Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 10, 2014

ScarJo Tells the Truth About Anti-Semitism

Some may have thought actress Scarlett Johansson would do her best to move on from the controversy in which her role as spokesperson for SodaStream mired her a few months ago. Johansson’s commercial for the Israeli company made a splash during the Super Bowl but it also led to her being forced to step down as an ambassador for the London-based Oxfam charity because the group condemns SodaStream for have a factory in the West Bank. Johansson didn’t just refuse to disassociate herself from the company. In an interview with the Guardian, she refused to accept the premise that settlements were illegal and defended the factory as a model of coexistence. That has brought down on her the contempt of anti-Israel ideologues and left open the question as to whether the career of the woman who was twice named the “sexiest woman in the world” by Esquire would suffer in an industry dominated by the left and more dependent than ever on revenue from international markets.

But Johansson is clearly undaunted. Reportedly in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine to be published in May, the actress doesn’t shy away from getting to the heart of this matter. As YNet reports:

American Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson believes anti-Semitism is to blame for much of the fire she drew earlier this year over her endorsement of Israeli company SodaStream, which operates a factory in the West Bank.

“There’s a lot of anti-Semitism out there,” Johansson told Vanity Fair, in an interview for the cover of their May edition.

A member of the Hollywood elite has never spoken truer words. While this will undoubtedly cause even more criticism of the actress, by raising the question of anti-Semitism, Johansson has cut straight to the heart of the problem with the movement that seeks to boycott Israel.

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Some may have thought actress Scarlett Johansson would do her best to move on from the controversy in which her role as spokesperson for SodaStream mired her a few months ago. Johansson’s commercial for the Israeli company made a splash during the Super Bowl but it also led to her being forced to step down as an ambassador for the London-based Oxfam charity because the group condemns SodaStream for have a factory in the West Bank. Johansson didn’t just refuse to disassociate herself from the company. In an interview with the Guardian, she refused to accept the premise that settlements were illegal and defended the factory as a model of coexistence. That has brought down on her the contempt of anti-Israel ideologues and left open the question as to whether the career of the woman who was twice named the “sexiest woman in the world” by Esquire would suffer in an industry dominated by the left and more dependent than ever on revenue from international markets.

But Johansson is clearly undaunted. Reportedly in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine to be published in May, the actress doesn’t shy away from getting to the heart of this matter. As YNet reports:

American Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson believes anti-Semitism is to blame for much of the fire she drew earlier this year over her endorsement of Israeli company SodaStream, which operates a factory in the West Bank.

“There’s a lot of anti-Semitism out there,” Johansson told Vanity Fair, in an interview for the cover of their May edition.

A member of the Hollywood elite has never spoken truer words. While this will undoubtedly cause even more criticism of the actress, by raising the question of anti-Semitism, Johansson has cut straight to the heart of the problem with the movement that seeks to boycott Israel.

Those like Oxfam, a group that has vocally supported and funded the BDS—boycott, divest, sanction—movement, often claim that their goal is to help the Palestinians or to register a protest about the Israeli presence in the West Bank. But the battle over SodaStream actually helps strip away the thin veneer of humanitarianism from this anti-Israel cause and Johansson deserves credit for not shying away from speaking the truth about this fact.

Were BDS advocates truly interested in helping Palestinians, they would applaud efforts like that of SodaStream to invest in the area and to provide good jobs and benefits to local Arabs in an environment where they are treated and paid equally with Jews. But they don’t care about the people who would be put out of work if SodaStream were forced to relocate their factory.

BDS is rooted in more than indifference to the actual plight of Palestinians or the dilemma Israel faces in a conflict where its opponents still seek its destruction. The effort to boycott Israel is an overt act of bias. The BDS movement seeks to treat the one Jewish state in the world differently than any other country in the world and subject it to punishment to which no other state is subjected. The goal of BDS isn’t to push Israel to withdraw from the West Bank or to pressure it to make peace (something that would be unnecessary in any case since the Israelis have three times offered the Palestinians independence and statehood in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem only to be turned down each time). Rather, its purpose is wage economic war on the Jewish state and to aid those who seek to destroy or replace it. The driving force behind efforts to destroy Israel is the same one that has singled out Jews for special treatment and double standards in the past: anti-Semitism.

But speaking this obvious truth requires a degree of candor and courage that even many of those who are advocates for Israel in this country often lack. Many, especially those who label themselves “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” prefer to soft-soap the conflict with Jew haters and to pretend that this is a territorial dispute rather than an existential one. But Johansson, who has got an up close and personal lesson in what drives the BDS crowd, has risen above platitudes. Though we cannot know whether this will hurt her marketability abroad—where a rising tide of the anti-Semitism she rightly decries is being felt throughout Europe and Asia—the actress has more than earned the gratitude not only of friends of Israel but of decent people everywhere. It’s a matter of opinion as to whether she truly is the sexiest woman on the planet, but there’s no doubt anymore that she’s among the most honest.

