For the moment, try to put yourself in the position of a swing voter who will determine the course of the 2016 presidential election and the nation. You are frustrated with the direction in which the country is headed. You may not resent the gains social progressivism has made over the years, but you are concerned that they have come at the expense of the liberty of others. Those gains have come at a cost acutely felt by your friends and neighbors. Though you do not harbor any ill will towards them, those who benefit most from the advance of the liberal agenda are people who you may never meet and who, for you, are entirely hypothetical. The pace of the economic recovery has been engagingly unenergetic. The threat of a new contraction looms forever just over the horizon, even as you struggle to meet today’s financial burdens. Abroad, America has never looked more threatened and less respected by adversary and ally alike. It’s time for a change in direction, but toward what? Republicans have gone to great lengths to reestablish the trust of voters after George W. Bush’s second term and the 2007-2008 financial collapse sapped the public’s faith in the GOP’s governing program. Gradually, painstakingly, Republicans have won back the voters’ support and hold more elected offices today than they have for close to a century. But all that improvement threatens to be undone by the not inaccurate impression among voters that the GOP is in crisis — at war with itself — and that it may be unable to serve as a responsible governing party.
Contrary to pervasive but shallow consensus opinion among a prominent cast of political analysts, Barack Obama is not a popular president. While the Oval Office occupant is not as unpopular today as he has been in the recent past, that’s damnation by faint praise. “To date, Obama has been unpopular for more than two-thirds of his tenure,” The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost observed. “If he stays under 50 percent for the remainder of his term, he will have been unpopular for longer than any postwar leader.” His anointed Democratic successor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is also struggling. A recent Quinnipiac University survey of the key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire revealed that Clinton’s favorability ratings had collapsed. Those findings were confirmed by NBC News/Marist University, which revealed that Clinton’s favorability among registered voters had sunk to -19 and -20% in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively. Nationally, according to Gallup, Clinton favorability rating is now underwater at 43 to 46 percent, “tilting her image negative and producing her worst net favorable score since December 2007.”
Clinton’s favorability ratings are no doubt a reflection of her personal shortcomings and distaste for the fact that she has such a limited regard for voters’ intelligence that she would repeatedly – compulsively — mislead them. But they are also a reflection of the country’s natural desire to move on from the Obama era after his two terms in the White House. Polls show that twice as many Americans believe the country is headed down the wrong track, and that has been the case consistently since the middle of 2010. From the expansion of same-sex marriage rights nationally to extended access to federally subsidized health insurance to the furling of the Confederate flag over public grounds; progressives have enjoyed a variety of social issues victories, and voters are not thrilled about it. “The poll finds all three issues are fairly divisive among the public at-large, with large shares seeing policy shift in a direction at odds with their views,” read a Washington Post report on a recent survey that found voters are uncomfortable with the direction “progress” has taken in recent years.
All this suggests that the 2016 political landscape should be fertile ground in which Republicans can sow the seeds of electoral victory. But the coming election will not merely be a referendum on the last eight years – it will also be an up or down vote on whether Republicans are ready to retake hold of the reins of government. At present, they don’t look like they are.
Over the weekend, an internecine squabble among Senate Republicans exploded into an outright row. A long-term highway funding bill, which has become an unattractive vehicle through which America’s political class rewards a variety of valued constituencies, became a proxy battlefield on which Republican officeholders waged a variety of fights. From renewing the expired Export-Import Bank, to defunding Planned Parenthood, to repealing the Affordable Care Act, Republicans went to war with one another over what the party’s various factions in Congress see as pressing priorities. In an effort to block debate over the legitimacy of federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adopted a favored tactic of his Democratic predecessor, Harry Reid, and used a procedural maneuver to prevent further amendments to and subsequent debate on that piece of legislation.
“What we saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over again was a simple lie,” presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz said of the majority leader last week on the floor of the U.S. Senate. “We now know that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment that he is willing to say things that he knows are false. That has consequences for how this body operates.”
“We’re not here on some frolic or to pursue personal ambitions,” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch shot back. “We must ensure that the pernicious trend of turning the Senate floor into a forum for advancing personal ambitions, for promoting political campaigns, or for enhancing fundraising activities comes to a stop.” Hatch added that Cruz’s conduct had been a “misuse of the Senate floor.”
In 2014, Republicans won a majority in the upper chamber of Congress just large enough to yield the party committee chairmanships and to block Democratic legislation from reaching the president’s desk, but not large enough to advance legislation of their own. But the Republican pitch to conservatives that increasingly rests on decisively winning the next election, always the next election, is starting to ring hollow. “Being a negative force is not nothing, and blocking bad policy is worthwhile,” The Federalist’s Ben Domenech wrote. “But when given the opportunity to put good policy into place, or to take steps to make such policy more feasible in the future, where is the Republican Party to be found?”
