Commentary Magazine


Topic: pain

Where Are the Smart Liberals?

So who does Job remind you of? I bet you didn’t think of Barack Obama. But that’s what pops into Jon Meacham’s mind, as Rick noted, prompting many of us to wonder how Newsweek lasted as long as it did. It was Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas who first proclaimed Obama a “sort of God,” so I suppose this tale is the modern version of Paradise Lost.

Has Obama lost his family? Become destitute? No, he’s just not popular anymore. Meacham explains:

Outside politics, President Obama thinks of himself less as a professor or community organizer and more as a writer — a man who observes reality, interprets it internally, and then recasts it on the page in his own voice and through his own eyes. And he is a reader of serious books.

Given that, he might find Alter’s new book congenial. John Boehner is not exactly a case of boils, but the president may feel differently at the moment, and thus the story of Job could be of some use to him.

Like Obama, Job was once the highly favored one:

Would that I were as in moons of yore, as the days when God watched over me,
when he shined his lamp over my head. …

But the Lord withdraws his protection, inflicting pain and death and misery on Job, who cries:

Terror rolls over me, pursues my path like the wind. …
At night my limbs are pierced, and my sinews know no rest.
With great power he seizes my garment, grabs hold of me at the collar.
He hurls me into the muck, and I become like dust and ashes.

God is having none of it. He will not be questioned by a mortal, even a mortal whom he once loved and who has honored him. Fairly snarling, the Lord taunts Job from a whirlwind: “Where were you when I founded earth? / Tell, if you know understanding.”

If you think about it (stop before you get a headache), this is utter nonsense. Obama has not been tested or punished to measure his faith in God. He’s being evaluated by voters for a shoddy two years. The entire point of the Job story is that Job had done nothing to deserve his fate, so far as mortals can imagine. Read More

So who does Job remind you of? I bet you didn’t think of Barack Obama. But that’s what pops into Jon Meacham’s mind, as Rick noted, prompting many of us to wonder how Newsweek lasted as long as it did. It was Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas who first proclaimed Obama a “sort of God,” so I suppose this tale is the modern version of Paradise Lost.

Has Obama lost his family? Become destitute? No, he’s just not popular anymore. Meacham explains:

Outside politics, President Obama thinks of himself less as a professor or community organizer and more as a writer — a man who observes reality, interprets it internally, and then recasts it on the page in his own voice and through his own eyes. And he is a reader of serious books.

Given that, he might find Alter’s new book congenial. John Boehner is not exactly a case of boils, but the president may feel differently at the moment, and thus the story of Job could be of some use to him.

Like Obama, Job was once the highly favored one:

Would that I were as in moons of yore, as the days when God watched over me,
when he shined his lamp over my head. …

But the Lord withdraws his protection, inflicting pain and death and misery on Job, who cries:

Terror rolls over me, pursues my path like the wind. …
At night my limbs are pierced, and my sinews know no rest.
With great power he seizes my garment, grabs hold of me at the collar.
He hurls me into the muck, and I become like dust and ashes.

God is having none of it. He will not be questioned by a mortal, even a mortal whom he once loved and who has honored him. Fairly snarling, the Lord taunts Job from a whirlwind: “Where were you when I founded earth? / Tell, if you know understanding.”

If you think about it (stop before you get a headache), this is utter nonsense. Obama has not been tested or punished to measure his faith in God. He’s being evaluated by voters for a shoddy two years. The entire point of the Job story is that Job had done nothing to deserve his fate, so far as mortals can imagine.

This brings me to another point. What’s happened to liberal intellectuals these days? It seems they’ve fallen down on the job and ceased to be serious people. I mean, comparing Obama to Job is downright embarrassing. Does the Gray Lady have no standards?

Another case in point: there apparently is a new film out about Fran Lebowitz directed by Martin Scorsese. The problem is that while liberal New Yorkers imagine her to be the quintessential left-leaning intellectual (actually, they don’t need the modifier since, by definition, are intellectuals share their worldview), she hasn’t written anything of note for years, and the sum total of her “contribution” to the intellectual and cultural life of the nation’s greatest city is a string of one-liners. Even this reviewer is somewhat put off:

Except for a children’s book and a series of wise Vanity Fair articles in the 1990s (which were really just well-edited conversations between Lebowitz and an editor on broad subjects such as race and money), Lebowitz hasn’t produced much. Instead, she’s a study in brilliant coasting, which can’t be as fun as it seems. For all its many laughs, “Public Speaking” carries a necessary undercurrent of the morose.

“No one has wasted time the way I have,” Lebowitz tells Scorsese’s camera in her usual rat-a-tat delivery, a voice coarsened by years of smoking. “[I am] the outstanding waster of time of my generation. It was 1979, I looked up, it was 2007.”

Instead of writing, Lebowitz spends her time talking about American society and culture — either through paid appearances on the lecture circuit or from her usual booth at the Waverly Inn, a dimly-lit, exclusively small West Village restaurant co-owned by her friend Graydon Carter, who edits Vanity Fair.

Talking, she says, is all she ever wanted to do.

You really can’t make this stuff up. And one wonders, is this thin gruel of cultural poses and condescension all the left has to offer anymore?

There’s much more: New York is too expensive to be interesting anymore. Tourists are “herds of hillbillies.” Gay men, who so dazzled Lebowitz with their highbrow tastes in the 1970s, have let her down by working so diligently to get married and join the army. And revenge is a wonderful thing: “I absolutely believe in revenge. People always say revenge is a dish best served cold. No. It’s good any time you can get it.”

She is asked: Is there such a thing as being born lucky? Yes, she replies: “Any white, gentile, straight man who is not president of the United States, failed. That’s what a big piece of luck that is, okay?”

Not exactly John Kenneth Galbraith. Or even Dorothy Parker.

The trouble liberals face in maintaining their intellectual chops is that they operate in a world of knowing glances, incomplete sentences, and shared cultural references. Conformity is seen as a sign of intellectual prowess. And you need not write anything intelligible, let alone intellectually compelling, to qualify as a liberal public intellectual.

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“I Feel My Pain”

Obama’s rather atrocious performance yesterday got me thinking. Bill Clinton, when he was in office, was considered by his critics (and some of his admirers) to be among the most self-indulgent presidents in memory. His dalliance with an intern nearly brought down his presidency. He was in all respects — from food to incessant lateness to a phony tear at Ron Brown’s funeral –undisciplined and self-absorbed. But he can’t hold a candle to Obama.

Clinton at least understood the basic equation in politics: the elected pol demonstrates concern for the citizenry (“I feel your pain”) and in return gets the cheers and support of the voters. Obama feels his own pain. Or as he said yesterday about the Democratic losses, “I feel bad.” Excuse me, but why do we care? He has just — to pick up on his favorite car metaphor — wrecked the family vehicle. I don’t think that deserves our empathy. It didn’t just happen to him; he is the source of the political catastrophe that has descended upon the Democratic Party.

Obama, at minor and major points in his career, has made it all about himself. The cult of personality dominated his campaign. He turned on Rev. Wright when Wright questioned Obama’s sincerity. He based his foreign policy on the egocentric notion that his mere presence would change historic, substantive disputes between the parties (i.e., Israel wants peace and the Palestinians want no Israel) and transform a radical Islamic regime. He became offended when Daniel Ortega brought up America’s role in the Bay of the Pigs. (Obama declared he had an alibi — he was a child.) He has painted critics as enemies and refused to recognize the legitimate grievances of the electorate and his own party. The loss is a function of the voters’ ignorance and misperceptions; the solution is more Obama in the heartland. You see the pattern.

No one gets to the Oval Office being a shrinking violet. But there is ego and then there is ego. To be a successful president — frankly to be successful at anything — you need to have some appreciation of your own limitations and of your place in the grand scheme of things. Obama lacks both, and hence, the ability to self-reflect and correct course. His outward demeanor — first annoyed and now sullen — and his disinclination to address the root of his failings (i.e., an agenda at odds with the disposition of the electorate) do not bode well for an Obama comeback.

