Commentary Magazine


Topic: Peggy Noonan

Wrong on Paul? Christie Showed Leadership

Rand Paul is the quintessential outsider of American politics. Like his ally Ted Cruz, his disdain for the sensibilities of the Washington establishment is matched only by his refusal to play its rules. But the willingness of some members of the conservative establishment to come to Paul’s defense after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took him to task is a disturbing sign of the crackup of a generations-old Republican consensus on foreign and defense policy. George Will’s brush back of Christie wasn’t surprising, as he has always been a critic of post-9/11 American foreign and defense policy. But Peggy Noonan’s attack on Christie in the Wall Street Journal removes all doubt that some of veteran members of the GOP’s chattering class are headed off the reservation.

The timing of this attack, like Paul ally Rep. Justin Amash’s claim that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a courageous “whistleblower” and not a traitor, is unfortunate. While Noonan characterizes Christie’s attempt to refocus Americans on the reality of a war still being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists as “manipulative” and as “an appeal to emotion, not to logic,” it is she who is ignoring the larger context of the debate Paul has launched. While all government power deserves scrutiny, her allusion to a “national security” state—the old line of the hard left that has now been appropriated by some on the right—and Orwell’s Winston Smith is disturbing because it bespeaks not the natural skepticism of the conservative but the knee-jerk isolationism of a libertarian movement that has never cared much for America’s global responsibilities or the need to engage with the world and face our enemies. The isolationist impulse that Paul and Amash are seeking to promote is not a case of “conservatives acting like conservatives,” as Noonan put it, but a disturbing retreat that could, as Christie pointed out, produce awful consequences.

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Rand Paul is the quintessential outsider of American politics. Like his ally Ted Cruz, his disdain for the sensibilities of the Washington establishment is matched only by his refusal to play its rules. But the willingness of some members of the conservative establishment to come to Paul’s defense after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took him to task is a disturbing sign of the crackup of a generations-old Republican consensus on foreign and defense policy. George Will’s brush back of Christie wasn’t surprising, as he has always been a critic of post-9/11 American foreign and defense policy. But Peggy Noonan’s attack on Christie in the Wall Street Journal removes all doubt that some of veteran members of the GOP’s chattering class are headed off the reservation.

The timing of this attack, like Paul ally Rep. Justin Amash’s claim that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a courageous “whistleblower” and not a traitor, is unfortunate. While Noonan characterizes Christie’s attempt to refocus Americans on the reality of a war still being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists as “manipulative” and as “an appeal to emotion, not to logic,” it is she who is ignoring the larger context of the debate Paul has launched. While all government power deserves scrutiny, her allusion to a “national security” state—the old line of the hard left that has now been appropriated by some on the right—and Orwell’s Winston Smith is disturbing because it bespeaks not the natural skepticism of the conservative but the knee-jerk isolationism of a libertarian movement that has never cared much for America’s global responsibilities or the need to engage with the world and face our enemies. The isolationist impulse that Paul and Amash are seeking to promote is not a case of “conservatives acting like conservatives,” as Noonan put it, but a disturbing retreat that could, as Christie pointed out, produce awful consequences.

Noonan takes particular issue with Christie’s characterization of the libertarian critique of the NSA as well as drone attacks as “esoteric.” But she’s wrong that in doing so he’s ignoring the concerns that some Americans have with government abuse of power or particular instances in which the NSA may have misbehaved. To the contrary, it is Paul, Amash, and now Noonan who are behaving as if homeland security is an abstract concept that has little relevance to the lives of Americans. What he was trying to do was to refocus the party faithful on a fact that Noonan doesn’t see as particularly relevant. This is, after all, about the measures being employed by the government to defend the United States against an enemy that is, contrary to Barack Obama’s boasting and the complacence of the libertarians, very much still alive and determined to kill as many Americans as they can.

Rather than Christie seeking to manipulate our emotions by references to the families of 9/11 victims, it is Paul and others who have stoked paranoia about “Big Brother” government by posing theoretical arguments about drones killing citizens sitting in Starbucks or misleading Americans into thinking that the spooks are reading all of their emails or listening to all of their calls. Noonan plays the same game herself by trying to unnerve us by alluding to articles about the theoretical ability of super spies to use high-tech software to activate microphones on our phones and record our utterances.

