Commentary Magazine


Topic: Harry Reid

Sorry Harry, ObamaCare Debate Isn’t Over

Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the floor of the Senate yesterday to gloat about the fact that he hasn’t been hearing as much Republican rhetoric about ObamaCare in recent weeks. Parsing some partially favorable poll figures and attempting to connect the dots between those figures and President Obama’s touchdown dance over enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, the Democrat concluded that the GOP is in full retreat on the issue. In doing so, Reid spoke for many fellow liberals who think the long debate about the law is over or are least praying that it is. With, according to some sources, Democratic chances of retaining the Senate improving, the president’s party seems to think the crisis over ObamaCare has passed.

But before they start celebrating too loudly, Reid and the rest of the president’s cheering section in the Congress and the media should think again. Though the administration has managed to convince many in the press that the enrollment figures are synonymous with voter satisfaction with the scheme, there’s little reason to believe that public sentiment on the law has changed much. The current lull in the health-care debate should not be seen as a temporary cease-fire after months of furious discussion as both parties prepare for the midterms. If Reid thinks his endangered red state incumbent colleagues will be doing much campaigning about how proud they are of the law or that their opponents will not be attempting to saddle the Democrats with responsibility for it, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell him. Moreover, as Reid and Obama ought to know, no matter how much impact health care has on the outcome in November, the fact that most of the onerous regulations and mandates of ObamaCare will only go into effect next year virtually guarantees that the arguments will not only continue but will probably increase in virulence in 2015.

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Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the floor of the Senate yesterday to gloat about the fact that he hasn’t been hearing as much Republican rhetoric about ObamaCare in recent weeks. Parsing some partially favorable poll figures and attempting to connect the dots between those figures and President Obama’s touchdown dance over enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, the Democrat concluded that the GOP is in full retreat on the issue. In doing so, Reid spoke for many fellow liberals who think the long debate about the law is over or are least praying that it is. With, according to some sources, Democratic chances of retaining the Senate improving, the president’s party seems to think the crisis over ObamaCare has passed.

But before they start celebrating too loudly, Reid and the rest of the president’s cheering section in the Congress and the media should think again. Though the administration has managed to convince many in the press that the enrollment figures are synonymous with voter satisfaction with the scheme, there’s little reason to believe that public sentiment on the law has changed much. The current lull in the health-care debate should not be seen as a temporary cease-fire after months of furious discussion as both parties prepare for the midterms. If Reid thinks his endangered red state incumbent colleagues will be doing much campaigning about how proud they are of the law or that their opponents will not be attempting to saddle the Democrats with responsibility for it, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell him. Moreover, as Reid and Obama ought to know, no matter how much impact health care has on the outcome in November, the fact that most of the onerous regulations and mandates of ObamaCare will only go into effect next year virtually guarantees that the arguments will not only continue but will probably increase in virulence in 2015.

Reid says that he’s always been puzzled about how it is that polls have always showed that a majority of Americans disapprove of ObamaCare but are wary of scrapping it. He interprets these results as most waiting to see if it will succeed or fail. But as is the case with the attempt to assert that the numbers of those enrolled prove its success, this effort falls flat. That’s because a large number of those who are now relying on ObamaCare are also unhappy about losing their previous coverage and perhaps their doctors. They also don’t like the lack of choices available to them and are now paying more for services they never asked for or needed.

It’s clear that many of those who are now part of the scheme were not previously uninsured. While a minority of Americans are benefitting from the law, most have not yet been personally affected by the way it will transform the health-care system. Many are aware of the potential change that will occur in the next year and that has fueled anxiety about the law. Though, as Byron York noted in the Washington Examiner earlier this week, up until now most of those who have run up against ObamaCare haven’t liked it, that not insignificant number may increase exponentially in 2015.

Thus while a non-stop barrage of anti-ObamaCare efforts probably doesn’t make sense this far out from November, Democrats should expect Republicans to double down on their previous attacks as the midterms approach. Given the trouble the law has already caused, the coming dislocations will not be accepted passively by either the public or the president’s opposition. With so much of the law’s provisions yet to be implemented because of postponements designed to increase the Democrats’ chances of winning this year, the debate over ObamaCare is not only not finished, it has only just begun. 

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Dems’ Plan to Counter Criticism: Outlaw It

A common pattern in American political discourse is for conservatives to accuse liberals of some statist extremism, liberals to insist the complaint has no merit whatsoever, and then when it’s clear conservatives are on to something liberals lament, more in sorrow than in anger, that conservatives had a point but took it way too far. How vindicated conservatives then feel if information comes to light to back up their warnings about the slippery slope of state power.

The evolution of the Democrats’ deranged attacks on the Koch brothers and political participation in general has followed precisely this pattern. The trickle of mentions of the Kochs turned into a flood, as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became thoroughly incapable of discussing any topic–campaign finance, Ukraine, the minimum wage–without calling out the libertarian philanthropists. He called their participation in the political process “un-American” in an ever-escalating crusade to declare them former people and seek to pressure the judiciary into permitting limitations on free speech rights.

Conservatives warned that high-profile Democrats’ hostility to the First Amendment was liable to result in the curbing of Americans’ constitutional rights. Liberals scoffed. Yet now, the Hill reports, Democrats–who haven’t exactly been models of subtlety, but who at least permitted liberals some plausible deniability–are through beating around the bush. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has announced his party’s newest midterm election strategy: amend the Constitution to rein in its free speech protections. From the Hill:

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A common pattern in American political discourse is for conservatives to accuse liberals of some statist extremism, liberals to insist the complaint has no merit whatsoever, and then when it’s clear conservatives are on to something liberals lament, more in sorrow than in anger, that conservatives had a point but took it way too far. How vindicated conservatives then feel if information comes to light to back up their warnings about the slippery slope of state power.

The evolution of the Democrats’ deranged attacks on the Koch brothers and political participation in general has followed precisely this pattern. The trickle of mentions of the Kochs turned into a flood, as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became thoroughly incapable of discussing any topic–campaign finance, Ukraine, the minimum wage–without calling out the libertarian philanthropists. He called their participation in the political process “un-American” in an ever-escalating crusade to declare them former people and seek to pressure the judiciary into permitting limitations on free speech rights.

Conservatives warned that high-profile Democrats’ hostility to the First Amendment was liable to result in the curbing of Americans’ constitutional rights. Liberals scoffed. Yet now, the Hill reports, Democrats–who haven’t exactly been models of subtlety, but who at least permitted liberals some plausible deniability–are through beating around the bush. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has announced his party’s newest midterm election strategy: amend the Constitution to rein in its free speech protections. From the Hill:

Democratic leaders on Wednesday unveiled a plan to vote on a constitutional amendment “very soon” to overturn the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, which have empowered wealthy donors such as Charles and David Koch.

The amendment has virtually no chance of passing this year because it must garner two-thirds support from both chambers of Congress and receive ratification from three-quarters of the states. Democrats believe it will help them preserve their Senate majority, however.

Campaign finance reform traditionally rates low on voters’ lists of concerns, but Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, believes a battle over a constitutional amendment will bolster their populist economic message.

“The constitutional amendment we know requires two-thirds, it’s a long hard road. But given the McCutcheon decision we have to begin it,” he said. “Most Americans don’t believe the system works in their favor. We are showing whose side you’re on.”

Now, of course the idea of amending the Constitution itself isn’t crazy, and Schumer should be commended for at least adhering to the process. But the First Amendment is rarely the target. Voters tend to be pretty fond of that one, though Democrats increasingly aren’t.

Campaign-finance restrictions of the sort Democrats favor are quite plainly incumbent protection plans. Democrats have been taking a beating lately in the polls, as public opinion has soured on their flailing agenda. So Schumer has proposed a solution: no need to change the policies to adhere to public opinion if you can just restrict the public’s ability to express that opinion.

A constitutional amendment to outlaw criticism is a bit heavyhanded even for someone like Schumer. But it has the effect of confirming, from the mouths of Democrats themselves, that yes, there is a slippery slope from criticizing the wealthy to explicitly targeting constitutional rights–and they intend to slide down it head-first.

Obviously the attempt will fail to get the votes; whatever their faults, it’s doubtful most of the Democrats running for reelection have completely lost their minds. Additionally, the Democrats have already sacrificed seats for The Cause, by voting for ObamaCare and then getting their clocks cleaned in the following midterms. I’m not sure how many times the White House and Democratic congressional leadership can hope to get their party to vote for abusive federal power grabs that are openly hostile to public opinion and individual rights.

The point, according to Schumer and Co., is really about messaging anyway. The message is this: they have to take away your rights in order to take away the Kochs’ rights. Democrats are keen on fairness, and it’s only fair to legally bar everyone from certain constitutionally protected political activism in order to weaken Democrats’ opponents. It’s possible this sounded less crazy in Schumer’s head before he announced it, but either way he seems pretty committed to it now, a fact which I imagine delights Republican candidates across the country.

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The Fierce Urgency of After the Midterms

The apocalyptic rhetoric from environmental groups has always put them in the spotlight, which can be a blessing and a curse: it helps their funding, though their dire predictions and alarmist proclamations are tested. But surely even worse for the greens’ prophetic pretensions than having to revise their forecasts of doom is their wavering sense of urgency when political expediency demands it.

And so while environmentalists make no secret of their fervent opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline extension, they’re also revealing that they are following the familiar trajectory of left-leaning interest groups by starting out as principled issue activists and becoming yet another Democratic Party adjunct. As the Hill reported yesterday:

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The apocalyptic rhetoric from environmental groups has always put them in the spotlight, which can be a blessing and a curse: it helps their funding, though their dire predictions and alarmist proclamations are tested. But surely even worse for the greens’ prophetic pretensions than having to revise their forecasts of doom is their wavering sense of urgency when political expediency demands it.

And so while environmentalists make no secret of their fervent opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline extension, they’re also revealing that they are following the familiar trajectory of left-leaning interest groups by starting out as principled issue activists and becoming yet another Democratic Party adjunct. As the Hill reported yesterday:

Centrist Democrats who support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline might not get the cold shoulder from green groups this fall. 

Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’s challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was the latest to buck her party’s leaders when she announced this week she supports construction of the pipeline. 

Democrats from conservative states have joined with Republicans in supporting Keystone XL, which they argue would create jobs and improve the country’s energy independence. In addition to Grimes, at least seven other Senate Democratic incumbents or candidates have supported its construction so far. 

But even though green groups have fought tooth and nail to block the oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. over environmental concerns, they aren’t making the issue into a litmus test for Democratic candidates they consider supporting.

Instead, organizations with environmental priorities are weighing Keystone along with other top environmental issues when deciding who to throw their weight behind.

They’ve spent a tremendous amount of effort on treating Keystone as a cause worth fighting for. And the fight has been good for their bottom line. As the New York Times reported back in January, “no one disputes that the issue has helped a new breed of environmental organizations build a mostly young army eager to donate money and time.” So why wouldn’t they live up to the hype and make this a litmus test issue?

Here’s the justification from the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, as reported by the Hill: “The action fund has made the strategic conclusion in this cycle to focus on climate change, and, specifically, the president’s climate plan.” So Keystone just isn’t much of a “climate change” issue then? On the contrary, says … the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Building the 875-mile northern segment of Keystone XL would lead to a dramatic increase in the carbon pollution that worsens the effects of climate change. Hence, construction of the pipeline fails the all-important carbon test the president laid out in his June 2013 climate address to the nation, when he said Keystone XL’s permit would be approved only if the pipeline “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The dissembling makes it pretty clear just how the environmentalists choose their “litmus tests.” Another clue comes from the indications that President Obama has delayed a decision on Keystone in order to kill the pipeline deal after the midterm elections. That flies in the face of the science on Keystone, which effectively rebuts the greens’ anticommerce propaganda. But it is perfectly synchronous with the demands of Tom Steyer, the billionaire writing large checks to finance Democratic campaigns, especially those who fight Keystone.

