Commentary Magazine


Topic: It matters

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

Obama Losing the Public on the War

The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Obama losing ground with the public on Afghanistan:

Support for the war in Afghanistan has hit a new low and President Obama’s approval rating for handling it has declined sharply since spring – results that portend trouble for the administration as the violence there grows. With Obama’s surge under way – and casualties rising – the number of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting has declined from 52 percent in December to 43 percent now. And his approval rating for handling it, 56 percent in April, is down to 45 percent.

Voters’ support for the war depends on whether they make the connection between the war and U.S. security:

Fifty-three percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has improved the long-term security of the United States – a majority, but hardly an overpowering one. Fifty percent say the same about the war in Iraq. And many fewer – 25 percent in both cases – say these wars have done “a great deal” to contribute to long-term security, a weak result given their costs in lives and lucre. It matters: Among people who say the Afghanistan war has improved U.S. security, 68 percent also say the war has been worth fighting. In Iraq, among those who see security gains, 72 percent say that war’s been worth it.

There are several explanations for the slippage in support. First, it may be a function of the public’s loss of confidence in Obama in general. At the beginning of his term, if a policy or viewpoint was associated with Obama, the voters were inclined to give it thumbs up. The reverse may be true now. And those who are supportive of the war — including a great number of conservatives — may approve of the handling of the war regardless of (or even in spite of) Obama.

Another possibility is that Obama’s war strategy has managed to please no one. Conservatives are losing confidence because Obama has insisted on an unworkable and counterproductive deadline for our troops to pull out. Liberals have long since given up on defending the “good war.” Trying to split the difference — between cutting and running, on the one hand, and an unqualified commitment to victory, on the other — has unnerved voters of both parties, not to mention our allies.

And yet a third possibility is that long wars are unpopular in democracies, and absent compelling and constant leadership, the public inevitably becomes restless and eventually hostile to the war. Obama — aside from the replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal — has rarely talked about the war of late and hasn’t been effective in explaining the connection between Afghanistan and our national security. There is an argument, of course, (if you accept the first explanation, namely that the public is losing confidence generally in Obama) that it wouldn’t help for him to do or say more on the subject. But, frankly, he hasn’t been trying all that hard. And if the public doesn’t listen to him, the administration needs to find someone who will be able to carry the message consistently and effectively. Maybe if we had a serious person as national security advisor or if Hillary weren’t bogged down with minutiae one of them could assume the national explainer role.

Those supportive of the war effort have tried their best to fend off isolationists on both the right and the left. But ultimately there is no replacement for firm presidential leadership. With the selection of Gen. David Petraeus, a move cheered by both Democrats and Republicans, and a solid Rose Garden speech, Obama seemed to be stepping up to the plate. But, alas, within days, the administration was reiterating its timeline for a troop withdrawal. Since McChrystal’s departure, Obama hasn’t followed up with an effort to educate and win over the public.

As skilled as Petraeus is and as magnificent as our troops are, they can’t win the war without an effective and enthusiastic commander in chief. Now is the time for Obama to get his act together. Otherwise we will suffer a devastating loss and he will bear the burden of that loss.

The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Obama losing ground with the public on Afghanistan:

Support for the war in Afghanistan has hit a new low and President Obama’s approval rating for handling it has declined sharply since spring – results that portend trouble for the administration as the violence there grows. With Obama’s surge under way – and casualties rising – the number of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting has declined from 52 percent in December to 43 percent now. And his approval rating for handling it, 56 percent in April, is down to 45 percent.

Voters’ support for the war depends on whether they make the connection between the war and U.S. security:

Fifty-three percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has improved the long-term security of the United States – a majority, but hardly an overpowering one. Fifty percent say the same about the war in Iraq. And many fewer – 25 percent in both cases – say these wars have done “a great deal” to contribute to long-term security, a weak result given their costs in lives and lucre. It matters: Among people who say the Afghanistan war has improved U.S. security, 68 percent also say the war has been worth fighting. In Iraq, among those who see security gains, 72 percent say that war’s been worth it.

