Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ronald Reagan

Today’s Real Reaganites on Immigration

Earlier this month I posted a piece on why I thought long-time conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly was wrong to write off the Hispanic vote. Ms. Schlafly is back at it, this time saying, “They don’t have any Republican inclinations at all. They’re running an illegitimacy rate that’s just about the same as the blacks are.” She went on to say this: 

They come from a country where they have no experience with limited government. And the types of rights we have in the Bill of Rights, they don’t understand that at all, you can’t even talk to them about what the Republican principle is.

Now take two and a half minutes to watch this clip from a 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush on illegal immigration, Mexico, and the policies they endorse. What you’ll see is that the approach and attitude of Bush and Reagan is profoundly different from what we’re hearing from many conservatives today on immigration. Set aside for a moment the differences in policy, which are significant. What I’m speaking to is a cast of mind, a temperament, a certain spirit of generosity that both Bush and Reagan (blessedly) had–and which has, for many on the right, virtually vanished. If these individuals don’t fully subscribe to the views of Schlafly and Patrick J. Buchanan, they are certainly sympathetic to them. If a Republican today used language remotely similar to what Bush and Reagan did, they would be hooted off many a conservative stage. What makes this even odder is that many of the people who employ the most off-putting rhetoric on immigration either worked in the Reagan administration or consider themselves Reaganites. But on this subject at least, they are more nearly the antithesis of Reagan.

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Earlier this month I posted a piece on why I thought long-time conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly was wrong to write off the Hispanic vote. Ms. Schlafly is back at it, this time saying, “They don’t have any Republican inclinations at all. They’re running an illegitimacy rate that’s just about the same as the blacks are.” She went on to say this: 

They come from a country where they have no experience with limited government. And the types of rights we have in the Bill of Rights, they don’t understand that at all, you can’t even talk to them about what the Republican principle is.

Now take two and a half minutes to watch this clip from a 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush on illegal immigration, Mexico, and the policies they endorse. What you’ll see is that the approach and attitude of Bush and Reagan is profoundly different from what we’re hearing from many conservatives today on immigration. Set aside for a moment the differences in policy, which are significant. What I’m speaking to is a cast of mind, a temperament, a certain spirit of generosity that both Bush and Reagan (blessedly) had–and which has, for many on the right, virtually vanished. If these individuals don’t fully subscribe to the views of Schlafly and Patrick J. Buchanan, they are certainly sympathetic to them. If a Republican today used language remotely similar to what Bush and Reagan did, they would be hooted off many a conservative stage. What makes this even odder is that many of the people who employ the most off-putting rhetoric on immigration either worked in the Reagan administration or consider themselves Reaganites. But on this subject at least, they are more nearly the antithesis of Reagan.

Now I understand that circumstances have changed, and conservatives are perfectly within their right to say that their attitude toward illegal and legal immigrants today is right and Reagan and Bush’s were wrong. But those conservatives who believe that Reagan, if he were alive today, would be standing with them are massively distorting the Reagan record–both his words and his deeds. 

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, whose post alerted me to the Bush-Reagan debate, added this: 

As America has become much more sensitive about the way it speaks about racially charged subjects, the language used by Republican standard bearers on illegal immigration has grown much less sensitive — and that’s happened as the clout of Hispanic voters has risen significantly. That’s a huge problem for Republicans.

It is indeed. And today the real Reaganites on immigration are people like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Jeb Bush. The fact that they are targeted for such harsh criticism these days tells you a great deal about how much the GOP has moved on this issue; and how long the road back might be.   

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Many Claiming the Mantle of Reagan Have Turned on Reagan’s Vision

On the matter of immigration reform and the GOP, I have a couple of thoughts. The first is that in his column today, Michael Gerson of the Washington Post writes, “The GOP’s political goal is modest. It doesn’t need to win majorities among minorities, just avoid lopsided losses.”

That’s quite right. Consider Mitt Romney in 2012. If he had merely secured 42 percent of the Hispanic vote—rather than 27 percent—Romney would have won the popular vote and carried Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico. And if breaking the 40 percent barrier sounds like an impossible goal, recall that George W. Bush won over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. That doesn’t mean Governor Romney didn’t have problems with other parts of the electorate, including blue-collar voters in key states. It simply means that losing the Hispanic vote by 44 percent makes it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win national elections.

My second observation is that many of the most ferocious critics of immigration reform claim they are the sons and daughters of the Reagan Revolution, the true of heirs of Reagan. But they are–in both policy and tone–most un-Reagan like.

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On the matter of immigration reform and the GOP, I have a couple of thoughts. The first is that in his column today, Michael Gerson of the Washington Post writes, “The GOP’s political goal is modest. It doesn’t need to win majorities among minorities, just avoid lopsided losses.”

