Whitewashing the Record of Hugo Chávez

A supporter of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro holds a portrait of Hugo Chávez at a campaign rally in Caracas, May 1, 2018. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

It is depressing but not altogether surprising that Hugo Chávez still retains some support in Western intellectual life. The ongoing destruction of Venezuelan society should have been enough to discredit his apologists, but unfortunately it has not been so.

The latest attempt at rehabilitating Chávez’s legacy comes in the form of a New York Times op-ed by Eva Golinger, one of the late president’s most trusted advisers. “The Hugo Chávez I knew,” writes Golinger, “believed in social justice, equality and fundamental freedoms.” Against popular conceptions of Chávez as a quasi-dictator, Golinger asserts that Venezuela’s authoritarian turn has occurred only under Nicolás Maduro. Chávez “made many mistakes,” Golinger concedes, but nonetheless he “had enormous empathy for the poor and the marginalized,” he “made great strides during his presidency,” he “[helped] millions of people,” and he even “pardoned many of his adversaries, even those who attempted to overthrow him.”

Golinger makes little effort at addressing the substantive question of whether Chávez contributed to Venezuela’s degeneration into dictatorship. Here is all she offers in the way of an answer:

Did he have authoritarian tendencies? His military background left him with a firm belief in hierarchy. The longer he remained in power, the more entrenched he became, which is why term limits and checks and balances are essential to a healthy democracy.

Term limits are indeed important elements of democratic societies — elements which in 2009 Chávez abolished. Dislodging incumbents is difficult enough in advanced democracies; it is even more difficult in countries with little institutional accountability, where the government can fund massive clientelist programs to shore up support whenever it needs to. As Chávez well knew, removing term limits would have allowed him to become president for life. Only his premature death from cancer at age 58 prevented him from taking full advantage of this institutional change. Chávez undermined and destroyed the very mechanisms Golinger singles out as essential to democracies, and yet she musters scant criticism of his political projects.

Then there is the matter of “checks and balances,” to which Golinger also alludes. It is hard to overstate the extent to which Chávez obliterated checks on presidential power during his tenure. Shortly after coming into office in 1998, Chávez began implementing steps to take control of PDVSA, the national oil company, which was then autonomously run. Little by little, he fired its top management and replaced it with cronies. Then in 2002 he fired some 18,000 PDVSA workers — around 40 percent of its workforce — and had them slowly replaced with more of his backers. Apart from ruining PDVSA, these policies massively expanded the president’s power by giving him an endless source of funds to use for narrow political goals.

Chávez expanded the political power of the presidency as well. He packed the Venezuelan supreme court, took over the CNE (the body that is supposed to oversee elections and ensure their fairness), undermined press freedom by shutting down the opposition’s television stations, politicized the military by promoting officers based on loyalty rather than competence, and through a long sequence of constitutional changes transferred most decision making power from the legislature to the presidency. Such details are not mentioned in Golinger’s essay.

Nicolás Maduro’s autocracy, then, did not merely come into existence ex nihilo. Chávez bequeathed him an obsequious legislature, a loyal judiciary, and a personal oil company with which he (Maduro) could exert dictatorial power. Indeed, Maduro’s transgressions against liberal-democratic principles occur only under a specific institutional context that Chávez largely created. If Golinger’s article proves one thing, therefore, it is that one can continue to be a defender of Hugo Chávez only by committing violence against the historical record.


Unhittable Pitching

The other day Jay Nordliner tweeted out this column by Detroit sportswriter Chris McCosky, who thinks that hitters would strike out less if they tried harder when they had two strikes on them. McCosky agrees with Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, who says that “good hitters on good teams, they shorten their swing with two strikes and put the ball in play in big situations.”

But the main reason that hitters are striking out more is that the pitching is getting harder to hit. Pitchers have more room to improve by adjusting their mechanics, which come down to grip and delivery. A recent trend among starters, for example, is to forgo the windup and pitch only from the stretch, which helps their control. Hitting, by contrast, depends heavily on reflexes and eyesight, and it’s hard to improve on what you were born with in those departments. The average velocity of fastballs is always increasing. What’s worse, for the hitters, is that they’ve been seeing more curveballs lately.

