Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ronald Reagan

Sorry, Liberals, Obama is No Reagan

One of the more amusing things to see in journalism is for committed liberals who didn’t work for Ronald Reagan, who didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan and who were fiercely critical of Ronald Reagan to invoke his name in order to instruct conservatives on how to better understand Ronald Reagan. Read More

One of the more amusing things to see in journalism is for committed liberals who didn’t work for Ronald Reagan, who didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan and who were fiercely critical of Ronald Reagan to invoke his name in order to instruct conservatives on how to better understand Ronald Reagan.

The most recent example of this is E. J. Dionne, Jr. of the Washington Post, who argues in his column that Barack Obama’s Iran strategy parallels Reagan’s approach to Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. In fact, the lessons are exactly the opposite.

For all the criticisms of the left against Reagan that he was a rigid ideologue, he was, in fact, a man who was quite willing and able to adjust his views in light of shifting circumstances. That is precisely what he and Margaret Thatcher did in the case of Mr. Gorbachev.

To their credit, both Reagan and Thatcher were dedicated anti-Communists. They understood the evil nature of the Soviet regime and they took a hard-line stance against it for most of their careers. But equally to their credit, they saw that Gorbachev was someone with whom, in Thatcher’s words in 1984, “We can do business together.” And they did. Both Reagan nor Thatcher were able to revise their assumptions based on new facts, new actors on the world stage, and new opportunities. They were not dogmatists.

Mr. Obama, on the other hand, most assuredly is. He has been ideologically committed to a rapprochement with Iran even before he was elected president; it has been his foreign policy holy grail for his entire tenure. Nothing was going to keep him from striking a bargain with which he was obsessed. (It explains in part why the president was so passive during the Green Revolution in 2009, essentially siding with the Iranian regime over the democratic movement seeking to topple it.)

And here’s a key difference between Reagan and Thatcher and Obama. The former revised their approach based on an accurate assessment of Gorbachev and, therefore, the Soviet regime he ruled. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, was determined to strike a deal with Iran despite there being no compelling evidence that the basic nature of the regime has changed. If anything, in recent years Iran has acted more aggressively and destructively. Consider just a partial review of Iran’s record: support for the butcher in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad and the Shi’ite Houthi militia that seized Yemen’s capital in September; destabilization of Iraq and subversion of the broader Middle East; unmatched aid and succor to terrorist groups (including Hezbollah, several Iraqi Shia militant groups, Hamas, and the Palestine-Islamic Jihad); defiance of U.N. resolutions; white-hot hatred for Israel and the United States; and repression at home. This New York Times story, published just last month, reported on the Obama administration’s own State Department’s annual report on terrorism. According to the Times:

Iran continued its “terrorist-related” activity last year and also continued to provide broad military support to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the State Department said Friday in its annual report on terrorism.

The assessment suggests that neither the election of President Hassan Rouhani nor the prospect of a nuclear accord with the United States and its negotiating partners has had a moderating effect on Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

“In 2014, Iran continued to provide arms, financing, training and the facilitation of primarily Iraq Shia and Afghan fighters to support the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown,” the report said… it paints a picture of an aggressive Iranian foreign policy that has often been contrary to the interests of the United States.

The State Department report itself states “Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism worldwide remained undiminished” in 2014. Contrary to what Mr. Dionne claims, then, Barack Obama is all about trust and completely indifferent to verify. The president was determined to strike a deal with Iran, any deal, for the sake of a deal. The Iranians, knowing this, were able to win one concession after another from the president. It was an astonishing act of abdication and surrender, the product of an unusually adamantine and doctrinaire mind.

The comparison between Reagan and Gorbachev and Obama and Iran, then, isn’t only superficial. It makes precisely the opposite point claimed by the partisan progressives who make it. Mr. Reagan negotiated from a position of strength and operated within the four corners of reality; Mr. Obama negotiates from a position of weakness and operates in a world of his own imagination.

Ronald Reagan was a man of deep and admirable convictions, but his mind was far more supple and empirical than the left ever acknowledged. It was a far more supple and empirical mind, it turns out, than Barack Obama’s.

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GOP Doesn’t Play Fair. They Back Israel.

New York Times coverage of Republicans tends to be biased and judgmental. Conservatives are generally portrayed as either conniving and cynical big money manipulators of simple-minded voters (the standard trope about establishment Republicans) or as racist fire-eaters (i.e. Tea Partiers). But occasionally even the Grey Lady gets something right in its political coverage. That’s the case with the piece published today in which they note in their headline that, “For GOP, Support for Israel Becomes a Litmus Test.” They’re right about that and the contrast with Democrats, especially in the wake of the tirades against Israel’s government emanating from the White House in recent weeks, couldn’t be greater. While, as I noted yesterday, Democrats are claiming that the GOP is trying to turn Israel into a partisan wedge, what is really happening is that one of our two major parties has become a bastion of support for the Jewish state while the other is drifting away from it.

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New York Times coverage of Republicans tends to be biased and judgmental. Conservatives are generally portrayed as either conniving and cynical big money manipulators of simple-minded voters (the standard trope about establishment Republicans) or as racist fire-eaters (i.e. Tea Partiers). But occasionally even the Grey Lady gets something right in its political coverage. That’s the case with the piece published today in which they note in their headline that, “For GOP, Support for Israel Becomes a Litmus Test.” They’re right about that and the contrast with Democrats, especially in the wake of the tirades against Israel’s government emanating from the White House in recent weeks, couldn’t be greater. While, as I noted yesterday, Democrats are claiming that the GOP is trying to turn Israel into a partisan wedge, what is really happening is that one of our two major parties has become a bastion of support for the Jewish state while the other is drifting away from it.

As the Times points out, it used to be the Democrats who were the pro-Israel party and Republicans were the ones who were divided on the issue. That changed in the last quarter of the 20th century as GOP leaders like Ronald Reagan (who, despite clashes with Prime Minister Menachem Begin early in his tenure, was rightly seen as a warm supporter of Israel) and the influence of evangelical voters made life difficult for Republicans who were opposed or even merely unenthusiastic about the Jewish state. By the time of George W. Bush, whose closeness to Israel was something Obama set out on his first day in office to change, the GOP was unified behind the Jewish state. Even an outlier on foreign policy like Senator Rand Paul, whose father was hostile to it, has made a concerted effort to at least appear to be pro-Israel as he attempts to make a serious bid for the party’s presidential nomination.

What the Times leaves out of their story is that the opposite trend has been happening among Democrats as polls have consistently shown lower support for Israel among them for more than 20 years.

To some on the left, like J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami, strong support for Israel and opposition to efforts to pressure it to make suicidal concessions to its foes is a sign of growing radicalism among Republicans. But, unsurprisingly, he has that backwards. By embracing Israel, Republicans have moved into the mainstream on a key foreign policy issue since most Americans feel a tremendous sense of kinship with it for a variety of reasons, including religious motivations as well as its status as America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East.

The change among Republicans distresses the J Street crowd and those even farther on the left who eschew mere pressure tactics on the Israelis and prefer to isolate it or support the efforts of those who wish to destroy it.

Other more mainstream Democrats think there’s something fishy about it since it puts them in the position of having to compete with a rival party where backing for Israel is universal while they are forced to admit that many Democrats, including the president of the United States, are not exactly fans of the Jewish state and its democratically-elected government. But their claims that Republicans are making Israel a partisan issue are false. It is the Obama administration that has sought to break up the bipartisan consensus in Congress in favor of more sanctions against Iran or support for the Netanyahu government by appealing to the partisan loyalties of Democrats.

Whereas the president is seeking to convince Democrats to be less supportive of Israel and its security, Republicans understand that putting yourself on the wrong side of the issue is politically dangerous. That’s why Jeb Bush was quick to disassociate himself from James Baker’s attacks on Israel in front of J Street, in spite of the fact that the former secretary is a faithful Bush family retainer.

This doesn’t mean that there still aren’t Democrats who back Israel though they have been awfully quiet about the way the president has been bashing Netanyahu and the Israeli electorate in the last week. But what it does mean is that there is no use pretending that the bulk of the two parties are united on the issue. As the Times reports, there’s no longer much room in the GOP for opponents of Israel. At the same time, President Obama has transformed the Democrats from a bastion of pro-Israel sentiment to the home of most of its most vicious critics. Supporters of Israel, no matter their partisan affiliation, should be delighted about the former and deeply worried abou the latter. If voters are noticing the difference it isn’t because the GOP is acting unfairly. It’s because some of the most important Democrats in the country have abandoned Israel.

