Commentary Magazine


Topic: Houston

If You Want Something Done Right

Notwithstanding Janet Napolitano’s assertions, the administration’s anti-terrorism system hasn’t “worked.” Instead, ordinary airline passengers have proven to be our best defense.

The Obama Justice Department isn’t keen on enforcing Section No. 8 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that states and localities clean up their voting rolls to prevent fraud. So ordinary citizens are doing what the Justice Department won’t — uncovering voter fraud. This report explains that 50 friends took up the effort after seeing what went on in Houston on Election Day 2008:

“What we saw shocked us,” [ Catherine Engelbrecht] said. “There was no one checking IDs, judges would vote for people that asked for help. It was fraud, and we watched like deer in the headlights.”

Their shared experience, she says, created “True the Vote,” a citizen-based grassroots organization that began collecting publicly available voting data to prove that what they saw in their day at the polls was, indeed, happening — and that it was happening everywhere.

“It was a true Tea Party moment,” she remembers.

They set up their own voter-fraud unit:

“The first thing we started to do was look at houses with more than six voters in them” Engelbrecht said, because those houses were the most likely to have fraudulent registrations attached to them. “Most voting districts had 1,800 if they were Republican and 2,400 of these houses if they were Democratic. …

“But we came across one with 24,000, and that was where we started looking.”

It was Houston’s poorest and predominantly black district, which has led some to accuse the group of targeting poor black areas. But Engelbrecht rejects that, saying, “It had nothing to do with politics. It was just the numbers.”

Perhaps the new Congress should privatize voter fraud investigations. These amateurs turned up an ACORN-like operation:

Most of the findings focused on a group called Houston Votes, a voter registration group headed by Steve Caddle, who also works for the Service Employees International Union. Among the findings were that only 1,793 of the 25,000 registrations the group submitted appeared to be valid. The other registrations included one of a woman who registered six times in the same day; registrations of non-citizens; so many applications from one Houston Voters collector in one day that it was deemed to be beyond human capability; and 1,597 registrations that named the same person multiple times, often with different signatures. …

“The integrity of the voting rolls in Harris County, Texas, appears to be under an organized and systematic attack by the group operating under the name Houston Votes,” the Harris voter registrar, Leo Vasquez, charged as he passed on the documentation to the district attorney.

And if that weren’t enough, the day after that announcement, “a three-alarm fire destroyed almost all of Harris County’s voting machines, throwing the upcoming Nov. 2 election into turmoil.” Imagine that.

It’s admirable that we have citizens like Engelbrecht who take their civic responsibilities seriously, but there’s no excuse for the Obama Justice Department’s indifference to voting fraud. If Engelbrecht could uncover a massive voter-fraud operation, imagine what a contentious Justice Department could turn up. You’d almost think that they don’t mind that the voting rolls in heavily Democratic districts are bloated with imaginary voters.

Notwithstanding Janet Napolitano’s assertions, the administration’s anti-terrorism system hasn’t “worked.” Instead, ordinary airline passengers have proven to be our best defense.

The Obama Justice Department isn’t keen on enforcing Section No. 8 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that states and localities clean up their voting rolls to prevent fraud. So ordinary citizens are doing what the Justice Department won’t — uncovering voter fraud. This report explains that 50 friends took up the effort after seeing what went on in Houston on Election Day 2008:

“What we saw shocked us,” [ Catherine Engelbrecht] said. “There was no one checking IDs, judges would vote for people that asked for help. It was fraud, and we watched like deer in the headlights.”

Their shared experience, she says, created “True the Vote,” a citizen-based grassroots organization that began collecting publicly available voting data to prove that what they saw in their day at the polls was, indeed, happening — and that it was happening everywhere.

“It was a true Tea Party moment,” she remembers.

They set up their own voter-fraud unit:

“The first thing we started to do was look at houses with more than six voters in them” Engelbrecht said, because those houses were the most likely to have fraudulent registrations attached to them. “Most voting districts had 1,800 if they were Republican and 2,400 of these houses if they were Democratic. …

“But we came across one with 24,000, and that was where we started looking.”

It was Houston’s poorest and predominantly black district, which has led some to accuse the group of targeting poor black areas. But Engelbrecht rejects that, saying, “It had nothing to do with politics. It was just the numbers.”

