Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ronald Reagan

The Iron Lady Belongs to the Ages

For many people of my generation–born in the 1960s and who really came of age politically during the 1980s–the two largest figures in our political imagination were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. President Reagan died in 2004, and early this morning Prime Minister Thatcher passed away at the age of 87.

I vividly recall spending time with Mrs. Thatcher at a small gathering in Bath, England in the early 1990s, at a conference hosted by National Review. She was spectacular, both in informal conversations and in her speech. You couldn’t spend five minutes with Mrs. Thatcher without knowing that this was a person of tremendous depth, intelligence and convictions. And considerable charm, too.

There are many things one could say in tribute of Thatcher, but I want to focus on simply two. The first was her ability to challenge and re-shape the assumptions of the people whom she was elected to lead. 

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For many people of my generation–born in the 1960s and who really came of age politically during the 1980s–the two largest figures in our political imagination were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. President Reagan died in 2004, and early this morning Prime Minister Thatcher passed away at the age of 87.

I vividly recall spending time with Mrs. Thatcher at a small gathering in Bath, England in the early 1990s, at a conference hosted by National Review. She was spectacular, both in informal conversations and in her speech. You couldn’t spend five minutes with Mrs. Thatcher without knowing that this was a person of tremendous depth, intelligence and convictions. And considerable charm, too.

There are many things one could say in tribute of Thatcher, but I want to focus on simply two. The first was her ability to challenge and re-shape the assumptions of the people whom she was elected to lead. 

In the 1970s, Great Britain was “the sick man of Europe,” crippled by powerful labor unions and creeping socialism. What Thatcher did was to directly challenge the philosophy of socialism, which she fiercely attacked. Her speeches, both before she became prime minister and afterward, were models of discourse. They were not merely words strung together or boilerplate phrases; she marshaled powerful arguments on behalf of democratic capitalism and liberty. And she had the courage and skill to implement those policies over great opposition, and with great successes. (She was prime minister for 11 and a half years.) Over time she altered the outlook of the British people, which is quite a rare and impressive political achievement. She was, to use a metaphor, more of a thermostat than she was a thermometer. She changed the political and philosophical climate of her nation, in ways that few others ever have.

The second testimony to Mrs. Thatcher is the way she influenced the opposition party. Pre-Thatcher, the Labour Party was a hopeless wreck, enchanted with socialism and statism at home (it favored the wholesale nationalization of key industries) and unilateral disarmament and moral weakness abroad. 

The result of Thatcherism was the rise of Tony Blair, who fundamentally reshaped the British Labour Party and moved it in a much more conservative direction on issues like national security, crime, welfare, education, and economics. Sometimes the way you measure the influence of political leaders isn’t simply their impact on their party but on the opposition. And by this standard, Mrs. Thatcher’s reach, like her beloved friend Ronald Reagan’s, was enormous.

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of a nation that was demoralized and on the decline. She lifted Great Britain from its knees and returned it to greatness. She was one of the 20th century’s most consequential leaders, a woman of impressive virtues, and one of America’s greatest friends and allies. She will be terribly missed and never forgotten. Margaret Thatcher belongs to the ages. 

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Margaret Thatcher

One of the giants who walked the earth in my lifetime, Margaret Thatcher, has died at the age of 87.

With the exception of Winston Churchill, she was, without question, the greatest British prime minister of the 20th century. Before she went to 10 Downing Street in 1979, Britain had been in seemingly irreversible decline, its empire gone, its industry ramshackle, its politics in thrall to the trade unions. Britain was the sick man of Europe. By the time she left office, in 1990, all that had changed. The power of the unions had been broken, the British economy was expanding rapidly, the government had sold off previously socialized industries. The United Kingdom was, once again, one of the great nations of the world.

Like all great people of determination and principle, she was savagely criticized. She was called “La pasionaria of privilege” and “Attila the hen.” But, thoroughly at home in the rough and tumble of the House of Commons, it didn’t bother her a bit. She was delighted when Mikhail Gorbachev dubbed her “the iron lady.” Along with Ronald Reagan, with whom she developed a very close relationship, she changed the whole tone of international politics and helped bring the Cold War to an end with the collapse of Communism and the success of free-market capitalism. The world was a different, and better, place after her premiership.

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One of the giants who walked the earth in my lifetime, Margaret Thatcher, has died at the age of 87.

With the exception of Winston Churchill, she was, without question, the greatest British prime minister of the 20th century. Before she went to 10 Downing Street in 1979, Britain had been in seemingly irreversible decline, its empire gone, its industry ramshackle, its politics in thrall to the trade unions. Britain was the sick man of Europe. By the time she left office, in 1990, all that had changed. The power of the unions had been broken, the British economy was expanding rapidly, the government had sold off previously socialized industries. The United Kingdom was, once again, one of the great nations of the world.

Like all great people of determination and principle, she was savagely criticized. She was called “La pasionaria of privilege” and “Attila the hen.” But, thoroughly at home in the rough and tumble of the House of Commons, it didn’t bother her a bit. She was delighted when Mikhail Gorbachev dubbed her “the iron lady.” Along with Ronald Reagan, with whom she developed a very close relationship, she changed the whole tone of international politics and helped bring the Cold War to an end with the collapse of Communism and the success of free-market capitalism. The world was a different, and better, place after her premiership.

Perhaps her finest moment was when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. Thousands of miles away from Britain, inhabited by a few thousand sheep farmers, cold and rainy, many thought the islands not worth the price that would have to be paid to recover them. But Margaret Thatcher, convening a cabinet meeting on the subject after the news of the invasion, said simply, “Gentlemen, we shall have to fight.”

And fight they did. It cost millions of pounds and hundreds of lives, but Britain recovered the islands and defeated naked aggression. The results elsewhere were enormously positive. Not only did the people of the Falklands keep the government they wanted, but the junta ruling Argentina fell and democracy returned to that much misgoverned country. The victory greatly raised British spirits and national pride, which badly needed raising. Thatcher called an election following the military triumph and enjoyed a political one.

Like all great political leaders, Margaret Thatcher was a great personality. Like FDR, Churchill, and Reagan, people who never met her still felt they knew her almost personally. She was far more than just a name in a headline. And that is why, along with her accomplishments, Margaret Thatcher is immortal, one who will be written about and argued about for as long as the 20th century itself is. After all, she has already been the subject of a great Hollywood movie. Can you imagine anyone making a movie about Edward Heath or Harold Wilson?

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Thatcher: A Leader Vindicated by History

It is a common conceit of age to imagine that giants roamed the earth in one’s youth while today the political scene is populated by pygmies. But I still cling to that view, for my formative years occurred while Ronald Reagan was president and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Naturally, as an American, I was more focused on Reagan. But Thatcher, whose exploits were covered in the newspapers and magazines that I read (the Los Angeles Times, National Review, Newsweek), was an inspiration too. That is why I am sad to learn of her death, although it was hardly unexpected–she had been terribly debilitated by strokes in recent years.

What Reagan and Thatcher showed–and it is a lesson that may seem at odds with the conservative impulse that the private sector is the most significant–is what a difference political leadership can make. (Later Rudolph Giuliani showed the same thing–he was for urban policy what Reagan and Thatcher were for national policy.) They both inherited a mess: In Thatcher’s case she took over in 1979 following the “Winter of Discontent” when Britain was paralyzed by multiple strikes and high unemployment. As the Conservative advertising slogan had it, “Labour isn’t working.” Reagan, of course, took over from Jimmy Carter in the wake of the failed hostage-rescue mission and in the midst of a severe recession characterized by “stagflation.” Worst of all was a widespread loss of confidence in the future–both in Britain and America it was fashionable back then to imagine that the “the West” was finished and that the Soviet Union was ascendant.

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It is a common conceit of age to imagine that giants roamed the earth in one’s youth while today the political scene is populated by pygmies. But I still cling to that view, for my formative years occurred while Ronald Reagan was president and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Naturally, as an American, I was more focused on Reagan. But Thatcher, whose exploits were covered in the newspapers and magazines that I read (the Los Angeles Times, National Review, Newsweek), was an inspiration too. That is why I am sad to learn of her death, although it was hardly unexpected–she had been terribly debilitated by strokes in recent years.

What Reagan and Thatcher showed–and it is a lesson that may seem at odds with the conservative impulse that the private sector is the most significant–is what a difference political leadership can make. (Later Rudolph Giuliani showed the same thing–he was for urban policy what Reagan and Thatcher were for national policy.) They both inherited a mess: In Thatcher’s case she took over in 1979 following the “Winter of Discontent” when Britain was paralyzed by multiple strikes and high unemployment. As the Conservative advertising slogan had it, “Labour isn’t working.” Reagan, of course, took over from Jimmy Carter in the wake of the failed hostage-rescue mission and in the midst of a severe recession characterized by “stagflation.” Worst of all was a widespread loss of confidence in the future–both in Britain and America it was fashionable back then to imagine that the “the West” was finished and that the Soviet Union was ascendant.

Reagan and Thatcher would have none of it. Both were firmly outside the political and intellectual mainstream, and both were derided as simpletons for imagining that they could reverse the course of history. But that is precisely what they did–Reagan with his tax cuts (helped by Fed chairman Paul Volcker’s anti-inflationary policy) and defense spending increases which, respectively, revived the economy and restored our military power; Thatcher with her income-tax cuts, budget cuts, interest-rate hikes and her willingness to stand up to the unions, all of which revived the British economy, and her willingness to fight Argentina for the Falkland Islands, which restored British confidence.