Why wouldn’t Steyer demand–since he can, apparently–that the pipeline project get its rejection notice immediately, if it’s truly the right thing to do? Because while that would follow the professed principles of Steyer and others in the environmentalist far-left, it would also make life tougher for embattled Democrats in non-loony states who don’t want to oppose the commonsense job creator Keystone represents. This way, they can run in support of Keystone without suffering any consequences.

Now, you might say, that doesn’t sound quite so principled. Enabling Democrats to run in support of Keystone while plowing money into attacking Republicans because they also support Keystone would appear to elevate partisanship over principle. And aside from Steyer’s business interests, he appears to be mulling a political career of his own, possibly as a candidate for California governor. Initially, he seemed willing to attack Democrats who supported Keystone; as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel noted, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu was, at first, on the list:

Mr. Steyer then spent some quality time with senior Democrats, who presumably explained that the establishment would not look kindly on a would-be governor who blew their control of the Senate. Ms. Landrieu came off the list, and Mr. Steyer has downgraded his criteria for playing in races to whether “something important” is at stake.

Despite the unhinged rhetoric from high-profile Democrats–for example, Harry Reid calling conservative political activism “un-American”–Steyer and the greens are perfectly entitled to participate in the electoral process. It’s just helpful to know that it’s about power and electing Democrats, not the Earth hanging in the balance.

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Closing the Coverage Gap on Harry Reid

Both professional and college sports fans have dealt with the “East Coast bias,” the way the location of major media outlets and the time zone difference across the country impact the attention paid to games. (What, you don’t want to burn the midnight oil to catch every moment of the early-season showdown between Gonzaga and Pepperdine?) The political version of this usually pits the “Acela corridor” against the “real America,” which has more to do with content bias. But as any media consumer can attest, there is a coverage gap as well.

Could that account for absurdly underreported whiff of scandal persistently swirling around Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? Whatever the reason, the press has certainly abdicated its basic responsibilities when it comes to Reid. There are, of course, exceptions, the superb Jon Ralston chief among them. And now RealClearPolitics’ Adam O’Neal has made a splash with the first installment of a two-part series on Reid, the first titled “Harry Reid’s Long, Steady Accretion of Power & Wealth.”

Those who have watched Reid’s career closely, O’Neal reports, “say that his political and economic ascendance has made him increasingly willing to use his power (and apparent electoral resilience) in ways that appear unsavory or nepotistic.” Recent revelations about Reid using his political campaign to his granddaughter’s financial benefit are perhaps a sign that in the current media landscape such activities are more difficult to hide and, according to one Reid watcher paraphrased by O’Neal, “not a product of him changing his style.”

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Both professional and college sports fans have dealt with the “East Coast bias,” the way the location of major media outlets and the time zone difference across the country impact the attention paid to games. (What, you don’t want to burn the midnight oil to catch every moment of the early-season showdown between Gonzaga and Pepperdine?) The political version of this usually pits the “Acela corridor” against the “real America,” which has more to do with content bias. But as any media consumer can attest, there is a coverage gap as well.

Could that account for absurdly underreported whiff of scandal persistently swirling around Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? Whatever the reason, the press has certainly abdicated its basic responsibilities when it comes to Reid. There are, of course, exceptions, the superb Jon Ralston chief among them. And now RealClearPolitics’ Adam O’Neal has made a splash with the first installment of a two-part series on Reid, the first titled “Harry Reid’s Long, Steady Accretion of Power & Wealth.”

Those who have watched Reid’s career closely, O’Neal reports, “say that his political and economic ascendance has made him increasingly willing to use his power (and apparent electoral resilience) in ways that appear unsavory or nepotistic.” Recent revelations about Reid using his political campaign to his granddaughter’s financial benefit are perhaps a sign that in the current media landscape such activities are more difficult to hide and, according to one Reid watcher paraphrased by O’Neal, “not a product of him changing his style.”

In other words, the more you look the more you’ll find with regard to Reid’s ethics experiments. O’Neal did just that, wondering in part how Reid became so fabulously wealthy on a politician’s salary:

Theoretically, working as a lawmaker should have severely limited Reid’s earning potential. In the early 1980s, members of Congress received a salary of about $70,000 per year. Though pay has generally risen — and Reid receives more than most lawmakers because of his leadership position — he has never earned more than $200,000 per year in salary.

Yet, his estimated net worth peaked at around $10 million just a few years ago, and he has remained consistently wealthier than when he entered Congress.

Perhaps Reid’s mysterious wealth has attracted more attention since most of his time on the Senate floor is spent denouncing private citizens who have made more money than he has while his party outlines various strategies to confiscate that wealth. Presumably Reid believes that if he were more forthright about his assets, Democrats would instinctively move to confiscate them.

Whatever the reason, here is some of what O’Neal has put together:

In 1998, Reid invested $400,000 in an undeveloped residential property located on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Reid’s partner in the deal was attorney Jay Brown, whom Ralston describes as a “master manipulator.” Reid transferred his share of the property to a company Brown controlled in 2001. By transferring the land to Brown’s firm, Reid avoided legal liability and some taxes. But Reid didn’t note the transfer — or that he had any stake in the company — in his financial disclosure forms, despite rules requiring such transfers to be reported. By 2004, Brown’s company sold the land, which had been rezoned for a shopping center, and Reid received $1.1 million. He reported the sale as if he had always had control of the property.

When the Associated Press asked Reid about the deal during a 2006 interview, he hung up on the reporter. A spokesman later said that “there were several legal steps associated with the investment during those years that did not alter Senator Reid’s actual ownership interest in the land.” However, there was no physical proof that Reid had any stake in Brown’s company. The story may have caused Reid public embarrassment — he amended his ethics reports to include the full history of the property — but he walked away from the deal some $700,000 richer.

That isn’t the only problematic land deal Reid was involved with at the time. In 2002, he put $10,000 into a pension fund controlled by another friend, Clair Haycock. The payment gave Reid a sizable parcel of land in Bullhead City, Ariz. According to the Los Angeles Times, Reid purchased the land for one-tenth of its estimated value (and one-fortieth of what it had sold for a decade earlier). Two actions created suspicion afterward. First, Reid sponsored an $18 million earmark for a bridge that would connect Laughlin, Nev., and Bullhead City. This bridge would likely increase property values in the area. Reid also introduced legislation that would benefit Haycock’s lubricant company. Reid aides denied that his support for the earmark or lubricant dealer bill was related to the land purchase. By 2011, Reid’s initial $10,000 investment was valued at between $250,000 and $500,000. The property did not appear in his 2012 disclosure. 

While some of Reid’s most lucrative deals involved land, he also benefited from investments in stocks. Near the end of the 2005, he invested between $50,000 and $100,000 in the Dow Jones U.S. Energy Sector Fund, which held shares in several major oil companies. According to National Review, the fund closed at $29.15 on the day Reid purchased. Nearly three years later, in August 2008, Reid sold some of his shares, which closed that day at $41.82. Two months later, Reid-supported legislation that would cost oil companies billions in taxes and regulatory fees passed. The Energy Sector Fund’s shares plummeted to $24.41 each. 

There’s more, believe it or not, so read the whole thing. Reid’s career is an abject lesson in the need for transparency and accountability in government. The tools available to an elected official for self-enrichment are numerous and some politicians will avail themselves of them if they think no one’s watching. It’s good to see that dedicated lack of attention is no longer the case with Reid, whose questionable behavior should have been an open invitation long ago for the media to do its job.

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The Left’s Intellectual and Moral Corruption

Back in January 2009, at the dawn of the Age of Obama, I made four predictions, the first of which was this 

while Obama is riding high, race relations will be excellent. But once Obama goes down in the polls and he does things that elicit criticism, be prepared for the “race card” to be played. If it is, then race relations could be set back, because the charges will be so transparently false. If race was used by Obamacons against Bill Clinton, it will certainly be used against Republicans.

And so it has. Consider just the past few weeks. Representative Steve Israel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was asked by CNN’s Candy Crowley, “Do you think your Republican colleagues are racists?” To which Israel replied, “Not all of them, no. Of course not. But to a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism.”

When Representative Paul Ryan made the perfectly obvious observation that there’s a real culture problem plaguing America’s inner cities, Representative Barbara Lee issued a statement saying, “My colleague, Congressman Ryan’s comments about inner city poverty are thinly-veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated.”

Last week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blamed race issues for the GOP’s failure to act on comprehensive immigration legislation. “I think race has something to do with the fact that they’re not bringing up an immigration bill,” she told reporters at her regular weekly press conference.

On and on it goes, to the point that the charge has been used so promiscuously and indiscriminately used that it is virtually meaningless. It tells you something about the modern left’s desperation that they invoke the racism charge so recklessly. It also provides us with a glimpse into the deep intellectual and moral corruption that has occurred. Many progressives seem to thrive on ad hominem attacks; it is the first response they reach for.

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Back in January 2009, at the dawn of the Age of Obama, I made four predictions, the first of which was this 

while Obama is riding high, race relations will be excellent. But once Obama goes down in the polls and he does things that elicit criticism, be prepared for the “race card” to be played. If it is, then race relations could be set back, because the charges will be so transparently false. If race was used by Obamacons against Bill Clinton, it will certainly be used against Republicans.

And so it has. Consider just the past few weeks. Representative Steve Israel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was asked by CNN’s Candy Crowley, “Do you think your Republican colleagues are racists?” To which Israel replied, “Not all of them, no. Of course not. But to a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism.”

When Representative Paul Ryan made the perfectly obvious observation that there’s a real culture problem plaguing America’s inner cities, Representative Barbara Lee issued a statement saying, “My colleague, Congressman Ryan’s comments about inner city poverty are thinly-veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated.”

Last week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blamed race issues for the GOP’s failure to act on comprehensive immigration legislation. “I think race has something to do with the fact that they’re not bringing up an immigration bill,” she told reporters at her regular weekly press conference.

On and on it goes, to the point that the charge has been used so promiscuously and indiscriminately used that it is virtually meaningless. It tells you something about the modern left’s desperation that they invoke the racism charge so recklessly. It also provides us with a glimpse into the deep intellectual and moral corruption that has occurred. Many progressives seem to thrive on ad hominem attacks; it is the first response they reach for.

We saw it with the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich because a half-dozen years ago he supported an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage, thereby making him (in the eyes of some on the left) a bigot. We’ve seen it as well with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly attacking the Koch brothers for being “un-American” and accusing Mitt Romney of not paying income taxes; with allies of President Obama accusing Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign of being responsible for the cancer-related death of a steel worker’s wife; with Vice President Biden saying Republicans want to put African-Americans “back in chains;” and with Mr. Obama accusing Republicans of being “social Darwinists,” of putting their party ahead of their country, of wanting dirty air and dirty water, and of wanting autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.”

I have no idea whether those making these charges are being incredibly cynical or whether they’ve actually convinced themselves that those with whom they disagree, simply because they disagree, must be malignant. Whatever the explanation, the eagerness for any political movement, whatever its philosophy, to demonize rather than engage in an honest debate has an acidic effect on our civic and political culture. To be sure, no political party, and neither the left nor the right, have a monopoly on virtue. (It would help if more people were willing to call out those on their own side when lines of decency and propriety have been crossed.) In addition, politics has been a contact sport since our founding. (For more, see the brutal election of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams.) Still, we can do better, much better than we are; and for the sake of our country, we really should. 