No doubt there are people laboring away at the CIA and the NSA coming up with gadgets that James Bond would envy. But, like the guns that municipalities give police that could, if employed by rogues who run amok, be used to kill innocents, we understand that our security services are primarily focused on dealing with the bad guys. While no system is foolproof, if we cannot trust the existing structure of court jurisdiction and congressional oversight, then it is impossible to construct a rationale for any counter-terror operations or efforts to monitor our enemies.

There are dangers from new technologies and there is always a tension between civil liberties and security in a democracy. But the spirit of resistance to government action that Paul represents is far more lacking in balance than Christie’s apt if impatient dismissal of libertarian efforts to obstruct necessary measures to deal with al-Qaeda.

Noonan is right that polls show a growing number of Americans expressing concerns about the NSA and virtually any expression of government power. Given Obama’s overreach on virtually every issue and his inability to take responsibility for disasters like Benghazi, that is understandable. But what Paul is trying to do is to exploit this natural cynicism to fundamentally alter America’s foreign and defense policy. Noonan tries to spin this as an argument between the grass roots and the elites and the “moneymen” who hang out at the Aspen Institute where Christie spoke. That’s a nasty piece of invective that does little to enlighten the debate. That said, it is possible that a libertarian-fueled paranoia on national security efforts will dominate the GOP’s 2016 presidential race. Yet what the New Jersey governor was exhibiting was a quality that Noonan tends to praise in other circumstances: leadership.

What Republicans need right now is someone who isn’t afraid of confronting Paul and his crowd before they hijack a party that has been a bastion of support for a strong America since the Second World War. Jonah Goldberg is right when he noted today in the Los Angeles Times that the assumption that isolationism is a conservative tradition is incorrect. Isolationism has, as he points out, always been as much, if not more, at home on the left as it has ever been on the right. I, for one, didn’t expect Chris Christie to be one of the few Republicans who would have the guts to call out Paul and the libertarians and attempt to arrest the libertarian tide before it allows the Democrats to become the party with a natural edge on foreign and defense policy. Having done so, he deserves a lot better from those who pose as the conservative movement’s elders than he is currently getting.

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Romney and Conservative Critics Should Focus on Obama, Not Each Other

The carping from conservatives is clearly starting to get on the nerves of the Mitt Romney campaign. The candidate’s No. 1 supporter vented a little of that frustration yesterday when in an interview on Radio Iowa Ann Romney chided critics of her husband’s efforts by saying:

“Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring,” she said. “This is hard and, you know, it’s an important thing that we’re doing right now and it’s an important election and it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”

Mrs. Romney’s reaction is understandable. There is something terribly off-putting about the condescending attitude of writers like Peggy Noonan who wrongly attacked the candidate for quickly pushing back on the administration over the Libya debacle and then jumped on the 47 percent video with both feet. Beset as the Romney campaign is by a hostile mainstream media and a ruthless and nasty Democratic attack machine, the last thing she or anyone else associated with her husband’s candidacy needs is a shot from what is presumably their own side. What she wants is for all those opposed to President Obama to close ranks behind Romney and to push back on the narrative that he is failing. No doubt many conservatives feel the same way. But as much as some of the conservative kibitzers are off the mark, it must be admitted that their angst is merely the inevitable product of Romney’s gaffes and a campaign that has not exactly inspired confidence.

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The carping from conservatives is clearly starting to get on the nerves of the Mitt Romney campaign. The candidate’s No. 1 supporter vented a little of that frustration yesterday when in an interview on Radio Iowa Ann Romney chided critics of her husband’s efforts by saying:

“Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring,” she said. “This is hard and, you know, it’s an important thing that we’re doing right now and it’s an important election and it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”

Mrs. Romney’s reaction is understandable. There is something terribly off-putting about the condescending attitude of writers like Peggy Noonan who wrongly attacked the candidate for quickly pushing back on the administration over the Libya debacle and then jumped on the 47 percent video with both feet. Beset as the Romney campaign is by a hostile mainstream media and a ruthless and nasty Democratic attack machine, the last thing she or anyone else associated with her husband’s candidacy needs is a shot from what is presumably their own side. What she wants is for all those opposed to President Obama to close ranks behind Romney and to push back on the narrative that he is failing. No doubt many conservatives feel the same way. But as much as some of the conservative kibitzers are off the mark, it must be admitted that their angst is merely the inevitable product of Romney’s gaffes and a campaign that has not exactly inspired confidence.

