Commentary Magazine


Topic: Paul Ryan

Marco Rubio and the Perils of Opportunism

The opponents of the bipartisan budget deal oppose it for different reasons, and some of the opposition is undoubtedly based on principle. But some of the opposition, it appears, is based on something rather less admirable.  

Take Senator Marco Rubio. He originally voted against the sequester, in part, he said, because it cut defense too much. “Defense funding should be driven by our national security needs, not by arbitrary fiscal arithmetic,” he said in a joint statement with other senators. “We cannot responsibly allow across-the-board, draconian defense cuts to go forward at the expense of our national security.”

Now he’s criticizing a budget deal that would increase spending on defense while also slightly cutting the deficit, arguing that we shouldn’t give up the sequestration deal he initially opposed. And he’s the one complaining about the lack of “long-term thinking.”

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The opponents of the bipartisan budget deal oppose it for different reasons, and some of the opposition is undoubtedly based on principle. But some of the opposition, it appears, is based on something rather less admirable.  

Take Senator Marco Rubio. He originally voted against the sequester, in part, he said, because it cut defense too much. “Defense funding should be driven by our national security needs, not by arbitrary fiscal arithmetic,” he said in a joint statement with other senators. “We cannot responsibly allow across-the-board, draconian defense cuts to go forward at the expense of our national security.”

Now he’s criticizing a budget deal that would increase spending on defense while also slightly cutting the deficit, arguing that we shouldn’t give up the sequestration deal he initially opposed. And he’s the one complaining about the lack of “long-term thinking.”

I’ve said favorable things about Senator Rubio in the past. He’s a likeable figure, and often a persuasive one. But some worrisome patterns are emerging.

Senator Rubio voted against the Budget Control Act in 2011 that paved the path toward the sequester–and now he’s blasting a defensible, if far from perfect, deal by Representative Ryan and Senator Murray on the grounds that it undoes the sequester (which is a simplistic and incomplete argument in itself, for reasons I lay out here). And Senator Rubio showed a massive error in judgment in championing the effort to shut down the federal government if the Affordable Care Act wasn’t de-funded–a gambit that did absolutely no good and in fact inflicted a fair amount of harm on his party.

Senator Rubio strikes me as a person not only highly attuned to criticisms of him from the base, but overly reactive to them, adjusting and responding moment by moment. One senses that believing he badly hurt himself with the base because of his stand on immigration, he’s now scrambling to ingratiate himself with it. It isn’t a particularly impressive thing to watch.

Senator Rubio is young, talented, and, I think, has a lot to contribute to conservatism. But he might take to heart the words of St. Paul, who in the book of Ephesians warned about those “tossed like waves and blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

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Why the Budget Deal Deserves Conservative Support

Good grief. 

Reacting to the budget deal agreed to by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, Senator Rand Paul referred to it as “shameful.” Senator Ted Cruz informed us he found it to be “deeply concerning.” And Senator Marco Rubio said it would “make it harder for Americans to achieve the American dream.” 

So the geniuses who engineered the disastrous budget shutdown are now attacking an agreement that is  substantively defensible and politically wise.

To be sure, the budget deal is far from perfect. It doesn’t address the structural fiscal problems we face. But of course achieving such a thing is impossible so long as Barack Obama is president and Harry Reid is Senate majority leader. The issue is whether the deal is, on the margins, better than no deal. Answer: It is.

Basically the Ryan-Murray agreement allows minor increases in domestic discretionary spending in exchange for minor mandatory cuts in entitlement programs. To be specific: the deal gives back $63 billion over the next two years in domestic discretionary spending (including half of which goes for defense) in exchange for $85 billion in modest entitlement reforms over 10 years. The cuts are not as immediate as the spending increases–but they are cuts that are very likely to materialize and would not be easy to reverse. 

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Good grief. 

Reacting to the budget deal agreed to by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, Senator Rand Paul referred to it as “shameful.” Senator Ted Cruz informed us he found it to be “deeply concerning.” And Senator Marco Rubio said it would “make it harder for Americans to achieve the American dream.” 

So the geniuses who engineered the disastrous budget shutdown are now attacking an agreement that is  substantively defensible and politically wise.

To be sure, the budget deal is far from perfect. It doesn’t address the structural fiscal problems we face. But of course achieving such a thing is impossible so long as Barack Obama is president and Harry Reid is Senate majority leader. The issue is whether the deal is, on the margins, better than no deal. Answer: It is.

Basically the Ryan-Murray agreement allows minor increases in domestic discretionary spending in exchange for minor mandatory cuts in entitlement programs. To be specific: the deal gives back $63 billion over the next two years in domestic discretionary spending (including half of which goes for defense) in exchange for $85 billion in modest entitlement reforms over 10 years. The cuts are not as immediate as the spending increases–but they are cuts that are very likely to materialize and would not be easy to reverse. 

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, writing on NRO, makes the following points: Mandatory spending out-year cuts actually tend to go into effect, unlike discretionary spending out-year cuts, because mandatory programs remain in place since they are on auto-pilot. The Ryan-Murray deal would say that about 30 percent of the sequester over the next two years will be replaced with modest (and much more sensible) longer-term entitlement savings and other small reforms. Fully 70 percent of the sequester remains in place in this two years, and after those two years the entire sequester remains in place. And this is important to note, too: this proposed deal would put discretionary spending in 2014 and 2015, even with the temporary two-year increase in spending, below that of the first House Republican budget, which was passed in 2011 to the praise of conservatives. In addition, this deal prevents additional deep cuts to the Department of Defense, it doesn’t involve any increase in tax rates, and it restores the normal appropriations process (which will allow Congress to set priorities). And just for the sake of context: the $63 billion increase over two years amounts to less than nine-tenths of one percent of projected federal spending over that period.

Where Ryan did a huge favor for the GOP politically is striking a deal that avoids a government shutdown, which (as we saw last October) would only damage the Republican Party and the conservative cause, in part by deflecting attention away from the rolling disaster of ObamaCare.

The deal also takes into account political reality: It’s quite possible House Republicans–in part because of Republicans who are worried about deep cuts in defense, in part because of Republicans who want to spend more–might not have had the votes in their own conference to have kept the sequester in place. Ryan, knowing this, pushed for the best deal he could to keep limits on spending rather than have the whole thing fall apart later.

On substance this budget deal, even if one supports it, isn’t worth getting all that excited about. (Similarly, if one opposes it, it isn’t worth getting all that excited about.) But the GOP and the conservative cause are better served with it than without it. Which is why it deserves support.

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The Budget Deal and Defense

The budget deal struck between Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, assuming it’s passed by both chambers, hardly solves all of our budget woes. But it is a positive step forward especially for the U.S. Armed Forces, which have faced the prospect of devastating and illogical budget cuts dictated by the sequestration process. The Ryan-Murray deal does not turn off all the defense cuts, but it does pare them back. Defense News sums up the details:

The compromise budget resolution, if adopted by both chambers, would provide $63 billion in sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015, which would be split evenly among defense and non-defense discretionary accounts.

The 2014 relief would total $45 billion, meaning the Defense Department would get back about $22.5 billion. In 2015, the relief amount would be around $18 billion total, and $9 billion for the Pentagon.

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The budget deal struck between Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, assuming it’s passed by both chambers, hardly solves all of our budget woes. But it is a positive step forward especially for the U.S. Armed Forces, which have faced the prospect of devastating and illogical budget cuts dictated by the sequestration process. The Ryan-Murray deal does not turn off all the defense cuts, but it does pare them back. Defense News sums up the details:

The compromise budget resolution, if adopted by both chambers, would provide $63 billion in sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015, which would be split evenly among defense and non-defense discretionary accounts.

The 2014 relief would total $45 billion, meaning the Defense Department would get back about $22.5 billion. In 2015, the relief amount would be around $18 billion total, and $9 billion for the Pentagon.

The restoration of some of these budget cuts would be “financed” by reducing cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees, cutting modestly payments to Medicare providers, and other small budget fixes.

In short the deal should be seen from a conservative perspective as a good outcome–it maintains budget discipline while providing more funding to the armed forces. It is puzzling, therefore, that so many conservative firebrands are expressing opposition and that House and Senate Republican leaders are hesitating to endorse it. Paul Ryan should be winning congratulations for what he has achieved rather than being forced to fight to keep the deal from getting torpedoed by conservative absolutists who have no workable alternative to offer.

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The New Paul Ryan Is the Old Paul Ryan

Following the release of the budget deal Paul Ryan agreed to with Patty Murray, there will be talk of a shift in Ryan’s political principles. The deal is being framed by its authors as a model of pragmatism, which is a good indication that it will conform to the belief that a fair deal is one from which both sides come away equally unhappy.

Policywise, it certainly deviates from Ryan’s past budgets, and in fact there is plenty in this deal for conservatives to dislike–so much, in fact, that it gives us a clue as to why a seemingly pointless deal would be struck by the right’s generally bold reformer. The Politico story on the deal, headlined “The new Paul Ryan,” offers an opening set of paragraphs that manage to get virtually everything wrong, aside from the one kernel of truth smothered by the confusion:

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Following the release of the budget deal Paul Ryan agreed to with Patty Murray, there will be talk of a shift in Ryan’s political principles. The deal is being framed by its authors as a model of pragmatism, which is a good indication that it will conform to the belief that a fair deal is one from which both sides come away equally unhappy.

Policywise, it certainly deviates from Ryan’s past budgets, and in fact there is plenty in this deal for conservatives to dislike–so much, in fact, that it gives us a clue as to why a seemingly pointless deal would be struck by the right’s generally bold reformer. The Politico story on the deal, headlined “The new Paul Ryan,” offers an opening set of paragraphs that manage to get virtually everything wrong, aside from the one kernel of truth smothered by the confusion:

The new Paul Ryan emerged this week.

The House Budget Committee chairman, who has spent years penning budgets fit for conservatives’ dreams, has morphed into a man willing to take modest steps.

The two-year budget agreement he rolled out with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) Tuesday evening is striking for its simplicity: It cuts the deficits by $23 billion, sets new higher spending levels for the next two years and replaces automatic spending cuts set to take effect in 2014.

But in abandoning his years-long quest to re-imagine American society and settling for a bipartisan deal, the Wisconsin Republican took the first steps to emerge as a House power center — a Republican willing to take baby steps to curb the nation’s trillions in debt, normalize the budget process and protect a Pentagon pilloried by cuts.

This is not a “new Paul Ryan,” but the kernel of truth is buried in that fourth paragraph in reference to Ryan emerging as a “House power center.” He is in fact far from the only “Republican willing to take baby steps to curb the nation’s trillions in debt, normalize the budget process and protect a Pentagon pilloried by cuts”–a fact that explains why conservatives have been so frustrated with their congressional representatives.

More importantly, however, these were absolutely not the “first steps” Ryan is taking toward becoming an institution within an institution, rather than a prospective conservative candidate for president. Ryan may still run for president, of course; though if he wants to do so as a moderate from Wisconsin he’ll have to compete with Chris Christie and Scott Walker, the presumptive favorites of the centrists (Christie) and Wisconsinites (Walker)–who are both superior retail politicians.

