Magazine | August 10, 2009, Issue

The Carrie Effect

(Brian Zak/SIPA)
Notes from the frontlines of the Marriage War

The headline on the story about a new CBS News/New York Times survey was interesting: “Poll: Support for Gay Marriage Dips.” How fast and how far had support for gay marriage had to drop before a mainstream-media headline acknowledged it, even as a “dip”?

Here’s the answer: 9 percentage points. 

That’s right: In just a few short months, support for gay marriage in this poll plunged 9 percentage points, from its all-time high of 42 percent to 33 percent. 

A reporter for New York magazine recently called me to ask about the cause of a similar abrupt drop in support for gay marriage in a poll of voters in New York State. “Did the National Organization for Marriage” — of which I am president — “cause that decline?” he asked. I suspect he wanted me to claim credit, to give him a more dramatic narrative. After all, if you run a large activist organization directly involved in politics, your professional obligation is to be a blowhard. (And indeed, the 2 million robocalls and the ad campaign NOM had launched must have helped.) But I turned in my professional-blowhard card by saying, “No, I really think that it was Carrie Prejean.”

The Carrie Effect? How can one beauty queen cause a swing of almost ten points in national polls on a hotly debated issue? 

Culture consists of ideas. Ideas, like civilizations, can die out. They die when no one is willing to defend them out loud. Gay-marriage advocates are like the Borg: Resistance is futile, they repeatedly say. This is an ambitious and psychologically sophisticated strategy: If they say it often enough, maybe Americans will believe it. If Americans start to believe it, then it will be true. Despair is gay-marriage advocates’ most powerful weapon, especially when it is fed by social conservatives’ failure to create solid strategies of hope.

In the marketplace of ideas, not all Americans are equal. Culture is created by elites. And gay-marriage advocates have decided that victory requires winning over not only liberal and Democratic elites, as powerful as they are, but conservative and Republican elites as well. 

When does a war end? When one side’s will to fight is broken. This is true in culture wars, too. A culture shift is complete only when an idea becomes uncontested (and uncontestable) by good, decent, law-abiding, “normal” citizens.

Gay-marriage advocates tried very hard to engineer such a moment in the past few months. I’ve had a front-row seat, fighting marriage battles deep in blue states — battles I didn’t ask for and don’t want, battles that gay-marriage advocates decided to fight right now in the middle of a looming recession, with budget craters opening up and service cuts or tax increases looming. Does this make sense? Why now?

Understanding the answer to that question is crucial, for the future of the country and of the conservative movement. Gay-marriage advocates have their story line for “Why now?”: The culture has shifted. Now is the time. If by “culture” is meant “what ordinary voters think,” there is remarkably little evidence of this. And culture does consist largely in “what people think” — but the ideas that govern a culture are made by elites: writers, thinkers, professors, artists, musicians, ad executives, prophets, bishops, ministers, religious leaders. These “symbolic analysts” are the most important players in culture war. Symbols are not distractions — they are the stuff of culture. When people dismiss the fight for marriage as only a fight about a word — they are revealing that they do not understand what a culture war is about. It is largely about fixing the meanings of words. What does “patriotism” mean? What does “freedom” mean? What does “equality” require? What is “marriage”?

The best way to understand the power of the gay-marriage movement is to focus on the fact that its leaders are artists. They are painting truths in broad strokes, hoping to make reality conform to their pictures. They are good at this, and that’s a powerful advantage. But here is our edge: The truth is easier to represent when reality is already on your side. That, along with the support of a majority of the American people, is our latent, mostly unexploited advantage. Same-sex unions are really not just like opposite-sex unions when marriage is in question. Celebrating all forms of adult romantic love equally is not a very good justification for redefining a fundamental institution whose public purposes reach far beyond the affirmation of romance. 

Cultures that can no longer perceive anything special about unions of husband and wife will succumb to those that do. The future belongs to civilizations that commit substantial energy to generativity. Gay marriage is a bright red decision line: Once our government is committed to the idea that two men in a loving union are a marriage, there will be no retreat from that idea in the public square. Marriage will mean adults in love, not children in need.

The frontlines of a battle are perhaps never the place where a definitive account can be written, but here is what I saw unfold over the last few months.

First came Iowa. On April 3, the Iowa supreme court discovered a constitutional right to gay marriage.

 

 Iowa? How did gay marriage happen there? 

Almost ten years ago, gay-marriage advocates launched a court-based strategy. They chose carefully the states where cases would be filed — and Iowa made the list. Something about the Iowa court’s decisions on equal protection made Lambda Legal and the rest of the gay-rights legal establishment believe that Iowa, along with Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Washington State, and California was a prime candidate for court-ordered gay marriage. They were half right: After Massachusetts in 2003, state supreme courts in Connecticut, California, and Iowa discovered a constitutional right to gay marriage. 

From a culture-war perspective, what is most interesting about Iowa is the way gay-marriage advocates used the decision. “Gay marriage comes to the heartland,” was the top-line message, implying that somehow the good people of Iowa now support gay marriage. I know how false this message is. The outrage in the heartland about gay marriage is palpable, if so far undirected. A University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll of Iowa residents released just days before the court’s same-sex-marriage ruling showed that just 26 percent of Iowans supported same-sex marriage. 

With Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), the National Organization for Marriage robocalled the state in response to the court decision, urging Iowans to call their legislators to support a marriage amendment. We also asked whether we could call back and ask them for money. Here’s the amazing thing: The very first sweep of phone calls raised more money than the cost of the robocalls. “When people you don’t know send you checks over the phone for $1,000, the base is fired up!” said Brian Brown, our executive director. 

Nonetheless, just a few weeks later, while I was being interviewed on a Christian radio station in Texas, the host told me, “Maybe they want gay marriage in Iowa or something but not here.” Huh? They want gay marriage in Iowa? How had he come to believe that? This very conservative Christian talk-show host had picked up the message of gay-marriage advocates. A small point, perhaps, but a telling one: “Our” people pick up and pass on the other side’s messages. It doesn’t happen in reverse. 

That’s cultural power. Culture is, above all, the power to “name reality,” as James Davison Hunter — the sociologist who coined the term “culture war” — put it. So here’s the bad news: Right now, they are naming our reality too.

On the same day the Iowa court ruled for gay marriage, the Vermont legislature passed a gay-marriage bill. A few days later, they voted to override the governor’s veto and the Vermont civil-union law (passed by court order) was converted to gay marriage. 

There was a silver lining. Quite unexpectedly, Vermont legislators insisted on something brand-new before they would pass gay marriage: some substantive (if not fully adequate) religious-liberty protections. Gay-marriage advocates have never been willing to offer any such protection. Instead, in state after state, the gay-marriage establishment will countenance only what one scholar friend calls “fake religious-liberty protection.” She means laws that say clergy won’t be required to solemnize same-sex marriages. The gay legal establishment is not stupid: They know the First Amendment already prevents government from pushing clergy around in that particular way. 

But it does not prevent the government from pressuring religious groups in other ways; it doesn’t prevent the law from being misused to pressure religious schools, charities, and other religious organizations that refuse to recognize same-sex unions as marriages. The First Amendment did not, for example, protect Boston Catholic Charities from crippling discrimination lawsuits for failing to place children with gay couples. It did not protect a Methodist group in Ocean Grove, N.J., from government-imposed penalties (including the loss of a tax exemption) for refusing to permit same-sex civil-union ceremonies on its property. It did not protect Elaine Huguenin, a New Mexico wedding photographer who was fined more than $6,000 because she did not want to photograph a same-sex ceremony, or the Christian physicians in California who have been given a rather bleak choice: your faith or your job.

Why hasn’t the Human Rights Campaign stepped forward to endorse more generous religious-liberty protections? Why don’t they take this argument away from me and my fellow marriage advocates? Why, instead, does HRC president Joe Solmonese — when I asked him on Hardball whether he thought religious groups and people should be punished for failing to accept gay unions as marriages — say, “When religious organizations step into the public sphere, it should not be surprising to people that they are bound to adhere to the laws in the states that they are operating in”?

I have been turning these questions over in my mind ever since I became aware of how serious the religious-liberty impact of gay marriage is likely to be. If the negative effects of gay marriage on religious people and institutions are an unintended consequence, why not step forward with generous conscience protections? And if the legal pressures on religious groups are an intended consequence, that’s something the American people are entitled to know. 

In one sense the Human Rights Campaign’s resistance to religious exemptions is understandable: If you really believe that orientation is like race, then faithful Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims are like racists, and they should be treated by law the same way we treat racists. We don’t throw racists in jail, but we also don’t create special exemptions to help religious people discriminate on the basis of race. 

The architects of the gay-marriage strategy, however, depend on a broad coalition of liberal cultural elites, and many of them are only partially and ambivalently on board with the race analogy. The architects tend to be ideological purists (as movement leaders generally are), but the bigger chunk of people who support gay marriage do so out of compassion, as a gesture of solidarity with people who are suffering. These folks don’t really believe that Grandma is a hater just like George Wallace because she doesn’t see two men as a marriage. Not yet, anyway.

One of the unsung religious-liberty heroes in this country is Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. The story did not make the mainstream news, but people who were at the same-sex-marriage hearings in Vermont report that, when asked by a legislator whether current religious-liberty protection was adequate, he said, “No.”

So the blue state of Vermont did not one but two historic things: It became the first state to enact a same-sex-marriage law without a court order, and it became the first state to enact some substantive religious-liberty protections — expressing simultaneous concern for the rights of both gay people and religious folk.

A similar thing happened when gay-marriage advocates pushed Connecticut legislators to pass “implementing legislation” to legitimate in the public’s eyes (or possibly in Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy’s eyes) the Connecticut supreme court decision that had already ordered gay marriage. 