Let’s specify that some of those conservatives who are being singled out for not being loyal soldiers like Bill Kristol are the same people who were telling us a year ago that the GOP needed a better alternative to Barack Obama than Mitt Romney. Romney is the same person today that he was in 2011 when most conservatives were not in love with him. But just as it was the case a year ago that there was no better GOP option available in the primaries, the candidate is the only hope for those who are appalled at the idea of four more years for Barack Obama.

Whether the Romney campaign is a model of political genius or not, now is the moment for conservatives to be focused on pointing out the administration’s deceptive policies on Iran, the Libya debacle (as our John Podhoretz points out in his column today in the New York Post) as well as the fact that the president has no plan for fixing a broken economy other than class warfare rhetoric and more taxing and spending. Win or lose, there will be plenty of time for recriminations about the campaign’s shortcomings after November.

At the same time, this isn’t the moment for the Romney camp to be saying how “hard” it is to run for president. Of course it’s hard, but to those whom much is given, much is expected. All it will take to silence Romney’s conservative critics is a focused and successful homestretch run and strong debate performances.

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Morning Commentary

Michael Steele is expected to announce he will not run for a second term as chairman of the National Republican Committee, Fox News reports. A sizable crowd of candidates is vying for Steele’s job, including Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus, former RNC co-chair Ann Wagner, longtime Republican official Maria Cino, former Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis, and former RNC political director Gentry Collins. But at the moment, no clear front-runner has emerged.

Nate Silver says that the worst thing for Obama to do right now is to take his liberal base for granted (information the president might have found more useful a week ago).

Speaking of alienating the base, Peggy Noonan writes that no president has done it quite like Obama has: “We have not in our lifetimes seen a president in this position. He spent his first year losing the center, which elected him, and his second losing his base, which is supposed to provide his troops. There isn’t much left to lose! Which may explain Tuesday’s press conference.”

While Americans mourn on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, terrorist supporters will be flocking to New York to celebrate the 10-year reunion of the Israel-bashing UN Durban Conference on Racism: “There’s only one reason the new conference will convene in New York in September 2011: to rub salt in the city’s wounds, to dance on the city’s graves,” says a New York Post editorial. “Participants at the original conference, which ended three days before 9/11, openly celebrated Islamic terrorism.”

President Obama and John Boehner’s first joint bipartisan move should be to quit smoking, says Tom Brokaw: “Tobacco kills more than 443,000 Americans a year, more than 10 times the number who die in traffic accidents. Yet for all the warnings on cigarette packages, in public-service ads and in news stories about the acute dangers of smoking, an estimated 40 million Americans still smoke.” Ah yes, nicotine withdrawal — the best way to bridge an already adversarial relationship.

Disgruntled WikiLeaks employees are defecting to a new pro-leak website, which is set to launch today: “The founders of Openleaks.org say they are former WikiLeaks members unhappy with the way WikiLeaks is being run under [Julian] Assange. ‘It has weakened the organization,’ one of those founders, Daniel Domscheit-Berg says in a documentary airing Sunday night on Swedish television network SVT. He said WikiLeaks has become ‘too much focused on one person, and one person is always much weaker than an organization.’”

Michael Steele is expected to announce he will not run for a second term as chairman of the National Republican Committee, Fox News reports. A sizable crowd of candidates is vying for Steele’s job, including Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus, former RNC co-chair Ann Wagner, longtime Republican official Maria Cino, former Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis, and former RNC political director Gentry Collins. But at the moment, no clear front-runner has emerged.

Nate Silver says that the worst thing for Obama to do right now is to take his liberal base for granted (information the president might have found more useful a week ago).

Speaking of alienating the base, Peggy Noonan writes that no president has done it quite like Obama has: “We have not in our lifetimes seen a president in this position. He spent his first year losing the center, which elected him, and his second losing his base, which is supposed to provide his troops. There isn’t much left to lose! Which may explain Tuesday’s press conference.”

While Americans mourn on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, terrorist supporters will be flocking to New York to celebrate the 10-year reunion of the Israel-bashing UN Durban Conference on Racism: “There’s only one reason the new conference will convene in New York in September 2011: to rub salt in the city’s wounds, to dance on the city’s graves,” says a New York Post editorial. “Participants at the original conference, which ended three days before 9/11, openly celebrated Islamic terrorism.”