It was a bravura performance, all the more so because both Thatcher and Reagan had to overcome personal doubts about their ability to govern, doubts exacerbated, in her case, by her gender (she was the first and so far only female prime minister in Britain) and, in his case, by his former profession (he was the first and so far only actor to become president). Thatcher’s challenge was all the greater given that so much of the Conservative Party remained “wet”–i.e., skeptical of her conservative principles. Eventually it was not the political opposition but her own party which toppled her, leading to a long period of Conservative wandering in the wilderness, punctuated by uninspiring rule first by John Major and now by David Cameron, neither of whom will ever be mentioned in the same breath as the Iron Lady.

Like Reagan, Thatcher was vindicated by history–and just as Reagan was praised by Bill Clinton, so she was praised by Tony Blair. She will be remembered as the greatest female ruler since Queen Elizabeth I and the greatest British prime minister since Winston Churchill.

Her example, and Reagan’s, is worth remembering today at a time when there is widespread pessimism in both Britain and America about our ability to solve our long-term problems–pessimism created in no small part because of the anemic economies presided over by David Cameron and Barack Obama. The problem now, as in 1979, is not with the underlying American or British society. The problem is with our political leadership. Reagan and Thatcher showed what inspired leadership can achieve. Imagine what we could do if giants like them were to walk the earth again. That may seem unlikely, but we can take heart from the fact that the worse a crisis is, the higher the prospects that a great leader will emerge out of the political muck.

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The Paul Doctrine in Practice

The New York Times jumps into the lingering Rand Paul vs. the Establishment storyline today, purporting to examine what Paul’s popularity portends for the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. But in truth, such stories have been able to paint this as a significant rift within the party only by utilizing the same selective vagueness that Paul himself employs when discussing political ideology. Some of this is, of course, natural and understandable–at least on Paul’s part–because a worldview must have overarching principles.

But what Paul’s foreign policy would mean in practice is incredibly unclear in the Times piece. It devotes more than a thousand words to the subject and still manages to paint an extremely and frustratingly incomplete picture. This is to Paul’s benefit. Only a selective reading of history–by both Paul and the New York Times–gives the appearance of a philosophical divide in which the two sides are more evenly balanced than they really are. For example, the Times writes:

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The New York Times jumps into the lingering Rand Paul vs. the Establishment storyline today, purporting to examine what Paul’s popularity portends for the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. But in truth, such stories have been able to paint this as a significant rift within the party only by utilizing the same selective vagueness that Paul himself employs when discussing political ideology. Some of this is, of course, natural and understandable–at least on Paul’s part–because a worldview must have overarching principles.

But what Paul’s foreign policy would mean in practice is incredibly unclear in the Times piece. It devotes more than a thousand words to the subject and still manages to paint an extremely and frustratingly incomplete picture. This is to Paul’s benefit. Only a selective reading of history–by both Paul and the New York Times–gives the appearance of a philosophical divide in which the two sides are more evenly balanced than they really are. For example, the Times writes:

Some Republicans are less worried. They view Mr. Paul’s crusade as nothing more than the usual attempt by members of the opposition party to undermine the assertive foreign policy of an incumbent president.

In the 1980s, Democrats harshly criticized President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to arm Nicaraguan rebels. During the 1990s, Republicans derisively called President Bill Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo “Clinton’s war.” In Mr. Obama’s first term, critics assailed his expansion of the war against terrorism, including the expanded use of drones.

There are two omissions in that second paragraph of ostensible examples of partisan game-playing masquerading as honest policy criticism. The first omission is of the administration of George W. Bush and his domestic political critics. Excluding Bush from this list exempts Democratic criticism of the war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the ranks of cynical point scoring and elevates it to something more substantial. But in fact Democrats’ behavior on Iraq was nauseating. Democratic Party leaders stomped their feet demanding action to curb Saddam Hussein’s behavior for years during the Clinton administration, at a time when it became official American policy to support regime change in Iraq. They ramped up that rhetoric when Bush became president and could be painted as vacillating at a time of choosing. And they voted overwhelmingly for the war. Then they bolted.

The second omission is in referring to Obama’s “critics” of the drone program without party affiliation. The truth is that Republicans and conservatives support the drone program. Though many on the right appreciated Paul’s filibuster and his ability to easily win a round of publicity against the president, a great deal of those supporters actually disagreed with Paul on policy. Charles Krauthammer is the latest to express this clearly, writing in his Washington Post column today that the outlandishness of Paul’s one specific example of droning Jane Fonda meant that “Paul’s performance was both theatrically brilliant and substantively irrelevant.”

In fairness to Paul, he isn’t quite as vague about how to translate his principles into action as his defenders usually are, which indicates they know the limits of the Paul doctrine, such as it is. In his major foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation, Paul spoke at length about the need to incorporate a policy of containment into America’s broader foreign policy grand strategy, and he put that recommendation in the context of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. (He deserves credit, at least, for being honest about staking out a position to the left of the one currently claimed by President Obama.) He quoted George Kennan to this effect throughout his speech.

But he also quoted Kennan approvingly in Kennan’s critique of Harry Truman’s version of containment. This is an implicit acknowledgement that, pace Paul, it was not Kennan’s vision of containment that won the Cold War–and in fact Kennan’s version of containment was immediately and frankly rejected by Truman and his advisors who helped craft the Truman Doctrine. It is also not Paul’s version of containment, then, that was successful and it is highly misleading for Paul to try to pass his own policy off as the successful Cold War strategy utilized by presidents from Truman to Reagan (and the first Bush).

Paul will have much support on the right to try and move the GOP away from Iraq-style invasion and occupation; the public is noticeably war-weary. But the public also supports military action against Iran if the alternative is letting them get the bomb. Paul also complements Reagan’s foreign policy and tries to claim its mantle. But given Paul’s support for cutting the defense budget, does anyone honestly believe that Paul would have supported the crucial Strategic Defense Initiative? More likely, he would have argued against it as a waste of money and a tactic that made war more likely.

As I’ve written before, Paul is no crank or conspiracy theorist. But there is much room between that and mainstream conservative foreign policy. So far, Paul seems to get the easy questions–and only the easy questions–right. That’s better than nothing, but not by much.

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Conservatism and the Search for Apostates

During a recent interview on NBC’s The Today Show, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was asked whether the Republican Party should put revenue increases on the table in order to reach a grand bargain.

Governor Bush said it’s hard to imagine that, after the tax increases that went into effect earlier this year, one could argue we have a revenue problem. When pressed by Matt Lauer, however, whether there was any “wiggle room,” Bush said, “There may be [room for revenue] if the president is sincere about dealing with our structural problems.” And he went on to speak about the importance of growth as a way to increase revenues.

It didn’t take long for Bush’s critics to strike. As a story  in the Washington Post put it:

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During a recent interview on NBC’s The Today Show, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was asked whether the Republican Party should put revenue increases on the table in order to reach a grand bargain.

Governor Bush said it’s hard to imagine that, after the tax increases that went into effect earlier this year, one could argue we have a revenue problem. When pressed by Matt Lauer, however, whether there was any “wiggle room,” Bush said, “There may be [room for revenue] if the president is sincere about dealing with our structural problems.” And he went on to speak about the importance of growth as a way to increase revenues.

It didn’t take long for Bush’s critics to strike. As a story  in the Washington Post put it:

[Bush] drew a sharp critique from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist… Norquist likened Bush’s comments to “throwing marbles at the feet” of GOP lawmakers. “If you’re trying to introduce yourself to the modern Republican Party outside of Florida, probably best not to start with a discussion about how much you could be talked into a tax increase,” Norquist said. “People are looking for someone who’s tough, and you’re saying, ‘I’d fold.’”        

Craig Shirley, in the context of a broader attack on Bush writes, “A Bush speaking at the Reagan dinner [the annual Conservative Political Action Conference dinner] is for True Believers mind-boggling.” Shirley goes on to say, “Jeb Bush might also explain his call this week for even higher taxes on the American worker.”

Now both Norquist and Shirley have, in different ways, made useful contributions to the conservative cause–Norquist on policy and Shirley through his fine book on the 1980 Reagan campaign. I’ve had cordial communications with both; but in this instance their criticisms strike me as misguided.

For one thing, Jeb Bush was a highly successful conservative governor. To therefore characterize an invitation to Bush to speak at CPAC’s annual dinner as “mind-boggling” is itself a bit mind-boggling. (It’s worth noting that Bush spoke last week at the Reagan Library where he was warmly welcomed.)

In addition, Bush was not calling for higher taxes on American workers; he was saying that if Barack Obama was serious about dealing with our structural problems–meaning our unsustainable entitlement system–there may be room for an increase in revenues, which could be done by closing loopholes and deductions instead of increasing tax rates. Bush wasn’t saying he expected the president to tackle entitlements in a serious manner; he was merely answering a hypothetical in a reasonable way.

But the main point I want to underscore is the danger to conservatism when someone like Jeb Bush (or Mitch Daniels, or Bob McDonnell, or Chris Christie) is considered an apostate.

Let’s consider Bush’s record as governor. While Bush never signed an anti-tax pledge, he never raised taxes. In fact, he cut taxes every year he was governor (covering eight years and totaling $20 billion). 

Ronald Reagan, by contrast, 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–as well as the nation’s first no-fault divorce law and legislation liberalizing California’s abortion laws, which even people sympathetic to Reagan concede “led to an explosion of abortions in the nation’s largest state.” (Reagan didn’t anticipate the consequences of the law and deeply regretted his action.)

Now imagine the Norquist and Shirley standard being applied to Reagan in the 1970s. If Jeb Bush’s comments unleashed heated attacks, even given his sterling anti-tax record, think about what Reagan’s support for unprecedented tax increases–including higher taxes on top rates, sales taxes, bank and corporate taxes, and the inheritance tax–would have elicited. The Gipper would have been accused of being a RINO, a pseudo-conservative, unprincipled, and a member of the loathsome Establishment. Fortunately for Reagan (and for America) the temptation to turn conservatism into a rigid ideology was not as strong then than it is now.

