Commentary Magazine


Topic: Conservatism

Mark Levin’s Distortions of Reagan  

Mark Levin – a popular talk radio host and best-selling author — recently responded to a piece in which I was critical of him. I’ll take up two things Mr. Levin said, starting with the charge that I am “an adamant and flailing progressive.”

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Mark Levin – a popular talk radio host and best-selling author — recently responded to a piece in which I was critical of him. I’ll take up two things Mr. Levin said, starting with the charge that I am “an adamant and flailing progressive.”

Of course. I’m that rare adamant, flailing progressive who worked in the Reagan administration and considers Reagan to be among the greatest presidents in our history; who is a consistent, often harsh critic of President Obama; and who wrote a book offering a moral defense of democratic capitalism. I’m also that atypical adamant progressive who is pro-life, pro-school choice, and pro-Keystone XL pipeline; who has pushed for personal accounts in Social Security and a premium support system for Medicare; and who wants to reform the tax code by lowering the top rates and broadening the base. Then there’s the fact that I oppose drug legalization, was (and remain) an advocate for greater work requirements in welfare programs, and favor the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I also supported the “surge” in Iraq and spending more on the defense budget. I could go on, but you get the point. The last time I saw Mr. Levin in person, by the way, was at an infamous gathering of adamant and flailing progressives: Rush Limbaugh’s wedding in 2010.

Let me move to another point made by Levin. I wrote that if the absolutist mindset that characterizes some on the right, including Levin, were applied to Ronald Reagan’s record; their logic would compel them to label him a RINO (Republican In Name Only). I mentioned as but one example the fact the Reagan chose Richard Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee in 1976. And this is where Levin gets all tangled up. He writes:

Wehner only tells half the story about Dick Schweiker … I am reminded that Schweiker was pro-labor but also pro-life, anti-communist, pro-Second Amendment, pro-freeing the Captive-Nations. I was not a great Scweiker [sic] fan, but he was no crazed leftist. The same can be said of George H. W. Bush.

I never said that Senator Schweiker was a “crazed leftist.” What I did say (in this COMMENTARY essay I co-authored with Henry Olsen) is that Senator Schweiker was a liberal. If anything, we understated the case. As this document shows, the left-wing group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) gave Senator Schweiker an approval rating of 85% in 1974, which is the same rating the ADA gave to Senator George McGovern; and in 1975, the year before Reagan picked Schweiker to be his running mate, Senator Schweiker received an 89% rating. Senator Schweiker cosponsored a national health insurance bill introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy; was a primary sponsor of legislation (the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act) that created a massive federal jobs program; voted against an attempt to stop federal funds from paying for abortions; supported the Equal Rights Amendment; opposed the Vietnam War; and opposed funding key defense systems. Steven Hayward, in his wonderful book The Age of Reagan, wrote, “Schweiker was arguably as liberal as Jimmy Carter’s running mate, Sen. Walter Mondale.”

Anyone who listens to Mr. Levin knows he would excoriate any conservative today who named a liberal like Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee, as Reagan did. And an honest reading of some parts of Reagan’s political record — when he was governor of California he liberalized abortion laws, and when he was president he signed into law record tax increases and he championed amnesty — means that he would fail the purity test that Levin applies to conservatives today.

Which gets to the heart of the matter. Mr. Levin appears less interested in learning from the real Reagan record than in using the Gipper as a battering ram against other conservatives, whom he routinely accuses of being RINOs, cowards, statists, leftists, phony pseudo-conservatives, and so forth. But the Reagan invoked by Levin is a figure of his own invention, a caricature of the real man and the great president. The purpose of the distortion is to advance Levin’s own ideology, which is increasingly more radical than conservative.

In any event, the real Reagan is far more impressive — politically, philosophically, and temperamentally — than the one summoned from Mark Levin’s imagination. One example: Reagan would admonish his staff, “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents.” Yet Levin — who prides himself on being a true Reaganite, the Keeper of the Flame — treats almost everyone he disagrees with as an enemy. Ronald Reagan’s conservatism was not coursing with anger. He was an affable and optimistic populist — one who, as his biographer Edmund Morris put it, “represented the better temper of his times.”

As Henry Olsen and I argued, the Reagan legacy matters — to history, and to modern-day conservatives. Our fortieth president was a multi-dimensional and immensely interesting figure, and there is much that both the GOP “establishment” and Tea Party populists can learn from his life and his political record. But for that to happen, he needs to be rescued from those who distort history while claiming to be his heirs.

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Clarifying the Reagan Record (and Correcting Don Devine)

Don Devine recently wrote a critical piece about the COMMENTARY essay authored by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen and me on Ronald Reagan. In an email he sent out accompanying his column, Mr. Devine declared that it “really burns” him that we “distort[ed] Reagan.” Which just goes to show that people shouldn’t write responses when they’re enraged.

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Don Devine recently wrote a critical piece about the COMMENTARY essay authored by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen and me on Ronald Reagan. In an email he sent out accompanying his column, Mr. Devine declared that it “really burns” him that we “distort[ed] Reagan.” Which just goes to show that people shouldn’t write responses when they’re enraged.

Henry has already responded to Mr. Devine, explaining with intelligent care what Devine’s errors in analysis are. We didn’t distort Reagan at all; and if we did, you’d have to look to places other than Devine’s column to know where the distortions occurred.

I do want to correct Devine on one factual point. He wrote:

They [Olsen and I] do concede Reagan was “unwavering” on cutting marginal tax rates, implementing Reaganomics generally, firing the air controllers, and winning the Cold War. Yet, he “did not roll back government to the extent he promised” He did plan to cut Social Security but quickly retreated. By the end of his presidency, “federal spending averaged 22 percent of GDP, higher than it was under Carter and the highest it had ever been until the Obama presidency.”

Whoa, just a minute; this is cooking the books. Reagan’s 23 percent tax cut drove down total spending from a projected 23.8 percent. More important, total federal spending includes defense, which Reagan promised to increase and did. If one looks at non-defense discretionary spending, which is what he said he would cut, and a president can control, Reagan decreased this spending absolutely by 9.6 percent over his two terms, the only president in modern times to do so (everyone else posting increases, the two Bushes higher than Carter or Clinton). Even including entitlements, Reagan reduced total domestic spending relatively, from 17.4 to 15.6 of gross domestic product (GDP).

The claims we make and the figures we cite are accurate. The inaccuracies come from Mr. Devine. For one thing, he suggests that a president can only control discretionary spending as opposed to mandatory, and therefore entitlement, spending. (The difference between the two is that discretionary spending stems from authority provided in annual appropriation acts whereas mandatory, or direct, spending is controlled by laws other than appropriation acts.) But of course a president has the ability to cut mandatory spending through legislation. In fact, early on in his presidency Reagan tried to cut future benefits for Social Security recipients, but quickly retreated when a firestorm erupted.

As for “cooking the books”: Mr. Devine’s claim (he provides no sources) that non-defense discretionary spending decreased “absolutely by 9.6 over his two terms” is not quite accurate. In fact, it’s quite wrong.

From 1981 through 1988, non-defense discretionary spending went from $149.949 billion to $173.5 billion–a 15.7 percent increase. (You can see for yourself by going to this CBO link. Discretionary outlays are on the fourth tab of the excel spreadsheet.) And for those interested, total mandatory spending (which can be found on the fifth tab) went from $301.562 billion to $448.195 billion, a 48.6 percent increase. It’s certainly fair to argue that non-defense spending would have been higher had someone other than Reagan been president. But that’s a different claim than saying Reagan actually and “absolutely” cut non-defense spending and significantly undid the welfare state.

As for our assertion that Reagan did not roll back government to the extent he promised: That’s clearly true. He didn’t eliminate Cabinet agencies he wanted to (the Department of Education is but one example). The number of workers on the federal payroll rose during his presidency. Reagan himself admitted he didn’t get the spending cuts he wanted in exchange for agreeing to the TEFRA tax increases. And the reason the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP was higher under Reagan than it was under any modern president prior to Obama was because Reagan got most of his tax cuts and most of his defense increases–but he didn’t get the spending cuts he anticipated.

Reagan is not primarily to blame for that; he faced a Democratic Congress, after all. And as we point out in the essay, Reagan made a prudential and wise judgment in using his political capital not on significantly rolling back the liberal welfare state (there unfortunately wasn’t the public or political will to do this) but in slashing taxes and increasing our defense budget.

As Lou Cannon put it in his book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, “For all the fervor they created, the first-term Reagan budgets were mild manifestos devoid of revolutionary purpose. They did not seek to ‘rebuild the foundation of our society’ (the task Reagan set for himself and Congress in a nationally televised speech of February 5, 1981) or even to accomplish the ‘sharp reduction in the spending growth trend’ called for in [his] Economic Recovery Plan.” President Reagan did more or less what he could, given the circumstances he faced.

It’s hard to know what explains the anger that burns within Mr. Devine (and a few others on the right) regarding our essay. It was extremely favorable toward Reagan, whom we call “the greatest politician and the greatest president their party has produced since Lincoln.” We credit Reagan with unusual courage, intellectual boldness, and for reshaping American politics. We praise him for his commitment to human dignity and for being exceptionally resolute in attaining his goals while being flexible in his means and methods. We write that Reagan succeeded not because he was simply a “great communicator” but because of the truths he spoke.

