Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chrysler

Billions for Nothing

The Obama team hasn’t been able to substantiate its claim that its economic policies have been of help. Now there is this:

By now, the only defense Democrats can mount of the Obama stimulus programs is that the economy would have been worse without them. There’s no way to disprove this counterfactual, but now we have some empirical evidence other than 9.6% unemployment and 1.6% growth.

It seems as though the $2.85 billion cash-for-clunkers program generated nothing much at all. Car purchases shifted to the months during which the bonanza was available, but “then it quickly hurt sales by about the same amount, in effect stealing purchases from the future.” Just as conservative critics predicted. And a new study by two university economists tells us there is no proof that it benefited the rest of the economy. (“There was ‘no noticeable difference’ in economic outcomes among the 957 metropolitan areas they studied. They did detect an economic blip in cities where the auto industry is concentrated but note that the rebound can’t be disentangled from the Chrysler and GM bailouts.”)

In short, we’ve spent billions and billions to no measurable benefit, an outcome expected by critics of Keynesian economics, who analogize fiscal-stimulus gambits to scooping water from one end of a lake and pouring it back into the other end. There’s no net gain, no mystical multiplier that raises the water level.

The Obama team and its spinners have oodles of excuses — the stimulus wasn’t big enough, the Republicans created uncertainty (I can’t begin to fathom how that one is supposed to make sense), and we should be appreciative that the economy hasn’t been much worse. The problem with all that is a lack of evidence. What we have is puddles of red ink, a limping economy, and high unemployment, which the Obami now concede will last a very long time. In private industry, a team that returned results like these would be fired en masse. In politics, the voters run the show and are likely to do just that.

The Obama team hasn’t been able to substantiate its claim that its economic policies have been of help. Now there is this:

By now, the only defense Democrats can mount of the Obama stimulus programs is that the economy would have been worse without them. There’s no way to disprove this counterfactual, but now we have some empirical evidence other than 9.6% unemployment and 1.6% growth.

It seems as though the $2.85 billion cash-for-clunkers program generated nothing much at all. Car purchases shifted to the months during which the bonanza was available, but “then it quickly hurt sales by about the same amount, in effect stealing purchases from the future.” Just as conservative critics predicted. And a new study by two university economists tells us there is no proof that it benefited the rest of the economy. (“There was ‘no noticeable difference’ in economic outcomes among the 957 metropolitan areas they studied. They did detect an economic blip in cities where the auto industry is concentrated but note that the rebound can’t be disentangled from the Chrysler and GM bailouts.”)

In short, we’ve spent billions and billions to no measurable benefit, an outcome expected by critics of Keynesian economics, who analogize fiscal-stimulus gambits to scooping water from one end of a lake and pouring it back into the other end. There’s no net gain, no mystical multiplier that raises the water level.

The Obama team and its spinners have oodles of excuses — the stimulus wasn’t big enough, the Republicans created uncertainty (I can’t begin to fathom how that one is supposed to make sense), and we should be appreciative that the economy hasn’t been much worse. The problem with all that is a lack of evidence. What we have is puddles of red ink, a limping economy, and high unemployment, which the Obami now concede will last a very long time. In private industry, a team that returned results like these would be fired en masse. In politics, the voters run the show and are likely to do just that.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

This is presidential. This is a mensch.

Blago is right: “Well, I think the question ought to be to the prosecutor, ‘How much money of taxpayers dollars did you spend on this trial?’ I would guess tens of millions of dollars, to get a guy you targeted for — you know, for six years. And then when we didn’t even put a defense on, you could not show any corruption. And you couldn’t because it didn’t exist. The next question should be why would that person use taxpayer dollars to bring another prosecution again. The Wall Street Journal had said that this is or the Washington Post had said this has turned from a prosecution to a persecution, and should the taxpayers have to pay for a prosecutor who’s out to get somebody?”