To be clear: I consider Reagan to be among the greatest presidents of the 20th century and a monumental figure in the conservative movement. He shaped my political philosophy more than any other politician in my lifetime, and working in his administration was a great privilege. I’m just glad he was judged in the totality of his (conservative) acts, which were enormously impressive, and not marked out as unprincipled or a heretic because of his transgressions against conservative orthodoxy. 

What is sometimes forgotten about Reagan, I think, is that he was not only a man well grounded in political theory; he was also a supremely great politician who made thousands of decisions and compromised throughout his career, usually wisely but sometimes not. And on those rare occasions when he was criticized by movement conservatives, he was known to complain about those who wanted to go “off the cliff with all flags flying.”

It tells you something about the times in which we live that some of those who consider themselves to be the torchbearers of Reaganism are now employing a standard of purity that Reagan himself could not have met and would never have insisted on.

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The GOP’s Intellectual Unfreezing

Ramesh Ponnuru, a leading thinker on the right, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that is worth reading. He argues that Republicans “slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones.”

Ponnuru provides examples; including pointing out that the top tax rate when Reagan took office was 70 percent v. 35 percent for most of the last decade. (The payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people.) He also points out Reagan inherited an economy in which inflation was in double digits v. just two percent over the last five years. The conditions we face in 2013 are, as one would expect, quite a bit different than what Reagan faced more than three decades ago.

In the March issue of COMMENTARY, Michael Gerson and I offer a similar argument, saying:

And it is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years. 

To be clear: Reasonable tax rates and sound monetary policy remain important economic commitments. But America now confronts a series of challenges that have to do with globalization, stagnant wages, the loss of blue-collar jobs, exploding health-care and college costs, and the collapse of the culture of marriage. 

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Ramesh Ponnuru, a leading thinker on the right, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that is worth reading. He argues that Republicans “slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones.”

Ponnuru provides examples; including pointing out that the top tax rate when Reagan took office was 70 percent v. 35 percent for most of the last decade. (The payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people.) He also points out Reagan inherited an economy in which inflation was in double digits v. just two percent over the last five years. The conditions we face in 2013 are, as one would expect, quite a bit different than what Reagan faced more than three decades ago.

In the March issue of COMMENTARY, Michael Gerson and I offer a similar argument, saying:

And it is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years. 

To be clear: Reasonable tax rates and sound monetary policy remain important economic commitments. But America now confronts a series of challenges that have to do with globalization, stagnant wages, the loss of blue-collar jobs, exploding health-care and college costs, and the collapse of the culture of marriage. 

Ponnuru in his op-ed, and Gerson and I in our essay, offer up policies that we believe address the issues facing America in the 21st century. People can read both pieces and judge the merits of our recommendations. But I want to make two other points.

The first is that there is an intellectual unfreezing that is taking place within the Republican Party that is all to the good. People from different parts of the party and who represent different strands within conservatism are offering up ideas for what needs to be done. Not all of them are wise, of course, but competing ideas need to be heard. Fortunately the impulse to attack people as heretics who should be expelled from the party is for the most part being held in check. That’s not true of everyone, of course. Some people are temperamentally attracted to an auto-da-fe. But it seems to me that in general there’s a real openness on the part of Republican lawmakers and conservatives to recalibration.

The second point is that Reagan himself was a fairly creative policy entrepreneur in his own right. He advanced what was essentially a new economic theory, supply side economics, and replaced détente and containment with a strategy of rolling back the Soviet empire.

Those approaches are well known and seem obvious now, but at the time they were unorthodox and controversial. It was Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan who in 1980 confessed, “Of a sudden, the GOP has become a party of ideas.”

Ronald Reagan adjusted his policies to meet the challenges of his time, and two generations after Reagan, Republicans and conservatives need to do the same thing.

Let the recalibration and rethinking continue. 

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Rand Paul’s Dangerous Approach to Iran

Rand Paul’s efforts to establish foreign policy credentials in advance of a likely 2016 presidential campaign escalated yesterday with a major speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he sought to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. Paul defined himself as being neither an isolationist like his extremist father Ron nor a neoconservative. He hopes that this address, like his recent trip to Israel, will make it clear that he cannot be dismissed as an outlier on defense and security matters. But his campaign to cast himself as the second coming of Reagan is not believable. Judging by his remarks, his real role models are Cold War containment strategist George Kennan and James Baker, secretary of state under the first President Bush whose “realist” policies did little to prepare the country for the post-Soviet world or the threat from Islamist terror.

Unlike Baker, who made little secret of his contempt for Israel, Paul is being very careful these days to give the Jewish state some love even though his position on aid to it misses the point about its strategic dilemma. But on the most important issue facing Israel—the Iranian nuclear threat—Paul placed himself clearly outside of the mainstream. The key takeaway from the speech was that the Kentucky senator wants to put containment of a nuclear Iran back on the table. Though he tries to couch this in terms that make it seem as if he is being a tough advocate of a true conservative foreign policy, he has put himself even to the left of Barack Obama on Iran.

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Rand Paul’s efforts to establish foreign policy credentials in advance of a likely 2016 presidential campaign escalated yesterday with a major speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he sought to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. Paul defined himself as being neither an isolationist like his extremist father Ron nor a neoconservative. He hopes that this address, like his recent trip to Israel, will make it clear that he cannot be dismissed as an outlier on defense and security matters. But his campaign to cast himself as the second coming of Reagan is not believable. Judging by his remarks, his real role models are Cold War containment strategist George Kennan and James Baker, secretary of state under the first President Bush whose “realist” policies did little to prepare the country for the post-Soviet world or the threat from Islamist terror.

Unlike Baker, who made little secret of his contempt for Israel, Paul is being very careful these days to give the Jewish state some love even though his position on aid to it misses the point about its strategic dilemma. But on the most important issue facing Israel—the Iranian nuclear threat—Paul placed himself clearly outside of the mainstream. The key takeaway from the speech was that the Kentucky senator wants to put containment of a nuclear Iran back on the table. Though he tries to couch this in terms that make it seem as if he is being a tough advocate of a true conservative foreign policy, he has put himself even to the left of Barack Obama on Iran.

Paul’s premise is that the U.S. should be unpredictable, but by raising doubts as to whether the Iranians should fear a military action to prevent them from gaining nuclear capability, he is actually telegraphing exactly what he would do about this threat if he were president: nothing. Though he tells us he doesn’t want Iran to go nuclear, his primary objective is to avoid any foreign military entanglements, even those, like Iran, that wouldn’t necessarily involve boots on the ground or a long-term land war. As such, all this talk from him about considering containment is merely an excuse for ignoring a problem that threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East, undermine Western security, and pose an existential threat to the state of Israel.

The senator’s attempt to claim that Israelis are having a debate about Iran that Americans are not also misunderstands what is happening in Israel. It is true that some former intelligence officials there have criticized the Netanyahu government on Iran. But their disagreement is not about whether Iran should be contained but whether Israel can or should act on its own. There is little dissent there about the idea that the U.S. should act to stop Iran, and it is on that point that Paul would like to inject some ambiguity rather than the certainty that is needed if Iran is ever to step back from the nuclear brink.

Just as important as this potential blunder is his misapplication of Kennan’s containment ideas to the conflict with radical Islamists. Kennan’s idea worked to some extent because the two superpowers of the postwar era were prevented by the existence of nuclear weapons from engaging in a traditional direct war against each other. Containment allowed the U.S. to try, not always successfully, to prevent the spread of Communism around the globe without triggering World War III. If, in the end, the West prevailed it was because its efforts to combat Soviet expansionism and its raising of the ante in the arms race made it clear to the Russians they couldn’t win. But the current struggle with the Islamists is nothing like that. Neither the Iranians nor their terrorist auxiliaries and allies can be counted on to behave with the relative restraint exercised by Moscow.

Paul’s call for an unpredictable American policy in which force could potentially be used in some situations and not in others misunderstands the lessons of containment. Though some of the U.S. responses to Communist encroachment, like Vietnam, didn’t turn out well, the results from American decisions not to respond in Africa and Asia were just as disastrous and encouraged further trouble. Though Reagan did not try to liberate captive peoples, a strategy that he derided as unrealistic, he also made sure that the Soviets were resisted everywhere. The long-term impact of these interventions–such as U.S. support to the resistance in Afghanistan–was unfortunate, but allowing them a free hand there would not have advanced American security and might have put off the date of Soviet collapse.

Paul says he wants a strategy to deal with our foes that does not appease them. Some of his instincts on this topic are right, such as his vote against the sale of F-16 aircraft to the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt as well as his general opposition to providing arms to Arab countries that might use them against our ally Israel. But an America that disengages from the Middle East in the way that he envisions and which signals, as he would, that it may tolerate a nuclear Iran, is just as dangerous as appeasement. The only thing about this that is credible is his dedication to avoiding war. Everything else in his vision is merely a rationalization for the principle of non-intervention no matter how grievous the consequences of that stand might be.

The path that he would chart for the country is not a middle way between certain war and appeasement. It is, at best, a charter that would enable Iran to assume regional hegemony without having to worry much about U.S. force and a threatened Israel. At worst, it is a blueprint for American decline that will make the world a much more dangerous place.

Though his speech demonstrates a certain grasp of history and the desire of Americans to avoid replays of Iraq and Afghanistan, when the elements are boiled down to their essentials, it must be seen as merely a sophisticated gloss on the libertarian ideas that his father presented in a much more primitive manner. His call for what he thinks is a Reagan-like constraint abroad is merely an excuse to reduce defense spending and to refuse to engage in conflicts that cannot be wished away.