There are several explanations for the slippage in support. First, it may be a function of the public’s loss of confidence in Obama in general. At the beginning of his term, if a policy or viewpoint was associated with Obama, the voters were inclined to give it thumbs up. The reverse may be true now. And those who are supportive of the war — including a great number of conservatives — may approve of the handling of the war regardless of (or even in spite of) Obama.

Another possibility is that Obama’s war strategy has managed to please no one. Conservatives are losing confidence because Obama has insisted on an unworkable and counterproductive deadline for our troops to pull out. Liberals have long since given up on defending the “good war.” Trying to split the difference — between cutting and running, on the one hand, and an unqualified commitment to victory, on the other — has unnerved voters of both parties, not to mention our allies.

And yet a third possibility is that long wars are unpopular in democracies, and absent compelling and constant leadership, the public inevitably becomes restless and eventually hostile to the war. Obama — aside from the replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal — has rarely talked about the war of late and hasn’t been effective in explaining the connection between Afghanistan and our national security. There is an argument, of course, (if you accept the first explanation, namely that the public is losing confidence generally in Obama) that it wouldn’t help for him to do or say more on the subject. But, frankly, he hasn’t been trying all that hard. And if the public doesn’t listen to him, the administration needs to find someone who will be able to carry the message consistently and effectively. Maybe if we had a serious person as national security advisor or if Hillary weren’t bogged down with minutiae one of them could assume the national explainer role.

Those supportive of the war effort have tried their best to fend off isolationists on both the right and the left. But ultimately there is no replacement for firm presidential leadership. With the selection of Gen. David Petraeus, a move cheered by both Democrats and Republicans, and a solid Rose Garden speech, Obama seemed to be stepping up to the plate. But, alas, within days, the administration was reiterating its timeline for a troop withdrawal. Since McChrystal’s departure, Obama hasn’t followed up with an effort to educate and win over the public.

As skilled as Petraeus is and as magnificent as our troops are, they can’t win the war without an effective and enthusiastic commander in chief. Now is the time for Obama to get his act together. Otherwise we will suffer a devastating loss and he will bear the burden of that loss.

Read Less

Brilliant No More

How many times has a pundit or Democrat gushed over Obama’s “brilliant” mind? As conservatives pointed out to the swooners on the left, there was very little evidence of it — no inventive Third Wave philosophy of governance in his pre-presidential career, no significant legislative or intellectual achievement — other than writing a self-promoting and somewhat fictional account of himself — and actually very poor people skills (Maureen Dowd has only now figured out that he is thin-skinned and emotionally robotic). But it was heresy to suggest that he was a conventional liberal thinker, less interesting than Bill Clinton and less rigorous than Ronald Reagan.

Now that his presidency is in dire straits, perhaps the mainstream media are more receptive to that perspective. As Noemie Emery writes, to the extent that he was/is “brilliant,” it’s in the mundane task of running meetings:

He does seem a genius at chairing a forum, as at the “nuclear summit” in April, where the Washington Post claimed that he shone as a teacher, “calling on leaders to speak, embellish, oppose, and offer alternatives,” coaxing consensus and forging agreements among 45 countries at hand. The problem was that the value of these things was limited, as the attending countries weren’t menacing anyone, while Iran and Korea, who were not in attendance, went on happily building their bombs. He isn’t a sphinx, he’s a seminar leader who’s out of his element. And more and more out of his depth.

And honestly, he’s not that great at running meetings. His Afghanistan-war seminars dragged on. His health-care summit bombed when Rep. Paul Ryan and others stymied him with facts and figures.

Now that Obama’s policies and political standing are faltering, the media mavens are puzzled, as Emery notes. How can it be that he’s failing when he’s so smart? It never dawns on them that they confused slickness with smarts and urbanity with insight.

Whether it is Obama or Elena Kagan, it’s rather easy to impress the chattering class — an Ivy League degree, poise before the cameras, verbal acuity, and disdain for conservative ideas usually do it. It matters not what these figures have produced (legal opinions, legislation, etc.) but with whom they circulate and where they’ve studied. To a great degree, social elitism has replaced meritocracy as the left’s yardstick.

