Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ramesh Ponnuru

A Moment for Political Courage

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before. Read More

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before.

The way to frame this argument, according to those who want to take on entitlement programs, is to simply state the reality of the situation: we can act now, in a relatively incremental and responsible way, in order to avoid the painful austerity measures that are occurring in Europe and elsewhere. Or we can delay action and, at some point not far into the future, be unable to avoid cuts that will cause a great deal of social unrest.

So we’re clear, the entitlement that really matters is Medicare. “The fact is,” my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin told Michael Gerson, “Medicare is going to crush the government, and if Republicans leave it unreformed then the debt picture is very, very ugly. They might never — literally never — show the budget reaching balance. Not in the 10-year window and not if they take their graphs out a hundred years. Obama could probably show balance just past the budget window in the middle of the next decade because of the massive Medicare cuts he proposes, even if in practice they will never actually happen.”

To get a sense of what we’re talking about, Veronique de Rugy has put together a very useful chart that can be found here.

It makes the point that cutting discretionary spending only makes a small difference in the overall budget picture. She lays out the difference between the Republican Study Committee plan, which cuts $2 trillion over 10 years and is therefore a good deal more aggressive than the House Republican leadership proposal, and where spending would be without those cuts over the next 10 years. As you will see, it’s a small difference. Spending keeps growing rapidly either way. Without entitlement reform, then, this is about as much as we could reasonably do — and it just isn’t that much.

In other words, if Republicans don’t take on Medicare, their credibility as a party of fiscal responsibility and limited government will be shattered. The math guarantees it. The GOP, having made the 2010 election largely (though not exclusively) a referendum on the deficit and the debt, will be viewed as fraudulent.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, as Gerson explains, if Republicans don’t touch Medicare, their budget approach — on paper, at least — will have less long-term debt reduction than Obama’s, both because Obama supports tax increases and he uses a slew of budget gimmicks to make his health-care plan appear to be far more affordable than it really is.

It’s a pretty good bet that the president will advance the same kind of gimmicks in his 2012 budget. If so, then unless Republicans are willing to champion Medicare reform (meaning changing it from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program), Obama will be able to position himself as a budget hawk, at least compared to the GOP. This could have devastating political effects, including dispiriting the Republican base and the Tea Party movement. Having just elected Republicans in large measure to stop the financial hemorrhage and to restore fiscal balance, voters will not react well when they are told, in so many words, “Never Mind.”

So count me as one who believes Republicans need to embrace entitlement reform in general, and Medicare reforms in particular, because not doing so is irresponsible. It means willfully avoiding what everyone knows needs to be done in the hope that at some future, as-yet-to-be-determined date, a better and easier moment will arrive.

Sometime a political party needs to comfort itself with the axiom that good policy makes good politics. That isn’t always the case, certainly, but often it is. In any event, if the GOP avoids reforming Medicare, there is no way any Republican lawmaker, when pressed by reporters on fiscal matters, can make a plausible argument that their actions are remotely consistent with their stated philosophy.

They will hem and haw and duck and dodge and try to change the subject — and they will emerge as counterfeit, deceptive, and unserious. Here it’s worth recalling the words of the columnist Walter Lippmann, who wrote:

With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular — not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately.

Perhaps I’m asking GOP lawmakers to prove themselves to be miracles and freaks of nature. But if I am right in my analysis, that is what is called for. It would mean Republicans have an enormous public-education campaign ahead of them. They will have to explain why their policies are the most responsible and humane. They will need to articulate the case not simply for entitlement reform but also for limited government. And they will need to explain, in a compelling and accessible way, why limited government is crucial to civic character.

None of this is easy — but lawmakers weren’t elected to make easy decisions. They were elected to make the right ones. And reforming Medicare is, in our time, the right decision.

Let’s get on with it.

