Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lyndon Johnson

The Vietnamization of the War on ISIS?

Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

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Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

This is reminiscent of the way that Lyndon Johnson controlled air strikes on North Vietnam from the Oval Office in what has come to be seen as classic example of how trying to carefully ratchet up the use of force to “send a message” to adversaries doesn’t work in the real world. At least Johnson had good reason to limit air strikes in North Vietnam–he was worried about drawing China into the war as had occurred during the Korean War. In the case of Syria, it’s hard to see a similar imperative to limit air strikes on ISIS. If Obama is worried that the Assad regime will take advantage of U.S. attacks on ISIS, the obvious solution would be to bomb Assad’s forces too–in short, more air attacks, not fewer. But that clearly is not what the president contemplates; he seems to envision a few pinprick air strikes in Syria and a few more in Iraq.

How this is supposed to succeed in his ambitious goal of first degrading and then destroying ISIS is hard to see. His own top generals–Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff–have warned in recent days that it may be necessary to send at least a limited number of U.S. troops to work alongside friendly forces in order to enhance their combat effectiveness. Yet Obama keeps insists this will not happen. At Central Command on Wednesday, he said: “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

It’s possible that Obama can wiggle out of his seemingly firm commitment as David Ignatius suggests: by reflagging Special Operations Forces under Title 50 covert-action authority and sending them to work alongside indigenous forces under CIA command. It would be easier and more effective not to go through this subterfuge, however, so as to commit the full resources of the U.S. military to support advisers and air controllers in harm’s way.

Comparisons have been drawn to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 but in that case a large number of Special Forces teams operated openly alongside more covert officers from the CIA. That’s a good model to replicate in Iraq and Syria. But whatever the legal niceties, it is vitally important, as his own generals are signaling, for Obama to put at least a limited force of U.S. personnel on the ground where they can work alongside indigenous forces and accompany them into battle, as occurred in Afghanistan. It is important also to step up air strikes on ISIS beyond what is currently contemplated because the projected, low-level of strikes will not be enough to break the back of the most powerful terrorist movement in the world. It may in fact simply result in ISIS being able to claim a victory by posturing as the jihadists who withstood an American offensive. That would be pretty much the worst scenario imaginable–yet with his commitment to gradualism in warfare Obama is making it more likely.

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The Idealism and Realism of the American Founders

During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

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During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

Let me quibble with one phrase in your question, which would be “moderate middle.” So I’m a moderate but I’m not in the middle. And what I mean by that, I think being moderate is seeing politics as a competition between partial truths. And like in this era we have competition between security and freedom, between achievement and equality, between mobility and cohesion. And both sides have a piece of the truth. And often you want to be radical on both ends and try to balance. So it’s all about balance. So you can really value things that are on each end as long as you try to balance these opposing things and as long as you understand that politics is a messy, slow … boring through hard boards–it’s just messy and slow and you take one step at a time.

Brooks went on to say this:

My problem with the Tea Party is partly what they believe, but partly it’s just their [methods]–they’re anti-political. I believe in politics, that you pass a piece of legislation and you get half a loaf and you make a slow step and you make a compromise and you try to go a little forward every day. Politics is not, it’s not show business. It’s just messy compromises because you’re always caught in contradictions and filled with paradoxes. And my problem with the Tea Party is they don’t like politics. They want it to be pure, and they often punish people who they call RINOs–who are Republican in Name Only–because they’re not pure. But I think impurity is what leaders do. They take impurity upon themselves. They take the sins of the situation on themselves. They take the complexity of the situation on themselves and they try to muddle through. And so I think people who are unwilling to muddle through are not being political; they’re being self-indulgent. And so I have a problem with that style of politics.

I would add some elaborations to what David says, ones I think he might agree with, such as: No one in politics sees the truth in full, but some people are within much closer striking distance than others. And the Tea Party movement has produced some of the most impressive politicians now on the right, including Marco Rubio (who defeated Charlie Crist in their primary) and Mike Lee (who defeated Bob Bennett in their primary).

With that said, Brooks is zeroing in on something quite important, which is that politics is an inherently messy business. Moreover, the American founders–who developed the concepts of checks and balances, separation of powers, and all the rest–wanted politics to be messy. That is, our constitutional order requires give and take, adaptation and collaboration, the balancing of competing interests, and compromise itself. As Jonathan Rauch has written in National Affairs, “In our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good: an indispensable source of political discipline, competition, and stability — which are all conservative values.”

Too often these days, zealous people who are in a hurry don’t appreciate that the process and methods of politics–the “messy,” muddling through side of politics–is a moral achievement of sorts. But this, too, is only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that justice is often advanced by people who are seized with a moral vision. They don’t much care about the prosaic side of governing; they simply want society to be better, more decent, and more respectful of human dignity. So yes, it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But it’s also the case that politics requires us to strive for certain (unattainable) ideals.

There’s a distinction, then, between motivating ideals and the methods and processes of politics. Think of Martin Luther King’s dream and Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights legislation. Or think of Lincoln, who was both the greatest exponent of principles of the Declaration of Independence in American history and a supremely great politician.

