Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ronald Reagan

Why Jeb Bush Is Right and Grover Norquist Is Wrong

According to an article in Politico:

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According to an article in Politico:

Jeb Bush has a tax problem.

The former Florida governor has said he could accept tax increases in a hypothetical deficit-cutting deal. Never mind that he added that would come only in exchange for major federal spending cuts, or that he repeatedly cut taxes as governor.

Tax hikes are still apostasy in Republican circles, and the stance could be a big problem for Bush if he decides to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2016.

Bush’s views are already pitting him against one of his party’s most influential activists, Grover Norquist, the high priest of anti-tax orthodoxy who’s convinced nearly every elected Republican to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.

“Mind-boggling,” Norquist said of Bush.

Actually, it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

Set aside for the moment your view of Jeb Bush and the 2016 presidential race. Let’s instead examine this broader argument with some care, beginning with putting the story in context.

As Politico points out, during a June 2012 House Budget Committee hearing, Bush was asked about a theoretical deficit plan that would actually cut $10 in spending in exchange for a dollar in tax increases. This was a question first posed to Republican presidential candidates by Byron York and Bret Baier and was rejected by all eight of them. (I criticized that response at the time.) Governor Bush’s response was different than the Republicans running for president. “If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, Coach,” he said.

Note well what Bush didn’t say. He didn’t say he believed we as a nation are under-taxed. In fact Bush, as governor of Florida, had a sterling tax-cutting record, having cut them every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). What Bush said is that if you could actually get a 10-to-one ratio in spending cuts to tax increases–that after all was the premise of the thought experiment–he’d do it. So, I would think, would any conservative interested in limiting government.

I not only understand the case for lower taxes; I support tax cuts. But it’s not an inviolate principle. The question on these things is always context. Higher taxes in exchange for what? Which taxes are we talking about? And what else might be considered in any such deal (e.g., reforming Medicare by replacing the current fee-for-services system with a premium support one)?

People I respect believe the no-new-tax pledge has done more good than harm, that without it Republicans would be far more inclined to raise taxes. That’s not an unreasonable stance. But for conservatives to say, as many now do, that there’s no scenario in which taxes could ever be raised–and to pledge to oppose a tax increase regardless of circumstances–strikes me as misguided. Nor do I believe most Republicans, if you had a long, honest conversation, would be that absolutist. The right level of taxation is a prudential, not a theological, matter; it needs to be seen in the context of other economic conditions and possible gains in other areas.

This debate highlights a danger for conservatism, which is that certain policies are elevated to dogma, to canon. It takes a reasonable starting point in a negotiation and turns it into a non-negotiable end point. Vin Weber, a principled conservative, said Bush’s answer on the tax issue “was totally right, and if we’re ever going to deal with the long-term debt question, Republicans are going to have to come to grips with that.”

This debate also exposes a mindset that views compromise per se as unprincipled, a capitulation, a sign of weakness. This is a deeply unconservative attitude and quite at odds with what James Madison and the other Federalist founders believed. The Constitution itself was the result of a whole series of difficult, reluctant, remarkable compromises. That’s why it’s so odd that those who consider themselves “constitutional conservatives” are often the ones who react most strongly against even the idea of compromise.

One other thing. If the attitude many of those on the right have toward taxes today existed in the 1970s and 1980s, Ronald Reagan would have been considered a heretic. I say that because Reagan himself signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”; and as president he signed a tax increase (TEFRA) that at the time was the largest in American history. As president Reagan, in fact, raised taxes multiple times.

Now my own view is that Reagan’s record, including his record on taxes, needs to be seen in whole–and seen in whole it was outstanding. He was responsible for cutting the top rate from 70 percent to, when he left office, 28 percent, which helped catalyze our economy; and his 1986 tax reform plan was a tremendous achievement. Yet Reagan did raise taxes.

It’s true that President Reagan came to regret his 1982 tax increase. But it’s important to keep this in mind: He agreed to it, he said, assuming he’d get $3 of spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. (He didn’t, though the reality is somewhat complicated.) If that result had in fact come to pass, would the deal have been wrong? Would today’s anti-tax advocates torch him for his apostasy? Would he be vilified as a RINO? Would he be vulnerable to a primary challenge?

It tells us something about some currents within conservatism that a governor with a sterling tax cutting record, in expressing support for a theoretical deal far more conservative than what Ronald Reagan was willing to accept, would be the object of harsh criticisms.

My guess is that this kind of approach to politics, while still embraced in some quarters, is losing influence. At least I hope so. Not because I want higher taxes, but because I don’t think conservatism is a rigid, adamantine ideology; that the quest for political purification is fraught with danger; and because conservatives shouldn’t assume that any deal that gives you less than everything is a bad deal. Conservatives shouldn’t treat a debate about tax rates as a metaphysical matter.

We all have roles to play, and governing is different than critiquing those who do. The former certainly need to be prodded now and then by activists and commentators; I do a fair amount of that myself. But activists and commentators need to understand that while we need to strive for the ideal, the ideal can’t become the standard by which we judge politicians. Nor is every issue a hill to die on. And, as the greatest American conservative of them all warned, there’s not a lot to be won, and even a lot to be lost, by going over the cliff with our flags waving.

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Reagan and Israel: the Real Story

Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

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Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

Because Republicans today are more supportive of Israel than Democrats, someone usually pops up to say that Obama and Bibi may not like each other very much, but even Ronald Reagan–this is meant to underscore conservatives’ supposed lack of perspective–treated his Israeli counterpart worse than this. A favorite column for these writers is Chemi Shalev’s 2011 Haaretz piece titled “If Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he’d be impeached.”

During the current conflict in Gaza the column has been surfaced as usual, recently by Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner. Today in Haaretz, Gershom Gorenberg doesn’t cite Shalev but does take a walk down memory lane to point out many of the times the U.S.-Israel relationship has been in far worse shape, taking a shot at Reagan and his admirers along the way.

So what are all these writers overlooking? Put simply, it’s context. There’s no question Reagan had his fights with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But the question isn’t whether Obama would be “impeached” for treating Israel the way Reagan did. It’s why Obama, or any modern president, gets such pushback anytime the rhetoric approaches that of decades past. It’s not because of the “Israel Lobby.” It’s largely because of the way the U.S.-Israel relationship improved under Reagan and became what it is today.

In 2011, I contributed a post to National Review Online’s “Reagan at 100” series of remembrances NR was running on its Corner blog in honor of Reagan’s centennial. I wrote about Reagan and Begin. Here is part of my post:

Israel’s counteroffensive against the PLO in South Lebanon strained the relationship. But here, too, Reagan proved he could be open-minded about Israel’s predicament. When Reagan lectured Begin on the reports of civilian casualties, Begin painstakingly explained how the media reports not only weren’t true, but could not possibly be true. In a meeting that was supposed to be a dressing-down, Reagan became convinced the Israelis were getting a bad rap in the press. He brought Begin in to meet with his cabinet and told Begin to repeat to them what he had just told the president. Begin obliged, and left feeling a bit better about the trust between the two men.

Another test came with the killings at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The Israelis were blamed for supposedly allowing the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias. The accusation was outrageous, but it wounded Begin. Here again, however, Reagan stood out. [Yehuda] Avner was able to report to his boss that “there are people in the [Reagan] administration who are angry, but not the president.”

The point is that the Begin premiership was a series of challenges for Israel, its allies, and the Jewish diaspora. When Likud won national elections for the first time in 1977, the Columbia Journalism Review noted in a piece two years ago, “[Abba] Eban and others would continue to lunch with their friends at the Times in New York, where they regularly predicted the imminent collapse of the Begin government.” This cohort “spoke frequently to their friends in the media, telling them that the new crowd was a disaster, ‘that Begin was an extreme nationalist, a war-monger.’”

So Begin came into office with Israeli figures already trying to convince Americans they shouldn’t get used to dealing with Begin. Then came Israel’s raid on the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, which Reagan thought he’d been excluded from by Begin when in fact Jimmy Carter had been in consultation with Israel about the threat from the reactor; it was Carter who left Reagan out of the loop. The former American president was poisoning the well of the American government against Begin and Likud.

He didn’t have a ton of poisoning to do with some of Reagan’s advisors. In discussing the Begin inner circle (of which he was a part) and its impression of Caspar Weinberger, Yehuda Avner repeats the wonderful, though likely apocryphal, anecdote that Weinberger, in explaining why he lost his bid for California attorney general, said “Because the Jews knew I wasn’t Jewish and the Gentiles thought I was.” Whatever the actual reasons for their distrust of Begin’s team, which included Ariel Sharon, the relationship between the two Cabinets was icy.

That only increased with the war in Lebanon, Sabra and Shatila, Reagan’s rejected peace plan, etc. But there was one exception: Reagan. He made sure to treat Begin with a legitimacy that was lacking in everyone else’s approach to him. By the end of Reagan’s first term, Begin grew accustomed to being treated with respect by Reagan and being given the benefit of the doubt.

Had Carter still been in office, any one of those challenges might have seriously derailed the relationship at a time (the first Lebanon war) when Israel’s international isolation seemed assured. Reagan may have offered tough love, but it was love nonetheless. And the U.S.-Israel special relationship never looked back. For all the Reagan-Begin disagreements, the U.S.-Israel relationship came out stronger than it was when their respective terms in office began. That’s a tougher standard to meet, which is why the current president’s defenders resort to hyperbole and cherry-picked history that obscure the full picture.

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The Conservative Temperament

Is there such a thing as a conservative disposition?

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Is there such a thing as a conservative disposition?

For some on the right the answer is not really. They (rightly) view the purpose of conservatism as a means to limit government in order to further liberty. But they tend to think of conservatism almost strictly in terms of issues: the size of the modern welfare state, taxes, regulations, immigration, welfare, education, and so forth.

For others on the right, conservatism does have a dispositional element. This group includes people who can be fairly characterized, I think, as confrontational and opposed to compromise, rhetorically aggressive, impatient, and often angry (for justifiable reasons, they would insist). These individuals are suspicious of those in their ranks they consider to be unprincipled (“RINOs”). Populist in outlook, they disdain the “establishment” and the “ruling class,” whom they view as cowardly and compromised. Their operating assumption is that we’re witnessing the downfall of America; some even argue we’re moving toward tyranny. This of course shapes their cast of mind and rhetoric. The type of individuals I’m describing, when they listen to Barry Goldwater’s line in his 1964 convention speech “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” are likely to cheer.

There are others of us who believe in a conservative temperament, but it’s very much different than the one I just described. This dispositional bent is beautifully articulated in an essay in National Affairs titled, appropriately, “The Conservative Disposition in Politics.” Written by Philip Wallach and Justus Myers, the essay explores the conservative intellectual tradition, which they identify with figures like Burke, Hume, Madison, Hamilton, Oakeshott, Hayek, de Tocqueville, and Nisbet.

The essay includes important caveats, including this one: Temperamental conservatism is not a good match for every problem, and conserving institutional structures that are incompatible with liberty or justice would be illiberal and unjust. Different moments require different approaches. Still, generally speaking, the key features of conservatism include being consciously anti-ideological and anti-utopian, wary of abstractions and disruptive change, and somewhat humble in its approach given the complexity of human society and the limitations of knowledge.

