The worst of both worlds.
The moderates are routed! Ahead of the 2018 midterms, those squishy Republicans who inspired Donald Trump and his mutineers to take control of the GOP are calling it quits. This exodus is taking place against the backdrop of a new conservative insurgency led by the likes of Steve Bannon, who is set on remaking the GOP in Trump’s image. The movement he wants to catalyze is not, however, all that conservative. And in actual fact, the Republicans he’s working to oust really aren’t moderates. Upon examination, a great number of our political definitions are outmoded and serve less as descriptors and more as security blankets.
Among the soon-to-be retired Republicans are Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Michigan Rep. Dave Trott, Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, and Washington Rep. Dave Reichert. Each represents a light red or purple district. Dent co-chairs the Tuesday Group, which is as close to a Republican Moderates’ caucus as it gets in the House. And yet, these Republicans are far from the heretics their conservative critics make them out to be.
Ros-Lehtinen, for example, hails from a district with a Cook Partisan Voting index that leans four points in the direction of Democrats. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried her district by 20 points. And yet, she maintains an American Conservative Union “lifetime rating” of just under 70 percent. Barring a miracle, Ros-Lehtinen will be replaced with a Democrat. Similarly, Trott enjoys a 77 percent lifetime ACU rating, and holding his suburban Detroit district will be a difficult task for a non-incumbent in a tough GOP year. The same could be said for Reichart and Dent, who hail from swing districts. Last week, following Dent’s decision to retire, his strongest primary opponent declared victory.
“We wanted to make sure we got a more conservative candidate in the seat, and now we can do that,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Justin Simmons. The four-term state-level lawmaker has campaigned against the incumbent primarily for failing to meet conservative litmus tests but also demonstrating insufficient fealty to President Donald Trump. If Steve Bannon and the deep-pocketed donor Bob Mercer have their way, there will be an entire slate of Trumpian primary candidates eager to replace Trump-skeptical GOP representatives on Capitol Hill.
According to Politico, Bannon is preparing to mount an “all-out war” against Mitch McConnell and his Republican Senate majority. He is lining up donors and meeting with candidates who could pose a threat to incumbents like Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, Nevada’s Dean Heller, and Arizona’s Jeff Flake. Like their counterparts in the House who are hitting the bricks after 2018, the offense of which these Republicans are guilty is their perceived lack of loyalty to Trump.
“Bannon,” the Miami Herald reported, “was enormously influential in pushing a nationalist agenda in the White House that made more centrist Republicans deeply uncomfortable.” In this construction, Bannon is the ideologue, and his Republican foils run right down the middle of the road. This is lazy shorthand that avoids a thorough accounting of what Steve Bannon and the Trumpian party he wants to build actually believe.
Steve Bannon’s “conservatism” is not the sort that most Republicans of the last two decades would recognize. He is devoted to trade protectionism, which is traditionally a cause dear to organized labor. Why else did he reach out to a pro-labor liberal journalist in the effort to undermine Trump’s rapprochement with China? Despite this unceasing effort to make enemies in Beijing, Bannon is eager to make friends in Moscow. He told “60 Minutes” that upgrading America’s increasingly decrepit nuclear stockpile was a needlessly provocative act and a waste of funds that could be better spent refurbishing America’s urban centers. In fact, he reserved the most venom in a relatively venomous interview for Republican policy practitioners like Condoleezza Rice, Brent Scowcroft, and Dick Cheney.
In 2014, Bannon marveled at the fact that “not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with the 2008 crisis.” In that address, he expressed distrust toward “the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. “It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as [with] many of the precepts of Marx — and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive,” he said. His skepticism of the value of austerity is evident in his policy recommendations, too. Bannon was among the more senior-level voices close to the president advocating that the U.S. borrow to fund a massive $1 trillion infrastructure project—an objective lifted from socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders’s wish list.
There’s nothing “conservative” about this, but it would be a mistake to suggest that Bannon must then be liberal. He speaks with utter contempt for the warmed-over socialism embraced by the modern secular left. His opposition toward even a modestly reasonable compromise on the issue of illegal immigration is intractable. The anti-establishmentarianism informs his hostility toward “the progressive left” and the “institutional Republican Party.” The party Bannon wants to transform the GOP into is one that emulates, insofar as it is possible, the mercurial style of the president. If that’s the Republican Party of the future, it will be one that undercuts conservatives in Congress to cut “deals” with Democratic leadership toward no greater end than positive press coverage and pushing hard choices off until another day.
