Commentary Magazine


Topic: National Journal

Verging on Irrelevancy

When looking for hopeful signs of a move to the center by the Obama administration, observers point to the about-face on the 2011 troop-withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan and to possible acquiescence in extending the Bush tax cuts. But is there progress on the latter front?

The New York Post editors observe:

Meanwhile, in the White House, the left hand seems not to know what the far left hand is doing. Within hours yesterday, senior adviser David Axelrod gave contradictory statements on the question of extending the Bush-era tax cuts. …

We have to deal with the world as we find it,” Axelrod told the Huffington Post. “The world of what it takes to get this done.” He continued: “There are concerns [over multiple temporary extensions for the wealthy], but I don’t want to trade away security for the middle class in order to make that point.” …

Except, Axelrod then did a 180-degree turn, later telling National Journal: “We’re willing to discuss how we move forward. But we believe that it’s imperative to extend the tax cuts for the middle class, and don’t believe we can afford a permanent extension of tax cuts for the wealthy.”

It’s not hard to understand why “Axelrod [is] talking out of both sides of his face.” The White House doesn’t know what it wants to do and what it can get away with. Message control has broken down, so aides now freelance, trying to push the president in one direction or another. Not only does this create uncertainty for investors, employers, and consumers, but it also suggests that the president is an observer in his own administration.

Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum; with a shrinking presidency, others (advisers, Congress, 2012 contenders, wanna-be primary opponents, etc.) will rush forward to fill the void. After the 1994 midterms, Clinton memorably declared that the president was still relevant — and then proved it to be the case. So Obama had better get out of his funk and decide which direction he wants to go in the next two years. Otherwise, he will become increasingly irrelevant at home and dangerously ineffective overseas.

When looking for hopeful signs of a move to the center by the Obama administration, observers point to the about-face on the 2011 troop-withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan and to possible acquiescence in extending the Bush tax cuts. But is there progress on the latter front?

The New York Post editors observe:

Meanwhile, in the White House, the left hand seems not to know what the far left hand is doing. Within hours yesterday, senior adviser David Axelrod gave contradictory statements on the question of extending the Bush-era tax cuts. …

We have to deal with the world as we find it,” Axelrod told the Huffington Post. “The world of what it takes to get this done.” He continued: “There are concerns [over multiple temporary extensions for the wealthy], but I don’t want to trade away security for the middle class in order to make that point.” …

Except, Axelrod then did a 180-degree turn, later telling National Journal: “We’re willing to discuss how we move forward. But we believe that it’s imperative to extend the tax cuts for the middle class, and don’t believe we can afford a permanent extension of tax cuts for the wealthy.”

It’s not hard to understand why “Axelrod [is] talking out of both sides of his face.” The White House doesn’t know what it wants to do and what it can get away with. Message control has broken down, so aides now freelance, trying to push the president in one direction or another. Not only does this create uncertainty for investors, employers, and consumers, but it also suggests that the president is an observer in his own administration.

Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum; with a shrinking presidency, others (advisers, Congress, 2012 contenders, wanna-be primary opponents, etc.) will rush forward to fill the void. After the 1994 midterms, Clinton memorably declared that the president was still relevant — and then proved it to be the case. So Obama had better get out of his funk and decide which direction he wants to go in the next two years. Otherwise, he will become increasingly irrelevant at home and dangerously ineffective overseas.

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The 2010 Midterm Election in Perspective

In shifting through the fine analysis that emerged in the aftermath of last week’s midterm elections, a few data points are particularly noteworthy:

  • Republicans picked up more House seats than in any election since 1938. Republicans now control the most House seats, and Democrats now have the smallest number of House seats, since 1946.
  • Fifty incumbent Democratic congressmen were defeated, while only two incumbent House Republicans lost.
  • Independents comprised 28 percent of the electorate and supported Republican congressional candidates by a margin of 56 to 38 percent. That represents a 36-point turnaround from the last midterm election, in 2006, when independents supported Democratic congressional candidates by 57 to 39 percent. In addition, independents trust Republicans to do a better job than Democrats by a margin of 23 points on jobs and employment, 23 points on the economy, 27 points on government spending, and 31 points on taxes.
  • Voters support repealing/replacing ObamaCare by 51 to 42 percent. Democrats oppose repeal by 80 to 16 percent — but both independents (by 57 to 31 percent) and Republicans (by 87 to 7 percent) want to repeal and replace it.
  • Sixty-five percent of voters said that the stimulus bill either hurt the economy or did no good — and those voters overwhelmingly favored the GOP.
  • Fifty-four percent of those voting said they were dissatisfied with the performance of Barack Obama — and they broke 85-11 for the Republicans. Read More

In shifting through the fine analysis that emerged in the aftermath of last week’s midterm elections, a few data points are particularly noteworthy:

  • Republicans picked up more House seats than in any election since 1938. Republicans now control the most House seats, and Democrats now have the smallest number of House seats, since 1946.
  • Fifty incumbent Democratic congressmen were defeated, while only two incumbent House Republicans lost.
  • Independents comprised 28 percent of the electorate and supported Republican congressional candidates by a margin of 56 to 38 percent. That represents a 36-point turnaround from the last midterm election, in 2006, when independents supported Democratic congressional candidates by 57 to 39 percent. In addition, independents trust Republicans to do a better job than Democrats by a margin of 23 points on jobs and employment, 23 points on the economy, 27 points on government spending, and 31 points on taxes.
  • Voters support repealing/replacing ObamaCare by 51 to 42 percent. Democrats oppose repeal by 80 to 16 percent — but both independents (by 57 to 31 percent) and Republicans (by 87 to 7 percent) want to repeal and replace it.
  • Sixty-five percent of voters said that the stimulus bill either hurt the economy or did no good — and those voters overwhelmingly favored the GOP.
  • Fifty-four percent of those voting said they were dissatisfied with the performance of Barack Obama — and they broke 85-11 for the Republicans.
  • Republicans have captured the seats in at least 57 of the 83 Democratic-held districts in which Obama won less than 55 percent of the vote.
  • Democrats hold a majority of the congressional delegation in only three states — Iowa, New Mexico, and Vermont — that don’t directly touch an ocean. Republicans similarly routed Democrats in gubernatorial races across the Midwest and the border states, from Ohio and Tennessee to Wisconsin and Iowa.
  • Republicans picked up 680 seats in state legislatures, the most in the modern era. In the 1994 GOP wave, Republicans picked up 472 seats. The previous record was in the post-Watergate election of 1974, when Democrats picked up 628 seats. The GOP gained majorities in at least 19 state house chambers. They now have unified control — meaning both chambers — of 26 state legislatures. And across the country, Republicans now control 55 chambers, Democrats have 38, and two are tied. (The Nebraska legislature is unicameral.)
  • Republicans have not enjoyed this much power in state capitals since the 1920s.
  • Voters who identified as ideologically conservative accounted for 41 percent of the turnout, an increase from the 34 percent figure in 2008 and the highest level recorded for any election since 1976.