But that’s not all. We write, “the [political/GOP] establishment can learn from Reagan’s great conviction that he was elected not to mark time but to make a difference. In this respect, he was more than willing to put forward a governing agenda; he was eager to do so, and wasn’t one to play it safe.” And we offered a fair-minded, balanced, and quite favorable assessment of Reagan’s achievements, which have not been refuted in any serious way. Despite all this the essay qualifies as “propaganda,” according to Mr. Devine. He writes as if we’ve thrown bricks through the stained-glass windows in a cathedral.

This is all quite odd. Part of what’s going on may be confirmation bias. That is, some people on the right may distort Reagan’s actual achievements in order to advance their own particular agendas. They see Reagan as they want to see him, rather than as he was. Some of it may be that Reagan has been mythologized by some conservatives in a way that makes an honest assessment of his presidency impossible. It isn’t enough to call Reagan a historically great president and attest to his many virtues. For some, to point out areas where Reagan didn’t succeed as well as he might have, or to mention areas where he made mistakes, is viewed as impiety, an act of desecration.

It isn’t, and those who see it as such are doing a disservice to a very great man, a very great president, and to history itself.

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The Midterms, the Jewish Vote, and Liberalism’s Price of Admission

In the wake of the Republican victory in the 2014 midterms, the left aimed some of its most spiteful rhetoric at the women and minorities elevated into office in the GOP wave. Perhaps the most cringe-inducing display of delegitimization belonged to the author Darron T. Smith, who wrote in the Huffington Post that Utah Republican Mia Love “might look black, but her politics are red.” Yet strangely enough, the best way to understand liberal anger at Republican African-Americans and women is through this Atlantic piece analyzing the Jewish vote in the midterm elections.

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In the wake of the Republican victory in the 2014 midterms, the left aimed some of its most spiteful rhetoric at the women and minorities elevated into office in the GOP wave. Perhaps the most cringe-inducing display of delegitimization belonged to the author Darron T. Smith, who wrote in the Huffington Post that Utah Republican Mia Love “might look black, but her politics are red.” Yet strangely enough, the best way to understand liberal anger at Republican African-Americans and women is through this Atlantic piece analyzing the Jewish vote in the midterm elections.

In “Are Democrats Losing the Jews?” Emma Green attempts to understand why Democrats’ share of the Jewish vote decreased and what that means both for American Jews and the Democratic Party going forward. The unfortunate aspect to Green’s story is that she has the facts in front of her, so her conclusion is the result of ignoring, not utilizing, the information at her disposal. Though at various points in the article she seems to begin to understand the issue, in the end she concludes with a statement that sets a new standard for being wrong about the Jewish vote.

Green notes that although Democrats usually enjoy an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote, at times truly terrible presidents cost their party a notable swath of those votes. Jimmy Carter, for example, only received 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. Seen in that light, it’s not terribly surprising that although President Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot in the midterms, his relentless attacks on Israel’s government and his downgrading of the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war were bound to cost Democrats some of the Jewish vote.

Green then digs into last year’s Pew report on Jewish identity and assimilation. She attempts to draw some conclusions:

But these statistics do provide some context for what’s happening among Jewish voters. In 2006, 87 percent of Jews voted for Democratic candidates for the House, as did 50 percent of white Catholics and 37 percent of white Protestants—a 37- and 50-percentage point difference, respectively. In 2014, those gaps narrowed: There was only a 12-point difference between Jews and white Catholics, and a 40-point difference between Jews and white Protestants. Those are still big differences, obviously, but the conclusion is there: Jews are voting more like white people.

Put aside the “Jews are voting more like white people” remark: it’s clumsy and obviously silly, but we know what Green was trying to say. She then says that Republicans aren’t necessarily going to start winning the Jewish vote. “But,” she concludes, “it may be that, as a people as much as a voting bloc, Jews are becoming less influenced by their Jewishness.”

And here we have the liberal mindset perfectly distilled. Just like Darron Smith thinks blacks who don’t vote for Democrats are in some way voting against their “blackness,” and Ann Friedman can write that Republican women aren’t “truly pro-woman,” the idea undergirding Green’s conclusion is that liberalism is political Judaism. Of course that’s insulting to those who take their Jewish faith seriously, and it’s certainly a creepy parallel to the “price of admission” ideology of leftism going back to the French Revolution. But it’s also, crucially, wrong.

There has been no major swing of the Jewish vote away from Democrats, and there likely won’t be. But incremental gains by the GOP are not evidence of Jews being less Jewish; they’re exactly the opposite. Although the Orthodox are far from being anywhere close to a majority of American Jews–and will remain far from it for quite some time, even if current trends hold–they are still increasing their share of American Jews. As the numbers have increased, so has their political activism. And they are much more likely to care not only about Israel but about issues like school choice and economic liberty, to say nothing of religious liberty. (Pew found that “57% of Orthodox Jews describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party.”)

The Orthodox Union took some heat from other corners of the Jewish world for supporting the Catholic-driven attempts to allow religious exemptions from the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. The OU’s Nathan Diament explained that the organization did so not because it opposes birth control but because “we, particularly as a religious minority in the United States, must stand in solidarity with people of all faiths in demanding the broadest protections for rights of conscience in the face of government (and socio-cultural) coercion to the contrary.”

It’s no surprise that as the share of observant Jews increases, those Jews will be less likely to support a Democratic Party that is increasingly hostile to religious freedom and faith more generally, and instead support a Republican Party that seeks to protect religious practice from the authoritarian instincts of statist liberalism. Green could not be more wrong, in other words, about Jewish identity and voting trends. But her analysis was just one more example that modern liberalism requires its adherents to sacrifice all other aspects of their identity for The Cause. If minorities must choose between their community and leftist doctrine, it’s encouraging that many of them choose the former.

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The Jacobin Right

A few voices on the right, some of them safely ensconced in their underground command post, deep in the bowels of a hidden bunker, are attempting to rewrite history. In this case, after the GOP sweep last week, they want to justify their support for the approach that led to the October 2013 government shutdown. One radio talk show host, Mark Levin, said, “The shutdown worked.”

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A few voices on the right, some of them safely ensconced in their underground command post, deep in the bowels of a hidden bunker, are attempting to rewrite history. In this case, after the GOP sweep last week, they want to justify their support for the approach that led to the October 2013 government shutdown. One radio talk show host, Mark Levin, said, “The shutdown worked.”

That’s an impossible position to credibly defend. The government shutdown didn’t achieve a single one of its purposes, including its main one: defunding the Affordable Care Act. Everyone knew the GOP was uniformly against the ACA; it didn’t take the government shutdown to convince them of it. Polling shows that by overwhelming numbers the public didn’t like the government shutdown and by huge margins (53 percent to 31 percent), they blamed Republicans for it. “Americans have come to hold a harshly negative view of the Republican Party during the government shutdown, giving the GOP a far larger share of the blame for a political brawl that many believe is harming the economy,” the Wall Street Journal wrote at the time. Moreover, the image of the GOP fell to a record low in the aftermath of the shutdown. Republicans spent the last year climbing out of the hole they put themselves in. Simply because the shutdown didn’t ruin the Republican Party for generations to come doesn’t mean it was a smart idea.

What’s more interesting to me is to see this latest example of “epistemic closure” on display. I long ago came to expect this from the left; what’s a little more surprising to me is the degree to which some people on the right–or at least who claim to represent the right–succumb to it.

This probably should not be a revelation. After all, in some cases–Mr. Levin comes to mind–we’re dealing not so much with conservatives as dogmatists. (I should interject here that I’ve gone around the block before with Mr. Levin, who is certainly a passionate advocate for his views.) They are spending more and more of their time and energy targeting those they perceive as heretics, the impure in our midst.

To support their case, these self-appointed enforcers of conservative purity often invoke Ronald Reagan and claim to be his heirs. In fact, in many respects they don’t understand him very well at all. They twist Reagan this way and that, like Stretch Armstrong, to make him appear to match their own dispositions and patterns of thought and biases. Their absolutist mindset, if applied to the Reagan record–on amnesty (Reagan was for it), on raising taxes (Reagan passed what at the time was the largest tax increase in American history), on abortion (as governor, Reagan liberalized abortion laws), on campaigning for liberal Republicans (he chose Richard Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee in 1976)–would have drawn their wrath. By their own logic, Reagan would have to have been deemed a RINO (Republican In Name Only).

This would be absurd, of course; Reagan was a great president and a great conservative. Judged for the totality of his acts and in his historical context, his record, while not flawless, was extremely impressive. Yet he could not even approach the standards of purity embraced by today’s radicals on the right. They are, to coin a phrase, the Jacobin Right. By this I mean they permit no deviation from what they view as the one true party line. It’s one thing to have substantive differences with people; it’s another to continually portray those with whom you differ as unprincipled and heretical. Not every policy or tactical difference rises to the level of fundamental and unforgivable transgressions against conservative orthodoxy.

These individuals have become to conservatism what Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips were to Reagan during his day: ideologues, often agitated and angry, who seem to draw energy from attacking those they deem to be apostates. How glorious it is to be a True Believer in an unfaithful age.