The truth is, most of Ryan’s career suggests he wants the gavel, not the veto pen. Such a career path, by definition, requires staying put. So the clearest evidence of Ryan’s aspirations was when he passed on running for the open Senate seat from Wisconsin long before he was asked to join the Romney campaign as vice presidential nominee:

“What matters to me is not the title. It’s my ability to impact policy,” Ryan said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It would take me, you know, 12 to 16 years in the Senate to get where I am in the House. I don’t want to be in Congress for the rest of my life.”

Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has gained national prominence in recent months as the budget has become a central issue in Washington. In the last few days, he was contacted by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn about a possible Senate run.

But Ryan told the Journal Sentinel that he was able to make a quick decision because he never wanted to run for Senate. He is in a strong position to become chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 2013.

He is not chairman of Ways and Means, but he is quite obviously still the GOP’s point man on budgetary issues as chairman of the Budget Committee. His comment that he wants to impact policy and not be in Congress forever clearly left the door open to other jobs that fit that description–the presidency certainly among them. But Ryan was catapulted to the national stage in 2012 when he joined Romney’s ticket. He did not run for president himself that year, despite numerous entreaties from supporters on the right.

Yet his presence on that ticket did raise the prospect of having to make a choice. He was popular among conservative voters and donors, and had a certain claim to first-tier status as a presidential candidate if he wanted it since he served as the vice presidential nominee in the last cycle. Suddenly, he was presented with the opportunity to claim inheritance of the party’s “standard-bearer” designation, if not the next in line (which used to be an advantage in the GOP, but the very concept now raises suspicion on the right for its presumption of entitlement–and rightly so).

This budget deal was not negotiated by the New Paul Ryan. It was a natural step for the Old Paul Ryan to take because while it wasn’t in line with his other recent budgets, it follows his desire to shape the country’s fiscal course, which he likely considered the first casualty to the prevailing congressional stalemate. It was, however, his first such move since the 2012 presidential election. There is much consistency to Ryan’s compromise, which suggests his heart was with the gavel all along.

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Ideologues Shouldn’t Torpedo Budget Truce

The first reviews are in on the budget deal agreed to by Republican House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, and people on both the left and the right have found plenty not to like about it. This is no grand bargain or long-term settlement of the great divide over how to achieve fiscal sanity.  It neither reins in spending nor does it provide for what Ryan has always said was most needed for the government to get its fiscal house in order: fundamental entitlement reform. That’s more than enough reason for many conservatives and Tea Partiers to reject it out of hand as an inadequate compromise that merely keeps feeding the government leviathan that they rightly believe needs to be cut back rather than maintained.

But, if, like the those on the left who will vote against it because it makes some cuts and doesn’t give them their wish list items like an expansion of unemployment benefits, conservatives manage to torpedo Ryan’s efforts, they will be making a huge mistake. After a three-year standoff between the parties on the budget, it was time for a truce. The modest deal restores certainty to the economy and eliminates some of the most painful sequester cuts, including those involving defense. Though it falls far short of anything that might be called reform, it does establish a principle that is necessary to it: any discretionary spending increases are offset by mandatory spending cuts. That is a step toward fiscal sanity that should be taken.

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The first reviews are in on the budget deal agreed to by Republican House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, and people on both the left and the right have found plenty not to like about it. This is no grand bargain or long-term settlement of the great divide over how to achieve fiscal sanity.  It neither reins in spending nor does it provide for what Ryan has always said was most needed for the government to get its fiscal house in order: fundamental entitlement reform. That’s more than enough reason for many conservatives and Tea Partiers to reject it out of hand as an inadequate compromise that merely keeps feeding the government leviathan that they rightly believe needs to be cut back rather than maintained.

But, if, like the those on the left who will vote against it because it makes some cuts and doesn’t give them their wish list items like an expansion of unemployment benefits, conservatives manage to torpedo Ryan’s efforts, they will be making a huge mistake. After a three-year standoff between the parties on the budget, it was time for a truce. The modest deal restores certainty to the economy and eliminates some of the most painful sequester cuts, including those involving defense. Though it falls far short of anything that might be called reform, it does establish a principle that is necessary to it: any discretionary spending increases are offset by mandatory spending cuts. That is a step toward fiscal sanity that should be taken.

Those on the right who are dismayed about the abandonment of the sequester have a point. Only by insisting on mandatory and draconian across-the-board cuts have Republicans been able to make any kind of an impact on the fiscal debate. But as useful as the sequester has been, it is too imprecise an instrument to become a permanent part of the process. As our Max Boot has repeatedly pointed out, the cuts that have been imposed on defense are damaging national security and must, sooner or later, be eliminated.

Many on the right are also denouncing Ryan’s deal not just because it doesn’t give them what they want on taxes and spending but because they don’t see the need to compromise at this moment. They see President Obama’s poll numbers falling and think the time is right to push hard again for the kind of reform that is needed, not an agreement that merely kicks the can down the road. But this is the same kind of faulty thinking from groups like Heritage Action and Freedom Works that led conservatives to shut down the government as part of a vain effort to defund ObamaCare. Apparently they’ve learned nothing from that debacle.

This is exactly the wrong time for the GOP to go back to a scenario where they can be depicted as impeding efforts to keep the government working. Doing so would distract the country from the ongoing worries about the devastating impact of ObamaCare on individuals and the economy.

Tactics aside, the deal is necessary because it reflects the reality of divided government that both President Obama and the Tea Party have been butting heads over ever since the 2010 midterms. Under the current circumstances there is simply no way for either the Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives or the Democrats running the White House and the Senate to get their way. The accord reached between Ryan and Murray is simply an acknowledgement of this fact and an effort to keep the nation on an even keel until we can have another election to try and resolve this mess next November.

Avoiding compromise and setting off another cataclysmic fight over the budget or the debt ceiling (the latter is not part of this deal, leaving both parties free to set off another confrontation sometime in 2014 if they wish) satisfies the conservative impulse to draw a line in the sand over an ever-expanding government. But, as Ryan has said, Congress must deal with the world as it is rather than merely operate on the basis of how they’d like it to be. The only hope of getting closer to real entitlement reform is for the GOP to win the 2014 midterms. Some on the right are still laboring under the delusion that staging another shutdown or threatening a default is the right way to make their case to the country. But only someone utterly insensitive to the mood of the country would think that is either good politics or good public policy. If they go back to those tactics, Republicans will be forfeiting any chance of winning back the Senate in the coming year.

There’s little doubt that Republicans worried about primary challenges from the right or thinking about running for president in 2016 will be inclined to eschew any such compromise. But passing this budget will give their party a shot at winning in the midterms and take the wind out of the Democratic effort to paint them as irresponsible. Compromise is often the coward’s way out and leads to more trouble. But in this case, it is simply good sense. Though the cuts it imposes are no more than a rounding error, Republicans will do well to take what they can rather than to seek the impossible and thus render more progress less likely.

A truce is something you embrace when it will enable you to go back into the fray better prepared to prevail. Ryan is smart enough to know this, even if some of his colleagues don’t. It’s time for the GOP to keep its powder dry and come back to the table when they’ve got the votes and the seats to pass the kind of reform budget that Ryan and the rest of his party would prefer.

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Conservatives and Poverty

In a recent Mars Hill Audio Journal discussion, Ken Myers interviewed the church historian Peter Brown on the early church’s approach to wealth and poverty. (Brown is also author of the masterful 1967 biography, Augustine of Hippo.)

According to Myers, while those in ancient Rome did participate in alms giving, in Roman and Greek culture there wasn’t the compassion for the poor that was present in Jewish and Christian understanding because “there was nothing like Yahweh’s love for the oppressed in their moral imagination.” For the pre-Christian cultures of antiquity, he observed, civic generosity involved a love for the city but not a love for the poor as such.

This is how Professor Brown put it in a lecture:

In directing so much attention to the care of the poor, Jews and Christians were not simply doing on a more extensive scale what pagans had already been doing in a less whole-hearted and well-organized manner. Far from it. It takes some effort of the historical imagination to realize that around the year 360 CE, love of the poor was a relatively novel and for many humane and public-spirited persons still a largely peripheral virtue. As for organized care of the poor, this was a practice that cut against deeply ingrained and still vigorous traditions of public giving from which direct charity to the poor was notably absent.

It is this Jewish and Christian understanding that eventually helped shift people’s attitudes. “Securing justice for the poor and upholding the cause of the needy,” in the words of the Psalms, became not just a private but also a public concern. Throughout the Scriptures, in fact, rulers are judged by whether the weak and the disadvantaged in society are cared for or exploited.

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In a recent Mars Hill Audio Journal discussion, Ken Myers interviewed the church historian Peter Brown on the early church’s approach to wealth and poverty. (Brown is also author of the masterful 1967 biography, Augustine of Hippo.)

According to Myers, while those in ancient Rome did participate in alms giving, in Roman and Greek culture there wasn’t the compassion for the poor that was present in Jewish and Christian understanding because “there was nothing like Yahweh’s love for the oppressed in their moral imagination.” For the pre-Christian cultures of antiquity, he observed, civic generosity involved a love for the city but not a love for the poor as such.

This is how Professor Brown put it in a lecture:

In directing so much attention to the care of the poor, Jews and Christians were not simply doing on a more extensive scale what pagans had already been doing in a less whole-hearted and well-organized manner. Far from it. It takes some effort of the historical imagination to realize that around the year 360 CE, love of the poor was a relatively novel and for many humane and public-spirited persons still a largely peripheral virtue. As for organized care of the poor, this was a practice that cut against deeply ingrained and still vigorous traditions of public giving from which direct charity to the poor was notably absent.

It is this Jewish and Christian understanding that eventually helped shift people’s attitudes. “Securing justice for the poor and upholding the cause of the needy,” in the words of the Psalms, became not just a private but also a public concern. Throughout the Scriptures, in fact, rulers are judged by whether the weak and the disadvantaged in society are cared for or exploited.

Which brings me to the here and now. According to a recent Washington Post story, next year, for the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” crusade, Representative Paul Ryan “hopes to roll out an anti-poverty plan to rival his budgetary Roadmap for America’s Future in scope and ambition.”

A conservative plan to combat poverty would of course differ–and in my estimation should differ–from a liberal anti-poverty approach. But for the purposes of this post, I don’t want to examine the substantive policy differences, as salient as they are. Rather, I want to underscore the fact that focusing attention on those living in the shadows of American society is the responsibility of a great political party; and how to create greater opportunity and social mobility for those stuck on the bottom rungs of society should be part of any conservative governing vision.

To be sure, the problem of poverty is complicated, different in important respects from in the past, and defies simplistic partisan explanations. The solutions certainly extend beyond the actions of government. Indeed, misguided government policies have done a great deal to perpetuate inter-generational poverty. But it’s hard to argue that politics and government don’t have significant roles to play, direct and indirect, both in putting an end to failed policies and in supporting what works. And certainly the Republican Party has to do better than declaring utter indifference to the poor (which was the approach some otherwise very impressive individuals took in the 2012 presidential race). 