What happens all too often in our politics is that people who are drawn to one tend to look with disdain on those who are drawn to the other. What we need, I think, is greater recognition that both are necessary, that each one alone is insufficient. Visionaries have to find a way to give their vision concrete expression, which requires deal-making, compromise, and accepting something less than the ideal. Legislators need to govern with some commitment to philosophical and moral ideals; otherwise, they’re just passing laws and cutting deals for their own sake.

What David Brooks is saying, I think–and where I agree with him–is that some recalibration needs to occur in some quarters on the right, away from those seeking purification and excommunication (RINO-hunters) and toward a fuller, more authentic conservatism. Call it the conservatism of the founders.

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The Obama Era and the Collapse of Trust in Our Governing Institutions

According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

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According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

These findings are a powerful indictment of the Obama presidency. But they are also part of a broader, extraordinary collapse of trust in government we’ve witnessed during the last 50 years.

After his landslide election in 1964, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”

Not exactly.

In fact, in less than four years America lurched from one of our more tranquil political periods to perhaps the most tumultuous since the Civil War. It happened in the blink of a historical eye, and it was driven by a complex set of factors, some the result of public policy and some not, but eventually the accretion heavily implicated government.

The public, especially young people, began to turn against the Vietnam War, to the point that President Johnson–battered and broken–decided not to run for reelection in 1968. Student protests spread, including onto college campuses. The nation was convulsed during the struggle over civil rights, while cities burned in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Robert Kennedy was murdered just two months later–and only five years after his brother was gunned down in Dallas. We experienced the killings at Kent State and the March on the Pentagon, Woodstock and Watergate, black power salutes in the Mexico City Olympics and violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Social pathologies–including crime, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, those on welfare, and more–worsened. And trust in government eroded at an extraordinary pace.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 1964, 76 percent of the public said they trusted government in Washington to do what was right most of the time or just about always. Just a decade later, the figure had fallen to 36 percent. By 1980, it dropped to 25 percent. In only a decade and a half, trust in government fell by 50 percentage points. We have never seen anything quite like it.

While public trust increased during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (to 47 percent), it dropped sharply following it. By the summer of 1994 public trust was at 17 percent, the lowest recorded. Those figures fluctuated during the Clinton second term, falling to 24 percent during the run-up to the Clinton impeachment trial but rising to more than 40 percent by the end of the Clinton presidency (June 2000). During George W. Bush’s first term, public trust in government spiked to more than 60 percent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But by October 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, trust was again down to 17 percent.

This deep, durable unhappiness with government, and the longing of the public to once again believe in it, was something that Barack Obama brilliantly tapped into during his campaign for the presidency. The centerpiece of his run was not a particular policy; it was the promise to elevate our political debates and restore government to a respected place in our national life.

Yet here we are, in the sixth year of the Obama presidency, with the level of confidence in his presidency (29 percent) lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors and the ratings for the legislative and judicial branches at or near their lowest points to date.

I can’t say that these judgments are unwarranted. But I’m not convinced that such corrosive mistrust of our governing institutions is particularly good for our country, either. In a free nation, massive distrust of our governing institutions is a self-indictment of sorts. Government is, after all, the “offspring of our own choice,” in the words of George Washington, who added it has

a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.

Today respect for government’s authority has never been lower, and the American people cannot be happy with this state of affairs or with themselves. In the wake of the Obama era, where expectations were raised to such dizzying heights, only to collapse into ruins, the public will be understandably wary about the next person promising to heal the planet and repair the world, who claims the power to halt the rise of the ocean tides, who says that this time will be different than all the rest and declares that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” (To remind yourself of the stratospheric expectations set by Mr. Obama, I’d urge you to watch this short clip of Obama in 2008.)

Given where we are, it seems to me that the proper response from a Republican candidate is not to celebrate in this distrust but to help correct it; to candidly and with some sophistication explain why it’s happened and to show how a modern conservative governing agenda (perhaps something along these lines) can help restore trust in a responsible, limited government. With the Obama presidency lying in ashes, and with liberalism itself terribly damaged, an opportunity exists. Who on the right will seize it?

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Powerless President? Obama’s Lame Excuse

In the wake of the VA scandal, President Obama’s cheering section in the press has been scrambling to come up with an excuse for his latest lackluster response to a governmental problem. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the country that Obama first heard about the disaster at the VA while watching television, the same story we were told about his discovery of the IRS scandal as well as other instances of potential misconduct. But the fact that this absentee president is incapable of coming up with original excuses about his slow response time to the fiascos that occur on his watch is just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Obama arrived at the Oval Office claiming that he would transform America in a blaze of hope and change, he has proven incapable of fixing the most mundane issues, let alone reboot the country’s political culture or turn back the oceans. Obama’s presidency is stuck in neutral as his second term drifts steadily into lame duck territory. Washington gridlock, the complexities of foreign problems that the president thought would be solved by the magic of his personality (Russian “reset,” Iran engagement, and Middle East peace), and the difficulty of rolling out his signature health-care law have left him looking not so much defeated as helpless. When he spoke to the country about the VA scandal that may have led to as many as 40 deaths of veterans kept waiting for medical service, he lacked passion. Even though VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had clearly failed in his five and half years to address the agency’s problems, Obama was prepared to give him more time. The administration’s slow response was seen as a function of a government that simply didn’t work. For those not still in thrall to Obama’s historic status this state of affairs is a damning indictment of his leadership style and inability to hold his appointees accountable for incompetence and/or failure.

