Commentary Magazine


Topic: Conservatism

Why Liberals Want Brian Williams Fired

When the Brian Williams scandal first broke, and as it became clear the NBC host’s alleged fabrications constituted a pattern, there was some instinctive sentiment among conservatives that NBC ought to leave Williams in the anchor chair anyway. After all, what better way to demonstrate the media’s bias and unreliability? But now we’re seeing the other side of that coin: the proposal that credibility will be restored by making Williams’s suspension permanent.

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When the Brian Williams scandal first broke, and as it became clear the NBC host’s alleged fabrications constituted a pattern, there was some instinctive sentiment among conservatives that NBC ought to leave Williams in the anchor chair anyway. After all, what better way to demonstrate the media’s bias and unreliability? But now we’re seeing the other side of that coin: the proposal that credibility will be restored by making Williams’s suspension permanent.

Yesterday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, host Brian Stelter brought in Deborah Norville to try to predict the future of NBC with–or without–Williams. Norville is a former co-host of NBC’s Today and even occasionally sat in for Tom Brokaw on NBC Nightly News years ago; she currently hosts Inside Edition. Brokaw reportedly sides against Williams’s return to the host chair (though he did offer a denial that should not bring Williams much comfort). Stelter asked Norville right off the bat if she thought Williams would return to NBC Nightly News. Here’s her response:

I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

First of all, I think Lester Holt is doing a very good job. And, secondly, I think if Brian were to be back on the set, there would be this thought bubble over his head that says, is it real, is it real? Did he make this one up? Is this an exaggeration?

And I just think that that’s too much for the network news division to have to work to overcome. They have a very important brand. There’s a lot of money attached to it. And to put that at risk would be a foolish business decision. At the end of the day, this is a business.

It’s a similar argument used by San Francisco Chronicle editor John Diaz a couple of weeks ago. Diaz dismissed some of the early speculation that tried to excuse Williams’s fabrications. He also criticized Williams’s “bizarre” first attempt at an apology. That apology later looked even worse once it became clear Williams was facing judgment for more than a one-time ethical lapse.

Then he made the credibility argument: “Williams’ credibility is shot, and his presence will taint NBC News as long as he remains in its anchor chair.” But Diaz followed that with an interesting, and highly defensive, aside. Punishing Williams, Diaz seemed to think, was about more than the credibility of NBC; it was about American journalism itself:

Regrettably, the damage does not end at NBC. All journalists suffer to a degree when a high-profile member of the profession transgresses, just as public perceptions of police officers are tarnished by the exposure of an ugly brutality case, or as views of politicians are shaped by the actions of a corrupt few. Those looking for a validation of their low regard for journalists see the Williams fiasco, but they never see the everyday diligence and determination of my colleagues to get a story right. Yes, we make mistakes, but each one is painful — even the smallest typo. When stories are off-base or incomplete, it’s almost always a matter of deadline pressure, limited sources or naivete — not intention, and never fabrication.

It’s easy to sympathize with Diaz. And in fact, I’m inclined to agree. But that’s the problem: fabrication should be viewed as worse than all those other sins, but it shouldn’t be seen as the only journalistic sin. Yet that’s the way the American media behaves.

“Limited sources or naïveté,” in Diaz’s example, are usually not a series of individual, unrelated errors but often the result of more structural biases in the press. As the Washington Post reported last year, self-identified Republican journalists constitute, according to the recent version of a recurring survey, about seven percent of all journalists. Self-identified Democrats made up 28 percent.

But that wasn’t the most important part of the survey. In 1971, a quarter considered themselves Republicans. The survey, then, didn’t show a field implicitly hostile to conservatives. Rather, the media’s partisan gap has been increasing, as has that hostility:

Over the last several decades, three things have happened: 1) The number of Democratic-identifying reporters increased steadily prior to a significant drop in the latest survey 2) The number of Republicans has steadily shrunk with that number dipping into single digits for the first time ever in the new survey c) more and more reporters are identifying as independents.  What seems to be happening — at least in the last decade – -is that journalists are leaving both parties, finding themselves more comfortable as unaffiliateds.

So what’s easier: reforming the liberal bubble that the national press has become, or firing Brian Williams? It’s true that bringing Williams back will probably lead many to question his stories. But what’s clear from the Brian Williams saga thus far is that the mainstream media has no idea how often its accuracy is called into question by the general public.

That “thought bubble” to which Norville referred, in which viewers will wonder if Williams is making up whatever story he’s reporting, already exists. Gallup’s poll last year found trust in media falling back to its historic low of 40 percent. That trust, Gallup explained, tends to fall during election years. In other words, when there is something tangible on the line, trusting the media is a leap of faith most Americans can’t quite make.

So the left can go on believing that firing Williams will go a long way toward restoring the credibility they believe he cost the media during this fiasco. The problem for them, however, is that you can’t lose something you never had to begin with.

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Scott Walker Rejects Your Premise

The conventional wisdom after Republicans lost two presidential elections to Barack Obama was that the GOP needed to concede the premise of certain Democratic talking points. Suddenly immigration reform became urgent enough for a prospective GOP candidate to lead the effort in the Senate. And even more suddenly, talk of inequality has emerged in conservative circles. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if, instead, Scott Walker is right?

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The conventional wisdom after Republicans lost two presidential elections to Barack Obama was that the GOP needed to concede the premise of certain Democratic talking points. Suddenly immigration reform became urgent enough for a prospective GOP candidate to lead the effort in the Senate. And even more suddenly, talk of inequality has emerged in conservative circles. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if, instead, Scott Walker is right?

The Wisconsin governor is enjoying a bit of a boomlet right now, as Peter Beinart notes in a sharp piece on Walker’s unapologetic conservatism. And he’s earned it. He won three statewide elections in four years, and did so with national media attention and the concerted lunatic tactics of public unions (death threats, violence, compulsive Hitler comparisons) aimed at him and his supporters. He won comfortably and with a smile on his face. Walker never lost his composure and never stooped to the level of his fanatical liberal opponents.

None of this is news. What’s changed is that Walker has, in the last week, gone national. His speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit earned rave reviews, and was followed with what appears to be the first pro-Walker presidential ad. And everyone seems to have noticed what Walker’s opponents in Wisconsin have learned the hard way, repeatedly: he’s a formidable politician. This should worry his GOP rivals not only because of Walker’s win streak, but also because Walker is doing something many of them aren’t: he’s setting the terms of the debate instead of following the terms the Democrats have set.

A good example of how this plays out concerns Mitt Romney, who had been flirting with another presidential run. Romney was hurt by his infamous “47 percent” remark in which he appeared to write off voters he considered contentedly dependent on government. It became a catchphrase for the Republicans’ so-called empathy gap.

Before deciding to pass on running again, Romney had been trying to undo the lingering damage of the Monopoly Man reputation by expressing his concern for the poor. He was rewarded for stepping into this rhetorical bear trap with a giddy President Obama in full class warrior mode, as Politico notes:

“Even though their policies haven’t quite caught up yet, their rhetoric is starting to sound pretty Democratic,” Obama said of the Republicans during a House Democratic retreat. “We have a former presidential candidate on the other side and [who is] suddenly deeply concerned about poverty. That’s great, let’s go. Let’s do something about it.”

Even when trash talking, the president is not exactly a wordsmith. But the point, clumsy and juvenile though it is, shines through: whatever your policies, to simply care about poor people makes you sound “pretty Democratic,” as the intellectually cloistered president sees it.

This helps Democrats because even if Republicans come around to demonstrating the empathy they supposedly lack, it sends the message that the Democrats were right. Walker rejects the premise.

Beinart explains how the media missed this story until now:

Walker’s rise illustrates the pitfalls of media coverage of the GOP race. Not many national reporters live within the conservative media ecosystem. They therefore largely assume that in order to win over the non-white, female, millennial and working class voters who rejected John McCain and Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidates must break from conservative orthodoxy, if not substantively, then at least rhetorically. Journalists are also drawn to storylines about change. Thus, when potential GOP candidates show signs of ideological deviation, the press perks up. After 2012, Marco Rubio garnered enormous media attention for his efforts at immigration reform. Rand Paul’s transgressions—whether on foreign policy, civil liberties or race—make headlines almost every week. In covering the launch of his new Super PAC, journalists made much of Jeb Bush’s discussion of income inequality and his fluent Spanish. Most recently, reporters have lavished attention on Mitt Romney’s new focus on the poor.

The lesson, as I interpret it, is that the press and the Democrats speak the same language. That’s not surprising; the mainstream press, especially during national elections, functions as a messaging office for the Democrats. Because of this, they just assume that in order to be a serious presidential candidate you have to be like them, like the Democrats.

Walker doesn’t agree. And he’s been extraordinarily successful of late by not agreeing.

Part of the media’s terrible coverage of national politics is the reliance on the personal: it matters to them who is saying it more than what is said. Romney got tagged as uncaring because he’s rich. But the classic conservative policies don’t reek of plutocracy when coming from the new crop of Republican stars, many of whom came from modest beginnings or are the children of immigrants, or both. Walker doesn’t even have a college degree, which itself is incomprehensible to modern Democrats, who are elitist and credentialist and genuinely don’t know what life is like in much of the country.

And neither does the media. Which is how someone like Walker could be so successful and still blindside the national press, who would struggle to find Wisconsin on a map. And it’s why Walker is a threat to other high-profile Republicans who have accepted the Democratic/media framing of the issues in order to make a national pitch. Only one of them can be right.

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Needed: A Republican Agenda for the Middle Class

According to White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, “middle-class economics” will be the “core theme” of President Obama’s State of the Union speech this evening. Mr. Pfeiffer, appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation, said, “I think we should have a debate in this country between middle-class economics and trickle-down economics and see if we can come to an agreement on the things we can do.” The president intends to do that by raising $320 billion in tax increases over the next 10 years targeting wealthy individuals and big financial institutions in exchange for, among other things, expanding the child care tax credit (not, as some media outlets have reported, a child tax credit) claimed by about 5 million families who use commercial day care. Despite being sold as an effort to help lower- and middle-income families, the number of middle-class people who would truly be helped by Obama’s plans is quite small.