As wrongheaded as this foreign policy manifest may be, it is a good deal more presentable than Ron Paul’s woolly isolationism and thus will make his quest for the GOP presidential nomination more viable. But it should also end the brief flirtation with the senator that some in the pro-Israel community have been engaging in since November. Paul’s desire to put containment of Iran back on the table is a refreshing change from Chuck Hagel’s inability to articulate the administration’s nominal stand. The administration’s stand on Iran has been all rhetoric and no action so far, but even that is better than what Paul has proposed. Anyone looking to Rand Paul for a fresh Republican face that can put forward a sensible foreign policy strategy needs to keep looking.

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Obama’s “Throw Rocks at It” Approach to Capitol Hill

Today is Richard Nixon’s centennial, which will draw attention to relevant aspects of Nixon’s life and legacy besides Watergate. Nixon’s grasp of American politics was unusually sharp, and a Politico story today about President Obama’s striking disinterest in negotiating with Republicans calls to mind a piece of advice Nixon once gave to Ronald Reagan through William F. Buckley.

Despite the claims that Obama is “the Democrats’ Reagan,” Obama lacks Reagan’s best qualities, especially his temperament. Nixon and Buckley were having lunch when Nixon made a suggestion for Reagan: the president’s admirable affability shouldn’t preclude having someone else be tough on the Democrats for him, enabling Reagan to stay above the fray. Here is how Buckley relayed the advice to Reagan (“RN” is Nixon; “RR” is Reagan):

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Today is Richard Nixon’s centennial, which will draw attention to relevant aspects of Nixon’s life and legacy besides Watergate. Nixon’s grasp of American politics was unusually sharp, and a Politico story today about President Obama’s striking disinterest in negotiating with Republicans calls to mind a piece of advice Nixon once gave to Ronald Reagan through William F. Buckley.

Despite the claims that Obama is “the Democrats’ Reagan,” Obama lacks Reagan’s best qualities, especially his temperament. Nixon and Buckley were having lunch when Nixon made a suggestion for Reagan: the president’s admirable affability shouldn’t preclude having someone else be tough on the Democrats for him, enabling Reagan to stay above the fray. Here is how Buckley relayed the advice to Reagan (“RN” is Nixon; “RR” is Reagan):

“He needs an Agnew,” RN said. “He did it for me, and he was first-rate–check his ratings back then. I did it for Ike. Ike was smooth. But when I went all-out against the Dems, and they went to Ike, he’d sort of shrug his shoulders, but when he saw me, he’d say: ‘Attaboy, Dick. More of the same.’” What if [John] Connally wouldn’t? Well, RR would need to find somebody who would do it. The Dems are terrifically vulnerable, but there isn’t anybody out there in headline-country who’s skewering them with their own vulnerabilities. It’s got to be done.

Contrast that with how Obama approaches his political fights with the Republicans. A perfect example was Obama’s bizarre campaign-style event at which he taunted Republicans about the fiscal cliff deal before the deal was even done. Rather than use his vice president–Joe Biden can be as vicious as they come, and he’ll always get a pass from the media–to shove Republicans around, allowing Obama to stay above the fray and look presidential, Obama does this himself while tasking Biden with the actual work of governing. Here’s Politico:

His apparent conclusion, after watching the implosion of the House GOP’s effort to pass a modest tax increase before the final fiscal cliff deal, is that the best way to deal with the Capitol is to throw rocks at it — then send Vice President Joe Biden in to clean up the glass.

The result is that we only got a fiscal cliff deal, however imperfect, because Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reached out to Biden and the two put something together. Obama has always been uninterested in the details, which is why we had to pass the bill with his name on it–Obamacare–just to find out what’s in it. And as the New York Times has reported, Obama isn’t interested in building relationships with either party on Capitol Hill. With an air of entitlement, he dispenses demands and assumes someone will always be there to clean up the messes he makes in Washington.

That someone, these days, is Joe Biden. But the roles can’t be reversed so easily. The public looks to the president to set the tone of an administration, and what they’ve seen in Obama’s four years is mostly petty and vindictive behavior. And it’s only a matter of time before Biden reverts back to his old “put y’all back in chains” self. Reagan’s problem, according to Nixon, was that he didn’t have anybody “throwing rocks” at the other side. Obama’s problem is that he’s running out of people to clean up the glass.

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The Difference Between a Concession and a Confession

One of the arguments some intelligent conservatives are making is that if Republicans agree to increase rates on the top earners in America, it will do irreparable damage to the GOP. The basic case goes like this:

If Obama succeeds and ends up getting a confession from Republicans that tax cuts are the problem, tax cuts are the cause, what happens to the next Republican who campaigns on tax cuts? Not going to have a prayer.

Now it may well be that raising tax rates will do significant damage to the Republican Party. It may be substantively unwise. And I’m certainly sympathetic to Republicans not wanting to play a role in something they think is bad policy.

But here’s where I think this analysis is wrong.

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One of the arguments some intelligent conservatives are making is that if Republicans agree to increase rates on the top earners in America, it will do irreparable damage to the GOP. The basic case goes like this:

If Obama succeeds and ends up getting a confession from Republicans that tax cuts are the problem, tax cuts are the cause, what happens to the next Republican who campaigns on tax cuts? Not going to have a prayer.

Now it may well be that raising tax rates will do significant damage to the Republican Party. It may be substantively unwise. And I’m certainly sympathetic to Republicans not wanting to play a role in something they think is bad policy.

But here’s where I think this analysis is wrong.

If Republicans agreed to raise the rates on the top income earners in America, it would not be a “confession” that tax cuts are the problem. It would be a concession–one done in order to (a) keep something worse from happening (e.g., higher taxes on everyone, not just the top 2 percent of income earners; and/or the economic damage caused by going over the fiscal cliff) or (b) extracting something better in return (for example, entitlement reforms).

Whether the concession is worthwhile depends on the details of a deal. But conservatives should bear in mind that even a politician as principled as Ronald Reagan agreed to tax increases as part of broader deals. Indeed, Reagan agreed to what at the time was the largest tax increase in American history (the TEFRA tax).

It’s true that Reagan came to regret that decision. But the reason is that he never got the spending cuts he asked for in exchange for the tax increase he reluctantly agreed to. If he had, Reagan would have defended his decision on the grounds that the tax increases, which as a general matter he strongly opposed, were worth what he was able to get in return (spending cuts). And even though Reagan had agreed to tax increases in 1982, he and his party were still able to champion tax cuts in 1984. 

My guess is at the end of the day, Speaker Boehner will (wisely) not agree to raise the top rates, given how obstinate and unreasonable President Obama has shown himself to be. But even if Boehner does agree to an increase in the top rates, it will be a concession, not a confession.

Ronald Reagan agreed to tax increases and in the process didn’t ruin the GOP brand, and neither would John Boehner. 

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Missile Defense Stands Up to Scrutiny

It is amazing the controversy that missile defense continues to arouse nearly 30 years after Ronald Reagan gave his famous “Star Wars” speech. Yesterday I posted an item saying that Reagan’s vision of intercepting missiles had been vindicated by the success that Israel’s Iron Dome system is having in knocking down Hamas rockets–some 300 so far. This sparked much indignation on Twitter and the blogosphere, with a graduate student named Matt Fay writing an entire blog item in reply arguing “Iron Dome Does Not Vindicate SDI,” and political scientist/blogger Robert Farley posting numerous tweets in a similar vein. They attack me for one alleged factual error and for a larger conceptual error of equating defense against Russian ICBMs, which have a range of thousands of miles, with defense against short-range Hamas rockets which can travel no more than 50 miles and often less. Let me explain in brief why I stand by my original point.

First, the supposed factual error is more an omission than a mistake. I wrote that “the U.S. West Coast is actually protected by a limited ballistic-missile defense system based primarily around satellites, sea-based Aegis and X-band radars, and Standard Missile-3 interceptors.” Fay points out I neglected to mention the ground-based interceptors located in Alaska and California. Fair enough; I should have mentioned them. But the first line of defense against missiles aimed at the U.S. remains warships equipped with Aegis radar and Standard Missile 3′s–as a quick glance at the website of the US Missile Defense Agency will confirm. In the future a new generation of SM-3′s will also be based ashore in the U.S. If North Korea were to launch a missile our way, an Aegis-equipped Navy ship would be more likely to shoot it down than one of the ground-based interceptors in the continental U.S. But they are all part of a larger system with redundancy built in to increase the chances of a successful interception.

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It is amazing the controversy that missile defense continues to arouse nearly 30 years after Ronald Reagan gave his famous “Star Wars” speech. Yesterday I posted an item saying that Reagan’s vision of intercepting missiles had been vindicated by the success that Israel’s Iron Dome system is having in knocking down Hamas rockets–some 300 so far. This sparked much indignation on Twitter and the blogosphere, with a graduate student named Matt Fay writing an entire blog item in reply arguing “Iron Dome Does Not Vindicate SDI,” and political scientist/blogger Robert Farley posting numerous tweets in a similar vein. They attack me for one alleged factual error and for a larger conceptual error of equating defense against Russian ICBMs, which have a range of thousands of miles, with defense against short-range Hamas rockets which can travel no more than 50 miles and often less. Let me explain in brief why I stand by my original point.