Mitch McConnell is optimistic: “‘If the election were tomorrow, we’d have a very good day,’ the Kentucky senator said on NBC’s Meet the Press. ‘There are at least 12 seats in the Senate where Democrats are on defense. That’s pretty unusual.’ McConnell did add, however, that he does worry about ‘irrational exuberance.’”

The White House is delusional: “Throughout this long year, President Obama’s advisers have sometimes looked to Ronald Reagan for comparison and inspiration. If the Gipper could survive a deep recession, low approval ratings and an adverse midterm election in his first two years and win reelection handily two years later, then Obama could easily do the same, they reason.” Perhaps if Obama did a 180 on his agenda and started expressing affection for Americans and their values, he too could be popular again.

Howard Dean is partially correct: “I don’t think this is true of the president, but I do think his people, his political people, have got to go out and spend some time outside Washington for a while.”

Douglas Schoen is unpopular with his fellow Democrats for saying things like this: “The Obama administration’s policies and programs are not producing real, long lasting results, and there has been no real growth. Put another way, an unprecedented degree of federal government spending and intervention vis-à-vis the $787 billion dollar economic stimulus package, the $81 billion dollar bailouts of GM and Chrysler, and the enactment of health care and financial regulatory and reform bills have done nothing to stimulate our anemic recovery and have fundamentally failed at creating private sector jobs, or generating economic growth necessary for a sustainable, healthy recovery.”

Obama is toxic to his own party. Stephen Hayes on Fox News Sunday: “Well, what matters most is what Democrats are doing on the ground in individual districts in the states. And I was in Wisconsin this week in Menomonee Falls for President Obama’s speech there to an energy company. You know who didn’t show up? Tom Barrett, the Democrat running for governor. Didn’t want to be seen with the president.  … You have [Joe] Donnelly in Indiana who ran an ad taking a shot at the president, taking a shot at Nancy Pelosi. And that, it seems to me, tells us a lot more about what Democrats are thinking than some ad the DNC is doing against George W. Bush.”

Richard Blumenthal is “hopeless, doomed, toast.” Connecticut Democrats have only themselves to blame.

This is presidential. This is a mensch.

Blago is right: “Well, I think the question ought to be to the prosecutor, ‘How much money of taxpayers dollars did you spend on this trial?’ I would guess tens of millions of dollars, to get a guy you targeted for — you know, for six years. And then when we didn’t even put a defense on, you could not show any corruption. And you couldn’t because it didn’t exist. The next question should be why would that person use taxpayer dollars to bring another prosecution again. The Wall Street Journal had said that this is or the Washington Post had said this has turned from a prosecution to a persecution, and should the taxpayers have to pay for a prosecutor who’s out to get somebody?”

Mitch McConnell is optimistic: “‘If the election were tomorrow, we’d have a very good day,’ the Kentucky senator said on NBC’s Meet the Press. ‘There are at least 12 seats in the Senate where Democrats are on defense. That’s pretty unusual.’ McConnell did add, however, that he does worry about ‘irrational exuberance.’”

The White House is delusional: “Throughout this long year, President Obama’s advisers have sometimes looked to Ronald Reagan for comparison and inspiration. If the Gipper could survive a deep recession, low approval ratings and an adverse midterm election in his first two years and win reelection handily two years later, then Obama could easily do the same, they reason.” Perhaps if Obama did a 180 on his agenda and started expressing affection for Americans and their values, he too could be popular again.

Howard Dean is partially correct: “I don’t think this is true of the president, but I do think his people, his political people, have got to go out and spend some time outside Washington for a while.”

Douglas Schoen is unpopular with his fellow Democrats for saying things like this: “The Obama administration’s policies and programs are not producing real, long lasting results, and there has been no real growth. Put another way, an unprecedented degree of federal government spending and intervention vis-à-vis the $787 billion dollar economic stimulus package, the $81 billion dollar bailouts of GM and Chrysler, and the enactment of health care and financial regulatory and reform bills have done nothing to stimulate our anemic recovery and have fundamentally failed at creating private sector jobs, or generating economic growth necessary for a sustainable, healthy recovery.”

