Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ethics and Public Policy Center

A Moment for Political Courage

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before. Read More

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before.

The way to frame this argument, according to those who want to take on entitlement programs, is to simply state the reality of the situation: we can act now, in a relatively incremental and responsible way, in order to avoid the painful austerity measures that are occurring in Europe and elsewhere. Or we can delay action and, at some point not far into the future, be unable to avoid cuts that will cause a great deal of social unrest.

So we’re clear, the entitlement that really matters is Medicare. “The fact is,” my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin told Michael Gerson, “Medicare is going to crush the government, and if Republicans leave it unreformed then the debt picture is very, very ugly. They might never — literally never — show the budget reaching balance. Not in the 10-year window and not if they take their graphs out a hundred years. Obama could probably show balance just past the budget window in the middle of the next decade because of the massive Medicare cuts he proposes, even if in practice they will never actually happen.”

To get a sense of what we’re talking about, Veronique de Rugy has put together a very useful chart that can be found here.

It makes the point that cutting discretionary spending only makes a small difference in the overall budget picture. She lays out the difference between the Republican Study Committee plan, which cuts $2 trillion over 10 years and is therefore a good deal more aggressive than the House Republican leadership proposal, and where spending would be without those cuts over the next 10 years. As you will see, it’s a small difference. Spending keeps growing rapidly either way. Without entitlement reform, then, this is about as much as we could reasonably do — and it just isn’t that much.

In other words, if Republicans don’t take on Medicare, their credibility as a party of fiscal responsibility and limited government will be shattered. The math guarantees it. The GOP, having made the 2010 election largely (though not exclusively) a referendum on the deficit and the debt, will be viewed as fraudulent.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, as Gerson explains, if Republicans don’t touch Medicare, their budget approach — on paper, at least — will have less long-term debt reduction than Obama’s, both because Obama supports tax increases and he uses a slew of budget gimmicks to make his health-care plan appear to be far more affordable than it really is.

It’s a pretty good bet that the president will advance the same kind of gimmicks in his 2012 budget. If so, then unless Republicans are willing to champion Medicare reform (meaning changing it from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program), Obama will be able to position himself as a budget hawk, at least compared to the GOP. This could have devastating political effects, including dispiriting the Republican base and the Tea Party movement. Having just elected Republicans in large measure to stop the financial hemorrhage and to restore fiscal balance, voters will not react well when they are told, in so many words, “Never Mind.”

So count me as one who believes Republicans need to embrace entitlement reform in general, and Medicare reforms in particular, because not doing so is irresponsible. It means willfully avoiding what everyone knows needs to be done in the hope that at some future, as-yet-to-be-determined date, a better and easier moment will arrive.

Sometime a political party needs to comfort itself with the axiom that good policy makes good politics. That isn’t always the case, certainly, but often it is. In any event, if the GOP avoids reforming Medicare, there is no way any Republican lawmaker, when pressed by reporters on fiscal matters, can make a plausible argument that their actions are remotely consistent with their stated philosophy.

They will hem and haw and duck and dodge and try to change the subject — and they will emerge as counterfeit, deceptive, and unserious. Here it’s worth recalling the words of the columnist Walter Lippmann, who wrote:

With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular — not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately.

Perhaps I’m asking GOP lawmakers to prove themselves to be miracles and freaks of nature. But if I am right in my analysis, that is what is called for. It would mean Republicans have an enormous public-education campaign ahead of them. They will have to explain why their policies are the most responsible and humane. They will need to articulate the case not simply for entitlement reform but also for limited government. And they will need to explain, in a compelling and accessible way, why limited government is crucial to civic character.

None of this is easy — but lawmakers weren’t elected to make easy decisions. They were elected to make the right ones. And reforming Medicare is, in our time, the right decision.

Let’s get on with it.

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James Capretta on the Modern Role and Purpose of Government

My colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, James Capretta, has added his important voice to the ongoing debate about the role and purpose of government in the 21st century. As Jim puts it in this post over at e21:

What we are actually witnessing is the end of an economic era. The democratic capitalist countries of the West have all built welfare states of varying sizes and shapes. Europe’s is certainly much larger and more expensive than what has been built in the United States, but all are under severe strain. There is no escaping demographic reality. The aging of populations in the world’s most advanced economies will make it impossible to sustain government programs and protections at the level that exist today.

