29 April 2010

The problem with Charlie Crist

Until recently, Charlie Crist had been my kind of Republican -- a competent, popular, centrist governor of a swing state who was politically savvy and made few enemies.

However, Crist has all but lost me with his decision to run as an independent in the Florida Senate race.

Here's why.

First, I haven't heard any analyst note this fact when comparing Crist's situation to the Joe Lieberman/Ned Lamont fiasco in 2006 in Connecticut. This isn't akin to the Lieberman scenario because Crist is not an incumbent senator, as Lieberman was, but rather holds a separate state office (just like Rubio), and is running to replace an outgoing Republican. Lieberman, on the contrary, was an incumbent moderate Democrat who was literally tossed out on his ear by his party's moonbat wing. This is not Crist's seat to begin with, as there is no incumbent. Therefore, Crist has no greater claim in the Republican hierarchy than Rubio, who is one of the most popular, influential Republicans in Florida.

Second, even before this episode, Crist has made a name for himself as an opportunist. Recall the 2008 election. All four major Republican candidates -- McCain, Guiliani, Romney and Huckabee -- were making a play for Crist's coveted endorsement leading up to the Florida primary. With approval ratings in the mid-60s, Crist was his state's most popular politician. As is set out in "Game Change," Crist all but promised his endorsement to Guiliani before the Iowa caucuses, at which time the former mayor was considered the front-runner. The other three candidates continued to make overtures to Crist, however, who remained coy after Huckabee won Iowa and McCain won New Hampshire. Then, immediately after McCain's victory in South Carolina, Crist unexpectedly endorsed the Senior Senator as the candidates made their way down to Florida, dashing Guiliani's hopes for the nomination. McCain went on to win handily in Florida, won nearly all of the primaries on Super Tuesday, and coasted to the nomination.

Examining Crist's behavior two years later, it's difficult to paint Crist as anything but an opportunist. McCain was clearly the best and most qualified candidate, and perhaps even the candidate who best reflected Crist's moderate conservatism, but if he was as committed to McCain's candidacy as he claimed, he would have followed Tim Pawlenty's lead and endorsed McCain in 2007. By lending his support literally hours after McCain was declared the winner in South Carolina, and as the candidates were literally en route to Florida, Crist was clearly cherry-picking the front-runner. At that time, he was considered vice-presidential timber, so it's hard to not see through his facade. He clearly was angling for the #2 spot on the Republican ticket.

Said Brett Doster, a GOP strategist in Florida: "I don't know whether Charlie is left of center or right of center. Charlie is all about Charlie."

Third, Crist's independent candidacy is obviously going to siphon hundreds of thousands of votes away from Rubio. The conservative vote will be split between these two, opening the door for a previously unfathomable Democratic takeover. Kendrick Meek is a relatively serious Democratic contender. Real Clear Politics' breakdown is here.

If I happened to be voting in the Republican primary, I would probably vote for Crist. However, my vote for Crist arises not out of my center-right politics, but rather my estimation that Crist would have a better chance at keeping the seat in Republican hands.

Crist should concede, endorse Rubio, and spend the next six months campaigning hard on his behalf. By doing this, Crist would virtually guarantee the seat would remain in Republican hands, and he would endear himself not only to the base but also party leadership, setting the table for a serious run at either the presidency or Sen. Bill Nelson's seat in 2012. A fellow named MItt Romney did exactly this in 2008 and now finds himself at the top of the Republican heap heading into 2012.

By running as an independent, Crist had better hope that either he or Rubio manages to win a higher plurality than Meek.

Otherwise, he should never work in politics again.

28 April 2010

Required reading: April

Quin Hillyer of the American Spectator sets outs (again) the case against Sarah Palin.

Daniel Larison of American Conservative mag thinks Palin supporters are being huckstered.

We picked apart the tea party.

Ross Douthat has usurped Mark Steyn as the best columnist in America.

Glenn Greenwald and David Freed examine the chilling story of a blown anti-terror investigation in the wake of 9/11. It's a stunning statement about the pathetic state of political journalism in this country that this didn't get more attention.

The Obama DOJ wisely abandoned its quest for warrantless access to citizens' emails.

Even Republicans are unloading Arizona's awful new immigration bill.