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Why Netanyahu Won’t “Go Big”

It turns out the Middle East peace process isn’t quite dead yet. According to the State Department, the “gaps are narrowing” in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that are still taking place despite the fact that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas formally scuttled the negotiations last week by restarting his futile efforts to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood via the United Nations. Combined with a statement made by Abbas to an Arabic newspaper that he would be willing to keep talking after the expiration of the April deadline provided they were conducted according to his dictates, Secretary of State John Kerry’s brave talk about his initiative still having a chance of success looks a little less silly today.

Nevertheless, given that the Palestinians haven’t really budged an inch on any substantive issue since the talks re-started last year and that Kerry blamed Israel for what happened last week in a statement as bizarre (“poof”) as it was mendacious, it’s hard to see why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be inclined to play along with this farce any longer. Having already demonstrated that they are only interested in forcing Israel to pay for their presence at the table with concessions like the release of terrorist murderers or building freezes in the West Bank or even Jerusalem, it’s clear that Israel has little to gain from more such negotiations. But if the Palestinians do keep talking after April, there’s no doubt that the Israelis will be there too, even if it means bribing Abbas by freeing more murderers. The reason for this will not be because Netanyahu is weak or that the process has an actual chance of success. It will be due to the fact that the prime minister understands that Israel must never walk away from negotiations no matter how futile they are. Moreover, the futility of these efforts is precisely why he knows that his government must not, despite Kerry’s smears, be the one that breaks up the party.

Some Israeli right-wingers fear that Netanyahu will soon break under American pressure and embrace territorial withdrawals while perhaps not even getting a symbolic promise that this means the end of the conflict from Abbas. They’re not the only ones. Faithful Obama administration cheerleader Jeffrey Goldberg writes today in his latest column that the only reason Kerry is persisting in his efforts is because he thinks Netanyahu will do just that and, like Ariel Sharon before him, blow up his Likud Party and transform Israeli politics to get peace. But the problem with this scenario is the one point that even Goldberg concedes is the weak point in Kerry’s efforts: Abbas. The Palestinian has no intention of signing a peace deal under any circumstances.

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It turns out the Middle East peace process isn’t quite dead yet. According to the State Department, the “gaps are narrowing” in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that are still taking place despite the fact that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas formally scuttled the negotiations last week by restarting his futile efforts to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood via the United Nations. Combined with a statement made by Abbas to an Arabic newspaper that he would be willing to keep talking after the expiration of the April deadline provided they were conducted according to his dictates, Secretary of State John Kerry’s brave talk about his initiative still having a chance of success looks a little less silly today.

Nevertheless, given that the Palestinians haven’t really budged an inch on any substantive issue since the talks re-started last year and that Kerry blamed Israel for what happened last week in a statement as bizarre (“poof”) as it was mendacious, it’s hard to see why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be inclined to play along with this farce any longer. Having already demonstrated that they are only interested in forcing Israel to pay for their presence at the table with concessions like the release of terrorist murderers or building freezes in the West Bank or even Jerusalem, it’s clear that Israel has little to gain from more such negotiations. But if the Palestinians do keep talking after April, there’s no doubt that the Israelis will be there too, even if it means bribing Abbas by freeing more murderers. The reason for this will not be because Netanyahu is weak or that the process has an actual chance of success. It will be due to the fact that the prime minister understands that Israel must never walk away from negotiations no matter how futile they are. Moreover, the futility of these efforts is precisely why he knows that his government must not, despite Kerry’s smears, be the one that breaks up the party.

Some Israeli right-wingers fear that Netanyahu will soon break under American pressure and embrace territorial withdrawals while perhaps not even getting a symbolic promise that this means the end of the conflict from Abbas. They’re not the only ones. Faithful Obama administration cheerleader Jeffrey Goldberg writes today in his latest column that the only reason Kerry is persisting in his efforts is because he thinks Netanyahu will do just that and, like Ariel Sharon before him, blow up his Likud Party and transform Israeli politics to get peace. But the problem with this scenario is the one point that even Goldberg concedes is the weak point in Kerry’s efforts: Abbas. The Palestinian has no intention of signing a peace deal under any circumstances.

If Netanyahu is, despite everything, going to keep showing up every time the Americans beckon, it isn’t because he is now suddenly willing to “go big” and make peace happen. Though his offer was not quite as generous (or should we say foolhardy) as the ones authored by his predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, he has still put a two-state solution offering Abbas almost all of the West Bank for an independent state. But the notion that peace depends on the person whom Goldberg derides as “this man of inaction” to “risk his political career for a final deal” is laughable. Indeed, by writing these words, Goldberg has more or less forfeited his status as an expert on the Middle East in favor of the title of faithful court stenographer to Kerry.