But according to liberal blogger Ezra Klein, the fault lies not with Obama but with his office. In a piece published on his Vox site, Klein makes the argument that it is unfair to expect Obama to succeed when the presidency is designed to be ineffective. In Klein’s view, instead of blaming Obama for being an absentee president, we should be scolding James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for crafting a Constitution that didn’t provide a president with the ability to govern because of the checks and balances incorporated into the system. Those who differ with this view are, he wrote, subscribing to a “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency” in which the commander-in-chief is invested with magical powers.

This is, to put it mildly, bunk. No American president who respects the Constitution (a dubious proposition when applied to Obama) can be a dictator. But the presidency has evolved from its bare-bones origins at the Federal Convention of 1787 into one that both liberals and conservatives have often dubbed an “imperial” institution. To say that Obama hasn’t the power to succeed is to engage in denial of both history and logic.

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In the wake of the VA scandal, President Obama’s cheering section in the press has been scrambling to come up with an excuse for his latest lackluster response to a governmental problem. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the country that Obama first heard about the disaster at the VA while watching television, the same story we were told about his discovery of the IRS scandal as well as other instances of potential misconduct. But the fact that this absentee president is incapable of coming up with original excuses about his slow response time to the fiascos that occur on his watch is just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Obama arrived at the Oval Office claiming that he would transform America in a blaze of hope and change, he has proven incapable of fixing the most mundane issues, let alone reboot the country’s political culture or turn back the oceans. Obama’s presidency is stuck in neutral as his second term drifts steadily into lame duck territory. Washington gridlock, the complexities of foreign problems that the president thought would be solved by the magic of his personality (Russian “reset,” Iran engagement, and Middle East peace), and the difficulty of rolling out his signature health-care law have left him looking not so much defeated as helpless. When he spoke to the country about the VA scandal that may have led to as many as 40 deaths of veterans kept waiting for medical service, he lacked passion. Even though VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had clearly failed in his five and half years to address the agency’s problems, Obama was prepared to give him more time. The administration’s slow response was seen as a function of a government that simply didn’t work. For those not still in thrall to Obama’s historic status this state of affairs is a damning indictment of his leadership style and inability to hold his appointees accountable for incompetence and/or failure.

But according to liberal blogger Ezra Klein, the fault lies not with Obama but with his office. In a piece published on his Vox site, Klein makes the argument that it is unfair to expect Obama to succeed when the presidency is designed to be ineffective. In Klein’s view, instead of blaming Obama for being an absentee president, we should be scolding James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for crafting a Constitution that didn’t provide a president with the ability to govern because of the checks and balances incorporated into the system. Those who differ with this view are, he wrote, subscribing to a “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency” in which the commander-in-chief is invested with magical powers.

This is, to put it mildly, bunk. No American president who respects the Constitution (a dubious proposition when applied to Obama) can be a dictator. But the presidency has evolved from its bare-bones origins at the Federal Convention of 1787 into one that both liberals and conservatives have often dubbed an “imperial” institution. To say that Obama hasn’t the power to succeed is to engage in denial of both history and logic.

Were we having this discussion in the 19th century rather than the 21st century, Klein might have a point. Up until the Civil War, American presidents had only a tiny federal bureaucracy to rule and lacked the ability to influence many domestic issues, though even then some larger-than-life characters like Andrew Jackson were able to wield enormous power by both constitutional and unconstitutional means. The vast expansion of the national budget and its consequent expansion of federal power that the Civil War helped create changed that. But even in the late 19th century, presidents had but a fraction of the ability to influence events that they do today.

However, in the 20th century, the quaint notions of the early republic with its part-time Congress (meeting only a few months out of each year) and tiny federal payrolls were forgotten as the presidency grew along with the country and the government. Contemporary presidents have at their disposal vast and numerous Cabinet departments and sundry agencies that have been gifted with virtually plenipotentiary powers over states and municipalities. They needn’t resort to attempts to govern by executive orders as Obama has done to throw their weight around. As Obama proved in his first term, the bully pulpit of the presidency and the ability to pressure Congress to act can result not only in giving the man in the White House a trillion-dollar stimulus but also the ability to transform America’s health-care system.

But Klein tells us not to believe our lying eyes and ears and instead believe that Obama’s doldrums are the function of his office. He dissects criticisms of Obama’s inability to work with Congress or to effectively communicate his agenda to the nation by claiming that those who have done so were flukes. Such “Green Lantern Presidents” as Lyndon Johnson, whose legendary ability to ram bills through Congress despite bitter opposition makes Obama’s refusal to deal with the legislative branch look particularly bad, and Ronald Reagan, who used the bully pulpit of the White House to change both foreign and domestic policies, were operating in different times and under different circumstances. He also asserts that partisan divisions are exacerbated by stark ideological splits with the opposition party always believing that it is in their interests to oppose the president on every conceivable issue (as both George W. Bush and Obama could attest).