President Obama and John Boehner’s first joint bipartisan move should be to quit smoking, says Tom Brokaw: “Tobacco kills more than 443,000 Americans a year, more than 10 times the number who die in traffic accidents. Yet for all the warnings on cigarette packages, in public-service ads and in news stories about the acute dangers of smoking, an estimated 40 million Americans still smoke.” Ah yes, nicotine withdrawal — the best way to bridge an already adversarial relationship.

Disgruntled WikiLeaks employees are defecting to a new pro-leak website, which is set to launch today: “The founders of Openleaks.org say they are former WikiLeaks members unhappy with the way WikiLeaks is being run under [Julian] Assange. ‘It has weakened the organization,’ one of those founders, Daniel Domscheit-Berg says in a documentary airing Sunday night on Swedish television network SVT. He said WikiLeaks has become ‘too much focused on one person, and one person is always much weaker than an organization.’”

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Flotsam and Jetsam

We all benefit when Obama goes golfing, says the White House spokesman. But not when Tony Hayward goes sailing.

The U.S. government can certainly crack down on “humanitarian” aid to terrorist groups, says the Supreme Court. But Israel is not permitted the same latitude, points out Elliott Abrams: “As Chief Justice Roberts explained, such support [for training and advice for humanitarian, non-terrorist activities] ‘also importantly helps lend legitimacy to foreign terrorist groups—legitimacy that makes it easier for those groups to persist, to recruit members, and to raise funds—all of which facilitate more terrorist attacks.’ Americans inclined to think Israel has gone overboard in stopping flotillas from landing in Gaza might think again.”

Democrats have had enough of Obama’s career-killing agenda and John Kerry’s pestering them about a climate-control bill. But Jonathan Chait mocks politicians’ desire for self-preservation, “Why can’t [Kerry] let us worry about something that really matters, like the midterm election?” It’s curious whom Chait thinks will stand in the way of the conservative resurgence if all these horribly self-absorbed Democrats commit political suicide.

Obama promised that all that stimulus money would create/save millions of jobs. But this handy chart suggests we might have gotten equal or better results with no stimulus at all.

The lefty protesters in San Francisco intended to block the unloading of an Israeli ship. But they got the timing wrong and wound up protesting a Chinese ship. As Jay Nordlinger put it: “But listen, who cares about protesting the PRC — which is merely a one-party dictatorship with a gulag — when you can protest and harass Israel, that nasty Jewish state whose inhabitants (Jewish inhabitants — the Arab ones are cool) can go back to you-know-where! (Of course, when the Jews were in Europe, in great numbers, they were told to go back … to Israel, ancient and eternal land of the Jews.)”

The military and sympathetic observers keep sounding the alarm over Obama’s Afghanistan timeline. But the White House keeps reinforcing it. At some point, we should take the administration at its word.

Obama says he’s doing everything possible to deal with the Gulf oil spill. But he’s refused to waive the Jones Act to allow easier passage of foreign ships between U.S. ports. So Republicans are introducing legislation. Hard to say — as it always is with Obama — whether he’s incompetent in riding herd on the federal bureaucracy or he’s ingratiating himself (again) with Big Labor. Maybe it’s both.

We can be grateful that Peter Beinart has taken a break from Israel-bashing. But his quotient of loopiness to facts is no better when he is writing about Hillary Clinton. He seems intent on debunking  “rampant” speculation (which consists of some bloggers at one website and some Peggy Noonan and Dick Morris musings) that Hillary will run for president in 2012. Well, given the inanity of the topic, he’s not likely to be embarrassed on Fareed Zakaria’s show over it.

We all benefit when Obama goes golfing, says the White House spokesman. But not when Tony Hayward goes sailing.

The U.S. government can certainly crack down on “humanitarian” aid to terrorist groups, says the Supreme Court. But Israel is not permitted the same latitude, points out Elliott Abrams: “As Chief Justice Roberts explained, such support [for training and advice for humanitarian, non-terrorist activities] ‘also importantly helps lend legitimacy to foreign terrorist groups—legitimacy that makes it easier for those groups to persist, to recruit members, and to raise funds—all of which facilitate more terrorist attacks.’ Americans inclined to think Israel has gone overboard in stopping flotillas from landing in Gaza might think again.”