Perhaps the new Congress should privatize voter fraud investigations. These amateurs turned up an ACORN-like operation:

Most of the findings focused on a group called Houston Votes, a voter registration group headed by Steve Caddle, who also works for the Service Employees International Union. Among the findings were that only 1,793 of the 25,000 registrations the group submitted appeared to be valid. The other registrations included one of a woman who registered six times in the same day; registrations of non-citizens; so many applications from one Houston Voters collector in one day that it was deemed to be beyond human capability; and 1,597 registrations that named the same person multiple times, often with different signatures. …

“The integrity of the voting rolls in Harris County, Texas, appears to be under an organized and systematic attack by the group operating under the name Houston Votes,” the Harris voter registrar, Leo Vasquez, charged as he passed on the documentation to the district attorney.

And if that weren’t enough, the day after that announcement, “a three-alarm fire destroyed almost all of Harris County’s voting machines, throwing the upcoming Nov. 2 election into turmoil.” Imagine that.

It’s admirable that we have citizens like Engelbrecht who take their civic responsibilities seriously, but there’s no excuse for the Obama Justice Department’s indifference to voting fraud. If Engelbrecht could uncover a massive voter-fraud operation, imagine what a contentious Justice Department could turn up. You’d almost think that they don’t mind that the voting rolls in heavily Democratic districts are bloated with imaginary voters.

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Is Obama Trying to Force BP Into Bankruptcy?

Yesterday, I wondered whether Obama and the Democrats — by bullying BP into cancelling its dividend — were trying to sink BP’s stock. Well, if so, they have upped the ante and are succeeding This report  tells us:

The Obama Administration ratcheted up its demands on Wednesday that BP PLC cover all costs stemming from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, including millions of dollars in salaries of oil-industry workers laid off because of the federal moratorium on deep-water drilling. The sudden increase in BP’s potential liabilities — along with growing evidence that even more oil than expected is gushing from BP’s crippled well — helped send BP’s shares plummeting almost 16% in New York, to $29.20. The stock has lost close to half its value, more than $82 billion, in the seven weeks since the spill started.

Whoa, the Obama team wants BP to pay for the administration’s dopey idea to halt deep-water drilling? Yup. Is this legal? No:

Several legal experts said they couldn’t think of any law or precedent that would allow the U.S. to try to recover damages from BP on behalf of rig workers thrown out of work by a government moratorium on deep offshore drilling. “I’m not aware of anything out there that would allow (President Obama) to latch onto a legal remedy on behalf of the out-of-work workers,” said Benjamin A. Escobar Jr., a Houston-based labor and employment attorney for Beirne Maynard & Parsons. “I think he’s in for a real court fight on these issues.”

Keep in mind that it is the government’s heavy hand that is primarily responsible for sinking BP’s stock — and potentially the livelihood of employees and shareholders:

“There is no objective justification for this share price movement. BP faces this situation as a strong company,” said BP chief executive Tony Hayward in an interview at the company’s Houston crisis center. “We have significant capacity and flexibility in dealing with the cost of responding to the incident, the environmental remediation and the payment of legitimate claims.”

Aside from the complete absence of legal authority, it’s rather nervy — even for this president — to ask BP to pay for his mistakes. What’s next — fining employers for laying off workers despite his non-stimulus plan? While he lectures students about not passing the buck, he has no peer when it comes to buck passing. He should take some of the advice he doled out to high-school graduates:

Don’t make excuses. Take responsibility not just for your successes, but for your failures as well. … It’s the easiest thing in the world to start looking around for someone to blame.

As for the bullying of business, this is simply the natural extension of the administration’s abject lawlessness — stomping on the rights of car-company bond holders, snatching bonuses away from AIG executives, pushing for mortgage cram-downs — which views contracts and statutes as mere annoyances. This is what comes from electing people with no private-sector experience and no understanding that the rule of law is central to our economic prosperity.

Yesterday, I wondered whether Obama and the Democrats — by bullying BP into cancelling its dividend — were trying to sink BP’s stock. Well, if so, they have upped the ante and are succeeding This report  tells us:

The Obama Administration ratcheted up its demands on Wednesday that BP PLC cover all costs stemming from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, including millions of dollars in salaries of oil-industry workers laid off because of the federal moratorium on deep-water drilling. The sudden increase in BP’s potential liabilities — along with growing evidence that even more oil than expected is gushing from BP’s crippled well — helped send BP’s shares plummeting almost 16% in New York, to $29.20. The stock has lost close to half its value, more than $82 billion, in the seven weeks since the spill started.