The important point, I think, is that these voices, while loud as ever, are losing influence. The Republican Party seems to have found a way to be both conservative and reasonable, principled and prudent. Those on the fringe appear to find this intolerable. They want to, in the words of Reagan, go over the cliff with all flags flying. That’s up to them. They just shouldn’t try to take Reagan’s party down with them.

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How the Midterms Vindicated Both the Establishment and the Grassroots

On Saturday night I opened the New York Times website and saw the headline I’d been waiting since last Tuesday to see. “With Fear of Being Sidelined, Tea Party Sees the Republican Rise as New Threat,” the Times declared, and I wondered why it took four days since the Republican landslide victory in the congressional midterms and coinciding gubernatorial races for the Times to find some way to spin the massive GOP victory as a Republican civil war.

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On Saturday night I opened the New York Times website and saw the headline I’d been waiting since last Tuesday to see. “With Fear of Being Sidelined, Tea Party Sees the Republican Rise as New Threat,” the Times declared, and I wondered why it took four days since the Republican landslide victory in the congressional midterms and coinciding gubernatorial races for the Times to find some way to spin the massive GOP victory as a Republican civil war.

Surely the Times had such a story ready to go; it always has such a story ready to go. Perhaps the paper’s editors wanted to wait for the Sunday edition to really make a splash by republishing essentially the same story they write about four thousand times a year. In any event, there it was, the crystallization of the unthinking man’s midterms narrative: Republicans lose when they lose, and they lose when they win.

Such reporting has become more interesting since the Times embraced data journalism first with Nate Silver and now with its post-Silver Upshot blog. Since the Times’s reporting is usually heavy on wishful thinking and light on facts, the paper would be at risk of its data journalists undoing the narratives the Times’s political reporters and editors work so hard to establish. Such is the case with the Upshot’s latest, “G.O.P. Is Making Progress Toward Presidency but Is Still Playing Catch-Up.”

Not only does the piece debunk the notion that there is some fixed demographic state that will hold true from now on and lock Republicans out of the popular vote, but it also makes clear that there will only be a civil war on the right if Republicans foolishly invent one. In fact, the most notable takeaway from the Upshot piece is that in the battle over whether the colossal rout the Republicans achieved last week proved the “establishment” or the “Tea Party” (a term that has probably just about outlived its usefulness) right, the answer is: both.

First, the debunking of the Democrats’ exceedingly silly argument that they lost so badly simply because of non-presidential year turnout:

The Democratic losses were not simply because of low turnout. Republicans often made significant gains among rural, white voters. Some candidates made inroads among young and Hispanic voters, as well, according to exit polls and county and precinct-level results.

Precisely. Some of the Democrats’ woes had to do with lower-than-2012 turnout and some had to do with the fact that conservatives were expanding their coalition while liberals weren’t. I imagine conservatives wouldn’t mind if Democrats persist in their emphatic denial of reality, though even President Obama–who made a point of trying to delegitimize midterm voters in a typical bout of petulant foot stomping–seems to be coming around to the absurdity of the White House’s initial spin. (Though he is still not quite approaching reality.)

The Upshot’s Nate Cohn continues:

On Tuesday, Joni Ernst, now a Republican senator-elect, won a decisive nine-point victory. She swept much of traditionally Democratic eastern Iowa, where Democrats have long fared well with rural voters.

In Colorado, Cory Gardner, now a senator-elect, also made significant gains among rural white voters. He also outperformed past Republicans in traditionally Democratic, heavily Hispanic counties.

These gains suggest that demographic trends have not doomed Republicans to minority-party status, as some political analysts predicted. Those predictions hinged in part on the assumption that Democrats could fare no worse among white voters than Mr. Obama. That assumption ignored Mr. Obama’s strengths among white voters outside the South.

It’s important to note that the trends haven’t been completely reversed, either. Republicans aren’t doomed but neither are Democrats; indeed, Democrats still have a strong presidential-year coalition. The risk they run is in ignoring the plain fact that Republicans appear to be better capable of making inroads into that Democratic coalition than political prognosticators thought. And since the Democratic electoral coalition is sustained through identity politics and not ideas, if Republicans can negate those identity-politics appeals the Democrats would be in trouble.

But the other lesson here is that the establishment and the grassroots made a superb team in this year’s midterms. The ability of Ernst in Iowa and Gardner in Colorado, among others, to win competitive races in states Obama carried twice showed that the candidate mattered, as the establishment has been emphasizing, and that conservative ideas were winners even in blue states, as the grassroots have been insisting.

Ernst, in fact, was conservative enough to cause Super-Civil Centrist Norm Ornstein to have a breakdown on social media, calling Ernst a “lunatic.” But an important element in allowing those conservative ideas to be heard was the nominations of better candidates, the GOP’s efforts in media training those candidates, and in some cases ensuring the nominations of establishment-friendly candidates who would win quietly. As Chuck Todd accidentally admitted after the election, had one conservative candidate uttered a controversial remark, the press would have forced that remark into every single race throughout the country.

This is not to say the GOP was mistake-free. Indeed, the establishment clearly erred in not intervening to encourage Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas to retire–Roberts being an extremely dangerous play since his race turned out to be competitive. But it wasn’t about either the establishment or the grassroots being perfect, it was about not making the kinds of mistakes that change the narrative and toughen the terrain for other candidates around the country. That was a test they passed, and in doing so proved the attractiveness of conservatism even in places it was assumed to be unwelcome.

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Why Scott Walker Doesn’t Need a Landslide

The central contradiction of Scott Walker’s prospective 2016 presidential candidacy is that the case against it is also the case for it. And that theme has been a major component of the coverage of Walker’s close reelection battle against Mary Burke. Walker heads into today’s election clinging to a 2-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. The two candidates were even in an early October Marquette poll. Since then, Walker has led four of the last five polls, but in only one was that lead more than 2 points. And the narrative has begun to form that with this close a race, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it seems whether he wins.

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The central contradiction of Scott Walker’s prospective 2016 presidential candidacy is that the case against it is also the case for it. And that theme has been a major component of the coverage of Walker’s close reelection battle against Mary Burke. Walker heads into today’s election clinging to a 2-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. The two candidates were even in an early October Marquette poll. Since then, Walker has led four of the last five polls, but in only one was that lead more than 2 points. And the narrative has begun to form that with this close a race, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it seems whether he wins.

That is, the failure to win a convincing referendum on his tenure as governor is a major red flag for his presidential hopes. The best article making this case from the right (who Walker would have to win over in a primary) comes from Ramesh Ponnuru, writing at Bloomberg View. There are bound to be real obstacles to a Walker bid, and some of them are indeed wrapped up in how Walker has handled–and in some cases, perhaps mishandled–his reelection campaign. That’s one reason the accusations that Chris Christie, as head of the Republican Governors Association, supposedly left Walker high and dry rang hollow. If Walker’s opponent was underestimated, it wasn’t by Christie; it was by Walker.

Here’s the crux of Ponnuru’s argument:

For one thing, Walker’s struggle raises the question of whether a politician can make a credible run for the presidency after barely winning over his own state’s voters. The last two presidents each won their states convincingly before they ran. George W. Bush won 68 percent of the vote to be re-elected governor of Texas in 1998, and Barack Obama won 70 percent of the vote in Illinois to become a senator in 2004.

Walker, assuming he wins, won’t have numbers anywhere close to those. And if he decides to seek the 2016 nomination, he’ll have to make the best of it. The argument he could make to Republicans nationwide is that he took risks to get conservative reforms enacted in a liberal state, and he succeeded. The closeness of his recall campaign and his re-election are a testament, he could say, to his boldness.

There’s another way Walker is different from Bush and Obama. Bush said he would be a “uniter, not a divider,” and Obama said he’d “change the tone” in Washington for the better. A candidate as demonstrably polarizing as Walker — his anti-union reforms sparked huge protests and an occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol — won’t be able to run that kind of campaign.

I think Ponnuru is right on the particulars but wrong on the implications.

It’s true that both Obama and Bush had won resounding statewide victories before running for president. And historically, candidates who lose their home state in a presidential election usually lose the election too. But Walker’s ability to win over Wisconsin’s voters means he’d put the state in play in a presidential election. Unlike Bush and John McCain, whose home states were red, and Mitt Romney, who never had a chance to win Massachusetts, that gives Republicans a chance to expand the map. Walker’s close election means it is precisely the kind of state Republicans have to learn how to win if they want to end their slide in presidential elections.

It’s easy to convince Texas to keep public unions in check, and it’s impressive but arguably irrelevant to convince New Jersey voters to back such a platform, as did Chris Christie. New Jersey is not going red any time soon, so Christie’s success offers an example of how to win over public opinion on union issues, but doesn’t change the Electoral College calculus.

Speaking of Christie, Ponnuru’s second point is also worth delving into in order to make a crucial distinction. Ponnuru writes that Walker can’t make the claim to be some kind of postpartisan uniter. His agenda is divisive. But there’s a difference between a personally divisive candidate and a divisive agenda–and there are also differences between types of divisive agendas.

Christie is an example of someone with a divisive personality. Walker is not. Walker is personable and relatable, not combative. He’s a happy warrior. His agenda is divisive, but that’s for a good reason: it’s an actual governing agenda, and the defenders of the self-enriching status quo will always fight real reform.