When possible, conservatism prefers incremental changes to radical ones. It places a premium on experience and prudence. It is adaptive and situational, taking into account the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It accepts that governing can be messy, frustrating, and painfully slow (which is precisely what Madison intended with his system of checks and balances and separation of powers). Conservatism properly understood isn’t in principle opposed to compromise–particularly, it needs to be said, since the Constitution would never have been ratified but for repeated compromises. Compromise was in fact thought to be a positive good within the system of government created by the founders (see here for more). While certainly willing to fight for principles, a true conservative disposition seeks to temper and constructively channel passions rather than inflame them.

This difference in temperament is, I think, the major divide that exists within conservatism today. While there is some variance in terms of policies they are, by historical standards, somewhat narrow. The Republican Party is an almost uniformly conservative party these days. This is not a Rockefeller v. Goldwater moment.

Which disposition is most appropriate for this particular time is for each individual to decide. (Most of us will defend the disposition that comes most naturally to us.) My point, though, is that those who identify with the intellectual tradition described by Wallach and Myers should not cede the mantle of conservatism to those who don’t.

It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that we need substantial reforms of our governing institutions. But conservative reforms can be achieved–in fact, they are more likely to be achieved–by those with moderate temperaments: men and women who can persuade and not simply exhort, who are seen as equable and bold rather than zealous and reckless, and who carefully select the ground on which they’ll fight. (Ronald Reagan succeeded where Goldwater failed in part because his temperament reassured voters whereas Goldwater’s alarmed many of them.)

There is also something “inherently sunny about conservatism,” Wallach and Myers write. It tends to, in the words of Oakeshott, “delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” Conservatives correctly judge our situation not against perfection, but against life in this fallen world. And even in this fallen world they’re still able to find joy in the journey.

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The Obama Era and the Collapse of Trust in Our Governing Institutions

According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

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According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

These findings are a powerful indictment of the Obama presidency. But they are also part of a broader, extraordinary collapse of trust in government we’ve witnessed during the last 50 years.

After his landslide election in 1964, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”

Not exactly.

In fact, in less than four years America lurched from one of our more tranquil political periods to perhaps the most tumultuous since the Civil War. It happened in the blink of a historical eye, and it was driven by a complex set of factors, some the result of public policy and some not, but eventually the accretion heavily implicated government.

The public, especially young people, began to turn against the Vietnam War, to the point that President Johnson–battered and broken–decided not to run for reelection in 1968. Student protests spread, including onto college campuses. The nation was convulsed during the struggle over civil rights, while cities burned in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Robert Kennedy was murdered just two months later–and only five years after his brother was gunned down in Dallas. We experienced the killings at Kent State and the March on the Pentagon, Woodstock and Watergate, black power salutes in the Mexico City Olympics and violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Social pathologies–including crime, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, those on welfare, and more–worsened. And trust in government eroded at an extraordinary pace.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 1964, 76 percent of the public said they trusted government in Washington to do what was right most of the time or just about always. Just a decade later, the figure had fallen to 36 percent. By 1980, it dropped to 25 percent. In only a decade and a half, trust in government fell by 50 percentage points. We have never seen anything quite like it.

While public trust increased during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (to 47 percent), it dropped sharply following it. By the summer of 1994 public trust was at 17 percent, the lowest recorded. Those figures fluctuated during the Clinton second term, falling to 24 percent during the run-up to the Clinton impeachment trial but rising to more than 40 percent by the end of the Clinton presidency (June 2000). During George W. Bush’s first term, public trust in government spiked to more than 60 percent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But by October 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, trust was again down to 17 percent.

This deep, durable unhappiness with government, and the longing of the public to once again believe in it, was something that Barack Obama brilliantly tapped into during his campaign for the presidency. The centerpiece of his run was not a particular policy; it was the promise to elevate our political debates and restore government to a respected place in our national life.

Yet here we are, in the sixth year of the Obama presidency, with the level of confidence in his presidency (29 percent) lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors and the ratings for the legislative and judicial branches at or near their lowest points to date.

I can’t say that these judgments are unwarranted. But I’m not convinced that such corrosive mistrust of our governing institutions is particularly good for our country, either. In a free nation, massive distrust of our governing institutions is a self-indictment of sorts. Government is, after all, the “offspring of our own choice,” in the words of George Washington, who added it has

a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.

Today respect for government’s authority has never been lower, and the American people cannot be happy with this state of affairs or with themselves. In the wake of the Obama era, where expectations were raised to such dizzying heights, only to collapse into ruins, the public will be understandably wary about the next person promising to heal the planet and repair the world, who claims the power to halt the rise of the ocean tides, who says that this time will be different than all the rest and declares that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” (To remind yourself of the stratospheric expectations set by Mr. Obama, I’d urge you to watch this short clip of Obama in 2008.)

Given where we are, it seems to me that the proper response from a Republican candidate is not to celebrate in this distrust but to help correct it; to candidly and with some sophistication explain why it’s happened and to show how a modern conservative governing agenda (perhaps something along these lines) can help restore trust in a responsible, limited government. With the Obama presidency lying in ashes, and with liberalism itself terribly damaged, an opportunity exists. Who on the right will seize it?

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Rand Paul, the GOP’s Anti-Reagan

In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

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In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

There have been differences for sure–most notably Ronald Reagan’s challenge of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente, with Reagan embracing the roll-back of the Soviet empire–but they have all been differences among internationalists. Mr. Gerson argues that the rise of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul represents an effort by non-interventionists to remake the core national-security doctrine of the GOP. Gerson quotes George Mason Professor Colin Deuck, who says of Paul’s approach: “This is not just a rejection of Bush 43. It goes way beyond Reagan versus Nixon. It is an attempt to undo the Eisenhower administration, which locked Republicans into an internationalist stance.”

Mr. Gerson highlights Senator Paul’s positions on various national-security issues:

The talented, ambitious Republican senator, with little background in foreign affairs, has proposed defense cuts, opposed the “perpetual war” against terrorism, questioned American troop deployments in Germany and South Korea, and sought to limit presidential authority over the use of force (urging, for example, the congressional deauthorization of the Iraq and Afghan wars)… Paul has systematically opposed the forward deployment of American influence: drone strikes, military engagement, and foreign assistance (which, he argues, encourages “lethargy” and “insolence”). Paul’s “constitutional foreign policy” denies the legal basis of the war on terrorism, would place severe constraints on the executive, and hints at the existence of an oppressive national security state.

The political and policy atmosphere of 2013—conflict fatigue, the Arab’s Spring’s frightening turn, public concerns about drone policy, revelations about NSA spying—could hardly have been more favorable to Rand Paul’s rise. It is particularly revealing what a leader says when he is on top of the world. During his 12-hour, 52-minute drone filibuster, Paul felt enough support and permission to make extraordinary claims about the potential misuse of presidential power. “That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco,” he said, “or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination.”

This was the perfect melding of domestic and foreign policy libertarianism—an assertion that the national security state might not only violate your privacy but also take your life during lunch. It was also a paranoid delusion. Taken as a serious argument, it would mean that the president of the United States can’t be trusted with advanced weaponry.

Senator Paul understands that his libertarian convictions are still out of step with many in the GOP, which is why he’s careful in how much he reveals, careful in the battles he chooses, and why he insists his views are Reaganesque (his latest effort can be found in his op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal).

Having worked in the Reagan administration and having read a great deal about Reagan and his presidency, it is risible for Paul to claim his philosophy mirrors Reagan’s. America’s fortieth president, among other things, was not drawn to bizarre conspiracies, which Paul can be. (For example, Paul accused Vice President Cheney of being in favor of the Iraq war because of his ties to Halliburton and warns that the NSA might soon “start using the GPS feature in your phone to track whether or not you go to gun shows.”) Rand Paul’s philosophy is much closer to his father Ron Paul’s than Reagan’s or, for that matter, Eisenhower’s.

Senator Paul, then, does not represent simply a different point on the GOP’s post-World War II foreign-policy continuum. He is a break from that tradition. Whether that is wise or not is open to debate. But Mr. Paul should at least have the courage of his libertarian convictions. Particularly if he decides to run for president in 2016, Paul should level with us about how radically different his foreign policy as president would be from those of the last six Republican presidents.

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Conservatism Means Adjusting to Shifting Circumstances

The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis has written a post with a provocative headline: “Have Reagan-style tax cuts lost their political power?”

The answer, he says, is yes. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the tax issue doesn’t have the old oomph that it used to with voters,” according to Pethokoukis. And he highlights these poll results:

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The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis has written a post with a provocative headline: “Have Reagan-style tax cuts lost their political power?”

The answer, he says, is yes. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the tax issue doesn’t have the old oomph that it used to with voters,” according to Pethokoukis. And he highlights these poll results:

1. In the early 1980s, close to 70 percent of Americans thought their taxes were too high. Today, that number is 50 percent.

2. Middle-class Americans, by 53 percent to 42 percent, think they’re paying their fair share in taxes.

3. Americans rank taxes low on their list of concerns—even below climate change.

4. In the age of online tax preparation, Americans don’t think their tax returns are hard to fill out.

5. Americans think raising the minimum wage and business deregulation are better ways to boost economic growth than cutting tax rates on businesses and the wealthy.

Now, these findings don’t tell us which tax plans might be economically best for this particular moment in time. But I do think this has some bearing on a point I’ve made before and will undoubtedly make in the future: Ronald Reagan’s policies worked fabulously well in the 1980s. But the problems we face are different now than they were then. Conditions have changed, and the task for conservatives is to change–in a responsible, principled way–with them. That is in important respects what it means to be a conservative.

This point should be so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be made, except that for some on the right, to say that what Reagan did nearly 35 years ago may not be what is required today borders on heresy. For others, I suspect what is at play here are certain habits of thought. The tax issue has worked so well for so long for Republicans, they have developed well-worn mental and public policy grooves. And those are difficult to escape from.

It’s isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, to pull back from time to time to re-examine the intellectual and political landscape, to see problems in a somewhat different light, and to periodically think anew and act anew. Reagan himself did precisely that. The Reagan who ran in 1980, embracing supply-side economics, is not identical to the Reagan who ran in 1976, when he focused less on sweeping tax cuts.

Conservatives need to learn from the past but not simply try to replicate it; to understand that our principles applied to new problems will sometimes yield new solutions. To do anything else would not be conservatism but dogmatism.

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The Memory and Purpose of Heroism

The commemorations of the D-Day anniversary this morning at Normandy may well be one of the last such great events to be held in the presence of living veterans of World War Two. As with all such attempts to summon up the memory of such pivotal moments of history, once the generation that lived through these events passes and indeed, once their children who were raised on the tales of sacrifice and heroism of that conflict are no longer around, one wonders what our posterity will have left of this seminal moment in American and world history.

Part of this answer comes from those efforts to create institutions to keep these memories alive. Fortunately, after generations in which the achievements of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were, for the most part, only celebrated in film, there are now more places devoted to honoring that generation of Americans who took up arms in defense of civilization. To add to existing museums that honored American efforts in the war such as the Smithsonian and the excellent National World War II Museum in New Orleans, New York can now boast of another that was just dedicated in Old Bethpage, the Museum of American Armor that will tell more about the efforts of those who broke the strength of the Axis in the summer of 1944. The focus of this new and innovative way to teach about the past is not so much on the vehicles and weapons of the war but on the men who used them. That is entirely appropriate.