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Obama’s Tack to the Center

Over at the Washington Post, Ramesh Ponnuru writes this:

I count five rightward moves by the president since the midterm elections. First he agreed to delay any tax increases on high earners. He made William Daley chief of staff over progressive objections. He implicitly rebuked the Left’s attempt to exploit the Tucson shootings for political advantage. The administration, its hand forced by Vice President Biden’s comments about leaving Afghanistan in 2014 “come hell or high water,” made it clearer than ever that it does not regard 2014 as a hard deadline. And now President Obama has announced a review of burdensome regulations.

One might even add Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s newly tough line on human rights in China–which isn’t exactly a move to the right but will nonetheless please most conservatives.

My conclusions: 1) The next two years will be long ones for liberals. 2) Obama is going to be harder to beat in 2012 than many Republicans believe. 3) If Obama does win, though, the Obama of 2013 will be closer to the Obama of 2009 than the Obama of 2011. The move to the center is tactical and temporary.

Ramesh’s analysis sounds (as usual) right to me. The only amendment I’d make is that conservatives I hear from, at least for the most part, don’t assume President Obama will be easy to beat. Quite the opposite, in fact. They recognize that the incumbent president, especially if he doesn’t face a primary challenge, usually has the advantage. In addition, their concern is that the current group of potential presidential candidates — those sure to run and those thinking about running — aren’t up to the task. We’ll see.

In any event, Obama’s tack to the center underscores the fact that this is not a liberal country and it does not like to be governed by liberal lawmakers.

That was one large lesson from the 2010 election — and it’s one the president seems to have internalized.

Over at the Washington Post, Ramesh Ponnuru writes this:

I count five rightward moves by the president since the midterm elections. First he agreed to delay any tax increases on high earners. He made William Daley chief of staff over progressive objections. He implicitly rebuked the Left’s attempt to exploit the Tucson shootings for political advantage. The administration, its hand forced by Vice President Biden’s comments about leaving Afghanistan in 2014 “come hell or high water,” made it clearer than ever that it does not regard 2014 as a hard deadline. And now President Obama has announced a review of burdensome regulations.

One might even add Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s newly tough line on human rights in China–which isn’t exactly a move to the right but will nonetheless please most conservatives.

My conclusions: 1) The next two years will be long ones for liberals. 2) Obama is going to be harder to beat in 2012 than many Republicans believe. 3) If Obama does win, though, the Obama of 2013 will be closer to the Obama of 2009 than the Obama of 2011. The move to the center is tactical and temporary.

Ramesh’s analysis sounds (as usual) right to me. The only amendment I’d make is that conservatives I hear from, at least for the most part, don’t assume President Obama will be easy to beat. Quite the opposite, in fact. They recognize that the incumbent president, especially if he doesn’t face a primary challenge, usually has the advantage. In addition, their concern is that the current group of potential presidential candidates — those sure to run and those thinking about running — aren’t up to the task. We’ll see.

In any event, Obama’s tack to the center underscores the fact that this is not a liberal country and it does not like to be governed by liberal lawmakers.

That was one large lesson from the 2010 election — and it’s one the president seems to have internalized.

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Morning Commentary

President Obama’s decision to tap former banker William Daley as his next chief of staff is angering all the right people: “This was a real mistake by the White House,” [Adam] Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Bill Daley consistently urges the Democratic Party to pursue a corporate agenda that alienates both Independent and Democratic voters. If President Obama listens to that kind of political advice from Bill Daley, Democrats will suffer a disastrous 2012.” Other liberals grumbling over the president’s choice are Jane Hamsher, Ezra Klein, and MoveOn.org’s executive director, Justin Rubin.

The filibuster rule changes wouldn’t just weaken the minority party by lowering the vote threshold. According to Ramesh Ponnuru, the alterations would also weaken the minority by handing the majority more control over the Senate calendar — a major source of power in the chamber.

Could the anti-Israel delegitimization activities on college campuses have a long-term impact on America’s relationship with Israel? While most students are opposed to the delegitimization campaign, the David Project’s David Bernstein is concerned that it may prompt students to become less supportive of the Jewish state: “While young people and particularly mainstream Democrats exposed to hostility on campus may not now or ever join the movement to boycott Israel, over time they may feel less sympathetic toward the Jewish state and more ambivalent about the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel. When these young leaders become the next generation of Democratic Party representatives, it may become much tougher to garner those large bipartisan majorities.”