Politico called the midterm elections a “bloodbath of a night for Democrats.” National Journal’s Ron Brownstein wrote, “If the U.S. genuinely used a parliamentary system, Tuesday’s result … would have represented a vote of no confidence in the president and the governing party.” And the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone says that “you could argue that this is the best Republican showing ever.”

Apart from all that, it was a splendid midterm election for President Obama and his party.

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Tsunami Stat of the Day

From Jeremy Jacobs at National Journal:

Republicans picked up 680 seats in state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — an all time high. To put that number in perspective: In the 1994 GOP wave, Republicans picked up 472 seats. The previous record was in the post-Watergate election of 1974, when Democrats picked up 628 seats.

The GOP gained majorities in at least 14 state house chambers. They now have unified control — meaning both chambers — of 26 state legislatures.

From Jeremy Jacobs at National Journal:

Republicans picked up 680 seats in state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — an all time high. To put that number in perspective: In the 1994 GOP wave, Republicans picked up 472 seats. The previous record was in the post-Watergate election of 1974, when Democrats picked up 628 seats.

The GOP gained majorities in at least 14 state house chambers. They now have unified control — meaning both chambers — of 26 state legislatures.

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Obama: A Gift to the GOP That Keeps On Giving

Jonathan Rauch has written an interesting cover story in the National Journal on “The Tea Party Paradox.” He argues that the country has indeed moved to the right but it’s not clear whether this is happening in a way that helps the GOP in the long run (he does say it will help Republicans in the short term, for sure).

In his article, Rauch quotes from something I recently wrote, in which I pointed to opinion polls showing that a growing percentage of Americans regard the Democrats as too liberal. “What’s happening, in other words, is that an increasing number of Americans are becoming more conservative,” I wrote. “This is more fallout from the Age of Obama. Mr. Obama is, for the GOP, the gift that keeps on giving.”

Then comes this:

Wrong, replies Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic-leaning political analyst and a senior fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress. “It’s not Obama that’s the gift that keeps on giving, it’s the economy that’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he said in a recent interview. “I think it’s a judgment on how things are going in the country. I don’t think it’s a judgment to take the country in a conservative direction.”

Teixeira is repeating an argument some of the New Republic’s bloggers make ad nauseam: the problem isn’t Obama; it’s the economy. If Obama had a roaring economy, he’d be far more popular than he is. Obama’s policies are not to blame; the conditions of the country are. To which one could respond: if during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the inflation and interest rates had been 2 percent instead of topping 18 percent, Carter would have been more popular too. But they weren’t, and he wasn’t. Mr. Carter was judged a failure and jettisoned from office after a single term because people believed the conditions of the country were due, in large measure, to his performance as president.

Teixeira’s argument can work when a president has been in office for one month; it’s harder to pull off when he’s been in office for more than 18 months. And if you read public-opinion polls carefully, what you will find isn’t simply that people are upset by the state of the economy; they are also troubled by Obama’s response to the economy. They believe he’s pursuing policies that are making things worse, not better. That is why Obama’s poll ratings are sinking and why his party is in danger of losing both the House and the Senate come November. And in response to Obamaism, the nation is, in significant respects, moving in a more conservative direction.

This trend is not inexorable. If liberals are correct and the policies that Obama is pursing are wise and necessary, then we will see their manifestation: unemployment figures will tumble, the deficit will shrink, the economy will come roaring back — and Obama will sail to victory in 2012. The country will also give liberalism a second look. But if conservatives are correct and the policies Obama is pursuing are misguided, then we will see that manifest itself, too. And Obama and his party will continue to pay a very heavy price for this.

It’s true that many people ascribe too much influence to the president when it comes to the economy. On the other hand, administration policies matter quite a lot — and when the Obama administration makes grand, sweeping claims for its economic policies and insists the stimulus package will keep unemployment below 8 percent when it ends up topping 10 percent, the public is right to hold the White House responsible.

American voters tend to be pretty fair and reasonable. They don’t expect the president to be a magician — but they do insist on progress, on results, and on accountability. Obama is no exception. These days, liberals comfort themselves by telling each other that in his second year as president, Ronald Reagan was unpopular too, and Obama is really another Reagan. Conservatives hear this comparison and chuckle; Obama is more nearly the antithesis of Reagan — they point out — and the policies Obama is pursuing will not meet with nearly the same success as Reagan’s did.

Time will tell who is right and who is wrong. At this stage, conservatives certainly have the better of the argument, though this political drama has several more acts to play out. But here’s one thing you can be sure of: if unemployment is still high, if the deficit and debt are still exploding, and if the economy is still struggling in 2011 and 2012, then the Teixeira/TNR effort to create miles of distance between Obama and the economic conditions of the country will fail. Appeals to sophisticated political-science models and pleas for more time and understanding will fail. Lashing out at critics and Bush won’t work. And if dogmatic liberals continue to insist, as they have in the past, that “the widespread conclusion that Obama is losing popularity because he’s too liberal … is totally unpersuasive,” they will be seen as increasingly detached from reality.

The public will hold the president accountable for his actions. That is what Obama’s increasingly desperate courtiers are most afraid of.

Jonathan Rauch has written an interesting cover story in the National Journal on “The Tea Party Paradox.” He argues that the country has indeed moved to the right but it’s not clear whether this is happening in a way that helps the GOP in the long run (he does say it will help Republicans in the short term, for sure).

