A Ryan Pick Could Shape GOP Future

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

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

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

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

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

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A Ryan Pick Could Shape GOP Future

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200 Years on the Erie Canal

How the West was dug.

Next Tuesday marks the beginning of the 242nd year of the independence of the United States, and the day will be justly celebrated with parades, picnics, and fireworks from Hawaii to Maine.

But next Tuesday will also mark another anniversary of surpassing historical importance to this country. For it was on July 4th, 1817, 200 years ago, that the first shovelful of dirt was dug and the construction of the Erie Canal began. Finished eight years later (ahead of schedule and under budget) it united the east coast with the fast-growing trans-Appalachian west.

It was a monumental undertaking. At 363 miles, the canal was more than twice as long as any earlier canal. (The Canal du Midi in southern France was 140 miles in length.) Thomas Jefferson thought the project “little short of madness.” But Governor Dewitt Clinton saw the possibilities and went ahead, artfully handling the very considerable political opposition and arranged the financing (much of the money was raised in London).

Clinton was quickly proved right and the Erie Canal can claim to be the most consequential public works project in American history. Before the canal, bulk goods such as grain could reach the east coast population centers only by going down the Mississippi River and out through the port of New Orleans. With the canal, it could travel via the Great Lakes and the canal to the port of New York. Before the canal, it had taken six weeks to move a barrel of flour from Buffalo to New York City, at the cost of $100. With the canal, it took six days and cost $6.00. The result was an economic revolution.

Within a few years, New York City had become, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes (the doctor and poet, not his son the Supreme Court justice), “that tongue that is licking up the cream of commerce of a continent.” The city exploded in size, expanding northwards at the rate of about two blocks a year. That may not seem like much, but Manhattan is about two miles wide, and thus the city was adding about ten miles of street front every year, a pace that continued for decades.

The cost of the canal was paid off in only eight years and thereafter became a cash cow for the state. This allowed it to weather the crash of 1837 and the following depression, which bankrupted the state of Pennsylvania and crippled Philadelphia’s banks. New York quickly became the country’s undisputed financial center, which it has been ever since.

And while goods were moving eastwards, people were moving westward through the canal as farmers deserted the thin, stony soils of New England for the rich, deep loams of Ohio and Indiana. This “New England diaspora” moved the political center of the country westwards.

The canal era in this country was a brief one as railroads, beginning in the 1830’s, began to spread. But the Erie Canal continued to function as an artery of commerce until the 1970’s and is still used today for things that, usually for reasons of size, cannot be moved by highway or railroad. And it remains a popular avenue for recreational boating.

So Americans should remember Dewitt Clinton next week just as we remember Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. For New Yorkers, that goes double. For it was the Erie Canal that put the “empire” in the Empire State.

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David French: The Threat To Free Speech

From the July/August COMMENTARY symposium.

The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:

We’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.

The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.

The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.

But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.

The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.

The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.

Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.

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A Victory for Symbolism

The travel ban is saved, for now.

President Trump got a much-needed win today when the Supreme Court allowed part of his executive order on immigration to take effect, vacating stays issued by lower courts. The justices will decide the fate of the executive order in the fall. Judging by today’s ruling, it’s possible that Trump will triumph, at least in part, if only because the president has broad authority to restrict entry into the United States by anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident. But even if Trump’s executive order proves to be legal, that doesn’t mean that it’s wise or necessary from a security standpoint.

The Department of Homeland Security can now keep out nationals of six Muslim countries—Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen—as long as those nationals cannot “credibly claim a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” Prepare for more litigation to figure out what constitutes a “bona fide relationship,” a new, arbitrary standard invented by the justices to modify the arbitrary standard invented by President Trump. What does any of this have to do with the dictates of counter-terrorism—the ostensible justification for the travel ban? Not much.

There is no history in the United States of terrorist acts committed by nationals of the six countries in question. As a Cato analyst noted, back when the ban still applied to Iraq as well as the six other countries: “Nationals of the seven countries singled out by Trump have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015.”

In justifying the travel ban, Trump’s original executive order on January 27 made its main argument the 9/11 attacks, “when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 American.” But the 9/11 attacks were committed by 15 Saudis, 2 Emiratis, 1 Egyptian, and 1 Lebanese—none of whom would be covered under the Trump travel ban. That’s not an argument for enlarging the ban but merely a commentary on the fact that the executive order as crafted is utterly disconnected from any actual security threat.

This reality is further underlined by the fact that when the original executive order was issued on January 27, the Trump administration claimed that it had to suspend all entry for nationals of seven Muslim countries for 90 days—and of all refugees from all over the world for 120 days. The stated intent of that order was to “ensure the proper review and maximum utilization of available resources for the screening of foreign nationals, and to ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals.”

Well, it’s now been 150 days since that executive order was issued—and we have not experienced any attacks by the hordes of terrorists that Trump claimed were waiting to rush into the United States when his executive order was suspended. And yet the administration is now arguing that it needs at least 90 more days to come up with vetting procedures for the entry of nationals of the six Muslim countries in question. Why haven’t the previous 150 days sufficed to make entry requirements as stringent as they need to be? In reality, there is no evidence that Homeland Security has had to strengthen already rigorous admission standards significantly.

President Trump gave away his real motives for pursuing the travel ban, in spite of the original justification lapsing, when he tweeted in favor of it on June 3 just minutes after a terrorist attack in London. “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,” he wrote. “We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” When Trump sent that tweet, the nationality of the attackers was not known. (They would subsequently be identified as a British citizen born in Pakistan, an Italian citizen born in Morocco, and a Moroccan who had been granted residency in the European Union because of his marriage to an Irish woman.)