Helping those most in need should be considered more than a peripheral virtue; and like Jews and Christians of old, we should all make more room in our moral imaginations for the care of the poor. Certainly if we’re told that God identifies with the least of these, so should we.

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Paul Ryan’s Quiet Anti-Poverty Quest

What should be the goal of conservative anti-poverty programs? The obvious answer is: help those in poverty find their way to some measure of economic security. That, at least, is what the subjects of anti-poverty programs would expect. It is a challenge–more so than Republican politicians seem to appreciate–to convince someone in dire economic straits about the long-term value of the economic process of creative destruction that may have put them in near-term financial crisis. You can’t eat character or life lessons.

But to listen to Republican legislators, the goal of these programs seems to be to cut the budget, or to reduce dependency on the federal government, or create jobs–all important items on the GOP’s agenda, and all which can, certainly, help alleviate poverty in various ways. But that also means that when conservatives talk, they are often talking about those in poverty, not to them. That was part of the basis for Chris Christie’s reelection strategy, which saw him go into disadvantaged neighborhoods and show reliably liberal voters that Republicans weren’t afraid to be in the same room with them.

But what to do beyond that? This is the question Paul Ryan is grappling with. Ryan’s anti-poverty drive is the subject of a lengthy profile in the Washington Post, which notes that the Wisconsin congressman, who ran as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee last year, was positively mortified by Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment. “I think he was embarrassed,” Bob Woodson, a civil-rights activist who worked with Ryan’s mentor Jack Kemp on poverty issues, told the Post. “And it propelled him to deepen his own understanding of this.”

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What should be the goal of conservative anti-poverty programs? The obvious answer is: help those in poverty find their way to some measure of economic security. That, at least, is what the subjects of anti-poverty programs would expect. It is a challenge–more so than Republican politicians seem to appreciate–to convince someone in dire economic straits about the long-term value of the economic process of creative destruction that may have put them in near-term financial crisis. You can’t eat character or life lessons.

But to listen to Republican legislators, the goal of these programs seems to be to cut the budget, or to reduce dependency on the federal government, or create jobs–all important items on the GOP’s agenda, and all which can, certainly, help alleviate poverty in various ways. But that also means that when conservatives talk, they are often talking about those in poverty, not to them. That was part of the basis for Chris Christie’s reelection strategy, which saw him go into disadvantaged neighborhoods and show reliably liberal voters that Republicans weren’t afraid to be in the same room with them.

But what to do beyond that? This is the question Paul Ryan is grappling with. Ryan’s anti-poverty drive is the subject of a lengthy profile in the Washington Post, which notes that the Wisconsin congressman, who ran as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee last year, was positively mortified by Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment. “I think he was embarrassed,” Bob Woodson, a civil-rights activist who worked with Ryan’s mentor Jack Kemp on poverty issues, told the Post. “And it propelled him to deepen his own understanding of this.”

Ryan faces two obstacles. First, his placement on the ticket implicated him, even if once removed, from Romney’s comments. And second, he is the author of a budget reform plan that aims to shore up the social safety net before it goes bankrupt. Conservatives are virtually alone in their willingness to address the looming entitlements crisis. When Ryan proposed an earlier iteration of his budget, the Democrats ran lunatic murder-fantasy ads depicting a Ryan lookalike throwing an old lady off of a cliff.

Reforming entitlements isn’t the same as addressing poverty, but Ryan is pushing back against the stigma of the Democratic attack ads that emerge, like clockwork, any time the Democrats have an opportunity to scuttle attempts to put those programs on sound economic footing. The Post describes how the Ryan-Woodson collaboration has taken shape:

Ryan had sought Woodson’s help with his poverty speech. The two reconnected after the election and began traveling together in February — once a month, no reporters — to inner-city programs supported by Woodson’s Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. In Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Denver, Woodson said, Ryan asked questions about “the agents of transformation and how this differs from the professional approach” of government social workers.

Like Woodson, the programs share a disdain for handouts and a focus on helping people address their own problems. In Southeast Washington, Ryan met Bishop Shirley Holloway, who gave up a comfortable career in the U.S. Postal Service to minister to drug addicts, ex-offenders, the homeless — people for whom government benefits can serve only to hasten their downfall, Holloway said.

At City of Hope, they are given an apartment and taught life skills and encouraged to confront their psychological wounds. They can stay as long as they’re sober and working, often in a job Holloway has somehow created.

“Paul wants people to dream again,” Holloway said of Ryan. “You don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.”

Trips to Newark and Texas are slated for later this month. Woodson said Ryan has also asked him to gather community leaders for an event next year, and to help him compare the results of their work with the 78 means-tested programs that have cost the federal government $15 trillion since 1964.

Ryan’s focus on the effectiveness of these programs vis-à-vis the federal government’s programs strikes me as the key to this experiment. The Democrats’ solution to poverty is to increase dependence on the federal government to bolster its expansion and give politicians ever more control over the public. As such, it cedes plenty of ground to anyone more concerned about helping the poor than about their own quest for power.

Yet the right cedes much of that ground right back by subsuming specific existing anti-poverty programs into the larger fights over the budget or more abstract battles over ideological principles. The ineffectiveness of government programs isn’t enough to discredit them in the minds of politicians looking for votes: otherwise, Medicaid–an expensive failure that is actually expanded under ObamaCare as a wealth transfer–would be a constant target of reform.

These programs often follow the rule that you can’t beat something with nothing. A bad government program easily persists when there is no alternative. If Ryan can prove there are workable alternatives, the Democrats will need more than disturbing attack ads to derail conservative attempts to save the social safety net.

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Is It Wrong to Root for ObamaCare to Fail?

As Democrats attempt to deflect the torrent of criticism coming their way in the wake of an ObamaCare rollout that was an undeniable fiasco, one of their key talking points centers around an attempt to blame it all on mean Republicans who can’t let go of their opposition of the president’s signature legislation. As liberal blogger Ezra Klein wrote in the Washington Post, there’s a certain cognitive dissonance involved when those who actually want to repeal a piece of legislation complain that it is being incompetently administered. Maybe so. However, the implication coming from many of the administration’s defenders is that there’s something inappropriate if not unpatriotic about anyone wanting the government to fail. It’s almost as if they’re saying that hoping for ObamaCare to crash and burn is like rooting against the U.S. Marines if you didn’t happen to approve of the president’s decision to send them to fight in a particular war. After all, we all follow the flag and support our troops no matter what we think of the commander in chief or his policies. Or at least we should.

But ObamaCare is not the moral equivalent of an unpopular war. It’s a massive government program whose implementation infringes on the liberty of citizens (forcing them to purchase a product they may or may not want), taxing them in the form of penalties, and expanding the scope of government interference in a major industry and almost certainly damaging the economy. ObamaCare may not fail in the sense that it is theoretically possible that the administration will eventually figure out how to run a website, implement its provisions, and enforce it, though, given its track record, that is far from a given.

But those who believe it to be a wrongheaded and dangerous scheme are fully within their rights to hope that it collapses of its own weight long before it becomes part of the basic infrastructure of the federal leviathan. Indeed, conservative arguments against it have always centered, at least in part, on the fact that government simply hasn’t the competence to run health care and should not be allowed to try. Why should we blame them for saying “I told you so” as they toast the hard work of Kathleen Sebelius and the rest of the president’s minions to prove them right?

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As Democrats attempt to deflect the torrent of criticism coming their way in the wake of an ObamaCare rollout that was an undeniable fiasco, one of their key talking points centers around an attempt to blame it all on mean Republicans who can’t let go of their opposition of the president’s signature legislation. As liberal blogger Ezra Klein wrote in the Washington Post, there’s a certain cognitive dissonance involved when those who actually want to repeal a piece of legislation complain that it is being incompetently administered. Maybe so. However, the implication coming from many of the administration’s defenders is that there’s something inappropriate if not unpatriotic about anyone wanting the government to fail. It’s almost as if they’re saying that hoping for ObamaCare to crash and burn is like rooting against the U.S. Marines if you didn’t happen to approve of the president’s decision to send them to fight in a particular war. After all, we all follow the flag and support our troops no matter what we think of the commander in chief or his policies. Or at least we should.

But ObamaCare is not the moral equivalent of an unpopular war. It’s a massive government program whose implementation infringes on the liberty of citizens (forcing them to purchase a product they may or may not want), taxing them in the form of penalties, and expanding the scope of government interference in a major industry and almost certainly damaging the economy. ObamaCare may not fail in the sense that it is theoretically possible that the administration will eventually figure out how to run a website, implement its provisions, and enforce it, though, given its track record, that is far from a given.

But those who believe it to be a wrongheaded and dangerous scheme are fully within their rights to hope that it collapses of its own weight long before it becomes part of the basic infrastructure of the federal leviathan. Indeed, conservative arguments against it have always centered, at least in part, on the fact that government simply hasn’t the competence to run health care and should not be allowed to try. Why should we blame them for saying “I told you so” as they toast the hard work of Kathleen Sebelius and the rest of the president’s minions to prove them right?

In claiming that Republicans are wrong to root against ObamaCare, Democrats also attempt to spin this as a heartless attempt to rip health insurance from the hands of the needy. From this point of view, the plight of those who stand to benefit from the plan are analogous to the spilled blood of Americans fighting for their country while Republicans sit on their hands. But again this is nonsense. Republicans, in particular Rep. Paul Ryan, had their own plans for expanding health coverage without creating the vast structure of ObamaCare. Since they believe that the president’s bill was not only poorly written but bound to cause as much if not more harm to the rest of the country (like those who are losing their jobs due to companies cutting back in reaction to the prospect of the government enforcing the employer mandate), what they are doing is nothing more than advocacy for an alternative to legislation that remains as unpopular today as it was when the president forced it down the country’s throat on a partisan vote enabled by legislative trickery.

It is true, as Klein warns, that if ObamaCare fails, Democrats will be back not with a smaller, more manageable idea comparable to Ryan’s suggestions, but with a massive single payer system that will really be the next step toward socialized medicine. But rather than causing conservatives to swallow the so-called compromise of ObamaCare, it is rightly motivating them to draw a line in the sand across which liberal statists ought not to be allowed to cross.

The truth is, ObamaCare’s flaws are baked into the system it is trying to impose on the country and not just a matter of website “glitches.” It is likely to continue to careen from one disaster to another over the course of its life whether the GOP is chortling about it or not. This is a tragedy for the country. But the sooner we find this out the better. A flawed idea from the start, all its critics are doing to ObamaCare at this point is holding up a mirror to the administration’s failure and warning the country not to repeat their mistakes. If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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No Deal Yet? Blame Obama’s Credibility Gap

This morning House Republicans are meeting to discuss ideas floated by Rep. Paul Ryan to avert a showdown over the debt ceiling. Ryan, who outlined his proposal in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is, as we have come to expect of him, the leading voice of reason in the GOP caucus, and the White House ought to seize on this opportunity to avert what it keeps telling us is a fiscal catastrophe that will happen on Oct. 17 if the Republicans don’t surrender. But since we already know that President Obama is far more interested in pushing confrontation with the Republicans because he believes it to be in his political interests, there’s little chance of that happening.

