Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abraham Lincoln

Compromise v. Prudence

In his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro – in the context of the civil rights struggle – writes this:

Johnson refused to compromise. In public, in answer to a press conference question about the possibility of one, he said, “I am in favor of passing it [the bill] in the Senate exactly in its present form.” In private, talking to legislative leaders, he had a more pungent phrase. “There will be no wheels and no deals.” There was, as always, a political calculation behind his stance. “I knew,” he was to tell Doris Goodwin, “that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue, [the liberals] would get me…. I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.” And there was, as always, something more than calculation. Assuring Richard Goodwin there would be “no compromises on civil rights; I’m not going to bend an inch,” he added, “In the Senate [as Leader] I did the best I could. But I had to be careful…. But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.”

The issue of compromise is an important one in politics, and there is much to be said on its behalf. “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory,” Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in Miracle at Philadelphia. “As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

Some conservatives seem instinctively hostile to comprise in principle, as if it is inherently a sign of weakness, of lack of commitment and resolve, and that it inevitably leads to bad outcomes. As a “constitutional conservative,” I dissent from this attitude.

Read More

In his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro – in the context of the civil rights struggle – writes this:

Johnson refused to compromise. In public, in answer to a press conference question about the possibility of one, he said, “I am in favor of passing it [the bill] in the Senate exactly in its present form.” In private, talking to legislative leaders, he had a more pungent phrase. “There will be no wheels and no deals.” There was, as always, a political calculation behind his stance. “I knew,” he was to tell Doris Goodwin, “that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue, [the liberals] would get me…. I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.” And there was, as always, something more than calculation. Assuring Richard Goodwin there would be “no compromises on civil rights; I’m not going to bend an inch,” he added, “In the Senate [as Leader] I did the best I could. But I had to be careful…. But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.”

The issue of compromise is an important one in politics, and there is much to be said on its behalf. “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory,” Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in Miracle at Philadelphia. “As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

Some conservatives seem instinctively hostile to comprise in principle, as if it is inherently a sign of weakness, of lack of commitment and resolve, and that it inevitably leads to bad outcomes. As a “constitutional conservative,” I dissent from this attitude.

It’s worth noting that two of the most impressive figures in American history, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln, showed the ability to compromise at key moments. It was Lincoln, as a young man, who said, “The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it has more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.” The Lincoln biographer William Lee Miller, building on this point, added, “[M]any reflective moralists, and most serious politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, perceive … that good and evil come mixed and that the moral life most of the time (not quite all of the time) consists of making discriminate judgments, judgments at the margins, discernments of less and more…”

At the same time, there are those who speak as if compromise is itself, in principle, a moral good. But that approach is also flawed and potentially dangerous. Compromise for its own sake can set back the cause of justice. In the wrong hands, in weak hands, it can produce pernicious results. The point is that compromise can’t be judged in the abstract; it can only be assessed in particular circumstances. It takes wisdom and statesmanship to discern when to hold firm (on fundamental principles) and when to give ground (on tactics and secondary issues).

Which brings me back to LBJ. Most modern-day liberals who excoriated conservatives for being “rigid” and opposing “compromise” on matters having to do with the budget and raising the debt ceiling – the pseudo-sophisticated putdown is that they are nihilists – would (rightly) celebrate President Johnson’s refusal to compromise on civil rights. Which may get us somewhat closer to the heart of the matter.

The word compromise is something of a Rorschach test. Those who hold a liberal worldview often consider conservatives who fight hard for their cause to be inflexible and unreasonable, just as those who hold a conservative worldview often consider liberals who fight hard for their cause to be inflexible and unreasonable. What determines whether we judge a politician to be a profile in courage or a profile in intransigence almost always depends on whether we’re sympathetic to the cause they are championing.

As a general matter, then, compromise is neither a moral good nor a moral evil; it’s contextual. And it’s why prudence, not compromise, is rightly considered to be among the highest of all the political virtues.

Read Less

Lincoln in Fiction

Our greatest president has eluded our greatest — and almost all of our better-than-average — novelists. On this list of Lincoln in American fiction drawn up for the Illinois Humanities Council, only Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet (1951), in which Lincoln is a legendary presence rather than an active character, and Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara (1994), about a young couple who shared the President’s box at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot, stand out.

The difficulty with representing Lincoln in fiction is pretty much the same as the difficulty facing the young novelist who wrote a pretty silly novel about Henry David Thoreau a couple of years ago. “Even if his voice were not so distinctive,” as I put it then, “the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of [him] playing in the ear.” No one could hope to duplicate Lincoln’s unmistakable prose style, and would sound foolish if he tried.

Rereading him this morning, I was struck by something I had never known before. In April 1864, Lincoln believed it “exceedingly probable” that he would be defeated for reelection. In such an event, he wrote in a memorandum to himself, “it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.” In public, he assured his fellow citizens that, despite rumblings to the contrary, the November election would not be cancelled or postponed. “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it,” he said in October. “I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.” And if beaten in November, he would surrender the office of the presidency:

This is due to the people both on principle, and under the constitution. Their will, constitutionally expressed, is the ultimate law for all. If they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.

When, despite his fears, he was reelected over George B. McClellan with 55 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln reflected that the “strife of the election” had been good for the nation:

It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility. It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are. It shows that, even among candidates of the same party [to the war], he who is most devoted to the Union, and most opposed to treason, can receive most of the people’s votes. It shows also, to the extent yet known, that we have more men now, than we had when the war began. Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.

Forget American fiction! It is difficult to imagine a “living, brave, patriotic man” — a public man — who could get away with such talk in the 21st century. We no longer expect much from our public men except self-interest in the pursuit of power. When we hear what is “due to the people,” we hear little more than a voluble justification for self-interest. That a man would really believe, as Lincoln confided to a correspondent, that “in no other way could I serve myself so well, as by truly serving the Union” — that he really would be willing to sacrifice almost anything, as Lincoln phrased it repeatedly throughout 1864, to make sure that the same liberties he enjoyed were preserved for his children and his children’s children to enjoy — is inconceivable to us. Lincoln is not only missing from our fiction. He is missing from our moral imagination.

Our greatest president has eluded our greatest — and almost all of our better-than-average — novelists. On this list of Lincoln in American fiction drawn up for the Illinois Humanities Council, only Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet (1951), in which Lincoln is a legendary presence rather than an active character, and Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara (1994), about a young couple who shared the President’s box at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot, stand out.

The difficulty with representing Lincoln in fiction is pretty much the same as the difficulty facing the young novelist who wrote a pretty silly novel about Henry David Thoreau a couple of years ago. “Even if his voice were not so distinctive,” as I put it then, “the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of [him] playing in the ear.” No one could hope to duplicate Lincoln’s unmistakable prose style, and would sound foolish if he tried.

Rereading him this morning, I was struck by something I had never known before. In April 1864, Lincoln believed it “exceedingly probable” that he would be defeated for reelection. In such an event, he wrote in a memorandum to himself, “it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.” In public, he assured his fellow citizens that, despite rumblings to the contrary, the November election would not be cancelled or postponed. “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it,” he said in October. “I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.” And if beaten in November, he would surrender the office of the presidency:

This is due to the people both on principle, and under the constitution. Their will, constitutionally expressed, is the ultimate law for all. If they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.

When, despite his fears, he was reelected over George B. McClellan with 55 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln reflected that the “strife of the election” had been good for the nation:

It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility. It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are. It shows that, even among candidates of the same party [to the war], he who is most devoted to the Union, and most opposed to treason, can receive most of the people’s votes. It shows also, to the extent yet known, that we have more men now, than we had when the war began. Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.

Forget American fiction! It is difficult to imagine a “living, brave, patriotic man” — a public man — who could get away with such talk in the 21st century. We no longer expect much from our public men except self-interest in the pursuit of power. When we hear what is “due to the people,” we hear little more than a voluble justification for self-interest. That a man would really believe, as Lincoln confided to a correspondent, that “in no other way could I serve myself so well, as by truly serving the Union” — that he really would be willing to sacrifice almost anything, as Lincoln phrased it repeatedly throughout 1864, to make sure that the same liberties he enjoyed were preserved for his children and his children’s children to enjoy — is inconceivable to us. Lincoln is not only missing from our fiction. He is missing from our moral imagination.

Read Less

Obama and His “Lofty Speeches”

It’s stiff competition, but arguably Barack Obama’s chief courtier in the press is Jonathan Alter. Consider this analysis from a recent op-ed he wrote on five myths about Obama:

3. Obama is an effective public speaker.

Obama’s lofty speeches during the 2008 campaign led even his detractors to admit that he is a gifted orator. Some critics try to minimize his skill by saying he relies on a teleprompter–a ridiculous charge considering that he often writes big chunks of his speeches and often speaks off-the-cuff.

That said, there are few examples of Obama’s speeches actually moving popular opinion. That’s because he speaks in impressive paragraphs, not memorable sentences. He is allergic to sound bites, and that keeps him from effectively framing his goals and achievements.

The roots of this allergy may lie in his famous Philadelphia speech on race in 2008, which followed the revelations of incendiary comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The speech lacked memorable lines, but it was a big hit. I believe it convinced Obama that the public could absorb complex ideas without bumper sticker lines. He was wrong.