All that anyone knew at that point is that the attackers were Muslims. So Trump was clearly signaling that his real worry is not about the six countries in question—none of which had anything to do with the London attack—but with Muslims in general. In keeping with his campaign rhetoric, which catered to anti-Muslim bigotry, Trump evidently wants to keep as many Muslims out of the country as possible.

It will be up to the Supreme Court to rule on whether Trump can do so under the Constitution. From a security standpoint, this blanket animus against Muslims is highly counterproductive. It would make no sense, even if it were legally possible, to keep out all Muslims—including citizens of American allies from Britain to Saudi Arabia. It’s not even clear that this is possible to do: How would immigration agents know that someone is a Muslim or not? Passports don’t ordinarily list religion.

The U.S. needs the cooperation of moderate Muslims, both at home and abroad, to fight the scourge of terrorism, which has claimed far more Muslim lives than those of Christians or Jews. That means we shouldn’t alienate Muslims by trying to ban them from the United States. The U.S. should be trying to gather as much intelligence as possible on terrorist designs from within Muslim communities, both domestically and abroad, while at the same time carefully screening anyone, Muslim or not, who seeks entry to the United States.

But that’s not very sexy. It’s, in fact, the status quo. Trump seems intent on some big, showy, symbolic act, no matter how counterproductive, to demonstrate that he is doing more to combat terrorism than Obama. The Supreme Court may just let him get away with it.

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No Way to Run a Railroad

The cult of the businessman implodes.

If there is one salutary development that should come from the Trump administration, it is to explode for all time the conceit that business leaders with no experience in politics are best qualified to run the government.

It’s not just the overall struggles of President Trump himself, coping with record-low approval ratings. For further confirmation that business experience does not necessarily translate into government success, look no further than the State Department, which is being run by ExxonMobil’s longtime CEO, Rex Tillerson.

By all accounts, Tillerson was very successful as an oil-company executive. He is proving less successful as secretary of state, a job he gives no signs of having mastered.

He ignores the press—one of the most potent instruments that any secretary of state has to spread his message, shape public perceptions, and enhance his own standing with the administration and Congress.

He acquiesces in a White House budget that calls for cutting State Department funding and foreign aid by almost 30 percent—a budget that Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Trump supporter, called so Draconian that it would be a “total waste of time” to even review it.

He does little to motivate his own personnel or explain his vision to them and, when he did, he gave a talk widely seen as denigrating the importance of “values” in U.S. foreign policy.

He seems to be losing out in a battle for influence over Middle Eastern policy with White House aides such as Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. He often seems tripped up by the president’s own tweets and pronouncements. For example, in the current crisis in Qatar, Tillerson is trying to play the role of honest broker while the president appears to be offering 110 percent backing to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states blockading Qatar.

Granted, not all of these snafus are entirely Tillerson’s fault. Like many administration officials, he is struggling to keep up with the policy being set, willy-nilly, by Trump’s Twitter feed. He did try to appoint a well-qualified deputy—my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams—but had that request rejected by the president, apparently at Steve Bannon’s instigation, because Abrams wrote one mildly critical article about Trump last year. But Tillerson can’t blame the White House for his failure to fill most of the critical policy jobs at the State Department. That’s on him.

Tillerson is treating the State Department as if it were a poorly run conglomerate that is in need of an urgent overhaul by a new CEO who is waiting for the management consultants to tell him which lines of business to keep and which to sell. According to the Washington Post, Tillerson has “sketched a lengthy timeline for his internal review that would include a period of study and planning through 2017 and changes to the department’s structure and staffing next year. In some cases, senior jobs will remain vacant until then, if they are filled at all.”

This is bonkers. By refusing to fill senior State Department jobs for a year or more, Tillerson is not just hindering the process of policy formation. He is also reducing his own influence in both the administration and the world as a whole.

The New York Times reported: “Three foreign ambassadors — one from Asia and two from Europe — said they had taken to contacting the National Security Council because the State Department does not return their calls or does not offer substantive answers when it does.”

The Times offered some examples of just how dangerous this policy vacuum can be:

Mr. Tillerson, for example, recently shut down the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan — whose role had been diminished since Richard Holbrooke had the job during President Barack Obama’s first term — and has yet to appoint an assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, at a time when the Taliban’s return and Pakistan’s instability are major concerns.

When he attended a series of recent meetings on Afghanistan, Mr. Tillerson was accompanied by only his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, who is a former United States Patent and Trademark official and technology executive with no diplomatic experience.

There is also no one in line for the Asia policy job, just when there is talk about whether the North Korea crisis will be defused by negotiation or steam toward conflict.

This is, quite simply, no way to run a foreign policy. Tillerson’s struggles stand in stark contrast to the surer hand at the Defense Department—Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Mattis has no business background, but he does have a lifetime of military service that has exposed him to the ins and outs of government and how it operates. That is something Tillerson utterly lacks—and it shows.

Business experience can be valuable if combined with government experience. A good example is George Shultz, one of the most respected secretaries of state, who ran the engineering giant Bechtel in between service in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. But Tillerson, along with Trump, is proving that it’s a lot harder to translate private-sector experience into the government than it may appear from a distance. That is something that voters should keep in mind when, inevitably, the next crop of business leaders seek high office.

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Is Trump Turning It Around?

Podcast: Did the Supreme Court and Congress rescue the Trump presidency?

On the first podcast of the week, we (that is, Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I) look at the Supreme Court’s decision to allow parts of the Trump travel ban to go through and the possibility of the passage of the health care bill in the Senate. And we ask: Does this mean that next week we’ll be saying the Trump administration has scored victories and is now far more formidable than it has thus far appeared? Also, I quote a medieval English song to the mystification of Noah and Abe. Give a listen.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

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