What’s needed now is an effort to harness the new national energy for reform and retrenchment to solve the nation’s entitlement problem. That will require a frank discussion with the American people about how to apply the enduring principle of limited government to the modern circumstances of a market-driven economy operating within a competitive global environment. That is the most pressing challenge in these early years of the 21st century.

The party that voters consider up to this task will win their votes. Once it does, though, it will need to perform. Promises are fine; but they are not nearly enough, as President Obama and Democratic lawmakers are discovering to their chagrin. If Republicans retake control of one or both branches of Congress — which certainly seems likely as this point — they will face the challenge of translating their pledges into reality.

It won’t be as easy once you’re in power as it is appears when you’re out of power.

My colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, James Capretta, has added his important voice to the ongoing debate about the role and purpose of government in the 21st century. As Jim puts it in this post over at e21:

What we are actually witnessing is the end of an economic era. The democratic capitalist countries of the West have all built welfare states of varying sizes and shapes. Europe’s is certainly much larger and more expensive than what has been built in the United States, but all are under severe strain. There is no escaping demographic reality. The aging of populations in the world’s most advanced economies will make it impossible to sustain government programs and protections at the level that exist today.

What’s needed now is an effort to harness the new national energy for reform and retrenchment to solve the nation’s entitlement problem. That will require a frank discussion with the American people about how to apply the enduring principle of limited government to the modern circumstances of a market-driven economy operating within a competitive global environment. That is the most pressing challenge in these early years of the 21st century.

The party that voters consider up to this task will win their votes. Once it does, though, it will need to perform. Promises are fine; but they are not nearly enough, as President Obama and Democratic lawmakers are discovering to their chagrin. If Republicans retake control of one or both branches of Congress — which certainly seems likely as this point — they will face the challenge of translating their pledges into reality.

It won’t be as easy once you’re in power as it is appears when you’re out of power.

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Reviewing Our First Principles

David Brooks has an excellent column on my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin’s dissertation, “The Great Law of Change: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Meaning of the Past in a Democratic Age.”

Yuval traces the pedigree of our political ideas to Burke and Paine and examines their differences about the nature of man and society, the character of our social relations, the capacity of human reason, and the proper uses of political power. It is an important reminder that so many of the contemporary issues we face in politics turn decisively on our presuppositions, on our operating assumptions and prejudices, and, in Levin’s words, “upon our view of our own place in the great human story — past, present, and future.”

Such things are always important, but it strikes me that they are triply important today, since the debates we are currently engaged in are about political first principles. It’s vital that from time to time we step back from the fray and examine, and reexamine, our political philosophy and most cherished beliefs in light of present circumstances.

Oh, and Brooks’s column is a reminder of something else as well: Yuval Levin — who edits the indispensible National Affairs magazine — is one of the brightest stars in the conservative constellation.

David Brooks has an excellent column on my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin’s dissertation, “The Great Law of Change: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Meaning of the Past in a Democratic Age.”

Yuval traces the pedigree of our political ideas to Burke and Paine and examines their differences about the nature of man and society, the character of our social relations, the capacity of human reason, and the proper uses of political power. It is an important reminder that so many of the contemporary issues we face in politics turn decisively on our presuppositions, on our operating assumptions and prejudices, and, in Levin’s words, “upon our view of our own place in the great human story — past, present, and future.”

Such things are always important, but it strikes me that they are triply important today, since the debates we are currently engaged in are about political first principles. It’s vital that from time to time we step back from the fray and examine, and reexamine, our political philosophy and most cherished beliefs in light of present circumstances.

Oh, and Brooks’s column is a reminder of something else as well: Yuval Levin — who edits the indispensible National Affairs magazine — is one of the brightest stars in the conservative constellation.

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Obama’s Financial Failure

It’s impossible to know with certainty at this point because we’re only about 30 percent through President Obama’s first term, but I suspect he will be judged quite harshly by history and his countrymen for not simply avoiding but dramatically accelerating the major domestic concern facing the United States: our unsustainable and soon-to-be debilitating deficit and debt.

I don’t lay all, or even most, of the blame on President Obama for the debt he faced upon taking office. While his party, like the GOP, was clearly complicit in the situation, and Obama’s own actions in the Senate (especially blocking reforms of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which played a role in the collapse of the housing market) contributed to what went wrong, much of the river of red ink he inherited was due to a financial and credit implosion for which he wasn’t chiefly responsible.

