Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 15, 2013

Must Good Presidents Be Ex-Governors?

Yesterday at the end of an interview with Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy threw in an interesting kicker to his criticism of President Obama’s handling of budget issues and his refusal to negotiate with the GOP:

This is why this system is not working. I’m a firm believer that I don’t think anybody should become president if they haven’t been a governor first. A governor picks a cabinet, has to work with both sides, can’t print more money, has to have a balanced budget. The challenge in Washington is the ability to work together.

Is he right? We’ll leave aside the question of whether he was expressing tacit support for the GOP governors in the conversation for 2016 like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Bobby Jindal and opposition to senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and limit our discussion to one about the past.

Democrats will dispute McCarthy’s characterization of President Obama as a dysfunctional leader unused to the business of running a government, but an objective look at this administration (especially in the wake of the president’s confession that he didn’t know what was happening with ObamaCare before the rollout fiasco began just as he claimed to first learn of the IRS scandal from the newspapers and about Benghazi after it was all over) gives weight to McCarthy’s point of view. Government is now more complicated than ever, and keeping the moving parts from pulling apart while also managing the political system is essential to being an effective president. But it’s not clear that history proves McCarthy’s point. While administrative experience is important, not all good presidents have had it. And not all former governors to serve in the White House have been great presidents.

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Yesterday at the end of an interview with Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy threw in an interesting kicker to his criticism of President Obama’s handling of budget issues and his refusal to negotiate with the GOP:

This is why this system is not working. I’m a firm believer that I don’t think anybody should become president if they haven’t been a governor first. A governor picks a cabinet, has to work with both sides, can’t print more money, has to have a balanced budget. The challenge in Washington is the ability to work together.

Is he right? We’ll leave aside the question of whether he was expressing tacit support for the GOP governors in the conversation for 2016 like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Bobby Jindal and opposition to senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and limit our discussion to one about the past.

Democrats will dispute McCarthy’s characterization of President Obama as a dysfunctional leader unused to the business of running a government, but an objective look at this administration (especially in the wake of the president’s confession that he didn’t know what was happening with ObamaCare before the rollout fiasco began just as he claimed to first learn of the IRS scandal from the newspapers and about Benghazi after it was all over) gives weight to McCarthy’s point of view. Government is now more complicated than ever, and keeping the moving parts from pulling apart while also managing the political system is essential to being an effective president. But it’s not clear that history proves McCarthy’s point. While administrative experience is important, not all good presidents have had it. And not all former governors to serve in the White House have been great presidents.

Of the 43 men who have served as president, 21 of them have been governors–though if we limit that to governors of states (Andrew Jackson was military governor of Florida before it became a state and William Howard Taft ruled the Philippines and Cuba as governor when they were possessions of the United States) that number goes down to 19. That list includes some that many historians consider great or near great. Among those consensus picks are Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt (though his time as governor of New York was brief), and Thomas Jefferson (whose service as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War is chiefly remembered for his famous skedaddle on horseback when the British invaded the state).

But if we expand our list to more recent presidents—about whom opinion is still influenced by partisan loyalties—you must include Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. I believe Reagan ranks among the unquestionably great. However, I think Clinton a skilled politician who benefited from the good luck of serving during a period of peace and prosperity that had little to do with his efforts. But let’s include him among the positives for argument’s sake. Other former governors whose service adds strength to McCarthy’s argument are Calvin Coolidge (whose stock has justifiably gone up in recent years as the hangover from the New Deal’s condemnation of the 1920s wore off), William McKinley, James Polk, and James Monroe.

But some former governors undermine McCarthy’s point. The most prominent example of a terrible president with executive experience on the state level is, of course, Jimmy Carter. But Andrew Johnson (a former governor of Tennessee who may well have merited his impeachment at the hands of his Radical Republican foes in Congress) gives the peanut farmer a run for his money in that category.

Opinion may be split about two other former governors.

George W. Bush left office among the most reviled presidents in memory, but I would contend that history will be kinder to him than his contemporaries even if no one will ever consider him great.

Many students of history consider Woodrow Wilson great or near great, but I dissent from that view. Indeed, the collapse of his second term (even before his illness rendered him helpless and left his wife more or less in charge of the country) illustrates how a former governor failed to demonstrate exactly those skills that McCarthy claims are essential: the ability to work with members of the opposition.

But the list of non-governors to serve as president is just as instructive.

Our two greatest presidents never ran a state before taking office: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps leading the Continental Army constitutes executive experience for Washington, but Lincoln never was charge of anything bigger than his law office before assuming the presidency at the most crucial point in our history.

Other non-governors to add luster to their side of their ledger are Dwight Eisenhower (though his post as military leader of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War Two was probably more a test of his political and diplomatic talent than his military acumen) and Harry Truman.

That said, the roster of really bad presidents is thick with non-governors. That includes 19thcentury duds like Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and perhaps the worst of all, James Buchanan along with U.S. Grant, who must be considered one of the runners-up in that category. But we must also include 20thcentury disasters such as Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover (unjustly blamed for the Depression but still a failure), and Richard Nixon. I would add Barack Obama to this list but as bad as his conduct of policy at home and abroad has been, he does have three more years to change my opinion … or make it worse.

Others who never ran a state fall somewhere in the middle: George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam cancels out his domestic achievements), John Kennedy (I know we’re commemorating the 50th anniversary of this death this month but despite the attempt of some conservatives to claim him as one of their own and the efforts of liberals to keep him as one of their patron saints, nothing he did in his less than three years in office makes him great or damns him as one of the worst, unless you’re counting personal conduct).

Thus, the verdict here must be considered inconclusive.

I’ll concede that in the 21stcentury as government has grown to a size our Founders could not have imagined, perhaps that means executive experience means more today than it has in the past. But what this exercise should teach us is that presidential greatness depends more on leadership skills and moral authority than it does on a resume. As I look at the list of potential contenders in 2016, perhaps the current and former governors there look more credible to me than the Senate loudmouths. But none of them are guaranteed to be able to duplicate their success in statehouses once they sit in the Oval Office. Nor can we know for sure that a senator is not qualified to do so, though if I had to bet on it, I’d guess Cruz and Paul wouldn’t be any more successful in the unlikely event of their being elected than Obama has been.