Obama’s rather atrocious performance yesterday got me thinking. Bill Clinton, when he was in office, was considered by his critics (and some of his admirers) to be among the most self-indulgent presidents in memory. His dalliance with an intern nearly brought down his presidency. He was in all respects — from food to incessant lateness to a phony tear at Ron Brown’s funeral –undisciplined and self-absorbed. But he can’t hold a candle to Obama.

Clinton at least understood the basic equation in politics: the elected pol demonstrates concern for the citizenry (“I feel your pain”) and in return gets the cheers and support of the voters. Obama feels his own pain. Or as he said yesterday about the Democratic losses, “I feel bad.” Excuse me, but why do we care? He has just — to pick up on his favorite car metaphor — wrecked the family vehicle. I don’t think that deserves our empathy. It didn’t just happen to him; he is the source of the political catastrophe that has descended upon the Democratic Party.

Obama, at minor and major points in his career, has made it all about himself. The cult of personality dominated his campaign. He turned on Rev. Wright when Wright questioned Obama’s sincerity. He based his foreign policy on the egocentric notion that his mere presence would change historic, substantive disputes between the parties (i.e., Israel wants peace and the Palestinians want no Israel) and transform a radical Islamic regime. He became offended when Daniel Ortega brought up America’s role in the Bay of the Pigs. (Obama declared he had an alibi — he was a child.) He has painted critics as enemies and refused to recognize the legitimate grievances of the electorate and his own party. The loss is a function of the voters’ ignorance and misperceptions; the solution is more Obama in the heartland. You see the pattern.

No one gets to the Oval Office being a shrinking violet. But there is ego and then there is ego. To be a successful president — frankly to be successful at anything — you need to have some appreciation of your own limitations and of your place in the grand scheme of things. Obama lacks both, and hence, the ability to self-reflect and correct course. His outward demeanor — first annoyed and now sullen — and his disinclination to address the root of his failings (i.e., an agenda at odds with the disposition of the electorate) do not bode well for an Obama comeback.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

It is getting worse, not better, for the Democrats in the congressional generic polling.

The recession has been worse for men than for women, but the Obama team needs female voters. So: “The National Economic Council released a report Thursday detailing women’s economic hardships and the different ways the administration is helping to alleviate their pain. … Economist Mark Perry, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Caller that the lack of attention to the economic problems of men has been foolish. ‘My initial impression of the report is that it completely ignores all of the significant and disproportionate hardships faced by men in the recession. We just went through an unprecedented ‘mancession,’ and it’s still not over.’”

There are worse things than being fired by NPR. “Fox News moved swiftly to turn the controversy over Juan Williams’s firing to its advantage, offering him an expanded role and a new three-year contract Thursday morning in a deal that amounts to nearly $2 million.”

What is worse — firing Juan Williams or concealing the underlying reason for it? Fred Barnes writes: “I have no doubt that Juan’s comments about Muslims were merely a pretext. There had been prior run-ins between NPR and Juan over his appearances on Fox. But fire him over remarks that most Americans would identify with? I didn’t think the loathing of Fox would cause NPR to do something so ideologically driven, unprofessional, and bigoted. … The motto is, Fox is fair and balanced. Mainstream media types sneer at this. Juan actually embodies it. He’s both fair and balanced. NPR is neither.”

He says he’s not running. But is there a worse nightmare for Obama in 2012? “In one long year, Mr. Christie, the governor of New Jersey, has gone from little-known prosecutor to GOP rock star. The Newark native won last November on a blunt promise to fix a ‘failed state.’ He’d stop the ‘madness’ of tax hikes and chronic overspending. He’d demand New Jersey ‘live within its means,’ tackling the rich public-employee benefits driving the state off the cliff. He’d be straight-up with voters. The promises won him election; it’s the follow-through that’s won him acclaim. Democrats were appalled when he impounded $2.2 billion in spending; taxpayers cheered. The liberal class gasped when he vetoed a ‘millionaire’s tax’; business owners hurrahed. He’s demanding government unions help close $46 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. He’s tough-talking but common-sense, and his approval rating keeps going up.”

Hard to recall a worse pre-election argument than Obama’s faux science explanation for the rise of anti-Obama sentiment. A real, former psychiatrist comments: “Faced with this truly puzzling conundrum, Dr. Obama diagnoses a heretofore undiscovered psychological derangement: anxiety-induced Obama Underappreciation Syndrome, wherein an entire population is so addled by its economic anxieties as to be neurologically incapable of appreciating the ‘facts and science’ undergirding Obamacare and the other blessings their president has bestowed upon them from on high.”

If anything, a change for the worse. “A majority of voters in key battleground races say President Obama has either brought no change to Washington or has brought change for the worse. In 10 competitive House districts, 41 percent of likely voters say Obama has brought change for the worse, and 30 percent say he has made no difference.”

It is getting worse, not better, for the Democrats in the congressional generic polling.

The recession has been worse for men than for women, but the Obama team needs female voters. So: “The National Economic Council released a report Thursday detailing women’s economic hardships and the different ways the administration is helping to alleviate their pain. … Economist Mark Perry, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Caller that the lack of attention to the economic problems of men has been foolish. ‘My initial impression of the report is that it completely ignores all of the significant and disproportionate hardships faced by men in the recession. We just went through an unprecedented ‘mancession,’ and it’s still not over.’”

There are worse things than being fired by NPR. “Fox News moved swiftly to turn the controversy over Juan Williams’s firing to its advantage, offering him an expanded role and a new three-year contract Thursday morning in a deal that amounts to nearly $2 million.”

What is worse — firing Juan Williams or concealing the underlying reason for it? Fred Barnes writes: “I have no doubt that Juan’s comments about Muslims were merely a pretext. There had been prior run-ins between NPR and Juan over his appearances on Fox. But fire him over remarks that most Americans would identify with? I didn’t think the loathing of Fox would cause NPR to do something so ideologically driven, unprofessional, and bigoted. … The motto is, Fox is fair and balanced. Mainstream media types sneer at this. Juan actually embodies it. He’s both fair and balanced. NPR is neither.”

He says he’s not running. But is there a worse nightmare for Obama in 2012? “In one long year, Mr. Christie, the governor of New Jersey, has gone from little-known prosecutor to GOP rock star. The Newark native won last November on a blunt promise to fix a ‘failed state.’ He’d stop the ‘madness’ of tax hikes and chronic overspending. He’d demand New Jersey ‘live within its means,’ tackling the rich public-employee benefits driving the state off the cliff. He’d be straight-up with voters. The promises won him election; it’s the follow-through that’s won him acclaim. Democrats were appalled when he impounded $2.2 billion in spending; taxpayers cheered. The liberal class gasped when he vetoed a ‘millionaire’s tax’; business owners hurrahed. He’s demanding government unions help close $46 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. He’s tough-talking but common-sense, and his approval rating keeps going up.”

Hard to recall a worse pre-election argument than Obama’s faux science explanation for the rise of anti-Obama sentiment. A real, former psychiatrist comments: “Faced with this truly puzzling conundrum, Dr. Obama diagnoses a heretofore undiscovered psychological derangement: anxiety-induced Obama Underappreciation Syndrome, wherein an entire population is so addled by its economic anxieties as to be neurologically incapable of appreciating the ‘facts and science’ undergirding Obamacare and the other blessings their president has bestowed upon them from on high.”

If anything, a change for the worse. “A majority of voters in key battleground races say President Obama has either brought no change to Washington or has brought change for the worse. In 10 competitive House districts, 41 percent of likely voters say Obama has brought change for the worse, and 30 percent say he has made no difference.”

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Obama Decides It’s Time to Emote

Obama is so desperate to regain his popularity that he’s even emoting — kind of. Sam Youngman reports:

President Obama told a small crowd in Fairfax, Va., on Monday that he would stand in the hot sun with them and “feel their pain.”

He was meeting with a Fairfax family for a backyard discussion on the economy in an effort to improve voter perceptions about his empathy with ordinary people.

Unlike former President Clinton, who famously felt the pain of voters during a recession, Obama has not connected emotionally with voters over their worries and fears.