But the point about these commemorations is not merely to cherish those veterans who survive as well as those who have already passed from us. Nor is it solely an excuse to celebrate the free Europe that was created as a result of the blood shed on the shores of France 70 years ago today. Though we can well take satisfaction in the fact that a democratically elected leader of Germany now joins with the descendants of the victorious Allies to honor those who stormed the beaches on D-Day, the point of today’s commemorations should not be to just honor the veterans or pat ourselves on the back for the world they made possible. Instead, we must, above all, remember why those Americans were willing to face German guns at Omaha and Utah Beaches and in the Normandy countryside that fateful day.

No better explanation of the values that created this heroism has ever been written or spoken than in the speech President Ronald Reagan gave thirty years ago today, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan told the world why D-Day still mattered. It means just as much, if not more today as we contemplate efforts by Russia to swallow up its neighbors and the troubling revival of anti-Semitism in the Europe that we hoped would never revert to past barbarism. Here is the video of his remarks delivered on the Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The text of this speech, which remains one of the great presidential addresses in our history, follows:

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The commemorations of the D-Day anniversary this morning at Normandy may well be one of the last such great events to be held in the presence of living veterans of World War Two. As with all such attempts to summon up the memory of such pivotal moments of history, once the generation that lived through these events passes and indeed, once their children who were raised on the tales of sacrifice and heroism of that conflict are no longer around, one wonders what our posterity will have left of this seminal moment in American and world history.

Part of this answer comes from those efforts to create institutions to keep these memories alive. Fortunately, after generations in which the achievements of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were, for the most part, only celebrated in film, there are now more places devoted to honoring that generation of Americans who took up arms in defense of civilization. To add to existing museums that honored American efforts in the war such as the Smithsonian and the excellent National World War II Museum in New Orleans, New York can now boast of another that was just dedicated in Old Bethpage, the Museum of American Armor that will tell more about the efforts of those who broke the strength of the Axis in the summer of 1944. The focus of this new and innovative way to teach about the past is not so much on the vehicles and weapons of the war but on the men who used them. That is entirely appropriate.

But the point about these commemorations is not merely to cherish those veterans who survive as well as those who have already passed from us. Nor is it solely an excuse to celebrate the free Europe that was created as a result of the blood shed on the shores of France 70 years ago today. Though we can well take satisfaction in the fact that a democratically elected leader of Germany now joins with the descendants of the victorious Allies to honor those who stormed the beaches on D-Day, the point of today’s commemorations should not be to just honor the veterans or pat ourselves on the back for the world they made possible. Instead, we must, above all, remember why those Americans were willing to face German guns at Omaha and Utah Beaches and in the Normandy countryside that fateful day.

No better explanation of the values that created this heroism has ever been written or spoken than in the speech President Ronald Reagan gave thirty years ago today, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan told the world why D-Day still mattered. It means just as much, if not more today as we contemplate efforts by Russia to swallow up its neighbors and the troubling revival of anti-Semitism in the Europe that we hoped would never revert to past barbarism. Here is the video of his remarks delivered on the Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The text of this speech, which remains one of the great presidential addresses in our history, follows:

We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue. Here, in Normandy, the rescue began. Here, the Allies stood and fought against tyranny, in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.

We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, two hundred and twenty-five Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs.

Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here, and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.

And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”

I think I know what you may be thinking right now — thinking “we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day.” Well everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren’t. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.

Lord Lovat was with him — Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, “Sorry, I’m a few minutes late,” as if he’d been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he’d just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.

 There was the impossible valor of the Poles, who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold; and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore; The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland’s 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots’ Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England’s armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet,” and you, the American Rangers.

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought — or felt in their hearts, though they couldn’t know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4:00 am. In Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying. And in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.

Something else helped the men of D-day; their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer, he told them: “Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do.” Also, that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies.

When the war was over, there were lives to be rebuilt and governments to be returned to the people. There were nations to be reborn. Above all, there was a new peace to be assured. These were huge and daunting tasks. But the Allies summoned strength from the faith, belief, loyalty, and love of those who fell here. They rebuilt a new Europe together. There was first a great reconciliation among those who had been enemies, all of whom had suffered so greatly. The United States did its part, creating the Marshall Plan to help rebuild our allies and our former enemies. The Marshall Plan led to the Atlantic alliance — a great alliance that serves to this day as our shield for freedom, for prosperity, and for peace.

In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. The Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost forty years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as forty years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose: to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.

We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent. But we try always to be prepared for peace, prepared to deter aggression, prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms, and yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation. In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.

It’s fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II. Twenty million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.

We will pray forever that someday that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it.

We’re bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We’re bound by reality. The strength of America’s allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe’s democracies. We were with you then; we’re with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

Strengthened by their courage and heartened by their value [valor] and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all.

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When Conservatives Play the Purification Game

In a recent New York Times profile of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, we read this:

“There is skepticism that maybe Jeb Bush wants too much government in people’s lives,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who has advised the president campaigns of Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. “I don’t know that he will ever win over the limited-government conservative.”

I want to address the comments by Mr. Mueller for two (related) reasons, the first having to do with the Bush record and the second having to do with a somewhat troubling mindset among some on the right. Let me take them in order, starting with Bush’s record as governor of Florida.

Jeb Bush was not only a very popular two-term governor; he was also among the most successful and conservative governors in decades. That is true if one is talking about his record on taxes, where he cut taxes every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). It’s true if one is talking about Bush’s fiscal record, where he reduced the number of state government employees, kept state government spending growth lower than personal income growth, vetoed over $2.5 billion in new spending initiatives, and even won high marks, particularly in his first term, from the libertarian Cato Institute. (Bush’s spending in his second term went up in part because Florida was hit by eight hurricanes in less than two years.) 

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In a recent New York Times profile of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, we read this:

“There is skepticism that maybe Jeb Bush wants too much government in people’s lives,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who has advised the president campaigns of Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. “I don’t know that he will ever win over the limited-government conservative.”

I want to address the comments by Mr. Mueller for two (related) reasons, the first having to do with the Bush record and the second having to do with a somewhat troubling mindset among some on the right. Let me take them in order, starting with Bush’s record as governor of Florida.

Jeb Bush was not only a very popular two-term governor; he was also among the most successful and conservative governors in decades. That is true if one is talking about his record on taxes, where he cut taxes every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). It’s true if one is talking about Bush’s fiscal record, where he reduced the number of state government employees, kept state government spending growth lower than personal income growth, vetoed over $2.5 billion in new spending initiatives, and even won high marks, particularly in his first term, from the libertarian Cato Institute. (Bush’s spending in his second term went up in part because Florida was hit by eight hurricanes in less than two years.) 

Governor Bush instituted medical liability reforms that capped non-economic damages; overhauled and modernized Florida’s civil service system, including allowing state workers to be terminated for cause; did away with quotas and preferential pricing advantages in procurement and eliminated race or ethnic advantages in admissions policies; and championed an overhaul of Medicaid that allowed beneficiaries to choose from a menu of private insurance options rather than force them into a centrally managed public system. He was a strong advocate of school choice and charter schools, enacted tough standards, required testing of all students, and graded all schools. As a result of these accountability steps, his state experienced a dramatic increase in student achievement, with Florida students well outpacing national average increases in standardized test scores. Bush’s record also includes Florida’s bond rating being upgraded to the highest possible grade (AAA) and the greatest job creation in the country during the time he served as governor.

I cite Bush’s record at length not to convince anyone he should be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016 (especially since he may not run). It’s to illustrate why the idea that he should alarm limited-government conservatives strikes me as not just unpersuasive but unserious. As a point of comparison: Bush’s record in two terms as governor was in many key areas more conservative than Ronald Reagan’s record in two terms as governor. Two examples: Under Reagan, spending in California rose from an annual budget of $4.6 billion to $10.2 billion – an increase of more than 120 percent. Mr. Reagan also signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown. (Even those on the right who fault Governor Bush for his stand on immigration have to deal with the fact that, as president, Reagan spoke out in defense of the idea of amnesty, saying, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” President Reagan also signed into law legislation that granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.)

What if Greg Mueller (or those whose views he claims to be describing) applied to Reagan the standard he’s applying to Bush? The greatest conservative politician in the 20th century and one of the greatest presidents in American history would have been deemed a RINO, unprincipled, in favor of far too much government in people’s lives, and unable to win over limited-government conservative.

This is the problem when conservatives engage in a purification game. To be sure, public officials should be judged by their record and in the totality of their acts. But it’s unwise, and deeply un-conservative, to judge lawmakers against some mythical standard of perfection. It was Reagan himself who warned against those who want to go over the cliff with all flags waiving.

It’s important that those of us on the right resist falling into lazy habits; that we avoid the trap of paying less attention to reforms and measurable achievements than we do to fierce anti-government rhetoric. It’s easier to bemoan government’s role in education than it is to institute reforms that actually improve education.

At this stage in the political process it’s perfectly appropriate for people to analyze the records and the strengths and weaknesses of potential presidential nominees. And for a variety of reasons, we are drawn to some politicians more than others. But those who believe someone with Jeb Bush’s record is somehow suspect on conservative grounds are entering a world detached from reality and injurious to conservatism. 

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Not First Time Palestinian Aid Violated the Law

Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday that the Obama administration’s decision to continue funding the Palestinian Authority despite its inclusion of Hamas is a clear violation of U.S. law. He is absolutely right. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s decision, alas, was entirely predictable. In my recent book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I chronicle CIA, State Department, and White House efforts across decades to subvert U.S. law and engage with the worst, most extreme Palestinian elements.

In July 1979, for example, Andrew Young, a civil rights hero whom Carter had appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met secretly with Zehdi Terzi, the PLO’s representative at the UN. True, Young had not cleared his meeting with the State Department. Like many diplomats, he found freelancing with rogues to be cool. When the matter became public, Carter reprimanded Young, and Young resigned. He remained defiant, however, and chided U.S. refusal to talk to the PLO. That much was public. What was not aired publicly at the time, but became clear from both letters, declassified documents, and memoirs, is that Carter blamed not Young but rather the Israelis for forcing the matter to come to a head.

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Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday that the Obama administration’s decision to continue funding the Palestinian Authority despite its inclusion of Hamas is a clear violation of U.S. law. He is absolutely right. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s decision, alas, was entirely predictable. In my recent book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I chronicle CIA, State Department, and White House efforts across decades to subvert U.S. law and engage with the worst, most extreme Palestinian elements.

In July 1979, for example, Andrew Young, a civil rights hero whom Carter had appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met secretly with Zehdi Terzi, the PLO’s representative at the UN. True, Young had not cleared his meeting with the State Department. Like many diplomats, he found freelancing with rogues to be cool. When the matter became public, Carter reprimanded Young, and Young resigned. He remained defiant, however, and chided U.S. refusal to talk to the PLO. That much was public. What was not aired publicly at the time, but became clear from both letters, declassified documents, and memoirs, is that Carter blamed not Young but rather the Israelis for forcing the matter to come to a head.

No doubt, Carter had a soft spot for the PLO. After Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979, Carter used the PLO as an intermediary with the hostage-takers. When the Iranian hostage-takers released black and female hostages, the State Department credited the PLO. Diplomats didn’t realize that this was a gesture the Iranians would have made anyway, because the revolutionary leadership had internalized third world propaganda on American society and wanted to show that they were supporters of ‘social justice.’ Regardless, by accepting the PLO as an intermediary, Carter and the State Department granted the PLO legitimacy at a time when it refused to abandon terrorism. Congress was less willing simply to criticize and posture, and instead moved to constrain Carter’s outreach: It opposed both the UN Special Committee on Palestinian Rights and American participation in the International Monetary Fund if the PLO joined.