Gallup notes the Dems' enthusiasm gap.

George Will on baseball's delightful old code.

And the McCain team unloads a hilarious 'net-only ad on the Senior Senator's nutcase primary challenger.

26 April 2010

Israel and conventional wisdom, cont.

Despite what cable news might tell you, it is indeed possible to have a slightly more nuanced view of American-Israeli relations than simply reflexive support for (AIPAC) or opposition to (Jimmy Carter) anything Israel does.

Hats off to R.L.G. at the Economist's Democracy in America blog for spelling this out in surprisingly concise form.

As we've noted, a standard conservative talking point has been that the Obama administration has "coddled enemies" while "alienating allies," whatever that means.

While I found Obama's naivete off-putting with respect to negotiating with Iran, it's difficult to say that he is "coddling" Mahmound Ahmedinijhad. Furthermore, it's ridiculous to say that Obama is "alienating" any of America's allies. Hamid Karzai publicly threatened to join the Taliban. For God's sake, how do you expect an American president to respond?

Shortly before Bush left office, Netanyahu asked Bush for permission to bomb suspected Iranian nuclear enrichment sites. Bush said no. Bush (rightly) believed that an Israeli bombing of Iranian facilities would trigger a terrible set of consequences in the Middle East.

By AIPAC's standards, because Bush didn't completely, utterly capitulate to Netanyahu, he must be anti-Israel. This is obviously ridiculous, but it employs the same tortured piecemeal logic many in the conservative movement use to evaluate Obama's actions.

There is considerable nuance in any evaluation of the Middle East, particularly Israel and its relationship with its neighbors. Obama objected to Netanyahu's expansion of Jewish settlements into Palestinian-occupied territory for likely the same reasons Bush denied Netanyahu permission to use force against Iran -- we are on the verge of an unprecedented moderate Middle Eastern coalition lining up against Iran, and preemptively bombing Iran, or needlessly expanding Jewish settlements, will likely upset that balance.

So to say that Obama "hates" or is "alienating" Israel is absurd.

As we've noted, America does not owe Israel unbridled deference. We owe no country this. Isn't this the point of American exceptionalism? Isn't this at the heart of why we criticize an American president for bowing when he greets foreign leaders?

But this unbridled deference toward Israel is what the conservative foreign policy establishment pushes for.

It feels quite odd to be the one defending Obama from his detractors, but such is the state of conservative thought in 2010.

24 April 2010

Why conventional wisdom is wrong on Israel

Joe Biden visited Israel in March. Knowing full well that the Obama administration wanted Israel to temporarily halt Israeli settlements in disputed territory in East Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slapped the administration in the face by announcing -- during Biden's visit -- that it would begin expanding settlements by building an additional 50,000 homes.

The administration rightly was offended by Netanyahu, and called him out publicly.

Fareed Zakaria is the sharpest foreign policy mind in America. Lest readers think he is some sort of left-wing shill, if you've read any of his columns, he clearly marches to the beat of his own drummer, and just last month, took Obama to task for publicly criticizing Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai.

Zakaria's thesis on Israel is this: Dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat should be the top priority of the Israeli government. However, Netanyahu is undermining that priority by continuing to expand Jewish settlements into Palestinian territories, because suspension of such expansions are the only thing the moderate Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) ask that Israel give in exchange for their support. By insisting on expanding settlements, Netanyahu is playing to the hard-liners in the Israeli electorate, turning off his moderate neighbors and ignoring the looming Iranian threat. If Netanyahu was truly serious about the Iranian threat, he would stop settlements immediately and work with the United States on structuring a Middle Eastern coalition against Iran.

Furthermore, if he was serious about Iran, Netanyahu would do everything in his power to strengthen his relationship with the United States, who gives his country such critical military and economic support. If that means suppressing the hardliners within his administration, so be it.

As Zakaria astutely notes, Netanyahu's actions demonstrate that his first priority isn't national security, but rather Jewish hegemony.

The world has changed -- a lot -- since American/Israeli policy was first crafted in the 1940s and 50s. The Soviet Union collapsed; hardline Iranian clerics overthrew the American-backed shah in 1979; Iran's policies have begun to alienate it from the rest of the Middle East (save Syria); the Palestinian leadership has become considerably more moderate (Arafat to Abbas); and most critically, it's not just the major world powers who have nuclear weapons anymore.

