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Posts For: June 5, 2014

When Conservatives Play the Purification Game

In a recent New York Times profile of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, we read this:

“There is skepticism that maybe Jeb Bush wants too much government in people’s lives,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who has advised the president campaigns of Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. “I don’t know that he will ever win over the limited-government conservative.”

I want to address the comments by Mr. Mueller for two (related) reasons, the first having to do with the Bush record and the second having to do with a somewhat troubling mindset among some on the right. Let me take them in order, starting with Bush’s record as governor of Florida.

Jeb Bush was not only a very popular two-term governor; he was also among the most successful and conservative governors in decades. That is true if one is talking about his record on taxes, where he cut taxes every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). It’s true if one is talking about Bush’s fiscal record, where he reduced the number of state government employees, kept state government spending growth lower than personal income growth, vetoed over $2.5 billion in new spending initiatives, and even won high marks, particularly in his first term, from the libertarian Cato Institute. (Bush’s spending in his second term went up in part because Florida was hit by eight hurricanes in less than two years.) 

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In a recent New York Times profile of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, we read this:

“There is skepticism that maybe Jeb Bush wants too much government in people’s lives,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who has advised the president campaigns of Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. “I don’t know that he will ever win over the limited-government conservative.”

I want to address the comments by Mr. Mueller for two (related) reasons, the first having to do with the Bush record and the second having to do with a somewhat troubling mindset among some on the right. Let me take them in order, starting with Bush’s record as governor of Florida.

Jeb Bush was not only a very popular two-term governor; he was also among the most successful and conservative governors in decades. That is true if one is talking about his record on taxes, where he cut taxes every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). It’s true if one is talking about Bush’s fiscal record, where he reduced the number of state government employees, kept state government spending growth lower than personal income growth, vetoed over $2.5 billion in new spending initiatives, and even won high marks, particularly in his first term, from the libertarian Cato Institute. (Bush’s spending in his second term went up in part because Florida was hit by eight hurricanes in less than two years.) 

Governor Bush instituted medical liability reforms that capped non-economic damages; overhauled and modernized Florida’s civil service system, including allowing state workers to be terminated for cause; did away with quotas and preferential pricing advantages in procurement and eliminated race or ethnic advantages in admissions policies; and championed an overhaul of Medicaid that allowed beneficiaries to choose from a menu of private insurance options rather than force them into a centrally managed public system. He was a strong advocate of school choice and charter schools, enacted tough standards, required testing of all students, and graded all schools. As a result of these accountability steps, his state experienced a dramatic increase in student achievement, with Florida students well outpacing national average increases in standardized test scores. Bush’s record also includes Florida’s bond rating being upgraded to the highest possible grade (AAA) and the greatest job creation in the country during the time he served as governor.

I cite Bush’s record at length not to convince anyone he should be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016 (especially since he may not run). It’s to illustrate why the idea that he should alarm limited-government conservatives strikes me as not just unpersuasive but unserious. As a point of comparison: Bush’s record in two terms as governor was in many key areas more conservative than Ronald Reagan’s record in two terms as governor. Two examples: Under Reagan, spending in California rose from an annual budget of $4.6 billion to $10.2 billion – an increase of more than 120 percent. Mr. Reagan also signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown. (Even those on the right who fault Governor Bush for his stand on immigration have to deal with the fact that, as president, Reagan spoke out in defense of the idea of amnesty, saying, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” President Reagan also signed into law legislation that granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.)

What if Greg Mueller (or those whose views he claims to be describing) applied to Reagan the standard he’s applying to Bush? The greatest conservative politician in the 20th century and one of the greatest presidents in American history would have been deemed a RINO, unprincipled, in favor of far too much government in people’s lives, and unable to win over limited-government conservative.

This is the problem when conservatives engage in a purification game. To be sure, public officials should be judged by their record and in the totality of their acts. But it’s unwise, and deeply un-conservative, to judge lawmakers against some mythical standard of perfection. It was Reagan himself who warned against those who want to go over the cliff with all flags waiving.

It’s important that those of us on the right resist falling into lazy habits; that we avoid the trap of paying less attention to reforms and measurable achievements than we do to fierce anti-government rhetoric. It’s easier to bemoan government’s role in education than it is to institute reforms that actually improve education.