Among effete circles were centrism is fetishized, there is a perception that the middle way is the noblest of ways. It takes the most unobjectionable policy prescriptions from each of the two parties and discards the prejudices on their extreme fringes. Only the demands of tribalism, this hackneyed church of centrism insists, compels ideologues to tolerate the eccentrics and fanatics in their midst. As Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the party they are trying to build demonstrate, however, this definition of centrism is native to the elite.
In the real world, ideology gets an undeservedly bad rap. In reality, pragmatists are bound only to that which balances expediency and popularity—and popularity isn’t always synonymous with good government.
The gauzy ideal of the bold politician sloughing off the chains of ideology and governing like a pragmatist unbound to any tribe has sunk its hooks into many a besotted pundit. But “third-way” centrism doesn’t look like No Labels. It looks like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
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The cult of personality corrupts.
Pro-Trump constituents in the press have a peculiar preoccupation with the president’s conservative critics. Specifically, they’re concerned with the amount of credit Donald Trump receives for his achievements, which presumes those achievements are self-evident. Objective achievements—e.g., how the Republican Party under Donald Trump has methodically nominated and confirmed originalist judges to federal courts—demand no hectoring from the credit police. Principled conservatives are as happy to heap praise upon Trump for his stewardship of the courts as are #MAGA brigades. It’s only the president’s more dubious feats that raise the hackles of Trump’s enforcers, and for a good reason; they’re not accomplishments at all.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board exemplified the genre on Monday when its members took aim at the “pearl-clutchers among foreign-policy worthies” who, they alleged, stubbornly refuse to “admit” how Donald Trump’s hectoring of America’s allies has yielded tangible and positive results. The Journal uncorked its contempt for students of foreign affairs for failing to say that raising defense budgets among America’s European allies is a product of Trump’s antagonism. This elides the possibility that students of foreign affairs know that they are not. In fact, making this flimsy assertion requires a substantial commitment to forgetting facts that Republicans used to know almost intuitively. Among them that talk is cheap and nations are moved to action not by badgering presidents or institutional utopianism but hard-power realities. And today’s hard-power realities aren’t just unworthy of praise; they’re deeply disturbing.
The Journal editorial noted over half of NATO’s 29 members will soon meet the arbitrary threshold of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of national GDP on defense by 2024, “compared to four or five in a typical year before 2014.” It is, however, important to make note of precisely what nations met their commitments in 2014: the United States, Great Britain, and Greece. In other words, nations with significant deployments abroad or nations directly threatened by an aggressive neighbor. In 2015, that list expanded to include Estonia and Poland—two countries that were moved to action by the invasion and annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory by neighboring Russia. This year, the list will grow still more to include Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Non-NATO allies like Sweden and neutral parties like Finland are similarly increasing their defense budgets in the second half of this decade. See the pattern forming yet?
It isn’t just the threats metastasizing in the region but politics in America that have compelled prudent Europeans to look to their own affairs. Two consecutive American presidential administrations have now made their preference for retrenchment clear. Barack Obama spent six of his eight years attempting to “pivot to Asia” and spent most of his tenure withdrawing American soldiers and the last armored divisions from European soil until—you guessed it—hard power realities forced him to abandon his vision.
Donald Trump has continued his predecessor’s habit of antagonizing American allies through costly and needless hostilities over trade relations, and he has been just as clear about his desire to see forward deployments scaled back. “NATO benefits Europe far more than it does the U.S.,” Trump wrote this week. It’s hard to think of a presidential pronouncement burdened with more historical and strategic ignorance. NATO and institutions like the International Monetary Fund are American constructions that enforce an American-led global order. These are long-lived institutions by historical standards, and they’ve managed to stave off great power conflict of the sort that typified the early 20th century.
The prospect of European rearmament serves American political sensibilities but not America’s strategic interests. Conflicts abroad have a gravitational pull on the world’s only superpower and allowing them to flourish inevitably sets the stage for American involvement. There is no coalition of European allies that can allow the U.S. to outsource its role as lone superpower. That was a lesson Barack Obama learned too late. Those who allow Donald Trump to harbor the delusion that American security is advanced by weakening its allies’ reliance on it as the guarantor of geopolitical stability are giving the president license to make Obama’s mistake.
American lawmakers from both parties have long sought to inculcate in their European counterparts a sense of ownership in their own security. If that sense of obligation has finally arrived, it is due to circumstances that no Republican with a healthy appreciation for America’s global mission could possibly welcome. Republicans used to know that hard power was the ultimate arbiter of geopolitical events and of nations. They used to know that talk—be it of the tough or amicable variety—was worth exactly what you paid for it. They used to know that barrier-free trade produced peace and that rewarding criminal despots for making illusory commitments was a reckless misuse of the presidency. Those are undying principles of statecraft that will survive Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s unfortunate that we cannot say the same of all principles.