What won't ever change is that Israel is an important American ally that deserves our support. However, we are allies not because of anything intrinsic about the country or the Jewish people, but rather because our interests have been aligned from the very start.

As soon as Israeli policies begin to diverge with what is in America's best interests, Israeli leaders must feel pressure from American leaders to change course.

What I fear some American politicians -- and leaders at think tanks like AIPAC -- believe is that the interests of the state of Israel and the Jewish people take precedence over American interests. That is fundamentally incorrect. Israel only deserves American support to the extent that it supports policies that benefit America.

When we examine American foreign policy in the post-9/11 world, the most critical priority is that we protect ourselves from radical Islamic extremism. And when we examine the globe, it is clear that the most clear and present danger is the growing nuclear threat posed by Iran. This is a country whose leaders have publicly threatened to wipe Israel off the map and unabashedly finance Hezbollah, an organization that has American blood on its hands. Ending the Iranian threat is equally as important as achieving victory in Afghanistan.

This is why Obama is correct to reprimand Netanyahu. We have written here before that the only way the Iranians will be convinced to change course on their quest to be a nuclear power is if they are fully isolated from the rest of the world. This starts in Iran's own backyard. The moderate Arab states view the Iranian hardliners as highly destabilizing forces in the region -- the Iranian nuclear threat is a once-in-a-century opportunity for these countries to show solidarity with Israel and begin building a new, moderate Middle Eastern coalition against Islamic extremism. It is therefore an enormous folly for Israel to continue to push the envelope on the one issue where the moderate Arab states ask Israel to back off.

Netanyahu's statement that he is acting "in the vital interests of the state of Israel" is nonsense. It is much more vital to Israel to deal with the Iranian threat than it is to build more homes.

American foreign policy in the post-9/11 world must accurately reflect the looming Iranian threat. To the extent Israel or any other country steps in the path of the United States achieving its objectives in that regard, it must be dealt with swiftly.

22 April 2010

Passing on tea

Republican politicians like to paint the tea party movement as some sort of amorphous, trans-partisan uprising by Americans from all sides. This isn't the case at all.

Although 43 percent of tea partiers claim they have no party affiliation, 70 percent describe themselves as "conservative" and just 7 percent as "liberal." Eighty-seven percent opposed the Democrats' health care bill. Given that the bill typically garnered 35-45% support in most surveys, it's obvious that this group is not actually a cross-section of America at all, but rather is actually a huge chunk of the Republican base.

Before continuing, in case the last 14 months of posts haven't made this clear enough, let me also point out that I am among the majority of Americans who disapproves of Barack Obama's first year and a quarter in the White House. He has shown naivete in dealing with the hard-liners in Iran, passed a health care bill that completely ignores the root problem of the crisis (skyrocketing costs) and has already run up a trillion dollar-plus deficit. He has, as expected, governed from the left, and shown little interest in bipartisanship.

The bottom line is that you won't have to look too hard on this site for examples of us criticizing the president.

Good. Glad we could get that out of the way.

There are legitimate small-government critiques of the Obama administration's policies. I'd argue that most Americans are concerned by the national debt and by how much the last two administrations have spent. I don't believe this is limited to the Obama administration. Bush left office with a 30 percent approval rating for a reason. As even Obama apologist Andrew Sullivan has noted, over the past decade, big government has come back with a vengeance.

My first critique of the tea party movement is that Obama's policies in many areas are simply continuations of Bush's policies. Bailouts, deficit spending, the refusal to raise income taxes even despite a skyrocketing national debt, etc. Bush was simply an ideological predecessor to Obama. He inherited a $200 billion stimulus that he immediately squandered; his vice president was quoted as saying "deficits don't matter"; he passed a huge unfunded prescription drug liability (Medicare Part D); non-defense discretionary spending rose 10% annually (a rate three times faster than such spending rose under Clinton); he presided over great waste and fiscal abuse at the Department of Defense; he began two wars, neither of which were actually factored into any budget; and he doubled the size of the national debt in eight years.

So my question to tea partiers is this: Where were you while this was going on? Because I'm pretty sure you weren't out protesting.