A lot of breaking pitches that are called strikes now wouldn’t have been 20 years ago. In the late 1990s, MLB began to clamp down on the idea that an umpire could have a “signature” strike zone. At the time, most of the talk was that the zone would be higher and narrower, but “I think where you’ll see a difference,” American League umpire Rocky Roe predicted, “is the real good curveball, where the arc is coming through the strike zone. In the past we would have had a tendency to call it a ball.” When MLB started insisting that the ump had to start calling strikes strikes even when they were unhittable, pitchers began throwing more curves.

A third reason that MLB pitching is getting harder to hit: Managers now use their pitching staffs more shrewdly than in the past, or at least some are. Everyone knows that the performance of most pitchers declines noticeably the second time through the batting order. Finally, organized baseball is discovering the concept of the opener.


Two New Polls Show Republicans Leading in Arizona and Missouri Senate Races

With Election Day a little more than two weeks away, Republican Senate candidates in Arizona and Missouri appear to have a small lead over their Democratic opponents.

In Arizona, a New York Times/Siena poll shows Republican congresswoman Martha McSally ahead of Democratic congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema by two percentage points, 48-46 percent. McSally and Sinema are competing for the seat being vacated by Republican senator Jeff Flake, making it one of the biggest pickup opportunities for the Democratic party in this year’s Senate elections.

The NYT/Siena survey was conducted over the past week, the first polling in the state since Sinema’s past anti-war activism, support for a terrorist lawyer, and negative comments about her state came to light.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, Republican attorney general Josh Hawley appears to have a marginal lead over Democratic senator Claire McCaskill. New survey data from Missouri Scout shows Hawley leading McCaskill 47 to 46 percent. Since August, most major polls have found the race to be in a dead heat, and several have put the candidates at a tie. A CNN poll from late September showed the Democrat with a three-point lead, but another from early October put Hawley’s support at 52 percent and McCaskill at only 44 percent support.

Another survey of the race from late September showed that Missouri voters would be less likely to support the Democratic incumbent if she opposed the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. Respondents were asked how they’d vote if McCaskill supported Kavanaugh, in which case Hawley’s lead narrowed to just half a percentage point. Respondents said if McCaskill opposed Kavanaugh, they’d favor Hawley over their current senator 49 to 43 percent.

Prior to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with both Kavanaugh and one of his accusers, Christine Blasey Ford, McCaskill announced that she wouldn’t vote to confirm him, saying her decision was made independently of the sexual-misconduct allegations against him.


Clashes of Titans

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (L) and Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban (R) (Belichick: Jasen Vinlove / USA Today; Saban: John David Mercer / USA Today)

While Michigan and Michigan State are in a lightning break, let me jot a quick post, letting you know of a new Q&A, devoted to sports. My guests are David French and Vivek Dave. We — they, really, as I kind of officiate and enjoy — talk about the Major League Baseball playoffs, which we are deep into. The World Series starts on Tuesday. Also, the NBA season has just started. What should we expect? How far will LeBron James take the Los Angeles Lakers?

We further talk about college football, which we’re in the middle of. And the new NFL season, which we’re in the middle of. Both have been great. By the way, there’s a new biography of Bill Belichick, whose subtitle declares him “the greatest football coach of all time.” Is that true? Not according to David. “Nick Saban called and he wants his title back.” David and Vivek have a lively exchange on this subject, and others.

The whole podcast is a joy, from my point of view. At the end, we ask, Why sports? What does sports do for us? Many things, is the answer, and David and Vivek detail some of those, eloquently and even movingly. Again, here.


Heitkamp Campaign in Trouble as Election Day Approaches

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill, July 24, 2018. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

It’s been a bad week for Heidi Heitkamp.

Last night, the North Dakota Democrat squared off against Republican congressman Kevin Cramer in a debate, as she fights to hold on to her Senate seat. With less than three weeks to go until the election, Heitkamp already appeared to be at a disadvantage; most recent polls show Cramer with a double-digit lead.

But that wasn’t all she had to contend with. Heitkamp also had to find a way to use the hour-long debate to recoup her losses from earlier this week, when news broke that her campaign had identified a number of constituents as victims of sexual assault without their consent. The names of these women were included as signatories of an open letter to Cramer, which the Heitkamp campaign ran as an advertisement.