What I do hold President Obama responsible for is that he took office when it was clear that our debt and deficit had reached crisis proportions. While that situation wasn’t the case when he decided to run for the presidency, it was the situation when he assumed the presidency. And rather than rethink the core purpose of his presidency, he decided to pursue his agenda in a state of denial, as if the financial collapse that began in September 2008 never happened, as if our ominous new fiscal reality had never occurred.

At the moment when history demanded one thing of Mr. Obama, he did another.

What the president should have done, in the wake of market collapse, was to create his own Nixon-to-China moment: trimming and reforming our middle-class-welfare state. It is the type of thing that a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress have much greater latitude to do than a Republican president and a Republican Congress. Instead, Obama used this moment to create a new middle-class entitlement, ObamaCare, at precisely the moment when our other ones are falling into bankruptcy. On top of that, of course, was the president’s $860 billion-plus stimulus package, his $410 billion omnibus spending bill, and his decision to spend hundreds of billions of TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) repayment dollars rather than to pay down the deficit.

Consider where we are and where we are headed. The deficit in 2009 was $1.4 trillion — the equivalent of 10 percent of the nation’s economic output and the highest percentage since the end of World War II. The president’s 2011 budget will generate a combined $9.75 trillion in deficits over the next decade. Our publicly held debt, which was $6.3 trillion when Obama entered office, now totals $8.2 trillion. According to the CBO, it’s headed to more than $20 trillion in 2020, equaling 90 percent of the estimated gross domestic product that year. (As a reference point, nations that comprise the European Union are required to keep their debt levels below 60 percent.) Interest rates alone would consume some $900 billion per year, almost five times what they were last year. In addition, the total unfunded liability (the gap between projected assets and benefit obligations) for Medicare and Social Security is $43 trillion; in five years, the total is estimated to grow to $57 trillion. (For more, see this, this, and this.

Confronting figures like this, Mr. Obama should have made spending restraint and entitlement reform his top domestic priority. And yet the president has taken us in exactly the opposite direction, engineering the passage of ObamaCare (over its first ten years of full implementation, it will cost at least $2 trillion). That is the equivalent of dropping plane loads of lighter fluid onto a fire that is raging out of control.

Why Mr. Obama made this fateful decision is hard to tell. He is a person of unusual ideological rigidity. The president is undeniably committed to expanding the size, scope, and reach of government. Like any 21st century Man of the Left, his ambition is to make more and more citizens wards of the state, to create greater dependency on the federal government. That, at least, is what Obama’s actions indicate his intentions to be. But whatever his motivations, the results are what matter. Whether or not we can ever undo the fiscal damage that is being inflicted on us is an open question. It will require us to take steps that we as a society have been exceedingly reluctant to take, including means-testing entitlements and increasing the retirement age. It will require fiscal self-discipline, restraint, and what Adam Smith called “self-command.” (For an enlightening analysis of Smith, see this essay by Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague and National Affairs Yuval Levin.

This is what this moment demanded of this president and this Congress. Instead, we got the opposite. Rather than tapping the fiscal brakes and eventually nudging us into reverse, they have hit the accelerator and are leading us over a cliff. I suppose there are worse things for the political leadership of a nation to do, though it’s hard to come up with them just now.

I have little doubt that Obama, having helped to engineer this fiscal calamity, will, later in his term, try to portray himself as a model of fiscal rectitude and Republicans as the party unconcerned with the mind-bending levels of deficit and debt he’s saddled us with. I am skeptical this trick will work. Family members are surely happy if a gambling addict gives up habit, but they aren’t about to be lectured on financial responsibility by a person whose gambling ruined the family finances.

The majority of the Obama presidency is still before us. Nevertheless, it’s not too early to say that on this vital front, Barack Obama has been, and will eventually be judged to be, a significant failure. He not only missed history’s calling, he mocked it. He placed his own statist ambitions above the needs of the nation he was elected to serve. Soon enough, and perhaps on a scale he cannot now imagine, Obama and his party will be held accountable for having done so.

It’s impossible to know with certainty at this point because we’re only about 30 percent through President Obama’s first term, but I suspect he will be judged quite harshly by history and his countrymen for not simply avoiding but dramatically accelerating the major domestic concern facing the United States: our unsustainable and soon-to-be debilitating deficit and debt.