It is true that the 21st century president has problems that even Reagan and LBJ didn’t face in eras where each party had its share of liberals and conservatives. But the power of the presidency has continued to expand as well. As Obama has perhaps belatedly realized the courts have given him wide latitude to enact policy on issues like carbon emissions. He can also use a Judiciary Department to selectively enforce laws in ways that overshadow the will of Congress.

But none of this gainsays the fact that Obama is simply incompetent in the business of political persuasion and in administration. That he lacks these basic skills that have always been considered essential to a successful presidency cannot be lain at the feet of Madison and Hamilton.

I write more about Klein’s potshot at Alexander Hamilton in a subsequent post.

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The War on Poverty a Half Century Later

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called War on Poverty. 

It was January 8, 1964, in his Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, where President Lyndon Johnson “declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” He went on to state, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

By most accounts, we did lose it (certainly by no reasonable standard did we win it). It’s worth recalling that this period was the high-water mark of liberal confidence. To appreciate just how high the expectations were at the time, consider that the previous month LBJ proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” And during his State of the Union speech, Johnson set a very high bar for what was possible:

Let us work together to make this year’s session the best in the Nation’s history. Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic. 

All this and more can and must be done. It can be done by this summer, and it can be done without any increase in spending.

There was no obvious ceiling to what progressives thought was achievable. At the time the idea that public-spirited men and women, at the head of the federal government, could transform American society sounded ambitious. Today it sounds fanciful and in some circumstances downright destructive (for more, see the Affordable Care Act).

So what did we learn? 

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called War on Poverty. 

It was January 8, 1964, in his Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, where President Lyndon Johnson “declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” He went on to state, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

By most accounts, we did lose it (certainly by no reasonable standard did we win it). It’s worth recalling that this period was the high-water mark of liberal confidence. To appreciate just how high the expectations were at the time, consider that the previous month LBJ proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” And during his State of the Union speech, Johnson set a very high bar for what was possible:

Let us work together to make this year’s session the best in the Nation’s history. Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic. 

All this and more can and must be done. It can be done by this summer, and it can be done without any increase in spending.

There was no obvious ceiling to what progressives thought was achievable. At the time the idea that public-spirited men and women, at the head of the federal government, could transform American society sounded ambitious. Today it sounds fanciful and in some circumstances downright destructive (for more, see the Affordable Care Act).

So what did we learn? 

In his biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Gentleman from New York, Godfrey Hodgson offers this summary of one of the men deeply involved in building what Johnson called The Great Society. While never abandoning his faith in the capacity and the duty of government to make society better, Hodgson argues, Moynihan “acquired a profound doubt about the central paradigm of liberal government: the assumption that social scientists should identify a need, devise a program of government action to meet that need and supervise the application of public money to the sore place through the ministrations of enlightened bureaucracy.” 

By 1969, in a memorandum to President Nixon on the rise of welfare in New York and elsewhere, Moynihan wrote, “I believe the time has come for a President to state what increasingly is understood: that welfare as we know it is a bankrupt and destructive system…. It is also necessary to state that no one really understands why and how all this has happened.” And Moynihan’s great friend, the eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson, when asked about Moynihan’s increasing skepticism of the efficacy of government intervention in almost all circumstances, said this:

He always believes that the job of politics is to help those who can’t help themselves. But he has a scholar’s reluctance to accept the proposition that the government knows very much about how to help people who can’t help themselves.

When all that is required is to transfer money from person A to person B, as in the social security system, it works very well, and Pat has been a staunch defender of social security. But when it has to alter their character, when it has to alter whether men marry women with whom they begat a child, or when it has to reduce the crime rate, or has to deal with student radicalism, the fact of the matter is that government doesn’t know much what to do.

It’s complicated, however. Starting in the early-to-mid 1990s, we saw enormous progress on a range of social issues, including welfare, drug use, and crime. After the failures of The Great Society, we learned that progress can happen faster than many people thought possible. In analyzing various social trends in 2007, Yuval Levin and I wrote:

Despite the good case made by those who believe that diffidence, skepticism, and self-limitation are the prerequisites of sound policymaking, sometimes what is needed is a bold break with the past. There will always be unintended consequences, but even these need not always be for the worse, and the prospect of such unintended consequences should not paralyze us from taking action. Guided by a modest sense of possibility, and by realistic notions of the limits of politics, reform can succeed.

In thinking about the War on Poverty a half-century after it began, this still sounds about right to me. 

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Israel Likes Its U.S. Presidents Strong

The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

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The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

“Not worth five cents”

What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.

Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:

President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…

We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…

If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…

The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”

Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.

Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.

In his two memoirs, Eban recalled his astonishment at this apparent abdication:

I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….

I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.

The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.

The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.

After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing. There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.

“Too big for business as usual”

In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.

In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”

Views differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, if it should conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.

And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:

Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”

That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing Congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has proposed that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”

Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.

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The Un-Lyndon Johnson

It finally seems to be dawning on much of the Washington press corps that President Obama doesn’t much like the way governance works in a democracy and so he just doesn’t do what presidents are paid to do: get things done.