So on his list of things to do: show some emotional connection to the American people. It’s been a worry for some time among Democrats that his cool demeanor and nasty habit of demeaning Americans makes it, well, hard for voters to think he’s all that interested in their concerns:

Democratic strategists worry the president is seen as too aloof, and that this gets in the way of the administration’s message that the economy is slowly but surely recovering. … Democratic strategists worry this disconnect will lead to losses for Democrats at the polls in November, when the party fears it could lose control of the House and Senate.

“The problem is he doesn’t seem like he’s always trying to be empathetic,” said one Democratic strategist.

So now he’s dialing up the emotions.

Not unlike the “charm offensive” with American Jews, when the president’s policies fall flat he decides to persuade the skeptics that he really, honestly, truly is on their side. Granted, “politicians” and “sincerity” generally don’t belong in the same sentence, but Obama’s play-acting is so transparent and so obviously at odds with his personality and policy choices that it’s hard to believe he’s helping his cause much. It does however remind us that Bill Clinton was, as Holly Golightly’s friend put it, a “real phony.”

Obama is so desperate to regain his popularity that he’s even emoting — kind of. Sam Youngman reports:

President Obama told a small crowd in Fairfax, Va., on Monday that he would stand in the hot sun with them and “feel their pain.”

He was meeting with a Fairfax family for a backyard discussion on the economy in an effort to improve voter perceptions about his empathy with ordinary people.

Unlike former President Clinton, who famously felt the pain of voters during a recession, Obama has not connected emotionally with voters over their worries and fears.

So on his list of things to do: show some emotional connection to the American people. It’s been a worry for some time among Democrats that his cool demeanor and nasty habit of demeaning Americans makes it, well, hard for voters to think he’s all that interested in their concerns:

Democratic strategists worry the president is seen as too aloof, and that this gets in the way of the administration’s message that the economy is slowly but surely recovering. … Democratic strategists worry this disconnect will lead to losses for Democrats at the polls in November, when the party fears it could lose control of the House and Senate.

“The problem is he doesn’t seem like he’s always trying to be empathetic,” said one Democratic strategist.

So now he’s dialing up the emotions.

Not unlike the “charm offensive” with American Jews, when the president’s policies fall flat he decides to persuade the skeptics that he really, honestly, truly is on their side. Granted, “politicians” and “sincerity” generally don’t belong in the same sentence, but Obama’s play-acting is so transparent and so obviously at odds with his personality and policy choices that it’s hard to believe he’s helping his cause much. It does however remind us that Bill Clinton was, as Holly Golightly’s friend put it, a “real phony.”

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Obama Emotionless Except When It’s Personal

Last November, which seems like a lifetime ago, in the context of anti-terror measures, a sharp observer spotted a common thread that connected Obama to his attorney general. Of Eric Holder, she remarked:

The dispassion, the self-reverence, the blindness of the man, are marvelous to behold, and so perfectly reflect the president he so perfectly serves. “Neutral and detached” people shall “understand the reasons why” he made those decisions, shall see he has left “the politics out of it,” and shall recognize what’s right–something the rest of us, benighted and bellicose souls that we are, have never managed to do with respect to the disposition of those committing mass murders of Americans in their ongoing war against our civilization.

It is more true today in the wake of excising “jihadist” and “Islamic fundamentalist” from our lexicon. Indeed, it extends to every area of governance.  The public doesn’t appreciate the gift of ObamaCare. The voters fail to understand that “costs” (that would be taxes) are needed to enact a massive cap-and-trade scheme. The Jews don’t comprehend that Obama has their interests at heart — go self-reflect, he instructs them. And he tut-tuts Jewish leaders who don’t “get” how his master plan for peace in the Middle East is unfolding. He judges, evaluates, and criticizes us — remaining above the fray.

Even Maureen Dowd stumbles upon the truth: “President Obama’s bloodless quality about people and events, the emotional detachment that his aides said allowed him to see things more clearly, has instead obscured his vision.” (And rendered him ineffective and increasingly unlikable.) Robert Reich similarly edges to the core problem:

The man who electrified the nation with his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 2004 put it to sleep tonight. … [H]e failed tonight to rise to the occasion. Is it because he’s not getting good advice, or because he’s psychologically incapable of expressing the moral outrage the nation feels?

When Obama drops the mask of detachment and reveals true emotion, it is for himself. What spurred the angry denunciation of Rev. Wright? Wright’s personal attack on him. What gets his goat? The media, which impose a 24/7 news cycle on him. What gets his blood boiling? The “insult” he perceives to him when Israel dared to announce a building project while his VP was visiting. Why was Obama annoyed with Daniel Ortega? He implied that Obama was responsible for the Bay of Pigs when he was but a child.

So we have a curious president — cold and distant when it comes to dangers from foreign foes, economic catastrophe, and environmental disaster, which wreck havoc on our lives, but filled with outrage at the slightest offense to himself. Now Bill Clinton was and is a renowned self-pitier. But at least he had the political smarts and acting skills (and to be fair, a real emotional connection to his fellow citizens) to project empathy and to tell us that he felt our pain. Obama can’t muster that. The lion’s share of his concern and emotional energy is reserved for himself. As his presidency comes crashing down around him, his self-concern will grow, the yelps of self-pity will intensify, and the complaints about dull-witted Americans and duplicitous opponents will multiply.

Last November, which seems like a lifetime ago, in the context of anti-terror measures, a sharp observer spotted a common thread that connected Obama to his attorney general. Of Eric Holder, she remarked:

The dispassion, the self-reverence, the blindness of the man, are marvelous to behold, and so perfectly reflect the president he so perfectly serves. “Neutral and detached” people shall “understand the reasons why” he made those decisions, shall see he has left “the politics out of it,” and shall recognize what’s right–something the rest of us, benighted and bellicose souls that we are, have never managed to do with respect to the disposition of those committing mass murders of Americans in their ongoing war against our civilization.

It is more true today in the wake of excising “jihadist” and “Islamic fundamentalist” from our lexicon. Indeed, it extends to every area of governance.  The public doesn’t appreciate the gift of ObamaCare. The voters fail to understand that “costs” (that would be taxes) are needed to enact a massive cap-and-trade scheme. The Jews don’t comprehend that Obama has their interests at heart — go self-reflect, he instructs them. And he tut-tuts Jewish leaders who don’t “get” how his master plan for peace in the Middle East is unfolding. He judges, evaluates, and criticizes us — remaining above the fray.

Even Maureen Dowd stumbles upon the truth: “President Obama’s bloodless quality about people and events, the emotional detachment that his aides said allowed him to see things more clearly, has instead obscured his vision.” (And rendered him ineffective and increasingly unlikable.) Robert Reich similarly edges to the core problem:

The man who electrified the nation with his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 2004 put it to sleep tonight. … [H]e failed tonight to rise to the occasion. Is it because he’s not getting good advice, or because he’s psychologically incapable of expressing the moral outrage the nation feels?

When Obama drops the mask of detachment and reveals true emotion, it is for himself. What spurred the angry denunciation of Rev. Wright? Wright’s personal attack on him. What gets his goat? The media, which impose a 24/7 news cycle on him. What gets his blood boiling? The “insult” he perceives to him when Israel dared to announce a building project while his VP was visiting. Why was Obama annoyed with Daniel Ortega? He implied that Obama was responsible for the Bay of Pigs when he was but a child.

So we have a curious president — cold and distant when it comes to dangers from foreign foes, economic catastrophe, and environmental disaster, which wreck havoc on our lives, but filled with outrage at the slightest offense to himself. Now Bill Clinton was and is a renowned self-pitier. But at least he had the political smarts and acting skills (and to be fair, a real emotional connection to his fellow citizens) to project empathy and to tell us that he felt our pain. Obama can’t muster that. The lion’s share of his concern and emotional energy is reserved for himself. As his presidency comes crashing down around him, his self-concern will grow, the yelps of self-pity will intensify, and the complaints about dull-witted Americans and duplicitous opponents will multiply.