That’s quite right. Consider Mitt Romney in 2012. If he had merely secured 42 percent of the Hispanic vote—rather than 27 percent—Romney would have won the popular vote and carried Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico. And if breaking the 40 percent barrier sounds like an impossible goal, recall that George W. Bush won over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. That doesn’t mean Governor Romney didn’t have problems with other parts of the electorate, including blue-collar voters in key states. It simply means that losing the Hispanic vote by 44 percent makes it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win national elections.

My second observation is that many of the most ferocious critics of immigration reform claim they are the sons and daughters of the Reagan Revolution, the true of heirs of Reagan. But they are–in both policy and tone–most un-Reagan like.

As this post documents, Reagan himself not only signed legislation granting amnesty to three million illegal immigrants in exchange for relatively weak enforcement measures; he never demonized illegal immigrants. In 1977, for example, Reagan criticized “the illegal alien fuss” and said illegal aliens may “actually [be] doing work our own people won’t do.”

More broadly, Reagan emphasized the great and vivifying diversity that immigrants brought to this country, and that flowed into and became as one with the national fabric. In Reagan’s words: 

We have a statue in New York Harbor . . . of a woman holding a torch of welcome to those who enter our country to become Americans. She has greeted millions upon millions of immigrants to our country. She welcomes them still. She represents our open door. All of the immigrants who came to us brought their own music, literature, customs, and ideas. And the marvelous thing, a thing of which we’re proud, is they did not have to relinquish these things in order to fit in. In fact, what they brought to America became American. And this diversity has more than enriched us; it has literally shaped us.

One doesn’t hear this kind of elevated rhetoric from many conservatives these days.

Ronald Reagan’s views on immigration, legal and illegal, were connected to a broader vision and conception of America. The fact is that this capacious, generous and hopeful outlook has been replaced by rhetoric that is, from some quarters at least, jagged edged and sends a signal to Hispanics: We don’t really want you; and we don’t much like you.

I understand that one can oppose illegal immigration while also being a champion for legal immigration. But there’s simply no question that these days many on the right are hyper-focusing on illegal immigration, even though the influx of illegal immigrants to America is considerably less than it was in the 1990s. (As Linda Chavez has written, “Today, illegal immigration is at its lowest since 1972. Indeed, more Mexican immigrants are now leaving the country than coming here, with net immigration from Mexico below zero for the first time since the racially motivated mass deportations of Mexicans … during the 1930s.”) There are very few positive words about legal immigrants–and those that are said have a pro forma quality to them. I’m struck as well by the overall lack of attention when it comes to attracting high-skilled immigrants. 

The Republican Party’s greatest presidents, Lincoln and Reagan, wanted America to be a welcoming society to immigrants. They wanted the GOP to be a proudly visible pro-immigrant party. You would think those who most often claim the mantle of Reagan would want the same thing again. They actually don’t. And that’s not only a shame; it has come at quite a high political cost. 

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Obama’s Rhetoric Then and Now

Five years ago, Barack Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, presenting himself as a “citizen of the world,” noting he didn’t “look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken” there, with a speech that failed to mention the historic Berlin addresses of his predecessors–John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). The signature line in 2008 was: “People of Berlin–people of the world–this is our moment. This is our time.” It was rhetoric that made people on two continents swoon back then.

In 2008, Obama regaled the crowd with his agenda for the future: “defeat the Taliban … work with Russia … seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent … answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East … send a direct message to Iran … support the Lebanese who marched and bled for democracy …” and on and on. Five years later, the speech reads like a list of things not accomplished: the Taliban were not defeated; the Russian reset failed; Iran ignored the direct message; Hezbollah hijacked the Lebanese democracy; the “new dawn” in the Middle East saw a U.S. ally removed in Egypt (with U.S. assistance), a U.S. ambassador murdered in Libya (with no U.S. response), a U.S. stance in Syria that amounted to mere rhetoric; and on and on.

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Five years ago, Barack Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, presenting himself as a “citizen of the world,” noting he didn’t “look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken” there, with a speech that failed to mention the historic Berlin addresses of his predecessors–John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). The signature line in 2008 was: “People of Berlin–people of the world–this is our moment. This is our time.” It was rhetoric that made people on two continents swoon back then.

In 2008, Obama regaled the crowd with his agenda for the future: “defeat the Taliban … work with Russia … seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent … answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East … send a direct message to Iran … support the Lebanese who marched and bled for democracy …” and on and on. Five years later, the speech reads like a list of things not accomplished: the Taliban were not defeated; the Russian reset failed; Iran ignored the direct message; Hezbollah hijacked the Lebanese democracy; the “new dawn” in the Middle East saw a U.S. ally removed in Egypt (with U.S. assistance), a U.S. ambassador murdered in Libya (with no U.S. response), a U.S. stance in Syria that amounted to mere rhetoric; and on and on.