Unfortunately for Obama, he will be judged by what he does, not how he looks doing it. And frankly, his polish and charisma (conservatives never saw the latter, but others did) are crumbling under the pressure to finally produce something (jobs, a responsible budget, a plan for disarming Iran). There is a reason, as Emery points out, that no president has been “a blogger, a pundit, an editor of the New Yorker, or a writer for Vanity Fair.” It turns out that the rationale for the media’s lovefest — he’s just like me, but better! — was not relevant to the presidency.

How many times has a pundit or Democrat gushed over Obama’s “brilliant” mind? As conservatives pointed out to the swooners on the left, there was very little evidence of it — no inventive Third Wave philosophy of governance in his pre-presidential career, no significant legislative or intellectual achievement — other than writing a self-promoting and somewhat fictional account of himself — and actually very poor people skills (Maureen Dowd has only now figured out that he is thin-skinned and emotionally robotic). But it was heresy to suggest that he was a conventional liberal thinker, less interesting than Bill Clinton and less rigorous than Ronald Reagan.

Now that his presidency is in dire straits, perhaps the mainstream media are more receptive to that perspective. As Noemie Emery writes, to the extent that he was/is “brilliant,” it’s in the mundane task of running meetings:

He does seem a genius at chairing a forum, as at the “nuclear summit” in April, where the Washington Post claimed that he shone as a teacher, “calling on leaders to speak, embellish, oppose, and offer alternatives,” coaxing consensus and forging agreements among 45 countries at hand. The problem was that the value of these things was limited, as the attending countries weren’t menacing anyone, while Iran and Korea, who were not in attendance, went on happily building their bombs. He isn’t a sphinx, he’s a seminar leader who’s out of his element. And more and more out of his depth.

And honestly, he’s not that great at running meetings. His Afghanistan-war seminars dragged on. His health-care summit bombed when Rep. Paul Ryan and others stymied him with facts and figures.

Now that Obama’s policies and political standing are faltering, the media mavens are puzzled, as Emery notes. How can it be that he’s failing when he’s so smart? It never dawns on them that they confused slickness with smarts and urbanity with insight.

Whether it is Obama or Elena Kagan, it’s rather easy to impress the chattering class — an Ivy League degree, poise before the cameras, verbal acuity, and disdain for conservative ideas usually do it. It matters not what these figures have produced (legal opinions, legislation, etc.) but with whom they circulate and where they’ve studied. To a great degree, social elitism has replaced meritocracy as the left’s yardstick.

Unfortunately for Obama, he will be judged by what he does, not how he looks doing it. And frankly, his polish and charisma (conservatives never saw the latter, but others did) are crumbling under the pressure to finally produce something (jobs, a responsible budget, a plan for disarming Iran). There is a reason, as Emery points out, that no president has been “a blogger, a pundit, an editor of the New Yorker, or a writer for Vanity Fair.” It turns out that the rationale for the media’s lovefest — he’s just like me, but better! — was not relevant to the presidency.

Read Less

Richard Haass: Enough Peace Process

Richard Haass (who converted to the cause of regime change in Iran) writes again to criticize Obama, this time on his infatuation with the peace process:

To be sure, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value. It would constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States. It would help ensure Israel’s survival as a democratic, secure, prosperous, Jewish state. It would reduce Palestinian and Arab alienation, a source of anti-Americanism and radicalism. And it would dilute the appeal of Iran and its clients.

But it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs. There are times one could be forgiven for thinking that solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge from climate change to the flu. But would it? The short answer is no. It matters, but both less and in a different way than people tend to think.

As he points out, it would make little or no difference to the sectarian conflicts in Iraq or the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And as for Iran, “Peace between Israel and the Palestinians would not weaken Iran’s nuclear aspirations. It could even reinforce them. Iran and the groups it backs (notably Hamas and Hezbollah) would be sidelined by the region’s embrace of a Palestinian state and acceptance of Israel, perhaps causing Tehran to look to nuclear weapons to compensate for its loss of standing and influence.” Haass argues that a resolution of the Palestinian conflict wouldn’t even make much of a difference with other Arab states. Would they become more democratic? Would they be more inclined to oppose Iran? (They want the U.S. to do something about Iranian aggression now.) And we are nowhere close to the point at which a viable Palestinian state might emerge.