Compared to Carter, Ronald Reagan was a breath of fresh air. During his campaign, Reagan swore he would not negotiate with terrorists. The State Department had come to a different conclusion. In the early 1980s, the PLO was on the ropes. Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion soundly defeated the PLO and forced its leadership into exile. The PLO remained as committed to terrorism as ever, most famously hijacking the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. The execution, reportedly on Arafat’s orders, of an elderly, wheelchair-bound American Jew reinforced the PLO’s pariah status. Rather than gear policy to undermine the weakened PLO further, the State Department engaged the group.

In one of the closest parallels to what is occurring today, U.S. diplomats in 1985 were willing to accept the fiction of a joint Jordanian-PLO delegation in order to sit down with the PLO. Arafat’s refusal to even rhetorically foreswear terrorism, however, led to the cancellation of talks. In the aftermath of the Achille Lauro hijacking, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987, which formally declared the PLO to be a terrorist organization for purposes of U.S. law, and reinforced the prohibition on U.S. dialogue with the group. This act forced the State Department to close the PLO’s offices in Washington, against American diplomats’ wishes, although the United Nations treaty protected the PLO offices in New York.

The PLO got a new lease on life with the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987. In February 1988, in the midst of almost daily violence, Mohamed Rabie, a Palestinian academic close to the PLO leadership, approached William Quandt, a Carter-era National Security Council aide and sought Quandt’s help with an introduction to NSC officials to explore U.S. interest for dialogue with the PLO. Two diplomats serving on the NSC—Robert Oakley and Dennis Ross—were happy to oblige. Talking to terrorists makes careers. In the book, I go into considerable detail into that dialogue. The PLO gained a great deal of legitimacy and that late Reagan-era dialogue actually set the stage for the full embrace of the PLO five years later.

It is one thing for the Congress to make laws in order to constrain the State Department and protect against diplomats’ worst instincts. It is another thing to enforce the law. During the Clinton administration, efforts to subvert Congress in order to keep dialogue with the PLO alive became even more nefarious.

In 1989, noting that the PLO continued its terrorism with Arafat’s cognizance, Congress passed the PLO Commitments Compliance Act (PLOCCA), which required the State Department to affirm every 120 days that the PLO was abiding by its commitment to abandon terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist. If the PLO did not meet its commitments, then dialogue should cease. That happened once. On May 30, 1990, terrorists attacked a Tel Aviv beach. When Arafat refused to discipline Abul Abbas, the PLO executive committee member who planned the attack, the State Department suspended dialogue for a few weeks.

After Oslo, and after Arafat returned to Gaza, he was dismissive of commitments both to ensure security and revoke portions of the PLO’s charter that called for Israel’s destruction. Because the State Department ignored Arafat’s backpedaling, the Senate tried to rein in engagement. On July 15, 1994, the Senate prohibited release of taxpayer funds to the PLO unless the PLO complied with its commitments to renounce and control terrorism. Congressional action did not filter down to diplomats on the ground, though. “I took every opportunity I could to see Arafat,” recounted Edward Abington Jr., the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. “I just felt it was important to be seen as very active, as understanding Palestinian positions, showing sympathy and empathy.” In retirement, Arafat rewarded Abington with a golden parachute.

Throughout the later Clinton administration, the State Department actively buried information that it had at its disposal proving Arafat’s complicity in terrorism in order to avoid triggering an automatic U.S. aid cut-off. Documents captured from Arafat’s Ramallah compound showed the depth of Arafat’s personal involvement in financing and directing terror attacks. A comparison of declassified intelligence with the timing of Congressional testimony by senior American diplomats shows unequivocally that senior State Department officials—many of whom subsequently joined the Obama administration—had simply lied to Congress in order to keep the taxpayer money flowing and keep shuttle diplomacy alive.

Jonathan is absolutely correct that “Congress must restrict his ability to funnel money to Palestinian terrorists in the future. Let us hope they have the will. But until Congress holds senior American officials accountable for demonstrably lying to Congress, there is no disincentive for flagrantly breaking the law.

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Powerless President? Obama’s Lame Excuse

In the wake of the VA scandal, President Obama’s cheering section in the press has been scrambling to come up with an excuse for his latest lackluster response to a governmental problem. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the country that Obama first heard about the disaster at the VA while watching television, the same story we were told about his discovery of the IRS scandal as well as other instances of potential misconduct. But the fact that this absentee president is incapable of coming up with original excuses about his slow response time to the fiascos that occur on his watch is just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Obama arrived at the Oval Office claiming that he would transform America in a blaze of hope and change, he has proven incapable of fixing the most mundane issues, let alone reboot the country’s political culture or turn back the oceans. Obama’s presidency is stuck in neutral as his second term drifts steadily into lame duck territory. Washington gridlock, the complexities of foreign problems that the president thought would be solved by the magic of his personality (Russian “reset,” Iran engagement, and Middle East peace), and the difficulty of rolling out his signature health-care law have left him looking not so much defeated as helpless. When he spoke to the country about the VA scandal that may have led to as many as 40 deaths of veterans kept waiting for medical service, he lacked passion. Even though VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had clearly failed in his five and half years to address the agency’s problems, Obama was prepared to give him more time. The administration’s slow response was seen as a function of a government that simply didn’t work. For those not still in thrall to Obama’s historic status this state of affairs is a damning indictment of his leadership style and inability to hold his appointees accountable for incompetence and/or failure.

But according to liberal blogger Ezra Klein, the fault lies not with Obama but with his office. In a piece published on his Vox site, Klein makes the argument that it is unfair to expect Obama to succeed when the presidency is designed to be ineffective. In Klein’s view, instead of blaming Obama for being an absentee president, we should be scolding James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for crafting a Constitution that didn’t provide a president with the ability to govern because of the checks and balances incorporated into the system. Those who differ with this view are, he wrote, subscribing to a “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency” in which the commander-in-chief is invested with magical powers.

This is, to put it mildly, bunk. No American president who respects the Constitution (a dubious proposition when applied to Obama) can be a dictator. But the presidency has evolved from its bare-bones origins at the Federal Convention of 1787 into one that both liberals and conservatives have often dubbed an “imperial” institution. To say that Obama hasn’t the power to succeed is to engage in denial of both history and logic.

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In the wake of the VA scandal, President Obama’s cheering section in the press has been scrambling to come up with an excuse for his latest lackluster response to a governmental problem. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the country that Obama first heard about the disaster at the VA while watching television, the same story we were told about his discovery of the IRS scandal as well as other instances of potential misconduct. But the fact that this absentee president is incapable of coming up with original excuses about his slow response time to the fiascos that occur on his watch is just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Obama arrived at the Oval Office claiming that he would transform America in a blaze of hope and change, he has proven incapable of fixing the most mundane issues, let alone reboot the country’s political culture or turn back the oceans. Obama’s presidency is stuck in neutral as his second term drifts steadily into lame duck territory. Washington gridlock, the complexities of foreign problems that the president thought would be solved by the magic of his personality (Russian “reset,” Iran engagement, and Middle East peace), and the difficulty of rolling out his signature health-care law have left him looking not so much defeated as helpless. When he spoke to the country about the VA scandal that may have led to as many as 40 deaths of veterans kept waiting for medical service, he lacked passion. Even though VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had clearly failed in his five and half years to address the agency’s problems, Obama was prepared to give him more time. The administration’s slow response was seen as a function of a government that simply didn’t work. For those not still in thrall to Obama’s historic status this state of affairs is a damning indictment of his leadership style and inability to hold his appointees accountable for incompetence and/or failure.

But according to liberal blogger Ezra Klein, the fault lies not with Obama but with his office. In a piece published on his Vox site, Klein makes the argument that it is unfair to expect Obama to succeed when the presidency is designed to be ineffective. In Klein’s view, instead of blaming Obama for being an absentee president, we should be scolding James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for crafting a Constitution that didn’t provide a president with the ability to govern because of the checks and balances incorporated into the system. Those who differ with this view are, he wrote, subscribing to a “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency” in which the commander-in-chief is invested with magical powers.

This is, to put it mildly, bunk. No American president who respects the Constitution (a dubious proposition when applied to Obama) can be a dictator. But the presidency has evolved from its bare-bones origins at the Federal Convention of 1787 into one that both liberals and conservatives have often dubbed an “imperial” institution. To say that Obama hasn’t the power to succeed is to engage in denial of both history and logic.

Were we having this discussion in the 19th century rather than the 21st century, Klein might have a point. Up until the Civil War, American presidents had only a tiny federal bureaucracy to rule and lacked the ability to influence many domestic issues, though even then some larger-than-life characters like Andrew Jackson were able to wield enormous power by both constitutional and unconstitutional means. The vast expansion of the national budget and its consequent expansion of federal power that the Civil War helped create changed that. But even in the late 19th century, presidents had but a fraction of the ability to influence events that they do today.

However, in the 20th century, the quaint notions of the early republic with its part-time Congress (meeting only a few months out of each year) and tiny federal payrolls were forgotten as the presidency grew along with the country and the government. Contemporary presidents have at their disposal vast and numerous Cabinet departments and sundry agencies that have been gifted with virtually plenipotentiary powers over states and municipalities. They needn’t resort to attempts to govern by executive orders as Obama has done to throw their weight around. As Obama proved in his first term, the bully pulpit of the presidency and the ability to pressure Congress to act can result not only in giving the man in the White House a trillion-dollar stimulus but also the ability to transform America’s health-care system.

But Klein tells us not to believe our lying eyes and ears and instead believe that Obama’s doldrums are the function of his office. He dissects criticisms of Obama’s inability to work with Congress or to effectively communicate his agenda to the nation by claiming that those who have done so were flukes. Such “Green Lantern Presidents” as Lyndon Johnson, whose legendary ability to ram bills through Congress despite bitter opposition makes Obama’s refusal to deal with the legislative branch look particularly bad, and Ronald Reagan, who used the bully pulpit of the White House to change both foreign and domestic policies, were operating in different times and under different circumstances. He also asserts that partisan divisions are exacerbated by stark ideological splits with the opposition party always believing that it is in their interests to oppose the president on every conceivable issue (as both George W. Bush and Obama could attest).

It is true that the 21st century president has problems that even Reagan and LBJ didn’t face in eras where each party had its share of liberals and conservatives. But the power of the presidency has continued to expand as well. As Obama has perhaps belatedly realized the courts have given him wide latitude to enact policy on issues like carbon emissions. He can also use a Judiciary Department to selectively enforce laws in ways that overshadow the will of Congress.

But none of this gainsays the fact that Obama is simply incompetent in the business of political persuasion and in administration. That he lacks these basic skills that have always been considered essential to a successful presidency cannot be lain at the feet of Madison and Hamilton.

I write more about Klein’s potshot at Alexander Hamilton in a subsequent post.

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Hashtag Diplomacy Jumps the Shark

The Obama administration’s “hashtag diplomacy” has been under criticism for some time, though condemnation of its participation in the campaign to rescue the girls kidnapped by Nigeria’s Islamist terror group Boko Haram–tweeting messages along with the tag #BringBackOurGirls–was especially voluble this weekend. I agree with Jonathan on First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to join the hashtag campaign: it’s harmless; she’s a political celebrity without the power to do more than speak out anyway; and while she certainly can simply tell her husband to “bring back our girls” in private, doing so publicly is more meaningful, and possibly more effective.