This is my problem. The tea partiers are the people who supported Bush. In fact, a recent CBS/New York Times poll noted that tea partiers still support Bush at a 57 percent rate, nearly double what Bush's outgoing approval rating was among the general electorate. Therefore, by and large, the Republican base was the swath of people supporting Bush until the very end. And as we have explained, a group who boasts an 87% opposition to Obamacare can be called nothing if not "Republican base." There is no other argument. You are willfully blinding yourself to the realities of who actually shows up at these rallies if you think otherwise.

Secondly, by extension, I have a problem with the lack of seriousness of these folks' policy positions.

Ask any tea party activist, and they'll tell you they're primarily upset about two things: Their taxes are too high, and the deficit is out of control. Fine.

But what tea partiers lack are genuinely serious proposals for either reducing taxes or more importantly, reducing the deficit. It's patently obvious to most of us that if you cut taxes, as Bush did and as Reagan did, government revenues will go down, and the chances of running a deficit increase. As a result, if you cut revenues, government spending has to go down.

Furthermore, tea partiers lack the fundamental understanding that Reagan had when he entered the California governorship in 1968:

If you're facing a budget crisis, you cannot cut taxes. Of course, it's best to let Americans keep as much of their money as possible. But when we're a trillion dollars in debt, the government can't possibly lose revenue by slashing tax rates. That's not a serious fiscal policy.

Twenty percent of the federal budget is devoted to defense spending. Obama cut a few of the most wasteful parts out last year, and most conservatives shrieked in opposition. He wants to weaken our defenses! they cried. When Ron Paul similarly speaks of the growing military-industrial complex that is helping cripple our nation's finances, and when he points out that conservatives' small government critique should cover more than just discretionary spending, he gets booed. On the whole, conservatives flatly refuse to cut a dime from the defense budget.

Another 41 percent of the federal budget is devoted to entitlements -- the vast majority of which is Medicare and Social Security. With the baby boomers beginning to retire, this number will only increase. Obamacare cut Medicare by $500 billion over the next ten years, adding another 9 years of solvency onto Medicare's life, and conservatives once again shrieked in opposition that Obama was trying kill off old folks. Many conservatives (just like any segment of the populace) are nearing the retirement age, and they want the government's hands off their entitlement programs. Led by congressional leadership, Republicans/conservatives suddenly have become quite protective of Medicare and Social Security.

Defense and entitlements make up somewhere between 60 and 65 percent of the entire federal budget. If you want to make a dent in the federal budget, those are the programs you need to begin cutting. Period.

The rest of the federal budget is roughly apportioned as follows:

14 percent goes to programs under the "aid" umbrella, which includes the refundable portion of the earned-income and child tax credits; programs that provide cash payments to certain individuals or households, including supplemental security income for the elderly, disabled or the very poor; and things like food stamps, school meals, housing, energy and child care assistance to low-income families.

7 percent goes to benefits for federal retirees and veterans.

6 percent goes to interest payments on the national debt.

3 percent goes to education.

3 percent goes to transportation infrastructure -- interstates, bridges, airports, etc.

2 percent goes to scientific and medical research -- the National Institutes of Health, primarily.

1 percent goes to various international efforts, such as those that provide humanitarian aid.

What would you cut? Do you want to stop building/maintaining highways? Do you want to de-fund the NIHs, thereby completely doing away with prescription, medical treatment and medical device innovations? Do you want to stop giving a dime to, I don't know, Israel and Afghanistan? Do you want to cut benefits for those who have fought for our country overseas? Do you want to do away with tax credits?

Pretty difficult, isn't it?

The bottom line is that the marginal tax rates are as low as they've been in 40 years. The top tax bracket was in the 70s during the 1960s and 70s. Reagan cut the top tax bracket from 70 to 36 percent; Clinton raised it to 39.5; Bush cut it back to 36, and although some observers expect that Obama will eventually raise it again, he hasn't shown himself dumb enough yet to raise taxes to while the country is trying to climb out of a recession. The bottom line is that the tax burden shouldered by the American populace is actually at its lowest point in years. Americans aren't being taxed at European clip. And Americans pay no more taxes under Obama than they did under Bush. This cannot be disputed. So the argument that America's tax burden is out of control is actually quite weak.