First, the supposed factual error is more an omission than a mistake. I wrote that “the U.S. West Coast is actually protected by a limited ballistic-missile defense system based primarily around satellites, sea-based Aegis and X-band radars, and Standard Missile-3 interceptors.” Fay points out I neglected to mention the ground-based interceptors located in Alaska and California. Fair enough; I should have mentioned them. But the first line of defense against missiles aimed at the U.S. remains warships equipped with Aegis radar and Standard Missile 3′s–as a quick glance at the website of the US Missile Defense Agency will confirm. In the future a new generation of SM-3′s will also be based ashore in the U.S. If North Korea were to launch a missile our way, an Aegis-equipped Navy ship would be more likely to shoot it down than one of the ground-based interceptors in the continental U.S. But they are all part of a larger system with redundancy built in to increase the chances of a successful interception.

What about my supposed error in equating rocket defense with missile defense? Granted there are major differences between the two–missiles travel farther and faster and they can have multiple warheads and various defenses against interception. But the fact that missiles take time to prepare for launch, that they have to come from launching platforms easily observable from the air, and that they are often in flight for many minutes–roughly half an hour to get from Russia to the U.S.–actually improves the chances of interception. By contrast Qassam rockets can be set up with no notice and detonate 30 seconds after launch. The fact that the Iron Dome system has been 90 percent successful, if initial reports are to be believed, is actually quite impressive and does vindicate Reagan’s much-mocked vision of using one projectile to intercept another.

Some critics point out that even a 90-percent success rate for national missile defense wouldn’t do much good, because letting even one nuclear-tipped missile through could be devastating. True enough, but, Reagan’s sometimes grandiose rhetoric aside about “eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles,” even markedly reducing that threat would be of great benefit. In the days of the Cold War, the Soviets plotted to launch a devastating first strike on the U.S. But if a defense system had knocked down many of their attacking missiles, that would have preserved America’s ability to launch an even more devastating counter-strike. Thus if missile defense had been in place in those days it could have improved deterrence and reduced the risk of a nuclear attack. Today missile defense can achieve more limited, but just as valuable, objectives by preventing North Korea, Iran and other rogue states from threatening their neighbors and their neighbors’ ally, the United States.

I remain puzzled by the emotional response generated by any advocacy of missile defense. Why do so many critics have such an investment in trying to prove that missile defense doesn’t work? Isn’t a good defense the best way to keep the peace?

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Reagan Vindicated: Missile Defense Works

The latest Gaza war is only a few days old, but already one conclusion can be drawn: missile defense works. This is only the latest vindication for the vision of Ronald Reagan who is emerging as a consensus pick for one of the all-time great U.S. presidents.

For it was Ronald Reagan who made missile defense a major priority for the U.S. and our allies. His 1983 speech on the subject was widely derided as “Star Wars” because he envisioned that some missile would be intercepted in space. For years critics claimed that it was impossible to intercept missiles in flight, or that at the very least it would be prohibitively expensive to do so. But now the U.S. West Coast is actually protected by a limited ballistic-missile defense system based primarily around satellites, sea-based Aegis and X-band radars, and Standard Missile-3 interceptors. We don’t know how the system would work in combat but it has been vindicated in testing.

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The latest Gaza war is only a few days old, but already one conclusion can be drawn: missile defense works. This is only the latest vindication for the vision of Ronald Reagan who is emerging as a consensus pick for one of the all-time great U.S. presidents.

For it was Ronald Reagan who made missile defense a major priority for the U.S. and our allies. His 1983 speech on the subject was widely derided as “Star Wars” because he envisioned that some missile would be intercepted in space. For years critics claimed that it was impossible to intercept missiles in flight, or that at the very least it would be prohibitively expensive to do so. But now the U.S. West Coast is actually protected by a limited ballistic-missile defense system based primarily around satellites, sea-based Aegis and X-band radars, and Standard Missile-3 interceptors. We don’t know how the system would work in combat but it has been vindicated in testing.

The U.S. has also cooperated with numerous allies to develop more tactical missiles defenses designed to stop rockets, not in their boost phase, but just before they hit. One of those projects is the Iron Dome system that Israel launched after the 2006 war in Lebanon, during which Hezbollah bombarded northern Israel with thousands of rockets. Today Iron Dome, which is still officially listed as experimental, is operational–and it is blunting Hamas’s missile-offensive against Israel.

According to the Israeli Embassy in Washington: “In the last 4 days: 544 rockets fired from Gaza hit Israel + 302 Iron Dome interceptions = 846 rockets fired at us.” The fact that only 302 of 846 rockets were intercepted (36 percent) might indicate that Iron Dome is ineffective. But in fact it is expressly designed to ignore rockets headed for uninhabited areas. Israeli officials say that 90 percent of the attempted interceptions have worked, thus providing critical protection for civilian areas including Tel Aviv, where an Iron Dome battery has just been moved.

Somewhere, wherever he is now, the Gipper must be smiling.

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Internationalist Foreign Policy Still Dominant in GOP

In response to my item yesterday about the need for Republicans to do a better job articulating their case on national security, Mieke Eoyang of the Democratic think tank Third Way tweeted back: “First Republicans need to decide where they fall on the interventionist/isolationist spectrum. And you’re far from consensus.” On a superficial level she appears to be right; but I actually think she is more wrong than right.

Yes, there are some Republican isolationists, such as Senator Rand Paul, but they are a tiny minority within the party. The mainstream of the GOP is defined, as it has been for most of the postwar era, by a commitment to a strong defense and an active American role in the world. That involves, but is not limited to, a robust use of American military power. Even the most realpolitik president since Nixon–that would be George H.W. Bush–undertook interventions in Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia, the latter primarily out of humanitarian motives. This Reaganesque foreign policy–which might also be called Rooseveltian, after both Theodore and Franklin–puts American ideals front and center in our foreign policy-making even if we must sometimes compromise those ideals in practice. Again, the elder Bush is a good example; remember the way he rallied the nation, in a positively Wilsonian fashion, to stop Saddam Hussein by citing the need to create a New World Order.

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In response to my item yesterday about the need for Republicans to do a better job articulating their case on national security, Mieke Eoyang of the Democratic think tank Third Way tweeted back: “First Republicans need to decide where they fall on the interventionist/isolationist spectrum. And you’re far from consensus.” On a superficial level she appears to be right; but I actually think she is more wrong than right.

Yes, there are some Republican isolationists, such as Senator Rand Paul, but they are a tiny minority within the party. The mainstream of the GOP is defined, as it has been for most of the postwar era, by a commitment to a strong defense and an active American role in the world. That involves, but is not limited to, a robust use of American military power. Even the most realpolitik president since Nixon–that would be George H.W. Bush–undertook interventions in Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia, the latter primarily out of humanitarian motives. This Reaganesque foreign policy–which might also be called Rooseveltian, after both Theodore and Franklin–puts American ideals front and center in our foreign policy-making even if we must sometimes compromise those ideals in practice. Again, the elder Bush is a good example; remember the way he rallied the nation, in a positively Wilsonian fashion, to stop Saddam Hussein by citing the need to create a New World Order.

Mitt Romney presented himself as being squarely in the middle of this foreign policy tradition with his commitment to maintain our current level of defense spending, to stop Iran, get more actively involved in helping rebels in Syria, get tougher on Russia and China, and to defend Israel–the latter a particular bugbear of isolationists and realpolitikers. Few of his primary challengers, save the marginalized Ron Paul, disagreed; if anything, Rick Santorum and other candidates had an even more expansive foreign policy vision. Those among the early frontrunners for the 2016 nomination who have spoken out on foreign policy–in particular Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan–fall squarely into the same tradition.

There is certainly room for disagreement in the Republican party about particular policies or interventions; even those who have the same philosophical grounding will disagree about how to implement it in on occasion. (One recalls that Charles Krauthammer was against intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s–an intervention that other “neocons” strongly supported.) But the same is true in the Democratic Party, which is split between those who wanted to intervene in Libya (and now Syria) and those who didn’t. Overall, however, the conservative international foreign policy championed most successfully by Ronald Reagan remains alive, well, and dominant within the GOP.

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The Hostage Crisis and American Decline

I just saw “Argo” last night. Not only is it a great film (who would have thunk that Ben Affleck had it in him?) but it’s also a great primer on a period of American history that, for those under 40 today, is as ancient as the Civil War.

The movie tells the story of how CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez managed to smuggle six American diplomats out of Tehran in 1980 by pretending they were part of a production crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called “Argo.”  As this Slate article notes, the film takes a few liberties with the history—but only a few. It conveys what would seem to be, on the whole, an accurate picture of the period—from the bureaucratic politics of Washington to the violent and chaotic nature of the Iranian revolution. Above all it captures, as no other film I have seen does, the sad spectacle of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

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I just saw “Argo” last night. Not only is it a great film (who would have thunk that Ben Affleck had it in him?) but it’s also a great primer on a period of American history that, for those under 40 today, is as ancient as the Civil War.

The movie tells the story of how CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez managed to smuggle six American diplomats out of Tehran in 1980 by pretending they were part of a production crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called “Argo.”  As this Slate article notes, the film takes a few liberties with the history—but only a few. It conveys what would seem to be, on the whole, an accurate picture of the period—from the bureaucratic politics of Washington to the violent and chaotic nature of the Iranian revolution. Above all it captures, as no other film I have seen does, the sad spectacle of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

I was only nine years old when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized on November 4, 1979, but I can still remember the dispiriting drama of how Iranian extremists were able to hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. That experience was all the more traumatic for the nation because newscasts (some of them played in “Argo”) routinely noted that this was “day 33” (or whatever) of “America held hostage.” Meanwhile yellow ribbons proliferated around the nation to keep alive the memory of the hostages. America’s humiliation was worsened when a belated rescue mission ended in a fiery crash in the Iranian desert, at a rendezvous point codenamed Desert One.