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Demonizing SCOTUS: The OCare Precedent

When Chief Justice John Roberts rewrote ObamaCare from the bench in order to save it, most of the ramifications were immediately apparent. But there was one aspect of the stunt that as a member of the Supreme Court Roberts should have been sensitive to: precedent. Having caved to a public intimidation campaign from the president and his congressional allies (as well as the media) Roberts signaled that the way to get a conservative justice to discard his better judgment and rule against constitutional law was to impugn the court’s reputation in the public square.

Be mean to John Roberts and his friends, in other words, and you can have your welfare state for all he cares. This was among the most damaging effects of Roberts’s call back in 2012. And unsurprisingly, Democrats have learned their lesson. I wrote at the time that within days of the decision the media had gone back to bashing Roberts and the high court’s poll numbers had dropped. But Democrats had a found a well they were certain to return to in times of desperation. And as the Hill reports today, that time has come:

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When Chief Justice John Roberts rewrote ObamaCare from the bench in order to save it, most of the ramifications were immediately apparent. But there was one aspect of the stunt that as a member of the Supreme Court Roberts should have been sensitive to: precedent. Having caved to a public intimidation campaign from the president and his congressional allies (as well as the media) Roberts signaled that the way to get a conservative justice to discard his better judgment and rule against constitutional law was to impugn the court’s reputation in the public square.

Be mean to John Roberts and his friends, in other words, and you can have your welfare state for all he cares. This was among the most damaging effects of Roberts’s call back in 2012. And unsurprisingly, Democrats have learned their lesson. I wrote at the time that within days of the decision the media had gone back to bashing Roberts and the high court’s poll numbers had dropped. But Democrats had a found a well they were certain to return to in times of desperation. And as the Hill reports today, that time has come:

Senate Democrats and liberal groups are mounting a pressure campaign against the Supreme Court, hoping to influence future decisions by blasting conservative justices for alleged political bias.

The effort from the left also portrays the high court as an instrument rigged to help the wealthy, and is intended to energize Democratic voters and increase turnout in the midterm elections.

Some legal experts see the effort as akin to basketball or soccer players “working the ref” in a high-stakes game.

Critics say Democratic leaders used a similar strategy in 2010, when they piled on the court for striking down the ban on political spending by corporations in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Some court watchers speculated that Chief Justice John Roberts felt chastened by the angry reaction and sought to avoid another uproar, when he crafted the majority decision in 2012 that largely upheld ObamaCare.

“The left clearly tried to work the refs on the Affordable Care Act,” said Randy Barnett, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. “They worked the refs after Citizens United, which helped set things up for the Affordable Care Act challenge. If it seems to work, why not continue? It’s unfortunate, I think, that they’ve been encouraged in this behavior by its apparent success.”

And it’s not just a public disinformation campaign:

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) plan to hold hearings on the court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission striking down aggregate limits on campaign donations. …

Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) panned it for granting greater influence to wealthy donors, such as Charles and David Koch, the wealthy conservative donors, whom he again slammed on the Senate floor Monday.

Of course Reid would find a way to turn a complaint about the court into another tool in his quest to turn libertarian activists into former people. In one sense, this is irrational, because it has no intellectual merit and should be beneath the leaders of the world’s greatest deliberative body. But in another sense, it’s completely rational: people respond to incentives, and in his ObamaCare ruling Roberts incentivized demonizing–that’s the Hill’s word–the Supreme Court.

The story notes that chief among the left’s worries is the upcoming ruling on the ObamaCare contraception mandate. And on that note, the best line in the story has to be this: “Democrats say the present-day court lacks the experience to understand the corrupting influence of money in politics, because none of its members have held publicly elected office.” Democrats just don’t believe that law abiding, upstanding men and women who have never been offered a bribe could ever really understand ObamaCare. And you’ve got to admit, they have a point, don’t they?

We may or may not find out if the pressure campaign works. After all, a decision on the case may not be a result of the intimidation tactics, either as a concession to them or as an act of defiance against them. It may be just another ruling on the merits of the case. But that’s one of the consequences of the Democrats’ shenanigans: the idea that the court will rule on the merits of the case becomes only one of several possibilities. Roberts thought he was protecting the legitimacy of the court in his 2012 decision. It’s quite clear now that he has done precisely the opposite.

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Left Is Outraged Charles Koch Would Defend Himself

There are few things that seem to bother people more than hearing rich people complain. At times their complaints really are quite absurd: twice in the last few months a prominent billionaire has compared the plight of America’s wealthy to Nazi Germany’s victims. But that has also, unfortunately, led to a tendency on the part of the chattering classes to pretend that is what wealthy personalities always say, even when it plainly isn’t.

It’s some distant cousin of reductio ad Hitlerum. And it’s what happened when Charles Koch, chairman of Koch Industries, wrote an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal defending himself. The Kochs have been the subject of increasingly unhinged attacks from the left because they donate to libertarian political causes, and there are few things the left despises more than a robust defense of individual liberty in the age of Obama, whose nominating convention was treated to the creepy video proclaiming that “government is the only thing that we all belong to.”

But the very idea that a wealthy person would have the temerity to respond to public attacks on their reputation seems to take people by surprise. Hence, Koch’s Journal column includes the following paragraph:

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There are few things that seem to bother people more than hearing rich people complain. At times their complaints really are quite absurd: twice in the last few months a prominent billionaire has compared the plight of America’s wealthy to Nazi Germany’s victims. But that has also, unfortunately, led to a tendency on the part of the chattering classes to pretend that is what wealthy personalities always say, even when it plainly isn’t.

It’s some distant cousin of reductio ad Hitlerum. And it’s what happened when Charles Koch, chairman of Koch Industries, wrote an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal defending himself. The Kochs have been the subject of increasingly unhinged attacks from the left because they donate to libertarian political causes, and there are few things the left despises more than a robust defense of individual liberty in the age of Obama, whose nominating convention was treated to the creepy video proclaiming that “government is the only thing that we all belong to.”

But the very idea that a wealthy person would have the temerity to respond to public attacks on their reputation seems to take people by surprise. Hence, Koch’s Journal column includes the following paragraph:

Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.

Which led to this bizarre response from Dave Weigel, under the snarky headline “If You Criticize Wealthy Donors, You’re Basically Hitler”:

You know who else was a despot in the 20th century? The Charles Koch standard is problematic if you think (like I think) that campaign donations should be uncapped but totally disclosed. That, according to the donors (though not McCutcheon himself), leads to character assassination. Donors have a First Amendment right to give money, but their opponents flout that right when they criticize them. Why? That’s an excellent question.

That’s not what Koch said though. Apparently you don’t have to actually compare someone to Hitler to be accused of comparing someone to Hitler. You only have use the word “despot” and the phrase “20th century” in the same sentence. More importantly, when did Koch say his First Amendment rights are being flouted when people “criticize” him? That’s easy–he didn’t!

What Koch is talking about, and what Weigel surely knows, is that Koch is speaking up because he has been the target of constant attacks from the United States Senate majority leader from the chamber floor. Harry Reid actually worked an attack on the Kochs into his reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, as he does for almost anything. Remember, he blamed the debate over aid to Ukraine on the Kochs too.

Even if the effort fails, part of the purpose of this is to find ways to limit political speech, legislatively if necessary. Though Koch doesn’t say it, this actually is a violation of First Amendment protections, which is why such challenges keep ending up in front of the Supreme Court. Additionally, naming and shaming conservative and libertarian donors has another purpose: as we saw recently, those who disagreed with the president were discriminated against by government agencies, including the IRS. They also had private information leaked to political opponents.

Does Weigel not think any of this is a problem? Of course he does–he wrote about it here. He’s less troubled by it than perhaps he should be, but that’s a matter of opinion, and anyway he didn’t ignore it.

Ironically, much of this makes Koch’s point for him. Why is it necessary for writers on the left to pretend Koch said something he didn’t? Because his actual argument is pretty unobjectionable. There seems to be this idea that the wealthy ought to be piñatas–silent as the staggering masses beat the stuffing out of them. Koch didn’t claim he’s deserving of anyone’s pity. But as a businessman whose reputation is being subject to repeated dishonest attacks by prominent politicians, it would be ridiculous for him–and irresponsible to his shareholders–not to defend himself in the public sphere.

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Kochs Shouldn’t Sink to Reid’s Level

I have made no secret of my disdain for Harry Reid’s continued unraveling. Reid’s practice of leveling false charges about other politicians and even private citizens–calling cancer patients liars, for example, because they have been hurt by ObamaCare–from the floor of the Senate is assuredly a new low for the upper chamber. And his demonization of his fellow citizens with whom he disagrees on policy as “un-American” for participating in the electoral process has shown him to be both a proper heir to the vengeful, debased politics of Ted Kennedy as well as a particularly odious opponent of the democratic process.

And so it is precisely because I find his loathsome attacks on the Koch brothers so contemptible that I think the Kochs’ attempt to hit back, however clever, misses the mark. It’s not that the Kochs shouldn’t hit back–they can handle this as they choose, and are certainly entitled to respond to Reid’s mindless demagoguery. But in the ad they apparently released today, they fight fire with fire, taking aim at Reid’s relationship with liberal billionaire donors. National Review’s Eliana Johnson has the video of the ad as well as a brief write-up on it, and it’s clear that the Kochs have decided two can play this game. It would be far preferable if neither did so:

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I have made no secret of my disdain for Harry Reid’s continued unraveling. Reid’s practice of leveling false charges about other politicians and even private citizens–calling cancer patients liars, for example, because they have been hurt by ObamaCare–from the floor of the Senate is assuredly a new low for the upper chamber. And his demonization of his fellow citizens with whom he disagrees on policy as “un-American” for participating in the electoral process has shown him to be both a proper heir to the vengeful, debased politics of Ted Kennedy as well as a particularly odious opponent of the democratic process.

And so it is precisely because I find his loathsome attacks on the Koch brothers so contemptible that I think the Kochs’ attempt to hit back, however clever, misses the mark. It’s not that the Kochs shouldn’t hit back–they can handle this as they choose, and are certainly entitled to respond to Reid’s mindless demagoguery. But in the ad they apparently released today, they fight fire with fire, taking aim at Reid’s relationship with liberal billionaire donors. National Review’s Eliana Johnson has the video of the ad as well as a brief write-up on it, and it’s clear that the Kochs have decided two can play this game. It would be far preferable if neither did so:

The ad, “Steyer Infection,” juxtaposes Harry Reid’s denunciation of the Koch brothers with a narrative about Reid’s relationship with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and his brother Jim, who runs a ratings service for children’s products.

“This is about two very wealthy brothers who intend to buy their own Congress,” it shows Reid saying in a speech earlier this month on the Senate floor. “You see when you make billions of dollars a year, you can be I guess as immoral and dishonest as your money will allow you to be.”​

The narrator says, “Billionaires like Tom Steyer, who just hosted Reid and other Senate Democrats at his San Francisco mansion? Steyer has a history of ‘environmentally destructive business ventures.’ And he wants regulators to strangle energy opportunities here in America, even though he helped finance the second-largest coal company in Indonesia.”

Here’s the ad itself:

Again, it is rational to respond to allegations and to push back on Reid. There’s no question Reid’s a hypocrite, though that’s far from his worst quality. As Johnson’s report notes, the Kochs are apparently being targeted as “out-of-state billionaires” in ads funded in part by Michael Bloomberg–in other words, an out-of-state billionaire. And Reid’s unseemly brand of crony capitalism is certainly worth addressing.

But the Kochs’ ad doesn’t merely explain that Reid accepts support from prominent billionaires while slamming those who are supported by other, conservative billionaires. It turns into an attack ad on the Steyers. If the Kochs and Steyers take this game to its logical conclusion, the airwaves would be blanketed during election season by wealthy philanthropists attacking each other. No thank you.