Michael Moynihan discusses how significantly the fight for free speech has changed since Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses elicited calls for his death from the Ayatollah: “In 1989, when Iran’s theocracy suborned the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie for having written a supposedly blasphemous book, The Satanic Verses, only a handful of intellectuals, habitués of both left and right, attacked the author for being impolite to ‘a billion’ religious adherents. Author Roald Dahl whimpered that ‘In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.’ Twenty years ago this was a shockingly contrarian sentiment, today it’s depressingly de rigueur.

Supporters of the man who assassinated Salman Taseer cheered him as he was transferred inside a courthouse on Thursday. The traitorous bodyguard has been hailed as a hero by many across the Muslim world, including a group of 500 Islamic scholars: “For a second day, sympathizers showed their support for Mumtaz Qadri by chanting slogans, with some throwing rose petals when police finally brought him to the Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi. Authorities had tried to bring Qadri to the court from the nearby capital of Islamabad earlier Thursday, but sympathizers prevented his transfer.”

President Obama’s decision to tap former banker William Daley as his next chief of staff is angering all the right people: “This was a real mistake by the White House,” [Adam] Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Bill Daley consistently urges the Democratic Party to pursue a corporate agenda that alienates both Independent and Democratic voters. If President Obama listens to that kind of political advice from Bill Daley, Democrats will suffer a disastrous 2012.” Other liberals grumbling over the president’s choice are Jane Hamsher, Ezra Klein, and MoveOn.org’s executive director, Justin Rubin.

The filibuster rule changes wouldn’t just weaken the minority party by lowering the vote threshold. According to Ramesh Ponnuru, the alterations would also weaken the minority by handing the majority more control over the Senate calendar — a major source of power in the chamber.

Could the anti-Israel delegitimization activities on college campuses have a long-term impact on America’s relationship with Israel? While most students are opposed to the delegitimization campaign, the David Project’s David Bernstein is concerned that it may prompt students to become less supportive of the Jewish state: “While young people and particularly mainstream Democrats exposed to hostility on campus may not now or ever join the movement to boycott Israel, over time they may feel less sympathetic toward the Jewish state and more ambivalent about the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel. When these young leaders become the next generation of Democratic Party representatives, it may become much tougher to garner those large bipartisan majorities.”

Michael Moynihan discusses how significantly the fight for free speech has changed since Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses elicited calls for his death from the Ayatollah: “In 1989, when Iran’s theocracy suborned the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie for having written a supposedly blasphemous book, The Satanic Verses, only a handful of intellectuals, habitués of both left and right, attacked the author for being impolite to ‘a billion’ religious adherents. Author Roald Dahl whimpered that ‘In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.’ Twenty years ago this was a shockingly contrarian sentiment, today it’s depressingly de rigueur.

Supporters of the man who assassinated Salman Taseer cheered him as he was transferred inside a courthouse on Thursday. The traitorous bodyguard has been hailed as a hero by many across the Muslim world, including a group of 500 Islamic scholars: “For a second day, sympathizers showed their support for Mumtaz Qadri by chanting slogans, with some throwing rose petals when police finally brought him to the Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi. Authorities had tried to bring Qadri to the court from the nearby capital of Islamabad earlier Thursday, but sympathizers prevented his transfer.”

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Response to Ramesh Ponnuru

Over at NRO, Ramesh Ponnuru (gently) takes me to task:

Peter Wehner writes, “So the notion that Rove has suddenly become an ‘establishment Republican’ and a traitor to the conservative cause simply isn’t plausible. It is, in fact, risible.” I think Wehner would be better off challenging the notion that to be part of the Republican establishment is to be a traitor to the conservative cause. For if Rove isn’t part of the Republican establishment then the term has no meaning. The truth is that conservatism needs a political party to house it; parties need establishments; and establishments have characteristic vices. Conservatism should want an intelligent and conservative party establishment, not disestablishment.