“Argo” is a thriller but it accurately evokes this crisis—one that, I now realize, helped shape my worldview. Growing up at a time when America was widely thought to be on the decline, I, like many other young people, was attracted to Ronald Reagan and his message of hope and renewal—the idea that America’s best days were still ahead of us. Reagan rescued us from the post-Vietnam malaise and restored our economic and military strength, as even his onetime critics now admit.

The lesson I take away from this history is that there is nothing inevitable about American decline and that if we permit ourselves to become weak, the results will be catastrophic. That is a point worth thinking about today as, once again, a consensus seems to be building among the chattering classes that America is in decline. The only thing that has changed is the country that is supposed to usurp our position in the world. Now it’s China. Back then it was the USSR, followed by Japan. “Argo” is a sobering reminder of the cost of a declinist mindset—and a reminder too of how even a ponderous institution like the U.S. government can pull off amazing feats if talented individuals are unleashed to be daring and creative, something that, alas, only seems to happen in a crisis.

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Greatest Foreign Policy President? The Case for Harry Truman

With the presidential debates coming up and foreign policy emerging as an issue in the election, CNN’s Global Public Square blog has asked a panel of historians and writers to weigh in on the following question: “Who was the best foreign policy president?” There are not many surprises–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush appear prominently. (Realists love Herbert Walker, and their votes for him can best be understood as a begrudging acceptance of the success of the Reagan administration he served without having to actually grit their teeth and name him.)

FDR and Reagan are fairly obvious choices, and not bad ones: Nazism and Communism are generally considered the twin evils of the 20th century, and each presided over the defeat of those ideologies. But there is someone else who deserves at least honorable mention, if not a nomination for the top spot himself. For although FDR and Reagan served decades apart, one president played a significant role in the achievements of both men, and whose foreign policy outlook eventually became the consensus: Harry Truman. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the Truman Doctrine, and it’s worth taking a stroll through his presidency and its legacy.

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With the presidential debates coming up and foreign policy emerging as an issue in the election, CNN’s Global Public Square blog has asked a panel of historians and writers to weigh in on the following question: “Who was the best foreign policy president?” There are not many surprises–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush appear prominently. (Realists love Herbert Walker, and their votes for him can best be understood as a begrudging acceptance of the success of the Reagan administration he served without having to actually grit their teeth and name him.)

FDR and Reagan are fairly obvious choices, and not bad ones: Nazism and Communism are generally considered the twin evils of the 20th century, and each presided over the defeat of those ideologies. But there is someone else who deserves at least honorable mention, if not a nomination for the top spot himself. For although FDR and Reagan served decades apart, one president played a significant role in the achievements of both men, and whose foreign policy outlook eventually became the consensus: Harry Truman. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the Truman Doctrine, and it’s worth taking a stroll through his presidency and its legacy.

It’s true that FDR got the U.S. involved in, and then successfully prosecuted, the Second World War, and there’s no reason to diminish that accomplishment. But it’s worth noting that FDR’s dismissal of Poland at Yalta opened the door to the spreading of Soviet influence that was only stemmed by Truman first at Potsdam and then in Greece. Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan will probably always be the most famous wartime decision of his presidency. But it was Truman’s resolve to use the bomb immediately upon hearing of its readiness while at Potsdam that stopped him from even considering giving Stalin the foothold in Turkey he wanted in return for Soviet engagement in the Pacific.

While Truman certainly is given most of the credit for the doctrine bearing his name, he is rarely considered the visionary that he was. A certain snobbishness had always greeted Truman in Washington; he was our last president not to have a college degree, and he was always viewed as something of an accidental president. (This is surely unfair to Truman, since the decision to drop Henry Wallace from the final Roosevelt presidential ticket was made with succession in mind. FDR was dying.) Additionally, Truman had the blessing and the curse of being surrounded by what was an all-star team of advisers and diplomats. Many of these men believed that Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes should have been president. Byrnes, who fashioned himself a kind of co-president to the ailing, but still globetrotting, FDR, certainly believed this. As such, Byrnes ran State as if it were the Executive Branch. Truman quickly reasserted his authority, but the underlying conflict sent Byrnes packing soon after.

And George Kennan, author of the famous “long telegram,” is widely credited with the American policy of containment toward the Soviet Union. This credit is an egregious and outstanding overestimation of Kennan’s contribution. He correctly diagnosed the political situation in the Soviet Union and even correctly predicted how it would act, and how and why conflict would arise in the future. He was a pessimist of the highest order, but he was no saber-rattler. Had Kennan been in charge of policy the Truman Doctrine would have been much weaker, and so would have been Truman and the U.S. As Elizabeth Edwards Spalding has shown, the Truman Doctrine’s ideas were Truman’s. Reading Spalding’s account, in fact, it seems that if anyone deserves more credit than he receives, it is (and I can already hear the groans in contempt) the self-styled “wise man of Washington” Clark Clifford.

The following year brought another momentous decision when Truman immediately recognized the new state of Israel. The significance of this recognition by the world’s new democratic major power (and emerging superpower) cannot be understated. As we now know, this decision not only was Truman’s call, but it seems there were scant few who even agreed with it around the president.

It is often noted that the Korean War was unpopular. But the legacy of South Korea speaks for itself. Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur was controversial to say the least; “The Kremlin should give you a 21-gun salute,” a woman from Texas told Truman, according to Stanley Weintraub. But Truman’s decision served to fend off the last serious challenge to civilian control of the military, which thus reasserted by Truman became a prerequisite for democratic governance.

Truman forged a friendship with Winston Churchill and permitted Churchill to speak for the Western world on the evils of Soviet Communism–something Truman was under no obligation to do, since Churchill was no longer prime minister, and something which, as I have written, Truman went out of his way to do.

He oversaw the Marshall Plan for European recovery, the gold standard of foreign aid. And he oversaw the creation of NATO–though of course Dean Acheson (another of Truman’s all-stars) would play an important role in that as well. FDR worked hard to oversee the inauguration of the United Nations, but this week’s UN General Assembly should tell you all you need to know about which multinational organization is still upholding the defense of democracy, and which is undermining it.

None of this is to suggest that Truman didn’t make mistakes, but the crucial and successful implementation of American policy from the last stages of World War II through the early stages of the Cold War were Truman’s. More than half a century later, it’s Truman’s world we’re living in.

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Smearing Reagan Never Goes Out of Style

There is a longstanding tradition on the political left to attack contemporary conservatives by comparing them to the right’s leaders in the past. That means that Republicans who were reviled by liberals during their lifetimes are sometimes treated kindly in retrospect because it serves the political purpose of diminishing the reputations of their successors. But in some precincts of the left, bashing Ronald Reagan never goes out of style.

That’s the motivation for a thin hit piece published in the New York Times Sunday Review under the sensational headline, “Reagan’s Personal Spying Machine.” The conceit of this article is that Ronald Regan “spied” for the FBI against fellow actors in Hollywood and then used the FBI for personal spying on his family. The author’s intent is to shock a public that thinks well of the 40th president as well as to brand Reagan as a hypocrite since he was a proponent of limited government. But the problem here is that there is nothing especially shocking about any of it. Reagan’s principled anti-Communism is well known and is the foundation of his political reputation, not a skeleton in his closet. As for the FBI “spying” on Reagan’s family, this appears to be much ado about nothing and would not have attracted much criticism even if it had been aired when he was running for president.

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There is a longstanding tradition on the political left to attack contemporary conservatives by comparing them to the right’s leaders in the past. That means that Republicans who were reviled by liberals during their lifetimes are sometimes treated kindly in retrospect because it serves the political purpose of diminishing the reputations of their successors. But in some precincts of the left, bashing Ronald Reagan never goes out of style.

That’s the motivation for a thin hit piece published in the New York Times Sunday Review under the sensational headline, “Reagan’s Personal Spying Machine.” The conceit of this article is that Ronald Regan “spied” for the FBI against fellow actors in Hollywood and then used the FBI for personal spying on his family. The author’s intent is to shock a public that thinks well of the 40th president as well as to brand Reagan as a hypocrite since he was a proponent of limited government. But the problem here is that there is nothing especially shocking about any of it. Reagan’s principled anti-Communism is well known and is the foundation of his political reputation, not a skeleton in his closet. As for the FBI “spying” on Reagan’s family, this appears to be much ado about nothing and would not have attracted much criticism even if it had been aired when he was running for president.

Reagan’s cooperation with FBI investigations of Communist cells in Hollywood is something we know about because he spoke about it himself. Though author Seth Rosenfeld claims that newly released government files “flesh out what Reagan only hinted at,” there’s nothing new here. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan thought it was his duty as a citizen to cooperate with the government. He was right. The Communist Party was not, as it has often been portrayed by the left, a club of well-meaning liberals but a group under the orders of a foreign, totalitarian power actively pursuing subversion. The Soviet Union was at that time not merely a rival of the United States but a tyrannical, anti-Semitic dictatorship intent on smothering freedom. Those who aided its efforts on these shores deserved to be exposed.

That charge may stick with some of the Times’s left-wing readership but not on the rest of the country. Yet Rosenfeld really thinks he’s got the goods on Reagan with his revelations about the future president’s family. It seems that his daughter Maureen moved to Washington at the age of 19 and moved in with a married policeman in 1960. That may not seem like such a big deal to some people today but it shocked both Reagan and his ex-wife, actress Jane Wyman. Through a friend, Reagan reached out to friends in the FBI to find out about the man who was living with his daughter.