While more conservatives are coming to grips with the fact that they are not going to be able to defund ObamaCare, it’s also unclear whether enough House Republicans will get behind Ryan’s scheme that trades off a short-term extension of the debt ceiling along with reform of Medicare and a start on comprehensive tax reform. These are core conservative ideas that are focused on the underlying problems behind the deficit—entitlements and tax unfairness—that are opposed by Democrats who seek to preserve an indefensible status quo.

But if Ryan is having trouble rallying his party behind his proposal it is in no small measure due to the fact that a lot of Republicans just aren’t buying the hype about next week’s debt ceiling deadline. Nor is there any massive public groundswell of fear pushing them to give in as the president says they must. That is causing some in the liberal mainstream media to recycle their “debt denier” slur first trotted out last winter during the fiscal cliff showdown. But, as Politico noted in a feature published today, the reason why Republicans aren’t running scared is what the site aptly terms “Obama’s Chicken Little challenge.” After repeatedly falsely prophesying doom and destruction about the sequester and the government shutdown, the nation, let alone the GOP, just isn’t buying his debt ceiling warnings.

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This morning House Republicans are meeting to discuss ideas floated by Rep. Paul Ryan to avert a showdown over the debt ceiling. Ryan, who outlined his proposal in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is, as we have come to expect of him, the leading voice of reason in the GOP caucus, and the White House ought to seize on this opportunity to avert what it keeps telling us is a fiscal catastrophe that will happen on Oct. 17 if the Republicans don’t surrender. But since we already know that President Obama is far more interested in pushing confrontation with the Republicans because he believes it to be in his political interests, there’s little chance of that happening.

While more conservatives are coming to grips with the fact that they are not going to be able to defund ObamaCare, it’s also unclear whether enough House Republicans will get behind Ryan’s scheme that trades off a short-term extension of the debt ceiling along with reform of Medicare and a start on comprehensive tax reform. These are core conservative ideas that are focused on the underlying problems behind the deficit—entitlements and tax unfairness—that are opposed by Democrats who seek to preserve an indefensible status quo.

But if Ryan is having trouble rallying his party behind his proposal it is in no small measure due to the fact that a lot of Republicans just aren’t buying the hype about next week’s debt ceiling deadline. Nor is there any massive public groundswell of fear pushing them to give in as the president says they must. That is causing some in the liberal mainstream media to recycle their “debt denier” slur first trotted out last winter during the fiscal cliff showdown. But, as Politico noted in a feature published today, the reason why Republicans aren’t running scared is what the site aptly terms “Obama’s Chicken Little challenge.” After repeatedly falsely prophesying doom and destruction about the sequester and the government shutdown, the nation, let alone the GOP, just isn’t buying his debt ceiling warnings.

To acknowledge the president’s credibility gap on fiscal issues is not to ignore the dire possibilities of a default on the national debt. Were that ever to happen, it really would be an economic catastrophe and no one, not even the most ardent advocates of going to the brink with the White House, is saying anything different. However, as Senator Pat Toomey calmly explained on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program yesterday, that isn’t what will happen if there is no deal by next Wednesday:

First of all, there is zero chance that the U.S. government is going to default on its debt. It’s unfortunate that people have conflated this idea of not raising the debt ceiling immediately on October 17 with somehow defaulting on our debt. We bring in tax revenue about 12 times as much money as it takes to pay our interest on our debt. There is no way that any Treasury secretary or administration would willfully choose to have the catastrophic results that would occur if we actually defaulted on our debt when it’s not necessary. So this is pretty well understood in financial circles. You see Treasury prices have barely moved through this entire episode. But I’ve got legislation that would simply codify and formalize the obligation to make sure that under no circumstances we would default on our debt. Interestingly, the White House doesn’t want that legislation. They’ve threatened to veto it precisely because they want to be able to hold the specter of a catastrophe in front of Republicans to cow us and intimidate us into giving the president what he wants, which is a whole lot of additional borrowing authority with no reforms whatsoever, and I think that’s irresponsible.

Toomey’s reality check debunks the administration’s latest “the sky is falling” routine. But even if we accept the notion that a failure to reach a deal on the debt would be problematic, there’s little chance that even those who agree that the government shutdown is more the GOP’s fault than the president’s are going to believe the Democrats’ warnings of imminent danger. After all, we were told the same thing about the sequester cuts only to discover that the republic could survive if government departments were forced to make across-the-board cuts. Nor have the predictions of disaster about the government shutdown that began last week proved true.

That is not to say that the sequester or the shutdown are positive developments. There is long-term damage being done by cuts, especially those to national defense. But the American public saw right through the stunts staged by the administration to illustrate the pain of the shutdown, like closing open-air national monuments. When the president says the country is in danger no one, not even most of his supporters, believe him anymore. They understand every word coming out of his mouth about the standoff with his Republican foes is political in nature and designed to force them to unconditionally surrender on their fiscal demands. Some may support that position, but few believe the doom and gloom predictions that underlie his “no negotiations” stand.

It is to be hoped that as the artificial debt deadline approaches, more Republicans will get behind Paul Ryan’s ideas and that enough Democrats will be willing to talk to avert more damage being done to the economy. But if we do go over the brink, the primary responsibility will belong to the Chicken Little in the Oval Office.

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Does Either Party Have a Strategy?

Although the modern conservative movement has always been a coalitional project–realists and idealists, neoconservatives and paleoconservatives, religious conservatives and libertarians, etc.–the current round of GOP “civil war” stories obscures a key characteristic of the right’s latest fight. It has as much to do with a disagreement over tactics and strategy as it does ideology.

This has helped insulate the right from what might have otherwise been a more one-sided reaction from the public to the government shutdown. Republicans broadly agree on ObamaCare, the ostensible reason for the shutdown. The public joins Republicans in their distaste for the health-care reform effort, which is currently sputtering out of the gate in a way that demonstrates the incompetence and unpreparedness that has plagued the Obama administration from day one.

That has been one advantage for Republicans so far: they are clearly right on policy, even if wrong on strategy. And it is that state of affairs that leaves me a bit puzzled by Paul Ryan’s proposal to end the shutdown today in the Wall Street Journal, which risks squandering both the ideological unity and the policy advantage in the public consciousness. “To break the deadlock,” Ryan writes, “both sides should agree to common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code.” On entitlements, this might mean:

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Although the modern conservative movement has always been a coalitional project–realists and idealists, neoconservatives and paleoconservatives, religious conservatives and libertarians, etc.–the current round of GOP “civil war” stories obscures a key characteristic of the right’s latest fight. It has as much to do with a disagreement over tactics and strategy as it does ideology.

This has helped insulate the right from what might have otherwise been a more one-sided reaction from the public to the government shutdown. Republicans broadly agree on ObamaCare, the ostensible reason for the shutdown. The public joins Republicans in their distaste for the health-care reform effort, which is currently sputtering out of the gate in a way that demonstrates the incompetence and unpreparedness that has plagued the Obama administration from day one.

That has been one advantage for Republicans so far: they are clearly right on policy, even if wrong on strategy. And it is that state of affairs that leaves me a bit puzzled by Paul Ryan’s proposal to end the shutdown today in the Wall Street Journal, which risks squandering both the ideological unity and the policy advantage in the public consciousness. “To break the deadlock,” Ryan writes, “both sides should agree to common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code.” On entitlements, this might mean:

We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and reduce costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.

The president has embraced these ideas in budget proposals he has submitted to Congress. And in earlier talks with congressional Republicans, he has discussed combining Medicare’s Part A and Part B, so the program will be less confusing for seniors. These ideas have the support of nonpartisan groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and they would strengthen these critical programs. And all of them would help pay down the debt.

And on taxes:

Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) have been working for more than a year now on a bipartisan plan to reform the tax code. They agree on the fundamental principles: Broaden the base, lower the rates and simplify the code. The president himself has argued for just such an approach to corporate taxes. So we should discuss how Congress can take up the Camp–Baucus plan when it’s ready.

Ryan’s policy ideas might stand on their own as sensible suggestions, but presenting them this way makes two critical mistakes. First, if conservatives can at least agree on the major policy focus, they can avoid further factional splintering as the shutdown continues. They have mostly done this so far, concentrating on ObamaCare. Second, moving the goalposts plays right into Democrats’ habit of accusing Republicans of hostage-taking. If the right has a specific, timely, and relevant piece of policy it wants to fight over, the public can at least see a degree of rationality to the gambit. If conservatives just start throwing all manner of comprehensive reform at the president as varying demands to reopen the government, they will look erratic and undisciplined to those in the public who thought at least there was a clear point to all this.

Meanwhile, if Republicans are in danger of squandering more of the public’s approval than they can afford, so are the Democrats. Bill Moyers’s accusation that this government shutdown amounts to “Secession by another means” is irrationality on steroids and indicates that liberal pundits and journalists are so upset by the standoff that they have taken leave of their senses.

And Jonathan Last offers in the Weekly Standard a concise rundown of the National Park Service’s “partisan assault on the citizenry” on behalf of the Obama White House’s intent to harass war veterans and senior citizens in anger and frustration at the current gridlock in Washington. Last writes: “It’s one thing for politicians to play shutdown theater. It’s another thing entirely for a civil bureaucracy entrusted with the privilege of caring for our national heritage to wage war against the citizenry on behalf of a political party.”

Indeed it is. And the political party on whose behalf this abuse is being carried out, the Democratic Party, cannot possibly make a credible case to being either rational or a responsible steward of the federal government. And so the public declares a pox on both houses–though still a slightly more concentrated pox on the GOP. Despite conservatives’ strident opposition to the federal bureaucracy, it appears Democrats are still far more adept at portraying big government as a spiteful bully.

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Why the Syria Resolution Remains Vague

The Obama administration has over the last week made its case for military action in Syria both publicly to the American people and privately to members of Congress. Today, the administration fused the two by sending top Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to publicly implore the Senate to support strikes on Syria. But one of the curious aspects of this plea is that it remains unclear what, exactly, Congress would be authorizing.

The administration wants to strike at Assad for stepping over President Obama’s chemical-weapons red line. But he doesn’t intend to topple Assad or specifically help the rebels–indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration clearly has cold feet about its previous promises to arm the rebels. That is reasonable–the rebel factions have become increasingly characterized and led by extremist elements. But it is creating some confusion as to the goal of this proposed military action in Syria. In terms of getting congressional authorization, the administration has two options. The two are very different, however, both in their execution and in what they will tell us about American partisan politics.

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The Obama administration has over the last week made its case for military action in Syria both publicly to the American people and privately to members of Congress. Today, the administration fused the two by sending top Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to publicly implore the Senate to support strikes on Syria. But one of the curious aspects of this plea is that it remains unclear what, exactly, Congress would be authorizing.

The administration wants to strike at Assad for stepping over President Obama’s chemical-weapons red line. But he doesn’t intend to topple Assad or specifically help the rebels–indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration clearly has cold feet about its previous promises to arm the rebels. That is reasonable–the rebel factions have become increasingly characterized and led by extremist elements. But it is creating some confusion as to the goal of this proposed military action in Syria. In terms of getting congressional authorization, the administration has two options. The two are very different, however, both in their execution and in what they will tell us about American partisan politics.