Obama is toxic to his own party. Stephen Hayes on Fox News Sunday: “Well, what matters most is what Democrats are doing on the ground in individual districts in the states. And I was in Wisconsin this week in Menomonee Falls for President Obama’s speech there to an energy company. You know who didn’t show up? Tom Barrett, the Democrat running for governor. Didn’t want to be seen with the president.  … You have [Joe] Donnelly in Indiana who ran an ad taking a shot at the president, taking a shot at Nancy Pelosi. And that, it seems to me, tells us a lot more about what Democrats are thinking than some ad the DNC is doing against George W. Bush.”

Richard Blumenthal is “hopeless, doomed, toast.” Connecticut Democrats have only themselves to blame.

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It’s the Incompetence

This report confirms what conservatives have long argued: Obama is dragging the government into sectors of the economy in which it has little competence:

A report to be released [today] by the Treasury Department’s Special Inspector General for the Toxic Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) will contend that President Obama’s push for General Motors and Chrysler to close thousands of dealerships across the country as part of their government bailouts “may have substantially contributed to the shuttering of thousands of small businesses and thereby potentially adding tens of thousands of workers to the already lengthy unemployment rolls, all based on a theory and without sufficient consideration of the decisions’ broader economic impacts.”

The SIGTARP report will further contend, according to Rep. Darrell Issa, the ranking minority member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that it is questionable whether the closings were “either necessary for the sake of the companies’ economic survival or prudent for the nation’s economic recovery.”

You are surprised? Obama’s notion that pristinely apolitical technocrats with great resumes can flip all the switches, turn the knobs, and get the economy purring is exploding before our eyes. The government doesn’t create wealth by massive spending, doesn’t do a better job than the private sector in running industries, and has an agenda based not on economics but on politics (e.g., protecting unions, sparing a vulnerable congressman).

More than the specific maladies of ObamaCare (which are many), this is the core problem with Obama’s great legislative “accomplishment”: it assumes that a centralized bureaucracy can do a better job of containing costs and maintaining quality care than the hundreds of millions of citizens making daily decisions with their doctors. With each revelation — for example, that choice in doctors will be severely restricted – the public gets an inkling that the one-size-fits-all federalized health-care system is going to be every bit as expensive and every bit as objectionable as the nationalized health-care systems that have been tried out in other Western democracies.

All of this is a fine argument for government to do less, not more. Much less.

This report confirms what conservatives have long argued: Obama is dragging the government into sectors of the economy in which it has little competence:

A report to be released [today] by the Treasury Department’s Special Inspector General for the Toxic Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) will contend that President Obama’s push for General Motors and Chrysler to close thousands of dealerships across the country as part of their government bailouts “may have substantially contributed to the shuttering of thousands of small businesses and thereby potentially adding tens of thousands of workers to the already lengthy unemployment rolls, all based on a theory and without sufficient consideration of the decisions’ broader economic impacts.”

The SIGTARP report will further contend, according to Rep. Darrell Issa, the ranking minority member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that it is questionable whether the closings were “either necessary for the sake of the companies’ economic survival or prudent for the nation’s economic recovery.”

You are surprised? Obama’s notion that pristinely apolitical technocrats with great resumes can flip all the switches, turn the knobs, and get the economy purring is exploding before our eyes. The government doesn’t create wealth by massive spending, doesn’t do a better job than the private sector in running industries, and has an agenda based not on economics but on politics (e.g., protecting unions, sparing a vulnerable congressman).

More than the specific maladies of ObamaCare (which are many), this is the core problem with Obama’s great legislative “accomplishment”: it assumes that a centralized bureaucracy can do a better job of containing costs and maintaining quality care than the hundreds of millions of citizens making daily decisions with their doctors. With each revelation — for example, that choice in doctors will be severely restricted – the public gets an inkling that the one-size-fits-all federalized health-care system is going to be every bit as expensive and every bit as objectionable as the nationalized health-care systems that have been tried out in other Western democracies.

All of this is a fine argument for government to do less, not more. Much less.