Such a development would reinforce the notion–pushed by Reid, among others–that what is important in these statewide elections is not who is running for office but who is funding them. It actually embraces the stereotype of politicians as bought-and-paid-for agents of powerful moneyed interests. The Kochs presumably think this is a caricature–otherwise why take it so personally–but this would bring the caricature to life.

The national media’s lack of outrage, with rare notable exceptions, toward Reid’s McCarthyism is certainly dispiriting. The silver lining, I suppose, is that the next time the mainstream papers complain about a lack of civility in American politics the only appropriate response would be to laugh them out of the room. Indeed, the New York Times editorial board even gave its endorsement to this abuse of power. Apparently the problem with Joe McCarthy, in the Times’s estimation, was that he was simply working for the wrong political party.

Nonetheless, two wrongs don’t make a right. The ad attacking the Steyers attempts to prove Reid’s hypocrisy by applying Reid’s own floor speeches to the Steyers’ political and economic activity, implying the path of attack is fair game. Reid’s example is one that should not be followed. It would be quite troublesome if it instead became standard.

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The Odious Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough interviewed Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, asking him about the charge by Majority Leader Harry Reid that the conservative philanthropist David Koch is “un-American.” Scarborough asked Schumer whether he associated himself with Reid’s statement. 

Senator Schumer began his answer by ducking and weaving, shifting attention from Reid’s claim to Schumer’s disagreement with the Kochs’ preferred policies.

“But, senator, can’t we have a disagreement about how charity is funded without calling somebody un-American?” Scarborough countered. He continued to press Schumer to answer his question. “Do you think David Koch is un-American?”

Schumer finally said, “The commercials he runs are not part of the American mainstream. No two people [David Koch and his brother Charles] should have such a huge influence on our politics. That’s not First Amendment … I think the commercials he is running are against the American grain and un-American, yes …. I think what Harry Reid was saying was the actions are un-American. And they are, and they should change.”

I wonder if people quite appreciate how disgusting this all is. Here we have two Democratic senators labeling a private citizen as being “un-American” because that citizen is vocally advocating public policies they disagree with.

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MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough interviewed Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, asking him about the charge by Majority Leader Harry Reid that the conservative philanthropist David Koch is “un-American.” Scarborough asked Schumer whether he associated himself with Reid’s statement. 

Senator Schumer began his answer by ducking and weaving, shifting attention from Reid’s claim to Schumer’s disagreement with the Kochs’ preferred policies.

“But, senator, can’t we have a disagreement about how charity is funded without calling somebody un-American?” Scarborough countered. He continued to press Schumer to answer his question. “Do you think David Koch is un-American?”

Schumer finally said, “The commercials he runs are not part of the American mainstream. No two people [David Koch and his brother Charles] should have such a huge influence on our politics. That’s not First Amendment … I think the commercials he is running are against the American grain and un-American, yes …. I think what Harry Reid was saying was the actions are un-American. And they are, and they should change.”

I wonder if people quite appreciate how disgusting this all is. Here we have two Democratic senators labeling a private citizen as being “un-American” because that citizen is vocally advocating public policies they disagree with.

Can you imagine the media (and Hollywood) firestorm if Senator Ted Cruz went to the Senate floor and repeatedly accused, say, Jeffrey Katzenberg of being “un-American”–and Mike Lee echoed the charge?

It’s worth considering, too, the corrupting effect on language these charges have. If advocating cuts in record-high federal spending and running ads opposing the Affordable Care Act are deemed to be “un-American,” where exactly does this all end? Allowing powerful senators like Reid and Schumer to smear private citizens in this way further undermines our political and civic life. You might think members of the political class would speak out against such things. But you would be wrong (apart from honorable exceptions like Scarborough).

For the record, the definition of McCarthyism is “the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism.” Speaking of which, here is what Edward R. Murrow said of Senator Joseph McCarthy:

His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind … We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men …

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.

Senators Reid and Schumer, small and mean men, are trying to usher in a new age of unreason. This is no time for those who oppose them to keep silent. Because we cannot escape responsibility for the result.

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Class Warfare Has Its Limits

In his entertaining book on the societal impact of James Bond on Britain, Simon Winder describes the Depression-era part of Ian Fleming’s life as so elite and disproportionately privileged that it seemed less realistic than a Soviet satire of Western capitalism would be. “Fleming wandered through life as a sort of walking reproach to capitalism as a rational system based on competitive Darwinian struggle,” Winder writes. “In many cradles of European civilization it had been okay for at least a hundred and fifty years to carve up people like Fleming and set fire to their mansions as a legitimate form of central heating. Somehow in Britain they survived.”

The lack of sufficient desire to eat the rich earned Britain a stability that eventually played a key role in saving Western civilization. “And if this stability was bought at the price of a few thousand Ian Flemings then that was surely an acceptable price,” Winder writes, adding: “Nobody really wanted Buckingham Palace to become People’s Sausage Factory No. 1.”

We have no such tradition of carving up successful people in America, so the affluent in the U.S. generally have less reason to worry when the non-affluent start getting antsy. But it also means that when they warn of grave societal consequences of extreme class warfare they must reach for comparisons to a bygone era in European affairs, and that means they sound like they’ve taken leave of their senses. That’s happened a couple of times recently, and the latest is contained in today’s Politico story on the rich trying to mitigate the Democrats’ unhinged politics of resentment:

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In his entertaining book on the societal impact of James Bond on Britain, Simon Winder describes the Depression-era part of Ian Fleming’s life as so elite and disproportionately privileged that it seemed less realistic than a Soviet satire of Western capitalism would be. “Fleming wandered through life as a sort of walking reproach to capitalism as a rational system based on competitive Darwinian struggle,” Winder writes. “In many cradles of European civilization it had been okay for at least a hundred and fifty years to carve up people like Fleming and set fire to their mansions as a legitimate form of central heating. Somehow in Britain they survived.”

The lack of sufficient desire to eat the rich earned Britain a stability that eventually played a key role in saving Western civilization. “And if this stability was bought at the price of a few thousand Ian Flemings then that was surely an acceptable price,” Winder writes, adding: “Nobody really wanted Buckingham Palace to become People’s Sausage Factory No. 1.”

We have no such tradition of carving up successful people in America, so the affluent in the U.S. generally have less reason to worry when the non-affluent start getting antsy. But it also means that when they warn of grave societal consequences of extreme class warfare they must reach for comparisons to a bygone era in European affairs, and that means they sound like they’ve taken leave of their senses. That’s happened a couple of times recently, and the latest is contained in today’s Politico story on the rich trying to mitigate the Democrats’ unhinged politics of resentment:

In two-dozen interviews, the denizens of Wall Street and wealthy precincts around the nation said they are still plenty worried about the shift in tone toward top earners and the popularity of class-based appeals. On the right, the rise of populists including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz still makes wealthy donors eyeing 2016 uncomfortable. But wealthy Republicans — who were having a collective meltdown just two months ago — also say they see signs that the political zeitgeist may be shifting back their way and hope the trend continues.

“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

There are a great many foolish and irresponsible populist politicians in America, but they are not Nazis and they are not looking to put Ken Langone and his friends in camps. The class warfare, waged mostly by Democrats, is quite harmful enough without possessing any Hitlerite parallels. And certainly the well-to-do will not help their public image by casting themselves as victims.

But if successful Americans have begun to see the tide of class war retreat a bit, as the Politico story claims, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that their accusers on the left must themselves resort to demented behavior to try to sufficiently rile up their base because in America, like in Fleming’s Britain, the people just generally do not feel like murdering their neighbors. And this rhetorical excess does plenty on its own to dull its effects, because Americans are also not lunatics, and so are less susceptible to some of the petty frauds trying to stir up hate on a massive scale in order to remain in power.

Like Harry Reid, for example. Pete has discussed Reid’s McCarthyite campaign to tar politically conservative activists as “un-American”–a very important milestone in the Obama-era left’s use of government to assault the lives and careers of Americans who dare exercise their right to participate in the political process. Reid’s latest bout of conspiracist paranoia was to blame the Koch brothers for the American government’s debate over aid to Ukraine.

And so I have no doubt that, as Politico writes, American business owners are working to defend themselves from the creepy behavior of the Harry Reid/Elizabeth Warren/Bill de Blasio Democrats in power. But I would also submit that such attacks have limited purchase in the United States. There were not enough Harry Reids in Ian Fleming’s Britain to turn Buckingham Palace into People’s Sausage Factory No. 1, and I have enough faith in Americans to believe there aren’t enough Harry Reids here to do the same to the Kochs’ philanthropic empire.

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At Least Joe McCarthy Wasn’t Senate Majority Leader

The other day I was highly critical of Republicans for not being more vocal in their criticisms of the repulsive comments by rock guitarist Ted Nugent. But at least some Republicans were willing to distance themselves from them. I rather doubt the same will be said of Democrats when it comes to what Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor yesterday, when he targeted conservative philanthropists David and Charles Koch.

“It’s too bad that they’re trying to buy America, and it’s time that the American people spoke out against this terrible dishonesty of these two brothers who are about as un-American as anyone I can imagine,” Reid said.

Harry Reid is probably not the person who should be preaching against dishonesty, given his smear of Mitt Romney in 2012 (see here and here). Just the other day Reid accused Americans who say they’ve been harmed by the Affordable Care Act of being liars. And let’s not forget that Reid insisted the surge in Iraq was failing long after it was clear it was succeeding, leading one to reasonably conclude that Reid was intentionally trying to undermine the chances of an American success in the Iraq war. So he’s a loathsome figure to be sure. But even by Mr. Reid’s standards, what he did yesterday was fairly extraordinary: A majority leader of the United States Senate falsely accused two private citizens of being “un-American.” (The definition of “un-American” seems to be opposing Harry Reid, as the indispensable Ed Morrissey has put it.)

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The other day I was highly critical of Republicans for not being more vocal in their criticisms of the repulsive comments by rock guitarist Ted Nugent. But at least some Republicans were willing to distance themselves from them. I rather doubt the same will be said of Democrats when it comes to what Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor yesterday, when he targeted conservative philanthropists David and Charles Koch.

“It’s too bad that they’re trying to buy America, and it’s time that the American people spoke out against this terrible dishonesty of these two brothers who are about as un-American as anyone I can imagine,” Reid said.

Harry Reid is probably not the person who should be preaching against dishonesty, given his smear of Mitt Romney in 2012 (see here and here). Just the other day Reid accused Americans who say they’ve been harmed by the Affordable Care Act of being liars. And let’s not forget that Reid insisted the surge in Iraq was failing long after it was clear it was succeeding, leading one to reasonably conclude that Reid was intentionally trying to undermine the chances of an American success in the Iraq war. So he’s a loathsome figure to be sure. But even by Mr. Reid’s standards, what he did yesterday was fairly extraordinary: A majority leader of the United States Senate falsely accused two private citizens of being “un-American.” (The definition of “un-American” seems to be opposing Harry Reid, as the indispensable Ed Morrissey has put it.)

I’ll be interested to see if the elite media devote a fraction of the coverage or demonstrate near the outrage at Mr. Reid as they did at Ted Nugent–and whether they press other Democrats to defend or distance themselves from Reid’s calumny. After all, Ted Nugent is a rock musician, not a U.S. senator. 

What Harry Reid said is slander of a high order. But at least Joe McCarthy wasn’t majority leader.

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On Free Trade, Was Obama Looking for a Way Out?

Last week, I wrote about a particular bind President Obama had gotten himself into over his expansion of executive authority. Because he had established such a robust record of flouting duly-passed legislation and usurping congressional authority, not even Democrats in Congress trusted him to follow the law. This wasn’t a problem on many issues, because the president and Democrats in Congress agree on so much and congressional Democrats made it clear they believe the ends always justify the means when it comes to progressive rule making.