It seems that his press conference yesterday, marking the hundredth day of his second term, was more or less of a disaster. He whined that his failure on gun control, cybersecurity, and removal of the sequester was all  the fault of Congress, and especially congressional Republicans. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post slices and dices that one most effectively. But Jen, of course, is a conservative. More surprising, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, also beats him up big time.

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It finally seems to be dawning on much of the Washington press corps that President Obama doesn’t much like the way governance works in a democracy and so he just doesn’t do what presidents are paid to do: get things done.

It seems that his press conference yesterday, marking the hundredth day of his second term, was more or less of a disaster. He whined that his failure on gun control, cybersecurity, and removal of the sequester was all  the fault of Congress, and especially congressional Republicans. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post slices and dices that one most effectively. But Jen, of course, is a conservative. More surprising, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, also beats him up big time.

When Jonathan Karl of ABC, asked the president if he still had the “juice” to pass his agenda, Dowd reported Obama’s response:

Then he put on his best professorial mien to give his high-minded philosophy of governance: Reason together and do what’s right.

“But, Jonathan,” he lectured Karl, “you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected, members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people.”

Actually, it is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.

Obama, in other words, is the un-Lyndon Johnson. Johnson buttered up members of Congress with abandon, threatened them, and made deals as necessary to get his agenda through Congress. As a result, he had the most successful record of any president of the post-war era in bending Congress to his will.

But Obama, it seems, can hardly stand to shake hands with a member of Congress. Instead, as Dowd, says, he treats them the way professors treat not-overbright students. He explains what is the right thing to do and then expects them to do it, no questions asked, let alone self-interests pursued.

As his lame duck status intensifies, his chilly personality, utter disdain for any opinion but his own, and professorial ways will make him ever less effective, although it seems he is already about as ineffective as a president can be. He might want to read up on how Woodrow Wilson, another professor with a chilly personality, fared in the waning days of his term. It wasn’t pretty.

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Barack Obama Is No Lyndon Johnson

On “Fox and Friends” this morning at 7 a.m. came the news that President Obama and Speaker Boehner had had a phone call last evening, content not disclosed.

That shouldn’t have been news—these are the leaders of each party trying to avoid a governmental disaster that could come in less than a month, and should be talking 10 times a day. But it was news, and that’s troubling to say the least.

As Daniel Henninger makes clear in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Where in his career did Barack Obama ever learn the art of the political deal? Nowhere.” He writes:

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On “Fox and Friends” this morning at 7 a.m. came the news that President Obama and Speaker Boehner had had a phone call last evening, content not disclosed.

That shouldn’t have been news—these are the leaders of each party trying to avoid a governmental disaster that could come in less than a month, and should be talking 10 times a day. But it was news, and that’s troubling to say the least.

As Daniel Henninger makes clear in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Where in his career did Barack Obama ever learn the art of the political deal? Nowhere.” He writes:

Recall the famous Blair House summit he called early in 2010 amid the legislating over Obamacare. Lamar Alexander, Tom Coburn, Paul Ryan and other Republicans talked about wonkish compromises. All of it, every single idea, blew right by the president. Naturally the legislation got zero GOP votes. A kid running for high-school president could have gotten more opposition votes than that.

Obama negotiates with Congressional Republicans the way General MacArthur negotiated with the Japanese on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945: Here’s a pen, sign your surrender. But the Japanese were powerless at that point; the Republicans are not today–they hold the House.

Compare that with how Lyndon Johnson got Medicare through Congress in 1965. Johnson was vastly more politically potent in 1965 than is Obama today. Johnson had just carried all but six states in the presidential election and with a higher percentage of the popular vote than FDR achieved in 1936. The Senate was 68-32 Democratic (as compared with 53-47 right now), the House was 295-140 Democratic (as compared with 241-191 Republican).

But Johnson treated Congress as a part of the process, not an annoying obstruction to his will. “I am not for denouncing Congress all the time,” he told a historian that year. “I am not like . . . writers who think of congressmen as archaic buffoons with tobacco drool running down their shirts. . . . I got up at seven this morning to have breakfast with them. I don’t have contempt for them.”

As James T. Patterson explains in a new book, “LBJ spent hours on the phone with congressmen and senators, held frequent one-on-one meetings with leaders, and hosted regular Tuesday morning breakfast gatherings at the White House.” No wonder he got 13 Republican votes in the Senate and fully half the Republicans in the House to vote for Medicare. In contrast, the first time Barack Obama bothered to meet with Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate, for a one-on-one chat was in July 2010, sixteen full months into his presidency. He’d had time for dozens of rounds of golf by then.

Obama’s utter disdain for any ideas but his own is going to be the ruin of this president and that ruin might not be that long in coming. Too bad it is the country, along with his place in history, that has to suffer for his hubris.

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Compromise v. Prudence

In his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro – in the context of the civil rights struggle – writes this:

Johnson refused to compromise. In public, in answer to a press conference question about the possibility of one, he said, “I am in favor of passing it [the bill] in the Senate exactly in its present form.” In private, talking to legislative leaders, he had a more pungent phrase. “There will be no wheels and no deals.” There was, as always, a political calculation behind his stance. “I knew,” he was to tell Doris Goodwin, “that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue, [the liberals] would get me…. I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.” And there was, as always, something more than calculation. Assuring Richard Goodwin there would be “no compromises on civil rights; I’m not going to bend an inch,” he added, “In the Senate [as Leader] I did the best I could. But I had to be careful…. But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.”