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Why Obama Thinks He Can’t Get a Better Iran Deal

If he did nothing else, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his speech to a joint session of Congress, started a national conversation on the merits, or lack thereof, of a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Here are a few thoughts, after several days of intense, back and forth debate.

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If he did nothing else, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his speech to a joint session of Congress, started a national conversation on the merits, or lack thereof, of a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Here are a few thoughts, after several days of intense, back and forth debate.

Thought No. 1: The defenders of the nuclear deal claim that Iranian compliance could be verified and that a one-year heads-up about Iranian non-compliance would be plenty of time for a robust American response. After all, we have considerable forces pre-positioned in the Persian Gulf region, ready to strike Iran if need be. However, I remain skeptical that either (a) the U.S. would necessarily detect a violation or (b) that if we did detect it, that we would do anything about it.

The U.S. intelligence community has a terrible track record of detecting nuclear work in other countries. We were caught off guard by the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, the first Indian test in 1974, the first Pakistani test in 1998, the first North Korean test in 2006. Likewise, we were surprised by the extent of the Iraqi nuclear program in 1992.

Is there cause to hope that we would be better informed about the Iranian program? Only if we get truly intrusive inspection that allows international monitors to roam the country at will with no need to announce visits in advance. I am skeptical whether the mullahs will agree to that. The 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea shows how easily a state can cheat on a nuclear accord: The North agreed to shut down a plutonium reactor at Yongbyon but proceeded with the secret enrichment of uranium.

And even if we find out about Iranian nuclear cheating, what would we do about it? The Russians have been cheating on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement since at least 2007 but the Obama administration hesitated to publicize their breach, much less to do anything about it. Is there any reason to believe we would be more willing to go to war with Iran in a few years’ time than we are today?

Thought No. 2: While a nuclear agreement may or may not retard the Iranian development of an atomic bomb, it will have one undoubted consequence: it will provide the Iranian government with a lot more money by lifting or at least relaxing sanctions. Already, just by agreeing to talk to the U.S., Iran has received an estimated $11.9 billion in sanctions relief. That’s a lot of money that Iran can use to create considerable mischief. Given that the U.S. estimates that Iran provides $100 million to $200 million a year to Hezbollah, that’s enough funding right there to fund Hezbollah until the mid-21st century. It’s also money that can be used to fund Iranian-supported terrorist groups in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and other countries.

And it’s only a drop in the (oil) barrel that will fill up with cash if Iran signs a long-term nuclear deal. Iran is already at a peak of its regional power, and its power will only grow with all this money at its disposal. That will have catastrophic consequences for regional security because the stronger Iran gets, the more that Sunnis will take matters into their own hands. Saudi Arabia has the capability to acquire nuclear weapons in short order from Pakistan. It, and other Gulf states, will also likely wind up supporting the Al-Nusra Front, ISIS, and other Sunni terrorist groups as a bulwark against Iranian influence. Thus by helping Iran, we are also indirectly helping ISIS.

Thought No. 3: Beyond all these problems, the value of any agreement is vitiated if it includes a ten-year expiration date and if it allows Iran to keep tens of thousands of centrifuges intact–as appears to be the case if press leaks are to believed. This would not end the Iranian program and not even pause it: at most it might delay the moment when Iran goes from a nuclear-capable state to a state in possession of actual nukes. And it will ensure that when Iran does decide to produce nukes, it will have a lot of them, not just one or two.

It’s hard to know why the Obama administration thinks it’s OK to grant Iran the “right” to field nuclear weapons in 2025, aside from the obvious fact that Obama will no longer be in office and thus can’t be blamed for the outcome. Perhaps the White House hopes that, Ayatollah Khamenei presumably having died by then (there are reports he has prostate cancer), the Iranian regime might have reformed itself to become one that we can more easily live with. But hope isn’t a policy (except for this White House). If the U.S. does agree to this ten-year deal, it would be imperative to do what we could during this period to bring about peaceful regime change in Iran–a democratic Iran with a bomb would be a lot less threatening than a jihadist Iran with a bomb. But there is scant sign that the Obama administration is thinking along those lines. And even if it were, the U.S. ability to push regime change, never that strong to begin with, would be further weakened by the conclusion of a nuclear deal with Tehran which would be seen by Iranian dissidents (as well as by the entire region) as conferring Washington’s seal of approval on the existing regime.

Thought No. 4: The most common rebuttal from the administration and its defenders, against those who criticize the projected accord, is that critics offer no real alternative. Netanyahu’s claim that the alternative is a better deal is dismissed on the grounds that no better deal is possible. That may be true in the current atmosphere, with the White House patently telegraphing its eagerness to achieve a deal at all costs and having lost all leverage when it allowed the “red line” in Syria to be crossed with impunity. But what if the U.S. could present Iran with a credible threat of military action? Recall that the only time in recent decades when Iran interrupted its nuclear program was in 2003, because the mullahs were afraid that after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they would be next in the American military’s cross hairs. But when the U.S. got bogged down in Iraq, the Iranian leaders realized they had nothing to fear from George W. Bush, and of course now they have even less to fear from Barack Obama, who is obviously determined to start no new wars on his watch.

If there is one thing that could nudge Iran toward a serious agreement, it would be fear of whoever is in the White House. Recall how Eisenhower helped to end the Korean War in 1953, and a year later to end the French Indochina War on relatively favorable terms to the West, by dropping broad hints that he was contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. Likewise Nixon helped to achieve a peace accord in Vietnam by bombing North Vietnam with B-52s over Christmas 1952. He later said that it helped to be perceived as a “madman” who is capable of anything. And Ronald Reagan helped to revive arms control with the Soviet Union by projecting the image of a gun-toting cowboy. Alas there is no president of the last half century, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, who projects a weaker image than Obama. That is why he is not going to get a deal with Iran on any terms that should be acceptable to the U.S. or our allies.

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Why Politicians Are Right To Refuse to Take the Anti-Tax Pledge

Jeb Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said in a recent statement that the former Florida governor would not sign any pledges, including ones saying he won’t increase taxes. Not surprisingly, some anti-tax crusaders aren’t happy. No matter. Governor Bush is right.

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Jeb Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said in a recent statement that the former Florida governor would not sign any pledges, including ones saying he won’t increase taxes. Not surprisingly, some anti-tax crusaders aren’t happy. No matter. Governor Bush is right.

Before explaining why, it’s worth pointing out that Bush’s decision – contrary to some silly headlines — is not based on a desire to raise taxes. How do I know? Because Bush, as governor of Florida, had an impeccable tax-cutting record, having cut them every year he was governor — a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion. In that sense, Bush is exactly the right person to oppose taking an anti-tax pledge, since no governor I’m aware of has a better record on taxes than Bush. (As a reference point, as governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown.)

Now let’s turn to the substantive arguments against signing the anti-tax pledge.

It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that taxes should be lower. (I’m partial to this plan by Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio.) But it’s quite another to declare that there are no circumstances, ever, in which taxes can be raised. The proper tax rate is a prudential matter, not an inviolate principle. It needs to be judged in the context of circumstances and trade-offs. Which taxes are we talking about? Increasing them in exchange for what?

Here’s where this mindset eventually leads. In a 2011 GOP presidential debate, eight candidates were given a hypothetical: If you could get $10 in spending cuts for $1 in tax increases – the assumption in the question was that the cuts could be enforced, that they were real — would you walk away from the 10-to-one deal? All eight candidates said they would.

I was critical of them at the time, believing this was turning an economic policy into a dogma, conservatism into an adamantine ideology, and lawmakers into absolutists. I get why people whose professional lives are dedicated to low taxes want politicians to take pledges. But it’s the job of politicians and lawmakers to have the courage and wisdom to say: I’m sympathetic to your cause, but I’ll respectfully decline your offer.

It’s perhaps worth keeping in mind that if the Founders had taken and abided by the 18th-century equivalent of the anti-tax pledge, the Constitution would never have been created. After all, it was the product of a remarkable series of difficult compromises on matters ranging from the Bill of Rights to proportional representation to how we elect the president to how Supreme Court justices were picked to the thorniest issue of all: slavery.