“The ad is about non-consent. Why would they just go ahead and take our names without our consent? It’s the same thing, just different case,” one of the women told National Review this week.

It’s a great question, and it’s one that Heitkamp was forced to address during yesterday evening’s debate. When the candidates were allotted two minutes for opening remarks, the Democratic senator used almost her entire time to apologize for her campaign’s error.

“Unfortunately, this week I not only disappointed many in North Dakota, I disappointed myself,” Heitkamp said. “My campaign wrongly listed many names in a campaign ad that were not authorized and not appropriate. This was a terrible mistake.”

Given how much negative coverage her campaign has received for the misstep, using her opening statement to apologize was the right tactical move — not to mention the right thing to do. But it undoubtedly was not how the flailing Democratic incumbent — running for reelection in a state that the sitting Republican president won by nearly 36 points — had hoped to start out the last debate of the election cycle against a popular, at-large congressman.

Later in the debate, Heitkamp defended her vote against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite the fact that a majority of North Dakotans said they wanted their senators to confirm him. The senator acknowledged that her “no” vote contradicted her constituents but said it’s more important for a politician to “exercise the judgment God gave you” than to consistently represent her voters’ wishes. And after Cramer said that Senate Democrats had turned the fight over Kavanaugh’s confirmation into a spectacle, Heitkamp insisted that there was “equal blame to go around.”

Today, the Heitkamp campaign is under fire again, this time for an advertisement apologizing to the women named in the previous ad. According to reports, the ad may have lacked the legally required disclaimer about having been paid for by a political-action committee. The newspaper that ran the ad says it received the payment from the Heitkamp campaign committee — which means the ad appears to be in violation of FEC guidelines. Heitkamp’s campaign has not responded to press inquiries on the subject.

This year’s race already promised to be a bitter fight for Heitkamp. She was first elected to the Senate in 2012 by a margin of just 3,000 votes, and this is the first time she’s running for office with a legislative record, which makes it more difficult to present herself as being in line with North Dakota’s conservative voters. Her campaign’s blunders this week certainly haven’t helped.

Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats’ Budget Games

Republicans bear a significant portion of the blame for the high federal-budget deficit. Senate Democrats are not content to rest their case on that point. Instead they are claiming that Republican tax cuts and defense spending are responsible for the entirety of the deficit. As Brian Riedl explains, the case they’re making is absurd.

Law & the Courts

Musician Convicted for Trafficking Marijuana in Mississippi

Patrick Beadle, a Jamaican-born musician living in Oregon, has been sentenced to eight years in prison for drug trafficking in Mississippi, where he was arrested with just under three pounds of marijuana, which he says was for personal use.

Some of the reactions to this case have been strange: “How can that be? He bought the weed legally in Oregon.”

Well: Buy marijuana legally in Oregon, drive to Mississippi, get arrested, go to jail.

Comparable case: Buy a semiautomatic rifle in Texas, drive to California, get arrested, go to jail.

The states have different laws, as it turns out.

Beadle may not have been entirely legal in Oregon, either. Unless I am misreading the regulations, he had almost three times the maximum allowed amount for personal use.

Marijuana should be legal across all 50 states. But it isn’t.

The states are not administrative subdivisions of the federal government; they are polities in their own right, with their own laws — which, like those of the federal government, often are misguided.

The trafficking charge seems unnecessarily harsh; it seems to have been based on the amount of marijuana and on the fact that police say it was concealed in the car. The defense pointed out that there were no scales or other paraphernalia associated with drug distribution, no large sum of cash, etc. The trafficking charge carries a ten- to 40-year sentence; the judge imposed the relatively light eight-year sentence but could not reduce the charge to mere possession, because Beadle was convicted under the more serious trafficking statute. It may be that the prosecution overdid things in this case, but the jury didn’t see it that way.

National Review

Have You Signed Up for NRPlus Yet?

If not, why do you hate America?

Alright, alright, it’s more likely that you haven’t signed up because you are totally unaware that NRPlus exists. That’s understandable — it’s fairly new, after all. But you can fix that here.