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“To be sure” is one of the slipperiest expressions in the journalistic lexicon. There are legitimate uses for it, to be sure. But an unscrupulous reporter will drop a “to be sure” just before he launches a nasty, underhanded attack on his subject, all while giving the appearance that he (the reporter) is all too sensitive to nastiness—that he is not making the claim he is plainly making.
The Daily Beast’s legal-affairs columnist, Jay Michaelson, demonstrated this practice on Monday with his hit piece on Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society executive who has played an outsized role in shaping the judiciary under President Trump. About a third of the way into his profile, Michaelson offered this classic “to be sure”: “To be sure, none of this is to repeat the odious claims of anti-Catholicism of papist conspiracies and dual loyalty.”
Yet the article was nothing more than a collection of claims of “papist conspiracies and dual loyalty” designed to create the impression that Leo seeks to impose his sinister Romish superstitions on the rest of the nation via the courts. The only thing missing was one of those 19th-century newspaper cartoons that depicted a grotesque papal octopus, its slithering legs marked “ignorance,” “corruption,” “infallibility,” and so forth. In fact, Michaelson at one point evoked the octopus image with a reference to “Leo’s octopus of organizations and influence” (my emphasis).
Mostly Michaelson, who doubles as a Buddhist rabbi of some sort, revealed his acute ignorance of the Catholic faith.
In attempting to cast his subject as a dangerous fanatic, for example, Michaelson noted that “Leo is a member of the secretive, extremely conservative Knights of Malta, a Catholic order founded in the 12th century that functions as a quasi-independent sovereign nation with its own diplomatic corps (separate from the Vatican), United Nations status, and a tremendous amount of money and land.”
Actually, there’s nothing secretive about the Sovereign Order of Malta. It came together amid the First Crusade in the 11th century—not the 12th, as Michaelson claimed—to defend Christians and provide medical help to people of all faiths in the Holy Land. Today, the order operates much like any other nongovernmental organization—think of the Red Cross or Oxfam—with more than 100,000 staff and volunteers delivering health care and disaster relief worldwide. It also enjoys diplomatic relations with 106 countries, owing not to any nefarious reason but to the fact that it won sovereign recognition in the centuries after its founding.
Is the Order of Malta “extremely conservative?” Not really. It is a lay religious order as well as a sovereign state. Therefore, its leaders owe religious obedience to the pope. Some of the order’s chivalric and aristocratic elements have also persisted through the ages, but the “knights” don’t go around the world assassinating the Church’s enemies or anything of the kind. They are mostly older gentlemen who take their Catholic faith and the Christian commitment to the works of mercy seriously. Ooh, creepy!
The article also took a potshot at Opus Dei, which it described as an “extreme, ultraorthodox Catholic sect,” whose members mainly engage in “self-flaggelation [sic] and other body-mortification practices.” Outside the fervid imagination of Michaelson and novelist Dan Brown, Opus Dei is an officially recognized personal prelature of the Catholic Church that promotes holiness among the faithful by encouraging practices of intense daily piety and charity. The Church under John Paul II canonized Opus Dei’s founder as a saint. Today, Opus enjoys warm relations with Pope Francis, who appointed one of its members, former Fox News correspondent Greg Burke, as director of the Holy See Press Office. So why did Michaelson take a gratuitous swipe at Opus Dei? Because the husband of one of Leo’s onetime associates may or may not have been a member.
Then there was the quotation from Tom Carter, an embittered former colleague of Leo’s, who apparently served as the story’s sole source. “Leonard’s faith is paramount to him,” Carter told Michaelson. “When he traveled, staff members had to find him a church near where he was staying so he could say Mass every day” (my emphasis). But as anyone minimally familiar with the faith knows, lay Catholics like Leo don’t, and can’t, say the Mass. That privilege is reserved for ordained members, i.e., bishops and priests. The factual lapse—neither Michaelson nor his editors at the Daily Beast caught the error or clarified the quotation—lays bare the religious illiteracy that pervades liberal media today.
Catholics have grown especially accustomed to such media ignorance and hostility. Carter’s observation about Leo—that he attends daily Mass—wasn’t meant as a compliment. Rather, it was supposed to raise suspicion about the worldview of the man who helps the administration pick judicial nominees. But can anyone imagine the Beast ever giving voice to similar sentiments regarding, say, a faithful Muslim? He prays five times a day. Allah is at the center of his life. Yikes!
