Commentary Magazine


Topic: George Will

George Will and the Liberal Inquisition on Campus

Few will be surprised to learn that the conservative commentator George Will has become the latest public figure to have fallen victim to the growing trend of colleges disinviting their guest speakers. There has been a dramatic upsurge in the number of these cancellations in recent years, with conservatives inevitably bearing the brunt of it. But the case of Will’s cancelation comes with an added poignancy, one that makes the affair sound like parody even by the standards of this already ridiculous phenomenon. For Will had been due to speak as part of Scripps College’s annual Elizabeth Hebert Malott Public Affairs Program. And the thing about this program is that it was specifically created to bring conservative speakers to the campus. Just not too conservative, apparently.

Read More

Few will be surprised to learn that the conservative commentator George Will has become the latest public figure to have fallen victim to the growing trend of colleges disinviting their guest speakers. There has been a dramatic upsurge in the number of these cancellations in recent years, with conservatives inevitably bearing the brunt of it. But the case of Will’s cancelation comes with an added poignancy, one that makes the affair sound like parody even by the standards of this already ridiculous phenomenon. For Will had been due to speak as part of Scripps College’s annual Elizabeth Hebert Malott Public Affairs Program. And the thing about this program is that it was specifically created to bring conservative speakers to the campus. Just not too conservative, apparently.

The mission statement of the Elizabeth Herbert Malott Public Affairs Program asserts its belief that “a range of opinions about the world – especially opinions with which we may not agree, or think we do not agree – leads to a better educational experience.” As such, the program undertakes to bring to campus speakers with views that differ from the majority of those at the college. No doubt a worthy and much needed undertaking at this progressive all-women’s liberal arts college where a recent survey failed to find a single registered Republican among the faculty.

Even so, it still seems somewhat odd that such initiatives should be required in the first place. Has academia really become so uniformly liberal that specific programs now need to be created so that for one day a year a conservative can be shipped in and paraded around like some rare and exotic creature? Held up before the students so that, should they ever meet one in later life, they will know what a conservative looks like?

Either way, George Will is one conservative that students at Scripps won’t now be exposed to. Will himself maintains that his invitation was revoked on account of a controversial column he penned back in June, although the college hasn’t actually specified that to be the reason. The column, which was on the subject of sexual assault on campus, certainly caused some uproar. When Will questioned both the stats and the disciplinary procedures that colleges have been adopting regarding sexual assault, he provoked an almighty backlash against himself. Will subsequently claimed that he was actually seeking to take sexual assault more seriously, not less. But four Democratic Senators thought the wrongheadedness of Will’s views to be of such national urgency that they authored a letter to him on the subject, while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch felt compelled to drop Will’s twice-weekly column.

Whether it was this column or something else that offended sensibilities at Scripps, it seems ludicrous to have a program dedicated to showcasing individuals with alternative views only to then disqualify those individuals who have dared to question certain sacred cows of liberal-think. One by one, all the issues get set beyond the realm of debate or discussion and the walls of the liberal echo chamber become ever more impenetrable. It is hardly surprising then that just so many conservative figures have found themselves deemed beyond the pale of acceptability, with students and faculty alike petitioning their institutions to disinvite conservative speakers. In recent years Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, and critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali have all had their invitations to speak on campus withdrawn.

A disturbing culture of perpetual indignation seems to be rendering students apparently unable to so much as countenance hearing alternative points of view, and it has only grown worse in recent years. Research by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education suggests that since 1987 there have been 145 cases of speakers being disinvited by colleges. But alarmingly close to 100 of these have occurred over the past five years.

Theoretically, Will should have been sheltered from this storm of censorship now being demanded by liberal students and academics. Yet even a program dedicated to allowing some conservative views on campus wasn’t safe from the inquisition. Perhaps Will’s tone was indeed hurtful and offensive to many people. But as the cliché goes, the only society worth living in is one in which your deepest feelings can be offended. Liberals, however, have for some time now been engaged in a project to turn academia into a society of their very own, one in which they will never have to hear an opposing view ever again.

Some have suggested redressing the political imbalance by creating “conservative studies departments” at our universities. But as with the program on which Will was due to speak, by placing all the conservatives in some kind of menagerie rather than having them as tenured academics in standard departments, the message is only reinforced that conservatives are an oddity not for mainstream academic life.

Following the disinviting of Will, Christopher DeMuth, the former head of AEI, has resigned his position on the program’s selection committee. Perhaps this is just as well; conservatives should hardly be bestowing upon such Stalinist institutions the veneer of tolerance and openness.

Read Less

How Do You Fight a Hundred Years’ War?

Most Americans are understandably reluctant to send troops back into Iraq let alone Syria. But, given the fact that, as Max Boot noted earlier today, bombing isn’t stopping the ISIS terrorists from making progress toward their initial goal of taking over either or both countries, more U.S. action is likely to follow. That has provoked the usual anti-war chorus on the left to proclaim that all American action is ultimately futile. But as worthless as many of those arguments may be, it is important to address the more substantive of these complaints head on and explain why it is that Americans are fated, like it or not, to be drawn into conflicts with radical Islamists now and in the years to come.

Read More

Most Americans are understandably reluctant to send troops back into Iraq let alone Syria. But, given the fact that, as Max Boot noted earlier today, bombing isn’t stopping the ISIS terrorists from making progress toward their initial goal of taking over either or both countries, more U.S. action is likely to follow. That has provoked the usual anti-war chorus on the left to proclaim that all American action is ultimately futile. But as worthless as many of those arguments may be, it is important to address the more substantive of these complaints head on and explain why it is that Americans are fated, like it or not, to be drawn into conflicts with radical Islamists now and in the years to come.

In Saturday’s Washington Post, historian and former soldier Andrew Bacevich wrote to say that it didn’t matter whether the battle with ISIS was won or not. By his count, the U.S. had invaded, occupied, or bombed 14 Islamic countries in the last 35 years and that this latest chapter of a long-running war wasn’t likely to end any more satisfactorily than any of the others. To summarize Bacevich’s thesis, he thinks each successive U.S. intervention has only made things worse than its predecessors and that the end result is as futile as American military efforts in Vietnam, a telling analogy as it betrays his frame of reference about these conflicts.

What does Bacevich advise to do instead of attacking ISIS? On that point, he’s a bit hazy other than to imply that staying out will be less messy than going in. Moreover, he believes that since the U.S. is no longer as dependent on Middle Eastern oil, there’s no real need to fuss about the future of the region, a point that also betrays his cynical and somewhat dated echo of the original discredited arguments about the reason the U.S. went into Iraq in 2003.

Bacevich, who lost a son in Iraq, has a right to feel bitter about that conflict but though George Will praised his piece yesterday on Fox News Sunday, his plea for isolationism offers us little that is useful in untangling the current conflict or about the options the U.S. currently faces in Iraq and Syria.

Let’s start by noting that Bacevich’s list of 14 Islamic countries attacked by the U.S. is more than a bit misleading. Including Kosovo, a conflict in which NATO mercilessly bombed the Serbian Christian enemies of Kosovo Muslims, in this roster of invasions is absurd. The whole point of that effort was to defend Muslims and to ultimately aid their creation of another Muslim state at the expense of their neighbors who had themselves misbehaved. But he’s right that Americans have gotten little satisfaction out of any of our encounters in the other 13 nations.

Yet his idea that the U.S. is only making the problem worse is looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.

Radical Islamists do use American actions as a recruiting tool, but to claim that their atrocities or campaigns are primarily a reaction to the West rather than something that reflects the desperate state of their own political culture is fundamentally mistaken. Conflicts with Iran or Libya didn’t create the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Rather the growth of these radical movements is a reflection of the dire state of the Islamic world as it attempts to confront modernity and instead seeks a solution in the old formula of jihad and world domination.

It is comforting to think that the West can simply ignore the war being waged on it by a host of ever-changing Islamist groups whose names change but whose methods are consistently barbarous and whose goals are uncompromising. But every time we do, whether in the ’90s when al-Qaeda’s rise was considered insignificant or during an Obama administration that pretended it could take credit for “ending” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or staying out Syria, we end up paying a price.

Bacevich is right to note that the conflict against ISIS won’t be easy. Nor will we be able to conclude it with victory parades the way Americans prefer to end wars. Instead, it will require a long-term commitment that recognizes that our foes view this as a hundred years’ war and not a neat little battle that can be quickly won and then forgotten.

The Islamists aren’t looking to behead Westerners, take over Arab countries, and then extend their terror to Americans and our allies because we stumbled into Iraq or bombed Libya in the distant past. Nor is it about our supposed sins in Iran in the 1950s or any other oft-repeated tale of Islamic woe. Rather, it is a function of a basic conflict between Islamist belief and the West and those Muslims who prefer peace and coexistence to Sharia law and endless war.

The call to retreat from the Middle East is advice that President Obama and the American people would do well to ignore. Sooner or later, if we stay out of the conflict with ISIS, that group or those that ultimately replace it will bring their war to America. Contrary to Bacevich and Will, our choice is not whether or not to fight Islamists but where we will fight them. It is simply common sense to do so on their home turf and at a point when Western military superiority can be brought to bear on the group and their allies before they become even more dangerous. The outcome of each battle in this new hundred years’ war won’t be satisfying, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary to fight. The enemy will make sure to remind us that giving up isn’t an option.

Read Less

Iraq: What We Know Now and What We Knew Then

Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

Read More

Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

“Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction,” his indictment of Bush begins, but the only “given” in 2003 was the exact opposite. All fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States agreed “with high confidence” that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” So did the intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and France.