I don’t lay all, or even most, of the blame on President Obama for the debt he faced upon taking office. While his party, like the GOP, was clearly complicit in the situation, and Obama’s own actions in the Senate (especially blocking reforms of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which played a role in the collapse of the housing market) contributed to what went wrong, much of the river of red ink he inherited was due to a financial and credit implosion for which he wasn’t chiefly responsible.

What I do hold President Obama responsible for is that he took office when it was clear that our debt and deficit had reached crisis proportions. While that situation wasn’t the case when he decided to run for the presidency, it was the situation when he assumed the presidency. And rather than rethink the core purpose of his presidency, he decided to pursue his agenda in a state of denial, as if the financial collapse that began in September 2008 never happened, as if our ominous new fiscal reality had never occurred.

At the moment when history demanded one thing of Mr. Obama, he did another.

What the president should have done, in the wake of market collapse, was to create his own Nixon-to-China moment: trimming and reforming our middle-class-welfare state. It is the type of thing that a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress have much greater latitude to do than a Republican president and a Republican Congress. Instead, Obama used this moment to create a new middle-class entitlement, ObamaCare, at precisely the moment when our other ones are falling into bankruptcy. On top of that, of course, was the president’s $860 billion-plus stimulus package, his $410 billion omnibus spending bill, and his decision to spend hundreds of billions of TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) repayment dollars rather than to pay down the deficit.

Consider where we are and where we are headed. The deficit in 2009 was $1.4 trillion — the equivalent of 10 percent of the nation’s economic output and the highest percentage since the end of World War II. The president’s 2011 budget will generate a combined $9.75 trillion in deficits over the next decade. Our publicly held debt, which was $6.3 trillion when Obama entered office, now totals $8.2 trillion. According to the CBO, it’s headed to more than $20 trillion in 2020, equaling 90 percent of the estimated gross domestic product that year. (As a reference point, nations that comprise the European Union are required to keep their debt levels below 60 percent.) Interest rates alone would consume some $900 billion per year, almost five times what they were last year. In addition, the total unfunded liability (the gap between projected assets and benefit obligations) for Medicare and Social Security is $43 trillion; in five years, the total is estimated to grow to $57 trillion. (For more, see this, this, and this.

Confronting figures like this, Mr. Obama should have made spending restraint and entitlement reform his top domestic priority. And yet the president has taken us in exactly the opposite direction, engineering the passage of ObamaCare (over its first ten years of full implementation, it will cost at least $2 trillion). That is the equivalent of dropping plane loads of lighter fluid onto a fire that is raging out of control.

Why Mr. Obama made this fateful decision is hard to tell. He is a person of unusual ideological rigidity. The president is undeniably committed to expanding the size, scope, and reach of government. Like any 21st century Man of the Left, his ambition is to make more and more citizens wards of the state, to create greater dependency on the federal government. That, at least, is what Obama’s actions indicate his intentions to be. But whatever his motivations, the results are what matter. Whether or not we can ever undo the fiscal damage that is being inflicted on us is an open question. It will require us to take steps that we as a society have been exceedingly reluctant to take, including means-testing entitlements and increasing the retirement age. It will require fiscal self-discipline, restraint, and what Adam Smith called “self-command.” (For an enlightening analysis of Smith, see this essay by Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague and National Affairs Yuval Levin.

This is what this moment demanded of this president and this Congress. Instead, we got the opposite. Rather than tapping the fiscal brakes and eventually nudging us into reverse, they have hit the accelerator and are leading us over a cliff. I suppose there are worse things for the political leadership of a nation to do, though it’s hard to come up with them just now.

I have little doubt that Obama, having helped to engineer this fiscal calamity, will, later in his term, try to portray himself as a model of fiscal rectitude and Republicans as the party unconcerned with the mind-bending levels of deficit and debt he’s saddled us with. I am skeptical this trick will work. Family members are surely happy if a gambling addict gives up habit, but they aren’t about to be lectured on financial responsibility by a person whose gambling ruined the family finances.

The majority of the Obama presidency is still before us. Nevertheless, it’s not too early to say that on this vital front, Barack Obama has been, and will eventually be judged to be, a significant failure. He not only missed history’s calling, he mocked it. He placed his own statist ambitions above the needs of the nation he was elected to serve. Soon enough, and perhaps on a scale he cannot now imagine, Obama and his party will be held accountable for having done so.