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According to White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, “middle-class economics” will be the “core theme” of President Obama’s State of the Union speech this evening. Mr. Pfeiffer, appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation, said, “I think we should have a debate in this country between middle-class economics and trickle-down economics and see if we can come to an agreement on the things we can do.” The president intends to do that by raising $320 billion in tax increases over the next 10 years targeting wealthy individuals and big financial institutions in exchange for, among other things, expanding the child care tax credit (not, as some media outlets have reported, a child tax credit) claimed by about 5 million families who use commercial day care. Despite being sold as an effort to help lower- and middle-income families, the number of middle-class people who would truly be helped by Obama’s plans is quite small.

Republicans, if they’re wise, will not allow themselves to get boxed into being seen as simply defenders of the rich. In saying that, it doesn’t mean they should cave in to Obama’s demands to increase taxes on the rich or concede any arguments to the president, who is dogmatically committed to raising taxes even if doing so is economically harmful. (Recall that during a 2008 campaign debate, when asked by Charlie Gibson about his support for raising capital gains taxes even if that caused a net revenue loss to the Treasury, Obama sided with tax increases “for purposes of fairness.”)

But what Republicans need to do much more effectively than they have is to swing round the debate to terrain that is more favorable to them; to shift their attention on how they will help the middle class in ways much more far-reaching than what Mr. Obama has in mind. Fortunately a middle-class agenda exists in the form of Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. This is a publication of which I was present at the creation and for which I wrote an introductory chapter, so I’m hardly a disinterested commentator on it. (Favorable takes by those who view this at more of a distance can be found here.)

People can decide for themselves the merits of the proposals it offers on tax reform, health care, K-12 and higher education, long-term unemployment, energy and regulatory matters, helping parents balance work and family, and strengthening marriage. But whether they like this agenda or not, we know that (a) the middle class is feeling anxious, insecure, and vulnerable; (b) those feelings are rooted in real circumstances and actual struggles; (c) many European countries now have more social mobility than the United States; and (d) in recent years middle-class adults are more likely to say the Democrats rather than the Republicans favor their interests. Given that the vast majority of Americans–85 percent–consider themselves part of an expanded definition of the middle class, this is a problem for the GOP.

My advice to Republicans at every level is to articulate how a conservative vision of government could speak to today’s public, and especially middle class, concerns–and to then show how such a vision would translate into concrete policy reforms in some of the most important arenas of our public life. That may sound obvious, except for the fact that it hasn’t really been done for some time.

Republicans are beginning to take steps in the right direction. Among the most promising is a plan laid out by Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio that would augment the current child tax credit of $1,000 with an additional $2,500 credit, applicable against income taxes and payroll taxes. (The credit would not phase out and would be refundable against income tax and employer and employee payroll tax liability; and it would also eliminate or reform deductions, especially those that disproportionately benefit the privileged few at everyone else’s expense.)

But more needs to be done, and a middle-class agenda has to be a consistent rather than episodic focus for Republicans. If President Obama’s State of the Union address succeeds in convincing Republicans to do this, he’ll actually have done them a favor. Because without it, Republicans are likely to lose the 2016 presidential election.

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John Kasich Shows Republicans How to Talk About Values

David Brooks, in assessing a possible GOP presidential field, calls Ohio governor John Kasich “easily the most underestimated Republican this year.” That strikes me as right.

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David Brooks, in assessing a possible GOP presidential field, calls Ohio governor John Kasich “easily the most underestimated Republican this year.” That strikes me as right.

In 2014, Kasich won by more than 30 points. He carried heavily Democratic counties like Lucas and Cuyahoga. In fact, in a key swing state, Kasich carried 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties and a quarter of the African-American vote. He’s also one of America’s most engaging and interesting politicians. He would add a lot to a presidential race, and in fact he probably already has, for the reason Brooks homes in on.

Governor Kasich’s inaugural speech was about values and virtues, about the good life and the good society. He spoke about economic growth as being a means to help those who live in the shadows of society. He warned about the toxicity of an ethic of instant gratification; the importance of personal responsibility, resilience, teamwork, family, and faith; and about empathy being the first ingredient in compassion. According to the Ohio governor, we have to “reach out to those who have been forgotten, disenfranchised, ignored, or who are suffering, and to reach out to them in the way they need.” He pointed out that just because someone has a different opinion, it doesn’t make them an enemy. “We’re not here just to keep up with the Joneses and outrun everyone else,” Kasich said. “We’re here to serve and to love and to heal—in keeping with the spirit of a power far greater than ourselves.” In his tribute to the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Kasich said, “He stands as a shining example of the power that one person can have on the world forever when they’re true to their faith and let themselves be a vessel for the Lord.”

These are sentiments authentic to Governor Kasich and deserve praise in their own right. Yet there is also a useful political purpose to them. I say that because they offer the beginnings of a roadmap for Republicans when it comes to dealing with the “values” issues.

These days, lots of Republicans are spooked when it comes to talking about culture and social issues. They’re afraid of being characterized as judgmental, censorious, and puritanical. The demagoguery of the Democrats (Republicans are waging a “war on women” and want to ban contraception), combined with a culturally liberal press and significant shifts in public attitudes, has made them afraid of talking about “values.”

They need not be. What Governor Kasich is doing is to show Republicans how to speak about our culture and moral aspirations in a way that is quite different than Republicans have in the past–in ways that are more uplifting, self-reflective, generous in spirit, and appealing. No one is going to confuse John Kasich with Franklin Graham. Some social conservatives won’t like that; they will consider it a capitulation.

I don’t think that’s right, in part because I find Governor Kasich’s temper of mind and the orientation of his heart to be more aligned with the precepts and spirit of his faith, Christianity, than others who speak in its name. One does not have to be angry, brittle, and condemnatory to be faithful–and humility, forbearance, kindness, and grace in the public square are not signs of weakness or apostasy. One can be both principled and pleasant at the same time.

And one other thing: If Republicans develop a vocabulary that frames moral issues in the context of human dignity and human flourishing–explaining why there is a right and wrong ordering of our lives and loves and why we need to strengthen our character-forming institutions–it will make the public more open to hearing from them on what Kasich calls the “volatile” issues, by which he probably means same-sex marriage and abortion. Even on these issues, there are better and worse ways to present your case. (On abortion, for example, the pro-life case can be made on the grounds of expanding the circle of protection to the most vulnerable members of the human community.)

A smart political strategist told me years ago that if you’re seen as the aggressor in the “culture wars,” it can blow up in your face. If that wasn’t true a generation ago, it’s certainly the case now, for Republicans. That isn’t a reason for them to avoid talking about moral truths; it’s a reason to talk about them in the appropriate way.

John Kasich is showing Republicans and conservatives how to do that. They’d be wise to listen to him.

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“What We Have Loved, Others Will Love, and We Will Teach Them How”

One of the public services performed by New York Times columnist David Brooks is his yearly Sidney Awards, named for the 20th century American philosopher Sidney Hook and which goes to the authors of the best magazine essays in a calendar year. Brooks, in his most recent list of recipients, mentioned my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin’s essay “Taking the Long Way” in First Things.

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One of the public services performed by New York Times columnist David Brooks is his yearly Sidney Awards, named for the 20th century American philosopher Sidney Hook and which goes to the authors of the best magazine essays in a calendar year. Brooks, in his most recent list of recipients, mentioned my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin’s essay “Taking the Long Way” in First Things.

Levin argues that both liberals and conservatives have (for different reasons) deficient visions of liberty and the life of a liberal society. His core insight is that we presuppose the existence of a human being and citizen capable of handling a remarkably high degree of freedom and responsibility. The problem is that, “We do not often enough reflect on how extraordinary it is that our society actually contains such people.” According to Levin:

The liberation of the individual from outside coercion is the short way to liberty—and the way that most progressives and conservatives today seem to have in mind. The formation of the individual for freedom is the long way to liberty—and the way that our liberal society plainly requires. The long way is a prerequisite for what the short way promises; it is a necessary preparation. But our political instincts now incline us to seek shortcuts. We’re tempted to pursue individual liberation without preparation.

This leads to an increasingly dangerous failure of self-knowledge. A liberal society depends on the long way of moral formation, yet it does not understand itself as engaged in such formation.

The “long way to liberty” has been the bulk of what our society actually does, and he goes on to discuss an approach to nurture soul-forming institutions, including families, work, faith, education and community, most of which are within reach of many of us.

What is striking to me is how these are themes conservatives once spoke about but rarely do these days. The focus, and in some cases the obsession, is on the liberation of the individual from coercion and constraint; on allowing people to pursue their wants and desires so long as they don’t injure or trample rights of others in the process. The inhibition of freedom, particularly by government, is seen as a great and rising threat to our political and social order.

There is of course a very great deal to be said about liberty understood in this way. Conservatism has grown in part as a response to the movement toward collectivism and centralized power. But it seems to me that in our time a failure of conservatives (with some impressive exceptions like Levin, Brooks, Michael Gerson, William Bennett, Leon Kass, George Weigel, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and a few others) is that not enough of them speak about the formation of character, the inculcation of virtue, and the shaping of the habits of the heart that are essential to making a free society a good society.

To be sure, the relationship between politics and statecraft is complicated. Government has the capacity to influence some character-forming institutions (like education) more than others (like the family and churches). What government can do is, first, abide by the dictum primum non nocere (“do no harm”), to keep from undermining these institutions–from bending them or attempting to break them–in their massively important functions. It needs to give these institutions the room and space to grow–and, when possible, support them, even if only on the margins.

I rather doubt most parents who have raised children believe that government has the capacity to significantly shape the souls of the young; sometimes even the best parents can’t do that with children facing certain emotional and neurological challenges. But there is also this: “Just as all education is moral education because learning conditions conduct,” George Will wrote in Statecraft as Soulcraft (1983), “much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation in broad and important spheres of life.” That is true on issues ranging from civil rights to marriage to crime and drug use to welfare to much else.

