23 March 2011

Required reading: Libya

Several of the best takes on Libya have been by Daniel Larison -- here, here, here and here.

Our takedown of John Bolton's incomprehensible case for war here.

Andrew Sullivan wonders why the Obama administration didn't see the Arab League's about-face coming.

George Will plays 20 questions.

Glenn Greenwald blows apart Obama's claimed war-making powers. More relentless Greenwald here.


And Newt Gingrich is a complete demagogue.

21 March 2011

Hats off to Haley Barbour

The Mississippi governor excites me much less than Mitch Daniels, but Daniels' old Reagan administration buddy is beginning to win me over.

With Daniels busy in Indiana, Tim Pawlenty tacking hard to the right and John Thune having announced he won't run at all, there is an enormous gap on the center-right of the Republican electorate. Is Barbour pouncing?

If Daniels doesn't run, there is no candidate outside of Ron Paul who will argue for an end to the perpetual warfare state, push for cuts at the Pentagon and talk seriously about fiscal responsibility. These are fundamentally conservative ideals, and mainstream Republicans -- even "frontrunners" like Mitt Romney -- won't touch them.

On March 15, Barbour made waves by pushing for cuts at the Pentagon and questioning why American troops remain in Afghanistan nearly a decade after 9/11. On March 19, he delivered a scathing rebuke of the Obama administration's foray into Libya's civil war.

His best line thus far has been this: "Anybody who says you can't save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon. We can save money on defense and if we Republicans don't propose saving money on defense, we'll have no credibility on anything else."

Again, it's our belief that there exists a huge swath of serious Republican primary voters who are interested in a responsible message such as this. We thought it would be carried by Pawlenty, who has a sensible, blue-collar appeal, but he's scampered to the far right of the party on almost every major issue. Among other things, Pawlenty has publicly stated he won't cut a dime from the Pentagon.

Barbour and Daniels have said they don't want to run against each other. With Daniels busy in Indiana, can it be that Barbour, of all people, is rising?

The Cato Institute has been mildly critical of Barbour's record over the years, remarking that despite his conservative reputation, "his tax and spending record over seven years as governor has not been very conservative." Cato criticizes the fact that Barbour passed a cigarette tax and a tax on hospitals in 2008-2009, but later admitted that Mississippi was running short on revenue.

That said, Barbour's biggest negatives are less policy and more image-driven. A former lobbyist, he has accurately described himself as fat, white and Southern. In a party that absolutely must move beyond the stereotype embodied by George W. Bush, will voters in the general election go for a portly, white-haired former lobbyist who speaks with a thick southern drawl, no matter how competent or gregarious he might be?

Regardless, Barbour's recent statements demonstrate a seriousness not only about the size and scope of America's fiscal problems, but also about the folly of Bushian interventionism overseas.

These are debates that the Republican Party simply must have, and if Haley Barbour is the messenger, then so be it.

18 March 2011

We have no business in Libya

The John Bolton column that we destroyed on Tuesday is just one of hundreds of incoherent, overly partisan and/or emotional cases for military intervention in Libya. Yesterday, the Obama administration made its first real misstep with respect to the crisis in the Middle East, by reportedly pushing the U.N. Security Council to approve the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya.

The misstep was enormous, and could prove to be the biggest mistake of a presidency that is already littered with dozens of them.

As we've said before, the United States has absolutely no strategic interest in Libya whatsoever. During the leadup to the Iraq war, President Bush at least attempted to make the case that because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (he didn't) and had a shady alliance with al Qaeda (didn't have that either), he was a clear and present danger to American security. President Obama has not attempted to do this, because any suggestion that Qaddafi is a threat to the United States is laughable.

As we also noted, Qaddafi has been a reliable partner in combating radical Islamic extremism in Libya -- once a hotbed of terror -- and in fact has been critical of Saudi Arabia for what he perceives to be acquiescence of Wahabi extremism.

But there are more problems with a Libyan intervention.

If, to liberals, Iraq was an unwarranted war -- despite the fact that Saddam was a butcher who killed by some estimates 300,000 of his own people -- what is it that makes Libya different? Qaddafi, while a despot, doesn't have nearly the abysmal human rights record of Saddam. Why is intervention suddenly warranted? And why wasn't it warranted in Iraq?

What is the strategy in Libya? Is it merely the implementation of a no-fly zone? Is it the removal of Qaddafi from power? Is there even a plan at all?