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What the CBO Scoring of ObamaCare Really Means

Since I’m linking to the good words of others this morning, here’s my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague (and National Affairs editor) Yuval Levin’s excellent analysis on the CBO score — and specifically, his thoughts on the claim to fiscal restraint the Democrats are trying now.

In the words of Yuval:

The greatest of all the many painful ironies in the health-care debate of the past year may be that the Democrats’ closing “argument” is to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility. Their leaders are doing their best to twist yesterday’s CBO score of their reconciliation bill to suggest that their plan will not only solve America’s health-care financing problem but reduce the deficit too.

It will do neither, and will make both problems worse.

His explanation as to why this is true is very much worth reading.

Since I’m linking to the good words of others this morning, here’s my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague (and National Affairs editor) Yuval Levin’s excellent analysis on the CBO score — and specifically, his thoughts on the claim to fiscal restraint the Democrats are trying now.

In the words of Yuval:

The greatest of all the many painful ironies in the health-care debate of the past year may be that the Democrats’ closing “argument” is to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility. Their leaders are doing their best to twist yesterday’s CBO score of their reconciliation bill to suggest that their plan will not only solve America’s health-care financing problem but reduce the deficit too.

It will do neither, and will make both problems worse.

His explanation as to why this is true is very much worth reading.

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Why All This Fuss Over Sarah Palin?

For someone who is closely involved in politics, I guess I am a rarity: I don’t find Sarah Palin to be particularly interesting. I will be surprised if she runs for the GOP nomination in 2012; I would be more surprised if she wins it; and I would be shocked if she won the presidency. I have written before about why I don’t think she is the future of the GOP, including the fact that rebuilding its reputation depends on emerging public figures who are conservative and principled, who radiate intellectual depth and calmness of purpose. Representative Paul Ryan, Governor Mitch Daniels, and former Governor Jeb Bush are the kinds of figures we need, and the campaign by Governor-elect Bob McDonnell are the kind Republicans should run.

With that said, the degree to which Palin evokes fury, contempt, and anger among her critics is nothing short of amazing. It is visceral and almost clinical. And it cannot be based on what she has done (which as governor of Alaska is fairly limited and not terribly controversial), on the views she holds (which are mainstream conservative), or on her relative lack of experience when McCain picked her as his vice-presidential choice (Palin’s experience was comparable to Barack Obama’s, who after all was running for president). What explains the fierce reaction to her is, in part, I think, her affect, the way she talks (and winks), the background she has emerged from, the populism she seems to embody. Palinism, as I understand it, is less a coherent philosophy or set of ideas and more an attitude and spirit. In that sense, she is a cultural figure much more than a political one.

If you believe, as I do, that the GOP once again needs to become the “party of ideas” — as it did under Ronald Reagan — then Palin is not the solution to what ails it. At this stage, based on the interviews I have seen with her, she doesn’t seem able to articulate the case for conservatism in a manner that is compelling or even particularly persuasive. She is nothing like, to take three individuals I would hold up as public models, Margaret Thatcher, William Bennett, and Antonin Scalia — people brimming with ideas, knowledgeable and formidable, intellectually well-grounded, and impossible to dismiss. That, of course, doesn’t mean that Palin doesn’t have a role to play in the Republican party or contributions to make to it. And what Palin has revealed about some of her critics is, in the words of my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, “the unfortunate and unattractive propensity of the American cultural elite to treat those who are not deemed part of the elect with condescension and contumely.”

The intensity of feelings Sarah Palin evokes from almost all sides is remarkable — and for me, a bit puzzling. I don’t think she has earned either adoration or contempt. But as we’re seeing, she elicits plenty of both.

For someone who is closely involved in politics, I guess I am a rarity: I don’t find Sarah Palin to be particularly interesting. I will be surprised if she runs for the GOP nomination in 2012; I would be more surprised if she wins it; and I would be shocked if she won the presidency. I have written before about why I don’t think she is the future of the GOP, including the fact that rebuilding its reputation depends on emerging public figures who are conservative and principled, who radiate intellectual depth and calmness of purpose. Representative Paul Ryan, Governor Mitch Daniels, and former Governor Jeb Bush are the kinds of figures we need, and the campaign by Governor-elect Bob McDonnell are the kind Republicans should run.