What we need is a leader, whether he comes from a statehouse, Congress, or private life. We can only hope that Divine Providence and the will of the voters provide us with one.

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Hurricane ObamaCare and the Lame Duck

Even at the time, many of President Bush’s supporters knew what they were witnessing was the effective end of his ability to control events. Hurricane Katrina was the turning point of the George W. Bush administration. The last moment when the Real Clear Politics average of polls measuring Bush’s job approval was a net positive was in early May of 2005. But the impact of Hurricane Katrina a few months later was the point at which the accumulated discontent about the bloody and inconclusive war in Iraq metastasized into a general impression of dysfunction and failure. Though the widely held belief that Bush was to blame for the suffering of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf coast was based more on the reporting of a biased media and partisan exploitation of the problem than reality, it didn’t matter. Bush would achieve a remarkable turnaround in Iraq in 2007 that left his successor a war that was largely won (and situation that successor would largely squander), but his job approval never recovered. It would stay negative for the remainder of his term and even sink as low as 25 percent in his final months in office.

Barack Obama is not quite there yet, but the ObamaCare fiasco that the president is trying, probably in vain, to rescue with questionable fixes may turn out to be his hurricane. The current RCP job approval average is only 41.5 percent, an all-time low for this president. The RCPC average for those disapproving of his performance is 54.2 percent, another all-time Obama high. Two recent polls, Quinnipiac and Pew Research, show him at only 39 percent approval. If you compare Obama’s numbers today with his predecessor’s at the comparable point in his presidency months after Katrina, you discover the startling result that he is now viewed as negatively as the much-abused Bush was. That point hasn’t escaped the notice of some of the president’s most ardent supporters in the mainstream press. When the New York Times is ready to speculate about the parallels to Bush on its front page, a watershed moment has arrived. Obama was reelected with the help of an adoring press (a luxury Bush didn’t enjoy when he won his second term) but a spring and summer of scandals and legislative failures has now been followed by a famous broken promise that he may never live down.

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Even at the time, many of President Bush’s supporters knew what they were witnessing was the effective end of his ability to control events. Hurricane Katrina was the turning point of the George W. Bush administration. The last moment when the Real Clear Politics average of polls measuring Bush’s job approval was a net positive was in early May of 2005. But the impact of Hurricane Katrina a few months later was the point at which the accumulated discontent about the bloody and inconclusive war in Iraq metastasized into a general impression of dysfunction and failure. Though the widely held belief that Bush was to blame for the suffering of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf coast was based more on the reporting of a biased media and partisan exploitation of the problem than reality, it didn’t matter. Bush would achieve a remarkable turnaround in Iraq in 2007 that left his successor a war that was largely won (and situation that successor would largely squander), but his job approval never recovered. It would stay negative for the remainder of his term and even sink as low as 25 percent in his final months in office.

Barack Obama is not quite there yet, but the ObamaCare fiasco that the president is trying, probably in vain, to rescue with questionable fixes may turn out to be his hurricane. The current RCP job approval average is only 41.5 percent, an all-time low for this president. The RCPC average for those disapproving of his performance is 54.2 percent, another all-time Obama high. Two recent polls, Quinnipiac and Pew Research, show him at only 39 percent approval. If you compare Obama’s numbers today with his predecessor’s at the comparable point in his presidency months after Katrina, you discover the startling result that he is now viewed as negatively as the much-abused Bush was. That point hasn’t escaped the notice of some of the president’s most ardent supporters in the mainstream press. When the New York Times is ready to speculate about the parallels to Bush on its front page, a watershed moment has arrived. Obama was reelected with the help of an adoring press (a luxury Bush didn’t enjoy when he won his second term) but a spring and summer of scandals and legislative failures has now been followed by a famous broken promise that he may never live down.

As the Times rightly notes:

For the first time in Mr. Obama’s presidency, surveys suggest that his reserve of good will among the public is running dry. Two polls in recent weeks have reported that a majority of Americans no longer trust the president or believe that he is being honest with them.

It’s not just that the president’s rambling if contrite press conference yesterday and the confusing fix to his signature health-care plan is unlikely to change public opinion about ObamaCare or do anything but turn an already bad situation into an even bigger mess. It’s that we’ve arrived at the point when the Obama magic has disappeared. Much of the good will that the president could bank as a result of his historic status as our first African-American president and the hopes he engendered for genuine change has evaporated. He is now just a standard-issue lame duck with a credibility gap that can easily match those of any of his predecessors.

This is hard for the president and his inner circle to accept because they live in a liberal echo chamber where his opponents are dismissed as fools, extremists, and scoundrels. Many still hold onto hope that once ObamaCare is implemented it will become popular. But the rollout has revealed to the nation that the ranks of ObamaCare losers are largely made up of the middle class he pledged to protect. The pain that is just starting to be felt by ordinary Americans from this plan has soured the public’s view of a president that has previously had a Teflon image impervious to Republican attacks.

President Obama has often defied the rules of political gravity, but this may be the point where the rules of physics kick in. No second-term incumbent has ever recovered his popularity once he sunk to the levels that Obama has now reached. Moreover, contrary to Democratic hopes, the health-care boondoggle promises only to get worse in the coming year as the government’s intervention into one-sixth of the nation’s economy increases the pain felt by millions. The measure by which he had hoped to be remembered in history may yet serve to do so, but not for good. Much to his surprise, the Affordable Care Act is his hurricane and it is sinking his second term. Like Bush and others who crashed and burned once they had been reelected, Obama has lost the confidence of the American people. His presidency isn’t over and he has three years to either do further damage—as he appears intent on doing with his rush to appease Iran—but the era in which he could count on his unique status to protect him against failure and scandals has come to an end.