Read More

It’s stiff competition, but arguably Barack Obama’s chief courtier in the press is Jonathan Alter. Consider this analysis from a recent op-ed he wrote on five myths about Obama:

3. Obama is an effective public speaker.

Obama’s lofty speeches during the 2008 campaign led even his detractors to admit that he is a gifted orator. Some critics try to minimize his skill by saying he relies on a teleprompter–a ridiculous charge considering that he often writes big chunks of his speeches and often speaks off-the-cuff.

That said, there are few examples of Obama’s speeches actually moving popular opinion. That’s because he speaks in impressive paragraphs, not memorable sentences. He is allergic to sound bites, and that keeps him from effectively framing his goals and achievements.

The roots of this allergy may lie in his famous Philadelphia speech on race in 2008, which followed the revelations of incendiary comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The speech lacked memorable lines, but it was a big hit. I believe it convinced Obama that the public could absorb complex ideas without bumper sticker lines. He was wrong.

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, whose daily take on events is very nearly indispensable, summarizes Alter’s argument this way: “So it turns out Obama is an ineffective public speaker because the public lacks the intellectual acumen to appreciate the brilliance of Obama’s speeches.”

All of this got me thinking about some other bumper-sticker lines in American history we could have done without. For example:

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
  • “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
  • “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “I have a dream.”
  • “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.”

The mistake Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, King, and Reagan made is in failing to understand that the public could absorb complex ideas without these bumper-sticker lines. (These sound bite artists unfortunately succumbed to the temptation to use memorable sentences to mask their shallow arguments and unimpressive paragraphs.) Obama, on the other hand, employed sophisticated and complicated phrases to articulate his public philosophy – phrases like “yes we can” and “hope and change.” Against such eloquence, Abraham Lincoln never stood a chance.

 

Read Less

Lebanon: An Inflection Point for the Status Quo

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. Read More

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle.

But the days when the Western navies had plenty of carriers to move around from crisis to crisis are behind us. Two carriers may be in the Mediterranean shortly, but not because they were urgently dispatched. Abraham Lincoln is tethered to our requirements in Southwest Asia; USS Enterprise, on the way to relieve Lincoln on-station, is transiting through the Mediterranean. Charles de Gaulle, France’s only aircraft carrier, has been scheduled since her deployment in October to return home in February.

NATO’s non-U.S. carrier force is razor thin. Charles de Gaulle’s departure from France last fall was marred by a breakdown that delayed this very rare deployment by several weeks. Britain, once a reliable dispatcher of aircraft carriers, is in worse shape: just this weekend, the Royal Navy sent its last fighter-jet carrier, HMS Ark Royal, to be decommissioned. Britain won’t have a carrier that can deploy fighter jets again until 2020. In this capability, Italy now outstrips Britain: the Italians have two carriers that can each transport eight Harrier jump-jets. Spain has one.

For the U.S., as for France, putting a carrier off Lebanon entails rigorously prioritizing crises: either leaving some unattended or accepting schedule gaps down the road. With enough effort, the U.S. and France could still seek to affect the outcome in Lebanon with an offshore show of force. But the regional expectation implied by the Arab press rumor — the sense that Western navies can easily bring overwhelming force to a crisis — is outdated today.

Margin and latitude in our force options are casualties of the extended post–Cold War drawdown. At a juncture evocative of previous dilemmas for U.S. presidents, Obama would do better to take his cue from Harry Truman in the late 1940s than from Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. One way or another, this crisis in Lebanon will have a disproportionate impact on the future.

Read Less

Eisenhower, Washington, Lincoln, and Prudence

As commentators are beginning to note, Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, and the following Thursday marks the same anniversary for Kennedy’s inaugural, two classics of American rhetoric that could hardly be further apart and still remain in the same genre. It is a long way from Ike’s measured and noble praise of balance to Kennedy’s inspiring but unrestrained call to “pay any price.” It’s usual to say that the 1960s didn’t really began until Kennedy was assassinated, if not later, but the transition from Eisenhower’s restraint to Kennedy’s rhetorical lack of it may mark the transition more effectively than the murder in Dallas.

So far, my favorite pieces on the Eisenhower anniversary are by my friend and former colleague Will Inboden at Shadow Government and by my current colleague Jim Carafano in the Washington Examiner. I’ve got a piece myself coming out at Heritage’s Foundry on the actual anniversary that explores the rhetorical and substantial similarities between Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and its famous predecessor by George Washington. In writing that piece, I was struck by just how rarely it is that the U.S. elects a president who finds inspiration in prudence. Like Will, I’m not persuaded by Peter Feaver’s argument that Obama is meaningfully similar to Eisenhower: the attitudes of the two presidents toward federal spending, to take just one obvious and vitally important example, could hardly be more different. Read More

As commentators are beginning to note, Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, and the following Thursday marks the same anniversary for Kennedy’s inaugural, two classics of American rhetoric that could hardly be further apart and still remain in the same genre. It is a long way from Ike’s measured and noble praise of balance to Kennedy’s inspiring but unrestrained call to “pay any price.” It’s usual to say that the 1960s didn’t really began until Kennedy was assassinated, if not later, but the transition from Eisenhower’s restraint to Kennedy’s rhetorical lack of it may mark the transition more effectively than the murder in Dallas.

So far, my favorite pieces on the Eisenhower anniversary are by my friend and former colleague Will Inboden at Shadow Government and by my current colleague Jim Carafano in the Washington Examiner. I’ve got a piece myself coming out at Heritage’s Foundry on the actual anniversary that explores the rhetorical and substantial similarities between Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and its famous predecessor by George Washington. In writing that piece, I was struck by just how rarely it is that the U.S. elects a president who finds inspiration in prudence. Like Will, I’m not persuaded by Peter Feaver’s argument that Obama is meaningfully similar to Eisenhower: the attitudes of the two presidents toward federal spending, to take just one obvious and vitally important example, could hardly be more different.

Of course, a president doesn’t have to be prudential to be great. Still, the overlap between greatness (or near-greatness, in Eisenhower’s case) and prudentialism is striking. The only other president who has, to my knowledge, been described at length as philosophically prudential is Lincoln, by William Lee Miller in his Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography. Miller’s style takes being casual to a new and to me slightly irritating level, but it’s a fascinating read nonetheless. As Miller puts it: “The mature Abraham Lincoln would exhibit … a combination of the moral clarity and elevation of … the prophet, with the ‘prudence’ and ‘responsibility’ of a worthy politician. … Prudence as a virtue [does not] exclude, as pragmatism tends to do, general moral ideals and larger moral patterns beyond the immediate situation. … Prudence as a moral virtue made a bridge to intellectual virtue.”

But as Eisenhower might have noted, and as Miller does note, the entire tradition of prudence has been devalued, in favor of the more desiccated concept of pragmatism. As a more recent president put it, the question is simple: “What works?” And Eisenhower’s address helps explain why. As he noted, the threat to American liberties was posed not so much by big government as such but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not all of it: there was also a risk of becoming “the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” Such an elite, with its progressive pretensions to expertise and fixing things, is inherently hostile to concepts of prudence and balance, which imply that many problems can at best be managed, not solved.

Perhaps that is why Eisenhower’s Address is now, with the exception of the oft-misunderstood passage about the dangers of the military-industrial complex, much more cited than read: it is based on a philosophy that Eisenhower — like Washington — believed provided the safest foundation for American liberties but that is so profoundly out of tune with the age on which the U.S. embarked after he left office that we can no longer understand what he was saying. If that is so, I view our national need to recover that philosophy as a problem of the first magnitude.

Read Less

Getting a Grip on Obama’s Real Place in History

During the 2008 campaign, the historian Garry Wills compared Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race with Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union address. Now he’s back at it, though he’s raising the bar a bit higher.

As both Alana and Rick have pointed out, according to Wills, President Obama’s Tucson speech “bears comparison with two Lincoln speeches even greater than the Copper Union address” — Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.

Actually, it doesn’t.

I thought the president’s speech was a very good one. But the gushing Professor Wills really does need to get a grip on himself.

We also learn in his blog that (surprise) the New York Review wanted to publish a booklet printing the Lincoln and Obama speeches together, but the Obama campaign (wisely) discouraged that idea, perhaps to avoid any suspicion that they were calling Obama a second Lincoln. “Well,” Wills informs us, in the aftermath of the Tucson speech, “I am willing to risk such opposition now.”

It should be clear by now, even to Obama’s most passionate supporters, that he’s no Lincoln (he’s closer to being another Carter). Any effort to pretend that Obama belongs anywhere in same conversation with Lincoln is really quite silly. But such is the state of mind of the New York Review of Books and its writers these days. It’s not enough to be admiring of Obama; they have to be worshipful.

Like besotted adolescents, the left is rekindling its love affair with Barack Obama after only a single speech. Be warned: queasiness to follow.

During the 2008 campaign, the historian Garry Wills compared Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race with Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union address. Now he’s back at it, though he’s raising the bar a bit higher.

As both Alana and Rick have pointed out, according to Wills, President Obama’s Tucson speech “bears comparison with two Lincoln speeches even greater than the Copper Union address” — Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.

Actually, it doesn’t.

I thought the president’s speech was a very good one. But the gushing Professor Wills really does need to get a grip on himself.