Taxes are obviously in a wholly different category than slavery, which was a moral obscenity. Yet in the words of James Madison, “great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” What the wisest Founders understood is that the Constitution would put slavery on a path to extinction. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great abolitionist leader, would later say, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” But if abolitionists had insisted that the Founders, including those who supported their cause, take a pledge that they would not become a signatory to the Constitution unless it ended slavery, the whole project would have come crashing down. (The Southern delegates would never have supported the new Constitution if it meant the abolition of slavery.)

So here’s my advice to conservatives: Familiarize yourselves with the records of the candidates. Learn their stands and listen to their arguments. Make a judgment about their public and personal character. Judge them in the totality of their acts. And then vote for the individual you believe will govern in the most responsible way — without taking pledges to do anything except to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. George Washington did it. Abraham Lincoln did it. Ronald Reagan did it. And they did just fine.

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Scott Walker’s Reagan-Nixon Test

The brouhaha over the latest ambush interview of Scott Walker hadn’t even finished before the Wisconsin governor got some very good news that diminished the importance of some of his latest slipups with the press. The Quinnipiac University poll of Iowa Republicans published today showed Walker with an astonishing 12 percentage point lead over his nearest competitor among fellow Republican presidential hopefuls. But with success in a presidential race comes scrutiny, and Walker has been getting a lot of from sources that do not share the enthusiasm for his policies that exist among a broad spectrum of potential GOP voters. Though he’s polling well, his less-than-sparkling performance when grilled by liberal journalists about such ridiculous topics as evolution and whether President Obama is a Christian shows that he’s not only got a lot to learn about being a presidential candidate. The reaction to these stories also shows that he has a choice to make about what kind of a Republican he wants to be: Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon?

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The brouhaha over the latest ambush interview of Scott Walker hadn’t even finished before the Wisconsin governor got some very good news that diminished the importance of some of his latest slipups with the press. The Quinnipiac University poll of Iowa Republicans published today showed Walker with an astonishing 12 percentage point lead over his nearest competitor among fellow Republican presidential hopefuls. But with success in a presidential race comes scrutiny, and Walker has been getting a lot of from sources that do not share the enthusiasm for his policies that exist among a broad spectrum of potential GOP voters. Though he’s polling well, his less-than-sparkling performance when grilled by liberal journalists about such ridiculous topics as evolution and whether President Obama is a Christian shows that he’s not only got a lot to learn about being a presidential candidate. The reaction to these stories also shows that he has a choice to make about what kind of a Republican he wants to be: Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon?

With more than 11 months to go before they vote, nobody in Walker’s camp should be celebrating yet. But his streak to the top of the GOP field after a remarkably successful couple of months promoting his prospective candidacy should cause those anointing Jeb Bush as the overwhelming favorite and frontrunner to start hedging their bets. As I’ve written here before, Walker’s fights against union thugs and their Democratic enablers in Wisconsin made him a folk hero to Tea Partiers and other conservatives while his strong record of both electoral success and good governance along with a positive persona and commonsense approach to economics has endeared him to establishment Republicans too. His humble background also makes him attractive to a party that should have learned that nominating millionaires isn’t the way to shed their image as the party of the rich.

But nobody gets to be president without going through the gauntlet of intense press scrutiny that is part of any national campaign. No matter what you’ve gone through on a state level—even in a purple/blue state like Wisconsin—it doesn’t compare to playing in the big leagues of presidential politics. Walker has gotten a taste of that in the last month as he’s found himself being quizzed about topics that have no relevance to the presidential race. His fumbles when faced with these absurd questions became fodder for the national press that viewed his equivocations about Darwin’s theory and the president’s faith to be proof that he was either a troglodyte fool or an incompetent bungler waiting to be taken down by a ravenous liberal media much in the manner that an unprepared Sarah Palin was felled during the 2008 campaign.

But Walker isn’t taking any of this lying down and he has reportedly used these questions to help fuel his fundraising by asking supporters whether they are going to let the liberal media crucify him over nonsense. Some conservative writers agree. Over at the National Review, Charles Cooke writes that rather than Walker being wrong-footed, it was the media that was embarrassing itself by trying to make a meal out of such inconsequential stuff.

But as much as I sympathize with Walker, I find myself more in agreement with veteran media writer Jack Shafer who points out in a Politico magazine article that what he is going through is par for the course for any presidential candidate, liberal or conservative. Shafer’s right. The “gotcha” journalism Walker and his supporters are denouncing is as old as American democracy. But even if we concede, as we should, that conservatives face a higher bar than liberals and that the bias of the press ensures that they will focus more on trying to make candidates like Walker look stupid, that doesn’t absolve the governor of his obligation to rise above this test and to even turn it to his advantage.

Like it or not, every Republican has the same choice when faced with a biased liberal mainstream media. They can rage at the media or they can rise above it.

There is some advantage to running against the liberal press, as doing so is sure to engender sympathy with the conservative base. Sarah Palin has retained a large following, albeit not large enough to ever cause her to risk her niche as a political celebrity by facing the voters again, by doing just that.

But Republicans who want to win need to emulate Ronald Reagan’s example and smile and shrug off the brickbats hurled at him by liberal journalists. A similarly good-natured George W. Bush did the same for as long as he could until the backwash of the Iraq War and the 2008 economic collapse overwhelmed him.

Instead, all too many conservatives opt for the Richard Nixon approach to the media, labeling them as enemies and snarling defensively at their attempts to trip them up.

The point is, the best way to deal with “gotcha” journalism is not to harp on the stupid questions you’re asked but to simply answer them in ways that don’t provide your opponents with juicy sound bites. The fault lies not in the press for asking Walker to give them some good material but with the governor for stumbling over questions that could be answered easily without saying something dumb or embarrassing. If Walker is going to be undone by a few easy questions now, how is he going to handle even worse as the campaign heats up?

Scott Walker has shown that he has the talent to win tough races and to be undaunted by liberal press. That’s part of what makes him such an attractive presidential candidate. But he won’t do it by whining about “gotcha” journalism. It’s time for him to be Reagan, not Nixon. If he can’t, his lead won’t last.

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The Obama-Merkel Press Conference: What Were They Thinking?

There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

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There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

The press conference was a mess. And its lack of purpose contributed mightily to that fact. The president and the chancellor are indeed two very important Western leaders–at certain times, and on certain issues, the two most important Western leaders. Ukraine is one such issue. The problem today was not that Merkel and Obama are meeting or that they’re talking to the press about it. The problem was that they called a press conference to say absolutely nothing.

The question that seemed to put this most into stark relief was when a German reporter asked Obama the following:

You said that you have not yet made a decision as to whether weapons ought to be delivered to Ukraine. What would be your red line? What would be the red line that needs to be crossed for you to decide [to arm the Ukrainians] and what do you think this will hold by way of a promise, because the chancellor said it will make matters worse? And what can the Nobel laureate Obama do to defuse this conflict?

Obama’s response could basically be broken down into three parts. The first was to push back on the idea that the Ukrainian military is being left to fend completely for itself:

It’s important to point out that we have been providing assistance to the Ukrainian military generally. That’s been part of a longstanding relationship between NATO and Ukraine. And our goal has not been for Ukraine to be equipped to carry on offensive operations, but to simply defend itself. And President Poroshenko has been very clear. He’s not interested in escalating violence; he is interested in having his country’s boundaries respected by its neighbor.

The second part is to concede that he’s basically given up on issuing red lines since he doesn’t mean them anyway:

So there’s not going to be any specific point at which I say, “Ah, clearly lethal defensive weapons would be appropriate here.” It is our ongoing analysis of what can we do to dissuade Russia from encroaching further and further on Ukrainian territory? Our hope is that is done through diplomatic means.

And finally, his indication that despite everything that’s happened, he hasn’t really adjusted his approach to Russia:

And I just want to emphasize here once again, for the benefit not just of the American people but for the German people, we are not looking for Russia to fail. We are not looking for Russia to be surrounded and contained and weakened. Our preference is for a strong, prosperous, vibrant, confident Russia, that can be a partner with us on a whole host of global challenges. And that’s how I operated throughout my first term in office.

What viewers saw here was a complete lack of urgency on the part of the two most important Western leaders with regard to Russia. That was the theme. And Merkel joined in later in the presser, with a plea for patience and hope that quickly devolved into a rambling, longwinded version of one of Obama’s favorite quotes about the arc of history bending toward justice.