But it would be a problem on trade, because there the president wanted what’s known as fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that Congress could not amend. Democrats are generally opposed to trade despite the broad consensus on its economic benefits, so they wouldn’t easily fork over their authority to the president. Despite Obama’s plea in the State of the Union for the trade authority, Harry Reid immediately confirmed that no, Democrats wouldn’t give Obama free rein on trade. But it’s unclear just how much of a rebuke to the president this really is.

News reports took the basic outlines of the story at face value: Obama wanted trade deals, Reid said no, so this is a blow to the president’s economic agenda. But it’s not so plain. Yesterday Politico reported that Reid went to the White House for a long meeting with the president–and trade didn’t even come up:

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Last week, I wrote about a particular bind President Obama had gotten himself into over his expansion of executive authority. Because he had established such a robust record of flouting duly-passed legislation and usurping congressional authority, not even Democrats in Congress trusted him to follow the law. This wasn’t a problem on many issues, because the president and Democrats in Congress agree on so much and congressional Democrats made it clear they believe the ends always justify the means when it comes to progressive rule making.

But it would be a problem on trade, because there the president wanted what’s known as fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that Congress could not amend. Democrats are generally opposed to trade despite the broad consensus on its economic benefits, so they wouldn’t easily fork over their authority to the president. Despite Obama’s plea in the State of the Union for the trade authority, Harry Reid immediately confirmed that no, Democrats wouldn’t give Obama free rein on trade. But it’s unclear just how much of a rebuke to the president this really is.

News reports took the basic outlines of the story at face value: Obama wanted trade deals, Reid said no, so this is a blow to the president’s economic agenda. But it’s not so plain. Yesterday Politico reported that Reid went to the White House for a long meeting with the president–and trade didn’t even come up:

The majority leader returned to the Capitol about 75 minutes after a scheduled 2:30 p.m. meeting with the president and told reporters his opposition to fast-tracking trade pacts through Congress was not broached during his huddle with Obama.

“We’re on the same page with everything,” Reid said, rejecting a reporter’s question on whether the Democratic leader is in Obama’s “doghouse” after voicing disapproval of the trade legislation.

Asked whether they discussed trade, Reid curtly replied “no.”

So just how important does the president consider free trade–an economic boon but which unions don’t love–to his agenda if he won’t even broach the subject with Reid? A clue can probably be found in past coverage of Obama administration trade deals, which tend to embrace the same contradictions.

Take, for example, this October 2011 Washington Post story on the passage of free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama. The headline is: “Obama gets win as Congress passes free-trade agreements,” and the story tells us that “The South Korea deal has the potential to create as many as 280,000 American jobs” and is “widely hailed as the most consequential trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified in 1994.”

But later on in the story we get some more information about why the deals were signed nearly three years into Obama’s term:

The pacts were first negotiated under President George W. Bush but were updated by Obama to include more guarantees for labor and human rights and environmental protections. The pacts were recently held up in a dispute between Obama and congressional Republicans over renewing the worker assistance program.

During Obama’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he tended to underscore the risks that free trade posed for U.S. workers and the environment rather than potential benefits.

So Obama really isn’t very high on free trade and campaigned against it. George W. Bush did the work of putting together the deals and the Democrats stalled it for years, finally conceding when Obama realized he was “facing a tough bid for reelection with unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent.”

Obama is, in fact, no fan of free trade. But the benefits are well known across the board. So a perfect situation for Obama is to have complete authority over the deals so he can better choose who to protect and which companies and industries to favor without getting a bipartisan deal in Congress that would be more sensible and economically beneficial but less to Obama’s liking.

This is what he’s asking for now, and what he was denied. He doesn’t seem too upset about it, probably because he isn’t. It’s possible that the president has decided that now, unlike with numerous controversial bills, he’s just going to let Harry Reid run the show. But that would be a change of pace for a president who thinks Congress is mostly cosmetic, a passé throwback to a time before the Lightbringer arrived.

And it’s unlikely. If Obama really wanted free trade he would press on, involving Congress grudgingly but elevating free trade over his own absolute power. It’s possible, then, that when Obama doesn’t treat free trade as a priority for him it’s because it isn’t.

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The Court Jesters

Easily the strangest moment in last night’s State of the Union address was when President Obama promised to ignore Congress and carry out his agenda without their legislative oversight or cooperation and was met with a hearty ovation from congressional Democrats. One possible explanation was that they weren’t listening, and responded to a vocal cue. Another is that they simply assumed it was their obligation to shower their king with praise.

But there’s actually a third explanation, which may be giving them too much credit but is also at least logical. Politico carries an interesting story today on the tension between congressional Democrats and Obama over the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and its possible impact on the fall midterm elections. In the president’s address, he tried to ward off Republican attempts to undo the unpopular law by holding vote after vote to repeal it. Enough of those symbolic votes, Obama said: “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

But it turns out that, as the Politico story shows, the president’s real problem on ObamaCare is not Republican opposition–which he can dismiss as partisan posturing–but the congressional Democrats:

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Easily the strangest moment in last night’s State of the Union address was when President Obama promised to ignore Congress and carry out his agenda without their legislative oversight or cooperation and was met with a hearty ovation from congressional Democrats. One possible explanation was that they weren’t listening, and responded to a vocal cue. Another is that they simply assumed it was their obligation to shower their king with praise.

But there’s actually a third explanation, which may be giving them too much credit but is also at least logical. Politico carries an interesting story today on the tension between congressional Democrats and Obama over the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and its possible impact on the fall midterm elections. In the president’s address, he tried to ward off Republican attempts to undo the unpopular law by holding vote after vote to repeal it. Enough of those symbolic votes, Obama said: “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

But it turns out that, as the Politico story shows, the president’s real problem on ObamaCare is not Republican opposition–which he can dismiss as partisan posturing–but the congressional Democrats:

With the Democratic grip on the Senate coming down to at least six seats, the White House is extremely sensitive to the concerns of in-cycle Democrats. The administration hopes to use the president’s authority to assuage voter anger over the law, as it did recently by exempting volunteer fire departments from health coverage mandates.

In addition to Landrieu, who faces a tough reelection this year, the effort is also being organized by Heidi Heitkamp, who won a bruising battle in North Dakota last cycle. And the discussions include a spate of Democrats facing potentially difficult races this year, including Begich, Pryor, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

While the private discussions consist of several senators who are not running for reelection — namely freshmen Democrats like Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Tim Kaine of Virginia, and the independent Angus King of Maine — at least nine senators facing voters in the fall are discussing whether to push legislation or pressure the White House to make administrative fixes they can then flag to voters back home.

The issue is this: the president doesn’t really want to talk about ObamaCare, because until coverage expands the White House will continue to lose the battle of the anecdotes. The law, thus far, is creating more “losers” than “winners.” The expansion of coverage under the law may not fix that because of Medicaid’s manifold weaknesses. Additionally, unless the employer mandate is repealed, its suspension will come to an end and inflict plenty of pain on the economy. And people will continue losing the plans they like.

However, the president has the bully pulpit and everyone who needs insurance and gets it under ObamaCare can have their story trumpeted by the traveling salesman in chief. The government will also claim, on behalf of ObamaCare, more credit for expanding coverage than it warrants while keeping the real numbers hidden for as long as possible, the way central planners always must in order to hide their incompetence.

The point is, the White House wants time to catch up. But Democrats up for reelection in November don’t have that time. They want to talk about ObamaCare–specifically, they want to talk about fixing it. Obama doesn’t, because that would admit its faults and failures.

Going through Congress is also a political minefield for the president, because Republicans still control the House and have enough seats in the Senate to make Democratic votes count. The president may be willing to make certain fixes to the law, but he doesn’t want to lose control of it.

Democrats have reason to be wary as well. The reason Harry Reid has been chipping away at minority rights and ignoring Senate rules and traditions is so Democrats can be spared from taking difficult votes. Tossing ObamaCare back into the Senate would mean some of these Democrats may get the votes they want–but they may also be forced to take votes they don’t, and the last thing they want is to have yet another vote in support of ObamaCare heading into the midterms. (That’s why they’re in this predicament in the first place.)

But there is a solution: The president can ignore the law and Congress and adjust the legislation accordingly, no votes necessary. Congressional Democrats are comfortable with this because they don’t want something as trifling as the law of the land or the Constitution to get in the way of their reelection and continued empowerment. The president is comfortable with this because he considers Congress’s main responsibility to be to stand and clap for him when he insults them to their faces. Which is what they, and he, did at last night’s address.

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Gates Defends the Troops from Harry Reid

The lack of outrage directed at Harry Reid’s procedural shenanigans has always been more than simply an indication of the hypocrisy of the mainstream media and zealous good-government types. Even liberals now understand that Ted Kennedy’s behavior during Robert Bork’s confirmation hearings not only forever wrecked the confirmation process but also degraded the judiciary. But it was not obvious at the time that the Senate and the courts would never recover from Kennedy’s debacle.

The same cannot be said for Reid, whose destruction of Senate institutions has been both gradual and obvious, yet goes unremarked upon by those who attack Republicans trying to assert the diminishing rights of the minority. Every so often, however, we get a glimpse of the contempt with which America’s public servants view Reid’s constant assault on them and their work. The low esteem Reid has for trusted institutions is requited, and Bob Gates’s memoir has once again brought this to light.

Gates harshly criticized one of Reid’s lowest moments in office (among many contenders): when, as the U.S. deployed the “surge” troops to stabilize Iraq, Reid publicly denigrated the troops, their prospects for success, and their mission more generally by preemptively judging their mission to be a failure. Gates, the former defense secretary, understandably took umbrage:

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The lack of outrage directed at Harry Reid’s procedural shenanigans has always been more than simply an indication of the hypocrisy of the mainstream media and zealous good-government types. Even liberals now understand that Ted Kennedy’s behavior during Robert Bork’s confirmation hearings not only forever wrecked the confirmation process but also degraded the judiciary. But it was not obvious at the time that the Senate and the courts would never recover from Kennedy’s debacle.

The same cannot be said for Reid, whose destruction of Senate institutions has been both gradual and obvious, yet goes unremarked upon by those who attack Republicans trying to assert the diminishing rights of the minority. Every so often, however, we get a glimpse of the contempt with which America’s public servants view Reid’s constant assault on them and their work. The low esteem Reid has for trusted institutions is requited, and Bob Gates’s memoir has once again brought this to light.

Gates harshly criticized one of Reid’s lowest moments in office (among many contenders): when, as the U.S. deployed the “surge” troops to stabilize Iraq, Reid publicly denigrated the troops, their prospects for success, and their mission more generally by preemptively judging their mission to be a failure. Gates, the former defense secretary, understandably took umbrage:

But, Gates continued, “When you have somebody like the Senate Majority Leader come out in the middle of the surge and say ‘this war is lost,’ I thought that was one of the most disgraceful things I’ve heard a politician say.”

“That sends a riveting message to kids who are putting their lives on the line every day that they’re doing it for nothing,” Gates noted, “and that was absolutely not the case.”

Indeed, it was certainly a disgraceful thing for Reid to say. It called to mind a time when Democrats in Congress openly slandered the troops in an effort to pander to their restive left-wing base. As a congressional leader of his party, Reid had a responsibility to try and rein in his party’s anti-military extremism. Instead, he joined in.

But it isn’t just the troops Reid disdains; he feels that way toward their civilian leadership as well. He shot back at Gates: “I’m surprised he would in effect denigrate everybody he came in contact with in an effort to make a buck,” Reid said yesterday.

Gates’s response was pitch-perfect:

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired back at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday night, quipping that “it’s common practice on the Hill to vote on bills you haven’t read, and it’s perfectly clear Sen. Reid has not read the book.”

Reid faulted Gates’s book in an interview with The Associated Press earlier in the day, charging Gates had denigrated him, Vice President Joe Biden and others “just to make a buck.” But Gates said he plans to donate most of what he makes to charities that work with wounded troops, and encouraged Reid and others to actually read his new memoir.