Before these talks started, wiser heads than Kerry warned the secretary that with the Palestinians divided between the Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza, Abbas was in no position to make peace. Everything that has happened since then has only confirmed that obvious fact as Abbas has stonewalled during the talks and seized on the first available pretext to flee them.

No prisoner release or settlement freeze will entice Abbas to say the two little words—“Jewish state”—that would indicate he was willing to end rather than pause the conflict with Israel. Nor is there anything that Netanyahu can conceivably do or say that would cause this aging, petty tyrant to risk his life merely to create a Palestinian state. Even nailing himself to the cross of settlement destruction—to use the inapt metaphor that Goldberg says is preferred by Vice President Biden—won’t get Abbas to make peace, and Netanyahu knows it. Though President Obama and Kerry laud Abbas as a man of peace, his unwillingness to speak of an end of the conflict indicates that he is no more willing to compromise and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn than Arafat was.

That leaves Netanyahu with the unpleasant task of managing a conflict that can’t be solved by peace or war. That means showing up for peace talks but having no illusions about it being a fool’s errand. In doing so he may appear to Kerry and his friend Goldberg as a mere “mayor of Israel.” Netanyahu may be a prickly customer who inspires animus in most of his American interlocutors, but he is not stupid. Destroying the Likud to impress Kerry may sound like vision to Goldberg but Netanyahu remembers what happened when Ariel Sharon tried the same thing less than a decade ago before his Gaza withdrawal fiasco. The prime minister has no intention of sacrificing himself just to give Abbas one more chance to prove he can’t or won’t make peace. Anyone, in Israel or the United States, who thinks he will is underestimating both his intelligence and his political acumen.

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Are Neoconservatives Permitted to Define Their Own Worldview?

Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

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Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

As I understand it, contemporary neoconservatism is a philosophy that advocates the promotion of “democracy” and liberal ideals abroad – and one that isn’t shy about using military power to achieve those goals. It’s a doctrine that is far more hawkish than the one Salam describes. The central argument of the neocons in the early 2000s was that an invasion of Iraq would result in the spreading of democratic values across the Middle East; ideals that would be embraced by the people and transform once-bellicose adversaries into reliable allies. For a time, regrettably, I supported the Iraq War because I naively bought into the notion that the United States could turn a neighborhood of authoritarian regimes into a peaceful, economically integrating Middle East. (I also believed one of these regimes had WMDs). As it turned out social engineering doesn’t work abroad either.

The paragraph compresses the timeline of neoconservative thinking on Iraq. Yes, democracy promotion was part of the nation-building strategy in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But it’s misleading to suggest that the desire to spread democracy was the reason we invaded Iraq. As Harsanyi notes, there were the widespread fears of weapons of mass destruction, which themselves came after (chronologically speaking) other concerns. The first Gulf war ended with a formal ceasefire agreement, the terms of which Saddam steadily began violating. After the breakdown of the ceasefire, Saddam’s forces started firing on American aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone. Then came the worries over WMD.

The timeline is crucial to understanding the thought process taking place inside the Bush administration on how to handle Saddam and what to do about Iraq. In the event Saddam was to be overthrown by an American-led effort, what should replace him? Here I’ll quote from Doug Feith’s memoir, War and Decision, about the various alternatives being proffered and their merits, including replacing Saddam without a wholesale transfer of institutional power, referred to as “Saddamism without Saddam”:

Suppose we could bring about Saddam’s replacement by Iraqis who would preserve Sunni control—the most likely candidates, given their predominance in the Baathist regime. Even aside from whether the American people would tolerate their government’s installing a new dictatorship in Iraq, the deck would be stacked against that new regime. The Kurds and the Shia are 80 to 85 percent of the Iraqi population. What if one or both of those groups seized the opportunity to rebel? What would be America’s responsibility and response? In the hope of achieving stability, could we support the dictatorship in crushing a rebellion for majority rule? It was not America’s proudest moment when we watched Saddam crush the Shiites after Desert Storm in 1991. Now we would be standing by in favor of leaders we had helped install.

Saddamism without Saddam was rejected, and rightfully so. Now, you can use this information to argue that the war should have been avoided and Saddam left in power, if you’re so inclined. But it’s incorrect to suggest that neoconservative supporters of the Iraq war chose to spread democracy by the sword and then fixed their target, or that the Iraq war demonstrates that neoconservatives believe the cause of spreading democracy is sufficient to justify the invasion and occupation of another country.

In 1976, Irving Kristol attempted to define a “neoconservative” worldview. Kristol famously thought of neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” and he didn’t particularly care what it was called. (He said he would not have been surprised had the term given to his worldview changed over time.) “In foreign policy, neoconservatism believes that American democracy is not likely to survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to American values, if only because our transactions (economic and diplomatic) with other nations are bound eventually to have a profound impact on our own domestic economic and political system,” he wrote.

