Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

They Said It:

“Do you believe,” said Candide, “that men have always massacred each other as they do to-day, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?”

“Do you believe,” said Martin, “that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?”

“Yes, without doubt,” said Candide.

“Well, then,” said Martin, “if hawks have always had the same character why should you imagine that men may have changed theirs?”

Voltaire, Candide, 1759.



The conventional wisdom in and around Washington these days is that the Republican “surge” that has taken place over the last couple of years – and which looks to continue to some extent or another this November – is a temporary phenomenon, an aberration that defies the dominant demographic trends.  The future, we are told, belongs to the socially liberal and the ethnically diverse.  Republicans may be doing well against Obama, but that success won’t continue for long and certainly won’t outlast his presidency.  The Republicans have nothing to offer the younger generation, which wants nothing so much as it wants sexual equality, open borders, free birth control, and maybe a little government-sanctioned pot.  It’s all very simple.  And the Republicans – like the legal pot – are going to get smoked.

Late last week, Thomas Edsall, the New York Times’ septuagenarian columnist and a longtime Washington journalist, penned a piece distilling this conventional wisdom, noting that the Democratic party faces a serious split with respect to the priorities of the older and younger generations, but arguing that the split will only enhance the party’s long-term prospects.  He put it this way:

Back in April, Pew researchers wrote that “huge generation gaps have opened up in our political and social values, our economic well-being, our family structure, our racial and ethnic identity, our gender norms, our religious affiliation, and our technology use.” These trends, Pew noted, point “toward a future marked by the most striking social, racial, and economic shifts the country has seen in a century.” . . .

Returning to the Pew data, even though younger Democrats are less committed to the central tenets of traditional economic liberalism, there is a strong body of evidence suggesting that the partisan commitment these voters made to the Democratic Party when they first came of political age will endure.

paper published last month, “The Great Society, Reagan’s Revolution, and Generations of Presidential Voting” by Yair Ghitza, a doctoral candidate at Columbia, and Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science there, found that the “political events of a voter’s teenage and early adult years, centered around the age of 18, are enormously important in the formation of these long-term partisan preferences.”

My Times colleagues at The Upshot have produced an interactive graphic to demonstrate the lasting power of the partisan loyalties that men and women establish in their late teens and early 20s. . . .

Looking again at the Reason poll, the survey found that “while millennials see themselves as closer to Republican governor and potential presidential candidate Chris Christie on economic issues, and closer to likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on social issues, they say they are voting for Clinton.”

When asked by Reason if they would consider voting for Clinton, 53 percent of those surveyed said yes, and 27 percent said no.  Both Joe Biden, the vice president, and Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, received more yeses than noes.

The Reason survey found, on the other hand, that every one of the prospective Republican presidential candidates pollsters mentioned — Christie, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal — received more noes than yeses from millennials, by margins ranging from two noes for every yes to four noes for every yes.

Obviously, this is not ground-breaking stuff from Edsall.  Indeed, it’s the conventional wisdom.  It is interesting, though, to see it all laid out so clearly – if presumptively.  Note that we have expressed similar views on more than one occasion, arguing that if the GOP doesn’t get its act together on gay marriage, the war on drugs, immigration, and a handful of other matters, it will never, ever (ever!) be the majority party again, since those are the issues that will matter most going forward.  Moreover, we approvingly cited Senator Rand Paul when he said the following last winter: “I think Republicans will not win again in my lifetime, unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party.  And it has to be a transformation.  Not a little tweaking at the edges.”

But what if this is wrong?  What if this is just what political columnists and prognosticators say when the crystal ball is cloudy and, to mix our metaphors, they are not comfortable getting too far out on the limb?  What if the issues that determine the winning the party over the next several years have less to do with social issues than with matters that the political class thinks are already settled?  What if, in short, everybody is missing the defining questions of the next political epoch?

So, with that “what if” in mind, we have decided to offer an alternative this week to the conventional wisdom.

We will begin by suggesting that the millennials’ coming of age may follow a similar arc to that of their parents, which is to say the Baby Boomers.  You see, if you had been paying attention in 1972, you would have been convinced that the Boomers were going to be the most homogeneously Leftist demographic cohort in American history and, moreover, that their leftism would be motivated almost exclusively by social issues, e.g. the sexual revolution, feminism, civil rights, abortion, and so on.