We also learn in his blog that (surprise) the New York Review wanted to publish a booklet printing the Lincoln and Obama speeches together, but the Obama campaign (wisely) discouraged that idea, perhaps to avoid any suspicion that they were calling Obama a second Lincoln. “Well,” Wills informs us, in the aftermath of the Tucson speech, “I am willing to risk such opposition now.”

It should be clear by now, even to Obama’s most passionate supporters, that he’s no Lincoln (he’s closer to being another Carter). Any effort to pretend that Obama belongs anywhere in same conversation with Lincoln is really quite silly. But such is the state of mind of the New York Review of Books and its writers these days. It’s not enough to be admiring of Obama; they have to be worshipful.

Like besotted adolescents, the left is rekindling its love affair with Barack Obama after only a single speech. Be warned: queasiness to follow.

Read Less

Saving Private Pelosi: Nancy’s Spielberg Makeovers

The Washington Post reported today that film director Steven Spielberg may soon be serving as a consultant to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she attempts to “rebrand” House Democrats after a historic defeat in which they lost 61 seats to the Republicans. Though Spielberg’s spokesperson attempted to throw cold water on this item, as the Post noted, it was a “classic non-denial denial.”

Spielberg is well known to be a loyal Democrat who has in the past helped raise money and promote the candidacies of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But the idea that the famed moviemaker can pull something out of his hat — other, that is, than some more Hollywood cash — to change America’s mind about one of the least-liked political figures of the day may be asking a bit too much. Though Spielberg is not unfamiliar with epic disasters, such as his famous flop 1941, attempting to “rebrand” a shrill, unlikeable ideologue like Pelosi is a daunting task.

What advice could Spielberg offer to Pelosi? Changing the public’s mind about a woman whose unpopularity was a greater factor in this year’s GOP victory than the virtues of her opponents will require Spielberg to tap deep into his archive of film hits. In the hope of providing some insight into the machinations of this liberal brain trust, here are some possible previews of Spielberg-inspired TV commercials and short films that will air in the future in battleground states:

Saving Private Blue Dog: A picked squad of Democratic House members led by Pelosi venture deep into a Red State in order to extricate a beleaguered member from a GOP-dominated district, climaxing with the wounded Speaker urging the lost Democrat to “earn this” as she expires.

E.T.: The Sequel: The famous cuddly alien is about to be waterboarded by Republicans but is rescued by Pelosi, who makes off with him on her bicycle as the two discuss immigration reform.

Close Encounters with Democrats: A random group of Americans find themselves inexplicably drawn to gather at the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming to attend an indoctrination session with Pelosi about supporting ObamaCare.

Raiders of the Lost Democrat: Pelosi leads a multi-continental search for the lost copy of the Bill of Rights. After being captured by Dick Cheney and his band of evil Republicans, Pelosi witnesses the opening of the ark, which contains what is believed to be the artifact. Cheney and the GOPniks melt, but when Pelosi reads the artifact, it turns out to be merely a memo from Rahm Emanuel about earmarks.

Jaws V: The Democrats’ Revenge: Pelosi attempts to save the population of a beach community endangered by a ruthlessly pro-business Republican town council in cahoots with a shark believed to be responsible for an oil spill. Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Richard Dreyfuss (as himself) take to the sea to catch the shark. Pelosi and Dreyfuss swim to shore after the battle, determined to make peace in the Middle East.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World of Politicians: An attempt to clone famous Democrats of the past at a theme park goes tragically wrong as the reincarnated Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson attempt to reimpose Jim Crow on an unwilling America. Pelosi is forced to join forces with Republicans as they bring back Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to counter the Dem icons. The conclusion is a sermon on bipartisanship.

Happy holidays to readers of all persuasions and parties!

The Washington Post reported today that film director Steven Spielberg may soon be serving as a consultant to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she attempts to “rebrand” House Democrats after a historic defeat in which they lost 61 seats to the Republicans. Though Spielberg’s spokesperson attempted to throw cold water on this item, as the Post noted, it was a “classic non-denial denial.”

Spielberg is well known to be a loyal Democrat who has in the past helped raise money and promote the candidacies of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But the idea that the famed moviemaker can pull something out of his hat — other, that is, than some more Hollywood cash — to change America’s mind about one of the least-liked political figures of the day may be asking a bit too much. Though Spielberg is not unfamiliar with epic disasters, such as his famous flop 1941, attempting to “rebrand” a shrill, unlikeable ideologue like Pelosi is a daunting task.

What advice could Spielberg offer to Pelosi? Changing the public’s mind about a woman whose unpopularity was a greater factor in this year’s GOP victory than the virtues of her opponents will require Spielberg to tap deep into his archive of film hits. In the hope of providing some insight into the machinations of this liberal brain trust, here are some possible previews of Spielberg-inspired TV commercials and short films that will air in the future in battleground states:

Saving Private Blue Dog: A picked squad of Democratic House members led by Pelosi venture deep into a Red State in order to extricate a beleaguered member from a GOP-dominated district, climaxing with the wounded Speaker urging the lost Democrat to “earn this” as she expires.

E.T.: The Sequel: The famous cuddly alien is about to be waterboarded by Republicans but is rescued by Pelosi, who makes off with him on her bicycle as the two discuss immigration reform.

Close Encounters with Democrats: A random group of Americans find themselves inexplicably drawn to gather at the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming to attend an indoctrination session with Pelosi about supporting ObamaCare.

Raiders of the Lost Democrat: Pelosi leads a multi-continental search for the lost copy of the Bill of Rights. After being captured by Dick Cheney and his band of evil Republicans, Pelosi witnesses the opening of the ark, which contains what is believed to be the artifact. Cheney and the GOPniks melt, but when Pelosi reads the artifact, it turns out to be merely a memo from Rahm Emanuel about earmarks.

Jaws V: The Democrats’ Revenge: Pelosi attempts to save the population of a beach community endangered by a ruthlessly pro-business Republican town council in cahoots with a shark believed to be responsible for an oil spill. Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Richard Dreyfuss (as himself) take to the sea to catch the shark. Pelosi and Dreyfuss swim to shore after the battle, determined to make peace in the Middle East.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World of Politicians: An attempt to clone famous Democrats of the past at a theme park goes tragically wrong as the reincarnated Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson attempt to reimpose Jim Crow on an unwilling America. Pelosi is forced to join forces with Republicans as they bring back Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to counter the Dem icons. The conclusion is a sermon on bipartisanship.

Happy holidays to readers of all persuasions and parties!

Read Less

The Moral Case for Conservative Economics

I wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard that attempts to explain what’s wrong with the liberal affinity for class warfare. In response to it, one of the really bright political minds I know wrote me and said that the person who “captures the moral critique (in addition to the intellectual one) of Obamanomics” will be the Republican Party’s nominee and the next president.

Whether or not that’s accurate — and I happen to believe there’s a lot of wisdom in it — it does strike me that a compelling moral argument on behalf of conservative economics specifically, and capitalism more broadly, has been sorely missing from the public debate. That case can be made easily enough; the question is who will step forward to make it.

There is, I think, a useful analogy that can be made to welfare reform. The conservative case was far more powerful and effective when welfare reform was framed in explicitly moral terms — when those on the right argued why (a) welfare policies (in the form of AFDC) were inflicting terrible damage on those they were intended to assist, and (b) reforms to the system would lead to greater self-reliance and human flourishing.

Something similar needs to be done on economics. (Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and I try to do it in this monograph, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism.) Conservatives need to expand on their reliance on economic facts and figures and explain why economic growth is the best antidote to widespread poverty and misery; why Leviathan is a threat to liberty and human character; and why capitalism is a civilizing agent and national wealth a moral good. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for a movement that counts Adam Smith (a profound moral philosopher) and Abraham Lincoln (a profound moral thinker) in its pantheon.

I wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard that attempts to explain what’s wrong with the liberal affinity for class warfare. In response to it, one of the really bright political minds I know wrote me and said that the person who “captures the moral critique (in addition to the intellectual one) of Obamanomics” will be the Republican Party’s nominee and the next president.

Whether or not that’s accurate — and I happen to believe there’s a lot of wisdom in it — it does strike me that a compelling moral argument on behalf of conservative economics specifically, and capitalism more broadly, has been sorely missing from the public debate. That case can be made easily enough; the question is who will step forward to make it.

There is, I think, a useful analogy that can be made to welfare reform. The conservative case was far more powerful and effective when welfare reform was framed in explicitly moral terms — when those on the right argued why (a) welfare policies (in the form of AFDC) were inflicting terrible damage on those they were intended to assist, and (b) reforms to the system would lead to greater self-reliance and human flourishing.

Something similar needs to be done on economics. (Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and I try to do it in this monograph, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism.) Conservatives need to expand on their reliance on economic facts and figures and explain why economic growth is the best antidote to widespread poverty and misery; why Leviathan is a threat to liberty and human character; and why capitalism is a civilizing agent and national wealth a moral good. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for a movement that counts Adam Smith (a profound moral philosopher) and Abraham Lincoln (a profound moral thinker) in its pantheon.

Read Less

A Response to John Derbyshire

In his post responding to George W. Bush’s op-ed on combating AIDS in Africa, John Derbyshire writes this:

The subsidizing of expensive medications (the biggest part of our AIDS-relief effort, though not all of it) in fact has long-term consequences more likely to be negative than positive. The high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there. What is needed is for people to change those customary practices. Instead, at a cost of billions to the U.S. taxpayer, we have made it possible for Africans to continue in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits.