That doesn’t mean that Reid was wrong, however.

 “He will find I that do denigrate him, but I think he will find that, in fact, I have a lot of positive things to say about virtually everybody I wrote about,” Gates said. “As with myself, in the book, I’ve tried to critically appraise others. I call attention to mistakes I believe I made as secretary, things I could’ve done better, and I think I have positive things to say about virtually everybody else.”

In other words, Gates could find redeeming qualities in everyone he criticized–except Reid, apparently. Gates also defended himself against the accusation that he was being disloyal in releasing the book while President Obama was still in office:

“One of the charges is, that I’m hypocritical, that I’m speaking out about things now that I was quiet about when I was in office,” Gates said. “The reality is, if you talk with anybody in the administration, you’ll find I was as open in expressing my concerns directly, face to face, with the president, the White House chief of staff and other senior members of the administration about virtually every one of the issues I raised in the book. What I didn’t do was be disloyal to the president by taking those concerns public — or leaking.”

There’s plenty of room in there for honest disagreement–though, as I’ve written before, I don’t think the timing was particularly problematic and other suggested dates for release might have been more so. But it’s difficult not to sympathize with Gates’s defense of the troops and their mission in the face of Reid’s ignorant insults. The human element to the troops and their command is often forgotten or downplayed, especially since we have an all-volunteer army instead of a draft. Politicians are commonly told that the enemy can hear their statements. So can our troops, as Gates reminds us.

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Democrats Sacrifice Unemployed Pawns

On yesterday’s Sunday news shows, Democrats doubled down on their preferred issue of the new year: income inequality and unemployment insurance. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and senior Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer railed at Republican opponents of extending unemployment benefits and sought to portray the GOP as a conclave of heartless Scrooge McDucks chuckling while the jobless suffer. This is good politics for liberals, whose New Year’s resolution was to do everything in their power to change the national political conversation from the ObamaCare debacle, as well as good television. Given the popularity of these proposals, the discussion about the course of the debate has largely followed the lines Democrats like. Thus, the reluctance of most congressional Republicans, especially the leadership of the House of Representatives, to act on President Obama’s proposal to again extend unemployment insurance plays into themes that work well for Democrats such as fairness, conservative apathy about the “47 percent” who get federal benefits (to use Mitt Romney’s infamous and foolish formulation), and a “do-nothing Congress” led by a dysfunctional Republican Party.

It’s debatable whether Republicans are doing themselves a favor by opposing the president on issues where he and his allies can appear to claim the high moral ground. But there are two main problems with this strategy for the Democrats. One has to do with how much traction these liberal talking points really have with the electorate in a midterm election year in which Democrats are defending far more competitive House and Senate seats than their opponents. The other goes to whether Democrats are actually serious about helping the unemployed or anyone else disadvantaged by the income inequality they’ve been talking about. If their genuine goal were to really extend the benefits, all they would have to what their media cheerleaders keep telling the GOP they must do in every other context: compromise. If they were to agree to some spending cuts in order to pay for the benefits, it’s likely that even the House GOP would go along with the idea. Yet since they won’t, it is evident that their purpose is not so much to alleviate the travails of the unemployed as it is to outmaneuver the Republicans. As such, any tactical advantage the Democrats may gain may be fleeting.

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On yesterday’s Sunday news shows, Democrats doubled down on their preferred issue of the new year: income inequality and unemployment insurance. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and senior Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer railed at Republican opponents of extending unemployment benefits and sought to portray the GOP as a conclave of heartless Scrooge McDucks chuckling while the jobless suffer. This is good politics for liberals, whose New Year’s resolution was to do everything in their power to change the national political conversation from the ObamaCare debacle, as well as good television. Given the popularity of these proposals, the discussion about the course of the debate has largely followed the lines Democrats like. Thus, the reluctance of most congressional Republicans, especially the leadership of the House of Representatives, to act on President Obama’s proposal to again extend unemployment insurance plays into themes that work well for Democrats such as fairness, conservative apathy about the “47 percent” who get federal benefits (to use Mitt Romney’s infamous and foolish formulation), and a “do-nothing Congress” led by a dysfunctional Republican Party.

It’s debatable whether Republicans are doing themselves a favor by opposing the president on issues where he and his allies can appear to claim the high moral ground. But there are two main problems with this strategy for the Democrats. One has to do with how much traction these liberal talking points really have with the electorate in a midterm election year in which Democrats are defending far more competitive House and Senate seats than their opponents. The other goes to whether Democrats are actually serious about helping the unemployed or anyone else disadvantaged by the income inequality they’ve been talking about. If their genuine goal were to really extend the benefits, all they would have to what their media cheerleaders keep telling the GOP they must do in every other context: compromise. If they were to agree to some spending cuts in order to pay for the benefits, it’s likely that even the House GOP would go along with the idea. Yet since they won’t, it is evident that their purpose is not so much to alleviate the travails of the unemployed as it is to outmaneuver the Republicans. As such, any tactical advantage the Democrats may gain may be fleeting.

Conservatives who are urging GOP leaders to stand firm on both the unemployment issue and other “inequality” wedge issues are right. Endless extensions of benefits as well as hiking the federal minimum wage are both economic snake oil. As I wrote last month, such a measure is good for neither the nation’s fiscal health nor, as many serious economists have pointed out, for the long-term prospects of the unemployed since it irresponsibly produces two grim results: it discourages searches for work and transforms what was designed as a stopgap measure into something that is well on its way to becoming a permanent unfunded entitlement. But it is also true that opposing anything that can be portrayed as helping the unemployed is a certain political loser. The more Republicans take the Democrats’ bait and engage in debates about these issues, the more they are merely helping their opponents change the subject from the growing costs and dysfunction of ObamaCare as well as the fact that this administration is a lot better at politics than it is at governing.

But, as even the New York Times’s analysis of this argument noted, although Schumer claimed yesterday on ABC’s This Week that these inequality wedge issues would come back to haunt Republicans in theoretical swing seats in the midterms this coming November, there’s no evidence whatsoever that any of this will have a discernible impact on the results.

More importantly, Obama’s and Reid’s grandstanding on the unemployment issue highlights yet again the major difference between the current Democratic team and Bill Clinton’s far more successful presidency. Clinton was able to beat up Republicans on issues like this almost at will. But at the same time, his keen political instincts and natural governing ability enabled him to cut deals with his GOP opponents to get things done. This is exactly the kind of moment when Clinton would have compromised with his House Republican rivals in order to get something like an unemployment benefits extension and then taken all the credit for it even though the other side would have done as much if not more to make the deal. By contrast, though Obama may score a few points at the Republicans’ expense by refusing to move in their direction, it won’t change a wretched political narrative that is likely to be far more influenced by the more far-reaching impact of the rising costs of health care and insurance over the course of the year.

By acting in this manner, Obama and the Democrats are doing more than failing to achieve their stated objectives; they are also effectively sacrificing the unemployed as expendable pawns in a losing game of political chess. Like the vast population of middle class, younger voters, as well as the elderly all of whom stand to lose as ObamaCare continues its downward spiral, it’s unlikely that the unemployed will thank the Democrats for serving as cannon fodder in their war with the GOP. Taken as a whole, this strategy may turn out to be an even bigger political loser than a Republican decision to stick to conservative principles and to refuse to budge on unemployment or the minimum wage.

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The Discrediting of Government Continues

President Obama’s recent troubles have evoked various comparisons to his predecessor, whether they were the parallels between specific policies or simply the climbing disapproval ratings. To these we can add one more: the question of succession. Indeed the discussion about the makeup of the Democrats’ 2016 primary roster is quite relevant to this particular debate.

When George W. Bush left office amid low approval ratings, the Republican Party faced the challenge of trying to figure out its post-Bush identity–chiefly in the form of its 2008 presidential nominee–on the fly, without the benefit of years in the wilderness. Though Obama’s second term is far from over, Democrats will still face the same challenge.

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President Obama’s recent troubles have evoked various comparisons to his predecessor, whether they were the parallels between specific policies or simply the climbing disapproval ratings. To these we can add one more: the question of succession. Indeed the discussion about the makeup of the Democrats’ 2016 primary roster is quite relevant to this particular debate.

When George W. Bush left office amid low approval ratings, the Republican Party faced the challenge of trying to figure out its post-Bush identity–chiefly in the form of its 2008 presidential nominee–on the fly, without the benefit of years in the wilderness. Though Obama’s second term is far from over, Democrats will still face the same challenge.

In Hillary Clinton, for example, primary voters will have a reminder of the more successful Democratic governance of her husband but also the unprincipled, soulless pursuit of power that characterizes the Clintons’ political life and Hillary’s statist agenda. If Jerry Brown runs, they’ll see a candidate at once a throwback to 20th century politics of stagnation and a warning from the future, in the form of the failing state administration of California, as to where that leads. And if Brian Schweitzer runs, he’ll embody a halfhearted left-libertarianism that at least gestures toward a government less inclined to violate your personal space. The latest Gallup polling on the size and scope of government, however, does not bode as well for Clinton or Brown:

Seventy-two percent of Americans say big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than is big business or big labor, a record high in the nearly 50-year history of this question. The prior high for big government was 65% in 1999 and 2000. Big government has always topped big business and big labor, including in the initial asking in 1965, but just 35% named it at that time.

But it’s the breakdown of the results by political party that is really striking:

Each party group currently rates big government as the greatest threat to the country, including a record-high 92% of Republicans and 71% of independents, as well as 56% of Democrats. Democrats are most likely of the partisan groups to name big business as the biggest threat, at 36%; relatively few Republicans, 4%, view big business as the most threatening.

It’s not just that a majority of Democrats (and large majority of independents) see government as the greatest threat to the country. It’s also the trajectory of those numbers that stands out. During the Bush administration 62 percent of Democrats felt this way, but were slowly reassured as the Democrats took back Congress and then Obama was elected president; the number dropped to 32 percent.

Some of Democrats’ fears about the government can be attributed, I suppose, to Republicans taking back the House earlier in this presidency. But they have not sponsored bills that chip away at individual liberty–just the opposite, they have stood opposed to ObamaCare’s mandates, EPA overregulation, Democrats’ anti-gun legislation, and so forth. It’s what made it so amusing when Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to spin congressional approval ratings against the GOP today by tweeting:

Congress is finishing this year less popular than a cockroach, and mindless, knee-jerk obstruction from Republicans is exactly why.

Not only was this the sort of tedious cant voters have come to expect from Reid, but it comes right after the Senate approved a bipartisan budget deal driven in large part by Paul Ryan. Reid, in other words, looks even more ridiculous than he normally would. But even more than Reid’s statement being patently false was its tone-deaf character: even a majority of Democrats see the government as getting too intrusive for comfort. Actions that put the breaks on this behavior are not what’s wrong with government. If anything, Reid only exacerbates this by deploying the “nuclear option” to get rid of the filibuster. Not only is Reid the problem, not the solution, but he’s advertising himself as such.

It won’t matter much to Reid, who isn’t running for president. But if ObamaCare isn’t fixed, the public’s faith in government will continue to collapse–among Democrats as well as Republicans. As the Democrats seek a presidential nominee that best embodies the party’s post-Obama identity, this will no doubt be a factor–and it could very well hold back the statists and elevate a candidate with a more rational approach to governance.

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Another NY Times Misfire on Gun Rights

In the lead-up to the high-stakes 2010 Senate election between Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican challenger Sharron Angle, a curious drama unfolded within the National Rifle Association. The NRA was, reportedly, considering endorsing Reid, incurring pushback from its conservative-leaning membership. Why would the NRA endorse a Democrat, even one more friendly to gun rights than most Democrats? Because, the logic went, a Reid loss coupled with the Democrats holding the Senate could elevate Chuck Schumer to lead the Senate.