Walker’s opponents made the issue divisive because they completely lost their minds. Democratic state senators actually fled the state, like criminals and cowards, rather than participate in the democratic process that would have led to an outcome they didn’t like. His opponents could barely speak a full sentence that didn’t have the word “Hitler” sprinkled generously throughout. I’ve seen the unions threaten the lives of people I know who they discovered supported Walker.

But the fact remains: anti-public union policies are gaining steam and support in blue and purple states, despite the divisiveness caused by union leaders and their most ardent supporters experiencing a psychotic break over sensible reforms. Entrenched interests cannot be given a heckler’s veto.

And the lesson here is that while the Wisconsin electorate is polarized, so is the national electorate. Liberal interest groups and the media (but I repeat myself) will paint any Republican agenda as the end of the world. The vapid Obama campaign managed to make Big Bird a divisive issue, to say nothing of the “war on women” or race-baiting. Any Republican running on anything resembling a conservative agenda will get this apocalyptic treatment from the left. The candidate might as well make it worth the trouble and actually stand for something.

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Why Jeb Bush Is Right and Grover Norquist Is Wrong

According to an article in Politico:

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According to an article in Politico:

Jeb Bush has a tax problem.

The former Florida governor has said he could accept tax increases in a hypothetical deficit-cutting deal. Never mind that he added that would come only in exchange for major federal spending cuts, or that he repeatedly cut taxes as governor.

Tax hikes are still apostasy in Republican circles, and the stance could be a big problem for Bush if he decides to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2016.

Bush’s views are already pitting him against one of his party’s most influential activists, Grover Norquist, the high priest of anti-tax orthodoxy who’s convinced nearly every elected Republican to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.

“Mind-boggling,” Norquist said of Bush.

Actually, it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

Set aside for the moment your view of Jeb Bush and the 2016 presidential race. Let’s instead examine this broader argument with some care, beginning with putting the story in context.

As Politico points out, during a June 2012 House Budget Committee hearing, Bush was asked about a theoretical deficit plan that would actually cut $10 in spending in exchange for a dollar in tax increases. This was a question first posed to Republican presidential candidates by Byron York and Bret Baier and was rejected by all eight of them. (I criticized that response at the time.) Governor Bush’s response was different than the Republicans running for president. “If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, Coach,” he said.

Note well what Bush didn’t say. He didn’t say he believed we as a nation are under-taxed. In fact Bush, as governor of Florida, had a sterling tax-cutting record, having cut them every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). What Bush said is that if you could actually get a 10-to-one ratio in spending cuts to tax increases–that after all was the premise of the thought experiment–he’d do it. So, I would think, would any conservative interested in limiting government.

I not only understand the case for lower taxes; I support tax cuts. But it’s not an inviolate principle. The question on these things is always context. Higher taxes in exchange for what? Which taxes are we talking about? And what else might be considered in any such deal (e.g., reforming Medicare by replacing the current fee-for-services system with a premium support one)?

People I respect believe the no-new-tax pledge has done more good than harm, that without it Republicans would be far more inclined to raise taxes. That’s not an unreasonable stance. But for conservatives to say, as many now do, that there’s no scenario in which taxes could ever be raised–and to pledge to oppose a tax increase regardless of circumstances–strikes me as misguided. Nor do I believe most Republicans, if you had a long, honest conversation, would be that absolutist. The right level of taxation is a prudential, not a theological, matter; it needs to be seen in the context of other economic conditions and possible gains in other areas.

This debate highlights a danger for conservatism, which is that certain policies are elevated to dogma, to canon. It takes a reasonable starting point in a negotiation and turns it into a non-negotiable end point. Vin Weber, a principled conservative, said Bush’s answer on the tax issue “was totally right, and if we’re ever going to deal with the long-term debt question, Republicans are going to have to come to grips with that.”

This debate also exposes a mindset that views compromise per se as unprincipled, a capitulation, a sign of weakness. This is a deeply unconservative attitude and quite at odds with what James Madison and the other Federalist founders believed. The Constitution itself was the result of a whole series of difficult, reluctant, remarkable compromises. That’s why it’s so odd that those who consider themselves “constitutional conservatives” are often the ones who react most strongly against even the idea of compromise.

One other thing. If the attitude many of those on the right have toward taxes today existed in the 1970s and 1980s, Ronald Reagan would have been considered a heretic. I say that because Reagan himself signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”; and as president he signed a tax increase (TEFRA) that at the time was the largest in American history. As president Reagan, in fact, raised taxes multiple times.

Now my own view is that Reagan’s record, including his record on taxes, needs to be seen in whole–and seen in whole it was outstanding. He was responsible for cutting the top rate from 70 percent to, when he left office, 28 percent, which helped catalyze our economy; and his 1986 tax reform plan was a tremendous achievement. Yet Reagan did raise taxes.

It’s true that President Reagan came to regret his 1982 tax increase. But it’s important to keep this in mind: He agreed to it, he said, assuming he’d get $3 of spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. (He didn’t, though the reality is somewhat complicated.) If that result had in fact come to pass, would the deal have been wrong? Would today’s anti-tax advocates torch him for his apostasy? Would he be vilified as a RINO? Would he be vulnerable to a primary challenge?

It tells us something about some currents within conservatism that a governor with a sterling tax cutting record, in expressing support for a theoretical deal far more conservative than what Ronald Reagan was willing to accept, would be the object of harsh criticisms.

My guess is that this kind of approach to politics, while still embraced in some quarters, is losing influence. At least I hope so. Not because I want higher taxes, but because I don’t think conservatism is a rigid, adamantine ideology; that the quest for political purification is fraught with danger; and because conservatives shouldn’t assume that any deal that gives you less than everything is a bad deal. Conservatives shouldn’t treat a debate about tax rates as a metaphysical matter.

We all have roles to play, and governing is different than critiquing those who do. The former certainly need to be prodded now and then by activists and commentators; I do a fair amount of that myself. But activists and commentators need to understand that while we need to strive for the ideal, the ideal can’t become the standard by which we judge politicians. Nor is every issue a hill to die on. And, as the greatest American conservative of them all warned, there’s not a lot to be won, and even a lot to be lost, by going over the cliff with our flags waving.

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Twenty-First Century Conservatism

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio laid out a pro-growth, pro-family tax reform plan. It recommends two rates (35 and 15 percent), cuts the current corporate tax rate, eliminates or reforms certain deductions, ends the marriage penalty, and increases the child tax credit.

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In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio laid out a pro-growth, pro-family tax reform plan. It recommends two rates (35 and 15 percent), cuts the current corporate tax rate, eliminates or reforms certain deductions, ends the marriage penalty, and increases the child tax credit.

While important details would need to be worked out, this proposal holds great promise both for what it can do to strengthen the economy and help families. (For more, see here and here.) But I want to focus on how Messrs. Lee and Rubio frame their proposal.

In describing the challenges facing middle class Americans, they identify some of the fundamental transformations we’re undergoing and write this:

Despite these dramatic changes, the policies and practices of Washington remain stuck in the 20th century, leaving too many Americans unable to access the enormous potential of this new era.

If we hope to realize a new American Century, many institutions and government programs will need to be updated, reformed or replaced. Both of us have spent a large portion of the year proposing such reforms.

Perhaps no function of the U.S. government is more antiquated and dysfunctional than its tax system, so we are joining together to propose a federal tax-reform plan that will remove obstacles to investment, innovation, growth and opportunity.

This way of thinking about things has long had resonance with me. It’s especially effective now, I think, because our public institutions and programs, in some cases designed before the middle part of the last century, are badly outdated and desperately in need of reform; because modern-day liberalism is sclerotic and reactionary, in the sense that “progressives” fiercely oppose adjustments to our entitlement programs, education system, tax code, energy policies, and much else; and because advocating reform allows conservatives to be agents of change, modern, responsive, and serious about governing.

We’re seeing a collapse of confidence in the federal government; Americans understand it’s not aligned with reality (including demographic trends, advances in technology, and globalization) or our contemporary needs. Which means conservatives have an opportunity to reconceive the role of government in the 21st century, to do so in bold (but not radical) ways, and do it in a way that is a little less theoretical and a lot more practical, by which I mean showing how conservative policies are going to improve, on a daily basis, the lives of middle-class Americans. (In the 2012 GOP primary we heard more about electrified fences than we did about the costs of higher education.)

This is what Senators Lee and Rubio are attempting to do, and Republicans would be wise to follow them.

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The Government Shutdown A Year Later

The Wall Street Journal published a story that dealt with the shutdown of the federal government, which occurred nearly a year ago. According to the Journal:

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The Wall Street Journal published a story that dealt with the shutdown of the federal government, which occurred nearly a year ago. According to the Journal:

The Republican Party’s reputation declined sharply after the 2013 government shutdown. But in politics, as in many other walks of life, memories are short.

Over the summer, Democrats tried to rekindle fears that Republicans would again fail to fund the government, but Congress left Washington earlier this month without a major hiccup. With its one-year anniversary right around the corner, the shutdown doesn’t register as a top advertising theme in House and Senate races this year… The GOP is still disliked more than liked, polls show, but that is true of the Democrats, too, and for the Republicans the gap has narrowed by 20 percentage points since the shutdown.

“The Republican Party image may not be stellar, but, boy, it is a lot better than it’s been,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll with Democrat Fred Yang.