Perhaps the future of sub-Saharan Africa would be brighter if the people of that place changed some of their customs; but now, thanks to us, they don’t have to.

Here are a few facts that undermine Derbyshire’s case: (a) Africans have fewer sex partners on average over a lifetime than do Americans; (b) 22 countries in Africa have had a greater than 25 percent decline in infections in the past 10 years (for South African and Namibian youth, the figure is 50 percent in five years); and (c) America’s efforts are helping to create a remarkable shifts in how, in Africa, boys view girls — reflected in a decline of more than 50 percent in sexual partners among boys.

So Derbyshire’s argument that our AIDS efforts are “more likely to be negative than positive” because they will continue to subsidize and encourage “unhealthy, disease-spreading habits” is not only wrong but the opposite of reality.

There is more. Derbyshire’s view might best be expressed as “the Africans had an AIDS death sentence coming to them.” But in Africa, gender violence and abuse is involved in the first sexual encounter up to 85 percent of time. And where President Bush’s PEPFAR initiative has been particularly effective is in slowing the transmission of the disease from mothers to children. Perhaps Derbyshire can explain to us how exactly infants are complicit in their AIDS affliction. Or maybe he doesn’t much care if they are. Read More

In his post responding to George W. Bush’s op-ed on combating AIDS in Africa, John Derbyshire writes this:

The subsidizing of expensive medications (the biggest part of our AIDS-relief effort, though not all of it) in fact has long-term consequences more likely to be negative than positive. The high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there. What is needed is for people to change those customary practices. Instead, at a cost of billions to the U.S. taxpayer, we have made it possible for Africans to continue in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits.

Perhaps the future of sub-Saharan Africa would be brighter if the people of that place changed some of their customs; but now, thanks to us, they don’t have to.

Here are a few facts that undermine Derbyshire’s case: (a) Africans have fewer sex partners on average over a lifetime than do Americans; (b) 22 countries in Africa have had a greater than 25 percent decline in infections in the past 10 years (for South African and Namibian youth, the figure is 50 percent in five years); and (c) America’s efforts are helping to create a remarkable shifts in how, in Africa, boys view girls — reflected in a decline of more than 50 percent in sexual partners among boys.

So Derbyshire’s argument that our AIDS efforts are “more likely to be negative than positive” because they will continue to subsidize and encourage “unhealthy, disease-spreading habits” is not only wrong but the opposite of reality.

There is more. Derbyshire’s view might best be expressed as “the Africans had an AIDS death sentence coming to them.” But in Africa, gender violence and abuse is involved in the first sexual encounter up to 85 percent of time. And where President Bush’s PEPFAR initiative has been particularly effective is in slowing the transmission of the disease from mothers to children. Perhaps Derbyshire can explain to us how exactly infants are complicit in their AIDS affliction. Or maybe he doesn’t much care if they are.

Let’s now turn to Derbyshire’s characterization that America is becoming the “welfare provider of last resort to all the world’s several billion people”: he is more than a decade behind in his understanding of overseas-development policy.

President Bush’s policies were animated by the belief that the way to save lives was to rely on the principle of accountability. That is what was transformational about Bush’s development effort. He rejected handing out money with no strings attached in favor of tying expenditures to reform and results. And it has had huge radiating effects. When PEPFAR was started, America was criticized by others for setting goals. Now the mantra around the world is “results-based development.” Yet Derbyshire seems to know nothing about any of this. That isn’t necessarily a problem — unless, of course, he decides to write on the topic.

Beyond that, though, the notion that AIDS relief in Africa is AFDC on a global scale is silly. We are not talking about providing food stamps to able-bodied adults or subsidizing illegitimacy; we’re talking about saving the lives of millions of innocent people and taking steps to keep human societies from collapsing. Private charity clearly wasn’t enough.

On the matter of Derbyshire’s claim that AIDS relief in Africa is unconnected to our national interest: al-Qaeda is actively trying to establish a greater presence in nations like Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria, which have become major ideological battlegrounds. And mass disease and death, poverty and hopelessness, make the rise of radicalism more, not less, likely. (Because of AIDS, in some countries nearly a half-century of public-health gains have been wiped away.)

Many things allow militant Islam to take root and grow; eliminating AIDS would certainly not eliminate jihadism. Still, a pandemic, in addition to being a human tragedy, makes governments unstable and regions ungovernable. And as one report put it, “Unstable and ungoverned regions of the world … pose dangers for neighbors and can become the setting for broader problems of terrorism … The impoverished regions of the world can be unstable, volatile, and dangerous and can represent great threats to America, Europe, and the world. We must work with the people of these regions to promote sustainable economic growth, better health, good governance and greater human security. …”

One might think that this observation very nearly qualifies as banal — but for Derbyshire, it qualifies as a revelation.

For the sake of the argument, though, let’s assume that the American government acts not out of a narrow interpretation of the national interest but instead out of benevolence — like, say, America’s response to the 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia and other nations in the Indian Ocean. Why is that something we should oppose, or find alarming, or deem un-conservative? The impulse to act is, in fact, not only deeply humane but also deeply American.

In a speech in Lewiston, Illinois, in 1858, Abraham Lincoln, in quoting from the Declaration (“all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable right”), said:

This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.

This belief about inherent human dignity does not mean that America can solve every problem in the world or that we shouldn’t focus most of our energy and treasure on America itself. But if the United States is able, at a reasonable cost ($25 billion over five years), to help prevent widespread death, that is something we should be proud of it. (A recent Stanford study found that PEPFAR was responsible for saving the lives of more than a million Africans in just its first three years.)

Derbyshire seems to take an almost childish delight in advertising his indifference to the suffering of others, at least when the others live on a different continent and come from a different culture. Back in February 2006, when more than 1,000 people were believed to have died when an Egyptian ferry sank in the Red Sea, Derbyshire wrote:

In between our last two posts I went to Drudge to see what was happening in the world. The lead story was about a ship disaster in the Red Sea. From the headline picture, it looked like a cruise ship. I therefore assumed that some people very much like the Americans I went cruising with last year were the victims. I went to the news story. A couple of sentences in, I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.

Cultivating what Adam Smith (in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) called “sympathy” and “fellow feeling” is a complicated matter. Suffice it to say that very few of us care about the suffering and fate of others as much as we should. Yet most of us aren’t proud of this fact; we are, rather, slightly embarrassed by it. Not John Derbyshire. He seems eager to celebrate his callousness, as if it were a sign of manliness and tough-mindedness. I haven’t a clue whether this is a pose, done for shock value or some such thing, or real. All we can do is judge Derbyshire by his public words. And they are not only unpersuasive; they are at times downright ugly.

Read Less

Civility as a Political Virtue

The aftermath of President Obama’s meeting yesterday with the GOP leadership sparked a discussion that recurs with some regularity within conservative circles. (President Obama pronounced the meeting “extremely civil,” and Republicans concurred.)

The argument is sometimes made, directly or obliquely, that civility is merely a guise, the first step toward bipartisan compromises that betray conservative principles. And at times there is something to this critique. Civility has been used as a cover for hollowed-out principles, for lukewarm philosophical commitments, and for those who believe in nothing and are willing to fight for nothing. I get all that.

But civility need not be any of this, and it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves why it’s quite important to our political and civic life. It’s therefore worth correcting some interpretations that, like barnacles that attach themselves to the hull of a ship, associate themselves with the concept of civility.

Civility is not a synonym for lack of principles or lack of passion. They are entirely separate categories. Civility has to do with basic good manners and courtesy, the respect we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own.

We can possess civility while at the same time holding (and championing) deep moral and philosophical commitments. In fact civility, properly understood, advances rigorous arguments, for a simple reason: it forecloses ad hominem attacks, which is the refuge of sloppy, undisciplined minds. “Before impugning an opponent’s motives,” the philosopher Sidney Hook once said, “even when they may rightly be impugned, answer his arguments.”

Here a few caveats are in order. Civility does not preclude spirited debate or confrontation. Clashing arguments are often clarifying arguments. Civility does not mean we do not call things by their rightful name. Evil is sometimes evil; and wicked men are sometimes wicked men. Nor does civility mean splitting the difference on every issue under the sun. (Who was right — eight clergymen in Alabama who said civil rights activism was “unwise and untimely” or the young minister sitting in a Birmingham city jail who told these “white moderates” that they preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace with is the presence of justice”?) I would add that the most important debates and many of the most important figures in American history were polarizing. They stirred deep passions in people, which is precisely when civility and even a measure of grace are most needed, to keep democratic discourse from jumping the rails.

In all this, Abraham Lincoln is, as he almost always is, a model. Lincoln is the finest political writer and, with James Madison, the finest political thinker in American history. He set a standard for meticulous, sophisticated arguments that had never been seen and has never been matched. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinctive quality of tact, generosity, and civility.”

In response to a visit by citizens after the 1864 election, Lincoln said, “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”

None of us possesses Lincoln’s virtues. But all of us should aspire to cultivate them.

The aftermath of President Obama’s meeting yesterday with the GOP leadership sparked a discussion that recurs with some regularity within conservative circles. (President Obama pronounced the meeting “extremely civil,” and Republicans concurred.)