Nowhere, he argues. It’s an argument that resonates to an ever larger number of Republican base voters. “Republicans, in particular, are now more critical of their own party than they were a few months ago,” the Pew Research Center revealed this week. Only two-thirds of self-identified Republicans view their party favorably, down from 86 percent in 2014. The GOP is viewed positively today by just 32 percent of the public compared to the Democratic Party’s 48 percent.
To some extent, this internal tension is healthy. Only a minority coalition is small enough to ensure that most of its members agree on specific policy proposals. But a Republican Party at war with itself does not look to the persuadable voter like a party that is capable of governing in the executive. The truly independent voters who determine the outcome of national elections don’t care about the Export-Import Bank or the parliamentary machinations that have so roiled conservatives. They care about whether or not they’re handing the levers of power to an undisciplined group of loose cannons and ideologues, and, to a marginally tuned in swing voter, that’s what the GOP looks like today. In concert with the spectacle that has become of the admittedly nascent Republican presidential primary race, it is only natural that voters would be asking themselves if the GOP should again be trusted with the White House.
Voters are ready to make a change. If history is any guide, they will swing in a more conservative direction. As was the case in 2013 when the GOP forced a showdown over ObamaCare that shut down the government, a saving grace for Republicans can be found in the happy fact that it remains an off year. Voters have time to make up their minds, and today’s fights will be forgotten well before the first votes are cast in 2016. If, however, the disunity that characterizes Republican intraparty politics today remains the party’s defining feature by next autumn, the public will be disinclined to reward the GOP with the presidency.
The Chaotic, Backbiting GOP Does Not Look Like a Governing Party
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The definition of sanity.
President Donald Trump’s address to the UN last week received considerable attention for what he actually said. No less interesting, however, is what he didn’t say. The speech contained zero mention of the Palestinians, zero mention of their conflict with Israel, and zero mention of the peace process Trump has been trying to revive.
This omission isn’t unprecedented, but it is unusual; most U.S. presidents have included the Israeli-Palestinian issue in their annual UN addresses. And it seems especially surprising for a president who has repeatedly declared Israeli-Palestinian peace to be one of his major foreign policy goals.
Yet the omission is perfectly consistent with Trump’s approach to the peace process to date, which has differed markedly from that of all his predecessors in one crucial regard: He appears to be trying to apply serious pressure to the Palestinians rather than only to Israel.
Take, for instance, his administration’s consistent refusal to say that the goal of the peace process is a two-state solution. Since efforts to achieve a two-state solution have repeatedly failed for almost 25 years now, it makes obvious sense for anyone who’s serious about trying to solve the conflict to at least consider whether this is really the most workable option. But even if, as seems likely, the administration actually does believe in the two-state solution, refusing to publicly commit to it serves an important purpose.
That’s because insisting that the end goal be a Palestinian state is a major concession to the Palestinians—something that has unfortunately been forgotten over the last quarter century. After all, throughout Israel’s first 45 years of existence, there was almost wall-to-wall consensus among Israelis that a Palestinian state would endanger their country. Even the 1993 Oslo Accord included no mention of Palestinian statehood, and the man who signed it, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, asserted in his final address to the Knesset in 1995 that he envisioned a “Palestinian entity . . . which is less than a state.”
Yet to date, this significant concession to the Palestinians has never been accompanied by a corresponding Palestinian concession to Israel. Though the Palestinians insist on a Palestinian nation-state, they still refuse to accept a Jewish nation-state alongside it. Instead, they demand that millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees be allowed to relocate to Israel, turning it into a binational state.
Nor has this major concession to the Palestinians been accompanied by a corresponding international concession to Israel. The European Union, for instance, repeatedly makes very specific demands of Israel, insisting that it accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines and Jerusalem as the capital of two states. But the EU has never demanded that the Palestinians accept a Jewish state or give up their idea of relocating millions of Palestinians to Israel. Instead, it merely calls for an unspecified “just, fair, agreed and realistic solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem, which the Palestinians–who view flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians as the only “just” solution–can easily interpret as support for their position.
In short, until Trump came along, the Palestinians won this major concession for free. Now, by refusing to declare a two-state solution as his goal, he has essentially told the Palestinians, for the first time in the history of the peace process, that every concession they previously pocketed is reversible unless and until they actually sign a deal. In other words, for the first time in the history of the peace process, he has told the Palestinians they have something to lose by intransigence. And if they want to reinstate America’s commitment to a Palestinian state, they will have to give something in exchange.