The 2013 Berlin speech consisted of warmed-over citizen-of-the-world rhetoric, poorly delivered, to a crowd 97 percent smaller than in 2008. The speech was replete with references to the Berlin Wall, but Obama again failed to acknowledge Reagan’s historic address. He proffered a historical account from which the American president’s contribution was absent (it was “citizens who choose whether to be defined by a wall, or whether to tear it down”). He intoned that since now “we face no concrete walls,” the new task involves less tangible ones: “as long as walls exist in our hearts to separate us from those who don’t look like us, or think like us, or worship as we do, then we’re going to have to work harder, together, to bring those walls of division down.”

The evening before the speech, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes briefed the press on it. He told reporters its “historical context” was important; it would be given at the “place where U.S. Presidents have gone to talk about the role of the free world essentially, whether it was President Kennedy or President Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate,” and that the Gate, “given its history of U.S. Presidents — President Reagan, President Clinton — speaking there … is an appropriate place to do the speech.” In the speech, however, Obama mentioned only JFK. For some reason, he chose not to mention his other two predecessors.

Kennedy and Reagan’s Berlin speeches were both aimed at a specific threat–the one posed by the Soviet Union. In 2013, the countries that arguably constitute the similar strategic challenge are Iran and North Korea (once considered part of an “axis of evil”–tyrannical regimes, seeking nuclear weapons, explicitly threatening the U.S. and its allies). Obama’s 2013 speech devoted one sentence to that subject. He asserted “we can forge a new international framework for peaceful nuclear power, and reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking.”

One suspects the “new international framework” is another Obama pipe dream, and that the key challenge is to enforce the existing one. But “rejecting” the Iranian and North Korean violations is going to take more than rhetoric.  

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The Boys of Pointe du Hoc

On this day, sixty-nine years ago, Allied forces stormed the shores of Normandy and began the liberation of Europe. The memory of D-Day and the heroism of those soldiers, sailors and airmen who took part in that invasion has transcended the history of the greatest conflict in history and become part of the legends of our nation’s history.

We remember D-Day not so much because of the great importance of that war and the evil nature of the forces that America and its allies fought but because it has come to symbolize what it means to fight for liberty and against tyranny. As the number of living veterans of D-Day dwindles as the years go past, we must cherish the memory of their sacrifice and their struggle. No one has ever summarized the nature of that legacy better than President Ronald Reagan who not only honored the heroes of D-Day on the 40th anniversary of the date but also explained why their fight still mattered.

Here is the video of his remarks delivered on the Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The text of this speech, which remains one of the great presidential addresses in our history, follows:

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

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

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On this day, sixty-nine years ago, Allied forces stormed the shores of Normandy and began the liberation of Europe. The memory of D-Day and the heroism of those soldiers, sailors and airmen who took part in that invasion has transcended the history of the greatest conflict in history and become part of the legends of our nation’s history.

We remember D-Day not so much because of the great importance of that war and the evil nature of the forces that America and its allies fought but because it has come to symbolize what it means to fight for liberty and against tyranny. As the number of living veterans of D-Day dwindles as the years go past, we must cherish the memory of their sacrifice and their struggle. No one has ever summarized the nature of that legacy better than President Ronald Reagan who not only honored the heroes of D-Day on the 40th anniversary of the date but also explained why their fight still mattered.

Here is the video of his remarks delivered on the Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The text of this speech, which remains one of the great presidential addresses in our history, follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you very much, and God bless you all.

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Responding to Laura Ingraham

My former Reagan administration colleague Laura Ingraham is unhappy with me. In a post on her website, Ingraham is livid that I criticized longtime conservative activist Phillis Schlafly for her remarks related to immigration. What I wrote was not just wrong; it was “appalling and disgusting.” 

That’s a rather silly charge to make, since my criticisms of Ms. Schlafly were not personal; they had to do with differences over a substantive policy matter. Ingraham believes it’s terribly unfair that I said Schlafly has lost the “ambition to convince” when it comes to the GOP appealing to Hispanics. But how else can one interpret these comments by Schlafly: “The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. And there is not the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican. The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes – the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election.” What makes Ingraham’s comments even more curious is that she largely aligns herself with my argument, having written, “I think there’s more hope in attracting Latino voters than [Schlafly] does.”

So do I.