In his article, Rauch quotes from something I recently wrote, in which I pointed to opinion polls showing that a growing percentage of Americans regard the Democrats as too liberal. “What’s happening, in other words, is that an increasing number of Americans are becoming more conservative,” I wrote. “This is more fallout from the Age of Obama. Mr. Obama is, for the GOP, the gift that keeps on giving.”

Then comes this:

Wrong, replies Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic-leaning political analyst and a senior fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress. “It’s not Obama that’s the gift that keeps on giving, it’s the economy that’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he said in a recent interview. “I think it’s a judgment on how things are going in the country. I don’t think it’s a judgment to take the country in a conservative direction.”

Teixeira is repeating an argument some of the New Republic’s bloggers make ad nauseam: the problem isn’t Obama; it’s the economy. If Obama had a roaring economy, he’d be far more popular than he is. Obama’s policies are not to blame; the conditions of the country are. To which one could respond: if during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the inflation and interest rates had been 2 percent instead of topping 18 percent, Carter would have been more popular too. But they weren’t, and he wasn’t. Mr. Carter was judged a failure and jettisoned from office after a single term because people believed the conditions of the country were due, in large measure, to his performance as president.

Teixeira’s argument can work when a president has been in office for one month; it’s harder to pull off when he’s been in office for more than 18 months. And if you read public-opinion polls carefully, what you will find isn’t simply that people are upset by the state of the economy; they are also troubled by Obama’s response to the economy. They believe he’s pursuing policies that are making things worse, not better. That is why Obama’s poll ratings are sinking and why his party is in danger of losing both the House and the Senate come November. And in response to Obamaism, the nation is, in significant respects, moving in a more conservative direction.

This trend is not inexorable. If liberals are correct and the policies that Obama is pursing are wise and necessary, then we will see their manifestation: unemployment figures will tumble, the deficit will shrink, the economy will come roaring back — and Obama will sail to victory in 2012. The country will also give liberalism a second look. But if conservatives are correct and the policies Obama is pursuing are misguided, then we will see that manifest itself, too. And Obama and his party will continue to pay a very heavy price for this.

It’s true that many people ascribe too much influence to the president when it comes to the economy. On the other hand, administration policies matter quite a lot — and when the Obama administration makes grand, sweeping claims for its economic policies and insists the stimulus package will keep unemployment below 8 percent when it ends up topping 10 percent, the public is right to hold the White House responsible.

American voters tend to be pretty fair and reasonable. They don’t expect the president to be a magician — but they do insist on progress, on results, and on accountability. Obama is no exception. These days, liberals comfort themselves by telling each other that in his second year as president, Ronald Reagan was unpopular too, and Obama is really another Reagan. Conservatives hear this comparison and chuckle; Obama is more nearly the antithesis of Reagan — they point out — and the policies Obama is pursuing will not meet with nearly the same success as Reagan’s did.

Time will tell who is right and who is wrong. At this stage, conservatives certainly have the better of the argument, though this political drama has several more acts to play out. But here’s one thing you can be sure of: if unemployment is still high, if the deficit and debt are still exploding, and if the economy is still struggling in 2011 and 2012, then the Teixeira/TNR effort to create miles of distance between Obama and the economic conditions of the country will fail. Appeals to sophisticated political-science models and pleas for more time and understanding will fail. Lashing out at critics and Bush won’t work. And if dogmatic liberals continue to insist, as they have in the past, that “the widespread conclusion that Obama is losing popularity because he’s too liberal … is totally unpersuasive,” they will be seen as increasingly detached from reality.

The public will hold the president accountable for his actions. That is what Obama’s increasingly desperate courtiers are most afraid of.

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National Journal‘s Loss

National Journal has let go three of its prized columnists: Jonathan Rauch, Stuart Taylor, and Clive Crook. That’s a big loss for National Journal. While I often don’t agree with their point of view, all three are intelligent and thoughtful writers. Rauch and Taylor in particular are people whom I read closely and take seriously. They have extremely impressive analytical minds. They will certainly find another home; they are too talented not to. And while I don’t pretend to know the economic situation that caused this move to occur, National Journal will be, I think, a less influential and intellectually interesting magazine without Jon and Stuart in the stable. I wish them, as well as Mr. Crook, well.

National Journal has let go three of its prized columnists: Jonathan Rauch, Stuart Taylor, and Clive Crook. That’s a big loss for National Journal. While I often don’t agree with their point of view, all three are intelligent and thoughtful writers. Rauch and Taylor in particular are people whom I read closely and take seriously. They have extremely impressive analytical minds. They will certainly find another home; they are too talented not to. And while I don’t pretend to know the economic situation that caused this move to occur, National Journal will be, I think, a less influential and intellectually interesting magazine without Jon and Stuart in the stable. I wish them, as well as Mr. Crook, well.

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The President, the New Republic, and Dramatic Decline

In the afterglow of Barack Obama’s election, liberals were peddling a lot of bad ideas. Among them was the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, who in December 2008 wrote this:

The practical import of the Obama mandate debate has fallen on the question of whether he should pursue his goal of comprehensive health care reform, which numerous pundits and even some Democrats have tagged as dangerously ambitious. But this is one area where undiluted liberalism enjoys overwhelming public support. The public, by a roughly two-to-one margin, thinks the government has a responsibility to make sure that every American has adequate health care. Congressional Democrats fear a repeat of 1994–when, as they see it, Bill Clinton over-interpreted his mandate and therefore failed to pass health care reform. This reading has it backward. Clinton’s health care plan failed because Congress decided he didn’t have a mandate and refused to pass it. If the Democrats fail this time, it will probably be because they psyched themselves out once again.

Thirteen months later, Chait’s “undiluted liberalism” enjoys something less than overwhelming public support.

In fact, the United States has become more, not less, conservative during the Obama presidency (by a margin of 2-to-1, Americans describe themselves as conservative rather than liberal). And Obama and the Democrats, having followed Chait’s counsel, find themselves in a terrible political ditch. After a year in office, Mr. Obama has become, by a wide margin, our most polarizing president. He has the highest disapproval ratings ever recorded for an elected president beginning his second year. No other president has seen his Gallup job-approval rating drop as far as Obama’s has (21 points) in his first year. And the public overwhelmingly opposes Obama’s signature domestic initiative, health care (the approve-disapprove spread ranges from 15 to 20 points).