“Given” also that the Democrats would later accuse Bush of lying about this, here is a (partial) list of Democrats who had previously joined in the consensus: Bill Clinton; his Vice President Al Gore; his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; his Secretary of Defense William Cohen; and his National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. In the Senate, there were Teddy Kennedy, Harry Reid, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, John Edwards, Jay Rockefeller, Robert Byrd, and Bob Graham–not to mention Nancy Pelosi, among scores of others, in the House, as well as liberal papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Each and every one of them saw Saddam Hussein as a threat, and they all advocated taking action against him.

“Given” all this, I would go so far as to say that not only was George W. Bush justified in ordering the invasion, but that if he had failed to do so, he would have deserved to be impeached for violating his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” this country against any and all foreign enemies.    

As to the other items in George Will’s parade of horribles, they all belong to the period that followed the successful military phase of the invasion itself. I am willing to stipulate that many mistakes were made in the three years that followed, and that the entire operation would very likely have ended in defeat if Bush had not finally found in David Petraeus a general who wanted to win and knew how to do it. The upshot was that by the time Barack Obama took office, American casualties were all the way down, and that the Iraq turned over to him was a country largely at peace and living under a nascent democratic regime. So much for the case for blaming Bush.

Turning now to the case for blaming Obama, a commensurately eloquent one has been made by another old friend of mine, David Pryce Jones, the eminent British authority on the Arab world. After explaining why and how the al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS has been able to capture city after city in Iraq and is now only about fifty miles from Baghdad, David flatly declares that “President George W. Bush is vindicated. The sole way Iraq could have continued was under a permanent American presence that gave and guaranteed state functions. President Obama’s withdrawal of American forces is already a historic error. They alone could have kept the peace. Arabs have a phrase to the effect that some mistake has opened the doors of Hell. President Obama has opened those doors.”

Obama evidently now thinks that a de facto alliance with Iran—Iran!—is the way to close those doors, but such an alliance would only guarantee that they would open even wider than they are now. It would also solidify Iran’s influence over Iraq while giving a green light to an Iranian nuclear bomb. 

Alas, none of the other proposals for getting us out of this fix seems fully persuasive. Which means that it may be too late to prevent Iraq from joining Syria as part of a new Iranian empire. It is not too late, however, to keep that empire from building a nuclear arsenal, and neither is it too late to keep Afghanistan from reverting to the al-Qaeda haven it was before 9/11. The problem is that doing those things would require Barack Obama to acknowledge that his policies are exposing us to an infinitely greater danger than we were in before 9/11. In my opinion–and I express it with fear and trembling–it would take something close to a miracle for him to undergo so radical a change of heart and mind. God help us then.

Read Less

Isolationism and a Nuclear Iran

Columnist George Will is right when he writes today that the nuclear deal that the Obama administration has struck with Iran won’t stop the Islamist regime from getting a nuclear weapon. The notion that the U.S. can foster moderation in countries ruled by despotic ideological regimes is, as he says, a “conceit” of a blind faith in diplomacy and good will. But rather than call for tougher diplomacy or greater pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambition, the venerable conservative pundit advises us to simply give up trying to stop the ayatollahs from getting a bomb. If possible, that might be an even worse policy than the feckless pursuit of détente with Iran currently being attempted by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

It’s difficult to argue with Will’s belief that no agreement conjured up by the current diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from eventually going nuclear. Nor would the use of force by either Israel or the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities be easy or cost-free. But his conclusion that the U.S. has no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran as an inevitable, if regrettable, reality and adopt a posture of containment is one that even President Obama has rejected as not a viable or sensible option. In this case, Will’s normally rigorous reasoning is flawed both in terms of his estimation of what could be done short of war to stop Iran as well as the impact of effective strikes on their nuclear infrastructure. Even more troubling, however, is the sense that his willingness to accept a nuclear Iran has less to do with despair at the options available to policymakers than it does with a worldview that is drifting toward isolationism.

Read More

Columnist George Will is right when he writes today that the nuclear deal that the Obama administration has struck with Iran won’t stop the Islamist regime from getting a nuclear weapon. The notion that the U.S. can foster moderation in countries ruled by despotic ideological regimes is, as he says, a “conceit” of a blind faith in diplomacy and good will. But rather than call for tougher diplomacy or greater pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambition, the venerable conservative pundit advises us to simply give up trying to stop the ayatollahs from getting a bomb. If possible, that might be an even worse policy than the feckless pursuit of détente with Iran currently being attempted by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

It’s difficult to argue with Will’s belief that no agreement conjured up by the current diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from eventually going nuclear. Nor would the use of force by either Israel or the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities be easy or cost-free. But his conclusion that the U.S. has no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran as an inevitable, if regrettable, reality and adopt a posture of containment is one that even President Obama has rejected as not a viable or sensible option. In this case, Will’s normally rigorous reasoning is flawed both in terms of his estimation of what could be done short of war to stop Iran as well as the impact of effective strikes on their nuclear infrastructure. Even more troubling, however, is the sense that his willingness to accept a nuclear Iran has less to do with despair at the options available to policymakers than it does with a worldview that is drifting toward isolationism.

Let’s first agree that diplomacy with Iran is a doubtful bet no matter whether it is being conducted by tough-minded leaders or weak ones. Both Obama and Kerry have little appreciation of the nature or goals of the Iranian regime and what little common sense they have is dwarfed by their hubristic belief in their own diplomatic prowess. As Will states, a deal that leaves in place Iran’s nuclear facilities and its stockpile of enriched uranium, and even grants it the right to create more is a formula for failure. It’s difficult to imagine any such scheme will not be either evaded or violated by the Iranians in a push to get the weapon their leaders have always dreamed of. The Iranians have spent the last 20 years deceiving and stalling Western negotiators. Any thought that the selection of a faux moderate in their fake presidential election presages a genuine shift on the part of the true rulers of Iran is a product of wishful thinking.

But however dubious we should be about Iran’s intentions, it is simply not true to claim, as Will does, that “any agreement” would be as futile as the one Obama has foolishly embraced. A deal that dismantled Iran’s centrifuges and nuclear plants and that resulted in the export of their uranium stockpile would be one that would prevent them from getting a bomb. Granted, the Iranians may well have more facilities than the ones under discussion. Intelligence agencies take it as a given that there are secret facilities where unknown nuclear activities are being conducted. Yet a negotiated end to the international sanctions on Iran that produced a genuine and strict inspection of the country might well root out most of the ayatollahs’ nuclear toys or at least enough to severely restrict their ability to reconstitute their program.

Such a deal might be possible if, rather than weakening sanctions in a vain effort to encourage Iranian moderates, the West tightened the economic restrictions on trade with Tehran and instituted a comprehensive embargo of Iranian oil. That kind of an embargo would be tough to enforce without the full support of Russia and China. But we’ll never know whether it could work or if such crippling sanctions would bring the regime to its knees until it is tried.

As for the use of force, Will is probably right that Israel may not be able to stop Iran on its own. It is also true that even a far more comprehensive strike by the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily end the threat for all time. But in dismissing the possibility that a series of strikes could stop Iran in the long run, Will is ignoring the fact that it is highly unlikely that a country already nearing bankruptcy could afford the massive costs involved in reconstituting a nuclear program it took them decades to build. There is no reason to believe that Iran could simply rebuild everything in a few years. And even if strikes did merely put off an Iranian bomb for a few years or a decade, that would buy the world badly needed time to prepare for the Iranian threat. It would also give the Iranian people an opportunity to perhaps unseat a tyrannical regime.

An armed conflict with Iran is not a scenario anyone should regard as anything but a last resort. But the assumption that it would be worse than a nuclear Iran is the real fallacy here. Will agrees with the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack that the only choices the West has are containment or war and thinks the former a better idea than the latter. That’s why, despite his criticism of Obama’s diplomacy, Will likes the nuclear deal with Iran because he rightly believes it forestalls any use of force whether by Israel or the United States.

Will castigates those who call for a more vigorous response to the Iranian nuclear threat as being “gripped by Thirties envy” because they decry the Obama policy as a new appeasement. Obviously, the circumstances before us today are different than those faced by the West in 1938 when appeasement of Nazi Germany was on the table. But the notion that all that is at stake here is, as Will says, an attempt to  “alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders” is utterly misguided.

Iran’s nuclear program is not merely a domestic policy choice that the West regards with distaste (which was the way many in Britain and the U.S. regarded the Nazi treatment of Jews in the 1930s), but a genuine threat to the stability of the regime and the security of the West. After all, the Iranians are not building ICBMs to hit Israel, whose existence would be placed in mortal danger by a bomb in the hands of an anti-Semitic regime pledged to its destruction. Those would be aimed at Europe and the United States. Such a weapon would also provide a nuclear umbrella to Iran’s terrorist auxiliaries in the region and allies such as Syria.

In this respect, Barack Obama’s understanding of the stakes in this question is greater than that of the venerable conservative sage. The president knows that a nuclear Iran would be a catastrophe. He just lacks the will or the smarts to pursue the right policy to prevent it. Will is wrong to write off tough sanctions and diplomacy without their being tried. He’s even more wrong to think the use of force would be worse than a nuclear Iran.

Unlike the Soviet Union, a nuclear Iran could not be neatly contained. Not could the U.S. or Israel be sure it could deter it with nuclear or conventional counter-attacks. But unlike liberals who labor under the delusion that the Iranians could be charmed out of their nukes, Will seems to think the issue doesn’t really matter. In making that case, he seems to be endorsing the mindset of isolationists like Rand Paul or trying to resurrect the foreign policy of Republicans of a bygone era like Robert Taft would have preferred. As such, his appeal for acceptance of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a distressing indication of the collapse of the consensus on the right about foreign policy that can only give comfort to America’s foes.