 The story goes on to report the following:

The latest Journal poll this month found negative views of the GOP outweighing positive views among registered voters by 10 percentage points—41% to 31%. That is a major improvement from last October, in the wake of the shutdown, when negative views outweighed positive views by 31 points, or 53% to 22%. The uptick also means the parties are now viewed roughly equally. Negative views of the Democratic Party outweighed positive ones by 6 points. Views of the GOP have become more positive among several sectors of the population, including Latinos, independents and self-identified Republicans.

I highlight this story for several reasons, beginning with the fact that some people who advocated the approach that led to the shutdown–most especially Senator Ted Cruz–are still defending their role in that disaster. Worse, at the time Cruz and other key figures were charging that conservatives who didn’t support their gambit were supporters of Obamacare. They were part of the “surrender caucus.”

This assertion was always untrue, and Cruz & Company had to know it was untrue. Yet they continued to make the assertion, presumably in order to appeal to Tea Party members by portraying themselves as intrepid and anti-establishment, as the William Wallaces of modern-day politics.

This whole thing was ludicrous from beginning to end; many of us predicted in advance how badly it would turn out. It has taken the GOP the better part of a year to undo the damage caused by the shutdown.

This is yet another reminder that conservatives should invest their hopes in politicians who are both principled and prudent. Who are more serious about governing than in mindless symbolism. And who have enough self-control to keep their personal ambitions from injuring their party and conservatism.

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Charles Krauthammer’s Groundbreaking Literary Achievement

We’ve witnessed an extraordinary achievement. Charles Krauthammer’s book Things That Matter, after 38 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list–including 10 consecutive weeks at No. 1–has sold more than a million copies. For any book, especially a non-fiction book, to sell a million copies is exceedingly rare. For a collection of columns and essays to do so is unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever happened in the publishing world. That is has happened is, for many of us, quite an encouraging thing. It means there’s an appetite for elegant writing and rigorous analysis. A nation needs individuals who take words and ideas seriously; and on the American political landscape today, Charles Krauthammer (who will be honored at COMMENTARY’s annual roast in New York City on September 22) has no peers in that regard.

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We’ve witnessed an extraordinary achievement. Charles Krauthammer’s book Things That Matter, after 38 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list–including 10 consecutive weeks at No. 1–has sold more than a million copies. For any book, especially a non-fiction book, to sell a million copies is exceedingly rare. For a collection of columns and essays to do so is unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever happened in the publishing world. That is has happened is, for many of us, quite an encouraging thing. It means there’s an appetite for elegant writing and rigorous analysis. A nation needs individuals who take words and ideas seriously; and on the American political landscape today, Charles Krauthammer (who will be honored at COMMENTARY’s annual roast in New York City on September 22) has no peers in that regard.

In his introduction to Things That Matter, Krauthammer wrote about the trajectory of his political odyssey. “I’ve offered this brief personal history,” he said, “for those interested in what forces, internal and external, led me to change direction both vocationally and ideologically. I’ve elaborated it here because I believe that while everyone has the right to change views, one does at least owe others an explanation. The above [introduction] is mine. This book represent the product of that journey.”

That journey has been a remarkable one; and the book that represents it is now groundbreaking.

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Interventionists and Rand Paul: A Response to Jim Antle

In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

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In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

I should point out that I don’t think Antle is attempting to ascribe to me all the opinions he criticizes. I’m not so vain as to think this entire song is about me. But that’s unclear because of the fact that Antle only mentions me and does not cite by name the other “hawks” he criticizes. Additionally, Antle is a very smart conservative who wrote a very good book on the perils of big government, and he stands out from his AmConMag colleagues by neither shilling for Vladimir Putin nor living in fear of the Israel Lobby hiding in the shadows. As such, it’s worth engaging his arguments.

First, here is Antle’s characterization of my opinion on Rand Paul:

This failure to understand how Republicans like Paul actually view foreign policy was illustrated by a Commentary item last year examining the whole concept of “libertarian foreign policy.” Its author, Seth Mandel, quotes Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash saying some measured things about the just grounds for the Afghan War and how to contain Iran, which Mandel contrasts with “the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA.”

Evidently taking Amash’s nuance to be entirely different from Senator Paul’s approach, Mandel concludes, “if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself—and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.”

This seems to ignore a third possibility: that many on the right who want some degree of “retrenchment from the world,” who have a higher threshold for the use of military force than do most Commentary contributors, are still willing to act militarily against genuine threats to the United States and its interests.

This is a curious bone to pick for a few reasons. First, I was making the point that prominent libertarian figures are not isolationists, and that if Paul wants a “more isolationist foreign policy”–note I do not call Paul an isolationist either, but compare him to other libertarians–he would be an outlier among libertarians. Second, it’s easy to look back on that, which was written in July 2013, and say Paul isn’t a noninterventionist–but that’s because Paul’s position on intervention and on specific threats have changed dramatically as popular opinion has changed. Antle’s criticism of Paul circa summer 2013 should be taken up with Paul, who has since repudiated Paul.

Third, anyone who thinks I’ve tried to write Paul and noninterventionists out of the conservative mainstream quite simply hasn’t read what I’ve written on him. Earlier in 2013, for example, I wrote an entire piece on the fact that Rand Paul’s foreign policy was conservative, and was part of the traditional “spheres of thought” in the conservative movement going back to the emergence of the national security state after World War II. I specifically state (as I have many times) that I didn’t consider Paul to be a military isolationist but rather a throwback to the kind of serious conservative opposition to what many saw as the advent of the national-security version of the New Deal. I just think he’s wrong on the merits.

I’ve also been quite clear that I think Paul, and libertarians in general, have been getting an unfair shake from those who misunderstand libertarianism. So it’s puzzling that Antle, who is usually far more honest in debate, would write verifiably false statements like: “Therefore, libertarians and antiwar conservatives are not simply less hawkish or less interventionist. They must always be described as isolationists, even in cases when they clearly do believe the U.S. has interests outside its own hemisphere.”

But there’s something else in Antle’s piece that deserves some pushback. Antle says hawks were wrong about Iraq (I was in college at the time, and don’t remember taking any kind of public position on the invasion of Iraq, so once again Antle could have found a slightly more relevant–that is to say, relevant at all–example) and therefore should be more welcoming to realists.

Antle here is making a common mistake, which is to arrange the goalposts so that Iraq becomes the prism through which foreign-policy wisdom is measured. This makes sense, because outside of Iraq realists have been wrong on the great foreign-policy challenges of the day. In the Middle East, the realist vision of “stability” lies in smoldering ruins, with nearly 200,000 dead in Syria alone, power-grabs and counter-coups in the rest of the region, and American allies–and thus American strategic imperatives–at risk.

And that does not even cover Russia, on which the realists have fully humiliated themselves. Just today, in fact, the New York Times has another story on Russia violating a key Cold War-era missile treaty. American officials knew this was the case when they negotiated another missile treaty with Russia, New START. Realists pimped New START, hawks warned Putin could not be trusted. The hawks were right, just as they were right about Putin’s designs on regional power, his threat to Europe, and his willingness to outright invade any non-NATO countries in his near-abroad. Realists have beclowned themselves on the issue. They are certainly welcome in the conservative movement and to ply their wares; they just shouldn’t be surprised if, since their credibility is shot, no one’s buying.

Other realists, such as those of the Walt-Mearsheimer variety, have taken to believing in the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory of powerful, disloyal Jews setting American policy according to Israel’s needs. They often claim they have nothing against Israel, it’s just that the relationship with Israel is no longer a strategic two-way street. In other words, these realists are arguing not that they have an irrational bias against Israel, but that they are morons. (They make a compelling case.)

So if realists can’t hit the broad side of a barn on the Middle East or Russia, and clearly don’t understand the basics of geostrategic calculation, it’s not too surprising that they are not immediately back in leadership positions. Perhaps they are rusty, but they are not ready for prime time.

Antle is intellectually capable of grappling seriously with the arguments of those who favor a robust American engagement with the world. Here’s hoping that at some point he–and Senator Paul’s circle of supporters, paleocon writers, and realists hoping to rehabilitate their tattered reputations–will do so.

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BuyPartisan and Our Polarized, Overly Politicized Civic Culture

Have you tuned in to recent congressional floor debates, read political blogs, or watched prime-time political talks shows and thought to yourself: “What this country needs is more polarization with an extra helping of mutual suspicion and the politicization of everything you keep in your house”? If so, you might need a sabbatical from political media. What you most certainly don’t need, but probably very much want, is this iPhone app that can enable your full transformation into a raving lunatic.

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Have you tuned in to recent congressional floor debates, read political blogs, or watched prime-time political talks shows and thought to yourself: “What this country needs is more polarization with an extra helping of mutual suspicion and the politicization of everything you keep in your house”? If so, you might need a sabbatical from political media. What you most certainly don’t need, but probably very much want, is this iPhone app that can enable your full transformation into a raving lunatic.

It’s called BuyPartisan, which is clever. It allows you to scan the barcode of products at the grocery store to see how that company allocates its political donations. It was created by Matthew Colbert, formerly a Capitol Hill staffer. For those whose political advocacy is a bit high-proof but not yet completely insufferable, the app will help them reach their potential. According to CBS, the app has about 100,000 users, which suggests there are very many people across the country desperate for a way to stop getting dinner-party invitations.