If it's out of control now, it was out of control in 1987 when Reagan was in the White House.

The bottom line is that the tea party movement -- and it's leaders Palin, Bachmann, et al. -- don't have serious proposals for actually reducing the deficit. It's out of control, sure, but if they're really serious, why didn't they stand with Obama when he cut $100 billion of waste out of the DoD budget? If you're not willing to take a tough stand against DoD's out-of-control budget and the entitlement programs, you're never, ever going to make a big enough dent in the deficit to make a difference.

But that's ok with tea partiers. They don't have to worry about making policy, nor even competently arguing about it. They can just stomp around, waive signs, chant slogans and complain.

Finally, the reason I have a difficult time taking the tea party movement seriously is what I see as an enormous personal resentment toward the president. I didn't vote for the man and actually thought he ran a highly disingenuous campaign, yet I find myself having to defend him personally.

A Harris poll commissioned in early April finds that 57% of Republicans think that Obama is a Muslim. See here. Forty-five percent believe he was not born in the United States. See here. Thirty-eight percent believe he is doing many of the things that Hitler did. That one isn't even worth responding to.

What is most stunning above all else is that 24 percent of Republicans believe "he may be the anti-Christ" and 22 percent believe "he wants the terrorists to win." See here.

This is just bizarre. How does one possibly argue with another person who genuinely believes that the president is the anti-Christ?

And lest readers think that these opinions are jacked up by the evil mainstream media and are not representative of 21st century conservatism, I can attest that members of my own extended family have adopted many of the above beliefs. This is not some fringe belief structure, but rather based on my own personal experience, the Harris findings seem reasonably representative of conservatives' view of Obama.

Certainly, folks, it's your right under the First Amendment to protest. God bless you.

But the First Amendment also gives me the right to point out that you make our once-great movement look stupid.

13 April 2010

The case against Mitt Romney

Daniel Larison sets it out.

If you're even considering voting for Romney -- and I'm not even sure the pure "electability" argument (which is, quite truthfully, an excellent reason to vote for someone who might not be your particular brand of vodka) works anymore, as Romney couldn't even convince Republicans to vote for him in 2008, despite a massive cash advantage -- you ought to read Larison's piece.

There is no doubt that the GOP's opposition to Obamacare will continue to drive the discussion in the 2012 primaries -- and remember, the campaign will already begin in earnest next summer. The Republican base is clearly quite unhappy, at times hysterically so, with the president's agenda, so I can't imagine health care being any less of an issue in August 2011 than it is in April 2010, barring some sort of unforeseen catastrophe (e.g., a terrorist attack, Iran detonates a nuke, the market collapses again, etc.).

Romney is facing a very stiff set of circumstances. As noted in a prior post, the central feature of Obamacare -- an individual mandate to purchase health insurance -- was the centerpiece of the health care bill passed while Romney was governor of Massachusetts. In fact, Romney built his entire case for the presidency around a sort of pseudo-conservative pragmatism argument, one of the implicit highlights of course being a very Obama-like health care bill.

Without taking up the merits of either Romney or Obama's legislation here, the fact remains that this will be an albatross around Romney's neck in the primaries. Mike Huckabee absolutely disdains Romney, and if he enters the race, you can bet that he will reprise his role from 2008 -- Romney's pesky antagonist, taking shot after shot while the frontrunner (McCain in 2008; perhaps Pawlenty in 2012) sits back and grins.

Romney's attempts to distinguish the Massachusetts bill from last month's bill are laughable. His argument has been based upon federalism -- he has attempted to argue that Obama's bill is an extremist government takeover of an entire industry because the federal government did it; he is thereby implying that his bill was acceptable simply because the takeover was being perpetuated by the state. But this is a fallacy, and I think -- I hope -- most conservatives can see right through this. First, the Due Process Clause applies the entire Bill of Rights to the states, so in theory, the states are equally constrained under the Constitution. Second, if a conservative's view of the world is that the government should stay out of one's life, freedom and liberty are no more enhanced in the event a state government takes a particular action, vis-a-vis the U.S. Congress. Freedom, liberty, etc. are similarly curtailed in either event.