How we help foster a world that isn’t overwhelmingly hostile to American values is a complex question that requires an array of policy choices, but isn’t well served by deep retrenchment, which is what Salam appears to be warning against most of all. Neoconservatism’s critics would benefit greatly from exploring more of those policy choices than just massive demonstrations of military force.

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Man Up, Mr. Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech to the National Action Network, accused his congressional critics of launching “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks on him and the Obama administration.

“Forget about me [specifically]. Look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee,” Holder said. “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”

Let’s take these topics in reverse order. What president has been on the receiving end of such ugly and divisive attacks? Try George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, just for openers. For example, Senator Ted Kennedy declared, from the well of the United States Senate, that “before the [Iraq] war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie.” He also accused President Bush of hatching a phony war, “a fraud … made up in Texas” to boost his political career. Prominent Democrats made these kind of charges all the time against Bush. President Reagan was attacked as a warmonger, a racist, a man who celebrated in the misery of others. The personal, ad hominem nature of the attacks against our current president are less, I would say, than was the case with Bush and Reagan. What’s happening certainly isn’t “unprecedented.” 

As for Holder’s Woe Is Me portrayal of his tenure as attorney general, I’d point him (for starters) to Alberto Gonzales and Edwin Meese. Both were treated viciously by Democrats and (unlike Holder) by many in the press.

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Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech to the National Action Network, accused his congressional critics of launching “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks on him and the Obama administration.

“Forget about me [specifically]. Look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee,” Holder said. “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”

Let’s take these topics in reverse order. What president has been on the receiving end of such ugly and divisive attacks? Try George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, just for openers. For example, Senator Ted Kennedy declared, from the well of the United States Senate, that “before the [Iraq] war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie.” He also accused President Bush of hatching a phony war, “a fraud … made up in Texas” to boost his political career. Prominent Democrats made these kind of charges all the time against Bush. President Reagan was attacked as a warmonger, a racist, a man who celebrated in the misery of others. The personal, ad hominem nature of the attacks against our current president are less, I would say, than was the case with Bush and Reagan. What’s happening certainly isn’t “unprecedented.” 

As for Holder’s Woe Is Me portrayal of his tenure as attorney general, I’d point him (for starters) to Alberto Gonzales and Edwin Meese. Both were treated viciously by Democrats and (unlike Holder) by many in the press.

While I’m at it, let me add this point: Mr. Holder is part of an administration notable for its partisanship, divisive rhetoric, ugliness, and polarization. As I’ve pointed out before, Mr. Obama has accused Republicans of being social Darwinists and members of the “flat earth society,” of putting their party ahead of their country, and of wanting dirty air and dirty water. He says Republicans want autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.” He accuses his opponents of not simply being wrong but of being his “enemies.” During the 2012 election, Obama’s vice president said Republicans want to put African-Americans “back in chains” while Obama’s top aides and allies implied Governor Romney was a felon and flat-out stated that he was responsible for the cancer-death of a steelworker’s wife. The list goes on and on. Mr. Obama is the most polarizing president in the history of polling.

It’s bad enough that Eric Holder is incompetent, that he’s misled Congress on multiple occasions, that he considers America to be a “nation of cowards” on race, and that he’s engaged in covering up for the administration (including the current IRS scandal). But can the Attorney General of the United States please quit feeling so sorry for himself? So put upon?

Man up, Mr. Holder.

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King Shows Dems’ Senate Hopes Fading

Since his election as a nominal independent in 2012, Maine Senator Angus King has been a reliable vote for the Democrats, with whom he has chosen to caucus. Considering that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee actively worked for the former governor and against the nominal candidate from its own party, King’s independence seemed to be more a figure of speech than an actual political stance. But with Democratic control of the Senate very much in question this November, it turns out Majority Leader Harry Reid can’t depend on him as much as perhaps he thought he could. As The Hill reports, King is now making it clear that his vote will be very much up for grabs in January when the next Congress meets and that he will go with whichever party is in the majority.

The best indication that King is beginning to shore up his ties with the GOP Senate caucus came yesterday when he was the only member of the Senate to cross party lines on the vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. The vote on the bill was a Democratic ploy intended to embarrass GOP senators who could be depicted as voting against gender equality. The legislation did nothing to correct inequities that existing laws don’t already account for and its substance was largely a gift to trial lawyers, a key element in Democratic fundraising. But King wouldn’t play along and voted no along with all of the GOP senators (Reid also voted no as a procedural tactic so he could resurrect the bill at some point in the future). While no one should assume that King is turning his coat before he has to, his decision to defy the Democrats on this issue was perhaps a declaration of real independence from the party with which he has associated himself since taking office. More than anything it is a sign that the proverbial rats are leaving the Democrats’ Senate ship before it sinks.