What’s the risk of persisting in the fruitless quest for a peace deal?

The danger of exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict is that doing so runs the risk of distorting American foreign policy. It accords the issue more prominence than it deserves, produces impatience, and tempts the U.S. government to adopt policies that are overly ambitious.

Haass is perhaps being too generous. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Obami are obsessed with the peace process because they have no viable policy with regard to Iran. It fills the time, it distracts attention, it takes the heat off the repressive Arab regimes, and it fulfills Obama’s own sense of grandeur and self-importance. And it provides a convenient way for Obama to demonstrate his affection for the “Muslim World” and disdain for the Jewish state.

It has also proved spectacularly unsuccessful if the real goal is a reduction of tensions and progress toward a two-state solution. And as Haass points out, we have made the vexing problem of nuclear-armed Iran even more difficult to resolve: “It is essential the two governments develop a modicum of trust if they are to manage inevitable differences over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, a challenge that promises to be the most significant strategic threat of this decade. A protracted disagreement over the number of settlements or the contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.”

In short, by straining to resolve the unresolvable (at least at this stage) Palestinian problem, Obama has frittered away precious time and damaged our credibility with nearly every player in the region. (Haass doesn’t mention the degree to which our misdirected Middle East policy has increased anxiety among Israel’s neighbors, who want to know what we’re going to do about the Iran nuclear threat.) Meanwhile, democracy and human-rights activists in the region get the back of our hand, the mullahs’ move steadily ahead with their nuclear program, Syria flexes its muscles, and we are no closer to “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. All in all, it’s the worst possible approach one could have devised for addressing the many challenges in the Middle East.

Richard Haass (who converted to the cause of regime change in Iran) writes again to criticize Obama, this time on his infatuation with the peace process:

To be sure, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value. It would constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States. It would help ensure Israel’s survival as a democratic, secure, prosperous, Jewish state. It would reduce Palestinian and Arab alienation, a source of anti-Americanism and radicalism. And it would dilute the appeal of Iran and its clients.

But it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs. There are times one could be forgiven for thinking that solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge from climate change to the flu. But would it? The short answer is no. It matters, but both less and in a different way than people tend to think.

As he points out, it would make little or no difference to the sectarian conflicts in Iraq or the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And as for Iran, “Peace between Israel and the Palestinians would not weaken Iran’s nuclear aspirations. It could even reinforce them. Iran and the groups it backs (notably Hamas and Hezbollah) would be sidelined by the region’s embrace of a Palestinian state and acceptance of Israel, perhaps causing Tehran to look to nuclear weapons to compensate for its loss of standing and influence.” Haass argues that a resolution of the Palestinian conflict wouldn’t even make much of a difference with other Arab states. Would they become more democratic? Would they be more inclined to oppose Iran? (They want the U.S. to do something about Iranian aggression now.) And we are nowhere close to the point at which a viable Palestinian state might emerge.

What’s the risk of persisting in the fruitless quest for a peace deal?

The danger of exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict is that doing so runs the risk of distorting American foreign policy. It accords the issue more prominence than it deserves, produces impatience, and tempts the U.S. government to adopt policies that are overly ambitious.

Haass is perhaps being too generous. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Obami are obsessed with the peace process because they have no viable policy with regard to Iran. It fills the time, it distracts attention, it takes the heat off the repressive Arab regimes, and it fulfills Obama’s own sense of grandeur and self-importance. And it provides a convenient way for Obama to demonstrate his affection for the “Muslim World” and disdain for the Jewish state.

It has also proved spectacularly unsuccessful if the real goal is a reduction of tensions and progress toward a two-state solution. And as Haass points out, we have made the vexing problem of nuclear-armed Iran even more difficult to resolve: “It is essential the two governments develop a modicum of trust if they are to manage inevitable differences over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, a challenge that promises to be the most significant strategic threat of this decade. A protracted disagreement over the number of settlements or the contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.”