However, it is decidedly not harmless when a Western leader who really can order troops decides his or her contribution will be to play a hashtag game. I’m looking at you, British Prime Minister David Cameron, head of the government while representing the party once led by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In fairness to Cameron, he was on a television talk show when another guest, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, asked him if he’d like to hold the sign and mug for the cameras. I’m not sure how it would have looked if he’d said no. At the same time, he shows no understanding of just how silly it looks to have a Western leader join this campaign, which should be reserved for those who can’t do more than make a sad face and throw up their hands.

Just who is Cameron telling to “bring back our girls”? The terrified parents of these children are certainly getting the impression that they’re on their own, as the New York Times reports:

Desperate parents have entered the forest themselves, armed only with bows and arrows. Officials say the military is searching there but there have been no results so far.

So parents have in some cases taken bows and arrows into enemy terrain to hunt for their children, because the guys commanding the most powerful and technologically advanced armies in the world are holding up cardboard signs and looking glumly into the camera, as if Boko Haram will be moved to charity by the ostentatiously pathetic nature of it all.

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The Obama administration’s “hashtag diplomacy” has been under criticism for some time, though condemnation of its participation in the campaign to rescue the girls kidnapped by Nigeria’s Islamist terror group Boko Haram–tweeting messages along with the tag #BringBackOurGirls–was especially voluble this weekend. I agree with Jonathan on First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to join the hashtag campaign: it’s harmless; she’s a political celebrity without the power to do more than speak out anyway; and while she certainly can simply tell her husband to “bring back our girls” in private, doing so publicly is more meaningful, and possibly more effective.

However, it is decidedly not harmless when a Western leader who really can order troops decides his or her contribution will be to play a hashtag game. I’m looking at you, British Prime Minister David Cameron, head of the government while representing the party once led by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In fairness to Cameron, he was on a television talk show when another guest, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, asked him if he’d like to hold the sign and mug for the cameras. I’m not sure how it would have looked if he’d said no. At the same time, he shows no understanding of just how silly it looks to have a Western leader join this campaign, which should be reserved for those who can’t do more than make a sad face and throw up their hands.

Just who is Cameron telling to “bring back our girls”? The terrified parents of these children are certainly getting the impression that they’re on their own, as the New York Times reports:

Desperate parents have entered the forest themselves, armed only with bows and arrows. Officials say the military is searching there but there have been no results so far.

So parents have in some cases taken bows and arrows into enemy terrain to hunt for their children, because the guys commanding the most powerful and technologically advanced armies in the world are holding up cardboard signs and looking glumly into the camera, as if Boko Haram will be moved to charity by the ostentatiously pathetic nature of it all.

A world leader holding up a sign asking someone to please do something is an unnecessary, if implicit, admission of the intent to do nothing. This has been a running complaint of Western leaders, especially Barack Obama, of late. He has taken to declaring he wouldn’t use force without even being asked. It just became second nature for the president to insist that there wasn’t much to be done.

Although it is an imperfect analogy, it’s striking to contrast this with Ken Adelman’s piece at Politico about Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. It was derided, of course, as “star wars” by its critics and no one was sure it could even be done. But Adelman, who traveled with Reagan to his famous Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, notes that the Soviet leader was worried enough about SDI that he made it the focus of that meeting. He would give Reagan the dramatic nuclear cuts he wanted, but the deal had to include getting rid of SDI:

Reagan was furious with Gorbachev’s last-minute qualification. And he would not compromise on SDI, no matter the incentives. With all that we have achieved, he in essence told his Soviet counterpart, you throw in this roadblock and everything’s out the window. There’s absolutely no way we will give up research to find a defensive weapon against nuclear missiles.

“Am I wrong?” the president then scribbled on a note to George Schultz, his secretary of state. “No,” was the reply, whispered in his ear. “You are right.”

Adelman notes that the meeting was not considered a success because the two sides didn’t come to an agreement. But it was a success. SDI didn’t bring down the Soviet Union, but it played a role by accelerating Soviet reforms that the system could not, in the end, handle. Adelman quotes Margaret Thatcher as writing in her memoirs that Gorbachev was “so alarmed” by SDI that it made Reagan’s decision on SDI the “single most important of his presidency.”

Development of a missile shield is not the same as deploying forces in harm’s way, of course. But the point is less about the action taken than the willingness to make your enemies believe you’re capable of taking action. I’m reminded of a different Thatcher quote from another edition of her memoirs, when discussing members of her own party who behave as though they’ve already lost to the other side. “Retreat as a tactic is sometimes necessary; retreat as a settled policy eats at the soul.”

Cameron–and other Western leaders, including Obama–would do well to take that to heart. They should stop feeling so helpless, because they aren’t. But at the very least, they should stop acting so helpless.

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Man Up, Mr. Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech to the National Action Network, accused his congressional critics of launching “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks on him and the Obama administration.

“Forget about me [specifically]. Look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee,” Holder said. “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”

Let’s take these topics in reverse order. What president has been on the receiving end of such ugly and divisive attacks? Try George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, just for openers. For example, Senator Ted Kennedy declared, from the well of the United States Senate, that “before the [Iraq] war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie.” He also accused President Bush of hatching a phony war, “a fraud … made up in Texas” to boost his political career. Prominent Democrats made these kind of charges all the time against Bush. President Reagan was attacked as a warmonger, a racist, a man who celebrated in the misery of others. The personal, ad hominem nature of the attacks against our current president are less, I would say, than was the case with Bush and Reagan. What’s happening certainly isn’t “unprecedented.” 

As for Holder’s Woe Is Me portrayal of his tenure as attorney general, I’d point him (for starters) to Alberto Gonzales and Edwin Meese. Both were treated viciously by Democrats and (unlike Holder) by many in the press.

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Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech to the National Action Network, accused his congressional critics of launching “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks on him and the Obama administration.

“Forget about me [specifically]. Look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee,” Holder said. “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”

Let’s take these topics in reverse order. What president has been on the receiving end of such ugly and divisive attacks? Try George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, just for openers. For example, Senator Ted Kennedy declared, from the well of the United States Senate, that “before the [Iraq] war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie.” He also accused President Bush of hatching a phony war, “a fraud … made up in Texas” to boost his political career. Prominent Democrats made these kind of charges all the time against Bush. President Reagan was attacked as a warmonger, a racist, a man who celebrated in the misery of others. The personal, ad hominem nature of the attacks against our current president are less, I would say, than was the case with Bush and Reagan. What’s happening certainly isn’t “unprecedented.” 

As for Holder’s Woe Is Me portrayal of his tenure as attorney general, I’d point him (for starters) to Alberto Gonzales and Edwin Meese. Both were treated viciously by Democrats and (unlike Holder) by many in the press.

While I’m at it, let me add this point: Mr. Holder is part of an administration notable for its partisanship, divisive rhetoric, ugliness, and polarization. As I’ve pointed out before, Mr. Obama has accused Republicans of being social Darwinists and members of the “flat earth society,” of putting their party ahead of their country, and of wanting dirty air and dirty water. He says Republicans want autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.” He accuses his opponents of not simply being wrong but of being his “enemies.” During the 2012 election, Obama’s vice president said Republicans want to put African-Americans “back in chains” while Obama’s top aides and allies implied Governor Romney was a felon and flat-out stated that he was responsible for the cancer-death of a steelworker’s wife. The list goes on and on. Mr. Obama is the most polarizing president in the history of polling.

It’s bad enough that Eric Holder is incompetent, that he’s misled Congress on multiple occasions, that he considers America to be a “nation of cowards” on race, and that he’s engaged in covering up for the administration (including the current IRS scandal). But can the Attorney General of the United States please quit feeling so sorry for himself? So put upon?

Man up, Mr. Holder.

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Cruz to Rand: Tea Party ≠ Isolationist

Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

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Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

The assumption that all those who sympathize with the Tea Party agree with Paul on foreign policy is as much a product of liberal mainstream media manipulation as is the canard that they are racists. Those who identify with or view the movement favorably share a common mindset about the need to push back against the expansion of big government and the tax and spend policies that are its foundation. But many of those who call themselves Tea Partiers want nothing to do with Paul’s antipathy for a strong defense and unwillingness to maintain a stalwart U.S. presence abroad to stand up for our allies and our values.

Cruz has carved out a niche for himself among those most antagonistic to the party establishment as well as the liberal big government machine. But today he outlined a point on which he, and many other grass roots conservatives part company with Paul:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul,” Cruz said in an interview aired Sunday.” “We are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. U.S. leadership is critical in the world. I agree we should be reluctant to deploy military force aboard, but there’s a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire, when he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said ‘Tear down this wall.’ Those words changed the course of history. The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

In doing so, Cruz drew a clear distinction between his beliefs and a Paulite view of America’s place in the world that is for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from Obama’s predilection for retreat from confrontations with aggressors such as Iran or Russia.

Paul sought to align himself with Reagan’s foreign policy views on Fox News Sunday by declaring that his “reluctance for war” shouldn’t be confused with a “lack of resolve.” But to defend that position he cited an op-ed published in the Washington Post on the crisis in the Ukraine by Henry Kissinger as something he agreed with.

While no one doubts Dr. Kissinger’s deep store of knowledge about foreign policy, his piece combined common sense about the limits of America’s ability to undo Russia’s seizure of the Crimea with a sorry rationalization for Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The former secretary of state’s citation of Russian claims to the Ukraine and attempt to argue against strong Western outrage about this crime was exactly the wrong message to send to Russia at a time when it is trying to subvert the independence of that country in order to reassemble in one form or another the late and unlamented Tsarist/Soviet Empire.

The article was a cri de Coeur for a revival not of Reaganite foreign policy but of Kissinger’s own amoral détente with the Soviets that treated human rights (including the fate of a persecuted Soviet Jewry) as an unimportant detail. This sort of “realism” has always had its advocates within the GOP but it was exactly the sort of Republican establishment mindset that Reagan bitterly opposed in the 1976 and 1980 GOP primaries.

For the last generation, the Republican mainstream has, with some notable exceptions, united behind policies that emphasized a strong defense and a foreign policy that rejected retreat in the face of aggression while also upholding American values. It is interesting as well as gratifying to see that for all of his desire to torch the establishment on every other issue, Ted Cruz is very much part of this consensus. Paul can pretend he was more influenced by Reagan than his extremist father (whose views on foreign policy would make him more at home on the far left than the right). But as long as he remains an outlier on this crucial element of presidential politics, he shouldn’t be thought of as representing all Tea Partiers, let alone most Republicans.

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Does Obama Care About U.S. Hostages?

Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

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Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

While Tehran released the embassy hostages as soon as Reagan took his oath of office, the Iranian government was soon at it again, this time acting by its proxies in Lebanon. Hezbollah and affiliated groups seized a number of Americans, killing a few.  According to the Tower Commission report, Reagan obsessively peppered his staff with questions about their condition and the possibilities for their release. Reagan’s concern for the hostages ultimately led to the ill-advised arms-for-hostages scheme.