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Since his election as a nominal independent in 2012, Maine Senator Angus King has been a reliable vote for the Democrats, with whom he has chosen to caucus. Considering that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee actively worked for the former governor and against the nominal candidate from its own party, King’s independence seemed to be more a figure of speech than an actual political stance. But with Democratic control of the Senate very much in question this November, it turns out Majority Leader Harry Reid can’t depend on him as much as perhaps he thought he could. As The Hill reports, King is now making it clear that his vote will be very much up for grabs in January when the next Congress meets and that he will go with whichever party is in the majority.

The best indication that King is beginning to shore up his ties with the GOP Senate caucus came yesterday when he was the only member of the Senate to cross party lines on the vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. The vote on the bill was a Democratic ploy intended to embarrass GOP senators who could be depicted as voting against gender equality. The legislation did nothing to correct inequities that existing laws don’t already account for and its substance was largely a gift to trial lawyers, a key element in Democratic fundraising. But King wouldn’t play along and voted no along with all of the GOP senators (Reid also voted no as a procedural tactic so he could resurrect the bill at some point in the future). While no one should assume that King is turning his coat before he has to, his decision to defy the Democrats on this issue was perhaps a declaration of real independence from the party with which he has associated himself since taking office. More than anything it is a sign that the proverbial rats are leaving the Democrats’ Senate ship before it sinks.

That King is primarily in business for himself is not in question. Though he described any move he makes as being in the interests of his state, it should be taken as a given that his desk will be on the side of the Senate chamber where the majority sits regardless of who wins the midterms. That means that if the Democrats somehow hold onto their majority even by the most slender of margins, he will stay put. But if the Republicans get the six seats they need for a 51-49 majority, it will almost certainly become 52-48 in their favor provided that they pay whatever price King demands in terms of committee assignments and anything else he can think of.

But what would really be interesting is if the GOP only gains 5 seats and the midterms produce a 50-50 tie in the Senate. Up until now, the assumption has been that would leave Reid as majority leader since Vice President Biden would cast the deciding vote in favor of the Democrats when the Senate organizes in January. But such a result would also give King the opportunity to bargain with both sides. The competition for his services would be as unseemly as it would be costly. But given the cynical way he has approached the question of his party affiliation, who can doubt that the bidding will produce a wild auction with King the big winner?

If one takes into account the possibility that the close race in Louisiana where Democrat Mary Landrieu is in trouble may lead to a runoff in December if neither the incumbent nor her Republican challenger gets 50 percent of the vote, the there’s a good chance we won’t know who will be running the Senate until weeks after election day. But the fact that King is already sending signals that he will put himself up for auction is a very bad sign for the Democrats who have been counting on him.

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OCare Study: Obama’s TD Dance Premature

After President Obama’s enrollment deadline touchdown dance, some Democrats have been trying to act as if the health-care law to which they have tied their political fortunes is a grand success. Many in the news media have followed their lead and concluded that the claim that 7.1 million Americans had signed up for the scheme by the April 1 deadline meant that doubts about its viability or popularity were put to rest. The fact that perhaps as many as 20 percent of those being counted as happy ObamaCare customers haven’t paid their premiums—and thus aren’t covered—is being ignored. So is the fact that it is entirely likely that the vast majority of those included in the 7.1 million figure were not previously uninsured, meaning that many were forced out of their old, preferred plans and are now paying more for coverage they didn’t want.

But a new study from Express Scripts, the large pharmacy benefits-managing company, reveals something else that ought to depress those liberals throwing victory parties for the success of the misnamed Affordable Care Act: those signing up for ObamaCare appear to be older, sicker, and more dependent on expensive, specialty drugs than the average person covered by employer-based health insurance. Though it’s possible that the last-minute surge of signups may reduce the preponderance of sick people among those covered by ObamaCare, the results among the early enrollees show that the expectation that the program will be able to pay for itself is almost certainly misplaced. Moreover, the imbalance in favor of the sick means that the price of insurance may go up even higher next year than had already been predicted. While Democrats may be relieved that those price increases won’t go into effect before November, the country may need to brace itself for a tsunami of outrage in 2015 after an ObamaCare-fueled hike sends insurance costs skyrocketing.

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After President Obama’s enrollment deadline touchdown dance, some Democrats have been trying to act as if the health-care law to which they have tied their political fortunes is a grand success. Many in the news media have followed their lead and concluded that the claim that 7.1 million Americans had signed up for the scheme by the April 1 deadline meant that doubts about its viability or popularity were put to rest. The fact that perhaps as many as 20 percent of those being counted as happy ObamaCare customers haven’t paid their premiums—and thus aren’t covered—is being ignored. So is the fact that it is entirely likely that the vast majority of those included in the 7.1 million figure were not previously uninsured, meaning that many were forced out of their old, preferred plans and are now paying more for coverage they didn’t want.