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Correct Translation? The UN Is a Joke

That the United Nations long ago became a cesspool of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incitement is not news. Indeed, the prejudice against the State of Israel that is on display at virtually every General Assembly session as well as those of its component agencies, especially those supposed to be devoted to the cause of human rights, is so blatant that few involved even bother to deny the disproportionate nature of the proceedings. While the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians has created victims on both sides, the numbers of those who are affected or even inconvenienced are miniscule compared to far greater ongoing tragedies in nearby Arab and Muslim countries or elsewhere in Africa and Asia. But when it comes to the world body, all other causes are mere sideshows when compared to the crusade against Israel. But it’s nice to know that at least some of those who work within the UN are aware of this travesty.

That was made manifest yesterday when the GA voted on nine separate resolutions condemning Israel while ignoring every other conflict on the globe, almost all of which concern far greater numbers of people. But the monotony of this ritualized singling out of the Jews for sacrifice was broken when, during the course of the votes in which 150 or more UN members voted in lockstep against Israel, one of the translators was heard to comment on the absurd nature of what she was forced to transmit. Speaking over a hot mic that caught her genuine feelings about the proceedings, the anonymous translator said the following at the 1:55 mark of this instant UN YouTube classic:

I think when you have… like a total of ten resolutions on Israel and Palestine, there’s gotta be something, c’est un peu trop, non? I mean I know… There’s other really bad s**t happening, but no one says anything about the other stuff.

Never have truer words been spoken at the United Nations.

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That the United Nations long ago became a cesspool of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incitement is not news. Indeed, the prejudice against the State of Israel that is on display at virtually every General Assembly session as well as those of its component agencies, especially those supposed to be devoted to the cause of human rights, is so blatant that few involved even bother to deny the disproportionate nature of the proceedings. While the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians has created victims on both sides, the numbers of those who are affected or even inconvenienced are miniscule compared to far greater ongoing tragedies in nearby Arab and Muslim countries or elsewhere in Africa and Asia. But when it comes to the world body, all other causes are mere sideshows when compared to the crusade against Israel. But it’s nice to know that at least some of those who work within the UN are aware of this travesty.

That was made manifest yesterday when the GA voted on nine separate resolutions condemning Israel while ignoring every other conflict on the globe, almost all of which concern far greater numbers of people. But the monotony of this ritualized singling out of the Jews for sacrifice was broken when, during the course of the votes in which 150 or more UN members voted in lockstep against Israel, one of the translators was heard to comment on the absurd nature of what she was forced to transmit. Speaking over a hot mic that caught her genuine feelings about the proceedings, the anonymous translator said the following at the 1:55 mark of this instant UN YouTube classic:

I think when you have… like a total of ten resolutions on Israel and Palestine, there’s gotta be something, c’est un peu trop, non? I mean I know… There’s other really bad s**t happening, but no one says anything about the other stuff.

Never have truer words been spoken at the United Nations.

Of course, as soon as she realized that the official broadcast of the meeting was picking up her comments, the translator apologized repeatedly while the official running this kangaroo court merely smiled and noted that there had been “a problem with the interpretation” as some nervous laughter was heard. Undaunted by the unscheduled bout of candor, the delegates went on and finished their work passing a few more anti-Israel resolutions before patting themselves on the back for their principled support for human rights and adjourned.

As UN Watch’s Hillel Neuer wrote about this in the Times of Israel:

By the end of its annual legislative session next month, the General Assembly will have adopted a total of 22 resolutions condemning Israel—and only four on the rest of the world combined. The hypocrisy, selectivity, and politicization are staggering.

As Neuer rightly notes, one of the resolutions condemned Israel’s continued presence in the Golan Heights, which it took from Syria in a defensive war in 1967. Since then, various Syrian dictators have turned down several feelers from Israel about negotiating a withdrawal as the Assad clan preferred a continuation of the conflict to peace since the strife helped prop up their dictatorship. But no matter what one thinks about the rights and wrongs of that issue, the fact that Syria came up at the UN this week with Israel without one mention of the brutality of the Assad regime or the fact that over 100,000 have been killed during the civil war there is considered unremarkable. Israel was unfairly condemned for being on the Golan and for supposedly mistreating Syrian citizens, but the world body could find no time to address Assad’s ongoing depredations or his use of illegal chemical weapons to slaughter his foes.

Nor, during the course of the standard flaying of the Jews for building communities in Jerusalem and the West or for having the temerity to defend themselves against terrorists, did the UN pause even for a moment to condemn Palestinian terrorism against Israel, the tyranny of the Hamas rulers of Gaza, or the fomenting of hatred and anti-Semitism on official Palestinian Authority print and broadcast outlets.

Only Israel’s alleged wrongs are worthy of discussion and censor at the UN. Everything else is merely an unimportant detail to be swept under the rung no matter how many lives are lost or how awful the circumstances.

Let there be no mistake that what is on display there is nothing short of anti-Semitism no matter how high-minded those involved pretend to be. By treating the one Jewish state by a different standard than every other country and singling it out for condemnation for acting no differently than any other sovereign state under attack, the UN is promoting and practicing prejudice.

It would be nice to think this incident will set off some serious soul searching in Washington about a change in attitude toward the UN. But given President Obama’s infatuation with the world body, that is about as likely to happen as him conceding that ObamaCare was a mistake. We should be grateful to this translator and must hope that she has not been fired for her offensive truth telling. But the real shame here is that civilized people, including the government of the United States, still treat the UN as if it were a legitimate institution rather than a parody of world government run by a corrupt gang of anti-Semites.

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Norway Moves Against Circumcision

Almost one year after Chancellor Angela Merkel successfully leaned on the German parliament to pass legislation guaranteeing the rights of parents to have their infant boys circumcised, the practice is now under threat in another European country. This week, Norway’s health minister, Bent Hoie, announced that new legislation is in the pipeline to “regulate ritual circumcision.”

Hoie took his cue from Anne Lindboe, Norway’s children’s ombudsman, who believes that “non-medical circumcision”–in other words, circumcision of boys in accordance with the laws of both Judaism and Islam–is a violation of children’s rights. JTA quoted Lindboe as having told the leading Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten: “This is not due to any lack of understanding of minorities or religious traditions, but because the procedure is irreversible, painful and risky.”

