Commentary Magazine


Topic: Herman Cain

The Shallow Musings of Jeffrey Lord

Over the years I’ve been involved in a lot of debates and the subject of a fair amount of attacks. But rarely have the attacks been quite as shallow as the one leveled at me by Jeffrey Lord of the American Spectator.

Let’s start with Lord’s suggestion that he should have titled his reply to my post criticizing Herman Cain and Sarah Palin as the “Wimpy Wussings of Wehner.” Perhaps that’s what qualifies for wit these days at the American Spectator. Mr. Lord’s comment qualifies him as the Oscar Wilde of the second grade.

Then there’s Lord’s claim, laughable to anyone who is familiar with my views, that I am a “collectivist conservative.” I guess I qualify as one of those one-in-a-million “collectivist conservatives” who was critical of Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann for her lukewarm support of free-market reforms for Medicare. As I wrote with Yuval Levin in 2011:

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Over the years I’ve been involved in a lot of debates and the subject of a fair amount of attacks. But rarely have the attacks been quite as shallow as the one leveled at me by Jeffrey Lord of the American Spectator.

Let’s start with Lord’s suggestion that he should have titled his reply to my post criticizing Herman Cain and Sarah Palin as the “Wimpy Wussings of Wehner.” Perhaps that’s what qualifies for wit these days at the American Spectator. Mr. Lord’s comment qualifies him as the Oscar Wilde of the second grade.

Then there’s Lord’s claim, laughable to anyone who is familiar with my views, that I am a “collectivist conservative.” I guess I qualify as one of those one-in-a-million “collectivist conservatives” who was critical of Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann for her lukewarm support of free-market reforms for Medicare. As I wrote with Yuval Levin in 2011:


A posture of bold fiscal conservatism is simply not compatible with timid evasions on Medicare reform. The combination may be politically convenient, but it is substantively incoherent. And it’s not just Mrs. Bachmann who has done this—most of the GOP presidential candidates have as well. Virtually every speech they give is laced with promises to tame our deficit and debt, to scale back the size, scope, reach and cost of government. Yet they have little to say when it comes to fixing the fundamental structure of our health entitlements. They want to will the ends but not the means to those ends. And that just won’t do.

I was also a fairly active presence both privately and publicly when it came to urging the GOP House leadership to embrace Representative Paul Ryan’s budget, including his advocacy for premium supports in Medicare. All of which leads me to wonder if Mr. Lord even understands what collectivism actually is.

And then there’s Lord’s anger at my comments about Mr. Cain and Ms. Palin, which he considers to be unfair. But Lord never actually refers to the comments made by Cain and Palin that triggered my criticisms. Perhaps that’s understandable, since Cain declared America is “running full speed down the tracks towards socialism and towards communism” and Palin insisted that the United States is “becoming a totalitarian surveillance state.” 

The comments by Cain and Palin were silly and hyperbolic, for the reasons I laid out in my post; but if Lord wants to defend them, and if he thinks this kind of rhetoric is the way to the political promised land, he should make that case.

Finally there’s Mr. Lord’s logical fallacy, which is (a) Ronald Reagan was routinely criticized by liberals for being an extremist; (b) I criticized Cain and Palin for irresponsible and careless language; so (c) Cain and Palin are Reaganesque figures. The fact that a person is criticized for being an extremist does not automatically make that person Reagan-like, as both Cain and Palin demonstrate on a fairly routine basis.

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The Reckless Rhetoric of Palin and Cain

According to Sarah Palin, the GOP’s vice presidential candidate in 2008, the United States is “becoming a totalitarian surveillance state.” And Herman Cain, who ran as a GOP presidential candidate in 2012, said, “This train is running full speed down the tracks towards socialism and towards communism. Yes, I said it. Before we stop it and reverse it, we got to slow it down. That’s what we do in 2014.”

Now, we actually know what genuine totalitarian surveillance states and communist nations look like, and America is nothing close to becoming anything like them. Whatever one thinks of the NSA’s data mining and surveillance techniques, they are legal, overseen by a FISA court and Congress, and they are not anything like the Soviet Union under Stalin or North Korea under Kim Jong-un. Nor is America speeding down the tracks toward becoming Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or Cuba under Castro.

So why use such reckless rhetoric? It’s hard to know the precise reasons. They could range from Obama Derangement Syndrome to efforts to gain attention. Whatever the case, by now I’m familiar with the pushback. Why pay any attention to what Mr. Cain and Ms. Palin say? Isn’t criticizing them merely evidence of wanting to be embraced by the liberal “establishment”–a sign of being unprincipled, ideologically soft and a RINO (Republican In Name Only)? Why not ignore their words in order to focus on the venom of the left and the genuine threat posed to America by the Obama presidency?

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According to Sarah Palin, the GOP’s vice presidential candidate in 2008, the United States is “becoming a totalitarian surveillance state.” And Herman Cain, who ran as a GOP presidential candidate in 2012, said, “This train is running full speed down the tracks towards socialism and towards communism. Yes, I said it. Before we stop it and reverse it, we got to slow it down. That’s what we do in 2014.”

Now, we actually know what genuine totalitarian surveillance states and communist nations look like, and America is nothing close to becoming anything like them. Whatever one thinks of the NSA’s data mining and surveillance techniques, they are legal, overseen by a FISA court and Congress, and they are not anything like the Soviet Union under Stalin or North Korea under Kim Jong-un. Nor is America speeding down the tracks toward becoming Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or Cuba under Castro.

So why use such reckless rhetoric? It’s hard to know the precise reasons. They could range from Obama Derangement Syndrome to efforts to gain attention. Whatever the case, by now I’m familiar with the pushback. Why pay any attention to what Mr. Cain and Ms. Palin say? Isn’t criticizing them merely evidence of wanting to be embraced by the liberal “establishment”–a sign of being unprincipled, ideologically soft and a RINO (Republican In Name Only)? Why not ignore their words in order to focus on the venom of the left and the genuine threat posed to America by the Obama presidency?

To which I would respond in several ways. The first is that some of us do call out the left on their slanders. And not only don’t I have a problem with those offering sharp, pointed critiques of Barack Obama; I do it myself on a fairly regular occasion (most recently on Friday).

But some of us also believe that those who claim to be conservative need to be held to certain standards as well; that to berate only the left for rhetorical overkill is to employ a double standard; and that irresponsible and careless language used by former governors and vice presidential candidates like Sarah Palin and former presidential candidates like Herman Cain helps discredit conservatism and the GOP. It is prima facie evidence of intemperate minds. And it actually helps Mr. Obama when his critics sound apocalyptically detached from reality. The real world case against the president is sufficient.

I’d add one other point: What Cain and Palin are doing damages public debate because it corrupts language and thought. Thinking clearly, George Orwell wrote in his classic essay on the debasement of our language, “is a necessary step toward political regeneration.”

The Republican Party is in need of political regeneration, which will be achieved by offering principled alternatives to Mr. Obama and a fundamentally different governing agenda to Obamaism. Most conservatives get that. But a few on the right can’t resist the temptation to portray the president as the architect of a coming American gulag. They should–for their sake and for the sake of the cause they claim to care about. 

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