By 1980, though, the Boomers were settling down, and moving to the Right.  In 1984, a MAJORITY of Boomers voted for Ronald Reagan in his reelection campaign against Walter Mondale.  And while it would be nigh on impossible to tie that shift to a single issue rather than merely the political maturation process, it is nevertheless clear that national security policy played a critical role in the Boomers’ shift.  The Boomers protested Johnson and Nixon, ended the Vietnam War, and “changed the world,” as they liked to say.  But they also witnessed Carter’s haplessness, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the presumptive end of American hegemony.  And then they helped to put and keep Reagan in the Oval Office.

We started thinking about this last week as foreign affairs became the biggest drag on the Obama presidency.  Last fall, domestic policy was Obama’s Achilles’ Heel.  The economy was struggling, unemployment and underemployment were big issues, and the much-hyped health care “reform” act was executing the highest-profile and most spectacular policy faceplant in several decades.  This spring, of course, the focus shifted to scandals.  Lies and corruption seemed to have permeated all branches of government, including the State Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Internal Revenue Service, and even the Army.  Not to mention the White House.

Over the past several weeks, though, Obama’s foreign policy fecklessness has moved front-and-center, as his plans to reduce the country’s global footprint have begun to produce unexpected, if utterly predictable results.  Wars throughout the Middle East.  The Russian Bear on the move.  Hordes of illegals crossing the Southern border.  And finally, the Obama foreign policy was brought into clear focus when Bloomberg ran the following article titled, “Dutch Sadness Turns to Anger Amid Missile Blame Game” which contained the following:

In all, 298 people died in the strike that knocked the Boeing Co. (BA) 777 on flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur from the sky within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the Russian border yesterday.  The bulk of the passengers – 189 – were from the Netherlands, including a Dutch senator, who died with his wife and daughter, and a University of Amsterdam academic, who fought to bring cheaper AIDS drugs to Africa. . . .

Across the Netherlands, sadness is beginning to turn to anger as the nation seeks answers to what lay behind the worst aviation disaster to hit the country since more than 200 Dutch tourists died in a collision in Gran Canaria in 1977.  As the country’s red, white and blue flag flew at half-mast around Amsterdam’s canals, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said today he’ll leave no stone unturned to catch the culprits.

“If this proves to be an attack, then I will personally see the perpetrators will be tracked down and get the punishment they deserve,” Rutte told reporters.

You’ll forgive us, but this has to be just about the most pathetic thing we’ve ever read.  The Dutch are, understandably, upset.  Who wouldn’t be?  But then . . . so what?  So the Dutch are angry.  What are they going to do about it?  Stomp their wooden shoes until Putin listens to them?

Let us be brutally honest about this:  Prime Minister Rutte declared that he wants to see the “perpetrators” tracked down and punished because there is really nothing else he could have said.  He’s as helpless as a rat in a cage full of pythons.  Or, to mix our metaphors again, he’s in a bar full of big mean guys and his tough friend, on whom he counts to protect him, just went to take a leak.  Or to play a round of golf, as the case may be.

The cold hard fact of the matter is that all of Europe decided after World War II that it was going to outsource its national defense to the United States.  That’s right.  It was going to outsource the single most important role that governments have played in the history of mankind since the beginning of time.  Indeed, one could argue if that human nature did not require communities to defend themselves against other, possibly hostile communities, there would be no need for governments at all.  We would all live in together in harmony like Karl Marx said we would. Kumbaya and all that.

Of course, no single European country could have protected itself against the Russian bear during the Cold War.  But then, the entirety of Europe could have done so.  But it didn’t.  After all, armies cost a lot of money.  And besides, they use guns and other nasty stuff.  And the Americans like that sort of thing.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to peace, love, and harmony.  One day the Americans elected a president who shared the Europeans’ disdain for national defense and global force projection.

We have often argued in these pages that any American withdrawal from the world would be far more devastating for the world than it would be America.  And this week, the Dutch are finding that out firsthand.  Yesterday, the Commander in Chief of their surrogate army gave his toughest and most aggressive speech to date on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, warning Putin that he has finally stepped over the line.  It’s time for full-scale retaliation, he said, time for . . . . sanctions!

Now far be it from us to suggest that Obama should start an actual war with Russia just because its minions shot down somebody else’s plane.  After all, the Soviets shot down a Korean plane in 1983, and Reagan didn’t send troops marching off to Moscow.  But then, he did do a number of other things to undermine and punish the Soviets, all of which culminated, eventually, in the collapse of the Evil Empire.  And while no one, not even Obama himself, knows what he will do, we can be quite certain that he won’t do anything meaningful.  We don’t know why this is.  But we have watched him long enough to know that he won’t.