In short, by straining to resolve the unresolvable (at least at this stage) Palestinian problem, Obama has frittered away precious time and damaged our credibility with nearly every player in the region. (Haass doesn’t mention the degree to which our misdirected Middle East policy has increased anxiety among Israel’s neighbors, who want to know what we’re going to do about the Iran nuclear threat.) Meanwhile, democracy and human-rights activists in the region get the back of our hand, the mullahs’ move steadily ahead with their nuclear program, Syria flexes its muscles, and we are no closer to “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. All in all, it’s the worst possible approach one could have devised for addressing the many challenges in the Middle East.

Read Less

Brooks: Elites Are Letting Us Down

David Brooks observes, “As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower. It’s not even clear that society is better led.” He finds a number of reasons for this, the first (and I think most critical) has some bearing on the current predicament in which the country finds itself. He explains:

The meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating.

Or “very smart” people lack real-world experience in leading other people. Or they lack core qualities like resoluteness and decisiveness. Or they delegate too much responsibility and blame others for their failings. You see where I’m heading, right?

We elected a president who was indisputably a member of the educated elite in America. It matters not at all that he wasn’t rich growing up. He spent his adult life at Ivy League institutions, chalked up the résumé entries (Harvard Law Review), and thoroughly adopted the intellectual bent and attributes of the academic Left in America.

What did all this have to do with being president? It turns out not all that much. But other elites — New York Times columnists, for example — swooned and vouched for him. They confused literary finesse with presidential timber. They mistook fluency in philosophy with grounding in common sense, moderation, and wisdom.

In looking for other reasons why elites are doing so badly these days, Brooks writes:

To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs. Clinton tried to transform health care. Bush tried to transform the Middle East. Obama has tried to transform health care, energy and much more. There’s less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified.

Well, that sounds like a particular kind of elite leader working on a short time frame before voters have a chance to put a halt to his august plans. But not all leaders operate this way. There are many successful governors, business professionals, and others who set modest goals and work competently toward them. No one is compelled to achieve grandiose objectives unless he has a grandiose conception of himself, a messiah complex, if you will. For those who come to believe they represent the “New Politics” and have the ability to lay a “new foundation” (i.e., radically restructure the country), then, yes, they’re going to run into trouble when the rest of us freak out and don’t want to be restructured out of the health care we enjoy and the economic system we’re rather fond of.

Next time around, voters may want to assess the credentials of the presidential candidates more closely. Elite degrees may be evidence of a sharp mind and keen intellect. But they also teach a lot of foolish things at Ivy League institutions, and it behooves voters to consider which ones a graduate has adopted. Moreover, voters would also do well to look for a candidate’s accomplishments — evidence — of intellectual prowess and personal character. If the candidate hasn’t done much other than run for office, make speeches, and extol his own greatness, that should be a red flag.

David Brooks observes, “As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower. It’s not even clear that society is better led.” He finds a number of reasons for this, the first (and I think most critical) has some bearing on the current predicament in which the country finds itself. He explains:

The meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating.

Or “very smart” people lack real-world experience in leading other people. Or they lack core qualities like resoluteness and decisiveness. Or they delegate too much responsibility and blame others for their failings. You see where I’m heading, right?

We elected a president who was indisputably a member of the educated elite in America. It matters not at all that he wasn’t rich growing up. He spent his adult life at Ivy League institutions, chalked up the résumé entries (Harvard Law Review), and thoroughly adopted the intellectual bent and attributes of the academic Left in America.

What did all this have to do with being president? It turns out not all that much. But other elites — New York Times columnists, for example — swooned and vouched for him. They confused literary finesse with presidential timber. They mistook fluency in philosophy with grounding in common sense, moderation, and wisdom.

In looking for other reasons why elites are doing so badly these days, Brooks writes:

To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs. Clinton tried to transform health care. Bush tried to transform the Middle East. Obama has tried to transform health care, energy and much more. There’s less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified.