But where Ingraham’s arguments become most confused is in her angry attacks against George W. Bush, anyone who worked for President Bush, and the entire Bush family. (It should be pointed out that Ms. Ingraham showed an almost supernatural ability to contain her disdain for President Bush when she was invited to meet with him in the White House. Who knew that underneath her good manners and supportive words lay a seething volcano?) 

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My former Reagan administration colleague Laura Ingraham is unhappy with me. In a post on her website, Ingraham is livid that I criticized longtime conservative activist Phillis Schlafly for her remarks related to immigration. What I wrote was not just wrong; it was “appalling and disgusting.” 

That’s a rather silly charge to make, since my criticisms of Ms. Schlafly were not personal; they had to do with differences over a substantive policy matter. Ingraham believes it’s terribly unfair that I said Schlafly has lost the “ambition to convince” when it comes to the GOP appealing to Hispanics. But how else can one interpret these comments by Schlafly: “The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. And there is not the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican. The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes – the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election.” What makes Ingraham’s comments even more curious is that she largely aligns herself with my argument, having written, “I think there’s more hope in attracting Latino voters than [Schlafly] does.”

So do I.

But where Ingraham’s arguments become most confused is in her angry attacks against George W. Bush, anyone who worked for President Bush, and the entire Bush family. (It should be pointed out that Ms. Ingraham showed an almost supernatural ability to contain her disdain for President Bush when she was invited to meet with him in the White House. Who knew that underneath her good manners and supportive words lay a seething volcano?) 


Ms. Ingraham repeatedly invokes the mantra “How dare ex-Bushies” criticize Schlafly. After all, Ingraham is saying, George W. Bush and all those associated with him are not true conservatives, having undermined conservatism at every turn. So what is Ingraham’s specific indictment against Bush?

There’s a lot to sort through, and much of it is jumbled. But let’s deal with it as best we can. For starters, Ingraham says the Bush administration “drove so many people away from conservatism.” But that assertion is wrong, as this Gallup poll demonstrates. When George W. Bush won the presidency, 38 percent of the country identified itself as conservative (half of that figure identified itself as liberal). The number of self-identified conservatives fluctuated between a low of 37 percent and a high of 40 percent during the Bush presidency. The country’s political ideology during the Bush years was quite stable. And Republicans during the Bush years became substantially more conservative, less moderate, and less liberal.

As for Ingraham’s claim that most Americans consider the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be “pointless”: For the entire Bush presidency the number of Americans who said it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan never rose above 34 percent, according to the Gallup organization. Public support for the Iraq war did drop–but it increased after Bush embraced a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (the so-called surge), one of the most impressive demonstrations of presidential leadership in our lifetime. It’s also worth pointing out that Ingraham aggressively supported both conflicts, including in Iraq (see here, here, here and here). For most of the last decade she got the point of both wars–and was highly quite critical of those who did not. 

Ms. Ingraham complains that Bush “refused to enforce immigration law as the people demanded.” Back to reality: Under Bush we saw substantially increased border security, he ended “catch and release,” and illegal immigration declined virtually every year Bush was in office. Ms. Ingraham also excoriates Bush for fighting for “amnesty for illegal aliens.” Actually, Bush didn’t support amnesty for illegal aliens. Amnesty means to exempt from penalty, and Bush’s policies required penalties for those who break the law but wanted to apply for citizenship. What Ingraham doesn’t mention is that the one president who did sign legislation granting full-scale amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants was her political hero (and mine) Ronald Reagan. In a 1984 presidential debate, in fact, Reagan went so far as to say, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” The mind reels at the critical things Ingraham would say about Bush if he had actually had Reagan’s record on amnesty. 

For the purposes of this discussion it might be helpful to stay with the Bush-Reagan comparison, since Reagan is the gold standard for conservatives and ranks among the greatest presidents in our history. It’s therefore illustrative to take the issues Ingraham has selected and measure Bush’s actual policies and achievements against Reagan, if only to put them in a real (as opposed to a make-believe) context.

Ingraham charges that Bush “ran up huge budget deficits.” False. The budget deficit during Bush’s tenure averaged 2 percent of GDP, which is well below the 50-year average of 3 percent and considerably below what it was under Reagan (when it went as high as 6 percent of GDP and averaged 4.2 percent).

On spending: over the last 40 years and eight presidencies, only two presidents have kept spending below 20 percent of GDP in even a single year: George W. Bush did it in six of his eight fiscal years; Bill Clinton in four. During fiscal years 1981-88, the Reagan years, federal spending averaged over 22 percent of GDP. As Keith Hennessey has pointed out, “even at its highest point during the Bush tenure, spending as a share of GDP was still lower than the lowest year of the Reagan Administration.”