In the end, the way we help shape one another’s souls is an intricate combination of things. The state plays a role here and there, now and then. More than that, institutions do. And more than that, individuals do–moms and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends, colleagues, teachers, ministers, role models, heroes. The way we do it is as we have always done it: by what we say, and mostly by the lives we lead. By the example we set. By being present in times of joy and personal milestones and grief and heartache. By the grace and integrity and tenderness and courage we imperfectly represent. I’m reminded of the words of Wordsworth in The Prelude: “What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”

Teaching others to love what is worth loving, to have the human heart drawn to what is good and beautiful and true, is the great task for us and the great task of civilization. If we fail to do it, then even liberty can turn to ashes. That is, I think, what my friend Yuval Levin was saying in his beautiful and important essay.

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Jeb’s Strategy: Make Everything Old News

With the year drawing to a close, Jeb Bush found himself accused of being insufficiently conservative and having to defend himself against a fired-up conservative activist base leveling the charge. It’s a familiar story, but this particular case took place fifteen years ago, in December 1999. The email exchange with a pro-life activist was a reaction to Bush’s appointment of a judge while governor of Florida, and it’s part of a massive public-records release of electronic communication by the former governor, reported on in some detail today by the Washington Post. It also sheds some more light on Bush’s 2016 strategy.

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With the year drawing to a close, Jeb Bush found himself accused of being insufficiently conservative and having to defend himself against a fired-up conservative activist base leveling the charge. It’s a familiar story, but this particular case took place fifteen years ago, in December 1999. The email exchange with a pro-life activist was a reaction to Bush’s appointment of a judge while governor of Florida, and it’s part of a massive public-records release of electronic communication by the former governor, reported on in some detail today by the Washington Post. It also sheds some more light on Bush’s 2016 strategy.

For starters, the email exchange with the pro-life activist offers a glimpse into why Bush has been less than intimidated by grassroots opposition to his candidacy: he’s been dealing with this his whole career. Times have arguably changed in the Republican Party since then, and the presidential nomination fight is a different stage altogether. But for Bush, it’s easy to understand why he’s not willing to be deterred by something that’s never been able to stop him before. Here, for the record, is that 1999 exchange, as relayed by the Post:

He regularly sought to calm conservative activists who wanted him to take the government further to the right. In December 1999, Bush tangled over e-mail with an anti­abortion activist who blasted him for appointing a lawyer to a judgeship, because the lawyer had represented the owner of an abortion clinic.

Bush responded that he had not been told about the attorney’s history and, in any case, the lawyer had “received recommendations from many people who I respect.”

Nevertheless, Bush followed up and asked an aide to send the activist a list of all nominees currently before him. “We have no litmus test for judges — we are open to hearing from all Floridians,” he wrote. But he added that the woman “appears concerned about the perceived lack of opportunity to provide input.”

Bush welcomes the debate. That might further antagonize the right, or it might breed a new respect for him for not running from his decisions. But if the latter, it would almost surely be a grudging respect.

Bush has dealt with conservative dissent from his policies since well before there was a Tea Party, and he may think that precedent works in his favor. And maybe it does. But the reverse is just as likely. Conservative grassroots dissent was a different animal before the Tea Party and before new media’s influence on campaigns. Bush faced the low-calorie version of the modern conservative insurgency.

He’ll also face a roster of challengers that offers conservatives the flexibility to take their business elsewhere. But as far as Bush is concerned, conservative anger at him has not slowed him down much, and he seems determined to try to keep the streak alive.

The other aspect to the email archive is how Bush plans to use this transparency to his benefit in the 2016 race. There are two ways this could help him. The first is obvious: these are public records, so if there’s a story in there that portrays him in a negative light, it’s going to come out. He might as well get ahead of the story, spin it to suggest he has nothing to hide to minimize the story as much as possible, and get it out in public early in the race (or even before he’s technically in the race) so it’s old news by the time he’s in the middle of the nomination battle or even the general election.

Bush does not seem to be trying to hide this information in plain sight. To that end, the Post reports, “Bush’s team plans to post the e-mails on a searchable Web site early next year.”

The other way this could help Bush is by building a reputation for transparency. To be sure, what he’s doing is far from revolutionary in terms of what he’s releasing. But by getting it out there and making it easily accessible, he can at least play it as an alternative to the paranoiac secrecy of both the Clintons and President Obama. The Clintons not only famously enforce tribal loyalty but members of their inner circle aren’t above stealing and destroying documents from the National Archives to cover for the Clintons.

The Obama administration promised to be the most transparent administration ever, a phrase that has turned into a punchline. The president, in keeping with the unfortunate pattern of presidential discretion in an age of proliferating media, is more secretive than his predecessors, who were each, while in office, arguably more secretive than their own predecessors, and so forth.

It’s not a surprise, in other words, that the presidential comparison Obama evokes is Nixon. It’s just that the other presidents didn’t make such a big show of lying about their intentions to be transparent. That’s why Obama’s divisiveness is also so noticeable: he promised healing, and spent six years and counting turning Americans on each other. (Related: the Democratic Party wants you to harangue your family members with pro-Obama talking points over the holidays. Merry Christmas and happy Chanukah from the creepy statists running your government.)

The result of Obama’s Music Man routine will undoubtedly be increased cynicism toward politicians. So anyone making similar promises as Obama made during his campaign should beware the poisoned well. But if anyone can realistically promise a true transparency, it might be Bush, who could try to claim that you don’t have to wait for him to take office to test his commitment since he displayed transparency during the campaign.

Transparency is not now, and not ever going to be, an issue that catapults someone to the presidency. (You could argue “trust” is, but that’s not the same thing.) So the benefit to Bush of releasing these emails is almost surely about trying to waste news cycles on any revelation to inoculate his campaign from them later. As for his fifteen-year battle with conservatives, that too may be old news, but it’s precisely the kind of old news that feeds grudges and gains steam over time. Bush would be foolish to believe he can run like it’s 1999.

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Cruz’s Campaign Guided By Goldwater’s Theory

National Review’s Eliana Johnson, in writing about Texas Senator Ted Cruz, begins her article this way:

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National Review’s Eliana Johnson, in writing about Texas Senator Ted Cruz, begins her article this way:

To hell with the independents. That’s not usually the animating principle of a presidential campaign, but for Ted Cruz’s, it just might be.

His strategists aren’t planning to make a big play for so-called independent voters in the general election if Cruz wins the Republican nomination. According to several of the senator’s top advisers, Cruz sees a path to victory that relies instead on increasing conservative turnout; attracting votes from groups — including Jews, Hispanics, and Millennials — that have tended to favor Democrats; and, in the words of one Cruz strategist, “not getting killed with independents.”

Ms. Johnson went on to quote a Cruz adviser saying, “winning independents has meant not winning,” with the argument being that doing what it takes to win over independents has the effect of dampening enthusiasm among the base.

This approach has been tried before. In his masterful book The Making of the President 1964, Theodore White wrote:

One must begin with the political theory that accompanied the cause Goldwater championed. The theory held that for a generation the American people had been offered, in the two great parties, a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee; and that somewhere in the American electorate was hidden a great and frustrated conservative majority. Given a choice, not an echo, ran the theory, the homeless conservatives would come swarming to the polls to overwhelm the “collectivists,” the liberals, the “socialists,” and restore virtue to its rightful place in American leadership. The campaign of 1964 was to be the great testing of this theory.

The result was that Lyndon Johnson won with what at the time was the greatest vote, the greatest margin, and the greatest percentage (61 percent) that any president had ever drawn from the American people. By the time the dust settled, Democrats held 68 out of 100 Senate seats, 295 out of 435 House seats, 33 governorships, and Republicans had lost more than 500 seats in the state legislatures around the country.

The political theory that is accompanying the cause Cruz is championing sounds similar to the one that guided Goldwater’s. To be sure, there are differences between now and then, including the fact that Goldwater was running against a popular sitting president at a time when the economy was growing and LBJ was was running as the successor of a beloved president who had been assassinated only a year earlier. Still, some of us worry the results would be too similar.

A campaign in which strategists openly declare that winning independents is a trap for losers foreshadows what’s to come. It’s hard to see how it would lead to victory in a nation in which the core supporters of the GOP are shrinking with every election (since 1996, the white share of the eligible voting population has dropped about 2 percentage points every four years). Nor is it clear how Cruz would have any special appeal to traditionally non-Republican voters. Someone like Senator Marco Rubio or Governor John Kasich would have a good deal more success, I would think.

I could be wrong, of course, and if Senator Cruz gets his way, the campaign of 2016 will be the great testing of his theory.

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For His Own Sake, Mark Levin Should Leave the GOP

Anyone who listens to the radio talk-show host Mark Levin knows he’s become a harsh, nightly critic of the Republican Party. To understand just how harsh, you should listen to his monologue from the other day.

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Anyone who listens to the radio talk-show host Mark Levin knows he’s become a harsh, nightly critic of the Republican Party. To understand just how harsh, you should listen to his monologue from the other day.

Mr. Levin begins by declaring he is “one inch away” from leaving the GOP. He goes on to accuse the Republican Party not simply of being wrong or misguided on this or that matter, but of being composed of people who have told repeated lies—“damn liars.” He describes them as “losers” and a “bunch of children,” of being “munchkins, backbenchers, immature,” and of being “damn fools.” They are “pathetic, impotent, passive, childish, [and] self-defeating.” They are “dissembling, corrupt crony Republicans… who won’t even take a stand, who announce defeat, who announce surrender before the battle even ensues.” These “pathetic Republican sheep” do nothing more than “rubber stamp” what President Obama wants. And while he concedes the GOP won a huge midterm victory, he informs us that “this Republican Party had nothing to do with this landslide election.” (His listeners did.) In fact, the GOP is “in the throes of destroying itself.”

“What kind of party is this?” he asks. “What does this party stand for? It stands for nothing!”