The issue of compromise is an important one in politics, and there is much to be said on its behalf. “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory,” Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in Miracle at Philadelphia. “As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

Some conservatives seem instinctively hostile to comprise in principle, as if it is inherently a sign of weakness, of lack of commitment and resolve, and that it inevitably leads to bad outcomes. As a “constitutional conservative,” I dissent from this attitude.

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In his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro – in the context of the civil rights struggle – writes this:

Johnson refused to compromise. In public, in answer to a press conference question about the possibility of one, he said, “I am in favor of passing it [the bill] in the Senate exactly in its present form.” In private, talking to legislative leaders, he had a more pungent phrase. “There will be no wheels and no deals.” There was, as always, a political calculation behind his stance. “I knew,” he was to tell Doris Goodwin, “that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue, [the liberals] would get me…. I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.” And there was, as always, something more than calculation. Assuring Richard Goodwin there would be “no compromises on civil rights; I’m not going to bend an inch,” he added, “In the Senate [as Leader] I did the best I could. But I had to be careful…. But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.”

The issue of compromise is an important one in politics, and there is much to be said on its behalf. “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory,” Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in Miracle at Philadelphia. “As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

Some conservatives seem instinctively hostile to comprise in principle, as if it is inherently a sign of weakness, of lack of commitment and resolve, and that it inevitably leads to bad outcomes. As a “constitutional conservative,” I dissent from this attitude.

It’s worth noting that two of the most impressive figures in American history, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln, showed the ability to compromise at key moments. It was Lincoln, as a young man, who said, “The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it has more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.” The Lincoln biographer William Lee Miller, building on this point, added, “[M]any reflective moralists, and most serious politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, perceive … that good and evil come mixed and that the moral life most of the time (not quite all of the time) consists of making discriminate judgments, judgments at the margins, discernments of less and more…”

At the same time, there are those who speak as if compromise is itself, in principle, a moral good. But that approach is also flawed and potentially dangerous. Compromise for its own sake can set back the cause of justice. In the wrong hands, in weak hands, it can produce pernicious results. The point is that compromise can’t be judged in the abstract; it can only be assessed in particular circumstances. It takes wisdom and statesmanship to discern when to hold firm (on fundamental principles) and when to give ground (on tactics and secondary issues).

Which brings me back to LBJ. Most modern-day liberals who excoriated conservatives for being “rigid” and opposing “compromise” on matters having to do with the budget and raising the debt ceiling – the pseudo-sophisticated putdown is that they are nihilists – would (rightly) celebrate President Johnson’s refusal to compromise on civil rights. Which may get us somewhat closer to the heart of the matter.

The word compromise is something of a Rorschach test. Those who hold a liberal worldview often consider conservatives who fight hard for their cause to be inflexible and unreasonable, just as those who hold a conservative worldview often consider liberals who fight hard for their cause to be inflexible and unreasonable. What determines whether we judge a politician to be a profile in courage or a profile in intransigence almost always depends on whether we’re sympathetic to the cause they are championing.

As a general matter, then, compromise is neither a moral good nor a moral evil; it’s contextual. And it’s why prudence, not compromise, is rightly considered to be among the highest of all the political virtues.

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Hate and Forgiveness

In his review  in the New York Review of Books of the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, Garry Wills focused on the relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy. It was, in Wills’ words, “a study in hate … radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step in the story.” Their interactions were “venomous.”

“I doubt that Caro, when he began his huge project, thought he would end up composing a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred. But that is what, in effect, he has given us,” writes Wills.

Hate is a complicated topic. For one thing, hate itself is not in every instance wrong. The Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there are things that God Himself hates (see Proverbs 6:16-19 for more). But for those of us who are mortal, hate can be a destructive thing.

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In his review  in the New York Review of Books of the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, Garry Wills focused on the relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy. It was, in Wills’ words, “a study in hate … radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step in the story.” Their interactions were “venomous.”

“I doubt that Caro, when he began his huge project, thought he would end up composing a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred. But that is what, in effect, he has given us,” writes Wills.

Hate is a complicated topic. For one thing, hate itself is not in every instance wrong. The Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there are things that God Himself hates (see Proverbs 6:16-19 for more). But for those of us who are mortal, hate can be a destructive thing.

Its wellsprings vary, from sadism to an irrational aversion to someone or some group of people (which often manifests itself as racial or ethnic prejudice) to a response based on fear, injury, or having been on the receiving end of a great injustice. A father, for example, will probably feel hatred for a person who harms his child, for reasons we can easily identify with. But the revulsion and rage between Johnson and Kennedy was far less understandable and much pettier. And in many ways it consumed them. They attempted to humiliate and destroy one another.

Bobby had tried to keep Johnson out of the White House. Johnson, returning the favor, will try to keep Bobby out of burial beside his brother in Arlington. The hatred had reached depths where it amounted to kicking a corpse. It is disheartening to see such large men reduced to such petty furies.