What is the consequence if Qaddafi wins? If the rebels reach his stronghold, he will fight back. And then what? Does the UN send boots into Libya to aid the rebels? Where does the mission end?

What is the consequence if the rebels win? Does the administration or the international community care to understand what potentially dangerous factions are lurking amongst these "freedom fighters"? How can we be certain that a new government, if one exists, won't be worse than Qaddafi? (We can't.)

Going forward, what is the new standard for military intervention? When organic uprisings happen again, and happen they most certainly will, does the UN (or President Obama) plan to support similar intervention?

If Saudis take to the streets of Riyadh, and if the Saudi royal family engages in despotic acts similar to Qaddafi, then what will America do?

This is the problem with engaging in countries on the sole basis of "humanitarian" grounds. We are set up to look like fools in other countries where American interests are directly at stake.

And the most critical one for Americans: Does Congress' power to declare war mean anything anymore? The last time Congress declared war was in the 1940s. The imperial executive has now sent us into war in Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya while completely sidestepping the constitutional requirement of congressional approval. As Andrew Sullivan noted, Congress is entitled to a meaningful, open consultation as to the president's use of military force. Contrary to the position of the Bush administration, the president's commander in chief powers are neither unlimited nor open-ended.

Finally, the president's explanation that Qaddafi is destabilizing the region is laughable. The protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen are equally if not more destabilizing than what Qaddafi is doing. There is no rational argument to be made that what's going on in Libya was worse than what has happened recently in those countries. So why in the world is military intervention suddenly warranted?

The administration has showed great restraint to this point, but is sadly bending to the pressure of liberal humanitarians and neocon interventionists, and succumbing to the noise machine to implement a policy that will serve no strategic American interest whatsoever.

The best-case scenario is that the threat of international intervention will convince Qaddafi to back off. The more likely scenario is that the United States will be bogged down in yet another unwinnable war in the Middle East, further over-extending our military and leading to even more unnecessary American casualties.

15 March 2011

John Bolton's incoherent case for war

The short-term U.N ambassador and self-styled presidential candidate has taken to the interwebs to pile on the Obama administration for its refusal to intervene in Libya.

Bolton: First, Gadhafi has never faced his richly deserved retribution for numerous acts of terrorism against innocent Americans.

Perhaps Bolton's former boss, President Bush, should have thought about this before normalizing relations with Libya back in 2005. A question for Bolton: As these State Department cables indicate, and as is common knowledge in foreign-policy circles, Qaddafi has actually been a reliable partner in combating radical Islamic extremism. So is making sure Qaddafi sees "his richly deserved retribution" worth helping install an Islamist government made up in considerable part of the very extremists we've spent the last decade fighting?

Bolton: U.S. victims of Gadhafi’s terrorism still deserve to be avenged.

Maybe. But this isn't a serious foreign policy. If not for Qaddafi's assistance, brokered by the guy who put John Bolton on the map, it is quite likely that northern Africa would be much more friendly to al Qaeda. This sentence suggests that a Bolton administration would be focused on carrying out a foreign policy that is based not on strategic American interests but rather on the sole policy of serving retribution. Using Bolton's twisted logic, perhaps Obama should lob a few ICBMs at China for its support of the Viet Cong 40 years ago.

Bolton: Second, either a Gadhafi victory or a protracted, low-grade civil war, both of which are entirely possible outcomes, could again make Libya a base for terrorism.

Wrong. The State Department cables note:

"Libya has been a strong partner in the war against terrorism and cooperation in liaison channels is excellent. Muammar al-Qadhafi's criticism of Saudi Arabia for perceived support of Wahabi extremism, a source of continuing Libya-Saudi tension, reflects broader Libyan concern about the threat of extremism. Worried that fighters returning from Afghanistan and Iraq could destabilize the regime, the GOL has aggressively pursued operations to disrupt foreign fighter flows, including more stringent monitoring of air/land ports of entry, and blunt the ideological appeal of radical Islam."

There is no recent evidence to suggest that Qaddafi's policies have relaxed the atmosphere for al Qaeda. In fact, the Economist article we cited a few days ago demonstrates that Qaddafi has treated radical Islamic extremists and Western-looking democratists as a singular enemy, which has led to the strangest of alliances among Libyan rebels. If Libya is "a base for terrorism," it is assuredly in spite of Qaddafi, not because of him. Furthermore, Bolton's concern that Libya may become "a base for terrorism" is precisely why it is such a terrible idea to intervene at all. Right now, Libya is not a base for terrorism. So why intervene?