None of this is to suggest that Michaelson is a partisan hack and an anti-Catholic bigot. To be sure.
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Provocation for its own sake.
As Americans gird themselves for the sound and fury of a Supreme Court confirmation “fight,” they should prepare to hear one poll-tested expression repeated with Pavlovian consistency: “extremism.” The label could be applied to any number of conservative policy preferences, but Democrats seem especially prepared to direct the epithet at conservatives’ belief that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. On its face, this is a sound political decision. Senate Democrats cannot prevent Republicans from confirming the next Supreme Court justice, so the party’s best bet is to motivate its voters by implying that the new Court will strip them of their right to access abortion services. That’s a message to which Democratic voters are very receptive, but there is a thin line between motivation and fanaticism. The pro-choice party that once stood in opposition to the outright prohibition of abortion has begun to make a fetish of that procedure.
In deference to that peculiar fetish, the comedian Michelle Wolf is the latest liberal talk-show host to confuse being provocative with cleverness. Adorned in cartoonish patriotic regalia evocative of “John Philip Sousa’s America,” Wolf spent her Independence Day staging a “salute to abortion.” The performance consisted of gushing over the life-affirming practice of voluntary pregnancy termination, a few off-color jokes, and some self-soothing techniques typical of “the party of science.” For example: “Some people say abortion is ‘killing a baby,’” Wolf noted. “It’s not! It’s stopping a baby from happening.” The more you know.
There was some comedy offered along with what was otherwise a series of deliberate challenges to standards of basic decency in there somewhere. Of course, comedy is subjective. What is of note, though, is how these and other similar expressions of cultish devotion to abortion would have repulsed even liberal Democrats not that long ago. Today’s liberal activists do not see Wolf’s display as a tasteless expression of fidelity to a distasteful but occasionally necessary practice that cannot be prohibited without unintended and undesirable consequences. For the left, the days of “safe, legal, and rare” are long gone.
In 2013, the state of Texas sought to impose some medical standards on abortion clinics. These included compelling doctors to have admitting privileges to local hospitals and clinics in order to meet ambulatory surgical standards, which would have effectively closed many rural abortion providers. State Sen. Wendy Davis responded with a failed filibuster. The Supreme Court ultimately struck down the Texas law, arguing that it erected an “undue burden” on abortion seekers established in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Some might have conceded that conservatives have a point about the Court’s rulings on Casey and Roe if ambulatory care standards represent too high a bar for abortion providers to overcome, but not the left. They were too busy turning Davis into a rock star.
The liberal blogosphere and the press marveled at Davis’s many “amazing facial expressions,” her biography, her choice of footwear, and her t-shirts. Davis instantly became a major Democratic fundraiser and the subject of a major motion-picture script with Sandra Bullock attached as the lead. Davis’s stardom convinced her to make a run at the governor’s mansion. But by the time Texans voted, the bloom was off the rose. She turned in the worst Democratic performance in a gubernatorial election since 1998, in part, because she was never the talent the center-left media ecosystem made her out to be. Davis thought she was the driver, but she was only the vehicle.
In the intervening years, Americans on the left have composed even more preposterous devotionals to the practice of aborting fetuses. They’ve formed advocacy organizations with titles like “Thank God for Abortion,” advocated depicting abortion in cartoons aimed at young children, praised the destigmatizing effect of abortion jokes, and penned columns advocating the late-term abortion of children diagnosed in utero with autism. And while Democratic officeholders are cautious about mirroring their base’s off-putting pro-abortion enthusiasm, they are still content to vote with them when it counts. In 2016 and again in 2018, the party united to block a ban on aborting a child after the 20th week of gestation—when the child has a functioning heart and brain, and has developed fingers, toes, and external genitalia. Senator Dianne Feinstein called the effort an “attempt to harm women by criminalizing their healthcare.”
Liberal confidence is buttressed by polls that routinely show voters oppose overturning Roe v. Wade by two-to-one margins. But virtually unfettered access to abortion is a similarly unpopular position. Since the mid-’70s, Gallup has found Americans prefer some restrictions on abortion rights. A 2017 Marist survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus found nearly six in ten respondents backing a ban on the practice after 20 weeks with exceptions if the life of the mother is in jeopardy. That figure is virtually unchanged from 2013 when a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that a majority support a 20-week ban. Dive deeper into the weeds, and you’ll be privy to heated arguments about what stage of the pregnancy actually constitutes 20 weeks (there is a valid debate on the matter), but none of this suggests that the general public has any stomach for reverential pro-abortion passion plays.