As the L.A. Times reported:

“We’re trying to make every day election day for people,” Colbert said, adding that the app helps consumers support products that reflect their political beliefs.

BuyPartisan doesn’t directly urge users to boycott products, but that’s likely how many consumers will use it.

Well then I suppose this proves there is such a thing as too much democracy. In any event, Colbert was the first to develop the app, but he wasn’t the first to attempt to release this virus into the air:

It’s all based on publicly available data compiled by non-profit groups like the Sunlight Foundation.

“My first reaction was, cool, we tried to do that!” Sunlight’s Gabriela Schneider said.

More such wisdom from Schneider:

“When I go to vote and when I go to make a purchase, I should know what’s the politics behind that. I should be able to know who’s behind the political ad that’s telling me to vote this way or that way,” Schneider said.

At the very least, it makes you look at your household products in a different way.

If you were wondering if it’s at all possible for a news organization to publish a story about political spending and not find the long and winding road that inevitably leads to the Koch brothers, the answer is: No, it’s not possible. The media’s Koch obsession is just who they are at this point:

The app showed 95 percent of contributions made by Quilted Northern toilet papers went to Republicans. The parent company, Georgia Pacific, is owned by Koch Industries.

“So for those that really care about it and who like that side, they can buy it,” Colbert said. “And for those that don’t like that side, they can go, ‘Maybe I don’t want to buy it. Maybe there’s a different toilet paper I want.’”

I suppose you can look at the Quilted Northern aspect in two ways, if you’re a Democrat whose daily activity is governed by DNC talking points. On the one hand, Harry Reid told you the Kochs are un-American, and therefore you perhaps won’t give them your money. On the other hand, it would be completely demented to boycott toilet paper made by a company whose parent company is owned by libertarians. The question, then, comes down to whether you’ve managed to follow politics closely and keep your sanity.

On a more serious note, such apps would be harmless if we lived in a society that could handle such detailed information with a sense of dignity. Unfortunately, we know what many people will do with such information. Last year, the CEO of Mozilla (developers of the Firefox browser) was forced to step down after committing the thought crime of years ago donating to the prop 8 ballot initiative in California, which opposed gay marriage.

I personally know someone who received death threats after donating to the campaign of a Republican governor, and I am certainly not alone in that regard. We have seen a demand for full campaign donor transparency coupled with the IRS’s witch hunt targeting conservative and pro-Israel political activists, a very clear signal from national Democrats that political voices are to be identified for the purpose of silencing them.

The instinct to have everything on your grocery shopping list conform to an unyielding loyalty to a political party is not a healthy one. And neither is an app that caters to it.

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Ben Carson Once Again Slanders America

Via Mediaite, Dr. Ben Carson–a best-selling author and Fox News contributor who’s hinting he might run for president in 2016–is once again comparing the United States to Nazi Germany.

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Via Mediaite, Dr. Ben Carson–a best-selling author and Fox News contributor who’s hinting he might run for president in 2016–is once again comparing the United States to Nazi Germany.

Having previously said America is “very much like Nazi Germany,” Dr. Carson was asked about this by the Washington Post. Does he regret the comparison? The answer: No.

“You can’t dance around it,” he told the Post. “If people look at what I said and were not political about it, they’d have to agree. Most people in Germany didn’t agree with what Hitler was doing…. Exactly the same thing can happen in this country if we are not willing to stand up for what we believe in.”

So does Dr. Carson really believe that dispassionate people “have to agree” with him that America today is “very much like Nazi Germany”? This claim, having been stated and re-stated, is what you’d expect from a disoriented mind.

Just for the record, according to the widely respected Freedom House, on a scale of one to seven–with one being the best rating–the U.S. earned the highest rating possible in the three areas Freedom House examines: freedom status, political rights, and civil rights. So far from being very much like one of the most tyrannical and malignant regimes in human history, America is one of the freest nations on earth. Not perfect for sure; but not Nazi Germany, either.

None of this means, of course, that some things President Obama has done aren’t quite problematic. They are; and many of us have written repeatedly about them. Still, Dr. Carson’s rhetoric is unhinged. If he really believes what he says–if he can’t distinguish between Germany under Hitler and America under Obama–he’s not to be taken seriously. It would mean his sense of reality is massively distorted, that he’s living in a world of make-believe. And if he doesn’t believe what he says but is simply saying it to win the hearts of some on the right, he’s unusually irresponsible and cynical.

From my vantage point Dr. Carson seems to be trying to appeal to, and perhaps has had his attitudes influenced by, people on the right who routinely toss around words like “tyranny” and “police state” to describe America. There seems to be a competition in some circles to see who can employ the most extreme language to characterize America during the Obama years. This is a mirror image of what the left did in the 1960s and 1970s. Now it’s some on the right who employ this slander.

What we’re seeing is a species of Obama Derangement Syndrome. (Liberals suffered from Bush Derangement Syndrome in the previous decade.) It’s what sometimes happens when those belonging to a political party/movement become enraged by the actions of a president who is from the other party. Their rhetoric spins utterly out of control. In doing so, they discredit themselves and the movement they purport to represent.

Dr. Carson really needs to stop with America-is-like-Nazi-Germany comparisons.

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Norman Podhoretz on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews

Readers of COMMENTARY will no doubt be interested in a newly released interview with the magazine’s long serving former editor Norman Podhoretz. The interview, which includes fascinating insights into the evolution of the magazine, as well as some lively reflections from one of America’s preeminent public intellectuals on his own life and work, was recorded at a recent event organized by the Tikvah Fund as part of an advanced institute on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews. You can watch a full recording here, at the Tikvah Fund’s newly launched Live @ Tikvah blog, which features highlights from all of Tikvah’s academic programming.

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Readers of COMMENTARY will no doubt be interested in a newly released interview with the magazine’s long serving former editor Norman Podhoretz. The interview, which includes fascinating insights into the evolution of the magazine, as well as some lively reflections from one of America’s preeminent public intellectuals on his own life and work, was recorded at a recent event organized by the Tikvah Fund as part of an advanced institute on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews. You can watch a full recording here, at the Tikvah Fund’s newly launched Live @ Tikvah blog, which features highlights from all of Tikvah’s academic programming.

During the wide-ranging discussion with the Tikvah Fund’s executive director Eric Cohen, Podhoretz offers a colorful first-hand account of both the emergence of the New Left and the origins of neoconservatism. Describing vividly the political atmosphere he witnessed during the height of the Cold War, Podhoretz recounts the turns of his own ideological transition: from anti-Communist liberal to fellow traveler of the counter-cultural left, before he then began the move toward what would come to be called neoconservatism, a move primarily driven by the pernicious anti-Americanism that was becoming ever more prevalent on the radical left at the time.

Some of the most illuminating parts of the discussion concerned COMMENTARY’s evolution and Norman Podhoretz’s role in these developments. Podhoretz reminded listeners of COMMENTARY’s founding ethos, established in the wake of the Second World War as a fiercely anti-Communist liberal and Jewish magazine. Taking over as editor in 1960 at the age of just thirty, Podhoretz steered the publication from being a predominantly Jewish magazine that took an interest in wider affairs to a general interest magazine with a special concern for Jewish affairs. And having initially given prominence to writers coming from the left, Podhoretz would soon reorient the magazine’s stance once again, leading it to play a crucial role in countering the most subversive elements responsible for waging the culture war, and perhaps more significantly still, positioning COMMENTARY to play a leading part in shaping American thinking on combating the expansionism and ideology of the Soviet Union.

Toward the end of the conversation, Podhoretz gives his thoughts on such contemporary concerns as radical Islam’s war on the West, Israel, religious faith, and the current state of American Jews. He reflects on why so many American Jews still adhere to a certain left-leaning liberalism, and in turn on why this political outlook has been bad for society in general, and why it remains “bad for the Jews” in particular.

If nothing else, listening to this interview, one is reminded of just what a powerful and compelling voice Norman Podhoretz has been over the years, and just how much American conservatives today owe to the work that he and his generation undertook.

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The Conservative Temperament

Is there such a thing as a conservative disposition?

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Is there such a thing as a conservative disposition?

For some on the right the answer is not really. They (rightly) view the purpose of conservatism as a means to limit government in order to further liberty. But they tend to think of conservatism almost strictly in terms of issues: the size of the modern welfare state, taxes, regulations, immigration, welfare, education, and so forth.

For others on the right, conservatism does have a dispositional element. This group includes people who can be fairly characterized, I think, as confrontational and opposed to compromise, rhetorically aggressive, impatient, and often angry (for justifiable reasons, they would insist). These individuals are suspicious of those in their ranks they consider to be unprincipled (“RINOs”). Populist in outlook, they disdain the “establishment” and the “ruling class,” whom they view as cowardly and compromised. Their operating assumption is that we’re witnessing the downfall of America; some even argue we’re moving toward tyranny. This of course shapes their cast of mind and rhetoric. The type of individuals I’m describing, when they listen to Barry Goldwater’s line in his 1964 convention speech “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” are likely to cheer.