The argument is sometimes made, directly or obliquely, that civility is merely a guise, the first step toward bipartisan compromises that betray conservative principles. And at times there is something to this critique. Civility has been used as a cover for hollowed-out principles, for lukewarm philosophical commitments, and for those who believe in nothing and are willing to fight for nothing. I get all that.

But civility need not be any of this, and it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves why it’s quite important to our political and civic life. It’s therefore worth correcting some interpretations that, like barnacles that attach themselves to the hull of a ship, associate themselves with the concept of civility.

Civility is not a synonym for lack of principles or lack of passion. They are entirely separate categories. Civility has to do with basic good manners and courtesy, the respect we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own.

We can possess civility while at the same time holding (and championing) deep moral and philosophical commitments. In fact civility, properly understood, advances rigorous arguments, for a simple reason: it forecloses ad hominem attacks, which is the refuge of sloppy, undisciplined minds. “Before impugning an opponent’s motives,” the philosopher Sidney Hook once said, “even when they may rightly be impugned, answer his arguments.”

Here a few caveats are in order. Civility does not preclude spirited debate or confrontation. Clashing arguments are often clarifying arguments. Civility does not mean we do not call things by their rightful name. Evil is sometimes evil; and wicked men are sometimes wicked men. Nor does civility mean splitting the difference on every issue under the sun. (Who was right — eight clergymen in Alabama who said civil rights activism was “unwise and untimely” or the young minister sitting in a Birmingham city jail who told these “white moderates” that they preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace with is the presence of justice”?) I would add that the most important debates and many of the most important figures in American history were polarizing. They stirred deep passions in people, which is precisely when civility and even a measure of grace are most needed, to keep democratic discourse from jumping the rails.

In all this, Abraham Lincoln is, as he almost always is, a model. Lincoln is the finest political writer and, with James Madison, the finest political thinker in American history. He set a standard for meticulous, sophisticated arguments that had never been seen and has never been matched. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinctive quality of tact, generosity, and civility.”

In response to a visit by citizens after the 1864 election, Lincoln said, “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”

None of us possesses Lincoln’s virtues. But all of us should aspire to cultivate them.

Read Less

Some Historical Perspective on Negative Campaigning

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

Read Less

Obama Out of Steam

No one can hold a candle to Obama when it comes to whining and self-pity. He’s been misunderstood, he says. His opponents are so, well, oppositional. The media is insistent on getting answers and bothering him all the time. The public is not thinking straight. And so it goes.

Mickey Kaus considers Obama’s outbursts against the electorate to be “a form of political malpractice—making yourself look good to supporters, and to history, and to yourself, at the expense of the fellow Dems who are on the ballot.” But this is vintage Obama. It is always about him and his inability to reconcile his own self-image with the results he has achieved and the reaction he engenders. As Kaus observes:

We thought he was a great salesman. He turned out to be a lousy salesman. We thought he was a great politician. Instead he makes elementary mistakes and doesn’t learn from them. He didn’t know “shovel-ready” from a hole in the ground, and then somehow thinks admitting this ignorance without apology will add to his appeal.

As hard as it is for his supporters to accept this, it is even harder for Obama to recognize his own shortcomings. Instead, he tried hollering at the Republicans. Then he hollered at his supporters. And now he’s just moping:

Mindful that some of his early supporters are feeling deflated, President Obama offered a frank admission Sunday that the sour economy has made it tough for Democrats to retain the buoyant sense of optimism touched off by his election victory nearly two years ago. … “I know there are times when probably it’s hard to recapture that sense of possibility,” Obama said, recalling the night of his election victory. “It’s hard sometimes to say, ‘Yes we can.’ You sit thinking, ‘You know, maybe. I don’t know.’ It’s not as inspiring a slogan.”

But then he reverts to partisan sniping, at times sounding rather loopy:

He swiped repeatedly at Republicans, invoking Abraham Lincoln at one point and positing that the 16th president would have trouble winning the Republican nomination if he were a candidate today.

Because the modern GOP is in favor of slavery? Because, well … oh forget it. Even his insults are incoherent these days.

Obama has proved to be weak in a crisis, as Juan Williams candidly observed in June. He’s wasn’t up to the BP oil spill or terrorist attacks. And he’s not very good at managing his own political crisis. I suppose teaching law school, perpetually running for higher office, and writing semi-fictional books about himself weren’t the best preparation for the presidency.

No one can hold a candle to Obama when it comes to whining and self-pity. He’s been misunderstood, he says. His opponents are so, well, oppositional. The media is insistent on getting answers and bothering him all the time. The public is not thinking straight. And so it goes.

Mickey Kaus considers Obama’s outbursts against the electorate to be “a form of political malpractice—making yourself look good to supporters, and to history, and to yourself, at the expense of the fellow Dems who are on the ballot.” But this is vintage Obama. It is always about him and his inability to reconcile his own self-image with the results he has achieved and the reaction he engenders. As Kaus observes:

We thought he was a great salesman. He turned out to be a lousy salesman. We thought he was a great politician. Instead he makes elementary mistakes and doesn’t learn from them. He didn’t know “shovel-ready” from a hole in the ground, and then somehow thinks admitting this ignorance without apology will add to his appeal.

As hard as it is for his supporters to accept this, it is even harder for Obama to recognize his own shortcomings. Instead, he tried hollering at the Republicans. Then he hollered at his supporters. And now he’s just moping:

Mindful that some of his early supporters are feeling deflated, President Obama offered a frank admission Sunday that the sour economy has made it tough for Democrats to retain the buoyant sense of optimism touched off by his election victory nearly two years ago. … “I know there are times when probably it’s hard to recapture that sense of possibility,” Obama said, recalling the night of his election victory. “It’s hard sometimes to say, ‘Yes we can.’ You sit thinking, ‘You know, maybe. I don’t know.’ It’s not as inspiring a slogan.”

But then he reverts to partisan sniping, at times sounding rather loopy:

He swiped repeatedly at Republicans, invoking Abraham Lincoln at one point and positing that the 16th president would have trouble winning the Republican nomination if he were a candidate today.

Because the modern GOP is in favor of slavery? Because, well … oh forget it. Even his insults are incoherent these days.

Obama has proved to be weak in a crisis, as Juan Williams candidly observed in June. He’s wasn’t up to the BP oil spill or terrorist attacks. And he’s not very good at managing his own political crisis. I suppose teaching law school, perpetually running for higher office, and writing semi-fictional books about himself weren’t the best preparation for the presidency.

Read Less

The Irresponsible Commander in Chief

The Washington Post is teasing the release of Bob Woodward’s newest book, Obama’s Wars, which focuses on the war in Afghanistan. Usually in Woodward’s offerings, those who cooperate with the author come off the best, and those who don’t — well, don’t. But in this case, Obama did agree to be interviewed, and it is therefore surprising, at least from the Post‘s telling, how poorly Obama comes across. And frankly, those who are forever  searching for some sign of maturity in the commander in chief and pronouncing that he really “gets it” look rather silly themselves.

First off, Obama was obsessed with an Afghanistan exit strategy, determined to get out no matter what the advice of his military advisers:

According to Woodward’s meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives.

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.” … Obama rejected the military’s request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. “I’m not doing 10 years,” he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. “I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”

The disregard for his responsibilities — the equivalent of putting his fingers in his ears and humming — is stunning. It also stands in sharp contrast with his predecessor, who insisted on a review of flawed policy and ultimately the implementation of a winning one:

The president is quoted as telling Mullen, Petraeus and Gates: “In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, ‘We’re doing fine, Mr. President, but we’d be better if we just do more.’ We’re not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] … unless we’re talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.”

Imagine FDR telling General Eisenhower, “I don’t want to hear things aren’t going well in Italy.” It’s inconceivable that Obama’s supposed role model, Abraham Lincoln, would have said, “No more news about McClellan’s shortcomings.” But then Obama’s not much for “victory”:

Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn’t think about the Afghan war in the “classic” terms of the United States winning or losing. “I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?” he said.

After Obama, it is his political advisers who come off worst:

National security adviser James L. Jones privately referred to Obama’s political aides as “the water bugs,” the “Politburo,” the “Mafia,” or the “campaign set.” Petraeus, who felt shut out by the new administration, told an aide that he considered the president’s senior adviser David Axelrod to be “a complete spin doctor.”

But then it is the president who put political hacks in the thick of war-planning.

Obama’s peevishness and determination to avoid facts that conflict with his ideological disposition are chilling. His apparent disinclination to pursue victory should frighten both allies and foes. Has he matured since the events detailed in the book? We have no evidence of that. I think it’s time to stop pretending that Obama is “growing” in the job and that he understands the responsibilities of a wartime president.

The Washington Post is teasing the release of Bob Woodward’s newest book, Obama’s Wars, which focuses on the war in Afghanistan. Usually in Woodward’s offerings, those who cooperate with the author come off the best, and those who don’t — well, don’t. But in this case, Obama did agree to be interviewed, and it is therefore surprising, at least from the Post‘s telling, how poorly Obama comes across. And frankly, those who are forever  searching for some sign of maturity in the commander in chief and pronouncing that he really “gets it” look rather silly themselves.

First off, Obama was obsessed with an Afghanistan exit strategy, determined to get out no matter what the advice of his military advisers:

According to Woodward’s meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives.