Almost from the moment that Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, liberal commentators and columnists pronounced Roe v. Wade dead. They parsed the validity of arguments that had not been made in cases that had not been brought and they reached a predetermined conclusion. All the while, the activists to their left have made a golden calf out of abortion. When it comes to practice, the Democratic Party’s activist base is out of touch with the rest of the country, but they haven’t seemed to notice.
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Podcast: NATO and North Korea
It’s a smorgasbord of a podcast today, in which we talk about NATO, and British governmental collapse, and military spending, and the dangers of a remilitarized Europe, and Europe’s declining birthrate, and Mike Pompeo and North Korea, and whether liberals are going insane. Give a listen.
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A bubble on the brink?
Conservatives have long warned of a higher education bubble. Americans, they say, are irrationally exuberant about the value of college. Students who might once have chosen an apprenticeship have been pushed toward college instead, which has bid up the price of higher education to unsustainable levels. Now, as director of editorial content for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, George Leef, recently explained, Americans are wising up because “lots of people with degrees” are “doing low-skill work.” Families are no longer willing to overlook that “students [learn] little of value and [rack] up big debts.” They are fleeing the market.
Defenders of this thesis—call them the “bubblists”–claim that we can see this flight in real time thanks to the National Student Clearinghouse Center’s data on changing college enrollments. Its most recent release finds total enrollment at 17,839,330, which is a decline of 1.3 percent from the prior year. More importantly, this is the seventh straight year of decline. Drawing on a thoughtful piece by Martin Center board member Jane Shaw, Leef pegs the decline since 2011 at 9 percent. The bubble may not be bursting, but Leef thinks it’s deflating. College, he wrote, is a “stock that rose much too high on hype and is now in the process of market correction.”
Shaw is more careful. She correctly attributes much of the decline to “adult students going back to work.” They flooded into higher education not because of “college for all” hype but because, with jobs scarce, it made sense to acquire additional credentials. They are no longer flooding in because jobs are no longer scarce. Moreover, the number of high school graduates has stagnated after “two decades of reliable increases.” College enrollments were expanding because the available pool of high school graduates was growing. They now find it hard to grow not because Americans are wising up but because that pool is stagnant.
Still, Shaw thinks we may be experiencing a “culture shift.” COMMENTARY readers will be well aware of the wave of student protests that swept through American campuses starting in 2015, touched off by Black Lives Matter protests at the University of Missouri. A Pew Research poll, Shaw noted, shows a dramatic increase in the percentage of Republicans who say “colleges have a negative effect on the country.” Before the Mizzou protests, “most Republicans and Republican leaners held a positive view of the role of colleges and universities.” Two years later, only 36 percent did. Perhaps, then, some Americans have had enough of the well-documented liberal bias of university faculties and the appalling spectacle, seen most strikingly at Evergreen State College last year, of administrators sucking up to the activists. Enrollment at Evergreen has certainly dropped, and the protests probably contributed to the decline.
However, if we were seeing a broad culture shift, we would expect to see big losses at the four year private and public universities where most of the protests have taken place. As Shaw recognized, the drop in enrollments has been primarily at community colleges, where enrollment decline has been fairly steep. At for-profit universities, there has been a jaw-dropping 43 percent decrease in enrollments since 2011. By contrast, enrollment at four-year public and private non-profit colleges is up slightly since 2011. This year, enrollments at four-year public and private non-profits fell two-tenths and four-tenths of a percent, respectively; not the kind of drop one needs a culture shift to explain.
But Leef is right to speak of a correction of sorts for traditional four-year colleges and universities. Small declines over a period of years add up. Increasingly, colleges and universities are offering more financial aid to attract about the same number of students, a sign of softening demand. With fewer tuition dollars coming in, many of these places are under real pressure.
In a way, this situation is an opportunity for education reformers. Because conservatives have good reasons to object to the college and university status quo, it is satisfying to imagine that colleges are now in trouble because of liberal hype and leftist lunacy. That isn’t true; at least, not where enrollments are concerned. But perhaps those who care about the future of higher education can be persuaded that there is a market for colleges and universities that resist left-wing pieties and attend to their missions, captured well by former University of Chicago president Hannah Gray. Universities, she has said, “should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”
This conception of the university has not been terribly popular among university administrators and faculty, but, as they say, any port in a storm.