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Our Place In the World

Barack Obama rode into office promising to “restore our place in the world.” Many thought this meant that Obama intended to elevate America’s profile, make us more popular and more effective, and soothe the feelings of hurt allies. But “our place in the world,” it has turned out, means a smaller place from which a less confident and assertive America simply “bears witness” as events swirl around us.

In a must-read piece, Fouad Ajami argues persuasively that Obama would rather we do less in the world and turn our attention to his quite radical plans for refashioning America. He writes of the Obama mindset:

We’re weary, the disillusioned liberalism maintains, and we’re broke, and there are those millions of Americans aching for health care and an economic lifeline. We can’t care for both Ohio and the Anbar, Peoria and Peshawar. It is either those embattled people in Iran or a rescue package for Chrysler.

The joke is on the enthralled crowds in Cairo, Ankara, Berlin and Oslo. The new American president they had fallen for had no genuine calling or attachments abroad. In their enthusiasm for Mr. Obama, and their eagerness to proclaim themselves at one with the postracial meaning of his election, they had missed his aloofness from the genuine struggles in the foreign world.

The catch in all this is that America’s retreat and equivocation neither keeps our enemies at bay nor frees the president to focus on the home front. To the contrary, our foes become emboldened and the dangers rage. As Ajami observes: “History and its furies have their logic, and they have not bent to Mr. Obama’s will. He had declared a unilateral end to the ‘war on terror,’ but the jihadists and their mentors are yet to call their war to a halt. From Yemen to Fort Hood and Detroit, the terror continues.” And while Obama is obsessed with half-a-loaf policies (e.g., surge in Afghanistan but with a deadline, sanctions in Iran but just little bitty ones) our adversaries in Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, North Korea, Syria, and elsewhere remain unimpressed, if not emboldened, by what appears to be irresolution, not “nuance,” and hesitancy, not “smart diplomacy.”

So after nearly a year, what has Obama accomplished? The world is no less dangerous, our allies (Britain, Israel, Honduras, Poland, and the Czech Republic, among others) are not cheered, and America has made it clear to human-rights activists and their oppressors that there is little this administration is willing to say (and even less it is willing to do) to advance democracy and freedom. The result? Ajami sums up: “We’re smaller for accepting that false choice between burdens at home and burdens abroad, and the world beyond our shores is more hazardous and cynical for our retrenchment and our self-flagellation.”

Anxious conservatives keep waiting for the “Ah ha!” moment when Obama will recognize the folly of his effort to turn away from the demands of a dangerous world, will instead embrace American exceptionalism, and unabashedly assert American values and interests. Yet he continues to nibble around the edges of an effective foreign policy. He drops the more ludicrous gambits (e.g., backing Hugo Chavez’s flunky in Honduras and demanding a unilateral settlement freeze by Israel) but has yet to match action with revised rhetoric. He continues to do the least possible when the most is required. His idea of America’s place in the world seems not so majestic as some had imagined. And the world, as a result, is more dangerous, and America is less enamored and respected. Alas, it is not at all what was promised.

Barack Obama rode into office promising to “restore our place in the world.” Many thought this meant that Obama intended to elevate America’s profile, make us more popular and more effective, and soothe the feelings of hurt allies. But “our place in the world,” it has turned out, means a smaller place from which a less confident and assertive America simply “bears witness” as events swirl around us.

In a must-read piece, Fouad Ajami argues persuasively that Obama would rather we do less in the world and turn our attention to his quite radical plans for refashioning America. He writes of the Obama mindset:

We’re weary, the disillusioned liberalism maintains, and we’re broke, and there are those millions of Americans aching for health care and an economic lifeline. We can’t care for both Ohio and the Anbar, Peoria and Peshawar. It is either those embattled people in Iran or a rescue package for Chrysler.

The joke is on the enthralled crowds in Cairo, Ankara, Berlin and Oslo. The new American president they had fallen for had no genuine calling or attachments abroad. In their enthusiasm for Mr. Obama, and their eagerness to proclaim themselves at one with the postracial meaning of his election, they had missed his aloofness from the genuine struggles in the foreign world.