Lindboe is certainly not a lone voice in this debate. A large number of parliamentarians from the opposition Labor Party have expressed support for a ban, while the Center Party, which controls 10 of the seats in Norway’s 169-member legislature, is officially in favor. Small wonder, then, that Ervin Kohn, the head of Norway’s tiny Jewish community of 700 souls, has described the issue as an “existential matter.” Clearly, the push factors that led nearly 50 percent of Jews in Belgium, Hungary, and France to confess, in a survey on anti-Semitism conducted by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, that they are considering emigration have manifested in Norway also.

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Almost one year after Chancellor Angela Merkel successfully leaned on the German parliament to pass legislation guaranteeing the rights of parents to have their infant boys circumcised, the practice is now under threat in another European country. This week, Norway’s health minister, Bent Hoie, announced that new legislation is in the pipeline to “regulate ritual circumcision.”

Hoie took his cue from Anne Lindboe, Norway’s children’s ombudsman, who believes that “non-medical circumcision”–in other words, circumcision of boys in accordance with the laws of both Judaism and Islam–is a violation of children’s rights. JTA quoted Lindboe as having told the leading Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten: “This is not due to any lack of understanding of minorities or religious traditions, but because the procedure is irreversible, painful and risky.”

Lindboe is certainly not a lone voice in this debate. A large number of parliamentarians from the opposition Labor Party have expressed support for a ban, while the Center Party, which controls 10 of the seats in Norway’s 169-member legislature, is officially in favor. Small wonder, then, that Ervin Kohn, the head of Norway’s tiny Jewish community of 700 souls, has described the issue as an “existential matter.” Clearly, the push factors that led nearly 50 percent of Jews in Belgium, Hungary, and France to confess, in a survey on anti-Semitism conducted by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, that they are considering emigration have manifested in Norway also.

The Norwegian developments follow the October vote by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a 47-member body that is not institutionally linked to the EU, recommending restrictions on ritual circumcision. The ensuing outcry among European Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians led a nervous Thorbjorn Jaglund, the council’s secretary-general, to assure the Conference of European Rabbis “that in no way does the Council of Europe want to ban the circumcision of boys.” But given that the Council of Europe has no control over national legislatures, that statement is essentially toothless.

The abiding question here is why hostility to ritual circumcision has become such a hot topic in European states. When it comes to circumcision, the kinds of survivors groups that push for tougher legislation on, say, child sexual abuse or violence against women simply don’t exist. Hence, if the vast majority of men who have undergone ritual circumcision aren’t clamoring for a ban, why the insistence on portraying them as victims?

According to Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the head of the Conference of European Rabbis, the anti-circumcision campaign is an integral component of a continent-wide “offensive” against Muslim communities, in which Jews represent “collateral damage.” There is some merit to this view, yet it ignores the fact that legal measures against Jewish ritual have a long and dishonorable pedigree in Europe. It’s widely known that the Nazis banned shechita, or Jewish ritual slaughter, three months after coming to power in 1933, but they were beaten to the punch by Switzerland in 1893 and Norway in 1930–and you don’t need to be an expert on European history to know that there were no Muslim communities of any meaningful size in these countries when these legislative bills were passed. 

Moreover, it can be argued that by grouping male circumcision with the horrific practice of female genital mutilation, which in Europe mainly afflicts women from Muslim countries, the Council of Europe was going out of its way not to target Muslim communities specifically. In a classic example of the cultural relativism that plagues European institutions, its resolution on the “physical integrity of children” listed as matters of concern, “…female genital mutilation, the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons, early childhood medical interventions in the case of intersex children, and the submission to or coercion of children into piercings, tattoos or plastic surgery.”

As this week’s edition of the Economist argues, this categorization is nonsensical:

Our intuition tells us that the circumcision of baby boys is probably okay, at worst harmless and culturally very important to some religions, while the excision practised on baby girls in some cultures certainly is not okay.

The same piece observes that, in any case, the determination of European leaders to prevent a ban on circumcision will likely foil any parliamentary legislation to that end. A similar point was made in a recent Haaretz piece by Anshel Pfeffer, who derided fears among Israeli legislators of a ban on circumcision as just so much hyperbole.

However, what’s missing here is the understanding that a practice doesn’t have to be proscribed for it to be frowned upon. Large numbers of Europeans already regard circumcision as a backward ritual, and the current Norwegian debate is likely to persuade many more that circumcision should be opposed in the name of human rights. Over the last decade, European Jews have watched helplessly as their identification with Israel has been stigmatized: with a similar pattern now emerging over Jewish ritual, an adversarial political climate that falls short of actual legislation may yet be enough to persuade them that their future on the continent remains bleak.

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Obama’s Wavering Faith in ObamaCare

Yesterday’s press conference from President Obama on his troubled health-care reform brought to mind a moment from the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. When Rick Perry was famously grasping for that third government agency he would close if elected president, Mitt Romney’s reaction was fascinating. As Kathleen Parker noted after the debate, Romney actually tried to help his rival by suggesting an agency Perry had not yet named.

Obama’s incoherent and interminable rambling yesterday made me wish someone in the room would step in and interrupt. The president elicited a certain amount of pity not only because he was drowning out there but also because he emitted a sense of impending defeat. The “administrative fix” the president proposed will probably not help the situation and might very well make things worse, if it’s even legal. But the president at this point seems to be running out the clock.

Yuval Levin’s post on the press conference is worth reading in full, as usual. But this part struck me as the most consequential aspect to president’s mindset, if indeed the speculation is correct:

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Yesterday’s press conference from President Obama on his troubled health-care reform brought to mind a moment from the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. When Rick Perry was famously grasping for that third government agency he would close if elected president, Mitt Romney’s reaction was fascinating. As Kathleen Parker noted after the debate, Romney actually tried to help his rival by suggesting an agency Perry had not yet named.

Obama’s incoherent and interminable rambling yesterday made me wish someone in the room would step in and interrupt. The president elicited a certain amount of pity not only because he was drowning out there but also because he emitted a sense of impending defeat. The “administrative fix” the president proposed will probably not help the situation and might very well make things worse, if it’s even legal. But the president at this point seems to be running out the clock.