Whoa, the Obama team wants BP to pay for the administration’s dopey idea to halt deep-water drilling? Yup. Is this legal? No:

Several legal experts said they couldn’t think of any law or precedent that would allow the U.S. to try to recover damages from BP on behalf of rig workers thrown out of work by a government moratorium on deep offshore drilling. “I’m not aware of anything out there that would allow (President Obama) to latch onto a legal remedy on behalf of the out-of-work workers,” said Benjamin A. Escobar Jr., a Houston-based labor and employment attorney for Beirne Maynard & Parsons. “I think he’s in for a real court fight on these issues.”

Keep in mind that it is the government’s heavy hand that is primarily responsible for sinking BP’s stock — and potentially the livelihood of employees and shareholders:

“There is no objective justification for this share price movement. BP faces this situation as a strong company,” said BP chief executive Tony Hayward in an interview at the company’s Houston crisis center. “We have significant capacity and flexibility in dealing with the cost of responding to the incident, the environmental remediation and the payment of legitimate claims.”

Aside from the complete absence of legal authority, it’s rather nervy — even for this president — to ask BP to pay for his mistakes. What’s next — fining employers for laying off workers despite his non-stimulus plan? While he lectures students about not passing the buck, he has no peer when it comes to buck passing. He should take some of the advice he doled out to high-school graduates:

Don’t make excuses. Take responsibility not just for your successes, but for your failures as well. … It’s the easiest thing in the world to start looking around for someone to blame.

As for the bullying of business, this is simply the natural extension of the administration’s abject lawlessness — stomping on the rights of car-company bond holders, snatching bonuses away from AIG executives, pushing for mortgage cram-downs — which views contracts and statutes as mere annoyances. This is what comes from electing people with no private-sector experience and no understanding that the rule of law is central to our economic prosperity.

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Increasing Arabs’ Clout in Congress: The NH-1 GOP Primary

In the New Hampshire 1st congressional district, there is a spirited, multi-candidate Republican primary race to face off against Democrat Carol Shea-Porter. The most viable Republicans are Sean Mahoney, Frank Guinta, Bob Bestani, and Rich Ashooh. (Polls suggest that Shea-Porter is in trouble, and the Cook Report pegs the seat as a “toss up.”) One of the candidates, Ashooh, is being bankrolled by a curious character. Nijad Fares and his wife, who reside in Houston, donated $2,400 to Ashooh and raised thousands more for him, likely making Ashooh the GOP candidate in the race with the most donors from  Houston. (Weird, huh?)

Now, who is Fares? He’s a self-proclaimed advocate for increasing Arab clout in Congress. This report relates:

Nijad Fares bluntly laid out his strategy for increasing the clout of Arab-Americans in an opinion piece he authored that appeared in the Detroit News on Dec. 16, 1996.

“Arab-Americans must substantially increase contributions to political candidates,” he wrote. “Even modest contributions help ensure that Members of Congress and their staffs take phone calls and are more responsive to requests. Furthermore, the contributor must make explicit an interest in Middle East-related issues.”

He and his father, Issam (“known to be close to the powerful chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Ghazi Kenaan”), have been implicated in some funny business with regard to campaign donations:

After the Wall Street Journal reported the inaugural donation last month, the inaugural committee said the donation listed from Issam Fares came from the Link Group, LLC, a company headed by Nijad Fares and that the son had attempted to give credit for the donation to his father.

Both father and son have a long history of intimate political connections with U.S. politicians and have been major supporters of groups promoting Lebanon’s interests. The family’s main U.S. business holding, a Houston-based firm called the Wedge Group, is a major player in the oil services industry and is headed by William White, the former number two official at the Energy Department during the Clinton administration.

So what sorts of views does Nijad Fares hope will gain traction through fundraising like that done for Ashooh? We have some clues. It seems that Nijad Fares has a track record of giving to congressional candidates, having given handsomely to Rep. Joe Knollenberg and his state legislator son. Knollenberg “put ‘Seeds of Peace’ — a summer camp founded by Yasser Arafat’s fave biographer — on the federal budget.” He also “doled out at least $86 million of our tax money [in USAID funding to southern Lebanon] … allowing Hezbollah to rebuild its strongholds in Southern Lebanon and expand.” That, it seems, is what “increasing Arabs’ clout” is all about. (Fares also gave to Obama and to the only Republican to co-host J Street’s confab, Charles Boustany. Fares is nothing if not consistent in his choice of recipients.)