The great danger of hatred, Wills points out, is that there is a continual ratcheting up, with one hostile act provoking another. Hate is a great magnifier of its object; it “narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.”

The object of the hate is often turned into a one-dimensional figure, a caricature, and a child of darkness. That’s how we often justify our attitude, taking a destructive emotion and bestowing on it the patina of righteousness. How can anyone not hate individuals who possess no redeeming qualities, who are themselves the personification of evil? But of course that is rarely the case, and it was certainly not the case when it came to LBJ and RFK. They, like most of us, were an uneven mix of admirable and dishonorable qualities.

The irony of hatred is that it often ends up destroying the person doing the hating.

In a 1962 address to the National Press Club, Martin Luther King, Jr.—a contemporary of both Johnson and Kennedy—took up this topic. “Hate is always tragic,” he said. “It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul.” Years later King would say, “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Some individuals harbor hatred in their hearts, I think, because they’ve convinced themselves that they need to be the dispensers of justice or malevolent people will never suffer for their offenses. But to act as judge and jury in life is a burden we’re not particularly well equipped to carry. And the wise among us will take some comfort in these words: “It is mine to avenge,” saith the Lord. “I will recompense.” The belief that in the end there is an accounting, that justice is done and that all things are set right relieves us of the pressure of trying to right every wrong.

A final word about personal forgiveness. As I understand the concept, forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending an injustice didn’t occur. It means granting free pardon and giving up all claim on account of an offense. This isn’t easy, in part because it’s counterintuitive, particularly when a betrayal or grave wrong has taken place. But the effects of forgiveness can also be liberating. Those who can offer grace provide healing to those who receive it, and to those who offer it. If hate is a zero-sum game, then genuine forgiveness is the opposite. It can help and heal both sides. It can repair brokenness in our lives and in the lives of others. Nor is forgiveness the abandonment of justice. From my observations of those whose lives are characterized by grace, it comes from  recognition that they have received mercy in their lives and are therefore able to dispense it to others.

“Ungrace causes cracks to fissure open between mother and daughter, father and son, brother and sister, between scientists, and prisoners, and tribes, and races,” the author Philip Yancey has written. “Left alone, cracks widen, and for the resulting chasms of ungrace there is only one remedy: the frail rope-bridge of forgiveness.”

The bridge of forgiveness is one neither Lyndon Johnson nor Robert Kennedy were ever able to build. And they were both lesser men because of it.

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Re: Blaming Bush for the Deficit Is Getting Old

Michael Boskin isn’t much impressed with Obama’s complaint that he inherited a budget deficit. He points out that Obama’s own budget sets us on a course of reckless spending, the cost of which can’t be reasonably balanced by tax hikes (at least not without crippling our economic growth). Boskin explains the depth of the hole Obama — not George W. Bush — is digging for us:

On average, in the first three years of the 10-year budget plan, federal spending rises by 4.4% of GDP. That’s more than during President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Vietnam War buildup and President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup combined. . . Remarkably, President Obama will add more red ink in his first two years than President George W. Bush — berated by conservatives for his failure to control domestic spending and by liberals for the explosion of military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan — did in eight. In his first 15 months, Mr. Obama will raise the debt burden — the ratio of the national debt to GDP — by more than Reagan did in eight years. . . He projects a cumulative deficit of $11.5 trillion by 2020. That brings the publicly held debt (excluding debt held inside the government, e.g., Social Security) to 77% of GDP, and the gross debt to over 100%. Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush each ended their terms at about 40%.

The tax hikes needed to pay for all this would choke off economic growth. (“Such vast debt implies immense future tax increases. Balancing the 2015 budget would require a 43% increase in everyone’s income taxes that year.”) This all is occurring, as Boskin notes, while baby boomers are hitting retirement age, thereby pushing up entitlement costs.

It is understandable then why Obama would rather deflect the discussion to his predecessor’s fiscal shortcomings. But the figures Boskin cites are real and the blame for our worsening situation will rightly be directed to the current White House occupant. He loves, of course, to tell us that choices are “false” or to hover above the political debate as if he were a cable-TV commentator or, yes, a law-school professor. But this is a problem that requires him to do something. And when decisive, potentially unpopular action is required (e.g., Afghanistan war strategy, Iran policy) Obama seems to shrink before our eyes. Is it timidity? Lack of experience or executive ability? We don’t know.

All we can judge Obama by are his decisions and the results he obtains. So far, on the budget (as on so much else), he has come up wanting. There is no policy innovation, no debunking of liberal dogma, and no willingness to embrace the best of his opponents’ ideas. So we can understand why George W. Bush is a favorite crutch.

Michael Boskin isn’t much impressed with Obama’s complaint that he inherited a budget deficit. He points out that Obama’s own budget sets us on a course of reckless spending, the cost of which can’t be reasonably balanced by tax hikes (at least not without crippling our economic growth). Boskin explains the depth of the hole Obama — not George W. Bush — is digging for us:

On average, in the first three years of the 10-year budget plan, federal spending rises by 4.4% of GDP. That’s more than during President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Vietnam War buildup and President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup combined. . . Remarkably, President Obama will add more red ink in his first two years than President George W. Bush — berated by conservatives for his failure to control domestic spending and by liberals for the explosion of military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan — did in eight. In his first 15 months, Mr. Obama will raise the debt burden — the ratio of the national debt to GDP — by more than Reagan did in eight years. . . He projects a cumulative deficit of $11.5 trillion by 2020. That brings the publicly held debt (excluding debt held inside the government, e.g., Social Security) to 77% of GDP, and the gross debt to over 100%. Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush each ended their terms at about 40%.