Two points in response: Ramesh (whose work I generally admire and agree with) seems to have overlooked the crucial word “and” — as in, “’establishment Republican’ and traitor to the conservative cause.” What I wrote is true and the charges against Rove are risible.

Second, I placed quote marks around the phrase establishment Republican. I did so intentionally, since those words have a particular (negative) meaning to Rove’s critics; not to me. I thought that this was all clear enough, just as I thought it would be obvious that I believe that conservatism needs an intelligent and conservative party establishment. But if it wasn’t, let me state it now, for the record: I am not and never have been for a conservative party disestablishment.

Over at NRO, Ramesh Ponnuru (gently) takes me to task:

Peter Wehner writes, “So the notion that Rove has suddenly become an ‘establishment Republican’ and a traitor to the conservative cause simply isn’t plausible. It is, in fact, risible.” I think Wehner would be better off challenging the notion that to be part of the Republican establishment is to be a traitor to the conservative cause. For if Rove isn’t part of the Republican establishment then the term has no meaning. The truth is that conservatism needs a political party to house it; parties need establishments; and establishments have characteristic vices. Conservatism should want an intelligent and conservative party establishment, not disestablishment.

Two points in response: Ramesh (whose work I generally admire and agree with) seems to have overlooked the crucial word “and” — as in, “’establishment Republican’ and traitor to the conservative cause.” What I wrote is true and the charges against Rove are risible.

Second, I placed quote marks around the phrase establishment Republican. I did so intentionally, since those words have a particular (negative) meaning to Rove’s critics; not to me. I thought that this was all clear enough, just as I thought it would be obvious that I believe that conservatism needs an intelligent and conservative party establishment. But if it wasn’t, let me state it now, for the record: I am not and never have been for a conservative party disestablishment.

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The Repulsive Politics of Tom Tancredo

I consider the Tea Party movement to be, on balance, a positive force in American politics. It is a spontaneous and fully justified response to the reckless policies, the fiscal ones in particular, of the Obama administration. It is comprised of admirable and civic-minded Americans. And as Ramesh Ponnuru and Kate O’Beirne point out in National Review, it is, for the GOP, an opportunity rather than a threat.

But it is a movement, like many movements, that carries with it some risks. This weekend we learned, for example, that some Tea Party members are apparently receptive to appeals from the worst angels of our nature. I have in mind the comments at last week’s Tea Party Convention by former Representative Tom Tancredo, who told a cheering audience that “people who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama.” The reason we elected “Barack Hussein Obama,” Tancredo went on, is “mostly because I think that we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country.”

This is ugly (to say nothing of stupid and ignorant) stuff. It is the manifestation of a person filled with rage and obsessions, bitter and brittle, eager to play to people’s worst instincts. Tancredo — who was a Member of the House of Representatives and ran for president in 2008 — should be condemned by all Republicans who believe that such an individual does not represent the GOP, which, after all, is the party of Lincoln and Reagan. It is inconceivable that either man on his worst day would utter anything remotely this offensive. Both Lincoln and Reagan were politicians of conviction, whose words and conduct were most often marked by grace and civility, who came across as irenic rather than enraged. They were, in other words, the polar opposite of Mr. Tancredo.

There are plenty of legitimate ways to criticize President Obama and his agenda. Leave it to Tom Tancredo to cross the line, not by inches but by miles.

No party, and no movement, should provide a home or a platform to a man who practices this kind of repulsive politics.

I consider the Tea Party movement to be, on balance, a positive force in American politics. It is a spontaneous and fully justified response to the reckless policies, the fiscal ones in particular, of the Obama administration. It is comprised of admirable and civic-minded Americans. And as Ramesh Ponnuru and Kate O’Beirne point out in National Review, it is, for the GOP, an opportunity rather than a threat.