Read Less

More on Statecraft as Soulcraft

My post on the intellectual evolution of George Will created some interesting reactions, including this one from NRO’s Jonah Goldberg. This is probably as good a time as any to elaborate on my views related to Will’s 1983 book Statecraft As Soulcraft and the broader political philosophy it touches on.

There are two separate issues to consider. One is the size of government. As anyone who reads Contentions knows, on this matter, my views are pretty clear. The federal government needs to be re-limited. It’s too large, it spends too much, and (to borrow from a formulation by Margaret Thatcher) it takes too much from us in order to do too much for us.

The second issue has to do with the purpose of politics. Some, like Goldberg—whose writings I enjoy and admire—are left cold by the claim that “the state must take it upon itself to create better people.” My argument is that (i) politics is an extension of ethics and (ii) whether one likes it or not, there is a moral component to many of our laws. Hence government is involved in affecting the habits, values and sensibilities of the citizenry.

Read More

My post on the intellectual evolution of George Will created some interesting reactions, including this one from NRO’s Jonah Goldberg. This is probably as good a time as any to elaborate on my views related to Will’s 1983 book Statecraft As Soulcraft and the broader political philosophy it touches on.

There are two separate issues to consider. One is the size of government. As anyone who reads Contentions knows, on this matter, my views are pretty clear. The federal government needs to be re-limited. It’s too large, it spends too much, and (to borrow from a formulation by Margaret Thatcher) it takes too much from us in order to do too much for us.

The second issue has to do with the purpose of politics. Some, like Goldberg—whose writings I enjoy and admire—are left cold by the claim that “the state must take it upon itself to create better people.” My argument is that (i) politics is an extension of ethics and (ii) whether one likes it or not, there is a moral component to many of our laws. Hence government is involved in affecting the habits, values and sensibilities of the citizenry.

For example, the 1996 welfare reform bill is perhaps the most successful piece of social legislation in generations. At the heart of the law was a moral, not an economic, argument: welfare is creating dependency, which is enervating character, which in turn is harming individuals and society. The goal with welfare reform was not to save money; it was to foster self-reliance and dignity. That was the state taking upon itself the task of creating better people, and having some success at it.

That doesn’t mean that the state is always, or even often, successful in this undertaking. But that’s an argument for modesty of expectations and to get the policies right; it’s not an argument against the role government inevitably plays in shaping conduct and character. As Will argues in his book, we frequently “legislate morality” in ways that influences actions, dispositions, and values. That’s been the case, to one degree or another, with desegregation, drug use, smoking, incarceration, sexual assault, abortion, adoption, movie and video-game ratings, marriage and family structure, child support payments, child tax credits, and charitable deductions, to name just a few.

The law is one way society sends a signal as to what it deems to be appropriate and lawful v. what is inappropriate and unlawful. To illustrate the point: My wife and I are the most important influences on our children when it comes to the matter of drug use. Their friends matter a lot, too. But so does the law. It helps to be able to say that drug use is wrong and harmful—and that’s why they are illegal. The law reinforces (or not) a moral message. As the great political scientist James Q. Wilson put it in COMMENTARY, “If we believe—as I do—that dependency on certain mind-altering drugs is a moral issue and that their illegality rests in part on their immorality, then legalizing them undercuts, if it does not eliminate altogether, the moral message.”

George Will, during the question-and-answer period of the speech I cited, suggests that a large welfare state has a crowding out effect that may diminish charitable giving, since citizens assume the state will take care of the most vulnerable members of the human community. (We’ve seen that phenomenon in Europe.)

This doesn’t mean laws are more important than parents and relatives and friends. It doesn’t mean laws have a greater shaping influence on the character of the young than churches and synagogues, than teachers and coaches, than the Boy Scouts and Bible Studies. What it does mean is that the state acts in ways that shape behaviors and attitudes that make us somewhat better or somewhat worse people. I’d rather we act in ways that make us somewhat better.

Read Less

The Intellectual Evolution of George Will

In an elegant and erudite speech (see here and here) at Washington University on December 4, 2012, the conservative columnist George Will, in speaking about America’s political philosophy, said this:

And these [natural] rights are the foundation of limited government – government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.

A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions – private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones – that supply the conditions for liberty.

Will went on to postulate this:

A nation such as ours, steeped in and shaped by Biblical religion, cannot comfortably accommodate a politics that takes its bearings from the proposition that human nature is a malleable product of social forces, and that improving human nature, perhaps unto perfection, is a proper purpose of politics… Biblical religion should be wary of the consequences of government untethered from the limiting purpose of securing natural rights.

A conservative, equally elegant and erudite, offered quite a different understanding of things:

A purpose of politics is to facilitate, as much as is prudent, the existence of worthy passions and the achievement of worthy aims. It is to help persons want what they ought to want. Politics should share one purpose with religion: the steady emancipation of the individual through the education of his passion.

Read More

In an elegant and erudite speech (see here and here) at Washington University on December 4, 2012, the conservative columnist George Will, in speaking about America’s political philosophy, said this:

And these [natural] rights are the foundation of limited government – government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.

A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions – private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones – that supply the conditions for liberty.

Will went on to postulate this:

A nation such as ours, steeped in and shaped by Biblical religion, cannot comfortably accommodate a politics that takes its bearings from the proposition that human nature is a malleable product of social forces, and that improving human nature, perhaps unto perfection, is a proper purpose of politics… Biblical religion should be wary of the consequences of government untethered from the limiting purpose of securing natural rights.

A conservative, equally elegant and erudite, offered quite a different understanding of things:

A purpose of politics is to facilitate, as much as is prudent, the existence of worthy passions and the achievement of worthy aims. It is to help persons want what they ought to want. Politics should share one purpose with religion: the steady emancipation of the individual through the education of his passion.

This conservative went on to say this:

we need a public philosophy that can rectify the current imbalance between the political order’s meticulous concern for material well-being and its fastidious withdrawal from concern for the inner lives and moral character of citizens… we must rethink today’s constricted notion of the legitimate uses of law.

And this:

The institutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individualism – family, church, voluntary associations, town governments – with collective concerns have come to seem more peripheral. Using government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives… If conservatives do not want to use government power in behalf of their values, why do they waste their time running for office? Have they no value other than hostility to government? … National character is a real thing, molded in part by law and politics, and it is not made of marble.

The conservative who said these words was also George Will. He wrote them in 1983, in a book titled Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does.  

My point in juxtaposing George Will then v. George Will now is not to be critical of him. In fact, I admire Will. His writings, especially Statecraft As Soulcraft, had a significant shaping influence on me and on several of my closest friends and colleagues. And the fact that Will’s views have changed over the years may reflect well, not poorly, on him, demonstrating a mind that is open to a new interpretation of things.

What I do hope is that before too long, Mr. Will does what I don’t think he has done, which is to help us understand his journey from what he called “strong government conservatism” to a much more libertarian view of things.

I will admit that my own intellectual sympathies are more with the early Will than the current one. Over the years our laws–on civil rights, drug use, smoking, crime and incarceration, welfare, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, genocide, apartheid, the size of government, and much else–have helped shape the dispositions and habits of the polity. “Much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation in broad and important spheres in life,” Will wrote 30 years ago. He argued that desegregation explicitly and successfully changed individuals’ moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. “The theory was that if government compelled people to eat and work and study and play together, government would improve the inner lives of those people.” Perhaps a new book or speech by Will, on why statecraft should not be soulcraft, will cause me to reexamine things. 

But whether it would or not, I hope Will–one of modern conservatism’s most significant and exceptional conservative writers and thinkers–directly addresses his intellectual evolution. I for one would be fascinated to know why Will today holds views philosophically at odds with Will circa 1983. And I imagine others would as well.

Read Less

Could Gay Marriage Amendment Tip Minnesota to Romney?

That was George Will’s prediction on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday (h/t Jeff Poor): 

The anti-gay marriage amendment will bring religious voters out to the polls, but will it be enough of a margin to swing the vote for Romney? A couple of recent polls, including PPP’s yesterday, found that more voters oppose the anti-gay marriage amendment than support it. But if that’s the case on election day, it will be unprecedented — gay marriage has lost in all 32 states where it’s been up for a vote. If that changes in Minnesota tomorrow, it could mark the beginning of a political shift. 

Read More

That was George Will’s prediction on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday (h/t Jeff Poor): 

The anti-gay marriage amendment will bring religious voters out to the polls, but will it be enough of a margin to swing the vote for Romney? A couple of recent polls, including PPP’s yesterday, found that more voters oppose the anti-gay marriage amendment than support it. But if that’s the case on election day, it will be unprecedented — gay marriage has lost in all 32 states where it’s been up for a vote. If that changes in Minnesota tomorrow, it could mark the beginning of a political shift. 

Beyond that, the polls are all over the place for Romney in Minnesota. Saturday’s poll by the conservative American Future Fund found the race a dead-heat. But yesterday’s PPP poll found Obama up by eight points, and today’s Survey USA found him leading by double-digits. So if Romney does win Minnesota, it would be a major upset, and not just because it would be the first time in nine presidential elections that the state went for a Republican.

Read Less

The “Good Vibrations” Continue

In today’s Washington Post, George Will wrote an interesting appreciation of The Beach Boys, who are still touring the country to applause 50 years after they topped the charts with “Good Vibrations.” As Will notes, the sweet sound of that pop band epitomized a moment in our cultural history as the ethos of Southern California provided a soundtrack for a new surge in individualism.

To back up his assertion, Will quotes at length from a classic COMMENTARY article by James Q. Wilson, “A Guide to Reagan Country: The Political Culture of Southern California,” that explored the way trends in that region exemplified a new way of thinking about politics and culture. As Will noted, given its “dystopian present,” it’s hard to recall the way America felt about “California Dreamin” in those days, but for those who like to revisit it, we have made Wilson’s timeless piece available here.