While many of the hostages returned home by the end of the Reagan presidency, Iranian-backed groups still held a few as George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency. Bush used his inaugural address to suggest that there could be U.S.-Iran reconciliation if Tehran showed goodwill by releasing American hostages. Bush followed up privately with UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar who in turn appointed United Nations bureaucrat Giandomenico Picco to serve as an intermediary with Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsajani. Newly appointed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei put the kibosh on new talks, and Rafsanjani refused to budge because to do so would be to admit Iranian complacency in an act for which Iran still wanted plausible deniability. Nevertheless, with time, the remaining Americans came home.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have undertaken a broader diplomatic initiative with Iran than any predecessor, including Jimmy Carter. In order to get Iran to the table for nuclear talks, Obama approved $7 billion in sanctions relief which, when combined by new investment, means a $20 billion windfall for Tehran. Iran was desperate for cash, its economy having contracted by 5.4 percent in the year before negotiations began. Obama, therefore, had the upper hand and huge leverage. Just as the United States offered incentives to show good will, so too might have Iran, if indeed there was any goodwill on the Iranian side. That Obama did not ask for the return of Americans held hostage or did not insist on their release as a precondition really does set Obama apart. He seems to be the first U.S. president who has not prioritized hostage release in its dealing with the world’s number one hostage-taking country. Absent any other reason offered, it is increasingly hard not to conclude that Obama and Kerry simply do not care about Americans held hostage, and are unwilling to hold the governments responsible accountable. That is a tragedy that no Nobel Prize can erase.  

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Rescuing the Constitution from “Constitutional Conservatives”

National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke takes issue with an essay Michael Gerson and I wrote in National Affairs. Mr. Cooke, a thoughtful writer, cites this passage from our essay: 

many of the functions of the modern-day federal government, including Social Security and other social-service programs, were not envisioned by the framers, nor did the enumerated powers of the Congress specifically comprehend such programs. But neither do these federal roles violate a principle of our system or run counter to the prescient mindset of the founders.

Cooke reacts to this observation this way:

I hope I am not being unfair when I say that I detect a whiff of living constitutionalism in this passage — a tendency to subordinate “enumerated powers” to the subjectively imagined “principle of our system” or “prescient mindset of the founders.” The ultimate value of the rule of law is not that it entrenches the positions of men who are long dead but that it establishes the regulations by which governments may operate, outlines the political scheme for all to see, and short-circuits the temporary government’s capacity for caprice. If the authors believe that “the enumerated powers of the Congress” did not “specifically comprehend such programs” as Social Security — which, remember, is not justified by an amendment but by judicial reinterpretation — then they should be up in arms about it. I fail to see how one can acknowledge in one breath that a governing document that is the collective work of a generation of thinkers is being violated, and in the next say that that is what they would have wanted.

Actually, our argument is different than what Cooke presents. The fact that there exist programs created in the 20th century that our Federalist founders didn’t (and couldn’t possibly) envision doesn’t mean that those programs necessarily violate the system of government created by them. Gerson and I lay out in some detail the case for concluding that, “The government created in the late 18th century by the inhabitants of a coastal, agrarian republic was designed to accommodate the development of a more spacious and ambitious nation: an eventuality that many of the founders foresaw and embraced.”

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National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke takes issue with an essay Michael Gerson and I wrote in National Affairs. Mr. Cooke, a thoughtful writer, cites this passage from our essay: 

many of the functions of the modern-day federal government, including Social Security and other social-service programs, were not envisioned by the framers, nor did the enumerated powers of the Congress specifically comprehend such programs. But neither do these federal roles violate a principle of our system or run counter to the prescient mindset of the founders.

Cooke reacts to this observation this way:

I hope I am not being unfair when I say that I detect a whiff of living constitutionalism in this passage — a tendency to subordinate “enumerated powers” to the subjectively imagined “principle of our system” or “prescient mindset of the founders.” The ultimate value of the rule of law is not that it entrenches the positions of men who are long dead but that it establishes the regulations by which governments may operate, outlines the political scheme for all to see, and short-circuits the temporary government’s capacity for caprice. If the authors believe that “the enumerated powers of the Congress” did not “specifically comprehend such programs” as Social Security — which, remember, is not justified by an amendment but by judicial reinterpretation — then they should be up in arms about it. I fail to see how one can acknowledge in one breath that a governing document that is the collective work of a generation of thinkers is being violated, and in the next say that that is what they would have wanted.

Actually, our argument is different than what Cooke presents. The fact that there exist programs created in the 20th century that our Federalist founders didn’t (and couldn’t possibly) envision doesn’t mean that those programs necessarily violate the system of government created by them. Gerson and I lay out in some detail the case for concluding that, “The government created in the late 18th century by the inhabitants of a coastal, agrarian republic was designed to accommodate the development of a more spacious and ambitious nation: an eventuality that many of the founders foresaw and embraced.”

As for the charge of embracing a “living Constitution”: It is one thing, and I believe quite a problematic thing, for judges to invent and create and impose on the public invented rights. But in the representative democracy the founders created, they certainly believed that within certain parameters the will of the people, ratified in election after election and by Congress after Congress, needed to be taken into account. And Social Security has been ratified in dozens of staggered elections (presidential, Senate, and House) over the course of most of the 20th century and all of the 21st century. No elected representative of any serious standing is arguing for the repeal of Social Security on constitutional grounds; and it hasn’t faced a serious constitutional challenge under either a liberal or a conservative-led Supreme Court in more than a half-century. Yet Cooke seems to believe conservatives should be “up in arms” about it and, I can only assume, energize their movement around an effort to largely dismantle, on constitutional grounds, the New Deal and more.

To help clarify what is, in truth, a pretty interesting and important philosophical discussion–how narrowly or broadly should the enumerated powers in the Constitution be interpreted–it would be instructive for Mr. Cooke to respond to some queries, perhaps starting with this one: Is Social Security unconstitutional? If he believes it is, does Cooke therefore believe conservatives and Republicans should run for elective office and base their governing agenda on repealing Social Security on the grounds that it qualifies as an assault on the Constitution? He seems to suggest they should.

In addition, what do Cooke and others, including so-called “constitutional conservatives” who praised his article, make of the fact that Ronald Reagan, the most important figure in the history of modern conservatism, praised Social Security and went out of his way to assure voters he had no intention of dismantling the New Deal?

In the 1964 speech that effectively launched his political career, Reagan, in describing conservatives, said, “we’re for a provision that destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age, and to that end we’ve accepted Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem.” And on April 20, 1983, Reagan signed a bill to preserve Social Security, saying, “This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Society Security.”

Does Cooke detect a “whiff of living constitutionalism” and a “tendency to subordinate ‘enumerated powers’” in Reagan’s words? Surely he must, since Reagan never challenged the constitutionality of Social Security and the New Deal and in fact affirmed them. Reagan, rather than being “up in arms” over Social Security, the New Deal, and much of the modern state, made his own inner peace with their constitutional legitimacy. Others should as well.

Mr. Cooke also makes this claim: “The federal government is able to do only what the Constitution permits it to do — and, until around 1913, the Constitution prohibited the federal government from doing almost everything.” I can’t help but note that even Thomas Jefferson, who was more skeptical of a strong federal authority than many others of the Founders, managed to conclude the Louisiana Purchase without amending the Constitution to permit so massive an exercise of federal power. The founders, from Washington through Monroe, presided over what at the time were massive changes in the scope and reach of the national government. That continued through the post-founding period to the Civil War–despite the fact that the Constitution was amended only twice during that period (in 1795, limiting suits against states; and in 1804, revising the electoral-college procedure). In addition, the claim that Abraham Lincoln believed the Constitution prohibited the federal government from doing “almost everything” is slightly bizarre. (See the Civil War, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the transcontinental railroad, and the imposition of tariffs and a federal income tax for more.)

It’s worth pointing out, too, that as president James Madison signed the act establishing the Second National Bank. He had opposed the creation of the First National Bank on constitutional grounds but, in revising his views, Madison wrote this:

The charge of inconsistency between my objection to the constitutionality of such a bank in 1791, and my assent in 1817, turns on the question, how far legislative precedents, expounding the Constitution, ought to guide succeeding legislatures, and to overrule individual opinions.

… It was in conformity with the view here taken of the respect due to deliberate and reiterated precedent, that the Bank of the United States, though on the original question held to be unconstitutional, received the executive signature in the year 1817. The act originally establishing a bank had undergone ample discussions in its passage through the several branches of the government. It had been carried into execution through a period of twenty years, with annual legislative recognition –in one instance, indeed, with a positive ramification of it into a new state — and with the entire acquiescence of all the local authorities, as well as of the nation at large; to all of which maybe added, a decreasing prospect of any change in the public opinion adverse to the constitutionality of such an institution. A veto from the executive, under these circumstances, with an admission of the expediency, and almost necessity, of the measure, would have been a defiance of all the obligations derived from a course of precedents amounting to the requisite evidence of the national judgment and intention …

In other words, the conduct of elections that tacitly or explicitly endorse existing policy, and people’s decisions with the passage of time to rearrange their own lives in light of the law, all amount to a public ratification. “Madison asserted that legislation passed by Congress and carried out successfully with the approval of the people over a significant period of time sets a precedent of constitutional interpretation for future legislation,” is how one commentator put it. It’s worth recalling that Madison is not only one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, the greatest interpretative work of the Constitution; he is also widely regarded as the “father of the Constitution.” So his example ought to carry significant weight.

One other observation. In a 1981 speech (featured in this book), Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan made this observation: 

Perhaps the most important act of the Continental Congress was the Northwest Ordinance which provided a direct federal subsidy for education. Almost the first act of the Congress established by the present Constitution was to reaffirm this grant. A plaque on the Sub-Treasury on Wall Street commemorates both actions. This does not invalidate the view that the federal government ought not to exercise any responsibility, but it does make nonsense of the view that the Constitution – presumably because it does not mention the subject – somehow bars such an exercise.

Pace Charles C.W. Cooke, I do not think that virtually the entire modern state–including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the National Institutes of Health, and so much more–is unconstitutional. But he and others like him apparently do, so they really should lay out what they realistically intend to do about it. And in doing so, they should explicitly state whether they consider Ronald Reagan, whom I consider to be among the handful of greatest presidents in our history, to have been an apostate when it comes to fidelity to the Constitution he swore to uphold.

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Demographics and the GOP

At a recent lunch, several friends and I discussed the future of the Republican Party. I argued that the challenges facing the Republican Party, at least at the presidential level, are significant and fairly fundamental. 

After our conversation, I cobbled together some data that underscore my concern–data based on previously published works, including an essay in COMMENTARY I co-authored with Michael Gerson, articles by Jeffrey Bell in the Weekly Standard and Ron Brownstein in National Journal, an essay by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen in National Affairs, and portions of the book Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Below are the data points along with links to the sources (note: the paragraphs are taken from the original sources, in some cases with very minor changes for the purposes of clarification). Readers might find this of interest.

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At a recent lunch, several friends and I discussed the future of the Republican Party. I argued that the challenges facing the Republican Party, at least at the presidential level, are significant and fairly fundamental. 

After our conversation, I cobbled together some data that underscore my concern–data based on previously published works, including an essay in COMMENTARY I co-authored with Michael Gerson, articles by Jeffrey Bell in the Weekly Standard and Ron Brownstein in National Journal, an essay by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen in National Affairs, and portions of the book Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Below are the data points along with links to the sources (note: the paragraphs are taken from the original sources, in some cases with very minor changes for the purposes of clarification). Readers might find this of interest.