Bolton: Of course, there is no guarantee that a successor regime to Gadhafi would not also support terrorism, but given a choice between Gadhafi and uncertainty, uncertainty is more likely to be the safer choice.

This is incomprehensibly stupid. Given the choice between a leader who has been a key strategic partner in the war on terror and a successor regime that might be made up of Islamic extremists, the successor regime that might be made up of Islamic extremists is the safer choice? That might be the most illogical sentence in the history of the internet.

Bolton: Options include a no-fly zone (now belatedly endorsed by the Arab League) and possibly a no-drive zone for Gadhafi’s military vehicles, plus recognizing Libya’s opposition as its legitimate government.

A "no-drive zone"? I'd offer the following questions to Bolton: What support for invading Libya and installing a "no-drive zone" do you find in either codified international law or in statements from Libyan rebels or the Arab League? What is the objective standard a Bolton administration would implement for putting boots on the ground in a foreign country? How can you be certain that whatever interim government replaces Qaddafi will be equally as willing to partner with America in combating radical Islamic extremism? If you can't, why are you agitating for yet another Arab land war? When American troops die, and die they will if your "no-drive zone" is implemented, what explanation would you offer to the American public? Most critically, other than your lust for retribution, what strategic interest is advanced by spilling American blood and treasure in Libya?

John Bolton embodies the worst neoconservative excesses of the Republican Party. His unfortunate presidential candidacy will ensure that the destructive ideas of Bushism will live on, at least for one more election cycle.

14 March 2011

Romney, the total fraud

We've described Mitt Romney here before as the Republican John Kerry -- a rudderless, unprincipled demagogue who will say anything to get people to vote for him.

But that is insulting to Sen. Kerry.

Romney's entire case for the presidency hinges on conservative voters ignoring his record as governor of Massachusetts. It also hinges on voters ignoring his cringe-inducing position changes.

The idea that Romney is somehow the clear conservative alternative to anybody is laughable and has no basis in reality.

First, and most critically for 2012: Romney cannot be a credible opponent of Obamacare, when his Massachusetts healthcare plan is nearly identical, in all major respects, to the recent federal bill. If conservatives (rightfully) believe that Obamacare was an unwarranted government intrusion into the private marketplace that will cause costs to spiral out of control, then how can Romney's backers (such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) explain their support for a man who worked to pass what was in all major respects an identical bill?

Furthermore, Romney's handling of the healthcare issue has been abysmal. He needed to do one of three things: (i) apologize for its passage and admit that the bill has completely failed to control costs in Massachusetts; (ii) stand resolutely behind his bill and make a case for why government intervention in this regard -- both at the state and federal levels -- is necessary; or (iii) refuse to discuss healthcare policy altogether. Regardless of his choice, Romney should, under no circumstances, have tried to distinguish his Massachusetts bill from Obamacare, because again, in all credible respects, they are identical. Instead, Romney has attempted the impossible: He has not only discussed healthcare, but led the charge in criticizing the Obama plan. He has stood behind his bill, while attempting -- and failing miserably -- to distinguish it from Obama's. All the while, Romney has continued to hinge his case for the presidency nearly entirely on his "pragmatic manager" argument, pointing to his legislative record of so-called accomplishments in Massachusetts. But his shining triumph was the healthcare plan. This is an utterly incoherent case for to make for oneself, and conservatives who can't see through this facade are unspeakably stupid.

Second: Romney is no social conservative. Truth be told, this does not upset me in the least, but his blatant pandering to the Mike Huckabee-Tony Perkins wing of the party is pathetic. Despite his newfangled discovery of the social conservative cause, there is a mountain of evidence -- starting with Romney's own words -- demonstrating his willingness to shift with the wind.

Third: Romney has changed his position on other critical issues that cause me to seriously question not only his capacity to tell the truth, but his commitment to the conservative cause. During the 2008 primaries, Romney made a bailout to American automakers a key part of his platform, ostensibly to curry favor in his adopted home state of Michigan. Just two weeks after the presidential election, however, Romney wrote this shameless op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that a bailout of Detroit was inappropriate and would cause the American auto industry to collapse in on itself -- the same bailout, incidentally, that he had argued for nine months earlier. And on fiscal issues, while it's true that Romney balanced the budget in Massachusetts, he raised taxes and fees to do so. So what exactly does he believe?