Ms. Ingraham has long had something of an obsession with Harriet Miers, who was never seated on the Supreme Court. But both Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor were. Unlike Antonin Scalia, Reagan’s greatest Supreme Court appointment, Kennedy and O’Connor turned out to be fairly problematic from an originalist perspective and both refused to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Schlafly called Roe v. Wade “the worst decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court” and said that it “is responsible for the killing of millions of unborn babies.”)

As for the “ex-Bushies” who “practically destroyed the GOP”: George W. Bush won both presidential campaigns he ran in. During his tenure the GOP reached its high-water mark of influence, when it controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. And in 2002, Republicans regained their majority in the Senate and added seats in the House–only the second election in American history in which a president’s party gained seats in both the House and Senate in the first midterm election. The GOP didn’t maintain that position, losing 29 House seats in 2006 (one more than the historic average). There’s no question that in Bush’s second term he encountered political difficulties that he didn’t face in his first term. But a fair-minded reading of the record makes it clear that Ingraham’s claims are ludicrously exaggerated.

What Ingraham has done is to string together a series of incorrect and misleading assertions, even as she consistently overlooks Bush’s conservative achievements on taxes (he cut them several times and unlike Reagan, never raised them) and growth (during the Bush years America experienced six years of uninterrupted economic growth and a record 52 straight months of job creation), culture of life and marriage issues, the Second Amendment, support for Israel, missile defense, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, and his anti-terrorism policies, to name just a few. Keith Hennessey also points out that Bush “proposed structural and incremental reforms to Social Security and Medicare that set up the current entitlement reform debate.” 

What appears to have occurred is that Ingraham’s anti-Bush animus, whatever its origins, has crippled her ability to think clearly about him or his record.

I’ll close by making a broader point. Much of the left has come to symbolize an ad hominem impulse in American politics–the habit of replacing reasoned arguments with personal attacks. It’s a shame that Ingraham–whom I’ve known for years and have always had a cordial personal relationship with–has taken to employing this tactic. Rather than offer a calm and informed dissent to what I wrote, she has instead opted to post a piece that is sloppy and unserious. It’s a shame, since intemperate minds are an obstacle to conservative success.

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GOP Already Tried the Bob Dole Paradigm

Democrats are chortling about the latest round of grousing about the current Republican Party from those associated with its past. Bob Dole’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News this past weekend lent weight to one of the White House’s most important talking points about the GOP being in the hands of extremists. He said the Republican National Committee ought to put up a “closed for repairs” sign and blasted the current generation of the GOP as one that wouldn’t have accepted him or even conservative icon Ronald Reagan. But as much Dole deserves our respect for his sacrifice during World War Two and his lifelong service to his country, the idea that he is the sort of Republican politician that current members of Congress should emulate is ridiculous. There is a reason why you don’t see too many Dole-style types in the GOP these days: he was obsolete twenty years ago.

To say that Dole passed his best-used date is not to mock him for his age or infirmity. The fact that he is wheelchair-bound and losing his sight should grieve us all. He is the exemplar of the “greatest generation” veteran who nearly died as a result of his wounds and then spent nearly four decades in public life in the postwar era. He deserves every possible honor that his country can give him. But let’s get real. Dole was also an apt symbol of the failures of the self-proclaimed Eisenhower Republicans in Congress. His get-along-to-go-along style in which compromise always seemed to be the keynote was never going to fix the out-of-control growth of the federal government, it just managed it. As much as the abrasiveness of Ted Cruz makes many of us long for the more easygoing style of partisanship Dole practiced, there was a reason the GOP abandoned it: it didn’t work.

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Democrats are chortling about the latest round of grousing about the current Republican Party from those associated with its past. Bob Dole’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News this past weekend lent weight to one of the White House’s most important talking points about the GOP being in the hands of extremists. He said the Republican National Committee ought to put up a “closed for repairs” sign and blasted the current generation of the GOP as one that wouldn’t have accepted him or even conservative icon Ronald Reagan. But as much Dole deserves our respect for his sacrifice during World War Two and his lifelong service to his country, the idea that he is the sort of Republican politician that current members of Congress should emulate is ridiculous. There is a reason why you don’t see too many Dole-style types in the GOP these days: he was obsolete twenty years ago.

To say that Dole passed his best-used date is not to mock him for his age or infirmity. The fact that he is wheelchair-bound and losing his sight should grieve us all. He is the exemplar of the “greatest generation” veteran who nearly died as a result of his wounds and then spent nearly four decades in public life in the postwar era. He deserves every possible honor that his country can give him. But let’s get real. Dole was also an apt symbol of the failures of the self-proclaimed Eisenhower Republicans in Congress. His get-along-to-go-along style in which compromise always seemed to be the keynote was never going to fix the out-of-control growth of the federal government, it just managed it. As much as the abrasiveness of Ted Cruz makes many of us long for the more easygoing style of partisanship Dole practiced, there was a reason the GOP abandoned it: it didn’t work.