Barack Obama v. Mitt Romney

  • In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 126 electoral votes (332 to Romney’s 206) and won the popular vote by nearly 5 million. Mr. Obama is the first president to achieve the 51 percent mark in two elections since President Eisenhower and the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt. He did this despite losing white voters by a larger margin than any winning presidential candidate in American history.
  • Of the 12 “battleground” states, Obama won 11—eight of them by a margin of more than 5 percentage points. Remarkably, this meant that if there had been a uniform 5 point swing toward the Republicans in the national popular vote margin—that is, had Romney won the popular vote by 1.1 percentage points instead of losing it by 3.9—Obama would still have prevailed in the Electoral College, winning 23 states and 272 electoral votes. (Source: Jeffrey Bell)
  • Neil Newhouse, Mitt Romney’s pollster, ran through the exit poll data, explaining that Chicago had dramatically pulled off its coalition-of-the-ascendant play–turning out an electorate even more diverse than in 2008, not less, as Newhouse assumed would be the case. Nationally, the white vote fell from 74 to 72 percent, while the black proportion held stead at 13. Participation among Hispanics rose from 8 to 10 percent, among women from 53 to 54 percent, and among young voters from 18 to 19 percent. Obama’s share of each of those blocs ranged from commanding to overwhelming: 93 percent of African Americans, 71 percent of Latinos, 55 percent of women (and 67 percent of unmarried women), and 60 percent of young voters. (Source: Mark Halperin and John Heilemann)
  • In 2012 the minority share of the vote rose to 28 percent, 2 percentage points above 2008 and more than double the 12 percent level for Bill Clinton’s first victory in 1992. (Source: Ron Brownstein

Historic/Demographic Trends

  • In the last two decades of Democratic dominance, 18 states and the District of Columbia have voted Democratic six out of six times. These currently have 242 electoral votes, which is quite close to the 270 needed to win the presidency. There are 13 states that have voted Republican in every election since 1992, but they total just 102 electoral votes. (Source: Jeffrey Bell)
  • Out of the last six presidential elections, four have gone to the Democratic nominee, at an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 210 for the Republican. During the preceding two decades, from 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five out of six elections, averaging 417 electoral votes to the Democrats’ 113. In three of those contests, the Democrats failed to muster even 50 electoral votes. (Source: Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner)
  • White voters, who traditionally and reliably favor the GOP, have gone from 89 percent of the electorate in 1976 to 72 percent in 2012. (This decline is partially an artifact of a change in the way the Census Bureau classifies Hispanics, who used to be counted among whites before being placed in a separate category.) Mitt Romney carried the white vote by 20 points. If the country’s demographic composition were still the same in 2012 as it was in 2000, he would now be president. If it were still the same as it was in 1992, he would have won in a rout. (Source: Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner)
  • The 2012 election was clearly decided by the non-white vote for the first time in American history. About 72 percent of the electorate in the 2012 election was white, according to the exit poll. Romney carried the white vote 59 percent to 39 percent, a 20-point lead and the fourth highest for a Republican since the advent of exit polling. No presidential candidate in American history had ever carried 59 percent of the white vote and lost. Yet Romney lost the election by four points because he lost the non-white vote by 63 points. (Source: Henry Olsen)
  • From 1996 to 2012, according to census figures, the white share of the eligible voting population (citizens who are older than 18) has dropped about 2 percentage points every four years, from 79.2 percent to 71.1 percent; over that same period, whites have declined as a share of actual voters from 83 percent to 74 percent (according to census figures) or even 72 percent (according to the exit polls). With minorities expected to make up a majority of America’s 18 and younger population in this decade, all signs point toward a continued decline in the white share of the eligible voter population—which suggests the GOP would have to marshal heroic turnout efforts to avoid further decline in the white vote share. If the electorate’s composition follows the trend over the past two decades, minorities would likely constitute 30 percent of the vote in 2016. (Source: Ron Brownstein
  • If minorities reach 30 percent of the vote next time, and the 2016 Democratic nominee again attracts support from roughly 80 percent of them, he or she would need to capture only 37 percent of whites to win a majority of the popular vote. In that scenario, to win a national majority, the GOP would need almost 63 percent of whites. Since 1976, the only Republican who has reached even 60 percent among whites was Reagan (with his 64 percent in 1984). Since Reagan’s peak, the Democratic share of the white vote has varied only between 39 percent (Obama in 2012 and Clinton in the three-way election of 1992), and 43 percent (Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 1996). (Source: Ron Brownstein)
  • In 2016, if there is not a dramatic reduction in African-American turnout, a Republican presidential candidate will need to get 60 percent of the white vote, plus a record-high share among each portion of the non-white vote (African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and others) to win a bare 50.1 percent of the vote. (Source: Henry Olsen)
  • Every Democratic nominee since 1980 has run better among single than married whites. In 1984, married couples represented 70 percent of all white voters; by 2012, that number slipped to 65 percent. (The decline has been especially sharp among married white men, who have voted more Republican than married women in each election since 1984.) Another trend steepening the grade for the GOP is growing secularization. Since 2000, Democrats have averaged a 32-point advantage among whites who identify with no religious tradition, and the share of them has increased from 15 percent in 2007 to 20 percent by 2012, according to studies by the Pew Research Center. (Source: Ron Brownstein)

My purpose with this post is to present the empirical data, not to interpret it, except to say this: Republican problems are not superficial, transient, or cyclical. The trends speak for themselves. The GOP therefore needs to articulate a governing vision and develop a governing agenda that can reach groups that have not traditionally been supportive of it. Republicans, at least when it comes to presidential elections, have a winning message for an electorate that no longer exists.

For the GOP to revivify itself and enlarge its appeal, Republicans at every level will have to think creatively even as they remain within the boundaries of their core principles. It isn’t an easy task, but it’s certainly not an impossible one. (Bill Clinton did this for the Democratic Party in 1992 and Tony Blair did this for the Labour Party in 1997.) It would of course help if those speaking for the party were themselves irenic rather than angry, inviting rather than off-putting, individuals of conviction who also possess the gift of persuasion and a certain grace. “You know what charm is,” Albert Camus wrote in The Fall, “a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.”

Whether Republicans understand the nature of the challenges they face–and if they do how they intend to deal with them and who will emerge from their ranks to lead them–will go a long way toward determining the future of their party and their country.

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The Difference Between Iran and the USSR

In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

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In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

The interim nuclear accord does require Iran to halt the installation of new centrifuges and to stop enriching uranium at higher weapons-grade levels. But the centrifuges are still turning and their output can easily be converted to use for a bomb after a short “breakout” period. Even more deceptive is the president’s description of the disposal of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel. It is being converted into oxide powder, but that is not the same as elimination. To the contrary, it can be easily reconverted into its previous form and then enriched further to reach the levels necessary for use in a bomb.

Nor are the inspections anywhere close to being as intrusive as Obama described. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency is still unable to monitor Iran’s military nuclear research facilities. Indeed, the accord signed in November by Secretary of State Kerry didn’t even mention them.

But just as misleading is the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union that the United States dealt with in the past.

The president is correct in distinguishing the Soviet Union, a nuclear power, from Iran, a potential one.  But that is exactly the reason that the president’s decision to discard the military and economic leverage the U.S. possessed in talks with Iran last fall was so profoundly dangerous. In doing so the president decided to not only loosen existing sanctions but to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium with a deal that allowed that activity to continue unabated even as the president deceitfully described the accord as freezing Iran’s program.

The reasoning behind this astonishing retreat was the very opposite of America’s negotiating tactics—especially under Reagan—with the Soviets. The current U.S. retreat is premised in a belief that Iran is too strong and too determined not to be pressured by sanctions into giving up its nuclear program.

If the Soviet Union negotiated with the U.S. and wound up ultimately reducing its nuclear stockpile, as Reagan demanded, rather than merely limiting their increase, it was because they understood that he could not be intimidated. The Soviets knew they were dealing with a principled president. But the interim agreement with Tehran has convinced the Iranians of just the opposite about Obama. Having thus far persuaded him to accept enrichment and reduce sanctions, they have every reason to think he will go even further to appease them.

The Kennedy precedent provides yet another cautionary tale. In his first meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, Kennedy admitted that he was insufficiently prepared for dealing with the Russian and the result was far from satisfactory. Though Kennedy had rightly opposed pressure to evacuate Berlin, he later told the New York Times that Khrushchev had “beaten the hell out of me” and left the meeting convinced that JFK was a political lightweight. It was this impression of weakness that led the Soviets to underestimate Kennedy and led to further provocations in the form of the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That is an unfortunate precedent for Obama, whose supine position toward Iran ill becomes the American president and has similarly convinced Iran’s leaders that they need not fear his occasional threats to use force against them. Given the weakness of his position, he should welcome measures such as the bipartisan sanctions bill that has the support of 58 senators that would strengthen his hand in the talks.

Instead, he threatens a veto lest the proposal upset his Iranian negotiating partners. Rather than confirming the seriousness of his purpose, this irresponsible passage in the State of the Union will only reaffirm the Iranians’ belief that they can stand up to the U.S. and set the stage for either an American retreat on the nuclear issue or a confrontation that might be avoided by exactly the Senate measure the president opposes.

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Let Reagan Be Reagan

In an April 21, 1986 lecture at New York University (found in the collection Came the Revolution), Daniel Patrick Moynihan has some words to say about David Stockman. Moynihan quotes Stockman as saying (in his memoir), “To me, [Irving] Kristol was a secular incarnation of the Lord Himself.” 

Senator Moynihan had great regard for Kristol, referring to him in the speech as “perhaps the preeminent conservative intellectual of our age.” Moynihan then went on to make this observation about Ronald Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget:  

But then a younger generation comes along which elevates thought into belief. Not only are the ideas of their mentors true, they are the Only Truth. Given by the Lord Himself. What began as skepticism concerning received doctrine transmutes into fierce conviction.

Elsewhere Moynihan describes Stockman as “an absorbing figure to a student of ideology not least because of his near addiction. He goes on as if the Reaganites had appointed him a kind of party theorist responsible for doctrinal conformity.” 

And then there’s this: 

[Stockman] describes his migration from the student Left — SDS and suchlike — to the Republican Right in terms which are legitimately intellectual but also, at times, clearly at that point where a measured judgment as to the preponderance of evidence crosses over into the zone of radical conviction. He cites authors of meticulous clarity and caution with that element of fervor we associate with zealotry and even intolerance.

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In an April 21, 1986 lecture at New York University (found in the collection Came the Revolution), Daniel Patrick Moynihan has some words to say about David Stockman. Moynihan quotes Stockman as saying (in his memoir), “To me, [Irving] Kristol was a secular incarnation of the Lord Himself.” 

Senator Moynihan had great regard for Kristol, referring to him in the speech as “perhaps the preeminent conservative intellectual of our age.” Moynihan then went on to make this observation about Ronald Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget:  

But then a younger generation comes along which elevates thought into belief. Not only are the ideas of their mentors true, they are the Only Truth. Given by the Lord Himself. What began as skepticism concerning received doctrine transmutes into fierce conviction.

Elsewhere Moynihan describes Stockman as “an absorbing figure to a student of ideology not least because of his near addiction. He goes on as if the Reaganites had appointed him a kind of party theorist responsible for doctrinal conformity.” 