In Levin’s telling, “The overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House and Senate voted for Obamacare, voted for amnesty, voted to violate the Constitution and violated their oaths of office and undermined the last election and undermined your franchise.” And then Levin adds this:

I will not participate in this scam. I will not participate in the dissolution of this Republic. I will not participate in the propaganda machine that has become the Republic Party and its mouthpieces and cheerleaders in the pseudo-conservative media. [Just the other day Levin referred to the Wall Street Journal’s superb editorial page as being “intellectually corrupt.”]

It seems to me, then, that Mr. Levin, if he believes what he’s saying—and what he’s saying is fairly representative of his nightly commentary—not only should leave the GOP; he’s morally compelled to do so. How on earth can he justify being part of what he deems to be a thoroughly corrupt, craven, unprincipled, and unconstitutional party?

He can’t. And so for his own sake, in order to uphold his own integrity, Levin should go the extra inch and publicly declare he is no longer a Republican and that he no longer speaks for Republicans. I believe in the politics of addition rather than subtraction, but in this case the differences are too deep and irreconcilable. The threats to split are becoming tiresome. He needs to find, or create, a party that represents his views, his philosophy, his style, his tone, his approach. It may help to think of Mr. Levin as being to today’s right what the political activist Howard Phillips was to the right of an earlier generation. (“In 1974, Mr. Phillips also left the GOP, fed up with its continuing failure to carry out anything resembling policies comporting with Mr. Phillips’ understanding of philosophical conservatism,” according to this story in the Washington Times.)

Mark Levin would be better (and his blood pressure would certainly be lower) if he were free of the GOP. And a few people might argue that the GOP would be better if it were free of him.

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Grading Congress: A Bipartisan Failure

“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

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“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

First, the obvious. Passing few laws is better than passing bad laws. Grading a Congress by how “productive” it was would be like grading a war by how many bombs were dropped. As the legislative branch, Congress should have goals. Those goals should not be numerical, and members of Congress should not be engaged in federal busywork. Yesterday, CBS’s White House correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted out some last-minute governing done by Congress and the president. For example, he tweeted: “By Act of Congress and Presidential Proclamation, tomorrow is Wright Brothers Day.”

According to the media’s scorecard, this Congress would have been better had it used every day of the year to make such proclamations. We wouldn’t even need a classical calendar anymore: “The president is scheduled to attend a fundraiser this coming Led Zeppelin Day, followed by a speech in Iowa on Dunkin Donuts Iced Dark Roast Blend Day.” Thanks Congress!

And though it wasn’t an act of Congress, a second proclamation was noted by Knoller: “Also by presidential proclamation, today marks the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.” If there is anything that so ably demonstrates the obsessive delusions of the governing class, it is that basic math now must be affirmed by presidential proclamation.

We don’t need, and shouldn’t want, legislating for its own sake. On a more serious note, bad legislation results in far worse than such proclamations. As I and others have noted, the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of police came about because he was engaged in commerce in a market created by the government’s nanny-state regulations run amok. (As James Taranto points out, while liberals initially scoffed at this plain truth it appears Mayor Bill de Blasio “implicitly” acknowledges it.)

Another example: studies show mandatory calorie counts in restaurants are ineffective in changing eating habits, but Reason magazine this week drew attention to “the deleterious effect of this mandate on the estimated twenty million women and ten million men who struggle with eating disorders during their lifetimes (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, and Hudson, 2011). For those working toward recovery, this policy impedes a foundational part of their efforts.”

The government’s “just do something” instincts often take the form of experimenting on the citizenry. They usually turn out to be bad laws, poorly conceived and detrimental to the people. But they stay on the books. We don’t need a Congress that believes it has a responsibility to legislate as an end in itself.

However: a total lack of legislating can have deleterious effects on the effort to keep government limited and transparent as well. As the Economist noted last year in an article on the wordiness and complexity of modern laws:

As the number of new laws has fallen, their average length has increased (see chart). Because relatively few bills pass, a congressman with a proposal will often try to hitch it to an unrelated must-pass bill. When 500 lawmakers do this at once, the result is laws that make “War and Peace” look like a haiku. …

If longer bills were merely a byproduct of cleaner government, that would be a reason to celebrate. But they also reflect a more open form of corruption. Complex systems reward those who know how to navigate them. Over the past decade, Washington has added more households whose income puts them in the top 1% than any other city in America. Many of them made money from government contracting in the defence and security boom the (sic) followed September 11th 2001. But plenty made their money lobbying to slip clauses that benefit their clients into mega-bills that no one can be bothered to read. Long laws suit them rather well.

The Economist puts some of the blame on the anti-earmark crusade, which removed one tool for lawmakers to corral votes, especially from those on the other side of the aisle. But even aside from that issue and the one of lobbying, it remains a fact that–as conservatives rightly point out–there are very few “must-pass” bills.

This is one way to create a Cromnibus. Shoving a year’s worth of legislating into one bill isn’t limited government. It’s binge governing. Liberals are wrong to assume that the number of bills passed by a Congress tells you how valuable that Congress has been. But conservatives make a similar mistake. A year’s worth of legislating is a year’s worth of legislating, no matter how you slice it. And if you’re going to do such an amount of lawmaking, it’s far better to do so in pieces, when there is transparency and debate on what is actually being voted on.

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Liberalism’s Setbacks Aren’t Fatal

Last week was not a good week for the institutions of American liberalism. Which is not shocking, because last month was a terrible month for American liberalism. And that was mainly the result of the fact that the last year has not been a good one for American liberalism. But conservatives ought to remember the greatly exaggerated rumors of their own demise pushed by gleeful and historically ignorant liberals after the American right’s last such slump. Certainly liberalism is experiencing a crisis of sorts, but as Miracle Max could tell them, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

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Last week was not a good week for the institutions of American liberalism. Which is not shocking, because last month was a terrible month for American liberalism. And that was mainly the result of the fact that the last year has not been a good one for American liberalism. But conservatives ought to remember the greatly exaggerated rumors of their own demise pushed by gleeful and historically ignorant liberals after the American right’s last such slump. Certainly liberalism is experiencing a crisis of sorts, but as Miracle Max could tell them, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

The continuing ObamaCare disaster, the IRS corruption revelations, and the manifold foreign-policy failures of the Obama-led Democrats over the last year led to a cratering of the public’s faith in the left and produced a trouncing at the polls for Democrats in the midterms. With Saturday’s runoff defeat of Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu coupled with the GOP gains in states Obama won, it is the Democrats who appear at risk of being considered a regional party–an epithet they tossed at Republicans in 2012. How are the Democrats handling being washed out of the South almost entirely? Not well, if Michael Tomasky’s public breakdown is any indication:

Practically the whole region has rejected nearly everything that’s good about this country and has become just one big nuclear waste site of choleric, and extremely racialized, resentment. A fact made even sadder because on the whole they’re such nice people! (I truly mean that.)

With Landrieu’s departure, the Democrats will have no more senators from the Deep South, and I say good. Forget about it. Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise. The Democrats don’t need it anyway.

The funniest part is the headline: “Dems, It’s Time to Dump Dixie.” In fact, Dixie has clearly already dumped the Dems. If it were only the South, Tomasky’s neo-secessionism would at least be somewhat viable. But the Democrats have lost, at least for the time being, too much of the country to run away from.

The drubbing the Democrats have taken, sealed with Landrieu’s loss, has been so bad that you kind of want to put an arm around Tomasky, buy him a double bourbon (Kentucky isn’t technically part of the Deep South, right? He can still have bourbon?) and tell him it gets better. Because it always does.

Many obituaries were written for American conservatism by the concern-trolling left in the wake of President Obama’s two victories (the first supposedly heralding the death of conservatism, the second confirming it). They were all, without exception, deeply ahistoric and scandalously stupid items of triumphalist rubbish.

But for sheer symbolism, the crowning jewel of the group is without a doubt the essay, later expanded into a book, published in February 2009: “Conservatism Is Dead,” by Sam Tanenhaus. It ran in the New Republic.

Less than six years later, conservatism is alive and the New Republic is dead.

Not really dead, mind you. But to its writers and devotees, it is. I should say ex-writers and ex-devotees, because when last week news broke that Chris Hughes, the accidental Facebook billionaire (or almost-billionaire) and owner of TNR, shoved Frank Foer out the door and with him went Leon Wieseltier, a mass exodus ensued. That’s not only because Foer is beloved by his peers and Wieseltier is an institution. It’s also because Hughes has announced he doesn’t think magazines with lots of big words are worth keeping around anymore, bro, and the literary tradition should be replaced with whatever passing fad can be monetized at this very moment. Carpe diem, and all that jazz. (Well not jazz, I guess, which is a bit nuanced and old and has absolutely no cat gifs in it whatsoever; but you get the point.)

Critics of American liberalism have pointed out, however, that the Altneurepublic being mourned was not the Altneurepublic of popular imagination. There seems to be a general consensus, in fact, that the decline and fall of that TNR became undeniable with its infamous anti-intellectual anthem which began “I hate President George W. Bush,” published about a decade ago.

Not that there weren’t warning signs along the way. The best of these in recent years might be this 2013 Reason magazine piece by Matt Welch mourning “the death” not of liberalism, but “of contrarianism.” With the new New Republic, Welch lamented, the magazine’s modern incarnation as a constructive questioner of liberal received wisdom was gone:

An entire valuable if flawed era in American journalism and liberalism has indeed come to a close. The reformist urge to cross-examine Democratic policy ideas has fizzled out precisely at the time when those ideas are both ascendant and as questionable as ever. Progressivism has reverted to a form that would have been recognizable to Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann when they founded The New Republic a century ago: an intellectual collaborator in the “responsible” exercise of state power.

Liberalism is in crisis for many reasons, but surely one of them is this: it has ceased to look at itself in the mirror. If it did, would it be horrified by what it saw? One hopes.

Whatever the answer, conservatives must also understand the difference between crisis and death. Liberals are still here. The president is a liberal, and the next one might be a liberal too. Democrats have less than half the Senate but not much less than half the Senate. And it was not all that long ago that the country found itself in the bizarre situation of having to pay attention to Nancy Pelosi.

It’s true that a genuinely intellectual liberalism is nowhere to be found at the moment. But it’ll wander back. Crises are good times for political movements to take stock and cease pretending everything is just fine. It is not a matter of if, but when the pendulum will swing back in the other direction. And conservatives should be aware and humble enough to see it coming.