In addition, Democrats have suffered crushing losses in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia — and last week they suffered a particularly devastating loss in the Massachusetts Senate race. Independents are voting for Republicans by a 2-to-1 (or better) margin. Republicans are now polling better than Democrats on most issues. They are ahead on most generic congressional vote polls. The GOP’s recruiting efforts are going gangbusters, while Democrats are either withdrawing from midterm races in November or not throwing their hat into the ring at all. “I have not seen a party’s fortunes collapse so suddenly since Richard Nixon got caught up in the Watergate scandal and a president who carried 49 states was threatened with impeachment and removal from office,” according to the political analyst Michael Barone.

Democrats, rightly sensing what awaits them in November, are nearly panic-stricken.

In light of what has come to pass, Mr. Chait’s writings look comical. After a disastrous August for ObamaCare, Chait declared, against all evidence, “August moved the ball pretty far down the field.” He was issuing ominous warnings about a GOP overreach on health care in September. And in October he wrote, “We’ve had months of sturm and drang, and massive attention focused on the question, Whither health care reform? It’s just quietly turned into a fait accompli.”

Au contraire. ObamaCare, while not yet dead, is in critical and perhaps terminal condition. And the damaging effects it has had on the president and the Democratic party is beyond serious dispute. Charlie Cook of National Journal put it this way:

Honorable and intelligent people can disagree over the substance and details of what President Obama and congressional Democrats are trying to do on health care reform and climate change. But nearly a year after Obama’s inauguration, judging by where the Democrats stand today, it’s clear that they have made a colossal miscalculation.

Clear, that is, to everyone but Jonathan Chait. He is in the uncomfortable position of having to explain how the Obama presidency and liberalism have gone off the rails in the past year, a year devoted to trying to pass massively unpopular health-care legislation championed by people like Chait. Rather than coming to grips with reality, though, Chait has opted for self-delusion. In his January 19 column, for example, Jonathan was reduced to writing things like this:

The perception has formed, perhaps indelibly, that the reason Democrats will get hammered in the 2010 elections is that the party moved too far left in general and tried to reform health care in particular. This perception owes itself, above all, to the habit that political analysts in the media and other outposts of mainstream thought have of ignoring structural factors.

So Obama and the Democrats find themselves on the precipice, not because of health care, but because of “structural factors.” Of course. Scott Brown famously won his Massachusetts Senate race by promising to be the 41st vote against “structural factors.”

It is all rather pathetic.

The New Republic was once one of the nation’s leading journals of opinion. It was the home of first-rate thinkers and first-rate writers. Today it is the home of Jonathan Chait.

It has been a long and dramatic decline.

In the afterglow of Barack Obama’s election, liberals were peddling a lot of bad ideas. Among them was the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, who in December 2008 wrote this:

The practical import of the Obama mandate debate has fallen on the question of whether he should pursue his goal of comprehensive health care reform, which numerous pundits and even some Democrats have tagged as dangerously ambitious. But this is one area where undiluted liberalism enjoys overwhelming public support. The public, by a roughly two-to-one margin, thinks the government has a responsibility to make sure that every American has adequate health care. Congressional Democrats fear a repeat of 1994–when, as they see it, Bill Clinton over-interpreted his mandate and therefore failed to pass health care reform. This reading has it backward. Clinton’s health care plan failed because Congress decided he didn’t have a mandate and refused to pass it. If the Democrats fail this time, it will probably be because they psyched themselves out once again.

Thirteen months later, Chait’s “undiluted liberalism” enjoys something less than overwhelming public support.

In fact, the United States has become more, not less, conservative during the Obama presidency (by a margin of 2-to-1, Americans describe themselves as conservative rather than liberal). And Obama and the Democrats, having followed Chait’s counsel, find themselves in a terrible political ditch. After a year in office, Mr. Obama has become, by a wide margin, our most polarizing president. He has the highest disapproval ratings ever recorded for an elected president beginning his second year. No other president has seen his Gallup job-approval rating drop as far as Obama’s has (21 points) in his first year. And the public overwhelmingly opposes Obama’s signature domestic initiative, health care (the approve-disapprove spread ranges from 15 to 20 points).

In addition, Democrats have suffered crushing losses in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia — and last week they suffered a particularly devastating loss in the Massachusetts Senate race. Independents are voting for Republicans by a 2-to-1 (or better) margin. Republicans are now polling better than Democrats on most issues. They are ahead on most generic congressional vote polls. The GOP’s recruiting efforts are going gangbusters, while Democrats are either withdrawing from midterm races in November or not throwing their hat into the ring at all. “I have not seen a party’s fortunes collapse so suddenly since Richard Nixon got caught up in the Watergate scandal and a president who carried 49 states was threatened with impeachment and removal from office,” according to the political analyst Michael Barone.

Democrats, rightly sensing what awaits them in November, are nearly panic-stricken.

In light of what has come to pass, Mr. Chait’s writings look comical. After a disastrous August for ObamaCare, Chait declared, against all evidence, “August moved the ball pretty far down the field.” He was issuing ominous warnings about a GOP overreach on health care in September. And in October he wrote, “We’ve had months of sturm and drang, and massive attention focused on the question, Whither health care reform? It’s just quietly turned into a fait accompli.”

Au contraire. ObamaCare, while not yet dead, is in critical and perhaps terminal condition. And the damaging effects it has had on the president and the Democratic party is beyond serious dispute. Charlie Cook of National Journal put it this way:

Honorable and intelligent people can disagree over the substance and details of what President Obama and congressional Democrats are trying to do on health care reform and climate change. But nearly a year after Obama’s inauguration, judging by where the Democrats stand today, it’s clear that they have made a colossal miscalculation.