Finally: Romney's shameless reinventions will contribute to his inability to connect with voters and seem likable. He has transformed himself from moderate northeastern governor (2003-early 2007) to across-the-board conservative (mid-2007-2008) to anti-Obama culture warrior (2009-early 2010) to the regular guy who hasn't worn a tie in over a year (now). Not wearing a tie? Romney is worth $200 million. He is anything but a regular guy. Is he dense enough to he think that taking off the tie will help him connect better with farmers in Iowa?

There is no dispute that Romney's resume is impressive and that, on paper, he is eminently qualified for the presidency.

But he has shown himself to be little more than a shape-shifter, demonstrating a stunning lack of principle that is uncommon even in Washington.

Whether Romney possesses the qualifications to be president is one thing; whether he has the character and backbone to handle the pressures of the office is quite another.

11 March 2011

In defense of doing nothing

As George Will astutely noted yesterday, many conservatives' belief that government is inefficient and ineffective ends at the water's edge.

Much of the rhetoric coming from the Republican Party recently is horrifically stupid. Presidential candidates like Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and -- God help us -- Newt Gingrich have criticized the Obama administration for one thing or another since Tunisia set off the Middle Eastern powderkeg six weeks ago.

The criticism from Romney, et al. has been that Obama failed to prop up an important American ally in Egypt -- thereby leading to the bogeyman threat of the Muslim Brotherhood seizing power -- but also that it -- wait for it -- didn't move fast enough in calling for the ouster of ... another recent American ally, Libya's Muommar Qaddafi. As folks who read newspapers are aware, President Bush normalized relations with Libya back in 2005 after Qaddafi sought America's good graces. Since that time, Qaddafi has been reasonably cooperative in combating radical Islamic jihad in his backyard. Securing the help of Qaddafi -- long an enemy of the United States -- and normalizing relations with Libya was one of the Bush administration's few shining moments in foreign affairs.

Conservatives shrieked about the Islamist bogeyman that could fill a power vacuum in Egypt, sadly defined by this outrageous Glenn Beck clip warning that Mubarak's ouster would lead to the global Islamic Caliphate. What these conservatives failed to understand is that the Egyptian military -- which has called the shots in Egypt since the beginning of the Eisenhower administration -- is far and away the most powerful institution in the country. Of all the countries in which to suspect a jihadist coup, Egypt is probably the one where such a happening would be of the least concern.

To the contrary, this excellent feature from The Economist demonstrates that the anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya, in fact, include a considerable number of radical jihadists. During his reign, Qaddafi has lumped Islamists with liberal democrats, creating an odd alliance of both fundamentalists and Western-looking democratists. A problem with intervening in Libya -- among many others -- is that there is no true face of the opposition. In Egypt, it could be said that Mohamed ElBaradei was the de facto leader of the anti-Mubarak forces. In Libya, the opposition is much more disjointed, and as the Economist feature notes, includes a sizable number of Islamist radicals hostile to American interests.

But what many conservatives -- such as Pawlenty -- are encouraging the Obama administration to do is to help overthrow a key regional ally in the global war on terror, and give money, weapons and supplies to a potentially hostile enemy that sympathizes with al Qaeda and would likely have few qualms providing safe harbor to those who wish to do America catastrophic harm.

The inconsistency in Pawlenty, et al.'s criticisms of Obama evince sheer political opportunism and rank demagoguery.

But the most compelling reason to stay out of Libya? America has no stake whatsoever -- NONE -- in a Libyan civil war. American troops were recently in the middle of another civil war -- in Iraq, circa 2006 -- and we sacrificed blood (to the tune of 4,000 of our finest men and women) and treasure for little to no strategic gain.

I've spoken glowingly of Pawlenty before, and I've thought, other than Mitch Daniels, he would make the best president of the current Republican contenders. But yesterday, in criticizing Obama's "incoherent" response in the Middle East, Pawlenty said that he would initiate a "pro-American, pro-security, pro-defense" foreign policy. (This must contrast with the Obama administration, which is presumably anti-American, hopes al Qaeda will hit us again and would rather see north Africa overrun by radical Islamists.) Again, there isn't a shred of evidence to suggest that Obama has mishandled the Middle East in any way. Pawlenty is quickly becoming a laughingstock by pandering so blatantly to the Gingrich/Palin/Beck wing of the party.