Republicans do need to spend time rethinking their strategies this year and as our Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson pointed out in their seminal COMMENTARY article on the subject earlier this year, there is plenty of room for change in the GOP. But whatever path the party ultimately chooses, the last thing they need to do is to channel the spirit Dole. That is, unless they want to repeat his legislative futility or his defeat in the 1996 presidential election.

Dole may still resent Newt Gingrich’s calling him the “tax collector for the welfare state” but the reason why that phrase stuck is that his generation of Republican leaders accepted the premise that their purpose was to work within the existing political structure rather than trying to tear it down and rebuild it. Dole was not the RINO some on the right thought and was, in his own way, as tart a partisan wag as any of his successors in the GOP caucus. But he also represented a spirit of accommodation that went beyond the schmoozing needed to pass legislation when both parties could agree. If the Republican Party moved in a different direction in the early 90’s with Gingrich’s Republican revolution and then later with the Tea Party that rejected the free-spending GOP of the George W. Bush era, it was because there are times when parties need people who will offer a genuine alternative rather than a willingness to compromise principles.

It is also foolish for Dole, or anyone else, to claim that Ronald Reagan would have been rejected by the current brand of Republicans. Reagan was the product of another era and was animated by different key issues such as the need to resist Communism. The paradigm of Cold war conservatism may be able to help today’s Republicans find their way in defending America against contemporary threats but, like it or not, foreign policy no longer defines most politicians. However, it needs to be understood that Reagan took his party as far to the right on domestic issues as he could in his day.

If today’s Republicans are able to articulate a more far-reaching critique of the government leviathan that Reagan despised, it is because they are standing on his shoulders. In Reagan’s days, the party was also divided between more ideological conservatives and the moderates, among whose number Dole was quite prominent. Dole was on the wrong side of that argument. If today’s Republicans reject his style of politics it is not a rejection of Reagan but a continuation of the spirit of conservatism that the 40th president embodied. To claim that he wouldn’t fit in among today’s Republicans makes as much sense as claiming John F. Kennedy or any other figure from the past wouldn’t fit in among today’s Democrats. It’s not so much wrong as it is a non sequitur.

For all of their faults, today’s Republicans, including the Tea Party and its firebrands like Cruz, are willing to articulate conservative principles in a way that can energize the party. If the GOP is ever to win back the White House it’s going to be under the leadership of someone who can tap into that enthusiasm, not a latter-day Eisenhower Republican. The party has already tried that course and failed several times. As much as we should venerate Dole as an elder statesman and war hero, the GOP needs to use his career as an example of what not to do more than anything else.

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Obama’s Thatcher Snub

In February 1946, about a month before Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in Missouri, Churchill had dinner at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Though it would serve both President Harry Truman and Churchill to downplay any hint that Truman approved the content of Churchill’s speech beforehand, neither wanted any surprises. At his dinner with the American ambassador to Cuba, R. Henry Norweb, Churchill spoke plainly about his thoughts on the Soviet Union and the United Nations. Norweb relayed the comments to Truman the following day, in which he described Churchill’s comments on the Soviet Union’s Communist threat as recalling Churchill’s “world-shaking oratory” about the Nazis years earlier. Norweb continued:

Mr. Churchill went on to express his conviction that the only escape from future disaster, the only hope for [the United Nations Organization], lies in the development over the years of some definite working agreement between the American and British Governments. He fully understands, he said, that any formal merger or alliance would doubtless now be impracticable, untimely and unpopular on both sides of the Atlantic–but he holds that the sheer pressure of events will of necessity force our two great commonwealths to come together in some workable manner if the peace and order of the world are to be preserved from chaos.

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In February 1946, about a month before Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in Missouri, Churchill had dinner at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Though it would serve both President Harry Truman and Churchill to downplay any hint that Truman approved the content of Churchill’s speech beforehand, neither wanted any surprises. At his dinner with the American ambassador to Cuba, R. Henry Norweb, Churchill spoke plainly about his thoughts on the Soviet Union and the United Nations. Norweb relayed the comments to Truman the following day, in which he described Churchill’s comments on the Soviet Union’s Communist threat as recalling Churchill’s “world-shaking oratory” about the Nazis years earlier. Norweb continued:

Mr. Churchill went on to express his conviction that the only escape from future disaster, the only hope for [the United Nations Organization], lies in the development over the years of some definite working agreement between the American and British Governments. He fully understands, he said, that any formal merger or alliance would doubtless now be impracticable, untimely and unpopular on both sides of the Atlantic–but he holds that the sheer pressure of events will of necessity force our two great commonwealths to come together in some workable manner if the peace and order of the world are to be preserved from chaos.