Merkel was asked: “Can you understand the impatience of the Americans when they say we ought to now deliver weapons? And what makes you feel confident that diplomacy will carry the day?” She responded by counseling even more patience:

Whenever you have political conflicts such as the one that we have now between Russia and Ukraine, but also in many other conflicts around the world, it has always proved to be right to try again and again to solve such a conflict. We’ve spoken at some length about the Iranian conflict. Here, too, we are expected to try time and again. There’s always a point where you say well all of the options are on the table, we’ve gone back and forth. But then one has to think again.

It kept going downhill from there. Merkel brought in “the Middle East conflict” (presumably the Arab-Israeli conflict), which is certainly not the comparison you’re looking for if you live in eastern Ukraine. She then jumped to the division of Germany–a nearly five-decade split finally resolved near the end of the Cold War. Again, not remotely encouraging for anyone seeking to end the bloodshed in Ukraine.

It all brings the viewer back to the original question: What on earth was the point of this? All the press conference succeeded in doing was to tell Russia there was no red line and to tell Ukraine that the West was willing to wait half a century to see how this all shakes out. To those in Ukraine watching that press conference, it was probably terrifying. To our allies elsewhere, it was probably horrifying. But for those of us watching here in the States, it was simply mystifying.

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No Longer the Leader of the Free World

Perhaps President Obama instinctively understood that any mass unity rally in Paris would be more of a feel-good photo-op than a genuine response to Islamist terror or anti-Semitic violence. Perhaps the Secret Service sought to veto an impromptu visit from the president or even Vice President Biden on security grounds. But whatever the reasons for the decision not to send a high-level American representative to the event in Paris, it told us something important about this administration’s approach to the relevant issues as well as about this president. By choosing to stay away from the march, the United States expressed not only its public disdain for the effort to respond to the rising tide of hate, but the president also demonstrated that he doesn’t understand that being the leader of the free world occasionally requires him to show up even when he’d rather stay home. The symbolism of the boycott illustrated very clearly why Obama is the first American president since World War Two to publicly disdain that title.

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Perhaps President Obama instinctively understood that any mass unity rally in Paris would be more of a feel-good photo-op than a genuine response to Islamist terror or anti-Semitic violence. Perhaps the Secret Service sought to veto an impromptu visit from the president or even Vice President Biden on security grounds. But whatever the reasons for the decision not to send a high-level American representative to the event in Paris, it told us something important about this administration’s approach to the relevant issues as well as about this president. By choosing to stay away from the march, the United States expressed not only its public disdain for the effort to respond to the rising tide of hate, but the president also demonstrated that he doesn’t understand that being the leader of the free world occasionally requires him to show up even when he’d rather stay home. The symbolism of the boycott illustrated very clearly why Obama is the first American president since World War Two to publicly disdain that title.

Administration defenders are dismissing criticisms of the astonishing U.S. decision not to send a high-ranking representative by saying that it was mere symbolism. They say that American security cooperation with France against terrorism is more important than such trifles and, in a material sense, they are right about that. Indeed, even White House spokesman Josh Earnest’s admission that a mistake was made tried to emphasize that the error was more one about image than substance. The march was just symbolism and, to the extent that many in the media were prepared to treat it as a substantive answer to Islamist terror or the rising tide of Jew-hatred that has afflicted Europe in recent years, it was an entirely inadequate one. A day after this massive event, French Jews remain under siege with their institutions being guarded by thousands of Army troops and police. It has yet to be seen whether a genuine change in atmosphere or anything like it will stem from all of the righteous rhetoric being uttered about unity in a Europe that has proven more interested in appeasing Islamists than fighting, and where anti-Semitism has moved from the margins to the mainstream in the last decade.

But that did not relieve the administration of its obligation to join with other nations who sent their leaders to Paris to show solidarity after such egregious attacks on the West. That even Attorney General Eric Holder, who was already in Paris and meeting with security officials who did go to the march, disdained to make an appearance at the march spoke volumes about the administration’s attitude.

By passing on it, the president was, as he has done before, tripping on what he calls the “optics” of a situation. It should be recalled that after he made a statement about the death of James Foley at the hands of ISIS terrorists, he followed it with a round of golf during which he was photographed joking and laughing with his companions. Afterwards, he admitted this was a mistake but in doing so he was merely acknowledging that the unfortunate juxtaposition was bad politics. But there is more to such “optics” than losing a news cycle to critics who can pounce on a gaffe.

This is a man who sought and embraced the power that comes with the presidency but even after six years in the White House, he has not learned that along with the ability to make important decisions, the essence of such an office is moral leadership. That means that presidents, like all world leaders, are not merely acting a part in a political play but are actually setting the tone for their nation’s national discussion and behavior on crucial subjects. Great leaders, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, understood this even as their critics attacked them for being theatrical showmen. Obama not only refuses to play such a role, he still seems to not to understand that such symbolic acts are in some ways as important as policymaking.

But, of course, there’s more here than mere tone deafness to public opinion. The president’s flat line response to the Charley Hebdo massacre and then the terrorist attack on the kosher market in Paris (which he failed to characterize as an act of anti-Semitism in his public statement after it happened) illustrated his lack of comfort on this terrain. This is a president that has spent his time in office trying desperately to reach out to the Arab and Muslim worlds to change their perception of the United States. That he has failed in this respect is no longer in question but his disinterest in taking part in a symbolic response to extremist Islam stands in direct contrast to his eagerness for détente with an Iran that is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. The cold shoulder he gave the Paris march resonates not so much because of the odd and very conspicuous absence of an American representative of any stature, but because it fits with the perception of his attitudes.

If he and his defenders think this is unfair, that is understandable. But a president who disdains acts of moral leadership cannot complain when they are judged as having failed to send the right message to the world. A president who thought of himself as the leader of the free world would not have made such a mistake. One that disdains that title couldn’t help but make it.

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The Right’s Unwise Eisenhower Nostalgia

There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

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There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

To be sure, there is much to admire in Eisenhower. But it doesn’t add any clarity to conservative policy planning to admire things about Eisenhower that didn’t actually exist. This week two of the right’s foreign-policy minds, Colin Dueck and Roger Zakheim, wrote a piece for National Review Online sketching out what they say is a reform-conservative foreign policy with a GOP candidate “who will play Eisenhower” as its avatar. As sensible as many of their principles are, the article contains neither much reform nor an accurate portrayal of Ike.

They pitch the coming GOP foreign-policy debate as a modern-day battle between Eisenhower and Taft. They cast Rand Paul as the champion of the Taftites, but I don’t think they’re being quite fair to Paul when they say those on his side of the debate “see American military power itself — rather than external challenges such as Russia, China, or the Islamic State — as the single greatest threat to American interests.” His father, Ron Paul, probably believes this. Rand believes in strategic retrenchment that, I think, underestimates the repercussions of such retrenchment but which does not replicate the noxious rhetoric of his father’s acolytes.

So what would a reform-conservative foreign-policy doctrine look like? Here’s their description:

It would preserve uncontested U.S. military supremacy. It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter. It would work from the understanding that the United States faces a range of serious international competitors that are not about to disappear anytime soon. It would look to push back against our adversaries through robust, coherent strategies of pressure. It would take great care before committing America’s armed forces to combat — and then do so, when finally required, in a deadly serious way.

This sounds almost exactly like … the reigning conservative foreign-policy consensus. I’m not sure what about that description is “reform”–which is fine with me, because those are sound principles. They just happen to be sound principles that have been guiding most conservative foreign-policy thinkers. It’s such a general description, in fact, that I could imagine it appearing on any GOP 2016 candidate’s issues page.

But the authors see this as a back-to-our-roots conservative reform. They write: “President Eisenhower, for example, pursued a national-security policy very much in keeping with the principles cited above.”

He most certainly did not.

The obvious hole in this plot is the second in their list of principles: “It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” If this sounds like Ike to you, we’re having a very strange foreign-policy debate.

Two of the most famous foreign-policy incidents on Ike’s watch were the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising. Eisenhower fumbled the attempt to keep American partnership in the Aswan Dam and influence on the Suez Canal, which Egypt then nationalized. And he forcefully opposed the allies’ attempts to break Nasser’s hold.

In his recent book on postwar American foreign policy, Stephen Sestanovich writes: “Suez was no mere transatlantic disagreement, but a strategic defeat from which Britain and France never recovered. This was, in a sense, Eisenhower’s goal. He and Dulles now went beyond merely wanting American allies to fail. The United States actively and decisively promoted their failure.” Ike’s public stand against Britain, France, and Israel later in the crisis “combined outrage with undisguised pleasure at the chance to join world opinion against old-fashioned imperialism.”