With that said, the degree to which Palin evokes fury, contempt, and anger among her critics is nothing short of amazing. It is visceral and almost clinical. And it cannot be based on what she has done (which as governor of Alaska is fairly limited and not terribly controversial), on the views she holds (which are mainstream conservative), or on her relative lack of experience when McCain picked her as his vice-presidential choice (Palin’s experience was comparable to Barack Obama’s, who after all was running for president). What explains the fierce reaction to her is, in part, I think, her affect, the way she talks (and winks), the background she has emerged from, the populism she seems to embody. Palinism, as I understand it, is less a coherent philosophy or set of ideas and more an attitude and spirit. In that sense, she is a cultural figure much more than a political one.

If you believe, as I do, that the GOP once again needs to become the “party of ideas” — as it did under Ronald Reagan — then Palin is not the solution to what ails it. At this stage, based on the interviews I have seen with her, she doesn’t seem able to articulate the case for conservatism in a manner that is compelling or even particularly persuasive. She is nothing like, to take three individuals I would hold up as public models, Margaret Thatcher, William Bennett, and Antonin Scalia — people brimming with ideas, knowledgeable and formidable, intellectually well-grounded, and impossible to dismiss. That, of course, doesn’t mean that Palin doesn’t have a role to play in the Republican party or contributions to make to it. And what Palin has revealed about some of her critics is, in the words of my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, “the unfortunate and unattractive propensity of the American cultural elite to treat those who are not deemed part of the elect with condescension and contumely.”

The intensity of feelings Sarah Palin evokes from almost all sides is remarkable — and for me, a bit puzzling. I don’t think she has earned either adoration or contempt. But as we’re seeing, she elicits plenty of both.

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More Good News from the MTF

Today at the White House President Bush announced the results of this year’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. This widely respected survey, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, tracks smoking, drinking, and illicit drug use among the nation’s secondary school students, assessing every year about 50,000 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in more than 400 secondary schools.

The key findings are that 8th, 10th, and 12th graders across the country are continuing to show a gradual decline in the proportions reporting use of illicit drugs.

“The cumulative declines since recent peak levels of drug involvement in the mid-1990’s are quite substantial, especially among the youngest students,” said University of Michigan Distinguished Research Scientist Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the MTF study.

The proportion of 8th graders reporting use of an illicit drug at least once in the 12 months prior to the survey was 24 percent in 1996 but has fallen to 13 percent by 2007, a drop of nearly half. The decline has been less among 10th graders, from 39 percent to 28 percent between 1997 and 2007, and least among 12th graders, a decline from the recent peak of 42 percent in 1997 to 36 percent this year. All three grades showed some continuing decline this year in the prevalence of illicit drug use, though only the one-year decline in 8th grade (a drop of 1.6 percentage points) achieved statistical significance. The rates for the three grades now stand at 13 percent, 28 percent, and 36 percent. Today 860,000 fewer young people than in 2001 are using drugs.

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Today at the White House President Bush announced the results of this year’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. This widely respected survey, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, tracks smoking, drinking, and illicit drug use among the nation’s secondary school students, assessing every year about 50,000 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in more than 400 secondary schools.

The key findings are that 8th, 10th, and 12th graders across the country are continuing to show a gradual decline in the proportions reporting use of illicit drugs.

“The cumulative declines since recent peak levels of drug involvement in the mid-1990’s are quite substantial, especially among the youngest students,” said University of Michigan Distinguished Research Scientist Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the MTF study.

The proportion of 8th graders reporting use of an illicit drug at least once in the 12 months prior to the survey was 24 percent in 1996 but has fallen to 13 percent by 2007, a drop of nearly half. The decline has been less among 10th graders, from 39 percent to 28 percent between 1997 and 2007, and least among 12th graders, a decline from the recent peak of 42 percent in 1997 to 36 percent this year. All three grades showed some continuing decline this year in the prevalence of illicit drug use, though only the one-year decline in 8th grade (a drop of 1.6 percentage points) achieved statistical significance. The rates for the three grades now stand at 13 percent, 28 percent, and 36 percent. Today 860,000 fewer young people than in 2001 are using drugs.

According to the MTF survey, we also saw a drop in smoking for all three grades. Including the decline this year, the rate of smoking in the prior 30 days is now down by two thirds among 8th graders to 7 percent from the peak level reached in 1996 of 21 percent. “That should eventually translate into many fewer illnesses and premature deaths for this generation of young people,” said Johnston. This year’s survey also noted the long-term decline in alcohol use among eighth-graders, down to 31.8 percent in 2007 from a peak of 46.8 percent in 1994.