Clear, that is, to everyone but Jonathan Chait. He is in the uncomfortable position of having to explain how the Obama presidency and liberalism have gone off the rails in the past year, a year devoted to trying to pass massively unpopular health-care legislation championed by people like Chait. Rather than coming to grips with reality, though, Chait has opted for self-delusion. In his January 19 column, for example, Jonathan was reduced to writing things like this:

The perception has formed, perhaps indelibly, that the reason Democrats will get hammered in the 2010 elections is that the party moved too far left in general and tried to reform health care in particular. This perception owes itself, above all, to the habit that political analysts in the media and other outposts of mainstream thought have of ignoring structural factors.

So Obama and the Democrats find themselves on the precipice, not because of health care, but because of “structural factors.” Of course. Scott Brown famously won his Massachusetts Senate race by promising to be the 41st vote against “structural factors.”

It is all rather pathetic.

The New Republic was once one of the nation’s leading journals of opinion. It was the home of first-rate thinkers and first-rate writers. Today it is the home of Jonathan Chait.

It has been a long and dramatic decline.

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From King Canute to a Cork in the Ocean

White House political adviser David Axelrod granted an interview to Ron Brownstein of National Journal that qualifies as either hyper-spin or an almost clinical state of denial. For example, Axelrod tells Brownstein, “It’s almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself. And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It’s not going to be a referendum.”

Yes it will. When a political party controls the presidency and, by wide margins, the House and the Senate, the midterm election will be a referendum on the stewardship of that party. There’s no way to get around that. What’s particularly revealing is that Axelrod and his colleagues, rather than welcoming a referendum on their year in office, are terribly afraid of it. They know that if the dominant issues of the 2010 midterm election are how well Democrats have governed, they will absorb tremendous damage.

Axelrod makes this point in a slightly different way when he says:

If the question is what we’ve been able to achieve, which I think is substantial, versus the ideal of what people hope for or hoped for, that’s a harder race for us. If the choice is between the things we’ve achieved and we’re fighting for and what the other side would deliver, I think that’s very motivational to people.

In other words, if people measure us against perfection, we will fall short. But people won’t be measuring Obama and Democrats against perfection; they will be measuring him/them against the standards Obama set up — for example, insisting that unemployment would not exceed 8 percent in 2009 (it is now 10 percent); that the stimulus package would “create or save” 3.5 million jobs over the course of two years (2.8 million jobs have been lost since it was signed into law); that the deficit and debt would go down on his watch (Obama’s budget will double the debt in five years and triple it in 10 years); and so forth. Read More

White House political adviser David Axelrod granted an interview to Ron Brownstein of National Journal that qualifies as either hyper-spin or an almost clinical state of denial. For example, Axelrod tells Brownstein, “It’s almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself. And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It’s not going to be a referendum.”

Yes it will. When a political party controls the presidency and, by wide margins, the House and the Senate, the midterm election will be a referendum on the stewardship of that party. There’s no way to get around that. What’s particularly revealing is that Axelrod and his colleagues, rather than welcoming a referendum on their year in office, are terribly afraid of it. They know that if the dominant issues of the 2010 midterm election are how well Democrats have governed, they will absorb tremendous damage.

Axelrod makes this point in a slightly different way when he says:

If the question is what we’ve been able to achieve, which I think is substantial, versus the ideal of what people hope for or hoped for, that’s a harder race for us. If the choice is between the things we’ve achieved and we’re fighting for and what the other side would deliver, I think that’s very motivational to people.

In other words, if people measure us against perfection, we will fall short. But people won’t be measuring Obama and Democrats against perfection; they will be measuring him/them against the standards Obama set up — for example, insisting that unemployment would not exceed 8 percent in 2009 (it is now 10 percent); that the stimulus package would “create or save” 3.5 million jobs over the course of two years (2.8 million jobs have been lost since it was signed into law); that the deficit and debt would go down on his watch (Obama’s budget will double the debt in five years and triple it in 10 years); and so forth.

Mr. Axelrod also tells Brownstein that next on his checklist is “finish this health care bill successfully.” And after that? “Then we have to go out and sell it. I think we can run on this.”

The problem is that the president has been trying to “sell” ObamaCare for more than half a year. He has spoken out on its behalf repeatedly and in every forum imaginable. And the more Obama attempts to sell the Democrats’ health-care plan, the more unpopular it becomes. After a prolonged and intense debate on this issue, here’s what they have to show for it: “The president’s marks on handling health care, with reforms still under debate in Congress, are even lower [than his overall job approval rating of 46 percent] — just 36 percent approve, while 54 percent disapprove,” according to the latest CBS News poll. “Both of these approval ratings are the lowest of Mr. Obama’s presidency.”

If Axelrod and the Obama White House really believe the problem here is with their sales job rather than with the product they are trying to sell, then they are living in an alternative universe. ObamaCare is responsible in large measure for the devastating Democratic losses in the Virginia and New Jersey governors races. The political environment is so bad right now that even Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is viewed by Republicans and Democrats as endangered. This is a remarkable political development.

Finally, Mr. Axelrod says this:

In certain ways we are at the mercy of forces that are larger than things we can control. If we see steady months of jobs growth between now and next November, I think the picture will be different than if we don’t. I think Ronald Reagan learned that lesson in 1982. We’re not immune to the physics of all of this. But I’m guardedly optimistic that we are going to see that progress.

Here’s a pretty good rule of thumb: when senior White House political advisers begin to use phrases like “we are at the mercy of forces that are larger than we can control” and “we’re not immune to the physics of all this,” you can assume they are in deep trouble. That is especially the case for those who work for a president who proclaimed that his victory would mark the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Now Obama and Axelrod portray themselves like corks in the ocean. They invoke the laws of physics to explain why unemployment is in double digits. It turns out it is a quick journey from political messianism to political fatalism.

Axelrod’s words are a revealing (if unwitting) concession: he and his colleagues understand that they are overmatched by events and, in office for less than a year, they are scrambling to find excuses for the problems they face. But the fault, dear David, is not in the stars, but in yourselves. There will be a high political price to pay for this — perhaps starting next week but almost certainly by next November.

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China Turns Our Lights Out

Chinese hackers caused two power blackouts in the United States in the last half decade, according to the cover story in tomorrow’s National Journal. American intelligence sources confirm that the People’s Liberation Army was responsible for intrusions in 2003 that likely caused North America’s largest blackout, which affected three states, parts of Canada, and 50 million people. More than a hundred generating stations were shut down. To this day the Chinese activity that precipitated the cascading failure is not fully understood.