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Mark Levin’s Distortions of Reagan  

Mark Levin – a popular talk radio host and best-selling author — recently responded to a piece in which I was critical of him. I’ll take up two things Mr. Levin said, starting with the charge that I am “an adamant and flailing progressive.”

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Mark Levin – a popular talk radio host and best-selling author — recently responded to a piece in which I was critical of him. I’ll take up two things Mr. Levin said, starting with the charge that I am “an adamant and flailing progressive.”

Of course. I’m that rare adamant, flailing progressive who worked in the Reagan administration and considers Reagan to be among the greatest presidents in our history; who is a consistent, often harsh critic of President Obama; and who wrote a book offering a moral defense of democratic capitalism. I’m also that atypical adamant progressive who is pro-life, pro-school choice, and pro-Keystone XL pipeline; who has pushed for personal accounts in Social Security and a premium support system for Medicare; and who wants to reform the tax code by lowering the top rates and broadening the base. Then there’s the fact that I oppose drug legalization, was (and remain) an advocate for greater work requirements in welfare programs, and favor the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I also supported the “surge” in Iraq and spending more on the defense budget. I could go on, but you get the point. The last time I saw Mr. Levin in person, by the way, was at an infamous gathering of adamant and flailing progressives: Rush Limbaugh’s wedding in 2010.

Let me move to another point made by Levin. I wrote that if the absolutist mindset that characterizes some on the right, including Levin, were applied to Ronald Reagan’s record; their logic would compel them to label him a RINO (Republican In Name Only). I mentioned as but one example the fact the Reagan chose Richard Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee in 1976. And this is where Levin gets all tangled up. He writes:

Wehner only tells half the story about Dick Schweiker … I am reminded that Schweiker was pro-labor but also pro-life, anti-communist, pro-Second Amendment, pro-freeing the Captive-Nations. I was not a great Scweiker [sic] fan, but he was no crazed leftist. The same can be said of George H. W. Bush.

I never said that Senator Schweiker was a “crazed leftist.” What I did say (in this COMMENTARY essay I co-authored with Henry Olsen) is that Senator Schweiker was a liberal. If anything, we understated the case. As this document shows, the left-wing group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) gave Senator Schweiker an approval rating of 85% in 1974, which is the same rating the ADA gave to Senator George McGovern; and in 1975, the year before Reagan picked Schweiker to be his running mate, Senator Schweiker received an 89% rating. Senator Schweiker cosponsored a national health insurance bill introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy; was a primary sponsor of legislation (the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act) that created a massive federal jobs program; voted against an attempt to stop federal funds from paying for abortions; supported the Equal Rights Amendment; opposed the Vietnam War; and opposed funding key defense systems. Steven Hayward, in his wonderful book The Age of Reagan, wrote, “Schweiker was arguably as liberal as Jimmy Carter’s running mate, Sen. Walter Mondale.”

Anyone who listens to Mr. Levin knows he would excoriate any conservative today who named a liberal like Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee, as Reagan did. And an honest reading of some parts of Reagan’s political record — when he was governor of California he liberalized abortion laws, and when he was president he signed into law record tax increases and he championed amnesty — means that he would fail the purity test that Levin applies to conservatives today.

Which gets to the heart of the matter. Mr. Levin appears less interested in learning from the real Reagan record than in using the Gipper as a battering ram against other conservatives, whom he routinely accuses of being RINOs, cowards, statists, leftists, phony pseudo-conservatives, and so forth. But the Reagan invoked by Levin is a figure of his own invention, a caricature of the real man and the great president. The purpose of the distortion is to advance Levin’s own ideology, which is increasingly more radical than conservative.

In any event, the real Reagan is far more impressive — politically, philosophically, and temperamentally — than the one summoned from Mark Levin’s imagination. One example: Reagan would admonish his staff, “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents.” Yet Levin — who prides himself on being a true Reaganite, the Keeper of the Flame — treats almost everyone he disagrees with as an enemy. Ronald Reagan’s conservatism was not coursing with anger. He was an affable and optimistic populist — one who, as his biographer Edmund Morris put it, “represented the better temper of his times.”

As Henry Olsen and I argued, the Reagan legacy matters — to history, and to modern-day conservatives. Our fortieth president was a multi-dimensional and immensely interesting figure, and there is much that both the GOP “establishment” and Tea Party populists can learn from his life and his political record. But for that to happen, he needs to be rescued from those who distort history while claiming to be his heirs.

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Clarifying the Reagan Record (and Correcting Don Devine)

Don Devine recently wrote a critical piece about the COMMENTARY essay authored by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen and me on Ronald Reagan. In an email he sent out accompanying his column, Mr. Devine declared that it “really burns” him that we “distort[ed] Reagan.” Which just goes to show that people shouldn’t write responses when they’re enraged.

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Don Devine recently wrote a critical piece about the COMMENTARY essay authored by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen and me on Ronald Reagan. In an email he sent out accompanying his column, Mr. Devine declared that it “really burns” him that we “distort[ed] Reagan.” Which just goes to show that people shouldn’t write responses when they’re enraged.

Henry has already responded to Mr. Devine, explaining with intelligent care what Devine’s errors in analysis are. We didn’t distort Reagan at all; and if we did, you’d have to look to places other than Devine’s column to know where the distortions occurred.

I do want to correct Devine on one factual point. He wrote:

They [Olsen and I] do concede Reagan was “unwavering” on cutting marginal tax rates, implementing Reaganomics generally, firing the air controllers, and winning the Cold War. Yet, he “did not roll back government to the extent he promised” He did plan to cut Social Security but quickly retreated. By the end of his presidency, “federal spending averaged 22 percent of GDP, higher than it was under Carter and the highest it had ever been until the Obama presidency.”

Whoa, just a minute; this is cooking the books. Reagan’s 23 percent tax cut drove down total spending from a projected 23.8 percent. More important, total federal spending includes defense, which Reagan promised to increase and did. If one looks at non-defense discretionary spending, which is what he said he would cut, and a president can control, Reagan decreased this spending absolutely by 9.6 percent over his two terms, the only president in modern times to do so (everyone else posting increases, the two Bushes higher than Carter or Clinton). Even including entitlements, Reagan reduced total domestic spending relatively, from 17.4 to 15.6 of gross domestic product (GDP).

The claims we make and the figures we cite are accurate. The inaccuracies come from Mr. Devine. For one thing, he suggests that a president can only control discretionary spending as opposed to mandatory, and therefore entitlement, spending. (The difference between the two is that discretionary spending stems from authority provided in annual appropriation acts whereas mandatory, or direct, spending is controlled by laws other than appropriation acts.) But of course a president has the ability to cut mandatory spending through legislation. In fact, early on in his presidency Reagan tried to cut future benefits for Social Security recipients, but quickly retreated when a firestorm erupted.

As for “cooking the books”: Mr. Devine’s claim (he provides no sources) that non-defense discretionary spending decreased “absolutely by 9.6 over his two terms” is not quite accurate. In fact, it’s quite wrong.

From 1981 through 1988, non-defense discretionary spending went from $149.949 billion to $173.5 billion–a 15.7 percent increase. (You can see for yourself by going to this CBO link. Discretionary outlays are on the fourth tab of the excel spreadsheet.) And for those interested, total mandatory spending (which can be found on the fifth tab) went from $301.562 billion to $448.195 billion, a 48.6 percent increase. It’s certainly fair to argue that non-defense spending would have been higher had someone other than Reagan been president. But that’s a different claim than saying Reagan actually and “absolutely” cut non-defense spending and significantly undid the welfare state.

As for our assertion that Reagan did not roll back government to the extent he promised: That’s clearly true. He didn’t eliminate Cabinet agencies he wanted to (the Department of Education is but one example). The number of workers on the federal payroll rose during his presidency. Reagan himself admitted he didn’t get the spending cuts he wanted in exchange for agreeing to the TEFRA tax increases. And the reason the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP was higher under Reagan than it was under any modern president prior to Obama was because Reagan got most of his tax cuts and most of his defense increases–but he didn’t get the spending cuts he anticipated.

Reagan is not primarily to blame for that; he faced a Democratic Congress, after all. And as we point out in the essay, Reagan made a prudential and wise judgment in using his political capital not on significantly rolling back the liberal welfare state (there unfortunately wasn’t the public or political will to do this) but in slashing taxes and increasing our defense budget.

As Lou Cannon put it in his book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, “For all the fervor they created, the first-term Reagan budgets were mild manifestos devoid of revolutionary purpose. They did not seek to ‘rebuild the foundation of our society’ (the task Reagan set for himself and Congress in a nationally televised speech of February 5, 1981) or even to accomplish the ‘sharp reduction in the spending growth trend’ called for in [his] Economic Recovery Plan.” President Reagan did more or less what he could, given the circumstances he faced.

It’s hard to know what explains the anger that burns within Mr. Devine (and a few others on the right) regarding our essay. It was extremely favorable toward Reagan, whom we call “the greatest politician and the greatest president their party has produced since Lincoln.” We credit Reagan with unusual courage, intellectual boldness, and for reshaping American politics. We praise him for his commitment to human dignity and for being exceptionally resolute in attaining his goals while being flexible in his means and methods. We write that Reagan succeeded not because he was simply a “great communicator” but because of the truths he spoke.

But that’s not all. We write, “the [political/GOP] establishment can learn from Reagan’s great conviction that he was elected not to mark time but to make a difference. In this respect, he was more than willing to put forward a governing agenda; he was eager to do so, and wasn’t one to play it safe.” And we offered a fair-minded, balanced, and quite favorable assessment of Reagan’s achievements, which have not been refuted in any serious way. Despite all this the essay qualifies as “propaganda,” according to Mr. Devine. He writes as if we’ve thrown bricks through the stained-glass windows in a cathedral.