At this stage in the political process it’s perfectly appropriate for people to analyze the records and the strengths and weaknesses of potential presidential nominees. And for a variety of reasons, we are drawn to some politicians more than others. But those who believe someone with Jeb Bush’s record is somehow suspect on conservative grounds are entering a world detached from reality and injurious to conservatism. 

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Chuck Hagel’s Desperate Defense

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, during a press conference yesterday, said that it’s “unfair” to judge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl before all the facts are out and he gets a chance to tell his story.

“Until we get the facts, until we have … a review of all the circumstance,” Mr. Hagel said, “it’s not in the interest of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sgt. Bergdahl’s family and to him to presume anything.”

“We don’t do that in the United States,” he continued. “We rely on facts.”

Just for the record: It was the Obama administration, in the person of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who on Sunday said that Sgt. Bergdahl served his nation with “honor and distinction.” She said this despite the Obama administration having enough facts to know that there was a high probability that Bergdahl was a deserter. So why did Team Obama judge Bergdahl to be a hero (a) before a review of all the circumstances and (b) despite the available evidence? Why are they the ones who presumed something – and presumed something that very much looks to be wrong?
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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, during a press conference yesterday, said that it’s “unfair” to judge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl before all the facts are out and he gets a chance to tell his story.

“Until we get the facts, until we have … a review of all the circumstance,” Mr. Hagel said, “it’s not in the interest of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sgt. Bergdahl’s family and to him to presume anything.”

“We don’t do that in the United States,” he continued. “We rely on facts.”

Just for the record: It was the Obama administration, in the person of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who on Sunday said that Sgt. Bergdahl served his nation with “honor and distinction.” She said this despite the Obama administration having enough facts to know that there was a high probability that Bergdahl was a deserter. So why did Team Obama judge Bergdahl to be a hero (a) before a review of all the circumstances and (b) despite the available evidence? Why are they the ones who presumed something – and presumed something that very much looks to be wrong?

As for relying on the facts, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey writes 

All the details of how Bergdahl left his unit may have to be teased out in the setting of a court martial, but it has long been known that he was a malcontent who had sent his belongings home well before the day in June 2009 when he left his unit in Afghanistan, that he wrote that the army he served in was a “joke” and that he was ashamed to be an American. Was the president perhaps not aware that desertion is an act viewed with such seriousness under the Uniform Code of Military Justice that in wartime it can carry the death penalty?

Secretary Hagel doesn’t want the rest of us to draw reasonable (if not fully final) judgments based on the empirical evidence we have – including the accounts of many soldiers who served with Bergdahl – for only one reason: To protect the president from the withering criticism he has earned.

To Mr. Hagel I would simply say we don’t need lectures about morality, patriotism, honor, or what it means to uphold American principles from this administration on any matter, and certainly not on this matter. Mr. Obama and his aides once again attempted to deceive us – in this instance turning a likely deserter who may well have cost the lives of his fellow soldiers into an American hero – and in so doing turned a complicated decision into a disgraceful display.  

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Our Parade of Commanders in Afghanistan

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established in January 2002 as the headquarters to oversee U.S. and allied troop deployments in Afghanistan. That was about 12 1/2 years ago. In that period there have been 15 commanders of ISAF. Just since 2007 there have been six ISAF commanders (McNeill, McKiernan, McChrystal, Petraeus, Allen, Dunford). And now we are about to get another with the announcement that General Joe Dunford, who has led ISAF since February 2013, is about to leave to become the next commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. 

Dunford has done a great job in Afghanistan under very trying circumstances and he certainly deserves to become commandant. But what does it say about military priorities that he is being pulled out as commander of a theater in wartime—the only such in the entire U.S. military—to assume a job back in the Pentagon? What it says to me is that the problem that Bob Gates so often complained about still isn’t fixed—namely that while portions of the military are at war, a large part of the military establishment remains on a peacetime footing.

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The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established in January 2002 as the headquarters to oversee U.S. and allied troop deployments in Afghanistan. That was about 12 1/2 years ago. In that period there have been 15 commanders of ISAF. Just since 2007 there have been six ISAF commanders (McNeill, McKiernan, McChrystal, Petraeus, Allen, Dunford). And now we are about to get another with the announcement that General Joe Dunford, who has led ISAF since February 2013, is about to leave to become the next commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. 

Dunford has done a great job in Afghanistan under very trying circumstances and he certainly deserves to become commandant. But what does it say about military priorities that he is being pulled out as commander of a theater in wartime—the only such in the entire U.S. military—to assume a job back in the Pentagon? What it says to me is that the problem that Bob Gates so often complained about still isn’t fixed—namely that while portions of the military are at war, a large part of the military establishment remains on a peacetime footing.