“We are definitely seeing a decline in substance abuse among our youngest and most vulnerable teens,” said Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the director of the National Institutes of Health.

The results from the MTF survey builds on the good news we have seen on a range of social issues during the last ten to fifteen years, progress that my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin and I discuss in our essay in the December 2007 issue of COMMENTARY.

What accounts for the progress we’re witnessing? When it comes to teen drug use, smoking, and alcohol consumption, a key factor is perceptions of the dangers, consequences, and acceptability of using illegal substances. And those perceptions, in turn, are shaped by the messages, including the moral messages, sent by parents and adults, schools, community groups, television ads, and government (both in terms of what its leaders say and the policies they implement). Drug use, like welfare and crime, are areas in which we have seen public policies make an enormous and positive impact.

It is generally considered obvious that government should not, indeed cannot legislate morality. But in fact it does so, frequently; it should do so more often; and it never does anything more important. By the legislation of morality I mean the enactment of laws and implementation of policies that proscribe, mandate, regulate, or subsidize behavior that will, over time, have the predictable effect of nurturing, bolstering, or altering habits, dispositions and values on a broad scale.

So saith George Will in his 1983 book Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does. Will was right in what he wrote—and we are seeing some of the good fruits of statecraft in the MTF results today.

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Mr. Rauch’s Narrative

In his column in the most recent issue of National Journal, Jonathan Rauch admonishes Congressional Democrats:

Here is something that Democrats might want to think about before rushing to shut down the surge: If they managed to ram through a withdrawal or timetable on party lines this fall, when most Republicans think the surge is working, they would be flayed for a generation as the party that seized certain defeat from the jaws of possible victory. For years to come, Republicans would insist that Democratic pusillanimity emboldened jihadism, an ugly narrative that some are already rehearsing. (Last month Peter Wehner, who recently left the White House for a post at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sent out an e-mail pointing to jihadists’ claim that America is a “weak horse” that runs when bloodied. He continued, “If the critics have their way and deny General Petraeus the time he needs to help bring about a decent outcome in Iraq, the jihadists will be right.”)

Mr. Rauch doesn’t explain (perhaps because he can’t) why he considers this narrative “ugly”—a word clearly meant to suggest partisan political strategy—rather than accurate. The reality is that we know, from their own past words, that weakness emboldens jihadists. Here are the words of Osama bin Laden (from his 1998 interview with ABC’s John Miller):

We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weaknesses of the American solider, who is ready to wage cold wars and unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than twenty-four hours, and this was also repeated in Somalia. . . . [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers. . . . After a few blows, they ran in defeat. . . . They forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order. [They] left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.

Let’s lay out the logic for Mr. Rauch in an easy-to-follow manner: If jihadists have declared Iraq to be the central front in the larger war we are engaged in—as they have—and if we retreat because we have been bloodied in Iraq—as leading Democrats want—then it’s reasonable to assume that a precipitous American withdrawal, led by Democrats, will embolden the jihadists.

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In his column in the most recent issue of National Journal, Jonathan Rauch admonishes Congressional Democrats:

Here is something that Democrats might want to think about before rushing to shut down the surge: If they managed to ram through a withdrawal or timetable on party lines this fall, when most Republicans think the surge is working, they would be flayed for a generation as the party that seized certain defeat from the jaws of possible victory. For years to come, Republicans would insist that Democratic pusillanimity emboldened jihadism, an ugly narrative that some are already rehearsing. (Last month Peter Wehner, who recently left the White House for a post at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sent out an e-mail pointing to jihadists’ claim that America is a “weak horse” that runs when bloodied. He continued, “If the critics have their way and deny General Petraeus the time he needs to help bring about a decent outcome in Iraq, the jihadists will be right.”)

Mr. Rauch doesn’t explain (perhaps because he can’t) why he considers this narrative “ugly”—a word clearly meant to suggest partisan political strategy—rather than accurate. The reality is that we know, from their own past words, that weakness emboldens jihadists. Here are the words of Osama bin Laden (from his 1998 interview with ABC’s John Miller):

We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weaknesses of the American solider, who is ready to wage cold wars and unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than twenty-four hours, and this was also repeated in Somalia. . . . [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers. . . . After a few blows, they ran in defeat. . . . They forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order. [They] left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.