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Trying to Reinvent Obama

Dee Dee Myers is the latest Democrat to step forward offering advice to Obama. Her bottom line: change your personality. She finds him “calm,” “cool,” and “self-possessed.” The result, she says:

But while eschewing emotion — and its companion, vulnerability — Obama should be careful not to sacrifice empathy, the “I feel your pain” connection that sustained [Bill] Clinton. This connection is the shorthand people use to measure their leaders’ intentions. If people believe you’re on their side, they will trust your decisions. Too often, Obama leaves the impression that he stands alone — and likes it that way. Clinton was fond of saying, “We’re all going up or down together.” Obama must make sure that people know that he needs their help as much as they need his.

We’ve had a series of detached performances — Fort Hood and  the Christmas Day bombing — in which he was weirdly unemotional. A snippy showing at the health-care summit. And an attack on the Supreme Court. Indeed, he seems most engaged when he’s attacking his opponents, as he refers to the growing number of those who disagree with him.

Myers gives campaign-style advice in consultant-speak (“reconnect his biography to his agenda”):

Obama also needs to remind people that things weren’t always easy for him. The campaign introduced the country to a man whose life story was both unusual — a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia — and broadly shared: a single mom who worked hard and sacrificed for her children and a family that faced difficult times but never lost its faith in the future.

But that all seems beside the point, oddly inappropriate for the presidency as opposed to the campaign. (There really is a difference between the two.) Something more fundamental is going on here: Obama seems not to respect his fellow citizens — the uninformed rubes who crashed the health-care town halls — nor care what they think. All his energy now is devoted to disregarding their strong aversion to his idea of health-care reform and forcing through a vote on something the public doesn’t want. It’s hard to bond with the American people, which is what Myers is suggesting, when your agenda conveys disdain for their concerns. Myers gets closer to the nub of the problem as she concludes:

Obama maintains a reservoir of goodwill. Even people who don’t approve of the job he’s doing like him personally. Most think he understands their problems and cares about people like them. In other words, people want to have a beer with him. They’re just not sure he wants to have a beer with them.

But that reservoir is being depleted over time. And who wants to have a beer with someone who doesn’t listen to anything you have to say?

It’s hard to conceal your personality in the 24/7 news cycle and in the most prominent job in the world. What was intriguing in the campaign — that cool, “superior” temperament — is now a liability. But it’s hard to change who you are. If Democrats are queasy about the president’s lacking warmth and empathy, not to mention some executive skills, there isn’t much they can do about it. Their dream candidate turned out to be rather flawed in ways that are critical to a successful presidency. They — and we — will have to live with that for a few more years.

Dee Dee Myers is the latest Democrat to step forward offering advice to Obama. Her bottom line: change your personality. She finds him “calm,” “cool,” and “self-possessed.” The result, she says:

But while eschewing emotion — and its companion, vulnerability — Obama should be careful not to sacrifice empathy, the “I feel your pain” connection that sustained [Bill] Clinton. This connection is the shorthand people use to measure their leaders’ intentions. If people believe you’re on their side, they will trust your decisions. Too often, Obama leaves the impression that he stands alone — and likes it that way. Clinton was fond of saying, “We’re all going up or down together.” Obama must make sure that people know that he needs their help as much as they need his.

We’ve had a series of detached performances — Fort Hood and  the Christmas Day bombing — in which he was weirdly unemotional. A snippy showing at the health-care summit. And an attack on the Supreme Court. Indeed, he seems most engaged when he’s attacking his opponents, as he refers to the growing number of those who disagree with him.

Myers gives campaign-style advice in consultant-speak (“reconnect his biography to his agenda”):

Obama also needs to remind people that things weren’t always easy for him. The campaign introduced the country to a man whose life story was both unusual — a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia — and broadly shared: a single mom who worked hard and sacrificed for her children and a family that faced difficult times but never lost its faith in the future.

But that all seems beside the point, oddly inappropriate for the presidency as opposed to the campaign. (There really is a difference between the two.) Something more fundamental is going on here: Obama seems not to respect his fellow citizens — the uninformed rubes who crashed the health-care town halls — nor care what they think. All his energy now is devoted to disregarding their strong aversion to his idea of health-care reform and forcing through a vote on something the public doesn’t want. It’s hard to bond with the American people, which is what Myers is suggesting, when your agenda conveys disdain for their concerns. Myers gets closer to the nub of the problem as she concludes:

Obama maintains a reservoir of goodwill. Even people who don’t approve of the job he’s doing like him personally. Most think he understands their problems and cares about people like them. In other words, people want to have a beer with him. They’re just not sure he wants to have a beer with them.

But that reservoir is being depleted over time. And who wants to have a beer with someone who doesn’t listen to anything you have to say?

It’s hard to conceal your personality in the 24/7 news cycle and in the most prominent job in the world. What was intriguing in the campaign — that cool, “superior” temperament — is now a liability. But it’s hard to change who you are. If Democrats are queasy about the president’s lacking warmth and empathy, not to mention some executive skills, there isn’t much they can do about it. Their dream candidate turned out to be rather flawed in ways that are critical to a successful presidency. They — and we — will have to live with that for a few more years.

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North Korea’s Dilemma

Uncanny events in North Korea this week hint at the fragility of the regime and the effectiveness of sanctions. Though tough to confirm, it’s being reported that two senior members of the government have been canned, and the DRPK has had to backtrack on some of its pet policies, which were targeted at centralizing the economy and choking the black market.

In November, Pyongyang enacted major economic changes. It cracked down on private markets allowed to operate with very limited freedom since 2002. It restricted imports from China. It revalued the currency, replacing old bank notes with new ones and limiting how much money a normal citizen could swap out, introducing the new currency in a way that flagrantly favored corrupt party members and the elite. That policy alone wiped out the savings of many average North Koreans. Reports suggest the price of rice is now 100 times what it was in October, and starvation deaths are on the rise.

This problem is worsened because aid has been cut off. The South Koreans, led by the formidable Lee Myung-bak, have made aid contingent upon North Korean nuclear concessions. And North Korea lost 500,000 tons of food from the United States last year.

Though it’s tough to say exactly what’s going on in North Korea, the food shortage seems to have elicited popular outrage, becoming a turning point for its citizenry. Veterans from the Korean War staged a protest in Danchon, riots have broken out, and citizens have attacked officials patrolling the markets, according to news reports gathered from defectors, smugglers, South Korean news agencies, and off-the-record comments from Seoul officials. The ruthlessly repressive North Korean government appears to be caught off guard by the uprisings.

Now Pyongyang is yielding slightly. The author of the November policies has been fired, as was the government official responsible for ensuring access to foreign currency for Kim Jong-Il, almost certainly because European Union blacklisting. The North Korean government is likely easing some of the November restrictions.

This isn’t the concession the West has been looking for, by any means. But it’s a good sign. The sanctions, paired with North Korea’s own suicidal policies, are inflicting pain – pain that is evoking reaction from ordinary North Koreans, pain that is forcing Pyongyang to make at least some changes against its will. If Obama and his friends are smart, they’ll acknowledge that their sanctions can put Kim Jung-Il’s government in a corner. One of these punches may just be a deadringer.

Uncanny events in North Korea this week hint at the fragility of the regime and the effectiveness of sanctions. Though tough to confirm, it’s being reported that two senior members of the government have been canned, and the DRPK has had to backtrack on some of its pet policies, which were targeted at centralizing the economy and choking the black market.

In November, Pyongyang enacted major economic changes. It cracked down on private markets allowed to operate with very limited freedom since 2002. It restricted imports from China. It revalued the currency, replacing old bank notes with new ones and limiting how much money a normal citizen could swap out, introducing the new currency in a way that flagrantly favored corrupt party members and the elite. That policy alone wiped out the savings of many average North Koreans. Reports suggest the price of rice is now 100 times what it was in October, and starvation deaths are on the rise.

This problem is worsened because aid has been cut off. The South Koreans, led by the formidable Lee Myung-bak, have made aid contingent upon North Korean nuclear concessions. And North Korea lost 500,000 tons of food from the United States last year.