To the contrary, Obama's ad hoc response to the organic uprisings -- and his understanding that it is not always a given that the United States can (or must) intervene to effectuate "change" -- is a refreshing departure from the absymal square-peg/round-hole doctrine of forced democracy and neoconservative interventionism that was the hallmark of the Bush administration.

President Obama has gotten most things wrong in his presidency, but his response to the violence in the Middle East is not one of them. If Pawlenty hasn't learned any lessons from America's misadventures in Iraq, then he shouldn't be president.

09 March 2011

Fiscal conservatism vs. Grover Norqust

Politico highlights a burgeoning divide in the Republican Party between fiscal hawks and anti-tax zealots. The debate is framed as a battle between two conservative giants with otherwise unimpeachable fiscal credentials: Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform.

In the story's second paragraph, Carrie Brown cuts to the chase:

Norquist says it’s simple: No new taxes means no new taxes. Under no circumstances should Congress raise new revenues to solve the problem, he says.

Coburn usually would agree. But when it comes to taming the $14 trillion debt — a challenge Coburn has called “a matter of national survival” — he won’t rule it out.

Later, Norquist argues that, "You can't [cut the deficit] with tax increases. The only time the deficit comes down is when you refuse to raise taxes and you rein in spending."

Norquist is completely wrong for two reasons.

First, the premise on which Norquist's argument is based is patently false. Marginal tax rates have been raised twice in the post-Reagan era -- in 1990, when George H.W. Bush infamously broke his "read my lips" pledge, and in 1993-94, shortly after Bill Clinton and a Democratic Congress took power -- and the deficit either flatlined or decreased. Whether coincidental or not, the federal budget was not only balanced several years later, but began running a surplus in 1999.

Of course, George W. Bush and a largely Republican Congress cut marginal tax rates in 2001 -- the last year the federal budget was in the black -- leading to abrupt and immediate budget deficits.

Again, whether these fiscal happenings were coincidental or not, Norquist's argument that slashing tax rates is the only way to balance the budget finds absolutely no support from recent history.

Second, Norquist's "starve the beast" argument -- the idea that Congress will spend less if it has less money in its coffers -- also completely fails as a matter of recent historical precedent. Despite the tax increases passed in 1993, domestic discretionary spending rose an average of less than 3 percent per year during the Clinton presidency. Despite the tax cuts passed by George W. Bush in 2001, domestic discretionary spending rose an average of nearly 10 percent annually during the Bush years -- more than three times the rate under Clinton. And lest conservatives think, that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to this spike in spending, (i) the above-referenced numbers do not take into account military spending, which is not considered "discretionary" and (ii) even the Pentagon's budget numbers did not reflect the cost of Afghanistan and Iraq, because those wars were infamously put "off-budget" by the Bush administration -- the United States has been funded solely by "emergency supplementals."

Therefore, Norquist's argument that "starve the beast" policies work is simply unsupported by the facts. If he bothers to pick up a newspaper and read -- which I assume he does -- I genuinely don't understand how he can still make "starve the beast" arguments with a straight face. If he has been asleep since 1988, perhaps I understand where he's coming from. As it were, Norquist has led the anti-tax charge for two decades.

Grover Norquist and like-minded anti-tax zealots do a fundamental disservice to their country when they ignore the approaching fiscal calamity in an effort to score quick political points and popular acclaim for what is an inherently destructive tax policy.

08 March 2011

Bill Kristol and the endgame

Having cheerleaded for every American war for the last quarter-century, it's difficult to fathom what Weekly Standard editor and Fox News "all-star" Bill Kristol wouldn't support in the way of military intervention.

In the above-linked article, Kristol lambasted the dose of realism provided by defense secretary Robert Gates, when Gates noted, correctly, "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined.'"

Kristol: Is it right to characterize an attack on the Qaddafi regime’s air defenses and airplanes, and the execution of a no-fly zone that would protect the Libyan people from Qaddafi, as “an attack on Libya”? Can’t we distinguish a regime that’s lost whatever legitimacy it once had from the nation that regime is destroying and the people that regime is terrorizing?

These are the same arguments -- offered by American liberals for decades to justify spending American blood and treasure in countries where the United States has virtually no strategic interest, and in the Bush era, were suddenly co-opted by the neoconservative right -- that led to the horrendous invasion and occupation of Iraq. Of course, this is fine with Kristol, as he always seems to think the answer is "more troops." But does Kristol -- who has never served in a presidential administration, on a Senate staff or in the military -- seriously think that an attack on Libya's air defenses would spare all civilian casualties? What portion of international law does Kristol cite to justify yet another invasion and attack of a sovereign nation? (That would be none.) What justification would Kristol suggest that the president offer to the American public when, inevitably, American blood is spilled in Libya? And most critically, what possible interest does the United States have in a Libyan civil war? Furthermore, as Pat Buchanan astutely noted, would neoconservatives like Kristol advocate intervening on the ground in Libya to beat back tanks and land forces that will be sent to strike the Libyan people, when Qaddafi inevitably does so?