And then there is this: when the fundraising brouhaha surfaced, Issam was quick to blame the Jews. Caught in a media firestorm for paying a large sum to Colin Powell for a speech five days before the 2000 election, he immediately “accused the ‘Zionist lobby’ of spreading ‘distortion and lies.'”

And the family seems to have an unusual take on Hezbollah, as well. Issam offered this:

“It is a mistake to make a comparison between the [Al Qaeda] network … which Lebanon has condemned, and Hezbollah, which Lebanon considers a resistance party fighting the Israeli occupation,” Fares told Agence France-Presse. He claimed the group has never targeted Americans, a position disputed by U.S. officials as well as Fares’s own Wedge Group CEO.

An Ashooh spokesman had this comment when I asked about the Fares fundraising:

What I can tell you is this: People donate to the Ashooh campaign based on Rich’s positions on the issues. As a candidate, he cannot possibly know or share all of the individual positions his donors may or may not have. At this time, Rich is focused on running a very positive campaign based on fiscal responsibility and bringing conservative, New Hampshire values back to Washington.

So are Ashooh’s positions the same as those of the Fares family, and is he someone ready and willing to increase the clout of Arabs? The campaign did not respond to my direct queries on these points or whether he will return the funds. If it does, I will be sure to pass it on.

In the New Hampshire 1st congressional district, there is a spirited, multi-candidate Republican primary race to face off against Democrat Carol Shea-Porter. The most viable Republicans are Sean Mahoney, Frank Guinta, Bob Bestani, and Rich Ashooh. (Polls suggest that Shea-Porter is in trouble, and the Cook Report pegs the seat as a “toss up.”) One of the candidates, Ashooh, is being bankrolled by a curious character. Nijad Fares and his wife, who reside in Houston, donated $2,400 to Ashooh and raised thousands more for him, likely making Ashooh the GOP candidate in the race with the most donors from  Houston. (Weird, huh?)

Now, who is Fares? He’s a self-proclaimed advocate for increasing Arab clout in Congress. This report relates:

Nijad Fares bluntly laid out his strategy for increasing the clout of Arab-Americans in an opinion piece he authored that appeared in the Detroit News on Dec. 16, 1996.

“Arab-Americans must substantially increase contributions to political candidates,” he wrote. “Even modest contributions help ensure that Members of Congress and their staffs take phone calls and are more responsive to requests. Furthermore, the contributor must make explicit an interest in Middle East-related issues.”

He and his father, Issam (“known to be close to the powerful chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Ghazi Kenaan”), have been implicated in some funny business with regard to campaign donations:

After the Wall Street Journal reported the inaugural donation last month, the inaugural committee said the donation listed from Issam Fares came from the Link Group, LLC, a company headed by Nijad Fares and that the son had attempted to give credit for the donation to his father.

Both father and son have a long history of intimate political connections with U.S. politicians and have been major supporters of groups promoting Lebanon’s interests. The family’s main U.S. business holding, a Houston-based firm called the Wedge Group, is a major player in the oil services industry and is headed by William White, the former number two official at the Energy Department during the Clinton administration.

So what sorts of views does Nijad Fares hope will gain traction through fundraising like that done for Ashooh? We have some clues. It seems that Nijad Fares has a track record of giving to congressional candidates, having given handsomely to Rep. Joe Knollenberg and his state legislator son. Knollenberg “put ‘Seeds of Peace’ — a summer camp founded by Yasser Arafat’s fave biographer — on the federal budget.” He also “doled out at least $86 million of our tax money [in USAID funding to southern Lebanon] … allowing Hezbollah to rebuild its strongholds in Southern Lebanon and expand.” That, it seems, is what “increasing Arabs’ clout” is all about. (Fares also gave to Obama and to the only Republican to co-host J Street’s confab, Charles Boustany. Fares is nothing if not consistent in his choice of recipients.)

And then there is this: when the fundraising brouhaha surfaced, Issam was quick to blame the Jews. Caught in a media firestorm for paying a large sum to Colin Powell for a speech five days before the 2000 election, he immediately “accused the ‘Zionist lobby’ of spreading ‘distortion and lies.'”