The catch in all this is that America’s retreat and equivocation neither keeps our enemies at bay nor frees the president to focus on the home front. To the contrary, our foes become emboldened and the dangers rage. As Ajami observes: “History and its furies have their logic, and they have not bent to Mr. Obama’s will. He had declared a unilateral end to the ‘war on terror,’ but the jihadists and their mentors are yet to call their war to a halt. From Yemen to Fort Hood and Detroit, the terror continues.” And while Obama is obsessed with half-a-loaf policies (e.g., surge in Afghanistan but with a deadline, sanctions in Iran but just little bitty ones) our adversaries in Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, North Korea, Syria, and elsewhere remain unimpressed, if not emboldened, by what appears to be irresolution, not “nuance,” and hesitancy, not “smart diplomacy.”

So after nearly a year, what has Obama accomplished? The world is no less dangerous, our allies (Britain, Israel, Honduras, Poland, and the Czech Republic, among others) are not cheered, and America has made it clear to human-rights activists and their oppressors that there is little this administration is willing to say (and even less it is willing to do) to advance democracy and freedom. The result? Ajami sums up: “We’re smaller for accepting that false choice between burdens at home and burdens abroad, and the world beyond our shores is more hazardous and cynical for our retrenchment and our self-flagellation.”

Anxious conservatives keep waiting for the “Ah ha!” moment when Obama will recognize the folly of his effort to turn away from the demands of a dangerous world, will instead embrace American exceptionalism, and unabashedly assert American values and interests. Yet he continues to nibble around the edges of an effective foreign policy. He drops the more ludicrous gambits (e.g., backing Hugo Chavez’s flunky in Honduras and demanding a unilateral settlement freeze by Israel) but has yet to match action with revised rhetoric. He continues to do the least possible when the most is required. His idea of America’s place in the world seems not so majestic as some had imagined. And the world, as a result, is more dangerous, and America is less enamored and respected. Alas, it is not at all what was promised.

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The Health-Care Backlash

Here are some thoughts on where things stand in the aftermath of the certain passage of the Senate health-care bill.

1. Few Democrats understand the depth and intensity of opposition that exists toward them and their agenda, especially regarding health care. Passage of this bill will only heighten the depth and intensity of the opposition. We’re seeing a political tsunami in the making, and passage of health-care legislation would only add to its size and force.

2. This health-care bill may well be historic, but not in the way the president thinks. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything quite like it: passage of a mammoth piece of legislation, hugely expensive and unpopular, on a strict party-line vote taken in a rush of panic because Democrats know that the more people see of ObamaCare, the less they like it.

3. The problem isn’t simply with how substantively awful the bill is but how deeply dishonest and (legally) corrupt the whole process has been. There’s already a powerful populist, anti-Washington sentiment out there, perhaps as strong as anything we’ve seen. This will add kerosene to that raging fire.

4. Democrats have sold this bill as a miracle-worker; when people see first-hand how pernicious health-care legislation will be, abstract concerns will become concrete. That will magnify the unhappiness of the polity.

5. The collateral damage to Obama from this bill is enormous. More than any candidate in our lifetime, Obama won based on the aesthetics of politics. It wasn’t because of his record; he barely had one. And it wasn’t because of his command of policy; few people knew what his top three policy priorities were. It was based instead on the sense that he was something novel, the embodiment of a “new politics” – mature, high-minded and gracious, intellectually serious. That was the core of his speeches and his candidacy. In less than a year, that core has been devoured, most of all by this health-care process.

Mr. Obama has shown himself to be a deeply partisan and polarizing figure. (“I have never been asked to engage in a single serious negotiation on any issue, nor has any other Republican,” Senator McCain reported over the weekend.) The lack of transparency in this process has been unprecedented and bordering on criminal. The president has been deeply misleading in selling this plan. Lobbyists, a bane of Obama during the campaign, are having a field day.