Kristol: In many respects Gates has been an improvement as defense secretary over his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

In many respects? How about in all respects? Rumsfeld might well turn out to be the worst defense secretary in history.

Kristol: But he’s doing his president, and his country, no favors now. He has said for a while he wants to retire. Let him go, with all appropriate felicitations and salutations. And let someone take over as secretary of defense who believes in the missions in which American forces are now engaged, and who does not shy away from the understanding that American power is a crucial force for good in the world.

Does Kristol really believe that American power has been a transcendent force for good in Iraq, where, at the lowest end, an estimated 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the invasion? Very quietly, the Iranian-backed Shiite cleric al-Sadr has risen to power, and Iraq is devolving yet again into a state mired in near-civil war. Last week in Afghanistan, 12 innocent boys were murdered by American forces outside their village, causing a nationwide anti-American uproar. The United States remains bogged down in a glorified nation-building exercise, with no identifiable end in sight, with the principal objective -- the removal of the Taliban from power -- having been accomplished nearly a decade ago. What possible evidence does Kristol have that the Arab peoples even want us intervening in their part of the world?

So goes the degeneration of the neoconservative mind. The fact that any sane American -- much less one as plugged into foreign policy matters as Kristol -- can urge, yet again, to intervene in a foreign country where (i) no American citizens are in danger and (ii) America has no identifiable interest whatsoever, is both preposterous and sad.

If the Republican Party hasn't learned its lessons from the awful decision to invade Iraq and get bogged down in an unwinnable war with no endgame in Afghanistan, then its time in the wilderness should continue until it has.

07 March 2011

Will Romney be the nominee?

Daniel Larison thinks so, as does Jim Antle.

I continue to be skeptical.

Larison and Antle's points are well-taken, and are some of the same that I've made before in explaining why Sarah Palin has little chance at the Republican nomination.

First, Republican voters tend to gravitate toward candidates who are electable, and there is a perception -- one that I believe is incorrect, frankly -- that Romney will have a good chance of knocking off the incumbent president in the general election. (My theory: If he struggled to convince conservative voters that he was a better alternative than John McCain -- who talk radio and the base loathed -- and Mike Huckabee -- whose record as a profligate spender in Arkansas was outrageous -- how will Romney possibly convince the general electorate that he is a preferable alternative to a sitting president who remains personally quite popular?)

Second, the establishment vote is a critical in a Republican primary, and even in 2008, Romney had considerable establishment support. Romney not only has a ton of money of his own, but also has the backing of Republican elites who are so often kingmakers.

Third, it seems to be Romney's turn. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain all came in second in a particular Republican primary, and in the next open primary cycle, they became the nominee. Romney effectively finished second to McCain in 2008 (he was second in total delegates when he suspended his campaign; Huckabee, who stayed in the race longer, technically ended up with more delegates), and there's a very clear perception that he's the frontrunner.

On the other hand, I believe Larison especially glosses over Romney's flaws.

This idea of "Romney as frontrunner," while admittedly borne out by polling data, seems to ignore the lessons of 2008.

As noted above, Romney had great difficulty connecting with Republican primarygoers in 2008, and there's no reason to think he won't have the same problem in 2012. Romney will have to battle with Tim Pawlenty -- who probably would have won the nomination in 2008 had he ran, has a clear conservative record of governance in a blue state, and is unfailingly likable; Newt Gingrich, who led the party for a decade and whose name recognition is off the charts; Haley Barbour, who will have money and establishment support of his own if he runs; Mitch Daniels, whose "charisma of competence" is only exceeded by his sterling record as Indiana governor; and yes, his old nemesis Huckabee. This will be a deeper field than Romney faced in 2008. While Barbour and Daniels have vacillated on running, it's quite clear that Pawlenty and Gingrich will be all-in. Both of these men are exceedingly more conservative candidates than either McCain or Huckabee, Romney's two chief rivals in 2008.