And the family seems to have an unusual take on Hezbollah, as well. Issam offered this:

“It is a mistake to make a comparison between the [Al Qaeda] network … which Lebanon has condemned, and Hezbollah, which Lebanon considers a resistance party fighting the Israeli occupation,” Fares told Agence France-Presse. He claimed the group has never targeted Americans, a position disputed by U.S. officials as well as Fares’s own Wedge Group CEO.

An Ashooh spokesman had this comment when I asked about the Fares fundraising:

What I can tell you is this: People donate to the Ashooh campaign based on Rich’s positions on the issues. As a candidate, he cannot possibly know or share all of the individual positions his donors may or may not have. At this time, Rich is focused on running a very positive campaign based on fiscal responsibility and bringing conservative, New Hampshire values back to Washington.

So are Ashooh’s positions the same as those of the Fares family, and is he someone ready and willing to increase the clout of Arabs? The campaign did not respond to my direct queries on these points or whether he will return the funds. If it does, I will be sure to pass it on.

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The Perry Lesson: Run a Good Campaign

Gov. Rick Perry won big last night in the Texas gubernatorial primary. Michael Barone digs into the details and concludes:

(1) Perry won this not in rural and small town Texas but in metro Houston. This bodes well for him in the general election, since it indicates strength in the home base of the well regarded Democratic nominee, former Houston Mayor Bill White, who was nominated by an overwhelming margin. (2) Medina, the candidate who wouldn’t disrespect the truthers, did best in the supposedly most sophisticated part of Texas, the Metroplex. Go figure. (3) Hutchison, supposedly the candidate of urban sophisticates, did best in metro San Antonio and rural Texas. She held Perry below the 50% level needed to avoid a runoff in approximately half of Texas’s 254 counties; unfortunately for her, those counties didn’t give her nearly a big enough margin to offset Perry’s advantage in metro Houston

Barone also observes that turnout in the Republican primary was more than double that in Democratic primary, a reversal of the huge enthusiasm generated in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

Pundits are already picking through the returns to glean evidence of larger trends. Is this further proof that Washington incumbents have an uphill climb? Probably. Does this suggest that more traditionally conservative candidates have the upper hand in a GOP primary field? That too. And does Perry have the potential to be a presidential candidate? Perry is playing coy for now, as Jonathan Martin reports:

In an interview with POLITICO Monday, Perry insisted that he would not mount a White House bid.

“I’m really interested in who’s going to be the next president,” he said, before quickly adding: “I have no interest in it being me in any form or fashion.”

Yet as he claimed victory here Tuesday night, Perry’s message seemed as tailored for national GOP primary voters as Texas’s general electorate.

Speaking directly to Washington he said: “Quit spending all the money, stop trying to take over our lives and our businesses.”

He also sought to position himself squarely against President Obama, warning that, “It’s clear that the Obama administration and its allies already have Texas in their cross-hairs.”

But in the lesson-divining department, Martin is correct: Perry simply ran a better campaign and Hutchison bumbled along in a Hillary-like miscalculation about an electorate angry at the status quo. (“By asserting that she would step down from her Senate seat but never actually resigning, Hutchison amplified Perry’s message as much as the millions in his war chest.”) And it is noteworthy that endorsements from Texas political stars, including George H.W. Bush, didn’t help her one bit. (“In Hutchison’s case, the endorsements may have even worked against her, serving to underscore Perry’s message about her ties to Washington.”)

And that, I think, is the key takeaway and a reminder for pundits and candidates eyeing 2012. It really does matter what sort of campaign you put together, how you size up the electorate, and whether you devise an effective message. The front runners in 2008 (Clinton and Rudy Giuliani) crashed in no small part because they ran ineffective, if not disastrous, campaigns. We have learned the hard way that a great campaigner doesn’t necessarily make for a great or competent office holder. But you still have to win the campaign — and for that, nothing beats a sharp delivery, a well-organized team, and a timely message.