But it is a movement, like many movements, that carries with it some risks. This weekend we learned, for example, that some Tea Party members are apparently receptive to appeals from the worst angels of our nature. I have in mind the comments at last week’s Tea Party Convention by former Representative Tom Tancredo, who told a cheering audience that “people who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama.” The reason we elected “Barack Hussein Obama,” Tancredo went on, is “mostly because I think that we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country.”

This is ugly (to say nothing of stupid and ignorant) stuff. It is the manifestation of a person filled with rage and obsessions, bitter and brittle, eager to play to people’s worst instincts. Tancredo — who was a Member of the House of Representatives and ran for president in 2008 — should be condemned by all Republicans who believe that such an individual does not represent the GOP, which, after all, is the party of Lincoln and Reagan. It is inconceivable that either man on his worst day would utter anything remotely this offensive. Both Lincoln and Reagan were politicians of conviction, whose words and conduct were most often marked by grace and civility, who came across as irenic rather than enraged. They were, in other words, the polar opposite of Mr. Tancredo.

There are plenty of legitimate ways to criticize President Obama and his agenda. Leave it to Tom Tancredo to cross the line, not by inches but by miles.

No party, and no movement, should provide a home or a platform to a man who practices this kind of repulsive politics.

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Not an Easy Time for Obama Worshippers

Over at the Huffington Post (h/t: Ramesh Ponnuru, NRO), Jacob Heilbrunn writes some comically cloying sentences:

And never forget that [Obama] is as as [sic] good and intelligent and decent a president as America will ever have. He still has a chance to become one of the greatest. Eight years from now, after Obama has successfully served two terms, that judgment may well look like a commonplace.

Watching the Myth of Obama collide with reality is a traumatic experience for many on the Left. Some are getting angry. Others are getting defensive. Others are engaging in self-denial. Mr. Heilbrunn is struggling with all three.

These are not easy times for Obama worshippers.

Over at the Huffington Post (h/t: Ramesh Ponnuru, NRO), Jacob Heilbrunn writes some comically cloying sentences:

And never forget that [Obama] is as as [sic] good and intelligent and decent a president as America will ever have. He still has a chance to become one of the greatest. Eight years from now, after Obama has successfully served two terms, that judgment may well look like a commonplace.

Watching the Myth of Obama collide with reality is a traumatic experience for many on the Left. Some are getting angry. Others are getting defensive. Others are engaging in self-denial. Mr. Heilbrunn is struggling with all three.

These are not easy times for Obama worshippers.

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More on Joe Klein

In a rather stunning sentence that Ramesh Ponnuru flagged over at National Review‘s The Corner, Joe Klein, in saying that the “chronic disease among Democrats” is their tendency to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right, wrote this:

This is ironic and weirdly self-defeating, since the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature.

As Ponnuru points out, can you imagine Klein’s outrage if the charge had been made the other way – that the conservative message of national improvement is more “patriotic” than liberalism? Actually, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Here is Joe Klein in “An Overdose of Invective,” one of his many angry columns from 2004:

To be sure, there is a bright line between tough and scurrilous. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth crossed it, and the Bush campaign joined them when presidential surrogates, including Bush the Elder, ratified the Swifties’ lies. (They can’t all be liars, the former President told Don Imus.) Zell Miller’s frontal attacks on Kerry’s patriotism at the Republican Convention also crossed the line-as did the President’s celebration of Miller’s speech in subsequent stump appearances. Indeed, Bush’s gleeful willingness to personally join in the mudslinging is unprecedented in modern U.S. politics. Usually Presidents leave the dirty work to others. Even Richard Nixon, an apotheosis of darkness, had Spiro Agnew do most of the heavy lifting.

Liberals have made a habit out of getting furious about having their patriotism challenged even when it’s not; in Klein’s most recent column we have an example of an explicit assertion that liberalism is more patriotic than conservatism, but without the sound and fury.