Then, this February, three million customers were hit by a blackout that appears to have been inadvertently caused by the People’s Liberation Army as it mapped the network of Florida Power & Light. “I suspect, as the system went down, the PLA hacker said something like, ‘Oops, my bad,’ in Chinese,” said an unnamed information-security expert quoted in the story.

As they say, the Chinese are at war with us every day over the phone lines. Washington is squeamish about publicly naming China as the source of hostile attacks, so we almost never push back.

Whatever happened to the don’t-tread-on-me spirit in this country? We ignored al Qaeda’s attacks until September 11. Now we’re adopting the same passive approach to Chinese assaults on our critical infrastructure. Last August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while in Beijing, publicly told off Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao about Chinese hacking. Why can’t Robert Gates muster the courage to say anything in front of the microphones when he travels to the Chinese capital? Beijing has rewarded our secretary of defense for his discretion by hacking into the computer network serving his office last June.

We need a better China policy. So here’s a proposal. The next time the Chinese cause a blackout in this country, let’s take down all their grids. The communists in Beijing will be angry, but I suspect they’ll get the message.

Chinese hackers caused two power blackouts in the United States in the last half decade, according to the cover story in tomorrow’s National Journal. American intelligence sources confirm that the People’s Liberation Army was responsible for intrusions in 2003 that likely caused North America’s largest blackout, which affected three states, parts of Canada, and 50 million people. More than a hundred generating stations were shut down. To this day the Chinese activity that precipitated the cascading failure is not fully understood.

Then, this February, three million customers were hit by a blackout that appears to have been inadvertently caused by the People’s Liberation Army as it mapped the network of Florida Power & Light. “I suspect, as the system went down, the PLA hacker said something like, ‘Oops, my bad,’ in Chinese,” said an unnamed information-security expert quoted in the story.

As they say, the Chinese are at war with us every day over the phone lines. Washington is squeamish about publicly naming China as the source of hostile attacks, so we almost never push back.

Whatever happened to the don’t-tread-on-me spirit in this country? We ignored al Qaeda’s attacks until September 11. Now we’re adopting the same passive approach to Chinese assaults on our critical infrastructure. Last August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while in Beijing, publicly told off Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao about Chinese hacking. Why can’t Robert Gates muster the courage to say anything in front of the microphones when he travels to the Chinese capital? Beijing has rewarded our secretary of defense for his discretion by hacking into the computer network serving his office last June.

We need a better China policy. So here’s a proposal. The next time the Chinese cause a blackout in this country, let’s take down all their grids. The communists in Beijing will be angry, but I suspect they’ll get the message.

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Out Obama-ing Obama

Barack Obama’s call for bipartisanship and his emphasis on ending the acrimony of old-style politics have been a big part of his appeal. It was a clever angle–both as a means of differentiating himself from Hillary Clinton who embodied take-no-prisoners partisanship and as a means of diffusing concern about his relative lack of experience (i.e. he has no axe to grind in the politics of the past). However, in a general election this approach has its limits, in part because there is no factual basis for claiming he is a great bridge-builder.

He has essentially taken up every cause of the left (from opposing confirmation of Justices Roberts and Alito to supporting a bevy of tax increases) and has been absent from any of the truly bipartisan efforts, few that they may be, since he got to Washington (e.g. the Gang of 14).

As the most liberal Senator according to National Journal, he is further from the middle of the Senate and less inclined to compromise on strict party line voting than Senator Mitch McConnell (the ninth most conservative Senator) is on the other end of the spectrum. Is someone more doctrinaire in his voting record than McConnell on the Right (and Dick Durbin and John Kerry on the Left), the best person to lead us into a new era of bipartisan co-operation?

Worse still, John McCain actually can lay claim to being a bipartisan role model, which made his primary run so problematic with the GOP base. His list of bipartisan efforts on global warming, judges, campaign finance, immigration and spending reform is long and substantitve. Joe Lieberman attested to McCain’s bipartisan credentials on This Week:

Well, I don’t agree with John McCain on everything, but I agree with him on the important things. And I agree with him on the number one challenge to our political system today. We’ve got to put the national interest ahead of partisan interest. We’ve got to forget the Democrat-Republican business and remember that we’re all Americans. And unless we pull together, we’re not going to get this country to where all of us want it to be.

So having correctly diagnosed the problem (i.e. many Americans want politicians to work together more often), Obama now faces this dilemma: His own career offers no indication that he actually is disposed, other than rhetorically, to reaching across the aisle to accomodate the other side’s interests and concerns. (Does he expect to charm them with an avalanche of soothing words, envisioning that they will just capitulate on substance to his liberal policy views?) The Republicans may have stumbled into selecting an ideal foil for Obama – someone who actually has done what Obama says we need to more of.

Barack Obama’s call for bipartisanship and his emphasis on ending the acrimony of old-style politics have been a big part of his appeal. It was a clever angle–both as a means of differentiating himself from Hillary Clinton who embodied take-no-prisoners partisanship and as a means of diffusing concern about his relative lack of experience (i.e. he has no axe to grind in the politics of the past). However, in a general election this approach has its limits, in part because there is no factual basis for claiming he is a great bridge-builder.

He has essentially taken up every cause of the left (from opposing confirmation of Justices Roberts and Alito to supporting a bevy of tax increases) and has been absent from any of the truly bipartisan efforts, few that they may be, since he got to Washington (e.g. the Gang of 14).

As the most liberal Senator according to National Journal, he is further from the middle of the Senate and less inclined to compromise on strict party line voting than Senator Mitch McConnell (the ninth most conservative Senator) is on the other end of the spectrum. Is someone more doctrinaire in his voting record than McConnell on the Right (and Dick Durbin and John Kerry on the Left), the best person to lead us into a new era of bipartisan co-operation?