Gov. Rick Perry won big last night in the Texas gubernatorial primary. Michael Barone digs into the details and concludes:

(1) Perry won this not in rural and small town Texas but in metro Houston. This bodes well for him in the general election, since it indicates strength in the home base of the well regarded Democratic nominee, former Houston Mayor Bill White, who was nominated by an overwhelming margin. (2) Medina, the candidate who wouldn’t disrespect the truthers, did best in the supposedly most sophisticated part of Texas, the Metroplex. Go figure. (3) Hutchison, supposedly the candidate of urban sophisticates, did best in metro San Antonio and rural Texas. She held Perry below the 50% level needed to avoid a runoff in approximately half of Texas’s 254 counties; unfortunately for her, those counties didn’t give her nearly a big enough margin to offset Perry’s advantage in metro Houston

Barone also observes that turnout in the Republican primary was more than double that in Democratic primary, a reversal of the huge enthusiasm generated in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

Pundits are already picking through the returns to glean evidence of larger trends. Is this further proof that Washington incumbents have an uphill climb? Probably. Does this suggest that more traditionally conservative candidates have the upper hand in a GOP primary field? That too. And does Perry have the potential to be a presidential candidate? Perry is playing coy for now, as Jonathan Martin reports:

In an interview with POLITICO Monday, Perry insisted that he would not mount a White House bid.

“I’m really interested in who’s going to be the next president,” he said, before quickly adding: “I have no interest in it being me in any form or fashion.”

Yet as he claimed victory here Tuesday night, Perry’s message seemed as tailored for national GOP primary voters as Texas’s general electorate.

Speaking directly to Washington he said: “Quit spending all the money, stop trying to take over our lives and our businesses.”

He also sought to position himself squarely against President Obama, warning that, “It’s clear that the Obama administration and its allies already have Texas in their cross-hairs.”

But in the lesson-divining department, Martin is correct: Perry simply ran a better campaign and Hutchison bumbled along in a Hillary-like miscalculation about an electorate angry at the status quo. (“By asserting that she would step down from her Senate seat but never actually resigning, Hutchison amplified Perry’s message as much as the millions in his war chest.”) And it is noteworthy that endorsements from Texas political stars, including George H.W. Bush, didn’t help her one bit. (“In Hutchison’s case, the endorsements may have even worked against her, serving to underscore Perry’s message about her ties to Washington.”)

And that, I think, is the key takeaway and a reminder for pundits and candidates eyeing 2012. It really does matter what sort of campaign you put together, how you size up the electorate, and whether you devise an effective message. The front runners in 2008 (Clinton and Rudy Giuliani) crashed in no small part because they ran ineffective, if not disastrous, campaigns. We have learned the hard way that a great campaigner doesn’t necessarily make for a great or competent office holder. But you still have to win the campaign — and for that, nothing beats a sharp delivery, a well-organized team, and a timely message.

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Good News For McCain

There was obviously good news for John McCain in his large margins of victory in both Wisconsin and Washington last night. However, there was more than just vote tallies to please the McCain team. Obama showed a little leg last night and to the relief of the McCain camp showed himself to be a rather ordinary liberal. It sounds trite to recite the litany, but the list of his policy proposals was trite: tax the rich, roll back trade agreements, spend more money, do something (I couldn’t tell what) about lobbyists, and give everyone in America an affordable college education (you might get some Republican takers if you started taxing educational institutions with billion dollar endowments), all while providing universal healthcare. On foreign policy you will find no Joe Biden realism, let alone any Scoop Jackson muscular defense strategy. (He did seem rather enthusiastic about using funds we will save from retreating from Iraq to build roads and provide broadband service in Houston, though.)

This is good news for McCain on two fronts. First, it helps solve, if not totally obliterate, his problem with rallying the base. If conservatives cannot get revved up to oppose a platform that looks like something Ted Kennedy cooked up (come to think of it…) then nothing will rally them. Second, this will enhance McCain’s ability to snag independents. (When you throw in Obama’s positions on everything from partial birth abortion to gun control the task becomes that much easier.)

McCain will, of course, need to fight through the throngs of media boosters and shout over the “Yes, we can” chants. But if the only thing innovative about Obama is stylistic, then McCain may not be such a long shot after all. (He can only hope Obama gives a rambling, self-indulgent mess of a speech after every victory between now and June.) However, it is becoming increasingingly unlikely that Obama can continue his “change” offensive without further scrutiny, as passages like this from Robert J. Samuelson suggest:

The contrast between his broad rhetoric and his narrow agenda is stark, and yet the media — preoccupied with the political “horse race” — have treated his invocation of “change” as a serious idea rather than a shallow campaign slogan. He seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story. The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation’s major problems when, so far, he isn’t.

As Samuelson has discovered, there is indeed a “huge and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views.” It will be McCain’s job to make sure the voters recognize it.