Democrats have had enough of Obama’s career-killing agenda and John Kerry’s pestering them about a climate-control bill. But Jonathan Chait mocks politicians’ desire for self-preservation, “Why can’t [Kerry] let us worry about something that really matters, like the midterm election?” It’s curious whom Chait thinks will stand in the way of the conservative resurgence if all these horribly self-absorbed Democrats commit political suicide.

Obama promised that all that stimulus money would create/save millions of jobs. But this handy chart suggests we might have gotten equal or better results with no stimulus at all.

The lefty protesters in San Francisco intended to block the unloading of an Israeli ship. But they got the timing wrong and wound up protesting a Chinese ship. As Jay Nordlinger put it: “But listen, who cares about protesting the PRC — which is merely a one-party dictatorship with a gulag — when you can protest and harass Israel, that nasty Jewish state whose inhabitants (Jewish inhabitants — the Arab ones are cool) can go back to you-know-where! (Of course, when the Jews were in Europe, in great numbers, they were told to go back … to Israel, ancient and eternal land of the Jews.)”

The military and sympathetic observers keep sounding the alarm over Obama’s Afghanistan timeline. But the White House keeps reinforcing it. At some point, we should take the administration at its word.

Obama says he’s doing everything possible to deal with the Gulf oil spill. But he’s refused to waive the Jones Act to allow easier passage of foreign ships between U.S. ports. So Republicans are introducing legislation. Hard to say — as it always is with Obama — whether he’s incompetent in riding herd on the federal bureaucracy or he’s ingratiating himself (again) with Big Labor. Maybe it’s both.

We can be grateful that Peter Beinart has taken a break from Israel-bashing. But his quotient of loopiness to facts is no better when he is writing about Hillary Clinton. He seems intent on debunking  “rampant” speculation (which consists of some bloggers at one website and some Peggy Noonan and Dick Morris musings) that Hillary will run for president in 2012. Well, given the inanity of the topic, he’s not likely to be embarrassed on Fareed Zakaria’s show over it.

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The Story Is Only as Good as the Witness

It would have been nice had Peggy Noonan tried harder to answer her query (“Is it true?”) about Scott McClellan’s book. She acknowledges that the storyteller has some significant credibility problems, but shushes those who criticize him. She then seems to conclude the book is nevertheless “true.” (There’s quite a bit of “if he thought it or felt it, it has truth” which suggests that, unfortunately, post-modernism has become endemic.)

Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I think that when the credibility of the witness is damaged because of bias, motive to lie, or lack of first-hand facts (or all of these), there is reason to believe the story isn’t true. There are a few core problems with McClellan’s telling, which others more knowledgeable than I about the inner workings of the Bush White House have pointed to, contemporaneous contradictory comments and lack of access being two of the major ones. Hint #1: a telltale sign of a hyped story about supposed misdeeds is use of provocative language (“propaganda”) in lieu of details about who, what, where, and when untruths allegedly were concocted. Hint#2: when the book changes fundamentally between the “proposal and publication” under the tutelage of a left-wing book publisher you can bet, like that infamous British intelligence report, it got “sexed up” a bit.

So rather than hush the skeptics, maybe we should consider their point: the storyteller is an unreliable witness. (And if forced to swallow truth serum, the reporters–the ones who covered the White House–who are now fawning over McClellan would tell us they doubt he was keyed into the major players and key conversations which would substantiate his claims.)

As to the generic venom and clichéd observations (Dick Cheney was powerful! Who’d have thought?):those didn’t take a percipient witness. They could have been drafted by George Soros. (Maybe they were.)

It would have been nice had Peggy Noonan tried harder to answer her query (“Is it true?”) about Scott McClellan’s book. She acknowledges that the storyteller has some significant credibility problems, but shushes those who criticize him. She then seems to conclude the book is nevertheless “true.” (There’s quite a bit of “if he thought it or felt it, it has truth” which suggests that, unfortunately, post-modernism has become endemic.)

Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I think that when the credibility of the witness is damaged because of bias, motive to lie, or lack of first-hand facts (or all of these), there is reason to believe the story isn’t true. There are a few core problems with McClellan’s telling, which others more knowledgeable than I about the inner workings of the Bush White House have pointed to, contemporaneous contradictory comments and lack of access being two of the major ones. Hint #1: a telltale sign of a hyped story about supposed misdeeds is use of provocative language (“propaganda”) in lieu of details about who, what, where, and when untruths allegedly were concocted. Hint#2: when the book changes fundamentally between the “proposal and publication” under the tutelage of a left-wing book publisher you can bet, like that infamous British intelligence report, it got “sexed up” a bit.

So rather than hush the skeptics, maybe we should consider their point: the storyteller is an unreliable witness. (And if forced to swallow truth serum, the reporters–the ones who covered the White House–who are now fawning over McClellan would tell us they doubt he was keyed into the major players and key conversations which would substantiate his claims.)

As to the generic venom and clichéd observations (Dick Cheney was powerful! Who’d have thought?):those didn’t take a percipient witness. They could have been drafted by George Soros. (Maybe they were.)

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But It’s True!

Peggy Noonan joins the long list of horrified Democrats deploring Hillary Clinton’s comments that she has a base of support among white voters and Barack Obama does not. Yes, I agree it was surprising that she said it. But her saying it isn’t the problem. Indeed, Paul Krugman wrote the same thing:

There’s just one thing that should give Democrats pause — but it’s a big one: the fight for the nomination has divided the party along class and race lines in a way that I believe is unprecedented, at least in modern times.Ironically, much of Mr. Obama’s initial appeal was the hope that he could transcend these divisions. At first, voting patterns seemed consistent with this hope. In February, for example, he received the support of half of Virginia’s white voters as well as that of a huge majority of African-Americans. But this week, Mr. Obama, while continuing to win huge African-American majorities, lost North Carolina whites by 23 points, Indiana whites by 22 points. Mr. Obama’s white support continues to be concentrated among the highly educated; there was little in Tuesday’s results to suggest that his problems with working-class whites have significantly diminished.

Clinton’s comment is not quite like the 3 a.m. ad: John McCain can’t turn around and run ads saying “Even Hillary says white voters don’t support Obama.” She didn’t give the Republicans some rhetorical advantage. She was caught remarking on a very unpleasant and troubling question for Democrats. It’s the key question for the fall: what kind of coalition can Obama put together?

If it’s the McGovern-like grab bag of African Americans, ultra-liberals, and young voters, he’ll lose, and maybe even in some states Democrats have traditionally counted in the their column (e.g. Pennsylvania). If he inherits the blue-collar voters from Clinton, sprints to the center and successfully re-runs the 2006 election (“throw the bums out!”) he’ll win. But as disagreeable and annoying as Clinton may be to the Democratic establishment and mainstream media, this potential for electoral polarization and defeat is not Clinton’s doing. She just reminded them of their worst fears. How dare she.

Peggy Noonan joins the long list of horrified Democrats deploring Hillary Clinton’s comments that she has a base of support among white voters and Barack Obama does not. Yes, I agree it was surprising that she said it. But her saying it isn’t the problem. Indeed, Paul Krugman wrote the same thing:

There’s just one thing that should give Democrats pause — but it’s a big one: the fight for the nomination has divided the party along class and race lines in a way that I believe is unprecedented, at least in modern times.Ironically, much of Mr. Obama’s initial appeal was the hope that he could transcend these divisions. At first, voting patterns seemed consistent with this hope. In February, for example, he received the support of half of Virginia’s white voters as well as that of a huge majority of African-Americans. But this week, Mr. Obama, while continuing to win huge African-American majorities, lost North Carolina whites by 23 points, Indiana whites by 22 points. Mr. Obama’s white support continues to be concentrated among the highly educated; there was little in Tuesday’s results to suggest that his problems with working-class whites have significantly diminished.

Clinton’s comment is not quite like the 3 a.m. ad: John McCain can’t turn around and run ads saying “Even Hillary says white voters don’t support Obama.” She didn’t give the Republicans some rhetorical advantage. She was caught remarking on a very unpleasant and troubling question for Democrats. It’s the key question for the fall: what kind of coalition can Obama put together?