This is interesting – and telling.  You see, there was at least one American citizen on the plane that the Ukrainian/Russian collaborators shot down last week.  But again, so what?  It made no discernable difference to Obama whether there was an American on that plane or not.  It was hardly worth a mention.  Not long ago, Hamas terrorists kidnaped and then murdered three Jewish teenagers in Israel, one of whom happened to be an American citizen.  It made no difference to Obama.  It was hardly worth a mention.  The Sudanese government is rather bent on prosecuting and jailing, if not stoning, the wife of an American citizen, who recently gave birth to that citizen’s child – a child who is himself an American citizen – for the “crime” of apostasy (that is, marrying a non-Muslim).  But apparently, that couldn’t be helped.  It made no difference to Obama.  It was hardly worth a mention.  The government of Mexico has in its jails a former U.S. Marine who did two tours of duty in the Middle East.  He is there on a technicality, but still Mexico refuses to release him.  And it makes no difference to Obama.  It is – say it with us! – hardly worth a mention.

We ask ourselves, is this what the American people wanted when they elected Obama to reverse the excesses of the Bush foreign policy?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps the conventional wisdom is wrong?

A few weeks ago, you may recall, we predicted – not so boldly – that Hillary Clinton would not be the next President of the United States.  Today, we will go one step further and predict that the next president will NOT be a Democrat.

As far as we can tell, the Democrats will be able to offer one of three foreign policy options to the electorate in the general election of 2016.  The first, and presumably most likely, of these would be a move away from Obama, to his right.  This is the ground currently being staked out by Hillary.  It is also the ground that was staked out by her husband.  It is also likely to be too reminiscent for voters of George Bush’s foreign policy.

It is worth recalling here that the decision to make “regime change” the American policy with respect to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was made by Bill Clinton.  Bush-haters tend to forget this, obviously, but you can bet they, along with everyone else, will be reminded of it should Hillary choose to utilize the only strategy she has, namely nostalgia for her husband.  Bill’s foreign policy was, in the end, remarkably similar to Bush’s.  Both men favored “foreign policy as social work,” (to borrow a phrase from Michael Mandelbaum), and both could be described as neo-Wilsonians who sought to make the world safe for democracy.  Bush may have taken Wilson’s instruction to heart more sincerely than Bill did, but both men were “nation-builders.”  And so is Hillary.

The second option would be to move to the left of Obama.  Think Elizabeth Warren, or Jerry Brown, or maybe even Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.  In such a world as ours, such a candidate would have exactly zero chance of winning in the general election.  Take Obama’s weakness, exacerbate it, and add an even bigger dollop of Leftist economic daydreaming and the end result would be exactly zero chance of winning.  Maybe one of them would have a chance if the GOP nominated Dick Cheney, but even then we’d be skeptical.

That leaves option number three, more of the same, which is to say Joe Biden.  Even if the world were not coming apart at the seams; even if Obama’s foreign policy was not universally recognized as a complete and utter disaster; even if everything was, in short, as seemingly wonderful as it was in November of 2000, it’s hard to imagine the American people falling for Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s clown prince.  If Bill Clinton couldn’t get a serious and self-important politician like Algore elected, then there’s no way that Barack Obama could get a doofus like Joe Biden elected – even if he wanted to.  And we’re not exactly sure that he wants to.  Biden is probably a nice enough guy.  But he’s also a buffoon, a hack, and a plagiarist.

It is possible, we suppose, that some Democrat could materialize out of thin air and manage to blend a reasonable-sounding domestic policy with a tough, non-Bushian approach to foreign policy.  But this seems very unlikely.  For one thing, the Democrats would never nominate such a person.  Even if the nation’s young voters manage to see the Obama foreign policy disaster for what it is, and even if they choose to remain Democrats in an effort to nominate a solid national security guy like, for example, the former Senator (and former Republican) Jim Webb, the diehards who comprise the core of the party’s base will never agree.  Democrats like to mock Republicans these days, insisting that Reagan could never be nominated by today’s GOP.  That may or may not be true, but certainly the inverse is true; which is to say the Democrats wouldn’t nominate Bill Clinton if he were to run today.  And they certainly won’t nominate anyone to Bill’s right.

That leaves the Republicans.