Though it’s tough to say exactly what’s going on in North Korea, the food shortage seems to have elicited popular outrage, becoming a turning point for its citizenry. Veterans from the Korean War staged a protest in Danchon, riots have broken out, and citizens have attacked officials patrolling the markets, according to news reports gathered from defectors, smugglers, South Korean news agencies, and off-the-record comments from Seoul officials. The ruthlessly repressive North Korean government appears to be caught off guard by the uprisings.

Now Pyongyang is yielding slightly. The author of the November policies has been fired, as was the government official responsible for ensuring access to foreign currency for Kim Jong-Il, almost certainly because European Union blacklisting. The North Korean government is likely easing some of the November restrictions.

This isn’t the concession the West has been looking for, by any means. But it’s a good sign. The sanctions, paired with North Korea’s own suicidal policies, are inflicting pain – pain that is evoking reaction from ordinary North Koreans, pain that is forcing Pyongyang to make at least some changes against its will. If Obama and his friends are smart, they’ll acknowledge that their sanctions can put Kim Jung-Il’s government in a corner. One of these punches may just be a deadringer.

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Re: Bush and Blah Blah Blah

I have to disagree with you, David. President Bush’s current visit to the Middle East has a remarkably different feel from his trip to the region earlier this year–and not just because he’s foregoing photo-ops with unsheathed swords. Indeed, whereas Bush’s January jaunt overwhelmingly focused on bolstering a flimsy Arab coalition against Iran through an even shakier Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he has spent far more time practicing public diplomacy this time around. Insofar as preaching peace and democracy to dictators that have long undermined both was always a total waste of time, this is a welcome–and long overdue–development.

The high point in this public outreach campaign came yesterday in Jerusalem. While addressing a conference commemorating the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, President Bush declared American support for Israel in no uncertain terms. The speech was remarkable for its utter friendliness: Bush saluted Israeli democracy, joked about its contentious political culture, and said that he was “thrilled to be here with one of America’s greatest friends”–without a single mention of the Palestinians.

If Bush’s Annapolis pet-project has any chance of succeeding before he leaves office, this is precisely what Israelis need to hear. Historically, Israeli leaders have been most willing to compromise with their adversaries when American support is unambiguously strongest. In this vein, Bush’s speech beautifully set the stage for the more serious address he will deliver before the Knesset today, in which he will “talk about the day when … every child in the Middle East can live in peace and live in freedom”-in other words, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As Israelis are deeply skeptical of this process, Bush’s strong display of support should provide some reassurance.

Sadly, Bush has been unable to replicate his success before Israelis when addressing Arab publics. The latest failure came Monday, when an interviewer from Egypt’s Dream TV asked Bush to respond to Jimmy Carter’s assertion that the Palestinians had suffered more than the Israelis; Bush responded:

Well, everybody has got their opinions. I just happen to believe that I’m in a position to help move the definition of a state, which will help solve the problem in the long run. I’m the first President ever to have articulated a two-state solution, two states living side by side in peace. And my only thing I want to tell your listeners is that I’m going to drive hard, along with Secretary Rice and other people in my administration, to see if we can’t get the Palestinians and Israelis to agree on what that state will look like.

Here, Bush missed an opportunity to say what the Palestinians need to hear. Just as Israelis needed to hear that the United States stood firmly behind it, Palestinians need to hear that we feel their pain–and are committed to doing something about it. Instead, by reverting to the uninspired tropes of the two-state solution, Bush gave the Palestinians–already deeply skeptical of the peace process–another reason to either roll their eyes or turn off the television.

I have to disagree with you, David. President Bush’s current visit to the Middle East has a remarkably different feel from his trip to the region earlier this year–and not just because he’s foregoing photo-ops with unsheathed swords. Indeed, whereas Bush’s January jaunt overwhelmingly focused on bolstering a flimsy Arab coalition against Iran through an even shakier Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he has spent far more time practicing public diplomacy this time around. Insofar as preaching peace and democracy to dictators that have long undermined both was always a total waste of time, this is a welcome–and long overdue–development.

The high point in this public outreach campaign came yesterday in Jerusalem. While addressing a conference commemorating the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, President Bush declared American support for Israel in no uncertain terms. The speech was remarkable for its utter friendliness: Bush saluted Israeli democracy, joked about its contentious political culture, and said that he was “thrilled to be here with one of America’s greatest friends”–without a single mention of the Palestinians.

If Bush’s Annapolis pet-project has any chance of succeeding before he leaves office, this is precisely what Israelis need to hear. Historically, Israeli leaders have been most willing to compromise with their adversaries when American support is unambiguously strongest. In this vein, Bush’s speech beautifully set the stage for the more serious address he will deliver before the Knesset today, in which he will “talk about the day when … every child in the Middle East can live in peace and live in freedom”-in other words, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As Israelis are deeply skeptical of this process, Bush’s strong display of support should provide some reassurance.

Sadly, Bush has been unable to replicate his success before Israelis when addressing Arab publics. The latest failure came Monday, when an interviewer from Egypt’s Dream TV asked Bush to respond to Jimmy Carter’s assertion that the Palestinians had suffered more than the Israelis; Bush responded:

Well, everybody has got their opinions. I just happen to believe that I’m in a position to help move the definition of a state, which will help solve the problem in the long run. I’m the first President ever to have articulated a two-state solution, two states living side by side in peace. And my only thing I want to tell your listeners is that I’m going to drive hard, along with Secretary Rice and other people in my administration, to see if we can’t get the Palestinians and Israelis to agree on what that state will look like.

Here, Bush missed an opportunity to say what the Palestinians need to hear. Just as Israelis needed to hear that the United States stood firmly behind it, Palestinians need to hear that we feel their pain–and are committed to doing something about it. Instead, by reverting to the uninspired tropes of the two-state solution, Bush gave the Palestinians–already deeply skeptical of the peace process–another reason to either roll their eyes or turn off the television.

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She Finally Gets It

Hillary Clinton is in uncharted territory. For the first time in this primary, Barack Obama has taken successive hits without Hillary somehow spoiling her own good luck.

Every previous Obama gaffe was quickly followed by a counterbalancing embarrassment from the Clinton camp that effectively reset the primary at a tie. If Obama’s wife said something offensive, Hillary’s husband popped up a day later to do the same. If Obama made a naïve statement about diplomacy, Hillary made an entitled statement about being treated unfairly. The tit-for-tat unfolded with relentless parity, so that the first thunderclap of Jeremiah Wright’s outrageous sermons was drowned out by the sniper fire of Hillary’s outrageous Bosnia tale.

But starting with her opponent’s ungenerous assessment of blue-collar Americans, Hillary has enjoyed the first string of Obama blunders not broken by her own reciprocal slips. Obama managed to insult the working class, give an abysmal debate performance, take a heavy loss in Pennsylvania, and fall back into the mud with Jeremiah Wright, all without any Clinton self-destruction to ease his pain. Hillary, by getting out of the way of her own good fortune, is now experiencing momentum by default.

And with Obama’s breakdown doing all the work, Hillary has at last grasped the concept of moderation. According to the Trail:

In recent days, Clinton’s jabs at Obama have been gentle and often unnamed, far from her “meet me in Ohio” and “shame on you, Barack Obama” blasts on the eve of the vote in Ohio. She spent the weekend challenging him to debates, but even dropped that this week to criticize Obama for not supporting a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax.”

If she can continue to resist the urge to scold or crow, and if she can keep her husband’s seemingly inevitable tantrums to a minimum, Obama’s campaign just might implode completely. At U.S. News & World Report, Bonnie Erbe suggests it’s time for Obama to consider dropping out. That’s not going to happen. But if the purpose of superdelegates is to have Democratic leadership steer the party out of trouble, their moment is now. While all the drama unfolds among them, Hillary should just cool her heels.

Hillary Clinton is in uncharted territory. For the first time in this primary, Barack Obama has taken successive hits without Hillary somehow spoiling her own good luck.