If it’s the McGovern-like grab bag of African Americans, ultra-liberals, and young voters, he’ll lose, and maybe even in some states Democrats have traditionally counted in the their column (e.g. Pennsylvania). If he inherits the blue-collar voters from Clinton, sprints to the center and successfully re-runs the 2006 election (“throw the bums out!”) he’ll win. But as disagreeable and annoying as Clinton may be to the Democratic establishment and mainstream media, this potential for electoral polarization and defeat is not Clinton’s doing. She just reminded them of their worst fears. How dare she.

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I’m Not Swooning

Peter Baker of The Washington Post writes

It may no longer be surprising to watch so many young people, African Americans and well-off Democrats fall so hard for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as he battles for the Democratic presidential nomination, but it has been fascinating to see so many conservatives swooning over him lately.

Peggy Noonan, the Reagan-Bush speechwriter, calls him “thoughtful” and praises his “classy campaign.” George Will, the columnist and television pundit, describes him as “an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic ‘fights’ against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.” Peter Wehner, the former Bush White House aide, calls Obama “a well-grounded, thoughtful, decent man” whom Republicans “would find it hard to generate much enthusiasm in opposing.”

… Yet when the infatuation wears off, if Obama gets the nomination, will Republicans still think so highly of him? If Obama delivers the knockout blow to the Clinton dynasty, the bete noire of so many conservatives, would they still find reason to think of him as a knight in shining armor? Lost amid all the dramatic primaries and debates of recent days have been a few moments that voters are likely to hear more about in the fall should Obama win the nomination, moments that will remind Republicans that in many ways he is a pretty conventional liberal.

Let me try to disentangle some of this. I certainly have written favorable things about Senator Obama — for his speeches (which are uplifting and moving, if often devoid of a serious discussion of issues), his style of politics (including his color-blind campaign), and the kind of man he seems (by all accounts) to be. Yet in the same op-ed that Baker cites, I went on to write this:

[Obama] is, on almost every issue, a conventional liberal. And while rhetoric and character matter a lot, politics is finally and fundamentally about ideas and philosophy. Whether we’re talking about the Iraq war, monitoring terrorist communications, health care, taxes, education, abortion and the courts, the size of government, or almost anything else, Obama embodies the views of the special-interest groups on the left…If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and fails to take steps such as this [endorsing conservative policies], his liberal views will be his greatest vulnerability. Obama will try to reject the liberal label–but based on his stands on the issues, at least so far, the label will fit, and it will stick.

In other words, I make precisely the point that Baker says will be made about Obama if he wins the Democratic nomination. But the way Baker’s piece is set up, any future criticism of Senator Obama, on grounds of political philosophy and ideology, will be seen as activating the “Republican attack machine.” And those of us who have said favorable things about Obama will be accused of going “partisan” because we dare say a negative word about the young senator from Illinois.

This piece by Baker illustrates how the media culture often perpetuates what it says it laments (for example, reducing politics to a simplistic level and people to predictable, cartoonish figures). Baker, by using silly words to describe the views of Will, Noonan, and me toward Obama, apparently wants to create a political environment that continues to personalize policy and ideological differences.

We should be able to praise Obama on the grounds we have without being accused of being “infatuated” with him and “swooning over him.” We can recognize his gifts without viewing him as a “knight in shining armor.” The reality is that Senator Obama is an impressive man and a remarkable political talent. He is also a conventional liberal and, on Iraq particularly, I believe his policies are unwise and even reckless. I disagree with him on probably every major issue–and yet I still find him to be an appealing figure.

Those two things aren’t incompatible–and Peter Baker, a fine and often insightful political reporter, should recognize this.

Peter Baker of The Washington Post writes

It may no longer be surprising to watch so many young people, African Americans and well-off Democrats fall so hard for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as he battles for the Democratic presidential nomination, but it has been fascinating to see so many conservatives swooning over him lately.

Peggy Noonan, the Reagan-Bush speechwriter, calls him “thoughtful” and praises his “classy campaign.” George Will, the columnist and television pundit, describes him as “an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic ‘fights’ against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.” Peter Wehner, the former Bush White House aide, calls Obama “a well-grounded, thoughtful, decent man” whom Republicans “would find it hard to generate much enthusiasm in opposing.”

… Yet when the infatuation wears off, if Obama gets the nomination, will Republicans still think so highly of him? If Obama delivers the knockout blow to the Clinton dynasty, the bete noire of so many conservatives, would they still find reason to think of him as a knight in shining armor? Lost amid all the dramatic primaries and debates of recent days have been a few moments that voters are likely to hear more about in the fall should Obama win the nomination, moments that will remind Republicans that in many ways he is a pretty conventional liberal.