In today’s Washington Post, George Will wrote an interesting appreciation of The Beach Boys, who are still touring the country to applause 50 years after they topped the charts with “Good Vibrations.” As Will notes, the sweet sound of that pop band epitomized a moment in our cultural history as the ethos of Southern California provided a soundtrack for a new surge in individualism.

To back up his assertion, Will quotes at length from a classic COMMENTARY article by James Q. Wilson, “A Guide to Reagan Country: The Political Culture of Southern California,” that explored the way trends in that region exemplified a new way of thinking about politics and culture. As Will noted, given its “dystopian present,” it’s hard to recall the way America felt about “California Dreamin” in those days, but for those who like to revisit it, we have made Wilson’s timeless piece available here.

Read Less

Why Trump Doesn’t Hurt Romney

During the weekend, George Will noted on ABC’s “This Week” that Donald Trump is a “bloviating ignoramus.” Trump later replied on Twitter saying, “George Will may be the dumbest (and most overrated) political commentator of all time. If the Republicans listen to him, they will lose.” Suffice it to say that only one of them is right, and it isn’t Trump. But the point of this contest of intellect versus celebrity cash — whether Mitt Romney is making a huge mistake by allowing Trump to host a Las Vegas fundraiser for him today at which an estimated $2 million may be raised — isn’t so easily decided.

There’s no question that Romney does not enhance his prestige by associating with Trump. The real estate mogul turned television celebrity is a buffoon, and his much-publicized dabbling in birther theories is an embarrassment. The fact that he is still raising doubts about President Obama’s birthplace ought to make the Republican candidate unwilling to be seen anywhere near him. Romney’s willingness to accept Trump’s endorsement (while stating that he entertains no doubts about the president having been born in the United States) in the heat of the GOP primaries might have been excused, because at that time, he needed any help he could get. But with the nomination in hand and the general election campaign already begun in all but name, Will’s befuddlement about his judgment is understandable. However, there are two explanations which, while not providing much reassurance about Romney’s taste, should calm his supporters.

Read More

During the weekend, George Will noted on ABC’s “This Week” that Donald Trump is a “bloviating ignoramus.” Trump later replied on Twitter saying, “George Will may be the dumbest (and most overrated) political commentator of all time. If the Republicans listen to him, they will lose.” Suffice it to say that only one of them is right, and it isn’t Trump. But the point of this contest of intellect versus celebrity cash — whether Mitt Romney is making a huge mistake by allowing Trump to host a Las Vegas fundraiser for him today at which an estimated $2 million may be raised — isn’t so easily decided.

There’s no question that Romney does not enhance his prestige by associating with Trump. The real estate mogul turned television celebrity is a buffoon, and his much-publicized dabbling in birther theories is an embarrassment. The fact that he is still raising doubts about President Obama’s birthplace ought to make the Republican candidate unwilling to be seen anywhere near him. Romney’s willingness to accept Trump’s endorsement (while stating that he entertains no doubts about the president having been born in the United States) in the heat of the GOP primaries might have been excused, because at that time, he needed any help he could get. But with the nomination in hand and the general election campaign already begun in all but name, Will’s befuddlement about his judgment is understandable. However, there are two explanations which, while not providing much reassurance about Romney’s taste, should calm his supporters.

The first and most obvious explanation is that Trump’s help as a fundraiser is not inconsiderable. Romney entered this race determined not to be outspent the way John McCain was four years ago, and it is clear that in his mind the money Trump is helping to raise for him is worth the media kerfuffle that is sure to follow anytime the famous developer opens his mouth. It might be argued that at this point Romney doesn’t need Trump. But perhaps Romney thinks the $2 million Trump is putting in his hand far outweighs the negative impact of the controversy.

But the other reason may show that Romney is not quite as out of touch as he may at times seem. Though Trump is an absurd figure whose public behavior has always been better fodder for the tabloids than the op-ed page, Romney may understand that he is not quite as toxic as most of us who think and write about politics believe. To the vast majority of the American public, Trump is first and foremost the star of a reality TV show, not a birther. Indeed, his overbearing persona and egotism was perceived as an act long before anyone ever saw “The Apprentice.” Though he may say ridiculous things and promote moronic causes like birther theories, its pretty clear most Americans see him as an inside joke that they have been made privy to, not a vicious hater. Put me down as one of those who find it disconcerting that so many people find him entertaining. And there’s no question that Trump will feed into the Obama campaign’s effort to demonize Republicans as a bunch of extremist fools. But Romney’s probably right to think he is not quite as radioactive to the voting public as my instincts say he is.

Just as it would be better if President Obama kept his Hollywood fan club at a further distance, it would be beneficial for the state of the nation’s political health if Romney stayed away from Trump. But I doubt that Romney will lose many votes because he accepts Trump’s embrace. These are mere sideshows that will only affect the outcome of the contest in the center ring.

Read Less

Dealing with Troughs is a Test of Character

George Will has a lovely tribute to his son Jon, who is a Washington Nationals fan who also happens to have Down syndrome.

Apart from his evident love and appreciation for his son, Will takes aim at the “full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby.” He goes on to write about Jon’s gift of serenity. “With an underdeveloped entitlement mentality,” Will writes, Jon has “been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity. Perhaps this is partly because, given the nature of Down syndrome, neither he nor his parents have any tormenting sense of what might have been. Down syndrome did not alter the trajectory of his life; Jon was Jon from conception on.”

Read More

George Will has a lovely tribute to his son Jon, who is a Washington Nationals fan who also happens to have Down syndrome.

Apart from his evident love and appreciation for his son, Will takes aim at the “full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby.” He goes on to write about Jon’s gift of serenity. “With an underdeveloped entitlement mentality,” Will writes, Jon has “been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity. Perhaps this is partly because, given the nature of Down syndrome, neither he nor his parents have any tormenting sense of what might have been. Down syndrome did not alter the trajectory of his life; Jon was Jon from conception on.”

Here Will is touching on an enormous shift in human expectations that has occurred in modern times – the belief that we are owed, that we are entitled, to certain things, including a life very nearly free of hardship, of pain, and of loss. The reason for this shift is progress. In the West, we’ve seen fantastic gains made in medicine, technology, and standards of living. Early death was once a common feature; according to historian Lawrence Stone, during the Middle Ages, two or more living children were often given the same name because it was so common that at least one of them would die. Today, in America, early death is blessedly rare. We are also far less patient and far less willing to be inconvenienced than ever before. We forget that there was once a life before GPSs and ATMs; before iPhones, iPods, and iPads; before e-mails, Twitter, texting, Skype, Google, ESPN, and flat screen televisions.

We’ve all benefited from these gains in one way or another, and they have added new and comforting dimensions to our daily lives. Families are able to stay in close touch long after children have left home. Almost no one who is not Amish would voluntarily give up these things, and understandably so. But these advancements in material progress can bring their own challenges as well, including how to keep reasonable expectations when we have come to expect lives of comfort and ease.

It is easier than we like to admit that these days being dealt a hard blow in life is viewed as a cosmic injustice. Now this isn’t new; people have been embittered by life since the dawn of civilization. Great novels (like Moby Dick) have been written about such things. But one cannot help but suspect that we have higher expectations of life than past generations and therefore are less able to deal with deprivation and adversity with equanimity. That is why, I think, some of us hold a special place of honor for those who have faced tragedies and particular hardships with courage, without chronic self-pity, and with some measure of grace.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil (Screwtape) reminds the junior devil (Wormwood) that “one of our best weapons [is] contented worldliness.” Lewis – who later in his life absorbed a crushing blow when his wife died of cancer, which forced him to work through his own grief and doubts — then added this:

As long as [human beings live] on earth, periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.

To decide what the best use of it is, you must ask what use the Enemy [God] wants to make of it, and then do the opposite. Now, it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.

How we handle the inevitable troughs and the painful troughs and the unequal allocation of troughs is a test of character. They probably wouldn’t admit it, but by that measure, Jon Will and his parents have done pretty well.

 

Read Less

Time for George Will to Reassess?

The most recent New York Times/CBS poll (which John and Jonathan write about) has President Obama’s approval rating down to a record low of 41 percent. If you are a supporter of the president, the internal numbers are downright depressing. The judgment of the Times seems about right to me: “President Obama is heading into the general election season on treacherous political ground.”

In addition, yesterday’s Washington Post/ABC News poll (which Alana wrote about) found that President Obama’s approval rating is at 46 percent — even with a sampling advantage that favors Democrats by too much. Fully 59 percent of Americans give Obama negative ratings on the economy, up from early last month, with 50 percent giving the president intensely low marks, the most yet in a Post/ABC News poll. And among independents, 57 percent now disapprove of Obama; and among white people without college degrees, disapproval now tops approval by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, at 66 versus 28 percent.

No president will win re-election with an Election Day approval rating of 41 or 46 percent.

Read More

The most recent New York Times/CBS poll (which John and Jonathan write about) has President Obama’s approval rating down to a record low of 41 percent. If you are a supporter of the president, the internal numbers are downright depressing. The judgment of the Times seems about right to me: “President Obama is heading into the general election season on treacherous political ground.”

In addition, yesterday’s Washington Post/ABC News poll (which Alana wrote about) found that President Obama’s approval rating is at 46 percent — even with a sampling advantage that favors Democrats by too much. Fully 59 percent of Americans give Obama negative ratings on the economy, up from early last month, with 50 percent giving the president intensely low marks, the most yet in a Post/ABC News poll. And among independents, 57 percent now disapprove of Obama; and among white people without college degrees, disapproval now tops approval by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, at 66 versus 28 percent.

No president will win re-election with an Election Day approval rating of 41 or 46 percent.