Schumer is not just anti-gun, but the worst kind of anti-gun extremist: an East Coast liberal elitist who doesn’t know anything about guns or gun culture but hates them anyway. This propensity by Schumer to allow ignorance and prejudice to set his legislative agenda made the NRA understandably nervous. The NRA eventually chose to stay neutral in the race. This episode is worth keeping in mind when reading the New York Times Magazine’s lengthy article recreating the failure of the Manchin-Toomey gun-control legislation earlier this year. The bill was aimed at beefing up background checks amid the “do-something” rush of activity following the Newtown massacre.

The effort was almost torpedoed by Schumer immediately; the tragic news of the shooting gave Schumer the opportunity he craved to punish law-abiding gun owners–people who, according to Schumer, only existed in theory anyway. As the Times reports:

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In the lead-up to the high-stakes 2010 Senate election between Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican challenger Sharron Angle, a curious drama unfolded within the National Rifle Association. The NRA was, reportedly, considering endorsing Reid, incurring pushback from its conservative-leaning membership. Why would the NRA endorse a Democrat, even one more friendly to gun rights than most Democrats? Because, the logic went, a Reid loss coupled with the Democrats holding the Senate could elevate Chuck Schumer to lead the Senate.

Schumer is not just anti-gun, but the worst kind of anti-gun extremist: an East Coast liberal elitist who doesn’t know anything about guns or gun culture but hates them anyway. This propensity by Schumer to allow ignorance and prejudice to set his legislative agenda made the NRA understandably nervous. The NRA eventually chose to stay neutral in the race. This episode is worth keeping in mind when reading the New York Times Magazine’s lengthy article recreating the failure of the Manchin-Toomey gun-control legislation earlier this year. The bill was aimed at beefing up background checks amid the “do-something” rush of activity following the Newtown massacre.

The effort was almost torpedoed by Schumer immediately; the tragic news of the shooting gave Schumer the opportunity he craved to punish law-abiding gun owners–people who, according to Schumer, only existed in theory anyway. As the Times reports:

Joe Manchin shared the concern that the Democrats who were leading the charge on gun legislation didn’t understand how deeply people care about guns and needed to if they were ever to get anything passed. By January the universal background-checks legislation was being spearheaded in the Senate by Charles Schumer, a liberal from New York City. “Joe, I didn’t know anybody who owned a gun when I grew up,” Schumer said to Manchin, who replied, “Chuck, I didn’t know anybody who didn’t own a gun.” Schumer’s bill contained no provisions that might attract the support of gun owners, a fatal omission in Manchin’s view. “The bill Chuck Schumer dropped was one that I didn’t think anyone from a gun state would or should support,” Manchin told me. “So I reached out to the N.R.A. and said, ‘Let’s have an alternative.’ ”

That is, the Democratic effort on a major issue was being led by a man who was proud of his total lack of knowledge about the issue. It’s unclear whether Schumer realized his bill would never pass and therefore just wanted an opportunity to grandstand, or just wasn’t capable of leading a serious legislative effort. Manchin ended up nearly saving the effort by getting actual gun owners and experts involved, and crafting a quite reasonable bill that combined modest increases in restrictions in areas that arguably needed them with additional protections for gun rights.

In the end, the bill still didn’t quite make it, but it’s instructive to look at why that happened. Robert Draper, the author of the Times piece, says anti-gun activists must learn to better “break down the barriers of fear and mistrust from which the N.R.A. derives much of its power.” He then says this:

Yet even as the votes in the chambers still favor the N.R.A., gun-control advocates have some cause for optimism. Time does not seem to be on the N.R.A.’s side. According to data compiled by the nonpartisan National Opinion Research Center, between 1977 and 2012 the percentage of American households possessing one or more guns declined by 36 percent. That decline should not be surprising. Tom W. Smith, director of the research center, says: “There are two main reasons, if you ask people, why they have firearms: hunting and personal protection. Now, from external sources like the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, we know the proportion of adults who hunt has declined over the decades. And since the ‘90s, the crime rate has fallen. So the two main reasons people might want to have a gun have both decreased.”

On the issue of “fear and mistrust,” Draper throughout the article seems to ignore his own reporting. He notes, for example, that Anita Dunn spoke to a gathering of anti-gun Democrats and kept using “the R-word,” registration. This makes gun owners fear–wrongly according to Democrats–that the goal is to keep a registry of firearms owners to better confiscate them when the time comes. But as J.D. Tuccille recently pointed out at Reason, gun owners have been receiving confiscation notices from state government officials even as such moves are dismissed by lawmakers. “The problem for gun control advocates,” Tuccille writes, “is that they keep promising that no way will registration lead to confiscation of firearms, even as it does just that.”

And on Draper’s claim that time isn’t on the NRA’s side, it’s worth looking at the polling. It’s true that gun ownership rates have dropped, but that in no way means support for gun owners will drop. Here is Gallup’s detailed, long-term trend polling on gun rights, the most recent of which was taken in early October. It finds that household gun possession is at its lowest point since 1999. And yet, support for making gun-sale laws “more strict” is nearly twenty points lower than it was twenty years ago, and nearly thirty points lower than in 1990.

Support for a handgun ban has been dropping for decades, from 60 percent in 1959 to 25 percent today. The Gallup polling shows broad support for the expansion of background checks in the Manchin-Toomey legislation–regulation initially supported by the NRA as well. But when asked for some reasons respondents didn’t want the legislation to pass, 40 percent named Second Amendment rights.

The fact is, Americans take their constitutional rights quite seriously, even when they don’t directly impact them. Schumer and Co. seem to think rights of which they don’t avail themselves are irrelevant. It is to the American public’s great credit that they disagree.

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Can Washington Get Worse? You Bet it Will.

The main justification put forward by Democrats defending their decision to blow up the Senate rules and end filibusters on Cabinet and judicial nominations is that things are so bad now, they can’t get worse. That’s the spin President Obama put on the situation yesterday as he took a rare turn in the White House press room to spike the football after Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed through the measure he hopes will allow him to pack the federal courts with liberals. This idea is integral to the president’s argument that Republican obstructionism has made it impossible for him to govern. Even on topics where Republican input has been nil such as the ObamaCare rollout, Democrats have stuck to this theme blaming Republicans for stirring up dissent against their unpopular dysfunctional legislation even as most Americans have focused on the president’s broken promises and a dysfunctional website.

There’s no denying that partisanship is nastier in Congress than it once was. But if President Obama and Reid think it can’t get worse, they’re kidding themselves. For all of the bitter combat that has been carried on in just the last year over the budget, ObamaCare, the shutdown, and the various administration scandals, the business of government has largely proceeded unhindered. Many nominations have been approved, bipartisan legislation passed, and the unanimous consent to keep the upper body functioning has almost always been there. But now that Reed has pushed the plunger on the so-called nuclear option, all bets are off. The 45 Senate Republicans may no longer have the power to block the president’s appointments on their own, but Senate procedures still give them plenty of latitude to put holds on legislation. Not only will Reed find it even harder to do his job now that he has broken faith with his opponents and sought to squelch dissent, he and the president may also discover that the benefits of their decision will not be as great as they think.

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The main justification put forward by Democrats defending their decision to blow up the Senate rules and end filibusters on Cabinet and judicial nominations is that things are so bad now, they can’t get worse. That’s the spin President Obama put on the situation yesterday as he took a rare turn in the White House press room to spike the football after Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed through the measure he hopes will allow him to pack the federal courts with liberals. This idea is integral to the president’s argument that Republican obstructionism has made it impossible for him to govern. Even on topics where Republican input has been nil such as the ObamaCare rollout, Democrats have stuck to this theme blaming Republicans for stirring up dissent against their unpopular dysfunctional legislation even as most Americans have focused on the president’s broken promises and a dysfunctional website.

There’s no denying that partisanship is nastier in Congress than it once was. But if President Obama and Reid think it can’t get worse, they’re kidding themselves. For all of the bitter combat that has been carried on in just the last year over the budget, ObamaCare, the shutdown, and the various administration scandals, the business of government has largely proceeded unhindered. Many nominations have been approved, bipartisan legislation passed, and the unanimous consent to keep the upper body functioning has almost always been there. But now that Reed has pushed the plunger on the so-called nuclear option, all bets are off. The 45 Senate Republicans may no longer have the power to block the president’s appointments on their own, but Senate procedures still give them plenty of latitude to put holds on legislation. Not only will Reed find it even harder to do his job now that he has broken faith with his opponents and sought to squelch dissent, he and the president may also discover that the benefits of their decision will not be as great as they think.

On the surface, it would seem that the president now has carte blanche to do what he has longed to accomplish since moving into the White House: fundamentally alter the balance of the federal courts by packing federal district and appeals courts with the kind of hard-core ideological liberals that were being blocked by filibusters. He may well attempt to do that in the coming 12 months before the midterm elections give the GOP an opportunity to win back the Senate. But those who assume this will now become as easy as pie have forgotten about what will be uppermost on the minds of the several red-state Democrats who face uphill reelection fights next year.

As Josh Gerstein points out in Politico, the roster of potential liberal judges is filled by the ranks of left-wing jurists and lawyers that had little chance of getting the 60 votes they needed under the old rules. But getting to 51 votes may not be so easy for these liberals when you consider that many of the Democrats the president is counting on won’t want to hand their Republican opponents new talking points by rubber-stamping ideological judges. While some may get through, any controversial nominee will find themselves being thrown under the bus by moderate Democrats who can no longer count on the GOP or the filibuster rules to save them from a vote they’d rather not take.

But that’s just the most obvious fallout from Reed’s move. Just as important is the way the rules change will now make it impossible for bipartisan coalitions to be assembled. The Senate has become more like the House in recent years as firebrand newcomers on both sides of the aisle have replaced old warhorses. But as we saw with immigration reform this year, for all the bitterness in D.C., enough conservatives and liberals were still able to work together to get a bill passed in the Senate. But after the president’s scorched-earth approach to the shutdown and the nuclear option being employed, you can forget about anything like that happening again in the foreseeable future. This will alter the nature of the Senate far more than anything we have seen before. The Tea Party had made it tough for Republicans to work with Democrats in the last three years. But the president has now ensured that even those inclined to ignore them will also refuse to play ball.

The Democrats’ mindset is based on an assumption that when the Republicans got control of the Senate again, whether in 2015 or at some later date, they would have employed the nuclear option as they threatened to do first in 2005 when Democrats were defending the filibuster. At this point, there’s no longer any way of knowing whether that would have happened even if the Democrats hadn’t struck first. Up until this point, it’s doubtful that we’ve ever had a Senate majority leader so incapable of working with the minority as Reid has shown himself to be. Perhaps Mitch McConnell or his successor would have wound up doing the same, but since the Republicans always backed away from pushing the button on the filibuster that question is now in the realm of counter-factual fiction, not serious analysis. But what we do know now is that it is highly unlikely that the GOP will refrain from playing just as rough in the future when it is their turn to control the Senate.

That’s why Democrats do well to avoid celebrations of their move. The benefits from it to President Obama will be minimal. But the costs in terms of dysfunction and the certainty of even worse political warfare to come are considerable. 

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Democrats’ “Nuclear Option” Logic: Formalizing Thoughtlessness

President Obama’s public statement yesterday about the Democrats eliminating the filibuster for their agenda items so as to further purge minority input was, as usual, deceptively revealing. It’s not that the president said anything intelligent or edifying in itself; his grasp on the details of policy isn’t strong enough to educate the public. Additionally, this particular episode is really quite simple.