Ike’s decision not to intervene in the Kremlin’s quashing of the Hungarian uprising certainly has many defenders, but I doubt it qualifies as making “clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” Ike’s foreign policy was muddled, improvised, confused, and often shallow. Eisenhower’s caution was followed by the next Republican president, Richard Nixon. It wasn’t until Reagan that Republicans had a foreign policy consistent with the principles Dueck and Zakheim lay out.

Of course, the Iraq War is the elephant in the room, and Dueck and Zakheim choose to acknowledge it this way:

Those of us who are reform conservatives on national-security issues respond to a different set of circumstances than did President George W. Bush more than ten years ago. We have cut our teeth on the debates of the past few years — not prior eras. We did not mastermind Bush’s war in Iraq.

That seems really to be what this is about: the foreign-policy factory worker’s ritual denunciation of Bush. I don’t have a ton of patience for this. I wasn’t part of this supposed evil cabal of warmongers that led us into Iraq either. I was a sophomore in college when the 9/11 attacks enduringly changed our foreign-policy debate. But I don’t feel the need to claim clean hands every time I expound on foreign affairs.

Conservatives who believe that the principles that guided much of Bush’s foreign policy are perfectly acceptable unless they’re held by people who actually served in Bush’s inner circle are engaging in school-cafeteria politics. And transferring Bush’s principles to Eisenhower in order to launder political capital is not constructive. Ike was a hero, and he deserves to be remembered as one. But as president, his foreign policy was eventually left behind for a reason.

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Mario Cuomo: Earnest, Humble, and Wrong

When former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, father of current Governor Andrew Cuomo, passed away last week, the remembrances were strangely silent on the entirety of Cuomo’s career in office save about three quarters of an hour of it in 1984. Like our current president, Cuomo was famous for giving a Democratic National Convention speech. Unlike our current president, this is perfectly ridiculous: he was a three-term governor of New York. But missing from most if not all of the remembrances of that famous speech is the most important aspect of it: Mario Cuomo, for all his poise and eloquence, was wrong.

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When former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, father of current Governor Andrew Cuomo, passed away last week, the remembrances were strangely silent on the entirety of Cuomo’s career in office save about three quarters of an hour of it in 1984. Like our current president, Cuomo was famous for giving a Democratic National Convention speech. Unlike our current president, this is perfectly ridiculous: he was a three-term governor of New York. But missing from most if not all of the remembrances of that famous speech is the most important aspect of it: Mario Cuomo, for all his poise and eloquence, was wrong.

The speech, which aimed populist fire at Ronald Reagan’s economic optimism, is not only being remembered on the national political stage because it was a pretty good speech; it’s also because it created a groundswell of hope among progressives that Cuomo would run for president. The speech survives with its almost mythical legacy precisely because Cuomo was smart enough–or humble enough, to be fair–not to run. Liberals like to wonder what might have been. But the truth is, we know exactly what might have been. Had Mario Cuomo run for president in 1988–the first cycle after his speech and the last real chance he’d have to run for an open presidential seat–he would have lost. And it probably wouldn’t have been close.

As far as the economic recovery was concerned, the sun was already up on Reagan’s morning in America. Here’s CNN comparing the Reagan recovery with the Obama recovery in 2012:

“The Reagan recovery had one of the fastest rates of growth we ever saw,” said Barry Bosworth, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “If anything it was too strong. It was spectacular.”

Just take a look at the numbers:

The economy grew at 4.5% in 1983, with a few quarters of growth north of 8%. In 2011, meanwhile, the economy grew just 1.7%.

In just one month — September 1983 — the economy added more than a million jobs. For the full year, the economy added almost 3.5 million jobs, a trend that continued into 1984, an election year in which Reagan captured 49 states in a landslide victory.

Obama can claim job growth of 1.8 million in 2011. A welcome comeback, but still tepid by comparison.

Looking ahead to 2012, Obama could replicate the 243,000 jobs created in January over each of the next 11 months and still not approach Reagan’s total for 1984 of 3.9 million.

That meant that Cuomo’s speech had to take a “yes, but…” approach to the economic recovery. But even that was fairly weak stuff. Reagan’s economy saw a decline in poverty as well. This wasn’t some recovery for plutocrats. It was a genuine economic revival.

Cuomo’s emotional appeal was, in the end, mostly just an appeal to emotion. Which helps explain why the speech–and only the speech–is so beloved by today’s progressives. One name that keeps cropping up in stories about the speech is Elizabeth Warren. Considering the shallow nature of her populism, this is actually quite insulting to the thoughtful Cuomo. There’s a reason I have Cuomo’s campaign diaries on my bookshelf behind me and not Warren’s big book of grievances. Left-wing populists really ought to take one glance at the comparison between Cuomo and Warren and wonder how they fell so far so fast. Anyone who thinks Warren can or should fill his shoes is selling something (probably on behalf of a super-PAC).

And Mario Cuomo’s nightfall-in-America routine lives on because it wasn’t tested in a national election. I don’t know how Cuomo would have fared in 1992, though I have my doubts. But had Cuomo’s anti-Reaganism actually challenged Reagan’s legacy on the national stage–that is, had Cuomo run to succeed Reagan–it would have been trounced. Perpetual pessimism about American decline did not age well during the Reagan years.

But it’s not about facts; it’s about feelings. And tales of American woe make the far left feel good; the pessimism feeds the belief that there is a wide market in America for their fantasies of national decline and vengeful redistribution on a massive scale. But as with any political platform, timing is key. Americans quite enjoyed seeing their country be both prosperous and free during Reagan’s presidency. Perhaps Warren’s timing is better than Cuomo’s?

And that consideration is really the best parallel between Cuomo and Warren. We don’t know if Warren actually wants to be president. Does she have the fire in the belly that eluded Cuomo? Maybe, maybe not. But it is highly likely she doesn’t have the Clintonian ambition she would run up against (just as Cuomo would have in 1992). It’s rare, but sometimes politicians actually set limits on themselves. Mario Cuomo did. If Warren does as well, she’ll at least earn some of this otherwise incongruous comparison.

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Mark Levin’s Distortions of Reagan  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clarifying the Reagan Record (and Correcting Don Devine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Jacobin Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Jeb Bush Is Right and Grover Norquist Is Wrong

According to an article in Politico:

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According to an article in Politico:

Jeb Bush has a tax problem.

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

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

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

“Mind-boggling,” Norquist said of Bush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One other thing. If the attitude many of those on the right have toward taxes today existed in the 1970s and 1980s, Ronald Reagan would have been considered a heretic. I say that because Reagan himself signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”; and as president he signed a tax increase (TEFRA) that at the time was the largest in American history. As president Reagan, in fact, raised taxes multiple times.

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

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

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

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

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

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Reagan and Israel: the Real Story

Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

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Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

Because Republicans today are more supportive of Israel than Democrats, someone usually pops up to say that Obama and Bibi may not like each other very much, but even Ronald Reagan–this is meant to underscore conservatives’ supposed lack of perspective–treated his Israeli counterpart worse than this. A favorite column for these writers is Chemi Shalev’s 2011 Haaretz piece titled “If Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he’d be impeached.”

During the current conflict in Gaza the column has been surfaced as usual, recently by Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner. Today in Haaretz, Gershom Gorenberg doesn’t cite Shalev but does take a walk down memory lane to point out many of the times the U.S.-Israel relationship has been in far worse shape, taking a shot at Reagan and his admirers along the way.

So what are all these writers overlooking? Put simply, it’s context. There’s no question Reagan had his fights with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But the question isn’t whether Obama would be “impeached” for treating Israel the way Reagan did. It’s why Obama, or any modern president, gets such pushback anytime the rhetoric approaches that of decades past. It’s not because of the “Israel Lobby.” It’s largely because of the way the U.S.-Israel relationship improved under Reagan and became what it is today.

In 2011, I contributed a post to National Review Online’s “Reagan at 100” series of remembrances NR was running on its Corner blog in honor of Reagan’s centennial. I wrote about Reagan and Begin. Here is part of my post:

Israel’s counteroffensive against the PLO in South Lebanon strained the relationship. But here, too, Reagan proved he could be open-minded about Israel’s predicament. When Reagan lectured Begin on the reports of civilian casualties, Begin painstakingly explained how the media reports not only weren’t true, but could not possibly be true. In a meeting that was supposed to be a dressing-down, Reagan became convinced the Israelis were getting a bad rap in the press. He brought Begin in to meet with his cabinet and told Begin to repeat to them what he had just told the president. Begin obliged, and left feeling a bit better about the trust between the two men.