The president is not interested in ordering a ground invasion into Syria, and the Congress has no interest in approving one. But aside from that, it may not get any clearer before the resolution goes before Congress. That’s because the president wants the resolution to pass more than he cares about the details of it–within certain parameters, of course. So option No. 1 is to lob essentially a blank page at Congress and, through committee drafts and accepted amendments, let the members of Congress who support military action against Syria steer the resolution through the House and Senate.

The advantages to this strategy are obvious: if the president loses the vote, as did the British prime minister, it will be a colossal embarrassment. Passing something avoids the agony of defeat. Since President Obama knows that Congress won’t hand him back an authorization for a ground war in Syria, he doesn’t have much to lose, but plenty to gain: he will have bipartisan buy-in for whatever action he ends up commanding, sparing him further political isolation.

In this scenario, he gets most of the credit, as presidents usually do, if the mission is deemed a success. After all, he was the one who set the red line and pushed for action. And while he’ll also shoulder the lion’s share of the blame should it go sour–again, he set the red line–he can argue not only that both parties and the two immediately relevant branches of government stood behind the act, but that Congress pretty much wrote the resolution.

Additionally, he gets the benefit (at least as supporters of action in Syria will see it) of getting assistance and guidance from congressional hawks in the guise of honoring the separation of powers and deferring to congressional consent. Since Obama has indicated that he is motivated at least in part by a desire to save face here, the process is important to him.

There is another aspect of Obama’s decision on the resolution to consider, and it is potentially far more interesting. If Obama lets Congress decide the wording and extent of the authorization of the use of force in Syria, it will be greatly influenced by the Republicans he needs on board. That means the next round of “GOP civil war” stories will be just around the bend. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and any others vying to lead their party going forward will have to do more than just vote on the resolution. They will debate the future of the party’s foreign policy, at least in the near term. The resolution that emerges from the process will be, to some degree, a statement of GOP priorities with regard to foreign affairs.

If instead the president retains control over the wording of the resolution, then Congress will be debating the Obama Doctrine. The president will get his up-or-down vote on it, but he’ll own the final product and will saddle his potential Democratic successors with it. That is the riskier, and therefore less likely, route for the president and his party. But the president is still taking a risk by leaving it up to Congress to map out the details, because the split could produce a resolution that is more activist in its military response and therefore less likely to pass in the end.

It’s doubtful many in the GOP saw this coming, but a casual threat about a red line from a Democratic president may end up spurring the formation of the current Republican Party’s foreign-policy identity. If that’s the case, this debate will have implications far beyond Syria.

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GOP Shouldn’t Fear Competitive Primary

I mentioned in my earlier post the fact that Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability in 2008 never materialized, and that few remember how central Clinton’s strength as a candidate was to her potential rival GOP campaigns. Few also seem to remember just how acrimonious was the drawn-out primary battle that eventually produced Barack Obama’s nomination. There were worries all along on the left that the vicious contest would split the Democratic Party and weaken the eventual nominee.

Neither happened, and Clinton eventually went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state before getting Obama’s obvious support for her 2016 run. The party managed to avoid civil war as well as the attempts to nominate Al Gore–yes, Al Gore–on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention that year. Despite that seemingly cheerful epilogue, some Republicans apparently worry that a drawn-out primary process could hamper the party’s hopes of taking back the White House in 2016–though this concern is slightly different than the Democrats’ 2008 version in that Republicans are unnerved by the sheer number of potential GOP candidates. They fear not a split, but a shattering, according to the Hill:

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I mentioned in my earlier post the fact that Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability in 2008 never materialized, and that few remember how central Clinton’s strength as a candidate was to her potential rival GOP campaigns. Few also seem to remember just how acrimonious was the drawn-out primary battle that eventually produced Barack Obama’s nomination. There were worries all along on the left that the vicious contest would split the Democratic Party and weaken the eventual nominee.

Neither happened, and Clinton eventually went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state before getting Obama’s obvious support for her 2016 run. The party managed to avoid civil war as well as the attempts to nominate Al Gore–yes, Al Gore–on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention that year. Despite that seemingly cheerful epilogue, some Republicans apparently worry that a drawn-out primary process could hamper the party’s hopes of taking back the White House in 2016–though this concern is slightly different than the Democrats’ 2008 version in that Republicans are unnerved by the sheer number of potential GOP candidates. They fear not a split, but a shattering, according to the Hill:

More than two dozen Republicans are eyeing the GOP presidential nomination, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks like she could coast to the crown.

Only a handful of Democrats are even circling Clinton, while the potential GOP field just continues to grow.

“To beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, you need a strong candidate,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said of his party’s 2016 contenders. “A crowded field has the potential to give Hillary a bigger leg up than she currently has.”

The contrast poses opportunities and threats for the GOP.

A winning candidate could emerge from a crowded primary stronger and battle tested, much as President Obama was strengthened from a 2008 primary fight with Clinton.

But a crowded primary could also weaken a GOP nominee by extending the fight and exhausting the eventual winner physically and financially.

Or, it could muddle things enough to allow a weaker nominee to emerge.

I’m not quite sure either of the assumptions underlying this concern holds up under scrutiny. Was Obama really “strengthened” by his battle with Clinton? On the other hand, he surely wasn’t weakened enough to lose or low enough on resources not to set records for campaign fundraising. That, I think, gets to the point of why these stories are logical but overheated: nominate a strong candidate, he will not be held back by the primary. Nominate a weak candidate, and it won’t matter.

Obama was a strong general-election candidate, and John McCain was not. Thus, the fact that Obama had a bitter struggle to gain the nomination while McCain effectively had his wrapped up by Super Tuesday had no real effect on the general election. It was Obama, not McCain, who was flush with cash. And it was McCain, not Obama, who had trouble uniting his party behind his candidacy.

As for the perception of the party among the general voting public, the number of candidates matters less than the quality of those candidates. The Hill goes on to name the prospective GOP candidates, and includes people like Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Steve King. But the list of potential first-tier candidates who are more likely to actually run and to garner enough votes to participate in the televised debates goes something like this: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, perhaps Paul Ryan and John Kasich.

There are others, but those names are the reason many conservatives have been optimistic about the future of the movement and the GOP. A popular perspective from the right is that a lineup like that is a good problem to have, and that you really can’t have too many good candidates at a time like this. Whether they actually turn out to be good candidates remains to be seen, of course. But if each of them didn’t have constituent appeal there would be no concern about splitting the vote.

The party will have its debate and choose its standard bearer, and that debate looks to be wide-ranging, diverse, and almost certainly contentious. But it’s doubtful conservatives would rather have a coronation.

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Never Too Early to Get Ahead for 2016

If you aren’t a political junkie, the growing attention being paid to the maneuverings of the prospective presidential candidates is more irksome than merely boring. But it’s clear that although we are two years away from when the period of active campaigning will start, the contenders are already facing up to the fact that the impressions they are leaving on prospective voters are laying the foundation for the political landscape of the next presidential race. So even as we concede that two years from now nobody will remember the polls and maybe even the controversies of the summer of 2013, that contest will likely be affected by what is going on today.

Like it or not, the dustup between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over foreign policy is the first defining moment of the 2016 race and, if you believe the latest polls coming out of New Hampshire, made them the only true first-tier candidates in the running. Just as significant is the fact that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was running neck and neck with Paul earlier in the year in a PPP poll, has now fallen to the back of the pack. These standings will mean nothing two years from now, let alone in January 2016 when New Hampshire Republicans vote for nominee that could stand up against Hillary Clinton (who seems to be cruising to the Democratic nomination by acclimation as if she were already the incumbent in the White House). But the longer a narrative in which only Christie or Paul seem to be plausible winners stays in place, the harder it will be for any of the many others who want the nomination to raise enough money to challenge them.

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If you aren’t a political junkie, the growing attention being paid to the maneuverings of the prospective presidential candidates is more irksome than merely boring. But it’s clear that although we are two years away from when the period of active campaigning will start, the contenders are already facing up to the fact that the impressions they are leaving on prospective voters are laying the foundation for the political landscape of the next presidential race. So even as we concede that two years from now nobody will remember the polls and maybe even the controversies of the summer of 2013, that contest will likely be affected by what is going on today.

Like it or not, the dustup between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over foreign policy is the first defining moment of the 2016 race and, if you believe the latest polls coming out of New Hampshire, made them the only true first-tier candidates in the running. Just as significant is the fact that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was running neck and neck with Paul earlier in the year in a PPP poll, has now fallen to the back of the pack. These standings will mean nothing two years from now, let alone in January 2016 when New Hampshire Republicans vote for nominee that could stand up against Hillary Clinton (who seems to be cruising to the Democratic nomination by acclimation as if she were already the incumbent in the White House). But the longer a narrative in which only Christie or Paul seem to be plausible winners stays in place, the harder it will be for any of the many others who want the nomination to raise enough money to challenge them.

In the WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll published on Tuesday, Christie leads the GOP field with 21 percent of the vote on a multi-candidate ballot. Paul is a strong second with 16 percent. But Rubio has fallen to fifth place (behind Rep. Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush) with only six percent, less than half of the 15 percent he received in the same poll back in April.

There’s no question that Rubio’s (praiseworthy in my opinion) role in pushing for a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform has hurt him with many conservatives. But I think his lurch back to the right as he makes common cause with Paul and Ted Cruz in a quixotic effort to shut down the government to stop ObamaCare probably isn’t helping him much either. Though this stand is very much in line with his political roots as a Tea Partier, it looks as if he is trying to appease his critics and that is the kind of thing that smells like (to quote The Godfather) a sign of weakness. It’s not just that, as our Peter Wehner wrote on Friday, his position doesn’t make sense, it’s that it conveys (fairly or unfairly) a sense of panic about his standing with party stalwarts. His absence for the foreign policy debate in which Christie has jousted with libertarians and isolationists in Congress is, as Seth wrote last week, also troubling.

It should also be noted that the same poll also rates Ryan as having the highest favorability ratings of any Republican. That echoes the findings of a Quinnipiac survey we noted earlier this week that showed the former veep candidate as the most popular Republican politician. Though Ryan may prefer to stay in the House rather than put himself through the agony of a presidential candidacy, these are the kinds of numbers that make his many fans salivate about the possibility of his running.

It may be a little premature for the kind of handicapping that GOP activist Patrick Hynes gave us in an interesting Politico article in which he gave Paul a slight edge over Christie in New Hampshire. There’s plenty of time for seeming front-runners to drop out, also-rans to recover, and for new candidates to emerge out of the 2014 midterms. But Hynes is right to note that the strengths of both of these candidates are formidable. They are likely to be telling in early primaries like the one in the Granite State where independents and Democrats, who tend to favor Christie, may vote. As early as it is, the longer Christie and Paul remain ahead of the field, the harder it will be to knock them off once the votes start being counted.

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Christie’s Red Hot But Not in GOP

Chris Christie raised some eyebrows, as well as the expectations of potential supporters, in the last couple of weeks as he traded barbs with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul in a clash of potential Republican presidential contenders. But while a new Quinnipiac poll should encourage those who think the New Jersey governor is the ideal Republican candidate in 2016, it also illustrates his biggest problem: fellow Republicans.