Since we’re in a predicting mood, we’ll make another one:  Rand Paul will not be the next President of the United States.  This just makes sense, we suppose.  If the national security situation continues to deteriorate – and there is no reason whatsoever to think that it won’t – then the American people are not going to hand the Commander-in-chief title over to a guy who is essentially an isolationist and whose pops is running around the world saying that Vladimir Putin is getting a raw deal.  If the people won’t go left of Obama for a Democrat, they won’t go left of him for a Republican either.

So who’s that leave?  Or, more to the point, what’s that leave?  What kind of foreign policy will the GOP nominee have to embrace in order to appeal to the broad and largely persuadable center of the national electorate that is opposed both to Leftist/Paulist isolationism and to the Bush/Clinton neo-Wilsonianism?  Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ token conservative columnist and one of the journalistic leaders of the “reform conservatism” movement, tried his hand at answering this very question last week – unfortunately without much luck.  He put it this way:

What I think the G.O.P. needs on foreign policy is something like what reform conservatism is trying to offer on domestic policy: A kind of unifying center for conservatives weary of current binaries (Tea Party versus RINOs in the domestic sphere, “isolationists” versus “neocons” in foreign policy), which would internalize lessons from the Bush and Obama eras (especially lessons about the limits of military interventions and nation-building efforts) without abandoning broad Pax Americana goals.

The problem is that whereas in the domestic sphere you can try to create that kind of center out of concrete policy proposals, in foreign policy you need something that’s a little more dispositional, a little more suited to the crisis-management realities of diplomacy and war. (Not that domestic policy doesn’t involve a lot of crisis management . . . but there’s still a predictability to policy disputes at home, and a constitution-provided shape to our debates, that dissolves beyond the water’s edge.)  I liked Ben Domenech’s way of framing this point, when he wrote yesterday in the Transom that the Republican Party “has always included realists and idealists, and there was in the past a degree of trust that elected leaders could sound more like idealists but govern more like realists.”  It’s that trust that was forfeited by some of the Bush administration’s follies, and that needs to be recovered if the G.O.P. is to deserve anybody’s vote.  But because it’s a trust, ultimately, in competence and caution, it’s a bit hard to say exactly what this kind of “new realism” or “realist internationalism” or “chastened idealism” (or whatever phrase you prefer) would look like case by case . . . beyond, I suppose, saying “let Robert Gates drink from the fountain of youth, and put him in charge of Republican foreign policy forever,” which is certainly an idea, but probably not a sufficient foundation for an actual agenda.

As you well know, we’re not exactly in the business here of offering unsolicited advice to politicians – or to journalists.  But it strikes us that the point that Douthat is missing here is the nature of national security policy and the ruling class disengagement from it.  When he writes that American foreign policy has lost its way over the last couple of decades at least and that the ruling class has, in the process, lost the trust of the people, Douthat is really saying that the American ruling class has lost the sense of what national security policy is and what it should therefore be about.

If the politicians of the ruling class are going to win back the public’s trust, the only way for them to do so is by rediscovering a conclusion that should be blindingly obvious, but which apparently isn’t.  The goal of American foreign policy should be to advance American interests.  The goal isn’t to build democracy.  It isn’t to deliver freedom and liberty to the poor souls living under the boot of oppression.  It isn’t to bring clean water, cheap electricity, and high-speed internet to all the little children of the world.  The goal is to advance American interests.  Period.

Obviously, the catch here is figuring out what American interests are and then how best to advance them.  But if one starts with the premise that the United States is in the business of being the world’s policeman not because of some magnanimous urge to make the world a better place but because of a need to do so in order to advance the trade, tranquility, and trust necessary for the American people to prosper, then that’s half the battle.  Add in the notion that it is far better to avoid a war than to fight one, and you’re almost there.

Like most critics of the Republican establishment these days – including Douthat and the Reform Republicans – we tend to believe that the party and its leaders are a little too beholden to the legacy of Ronald Reagan.  It is, as one wag recently noted, difficult to project an image as a forward-looking party when you’re busy obsessing over the solutions to the problems of three decades ago.

At the same time, we think that on the matter of national security policy, Reagan offered some fairly practical advice, not just for Republicans but for the ruling class more generally.  For starters, Reagan understood that “peace” is not something that can be negotiated from a position of weakness.  Si vis pacem, para bellum, as Vegetius put it, “If you want peace, prepare for war,” or as Reagan translated it, “peace through strength.”