This is all quite odd. Part of what’s going on may be confirmation bias. That is, some people on the right may distort Reagan’s actual achievements in order to advance their own particular agendas. They see Reagan as they want to see him, rather than as he was. Some of it may be that Reagan has been mythologized by some conservatives in a way that makes an honest assessment of his presidency impossible. It isn’t enough to call Reagan a historically great president and attest to his many virtues. For some, to point out areas where Reagan didn’t succeed as well as he might have, or to mention areas where he made mistakes, is viewed as impiety, an act of desecration.

It isn’t, and those who see it as such are doing a disservice to a very great man, a very great president, and to history itself.

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The Midterms, the Jewish Vote, and Liberalism’s Price of Admission

In the wake of the Republican victory in the 2014 midterms, the left aimed some of its most spiteful rhetoric at the women and minorities elevated into office in the GOP wave. Perhaps the most cringe-inducing display of delegitimization belonged to the author Darron T. Smith, who wrote in the Huffington Post that Utah Republican Mia Love “might look black, but her politics are red.” Yet strangely enough, the best way to understand liberal anger at Republican African-Americans and women is through this Atlantic piece analyzing the Jewish vote in the midterm elections.

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In the wake of the Republican victory in the 2014 midterms, the left aimed some of its most spiteful rhetoric at the women and minorities elevated into office in the GOP wave. Perhaps the most cringe-inducing display of delegitimization belonged to the author Darron T. Smith, who wrote in the Huffington Post that Utah Republican Mia Love “might look black, but her politics are red.” Yet strangely enough, the best way to understand liberal anger at Republican African-Americans and women is through this Atlantic piece analyzing the Jewish vote in the midterm elections.

In “Are Democrats Losing the Jews?” Emma Green attempts to understand why Democrats’ share of the Jewish vote decreased and what that means both for American Jews and the Democratic Party going forward. The unfortunate aspect to Green’s story is that she has the facts in front of her, so her conclusion is the result of ignoring, not utilizing, the information at her disposal. Though at various points in the article she seems to begin to understand the issue, in the end she concludes with a statement that sets a new standard for being wrong about the Jewish vote.

Green notes that although Democrats usually enjoy an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote, at times truly terrible presidents cost their party a notable swath of those votes. Jimmy Carter, for example, only received 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. Seen in that light, it’s not terribly surprising that although President Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot in the midterms, his relentless attacks on Israel’s government and his downgrading of the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war were bound to cost Democrats some of the Jewish vote.

Green then digs into last year’s Pew report on Jewish identity and assimilation. She attempts to draw some conclusions:

But these statistics do provide some context for what’s happening among Jewish voters. In 2006, 87 percent of Jews voted for Democratic candidates for the House, as did 50 percent of white Catholics and 37 percent of white Protestants—a 37- and 50-percentage point difference, respectively. In 2014, those gaps narrowed: There was only a 12-point difference between Jews and white Catholics, and a 40-point difference between Jews and white Protestants. Those are still big differences, obviously, but the conclusion is there: Jews are voting more like white people.

Put aside the “Jews are voting more like white people” remark: it’s clumsy and obviously silly, but we know what Green was trying to say. She then says that Republicans aren’t necessarily going to start winning the Jewish vote. “But,” she concludes, “it may be that, as a people as much as a voting bloc, Jews are becoming less influenced by their Jewishness.”

And here we have the liberal mindset perfectly distilled. Just like Darron Smith thinks blacks who don’t vote for Democrats are in some way voting against their “blackness,” and Ann Friedman can write that Republican women aren’t “truly pro-woman,” the idea undergirding Green’s conclusion is that liberalism is political Judaism. Of course that’s insulting to those who take their Jewish faith seriously, and it’s certainly a creepy parallel to the “price of admission” ideology of leftism going back to the French Revolution. But it’s also, crucially, wrong.

There has been no major swing of the Jewish vote away from Democrats, and there likely won’t be. But incremental gains by the GOP are not evidence of Jews being less Jewish; they’re exactly the opposite. Although the Orthodox are far from being anywhere close to a majority of American Jews–and will remain far from it for quite some time, even if current trends hold–they are still increasing their share of American Jews. As the numbers have increased, so has their political activism. And they are much more likely to care not only about Israel but about issues like school choice and economic liberty, to say nothing of religious liberty. (Pew found that “57% of Orthodox Jews describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party.”)

The Orthodox Union took some heat from other corners of the Jewish world for supporting the Catholic-driven attempts to allow religious exemptions from the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. The OU’s Nathan Diament explained that the organization did so not because it opposes birth control but because “we, particularly as a religious minority in the United States, must stand in solidarity with people of all faiths in demanding the broadest protections for rights of conscience in the face of government (and socio-cultural) coercion to the contrary.”

It’s no surprise that as the share of observant Jews increases, those Jews will be less likely to support a Democratic Party that is increasingly hostile to religious freedom and faith more generally, and instead support a Republican Party that seeks to protect religious practice from the authoritarian instincts of statist liberalism. Green could not be more wrong, in other words, about Jewish identity and voting trends. But her analysis was just one more example that modern liberalism requires its adherents to sacrifice all other aspects of their identity for The Cause. If minorities must choose between their community and leftist doctrine, it’s encouraging that many of them choose the former.

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The Jacobin Right

A few voices on the right, some of them safely ensconced in their underground command post, deep in the bowels of a hidden bunker, are attempting to rewrite history. In this case, after the GOP sweep last week, they want to justify their support for the approach that led to the October 2013 government shutdown. One radio talk show host, Mark Levin, said, “The shutdown worked.”

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A few voices on the right, some of them safely ensconced in their underground command post, deep in the bowels of a hidden bunker, are attempting to rewrite history. In this case, after the GOP sweep last week, they want to justify their support for the approach that led to the October 2013 government shutdown. One radio talk show host, Mark Levin, said, “The shutdown worked.”

That’s an impossible position to credibly defend. The government shutdown didn’t achieve a single one of its purposes, including its main one: defunding the Affordable Care Act. Everyone knew the GOP was uniformly against the ACA; it didn’t take the government shutdown to convince them of it. Polling shows that by overwhelming numbers the public didn’t like the government shutdown and by huge margins (53 percent to 31 percent), they blamed Republicans for it. “Americans have come to hold a harshly negative view of the Republican Party during the government shutdown, giving the GOP a far larger share of the blame for a political brawl that many believe is harming the economy,” the Wall Street Journal wrote at the time. Moreover, the image of the GOP fell to a record low in the aftermath of the shutdown. Republicans spent the last year climbing out of the hole they put themselves in. Simply because the shutdown didn’t ruin the Republican Party for generations to come doesn’t mean it was a smart idea.

What’s more interesting to me is to see this latest example of “epistemic closure” on display. I long ago came to expect this from the left; what’s a little more surprising to me is the degree to which some people on the right–or at least who claim to represent the right–succumb to it.

This probably should not be a revelation. After all, in some cases–Mr. Levin comes to mind–we’re dealing not so much with conservatives as dogmatists. (I should interject here that I’ve gone around the block before with Mr. Levin, who is certainly a passionate advocate for his views.) They are spending more and more of their time and energy targeting those they perceive as heretics, the impure in our midst.

To support their case, these self-appointed enforcers of conservative purity often invoke Ronald Reagan and claim to be his heirs. In fact, in many respects they don’t understand him very well at all. They twist Reagan this way and that, like Stretch Armstrong, to make him appear to match their own dispositions and patterns of thought and biases. Their absolutist mindset, if applied to the Reagan record–on amnesty (Reagan was for it), on raising taxes (Reagan passed what at the time was the largest tax increase in American history), on abortion (as governor, Reagan liberalized abortion laws), on campaigning for liberal Republicans (he chose Richard Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee in 1976)–would have drawn their wrath. By their own logic, Reagan would have to have been deemed a RINO (Republican In Name Only).

This would be absurd, of course; Reagan was a great president and a great conservative. Judged for the totality of his acts and in his historical context, his record, while not flawless, was extremely impressive. Yet he could not even approach the standards of purity embraced by today’s radicals on the right. They are, to coin a phrase, the Jacobin Right. By this I mean they permit no deviation from what they view as the one true party line. It’s one thing to have substantive differences with people; it’s another to continually portray those with whom you differ as unprincipled and heretical. Not every policy or tactical difference rises to the level of fundamental and unforgivable transgressions against conservative orthodoxy.

These individuals have become to conservatism what Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips were to Reagan during his day: ideologues, often agitated and angry, who seem to draw energy from attacking those they deem to be apostates. How glorious it is to be a True Believer in an unfaithful age.

The important point, I think, is that these voices, while loud as ever, are losing influence. The Republican Party seems to have found a way to be both conservative and reasonable, principled and prudent. Those on the fringe appear to find this intolerable. They want to, in the words of Reagan, go over the cliff with all flags flying. That’s up to them. They just shouldn’t try to take Reagan’s party down with them.

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How the Midterms Vindicated Both the Establishment and the Grassroots

On Saturday night I opened the New York Times website and saw the headline I’d been waiting since last Tuesday to see. “With Fear of Being Sidelined, Tea Party Sees the Republican Rise as New Threat,” the Times declared, and I wondered why it took four days since the Republican landslide victory in the congressional midterms and coinciding gubernatorial races for the Times to find some way to spin the massive GOP victory as a Republican civil war.

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On Saturday night I opened the New York Times website and saw the headline I’d been waiting since last Tuesday to see. “With Fear of Being Sidelined, Tea Party Sees the Republican Rise as New Threat,” the Times declared, and I wondered why it took four days since the Republican landslide victory in the congressional midterms and coinciding gubernatorial races for the Times to find some way to spin the massive GOP victory as a Republican civil war.

Surely the Times had such a story ready to go; it always has such a story ready to go. Perhaps the paper’s editors wanted to wait for the Sunday edition to really make a splash by republishing essentially the same story they write about four thousand times a year. In any event, there it was, the crystallization of the unthinking man’s midterms narrative: Republicans lose when they lose, and they lose when they win.