Worse still, John McCain actually can lay claim to being a bipartisan role model, which made his primary run so problematic with the GOP base. His list of bipartisan efforts on global warming, judges, campaign finance, immigration and spending reform is long and substantitve. Joe Lieberman attested to McCain’s bipartisan credentials on This Week:

Well, I don’t agree with John McCain on everything, but I agree with him on the important things. And I agree with him on the number one challenge to our political system today. We’ve got to put the national interest ahead of partisan interest. We’ve got to forget the Democrat-Republican business and remember that we’re all Americans. And unless we pull together, we’re not going to get this country to where all of us want it to be.

So having correctly diagnosed the problem (i.e. many Americans want politicians to work together more often), Obama now faces this dilemma: His own career offers no indication that he actually is disposed, other than rhetorically, to reaching across the aisle to accomodate the other side’s interests and concerns. (Does he expect to charm them with an avalanche of soothing words, envisioning that they will just capitulate on substance to his liberal policy views?) The Republicans may have stumbled into selecting an ideal foil for Obama – someone who actually has done what Obama says we need to more of.

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Hillary’s Wright Moment

Given the mostly positive response that Barack Obama’s speech on race in America has received in the media, it looks as though Obama will be able to put the anti-American and racist comments of his preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, behind him. While Obama’s handling of this controversy provides yet another example of his impressive political skills, the very fact that he had to address Wright’s comments at all always seemed rather unfair. After all, of the two Democrats still contending for the presidency, Obama is the only candidate not to make incendiary comments in a black church.

Indeed, recall Hillary’s speech during a Martin Luther King Day ceremony at a Harlem church in 2006: Hillary declared, “When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation. And you know what I’m talking about!” At the moment this statement was made, the audience fell virtually silent, while public outrage ensued. Yet in contrast to Obama’s apology for comments he didn’t make, Hillary refused to apologize for her actual race-baiting, saying, “I’ve said that before, and I believe it is an accurate description of the kind of top-down way that the House of Representatives is run that denies meaningful debate.”

Of course, the media’s failure to mention Hillary’s own abuse of the pulpit isn’t the first time that she has been given a pass for blatant race-baiting as a strategy for courting the African-American vote. At a debate hosted by Howard University in June 2007, Hillary said, “If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.” Despite the disturbingly conspiratorial nature of this statement, The New York Times’ Bob Herbert applauded it; the New York Observer cast it as a debate highlight; National Journal called it “inspired”; and it otherwise received minimal coverage.

In short, when will Hillary Clinton’s racially infused rhetoric receive the same scrutiny to which Obama’s associates have been subjected?

Given the mostly positive response that Barack Obama’s speech on race in America has received in the media, it looks as though Obama will be able to put the anti-American and racist comments of his preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, behind him. While Obama’s handling of this controversy provides yet another example of his impressive political skills, the very fact that he had to address Wright’s comments at all always seemed rather unfair. After all, of the two Democrats still contending for the presidency, Obama is the only candidate not to make incendiary comments in a black church.

Indeed, recall Hillary’s speech during a Martin Luther King Day ceremony at a Harlem church in 2006: Hillary declared, “When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation. And you know what I’m talking about!” At the moment this statement was made, the audience fell virtually silent, while public outrage ensued. Yet in contrast to Obama’s apology for comments he didn’t make, Hillary refused to apologize for her actual race-baiting, saying, “I’ve said that before, and I believe it is an accurate description of the kind of top-down way that the House of Representatives is run that denies meaningful debate.”

Of course, the media’s failure to mention Hillary’s own abuse of the pulpit isn’t the first time that she has been given a pass for blatant race-baiting as a strategy for courting the African-American vote. At a debate hosted by Howard University in June 2007, Hillary said, “If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.” Despite the disturbingly conspiratorial nature of this statement, The New York Times’ Bob Herbert applauded it; the New York Observer cast it as a debate highlight; National Journal called it “inspired”; and it otherwise received minimal coverage.

In short, when will Hillary Clinton’s racially infused rhetoric receive the same scrutiny to which Obama’s associates have been subjected?

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Responding to Jonathan Rauch

Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal writes in his most recent column that I am the early architect of an “ugly” (The American Heritage definition is “morally reprehensible;” “repulsive;” and “offensive”) narrative. As you might imagine, I dispute that charge. Mr. Rauch is normally a careful and civil writer and thinker; in this case, he fell short of his usual standards—both in his substantive analysis and in his reckless use of an adjective.

There is a deeper issue wrapped up in all of this: Mr. Rauch, who is something of a centrist, is attempting to set ground rules in the Iraq debate that make it virtually impossible for antiwar critics to draw reasonable conclusions from the policies antiwar advocates are championing. Assume for a moment that the policies a person is advocating would lead to genocide and embolden an enemy. If that were in fact the case—and surely in some instances it is the case—is that something that cannot now be said as part of public discourse? That is unfortunately what Mr. Rauch is arguing. His appeal to civic comity would actually short-circuit what should be an honest and rigorous debate.

What Jon Rauch is attempting won’t work, and it shouldn’t be tried.

Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal writes in his most recent column that I am the early architect of an “ugly” (The American Heritage definition is “morally reprehensible;” “repulsive;” and “offensive”) narrative. As you might imagine, I dispute that charge. Mr. Rauch is normally a careful and civil writer and thinker; in this case, he fell short of his usual standards—both in his substantive analysis and in his reckless use of an adjective.

There is a deeper issue wrapped up in all of this: Mr. Rauch, who is something of a centrist, is attempting to set ground rules in the Iraq debate that make it virtually impossible for antiwar critics to draw reasonable conclusions from the policies antiwar advocates are championing. Assume for a moment that the policies a person is advocating would lead to genocide and embolden an enemy. If that were in fact the case—and surely in some instances it is the case—is that something that cannot now be said as part of public discourse? That is unfortunately what Mr. Rauch is arguing. His appeal to civic comity would actually short-circuit what should be an honest and rigorous debate.

What Jon Rauch is attempting won’t work, and it shouldn’t be tried.