In practical terms, what this means is that withdrawal from high-profile interventionism does not have to be complemented by cuts to defense forces, armaments, and national security funding.  The late, great Margaret Thatcher said that Reagan “won the Cold War without firing a shot.”  Reagan was a hawk, obviously, but he was a reluctant warrior.  He didn’t destroy the nation’s enemies by beating them into submission, but rather by making it clear to them that they could not beat the Americans into submission, that they simply could out-gun or out-tough the United States.

And that brings us to the second lesson that today’s leaders can learn from Reagan.  Reagan understood a variant of the truism expressed by Communist Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, “Diplomacy is war by other means.”  As we have recounted countless times in these pages, most recently in the February 25 piece “Decadence and the Ruling Class,” Reagan understood that national security policy, which is to say the civilized version of war, was about far more than guns, missiles, and tanks.  He knew that it was also about economics, trade, natural resources, and countless other seemingly distinct policy sectors.

As recounted in National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs) Numbers 32, 66, and 75, Reagan and his national security team hit the Soviets where it hurt, which is to say that they say consciously and intentionally leveraged every tool at their disposal to undermine the Soviet economy by undermining the lynchpin in that economy, namely energy resources.  With their economy under attack, their currency dwindling, and their infrastructure therefore crumbling, the Soviets never stood a chance.

If all of this seems too vague and too dated, we’ll offer an updated version of Reagan’s strategies and a second model for Republican presidential wannabes, one which might offer some clue as to which of the prospective Republicans might be best suited to take lead on national security and parlay that into a winning presidential campaign.  If there is one national leader on the global stage today who appears best to understand the dicta employed so successfully by Reagan in the 1980s, it is Israeli Prime Minister Banjamin Netanyahu.

It might sound strange, praising Netanyahu as he wages war in Gaza, but it is precisely because he is waging war in Gaza that Netanyahu stands out.  Like Reagan, he too understands that national security policy is about national interests.  It’s not about placating the “global community.”  It’s not about pleasing the UN or the manifestly ignorant and anti-Israel American Secretary of State.  It’s not about anything other than protecting and defending the prerogatives of Israel and her people.  If crushing a terrorist organization in Gaza leads to global condemnation, so be it.  It will also, all but certainly, save lives, Israeli lives especially, but Palestinian lives as well.

Netanyahu also understands that peace is not possible unless strength is demonstrated.  We have long believed that the only solution for the stability in the Middle East is a policy directed at “No War, No Peace,” which is to say a policy that ensures that Israel is strong enough to defend itself in the little skirmishes it needs to wage to protect itself (as it is doing now in Gaza) in order to prevent a larger, full-scale war.  As long as Israel is both free enough and strong enough to dispatch Hamas in Gaza, it will not have to fight Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, the Syrian Alawites, the Iranians and the rest combined in a total, perhaps nuclear, war.  No War, No Peace.

Netanyahu, for all the grief piled on him by various American and other Western politicians, still gets it.  He understands that he’s not charged with winning a global popularity contest, but with defending his nation, her people, and their interests.

We have no idea if there are any Republicans on the national scene who have the grit, determination, foresight, and thick skin of a Benjamin Netanyahu.  George W. Bush had the grit, determination, and thick skin, but he lacked the foresight.  We frankly find it hard to imagine that there are too many others who share Bush’s and Netanyahu’s willingness to sacrifice their own reputations for the good of their people, much less any who also possess the virtues of sophia and prudentia, but we hope to proven wrong.

In the meantime, pay attention to how the Republicans speak about Israel and especially about Netanyahu.  If you hear one who does more than mouth the usual platitudes – e.g. “Israel has the right to defend herself,” – and actually expresses support for limited military action aimed at weeding out the terrorists in Gaza, regardless of the Hamas-inflated civilian casualties, then you might just have found one who understands both the challenges and opportunities of American national security policy.  And that, in turn, might mean that you’ve identified the next President of the United States.

The American electorate is, at present, more unsettled than it has been in several decades.  Both parties face internal schisms and internal contradictions.  The emerging majority – headed by the millennials – is erratic.  Its loyalties are unsettled and may remain so for some time.  The conventional wisdom argues that social issues will determine the future.  This may, in the end, prove to be so.

At the same time, however, last Sunday, July 13, when the Wall Street Journal published an article under the title “Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ‘70s,” the paper hinted at the possibility that other issues may also play a role.  As it turns out, the country is facing once-in-a-generation instability because it elected once-in-a-generation fecklessness.  The only question now is whether there is anyone in our otherwise deficient ruling class with the skill and vision to take advantage of the situation and become a once-in-a-generation champion.  Time will tell.


Copyright 2014. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.