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.” … Obama rejected the military’s request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. “I’m not doing 10 years,” he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. “I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”

The disregard for his responsibilities — the equivalent of putting his fingers in his ears and humming — is stunning. It also stands in sharp contrast with his predecessor, who insisted on a review of flawed policy and ultimately the implementation of a winning one:

The president is quoted as telling Mullen, Petraeus and Gates: “In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, ‘We’re doing fine, Mr. President, but we’d be better if we just do more.’ We’re not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] … unless we’re talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.”

Imagine FDR telling General Eisenhower, “I don’t want to hear things aren’t going well in Italy.” It’s inconceivable that Obama’s supposed role model, Abraham Lincoln, would have said, “No more news about McClellan’s shortcomings.” But then Obama’s not much for “victory”:

Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn’t think about the Afghan war in the “classic” terms of the United States winning or losing. “I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?” he said.

After Obama, it is his political advisers who come off worst:

National security adviser James L. Jones privately referred to Obama’s political aides as “the water bugs,” the “Politburo,” the “Mafia,” or the “campaign set.” Petraeus, who felt shut out by the new administration, told an aide that he considered the president’s senior adviser David Axelrod to be “a complete spin doctor.”

But then it is the president who put political hacks in the thick of war-planning.

Obama’s peevishness and determination to avoid facts that conflict with his ideological disposition are chilling. His apparent disinclination to pursue victory should frighten both allies and foes. Has he matured since the events detailed in the book? We have no evidence of that. I think it’s time to stop pretending that Obama is “growing” in the job and that he understands the responsibilities of a wartime president.

Read Less

A Rauchian Take

I don’t always agree with Jonathan Rauch, but I always respect the quality and rigor of his arguments. His op-ed in the New York Daily News, on the topic of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that California’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution, is no exception.

I find Rauch to be the most formidable and persuasive voice for same-sex marriage. But he makes a persuasive Madisonian and Burkean case against the decision. In Jon’s word:

Now, I agree with Walker that gay marriage is unlikely to cause any significant social harm and will do much good. But the judge insists that the testimony of a handful of expert witnesses in his courtroom rules out the possibility of harm so definitively as to make any attempt at caution or gradualism irrational. The evidence, he holds, is “beyond debate.” In an unpredictable world, that kind of sweeping certainty would leave any Burkean gulping.

So I think the decision is a radical one, but not, ironically, as it pertains to homosexuality or to marriage. No, Walker’s radicalism lies elsewhere: In his use of the Constitution to batter the principles of its two greatest exponents – Madison and Abraham Lincoln, a Burkean who was steadfast in his belief that ideals must be leavened with pragmatism.

History will, I believe, vindicate Walker’s view of marriage. Whether it will see him as having done gay rights a favor is less clear. For all its morally admirable qualities, his decision sets the cause of marriage equality crosswise with moderation, gradualism and popular sovereignty. Which, in America, is a dangerous place to be.

These are impressive arguments by an impressive, intellectually honest mind. It’s safe to say as well that our political discourse would be much better if it were more Rauchian.

I don’t always agree with Jonathan Rauch, but I always respect the quality and rigor of his arguments. His op-ed in the New York Daily News, on the topic of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that California’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution, is no exception.

I find Rauch to be the most formidable and persuasive voice for same-sex marriage. But he makes a persuasive Madisonian and Burkean case against the decision. In Jon’s word:

Now, I agree with Walker that gay marriage is unlikely to cause any significant social harm and will do much good. But the judge insists that the testimony of a handful of expert witnesses in his courtroom rules out the possibility of harm so definitively as to make any attempt at caution or gradualism irrational. The evidence, he holds, is “beyond debate.” In an unpredictable world, that kind of sweeping certainty would leave any Burkean gulping.

So I think the decision is a radical one, but not, ironically, as it pertains to homosexuality or to marriage. No, Walker’s radicalism lies elsewhere: In his use of the Constitution to batter the principles of its two greatest exponents – Madison and Abraham Lincoln, a Burkean who was steadfast in his belief that ideals must be leavened with pragmatism.

History will, I believe, vindicate Walker’s view of marriage. Whether it will see him as having done gay rights a favor is less clear. For all its morally admirable qualities, his decision sets the cause of marriage equality crosswise with moderation, gradualism and popular sovereignty. Which, in America, is a dangerous place to be.

These are impressive arguments by an impressive, intellectually honest mind. It’s safe to say as well that our political discourse would be much better if it were more Rauchian.

Read Less

President Obama, You’re No Abraham Lincoln

According to a new Rasumussen Reports survey, more likely voters now believe Barack Obama’s policies are to blame for the continuing bad economy than blame President Bush (48 vs. 47 percent). That gap will, I think, widen in the months ahead. In addition, the effort by Obama to blame his predecessor for everything from traffic congestion to nasal congestion is backfiring on Obama. The president’s incessant whining makes him look small-minded and petty, and also weak and overmatched by events.

The feeling one gets in watching Obama is not that he is engaged or energized or feels joy in his job; it is that he thinks things are just so darn hard and that the hand he’s been dealt is so darn unfair. He is therefore always in search of scapegoats. Given his habitual complaining, Obama might consider looking for guidance from Lincoln, who faced problems that make what Obama faces look like a stroll in the park. “He did not deal in blame,” William Lee Miller writes of Lincoln in President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman. Lincoln didn’t pin blame on James Buchanan even though, unlike Obama (whose actions as senator, when he joined in the effort to stop the reform of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, contributed to the financial crisis in 2008), Lincoln had plenty of grounds for doing so. America’s 16th president instead “grappled with what to do … in the terms that the issue[s] came to him.”

Now no one, aside from the New Yorker and a few other liberal magazines and commentators, ever mistook Obama as the second coming of Lincoln. But the degree to which Obama embodies the opposite qualities of Lincoln is fairly striking. Lincoln was a man of unusual grace, large spirited, without self-pity, a man who did not demean or demonize others. Obama is the antithesis of all that. The public sees it, and they aren’t terribly impressed by it.

According to a new Rasumussen Reports survey, more likely voters now believe Barack Obama’s policies are to blame for the continuing bad economy than blame President Bush (48 vs. 47 percent). That gap will, I think, widen in the months ahead. In addition, the effort by Obama to blame his predecessor for everything from traffic congestion to nasal congestion is backfiring on Obama. The president’s incessant whining makes him look small-minded and petty, and also weak and overmatched by events.

The feeling one gets in watching Obama is not that he is engaged or energized or feels joy in his job; it is that he thinks things are just so darn hard and that the hand he’s been dealt is so darn unfair. He is therefore always in search of scapegoats. Given his habitual complaining, Obama might consider looking for guidance from Lincoln, who faced problems that make what Obama faces look like a stroll in the park. “He did not deal in blame,” William Lee Miller writes of Lincoln in President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman. Lincoln didn’t pin blame on James Buchanan even though, unlike Obama (whose actions as senator, when he joined in the effort to stop the reform of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, contributed to the financial crisis in 2008), Lincoln had plenty of grounds for doing so. America’s 16th president instead “grappled with what to do … in the terms that the issue[s] came to him.”

Now no one, aside from the New Yorker and a few other liberal magazines and commentators, ever mistook Obama as the second coming of Lincoln. But the degree to which Obama embodies the opposite qualities of Lincoln is fairly striking. Lincoln was a man of unusual grace, large spirited, without self-pity, a man who did not demean or demonize others. Obama is the antithesis of all that. The public sees it, and they aren’t terribly impressed by it.

Read Less

No Isn’t Enough for Republicans

A story in the Washington Post about the GOP’s growing optimism that its no votes will be sufficient to reclaim control of Congress includes this quote by Representative Tom Cole, a deputy whip in the House:

We’re very comfortable where we’re at; we have very few members who feel endangered. We feel like we are reflecting a broader mood of dissatisfaction. Right now, the American people want us saying no.

The story also reports this:

There has been little public criticism within GOP ranks of the continued opposition. At the same time, some Republicans would like the no votes combined with more discussion of the party’s positive vision. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said last week that Republicans were reluctant to adopt his comprehensive plan to bring down the federal deficit and reform Social Security and Medicare because “they are talking to their pollsters.”

Representative Cole is correct that the American people want Republicans to say no. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion when you analyze the polling data. But Representative Ryan is correct as well; Republicans need to combine their no votes — which are necessary and admirable — with a sufficiently detailed governing agenda. There are plenty of fine ideas out there — beginning with Ryan’s own plan, a Roadmap for America’s Future. That need not be the only one, by any means.

The danger Republicans face is that of developing a mindset that is defensive and de minimus; that of fearing that in offering up specific, concrete plans, they will open themselves up to criticisms and therefore win fewer House and Senate seats.

That is the perennial fear of politicians, and it needs to be resisted. For one thing, voters are looking for solutions rather than slogans. For another, the point of politics is not simply to gain power but also to govern responsibly once you attain it. Republicans need to have confidence in their ideas and, to the extent possible, win a mandate for them.

When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he was receiving a lot of counsel in favor of running a relatively content-free campaign. His supply-side agenda, it was said, would make him an enormous target for Jimmy Carter. The math didn’t add up. The public would never accept “voodoo economics.” Reagan wisely ignored that advice, won in a landslide, and — for the most part — governed based on the ideas he ran and won on. He is now considered among our greatest presidents. Reagan helped to transform his party and his nation. So did Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain. So, for that matter, did Abraham Lincoln.