Yuval Levin’s post on the press conference is worth reading in full, as usual. But this part struck me as the most consequential aspect to president’s mindset, if indeed the speculation is correct:

Perhaps even more importantly, today’s move could put the exchange system itself in significantly greater peril too. It is very hard to know how many people will actually be keeping their 2013 plans as a result of this new policy, and of course it is also still possible that Congress will pass legislation. But by allowing insurers to keep current customers in pre-Obamacare plans outside the exchanges, and by letting the insurers choose which plans to keep, the administration makes it more likely that the exchanges will not be able to achieve the volume and the risk-balance necessary for them to function. The White House understands that, of course, and the decision to take this step suggests that they think the risk is worth it not just because the immediate political danger is so great but also because the chances of the exchanges actually functioning anyway seem lower and lower all the time. 

That last part would be quite significant. According to this analysis, the president is more willing by the day to take risks that would endanger ObamaCare because he is less convinced by the day that his signature “achievement” would survive if left to its own devices. That creates a certain incentive structure: if the president starts to believe the law will fail on its own, he will be desperately in need of a scapegoat. If he says insurance companies don’t yet have to cancel policies, and they do anyway, he can blame them.

But that’s not particularly convincing, and it shows the president to be a subscriber to magical thinking, as if a wave of the scepter rescinds his royal decree. What if insurance companies have already left a market? What if the support infrastructure for certain types of policies within insurance companies had to be radically altered to comply with the new law, and those old plans can’t simply be revivified? Also, it’s just a temporary delay, so how are insurance companies to price out policies that might be in unusually high demand now but which have to be cancelled en masse next year?

The president doesn’t have the answers to those questions, and doesn’t seem to want them. He wants it to be the private sector’s problem now. But if the president believes his health law would collapse anyway, the search for scapegoats is going to incentivize behavior that would only increase the odds of ObamaCare’s collapse in order to share (or pass) the blame. Essentially, where once the president and his allies accused the opposition of being saboteurs, he may now be tempted to actively seek them out. Not because he wants to sabotage ObamaCare–he surely wants it to succeed–but because their involvement brings him political benefits without adding much risk to ObamaCare.

Again, none of this is to suggest Obama has any desire other than for the law to work as planned. But how he proceeds now will depend greatly on his faith in that happening. It will be revealing, too–just as yesterday’s press conference was.

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The NSA and Abu Musab al-Suri

Michael Hirsch is no hard-line hawk. A longtime editor at Newsweek who is now chief correspondent at National Journal, he espouses the views you might expect of a paid-up member of the East Coast media elite. So it is worth paying attention when he takes a stand so at odds with the conventional wisdom about the NSA, which claims that the spy agency is engaged in a dangerous and unproductive violation of civil liberties.

To the contrary, Hirsch argues in National Journal that the NSA’s far-flung surveillance is necessary to deal with the changing threat from al-Qaeda, which is morphing from mega-attacks like 9/11 to encouraging more “lone wolf” attacks such as those at Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon. He notes that Abu Musab al-Suri, a student of classic insurgent theory (I write about him a little in my history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies), has emerged after Osama bin Laden’s death as an increasingly influential jihadist leader, and he has favored lower-level attacks all along.

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Michael Hirsch is no hard-line hawk. A longtime editor at Newsweek who is now chief correspondent at National Journal, he espouses the views you might expect of a paid-up member of the East Coast media elite. So it is worth paying attention when he takes a stand so at odds with the conventional wisdom about the NSA, which claims that the spy agency is engaged in a dangerous and unproductive violation of civil liberties.

To the contrary, Hirsch argues in National Journal that the NSA’s far-flung surveillance is necessary to deal with the changing threat from al-Qaeda, which is morphing from mega-attacks like 9/11 to encouraging more “lone wolf” attacks such as those at Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon. He notes that Abu Musab al-Suri, a student of classic insurgent theory (I write about him a little in my history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies), has emerged after Osama bin Laden’s death as an increasingly influential jihadist leader, and he has favored lower-level attacks all along.

Hirsch writes that the NSA’s opponents:

may not realize that the practice they most hope to stop—its seemingly indiscriminate scouring of phone data and emails—is precisely what intelligence officials say they need to detect the kinds of plots al-Suri favors. For the foreseeable future, al-Suri’s approach will mean more terrorist attacks against more targets—albeit with a much lower level of organization and competence. “It’s harder to track. Future attacks against the homeland will be less sophisticated and less lethal, but there’s just going to be more of them,” says Michael Hayden, the former NSA director who steered the agency after 9/11 toward deep dives into Internet and telephonic data. Adds Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, “I think al-Qaida’s capabilities for a strike into the United States are more dangerous and more numerous than before 9/11.” For better or worse, the only hope to track them all is an exceptionally deep, organized, and free-ranging intelligence apparatus, experts say.

Hirsch’s entire article is well worth reading and pondering. It may shake the anti-NSA bias that seems to be creeping into our public discourse.

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What’s the GOP Foreign-Policy Alternative?

Republicans are doing a great job of critiquing the flawed implementation of ObamaCare but a terrible job of critiquing Obama’s flawed foreign policy, even as its failures–for instance, in Syria–become more manifest. This is in large part because Republicans can’t agree among themselves on what the alternative should be: More intervention or less? More defense spending or less?

Into this vacuum comes Rosa Brooks, a liberal law professor and former Obama appointee at the Department of Defense, with a withering critique of Obama’s relations with the U.S. military based on interviews with anonymous generals and officials.

She writes in Politico Magazine:

Read More

Republicans are doing a great job of critiquing the flawed implementation of ObamaCare but a terrible job of critiquing Obama’s flawed foreign policy, even as its failures–for instance, in Syria–become more manifest. This is in large part because Republicans can’t agree among themselves on what the alternative should be: More intervention or less? More defense spending or less?

Into this vacuum comes Rosa Brooks, a liberal law professor and former Obama appointee at the Department of Defense, with a withering critique of Obama’s relations with the U.S. military based on interviews with anonymous generals and officials.