Well, that sounds like a particular kind of elite leader working on a short time frame before voters have a chance to put a halt to his august plans. But not all leaders operate this way. There are many successful governors, business professionals, and others who set modest goals and work competently toward them. No one is compelled to achieve grandiose objectives unless he has a grandiose conception of himself, a messiah complex, if you will. For those who come to believe they represent the “New Politics” and have the ability to lay a “new foundation” (i.e., radically restructure the country), then, yes, they’re going to run into trouble when the rest of us freak out and don’t want to be restructured out of the health care we enjoy and the economic system we’re rather fond of.

Next time around, voters may want to assess the credentials of the presidential candidates more closely. Elite degrees may be evidence of a sharp mind and keen intellect. But they also teach a lot of foolish things at Ivy League institutions, and it behooves voters to consider which ones a graduate has adopted. Moreover, voters would also do well to look for a candidate’s accomplishments — evidence — of intellectual prowess and personal character. If the candidate hasn’t done much other than run for office, make speeches, and extol his own greatness, that should be a red flag.

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When Conventional Liberalism Fails, What Next?

In the newest Beltway parlor game — “How could Obama have messed up this badly?” — Michael Gerson offers an interesting answer: “The administration’s main problem is this: It has not contributed a single innovative, bipartisan idea on a major issue during its first year in office. Instead, it relied on its congressional majority to impose a tired leftism.” As for the president, Gerson adopts the existential analysis: “Either he is a pragmatist who always seems to choose conventional liberalism or a liberal impersonating a pragmatist. It matters little. Obama has polarized the electorate in unprecedented ways.”

It’s remarkable we don’t have a better answer given the length of the 2008 campaign and the 24/7 coverage. Yet, in all the cooing and leg-tingling, the media’s infatuation with Obama left little time to consider the substance (or lack thereof) in his soaring oratory. And virtually no time was spent considering how it came to be that a man so celebrated for his intellect had left such a light footprint in his brief career. Why were there no major legislative initiatives or interesting deviations from liberal orthodoxy? Well, certainly the perpetual fixation with running for higher office didn’t leave much time for accomplishing anything. But perhaps he had little interest in real policy debates and even less in the nitty-gritty of putting together actual legislation.

Less rigorous in his thinking than Ronald Reagan (who, contrary to the dunce image cultivated by liberals, for decades wrote, thought hard about, and spoke on the issues of the day) and less intellectually creative than Bill Clinton (who’d been forced as governor to navigate in a conservative state), Obama got to the presidency not through the appeal of his ideas but by the idea of Him. To be blunt, maybe the reason why the administration “has not contributed a single innovative, bipartisan idea on a major issue” is that Obama doesn’t have any and isn’t interested in any.

It’s hard to know where Obama will turn now. Some “inauthentic populism”? Some small-beans measures that really do very little to address the very big economic problems we have? Gerson optimistically hopes for some Reaganism — a pro-growth, pro-jobs approach to jump-start hiring in the battered private sector. Then there’s a full-blown reform agenda offered by Rep. Paul Ryan. Well, one can dream, but it’s hard to conceive of Obama adopting an ideologically eclectic policy agenda or abandoning his fondness for big government.

In short, Obama’s never been anything but a conventional ultra-liberal. In all the hoopla of the campaign and the pretty packaging, that was neatly disguised. Now that his ideology has proved unworkable, it’s hard to say which way he’ll turn. We might get a hint tonight. Or then again, we might just get another dose of defiant liberalism (with some rhetorical window dressing). It’s what he knows best.

In the newest Beltway parlor game — “How could Obama have messed up this badly?” — Michael Gerson offers an interesting answer: “The administration’s main problem is this: It has not contributed a single innovative, bipartisan idea on a major issue during its first year in office. Instead, it relied on its congressional majority to impose a tired leftism.” As for the president, Gerson adopts the existential analysis: “Either he is a pragmatist who always seems to choose conventional liberalism or a liberal impersonating a pragmatist. It matters little. Obama has polarized the electorate in unprecedented ways.”