Dwight Eisenhower did not return home to become army chief of staff until November 1945—until, that is, World War II was finished. It would have been unthinkable to bring him home while combat was still going on. And yet it is considered normal practice to bring home commanders from Afghanistan while the war continues to rage.

Granted the conflict in Afghanistan is a long-term struggle that, unlike World War II, will not have a definite endpoint anytime soon. But there is still a need for command continuity, all the more so because so much of what gets done in Afghanistan gets done via personal relationships. Every commander coming in has to build a new set of relationships with Afghans. The learning curve is steep and there is a price to be paid for shaking up the top tier so often. The willingness of the government to play musical chairs with our commanders bespeaks a fundamental lack of seriousness about winning this conflict.

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Bergdahl Starring in Taliban’s PR Blockbuster

A lot has changed in warfare since the days of hand-to-hand combat with swords and spears in ancient Mesopotamia 5,000 years. One thing hasn’t changed, however: War remains a test of wills. If you break the enemy’s will, you win. If he breaks your will, you lose. If neither of your wills is broken, and assuming you have sufficient material resources to continue fighting, the war becomes a stalemate. This is a fundamental truth and yet one that President Obama seems to miss time after time.

In Afghanistan, U.S. forces and their Afghan allies have dealt defeat after defeat to the Taliban. Yet the president keeps showing that his will is wavering by attaching deadlines to U.S. troop deployments, the most recent being a promise that, while 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan in 2015, all of them will depart by the end of 2016. The latest sign of wavering American will, at least from the Taliban’s standpoint, is the prisoner exchange for Bowe Bergdahl.

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A lot has changed in warfare since the days of hand-to-hand combat with swords and spears in ancient Mesopotamia 5,000 years. One thing hasn’t changed, however: War remains a test of wills. If you break the enemy’s will, you win. If he breaks your will, you lose. If neither of your wills is broken, and assuming you have sufficient material resources to continue fighting, the war becomes a stalemate. This is a fundamental truth and yet one that President Obama seems to miss time after time.

In Afghanistan, U.S. forces and their Afghan allies have dealt defeat after defeat to the Taliban. Yet the president keeps showing that his will is wavering by attaching deadlines to U.S. troop deployments, the most recent being a promise that, while 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan in 2015, all of them will depart by the end of 2016. The latest sign of wavering American will, at least from the Taliban’s standpoint, is the prisoner exchange for Bowe Bergdahl.

The Taliban are going to town with a video of the exchange that has become an Internet sensation. The message of the video is obvious: the Taliban are a force to be reckoned with. The U.S. has tried to portray the Taliban as mere terrorists who are on the wrong side of history, but the fact of this exchange bolsters the Taliban’s narrative that they are actually a legitimate governmental entity that will one day rule Afghanistan again. The Taliban’s video producers pulled out all the stops to depict the exchange as a shameful surrender for America. As one news account notes, “For the insurgents, getting the five men back was ‘blissful news’ and a ‘historic achievement,’ the narrator says, which ‘filled up the eyes of all Muslims with tears of happiness.’ ”

For most ordinary Afghans—whose allegiance is the ultimate prize in this conflict—the exchange was disconcerting news. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “Fifteen years later, local residents here are responding with fear and dismay to the U.S. release of the notorious commander [Mohammed Fazl], along with four other Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American prisoner of war who was held by the Taliban.”

The reactions of this residents of the Shomali Plain is easy to explain, since they remember all too well how Fazl and his goons terrorized them. As the Journal notes: “When the Taliban seized control of this area from their Northern Alliance rivals in 1999, they systematically demolished entire villages, blowing up houses, burning fields and seeding the land with mines, according to two comprehensive studies of war crimes and atrocities during wars in Afghanistan and human rights reports. Mr. Fazl played a major role in the destruction.”

What kind of message does it send to these Afghans when the U.S. has been coerced into letting Fazl and four other notorious terrorists go free? That will be seen as a rebuttal of Kabul’s and Washington’s claims that the Taliban cannot win. After all they have just won a big concession—and they can expect more gains once the US pulls out. It may not turn out that way, because the Afghan security forces are increasingly capable of defending their own country—but why give the Taliban hope just when they are reeling from numerous setbacks, most recently the successful presidential election?

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