Another test came with the killings at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The Israelis were blamed for supposedly allowing the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias. The accusation was outrageous, but it wounded Begin. Here again, however, Reagan stood out. [Yehuda] Avner was able to report to his boss that “there are people in the [Reagan] administration who are angry, but not the president.”

The point is that the Begin premiership was a series of challenges for Israel, its allies, and the Jewish diaspora. When Likud won national elections for the first time in 1977, the Columbia Journalism Review noted in a piece two years ago, “[Abba] Eban and others would continue to lunch with their friends at the Times in New York, where they regularly predicted the imminent collapse of the Begin government.” This cohort “spoke frequently to their friends in the media, telling them that the new crowd was a disaster, ‘that Begin was an extreme nationalist, a war-monger.’”

So Begin came into office with Israeli figures already trying to convince Americans they shouldn’t get used to dealing with Begin. Then came Israel’s raid on the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, which Reagan thought he’d been excluded from by Begin when in fact Jimmy Carter had been in consultation with Israel about the threat from the reactor; it was Carter who left Reagan out of the loop. The former American president was poisoning the well of the American government against Begin and Likud.

He didn’t have a ton of poisoning to do with some of Reagan’s advisors. In discussing the Begin inner circle (of which he was a part) and its impression of Caspar Weinberger, Yehuda Avner repeats the wonderful, though likely apocryphal, anecdote that Weinberger, in explaining why he lost his bid for California attorney general, said “Because the Jews knew I wasn’t Jewish and the Gentiles thought I was.” Whatever the actual reasons for their distrust of Begin’s team, which included Ariel Sharon, the relationship between the two Cabinets was icy.

That only increased with the war in Lebanon, Sabra and Shatila, Reagan’s rejected peace plan, etc. But there was one exception: Reagan. He made sure to treat Begin with a legitimacy that was lacking in everyone else’s approach to him. By the end of Reagan’s first term, Begin grew accustomed to being treated with respect by Reagan and being given the benefit of the doubt.

Had Carter still been in office, any one of those challenges might have seriously derailed the relationship at a time (the first Lebanon war) when Israel’s international isolation seemed assured. Reagan may have offered tough love, but it was love nonetheless. And the U.S.-Israel special relationship never looked back. For all the Reagan-Begin disagreements, the U.S.-Israel relationship came out stronger than it was when their respective terms in office began. That’s a tougher standard to meet, which is why the current president’s defenders resort to hyperbole and cherry-picked history that obscure the full picture.

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The Conservative Temperament

Is there such a thing as a conservative disposition?

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Is there such a thing as a conservative disposition?

For some on the right the answer is not really. They (rightly) view the purpose of conservatism as a means to limit government in order to further liberty. But they tend to think of conservatism almost strictly in terms of issues: the size of the modern welfare state, taxes, regulations, immigration, welfare, education, and so forth.

For others on the right, conservatism does have a dispositional element. This group includes people who can be fairly characterized, I think, as confrontational and opposed to compromise, rhetorically aggressive, impatient, and often angry (for justifiable reasons, they would insist). These individuals are suspicious of those in their ranks they consider to be unprincipled (“RINOs”). Populist in outlook, they disdain the “establishment” and the “ruling class,” whom they view as cowardly and compromised. Their operating assumption is that we’re witnessing the downfall of America; some even argue we’re moving toward tyranny. This of course shapes their cast of mind and rhetoric. The type of individuals I’m describing, when they listen to Barry Goldwater’s line in his 1964 convention speech “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” are likely to cheer.

There are others of us who believe in a conservative temperament, but it’s very much different than the one I just described. This dispositional bent is beautifully articulated in an essay in National Affairs titled, appropriately, “The Conservative Disposition in Politics.” Written by Philip Wallach and Justus Myers, the essay explores the conservative intellectual tradition, which they identify with figures like Burke, Hume, Madison, Hamilton, Oakeshott, Hayek, de Tocqueville, and Nisbet.

The essay includes important caveats, including this one: Temperamental conservatism is not a good match for every problem, and conserving institutional structures that are incompatible with liberty or justice would be illiberal and unjust. Different moments require different approaches. Still, generally speaking, the key features of conservatism include being consciously anti-ideological and anti-utopian, wary of abstractions and disruptive change, and somewhat humble in its approach given the complexity of human society and the limitations of knowledge.

When possible, conservatism prefers incremental changes to radical ones. It places a premium on experience and prudence. It is adaptive and situational, taking into account the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It accepts that governing can be messy, frustrating, and painfully slow (which is precisely what Madison intended with his system of checks and balances and separation of powers). Conservatism properly understood isn’t in principle opposed to compromise–particularly, it needs to be said, since the Constitution would never have been ratified but for repeated compromises. Compromise was in fact thought to be a positive good within the system of government created by the founders (see here for more). While certainly willing to fight for principles, a true conservative disposition seeks to temper and constructively channel passions rather than inflame them.

This difference in temperament is, I think, the major divide that exists within conservatism today. While there is some variance in terms of policies they are, by historical standards, somewhat narrow. The Republican Party is an almost uniformly conservative party these days. This is not a Rockefeller v. Goldwater moment.

Which disposition is most appropriate for this particular time is for each individual to decide. (Most of us will defend the disposition that comes most naturally to us.) My point, though, is that those who identify with the intellectual tradition described by Wallach and Myers should not cede the mantle of conservatism to those who don’t.

It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that we need substantial reforms of our governing institutions. But conservative reforms can be achieved–in fact, they are more likely to be achieved–by those with moderate temperaments: men and women who can persuade and not simply exhort, who are seen as equable and bold rather than zealous and reckless, and who carefully select the ground on which they’ll fight. (Ronald Reagan succeeded where Goldwater failed in part because his temperament reassured voters whereas Goldwater’s alarmed many of them.)

There is also something “inherently sunny about conservatism,” Wallach and Myers write. It tends to, in the words of Oakeshott, “delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” Conservatives correctly judge our situation not against perfection, but against life in this fallen world. And even in this fallen world they’re still able to find joy in the journey.

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The Obama Era and the Collapse of Trust in Our Governing Institutions

According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

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According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

These findings are a powerful indictment of the Obama presidency. But they are also part of a broader, extraordinary collapse of trust in government we’ve witnessed during the last 50 years.

After his landslide election in 1964, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”

Not exactly.

In fact, in less than four years America lurched from one of our more tranquil political periods to perhaps the most tumultuous since the Civil War. It happened in the blink of a historical eye, and it was driven by a complex set of factors, some the result of public policy and some not, but eventually the accretion heavily implicated government.

The public, especially young people, began to turn against the Vietnam War, to the point that President Johnson–battered and broken–decided not to run for reelection in 1968. Student protests spread, including onto college campuses. The nation was convulsed during the struggle over civil rights, while cities burned in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Robert Kennedy was murdered just two months later–and only five years after his brother was gunned down in Dallas. We experienced the killings at Kent State and the March on the Pentagon, Woodstock and Watergate, black power salutes in the Mexico City Olympics and violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Social pathologies–including crime, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, those on welfare, and more–worsened. And trust in government eroded at an extraordinary pace.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 1964, 76 percent of the public said they trusted government in Washington to do what was right most of the time or just about always. Just a decade later, the figure had fallen to 36 percent. By 1980, it dropped to 25 percent. In only a decade and a half, trust in government fell by 50 percentage points. We have never seen anything quite like it.

While public trust increased during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (to 47 percent), it dropped sharply following it. By the summer of 1994 public trust was at 17 percent, the lowest recorded. Those figures fluctuated during the Clinton second term, falling to 24 percent during the run-up to the Clinton impeachment trial but rising to more than 40 percent by the end of the Clinton presidency (June 2000). During George W. Bush’s first term, public trust in government spiked to more than 60 percent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But by October 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, trust was again down to 17 percent.

This deep, durable unhappiness with government, and the longing of the public to once again believe in it, was something that Barack Obama brilliantly tapped into during his campaign for the presidency. The centerpiece of his run was not a particular policy; it was the promise to elevate our political debates and restore government to a respected place in our national life.

Yet here we are, in the sixth year of the Obama presidency, with the level of confidence in his presidency (29 percent) lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors and the ratings for the legislative and judicial branches at or near their lowest points to date.