She writes in Politico Magazine:

Most of the military leaders I interviewed said they believed that military recommendations often go unheeded by senior White House staff, who now assume that a risk-averse Pentagon exaggerates every difficulty and inflates every request for troops or money. This assumption turns discussions into antagonistic negotiating sessions. As one retired general puts it, “If you said, ‘We need 40,000 troops,’ they’d immediately say, ‘20,000.’ Not because they thought that was the right number, but they just took it for granted that any number coming from the military was inflated.”

“Sometimes you want to tell them, ‘This isn’t a political bargaining process,’” another retired senior military official says ruefully. “Where the military comes in high, they counter low, and we settle on an option that splits the difference. Needless to say, the right answer is not always in the middle.”

A former White House official with Pentagon experience says White House staff often remain willfully uninformed about the logic behind military recommendations: They “don’t want to take the time to go through the slide deck or get the full briefing. Basically, they don’t want to know.”

This strikes me as essentially accurate–it helps to account for the White House’s promotion of an “unbelievably small” airstrike on Syria in the face of military doubts that this would achieve anything. It helps to account, too, for the president’s imposition of a timeline on the Afghanistan surge which military leaders opposed because they knew it would undermine the troops’ effectiveness and embolden the Taliban. Not to mention the president’s failure to do more to renew the mandate of U.S. forces in Iraq, in spite of military urging to be more active. This led to the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011, and has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to be reborn.

And then, of course, there is the White House’s continual failure to cut a deal with Congress that would allow the repeal of sequestration, which is devastating our military readiness. Republicans are at least equally to blame here, but that doesn’t let the president off the hook. Obama, it seems, favors only one type of military action–drone strikes and commando raids–and is prepared to see the larger military wither as long as Special Operations capabilities are kept more or less intact.

There is plenty here for Republicans to criticize. The problem is that Republicans, by and large, have endorsed sequestration; have not endorsed doing more to arm and support the moderate Syrian opposition, which would most likely involve the imposition of a no-fly zone and air strikes; did not speak out loudly in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq; and now are not speaking out in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The upshot is that U.S. foreign policy and national-security policy are a mess, as even many Democrats admit, and yet there is no viable alternative being offered by the Republican Party, which has somehow managed to forfeit its long-standing advantage on national-security issues. Indeed the loudest voices coming from the GOP are those of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who call for an isolationism that dare not speak its name. There is a vacuum here that Chris Christie and Jeb Bush and others could conceivably fill, but they need to start speaking up.

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Wow. Read This. Now.

 From the January 2011 issue of COMMENTARY, an article called “The Democrats and Health Care” by Tevi Troy. Yes, I said January 2011. Its prescience will knock your socks off.

—-

The passage of Barack Obama’s health-care legislation in the spring of 2010 proved profoundly injurious to the president and his party in the November midterm elections. Studies conducted at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota agree that at least one-third of the 63-seat Democratic loss in the House of Representatives can be attributed to the electorate’s negative reaction to the health-care bill—which suggests that the legislation was responsible for taking a bad election and turning it into a historic disaster.

Indeed, the determination of Democrats to push for the passage of health-care legislation may have created a new political dynamic in the United States. Since 1991, as I explained in an article published in the March 2010 issue of Commentary called “Health Care: A Two-Decade Blunder,” Democrats have operated under a misperception—the misperception that health care was a winning issue for them. It has repeatedly led them to mistake voter concern for the economy for support for the Democratic health-care vision. In both 1992 and 2008, Democrats won the presidency in the midst of economic turmoil. And following both elections, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama saw their respective victories as a mandate to make a government-run health-care system—the final desideratum of the New Deal welfare state—a reality. Clinton’s failure to get it and Obama’s success in getting it led both men to spectacular midterm defeats.

But while the health-care issue has been problematic for the Democrats, it hasn’t worked particularly well for Republicans either, 1994 notwithstanding. That may have just changed. The Democratic Party’s association with unpopular government-run health care has now become so complete on a political level that the issue now may become a distinct advantage for Republicans going forward. That would be revolutionary.

It is all the more striking that Democrats have allowed this to happen to them when they had all the advance warning anyone could have needed to steer them away from the shoals on which they would founder in November 2010. And the person who wouldn’t heed the warnings was the captain of the ship of state.

_____________

In June 2009, according to the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, chief Obama adviser David Axelrod briefed the president on polling numbers showing the unpopularity of his health-care plans, telling him that “these numbers are pretty discouraging—there’s a political cost to this.” Obama responded with a story of a cancer patient who lacked health insurance and told Axelrod, “Let’s keep fighting.”

In August 2009, Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested that they turn away from health care to spare the party a political disaster. Obama refused, telling some of his aides, “I feel lucky.” A month later, according to David Paul Kuhn of Real Clear Politics, Virginia Senator James Webb visited President Obama in the White House and “told him this was going to be a disaster.” As Webb described it, Obama somewhat blithely “believed it was all going to work out.” In retrospect, the preternaturally calm-in-a-crisis Obama celebrated in best-selling books like Game Change seemed less calm than bizarrely oblivious.

The behind-the-scenes worries proved prescient at the beginning of 2010, when an insurgent Republican candidate running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts secured a stunning victory in a special election. Scott Brown had explicitly run as an opponent of the health-care bill. “One thing is clear,” he said, “voters do not want the trillion-dollar health-care bill that is being forced on the American people.” Some prominent House liberals, including Barney Frank and Anthony Wiener, assumed that the health-care reform moment was over. Emanuel started pushing once again for an exit strategy. Nevertheless, Obama and outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi proceeded. “We’ll never have a better majority in your presidency in numbers than we’ve got right now,”

Pelosi told the president. “We can make this work.”

Read More

 From the January 2011 issue of COMMENTARY, an article called “The Democrats and Health Care” by Tevi Troy. Yes, I said January 2011. Its prescience will knock your socks off.