There was obviously good news for John McCain in his large margins of victory in both Wisconsin and Washington last night. However, there was more than just vote tallies to please the McCain team. Obama showed a little leg last night and to the relief of the McCain camp showed himself to be a rather ordinary liberal. It sounds trite to recite the litany, but the list of his policy proposals was trite: tax the rich, roll back trade agreements, spend more money, do something (I couldn’t tell what) about lobbyists, and give everyone in America an affordable college education (you might get some Republican takers if you started taxing educational institutions with billion dollar endowments), all while providing universal healthcare. On foreign policy you will find no Joe Biden realism, let alone any Scoop Jackson muscular defense strategy. (He did seem rather enthusiastic about using funds we will save from retreating from Iraq to build roads and provide broadband service in Houston, though.)

This is good news for McCain on two fronts. First, it helps solve, if not totally obliterate, his problem with rallying the base. If conservatives cannot get revved up to oppose a platform that looks like something Ted Kennedy cooked up (come to think of it…) then nothing will rally them. Second, this will enhance McCain’s ability to snag independents. (When you throw in Obama’s positions on everything from partial birth abortion to gun control the task becomes that much easier.)

McCain will, of course, need to fight through the throngs of media boosters and shout over the “Yes, we can” chants. But if the only thing innovative about Obama is stylistic, then McCain may not be such a long shot after all. (He can only hope Obama gives a rambling, self-indulgent mess of a speech after every victory between now and June.) However, it is becoming increasingingly unlikely that Obama can continue his “change” offensive without further scrutiny, as passages like this from Robert J. Samuelson suggest:

The contrast between his broad rhetoric and his narrow agenda is stark, and yet the media — preoccupied with the political “horse race” — have treated his invocation of “change” as a serious idea rather than a shallow campaign slogan. He seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story. The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation’s major problems when, so far, he isn’t.

As Samuelson has discovered, there is indeed a “huge and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views.” It will be McCain’s job to make sure the voters recognize it.

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Architectural Kudzu

It was only a matter of time before someone picked up the cudgels on behalf of the “starchitects”—that new but already tired term for our celebrity architects—but it is surprising that it would be the New York Times’s architecture critic. Last Sunday, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote with great urgency in praise of starchitects, touting them not only for the audacity of their imagination but for their ability to work with gargantuan real estate developers. Why the Times would cheer the rise of the international starchitect, which is an aspect of globalization, is not entirely obvious. It may be a sufficient explanation that the phenomenon has been criticized by certain critics on the right, such as John Silber and me.

For Ouroussoff, the starchitect is not a shallow and ambitious showman but a seasoned master—someone who is likely to have paid his dues, often in academia, toiling for decades in obscurity to refine and distill his visionary ideas:

Today these architects, many of them in their 60s and 70s, are finally getting to test those visions in everyday life, often on a grand scale. What followed has been one of the most exhilarating periods in recent architectural history. For every superficial expression of a culture obsessed with novelty, you can point to a work of blazing originality.

Ouroussoff dismisses the notion that the starchitect is a new phenomenon. After all, was not Bernini “a tireless self-promoter,” and should not our own “greatest architectural talents also be celebrated for their accomplishments?”

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It was only a matter of time before someone picked up the cudgels on behalf of the “starchitects”—that new but already tired term for our celebrity architects—but it is surprising that it would be the New York Times’s architecture critic. Last Sunday, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote with great urgency in praise of starchitects, touting them not only for the audacity of their imagination but for their ability to work with gargantuan real estate developers. Why the Times would cheer the rise of the international starchitect, which is an aspect of globalization, is not entirely obvious. It may be a sufficient explanation that the phenomenon has been criticized by certain critics on the right, such as John Silber and me.

For Ouroussoff, the starchitect is not a shallow and ambitious showman but a seasoned master—someone who is likely to have paid his dues, often in academia, toiling for decades in obscurity to refine and distill his visionary ideas:

Today these architects, many of them in their 60s and 70s, are finally getting to test those visions in everyday life, often on a grand scale. What followed has been one of the most exhilarating periods in recent architectural history. For every superficial expression of a culture obsessed with novelty, you can point to a work of blazing originality.

Ouroussoff dismisses the notion that the starchitect is a new phenomenon. After all, was not Bernini “a tireless self-promoter,” and should not our own “greatest architectural talents also be celebrated for their accomplishments?”