The poll measures the popularity of leading members of both parties in which voters were asked to measure their feelings toward them on a scale of 0 (ice cold) to 100 (red hot). Out of a field of 22 Democrats and Republicans, Christie placed first with a 53.1 percent rating, beating out second-place finisher Hillary Clinton, who had 52.1 percent approval. That’s the good news for Christie. The bad news is that when narrowed down to the 23 percent of the sample that identified themselves as Republicans, he slipped from first to eighth, finishing behind most of his leading rivals for the presidency–even a dark horse like Rick Santorum. While those figures don’t doom Christie’s hopes for the GOP nomination—he still scores a 59.8 percent rating among Republicans and also can point to his first-place standing among independents—it does illustrate the problem of being perceived as the most moderate contender in the field in a party with a base that takes a dim view of such a stance.

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Chris Christie raised some eyebrows, as well as the expectations of potential supporters, in the last couple of weeks as he traded barbs with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul in a clash of potential Republican presidential contenders. But while a new Quinnipiac poll should encourage those who think the New Jersey governor is the ideal Republican candidate in 2016, it also illustrates his biggest problem: fellow Republicans.

The poll measures the popularity of leading members of both parties in which voters were asked to measure their feelings toward them on a scale of 0 (ice cold) to 100 (red hot). Out of a field of 22 Democrats and Republicans, Christie placed first with a 53.1 percent rating, beating out second-place finisher Hillary Clinton, who had 52.1 percent approval. That’s the good news for Christie. The bad news is that when narrowed down to the 23 percent of the sample that identified themselves as Republicans, he slipped from first to eighth, finishing behind most of his leading rivals for the presidency–even a dark horse like Rick Santorum. While those figures don’t doom Christie’s hopes for the GOP nomination—he still scores a 59.8 percent rating among Republicans and also can point to his first-place standing among independents—it does illustrate the problem of being perceived as the most moderate contender in the field in a party with a base that takes a dim view of such a stance.

The survey supplies Christie’s supporters with a powerful argument about electability. The New Jersey governor has a unique appeal that transcends the fans he originally won on the right for his YouTube videos in which he berates liberals and unions and plays the kind of tough-guy blunt politician that voters can’t get enough of. Many on the right may never completely forgive him for hugging President Obama in the week before the election last fall during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but Christie’s ability to appeal to centrists, independents, and even some Democrats could make him a formidable general election candidate. But the fact that he has a 53.2 percent rating among Democrats while no other GOP figure scores higher than 32.9 percent (Marco Rubio) is exactly why a lot of Republicans can’t stand him.

The contrast between Christie’s overall numbers and his also-ran finish among Republicans is not the only interesting tidbit from this poll. The fact that Rep. Paul Ryan is the top-rated figure among Republicans with 68.7 percent might help fuel interest in a presidential run by the party’s 2012 veep candidate. Senator Ted Cruz’s second-place rank (65.6 percent) will also give him a boost. But with that pair and Rubio, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum also scoring 60 percent or higher, it’s clear that there is no single front runner even if it is obvious that Christie might struggle to win in primaries or caucuses where only Republicans are allowed to vote.

Should Hillary Clinton run, there isn’t much doubt that she will be the Democratic nominee in 2016 and her first-place standing in her party with 77.7 percent exceeds even that of President Obama. What is interesting is that freshman Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts actually ranks third in popularity with all voters at 49.2, beating out Obama with 47.6 percent. Warren trails only Clinton, Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden among Democrats. Should Clinton not run for some unknown reason, Warren’s ability to galvanize the party’s left-wing base could make her an interesting possibility for a long shot upset.

These numbers give us only the broadest possible view of the battle for 2016, two years before the real battle for the nominations will begin. But they do demonstrate that trying to maintain a balance between general election and primary popularity will be even more difficult for Republicans in 2016 than it was in 2012 and 2008 when the GOP wound up nominating a relative moderate to the dismay of much of their base. Conservatives may be wrong to think that Mitt Romney and John McCain’s relative moderation was the reason Barack Obama beat them both and that 2016 is the year to nominate someone who will appeal to their party’s grass roots. But that conviction is not going to be an easy obstacle for someone like Christie to overcome. If, as I wrote last week, the battle between Christie and some of his rivals on foreign and defense policy issues is a fight for the soul of the party, his apparent ability to win in November may still not persuade many in his party to drop their objections to him.

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The GOP’s Immigration Crackup

Given how many accounts have been published of yesterday’s closed door meeting of the House Republican Caucus to talk about immigration reform, it might have saved everyone a great deal of time if House Speaker John Boehner had just invited C-Span to televise it live (the cable news networks would have been too busy broadcasting the George Zimmerman murder trial). Piecing together all of the various reports, we know that Boehner warned his members of the price of inaction on the issue. But we also know that a large portion of the House GOP is inclined to do just that even if they are floating ideas about passing seven or eight different bills on the subject that will address various elements of the problem, though none are likely to address the question of what to do with the 11 million illegal immigrants already here.

Though Boehner and, even more importantly, Rep. Paul Ryan, would like to cajole the caucus into putting forward some coherent response to the bipartisan compromise bill passed by the Senate, it’s growing increasingly clear that the speaker’s warnings are going to go unheeded. Too many House members have come to the conclusion that an influential portion of their grass roots constituency won’t tolerate anything done on immigration other than the militarization of the border with Mexico that was part of the Senate’s gang of eight deal. Cheered on by some of conservatism’s leading lights such as the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and the National Review’s Rich Lowry, the consensus of most political observers is that it appears to be that the nothing option is exactly what will happen. Since, as has been pointed out continuously, most Republican House members run in districts where they don’t have to listen to anyone but fellow conservatives, few have any inclination to act in a manner that is consistent with their party’s best long-term interests, let alone doing the right thing about immigration.

While I think the doomsayers about passage of any reform bill are probably right, there’s a small chance the House can somehow cobble together something that can be called immigration reform in the form of a package of bills that might address border security, deal with the reality of illegal immigrants and rework the law in a way that would encourage legal immigration that is essential for the continued growth of our economy. But for that to happen, it would require the House GOP to start listening to the counsel being offered to them by Boehner and Ryan. Right now, that looks like too heavy a lift for either the speaker or the influential House budget chair. Like a train wreck that can’t be stopped, the GOP immigration crackup seems inevitable.

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Given how many accounts have been published of yesterday’s closed door meeting of the House Republican Caucus to talk about immigration reform, it might have saved everyone a great deal of time if House Speaker John Boehner had just invited C-Span to televise it live (the cable news networks would have been too busy broadcasting the George Zimmerman murder trial). Piecing together all of the various reports, we know that Boehner warned his members of the price of inaction on the issue. But we also know that a large portion of the House GOP is inclined to do just that even if they are floating ideas about passing seven or eight different bills on the subject that will address various elements of the problem, though none are likely to address the question of what to do with the 11 million illegal immigrants already here.

Though Boehner and, even more importantly, Rep. Paul Ryan, would like to cajole the caucus into putting forward some coherent response to the bipartisan compromise bill passed by the Senate, it’s growing increasingly clear that the speaker’s warnings are going to go unheeded. Too many House members have come to the conclusion that an influential portion of their grass roots constituency won’t tolerate anything done on immigration other than the militarization of the border with Mexico that was part of the Senate’s gang of eight deal. Cheered on by some of conservatism’s leading lights such as the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and the National Review’s Rich Lowry, the consensus of most political observers is that it appears to be that the nothing option is exactly what will happen. Since, as has been pointed out continuously, most Republican House members run in districts where they don’t have to listen to anyone but fellow conservatives, few have any inclination to act in a manner that is consistent with their party’s best long-term interests, let alone doing the right thing about immigration.

While I think the doomsayers about passage of any reform bill are probably right, there’s a small chance the House can somehow cobble together something that can be called immigration reform in the form of a package of bills that might address border security, deal with the reality of illegal immigrants and rework the law in a way that would encourage legal immigration that is essential for the continued growth of our economy. But for that to happen, it would require the House GOP to start listening to the counsel being offered to them by Boehner and Ryan. Right now, that looks like too heavy a lift for either the speaker or the influential House budget chair. Like a train wreck that can’t be stopped, the GOP immigration crackup seems inevitable.

It is unfortunate that so much of the discussion about the need for Republicans to pass immigration reform has centered on the supposed political advantages that will accrue to them if they do it. Critics of the gang of eight bill are right when they say its passage won’t guarantee Republicans a larger share of the Hispanic vote in 2016. But the problem is not so much whether Hispanics can be enticed to become GOP voters as it is the spectacle of a Republican Party that seems willing to fall over itself in order to pander to people who are openly hostile to immigration or any form of legalization for the 11 million people who are already here and aren’t going to be deported.

While Kristol and Lowry in their well argued manifesto against the reform bill claim that the current debate has been notable for the absence of “hostility to immigrants” that characterized so much of the arguments that shot down President Bush’s attempt to reform immigration, I think they are not listening much to talk radio or reading the comments sections of newspapers and magazines that report on the issue. Kristol and Lowry claim, “you can be pro-immigrant and pro-immigration, and even favor legalization of the 11 million illegal immigrants who are here and increases in some categories of legal immigration—and vigorously oppose this bill.” While I think that is undoubtedly true about that formidable pair of conservative editors, the same cannot be said for many of those who agree with them that “nothing” would be better than passing the legislation.

While they and other critics of the bill have attempted to pose the question as a no-confidence vote in the Obama administration’s trustworthiness, the idea that any fix to immigration must wait until a Republican is elected president doesn’t strike me as a particularly effective argument on policy. If the legalization-first element is what is really bothering some conservatives, then they can craft a bill that would reverse the order of some of its provisions. But what they seem to be saying is that any measure that cannot guarantee a hermetically sealed border or magically prevent those who come here legally but then overstay their visas from doing so is unacceptable. That, like Mitt Romney’s infamous “self-deportation” idea, is not a serious position.

Nor am I convinced that it is now a core conservative principle that any large compromise bill on any measure must be stopped. Liberals who have pointed out that conservatives were ready to make compromises of all sorts to defend policy measures that were important to them in the past, like tax cuts, are right. Unless we are to adopt a parliamentary style of government in which the majority can more or less pass anything they like so long as the whip is out without the constitutional checks and balances of our system, compromises on big issues are always going to be necessary. Any idea that passage of separate House bills that are not necessarily compatible with each other, let alone capable of Senate passage, is a rational plan is daft.

But those House members who appear determined to ignore the pleadings of Boehner and Ryan are not so much being influenced by the intellectual arguments mustered by Kristol and Lowry as they are the fear of offending those who think any solution to the 11 million illegals that offers legalization and/or citizenship is an offense to the rule of law or a threat to the future of the culture of the nation. Kristol and Lowry don’t use the word “amnesty” to characterize the gang’s bill, but most opponents of the bill do. The fixation on punishing or getting rid of the present population of illegals leaves the impression that malice is driving the discussion. So long as conservatives are heard to argue that the bill is a formula for the creation of more Democratic voters or a plot by the Obama administration to permanently marginalize the GOP, Hispanics and many other Americans are likely to interpret opposition to reform as an appeal to nativist sentiment, not a policy prescription.