Second, Romney's incessant, embarrassing pandering has left the moderate vote up for grabs. Given the endorsements of Daniels by the likes of George Will, Ross Douthat and David Brooks, it's clear that the more moderate, pro-competence wing of the party will rally around the Indiana governor should he run. (Now, granted, Daniels co-opting this segment of the party will not be because Daniels is particularly moderate -- as we've noted here, he might actually be the most conservative guy in the field -- but rather because he has steadfastly refused to pander.) Based on his outrageous statements about Obamacare, his demagoguing of every major foreign policy issue and his new book full of red meat, Romney is clearly making a play for the conservative vote -- but this is the same group that largely backed him in 2008. The bottom line is that Romney won't have the conservative/establishment vote all to himself this time around -- he will have to battle with Pawlenty (who is believable and genuine) and Gingrich (who, if his political instincts get the better of him, will tear into Romney even more vociferously than did Huckabee).

Two sub-points here:

One, Romney would have been much better positioned in 2012 if he had marketed himself post-2008 as the serious, thoughtful venture capitalist, not some sort of right-wing panderer obsessed with calling the president names. I, personally -- though I find his stunning lack of principle offensive -- may have swallowed my bad feelings from 2008 and supported him. But because he has swung so hard and fast to the right, I have no interest whatsoever in voting for the man.

Two, point one cannot be overstated. Despite the rhetoric from the Limbaugh/Palin/Fox News noise machine, the moderate conservative vote is alive, well and up for grabs. How else to explain John McCain's 2008 candidacy? If Daniels co-opts the McCain vote and Romney has to split the conservative vote three ways with Pawlenty and Gingrich (or, four ways with Palin/Barbour/Huckabee), Romney's math becomes quite problematic.

Next: Romney didn't have to deal with the specter of his awful healthcare bill last time around. Romney simply isn't a credible opponent to Obamacare, since, as we and others have noted ad nauseum, the central features of Obamacare and Romneycare are strikingly similar.

Fourth, Romney's icy personality and incessant demagoguery make him an easy target for his primary opponents, simply because very few of them seem to like him personally.

Quite frankly, I think Romney would lose convincingly to Obama in the general election for a number of reasons, including but not limited to (i) the power of the incumbency; (ii) Romney's inability -- unlike, say, Daniels -- to convincingly make the case for conservatism; and (iii) his phoniness.

Despite Romney's massive cash advantage in 2008, most Republican voters saw right through his facade and voted for the one candidate who gave them a chance against the Obama tidal wave.

Much like 2008, a vote for Romney in the 2012 primaries is a vote for almost-certain defeat in November.

04 March 2011

The clear conservative choice

Mitch Daniels is the best governor in America.

When he took office in early 2005, Indiana faced a $200 million deficit and hadn’t balanced its budget in seven years. Four years later, all outstanding debts had been paid off, and after four consecutive balanced budgets, Daniels' Indiana was running a surplus of $1.3 billion to cushion it against the recession.

Under Daniels' watch, Indiana has its fewest state employees since 1978. The state has the lowest effective property taxes and the third-lowest per capita spending of any state in the union. Indiana has reclaimed its long-lost triple-A bond rating.

He is as tough as Chris Christie on state spending, though he's done it much less bombastically.

On his first day as governor, Daniels signed an executive order banning collective bargaining by state employees. This was in 2005 -- six years before anyone heard of Scott Walker.

Shortly thereafter, he put a 120-day moratorium on new school bond issues. He required school boards across the state to show cause if they proposed any project costing more per square foot than the national average.

“More than $40,000 to teach someone how to read?" he once quizzed a reporter. "Any school district that can’t do it ought to face consequences.”

Fundamentally, Daniels gets it, as this Weekly Standard piece demonstrates.

“I want citizens to understand,” he said. “When people start demanding we spend more money, they’re saying, ‘We want to raise your taxes.’ And the citizens should say, ‘Okay, tell me. Which one of my taxes do you want to raise?"

Presidential primaries are full of shape-shifters (Mitt Romney, John Kerry), panderers (Newt Gingrich, John Edwards) and demagogues (Sarah Palin, Howard Dean). Mitch Daniels is none of those. He won't set a crowd afire with a stirring call to arms, and probably won't be interested in tossing much red meat to the base.

But as George Will has said, Daniels has the "charisma of competence" and pushes "conservatism for grown-ups."

That's because Daniels' record as a true fiscal conservative speaks for itself.