But a new study from Express Scripts, the large pharmacy benefits-managing company, reveals something else that ought to depress those liberals throwing victory parties for the success of the misnamed Affordable Care Act: those signing up for ObamaCare appear to be older, sicker, and more dependent on expensive, specialty drugs than the average person covered by employer-based health insurance. Though it’s possible that the last-minute surge of signups may reduce the preponderance of sick people among those covered by ObamaCare, the results among the early enrollees show that the expectation that the program will be able to pay for itself is almost certainly misplaced. Moreover, the imbalance in favor of the sick means that the price of insurance may go up even higher next year than had already been predicted. While Democrats may be relieved that those price increases won’t go into effect before November, the country may need to brace itself for a tsunami of outrage in 2015 after an ObamaCare-fueled hike sends insurance costs skyrocketing.

The problem here is that having established ObamaCare as an entitlement that they believe can never be revoked, the administration has stuck the health-care system with a situation that is a financial nightmare. As the New York Times reports:

Julie Huppert, vice president for health care reform at Express Scripts, said she expected to see the picture change as the year progressed. But she said this early glimpse was crucial for insurers, which were already setting their rates for next year.

“There may not be enough time to assess much more than this,” she said.

The study found that six of the 10 most costly drugs in the marketplace plans, in terms of total spending, were specialty drugs, in contrast to four of the top 10 drugs in employer plans. The higher use of specialty drugs could point to additional health care costs, some said.

“The medication is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Daniel N. Mendelson, chief executive of the consulting firm Avalere Health. “What goes along with that is a need for physician visits and, often, hospitalizations associated with complications from the conditions.”

In addition to finding increased use of drugs to treat pain, seizures and depression, the study also found that 6 in every 1,000 prescriptions in the marketplace plans were for drugs that treat H.I.V., a number that was nearly four times the figure among those with employer coverage.

While the president and his supporters may take credit for making it easier for those with pre-existing conditions to gain coverage, if enough young and healthy consumers have not been suckered into signing up, insurance companies are going to be stuck with paying for all those sick and elderly Americans who have been shunted into the program. That means they are going to have to drastically raise prices the next chance they get.

Just as bad is the sticker shock many of those who are now part of the ObamaCare program are experiencing when they go to the pharmacy:

Some consumers who signed up for marketplace plans said they were shocked when they made their first visit to the pharmacy this year. Lawrence Cwik, a photographer in Portland, Ore., said his monthly contribution for Atripla [an H.I.V. drug] increased to $1,018, from $40, when he switched to a new marketplace plan after his old plan was canceled. Both were through Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon.

Mr. Cwik, 55, said he complained and the insurer agreed to reduce his out-of-pocket payment to $40 for the rest of this year, “but beyond that, I’m pretty much out of luck.”

That scenario is being played out across the country countless times this year as those who lost previous coverage as a result of ObamaCare’s implementation pay the price of the president’s great “success.”

Democrats and even many Republicans long believed that once it went into effect, ObamaCare would become as beloved as Social Security or Medicare. But despite the White House celebrations about the enrollment figures, that assumption is still unfounded. The long-term costs of this law for many Americans will be devastating. The more people experience it, the less popular it is likely to get.

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Should Scott Walker Get His Degree? Should We Care?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked–again–yesterday about whether his lack of a college degree is an impediment to his (presumptive) presidential hopes. He responded, according to CNN: “I don’t think I needed a college degree to be in the state assembly or to be county executive or to be governor. I don’t know about any other position. But in the end I think most people, for example [as] governor, judge me based on performance and what we’re able to do.”

That’s a fine answer, but it almost certainly won’t put an end to such questions. And that might just be a good thing–not for Walker, certainly, but because it’s a discussion quite relevant to the current higher education bubble and also because it can be revealing about those asking the question. Walker has already somewhat undermined his own defense by claiming he might go ahead and finish up his degree–a suggestion that is unobjectionable but which is difficult to separate from the current discussion about that degree and his presidential hopes.

It’s also logistically problematic to get that degree while running for reelection as governor and then for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would want to grade his papers under such circumstances? Only, one would think, people who shouldn’t be grading his papers. Taking classes in person would be a security nightmare, not to mention a media zoo making it a less than ideal environment for other students. Which raises the possibility, hinted at by Walker himself, that he would participate in a program like the University of Wisconsin’s “flexible option,” which would enable him to study on his own, remotely.

That might take the media circus off campus, but it wouldn’t cure all the headaches involved in Walker getting his degree while also a candidate for high office. The flexible option, for example, allows students to set their own pace. Were Walker’s pace noticeably slow, he would be subject to endless speculation about his intelligence. Were his pace suspiciously brisk, he would be accused of dodging his governing responsibilities or cheating.

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked–again–yesterday about whether his lack of a college degree is an impediment to his (presumptive) presidential hopes. He responded, according to CNN: “I don’t think I needed a college degree to be in the state assembly or to be county executive or to be governor. I don’t know about any other position. But in the end I think most people, for example [as] governor, judge me based on performance and what we’re able to do.”