Let me try to disentangle some of this. I certainly have written favorable things about Senator Obama — for his speeches (which are uplifting and moving, if often devoid of a serious discussion of issues), his style of politics (including his color-blind campaign), and the kind of man he seems (by all accounts) to be. Yet in the same op-ed that Baker cites, I went on to write this:

[Obama] is, on almost every issue, a conventional liberal. And while rhetoric and character matter a lot, politics is finally and fundamentally about ideas and philosophy. Whether we’re talking about the Iraq war, monitoring terrorist communications, health care, taxes, education, abortion and the courts, the size of government, or almost anything else, Obama embodies the views of the special-interest groups on the left…If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and fails to take steps such as this [endorsing conservative policies], his liberal views will be his greatest vulnerability. Obama will try to reject the liberal label–but based on his stands on the issues, at least so far, the label will fit, and it will stick.

In other words, I make precisely the point that Baker says will be made about Obama if he wins the Democratic nomination. But the way Baker’s piece is set up, any future criticism of Senator Obama, on grounds of political philosophy and ideology, will be seen as activating the “Republican attack machine.” And those of us who have said favorable things about Obama will be accused of going “partisan” because we dare say a negative word about the young senator from Illinois.

This piece by Baker illustrates how the media culture often perpetuates what it says it laments (for example, reducing politics to a simplistic level and people to predictable, cartoonish figures). Baker, by using silly words to describe the views of Will, Noonan, and me toward Obama, apparently wants to create a political environment that continues to personalize policy and ideological differences.

We should be able to praise Obama on the grounds we have without being accused of being “infatuated” with him and “swooning over him.” We can recognize his gifts without viewing him as a “knight in shining armor.” The reality is that Senator Obama is an impressive man and a remarkable political talent. He is also a conventional liberal and, on Iraq particularly, I believe his policies are unwise and even reckless. I disagree with him on probably every major issue–and yet I still find him to be an appealing figure.

Those two things aren’t incompatible–and Peter Baker, a fine and often insightful political reporter, should recognize this.

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The Politics of Personality

At first, it seems hard to disagree with Peggy Noonan’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which argues that in politics, ideas should outweigh loyalty to particular politicians. “It is better to see activists driven by philosophy than by personalities,” she writes. “Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history.” A long-time Reagan loyalist, Noonan argues that she was simply true to his conservative principles, never really knowing the man.

Yet it’s hard to deny that personality has played a very important—and positive—role in Republican politics. Democratic primary politics have always been about institutions and traditional alliances: unions, teachers, Hollywood, blacks, Jews, women, gays. Even today, Democratic jostling is not really over philosophy, but rather over who is a better voice for the reliable Democratic interest groups.

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At first, it seems hard to disagree with Peggy Noonan’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which argues that in politics, ideas should outweigh loyalty to particular politicians. “It is better to see activists driven by philosophy than by personalities,” she writes. “Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history.” A long-time Reagan loyalist, Noonan argues that she was simply true to his conservative principles, never really knowing the man.

Yet it’s hard to deny that personality has played a very important—and positive—role in Republican politics. Democratic primary politics have always been about institutions and traditional alliances: unions, teachers, Hollywood, blacks, Jews, women, gays. Even today, Democratic jostling is not really over philosophy, but rather over who is a better voice for the reliable Democratic interest groups.

By contrast, Republican primaries have always been a potent mix of big ideas and outsize individuals. Reagan’s popularity surely depended not only on his pithy paeans to smaller government but on his sunny optimism about America—a distinct retreat from the more dour conservatism that preceded him. Their attraction to lone-wolf leaders has made possible the candidacies, however flawed, of Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, John McCain, and Alexander Haig. Personality is what makes us listen to Fred Thompson’s ideas about what he might do as President.

It is also worth remembering that Republicans have always believed that character—an essential part of personality—really does matter. Many of Clinton’s policy ideas were not that bad, but his character—revealed so plainly in his first campaign for President—made him unfit to serve as our chief executive. We should be happy that the GOP continues to attract quirky, ambitious, colorful, admirable personalities who want to mix it up in the battle of ideas.

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