President Obama may succeed in passing a terribly unpopular piece of legislation – but in the process, he has shattered his carefully cultivated image. It now consists of a thousand shards.

6. This health-care bill shouldn’t be seen in isolation. It’s part of a train of events that include the stimulus package, the omnibus spending bill (complete with some 8,500 earmarks), and a record-sized budget. In addition, as Jim Manzi points out in the new issue of National Affairs:

[Under Obama] the federal government has also intervened aggressively in both the financial and industrial sectors of the economy in order to produce specific desired outcomes for particular corporations. It has nationalized America’s largest auto company (General Motors) and intervened in the bankruptcy proceedings of the third-largest auto company (Chrysler), privileging labor unions at the expense of bondholders. It has, in effect, nationalized what was America’s largest insurance company (American International Group) and largest bank (Citigroup), and appears to have exerted extra-legal financial pressure on what was the second-largest bank (Bank of America) to get it to purchase the ­country’s largest securities company (Merrill Lynch). The implicit government guarantees provided to home-loan giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been called in, and the federal government is now the largest de facto lender in the residential real-estate market. The government has selected the CEOs and is setting compensation at major automotive and financial companies across the country. On top of these interventions in finance and commerce, the administration and congressional Democrats are also pursuing both a new climate and energy strategy and large-scale health-care reform. Their agenda would place the government at the center of these two huge sectors of the economy…

Together, these actions tell quite a tale. Mr. Obama has revived the worst impressions of the Democratic party – profligate and undisciplined, arrogant, lovers of big government, increasers of taxes. The issues and narrative for American politics in the foreseeable future has been set — limited government versus exploding government, capitalism versus European style socialism, responsible and measured policies versus reckless and radical ones.

Barack Obama is in the process of inflicting enormous damage to his presidency and his party. And there is more, much more to come.

Here are some thoughts on where things stand in the aftermath of the certain passage of the Senate health-care bill.

1. Few Democrats understand the depth and intensity of opposition that exists toward them and their agenda, especially regarding health care. Passage of this bill will only heighten the depth and intensity of the opposition. We’re seeing a political tsunami in the making, and passage of health-care legislation would only add to its size and force.

2. This health-care bill may well be historic, but not in the way the president thinks. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything quite like it: passage of a mammoth piece of legislation, hugely expensive and unpopular, on a strict party-line vote taken in a rush of panic because Democrats know that the more people see of ObamaCare, the less they like it.

3. The problem isn’t simply with how substantively awful the bill is but how deeply dishonest and (legally) corrupt the whole process has been. There’s already a powerful populist, anti-Washington sentiment out there, perhaps as strong as anything we’ve seen. This will add kerosene to that raging fire.

4. Democrats have sold this bill as a miracle-worker; when people see first-hand how pernicious health-care legislation will be, abstract concerns will become concrete. That will magnify the unhappiness of the polity.

5. The collateral damage to Obama from this bill is enormous. More than any candidate in our lifetime, Obama won based on the aesthetics of politics. It wasn’t because of his record; he barely had one. And it wasn’t because of his command of policy; few people knew what his top three policy priorities were. It was based instead on the sense that he was something novel, the embodiment of a “new politics” – mature, high-minded and gracious, intellectually serious. That was the core of his speeches and his candidacy. In less than a year, that core has been devoured, most of all by this health-care process.

Mr. Obama has shown himself to be a deeply partisan and polarizing figure. (“I have never been asked to engage in a single serious negotiation on any issue, nor has any other Republican,” Senator McCain reported over the weekend.) The lack of transparency in this process has been unprecedented and bordering on criminal. The president has been deeply misleading in selling this plan. Lobbyists, a bane of Obama during the campaign, are having a field day.

President Obama may succeed in passing a terribly unpopular piece of legislation – but in the process, he has shattered his carefully cultivated image. It now consists of a thousand shards.