There are others of us who believe in a conservative temperament, but it’s very much different than the one I just described. This dispositional bent is beautifully articulated in an essay in National Affairs titled, appropriately, “The Conservative Disposition in Politics.” Written by Philip Wallach and Justus Myers, the essay explores the conservative intellectual tradition, which they identify with figures like Burke, Hume, Madison, Hamilton, Oakeshott, Hayek, de Tocqueville, and Nisbet.

The essay includes important caveats, including this one: Temperamental conservatism is not a good match for every problem, and conserving institutional structures that are incompatible with liberty or justice would be illiberal and unjust. Different moments require different approaches. Still, generally speaking, the key features of conservatism include being consciously anti-ideological and anti-utopian, wary of abstractions and disruptive change, and somewhat humble in its approach given the complexity of human society and the limitations of knowledge.

When possible, conservatism prefers incremental changes to radical ones. It places a premium on experience and prudence. It is adaptive and situational, taking into account the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It accepts that governing can be messy, frustrating, and painfully slow (which is precisely what Madison intended with his system of checks and balances and separation of powers). Conservatism properly understood isn’t in principle opposed to compromise–particularly, it needs to be said, since the Constitution would never have been ratified but for repeated compromises. Compromise was in fact thought to be a positive good within the system of government created by the founders (see here for more). While certainly willing to fight for principles, a true conservative disposition seeks to temper and constructively channel passions rather than inflame them.

This difference in temperament is, I think, the major divide that exists within conservatism today. While there is some variance in terms of policies they are, by historical standards, somewhat narrow. The Republican Party is an almost uniformly conservative party these days. This is not a Rockefeller v. Goldwater moment.

Which disposition is most appropriate for this particular time is for each individual to decide. (Most of us will defend the disposition that comes most naturally to us.) My point, though, is that those who identify with the intellectual tradition described by Wallach and Myers should not cede the mantle of conservatism to those who don’t.

It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that we need substantial reforms of our governing institutions. But conservative reforms can be achieved–in fact, they are more likely to be achieved–by those with moderate temperaments: men and women who can persuade and not simply exhort, who are seen as equable and bold rather than zealous and reckless, and who carefully select the ground on which they’ll fight. (Ronald Reagan succeeded where Goldwater failed in part because his temperament reassured voters whereas Goldwater’s alarmed many of them.)

There is also something “inherently sunny about conservatism,” Wallach and Myers write. It tends to, in the words of Oakeshott, “delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” Conservatives correctly judge our situation not against perfection, but against life in this fallen world. And even in this fallen world they’re still able to find joy in the journey.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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Conservative Fiction and the Culture Wars

Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

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Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

I eventually went into publishing to fight back against people like these. I had seen them coming a long way off and I knew they meant business. They wanted power and were eager to use it. Their approach to fiction was two-sided: use their own stories and novels to advance their revolutionary aims, and prevent others from using that same descriptive and imaginative power for counterrevolutionary ends. It was an American version of what used to be called socialist realism.

Conservative nonfiction has flourished. “The real problem,” Bellow asserts, turning to his right, “isn’t the practical challenge of turning serious books into bestsellers. The real problem is that we may have reached the limit of what facts and reasoned arguments can do. The real problem is that the whole conservative nonfiction enterprise has peaked and reached its limit of effectiveness.”

I recommend reading the whole thing. But while I agree with Andrew Breitbart–who Bellow quotes, and who everyone quotes on this subject–that “Politics is downstream from culture,” and that the prevailing popular culture is far more heavily influenced by liberals than by conservatives, I find myself far more optimistic than Bellow. Perhaps that is because I think there’s a difference between the culture being influenced by liberals and it being influenced by liberalism.

Bellow is right that conservatives should be creative and their creativity supported. But I think it’s worth pointing out that often “liberal” or politically neutral novels reinforce conservative ideas. The same is true of movies and television, though Bellow concentrates on the written word. One of the right’s guilty pleasures is to watch a card-carrying liberal writer or a mainstream Hollywood director or showrunner produce a piece of art intended to grapple with complexity and be verbally assaulted as a warmonger or a traitor by his or her liberal audience. When Kathryn Bigelow directed Zero Dark Thirty, for example, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, she portrayed torture in the movie, and liberals lashed out and branded her an apologist for the methods of interrogation. Bigelow took to the pages of the LA Times to respond, somewhat incredulous:

First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Bigelow is a “lifelong pacifist” and opponent of anything resembling torture, but she was making a movie about real life, and real life is complex.

But to come back to the written word. This phenomenon is easier to spot in fiction that requires heroism or celebrates law and order. But I think it happens when the subject turns to the culture wars too. In December, Ross Douthat noted a study that found that “having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.” In offering his own theory, Douthat referenced the kind of man increasingly enabled by a sexually permissive culture: Nate, the protagonist of Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Douthat writes about Nate’s propensity to, as Waldman writes, “provoke” the “unhappiness” of the women in his life:

He provokes it by taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices — marriage, kids — than do men. In this landscape, what Nate wants — sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted — he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older — a more permanent commitment — he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.

His column touched off an interesting back-and-forth with Waldman herself on the topic of whether the situation portrayed in her book’s Brooklyn social circle calls for a more socially conservative ethic, or whether such an ethic would put too much of the responsibility for the personal misery of these women on themselves. But I think it’s worth dwelling for a moment on Nate.

We meet Nate immediately, as the book opens with a scene in which Nate runs into an ex-lover. She is uneasy and hostile to him. We learn that this is because during their brief involvement (this was not a “relationship”–an important point), she became unintentionally pregnant and had an abortion. Nate was emotionally absent, though he paid for the procedure. Nate is a good liberal–we learn early on he’s contemplating an essay on how rich societies even outsource exploitation just to salve their conscience. When he found out this non-girlfriend–Juliet–was pregnant, he:

felt like he had woken up in one of those after-school specials he watched as a kid on Thursday afternoons, whose moral was not to have sex with a girl unless you were ready to raise a child with her. This had always seemed like bullshit. What self-respecting middle-class teenage girl–soon-to-be college student, future affluent young professional, a person who could go on to do anything at all (run a multinational corporation, win a Nobel Prize, get elected first woman president)–what such young woman would decide to have a baby and thus become, in the vacuous, public service announcement jargon of the day, “a statistic”?

Nate realizes this might not be the case now for Juliet though, who is not a teenager but a professional in her thirties. Here is how he rationalizes the possibility she may want a baby:

Maybe she was no longer so optimistic about what fate held in store for her (first woman president, for example, probably seemed unlikely). Maybe she had become pessimistic about men and dating. She might view this as her last chance to become a mother.

Maybe she’s so dejected and desperate that she’ll–gasp!–want a family. You can see how the liberal cultural norms have seeped into Nate. He waits for her to decide: he has accepted the idea of “choice” in full, like a good liberal. This means it’s her choice completely, and he assumes he has no say. “Nate was all for a woman’s right to choose and all the lingo that went with it,” we’re told by way of explanation for why Nate doesn’t feel he can even suggest aborting “the baby or fetus or whatever you wanted to call it.” He doesn’t even know what to call an unborn child! Nate is opinion-less on the matter of human life, and he is so because he thinks this is How To Be A Modern Man.

After the abortion, Nate disappears, because he thinks even having an extended or personal conversation with Juliet–that is, signaling any interest at all–comes with too many strings attached now that they’ve unburdened themselves of the fetusthingamajiggy. But he doesn’t understand what makes him so toxic to these Brooklynite beauties. He’s a good person–he doesn’t even think one should shop at Whole Foods without feeling guilty about capitalist exploitation!

Is Waldman intentionally commenting on the piggish man-child who is the product of a steady cultural liberalism as practiced in the real world? Certainly not. But if you were to write a “conservative” novel, and this novel had a protagonist who was to demonstrate the perpetual adolescent loosed on the world by a yearslong immersion in liberal social values and the unintentional but very real harm he caused, might not that protagonist be Nathaniel P.?

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The Idealism and Realism of the American Founders

During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

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During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

Let me quibble with one phrase in your question, which would be “moderate middle.” So I’m a moderate but I’m not in the middle. And what I mean by that, I think being moderate is seeing politics as a competition between partial truths. And like in this era we have competition between security and freedom, between achievement and equality, between mobility and cohesion. And both sides have a piece of the truth. And often you want to be radical on both ends and try to balance. So it’s all about balance. So you can really value things that are on each end as long as you try to balance these opposing things and as long as you understand that politics is a messy, slow … boring through hard boards–it’s just messy and slow and you take one step at a time.

Brooks went on to say this:

My problem with the Tea Party is partly what they believe, but partly it’s just their [methods]–they’re anti-political. I believe in politics, that you pass a piece of legislation and you get half a loaf and you make a slow step and you make a compromise and you try to go a little forward every day. Politics is not, it’s not show business. It’s just messy compromises because you’re always caught in contradictions and filled with paradoxes. And my problem with the Tea Party is they don’t like politics. They want it to be pure, and they often punish people who they call RINOs–who are Republican in Name Only–because they’re not pure. But I think impurity is what leaders do. They take impurity upon themselves. They take the sins of the situation on themselves. They take the complexity of the situation on themselves and they try to muddle through. And so I think people who are unwilling to muddle through are not being political; they’re being self-indulgent. And so I have a problem with that style of politics.