Truman did not object to either point, and the speech became a pivotal moment in the early stages of the Cold War and of the post-war relationship between the U.S. and Britain. (It should be remembered that Churchill was accorded this honor from Truman despite the fact that he was no longer prime minister, though the British government that replaced him did not object to the speech.) In October 1947, Truman wrote to Churchill: “Your Fulton, Mo. speech becomes more nearly a prophecy every day. I hope conditions will warrant your paying me another visit. I certainly enjoyed your stay here immensely…. May you continue to enjoy health and happiness and a long life–the world needs you now as badly as ever.”

I recount this history because it is often forgotten that the special relationship between Britain and the U.S. after World War II and the countries’ close alliance against Soviet Communism was far from inevitable. On the contrary, it took painstaking diplomacy and bold gestures. Which is why the Obama administration’s decision to take the alliance with Britain for granted, marked by its repeated thoughtlessness and insulting behavior toward the British crown and government, is so foolish. And rather than learn from its blunders, the administration appears to be content to continue making such mistakes.

Following on its refusal to recognize British sovereignty over the Falklands or the Falklands residents’ own wishes, the Obama administration decided not to send a high-level official to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral service today. It did not go unnoticed.

Thatcher and Ronald Reagan carried to victory the Cold War partnership begun by Truman and Churchill. The Cold War has always been a sore subject for this administration, which has endlessly taunted those who want to remember the history at all. (This might have something to do with Vice President Joe Biden’s less-than-stellar record during the Cold War.) And since Thatcher rescued her country from the grips of suffocating union dominance and the Western left’s declinist fetish, it’s not too surprising the president would not want attention drawn to that either. But that’s still no excuse.

The whole episode recalls Obama’s decision to skip the ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall early in his first term. He sent a videotaped message instead (which he found a way to make about himself, using the message to celebrate the historic nature of his own election). The only upside to today’s absence in London is that, given Obama’s treatment of our British allies thus far, he probably wasn’t missed.

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Margaret [Thatcher], Bill [Buckley], and Ron [Reagan]

In a graceful 1975 column titled “Just Call Me Bill,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote about his correspondence with Margaret Thatcher after she appeared on his TV show as the new leader of the Conservative Party. Buckley always referred to others as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” on television, even if he knew them well, but after Mrs. Thatcher called him “Bill” at one point during the interview, he felt he could write her a “Dear Margaret” letter. She responded with a “Dear Mr. Buckley” letter, and on checking the transcript of the interview, he was shocked to discover that on the show she had been referring to a piece of legislation, not his first name.

At the beginning of this year, Thatcher’s papers from 1982 were released, under the 30-year rule that governs such releases. Included in them is a secret personal message she sent to President Reagan on May 5, 1982, in the midst of the Falklands war. She had just completed a four-hour meeting with her cabinet to discuss U.S. proposals for a negotiated settlement, and she wrote to Reagan privately “because I think you are the only person who will understand the significance of what I am trying to say.” Her message continued as follows:

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In a graceful 1975 column titled “Just Call Me Bill,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote about his correspondence with Margaret Thatcher after she appeared on his TV show as the new leader of the Conservative Party. Buckley always referred to others as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” on television, even if he knew them well, but after Mrs. Thatcher called him “Bill” at one point during the interview, he felt he could write her a “Dear Margaret” letter. She responded with a “Dear Mr. Buckley” letter, and on checking the transcript of the interview, he was shocked to discover that on the show she had been referring to a piece of legislation, not his first name.

At the beginning of this year, Thatcher’s papers from 1982 were released, under the 30-year rule that governs such releases. Included in them is a secret personal message she sent to President Reagan on May 5, 1982, in the midst of the Falklands war. She had just completed a four-hour meeting with her cabinet to discuss U.S. proposals for a negotiated settlement, and she wrote to Reagan privately “because I think you are the only person who will understand the significance of what I am trying to say.” Her message continued as follows:

Throughout my administration I have tried to stay loyal to the United States as our great ally and to the principles of democracy, liberty and justice for which both of our countries stand.

In your message you say that your suggestions are faithful to the basic principles we must protect. But the present rulers of the Argentine will not respect those principles, and I fear deeply that if a settlement based on your suggestions is eventually achieved, we shall find that in the process of negotiation democracy and freedom for the Falkland Islanders will have been compromised.