These are the models Republican candidates should look to as they are told by pollsters and campaign advisers to say nothing substantive, to aim low, to play it safe. Republicans should be smart, aim high, and provide a clear alternative to Obamaism. It’s in their self-interest and in the nation’s best interests. Those are two pretty good reasons to do it.

A story in the Washington Post about the GOP’s growing optimism that its no votes will be sufficient to reclaim control of Congress includes this quote by Representative Tom Cole, a deputy whip in the House:

We’re very comfortable where we’re at; we have very few members who feel endangered. We feel like we are reflecting a broader mood of dissatisfaction. Right now, the American people want us saying no.

The story also reports this:

There has been little public criticism within GOP ranks of the continued opposition. At the same time, some Republicans would like the no votes combined with more discussion of the party’s positive vision. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said last week that Republicans were reluctant to adopt his comprehensive plan to bring down the federal deficit and reform Social Security and Medicare because “they are talking to their pollsters.”

Representative Cole is correct that the American people want Republicans to say no. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion when you analyze the polling data. But Representative Ryan is correct as well; Republicans need to combine their no votes — which are necessary and admirable — with a sufficiently detailed governing agenda. There are plenty of fine ideas out there — beginning with Ryan’s own plan, a Roadmap for America’s Future. That need not be the only one, by any means.

The danger Republicans face is that of developing a mindset that is defensive and de minimus; that of fearing that in offering up specific, concrete plans, they will open themselves up to criticisms and therefore win fewer House and Senate seats.

That is the perennial fear of politicians, and it needs to be resisted. For one thing, voters are looking for solutions rather than slogans. For another, the point of politics is not simply to gain power but also to govern responsibly once you attain it. Republicans need to have confidence in their ideas and, to the extent possible, win a mandate for them.

When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he was receiving a lot of counsel in favor of running a relatively content-free campaign. His supply-side agenda, it was said, would make him an enormous target for Jimmy Carter. The math didn’t add up. The public would never accept “voodoo economics.” Reagan wisely ignored that advice, won in a landslide, and — for the most part — governed based on the ideas he ran and won on. He is now considered among our greatest presidents. Reagan helped to transform his party and his nation. So did Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain. So, for that matter, did Abraham Lincoln.

These are the models Republican candidates should look to as they are told by pollsters and campaign advisers to say nothing substantive, to aim low, to play it safe. Republicans should be smart, aim high, and provide a clear alternative to Obamaism. It’s in their self-interest and in the nation’s best interests. Those are two pretty good reasons to do it.

Read Less

Obama’s Economic Policy: Crony Capitalism

The so-called financial-reform bills now working their ways through each house of Congress are, like the health-care-reform bill before them, not about reform at all. They do not reform anything. Instead, they make the federal government the major player in a major industry. Just as the health-care-reform bill will transform private insurance companies into the equivalent of public utilities, whose every major decision needs government approval and whose returns on capital are more or less guaranteed, these bills would do the same for big banks and other financial institutions.

President Obama gave a typical speech yesterday in the same room where, a 140 years ago, Abraham Lincoln gave a most untypical speech. Well, perhaps typical for Lincoln: eloquent, tightly reasoned, profound, and consequential in its effect. (As an aside, I have spoken in the Great Hall of Cooper Union myself and had a powerful feeling that I was standing upon holy ground while I did so; Obama, I suspect, felt he was only adding to its sanctity.) Obama’s speech was typical in that it set up straw men, fearlessly knocked them down, assigned blame without evidence, told falsehoods while demanding that others stop lying, and asked for discussion as long as every discussant agrees with him. Everyone else and every other opinion is “illegitimate.”

Wall Street was hardly blameless regarding the financial crisis of 2008 and reforms are necessary to prevent the same things from happening again. Niall Ferguson and Ted Forstmann explain what’s needed in today’s Wall Street Journal. (In a nutshell: moving derivatives trading from back rooms to exchanges and limiting the leverage that banks can use.)  The Senate bill wouldn’t do that. Instead it would move most derivatives trading to exchanges but allow the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to decide what derivatives can still be traded over the counter. Does anyone see there a hugely empowered federal official (not to mention a golden lobbying opportunity for banks and members of Congress alike)? Is a back room at the CFTC an improvement over a back room at Goldman Sachs?

And Fannie and Freddie? They were at the heart of the mortgage meltdown and political piggy banks that were so badly (and corruptly) regulated that they are likely to cost the taxpayers $400 billion when all is said and done. But neither of these bills even mentions them. Fannie and Freddie are classic examples of crony capitalism, where government and business are in bed together. Obama wants to expand that disastrous model to the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

It is the business of business to take risk and seek profit. It is the business of government to regulate business to ensure that the public interest is not put at risk. That’s exactly what government failed to do before 2008. As Judge Richard Posner put it in his most recent book, The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy, “Calling bankers greedy for taking advantage of profit opportunities created by unsound government policies is like calling rich people greedy for allowing Medicare to reimburse their medical bills.”

The Obama administration’s ruthless pursuit of ever greater concentration of power in Washington — and calling it reform — just keeps getting scarier.

The so-called financial-reform bills now working their ways through each house of Congress are, like the health-care-reform bill before them, not about reform at all. They do not reform anything. Instead, they make the federal government the major player in a major industry. Just as the health-care-reform bill will transform private insurance companies into the equivalent of public utilities, whose every major decision needs government approval and whose returns on capital are more or less guaranteed, these bills would do the same for big banks and other financial institutions.

President Obama gave a typical speech yesterday in the same room where, a 140 years ago, Abraham Lincoln gave a most untypical speech. Well, perhaps typical for Lincoln: eloquent, tightly reasoned, profound, and consequential in its effect. (As an aside, I have spoken in the Great Hall of Cooper Union myself and had a powerful feeling that I was standing upon holy ground while I did so; Obama, I suspect, felt he was only adding to its sanctity.) Obama’s speech was typical in that it set up straw men, fearlessly knocked them down, assigned blame without evidence, told falsehoods while demanding that others stop lying, and asked for discussion as long as every discussant agrees with him. Everyone else and every other opinion is “illegitimate.”

Wall Street was hardly blameless regarding the financial crisis of 2008 and reforms are necessary to prevent the same things from happening again. Niall Ferguson and Ted Forstmann explain what’s needed in today’s Wall Street Journal. (In a nutshell: moving derivatives trading from back rooms to exchanges and limiting the leverage that banks can use.)  The Senate bill wouldn’t do that. Instead it would move most derivatives trading to exchanges but allow the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to decide what derivatives can still be traded over the counter. Does anyone see there a hugely empowered federal official (not to mention a golden lobbying opportunity for banks and members of Congress alike)? Is a back room at the CFTC an improvement over a back room at Goldman Sachs?

And Fannie and Freddie? They were at the heart of the mortgage meltdown and political piggy banks that were so badly (and corruptly) regulated that they are likely to cost the taxpayers $400 billion when all is said and done. But neither of these bills even mentions them. Fannie and Freddie are classic examples of crony capitalism, where government and business are in bed together. Obama wants to expand that disastrous model to the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

It is the business of business to take risk and seek profit. It is the business of government to regulate business to ensure that the public interest is not put at risk. That’s exactly what government failed to do before 2008. As Judge Richard Posner put it in his most recent book, The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy, “Calling bankers greedy for taking advantage of profit opportunities created by unsound government policies is like calling rich people greedy for allowing Medicare to reimburse their medical bills.”

The Obama administration’s ruthless pursuit of ever greater concentration of power in Washington — and calling it reform — just keeps getting scarier.

Read Less

A Model of Civil Discourse

John is quite right in his post on the unacceptable musings of David Goldman — and his caution that, “The opposition to Barack Obama needs to keep its wits.”

President Obama is, many of us believe, doing significant damage to America. At the same time, and thankfully, there is an extraordinary (peaceful) civic uprising against his agenda. There will be, I think, a fearsome price for Democrats to pay in November for what they are doing to this country. But there is still such a thing as a democratic etiquette, and we need to abide by it.

Apropos all this, in response to a piece I wrote on civility and public discourse last week, I received a note from a very intelligent friend scolding me, saying,

American democracy is not a library, and we don’t need shushing. The left will pull it’s Reichstag Fire maneuvers soon enough, and when they do, I worry that they will hold up columns and admonitions from you … and others as “witnesses” of our putative, foreordained in the narrative, and inexpungible, guilt.

This note was an indication to me that in American politics today, things are hot and getting hotter.

What I have in mind is not shushing people in a library; it is, rather, recognizing certain ground rules of democratic discourse. If you violate them, regardless of what your political philosophy is, you do damage to your country — and to your cause.

Of the young Abraham Lincoln, one friend said, “When thoroughly roused and provoked he was capable of terrible passion and invective.” But by the late 1830s, according to the Lincoln biographer Fred Kaplan, “he had learned to make his satiric barbs less aggressive, to soften them into deflation rather than destruction, emphasizing ideas and persuasion rather than invective.” Lincoln, in the end, helped bind up the wounds of the nation, which was far more divided than it is today, with words that are nearly as familiar as any in American history: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

That’s not a bad model for those of us in this age, or any age, to follow.

John is quite right in his post on the unacceptable musings of David Goldman — and his caution that, “The opposition to Barack Obama needs to keep its wits.”