This charge, beyond its falsity, is also ignorant and shallow. For one thing, some of the best arguments on behalf of patriotism in recent years have been made by leading conservative intellectuals like Walter Berns in his book, Making Patriots; Norman Podhoretz in My Love Affair With America: The Cautionary Tale of A Cheerful Conservative; William Bennett in Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (see in particular his chapter “Love of Country”); Yale Professor Donald Kagan’s November 4, 2001 lecture on patriotism; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s May 1997 Commentary essay “For the Love of Country.”

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In a rather stunning sentence that Ramesh Ponnuru flagged over at National Review‘s The Corner, Joe Klein, in saying that the “chronic disease among Democrats” is their tendency to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right, wrote this:

This is ironic and weirdly self-defeating, since the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature.

As Ponnuru points out, can you imagine Klein’s outrage if the charge had been made the other way – that the conservative message of national improvement is more “patriotic” than liberalism? Actually, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Here is Joe Klein in “An Overdose of Invective,” one of his many angry columns from 2004:

To be sure, there is a bright line between tough and scurrilous. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth crossed it, and the Bush campaign joined them when presidential surrogates, including Bush the Elder, ratified the Swifties’ lies. (They can’t all be liars, the former President told Don Imus.) Zell Miller’s frontal attacks on Kerry’s patriotism at the Republican Convention also crossed the line-as did the President’s celebration of Miller’s speech in subsequent stump appearances. Indeed, Bush’s gleeful willingness to personally join in the mudslinging is unprecedented in modern U.S. politics. Usually Presidents leave the dirty work to others. Even Richard Nixon, an apotheosis of darkness, had Spiro Agnew do most of the heavy lifting.

Liberals have made a habit out of getting furious about having their patriotism challenged even when it’s not; in Klein’s most recent column we have an example of an explicit assertion that liberalism is more patriotic than conservatism, but without the sound and fury.

This charge, beyond its falsity, is also ignorant and shallow. For one thing, some of the best arguments on behalf of patriotism in recent years have been made by leading conservative intellectuals like Walter Berns in his book, Making Patriots; Norman Podhoretz in My Love Affair With America: The Cautionary Tale of A Cheerful Conservative; William Bennett in Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (see in particular his chapter “Love of Country”); Yale Professor Donald Kagan’s November 4, 2001 lecture on patriotism; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s May 1997 Commentary essay “For the Love of Country.”

Beyond that, is Klein really prepared to argue that the aim of the institutional strongholds of contemporary liberalism – whether we are talking about the academy or Hollywood or others – is to deepen our love for America and increase our civic devotion and pride? That their efforts will make us a more perfect union? Does Klein believe that during the last several decades liberals rather than conservatives have been more likely to reject cultural relativism and radical multiculturalism? Have liberals rather than conservatives been more vocal in arguing why the United States is better in every way than its totalitarian enemies? Is Ted Kennedy really more patriotic in his “liberal message of national improvement” than Ronald Reagan was in his conservative message of national improvement?

To be sure, patriotism is a complicated matter, as it has many elements to it and tensions within it. It is certainly not the property of any one political party. It is not blind support for America, just as it is not reflexive opposition to America. But what we can say, I think, is that, as Berns points out, part of what it has traditionally meant to be an American is to believe in our most cherished creeds – most especially that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Patriotism also demands that we hold an honest view of our nation — which, in the case of America, means we should acknowledge our injustices (past and present) even as we acknowledge that, in Allan Bloom’s words, “America tells one story: the unbroken ineluctable progress of freedom and equality.” And of course patriotism requires us to sacrifice for our country, to defend her when she is under assault, and to do what we can to help America live up to her founding ideals.

I would finally add this: Conservatives are not “pessimistic” about the perfectibility of human nature; rather, they are realistic about human nature, which is an admixture of virtues and vices. Conservatism is skeptical about grand programs to remake human nature itself, but it is risible to argue that conservatism is philosophically proscribed from making an argument for national improvement. Many of the greatest conservatives in American history have done just that. One could also argue that those who believe in the perfectibility of human nature tend to embrace the view that we are “citizens of the world” even before we are citizens of America.

Joe Klein has waded into ugly waters. Let’s hope he can make his way out of them before too long.

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