Such reporting has become more interesting since the Times embraced data journalism first with Nate Silver and now with its post-Silver Upshot blog. Since the Times’s reporting is usually heavy on wishful thinking and light on facts, the paper would be at risk of its data journalists undoing the narratives the Times’s political reporters and editors work so hard to establish. Such is the case with the Upshot’s latest, “G.O.P. Is Making Progress Toward Presidency but Is Still Playing Catch-Up.”

Not only does the piece debunk the notion that there is some fixed demographic state that will hold true from now on and lock Republicans out of the popular vote, but it also makes clear that there will only be a civil war on the right if Republicans foolishly invent one. In fact, the most notable takeaway from the Upshot piece is that in the battle over whether the colossal rout the Republicans achieved last week proved the “establishment” or the “Tea Party” (a term that has probably just about outlived its usefulness) right, the answer is: both.

First, the debunking of the Democrats’ exceedingly silly argument that they lost so badly simply because of non-presidential year turnout:

The Democratic losses were not simply because of low turnout. Republicans often made significant gains among rural, white voters. Some candidates made inroads among young and Hispanic voters, as well, according to exit polls and county and precinct-level results.

Precisely. Some of the Democrats’ woes had to do with lower-than-2012 turnout and some had to do with the fact that conservatives were expanding their coalition while liberals weren’t. I imagine conservatives wouldn’t mind if Democrats persist in their emphatic denial of reality, though even President Obama–who made a point of trying to delegitimize midterm voters in a typical bout of petulant foot stomping–seems to be coming around to the absurdity of the White House’s initial spin. (Though he is still not quite approaching reality.)

The Upshot’s Nate Cohn continues:

On Tuesday, Joni Ernst, now a Republican senator-elect, won a decisive nine-point victory. She swept much of traditionally Democratic eastern Iowa, where Democrats have long fared well with rural voters.

In Colorado, Cory Gardner, now a senator-elect, also made significant gains among rural white voters. He also outperformed past Republicans in traditionally Democratic, heavily Hispanic counties.

These gains suggest that demographic trends have not doomed Republicans to minority-party status, as some political analysts predicted. Those predictions hinged in part on the assumption that Democrats could fare no worse among white voters than Mr. Obama. That assumption ignored Mr. Obama’s strengths among white voters outside the South.

It’s important to note that the trends haven’t been completely reversed, either. Republicans aren’t doomed but neither are Democrats; indeed, Democrats still have a strong presidential-year coalition. The risk they run is in ignoring the plain fact that Republicans appear to be better capable of making inroads into that Democratic coalition than political prognosticators thought. And since the Democratic electoral coalition is sustained through identity politics and not ideas, if Republicans can negate those identity-politics appeals the Democrats would be in trouble.

But the other lesson here is that the establishment and the grassroots made a superb team in this year’s midterms. The ability of Ernst in Iowa and Gardner in Colorado, among others, to win competitive races in states Obama carried twice showed that the candidate mattered, as the establishment has been emphasizing, and that conservative ideas were winners even in blue states, as the grassroots have been insisting.

Ernst, in fact, was conservative enough to cause Super-Civil Centrist Norm Ornstein to have a breakdown on social media, calling Ernst a “lunatic.” But an important element in allowing those conservative ideas to be heard was the nominations of better candidates, the GOP’s efforts in media training those candidates, and in some cases ensuring the nominations of establishment-friendly candidates who would win quietly. As Chuck Todd accidentally admitted after the election, had one conservative candidate uttered a controversial remark, the press would have forced that remark into every single race throughout the country.

This is not to say the GOP was mistake-free. Indeed, the establishment clearly erred in not intervening to encourage Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas to retire–Roberts being an extremely dangerous play since his race turned out to be competitive. But it wasn’t about either the establishment or the grassroots being perfect, it was about not making the kinds of mistakes that change the narrative and toughen the terrain for other candidates around the country. That was a test they passed, and in doing so proved the attractiveness of conservatism even in places it was assumed to be unwelcome.

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Why Scott Walker Doesn’t Need a Landslide

The central contradiction of Scott Walker’s prospective 2016 presidential candidacy is that the case against it is also the case for it. And that theme has been a major component of the coverage of Walker’s close reelection battle against Mary Burke. Walker heads into today’s election clinging to a 2-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. The two candidates were even in an early October Marquette poll. Since then, Walker has led four of the last five polls, but in only one was that lead more than 2 points. And the narrative has begun to form that with this close a race, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it seems whether he wins.

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The central contradiction of Scott Walker’s prospective 2016 presidential candidacy is that the case against it is also the case for it. And that theme has been a major component of the coverage of Walker’s close reelection battle against Mary Burke. Walker heads into today’s election clinging to a 2-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. The two candidates were even in an early October Marquette poll. Since then, Walker has led four of the last five polls, but in only one was that lead more than 2 points. And the narrative has begun to form that with this close a race, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it seems whether he wins.

That is, the failure to win a convincing referendum on his tenure as governor is a major red flag for his presidential hopes. The best article making this case from the right (who Walker would have to win over in a primary) comes from Ramesh Ponnuru, writing at Bloomberg View. There are bound to be real obstacles to a Walker bid, and some of them are indeed wrapped up in how Walker has handled–and in some cases, perhaps mishandled–his reelection campaign. That’s one reason the accusations that Chris Christie, as head of the Republican Governors Association, supposedly left Walker high and dry rang hollow. If Walker’s opponent was underestimated, it wasn’t by Christie; it was by Walker.

Here’s the crux of Ponnuru’s argument:

For one thing, Walker’s struggle raises the question of whether a politician can make a credible run for the presidency after barely winning over his own state’s voters. The last two presidents each won their states convincingly before they ran. George W. Bush won 68 percent of the vote to be re-elected governor of Texas in 1998, and Barack Obama won 70 percent of the vote in Illinois to become a senator in 2004.

Walker, assuming he wins, won’t have numbers anywhere close to those. And if he decides to seek the 2016 nomination, he’ll have to make the best of it. The argument he could make to Republicans nationwide is that he took risks to get conservative reforms enacted in a liberal state, and he succeeded. The closeness of his recall campaign and his re-election are a testament, he could say, to his boldness.

There’s another way Walker is different from Bush and Obama. Bush said he would be a “uniter, not a divider,” and Obama said he’d “change the tone” in Washington for the better. A candidate as demonstrably polarizing as Walker — his anti-union reforms sparked huge protests and an occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol — won’t be able to run that kind of campaign.

I think Ponnuru is right on the particulars but wrong on the implications.

It’s true that both Obama and Bush had won resounding statewide victories before running for president. And historically, candidates who lose their home state in a presidential election usually lose the election too. But Walker’s ability to win over Wisconsin’s voters means he’d put the state in play in a presidential election. Unlike Bush and John McCain, whose home states were red, and Mitt Romney, who never had a chance to win Massachusetts, that gives Republicans a chance to expand the map. Walker’s close election means it is precisely the kind of state Republicans have to learn how to win if they want to end their slide in presidential elections.

It’s easy to convince Texas to keep public unions in check, and it’s impressive but arguably irrelevant to convince New Jersey voters to back such a platform, as did Chris Christie. New Jersey is not going red any time soon, so Christie’s success offers an example of how to win over public opinion on union issues, but doesn’t change the Electoral College calculus.

Speaking of Christie, Ponnuru’s second point is also worth delving into in order to make a crucial distinction. Ponnuru writes that Walker can’t make the claim to be some kind of postpartisan uniter. His agenda is divisive. But there’s a difference between a personally divisive candidate and a divisive agenda–and there are also differences between types of divisive agendas.

Christie is an example of someone with a divisive personality. Walker is not. Walker is personable and relatable, not combative. He’s a happy warrior. His agenda is divisive, but that’s for a good reason: it’s an actual governing agenda, and the defenders of the self-enriching status quo will always fight real reform.

Walker’s opponents made the issue divisive because they completely lost their minds. Democratic state senators actually fled the state, like criminals and cowards, rather than participate in the democratic process that would have led to an outcome they didn’t like. His opponents could barely speak a full sentence that didn’t have the word “Hitler” sprinkled generously throughout. I’ve seen the unions threaten the lives of people I know who they discovered supported Walker.

But the fact remains: anti-public union policies are gaining steam and support in blue and purple states, despite the divisiveness caused by union leaders and their most ardent supporters experiencing a psychotic break over sensible reforms. Entrenched interests cannot be given a heckler’s veto.

And the lesson here is that while the Wisconsin electorate is polarized, so is the national electorate. Liberal interest groups and the media (but I repeat myself) will paint any Republican agenda as the end of the world. The vapid Obama campaign managed to make Big Bird a divisive issue, to say nothing of the “war on women” or race-baiting. Any Republican running on anything resembling a conservative agenda will get this apocalyptic treatment from the left. The candidate might as well make it worth the trouble and actually stand for something.

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Why Jeb Bush Is Right and Grover Norquist Is Wrong

According to an article in Politico:

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According to an article in Politico:

Jeb Bush has a tax problem.

The former Florida governor has said he could accept tax increases in a hypothetical deficit-cutting deal. Never mind that he added that would come only in exchange for major federal spending cuts, or that he repeatedly cut taxes as governor.

Tax hikes are still apostasy in Republican circles, and the stance could be a big problem for Bush if he decides to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2016.

Bush’s views are already pitting him against one of his party’s most influential activists, Grover Norquist, the high priest of anti-tax orthodoxy who’s convinced nearly every elected Republican to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.

“Mind-boggling,” Norquist said of Bush.

Actually, it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

Set aside for the moment your view of Jeb Bush and the 2016 presidential race. Let’s instead examine this broader argument with some care, beginning with putting the story in context.

As Politico points out, during a June 2012 House Budget Committee hearing, Bush was asked about a theoretical deficit plan that would actually cut $10 in spending in exchange for a dollar in tax increases. This was a question first posed to Republican presidential candidates by Byron York and Bret Baier and was rejected by all eight of them. (I criticized that response at the time.) Governor Bush’s response was different than the Republicans running for president. “If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, Coach,” he said.