The problem of starchitects, however, is not the shallowness of celebrity, as Ouroussoff’s schematic model suggests, but the danger of monoculture. We rightly lament the loss of ecological diversity in nature, as local ecosystems, overwhelmed by invasive species from outside, lose their fragile equilibrium. One thinks of Japanese kudzu, inundating the American southeast and driving out native species, or the way that American cactus has come to dominate the Mediterranean basin. But one can lose cultural diversity just as one loses ecological diversity, and already we see the warning signs of the emergence of an international architectural monoculture.

The city I know best, Philadelphia, once had a thriving and unusually vibrant local culture, and the very fact of its parochial oddness perversely made it intensely interesting to outsiders (giving the world such extraordinary figures as Frank Furness, Robert Venturi, and Louis Kahn). And until quite recently, its tallest and most important buildings were by Philadelphia architects. But now every item on the skyline is the work of one of the handful of prestigious national firms. They are not bad—Robert A. M. Stern’s forthcoming Comcast Tower looks as if it might be amusing—so much as generic; they might stand as easily in Houston or Seattle (and perhaps they do). I suspect this will prove to be the case in other cities as well.

In fact, Ouroussoff’s own roster of our “greatest architectural talents, ” Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Jean Nouvel—an American, a Dutch, and a French architect—inadvertently makes the same point. None is rooted in a specific city or even country, with distinctive local traditions and practices, instilling in each the strong sense of physical place that is the power of much of our greatest architecture. This is perhaps the first generation of architects since the late middle ages to practice with no sense of linguistic or national borders.

In the end, one can concede to Ouroussoff that some of our starchitects have produced works of “blazing originality,” even while wishing he were able to take a step backwards and see the phenomenon in its most spacious sense, as the rise of a lush but rather barren monoculture, the architectural equivalent of kudzu.

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Who Will Control the GOP?

On the surface, the current brouhaha over Rudy Giuliani’s nuanced stance on abortion makes no sense. Ever since Roe v. Wade, it’s been the courts, not the executive, that shape and drive abortion policy. Guiliani has said that, like Bush, he will appoint strict-constructionist judges. So what’s the fuss about?

Well, the struggle over abortion is an important proxy in the fight for control of the Republican party. In the wake of the shellacking the GOP took in the 2006 mid-term elections, the social conservatives were set back on their heels. Like many liberals, they seem to have foolishly believed all the talk about the genius of Karl Rove in creating an unstoppable Republican electoral machine. Even though the Republicans’ massive defeat had been predicted by the polls, it was an enormous shock, and provided the opening that allowed Giuliani to emerge as the GOP frontrunner.

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On the surface, the current brouhaha over Rudy Giuliani’s nuanced stance on abortion makes no sense. Ever since Roe v. Wade, it’s been the courts, not the executive, that shape and drive abortion policy. Guiliani has said that, like Bush, he will appoint strict-constructionist judges. So what’s the fuss about?

Well, the struggle over abortion is an important proxy in the fight for control of the Republican party. In the wake of the shellacking the GOP took in the 2006 mid-term elections, the social conservatives were set back on their heels. Like many liberals, they seem to have foolishly believed all the talk about the genius of Karl Rove in creating an unstoppable Republican electoral machine. Even though the Republicans’ massive defeat had been predicted by the polls, it was an enormous shock, and provided the opening that allowed Giuliani to emerge as the GOP frontrunner.

With no success in Iraq in sight, Republicans are in a very weak position for the 2008 presidential campaign. Many see Giuliani as the only way to stave off a Democratic landslide. But in the months since the midterm elections, the party’s conservative activists have regrouped. Despite the public’s growing moderation on the abortion issue, activists like David O’Steen of the National Right to Life Committee suggest that Giuliani’s nuanced position on abortion disqualifies him from receiving the nomination. They argue, in effect, that Roe v. Wade trumps 9/11. What’s more, they have been given ammunition by the seeming inconsistencies of Giuliani’s response to the question about abortion at the first GOP debate.

Giuliani clarified his stand, and threw down a gauntlet, with the speech he gave last Friday at Houston Baptist College. He both affirmed his pro-choice position and defended his role in the Republican party, arguing, essentially, that the GOP must be a big tent or else face defeat in 2008. The speech was received with predictable hostility by some conservative leaders, but the crowd in Houston gave it a standing ovation. Which suggests that Giuliani’s viability does not depend on his stance on abortion, and that the future leadership of the GOP remains an open question.

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