I think Kristol and Lowry are wrong about the urgency of the matter not so much because we can’t live with a long-broken system for another few years but because the longer so many Republicans give the country the impression that they fear immigration—legal or illegal—they will be harming their image in a manner that will go beyond the putative impact on the Hispanic vote.

A lot of leading conservatives seem to think that they can’t survive if they oppose the net roots on this issue, and perhaps there is some truth to that. Boehner would probably lose his speakership if he allows a vote on the reform bill or anything like it that is produced in the House. It’s also possible that getting labeled as RINOs or establishment cat’s-paws will damage individuals and institutions that agree with conservatives like Ryan, George W. Bush and Marco Rubio that an immigration compromise is the right thing to do as well as good politics for the GOP. But the failure to deal with this issue will do conservatism far more harm in the long run than those who believe it can wait until a Republican president or Senate arrives in Washington think. If the GOP listens to the naysayers, it may be a long wait before either of those outcomes arrives.

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Rubio, Ryan and the Excommunication Impulse

National Review’s Katrina Trinko wrote a piece on a Tea Party gathering in Washington that turned into an anti-Rubio rally. According to Ms. Trinko:

Rubio, who has been attempting to sell the Gang of Eight bill to conservatives for months, came under fire during the rally. Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector, the co-author of a report estimating the net costs of illegal immigration and amnesty to the taxpayer, took aim at the Florida senator. “No matter what Marco Rubio says, who has not read his own bill, incidentally . . . ” was how Rector began a criticism of the immigration legislation. At one point, when Rector mentioned Rubio, the assembled tea partiers booed loudly, with at least one person shouting, “Traitor!” One sign read, “Rubio Lies, America dies.” Another read, “6.3 Trillion $, Cost of Marcos Amnesty Bill. (Net.)”

I have a few thoughts on this, beginning with pointing out that Senator Rubio has handled himself superbly during this whole debate. At the outset of the debate many on the right who were highly skeptical of immigration reform treated him respectfully because of Rubio’s conservative credentials. But the mood has shifted in a much more negative direction in the last month or so. Increasingly this has the feel of 2007 all over again, at least in some quarters. Which means it’s getting ugly and, especially if immigration legislation passes in the Senate, will get uglier. 

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National Review’s Katrina Trinko wrote a piece on a Tea Party gathering in Washington that turned into an anti-Rubio rally. According to Ms. Trinko:

Rubio, who has been attempting to sell the Gang of Eight bill to conservatives for months, came under fire during the rally. Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector, the co-author of a report estimating the net costs of illegal immigration and amnesty to the taxpayer, took aim at the Florida senator. “No matter what Marco Rubio says, who has not read his own bill, incidentally . . . ” was how Rector began a criticism of the immigration legislation. At one point, when Rector mentioned Rubio, the assembled tea partiers booed loudly, with at least one person shouting, “Traitor!” One sign read, “Rubio Lies, America dies.” Another read, “6.3 Trillion $, Cost of Marcos Amnesty Bill. (Net.)”

I have a few thoughts on this, beginning with pointing out that Senator Rubio has handled himself superbly during this whole debate. At the outset of the debate many on the right who were highly skeptical of immigration reform treated him respectfully because of Rubio’s conservative credentials. But the mood has shifted in a much more negative direction in the last month or so. Increasingly this has the feel of 2007 all over again, at least in some quarters. Which means it’s getting ugly and, especially if immigration legislation passes in the Senate, will get uglier. 

Yet Senator Rubio–along with Representative Paul Ryan, who has become a visible advocate for immigration reform–has not returned the vitriol. Both men have spoken in calm, measured and gracious ways, taking into account the views of their critics while offering informed arguments on behalf of reform. They have refused to attack or thunderously denounce those who hold a position different than theirs. In fact, they have bent over backwards to make it clear they understand conservative skepticism on matters related to immigration reform.

Observation number two: Whether or not conservatives support immigration legislation is not a matter of principle. It’s a prudential judgment on whether the legislation that is debated improves the current situation–not whether the legislation that is written is flawless. This tendency to judge legislation (and individuals) against a mythical ideal is not only misguided; it’s antithetical to conservatism itself. 

A third observation: Even if one disagrees with Rubio and Ryan on immigration, the attempt to portray them as traitors to the conservative cause is ludicrous. By those standards, Ronald Reagan would have been excommunicated from the conservative movement even before he ran as president on grounds that as governor he had (a) supported the largest tax hike of any governor in history at that point and (b) signed into law “a liberalization of abortion that led to an explosion of abortions in the nation’s largest state.”

Those who are drawn in the direction of purity or excommunication, who seem intent on elevating every difference into an apocalyptic battle over principle, are doing the work of liberals, which is to diminish the appeal of conservatism.

Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan may be right or they may be wrong on immigration reform. But they are among the most impressive and appealing conservatives in the land. If their stance on immigration reform leads some on the right to turn on them with a vengeance, it will be far more of an indictment of their critics than it will be an indictment of Rubio and Ryan. 

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Ryan v. Levin on Immigration Reform

On Tuesday Representative Paul Ryan was interviewed by radio talk show host Mark Levin on immigration reform. It’s a very good interview. Mr. Levin, a harsh critic of immigration reform, asks direct and informed questions. Representative Ryan answers them in a precise and knowledgeable way. He is clearly in command of the issue. 

It’s fair to say, I think, that Levin simply doesn’t believe any bill under consideration will do what needs to be done–that claims of increased border security and e-verify screenings are illusory. We’ve been promised them before, and they have never come to pass. Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, argues that even if immigration legislation is imperfect, the right policies, if written into law and enforced, would dramatically improve the current situation (in which we have, among other things, de facto amnesty). 

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On Tuesday Representative Paul Ryan was interviewed by radio talk show host Mark Levin on immigration reform. It’s a very good interview. Mr. Levin, a harsh critic of immigration reform, asks direct and informed questions. Representative Ryan answers them in a precise and knowledgeable way. He is clearly in command of the issue. 

It’s fair to say, I think, that Levin simply doesn’t believe any bill under consideration will do what needs to be done–that claims of increased border security and e-verify screenings are illusory. We’ve been promised them before, and they have never come to pass. Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, argues that even if immigration legislation is imperfect, the right policies, if written into law and enforced, would dramatically improve the current situation (in which we have, among other things, de facto amnesty). 

As Ryan laid things out, he favors a House bill that includes (a) objective and enforceable border triggers; (b) a genuine verification system that has to be in place before proceeding with changes in the status of undocumented workers; (c) a legal immigration system that takes some of the pressure off the southern border, which will lead to greater security; and (d) a way to get the economy the labor it needs in order to achieve greater economic growth.

Whichever side one is on in the immigration debate, this discussion is a good (and civil) one, and it’s worth listening to.

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Immigration Foes Don’t Care About CBO

Supporters of the bipartisan immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate got a shot in the arm yesterday when the Congressional Budget Office issued a report that did no more than verify what has always been the commonsense position on the issue. Fixing a failed system that could bring millions of much needed workers out of the shadows and into the federal tax regime will be a net plus for the government’s bottom line. Reform will bring in hundreds of billions in revenue to Washington due to a work force that will be bolstered by a new guest worker program as well as the ability of currently undocumented aliens to take part in economic activity in ways currently impossible. Even in the second decade after adoption of the reform package when currently illegal residents become eligible for government benefits, their positive impact on the country’s fiscal health will outweigh any outlays. As Representative Paul Ryan said today, immigration is vital to America’s future economic health as our population ages, making passage of a reform package—whether the gang of eight’s Senate bill or a House version—imperative.

But don’t expect the CBO to influence the conservative activists deluging Republican senators and House members with messages urging them to defeat the plan. Much of the party’s grass roots are so committed to the idea that any path to citizenship is an outrage that they are not likely to listen to reason about immigration’s impact on the economy any more than they are to those that point out that it is foolish to think the 11 million illegals in the country can be deported. The gang of eight’s bill may not be perfect, but it is rooted in a decision to face reality about our current situation that has not been matched by any compelling points in the responses being mustered against it. Whatever the outcome of this debate, the willingness of so many Republicans to associate themselves with arguments that seem to align them with those who oppose immigration in principle is a huge potential problem for the party. If gang members are reluctant to alter the bill to make it more acceptable to opponents, it’s because it’s increasingly clear that a lot of those complaining about it wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but the construction of a 700-foot-tall ice wall along the border with Mexico just like the one in the popular Game of Thrones show on HBO whose purpose is to keep out zombies.

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Supporters of the bipartisan immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate got a shot in the arm yesterday when the Congressional Budget Office issued a report that did no more than verify what has always been the commonsense position on the issue. Fixing a failed system that could bring millions of much needed workers out of the shadows and into the federal tax regime will be a net plus for the government’s bottom line. Reform will bring in hundreds of billions in revenue to Washington due to a work force that will be bolstered by a new guest worker program as well as the ability of currently undocumented aliens to take part in economic activity in ways currently impossible. Even in the second decade after adoption of the reform package when currently illegal residents become eligible for government benefits, their positive impact on the country’s fiscal health will outweigh any outlays. As Representative Paul Ryan said today, immigration is vital to America’s future economic health as our population ages, making passage of a reform package—whether the gang of eight’s Senate bill or a House version—imperative.

But don’t expect the CBO to influence the conservative activists deluging Republican senators and House members with messages urging them to defeat the plan. Much of the party’s grass roots are so committed to the idea that any path to citizenship is an outrage that they are not likely to listen to reason about immigration’s impact on the economy any more than they are to those that point out that it is foolish to think the 11 million illegals in the country can be deported. The gang of eight’s bill may not be perfect, but it is rooted in a decision to face reality about our current situation that has not been matched by any compelling points in the responses being mustered against it. Whatever the outcome of this debate, the willingness of so many Republicans to associate themselves with arguments that seem to align them with those who oppose immigration in principle is a huge potential problem for the party. If gang members are reluctant to alter the bill to make it more acceptable to opponents, it’s because it’s increasingly clear that a lot of those complaining about it wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but the construction of a 700-foot-tall ice wall along the border with Mexico just like the one in the popular Game of Thrones show on HBO whose purpose is to keep out zombies.

Part of the reaction to the CBO report is based in understandable skepticism. Republicans are used to taking the CBO’s pronouncements with a grain or two of salt and trusting what groups like the Heritage Foundation take as gospel. But there was a reason why Heritage’s report that attempted to claim that immigration reform would bury the government in debt wasn’t taken seriously by most observers. As Seth noted last month, Heritage’s claims—which are being echoed again today by some reform opponents—were mainly an argument about entitlement reform, not immigration. Heritage’s numbers didn’t make sense. There is a reason why the business community has always favored immigration. It’s always been good for the economy and no amount of grousing about the details of this bill or about an entitlement system that is in desperate need of reform changes that.

But, like the unfortunate tendency of some on the right to claim that the real problem with immigration reform is that it will create more Hispanic voters who will become Democrats, the reaction to the CBO is revealing the discomfort that some people have with legal immigration. If, as the Daily Caller reports, some on the right are scared by the idea that reform will create a wave of immigration that they wrongly think would be bad for America, then this debate is turning on sentiments that are neither defensible nor logical.