I wonder whether, in light of these polls, George Will might begin to reconsider his column from earlier this month, in which he suggested that we might well be reaching a point in which conservatives, in “taking stock of reality” and in order to “economize” their energies, should “turn their energies to a goal much more attainable than, and not much less important than, electing Romney or Santorum president. It is the goal of retaining control of the House and winning control of the Senate.”

As it happens, the goal of winning control of the Senate is harder to reach than many people assumed just a few months ago. And it’s not at all clear to me how abandoning the top of the ticket will help down-ballot races.

In any event, and more importantly, Will’s counsel — which edges right up to the line of conceding the election to Obama eight months before a single vote has been cast — strikes me as ill-considered and oddly anti-empirical. Anti-empirical because perhaps the most persistent political fact of the last year is that Barack Obama is a vulnerable incumbent. No president since Jimmy Carter has begun an election year in more precarious shape.

I will repeat here what I have said a dozen or more times before: This does not guarantee Obama will lose or that the GOP nominee will win. But it does mean the political stars are not well aligned for the president. The temper of the country, its voting disposition, is to make Obama a one-term president. And whatever weaknesses Mitt Romney might have, at this point he’s got a reasonable – and probably better than even – chance to win the presidency. That’s not a bad position to be in during what may well be the nadir/near nadir of the campaign for Romney (who has been embroiled in an intense and nasty primary battle for the past two-and-a-half months).

It’s not a state secret that George Will is no great fan of Mitt Romney. But that shouldn’t cloud his judgment about the enduring weakness of America’s 44th president. Helping to oversee a Lost Decade is not usually a recipe for re-election.

 

Read Less

Should the GOP Just Focus on the Senate?

The odds that Republicans will be able to take back the White House seem slimmer by the day. But is it getting to the point where the GOP would be better off giving up on the presidential race to fully focus on taking back the Senate, and maintaining its grip on the House? That’s what George Will argues in his Sunday column this week, according to an advanced copy obtained by POLITICO:

“Romney and Rick Santorum… are conservatives, although of strikingly different stripes. Neither, however, seems likely to be elected… If either is nominated, conservatives should vote for him,” Will writes in his upcoming Sunday column, obtained in advance by POLITICO Playbook by Mike Allen.

However, Will argues, that control of both house of Congress is more attainable and more important.

“[T]here would come a point when… conservatives turn their energies to a goal much more attainable than… electing Romney or Santorum president. It is the goal of retaining control of the House and winning control of the Senate.. [C]onservatives this year should have as their primary goal making sure Republicans wield all the gavels in Congress in 2013,” writes Will.

Read More

The odds that Republicans will be able to take back the White House seem slimmer by the day. But is it getting to the point where the GOP would be better off giving up on the presidential race to fully focus on taking back the Senate, and maintaining its grip on the House? That’s what George Will argues in his Sunday column this week, according to an advanced copy obtained by POLITICO:

“Romney and Rick Santorum… are conservatives, although of strikingly different stripes. Neither, however, seems likely to be elected… If either is nominated, conservatives should vote for him,” Will writes in his upcoming Sunday column, obtained in advance by POLITICO Playbook by Mike Allen.

However, Will argues, that control of both house of Congress is more attainable and more important.

“[T]here would come a point when… conservatives turn their energies to a goal much more attainable than… electing Romney or Santorum president. It is the goal of retaining control of the House and winning control of the Senate.. [C]onservatives this year should have as their primary goal making sure Republicans wield all the gavels in Congress in 2013,” writes Will.

Without having access to Will’s full column yet, it’s hard to judge the persuasiveness of his argument. But two problems immediately jump out:

1.) Will Republicans be able to draw enough conservative voters to the polls if they prematurely resign themselves to losing the presidential race? This seems like a recipe for low GOP turnout, which would decrease the possibility of winning control of the Senate. If voters don’t believe there’s at least a fighting chance of taking back the White House, many might not even bother to come out.

2.) Today, Romney is leading the Republican field nationally. Two weeks ago, it was Santorum. A little over a month ago, Gingrich was surging. Public opinion has turned so quickly and dramatically it’s impossible to predict what the race will look like next month, let alone next November. Toss in the wild cards of rising gas prices, the economy, Iran and the Supreme Court’s look at ObamaCare, and the GOP would be selling itself short if it surrendered so prematurely. Remember last summer when all the pundits pronounced Tim Pawlenty’s campaign dead? He listened to them – and that turned out to be one of the dumbest political moves of the race.

The Republican Party would be crazy to make a similar mistake. As depressing as the current field may be for conservatives, winning the White House isn’t impossible – unless, of course, the GOP gives up before it even begins.

Read Less

The Backlash

Mark Halperin, co-author of a very good campaign book, Game Change, is usually a reasonable political reporter. But yesterday he made comments on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that were irresponsible and deeply (and unintentionally) revealing.

In discussing the political reaction to the Tucson massacre, Halperin said: “I just want to single out one thing. I don’t want to over-generalize. But I think the media and the politicians have behaved pretty well so far. The thing I’m most concerned about now is the anger on the right-wing commentariat. On Fox and George Will and other conservatives are in some cases justifiably upset at liberals. But they’re turning this right now, in the last 24 hours, back into the standard operating procedure of ‘all this is war and fodder for content’ rather than trying to bring the country together.”

“Wait a second, Mark,” Joe Scarborough responded. “I think they would say that you have that backwards, that a shooting was turned into fodder to attack conservatives.”

“And I’ve already made that criticism as well,” Halperin said. “They’re right. But rather than seizing on it and turning the other cheek, they’re back at their war stations. And that’s not going to help us.”

Let’s examine Halperin’s arguments in turn.

What’s not going to “bring the country together” is a grotesque effort by some liberals to implicate conservatives in the shooting death of six innocent people. And perhaps if the network Mr. Halperin appears on (MSNBC) and the magazine he writes for (Time) had not allowed, and in some cases advanced, that narrative, conservatives would not have to go “back to their war stations.” (For more, see this.)

Mr. Halperin concedes that conservatives are right in believing that the Tucson shooting was turned into fodder against conservatives. Yet he seems quite untroubled by it all. In fact, he counsels conservatives to “turn the other cheek.” Now isn’t that touching? Conservatives have been on the receiving end of a remarkable slander campaign — and Halperin is most upset that they are responding to it. It’s not advancing the civilized public discourse conversation that Halperin says he wants to have. What he doesn’t seem to grasp — and it really isn’t all that hard to grasp — is that when the left attempts to make conservatives moral accessories to a massacre, it isn’t likely to drain our political dialogue of anger. And the blame for this doesn’t rest with those who are on the receiving end of the slander. Read More

Mark Halperin, co-author of a very good campaign book, Game Change, is usually a reasonable political reporter. But yesterday he made comments on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that were irresponsible and deeply (and unintentionally) revealing.

In discussing the political reaction to the Tucson massacre, Halperin said: “I just want to single out one thing. I don’t want to over-generalize. But I think the media and the politicians have behaved pretty well so far. The thing I’m most concerned about now is the anger on the right-wing commentariat. On Fox and George Will and other conservatives are in some cases justifiably upset at liberals. But they’re turning this right now, in the last 24 hours, back into the standard operating procedure of ‘all this is war and fodder for content’ rather than trying to bring the country together.”

“Wait a second, Mark,” Joe Scarborough responded. “I think they would say that you have that backwards, that a shooting was turned into fodder to attack conservatives.”

“And I’ve already made that criticism as well,” Halperin said. “They’re right. But rather than seizing on it and turning the other cheek, they’re back at their war stations. And that’s not going to help us.”

Let’s examine Halperin’s arguments in turn.

What’s not going to “bring the country together” is a grotesque effort by some liberals to implicate conservatives in the shooting death of six innocent people. And perhaps if the network Mr. Halperin appears on (MSNBC) and the magazine he writes for (Time) had not allowed, and in some cases advanced, that narrative, conservatives would not have to go “back to their war stations.” (For more, see this.)

Mr. Halperin concedes that conservatives are right in believing that the Tucson shooting was turned into fodder against conservatives. Yet he seems quite untroubled by it all. In fact, he counsels conservatives to “turn the other cheek.” Now isn’t that touching? Conservatives have been on the receiving end of a remarkable slander campaign — and Halperin is most upset that they are responding to it. It’s not advancing the civilized public discourse conversation that Halperin says he wants to have. What he doesn’t seem to grasp — and it really isn’t all that hard to grasp — is that when the left attempts to make conservatives moral accessories to a massacre, it isn’t likely to drain our political dialogue of anger. And the blame for this doesn’t rest with those who are on the receiving end of the slander.

What I think we’re seeing in Halperin’s reaction is upset that the rules that once applied in journalism no longer do.

Once upon a time, a libel by liberals, amplified by the press, would have worked. The narrative would have been locked into place. Conservatives could complain about it here and there, but it wouldn’t really matter much (think Reed Irvine). The rise of the “new media,” which is not really so new anymore, has changed all that.

Today there are a variety of outlets — tweets, blogs, websites, conservative talk radio, and cable news, as well as columnists and even a few editorial pages — that are quite able and willing to push back, to deconstruct bad arguments, to point out factual errors, and to change the trajectory of a story.

We’ve seen that with the Tucson massacre. During the first 24 hours, the left, aided by many in the “mainstream media,” argued that the killings were fostered by a political (read: conservative) climate of hate. That was a completely unjustified and bigoted assumption; and in every hour since then, it has been exposed as such. We are now seeing a public backlash against that calumny. It will grow with time.