I can’t say that these judgments are unwarranted. But I’m not convinced that such corrosive mistrust of our governing institutions is particularly good for our country, either. In a free nation, massive distrust of our governing institutions is a self-indictment of sorts. Government is, after all, the “offspring of our own choice,” in the words of George Washington, who added it has

a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.

Today respect for government’s authority has never been lower, and the American people cannot be happy with this state of affairs or with themselves. In the wake of the Obama era, where expectations were raised to such dizzying heights, only to collapse into ruins, the public will be understandably wary about the next person promising to heal the planet and repair the world, who claims the power to halt the rise of the ocean tides, who says that this time will be different than all the rest and declares that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” (To remind yourself of the stratospheric expectations set by Mr. Obama, I’d urge you to watch this short clip of Obama in 2008.)

Given where we are, it seems to me that the proper response from a Republican candidate is not to celebrate in this distrust but to help correct it; to candidly and with some sophistication explain why it’s happened and to show how a modern conservative governing agenda (perhaps something along these lines) can help restore trust in a responsible, limited government. With the Obama presidency lying in ashes, and with liberalism itself terribly damaged, an opportunity exists. Who on the right will seize it?

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Rand Paul, the GOP’s Anti-Reagan

In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

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In an illuminating essay for National Journal, Michael Gerson writes about the foreign-policy debate roiling the GOP. Going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952, Gerson points out that since that moment the GOP has been an internationalist party.

There have been differences for sure–most notably Ronald Reagan’s challenge of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente, with Reagan embracing the roll-back of the Soviet empire–but they have all been differences among internationalists. Mr. Gerson argues that the rise of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul represents an effort by non-interventionists to remake the core national-security doctrine of the GOP. Gerson quotes George Mason Professor Colin Deuck, who says of Paul’s approach: “This is not just a rejection of Bush 43. It goes way beyond Reagan versus Nixon. It is an attempt to undo the Eisenhower administration, which locked Republicans into an internationalist stance.”

Mr. Gerson highlights Senator Paul’s positions on various national-security issues:

The talented, ambitious Republican senator, with little background in foreign affairs, has proposed defense cuts, opposed the “perpetual war” against terrorism, questioned American troop deployments in Germany and South Korea, and sought to limit presidential authority over the use of force (urging, for example, the congressional deauthorization of the Iraq and Afghan wars)… Paul has systematically opposed the forward deployment of American influence: drone strikes, military engagement, and foreign assistance (which, he argues, encourages “lethargy” and “insolence”). Paul’s “constitutional foreign policy” denies the legal basis of the war on terrorism, would place severe constraints on the executive, and hints at the existence of an oppressive national security state.

The political and policy atmosphere of 2013—conflict fatigue, the Arab’s Spring’s frightening turn, public concerns about drone policy, revelations about NSA spying—could hardly have been more favorable to Rand Paul’s rise. It is particularly revealing what a leader says when he is on top of the world. During his 12-hour, 52-minute drone filibuster, Paul felt enough support and permission to make extraordinary claims about the potential misuse of presidential power. “That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco,” he said, “or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination.”

This was the perfect melding of domestic and foreign policy libertarianism—an assertion that the national security state might not only violate your privacy but also take your life during lunch. It was also a paranoid delusion. Taken as a serious argument, it would mean that the president of the United States can’t be trusted with advanced weaponry.

Senator Paul understands that his libertarian convictions are still out of step with many in the GOP, which is why he’s careful in how much he reveals, careful in the battles he chooses, and why he insists his views are Reaganesque (his latest effort can be found in his op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal).

Having worked in the Reagan administration and having read a great deal about Reagan and his presidency, it is risible for Paul to claim his philosophy mirrors Reagan’s. America’s fortieth president, among other things, was not drawn to bizarre conspiracies, which Paul can be. (For example, Paul accused Vice President Cheney of being in favor of the Iraq war because of his ties to Halliburton and warns that the NSA might soon “start using the GPS feature in your phone to track whether or not you go to gun shows.”) Rand Paul’s philosophy is much closer to his father Ron Paul’s than Reagan’s or, for that matter, Eisenhower’s.

Senator Paul, then, does not represent simply a different point on the GOP’s post-World War II foreign-policy continuum. He is a break from that tradition. Whether that is wise or not is open to debate. But Mr. Paul should at least have the courage of his libertarian convictions. Particularly if he decides to run for president in 2016, Paul should level with us about how radically different his foreign policy as president would be from those of the last six Republican presidents.

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Conservatism Means Adjusting to Shifting Circumstances

The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis has written a post with a provocative headline: “Have Reagan-style tax cuts lost their political power?”

The answer, he says, is yes. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the tax issue doesn’t have the old oomph that it used to with voters,” according to Pethokoukis. And he highlights these poll results:

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The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis has written a post with a provocative headline: “Have Reagan-style tax cuts lost their political power?”

The answer, he says, is yes. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the tax issue doesn’t have the old oomph that it used to with voters,” according to Pethokoukis. And he highlights these poll results:

1. In the early 1980s, close to 70 percent of Americans thought their taxes were too high. Today, that number is 50 percent.

2. Middle-class Americans, by 53 percent to 42 percent, think they’re paying their fair share in taxes.

3. Americans rank taxes low on their list of concerns—even below climate change.

4. In the age of online tax preparation, Americans don’t think their tax returns are hard to fill out.

5. Americans think raising the minimum wage and business deregulation are better ways to boost economic growth than cutting tax rates on businesses and the wealthy.

Now, these findings don’t tell us which tax plans might be economically best for this particular moment in time. But I do think this has some bearing on a point I’ve made before and will undoubtedly make in the future: Ronald Reagan’s policies worked fabulously well in the 1980s. But the problems we face are different now than they were then. Conditions have changed, and the task for conservatives is to change–in a responsible, principled way–with them. That is in important respects what it means to be a conservative.

This point should be so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be made, except that for some on the right, to say that what Reagan did nearly 35 years ago may not be what is required today borders on heresy. For others, I suspect what is at play here are certain habits of thought. The tax issue has worked so well for so long for Republicans, they have developed well-worn mental and public policy grooves. And those are difficult to escape from.

It’s isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, to pull back from time to time to re-examine the intellectual and political landscape, to see problems in a somewhat different light, and to periodically think anew and act anew. Reagan himself did precisely that. The Reagan who ran in 1980, embracing supply-side economics, is not identical to the Reagan who ran in 1976, when he focused less on sweeping tax cuts.

Conservatives need to learn from the past but not simply try to replicate it; to understand that our principles applied to new problems will sometimes yield new solutions. To do anything else would not be conservatism but dogmatism.

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The Memory and Purpose of Heroism

The commemorations of the D-Day anniversary this morning at Normandy may well be one of the last such great events to be held in the presence of living veterans of World War Two. As with all such attempts to summon up the memory of such pivotal moments of history, once the generation that lived through these events passes and indeed, once their children who were raised on the tales of sacrifice and heroism of that conflict are no longer around, one wonders what our posterity will have left of this seminal moment in American and world history.

Part of this answer comes from those efforts to create institutions to keep these memories alive. Fortunately, after generations in which the achievements of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were, for the most part, only celebrated in film, there are now more places devoted to honoring that generation of Americans who took up arms in defense of civilization. To add to existing museums that honored American efforts in the war such as the Smithsonian and the excellent National World War II Museum in New Orleans, New York can now boast of another that was just dedicated in Old Bethpage, the Museum of American Armor that will tell more about the efforts of those who broke the strength of the Axis in the summer of 1944. The focus of this new and innovative way to teach about the past is not so much on the vehicles and weapons of the war but on the men who used them. That is entirely appropriate.

But the point about these commemorations is not merely to cherish those veterans who survive as well as those who have already passed from us. Nor is it solely an excuse to celebrate the free Europe that was created as a result of the blood shed on the shores of France 70 years ago today. Though we can well take satisfaction in the fact that a democratically elected leader of Germany now joins with the descendants of the victorious Allies to honor those who stormed the beaches on D-Day, the point of today’s commemorations should not be to just honor the veterans or pat ourselves on the back for the world they made possible. Instead, we must, above all, remember why those Americans were willing to face German guns at Omaha and Utah Beaches and in the Normandy countryside that fateful day.