Reform skeptics have a strong case when they ask for the bill’s provisions on border security to be strengthened. But if this issue is driven not so much by concern that illegal immigration will continue but about the identity of those who are in this country legally in the years to come, then those Republicans who buy into this line will be venturing out onto thin ice.

Let’s be honest, if you are scared by the idea of a large number of immigrants coming to this country in the future, even if the vast majority of them are arriving legally, then it’s time to admit that this dispute isn’t about the rule of law or amnesty, but something else than isn’t nearly as attractive. What Republicans like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio are putting forward is a positive, pro-growth vision of the American economy that has always been part of the GOP vision. If, as seems increasingly likely, Republicans sink immigration reform because of fears about it giving the Democrats a political advantage or because they are just not comfortable with expanding America’s population, then that is both bad policy and bad politics.

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2016 Election Gets Its First Endorsement

Did you think the seemingly endless 2012 presidential election started way too soon? If so, you weren’t alone. But we may think back on that long slog as a brief interlude long before we get to November 2016. Though the discussion about the next presidential election began even before Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the 2016 race may have begun for all intents and purposes yesterday when the first official endorsement was announced. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said she was backing Hillary Clinton in an official statement that was posted on the ReadyforHillary.com website. McCaskill’s backing for Clinton is hardly a surprise but the timing may indicate a deliberate strategy on the part of the former first lady and secretary of state. The announcement may be the first of a series of high-profile endorsements that will occur at regular intervals over the course of the next year as Clinton seeks to do something that only incumbent presidents can generally aspire to: clear the field of all serious competition among Democrats.

Clinton’s not the only likely presidential contender making noises these days. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who shapes up as a first-tier candidate for the Republican nod, has been concentrating on his re-election race this year. But this morning on “Morning Joe” he showed he was thinking 2016 by taking a shot at President Obama for what seemed like the first time since Hurricane Sandy when he mocked his belated “charm offensive” with the GOP.

But both Clinton and Christie (whose late night TV appearances have kept him in the public eye even on days when he’s not making news), might want to pause and consider whether their high profile this early in the run-up to 2016 is entirely a good thing. Clinton’s favorability ratings have dropped drastically since leaving the State Department and returning, albeit sparingly, back into the political fray. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll may indicate that the best thing for a 2016 contender would be to keep their profile low at this incredibly early stage of the contest.

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Did you think the seemingly endless 2012 presidential election started way too soon? If so, you weren’t alone. But we may think back on that long slog as a brief interlude long before we get to November 2016. Though the discussion about the next presidential election began even before Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the 2016 race may have begun for all intents and purposes yesterday when the first official endorsement was announced. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said she was backing Hillary Clinton in an official statement that was posted on the ReadyforHillary.com website. McCaskill’s backing for Clinton is hardly a surprise but the timing may indicate a deliberate strategy on the part of the former first lady and secretary of state. The announcement may be the first of a series of high-profile endorsements that will occur at regular intervals over the course of the next year as Clinton seeks to do something that only incumbent presidents can generally aspire to: clear the field of all serious competition among Democrats.

Clinton’s not the only likely presidential contender making noises these days. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who shapes up as a first-tier candidate for the Republican nod, has been concentrating on his re-election race this year. But this morning on “Morning Joe” he showed he was thinking 2016 by taking a shot at President Obama for what seemed like the first time since Hurricane Sandy when he mocked his belated “charm offensive” with the GOP.

But both Clinton and Christie (whose late night TV appearances have kept him in the public eye even on days when he’s not making news), might want to pause and consider whether their high profile this early in the run-up to 2016 is entirely a good thing. Clinton’s favorability ratings have dropped drastically since leaving the State Department and returning, albeit sparingly, back into the political fray. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll may indicate that the best thing for a 2016 contender would be to keep their profile low at this incredibly early stage of the contest.

Gallup shows that of the most likely Republican candidates the one who has had the least publicity in the first half of 2013 is the one with the highest net favorability ratings. Surprisingly, after six months in which Christie and Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have rarely been out of the limelight while the 2012 vice presidential candidate has been hard to find in either the headlines or the talk shows, Paul Ryan leads those other contenders by a large margin when it comes to favorability among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

Ryan has a whopping 69 percent favorability rating and a net favorability (which deducts the unfavorable numbers from the total of those who like the person) of 57 percent. Rubio is second in both categories with a 57 percent favorability number and a net of 47 percent. Rand Paul was third with 56 percent and 43 percent.

But perhaps just as interesting are the numbers of the other two politicians rated in the poll.

Chris Christie’s favorability numbers are competitive with a 53 percent rating. But he has the highest unfavorable ratings of the quintet with 25 percent of those GOP sympathizers saying they don’t like him. That resulted in Christie having a very low 28 percent net favorability that placed him in dead last.

As for Ted Cruz, he may have become among the most well known figures in Washington during the freshman senator’s six months in office. But though his penchant for mussing up the hair of both Republicans and Democrats has made him the darling of the Tea Party set and the liberal media’s unofficial public enemy No. 1, he hasn’t yet penetrated the national consciousness as much as the other Republicans. Cruz has the lowest favorability number at 40 as well as having the lowest number of unfavorable answers at only eight percent. But that’s because a clear majority of Republicans—52 percent—have not yet formed an opinion of Cruz.

There is still a very long way to go until the first primary and caucus votes are cast at the start of 2016, and all these numbers will fluctuate until then. But it is a fact that the more Clinton is out in the open—something that the ongoing murmurings about Benghazi and the State Department scandals on her watch will make inevitable—the more her image will be tarnished.

That might not encourage any Democrat to try and derail her effort to become the first female major party presidential nominee. But the same factor will influence the lead-up to the GOP race.

I don’t doubt that by the time we get to 2015, when the presidential race will really take off, more Republicans will have made up their minds about Cruz. But while conservatives would be foolish to write off Christie’s chances, resistance to him on the right does complicate his path to the nomination. If Ryan does intend to run in 2016—something that is still very much in doubt in contrast to the near certainty about Rubio, Paul and Christie—his decision to lay low this year may prove to be very wise.

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The Strange, but Revealing, Budget Process

I suppose it says something about Washington that the act of voting on a federal budget is now a symbolic exercise with relevance only to the next congressional election’s various campaign advertisements. But we are now represented by a Congress which approaches the budget process with no intention of enacting an actual budget. The only measure of true bipartisan agreement is that President Obama’s ideas are terrible, unable to muster any support on either side of the isle.

So the president has apparently given up. Among the many budget-related stunts and shenanigans this week was a House Republican demand for a vote on President Obama’s 2014 budget–which is currently nonexistent, and therefore a blank page. The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, has been unwilling and unable to pass a budget; the House, controlled by Republicans, passed a budget today, as they do each year (a novel concept Democrats still don’t seem to understand). Both parties in the House presented budgets they knew wouldn’t pass before approving the GOP budget. That resulted in a frightening moment for the party in power, when they risked accidentally passing a budget produced by their own party that was not the one they actually wanted to enact. As the Hill reported on a Republican Study Committee-produced budget yesterday:

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I suppose it says something about Washington that the act of voting on a federal budget is now a symbolic exercise with relevance only to the next congressional election’s various campaign advertisements. But we are now represented by a Congress which approaches the budget process with no intention of enacting an actual budget. The only measure of true bipartisan agreement is that President Obama’s ideas are terrible, unable to muster any support on either side of the isle.

So the president has apparently given up. Among the many budget-related stunts and shenanigans this week was a House Republican demand for a vote on President Obama’s 2014 budget–which is currently nonexistent, and therefore a blank page. The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, has been unwilling and unable to pass a budget; the House, controlled by Republicans, passed a budget today, as they do each year (a novel concept Democrats still don’t seem to understand). Both parties in the House presented budgets they knew wouldn’t pass before approving the GOP budget. That resulted in a frightening moment for the party in power, when they risked accidentally passing a budget produced by their own party that was not the one they actually wanted to enact. As the Hill reported on a Republican Study Committee-produced budget yesterday:

Democrats voted present to force more Republicans to vote against the Republican Study Committee’s (RSC) budget. Democrats hoped that by getting their members to vote present instead of against the budget, it might be approved by the House.

That would have allowed Democrats to train their campaign ads on the RSC budget, which would boost the Social Security age to 70 and cut Medicare benefits, including for people now 59 years old. The RSC blueprint would balance the budget in four years.

That is, for better or worse, our current budget debate in a nutshell. Democrats think the budget is terrible for the country, so they want it to pass; and though it does more to fix entitlements and balance the budget than any other GOP plan, Republicans wanted it to fail so they could then pass a budget that does those things less effectively but more palatably. The latter budget–Paul Ryan’s budget–passed this morning.

The Ryan plan sets the federal government on the path to a balanced budget and preserves Medicare. The Democrats in the Senate will respond with their own budget, which will increase spending and taxes and endanger entitlements by leaving them on an unsustainable path. Democrats are happy with both budgets, because they won’t have to worry about enacting their own plan and the fiscal ruin it is designed to bring upon the country, but they also think Ryan’s plan to save Medicare is unpopular and will hurt Republicans in the next midterm elections as Democrats ramp up their demagoguery and scare tactics.

On that note, Sean Trende has an edifying column today in which he cautions Democrats that they may be right about the Ryan budget, but they are taking much more of a leap of faith than they think. Democrats base some of the triumphalism on the belief that the Ryan budget, and more generally the talk of reforming entitlements and practicing austerity, cost the GOP votes in November. But Trende adds some context. The whole thing is worth reading, but Trende notes the exit polls showed the public trusted the GOP ticket on the economy more than Obama; that the claim that Republicans only held the House due to redistricting has been debunked; that demographics played a role in helping re-elect Obama that was unrelated, to a certain degree, to austerity plans; and that there were more supporters of Democratic candidates than of liberal policy objectives, among other insights into the polling data.

Additionally, Democrats had far less traction with this issue among key demographics than they expected. As the Palm Beach Post reported in August of last year:

But two Florida polls conducted since Ryan’s selection suggest that voters who are 65 and older support Ryan and his budget plan more than younger voters do. A third Florida poll released this week doesn’t include an age breakdown, but finds the state’s voters agreeing more with Ryan’s description of his budget and Medicare plan than with Democratic criticisms that it would “end Medicare as we know it.”

Democrats may think that bringing up the Ryan budget every year is going to pigeonhole Republicans as the party that wants to “end Medicare as we know it,” but it’s possible that the Democrats’ dishonest Mediscare tactics may lose their already questionable potency through exaggeration and obnoxious repetition.

Additionally, it will continue to draw contrast between the Republicans’ debt-cutting agenda, which is less popular than the GOP hoped but more popular than Democrats expected, and the Democrats’ steadfast refusal to take issues of debt and deficit seriously. After all the budget machinations this week, one thing remained constant: Republicans passed a budget with a plan to fix the nation’s finances, and Obama produced a blank sheet of paper. Both parties seem willing to take that message to the voters.

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