Every previous Obama gaffe was quickly followed by a counterbalancing embarrassment from the Clinton camp that effectively reset the primary at a tie. If Obama’s wife said something offensive, Hillary’s husband popped up a day later to do the same. If Obama made a naïve statement about diplomacy, Hillary made an entitled statement about being treated unfairly. The tit-for-tat unfolded with relentless parity, so that the first thunderclap of Jeremiah Wright’s outrageous sermons was drowned out by the sniper fire of Hillary’s outrageous Bosnia tale.

But starting with her opponent’s ungenerous assessment of blue-collar Americans, Hillary has enjoyed the first string of Obama blunders not broken by her own reciprocal slips. Obama managed to insult the working class, give an abysmal debate performance, take a heavy loss in Pennsylvania, and fall back into the mud with Jeremiah Wright, all without any Clinton self-destruction to ease his pain. Hillary, by getting out of the way of her own good fortune, is now experiencing momentum by default.

And with Obama’s breakdown doing all the work, Hillary has at last grasped the concept of moderation. According to the Trail:

In recent days, Clinton’s jabs at Obama have been gentle and often unnamed, far from her “meet me in Ohio” and “shame on you, Barack Obama” blasts on the eve of the vote in Ohio. She spent the weekend challenging him to debates, but even dropped that this week to criticize Obama for not supporting a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax.”

If she can continue to resist the urge to scold or crow, and if she can keep her husband’s seemingly inevitable tantrums to a minimum, Obama’s campaign just might implode completely. At U.S. News & World Report, Bonnie Erbe suggests it’s time for Obama to consider dropping out. That’s not going to happen. But if the purpose of superdelegates is to have Democratic leadership steer the party out of trouble, their moment is now. While all the drama unfolds among them, Hillary should just cool her heels.

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Silly Women — And Men

This very amusing, somewhat insightful but vastly overdrawn column on women overlooks a more interesting question than whether women have lost their rational minds. Rather than ponder why women swoon over Barack Obama or why Oprah has a media empire or why men make better drivers, it might be more interesting to ponder why men have fallen prey to the worst aspects of cliché feminism and emotionalized politics.

After all, a wide majority of Democratic men favor Barack Obama and apparently show no concern for the “tea with dictators” and “can’t we all get along” approach to foreign policy that may come with the deal. In some ways Hillary Clinton’s latest gambit has been to argue that Obama is a wimp who’s not man enough to take on the terrorists. She is trying to shake some sense into the fuzzy-headed Democratic electorate. (Granted that some of these male Obama voters, like the SNL skit suggests, may simply be fleeing from “Someone so annoying, so pushy, so grating, so bossy and shrill, with a personality so unpleasant, that at the end of the day [they] will have to go enough! We give up! Life is too short to deal with this awful woman!” ) It was Bill, not Hillary, who seemed to perfect the biting-the-lower lip, empathy-in-lieu of analysis style of politics.

One explanation for this mass wimp out by men is that male politicians, particularly Democrats, have simply learned to play on women’s emotions, adopting an excessively emotionalized style of politics and the language of self-help therapy that permeates feminine culture. Another is that liberal men have bought into the victimhood narrative of the women’s movement and have adopted the language and mindset of the “oppressed” while casting off that of the rational, linear “oppressor” male worldview. Whatever the explanation it seems plain that there are a lot of silly men who sound an awful lot like silly women.

Now, regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, we may be heading for one of the greatest gender gaps in political history. John McCain is perhaps the politician most immune to the feminization of political language. He not only does not feel your pain, he has little patience with it. He’s not going to whisper sweet nothings in your ear; he is going to give the hard truths and tell you to buck up. (Ask the Michigan auto workers, if you have any doubt.) By contrast, if Obama is the Democratic nominee, we are going to hear plenty about inclusion, less about confrontation and more about “dialogue” in both domestic and foreign policy. There is no problem too big for an encounter group. If Hillary is the nominee we will get more of the woe is me/fighting against the mean men complaints sprinkled with a heavy dose of “win one for the sister” identity politics. Let’s hope enough women (and men) haven’t lost their minds entirely as they assess the demands of a real world in which talk, conciliation and tears don’t work magic.

This very amusing, somewhat insightful but vastly overdrawn column on women overlooks a more interesting question than whether women have lost their rational minds. Rather than ponder why women swoon over Barack Obama or why Oprah has a media empire or why men make better drivers, it might be more interesting to ponder why men have fallen prey to the worst aspects of cliché feminism and emotionalized politics.

After all, a wide majority of Democratic men favor Barack Obama and apparently show no concern for the “tea with dictators” and “can’t we all get along” approach to foreign policy that may come with the deal. In some ways Hillary Clinton’s latest gambit has been to argue that Obama is a wimp who’s not man enough to take on the terrorists. She is trying to shake some sense into the fuzzy-headed Democratic electorate. (Granted that some of these male Obama voters, like the SNL skit suggests, may simply be fleeing from “Someone so annoying, so pushy, so grating, so bossy and shrill, with a personality so unpleasant, that at the end of the day [they] will have to go enough! We give up! Life is too short to deal with this awful woman!” ) It was Bill, not Hillary, who seemed to perfect the biting-the-lower lip, empathy-in-lieu of analysis style of politics.

One explanation for this mass wimp out by men is that male politicians, particularly Democrats, have simply learned to play on women’s emotions, adopting an excessively emotionalized style of politics and the language of self-help therapy that permeates feminine culture. Another is that liberal men have bought into the victimhood narrative of the women’s movement and have adopted the language and mindset of the “oppressed” while casting off that of the rational, linear “oppressor” male worldview. Whatever the explanation it seems plain that there are a lot of silly men who sound an awful lot like silly women.

Now, regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, we may be heading for one of the greatest gender gaps in political history. John McCain is perhaps the politician most immune to the feminization of political language. He not only does not feel your pain, he has little patience with it. He’s not going to whisper sweet nothings in your ear; he is going to give the hard truths and tell you to buck up. (Ask the Michigan auto workers, if you have any doubt.) By contrast, if Obama is the Democratic nominee, we are going to hear plenty about inclusion, less about confrontation and more about “dialogue” in both domestic and foreign policy. There is no problem too big for an encounter group. If Hillary is the nominee we will get more of the woe is me/fighting against the mean men complaints sprinkled with a heavy dose of “win one for the sister” identity politics. Let’s hope enough women (and men) haven’t lost their minds entirely as they assess the demands of a real world in which talk, conciliation and tears don’t work magic.

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A Revealing Poll

The latest SurveyUSA Florida poll shows McCain at 30 percent, Romney at 28 percent, Rudy at 18 percent and Huckabee with 14 percent. Some interesting internal numbers jump out. First, with Hispanic voters, McCain leads 60 percent to 16 percent over Rudy, while Romney draws only 10 percent. These voters are 10.7 percent of the GOP electorate and were thought to be a source of strong support for Rudy. But the numbers tell a different story. McCain may get a further bump today with the endorsement of Senator Mel Martinez, who may not be the favorite among conservative Republicans nationally but is very popular with Florida’s Hispanic population.

Even more startling is this nugget from the poll: McCain leads 37 percent to 25 percent over Romney among voters who say the economy is the number one issue. This seems counterintuitive in light of Romney’s improved messaging and his obvious command of economic issues. However, there may be something missing in his appeal. In a speech today at the Latin Builders Association he added some lines that we haven’t heard before:

I’ve had settings where I’ve had to lay people off. It’s an awful feeling. No one likes laying someone off . . . Someone who thinks that you’re a bad person if you lay someone off doesn’t understand. You feel bad. Its probably the hardest thing I’ve done in business.

Could it be that Romney comes across too corporate or too upscale and is now attempting a slight course correction? There is some evidence this is a problem for him. In New Hampshire, for example, he lost every economic group except those making $150-199K, and lost 22 percent to 39 percent to McCain among voters who considered the economy the number one issue. His focus on economics has intensified since then, and he has had much more time to demonstrate his expertise, but if the Florida poll is accurate it suggests he still has not connected with the majority of voters on what should be his best issue. Hopefully, he won’t resort to tears, but I do expect more ” I feel your pain” moments before Tuesday. (By the way, we should keep in mind that with over 700,000 early and absentee votes already in, half the voters expected to turn out have already voted.)