The same goes for Trump’s refusal even to mention the Palestinians in his UN speech. When former Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly insisted that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the world’s most important foreign policy problem (a message routinely echoed by European diplomats), that gave the Palestinians tremendous leverage. Since they have always been the more intransigent side, the easiest path for any broker to follow is to simply support more and more Palestinian demands without requiring any substantive Palestinian concessions in return and then try to pressure Israel into agreeing. Thus, if world leaders are desperate to resolve the conflict, they will naturally tend to take that easy path in the hope of producing quick “achievements,” which is, in fact, what has happened over the last two decades. The result is that the Palestinians have concluded they can keep getting more simply by continuing to say no.
In his UN speech, Trump sent the opposite message: There are a lot of important foreign policy issues, like North Korea and Iran, and the Palestinian issue is so trivial by comparison that it doesn’t even merit a mention. In other words, though Trump would like to broker a peace deal, it isn’t necessary for America’s own interests. And therefore, it’s only worth investing time and effort in it if Palestinians and Israelis are both actually ready to deal, which means the Palestinians will have to be ready to finally make some concessions.
There are ample grounds for skepticism about whether Trump’s approach will work; based on the accumulated evidence of the last quarter century, I consider it far more likely that the Palestinians simply aren’t interested in signing a deal on any terms. Nevertheless, there is a plausible alternative theory. Perhaps Palestinians keep saying no simply because doing so has proven effective in securing more concessions. And if that’s the case, then reversing this perverse set of incentives by telling them they stand to lose from intransigence rather than gain by it could actually be effective.
Whether he succeeds or fails, Trump deserves credit for trying something new. Given the failure of his predecessors to achieve peace, only State Department bureaucrats could imagine that doing the same thing one more time would somehow produce different results.
Podcast: Trump starts a fight, but will he win it?
The first COMMENTARY podcast of the week finds us (me, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman) discussing the weekend of knee-taking and Trump-tweeting about patriotism and the NFL and blah blah blah while North Korea threatens hydrogen bomb-testing and Puerto Rico reverts to a state of nature. And we enjoy the decline and fall of Valerie Plame. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
What is he winning exactly?
Conservative political analysts seem so wrapped up in the matter of whether or not Donald Trump can, no one has given much thought to whether he should.
The latest national scandal, which will surely be as fleeting as its myriad predecessors, was whipped up by the president on a whim while he fed off the adoration of his fans at an Alabama political rally over the weekend. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of the NFL owners when somebody disrespects the flag to say get that sonofabitch off the field?” the president boomed. The crowd roared, Trump absorbed the positive feedback, and the nation’s opinion makers on the right and the left responded to the president’s goading with Pavlovian predictability. Trump so enjoyed the quivering of the raw nerve he touched that he spent the following morning attacking a variety of African-American professional athletes and disinviting them to the White House on, ostensibly, patriotic grounds.
What urgent controversy was the president addressing? Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became the subject of national scrutiny when he opted to protest police violence targeting African-Americans by kneeling for the national anthem, hasn’t played in the National Football League this year. He became a free agent when his contract elapsed in March, and another team did not sign him.
Isolated episodes of questionable police violence against African-Americans persist, like the tragic 2016 murder of Philando Castile—a case in which moral justice, as opposed to the purely procedural variety, has proven elusive. So, too, do contentions that some police departments are eager to cover that violence up, like the three Chicago officers indicated for conspiring to hide evidence related to the fatal 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. But were there mass Black Lives Matter protests paralyzing American urban centers when the president made his remarks, as there had been in years past? No.
The president decided to ignite a controversy, and the nation’s culturally conservative commentators—even those sympathetic to claims that justice is routinely denied blacks in over-policed portions of the country—proceeded to deem Trump the winner of this manufactured kerfuffle. National Review’s Rich Lowry noted that Trump’s antipathy toward Kaepernick and those in professional sports who sympathize with his tactics called his agitation indicative of a “gut-level political savvy.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson agreed: “Donald Trump Did Not Start This. But He Will Finish It. And He Will Win.”
As a purely dispassionate political analysis, these assertions have undeniable merit. The majority of the country does not see the American flag or the national anthem of the United States as symbols of oppression, and a majority in 2016 did not sympathize with those who “take the knee.” They might think that African-Americans, in particular, have a legitimate claim to make against the state, but see the broad brush with which some protesters tar the country as unfair to a nation that has sacrificed much to secure freedom and egalitarianism for both its citizens and the whole of mankind. And perhaps white Americans who resent these protesters see Trump as a medium through which they can communicate this point of view to a cultural media establishment that rejects it in its entirety and with overwhelming, righteous passion.