I would add some elaborations to what David says, ones I think he might agree with, such as: No one in politics sees the truth in full, but some people are within much closer striking distance than others. And the Tea Party movement has produced some of the most impressive politicians now on the right, including Marco Rubio (who defeated Charlie Crist in their primary) and Mike Lee (who defeated Bob Bennett in their primary).

With that said, Brooks is zeroing in on something quite important, which is that politics is an inherently messy business. Moreover, the American founders–who developed the concepts of checks and balances, separation of powers, and all the rest–wanted politics to be messy. That is, our constitutional order requires give and take, adaptation and collaboration, the balancing of competing interests, and compromise itself. As Jonathan Rauch has written in National Affairs, “In our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good: an indispensable source of political discipline, competition, and stability — which are all conservative values.”

Too often these days, zealous people who are in a hurry don’t appreciate that the process and methods of politics–the “messy,” muddling through side of politics–is a moral achievement of sorts. But this, too, is only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that justice is often advanced by people who are seized with a moral vision. They don’t much care about the prosaic side of governing; they simply want society to be better, more decent, and more respectful of human dignity. So yes, it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But it’s also the case that politics requires us to strive for certain (unattainable) ideals.

There’s a distinction, then, between motivating ideals and the methods and processes of politics. Think of Martin Luther King’s dream and Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights legislation. Or think of Lincoln, who was both the greatest exponent of principles of the Declaration of Independence in American history and a supremely great politician.

What happens all too often in our politics is that people who are drawn to one tend to look with disdain on those who are drawn to the other. What we need, I think, is greater recognition that both are necessary, that each one alone is insufficient. Visionaries have to find a way to give their vision concrete expression, which requires deal-making, compromise, and accepting something less than the ideal. Legislators need to govern with some commitment to philosophical and moral ideals; otherwise, they’re just passing laws and cutting deals for their own sake.

What David Brooks is saying, I think–and where I agree with him–is that some recalibration needs to occur in some quarters on the right, away from those seeking purification and excommunication (RINO-hunters) and toward a fuller, more authentic conservatism. Call it the conservatism of the founders.

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Hobby Lobby, Religious Liberty, and the Dangers of Complacence

It’s tempting, and easy, to dismiss Democrats’ legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Senate Democrats say as soon as today they could bring up a bill that would, as Politico terms it, “override” the high court’s ruling, which followed the course set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Democrats want to push this as part of the “war on women” by making shameless false claims about the court’s ruling and trashing both RFRA and the First Amendment.

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It’s tempting, and easy, to dismiss Democrats’ legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Senate Democrats say as soon as today they could bring up a bill that would, as Politico terms it, “override” the high court’s ruling, which followed the course set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Democrats want to push this as part of the “war on women” by making shameless false claims about the court’s ruling and trashing both RFRA and the First Amendment.

Conservatives have been generally dismissive of the White House’s “war on women,” and for good reason. Additionally, they may be further tempted to deride the left’s response now that they’ve won a limited victory at the Supreme Court. It also requires a heroic effort to take seriously any policymaking that begins with Harry Reid including Clarence Thomas in his category of “white men” who should be ignored. Reid is railing against the Supreme Court, but he does not appear to be terribly familiar with it. (As an aside, why mention the race of the justices at all if this is an issue about gender? Because leftists can’t speak, apparently, without accusing someone of being racist.)

But this attitude would be a mistake, with regard to the Hobby Lobby pushback. To be sure, conservatives should avoid getting drawn into a fictitious debate on birth control based on completely false premises and designed not to advance policy solutions but to give Democrats yet another chance to insult the intelligence of the nation’s women and to put Christianity–and by extension, religious belief in general–on trial. After all, it’s unlikely that yet another Reid-led Democratic effort to undo basic American rights will pass the House.

And getting drawn into this debate risks giving the Democrats what they actually want: a change of subject. As the Obama presidency plummets in popularity and the corruption and abuse of power scandals keep multiplying, the Democrats want to talk about anything but the issues dragging them down.

Nonetheless, conservatives should think twice about taking the debate over this bill–not the president’s executive action, but the Senate bill on which there would presumably be debate and a vote–too lightly. What the Democrats are trying to do is build a public-policy consensus that would erode religious liberty by holding a referendum on whether America’s first freedom, and the basis for the American project, should be undone in the service of left-wing culture-war extremism.

Is it worth undermining religious freedom just so Democrats can distract the electorate from their inability to govern with a public discussion about the economics of sex? For Democrats like Harry Reid, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Basic freedoms are fine in the abstract, according to Democratic policymakers, but they often infringe on Democrats’ quest for power. So they must be subverted.

Conservatives must understand that the risk here is not actual policy, since the bill won’t pass the House. The risk is that by ceding space in the public sphere to liberal demagogues, they won’t engage the important part of this debate. Since, as I’ve written previously, opposition to religious freedom is now a partisan Democratic position, conservatives are the last line of defense. What they don’t want is for the left to own a debate that could build a public consensus against those freedoms. If conservatives won’t speak up for religious freedom, nobody will, and it will be ignored and trampled.

It’s also important because none of this takes place in a vacuum. In a very smart piece for BuzzFeed, Chris Geidner tracks the evolving fight over religious exemptions in employee non-discrimination legislation. He notes that LGBT groups and their supporters are backing away from anti-discrimination legislation they were initially inclined to support because of the religious exemptions being added. The bill will probably not be advanced in the House this year, Geidner notes, and explains why these groups are fighting about it anyway.

He gives three reasons: to shape the next version of this legislation that comes through Congress in the next session; because the groups are unnerved by the Supreme Court’s upholding of religious freedom protections in the Hobby Lobby case; and to influence President Obama’s forthcoming executive order on the issue. In other words, these groups recognize that although the Democrats’ demand for employee-sponsored drugs that may act as abortifacients has nothing to do with gay rights, in some way it has everything to do with it.

Settling law and winning public debates over religious freedom affects other laws and other debates that follow it. Just as the Supreme Court sets precedent in legal rulings, so too the passage of laws and other actions set precedent in how the public understands the issues at play and how politicians can attract support for their own legislative projects. The left has always operated with the knowledge that there’s no off-season here. They are counting on conservative exhaustion, complacence, or both. Conservatives must demonstrate neither.

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Rubio’s Effort to Modernize the GOP

In an earlier post I asked who on the right, in the wake of the ruins of the Obama presidency, will step up and seize the opportunity. Among those who are is Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

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In an earlier post I asked who on the right, in the wake of the ruins of the Obama presidency, will step up and seize the opportunity. Among those who are is Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Last week Senator Rubio gave a policy address, which elicited favorable comments from Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jim Pethokoukis, and Reihan Salam. Like these four, I found Senator Rubio’s speech, co-hosted by Hillsdale College and the YG Network, to be quite impressive. The Florida senator offered ideas on how to reform our entitlement programs, tax code, higher education, health care, and our social safety net. In doing so, he spoke about single mothers and working class families, wage stagnation, student debt and retirement security, and the effects of globalization and automation. And like Representative Paul Ryan, Rubio understands the need for structural changes in programs, which is quite different, and rather more important than, simply reducing spending.

In making his case, Senator Rubio presented himself as an advocate for modernization rather than moderation (in this instance meaning nudging the GOP in a more liberal direction). He spoke about the need for a policy agenda designed for the 21st century and adjusting to the realities of this new era. Mr. Rubio clearly wants the GOP to be both conservative and constructive, opposing the president’s agenda but also willing to offer alternatives to it. The left, he says, is offering ideas that are old, tired and stale; a conservative agenda, as Rubio has laid it out, is innovative, responsive, and “applies the principles of our founding to the challenges and the opportunities facing Americans in their daily lives.” That strikes me as a pretty intelligent way to frame things, particularly given that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are thought to be the two leading figures for the Democratic Party in a post-Obama world.

What also strikes me about Senator Rubio is that unlike some others, whose main ability is to bring hard-core supporters to their feet, he seems eager and capable of persuading those who are not on his side yet who may be amenable to his point of view. A friend of mine says he gets the sense from Rubio that he hasn’t spent his life in a political echo chamber, only hanging around like-minded individuals. He has the capacity, I think, to reach people who aren’t members of the NRA or the Federalist Society, the Tea Party or the American Conservative Union. The ability to find connection with people who aren’t already supporters is a fairly valuable skill in politics–and for a party that is regularly losing presidential elections, a necessary one.

The governing agenda Marco Rubio sketched out last week will hardly be the final word, but it is a very good starting point for discussion. Its aim is to broaden the appeal of the GOP without violating the party’s core principles. Other Republicans, particularly those thinking about running for president in 2016, will attempt to occupy this space as well. That’s all to the good, since the GOP has a formidable task: to reconnect with a middle America that looks different than it once did.

I’ve pointed out before that during the GOP nomination contest in 2012—involving dozens of state Republican primaries, more than 20 debates, and tens of millions of dollars in ads—issues such as upward mobility, education, middle-class concerns, poverty, strong communities and safe streets, corporate welfare, cultural renewal, and immigration either were hardly mentioned or were discussed in the most disaffecting way possible. There was more talk about electrified fences and self-deportation than there was about higher education reform, social and economic opportunity, or the modernization of our governing institutions.

Marco Rubio wants to change that. So do other talented and ambitious Republicans. More power to them.

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