It's stunning that Daniels has received any criticism from any quarter of the Republican Party, considering he best embodies the ideals of Ronald Reagan -- low taxes, limited government and free markets.

And it's laughable that a self-styled "true believer" like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity would endorse anyone else. If you are a true Reaganite, Daniels is your man. Perhaps a case can be made for Tim Pawlenty or Haley Barbour (if he runs), but lining up behind anyone else is nonsense.

Daniels has risen to prominence not due to rhetoric or personal charm, but on sheer results. By contrast, Romney's case for the presidency entirely hinges on him convincing voters to ignore the type of governor he was in Massachusetts.

Daniels has accumulated a mountain of evidence to suggest that he would be a tremendous president.

He doesn't need rhetoric -- he's delivered results.

UPDATE: Don't get me wrong: I love -- LOVE -- Chris Christie. He, almost singlehandedly, is responsible for exposing public-sector unions for the corrupt bloodsuckers that they are. If Christie ran for president and Daniels didn't, the big man from Trenton would be my clear-cut first choice. That said, as Jay Gatsby notes here, Daniels is fundamentally much more conservative than Christie. Daniels wants to overturn Roe v. Wade; Christie has said he wouldn't "shove" his pro-life beliefs "down people's throats." Christie has expressed support for public-sector collective bargaining; Daniels outlawed it six years ago. Christie is a virtual Democrat on gun control; Daniels is a pal of the NRA. Simply more evidence that the Egghead Wing of the GOP is more concerned with rhetoric than results.

02 March 2011

Mike Huckabee is a disgrace

As if his disastrous fiscal record wasn't enough to destroy his case for the presidency, Mike Huckabee is cozying up to the Birther movement.

The telling exchange:

INTERVIEWER: Don't you think it's fair also to ask him, I know your stance on this. How come we don't have a health record, we don't have a college record, we don't have a birth cer - why Mr. Obama did you spend millions of dollars in courts all over this country to defend against having to present a birth certificate. It's one thing to say, I've -- you've seen it, goodbye. But why go to court and send lawyers to defend against having to show it? Don't you think we deserve to know more about this man?

HUCKABEE: I would love to know more. What I know is troubling enough. And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, very different than the average American. When he gave the bust back to the Brits --

INTERVIEWER: Of Winston Churchill.

HUCKABEE: The bust of Winston Churchill, a great insult to the British. But then if you think about it, his perspective as growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather, their view of the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.

And this guy wants to be president?

Several things.

First: Huckabee immediately backpedaled hard, claiming that instead of "Kenya," he meant "Indonesia." Of course, Obama did spend a few childhood years in Indonesia, but that can't be what Huckabee meant because the Mau Mau Revolution happened in Kenya. If he meant Indonesia, he wouldn't have referenced the Mau Mau Revolution in the first place. Huckabee is a smart enough guy who chose his words carefully and by doing so, knew exactly what he was doing. The wild conspiracy theories about Obama on the Right center around his secret birthplace in Kenya. If nothing else, this was the proverbial dog whistle.

Second: Huckabee seems to be latching onto the "Kenyan anti-colonialist" nonsense that Dinesh D'Souza peddled a few months ago in Forbes. As we pointed out at the time, this narrative ignores Obama's anger toward his absent father, his admiration of his American grandparents, his use of the American military and overreaching executive power abroad, and his general proclivity to become a creature of any institution he joins. This is precisely where the conservative movement has fallen down post-2008. There is a mountain of policy evidence that Obama has been an awful president, but instead of arguing policy, D'Souzas, Becks and Huckabees would rather tar the president as a cultural outsider. To Huckabee, that is Obama's greatest sin (probably because Obama's economic policies line up nicely with Huckabee's record as a profligate spender, and Huckabee knows he won't get anywhere arguing about fiscal records).

Finally, and most disturbingly: Huckabee appears to be dipping his toe in the water of the Birther movement. It is simply insane for a candidate for the presidency to do anything other than offer a sharp rebuke of any suggestion that Barack Obama is not American-born. There simply exists not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that the president wasn't born in Hawaii. For Huckabee to even imply otherwise demonstrates a willingness to demagogue in the worst way to curry favor with fringe elements of a movement that would otherwise reject his pathetic record as governor.

This needs to stop. Mike Huckabee and his ilk -- George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove -- are engaged in a crusade to destroy the Republican Party. Idiocy such as that peddled by Huckabee yesterday cheapens the movement of Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan, making the rest of us look like fools.