But is Trump winning anything beyond a likely short-lived reprieve from a focus on the fact that he has yet to secure a legislative achievement that will outlast his presidency? No. He has, instead, expertly torn asunder existing fissures in the country, exploiting them for his own temporary political gain. Is Trump as the avatar of true patriotism, self-sacrifice, and national healing toward a racial consensus? Is he going to truly advance the goals of his so-called “silent majority?” Or is he going to increase tensions? Has he brought the nation together, or did he simply embitter white Americans and alienate their black counterparts? Is this leadership? Is it conservative? The right once knew the answers to these questions, but it took a Democrat to make them see it.
To call Trump’s crusade or the campaign of kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner a culture war annoys activists on both sides. For the kneelers, they are protesting state-sponsored bloodletting; their cause is existential. For those who stand, the very definition of their nation is at stake, and the security it provides them and their families with it. But no one so protested when it was Barack Obama serving on the front lines of what most agreed was a culture war.
In 2014, along with making a point of only calling on women during a press conference and executing a variety of legally dubious (and doomed) executive actions on immigration, Obama indulged his liberal critics by finally speaking out more boldly on the issue of race in popular media venues like Black Entertainment Television. Following the 2014 killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in a chokehold after he tried to sell loosie cigarettes, the president went out of his way to endorse the actions of professional athletes who were disgusted by the injustice.
“You know, I think LeBron [James] did the right thing,” Barack Obama told People Magazine regarding the NBA star’s decision to wear a t-shirt bearing Garner’s last reported words: “I can’t breathe.” Obama compared James to the icons of led the fight for civil rights. “We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness,” he insisted. “I’d like to see more athletes do that—not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”
Anti-Trump activists who are deservedly incensed by Trump’s behavior will claim that there is no comparison between these two assertions, but that’s how precedents work. Those who inherit them build upon them in ways that are not always optimal or prudent. That’s why presidents should be cautious about setting them. Barack Obama spoke more eloquently and with greater delicacy on the issue of race than Trump is capable of or interested in mimicking, but the 44th President did not heal divisions with these comments. There was no legislative remedy available to Obama to address the issue of excessive local policing targeting minorities. Because such behavior violates existing laws, it is a matter only of enforcement. That’s why Obama’s supporters demanded only that the president speak his mind on race and discrimination, and were largely satisfied when he did.
Culture wars beget a response because they almost never end—not totally. It’s too much to expect those who cheered on Obama’s decision to wade into contentious cultural matters to engage in any introspection, but conservatives should be expected to recall the admonitions they once issued not all that long ago. The president’s words matter a great deal, and he should be supremely careful about deploying them. They can and often do yield more harm than good.
Competition is a scary thing.
Soon after last summer’s U.K. vote to leave the European Union, London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a publicity campaign to reassure investors that his city would remain a dynamic, global hub after Brexit. “London Is Open” was the slogan, and it was supposed to “show the world that London remains entrepreneurial, international and full of creativity and possibility.”
So much for that. Friday’s decision by the city’s transport regulator not to renew Uber’s license suggests that Khan’s London is closed to competition and in thrall to local special interests.
The regulator, Transport for London, said the decision was based on Uber’s alleged lack of corporate responsibility in a variety of areas, particularly public safety. Yet there is no Uber-driven safety crisis in London. If Uber has made missteps, as any company might, putting 40,000 drivers out of work and inconveniencing 3.5 million London riders is a terrible way to respond.
Public safety is a pretext. The Uber ban comes after years of lobbying–and strikes and bullying–by the city’s black-taxi cartel. Before Uber came along, the industry’s high barriers to entry shielded black taxis from competition. It takes tens of thousands of pounds to buy a black cab and years to acquire “the knowledge”–drivers’ vaunted ability to memorize and instantly recall the best way to any destination.
The advent of GPS and ride-sharing meant that having the knowledge wasn’t all that special. Rather than try to outcompete Uber by offering better prices and service, the black taxis continued to charge outrageously overpriced fares. And they sought to defeat ride-sharing politically. Now they have succeeded. The losers are riders who used ride-sharing for fast, reliable, and accountable service.
The first black taxi I ever took, in 2014, took me from Heathrow Airport to Euston, in central London. It cost nearly £100 (or $170 at the time). That taught me early on to rely on my Uber app, and since then I have taken hundreds of rides. Defenders of the ban point to pre-booked minicab services and the like that often cost less or about the same as Uber. Yet none of those services offer the speed, ease, and pickup accuracy that Uber does. Black taxis don’t routinely serve many low-income neighborhoods, moreover, whereas Uber works wherever people have smartphones.