It’s remarkable we don’t have a better answer given the length of the 2008 campaign and the 24/7 coverage. Yet, in all the cooing and leg-tingling, the media’s infatuation with Obama left little time to consider the substance (or lack thereof) in his soaring oratory. And virtually no time was spent considering how it came to be that a man so celebrated for his intellect had left such a light footprint in his brief career. Why were there no major legislative initiatives or interesting deviations from liberal orthodoxy? Well, certainly the perpetual fixation with running for higher office didn’t leave much time for accomplishing anything. But perhaps he had little interest in real policy debates and even less in the nitty-gritty of putting together actual legislation.

Less rigorous in his thinking than Ronald Reagan (who, contrary to the dunce image cultivated by liberals, for decades wrote, thought hard about, and spoke on the issues of the day) and less intellectually creative than Bill Clinton (who’d been forced as governor to navigate in a conservative state), Obama got to the presidency not through the appeal of his ideas but by the idea of Him. To be blunt, maybe the reason why the administration “has not contributed a single innovative, bipartisan idea on a major issue” is that Obama doesn’t have any and isn’t interested in any.

It’s hard to know where Obama will turn now. Some “inauthentic populism”? Some small-beans measures that really do very little to address the very big economic problems we have? Gerson optimistically hopes for some Reaganism — a pro-growth, pro-jobs approach to jump-start hiring in the battered private sector. Then there’s a full-blown reform agenda offered by Rep. Paul Ryan. Well, one can dream, but it’s hard to conceive of Obama adopting an ideologically eclectic policy agenda or abandoning his fondness for big government.

In short, Obama’s never been anything but a conventional ultra-liberal. In all the hoopla of the campaign and the pretty packaging, that was neatly disguised. Now that his ideology has proved unworkable, it’s hard to say which way he’ll turn. We might get a hint tonight. Or then again, we might just get another dose of defiant liberalism (with some rhetorical window dressing). It’s what he knows best.

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Why It Matters

Carly Fiorina delivered through the GOP weekly radio address this devastating critique on mammography guidelines:

The task force did not include an oncologist or a radiologist, in other words, cancer experts did not develop this recommendation. They said that most women under 50 don’t need regular mammograms and that women over 50 should only get them every other year. . . If I’d followed this new recommendation and waited another two years, I’m not sure I’d be alive today.

This is precisely the discussion that the Democrats don’t want to have because the implications go to the heart of ObamaCare and the inevitable results of government-run health care. As Fiorina explained, “The health care bill now being debated in the Senate explicitly empowers this very task force to influence future coverage and preventive care. Section 4105, for example, authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to deny payment for prevention services the task force recommends against.”

You can call it a “death panel” or you can call it “comparative effectiveness research,” but once you empower government to pay for, regulate, and control the inevitably exploding costs of government-run health care, you are going to have such panels telling Fiorina and millions of other Americans that they aren’t going to get the same care they once did. And that’s one very big reason why Americans are so skeptical of ObamaCare.

Carly Fiorina delivered through the GOP weekly radio address this devastating critique on mammography guidelines:

The task force did not include an oncologist or a radiologist, in other words, cancer experts did not develop this recommendation. They said that most women under 50 don’t need regular mammograms and that women over 50 should only get them every other year. . . If I’d followed this new recommendation and waited another two years, I’m not sure I’d be alive today.

This is precisely the discussion that the Democrats don’t want to have because the implications go to the heart of ObamaCare and the inevitable results of government-run health care. As Fiorina explained, “The health care bill now being debated in the Senate explicitly empowers this very task force to influence future coverage and preventive care. Section 4105, for example, authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to deny payment for prevention services the task force recommends against.”

You can call it a “death panel” or you can call it “comparative effectiveness research,” but once you empower government to pay for, regulate, and control the inevitably exploding costs of government-run health care, you are going to have such panels telling Fiorina and millions of other Americans that they aren’t going to get the same care they once did. And that’s one very big reason why Americans are so skeptical of ObamaCare.

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Like It’s Still 2008

The unhinged Palin haters are back. And they haven’t deviated from the familiar plotlines. She’s a sexed-up tabloid star, you see. (“Why be Evita, when you can be Madonna?’) Get it ? She’s a slutty celebrity. And she’s a Christian whack job with no public-policy views: “Sarah Palin appears to have no testable core conviction except the belief (which none of her defenders denies that she holds, or at least has held and not yet repudiated) that the end of days and the Second Coming will occur in her lifetime.”