When the Democrats were in the minority, they broke the accepted norms of the Senate to block a circuit court nominee they didn’t like. Recently, Republicans employed that same tactic on President Obama, so Harry Reid escalated the fight by breaking even more important norms of the Senate. This has been the pattern throughout Reid’s time as Democratic Senate leader: introduce an innovation designed to undermine the Senate’s rules and integrity, and then when Republicans return the favor simply find some other way to erode any check on his power.

And that, in turn, is at the center of this: power. When Barack Obama was in the Senate and the Republican majority threatened to employ this “nuclear option,” then-senator, now-hypocrite Obama said this:

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President Obama’s public statement yesterday about the Democrats eliminating the filibuster for their agenda items so as to further purge minority input was, as usual, deceptively revealing. It’s not that the president said anything intelligent or edifying in itself; his grasp on the details of policy isn’t strong enough to educate the public. Additionally, this particular episode is really quite simple.

When the Democrats were in the minority, they broke the accepted norms of the Senate to block a circuit court nominee they didn’t like. Recently, Republicans employed that same tactic on President Obama, so Harry Reid escalated the fight by breaking even more important norms of the Senate. This has been the pattern throughout Reid’s time as Democratic Senate leader: introduce an innovation designed to undermine the Senate’s rules and integrity, and then when Republicans return the favor simply find some other way to erode any check on his power.

And that, in turn, is at the center of this: power. When Barack Obama was in the Senate and the Republican majority threatened to employ this “nuclear option,” then-senator, now-hypocrite Obama said this:

What [Americans] don’t expect is for one party – be it Republican or Democrat – to change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet. … I sense that talk of the nuclear option is more about power than about fairness. I believe some of my colleagues propose this rules change because they can get away with it rather than because they know it’s good for our democracy.

Obama’s support for the nuclear option now is understandable: his legacy, after all, will be what he did as president, not senator. Reid, on the other hand, will have left behind an institution barely recognizable as the one he joined a quarter-century ago. Obama was part of that institution for about five minutes before he geared up to run for president, so he has no intellectual or emotional attachment to the Senate.

But what was revealing about what Obama said yesterday was not the hypocrisy–something that has been a hallmark of his political career and especially his presidency. It was when he said this:

Now, I want to be clear, the Senate has actually done some good bipartisan work this year.  Bipartisan majorities have passed common-sense legislation to fix our broken immigration system and upgrade our courts — our ports.  It’s passed a farm bill that helps rural communities and vulnerable Americans.  It’s passed legislation that would protect Americans from being fired based on their sexual orientation.  So we know that there are folks there, Republican and Democrat, who want to get things done.  And, frankly, privately they’ve expressed to me their recognition that the system in the Senate had broken down, and what used to be a sporadic exercise of the filibuster had gotten completely out of hand.

In other words, the Senate is basically working and the president knows it. Its role as a deliberative body has not stopped it from passing major bipartisan legislation on even complicated and divisive issues, as the president admits. The president took no questions after his statement yesterday because his position is frankly indefensible, which he seems to recognize. (And possibly his disastrous press conference on ObamaCare last week has convinced him that when he goes off-script he swiftly loses all coherence.) But had he taken a question, he might have been asked about the most obvious refutation of his new support for a less thoughtful Senate: his signature “achievement.”

Indeed it is appropriate that the two coincide. We are currently dealing with the latest major wave of disastrous effects on the country’s economy and health care inflicted by ObamaCare. What happens when the “world’s greatest deliberative body” is turned into a partisan weapon? We get bills like ObamaCare. Politico now reports:

Veteran House Democratic aides are sick over the insurance prices they’ll pay under Obamacare, and they’re scrambling to find a cure.

“In a shock to the system, the older staff in my office (folks over 59) have now found out their personal health insurance costs (even with the government contribution) have gone up 3-4 times what they were paying before,” Minh Ta, chief of staff to Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), wrote to fellow Democratic chiefs of staff in an email message obtained by POLITICO. “Simply unacceptable.”

That would be the Gwen Moore who voted for ObamaCare. Moore serves in the House, but it’s much the same in the Senate. This is a symptom of the broader problem with ObamaCare. Democrats are claiming they didn’t know the bill does what it does–witness the frantic Democratic response to the evaporation of all the major promises used to pass the bill. Now, they’re either lying when they say they didn’t know what was in the bill they voted for, or they’re admitting that they have no idea what they’re doing when they cast votes, and are just following orders from the White House and Harry Reid.

Here’s Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu announcing her bill earlier this month that if you like your plan, you can keep it–to fix Obama’s false promise. Yet ObamaCare was plainly crafted to ensure that people would lose their insurance. And Landrieu voted for it. Then in September 2010 Landrieu helped the Democrats kill a GOP resolution that would have prevented many of those cancellations. Did she not read ObamaCare? Did she not read the 2010 resolution?

If there’s anything wrong with the Senate in the age of Obama and Reid, it’s that Democrats are desperately in need of rules that would slow debate and encourage deliberation, now more than ever. Instead, they’re moving in the opposite direction, because, as the president himself said, that’s where the power is.

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Hypocritical Dems Think They’ll Always Rule

Today, Majority Leader Harry Reid took the first steps toward altering the nature of the Senate. Reid and his Democratic caucus intend to alter the rules so as to prevent filibusters of cabinet appointees and nominees to the federal bench save for the U.S. Supreme Court. Having come this far it is assumed that Reid finally has amassed enough votes to ram through changes in the upper body’s time-honored rules and allow President Obama to pack the Court of Appeals with as many liberals as he likes. He claims they are acting in the name of civility and the need to keep the government working, but there should be no doubt that what is going on here is a hypocritical grab for power that should be stopped.

That was, after all, the opinion of the New York Times editorial page on March 6, 2005 when Senate Republicans first mooted what we now call the “nuclear option” in order to stop Democrats from filibustering President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Going back to that piece would make for instructive reading for self-righteous liberals today who claim that what Republicans have done in blocking liberal judicial nominees is unprecedented. This is what the Times had to say in response to Republican frustrations about the Democratic minority in the Senate using the rules to obstruct the appointment of conservatives to the bench:

The Republicans are claiming that 51 votes should be enough to win confirmation of the White House’s judicial nominees. This flies in the face of Senate history. Republicans and Democrats should tone down their rhetoric, then sit down and negotiate.

To block the nominees, the Democrats’ weapon of choice has been the filibuster, a time-honored Senate procedure that prevents a bare majority of senators from running roughshod. Republican leaders now claim that judicial nominees are entitled to an up-or-down vote. This is rank hypocrisy. When the tables were turned, Republicans filibustered President Bill Clinton’s choice for surgeon general, forcing him to choose another. And Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, who now finds judicial filibusters so offensive, himself joined one against Richard Paez, a Clinton appeals court nominee.

The Senate does much of its work by unanimous consent, which keeps things moving along and prevents ordinary day-to-day business from drowning in procedural votes. But if Republicans change the filibuster rules, Democrats could respond by ignoring the tradition of unanimous consent and making it difficult if not impossible to get anything done. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has warned that “the Senate will be in turmoil and the Judiciary Committee will be hell.”

There is one way to avert a showdown. The White House should meet with Senate leaders of both parties and come up with a list of nominees who will not be filibustered. This means that Mr. Bush – like Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush before him – would agree to submit nominees from the broad mainstream of legal thought, with a commitment to judging cases, not promoting a political agenda.

Read More

Today, Majority Leader Harry Reid took the first steps toward altering the nature of the Senate. Reid and his Democratic caucus intend to alter the rules so as to prevent filibusters of cabinet appointees and nominees to the federal bench save for the U.S. Supreme Court. Having come this far it is assumed that Reid finally has amassed enough votes to ram through changes in the upper body’s time-honored rules and allow President Obama to pack the Court of Appeals with as many liberals as he likes. He claims they are acting in the name of civility and the need to keep the government working, but there should be no doubt that what is going on here is a hypocritical grab for power that should be stopped.

That was, after all, the opinion of the New York Times editorial page on March 6, 2005 when Senate Republicans first mooted what we now call the “nuclear option” in order to stop Democrats from filibustering President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Going back to that piece would make for instructive reading for self-righteous liberals today who claim that what Republicans have done in blocking liberal judicial nominees is unprecedented. This is what the Times had to say in response to Republican frustrations about the Democratic minority in the Senate using the rules to obstruct the appointment of conservatives to the bench:

The Republicans are claiming that 51 votes should be enough to win confirmation of the White House’s judicial nominees. This flies in the face of Senate history. Republicans and Democrats should tone down their rhetoric, then sit down and negotiate.

To block the nominees, the Democrats’ weapon of choice has been the filibuster, a time-honored Senate procedure that prevents a bare majority of senators from running roughshod. Republican leaders now claim that judicial nominees are entitled to an up-or-down vote. This is rank hypocrisy. When the tables were turned, Republicans filibustered President Bill Clinton’s choice for surgeon general, forcing him to choose another. And Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, who now finds judicial filibusters so offensive, himself joined one against Richard Paez, a Clinton appeals court nominee.

The Senate does much of its work by unanimous consent, which keeps things moving along and prevents ordinary day-to-day business from drowning in procedural votes. But if Republicans change the filibuster rules, Democrats could respond by ignoring the tradition of unanimous consent and making it difficult if not impossible to get anything done. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has warned that “the Senate will be in turmoil and the Judiciary Committee will be hell.”

There is one way to avert a showdown. The White House should meet with Senate leaders of both parties and come up with a list of nominees who will not be filibustered. This means that Mr. Bush – like Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush before him – would agree to submit nominees from the broad mainstream of legal thought, with a commitment to judging cases, not promoting a political agenda.

Of course, once Democrats won back the Senate in 2006, the Times changed its tune and hypocritically denounced filibusters as a threat to democracy. But that’s whole problem with Reid’s decision. As I wrote back in July, Reid’s plan was to stage a series of votes on liberal nominees that he knew could not inspire bipartisan support. That has given him the ability to rally his caucus behind the move to end filibusters on all but Supreme Court appointments. But, as the Times pointed out in 2005, what the Republicans are doing now is no different from what both parties have done in the past.

It is true that the use of the filibuster has expanded in recent decades and that has not always been for the good of the country. But the filibuster rules exist to prevent narrow Senate majorities from ramming through any legislation or appointment they like without listening to the opinions of the minority. Having to do that can be infuriating for presidents and Senate majorities but such consensus is, as perhaps President Obama should have learned from his health-care debacle, useful and even necessary for making government work effectively. The Founders didn’t create the Senate to rubber stamp the desires of presidents and majorities but to act as a check on their impulses. If President Obama and Reid want to get more judges confirmed, they can do as their predecessors have done and try to work with the other party rather than just maneuver to impose their ideological agenda on the country. Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric of Democrats, Republicans have allowed more than 200 of the president’s judicial nominees to be confirmed. That’s why the fight Reid has staged on the filibuster is a ruse designed to justify a naked putsch for total power.

Democrats should pull back from the brink for the same reason both parties have refrained from going nuclear: no majority lasts forever. A few years ago the GOP was inveighing against filibusters and Democrats spoke up for the rights of the minority. Today, the tables are turned. But though the president and Reid are acting as if their party will rule forever, it won’t. As Chris Cilizza points out in the Washington Post today, a lot of the current members of the Senate weren’t there in 2006, the last time Democrats were in the minority. But whether it is in 2015 or 2017 or another year, Republicans will win back the Senate some day. At that point, Democrats will once again discover the virtues of the filibuster. But, if Reid’s rule changes go through, they will rue the day they blew up the Senate.

Rather than making the government work better, as the Times predicted back in 2005, the nuclear option will only make political battles in Washington nastier and more divisive. Power grabs may work in the short run but those who try such gambits usually learn that the American political system encourages moderation and checks and balances. As such, Reid may get a taste of his own medicine sooner rather than later.

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