No better explanation of the values that created this heroism has ever been written or spoken than in the speech President Ronald Reagan gave thirty years ago today, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan told the world why D-Day still mattered. It means just as much, if not more today as we contemplate efforts by Russia to swallow up its neighbors and the troubling revival of anti-Semitism in the Europe that we hoped would never revert to past barbarism. Here is the video of his remarks delivered on the Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The text of this speech, which remains one of the great presidential addresses in our history, follows:

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The commemorations of the D-Day anniversary this morning at Normandy may well be one of the last such great events to be held in the presence of living veterans of World War Two. As with all such attempts to summon up the memory of such pivotal moments of history, once the generation that lived through these events passes and indeed, once their children who were raised on the tales of sacrifice and heroism of that conflict are no longer around, one wonders what our posterity will have left of this seminal moment in American and world history.

Part of this answer comes from those efforts to create institutions to keep these memories alive. Fortunately, after generations in which the achievements of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were, for the most part, only celebrated in film, there are now more places devoted to honoring that generation of Americans who took up arms in defense of civilization. To add to existing museums that honored American efforts in the war such as the Smithsonian and the excellent National World War II Museum in New Orleans, New York can now boast of another that was just dedicated in Old Bethpage, the Museum of American Armor that will tell more about the efforts of those who broke the strength of the Axis in the summer of 1944. The focus of this new and innovative way to teach about the past is not so much on the vehicles and weapons of the war but on the men who used them. That is entirely appropriate.

But the point about these commemorations is not merely to cherish those veterans who survive as well as those who have already passed from us. Nor is it solely an excuse to celebrate the free Europe that was created as a result of the blood shed on the shores of France 70 years ago today. Though we can well take satisfaction in the fact that a democratically elected leader of Germany now joins with the descendants of the victorious Allies to honor those who stormed the beaches on D-Day, the point of today’s commemorations should not be to just honor the veterans or pat ourselves on the back for the world they made possible. Instead, we must, above all, remember why those Americans were willing to face German guns at Omaha and Utah Beaches and in the Normandy countryside that fateful day.

No better explanation of the values that created this heroism has ever been written or spoken than in the speech President Ronald Reagan gave thirty years ago today, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan told the world why D-Day still mattered. It means just as much, if not more today as we contemplate efforts by Russia to swallow up its neighbors and the troubling revival of anti-Semitism in the Europe that we hoped would never revert to past barbarism. Here is the video of his remarks delivered on the Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The text of this speech, which remains one of the great presidential addresses in our history, follows:

We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue. Here, in Normandy, the rescue began. Here, the Allies stood and fought against tyranny, in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.

We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, two hundred and twenty-five Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs.

Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here, and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.

And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”

I think I know what you may be thinking right now — thinking “we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day.” Well everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren’t. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.

Lord Lovat was with him — Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, “Sorry, I’m a few minutes late,” as if he’d been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he’d just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.

 There was the impossible valor of the Poles, who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold; and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore; The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland’s 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots’ Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England’s armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet,” and you, the American Rangers.

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought — or felt in their hearts, though they couldn’t know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4:00 am. In Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying. And in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.

Something else helped the men of D-day; their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer, he told them: “Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do.” Also, that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies.

When the war was over, there were lives to be rebuilt and governments to be returned to the people. There were nations to be reborn. Above all, there was a new peace to be assured. These were huge and daunting tasks. But the Allies summoned strength from the faith, belief, loyalty, and love of those who fell here. They rebuilt a new Europe together. There was first a great reconciliation among those who had been enemies, all of whom had suffered so greatly. The United States did its part, creating the Marshall Plan to help rebuild our allies and our former enemies. The Marshall Plan led to the Atlantic alliance — a great alliance that serves to this day as our shield for freedom, for prosperity, and for peace.

In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. The Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost forty years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as forty years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose: to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.

We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent. But we try always to be prepared for peace, prepared to deter aggression, prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms, and yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation. In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.

It’s fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II. Twenty million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.

We will pray forever that someday that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it.

We’re bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We’re bound by reality. The strength of America’s allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe’s democracies. We were with you then; we’re with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

Strengthened by their courage and heartened by their value [valor] and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all.

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When Conservatives Play the Purification Game

In a recent New York Times profile of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, we read this:

“There is skepticism that maybe Jeb Bush wants too much government in people’s lives,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who has advised the president campaigns of Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. “I don’t know that he will ever win over the limited-government conservative.”

I want to address the comments by Mr. Mueller for two (related) reasons, the first having to do with the Bush record and the second having to do with a somewhat troubling mindset among some on the right. Let me take them in order, starting with Bush’s record as governor of Florida.

Jeb Bush was not only a very popular two-term governor; he was also among the most successful and conservative governors in decades. That is true if one is talking about his record on taxes, where he cut taxes every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). It’s true if one is talking about Bush’s fiscal record, where he reduced the number of state government employees, kept state government spending growth lower than personal income growth, vetoed over $2.5 billion in new spending initiatives, and even won high marks, particularly in his first term, from the libertarian Cato Institute. (Bush’s spending in his second term went up in part because Florida was hit by eight hurricanes in less than two years.) 

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In a recent New York Times profile of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, we read this:

“There is skepticism that maybe Jeb Bush wants too much government in people’s lives,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who has advised the president campaigns of Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. “I don’t know that he will ever win over the limited-government conservative.”

I want to address the comments by Mr. Mueller for two (related) reasons, the first having to do with the Bush record and the second having to do with a somewhat troubling mindset among some on the right. Let me take them in order, starting with Bush’s record as governor of Florida.

Jeb Bush was not only a very popular two-term governor; he was also among the most successful and conservative governors in decades. That is true if one is talking about his record on taxes, where he cut taxes every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). It’s true if one is talking about Bush’s fiscal record, where he reduced the number of state government employees, kept state government spending growth lower than personal income growth, vetoed over $2.5 billion in new spending initiatives, and even won high marks, particularly in his first term, from the libertarian Cato Institute. (Bush’s spending in his second term went up in part because Florida was hit by eight hurricanes in less than two years.) 

Governor Bush instituted medical liability reforms that capped non-economic damages; overhauled and modernized Florida’s civil service system, including allowing state workers to be terminated for cause; did away with quotas and preferential pricing advantages in procurement and eliminated race or ethnic advantages in admissions policies; and championed an overhaul of Medicaid that allowed beneficiaries to choose from a menu of private insurance options rather than force them into a centrally managed public system. He was a strong advocate of school choice and charter schools, enacted tough standards, required testing of all students, and graded all schools. As a result of these accountability steps, his state experienced a dramatic increase in student achievement, with Florida students well outpacing national average increases in standardized test scores. Bush’s record also includes Florida’s bond rating being upgraded to the highest possible grade (AAA) and the greatest job creation in the country during the time he served as governor.

I cite Bush’s record at length not to convince anyone he should be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016 (especially since he may not run). It’s to illustrate why the idea that he should alarm limited-government conservatives strikes me as not just unpersuasive but unserious. As a point of comparison: Bush’s record in two terms as governor was in many key areas more conservative than Ronald Reagan’s record in two terms as governor. Two examples: Under Reagan, spending in California rose from an annual budget of $4.6 billion to $10.2 billion – an increase of more than 120 percent. Mr. Reagan also signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown. (Even those on the right who fault Governor Bush for his stand on immigration have to deal with the fact that, as president, Reagan spoke out in defense of the idea of amnesty, saying, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” President Reagan also signed into law legislation that granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.)

What if Greg Mueller (or those whose views he claims to be describing) applied to Reagan the standard he’s applying to Bush? The greatest conservative politician in the 20th century and one of the greatest presidents in American history would have been deemed a RINO, unprincipled, in favor of far too much government in people’s lives, and unable to win over limited-government conservative.

This is the problem when conservatives engage in a purification game. To be sure, public officials should be judged by their record and in the totality of their acts. But it’s unwise, and deeply un-conservative, to judge lawmakers against some mythical standard of perfection. It was Reagan himself who warned against those who want to go over the cliff with all flags waiving.

It’s important that those of us on the right resist falling into lazy habits; that we avoid the trap of paying less attention to reforms and measurable achievements than we do to fierce anti-government rhetoric. It’s easier to bemoan government’s role in education than it is to institute reforms that actually improve education.

At this stage in the political process it’s perfectly appropriate for people to analyze the records and the strengths and weaknesses of potential presidential nominees. And for a variety of reasons, we are drawn to some politicians more than others. But those who believe someone with Jeb Bush’s record is somehow suspect on conservative grounds are entering a world detached from reality and injurious to conservatism. 

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