The quasi-media monopoly was broken some time ago. A relatively few journalists with a strikingly similar ideological disposition are no longer able to dictate the story lines they want. In this case, they desperately wanted to use the Tucson massacre as a way to indict conservatives for their supposed part in creating a “climate of hate.” But this effort is backfiring. The response from conservatives (along with a few reporters and left-leaning commentators) has been swift, comprehensive, sustained, and effective. Liberal-minded journalists see that and are rattled by it. In response, they are making silly arguments that, on reflection, they probably wish they hadn’t made. But those arguments are themselves instructive. Many journalists are lamenting the loss of a world that no longer exists.

Liberals wanted to use the Tucson massacre to smear conservatives. In the end, it will further discredit them and journalism itself. We are seeing, in a somewhat different form, the Dan Rather/National Guard story all over again. And we know how that turned out.

Read Less

RE: Is the Right Worse Than the Left?

When it comes to plain old bigotry, no. George Will in today’s column quotes Charles Blow’s March 26, 2010, column in  the Times. Blow notes that the “far right,” by which he means either mainstream conservatives or a group so small as to be of no importance, has romanticized the country of the past, a country that no longer exists. He writes:

Even the optics must be irritating. A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.

As Will points out, Blow thus casually pronounces that conservatives are all “misogynistic, homophobic, racist anti-Semites.” Since I personally know lots of female, gay, non-white, and Jewish conservatives, none of whom are good ol’ boys — a group with which I am also not unfamiliar — I can testify that Blow is mistaken.

Bigotry can be defined as taking a group of people who share one characteristic — race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political outlook, good-ol’-boyness, whatever — and assuming without evidence that they share another unrelated and undesirable characteristic. All blondes are dumb, for instance.

By that definition, Charles Blow is a bigot.

When it comes to plain old bigotry, no. George Will in today’s column quotes Charles Blow’s March 26, 2010, column in  the Times. Blow notes that the “far right,” by which he means either mainstream conservatives or a group so small as to be of no importance, has romanticized the country of the past, a country that no longer exists. He writes:

Even the optics must be irritating. A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.

As Will points out, Blow thus casually pronounces that conservatives are all “misogynistic, homophobic, racist anti-Semites.” Since I personally know lots of female, gay, non-white, and Jewish conservatives, none of whom are good ol’ boys — a group with which I am also not unfamiliar — I can testify that Blow is mistaken.

Bigotry can be defined as taking a group of people who share one characteristic — race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political outlook, good-ol’-boyness, whatever — and assuming without evidence that they share another unrelated and undesirable characteristic. All blondes are dumb, for instance.

By that definition, Charles Blow is a bigot.

Read Less

Evening Commentary

Libertarians often look to the Founding Fathers as political role models, but would the Founders have actually fit the modern definition of a libertarian? David Frum argues no — and writes that those who attribute this ideology to the Founders are simply ignoring history: “[I]f the libertarian impulse summons us to take action to contain and constrain that government, very well let us take up the task. But we can do that task without duping ourselves with a false history that denies the reality of the past and — ironically — belittles the Founders’ actual achievements by measuring them against standards they would surely have rejected, if they had ever understood them.”

A church in Egypt was bombed during New Year’s Mass, killing 21 and injuring dozens more. Authorities believe the attack was carried out by extremist Muslims who were inspired by al-Qaeda but not necessarily associated with the terror group.

Good news: A new “groundbreaking” research project has found that conservative brains are structured to be “fearful” and “reflexive,” while liberal brains are structured to be “courageous” and “optimistic.” Over at the New York Post, Kyle Smith discovers that this important study has cleared up some confusing discrepancies in his own life: “[Professor] Rees has the answer to why, in my Army career, I kept running into so many conceptual performance artists from San Francisco and Chelsea. Seldom did I do a push-up or clean my M16 without finding myself amid heated debate from the officer class about whether Walter Mondale or Eugene McCarthy was the most inspiring American political leader of our era.”

Government spending can actually help stimulate economic growth, argues George Will. But in order for progress to occur, this spending needs to fund the projects of society’s top scientific innovators and pioneers. “With populism rampant, this is not a propitious moment to defend elites, even scientific ones. Nevertheless, the nation depends on nourishing them and the institutions that sustain them,” writes Will.

Well, this was bound to happen eventually. Leftists at the Guardian are now openly opposing human rights: “[Human-rights groups] promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call ‘universal.’ In some cases, their work, far from saving lives, actually causes more death, more repression, more brutality and an absolute weakening of human rights.” Yeah, who are we to oppress the people of Saudi Arabia and Iran with our imperialist idea that women shouldn’t be stoned for adultery?

Five members of Hamas have been charged in a plot to bomb a major Israeli stadium during a soccer game. Authorities say that the attack was meant to be in retaliation for Operation Cast Lead in 2008: “According to a statement from Israel’s security service, the Shin Bet, the two main suspects were identified as Mussa Hamada of East Jerusalem, and Bassem Omri, an Israeli citizen living in Beit Tzafafa. Both are members of Hamas and the ‘Muslim Brothers’ movement in Jerusalem, the Shin Bet said.”

Libertarians often look to the Founding Fathers as political role models, but would the Founders have actually fit the modern definition of a libertarian? David Frum argues no — and writes that those who attribute this ideology to the Founders are simply ignoring history: “[I]f the libertarian impulse summons us to take action to contain and constrain that government, very well let us take up the task. But we can do that task without duping ourselves with a false history that denies the reality of the past and — ironically — belittles the Founders’ actual achievements by measuring them against standards they would surely have rejected, if they had ever understood them.”

A church in Egypt was bombed during New Year’s Mass, killing 21 and injuring dozens more. Authorities believe the attack was carried out by extremist Muslims who were inspired by al-Qaeda but not necessarily associated with the terror group.

Good news: A new “groundbreaking” research project has found that conservative brains are structured to be “fearful” and “reflexive,” while liberal brains are structured to be “courageous” and “optimistic.” Over at the New York Post, Kyle Smith discovers that this important study has cleared up some confusing discrepancies in his own life: “[Professor] Rees has the answer to why, in my Army career, I kept running into so many conceptual performance artists from San Francisco and Chelsea. Seldom did I do a push-up or clean my M16 without finding myself amid heated debate from the officer class about whether Walter Mondale or Eugene McCarthy was the most inspiring American political leader of our era.”

Government spending can actually help stimulate economic growth, argues George Will. But in order for progress to occur, this spending needs to fund the projects of society’s top scientific innovators and pioneers. “With populism rampant, this is not a propitious moment to defend elites, even scientific ones. Nevertheless, the nation depends on nourishing them and the institutions that sustain them,” writes Will.

Well, this was bound to happen eventually. Leftists at the Guardian are now openly opposing human rights: “[Human-rights groups] promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call ‘universal.’ In some cases, their work, far from saving lives, actually causes more death, more repression, more brutality and an absolute weakening of human rights.” Yeah, who are we to oppress the people of Saudi Arabia and Iran with our imperialist idea that women shouldn’t be stoned for adultery?

Five members of Hamas have been charged in a plot to bomb a major Israeli stadium during a soccer game. Authorities say that the attack was meant to be in retaliation for Operation Cast Lead in 2008: “According to a statement from Israel’s security service, the Shin Bet, the two main suspects were identified as Mussa Hamada of East Jerusalem, and Bassem Omri, an Israeli citizen living in Beit Tzafafa. Both are members of Hamas and the ‘Muslim Brothers’ movement in Jerusalem, the Shin Bet said.”

Read Less

In Defense of Labels

Columbia University hosted a “No Labels” conference that John and Byron York have written about. The motto of the No Labels group is “Put the Labels Aside. Do What’s Best for America.” Tom Davis, the former GOP congressman from Virginia, puts it this way: “Labels … get in the way of getting things done.”

Now, I understand people wanting to avoid using labels. For one thing, it advances the impression (which often differs from the reality) that one is independent-minded and unbiased, pragmatic rather than dogmatic, willing to judge issues on the merits and based on reason rather than on rigid ideology. The impression people want to make is obvious: my mind — unlike The Labeled — is a Dogma-Free Zone. No simplistic labels can do justice to the complexity of my beliefs. It’s all quite self-affirming.

What is also at play, I think, is an understandable reaction against hyper-partisanship and the loyalty by some to a political party and ideology that overrides independent thought. Such a mindset is often at war with empirical evidence; any data or circumstances that call into doubt one’s most deeply help convictions have to be ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed. To be in politics is to be a member of a team — and the other side is always wrong. No aspect of its argument can be seen to have merit. We all know people like this — and the truth is that many of us in politics struggle, to one degree or another, with precisely this. The temptation to twist facts and reality to fit into our preconceived notions and theories is quite strong; not many of us resist it as well as we should.

At the same time, there is something to be said in defense of labels — and George Will (not surprisingly) put it as well as anyone when several years ago he wrote:

Particular labels, like everything else, come and go. But there always are various labels because they are useful, even necessary: Politics is a varied business. If a politician’s behavior is not utterly cynical, or mindless, it will have a pattern that is related, at least a bit, to his beliefs. Political actions tend to cluster; so do political actors. Labels describe how particular people generally cluster. … Labels identify classes; but people, by acting, classify themselves.

What one hopes to achieve in politics is to develop a coherent body of thought to help interpret the world. There’s actually quite a lot to be said for having a worldview that helps make sense of unfolding events. To apply a label to oneself (like “conservative” or “liberal”) often means associating with a particular intellectual tradition and with men and women who have thoughtfully and carefully reflected on human nature, society, and the role of government. It matters if your intellectual cast of mind is shaped and informed by Burke or by Rousseau, by Madison or by Marx, by C.S. Lewis or by Ayn Rand. And so it’s only natural that in politics, people, upon reflecting on certain basic questions, would coalesce around certain parties and certain labels.

Pace Tom Davis, then, labels don’t always get in the way of getting things done. Political labels, like political parties, can serve a useful purpose. And I for one would argue that allowing certain intellectual traditions (like conservatism) to inform our current political debates is doing what’s best for America.