Note well what Bush didn’t say. He didn’t say he believed we as a nation are under-taxed. In fact Bush, as governor of Florida, had a sterling tax-cutting record, having cut them every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). What Bush said is that if you could actually get a 10-to-one ratio in spending cuts to tax increases–that after all was the premise of the thought experiment–he’d do it. So, I would think, would any conservative interested in limiting government.

I not only understand the case for lower taxes; I support tax cuts. But it’s not an inviolate principle. The question on these things is always context. Higher taxes in exchange for what? Which taxes are we talking about? And what else might be considered in any such deal (e.g., reforming Medicare by replacing the current fee-for-services system with a premium support one)?

People I respect believe the no-new-tax pledge has done more good than harm, that without it Republicans would be far more inclined to raise taxes. That’s not an unreasonable stance. But for conservatives to say, as many now do, that there’s no scenario in which taxes could ever be raised–and to pledge to oppose a tax increase regardless of circumstances–strikes me as misguided. Nor do I believe most Republicans, if you had a long, honest conversation, would be that absolutist. The right level of taxation is a prudential, not a theological, matter; it needs to be seen in the context of other economic conditions and possible gains in other areas.

This debate highlights a danger for conservatism, which is that certain policies are elevated to dogma, to canon. It takes a reasonable starting point in a negotiation and turns it into a non-negotiable end point. Vin Weber, a principled conservative, said Bush’s answer on the tax issue “was totally right, and if we’re ever going to deal with the long-term debt question, Republicans are going to have to come to grips with that.”

This debate also exposes a mindset that views compromise per se as unprincipled, a capitulation, a sign of weakness. This is a deeply unconservative attitude and quite at odds with what James Madison and the other Federalist founders believed. The Constitution itself was the result of a whole series of difficult, reluctant, remarkable compromises. That’s why it’s so odd that those who consider themselves “constitutional conservatives” are often the ones who react most strongly against even the idea of compromise.

One other thing. If the attitude many of those on the right have toward taxes today existed in the 1970s and 1980s, Ronald Reagan would have been considered a heretic. I say that because Reagan himself 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”; and as president he signed a tax increase (TEFRA) that at the time was the largest in American history. As president Reagan, in fact, raised taxes multiple times.

Now my own view is that Reagan’s record, including his record on taxes, needs to be seen in whole–and seen in whole it was outstanding. He was responsible for cutting the top rate from 70 percent to, when he left office, 28 percent, which helped catalyze our economy; and his 1986 tax reform plan was a tremendous achievement. Yet Reagan did raise taxes.

It’s true that President Reagan came to regret his 1982 tax increase. But it’s important to keep this in mind: He agreed to it, he said, assuming he’d get $3 of spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. (He didn’t, though the reality is somewhat complicated.) If that result had in fact come to pass, would the deal have been wrong? Would today’s anti-tax advocates torch him for his apostasy? Would he be vilified as a RINO? Would he be vulnerable to a primary challenge?

It tells us something about some currents within conservatism that a governor with a sterling tax cutting record, in expressing support for a theoretical deal far more conservative than what Ronald Reagan was willing to accept, would be the object of harsh criticisms.

My guess is that this kind of approach to politics, while still embraced in some quarters, is losing influence. At least I hope so. Not because I want higher taxes, but because I don’t think conservatism is a rigid, adamantine ideology; that the quest for political purification is fraught with danger; and because conservatives shouldn’t assume that any deal that gives you less than everything is a bad deal. Conservatives shouldn’t treat a debate about tax rates as a metaphysical matter.

We all have roles to play, and governing is different than critiquing those who do. The former certainly need to be prodded now and then by activists and commentators; I do a fair amount of that myself. But activists and commentators need to understand that while we need to strive for the ideal, the ideal can’t become the standard by which we judge politicians. Nor is every issue a hill to die on. And, as the greatest American conservative of them all warned, there’s not a lot to be won, and even a lot to be lost, by going over the cliff with our flags waving.

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Twenty-First Century Conservatism

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio laid out a pro-growth, pro-family tax reform plan. It recommends two rates (35 and 15 percent), cuts the current corporate tax rate, eliminates or reforms certain deductions, ends the marriage penalty, and increases the child tax credit.

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In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio laid out a pro-growth, pro-family tax reform plan. It recommends two rates (35 and 15 percent), cuts the current corporate tax rate, eliminates or reforms certain deductions, ends the marriage penalty, and increases the child tax credit.

While important details would need to be worked out, this proposal holds great promise both for what it can do to strengthen the economy and help families. (For more, see here and here.) But I want to focus on how Messrs. Lee and Rubio frame their proposal.

In describing the challenges facing middle class Americans, they identify some of the fundamental transformations we’re undergoing and write this:

Despite these dramatic changes, the policies and practices of Washington remain stuck in the 20th century, leaving too many Americans unable to access the enormous potential of this new era.

If we hope to realize a new American Century, many institutions and government programs will need to be updated, reformed or replaced. Both of us have spent a large portion of the year proposing such reforms.

Perhaps no function of the U.S. government is more antiquated and dysfunctional than its tax system, so we are joining together to propose a federal tax-reform plan that will remove obstacles to investment, innovation, growth and opportunity.

This way of thinking about things has long had resonance with me. It’s especially effective now, I think, because our public institutions and programs, in some cases designed before the middle part of the last century, are badly outdated and desperately in need of reform; because modern-day liberalism is sclerotic and reactionary, in the sense that “progressives” fiercely oppose adjustments to our entitlement programs, education system, tax code, energy policies, and much else; and because advocating reform allows conservatives to be agents of change, modern, responsive, and serious about governing.

We’re seeing a collapse of confidence in the federal government; Americans understand it’s not aligned with reality (including demographic trends, advances in technology, and globalization) or our contemporary needs. Which means conservatives have an opportunity to reconceive the role of government in the 21st century, to do so in bold (but not radical) ways, and do it in a way that is a little less theoretical and a lot more practical, by which I mean showing how conservative policies are going to improve, on a daily basis, the lives of middle-class Americans. (In the 2012 GOP primary we heard more about electrified fences than we did about the costs of higher education.)

This is what Senators Lee and Rubio are attempting to do, and Republicans would be wise to follow them.

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The Government Shutdown A Year Later

The Wall Street Journal published a story that dealt with the shutdown of the federal government, which occurred nearly a year ago. According to the Journal:

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The Wall Street Journal published a story that dealt with the shutdown of the federal government, which occurred nearly a year ago. According to the Journal:

The Republican Party’s reputation declined sharply after the 2013 government shutdown. But in politics, as in many other walks of life, memories are short.

Over the summer, Democrats tried to rekindle fears that Republicans would again fail to fund the government, but Congress left Washington earlier this month without a major hiccup. With its one-year anniversary right around the corner, the shutdown doesn’t register as a top advertising theme in House and Senate races this year… The GOP is still disliked more than liked, polls show, but that is true of the Democrats, too, and for the Republicans the gap has narrowed by 20 percentage points since the shutdown.

“The Republican Party image may not be stellar, but, boy, it is a lot better than it’s been,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll with Democrat Fred Yang.

 The story goes on to report the following:

The latest Journal poll this month found negative views of the GOP outweighing positive views among registered voters by 10 percentage points—41% to 31%. That is a major improvement from last October, in the wake of the shutdown, when negative views outweighed positive views by 31 points, or 53% to 22%. The uptick also means the parties are now viewed roughly equally. Negative views of the Democratic Party outweighed positive ones by 6 points. Views of the GOP have become more positive among several sectors of the population, including Latinos, independents and self-identified Republicans.

I highlight this story for several reasons, beginning with the fact that some people who advocated the approach that led to the shutdown–most especially Senator Ted Cruz–are still defending their role in that disaster. Worse, at the time Cruz and other key figures were charging that conservatives who didn’t support their gambit were supporters of Obamacare. They were part of the “surrender caucus.”

This assertion was always untrue, and Cruz & Company had to know it was untrue. Yet they continued to make the assertion, presumably in order to appeal to Tea Party members by portraying themselves as intrepid and anti-establishment, as the William Wallaces of modern-day politics.

This whole thing was ludicrous from beginning to end; many of us predicted in advance how badly it would turn out. It has taken the GOP the better part of a year to undo the damage caused by the shutdown.

This is yet another reminder that conservatives should invest their hopes in politicians who are both principled and prudent. Who are more serious about governing than in mindless symbolism. And who have enough self-control to keep their personal ambitions from injuring their party and conservatism.

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Charles Krauthammer’s Groundbreaking Literary Achievement

We’ve witnessed an extraordinary achievement. Charles Krauthammer’s book Things That Matter, after 38 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list–including 10 consecutive weeks at No. 1–has sold more than a million copies. For any book, especially a non-fiction book, to sell a million copies is exceedingly rare. For a collection of columns and essays to do so is unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever happened in the publishing world. That is has happened is, for many of us, quite an encouraging thing. It means there’s an appetite for elegant writing and rigorous analysis. A nation needs individuals who take words and ideas seriously; and on the American political landscape today, Charles Krauthammer (who will be honored at COMMENTARY’s annual roast in New York City on September 22) has no peers in that regard.

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We’ve witnessed an extraordinary achievement. Charles Krauthammer’s book Things That Matter, after 38 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list–including 10 consecutive weeks at No. 1–has sold more than a million copies. For any book, especially a non-fiction book, to sell a million copies is exceedingly rare. For a collection of columns and essays to do so is unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever happened in the publishing world. That is has happened is, for many of us, quite an encouraging thing. It means there’s an appetite for elegant writing and rigorous analysis. A nation needs individuals who take words and ideas seriously; and on the American political landscape today, Charles Krauthammer (who will be honored at COMMENTARY’s annual roast in New York City on September 22) has no peers in that regard.

In his introduction to Things That Matter, Krauthammer wrote about the trajectory of his political odyssey. “I’ve offered this brief personal history,” he said, “for those interested in what forces, internal and external, led me to change direction both vocationally and ideologically. I’ve elaborated it here because I believe that while everyone has the right to change views, one does at least owe others an explanation. The above [introduction] is mine. This book represent the product of that journey.”

That journey has been a remarkable one; and the book that represents it is now groundbreaking.

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