For those who don’t like hyperlinks, I’ll explain it myself. NRPlus is NR’s new digital membership service. Among other things, NRPlus members get full digital access to the magazine and its digital archives; get to listen to every episode within NR’s growing podcast archive; get rid of up to 90 percent of the advertisements on; get to comment on all posts; and, best of all, get to join NR’s members-only Facebook group and connect with NR’s writers, and readers (just yesterday, Jonah Goldberg did an “Ask Me Anything” for the group). Moreover, NRPlus members get around the paywall, so they’ll never miss another article.

NR has always been a family as much as a magazine, and NRPlus is perhaps the best available way to become part of that family. You can find all the information you need here.


Friday links

October 21 is Trafalgar Day: history, videos of reenactments and background explanations, and re-fighting the battle with BBC’s interactive Battlefield Academy.

The Biggest Guns in Human History.

The history of Oktoberfest is much bigger than beer.

Faust, Mephistopheles, Napoleon, Oliver Cromwell or a Hugenot: Halloween Ideas From an 1884 Costume Guide, with bonus 1880-era Batgirl costumes.

The Flyway Code: How birds avoid crashing into each other in mid-air.

A Deep Dive Into Uranus Jokes, because they never get old.

ICYMI, Wednesday’s links are here, and include teaching yourself to echolocate, where to poop in King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, jet engines on trucks, Rita Hayworth’s birthday (and an excellent compilation of her dancing), and patching crumbling walls with LEGOs.


Why Does College Cost so Much?

Progressives complain that going to college costs too much, and then almost always say that the solution is in some new governmental action. (Of course, more governmental action is their solution to every problem, real or imagined.)

Recently, readers of The Atlantic were treated to such an article by Amanda Ripley. She sought to explain why the cost of college has been rising so quickly for the last several decades. She managed to completely miss the elephant in the room, namely federal higher-ed subsidies.

In today’s Martin Center commentary, economics professor Richard Vedder corrects her errors.

He writes:

She fails to even fleetingly mention one thing unique to American higher education that has been an enormous factor in driving up costs: the federal student financial assistance programs. The money from those programs has provided universities an opportunity to raise fees aggressively, using the proceeds to fund a very costly and unproductive academic arms race, including ultra-posh buildings, climbing walls and lazy rivers, and college sports programs that are out of control both financially and morally.

That omission is not surprising. Progressives can never bring themselves to admit that any of their “compassionate” programs like minimum-wage laws, rent control, or educational subsidies have adverse effects.

Vedder also points out (based on his long experience in higher ed) that most college leaders have no interest in cost control. They would much rather compete on prestige and luxurious amenities than on price.

His conclusion “sticks the landing,” as they’d say in gymnastics: “Government has been the problem, not the solution. In the era before big government came to dominate higher education, fees grew less rapidly than people’s income, enrollments rose, and America became acknowledged as the world’s leading center for learning at the highest levels. We can return to high quality, affordable higher education, but only if we’re willing to end federal subsidies. It’s time for liberals to understand that.”


Fifteen Things that Caught My Eye Today (October 18, 2018)

I sat down at a dinner hosted by the University of Arizona’s School for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership the other night after a panel with Ross Douthat and Amy Sullivan, and a professor said this occasional column does frequently sap some of his time away, in a good way. So apologies (or you’re welcome) for my failing to write this lately while I’ve been on the road.

Please come to our panel next week in D.C. if you can. And you can watch online, too. Information is here.

1. An Orthodox Jew was attacked over the weekend in New York as he was walking to prayer services


3. Robert Nicholson is worth following on Twitter. Most recently for his tweets from Cairo on religious minorities there:

Continue reading “Fifteen Things that Caught My Eye Today (October 18, 2018)”

Politics & Policy

Edsall on the Democrats’ Left Turn

There’s a lot that’s interesting, if not especially surprising, here, including data showing that on average, white liberals are to the left of blacks on racial questions. Thus 18 percent of white liberals think that blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition, while 32 percent of blacks think that.

In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall writes, “One question is whether the recent heightened emphasis that white liberal Democrats place on social issues — as opposed to economic issues — contributed to the 2016 decline in minority voting and possibly to the long-term decline of Democratic support from the white working class.” Good question!


A Hard Brexit Can Be Avoided — A Hard Border, However . . .