A final warning to those who find themselves attracted to promise of a world without labels: No Labels can easily transmute into No Convictions — and politics without convictions, uninformed by deep principles and the best that has been thought and written, becomes simply a power game. And that world is even worse than a world with labels.

Columbia University hosted a “No Labels” conference that John and Byron York have written about. The motto of the No Labels group is “Put the Labels Aside. Do What’s Best for America.” Tom Davis, the former GOP congressman from Virginia, puts it this way: “Labels … get in the way of getting things done.”

Now, I understand people wanting to avoid using labels. For one thing, it advances the impression (which often differs from the reality) that one is independent-minded and unbiased, pragmatic rather than dogmatic, willing to judge issues on the merits and based on reason rather than on rigid ideology. The impression people want to make is obvious: my mind — unlike The Labeled — is a Dogma-Free Zone. No simplistic labels can do justice to the complexity of my beliefs. It’s all quite self-affirming.

What is also at play, I think, is an understandable reaction against hyper-partisanship and the loyalty by some to a political party and ideology that overrides independent thought. Such a mindset is often at war with empirical evidence; any data or circumstances that call into doubt one’s most deeply help convictions have to be ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed. To be in politics is to be a member of a team — and the other side is always wrong. No aspect of its argument can be seen to have merit. We all know people like this — and the truth is that many of us in politics struggle, to one degree or another, with precisely this. The temptation to twist facts and reality to fit into our preconceived notions and theories is quite strong; not many of us resist it as well as we should.

At the same time, there is something to be said in defense of labels — and George Will (not surprisingly) put it as well as anyone when several years ago he wrote:

Particular labels, like everything else, come and go. But there always are various labels because they are useful, even necessary: Politics is a varied business. If a politician’s behavior is not utterly cynical, or mindless, it will have a pattern that is related, at least a bit, to his beliefs. Political actions tend to cluster; so do political actors. Labels describe how particular people generally cluster. … Labels identify classes; but people, by acting, classify themselves.

What one hopes to achieve in politics is to develop a coherent body of thought to help interpret the world. There’s actually quite a lot to be said for having a worldview that helps make sense of unfolding events. To apply a label to oneself (like “conservative” or “liberal”) often means associating with a particular intellectual tradition and with men and women who have thoughtfully and carefully reflected on human nature, society, and the role of government. It matters if your intellectual cast of mind is shaped and informed by Burke or by Rousseau, by Madison or by Marx, by C.S. Lewis or by Ayn Rand. And so it’s only natural that in politics, people, upon reflecting on certain basic questions, would coalesce around certain parties and certain labels.

Pace Tom Davis, then, labels don’t always get in the way of getting things done. Political labels, like political parties, can serve a useful purpose. And I for one would argue that allowing certain intellectual traditions (like conservatism) to inform our current political debates is doing what’s best for America.

A final warning to those who find themselves attracted to promise of a world without labels: No Labels can easily transmute into No Convictions — and politics without convictions, uninformed by deep principles and the best that has been thought and written, becomes simply a power game. And that world is even worse than a world with labels.

Read Less

Saudi Glasnost Cities Illustrate Tyranny’s Dilemma

Is it possible for a tyrannical system to modernize its society and economy while keeping its people in check? In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev tried and failed to save the Soviet Union for Communism by such an effort. Nevertheless, with help from Western businesses (of whom George Will once rightly said that they “loved commerce more than they loathed communism”), the gerontocracy that ruled Communist China succeeded in transforming the economy of its country while maintaining an iron grip on power in the world’s most populous nation.

But as difficult as such changes are for secular ideological tyrannies, the challenge is even greater for those ruled by religion. And that is the dilemma faced by Saudi Arabia. Yesterday’s New York Times unveiled the plans for four new cities to be built in the Arabian desert whose purpose is to provide an outlet for the growing population of educated but underemployed Saudis. The cities, the first of which is to bear the catchy name of King Abdullah Economic City, are, as the Times notes, a dreary throwback to previous planned cities such as Brasilia or the urban monstrosities built by the Soviets in the 1930s. But the purpose of these cities is more reminiscent of Gorbachev’s glasnost than Stalin’s experiments. The Saudis want them to be places where a less-repressive form of Islam than the fanatical brand of Wahhabism that is the norm in the rest of the country will exist. They hope that the slight openings to freedom that will supposedly blossom there will satisfy their restive people and boost their economy without threatening the monarchy or the Islamist faith that has been an indispensable element in their regime’s hold on power.

But, as the article relates, the difficulties of opening the slightest crack toward a free society are enormous. Once the floodgates of freedom are even slightly ajar, it is hard to hold back the forces of change. That is why it is unlikely that much will come of this development in terms of real reform.

Those who deplore or fear the spread of democracy in the Arab world rightly note that the only current alternative to authoritarian regimes like the Saudi monarchy is an even more repressive Islamist movement. But the creation of institutions in which Islamist rules don’t always apply and that engineer a modern economy might mean that more liberal forces will appear.

The strength of religious extremism in Saudi Arabia may make that a pipe dream. Nevertheless, the Arabs deserve something better their current choices, in which the repressed anger of the people is always wrongly focused on outside forces, such as the West or Israel.

Is it possible for a tyrannical system to modernize its society and economy while keeping its people in check? In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev tried and failed to save the Soviet Union for Communism by such an effort. Nevertheless, with help from Western businesses (of whom George Will once rightly said that they “loved commerce more than they loathed communism”), the gerontocracy that ruled Communist China succeeded in transforming the economy of its country while maintaining an iron grip on power in the world’s most populous nation.

But as difficult as such changes are for secular ideological tyrannies, the challenge is even greater for those ruled by religion. And that is the dilemma faced by Saudi Arabia. Yesterday’s New York Times unveiled the plans for four new cities to be built in the Arabian desert whose purpose is to provide an outlet for the growing population of educated but underemployed Saudis. The cities, the first of which is to bear the catchy name of King Abdullah Economic City, are, as the Times notes, a dreary throwback to previous planned cities such as Brasilia or the urban monstrosities built by the Soviets in the 1930s. But the purpose of these cities is more reminiscent of Gorbachev’s glasnost than Stalin’s experiments. The Saudis want them to be places where a less-repressive form of Islam than the fanatical brand of Wahhabism that is the norm in the rest of the country will exist. They hope that the slight openings to freedom that will supposedly blossom there will satisfy their restive people and boost their economy without threatening the monarchy or the Islamist faith that has been an indispensable element in their regime’s hold on power.

But, as the article relates, the difficulties of opening the slightest crack toward a free society are enormous. Once the floodgates of freedom are even slightly ajar, it is hard to hold back the forces of change. That is why it is unlikely that much will come of this development in terms of real reform.

Those who deplore or fear the spread of democracy in the Arab world rightly note that the only current alternative to authoritarian regimes like the Saudi monarchy is an even more repressive Islamist movement. But the creation of institutions in which Islamist rules don’t always apply and that engineer a modern economy might mean that more liberal forces will appear.

The strength of religious extremism in Saudi Arabia may make that a pipe dream. Nevertheless, the Arabs deserve something better their current choices, in which the repressed anger of the people is always wrongly focused on outside forces, such as the West or Israel.

Read Less

Christie-mania

In a lengthy piece on Chris Christie filled with winks and nods to the left and more than a few unsubstantiated jibes (Christie, we are told, was previously a “political hack,” and it’s just the “sane” wing of the GOP that likes him), Jason Zengerie of New York magazine nevertheless provides an interesting peek inside Christie’s political operation and just a sliver of hope to his fans that he might still be persuaded to make a 2012 presidential run.

Why the excitement?

These are strange days for Republicans. After their historic midterm victories, they are seemingly ascendant, with George Will hailing 2010 as “conservatism’s best year in 30 years—since the election of Ronald Reagan.” And yet there is no Reagan-like figure to lead them. In Congress, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are Establishmentarians ill-suited to the fervor of the times. The Republicans who are currently angling to run for the White House in 2012—Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, John Thune, to name a few—inspire little enthusiasm. Sarah Palin, the one potential presidential candidate who does get Republican pulses racing, is such a polarizing figure that the party Establishment is terrified she’ll run. At the very moment that the GOP appears poised to return from its short sojourn in the political wilderness, the party is desperately searching for a leader. Which explains conservatives’ serious—and sudden—infatuation with Chris Christie. Read More

In a lengthy piece on Chris Christie filled with winks and nods to the left and more than a few unsubstantiated jibes (Christie, we are told, was previously a “political hack,” and it’s just the “sane” wing of the GOP that likes him), Jason Zengerie of New York magazine nevertheless provides an interesting peek inside Christie’s political operation and just a sliver of hope to his fans that he might still be persuaded to make a 2012 presidential run.

Why the excitement?

These are strange days for Republicans. After their historic midterm victories, they are seemingly ascendant, with George Will hailing 2010 as “conservatism’s best year in 30 years—since the election of Ronald Reagan.” And yet there is no Reagan-like figure to lead them. In Congress, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are Establishmentarians ill-suited to the fervor of the times. The Republicans who are currently angling to run for the White House in 2012—Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, John Thune, to name a few—inspire little enthusiasm. Sarah Palin, the one potential presidential candidate who does get Republican pulses racing, is such a polarizing figure that the party Establishment is terrified she’ll run. At the very moment that the GOP appears poised to return from its short sojourn in the political wilderness, the party is desperately searching for a leader. Which explains conservatives’ serious—and sudden—infatuation with Chris Christie.

That explains the search for someone, but why him?