The latest SurveyUSA Florida poll shows McCain at 30 percent, Romney at 28 percent, Rudy at 18 percent and Huckabee with 14 percent. Some interesting internal numbers jump out. First, with Hispanic voters, McCain leads 60 percent to 16 percent over Rudy, while Romney draws only 10 percent. These voters are 10.7 percent of the GOP electorate and were thought to be a source of strong support for Rudy. But the numbers tell a different story. McCain may get a further bump today with the endorsement of Senator Mel Martinez, who may not be the favorite among conservative Republicans nationally but is very popular with Florida’s Hispanic population.

Even more startling is this nugget from the poll: McCain leads 37 percent to 25 percent over Romney among voters who say the economy is the number one issue. This seems counterintuitive in light of Romney’s improved messaging and his obvious command of economic issues. However, there may be something missing in his appeal. In a speech today at the Latin Builders Association he added some lines that we haven’t heard before:

I’ve had settings where I’ve had to lay people off. It’s an awful feeling. No one likes laying someone off . . . Someone who thinks that you’re a bad person if you lay someone off doesn’t understand. You feel bad. Its probably the hardest thing I’ve done in business.

Could it be that Romney comes across too corporate or too upscale and is now attempting a slight course correction? There is some evidence this is a problem for him. In New Hampshire, for example, he lost every economic group except those making $150-199K, and lost 22 percent to 39 percent to McCain among voters who considered the economy the number one issue. His focus on economics has intensified since then, and he has had much more time to demonstrate his expertise, but if the Florida poll is accurate it suggests he still has not connected with the majority of voters on what should be his best issue. Hopefully, he won’t resort to tears, but I do expect more ” I feel your pain” moments before Tuesday. (By the way, we should keep in mind that with over 700,000 early and absentee votes already in, half the voters expected to turn out have already voted.)

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Sullivan’s Garbles

Andrew Sullivan accuses me of “astonishing ignorance” because in an earlier post on waterboarding I said that “as universally understood, torture is the infliction of physical injury through the application of physical force.” He quotes the phrase “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” from U.S. law to prove me ignorant. Once again, as ever, Sullivan asserts that what he believes is law when it is, in fact, nothing of the kind. Here is the applicable language under U.S. statute:

“Severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.

It is true that the law speaks of the “threatened infliction” of “severe physical pain and suffering.” But this is an extraordinarily broad phrase that could indicate that a nine-year-old bully who terrifies another kid on the playground by threatening to rip his arm off is guilty of torture.

Such statute language does not clarify; it muddies, as legal language often muddies. If someone says, “I am going to kill you,” and by so doing causes fear in the person to whom he says it, is that torture? Clearly not, though the fear experienced by the person might be severe.

The question is whether the panic induced by waterboarding rises to the level of lawlessness as defined by that statute and by international law. And though Sullivan refuses to acknowledge this, that is a debatable proposition, as demonstrated by the simple fact that many people of good will (like Michael Mukasey) are unable to come to a conclusion about it as definitive (and definitively self-righteous) as Sullivan’s.

What is not debatable, however, is what everyone, even those of us whom Sullivan feels free to liken to Nazis who make the “arguments of the Gestapo,” knows to be torture without question, which is doing physical injury to someone without an ability to defend himself in any way, or mental injury so severe as to cause impairment.

Andrew Sullivan accuses me of “astonishing ignorance” because in an earlier post on waterboarding I said that “as universally understood, torture is the infliction of physical injury through the application of physical force.” He quotes the phrase “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” from U.S. law to prove me ignorant. Once again, as ever, Sullivan asserts that what he believes is law when it is, in fact, nothing of the kind. Here is the applicable language under U.S. statute:

“Severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.

It is true that the law speaks of the “threatened infliction” of “severe physical pain and suffering.” But this is an extraordinarily broad phrase that could indicate that a nine-year-old bully who terrifies another kid on the playground by threatening to rip his arm off is guilty of torture.

Such statute language does not clarify; it muddies, as legal language often muddies. If someone says, “I am going to kill you,” and by so doing causes fear in the person to whom he says it, is that torture? Clearly not, though the fear experienced by the person might be severe.

The question is whether the panic induced by waterboarding rises to the level of lawlessness as defined by that statute and by international law. And though Sullivan refuses to acknowledge this, that is a debatable proposition, as demonstrated by the simple fact that many people of good will (like Michael Mukasey) are unable to come to a conclusion about it as definitive (and definitively self-righteous) as Sullivan’s.

What is not debatable, however, is what everyone, even those of us whom Sullivan feels free to liken to Nazis who make the “arguments of the Gestapo,” knows to be torture without question, which is doing physical injury to someone without an ability to defend himself in any way, or mental injury so severe as to cause impairment.

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The Tortured Torture Debate

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey have written a series of thoughtful articles on the intersection of law and counterterrorism. In today’s Wall Street Journal, they take up the question of torture, attacking those critics of the Bush administration who, while condemning the coercive interrogation methods it has used in the war on terror, conspicuously omit to say which techniques they themselves regard as legitimate.

This is a fair point. But the authors’ own reasoning has some shortcomings of its own.

Drawing on published reports, Rivkin and Casey note that the Bush administration at various junctures has used “slapping, exposure to cold, stress positions, interrupted sleep and waterboarding, alone or in some combination” in the interrogation of al-Qaeda prisoners. The Justice Department, they say, “has reportedly approved all of these as legal.” And while “[r]easonable minds can disagree with this finding,” they assert that it is “unlikely that Justice signed off on these methods without regard to the level of intensity or potential cumulative impact” on the prisoner. In other words, the Department of Justice had grounds to conclude that the methods did not amount to torture.

But that is precisely the point in contention. After all, the Department also signed off on a memo saying that only methods that caused “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” constitute torture and are punishable by law. All other methods were presumably permissible. That memo was subsequently repudiated and withdrawn. Michael Mukasey, testifying in his confirmation hearings, called the memo “worse than a sin. It was a mistake.”

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David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey have written a series of thoughtful articles on the intersection of law and counterterrorism. In today’s Wall Street Journal, they take up the question of torture, attacking those critics of the Bush administration who, while condemning the coercive interrogation methods it has used in the war on terror, conspicuously omit to say which techniques they themselves regard as legitimate.

This is a fair point. But the authors’ own reasoning has some shortcomings of its own.

Drawing on published reports, Rivkin and Casey note that the Bush administration at various junctures has used “slapping, exposure to cold, stress positions, interrupted sleep and waterboarding, alone or in some combination” in the interrogation of al-Qaeda prisoners. The Justice Department, they say, “has reportedly approved all of these as legal.” And while “[r]easonable minds can disagree with this finding,” they assert that it is “unlikely that Justice signed off on these methods without regard to the level of intensity or potential cumulative impact” on the prisoner. In other words, the Department of Justice had grounds to conclude that the methods did not amount to torture.

But that is precisely the point in contention. After all, the Department also signed off on a memo saying that only methods that caused “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” constitute torture and are punishable by law. All other methods were presumably permissible. That memo was subsequently repudiated and withdrawn. Michael Mukasey, testifying in his confirmation hearings, called the memo “worse than a sin. It was a mistake.”

In his testimony, Mukasey was also asked directly about waterboarding, a procedure which simulates the feeling of drowning. First, he said it “is not constitutional for the United States to engage in torture in any form, be it waterboarding or anything else.” But he then backed away from such precision, saying about waterboarding: “I don’t know what’s involved in the technique. If waterboarding is torture, torture is not constitutional.”

Is waterboarding torture? Rivkin and Casey explain that it “has been part of U.S. military training programs on interrogation resistance.” From this they conclude that the practice is not torture, because if it were, “then it is impermissible for all purposeswhether or not an individual has consented.”

But this does not follow. Consent makes the context entirely different. No one is compelled to endure military training of that sort, which is only for elite, volunteer units, in our all-volunteer military. Being subjected to extreme cold while naked in a cell against one’s will is very different from being subjected to extreme cold as a consensual member of the Polar Bear club that swims every New Year’s day in the Atlantic Ocean.