The tax hikes needed to pay for all this would choke off economic growth. (“Such vast debt implies immense future tax increases. Balancing the 2015 budget would require a 43% increase in everyone’s income taxes that year.”) This all is occurring, as Boskin notes, while baby boomers are hitting retirement age, thereby pushing up entitlement costs.

It is understandable then why Obama would rather deflect the discussion to his predecessor’s fiscal shortcomings. But the figures Boskin cites are real and the blame for our worsening situation will rightly be directed to the current White House occupant. He loves, of course, to tell us that choices are “false” or to hover above the political debate as if he were a cable-TV commentator or, yes, a law-school professor. But this is a problem that requires him to do something. And when decisive, potentially unpopular action is required (e.g., Afghanistan war strategy, Iran policy) Obama seems to shrink before our eyes. Is it timidity? Lack of experience or executive ability? We don’t know.

All we can judge Obama by are his decisions and the results he obtains. So far, on the budget (as on so much else), he has come up wanting. There is no policy innovation, no debunking of liberal dogma, and no willingness to embrace the best of his opponents’ ideas. So we can understand why George W. Bush is a favorite crutch.

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Taxes Are Taxes — and So Are Expirations

Political language often frames the public discussion of political issues. “Pro-choice” sounds a lot better than “pro-abortion.” Economic “stimulus” sounds a lot better than government “spending.” The party that better frames the language surrounding the public debate can sometimes win the debate almost by that means alone.

So let me take Jennifer’s perceptive post “Taxes Are Taxes” one step further. It is a mistake to say that Congress is “letting the Bush tax cuts expire.” The proper way of framing the issue is “failing to stop a massive tax increase.” The issue is not tax cuts relative to the 2001 economy, but the prospect of a huge tax increase on the 2010 one.

In April 2008 — long before President Obama engineered an increase in government spending that transformed “billions” into small change, making anything under a trillion a certification of political acceptability (rather than, in Everett Dirksen’s phrase, “real money”) — John F. Cogan and R. Glenn Hubbard described, in an article entitled “The Coming Tax Bomb,” what will happen if Congress fails to act:

This would be the largest increase in personal income taxes since World War II. It would be more than twice as large as President Lyndon Johnson’s surcharge to finance the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty. It would be more than twice the combined personal income tax increases under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The increase would push total federal government revenues relative to GDP to 20%.

All this is before the tax increases the Democrats want to use for cap-and-trade, health care, the Afghan war, etc. — or rather, it is after such tax increases. The strategy appears to be to enact those tax increases first and then engineer another one simply phrased “letting the Bush tax cuts expire.”

It is not too soon to bring this issue to the forefront, even though it will not come to a head until next year. Indeed, as Cogan and Hubbard argued, the prospect of scheduled future tax increases may itself be part of the current economic problem, and making the Bush tax cuts permanent might provide certainty for investors that would spur the economy. In any event, it would be a mistake to defer discussion of this until next year, especially if the debate then is framed as a mere “expiration” of something “Bush” did.

Political language often frames the public discussion of political issues. “Pro-choice” sounds a lot better than “pro-abortion.” Economic “stimulus” sounds a lot better than government “spending.” The party that better frames the language surrounding the public debate can sometimes win the debate almost by that means alone.

So let me take Jennifer’s perceptive post “Taxes Are Taxes” one step further. It is a mistake to say that Congress is “letting the Bush tax cuts expire.” The proper way of framing the issue is “failing to stop a massive tax increase.” The issue is not tax cuts relative to the 2001 economy, but the prospect of a huge tax increase on the 2010 one.

In April 2008 — long before President Obama engineered an increase in government spending that transformed “billions” into small change, making anything under a trillion a certification of political acceptability (rather than, in Everett Dirksen’s phrase, “real money”) — John F. Cogan and R. Glenn Hubbard described, in an article entitled “The Coming Tax Bomb,” what will happen if Congress fails to act:

This would be the largest increase in personal income taxes since World War II. It would be more than twice as large as President Lyndon Johnson’s surcharge to finance the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty. It would be more than twice the combined personal income tax increases under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The increase would push total federal government revenues relative to GDP to 20%.

All this is before the tax increases the Democrats want to use for cap-and-trade, health care, the Afghan war, etc. — or rather, it is after such tax increases. The strategy appears to be to enact those tax increases first and then engineer another one simply phrased “letting the Bush tax cuts expire.”

It is not too soon to bring this issue to the forefront, even though it will not come to a head until next year. Indeed, as Cogan and Hubbard argued, the prospect of scheduled future tax increases may itself be part of the current economic problem, and making the Bush tax cuts permanent might provide certainty for investors that would spur the economy. In any event, it would be a mistake to defer discussion of this until next year, especially if the debate then is framed as a mere “expiration” of something “Bush” did.

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