That’s a fine answer, but it almost certainly won’t put an end to such questions. And that might just be a good thing–not for Walker, certainly, but because it’s a discussion quite relevant to the current higher education bubble and also because it can be revealing about those asking the question. Walker has already somewhat undermined his own defense by claiming he might go ahead and finish up his degree–a suggestion that is unobjectionable but which is difficult to separate from the current discussion about that degree and his presidential hopes.

It’s also logistically problematic to get that degree while running for reelection as governor and then for the Republican presidential nomination. Who would want to grade his papers under such circumstances? Only, one would think, people who shouldn’t be grading his papers. Taking classes in person would be a security nightmare, not to mention a media zoo making it a less than ideal environment for other students. Which raises the possibility, hinted at by Walker himself, that he would participate in a program like the University of Wisconsin’s “flexible option,” which would enable him to study on his own, remotely.

That might take the media circus off campus, but it wouldn’t cure all the headaches involved in Walker getting his degree while also a candidate for high office. The flexible option, for example, allows students to set their own pace. Were Walker’s pace noticeably slow, he would be subject to endless speculation about his intelligence. Were his pace suspiciously brisk, he would be accused of dodging his governing responsibilities or cheating.

So if he isn’t going to get his degree before running for president, does the debate over his education help or hinder his candidacy? That would depend a great deal on the extent to which the affliction of credentialism has infected the general public. You can sense the conversation shifting as a four-year degree becomes increasingly expensive and the federal government’s loan program continues to inflate the bubble, saddling students with ever more debt even as the job market constricts. But there is still a gulf in earning power between those with and those without a college degree, a fact which understandably causes people to hesitate to discourage Americans from attending college.

There is also a partisan aspect to this. Republicans are aware that the modern American university has become a stultifying atmosphere of intellectual conformity, and so it often confers a degree but not much of an education. (There are exceptions, of course.) Liberals think this actually is an education. Hence you find the strain of anti-elitist populism running stronger on the right than the left.

Last month, Charles Cooke found the liberal website PoliticusUSA using the term “college dropout” as a pejorative description of Walker. After Cooke pointed out just how silly this was, the headline was changed. But this week PoliticusUSA was at it again. On the topic of Walker considering finishing his degree, Sarah Jones wrote that “His lack of a bachelors degree is a selling point among Republican voters,” because “Nothing says winning like hating on education and claiming that you don’t need to know anything to be President.”

Jones was quick to add a caveat to this otherwise fiercely clownish statement by noting that “While it’s true that a bachelor’s degree is not required, nor does it determine in any sense the intelligence or lack thereof of the holder, it is important that a President has a solid grasp of history and civics.” In other words, while not everyone needs a college degree, Walker does, because he is in need of a liberal reprogramming. Jones helpfully adds: “This is a the (sic) Republican Party, where the more misinformed and uneducated one is or seems to be, the more they are liked.”

Jones isn’t wrong that Walker might relish the opportunity to portray such attacks as elite condescension. But it also indicates why a productive conversation about the state of American higher education and preparing American students for the modern job market is probably not, alas, in the cards for the next presidential election.

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Do Unilateralists Own Israel’s Future?

Israel’s economy minister and leader of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, has publicly written to Prime Minister Netanyahu advocating that Israel formerly annex key areas of the West Bank so as to bring the 440,000 Israelis who live there fully under Israeli sovereignty. Of course at the moment it is hardly conceivable that the Israeli government would implement these moves—Bennett himself has previously said that there would need to be elections to provide the necessary support in the Knesset—but with some members of Likud theoretically supportive of the plan, this may come to loom increasingly large on Israel’s political agenda.   

The latest debacle that has been the U.S. attempt to bring about a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has convinced many of the need to consider what the other options might be. Following the second intifada, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon similarly judged there to be no partner for a negotiated peace, Israel began to implement a program of unilateral disengagement. That policy was stopped in its tracks, most immediately by the stroke suffered by Sharon, but also on account of the barrage of rockets that have spewed out of Gaza, the harrowing test case for unilateral disengagement. Since then that approach has been filed away, although it is still occasionally referenced as a last resort by some commentators. In its place, those on the right have begun instead to talk about full or partial unilateral annexation of the West Bank. The most far-reaching incarnation of this strategy is presented by Caroline Glick in her new book The Israeli Solution which not only advocates for fully incorporating all of the West Bank into the Jewish state, but also absorbing all the Palestinians living there. 

In addition, there has been talk about various hybrids of current options. At the time of Sharon’s passing, one such option was suggested by former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren: that to avoid the ongoing headache of policing the Palestinians, Israel should still consider a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank. However, Oren also recognized that under such an arrangement Israel would retain most settlements. Another hybrid proposal was recently offered by Hillel Halkin in Mosaic, in what he called his “Two-State-Minus” plan. This proposal advocates creating a Palestinian entity that wouldn’t quite function as an entirely independent state, but that would rather exist in federation with Israel.