Let’s lay out the logic for Mr. Rauch in an easy-to-follow manner: If jihadists have declared Iraq to be the central front in the larger war we are engaged in—as they have—and if we retreat because we have been bloodied in Iraq—as leading Democrats want—then it’s reasonable to assume that a precipitous American withdrawal, led by Democrats, will embolden the jihadists.

If retreating from Vietnam, Beirut, and Somalia led terrorists to conclude America was the “weak horse”—the term is bin Laden’s—what does Rauch think a defeat in Iraq would do for the cause of radical Islam? Depress morale? Make jihadists more fearful that America will respond to terrorist attacks?

Pusillanimity, whether it comes from Republicans or Democrats, emboldens jihadists. That assertion is true, not ugly, and the sooner we accept it, the better off we will be. It is simply silly and sloppy for Rauch (an otherwise serious man) to make the charge he does.

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Time and Our Side

contentions would like to welcome our latest blogger, Peter Wehner. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, formerly served as the deputy assistant to the President and as the Director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Michael Ignatieff, formerly of Harvard and now deputy leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, has written a piece in the New York Times Magazine that is both a reflection on political leadership and an honest, self-condemning explanation of why he supported the war in Iraq. Ignatieff’s essay, “Getting Iraq Wrong: What The War Has Taught Me About Political Judgment,” places him in a long list of commentators who have bared their souls and asked for forgiveness—or at least understanding—for supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A few points about the essay. It appears just six days after the climate-changing column by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution (“A War We Might Just Win”). Ignatieff is penning his confessional at precisely the moment when the security situation is improving, at a faster rate than almost anyone could have imagined just seven months ago.

This does not mean the war is on the verge of being won; General Petraeus has said it’s the most challenging environment he’s witnessed in more than 30 years in uniform. What we do know is that when it comes to security and “bottom up” reconciliation, the arc of events is now favorable. (A decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and Ignatieff may one day have to write a mea culpa about his mea culpa.)

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contentions would like to welcome our latest blogger, Peter Wehner. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, formerly served as the deputy assistant to the President and as the Director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Michael Ignatieff, formerly of Harvard and now deputy leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, has written a piece in the New York Times Magazine that is both a reflection on political leadership and an honest, self-condemning explanation of why he supported the war in Iraq. Ignatieff’s essay, “Getting Iraq Wrong: What The War Has Taught Me About Political Judgment,” places him in a long list of commentators who have bared their souls and asked for forgiveness—or at least understanding—for supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A few points about the essay. It appears just six days after the climate-changing column by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution (“A War We Might Just Win”). Ignatieff is penning his confessional at precisely the moment when the security situation is improving, at a faster rate than almost anyone could have imagined just seven months ago.

This does not mean the war is on the verge of being won; General Petraeus has said it’s the most challenging environment he’s witnessed in more than 30 years in uniform. What we do know is that when it comes to security and “bottom up” reconciliation, the arc of events is now favorable. (A decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and Ignatieff may one day have to write a mea culpa about his mea culpa.)

Ignatieff also explains his support for the war on fairly narrow grounds: his (admirable) emotional attachment to Iraqi exiles who believed the war was the only chance that members of their generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. The humanitarian case against Saddam was overwhelming, but it was not anything like the sole reason to go to war. The United States believed, with the rest of the world, that Saddam had WMD stockpiles. (We know now that he wanted to end sanctions while preserving his capability to reconstitute his WMD program when the sanctions regime ended.) Hussein was also the most destabilizing figure in the Middle East, having invaded two countries and committed genocide in his own. He was responsible for the death of more than a million people. Recklessness and hyper-aggression were in his DNA.

A third point: Ignatieff seems to be arguing for an American withdrawal, though he doesn’t say it outright. This would consign Iraqis to cruelty and slaughter on a scale that is almost beyond our capacity to absorb. In the words of the New York Times reporter John Burns, “cataclysmic violence” would follow in the wake of an early American withdrawal. Ignatieff, who supported the war for humanitarian reasons, is already being cited by those who want to accelerate an American withdrawal, despite the ethnic cleansing and genocide that would follow. This would be a difficult thing for a man like Ignatieff, of impressive moral concerns and commitments, to defend.

We may now be at a hinge moment in Iraq, when—after years of costly mistakes and misjudgments—we are on the right path. General David Petraeus says he needs one thing more than any other: time. Anyone who purports to care about the future of Iraq, and of the Iraqis, owes him at least that much.

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