn’t a new phenomenon. But this administration’s second term seems to be sinking into this morass in which all other lame ducks have found themselves, with a lack of grace or a sense of their own implausibility that few of its predecessors could match.

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Turkey Seeks More Gender Segregation

While Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) depicts itself to the West as committed to democratic reforms, increasingly it has moved to impose its conservative religious vision upon Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has instructed women to have at least three children, and promised lawmakers that his goal was to raise a religious generation of youth in Turkey. Now, he has gone further, and spoken out against university dormitories which house both men and women. According to a Hürriyet Daily News report:

“This is against our conservative, democratic character,” the prime minister said during a closed-door meeting Nov. 3 with Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies at a key party meeting in Ankara’s Kızılcahamam district. “We witnessed this in the province of Denizli. The insufficiency of dormitories causes problems. Male and female university students are staying in the same house. This is not being checked,” Erdoğan said, voicing his displeasure with the situation.

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While Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) depicts itself to the West as committed to democratic reforms, increasingly it has moved to impose its conservative religious vision upon Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has instructed women to have at least three children, and promised lawmakers that his goal was to raise a religious generation of youth in Turkey. Now, he has gone further, and spoken out against university dormitories which house both men and women. According to a Hürriyet Daily News report:

“This is against our conservative, democratic character,” the prime minister said during a closed-door meeting Nov. 3 with Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies at a key party meeting in Ankara’s Kızılcahamam district. “We witnessed this in the province of Denizli. The insufficiency of dormitories causes problems. Male and female university students are staying in the same house. This is not being checked,” Erdoğan said, voicing his displeasure with the situation.

While the more politically savvy AKP officials serve in Ankara and Istanbul and so show a more cosmopolitan face to Western interlocutors, the true face of the AKP is in the provinces. Here, some officials are even more extreme. As Hürriyet continued, “Last August, a provincial education director in Trabzon had caused public outrage after lamenting that female and male students were using the same sets of stairs on the way to their rooms.”

Many Turkish liberals are placing hopes that upcoming mayoral elections in Istanbul might reverse the past decade of remarkable AKP success. Alas, even if the opposition wins Istanbul, Turkey may already be too far gone for it to matter, as the birthrates among Kurds and the more conservative Anatolians remain higher than those of more Middle Class, Western-leaning Turks.

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