Don't get me wrong -- I actually think Romney would be a very good president. He is nothing if not savvy and pragmatic, and would bring a level of competence to governance we haven't seen since Clinton, if not Reagan. Put simply, he would be a superb improvement over Obama.

But at this point, I'd like to think conservatives can see right through Romney's facade. Although some analysts believe this could play right into the hands of Sarah Palin, I don't think conservatives are dumb enough to nominate her. Typically, the GOP establishment tends to fall in line behind candidates with either extensive track records (Nixon in 1968, Reagan in 1980, Dole in 1996, McCain in 2008) or loads of money (Bush in 2000, Romney in 2008). I highly doubt Palin will garner the support of much of the establishment at all -- these folks realize she is completely unelectable and instead will fall in behind Romney or Pawlenty -- and they are the kingmakers in Republican politics.

Rather, Romney's health care debacle plays right into the hands of Pawlenty, who has Romney's best attributes -- a pragmatic, competent Republican governor of a blue state -- without the pesky baggage -- primarily, the fact that he flip-flops enough to make John Kerry blush.

09 April 2010

Defending the indefensible

Is this really the new direction of neoconservatism?

In the wake of allegations of rampant corruption in the recent Afghan election -- an election he won, by the way -- Afghani president Hamid Karzai went off the deep end. Under both internal and external pressure to account for the accusations of rampant corruption underlying the most recent elections that put him back in power, Karzai went ballistic, accusing Western nations (read: the U.S. and Britain) of engineering voter fraud in last year's Afghan elections.

Karzai relies on tens of thousands of American and NATO forces to prop up his government. This charge of foreign corruption was ridiculous enough.

Last week, however, Karzai dropped his last marble, at least twice saying publicly that he might join the Taliban if foreign countries continued to pressure him.

If you care about national security, it goes without saying that this was extraordinarily alarming.

In response to Karzai's threats, the Obama administration rightfully called his comments "troubling," and publicly reprimanded him for his foolish rhetoric. There is a school of thought within the foreign policy establishment that Karzai is attempting to curry favor with some of the more pro-Taliban elements of the Afghani parliament.

The administration was exactly right to dress down Karzai, who is lucky that the United States has supported him so fiercely.

Karzai runs a laughably corrupt government in a famously corrupt nation. Last year, the nongovernmental organization Transparency International ranked Karzai's Afghanistan 176th out of 180 countries in their annual assessment of the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials. Obama is exactly right to demand that Karzai keep his own house in order, so that America can generate support for the allied effort to eliminate Taliban support in the country's more remote regions.

Liz Cheney -- echoed by others on the right who hysterically, reflexively oppose everything this administration does -- accused the president of "abandoning our allies." Sarah Palin got into the act herself, accusing Obama of "coddling enemies" (whatever that means) and "alienating allies."

Really? The audacity of this line of attack against Obama is incomprehensible. I wonder if Cheney, et al. think about how ridiculous this argument sounds before they hit the airwaves or the speaking circuit to begin blasting away?

If Bush and her father were still in power, Cheney would be on Fox News calling for Karzai's head. Karzai publicly slapped Obama in the face, defying the American institution that has provided him such critical support in the face of excruciatingly slow progress not only building legitimate democratic institutions in Afghanistan, but in fighting off the Taliban.

Instead, Obama Derangement Syndrome has gripped this vile woman so severely that she is actually attacking a sitting American president for reprimanding a foreign leader who threatened to join forces with the group responsible for the greatest atrocity ever inflicted on American soil.

07 April 2010

Pop quiz: Name that president

Who said this?

"A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And no matter how great the obstacles may seem, we must never stop our efforts to reduce the weapons of war. We must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of this earth."

A. Barack Obama, April 5, 2010
B. Jimmy Carter, January 22, 1978
C. John F. Kennedy, October 3, 1961
D. Ronald Reagan, April 30, 1984

The answer is "D."

The full text of the Gipper's remarks can be found here.

Amidst the uproar on the right in the wake of President Obama's newly announced policy on nuclear weapons, how quickly we forget how abhorrent such weapons were to the greatest president of the 20th century and the icon of our movement.

This is another episode in a litany of events, too many to count, where the conservative movement, now 22 years on from the Gipper's last days in the White House, has completely forgotten what its figurehead actually believed.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.