He has set the tone, in part, by being “a strong governor who has opinions and is willing to express them,” he said. When I asked him about New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg’s criticism of his decision to cancel the tunnel, Christie shot back, “All he knows how to do is blow hot air … so I don’t really care what Frank Lautenberg has to say about much of anything.” Anything? “I’m always willing to read something in the paper that he said, and if he makes sense, I’m happy to work with him on it. I haven’t found one yet.” Christie believes his aggressive approach sends a signal to everyone else in the state. “The tone I’m trying to set for New Jersey is: action. Less talk, more action. And I think that’s what I’m doing as governor, and I think we’ve gotten a lot of stuff done already because of that, because I’m pushing and pushing and pushing.” …

Christie’s combativeness has made him a popular figure with the tea party in a way that someone like Indiana governor Mitch Daniels—who’s fought some of the same fiscal battles in his state but with the mien of an accountant—can only dream of. More than anything, Christie fills the longing, currently felt in all corners of the GOP (and beyond), for a stern taskmaster. “People just want to be treated like adults,” Christie says. “They just want to be told the truth. They know we’re in tough times, and they’re willing to sacrifice. But they want shared sacrifice.”

Less well known is his ability to co-opt and work with key Democrats in the deep Blue State. (He’s “cultivated strong relationships with the three most prominent Democratic power brokers currently not in jail.”)

The good news for Christie fans is that there are a few scraps suggesting that he hasn’t entirely closed the door on a 2012 run.  (“Christie’s actions aren’t those of someone who has ruled out a presidential bid.”) His staff’s YouTube videos, the trip to Iowa, and some whispers from his political confidantes are encouraging those in the GOP who are searching for Mr. Right.

But the premise underlying the piece is a bit off. The reason Christie has become a “star” is not because he’s captured the imagination of the “sane” wing of the party but because he transcends the divide (which is part real and part media-driven hype) between Tea Partiers and establishment Republicans. He combines serious governance with political theater. He’s got undeniable stage presence, but he’s also a serious budget wonk. He has no patience with political insiders, yet he’s learned to handle his opponents. And he’s become a master at disarming the liberal media without personal acrimony or a sense of victimhood.

But your reading glasses would have to be exceptionally rosy to see real evidence of a 2012 stealth campaign. The most his supporters can hope for is that the field of current contenders will prove underwhelming and that a serious movement to draft Christie will develop. But if the governor resists the entreaties of his fans, Republicans should remember that he became an overnight success thanks to a bunch of irresistible YouTube moments. Who’s to say that someone else couldn’t do the same?

Read Less

Right and Left Agree: Obama Stands Pat

The right and the left have something in common: neither is impressed with the White House’s initial reaction to the GOP blowout. George Will writes:

It is amazing the ingenuity Democrats invest in concocting explanations of voter behavior that erase what voters always care about, and this year more than ever — ideas. This election was a nationwide recoil against Barack Obama’s idea of unlimited government.

The more he denounced Republicans as the party of “no,” the better Republicans did. His denunciations enabled people to support Republicans without embracing them as anything other than impediments to him.

Rather, as Will points out, the “blame” is to be found elsewhere: “George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, the Supreme Court, a Cincinnati congressman (John Boehner), Karl Rove, Americans for Prosperity and other “groups with harmless-sounding names” (Hillary Clinton’s ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ redux), ‘shadowy third-party groups’ (they are as shadowy as steam calliopes), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and, finally, the American people.” In his press conference, Obama added a new theory: the “misperception” of overreach.

Meanwhile, as I speculated yesterday, the left is not pleased with the Grumpy Gus routine. Greg Sargent observes Obama’s “surprisingly pessimistic tone.” Sargent frets:

More broadly, the bulk of the presser seemed to display the President feeling his way on a new and uncertain political landscape. …

First, with Republicans moving to roll back key chunks of his agenda, how does he draw a line against those efforts without allowing Republicans to paint him as arrogant and deaf to the message of last night’s results?

And second: How aggressively can he highlight the Republicans’ refusal to compromise, and thus claim the moral high ground, without undercutting the impression — one he clearly wants to feed — that he’s reaching out and trying to establish common ground with them?

Notice Sargent’s assumption: Obama won’t permit any ideological softening or substantive compromise. It’s all now a matter of tactics — how not to budge an inch and how to blame the GOP for daring to take the voters’ mandate seriously.

Maybe Obama will demonstrate new ideological flexibility and eschew the parts of his agenda that put John Boehner in the speaker’s chair. But if Will and Sargent are any indication, neither side really thinks that is possible. After all, they’ve been paying attention for the past two years, and there’s no evidence that Obama is able or willing to go that route.

The right and the left have something in common: neither is impressed with the White House’s initial reaction to the GOP blowout. George Will writes:

It is amazing the ingenuity Democrats invest in concocting explanations of voter behavior that erase what voters always care about, and this year more than ever — ideas. This election was a nationwide recoil against Barack Obama’s idea of unlimited government.

The more he denounced Republicans as the party of “no,” the better Republicans did. His denunciations enabled people to support Republicans without embracing them as anything other than impediments to him.

Rather, as Will points out, the “blame” is to be found elsewhere: “George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, the Supreme Court, a Cincinnati congressman (John Boehner), Karl Rove, Americans for Prosperity and other “groups with harmless-sounding names” (Hillary Clinton’s ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ redux), ‘shadowy third-party groups’ (they are as shadowy as steam calliopes), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and, finally, the American people.” In his press conference, Obama added a new theory: the “misperception” of overreach.

Meanwhile, as I speculated yesterday, the left is not pleased with the Grumpy Gus routine. Greg Sargent observes Obama’s “surprisingly pessimistic tone.” Sargent frets:

More broadly, the bulk of the presser seemed to display the President feeling his way on a new and uncertain political landscape. …

First, with Republicans moving to roll back key chunks of his agenda, how does he draw a line against those efforts without allowing Republicans to paint him as arrogant and deaf to the message of last night’s results?

And second: How aggressively can he highlight the Republicans’ refusal to compromise, and thus claim the moral high ground, without undercutting the impression — one he clearly wants to feed — that he’s reaching out and trying to establish common ground with them?

Notice Sargent’s assumption: Obama won’t permit any ideological softening or substantive compromise. It’s all now a matter of tactics — how not to budge an inch and how to blame the GOP for daring to take the voters’ mandate seriously.

Maybe Obama will demonstrate new ideological flexibility and eschew the parts of his agenda that put John Boehner in the speaker’s chair. But if Will and Sargent are any indication, neither side really thinks that is possible. After all, they’ve been paying attention for the past two years, and there’s no evidence that Obama is able or willing to go that route.

Read Less

Media Quits Obama

An evaluation of Obama:

Barack Obama is being politically crushed in a vise. From above, by elite opinion about his competence. From below, by mass anger and anxiety over unemployment. And it is too late for him to do anything about this predicament until after November’s elections.

With the exception of core Obama Administration loyalists, most politically engaged elites have reached the same conclusions: the White House is in over its head, isolated, insular, arrogant and clueless about how to get along with or persuade members of Congress, the media, the business community or working-class voters. This view is held by Fox News pundits, executives and anchors at the major old-media outlets, reporters who cover the White House, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders and governors, many Democratic business people and lawyers who raised big money for Obama in 2008, and even some members of the Administration just beyond the inner circle.

George Will? The Wall Street Journal editors? No, it’s Time‘s Mark Halperin, known for his talent in parroting Democratic conventional wisdom. The mainstream media, it seems, are cutting their losses. They invested enormous time, credibility, and emotion in bolstering their chosen candidate. But he hasn’t panned out, and new power players are headed to Washington. So it’s time to scramble back to some semblance of realistic coverage and concede that all those “accomplishments” in the past two years didn’t accomplish anything — not an economic recovery, not political ascendancy for Obama, not electoral success for Democrats, and not an era of bipartisan harmony. Just the opposite.

Now, don’t get your hopes up. As soon as viable 2012 presidential contenders appear on the stage or the GOP Congress faces off with Obama, expect the press to return to blocking and tackling for the president. But the magic is gone, the spell is broken. The press has figured out two years later than many of us that Obama is simply another liberal pol — and, as it turns out, an extraordinarily unpleasant and incompetent one.

An evaluation of Obama:

Barack Obama is being politically crushed in a vise. From above, by elite opinion about his competence. From below, by mass anger and anxiety over unemployment. And it is too late for him to do anything about this predicament until after November’s elections.

With the exception of core Obama Administration loyalists, most politically engaged elites have reached the same conclusions: the White House is in over its head, isolated, insular, arrogant and clueless about how to get along with or persuade members of Congress, the media, the business community or working-class voters. This view is held by Fox News pundits, executives and anchors at the major old-media outlets, reporters who cover the White House, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders and governors, many Democratic business people and lawyers who raised big money for Obama in 2008, and even some members of the Administration just beyond the inner circle.

George Will? The Wall Street Journal editors? No, it’s Time‘s Mark Halperin, known for his talent in parroting Democratic conventional wisdom. The mainstream media, it seems, are cutting their losses. They invested enormous time, credibility, and emotion in bolstering their chosen candidate. But he hasn’t panned out, and new power players are headed to Washington. So it’s time to scramble back to some semblance of realistic coverage and concede that all those “accomplishments” in the past two years didn’t accomplish anything — not an economic recovery, not political ascendancy for Obama, not electoral success for Democrats, and not an era of bipartisan harmony. Just the opposite.

Now, don’t get your hopes up. As soon as viable 2012 presidential contenders appear on the stage or the GOP Congress faces off with Obama, expect the press to return to blocking and tackling for the president. But the magic is gone, the spell is broken. The press has figured out two years later than many of us that Obama is simply another liberal pol — and, as it turns out, an extraordinarily unpleasant and incompetent one.

Read Less




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

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

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

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

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