The FBI granted the request and did some minimal investigation of a situation that was clearly not a government matter and then reported their findings to the Reagans. As it turns out, Reagan was right to be concerned. Maureen Reagan did marry the cop but eventually revealed that during the brief marriage her spouse beat her. This was an improper use of government personnel and shouldn’t have happened. But the fault here lies not with a worried father desperate for help but with a government agency eager to help a celebrity (this was several years before the start of Reagan’s political career).

The other supposedly shocking tale concerns the other child Reagan adopted with Jane Wyman, his son Michael. It appears that as a young man, Michael Reagan was a friend of Joseph Bonanno Jr., the son of a mafia boss. Joe Junior wasn’t in the family business and Michael doesn’t appear to have done anything criminal either. But Bonanno was subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney to testify about his father. In 1965, some in the FBI team investigating the mafia thought to interview Ronald Reagan about anything his son might have told him about his friend’s family. But, according to the files, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told his agents not to try and gather any hearsay from the actor but merely tell him that his son was in bad company.

While this is an interesting tale, again there is no evidence of wrongdoing here on Reagan’s part or even on Hoover’s, though perhaps the mere mention of that liberal boogeyman is supposed to horrify readers.

Rosenfeld concludes by saying that Reagan’s cozy relationship with the FBI was confirmed when he asked the agency for a briefing about campus radicals once he became governor of California later in the decade. As Rosenfeld put it, Reagan then used the government to spy on “other people’s children” by seeking FBI help in coping with violent demonstrations at the University of California. Hoover complied and shared the bureau’s domestic surveillance files:

Here was Ronald Reagan, avowed opponent of overdependence on government, again taking personal and political help from Hoover.

Perhaps now and then we all need a little help from Big Brother.

This piece of snark will, no doubt, elicit a chuckle from the left. The FBI’s practice of compiling files on anyone that piqued Hoover’s interest was wrong but there were some people who deserved scrutiny. Violent campus radicals were a threat to public safety as the victims of Weathermen bombings and shooting attacks would learn in subsequent years. In both the 1940s and the 1960s, Reagan was right to align himself against those who sought to tear down American democracy. Neither those incidents nor any concern about his family damages his reputation in the least.

If this is the best the Times can do to trash a conservative icon of the past, they should stick to their lame attempts to besmirch the reputations of his successors, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

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CNN Moves Wisconsin to “Toss Up”

Following several polls that show the race tightening in Wisconsin, CNN has moved the state from “lean Obama” to “toss up” on its electoral map:

CNN Thursday turned the important battleground state of Wisconsin from “lean Obama” to true “toss up” on its electoral map, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s naming of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, a seven term congressman from the Badger state, as his running mate. One contributing factor behind CNN’s move was a new poll that matched two others from last week that indicate that the presidential contest in Wisconsin is close. …

With Wisconsin’s move to true “toss up,” the CNN Electoral Map now suggests Obama leading in states with a combined 237 electoral votes, Romney ahead in states with a combined 206 electoral votes, and states with 95 electoral votes up for grabs. 270 electoral votes are needed with win the White House.

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Following several polls that show the race tightening in Wisconsin, CNN has moved the state from “lean Obama” to “toss up” on its electoral map:

CNN Thursday turned the important battleground state of Wisconsin from “lean Obama” to true “toss up” on its electoral map, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s naming of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, a seven term congressman from the Badger state, as his running mate. One contributing factor behind CNN’s move was a new poll that matched two others from last week that indicate that the presidential contest in Wisconsin is close. …

With Wisconsin’s move to true “toss up,” the CNN Electoral Map now suggests Obama leading in states with a combined 237 electoral votes, Romney ahead in states with a combined 206 electoral votes, and states with 95 electoral votes up for grabs. 270 electoral votes are needed with win the White House.

It’s a great sign for Republicans, who haven’t won Wisconsin in a presidential race since Ronald Reagan. But Nate Silver warns against putting too much stock in CNN’s decision:

Adjust the Rasmussen numbers upward for Mr. Obama, and the CNN poll downward for him, and it looks as though Mr. Obama might win by about two percentage points if an election were held in Wisconsin today. I wouldn’t quite use the term “tossup” to describe the state — particularly if Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan are in the midst of a modest but temporary bounce — but it has become much more essential to the electoral math, and now rates as the fourth most important state in our tipping-point calculus, behind Ohio, Virginia and Florida.

Whether it’s a temporary bounce or not, Paul Ryan does have high favorables in Wisconsin and his addition to the ticket puts an important state in play.

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A Ryan Pick Could Shape GOP Future

While most of us are focusing on the obvious impact Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick might have on the 2012 election, a feature in Politico today highlights the fact that his choice may influence future elections as well. Choosing someone like Paul Ryan, who is not only young, but the intellectual leader of his party, could well set the Wisconsin congressman up as the putative frontrunner in subsequent presidential elections whether or not the 2012 ticket is successful.

The debate about the vice presidential pick is, as Politico notes, something of a stand in for the broader argument about the future of the Republican Party. Should Romney go with Ryan it could mean that the reformist wing of the party will not only get a boost but have its leader put in a position from which he may well dominate the party. On the other hand, picking a more conventional figure like Sen. Rob Portman would serve as a brake on the conservative thinkers who want to help change Washington. The elevation of Ryan could, as Rep. Tom Cole tells Politico, be akin to Ronald Reagan choosing Jack Kemp as his running mate in 1980 rather than establishment favorite George H.W. Bush. Had Reagan tapped Kemp, it is probable that neither the elder nor the younger Bush would have ever been president. It is impossible to say in such a counter-factual scenario how else history would have been changed, but it is a reminder that there’s a lot more at stake in this decision than the impact on this November or even who will be presiding over the Senate next year.

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While most of us are focusing on the obvious impact Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick might have on the 2012 election, a feature in Politico today highlights the fact that his choice may influence future elections as well. Choosing someone like Paul Ryan, who is not only young, but the intellectual leader of his party, could well set the Wisconsin congressman up as the putative frontrunner in subsequent presidential elections whether or not the 2012 ticket is successful.

The debate about the vice presidential pick is, as Politico notes, something of a stand in for the broader argument about the future of the Republican Party. Should Romney go with Ryan it could mean that the reformist wing of the party will not only get a boost but have its leader put in a position from which he may well dominate the party. On the other hand, picking a more conventional figure like Sen. Rob Portman would serve as a brake on the conservative thinkers who want to help change Washington. The elevation of Ryan could, as Rep. Tom Cole tells Politico, be akin to Ronald Reagan choosing Jack Kemp as his running mate in 1980 rather than establishment favorite George H.W. Bush. Had Reagan tapped Kemp, it is probable that neither the elder nor the younger Bush would have ever been president. It is impossible to say in such a counter-factual scenario how else history would have been changed, but it is a reminder that there’s a lot more at stake in this decision than the impact on this November or even who will be presiding over the Senate next year.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which this picture of a rosy Ryan future is derailed. Ryan could prove a flop on the national stage, though given his experience in the Washington maelstrom as the center of debates on the budget and entitlement reform that seems unlikely. A greater danger is that as a vice presidential candidate Ryan would be the focus of an intense Democratic campaign whose intent would be to demonize him and brand both Romney and the Republican party as villains intent on pushing grandma off the cliff. The toll such Mediscare tactics may exact on the GOP should not be underestimated, and that may explain the reluctance on the part of many Republicans to endorse Ryan as a possible veep.

But though Democrats may be as excited about a Ryan pick as some Republicans, he should not be underestimated. Ryan will be a formidable asset for Romney, and even Republicans who are leery about him may change their minds once they take a closer look and see how his serious approach can connect with voters. Indeed, here the comparison with Kemp may be instructive. Kemp was the favorite of supply side conservatives and an admirable man whom many believed was destined for the White House. But, as even he admitted, he had already had his dream job — as an NFL quarterback — and he may have lacked the fire to get to the top in politics. Bob Dole would pick Kemp as his veep choice in 1996, but there was nothing the former QB could do to inject life into that hopeless attempt to defeat Bill Clinton. Ryan is as knowledgeable as Kemp was about tax and budget issues but appears to be more focused on what it takes to succeed in Washington.

Ryan is, according to Chuck Todd of NBC News, one of the three finalists in the GOP veep race along with Portman and Tim Pawlenty. We don’t really know how any of them will play this fall, but there’s little doubt that Ryan is the choice that brings with it the most risk as well as the most reward for Romney. But if Ryan is the choice, it will not only place him at the head of the line as a presidential nominee in 2016 or 2020 (depending on whether Romney wins) but will give the ideas he stands for a bigger audience. For those who believe the nation’s future rests on our willingness to listen to voices of reason like Ryan who understand that entitlements must be reformed, there is more resting on Romney’s decision than the pundits may think.

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Romney’s Choice: Be Reagan, Not Nixon

In the last week, the Romney campaign got a taste of some of the same treatment from the mainstream media that has afflicted Republicans for decades. The GOP candidate’s foreign trip was widely lampooned. The substantive issues he discussed in Israel and Poland were buried underneath a torrent of ridicule because of his Olympics gaffe as well as the media’s blind acceptance of the false idea he had misspoken about the Palestinians. Some of the frustration of the Romney camp became visible today in Warsaw, when a staffer blew up as reporters shouted questions at the candidate as he left a wreath at the Polish Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The irony is, as Politico reports, members of the media had their own beef with Romney because he has largely stiffed them on the trip, affording them virtually no opportunities to ask questions or interact with the man they are covering. There are some lessons to be learned here for the Romney campaign, though those in his camp may be too mad about the poor treatment their guy has gotten to pay attention. Nevertheless, now would be a good time for them to remember that while they cannot undo liberal media bias, there are better ways to cope with it. Indeed, the choice for every Republican or conservative is pretty much the same as it has always been. Romney can try and be a Ronald Reagan, and he and his team can present a positive face to the country and the media no matter how badly he’s treated, or he can be another Richard Nixon and scowl and fight with the press.