Above all, the present proposals do not provide unambiguously for a right to self-determination, although it is fundamental to democracy and was enjoyed by the Islanders up to the moment of invasion …

I also believe that the friendship between the United States and Britain matters very much to the future of the free world. That is why, with the changes Francis Pym has suggested to Al Haig, we are ready, with whatever misgivings, to go along with your latest proposals. Assuming that they are accepted by the Argentines, then during the negotiation period that will follow we shall have to fight fiercely for the rights of the Falklanders who have been so loyal to everything in which you and we believe.

The Argentinians rejected the terms for negotiation the next day, so the U.S. proposal never became a reality. The historical significance of Thatcher’s message to Reagan relates less to the Falklands crisis itself than to the personal relationship she and Reagan had established by the second year of his presidency. The May 5, 1982 secret message was addressed to “Ron,” and it was signed simply, “Margaret.”

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Thatcher and the Politics of Prudence

Yesterday Mark Levin, popular radio talk show host and best-selling author, suggested (without mentioning my name) that my post on Margaret Thatcher was fundamentally at odds with, and even schizophrenic with, my post last week, in which I spoke about a conservatism that “places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments.”

How could I praise political moderation and prudence one week and the Iron Lady the next?

A fair question, and one that affords me an opportunity to explain why the Thatcher example actually underscores my point about the conservative temperament and political moderation rightly understood.

Margaret Thatcher was a tower of political strength–principled, strong, determined, and courageous. (A nice summary of her accomplishments can be found here.) But what was the one area, as both a candidate and as prime minister, she stayed away from? The National Health Service–England’s socialized medical system. In fact, in her memoirs she praised the NHS. And Thatcher promised in her 1982 Conservative Party Conference speech that the NHS was “safe with us.”

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Yesterday Mark Levin, popular radio talk show host and best-selling author, suggested (without mentioning my name) that my post on Margaret Thatcher was fundamentally at odds with, and even schizophrenic with, my post last week, in which I spoke about a conservatism that “places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments.”

How could I praise political moderation and prudence one week and the Iron Lady the next?

A fair question, and one that affords me an opportunity to explain why the Thatcher example actually underscores my point about the conservative temperament and political moderation rightly understood.

Margaret Thatcher was a tower of political strength–principled, strong, determined, and courageous. (A nice summary of her accomplishments can be found here.) But what was the one area, as both a candidate and as prime minister, she stayed away from? The National Health Service–England’s socialized medical system. In fact, in her memoirs she praised the NHS. And Thatcher promised in her 1982 Conservative Party Conference speech that the NHS was “safe with us.”

This is similar to what Ronald Reagan did with the New Deal, promising not to dismantle it. On the contrary, Reagan spoke about our nation’s “ironclad commitment to Social Security.” Reagan, in 1980, even went so far as to reassure people he would not dismantle Medicare, which of course was a product of the Great Society. (Avik Roy points out that “the closest thing to Medicare reform that Reagan tried was to introduce a new system of price controls into the program, called the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale, in 1988…. Indeed, Reagan’s most significant contribution to our health-care system was to help create a new entitlement—EMTALA–that guaranteed that anyone could get free access to emergency room care regardless of their ability to pay, including illegal immigrants.”)

What to make of these decisions by both Thatcher and Reagan?

I suppose one could argue–quite unfairly in my view–that they were unprincipled, weak, and RINO-like. The other interpretation is that they were conservative in the way I described last week: prudent, realistic, and wise enough not to engage in a political Pickett’s Charge.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan picked their battles wisely, didn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, and didn’t fight on issues that may well have led to their electoral loss–and therefore, in the process, foreclosed their chance at being historically great figures. They also took into account the settled views of the public, at least at the moment in time in which they governed. That doesn’t mean that over time things couldn’t change–as indeed they have on Medicare, with Republicans offering conservative reforms that go far beyond anything envisioned by Reagan. 

But I for one wouldn’t criticize Thatcher for not engaging in a frontal assault on NHS or Reagan for not engaging in a frontal assault on the New Deal. They marshaled their political capital in order to make profound changes in other areas, where they had a decent chance for success. So Reagan, for example, ushered in the supply side revolution while Thatcher privatized many British industries that had been state-controlled.

I wish, by the way, that Prime Minister Thatcher had been able to undo NHS and replace it with a free market system. But what one might have wanted her to do based on a conservative wish list, and what she was in fact able to do, are two different things. The conservatism I described last week is, I think, the conservatism Thatcher and Reagan more or less subscribed to in practice.

There is something of a divide on the right, perhaps not so much in terms of the end most of us seek (lower taxes, limited government, more competition, accountability and free market reforms) than in terms of how conservatives ought to deal with political reality as they try to advance conservative causes. Margaret Thatcher made her own inner peace with the NHS. And she was still one of the most consequential and successful conservative leaders of the 20th century.

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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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