And then there’s this: 

[Stockman] describes his migration from the student Left — SDS and suchlike — to the Republican Right in terms which are legitimately intellectual but also, at times, clearly at that point where a measured judgment as to the preponderance of evidence crosses over into the zone of radical conviction. He cites authors of meticulous clarity and caution with that element of fervor we associate with zealotry and even intolerance.

I cite these passages from Moynihan because the Stockman Temptation–to take it upon oneself to enforce rigid ideology, to attack those who are not sufficiently pure and fervid, and to remove conservatism from any real-world context–is arguably more widespread today than it was thirty years ago.

We’re seeing some self-described Reaganites who are far more ideological and interested in doctrinal conformity than Reagan ever was. Making matters worse, they invoke the name of Reagan and claim they are his heirs. In fact they seem to know very little about the real Reagan–his temperament and graceful bearing, his governing style, and some of the basic facts of his years in office (including his bipartisan deals, his willingness to make accommodations with key elements of the Great Society and the New Deal, and his ability to pick his battles wisely and with prudence).  

They revere not the real Reagan but an imaginary one–the one who validates their own zeal, their quest for doctrinal purity, and their own resentments. To invoke a line we often heard from conservatives during the Reagan years: Let Reagan be Reagan. 

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Rubio’s Poverty Pitch What the GOP Needs

Marco Rubio’s 2013 was as bad as Chris Christie’s was good. The Florida senator’s annus horribillis began with his goofy water bottle problem as he delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union message. It continued when a month later he appeared equally ridiculous rushing to the floor of the Senate to support Rand Paul’s drone filibuster in order to avoid letting a rival hog all the attention, even though he actually disagreed with the libertarian. But Rubio, who began the year at the top of everyone’s list of Republican presidential hopefuls, didn’t hit bottom until he became the target of widespread conservative animus for his high-minded decision to back a bipartisan immigration reform bill. By the summer, many of his erstwhile fans on the right had buried him as a RINO and talk about his candidacy in 2016 seemed to be on hold. Even the senator began backing away from his own bill.

But if Christie has gone from GOP frontrunner to possible has-been in the wake of his Bridgegate scandal, Rubio has a chance to start over in 2014. Though it’s unlikely that many anti-immigration die-hards will forgive him for speaking common sense about the issue, Rubio’s address at the Capitol last week on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” gave his year a promising beginning. As James Pethokoukis rightly noted at the AEI Ideas blog, his “new anti-poverty plan offers a dramatic, even radical revamp of the American welfare state” that attempts to raise the incomes of the poor without falling into the trap of big government.

It’s not clear whether his fine speech and Christie’s downfall will boost his presidential stock, but Rubio may have done more than advance a personal agenda. By calling on Republicans to address how to help Americans mired in poverty, Rubio may have started an important conversation on the right that could help make the GOP the party of ideas again.

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Marco Rubio’s 2013 was as bad as Chris Christie’s was good. The Florida senator’s annus horribillis began with his goofy water bottle problem as he delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union message. It continued when a month later he appeared equally ridiculous rushing to the floor of the Senate to support Rand Paul’s drone filibuster in order to avoid letting a rival hog all the attention, even though he actually disagreed with the libertarian. But Rubio, who began the year at the top of everyone’s list of Republican presidential hopefuls, didn’t hit bottom until he became the target of widespread conservative animus for his high-minded decision to back a bipartisan immigration reform bill. By the summer, many of his erstwhile fans on the right had buried him as a RINO and talk about his candidacy in 2016 seemed to be on hold. Even the senator began backing away from his own bill.

But if Christie has gone from GOP frontrunner to possible has-been in the wake of his Bridgegate scandal, Rubio has a chance to start over in 2014. Though it’s unlikely that many anti-immigration die-hards will forgive him for speaking common sense about the issue, Rubio’s address at the Capitol last week on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” gave his year a promising beginning. As James Pethokoukis rightly noted at the AEI Ideas blog, his “new anti-poverty plan offers a dramatic, even radical revamp of the American welfare state” that attempts to raise the incomes of the poor without falling into the trap of big government.

It’s not clear whether his fine speech and Christie’s downfall will boost his presidential stock, but Rubio may have done more than advance a personal agenda. By calling on Republicans to address how to help Americans mired in poverty, Rubio may have started an important conversation on the right that could help make the GOP the party of ideas again.

Rubio’s approach is based on two accurate assumptions. One is that Republicans cannot hope to win national elections by playing the role of the mean party that likes the rich and considers the poor to be an incorrigible “47 percent” of takers, to quote Mitt Romney’s unfortunate gaffe. Conservatives must demonstrate that they care about people who aren’t rich or well off lest they be written off as the party of ruthless plutocrats who want to take away benefits from the poor. Though the Tea Party movement has raised important points about the dangers of uncontrolled tax and spend policies, the results of the 2012 election should have reminded Republicans that they must do more than say “no” to Democratic ideas; they must offer voters their own plans for helping the disadvantaged.

But there is more at stake here than merely a rhetorical pivot. As Rubio also makes clear, the GOP must offer an alternative to the failed liberal policies that are associated with the War on Poverty. The senator states what generations of liberals have worked hard to ignore when he says the problem with the big-government liberalism that Johnson helped unleash was not its desire to help the poor. The problem was that rather than freeing the poor from poverty, these policies, albeit unintentionally, created a new permanent underclass trapped in misery with little hope of escape. Dismantling it, or at least stripping the federal government of much of its role in anti-poverty efforts and devolving power to the states, as Rubio advocates, offers the country an opportunity to reform a failed system.

As Pethokoukis notes, the basic principles that form the foundation of this approach are irrefutable: the need to create more of the social mobility that the welfare state discourages; to increase the gap between the income of those who work and those who don’t; and to build a more efficient safety net that isn’t run by a federal bureaucracy from Washington, D.C.

These are the key talking points that every Republican should be discussing, especially as Democrats attempt to change the national political conversation from the ObamaCare disaster to a new one about income inequality. The difference between the two parties is that Rubio is proposing a genuine alternative to the status quo while all Democrats are offering is more of the same failed ideas that have done so much damage to the poor in the last half-century.

In the 1980s, Republicans assumed the mantle of the “thinking party,” as they sought to reform the welfare state under the leadership of Ronald Reagan. It’s time they started thinking again. It’s not clear whether Rubio will run in 2016 but no matter what his plans, if he can help promote this sea change away from knee-jerk opposition to all government action to a new era of GOP reform of government, he will do his party—and the country—an inestimable service.

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“Outsiders” and Political Rebellion

If you’ve been following “Bridgegate,” the scandal currently engulfing Chris Christie, you are well aware, as every single story has explained, that this threatens Christie’s image in two ways. The first is that it reinforces a media narrative about him, which means it’s the kind of scandal that sticks: he’s a bully. The second is that it undermines his populist appeal and his anti-corruption bona fides. (Though his apologetic press conference today will probably win back points on that score.)

Both explanations are true, which is why they’ve proliferated as if they’ve been sent from the wires. And yet, accurate as they are, these explanations don’t seem to quite get to the bottom of it. The question at the heart of this is: Why does the public like Chris Christie enough to make a Republican governor of New Jersey an early favorite for 2016? Yes, they like his honesty, his bluntness, his humor, and his relatable persona. But I think there’s a missing ingredient to his popularity.

Christie was the consummate outsider as a candidate for governor, but how he translated that into office really enabled him to own the moniker. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government, and bipartisan frustration with the status quo in Washington, presents true “outsider” politicians with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but which turned out to be a cruel joke played on the voters: Obama, as Kevin Williamson has so cogently pointed out, is “the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.”

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If you’ve been following “Bridgegate,” the scandal currently engulfing Chris Christie, you are well aware, as every single story has explained, that this threatens Christie’s image in two ways. The first is that it reinforces a media narrative about him, which means it’s the kind of scandal that sticks: he’s a bully. The second is that it undermines his populist appeal and his anti-corruption bona fides. (Though his apologetic press conference today will probably win back points on that score.)

Both explanations are true, which is why they’ve proliferated as if they’ve been sent from the wires. And yet, accurate as they are, these explanations don’t seem to quite get to the bottom of it. The question at the heart of this is: Why does the public like Chris Christie enough to make a Republican governor of New Jersey an early favorite for 2016? Yes, they like his honesty, his bluntness, his humor, and his relatable persona. But I think there’s a missing ingredient to his popularity.

Christie was the consummate outsider as a candidate for governor, but how he translated that into office really enabled him to own the moniker. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government, and bipartisan frustration with the status quo in Washington, presents true “outsider” politicians with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but which turned out to be a cruel joke played on the voters: Obama, as Kevin Williamson has so cogently pointed out, is “the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.”

As a candidate, Obama truly was an outsider: though a senator, he had only just arrived in that august body, using his community-organizer credibility to promise a government of the people, a tree directed by its roots. As president, however, Obama has been exactly the opposite of an outsider. He has become one with the bureaucracy, not only not a leader but barely even a manager.

Looking back at the some of the moments when Western democracy truly asserted itself and proved its unmatched value to the politics of the world, it’s impossible not to repeatedly bump into the outsider presidents, people who rebelled against the bureaucracy that expected to capture them–a government of insiders who shuddered at the thought their new leader.

As David McCullough chronicles in his biography of Harry Truman, when FDR died and Truman took over, “People were fearful about the future of the country.” The head of the TVA said “The country and the world don’t deserve to be left this way.” Top generals disapproved too. Truman was such an outsider that FDR kept him out of the loop–unconscionably, considering his health. The president of the United States took the helm during World War II and had to be briefed on virtually everything that was going on in the White House.

And yet that very distance was liberating to Truman, even if he wanted to govern as he thought FDR would have–in part because, thanks to being kept in the dark, he didn’t actually know how FDR was governing most of the time. From challenging the labor unions to pushing back against Soviet encroachment, Truman successfully (if imperfectly) navigated the obstacles of the emerging postwar world. Eisenhower is often celebrated for his “realism,” but that’s because he largely maintained the American position of strength he inherited from Truman.

The Cold War that began in earnest on Truman’s watch ended in earnest on the watch of another political rebel, Ronald Reagan. He worried diplomatists in Washington by exhorting Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” He had worried hardliners earlier with his off-script diplomacy at the Reykjavik summit; Nixon said “no summit since Yalta has threatened Western interests so much as the two days at Reykjavik.”

He worried hawks with his drive to eliminate nuclear weapons. He worried doves with his drive for missile defense. Over and over again, he was right. But he had to navigate the established centers of authority on both right and left to get there, and he did so expertly. He remained enough of an outsider to do so.

And across the pond, Reagan’s ally was arguably more of a rebel against the establishment. Think of all the layers of resistance Margaret Thatcher had to break through to get to the prime minister’s office, and all the internal barriers she had to overcome once there–though of course the British premiership is structured differently than the American presidency, so the parallels are limited. (In some cases, though, that disparity makes Thatcher’s accomplishments even more impressive.)

Chris Christie’s time in office has given the impression that he would remain an outsider in Washington. Getting a Democratic state legislature in a heavily Democratic state to vote against the interests of the most powerful Democratic constituency was an example of an outsider undeterred by the entrenched power structure. When members of such an administration appear to use the authority of the state to take petty revenge on political opponents at the expense of the public, the impression is that the power structure has finally co-opted its would-be conqueror. To regain his footing, Christie will likely attempt to convince the public that he can still be trusted to tame the bureaucracy, and not be captured by it.

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