If you leave a personal item in a black cab and pay cash, there is no way to recover it. With Uber and similar apps, you can immediately track down your driver, and he will usually return the item to you within hours. As for safety and sexual assault: Rachel Cunliffe pointed out in the Spectator that Uber is the far safer option for female riders, who don’t have to trawl the streets looking for taxis. Every ride and every driver is tracked.
The Uber ban is the triumph of protectionism over innovation and clientelism over consumer choice. London is not open.
A boon to America, the region, and the world.
The Kurds have been a people without a state for centuries. Monday’s independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish zone is an important step toward rectifying this historic injustice, and I believe the U.S. is making a grave mistake by opposing the vote.
The Trump administration announced its displeasure in a September 15 statement, noting that the referendum “is distracting from the effort to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.” It added: “Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing.” The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the White House said, should work out its differences with Baghdad through dialogue.
Not now, go away, in other words. The statement reflected the sort of rigid adherence to Washington dogma that too often prevents America from seizing the opportunities presented by the tectonic shifts in the Middle East. The Trump administration failed even to nod at Kurdish aspirations, or offer an alternative timeline if the current moment is too inconvenient. This was an unnecessary slap when there are compelling moral and strategic reasons for creating a Kurdish state in northern Iraq sooner than later.
The Kurds got by far the worst treatment during the decades of Baathist rule in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of them in the 1970s. Then, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, he set out to destroy the Kurdish community. The regime fired chemical weapons at Kurdish civilians, summarily executed men and boys, and sent entire villages to concentration camps.
President George H.W. Bush’s decision to impose a no-fly zone in 1991 granted Iraqi Kurds protection against Saddam’s depredations and a measure of autonomy. The Kurds used the opening, and the one provided by the 2003 invasion, to develop institutions of self-government. Iraqi Kurds constitute a coherent nation. They stand out in a region full of non-nation-states in various stages of disintegration. Kurds speak a common language, albeit with regional variations. Most are Sunni Muslims, though there are Christians and even a very few Jews among them, as well. They have deep historical ties to their territory. Their culture sets them apart, visibly, from their neighbors. They have distinct national institutions. And they already enjoy quasi-state recognition in the corridors of power in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.
Iraqi Kurds, moreover, share what Douglas Feith has described as the key subjective factor in nationhood: a “type of fellow feeling” that is “an extension of the affection people tend to have for their family members.” Whatever their tribal differences—and these are real—Kurds living in Erbil or Dohuk today look upon other Kurds, not Iraqis, as their true compatriots. The bonds of Kurdish sympathy are much stronger and more enduring than those of Iraqi nationalism, if the latter means much at all.
Taken together, these factors mean that Iraqi Kurds are ripe for statehood. The Arabs have 22 states, and the Turks, Iranians, and Jews each have one—so why shouldn’t the Kurds enjoy statehood? There is no good answer to this question.
Then, too, Iraqi Kurdistan is vibrant and free. In Erbil today, within an hour’s drive from what used to be the second capital of the ISIS “caliphate,” you can enjoy a beer, surf a largely unrestricted Internet, and criticize the government without having to fear death squads. You won’t hear chants of “Death to America” or “Death to Israel” on the streets. There is corruption in the Kurdistan Regional Government, to be sure, and a degree of political nepotism that would make Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump blush. But by regional standards, KRG governance is more than acceptable.
An independent Kurdistan, moreover, will bear strategic fruit for the U.S. It could serve as a counterweight, however small, to Iranian hegemony. KRG leaders have taken a moderate, pragmatic line with all of their neighbors. That is wise policy, given the region’s size and strength relative to the likes of Iran and Turkey. Even so, the introduction of a new, fully sovereign Kurdish actor would interrupt Tehran’s so-called Shiite crescent stretching from Sanaa to Beirut. Today Iraq is trapped in the crescent. An independent Kurdistan wouldn’t be. It would irk the mullahs still more if this new state turned out to be a democratic success story. Conversely, by blocking Kurdish aspirations, the U.S. is putting itself in the same camp as Iran.
Most important, friendship should mean something. Iraqi Kurdish forces fought valiantly alongside the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. When the jihadist army seemed invincible, it was Kurdish fighters who stopped its march across Iraq (and Syria). As Kurdish intelligence chief Masrour Barzani told me in 2015, “In this entire area the Kurds are probably the most pro-American people that you can find. Forever we will be thankful for the U.S. support since the day of toppling Saddam’s regime.”
If Washington keeps neglecting and mistreating friends, America’s credit rating in the region will suffer irreparable harm. Responsible, pro-American populations, like the Iraqi Kurds, deserve American support.