Yes, this is where they left off when Palin was still running for office and Joe Biden was regarded as the serious vice-presidential candidate. It matters not if much of the claptrap (she banned books, she doesn’t want evolution taught, etc.) has been debunked by the meticulous work of Matthew Continetti (whose book about Sarah Palin is actually a devastating critique of the mainstream media and the very people who are now back frothing at the mouth). It matters not that she seized the floor in the health-care debate and has a million followers on Facebook who can read her views on energy policy and other issues without the media filter. The Palin-attack machine is good business and earns the approving nods of cable-news-show bookers and magazine editors.

We left the realm of facts and decency many, many months ago when it came to coverage of Palin. The question now remains whether once again the Palin haters will manage only to endear her to the conservative base — and even those not entirely sold on her political prospects.

The unhinged Palin haters are back. And they haven’t deviated from the familiar plotlines. She’s a sexed-up tabloid star, you see. (“Why be Evita, when you can be Madonna?’) Get it ? She’s a slutty celebrity. And she’s a Christian whack job with no public-policy views: “Sarah Palin appears to have no testable core conviction except the belief (which none of her defenders denies that she holds, or at least has held and not yet repudiated) that the end of days and the Second Coming will occur in her lifetime.”

Yes, this is where they left off when Palin was still running for office and Joe Biden was regarded as the serious vice-presidential candidate. It matters not if much of the claptrap (she banned books, she doesn’t want evolution taught, etc.) has been debunked by the meticulous work of Matthew Continetti (whose book about Sarah Palin is actually a devastating critique of the mainstream media and the very people who are now back frothing at the mouth). It matters not that she seized the floor in the health-care debate and has a million followers on Facebook who can read her views on energy policy and other issues without the media filter. The Palin-attack machine is good business and earns the approving nods of cable-news-show bookers and magazine editors.

We left the realm of facts and decency many, many months ago when it came to coverage of Palin. The question now remains whether once again the Palin haters will manage only to endear her to the conservative base — and even those not entirely sold on her political prospects.

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It Matters Not Who Won Or Lost

George Will distainfully observes: “Women, or at least those whose consciousnesses have been properly raised, supposedly think that the impatience being expressed about the protracted futility of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is disrespectful.” He goes on to conclude that they and Hillary Clinton should get over it–she lost fair and square. This misses the point.

Devotees of baseball should know something of sportsmanship. It usually involves eschewing trash talk both by the announcers and the victorious team. And it requires that the announcers–despite a large or even insurmountable lead by one team–not wander out of the stadium to follow another game before the last out.

It is not the winning but the style, grace and decency shown to the loser that is at issue with many of Clinton’s aggrieved fans. (I think even Barack Obama has figured this out. Several weeks ago he personally stopped suggesting Clinton bug out.) None of all that changes the results of the primary race–the votes, like the score in a game, settle everything eventually.

But unlike sports, primary politics depends on keeping the other candidate’s fans on your side and not sulking away. Or worse yet, joining the next round’s opponent out of spite.

George Will distainfully observes: “Women, or at least those whose consciousnesses have been properly raised, supposedly think that the impatience being expressed about the protracted futility of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is disrespectful.” He goes on to conclude that they and Hillary Clinton should get over it–she lost fair and square. This misses the point.

Devotees of baseball should know something of sportsmanship. It usually involves eschewing trash talk both by the announcers and the victorious team. And it requires that the announcers–despite a large or even insurmountable lead by one team–not wander out of the stadium to follow another game before the last out.

It is not the winning but the style, grace and decency shown to the loser that is at issue with many of Clinton’s aggrieved fans. (I think even Barack Obama has figured this out. Several weeks ago he personally stopped suggesting Clinton bug out.) None of all that changes the results of the primary race–the votes, like the score in a game, settle everything eventually.

But unlike sports, primary politics depends on keeping the other candidate’s fans on your side and not sulking away. Or worse yet, joining the next round’s opponent out of spite.

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