President Obama is, many of us believe, doing significant damage to America. At the same time, and thankfully, there is an extraordinary (peaceful) civic uprising against his agenda. There will be, I think, a fearsome price for Democrats to pay in November for what they are doing to this country. But there is still such a thing as a democratic etiquette, and we need to abide by it.

Apropos all this, in response to a piece I wrote on civility and public discourse last week, I received a note from a very intelligent friend scolding me, saying,

American democracy is not a library, and we don’t need shushing. The left will pull it’s Reichstag Fire maneuvers soon enough, and when they do, I worry that they will hold up columns and admonitions from you … and others as “witnesses” of our putative, foreordained in the narrative, and inexpungible, guilt.

This note was an indication to me that in American politics today, things are hot and getting hotter.

What I have in mind is not shushing people in a library; it is, rather, recognizing certain ground rules of democratic discourse. If you violate them, regardless of what your political philosophy is, you do damage to your country — and to your cause.

Of the young Abraham Lincoln, one friend said, “When thoroughly roused and provoked he was capable of terrible passion and invective.” But by the late 1830s, according to the Lincoln biographer Fred Kaplan, “he had learned to make his satiric barbs less aggressive, to soften them into deflation rather than destruction, emphasizing ideas and persuasion rather than invective.” Lincoln, in the end, helped bind up the wounds of the nation, which was far more divided than it is today, with words that are nearly as familiar as any in American history: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

That’s not a bad model for those of us in this age, or any age, to follow.

Read Less

Specter’s Cynicism — No Secret Then or Now

Jennifer, the story about Arlen Specter’s alleged promise is certainly amusing. Former Senator Rick Santorum has spent the last few years trying to alibi his way out of his support for Arlen Specter against Pat Toomey in the 2004 Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary. For Santorum, his backing for Specter is kind of like what health-care reform is for Mitt Romney, an embarrassment that never goes completely away. No matter how he rationalizes it, everyone knows it was a cynical move that betrayed Pennsylvania conservatives and ultimately proved to be a disaster for the Republican party.

But the point about any promises Specter may or may not have made to Santorum about future Supreme Court nominations back then is that both parties to the alleged conversation understood perfectly well that there is no such as a binding promise, let alone a principle when it comes to Pennsylvania’s senior senator. After all, only hours after squeaking out a narrow victory over Toomey, that was due in large part to the enthusiastic support he received from George W. Bush and Santorum, Specter held a press conference distancing himself from both of them.

Moreover, if we’re going to talk about attempts to bribe candidates into dropping out of races, as Representative Joe Sestak claims the Obama administration has tried to do to get him to call off his primary challenge to Specter, there is also the question of what Bush and Santorum may or may not have offered Toomey to do the same back in 2004. But, unlike these Keystone State blabbermouths, the straight-arrow former congressman from Allentown kept mum about the prodigious efforts that were made to get him to halt his primary challenge to Specter six years ago. Whatever it was, he turned them down and simply ran on his conservative and libertarian principles. He fell short then, but if current opinion polls are to be believed, Toomey’s moment may be at hand.

The fact that Specter is a shameless opportunist wasn’t exactly a secret the last time he ran for re-election. And yet his prestige and power as an incumbent was such that he got away with it. There will be no shortage of theories about the meaning of this fall’s election, and, no doubt, national trends as well as the egregiousness of Specter’s party switch will play major roles in determining the outcome. But it may just be as simple as Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom about the impossibility of “fooling all of the people all of the time” finally being vindicated in Pennsylvania this year.

Jennifer, the story about Arlen Specter’s alleged promise is certainly amusing. Former Senator Rick Santorum has spent the last few years trying to alibi his way out of his support for Arlen Specter against Pat Toomey in the 2004 Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary. For Santorum, his backing for Specter is kind of like what health-care reform is for Mitt Romney, an embarrassment that never goes completely away. No matter how he rationalizes it, everyone knows it was a cynical move that betrayed Pennsylvania conservatives and ultimately proved to be a disaster for the Republican party.

But the point about any promises Specter may or may not have made to Santorum about future Supreme Court nominations back then is that both parties to the alleged conversation understood perfectly well that there is no such as a binding promise, let alone a principle when it comes to Pennsylvania’s senior senator. After all, only hours after squeaking out a narrow victory over Toomey, that was due in large part to the enthusiastic support he received from George W. Bush and Santorum, Specter held a press conference distancing himself from both of them.

Moreover, if we’re going to talk about attempts to bribe candidates into dropping out of races, as Representative Joe Sestak claims the Obama administration has tried to do to get him to call off his primary challenge to Specter, there is also the question of what Bush and Santorum may or may not have offered Toomey to do the same back in 2004. But, unlike these Keystone State blabbermouths, the straight-arrow former congressman from Allentown kept mum about the prodigious efforts that were made to get him to halt his primary challenge to Specter six years ago. Whatever it was, he turned them down and simply ran on his conservative and libertarian principles. He fell short then, but if current opinion polls are to be believed, Toomey’s moment may be at hand.

The fact that Specter is a shameless opportunist wasn’t exactly a secret the last time he ran for re-election. And yet his prestige and power as an incumbent was such that he got away with it. There will be no shortage of theories about the meaning of this fall’s election, and, no doubt, national trends as well as the egregiousness of Specter’s party switch will play major roles in determining the outcome. But it may just be as simple as Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom about the impossibility of “fooling all of the people all of the time” finally being vindicated in Pennsylvania this year.

Read Less

Strange Herring*

Social Security will take in less than it pays out this year, requests that more Americans die by October 31, please.

ObamaCare promises to stave off mutant plague. So we’ve got that going for us…

Oliver Stone’s celebration of left-wing fascist is a go in U.S. Will be in only 1D, as Chavez had other 2D shot. (H/T Big Hollywood)

“Most Influential Books” meme yields 24,000 votes for Everybody Poops.

Only 24% of Republicans think Obama is the Anti-Christ. Give it time.

Chinese mothers to be launched into space, initiating whole new era in family planning.

Radio’s decline may be slowing. Finally gaining traction against “that moving-picture box.”

If you can’t read this, it must be Earth Day.

Russian math genius turns down $1M prize for solving brainiac puzzler. Someone finally explains to him that the “M” does not stand for “Mallomars.”

California may legalize pot. Voters convinced only “drug-induced haze” holds hope for brighter economic future.

Prince Philip, who once asked some indigenous Australian businessmen if they still threw spears at each other, is worshiped as a godling on the island of Vanuatu. Man, some people get all the gigs …

DNA from ancient finger reveals new “hominid ancestor.” Great. One more deadbeat relative to pick up at the train this Thanksgiving. And exactly which finger was it, by the way?

British man hooks up flamethrower to his scooter. (They’ve just never been the same since Suez…)

Germans provide cover for terrorists. U.S. considers designating them “Scientologists” to gain cooperation from Berlin.

Bank robbers place order ahead of time, fear slow service will delay their arrival at Moron Convention.

Steve Jobs finally answers his e-mail. Learns the “Lisa” was a bust.

High-fructose corn syrup worse than heroin if weight loss is what you’re going for.

First Jeremy Piven, now Abraham Lincoln. Enough with the sushi.

* Derived from a 16th-century tract entitled A Most Strange and Wonderful Herring Taken Neere Drenton by Jan van Doetecum. It seems that freak members of the family Clupidae were interpreted as portents of the End of All Things.

Social Security will take in less than it pays out this year, requests that more Americans die by October 31, please.

ObamaCare promises to stave off mutant plague. So we’ve got that going for us…

Oliver Stone’s celebration of left-wing fascist is a go in U.S. Will be in only 1D, as Chavez had other 2D shot. (H/T Big Hollywood)

“Most Influential Books” meme yields 24,000 votes for Everybody Poops.

Only 24% of Republicans think Obama is the Anti-Christ. Give it time.

Chinese mothers to be launched into space, initiating whole new era in family planning.

Radio’s decline may be slowing. Finally gaining traction against “that moving-picture box.”

If you can’t read this, it must be Earth Day.

Russian math genius turns down $1M prize for solving brainiac puzzler. Someone finally explains to him that the “M” does not stand for “Mallomars.”

California may legalize pot. Voters convinced only “drug-induced haze” holds hope for brighter economic future.

Prince Philip, who once asked some indigenous Australian businessmen if they still threw spears at each other, is worshiped as a godling on the island of Vanuatu. Man, some people get all the gigs …

DNA from ancient finger reveals new “hominid ancestor.” Great. One more deadbeat relative to pick up at the train this Thanksgiving. And exactly which finger was it, by the way?

British man hooks up flamethrower to his scooter. (They’ve just never been the same since Suez…)

Germans provide cover for terrorists. U.S. considers designating them “Scientologists” to gain cooperation from Berlin.

Bank robbers place order ahead of time, fear slow service will delay their arrival at Moron Convention.

Steve Jobs finally answers his e-mail. Learns the “Lisa” was a bust.

High-fructose corn syrup worse than heroin if weight loss is what you’re going for.

First Jeremy Piven, now Abraham Lincoln. Enough with the sushi.

* Derived from a 16th-century tract entitled A Most Strange and Wonderful Herring Taken Neere Drenton by Jan van Doetecum. It seems that freak members of the family Clupidae were interpreted as portents of the End of All Things.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.