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Israel’s economy minister and leader of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, has publicly written to Prime Minister Netanyahu advocating that Israel formerly annex key areas of the West Bank so as to bring the 440,000 Israelis who live there fully under Israeli sovereignty. Of course at the moment it is hardly conceivable that the Israeli government would implement these moves—Bennett himself has previously said that there would need to be elections to provide the necessary support in the Knesset—but with some members of Likud theoretically supportive of the plan, this may come to loom increasingly large on Israel’s political agenda.   

The latest debacle that has been the U.S. attempt to bring about a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has convinced many of the need to consider what the other options might be. Following the second intifada, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon similarly judged there to be no partner for a negotiated peace, Israel began to implement a program of unilateral disengagement. That policy was stopped in its tracks, most immediately by the stroke suffered by Sharon, but also on account of the barrage of rockets that have spewed out of Gaza, the harrowing test case for unilateral disengagement. Since then that approach has been filed away, although it is still occasionally referenced as a last resort by some commentators. In its place, those on the right have begun instead to talk about full or partial unilateral annexation of the West Bank. The most far-reaching incarnation of this strategy is presented by Caroline Glick in her new book The Israeli Solution which not only advocates for fully incorporating all of the West Bank into the Jewish state, but also absorbing all the Palestinians living there. 

In addition, there has been talk about various hybrids of current options. At the time of Sharon’s passing, one such option was suggested by former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren: that to avoid the ongoing headache of policing the Palestinians, Israel should still consider a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank. However, Oren also recognized that under such an arrangement Israel would retain most settlements. Another hybrid proposal was recently offered by Hillel Halkin in Mosaic, in what he called his “Two-State-Minus” plan. This proposal advocates creating a Palestinian entity that wouldn’t quite function as an entirely independent state, but that would rather exist in federation with Israel.

Then there have been the suggestions not to push for a final resolution of all disputes, but rather for a semi-negotiated semi-agreement. Nicholas Casey has recently written in the Wall Street Journal about the prospect of scaling back objectives and instead settling for a managing of the situation, as opposed to aiming for a definitive solution. Casey references a proposal by Shlomo Avineri who has suggested that the two sides reach an agreement on those matters that they can, with Israel transferring control of more territory to the Palestinians. Under this scenario the impossibly difficult final-status issues would be put aside and the two parties wouldn’t be obliged to recognize each other. Of course the problem here is that without the Palestinians having recognized either Israel or an end to their grievances, both the campaign of violence and the delegitimization of Israel internationally would likely continue.

There are two obvious problems with almost all of the unilateral proposals. One is security, the other is international opinion. Those plans that call for a near complete withdrawal from the West Bank risk recreating Gaza on a massive scale and on the strategically important high ground overlooking Israel’s population centers and vital infrastructure. Bennett’s plan of annexing Israeli controlled area C of the West Bank may seek to overcome this problem, but in reality it might simply lead to the creation of multiple mini-Gazas throughout the West Bank. And while this proposal may extend Israel’s sovereignty to territory inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Israelis, it is doubtful the international community would recognize this, just as they refuse to recognize the Israeli annexation of eastern Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. Of course unilateral withdrawal doesn’t solve this problem either, with the international community still wedded to the preposterous position that Israel continues to be the occupying power in Gaza.

The proposal that seeks to address both of these problems is Caroline Glick’s one-state solution. Presumably if Israel was to not only annex the territory but also extend full citizenship to all the Palestinians living there, then depending on the Palestinian reaction, international protest might be more manageable. Many object to this plan on demographic grounds. It may in fact be true that there has been significant Palestinian falsification of census data. Yet even if Glick is correct in saying that Jews would maintain a two-thirds majority, there are still serious questions to be asked about how so many Arabs could be assimilated into a Jewish state, and in the event that they all exercised their right to vote would Zionist parties still be able to hold the Knesset? None of these proposals is by any means flawless.

It is probably unwise to make forecasts here, but assuming international pressure was to considerably intensify, and with a negotiated way out unlikely, it is conceivable that something would eventually give and either left or right might implement their version of a unilateral plan.  

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Re: The Shame of Brandeis

John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

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John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

He describes—with ample evidence and numerous anecdotes—the implication of the 1990s political correctness movement; the rise of campus speech codes; bureaucracies and lack of due process; the transformation of identity politics into a religion and the sacrifice of respect for individual religious choices at the altar of identity politics; the lack of due process in campus judiciaries and their prosecution of ideological crimes; and much, much more. Alas, it’s not just students who suffer: Few professors say they feel free expressing their opinion openly, and administrators who have many opinions but shallow academic background often seek to censor what can be taught so as to insulate students from offense.

Hands down, Unlearning Liberty was the most impressive book I have read in quite some time; that I finished it just two days prior to Brandeis’s decision was an unfortunate coincidence, but one that simply transformed the Brandeis case into the final exclamation point in a far broader problem.

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