Rivkin and Casey make some tentative judgments that also strike me as peculiar: “Slapping a man’s face probably does not cause him severe pain. Breaking his nose probably does.” “Probably”? I would think it is more than that, but perhaps I am wrong. Are we now forced to hold a debate about the meaning of the phrase “severe pain”?

However much it hurts to have one’s nose broken, the fine distinctions the authors are attempting to draw here should cause us to take note of all of the interrogation techniques that the U.S. military is not using, and has never contemplated using, from the rack of the days of yore to the electric drill applied to the head or limbs, a favored al-Qaeda technique.

The entire discussion of torture in which Rivkin and Casey and others are engaged demonstrates that we are a humane society attempting to remain humane while protecting ourselves from those who are not. But if we as a country are going to find a defensible position, it will have to rest on arguments that themselves can survive interrogation.

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So Long, Lu Xun

From China comes news, reported in the Chinese-language newspaper World Journal, that the works of Lu Xun—the country’s greatest modern author, a founder of the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers, and a longtime favorite of the Communists—are being removed from high school curricula. These classics will be replaced by contemporary fantasies about ancient knights and swordplay by the popular Hong Kong author Jin Yong. The reason for this censorship? The Tiananmen Massacre, of which Lu Xun’s works uncomfortably remind the Chinese government.

The most troublesome of Lu Xun’s writings, from this perspective, is In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen, a story about the death of a student shot as she and her colleagues attempted peacefully to present a petition to the military government of Duan Qirui on March 18, 1926. Lu addresses the events with his characteristic mixture of detachment and suppressed passion:

I did not see this, but I heard that she—Liu Hezhen—went forward gaily. Of course it was only a petition, and no one with any conscience could imagine such a trap. But then she was shot before Government House, shot from behind, and the bullet pierced her lung and heart.

Many a Tiananmen parent could speak similarly of the final moments of their dead son or daughter. Those parents and others may share as well Lu’s anger and despair:

[W]e are not living in the world of men. In a welter of . . . young people’s blood I can barely see, hear or breathe, so what can I say? We can make no long lament till after our pain is dulled. And the insidious talk of some so-called scholars since this incident has added to my sense of desolation. I am beyond indignation.

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From China comes news, reported in the Chinese-language newspaper World Journal, that the works of Lu Xun—the country’s greatest modern author, a founder of the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers, and a longtime favorite of the Communists—are being removed from high school curricula. These classics will be replaced by contemporary fantasies about ancient knights and swordplay by the popular Hong Kong author Jin Yong. The reason for this censorship? The Tiananmen Massacre, of which Lu Xun’s works uncomfortably remind the Chinese government.

The most troublesome of Lu Xun’s writings, from this perspective, is In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen, a story about the death of a student shot as she and her colleagues attempted peacefully to present a petition to the military government of Duan Qirui on March 18, 1926. Lu addresses the events with his characteristic mixture of detachment and suppressed passion:

I did not see this, but I heard that she—Liu Hezhen—went forward gaily. Of course it was only a petition, and no one with any conscience could imagine such a trap. But then she was shot before Government House, shot from behind, and the bullet pierced her lung and heart.

Many a Tiananmen parent could speak similarly of the final moments of their dead son or daughter. Those parents and others may share as well Lu’s anger and despair:

[W]e are not living in the world of men. In a welter of . . . young people’s blood I can barely see, hear or breathe, so what can I say? We can make no long lament till after our pain is dulled. And the insidious talk of some so-called scholars since this incident has added to my sense of desolation. I am beyond indignation.

General Duan’s government showed public remorse for the murder of Liu Hezhen. (The junta, in fact, fell from power just one month later.) By contrast, since 1989 Chinese governments consistently have refused to say anything at all about the Tiananmen Massacre, every trace of which they have sought obsessively to remove. Google has agreed not to provide images or information about the massacre for its Chinese service; the asphalt in Tiananmen Square, formerly marked by the prints of tank treads, has been replaced by granite slabs. New flowerbeds have been planted. Bullet marks in walls have been plastered over. Public denial has been complete for seventeen years.

All this denial has had some success. Chinese born after 1989 have only vague notions of what happened at Tiananmen. Foreigners are far too courteous to mention the massacre. The media are silent. But have the bloodstains truly been washed away? Evidently not.

In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen is being censored, after all, despite it’s once having received praise from Mao himself. (As one of the censors responsible explains, “[W]e are touching things that previously one dared not touch.”) Even the Soviets, no great appreciators of literature, taught Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. To exile Lu Xun from Chinese school curricula reveals the wide-ranging and desperate nature of the government’s effort to efface completely the memory of Tiananmen.

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The “Emergencies” of the Stem-Cell Debate

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offers a portrait of the debate on stem-cell research that took place in the Senate over the last two days. He notes the extent to which Senators, especially those working to remove the boundaries governing federal funding of embryo research, focused on sad, often quite touching stories of illness and suffering in their own lives and those of their families and friends.

This makes sense, of course, since the debate was about medical research. But on the other hand, it does raise the question of exactly what case those stories were intended to make. The stem-cell debate is not about whether our country should support medical research—there is an absolute consensus on that point. The federal government spends about $30 billion on such research through the National Institutes of Health each year. The debate is not even about whether to support stem-cell research. The federal government has spent about $3 billion on various forms of stem-cell research since 2001, including more than $130 million on embryonic stem-cell research.

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The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offers a portrait of the debate on stem-cell research that took place in the Senate over the last two days. He notes the extent to which Senators, especially those working to remove the boundaries governing federal funding of embryo research, focused on sad, often quite touching stories of illness and suffering in their own lives and those of their families and friends.

This makes sense, of course, since the debate was about medical research. But on the other hand, it does raise the question of exactly what case those stories were intended to make. The stem-cell debate is not about whether our country should support medical research—there is an absolute consensus on that point. The federal government spends about $30 billion on such research through the National Institutes of Health each year. The debate is not even about whether to support stem-cell research. The federal government has spent about $3 billion on various forms of stem-cell research since 2001, including more than $130 million on embryonic stem-cell research.

But that money has been spent under the constraints of President Bush’s embryonic stem-cell funding policy, which says only research that uses lines of cells created before the policy was enacted can be funded. Those created from embryos destroyed after the policy came into effect are not eligible. The idea is to prevent taxpayer dollars from offering an incentive to destroy human embryos–which is precisely what the bill the Senate passed last night (by a vote of 63 to 34, falling short of the margin needed to override a veto) would do.

What’s wrong with such research? The President believes (as do I) that human embryos—human beings in their earliest developmental stages—should not be treated as raw materials for scientific experimentation. America’s commitment to equality requires us to treat all human beings with at least that minimal regard. (I laid out this case on the New York Times op-ed page a few months ago.) Others believe that human embryos are not worthy of that degree of regard or protection, because they’re not developed enough, or large enough, or possessed of the capacity for cognition or pain.

These are legitimate arguments about the nature of the human embryo and the appropriate attitude toward it. But what bearing does a Senator’s story about his neighbor’s diabetes have on the argument? The point of these stories in the stem-cell debate is to argue not that one approach or another is ethical, but that the fact that so many of us and our loved ones suffer from serious ailments should cause us to put ethics aside. It is a case for approaching medical research—and indeed the very fact of illness, if not of death itself—with what might best be called a crisis mentality. Our illnesses, our deaths, are an emergency, and until the emergency is over we can’t bother with abstractions about equality and dignity.

This, too, is not a senseless attitude. But it is deeply misguided and dangerous. The “emergency” will never be over. Disease and death will haunt us always. We are right to struggle against them, and modern medicine offers us some formidable tools in that effort, which we ought to use and develop further. But we must do so with a sense that medicine is a science of postponement and an art of delay, not a crusade for final victory over death. That means the mission of medicine is permanent, not temporary. And that in turn means modern medicine must find its place in everyday life, rather than insist that we treat everyday life as an emergency that requires the suspension of moral and ethical rules. If we can have no recourse to ethics until we’re done fighting disease, then we can have no ethics at all.

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