6. This health-care bill shouldn’t be seen in isolation. It’s part of a train of events that include the stimulus package, the omnibus spending bill (complete with some 8,500 earmarks), and a record-sized budget. In addition, as Jim Manzi points out in the new issue of National Affairs:

[Under Obama] the federal government has also intervened aggressively in both the financial and industrial sectors of the economy in order to produce specific desired outcomes for particular corporations. It has nationalized America’s largest auto company (General Motors) and intervened in the bankruptcy proceedings of the third-largest auto company (Chrysler), privileging labor unions at the expense of bondholders. It has, in effect, nationalized what was America’s largest insurance company (American International Group) and largest bank (Citigroup), and appears to have exerted extra-legal financial pressure on what was the second-largest bank (Bank of America) to get it to purchase the ­country’s largest securities company (Merrill Lynch). The implicit government guarantees provided to home-loan giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been called in, and the federal government is now the largest de facto lender in the residential real-estate market. The government has selected the CEOs and is setting compensation at major automotive and financial companies across the country. On top of these interventions in finance and commerce, the administration and congressional Democrats are also pursuing both a new climate and energy strategy and large-scale health-care reform. Their agenda would place the government at the center of these two huge sectors of the economy…

Together, these actions tell quite a tale. Mr. Obama has revived the worst impressions of the Democratic party – profligate and undisciplined, arrogant, lovers of big government, increasers of taxes. The issues and narrative for American politics in the foreseeable future has been set — limited government versus exploding government, capitalism versus European style socialism, responsible and measured policies versus reckless and radical ones.

Barack Obama is in the process of inflicting enormous damage to his presidency and his party. And there is more, much more to come.

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Bookshelf

• I observed in the current issue of COMMENTARY that “one learns surprisingly little about American religiosity from modern American art. Though some of our major novelists, most notably Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have been preoccupied with religious matters, it is far more common for American writers either to ignore religion altogether or to portray it as a destructive feature of American life.” I might also have mentioned Jon Hassler, were it not for the fact that he is comparatively little known outside of his home state of Minnesota. He is, nevertheless, a novelist of real quality—and one who differs from most of his contemporaries in understanding that it is impossible to portray modern American life as it is lived without making room for religion.

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• I observed in the current issue of COMMENTARY that “one learns surprisingly little about American religiosity from modern American art. Though some of our major novelists, most notably Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have been preoccupied with religious matters, it is far more common for American writers either to ignore religion altogether or to portray it as a destructive feature of American life.” I might also have mentioned Jon Hassler, were it not for the fact that he is comparatively little known outside of his home state of Minnesota. He is, nevertheless, a novelist of real quality—and one who differs from most of his contemporaries in understanding that it is impossible to portray modern American life as it is lived without making room for religion.

To be sure, Hassler is more a middlebrow than a modernist, and his (mostly) sympathetic chronicles of Minnesota life are written in a straightforward, accessible style. Judge him by the exalted standards of Proust and Joyce—or, for that matter, O’Connor—and he’ll come up short. Try thinking of him as a Midwestern John P. Marquand and you’ll get a better idea of what he’s about. “Of all the people I know,” Marquand observed, “only Americans, because of some sort of inferiority complex, keep attempting the impossible and trying to get away from their environment.” Jon Hassler has never made that mistake. His novels are set in the small-town world where he was born and in which he has spent the whole of his 74 years, and his characters are ordinary people who spend their days grappling, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, with the ordinary problems of life, love, aging, and death.

One of the things that makes these characters so distinctive is that many (though not all) of them are churchgoers. Not coincidentally, Hassler is a Catholic novelist, and certain of his books are very decidedly the work of a Catholic novelist. Yet their temperate emotional climate has little in common with the claustrophobic creations of, say, Graham Greene or François Mauriac. In Hassler’s novels, no one, not even the priests, is obsessed with the problem of faith in the modern world, nor do his teachers, grocery-store owners, and family doctors take much of an interest in what Browning called “the dangerous edge of things.” They are simply trying to get along in a complicated world, and though they view that world through the prism of belief, most have learned that few answers are quite so easy as they look:

Rain’s only value, for Miss McGee, was that it reminded her how precious was good weather. She despised rain. But she knew that to the earth, rain was as necessary as sunshine. Could it be, she wondered, that the vice and barbarism abroad in the world served, like the rain, some purpose? Did the abominations in the Sunday paper mingle somehow with the goodness in the world and together, like the rain and sun feeding the ferns, did they nourish some kind of life she was unaware of?