—-

The passage of Barack Obama’s health-care legislation in the spring of 2010 proved profoundly injurious to the president and his party in the November midterm elections. Studies conducted at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota agree that at least one-third of the 63-seat Democratic loss in the House of Representatives can be attributed to the electorate’s negative reaction to the health-care bill—which suggests that the legislation was responsible for taking a bad election and turning it into a historic disaster.

Indeed, the determination of Democrats to push for the passage of health-care legislation may have created a new political dynamic in the United States. Since 1991, as I explained in an article published in the March 2010 issue of Commentary called “Health Care: A Two-Decade Blunder,” Democrats have operated under a misperception—the misperception that health care was a winning issue for them. It has repeatedly led them to mistake voter concern for the economy for support for the Democratic health-care vision. In both 1992 and 2008, Democrats won the presidency in the midst of economic turmoil. And following both elections, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama saw their respective victories as a mandate to make a government-run health-care system—the final desideratum of the New Deal welfare state—a reality. Clinton’s failure to get it and Obama’s success in getting it led both men to spectacular midterm defeats.

But while the health-care issue has been problematic for the Democrats, it hasn’t worked particularly well for Republicans either, 1994 notwithstanding. That may have just changed. The Democratic Party’s association with unpopular government-run health care has now become so complete on a political level that the issue now may become a distinct advantage for Republicans going forward. That would be revolutionary.

It is all the more striking that Democrats have allowed this to happen to them when they had all the advance warning anyone could have needed to steer them away from the shoals on which they would founder in November 2010. And the person who wouldn’t heed the warnings was the captain of the ship of state.

_____________

In June 2009, according to the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, chief Obama adviser David Axelrod briefed the president on polling numbers showing the unpopularity of his health-care plans, telling him that “these numbers are pretty discouraging—there’s a political cost to this.” Obama responded with a story of a cancer patient who lacked health insurance and told Axelrod, “Let’s keep fighting.”

In August 2009, Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested that they turn away from health care to spare the party a political disaster. Obama refused, telling some of his aides, “I feel lucky.” A month later, according to David Paul Kuhn of Real Clear Politics, Virginia Senator James Webb visited President Obama in the White House and “told him this was going to be a disaster.” As Webb described it, Obama somewhat blithely “believed it was all going to work out.” In retrospect, the preternaturally calm-in-a-crisis Obama celebrated in best-selling books like Game Change seemed less calm than bizarrely oblivious.

The behind-the-scenes worries proved prescient at the beginning of 2010, when an insurgent Republican candidate running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts secured a stunning victory in a special election. Scott Brown had explicitly run as an opponent of the health-care bill. “One thing is clear,” he said, “voters do not want the trillion-dollar health-care bill that is being forced on the American people.” Some prominent House liberals, including Barney Frank and Anthony Wiener, assumed that the health-care reform moment was over. Emanuel started pushing once again for an exit strategy. Nevertheless, Obama and outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi proceeded. “We’ll never have a better majority in your presidency in numbers than we’ve got right now,”

Pelosi told the president. “We can make this work.”

And they did, in a strictly legislative sense. Democrats passed the bill in March 2010. Obama told wavering Democrats as he lobbied them relentlessly that everything would work out—that a proposal that had been greeted with concern in polls, in town-hall meetings, and on the airwaves would suddenly become acceptable or even popular with the American people once it was passed. As Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum put it in March, “once people get a taste of universal healthcare, they like what they see and they don’t stop until the job is finished.” The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein went further, arguing that the zeal of skeptics and critics was already melting away, and that Republicans might well “be running on expanding the bill come November.”

Alas for Obama and Drum and Klein, it turned out that the more people tasted it, the less they liked it.

Americans were unhappy with the manner in which the bill was passed—with wavering senators and congressmen getting sweetheart deals for their states in exchange for their votes, which were quickly given nicknames of notoriety like the Cornhusker Kickback. More important, they did not like the substance of the bill itself, and the way in which the grand new system of rules and regulations was greeted in the real world deepened their dislike. Within a week of the bill’s passage, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels announced that he would be reconsidering his innovative “Healthy Indiana Plan” because of certain new restrictions in the bill. AT&T declared a $1 billion loss as a result of tax changes in the new law. Later in the spring, AT&T’s discovery that it could save $1.8 billion by ending employer-sponsored coverage for its employees and leaving them instead to enter new and complex “exchanges” managed by the government gave Americans a frightening sense of the perverse incentives the bill would create.

It was at this point that the essential dishonesty of President Obama’s repeated promise to dubious voters—“if you like your health care, you can keep it”—became inescapable. What Obama had meant, it turned out, was that government would not actively terminate employer-sponsored coverage to force you into a government program. So if employers chose to act rationally in response to the new law’s incentive structure, well, then, it would be your employer terminating your coverage and not the government.

It didn’t take long for the mood among Democrats to turn from fear of the party to fear of the citizenry. By April 16, less than one month after passage, James C. Capretta wrote in National Review that “the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders seem to want health-care news stories to fall off of the front page.” A few days later, a disastrous report from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Actuary predicted that, contrary to what the Obama administration had been claiming for months about its bill’s “bending the health-care cost curve downward,” health-care costs would in fact rise inexorably upward over the next decade by $251 billion. And on May 6, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, the former chief economist at the Department of Labor, reported that the effect of the bill would be to increase unemployment among low-wage workers, presumably the exact same workers the president had been aiming to help.

In the midst of the torrent of bad news and continual evidence that the new law would not do what the Democrats had promised, the Obama administration made a key tactical mistake. On April 19, the president nominated Dr. Donald Berwick to be the head of CMS. Dr. Berwick is a respected physician and health-care expert, but he had a long record of statements supporting the concept of health-care rationing in general and the cost-cutting of the British National Health Service in particular. This made Berwick a convenient target for Republican senators and other opponents of the new bill. It was bad enough that the Obama administration had passed the new law, or so went the argument, but they compounded matters by appointing someone who was an on-the-record proponent of exactly what the bill’s critics most feared.