(Photo: TT News Agency/Bjorn Larsson Rosvall/via Reuters)

Brexit negotiations have been carried off with real incompetence on the London side, which has tried to guarantee all the things that the European Union wants — gobs of cash, guarantees for EU citizens, and promise of no border in Ireland — while delaying all issues of priority to the United Kingdom, namely a defined trading relationship with the EU. Notably, the border issue in Ireland can’t even be guaranteed without knowing that trading relationship.

And it really is the Irish issue on which both sides are failing to follow their premises to an obvious conclusion.

The EU has said it is committed to keeping the four freedoms of the EU indivisible. By this it means that only member states, or those subjected to all the rules set by member states, can enjoy any of the following: the free movement of goods, services, capital, and persons.

Theresa May has said the U.K. is committed to exiting the customs union to gain the freedom to make trade deals around the world and taking full sovereign control over its immigration policy. Further, she will not allow Northern Ireland to be governed by the EU rules on account of its geographic position on the island of Ireland, as it would mean partially breaking up the Union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain. Also, her Northern-Irish coalition partners would not allow this.

Each side has played this as if the other will give up on one of its main premises in the end. The U.K. thinks it can get a free trade deal close enough to existing arrangements that small technical adjustments can be made at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The EU thinks it can use the promise of no border to bounce the U.K. into the European Economic Area, or to halt Brexit altogether.

There has been some talk of a patchwork situation that would extend the stalemate between these two positions, called a “backstop” that would keep either Northern Ireland or the entire United Kingdom under EU rules for an extended period while trading relationships are worked out.

Well, guess what. Neither side is backing down. And I’d bet anything the promise both sides are willing to break is the promise on the Irish border.

I wrote almost a year ago that “Ireland is wasting its time helping the EU shift blame for a future Irish calamity rather than working against one.” Nothing has changed my assessment. Unless there is some other hidden gambit at work, Ireland has bet everything on a strategy of siding with the EY in the hopes of bouncing the U.K. into the Norway option or in cancelling Brexit altogether. To that end, in recent weeks, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has launched “Operation Caution” in which he has instructed Irish ministers not to pick up the phones when their counterparts in the U.K. call, so as to avoid undue influence. It might as well be called “Operation La! La! La! We Can’t Hear You!”

Of course, what is so odd about all of this is that the Irish-border issue is what’s making a “No Deal” Brexit most likely, and a “No Deal” Brexit is the worst possible situation for Ireland, and would include a hard border. Ireland may suffer the most in the long run, because a fortified border may do real economic and political damage within Ireland and Northern Ireland, without significantly impressing London or Brussels as they negotiate their future relationship.

The sequencing of these negotiations has been bad. The inability of the U.K. Cabinet to unite behind a post-Brexit plan, and even discover where the EU is willing to bend, have all led to this moment. And a different kind of logic is taking over these negotiations now. The Irish-border issue has proved useless in the hands of both sides in getting the other to move off their main demands. Will anyone in a position to do something constructive care about it again?

Economy & Business

Trump vs. Trump on the Fed

Trump 1 has appointed policymakers to the Federal Reserve who are raising interest rates, as they were expected to do, and has nominated still more.

Trump 2 has said the Fed is “crazy,” “going loco,” and “going wild” for raising interest rates as fast as it has.

I think Trump 1 had it right. Fed policy looks roughly right at the moment, if you assume its job is either to minimize inflation plus unemployment or to keep nominal spending growing at a steady rate. It may be a bit too tight or a bit too loose.

In Trump 2’s defense, nearly any president would be cautious about the possible impact of raising interest rates on the economy and on his own re-election.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

The Blackface Party

I must have missed something: Was there some kind of all-hands white-people meeting at which we voted to kick the Democrats out? Elizabeth Warren, Rachel Dolezal, Beto O’Rourke — what’s up with all the ethnic play-acting? Isn’t cultural appropriation supposed to be a bad thing among progressives? Isn’t ... Read More
Film & TV

A Right-Wing Halloween

‘The world is not a dark and evil place,” insists an exasperated woman played by Judy Greer in Halloween. “It’s full of love and understanding!” I put the question to the class: Is she right? In the new film (not a reboot but a sequel that occurs 40 years after the events in the 1978 original and ... Read More