I think we all know which of those two scenarios will work out better, so here are four easy rules for coping with the problem of media bias that Romney and every Republican ought to follow:

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In the last week, the Romney campaign got a taste of some of the same treatment from the mainstream media that has afflicted Republicans for decades. The GOP candidate’s foreign trip was widely lampooned. The substantive issues he discussed in Israel and Poland were buried underneath a torrent of ridicule because of his Olympics gaffe as well as the media’s blind acceptance of the false idea he had misspoken about the Palestinians. Some of the frustration of the Romney camp became visible today in Warsaw, when a staffer blew up as reporters shouted questions at the candidate as he left a wreath at the Polish Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The irony is, as Politico reports, members of the media had their own beef with Romney because he has largely stiffed them on the trip, affording them virtually no opportunities to ask questions or interact with the man they are covering. There are some lessons to be learned here for the Romney campaign, though those in his camp may be too mad about the poor treatment their guy has gotten to pay attention. Nevertheless, now would be a good time for them to remember that while they cannot undo liberal media bias, there are better ways to cope with it. Indeed, the choice for every Republican or conservative is pretty much the same as it has always been. Romney can try and be a Ronald Reagan, and he and his team can present a positive face to the country and the media no matter how badly he’s treated, or he can be another Richard Nixon and scowl and fight with the press.

I think we all know which of those two scenarios will work out better, so here are four easy rules for coping with the problem of media bias that Romney and every Republican ought to follow:

1. Gaffes are nobody’s fault but your own. Liberal bias cannot be wished away, but you can control how you act and what you say. It does no good to complain about the media when your candidate hands them his head on a silver platter. What Romney said about the London Olympics was probably true, but he ought to know better than to say so out loud in public.

2. The press may be the enemy, but walling yourself off from them isn’t going to make things better. It’s true that no presidential candidate was more inaccessible than Barack Obama was in 2008, and his press conferences since then have been few and far between, but any Republican who expects to be treated fairly isn’t smart enough to be president. Conservatives may have snickered at John McCain’s openness with the press in 2000 and during the 2008 primaries, but it worked–at least for a while. It may not be possible to do that under Romney’s current circumstances, but he should be prepared to expose himself more often to tough, even adversarial questions. It won’t be any easier when he squares off with Barack Obama in the October debates.

3. Smile and stay on message. Romney has had his moments of public irritation during the campaign, but in general, he has avoided meltdowns. While affable, he lacks the common touch that great politicians instinctively possess. This is not a fatal flaw, but he needs to make a greater effort to tell us what kind of person he is. Modern campaigns think they can bypass a biased media and address the public without the filter of the press, but that doesn’t remove an obligation to try and do better. Even if you believe, as Rush Limbaugh does, that some in the media are trying to create gaffes as much as report them, Romney will do better to show some humility and laugh at himself more often. That’s a tactic that can disarm even the nastiest of critics. Like it or not, the media still has a large audience, so it is Romney’s obligation to show the press he is as good a guy as those who know him say he is. And his staff needs to follow the same pattern.

4. The message, not the media, is what counts most. Right now, the Romney camp is fuming about what they think is the media’s sabotaging of his foreign tour. But he needs to remember that he didn’t go to Britain, Israel and Poland to play media games but to put his foreign policy agenda on display. Romney may have undermined that effort in Britain, but his speech in Israel on the Iranian threat and his acknowledgement that Jerusalem was the country’s capital was exactly what he needed to do. The Polish visit and the endorsement of Lech Walesa did the same. Instead of worrying about what the press is saying, the Romney camp needs to be showing confidence.

The bottom line is that no matter how raw a deal you’ve received, whining about media bias does nothing but make a candidate look weak and stupid. Republicans can’t alter liberal media bias, but they can rise above it. The sooner Romney’s camp realizes this and starts reading from Reagan’s playbook, the better off they’ll be.

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Likely Voters Are Awful at Ranking Presidents

At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Anderson compiled two lists ranking the 10 best presidents and 10 worst presidents, based on the net opinions of likely voters in the latest Newsweek/Daily Beast poll. Both are worth reading. President Obama comes in second on the “worst president” list, right after George W. Bush. Richard Nixon is rated the third worst and Jimmy Carter is fourth.

But any conservatives tempted to gloat about Obama’s low score might want to reconsider. The real story here is that likely voters are appallingly bad at ranking presidents, and, in a just world, would be discouraged from getting anywhere near a voting booth. Brace yourself before reading their list of the 10 best presidents:

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At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Anderson compiled two lists ranking the 10 best presidents and 10 worst presidents, based on the net opinions of likely voters in the latest Newsweek/Daily Beast poll. Both are worth reading. President Obama comes in second on the “worst president” list, right after George W. Bush. Richard Nixon is rated the third worst and Jimmy Carter is fourth.

But any conservatives tempted to gloat about Obama’s low score might want to reconsider. The real story here is that likely voters are appallingly bad at ranking presidents, and, in a just world, would be discouraged from getting anywhere near a voting booth. Brace yourself before reading their list of the 10 best presidents:

1. Abraham Lincoln, +27 points (28 percent place in top-2, 1 percent place in bottom-2)

2. Ronald Reagan, +25 points (31 percent place in top-2, 6 percent place in bottom-2)

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, +22 points (23 percent place in top-2, 1 percent place in bottom-2)

4. John F. Kennedy, +19 points (19 percent place in top-2, 0 percent place in bottom-2)

5. (tie) George Washington, +15 points (16 percent place in top-2, 1 percent place in bottom-2)

5. (tie) Bill Clinton, +15 points (28 percent place in top-2, 13 percent place in bottom-2)

7. Thomas Jefferson, +6 points (6 percent place in top-2, 0 percent place in bottom-2)

8. (tie) Teddy Roosevelt, +5 points (5 percent place in top-2, 0 percent place in bottom-2)

8. (tie) Harry S Truman, +5 points (5 percent place in top-2, 0 percent place in bottom-2)

10. Dwight D. Eisenhower, +4 points (5 percent place in top-2, 1 percent place in bottom-2)

Lincoln — great; Reagan — good; FDR — definitely not my choice, but okay, let liberals have their guy in the top three. But hold on here, JFK beats out George Washington? Bill Clinton outranks Jefferson, TR, Truman and Eisenhower? What is Bill Clinton even doing on this list, and how is it that he’s tied with the Father of Our Country in fifth place?

Should we care that likely voters think Obama’s terrible, if they’re also this deluded about his predecessors?

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The Lost Art of Mocking Dictators

As Seth noted earlier this week, Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenberg Gate in which he declared, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan’s moral clarity chafed the State Department and stunned adversaries, but history demonstrates its effect.

Moral clarity was not his only weapon, however. Reagan, with his typical good nature and humor, would also gently mock America’s enemies. He had some fun at the expense of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and at the hardships of Soviet life. He made fun of the lack of free speech in the Soviet Union. A few years back, Free Republic compiled a non-exhaustive list. Reagan’s jokes weren’t just a warm up act; his gentle ridicule highlighted the illegitimacy of autocratic regimes and reinforced fissures between society and its oppressors.

Alas, amidst all the discussion today of sophisticated diplomacy, the reset of relations, and respect for regimes like Iran’s, and also against the cultural relativism and self-flagellation in which so many journalists and diplomats engage, American officials have lost the will and ability to mock our adversaries. It really is a shame, because—be they in Pyongyang, Tehran, Moscow, or Caracas, there really are some world leaders deserving biting ridicule.

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As Seth noted earlier this week, Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenberg Gate in which he declared, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan’s moral clarity chafed the State Department and stunned adversaries, but history demonstrates its effect.

Moral clarity was not his only weapon, however. Reagan, with his typical good nature and humor, would also gently mock America’s enemies. He had some fun at the expense of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and at the hardships of Soviet life. He made fun of the lack of free speech in the Soviet Union. A few years back, Free Republic compiled a non-exhaustive list. Reagan’s jokes weren’t just a warm up act; his gentle ridicule highlighted the illegitimacy of autocratic regimes and reinforced fissures between society and its oppressors.

Alas, amidst all the discussion today of sophisticated diplomacy, the reset of relations, and respect for regimes like Iran’s, and also against the cultural relativism and self-flagellation in which so many journalists and diplomats engage, American officials have lost the will and ability to mock our adversaries. It really is a shame, because—be they in Pyongyang, Tehran, Moscow, or Caracas, there really are some world leaders deserving biting ridicule.

Many of the jokes Iranians tell about their leaders—including some I heard recently in Bahrain—frankly contradict President Ahmadinejad’s insistence that there is no homosexuality in the Islamic Republic. Many also make fun of the crass stupidity of Hezbollah. While no statesman would ever get up and tell these, there are others out there:

One involves a French doctor who brags that French medicine is so advanced that he can conduct a kidney transplant and have the patient out looking for work in six weeks. A German doctor hears that and says, “That’s nothing.” We can do a lung transplant and the patient will be looking for work in four weeks. A Russian doctor dismisses them by claiming, “We can do a heart transplant and the recipient will be looking for a job in two weeks.” The Iranian doctor hears all this and suggests, “That’s nothing: We took a man with no brain, made him the president, and now 20 million Iranians are looking for work!”

The Iranian regime’s nuclear program is serious business as is Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s tactical nuclear weaponry and the assistance he offers to all the world’s tin pot dictators. But, even as diplomats sit down across conference tables to try to resolve bilateral problems, there is no reason why American officials shouldn’t treat these regimes with the irreverence they deserve. Their citizens—not yet free to express their true opinions—will thank us later.

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