The “Miss McGee” of this passage from Staggerford, Hassler’s first novel, is Agatha McGee, a schoolmarm of strongly conservative bent who turns up in several of his later books, most prominently in A Green Journey and Dear James. Like Barbara Pym and Elmore Leonard, Hassler likes to reuse his characters, and so there is something to be gained from reading his books in sequence, though North of Hope stands slightly apart from his ongoing chronicle of life in Staggerford and its environs, and can be read without reference to any of his other books. Reissued last year as part of the Loyola Classics series, North of Hope takes a hackneyed situation—an unhappily married woman falling in love with a priest—and contrives to turn it into something fresh and satisfying.

No matter which one you read first, Hassler’s books repay close reading, not least for their unpretentiously thoughtful observations about life. Here are two of my favorites, from North of Hope and The Love Hunter:

There ought to be a limit (she thought as she steered the bronze Chrysler through the cemetery gate) on the number of open graves you had to look down into in any given lifetime.

He had supposed that when you dissolved a joyless marriage, you opened yourself to the return of joy, but he discovered himself open instead to loneliness.

North of Hope is my favorite Hassler novel. If you’re allergic to priestly protagonists, start with the first two, Staggerford and Simon’s Night. Both are out of print, but used copies are easy to find online.

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America’s Favorite Buildings

The architecture of California, to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Times, is uninspiring. Or so one might conclude from a poll of America’s 150 favorite buildings, put together by the American Institute of Architects to mark its 150th anniversary. It shows that the country’s most beloved buildings are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast, including the Empire State Building (1), the White House (2), the U.S. Capitol (6), the Chrysler Building (9), and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). In fact, of the top twenty, a full sixteen are in either New York or Washington, D.C. And California’s most impressive showing is not for a building at all but for an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge (5).

Of particular distress to the Times were the lackluster ratings given those much-acclaimed Los Angeles gems, the Getty Museum (95) and the Disney Concert Hall (99). The paper offers no explanation for these low rankings, but it may be on to something. How is it that the center of the entertainment industry, which creates the imagery that comprises American popular culture, has been so lackluster in creating memorable architecture? The relative newness of the West Coast is only a partial answer, since the public clearly feels deep affection for a recent monument like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10).

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The architecture of California, to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Times, is uninspiring. Or so one might conclude from a poll of America’s 150 favorite buildings, put together by the American Institute of Architects to mark its 150th anniversary. It shows that the country’s most beloved buildings are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast, including the Empire State Building (1), the White House (2), the U.S. Capitol (6), the Chrysler Building (9), and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). In fact, of the top twenty, a full sixteen are in either New York or Washington, D.C. And California’s most impressive showing is not for a building at all but for an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge (5).

Of particular distress to the Times were the lackluster ratings given those much-acclaimed Los Angeles gems, the Getty Museum (95) and the Disney Concert Hall (99). The paper offers no explanation for these low rankings, but it may be on to something. How is it that the center of the entertainment industry, which creates the imagery that comprises American popular culture, has been so lackluster in creating memorable architecture? The relative newness of the West Coast is only a partial answer, since the public clearly feels deep affection for a recent monument like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10).

In fact, what is most impressive about the poll is how impervious it is to hype and publicity. The list is heavy on public monuments, museums, and buildings of state, and in that sense is deeply conservative. Perhaps it reflects a widespread affection for America’s symbolic architecture in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center (19). It is difficult to imagine that a list of popular buildings compiled before 9/11 would have been so steeped in tradition.

My main quibble with the poll is different from that of the Times. How is it that Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (27) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (29)—America’s two greatest houses, and two of the world’s greatest houses—are ranked below the Bellagio Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas (22)?

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