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Mr. Rauch’s Narrative

In his column in the most recent issue of National Journal, Jonathan Rauch admonishes Congressional Democrats:

Here is something that Democrats might want to think about before rushing to shut down the surge: If they managed to ram through a withdrawal or timetable on party lines this fall, when most Republicans think the surge is working, they would be flayed for a generation as the party that seized certain defeat from the jaws of possible victory. For years to come, Republicans would insist that Democratic pusillanimity emboldened jihadism, an ugly narrative that some are already rehearsing. (Last month Peter Wehner, who recently left the White House for a post at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sent out an e-mail pointing to jihadists’ claim that America is a “weak horse” that runs when bloodied. He continued, “If the critics have their way and deny General Petraeus the time he needs to help bring about a decent outcome in Iraq, the jihadists will be right.”)

Mr. Rauch doesn’t explain (perhaps because he can’t) why he considers this narrative “ugly”—a word clearly meant to suggest partisan political strategy—rather than accurate. The reality is that we know, from their own past words, that weakness emboldens jihadists. Here are the words of Osama bin Laden (from his 1998 interview with ABC’s John Miller):

We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weaknesses of the American solider, who is ready to wage cold wars and unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than twenty-four hours, and this was also repeated in Somalia. . . . [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers. . . . After a few blows, they ran in defeat. . . . They forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order. [They] left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.

Let’s lay out the logic for Mr. Rauch in an easy-to-follow manner: If jihadists have declared Iraq to be the central front in the larger war we are engaged in—as they have—and if we retreat because we have been bloodied in Iraq—as leading Democrats want—then it’s reasonable to assume that a precipitous American withdrawal, led by Democrats, will embolden the jihadists.

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In his column in the most recent issue of National Journal, Jonathan Rauch admonishes Congressional Democrats:

Here is something that Democrats might want to think about before rushing to shut down the surge: If they managed to ram through a withdrawal or timetable on party lines this fall, when most Republicans think the surge is working, they would be flayed for a generation as the party that seized certain defeat from the jaws of possible victory. For years to come, Republicans would insist that Democratic pusillanimity emboldened jihadism, an ugly narrative that some are already rehearsing. (Last month Peter Wehner, who recently left the White House for a post at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sent out an e-mail pointing to jihadists’ claim that America is a “weak horse” that runs when bloodied. He continued, “If the critics have their way and deny General Petraeus the time he needs to help bring about a decent outcome in Iraq, the jihadists will be right.”)

Mr. Rauch doesn’t explain (perhaps because he can’t) why he considers this narrative “ugly”—a word clearly meant to suggest partisan political strategy—rather than accurate. The reality is that we know, from their own past words, that weakness emboldens jihadists. Here are the words of Osama bin Laden (from his 1998 interview with ABC’s John Miller):

We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weaknesses of the American solider, who is ready to wage cold wars and unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than twenty-four hours, and this was also repeated in Somalia. . . . [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers. . . . After a few blows, they ran in defeat. . . . They forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order. [They] left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.

Let’s lay out the logic for Mr. Rauch in an easy-to-follow manner: If jihadists have declared Iraq to be the central front in the larger war we are engaged in—as they have—and if we retreat because we have been bloodied in Iraq—as leading Democrats want—then it’s reasonable to assume that a precipitous American withdrawal, led by Democrats, will embolden the jihadists.

If retreating from Vietnam, Beirut, and Somalia led terrorists to conclude America was the “weak horse”—the term is bin Laden’s—what does Rauch think a defeat in Iraq would do for the cause of radical Islam? Depress morale? Make jihadists more fearful that America will respond to terrorist attacks?

Pusillanimity, whether it comes from Republicans or Democrats, emboldens jihadists. That assertion is true, not ugly, and the sooner we accept it, the better off we will be. It is simply silly and sloppy for Rauch (an otherwise serious man) to make the charge he does.

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Is an al-Qaeda Nuclear Suitcase Bomb On the Way?

Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

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Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

I’ve long been skeptical that these things could be floating around. States that build nuclear weapons are well aware of their destructive potential and go to extraordinary lengths to keep them under control.

To be sure, there have been reports pointing in the other direction. In 1997, General Aleksandr Lebed, a Russian national security adviser, told CBS’s Sixty Minutes that the Russian military had 250 such weapons and had lost track of more than 100 of them. But was Lebed in a position to know? As James Kitfield pointed out in National Journal, other Russian authorities have asserted that the KGB was in charge of these devices, which would explain why the Russian military could not offer an accurate accounting of their numbers and whereabouts.

In his 2000 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, Yossef Bodansky stated that “there is no longer much doubt that bin Laden has finally succeeded in his quest for nuclear suitcase bombs.” But this claim was unsourced and seems difficult to credit. Although bin Laden has openly expressed interest in getting the bomb, and also obtained a fatwa from a Saudi cleric giving him divine permission to use one against American civilians, presumably, if he already had one in the 1990’s, we would have seen or heard it go off by now.

Still, the fact that there has been some sensationalist reporting does not mean there is no reason to worry. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal remains a chief concern. The country hemorrhaged nuclear-weapons technology for years when its atomic-energy program was being run by A. Q. Khan, who remains a national hero. Even if Khan is no longer in the loop, other elements within the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment might well offer to supply one to al Qaeda either for cash or to earn a place in heaven.

George Tenet adds significantly to our anxieties on this score. Although there are many things wrong with his recent memoir—and I point out some of them in The CIA Follies (Cont’d.) —what he writes about this problem seems credible. Immediately after September 11, it turns out, the U.S. government was uncertain whether or not al Qaeda already had such a device:

In late November 2001, I briefed the President, Vice President, and National Security Adviser on the latest intelligence. . . . I brought along with me my WMD chief, Rolf Mowatt-Larsen, and Kevin K., our most senior WMD terrorism analyst. During the ensuing conversation, the Vice President asked if we thought al Qaeda had a nuclear weapon. Kevin replied, “Sir, if I were to give you a traditional analytical assessment of the al-Qaeda nuclear program, I would say they probably do not. But I can’t assure you that they don’t.”

Tenet continues for many pages laying out precise intelligence about al Qaeda’s continuing efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb from Pakistan and from Russia. Whatever his flaws as a CIA director, Tenet was in a position to know all that can be known about this issue. His memoirs show that we do have reason to be afraid. But we shouldn’t be quivering in our boots. Rather, even as we work to avert a disastrous vacuum from forming in Iraq, we should be prosecuting the war against al Qaeda and allied Islamic terrorists with a vigor commensurate with what is at stake.

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