The Berwick move was problematic from a governing perspective as well. The CMS head is the single most important official in the complex implementation of the new law, and it would have behooved the administration to have had someone in place and ready to start implementing the law the day it was signed. In the best-case scenario, an official appointed to a Senate-confirmed job in April could not expect to be sworn in until August at the earliest. As it turned out, this was far from the best-case scenario. The Berwick nomination caused such an uproar that the Obama administration began to fear how bad his confirmation hearing would be from a public-relations standpoint. An odd situation developed: Senate Republicans began pressing for a nomination hearing for a controversial Democratic nominee instead of dragging their feet, which is the ordinary custom. It was Democrats who wanted to avoid one.

In order to avoid having Berwick answer uncomfortable questions about his views and the new law, the Obama administration waited until Congress adjourned for its summer break to install Berwick to the office on July 7 as a “recess appointee.” This was an unusual maneuver, so questionable in its mockery of conventional process that even Democrats like Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus criticized it. The unwillingness to allow Berwick to air his views in public indicated the degree to which Democrats had become the party on the defensive in the health-care debate.

_____________

Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, its position continued to erode. On August 3, Missouri voters rejected the notion of the individual mandate in a ballot initiative that secured 70 percent of the vote. In September, the Pacific Research Institute’s Jeffrey Anderson wrote an analysis in the Weekly Standard showing that Democrats who voted against the health-care bill were polling significantly better than Democrats in similar situations who had voted for it. President Obama was compelled to give Democrats the green light to run against health care, saying in a September 13 press conference that “we’re in a political season where every candidate out there has their own district, their own makeup, their own plan, their own message….That’s how political races work.”

After this, Democrats went forth with ads critical of the health-care bill to counter Republican ads that also opposed the bill. According to one analysis, three times as many ad dollars were spent on health-care commercials opposing the bill than supporting it—among Democrats. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold was considered bold for daring to run an ad touting his support for the bill in his race against the Republican businessman Ron Johnson. Feingold spokesman John Kraus told the Washington Post at the time that “Russ has the backbone to stand by reform while Johnson doesn’t have the guts to stand by his plan to repeal reform.”

When Election Day came, Republicans gained 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate—including Feingold’s—and made extraordinary gains at the state level among governors and state legislatures. Of the 219 Democrats who had voted yes on the health-care bill, 52—almost a quarter—did not return, owing to retirement or defeat.

Nonetheless, some have attempted to advance the view that health care was not particularly harmful to Democrats in the election. Arguments on this score go from the plainly silly to the somewhat plausible. In the ludicrous category, there is the argument that more Democrats who voted for the bill won re-election than those who voted against. This can be seen in an analysis from a website called Irregular Times, which argued that voting for health care was the safer move for the Democrats, since while 60 percent of Democratic health-care opponents won re-election, 85 percent of those who voted for the bill succeeded. But of course, Democrats in safe liberal seats were in no danger of losing the election, and voting for the health-care bill involved no political risk on their part.

A somewhat more substantive analysis came from the Democratic National Committee, which made the case that exit polls showed only 18 percent of voters citing health care as the key issue before Congress, and only two of the 12 Democratic senators

who voted for the health-care bill (Feingold and Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln) lost. Yet this, too, is a facile argument, since at least five of those victorious Democrats—including two from New York State—did not face significant opposition and were never in any political danger. More-honest Democrats, like pollster Fred Yang, had to concede that “it is not correct to say Tuesday’s vote was a referendum on health care, but it did help set the stage for Tuesday.”

The stronger case to be made, however, is that health care did in fact drive the election results. According to GOP pollster Bill McInturff, “This election was a clear signal that voters do not want President Obama’s health-care plan.” McInturff looked mainly at the battleground elections rather than including the heavily Democratic safe districts and found that in the 100 most closely contested House districts, 51 percent of voters described their votes as a message to the president on health care. In addition, more than half of independent voters told McInturff that they were voting against the health-care law. Independents supported Republicans over Democrats by a margin of 18 percent.

Another analysis, by Jeffrey Anderson, found that in “comparable districts, anti-Obamacare Democrats won reelection at twice the rate of pro-Obamacare Democrats.” According to Anderson, this meant that Democratic House members in swing districts who voted for the health-care bill “cut their chances of gaining reelection approximately in half.”

Just as he did in ignoring the counsel of David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel in 2009, President Obama is refusing to heed the message the American people sent him in November 2010. He has continued to argue that the shellacking was due to the bad economy he inherited and a failure of communication on his part. The problem with that analysis is that it suggests that he should continue to talk about it but in a different way. And that would be the worst possible thing for Democrats. From their perspective, the ideal situation at this point would be that the bill gets implemented over the next four years and we never discuss health care again.

Conservatives and Republicans are determined not to let that happen. As the Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon wrote one day before the president signed the bill into law, on March 23, 2010: “The good part of the bad news is that most of these provisions do not take effect for almost four years. That leaves time to educate the public and, hopefully, time to repeal them.”

Republicans are taking over the House of Representatives with a justified belief that the American people have given them a mandate to “repeal and replace” the health-care bill. They can’t succeed at it. Even if a repeal vote passes the House—and it is likely that such a vote will take place early in the year—Republicans will not be able to get that bill through the Democratic-controlled Senate, and President Obama would veto it in any event. As a result, House Republicans will have to spend the next two years making the case for repeal, using the tools of the majority—gavels, more staff, and subpoena power—to highlight the case.

There are, however, two possible means of repeal. There is actual legislative repeal, passed by both Houses and signed by the president, which cannot happen until 2013 at the earliest. And there is effective repeal, in which the body politic rejects the substance of the bill, seeks waivers and exemptions, supports defunding important provisions, and challenges it in court, all of which would have the effect of making the whole scheme unworkable. This could be the ultimate fate of Obama’s signature legislation.

Many Democrats are sure to keep telling themselves, as President Obama has, that “the outcome was a good one.” That conviction should comfort them as they continue to deal with the consequences arising from the intensity of the electorate’s rejection. The Pyrrhic victory Democrats secured for themselves in March 2010 may prove not to have been a victory at all but rather an ever-roiling, ongoing, and recurring act of political and ideological self-destruction.

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