Working with the Family Institute of Connecticut, the National Organization for Marriage reached out to voters with robocall technology, combined with radio and TV media campaigns. Voters responded by the thousands, flooding the legislature with calls. Independent legal scholars, I later learned, wrote to Senate and House leaders expressing concern about the religious-liberty impact. On April 22, Democratic leaders came into their chambers confident they had the votes to pass gay marriage without any substantive amendments. It should have been a totally routine thing: implementing a court order. Instead, they had a rebellion on their hands. Catholic Democrats from blue-collar districts made clear they would not pass a gay-marriage bill without expansive conscience protections. The bill they passed included broad protections for religious institutions (including an explicit right for religious organizations such as Catholic Charities to provide adoptions, although not a right to equal access to government money to do so). 

Maine was a different story. There, state legislators faced an easy choice: They could please their base and vote for an undiluted gay-marriage bill, knowing that in Maine any bill would probably end up being put to a referendum. The “people’s veto” would ultimately relieve them of political responsibility. As I write, the Stand for Marriage Maine coalition (which includes the National Organization for Marriage) has collected well over the 55,000 signatures needed for a referendum in just four weeks. A repeal of gay marriage will be on the ballot this November. 

Meanwhile, a full-court press in New Hampshire ran into strong public opposition. In a state with a Democratic majority in its house and senate, and a Democratic governor, the legislature was tied up for almost four months trying to pass gay marriage — and it succeeded only after concerted pressure from both state and national leaders. 

Why was it so hard? Support for gay marriage in New Hampshire was not coming primarily from New Hampshirites. The move of formerly Republican states such as New Hampshire, Colorado, and Iowa into the blue column has been treated primarily as a symptom of voter disaffection for the GOP, a “natural” trend; but former New Hampshire governor John Sununu can tell you otherwise. Sununu, who was also White House chief of staff for George H. W. Bush and is the current chairman of the GOP in New Hampshire, says the Democrats have been quietly organizing a national coalition of left-wing social-issue donors to help take control of states like New Hampshire. “The Democrats coalesced the radical-Left supporters of issues like legalizing drugs and the gay-marriage issue nationally and convinced them to target their money into states where they would try and use the legislative process to make the changes they wanted,” Sununu told me. “In New Hampshire they funneled millions of dollars into winning the New Hampshire House and Senate in the ’05–’06 and ’07–’08 election cycles.” In New Hampshire, parties typically raise a few hundred thousand dollars each election cycle. In the ’07–’08 cycle, Democrats raised $9 million to turn and keep New Hampshire blue — much of it from Tim Gill’s influential national network of gay-rights donors. 

Those donors did the same in Iowa, which is why Democrats are refusing to move a marriage amendment there. They are now in the process of moving their model down south. (“You ever heard of Tim Gill?” one pro-family advocate asked me this spring in North Carolina. Democratic politicians once friendly to the idea of a marriage amendment are now turning a cold shoulder. And the Gill money, he told me, is flowing into judicial elections in North Carolina too.) 

But the sexual coalition put together by the Democrats may be their undoing, at least in New Hampshire. Radical leftism on social issues is not what New Hampshire voters want from their politicians. When politicians push this agenda, it becomes evident to voters that their elected representatives are responding to something other than the desires and priorities of their constituents. 

Sununu is bullish about the future of the GOP in New Hampshire, and the overreach on the gay-marriage issue is part of the reason. “New Hampshire is still a traditional-values state,” he told me. “Democrats surprised us with their well-funded campaign, but Republicans have finally understood what is going on and, in 2010, Republicans will take back the state.”

New York was supposed to be next on the list. Gay-marriage advocates were working quietly behind the scenes to assemble the votes to ram the measure through quickly, possibly in June, before public opposition could form. It was the accidental governor, David Paterson, desperately seeking to head off a Democratic primary battle as his popularity plummeted, who let the cat out of the bag, announcing he would try to get a gay-marriage bill through the legislature: “For too long, LGBT New Yorkers have been told to wait for their civil rights and personal freedom. We will not wait any longer. Now is the time for action. Now is the time for leadership. Now is the time to march forward together.”

That alerted opponents. At NOM, we raised $600,000 in a few days to reach out to voters in 25 state-senate districts through media and phone calls, and we generated, on average, a thousand calls in each district. (Here’s another lesson I learned: Even in swing districts deep in blue territory, a lot of folks just aren’t on board with this gay-marriage thing.)

Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Bronx Democrat (and Pentecostal minister), held a rally in New York City opposing gay marriage; more than 10,000 people (most of them black and Hispanic) showed up. Longtime opponents of gay marriage, such as New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, alerted their networks and worked with black and Hispanic groups, including CONLICO and the City Action Coalition. The new archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, made his opposition clear. In response to a question about same-sex marriage, Dolan said: “You can bet I would be active and present and, I hope, articulate in this particular position. . . . The topic you raise — other topics that are controversial, that the church has a message to give — yeah, you’ll find that I don’t shy away from those things and I wouldn’t sidestep them.” 

If the people of New York are not enthusiastic about gay marriage, why was gay marriage moving now? As in other states, the answer is largely Tim Gill. New York magazine credited Gill’s campaign contributions with pushing the Democrats to their newfound majority control of the state senate: “In November, Democrats picked up two seats . . . and entered the year with a 32-to-30 majority. [Malcolm] Smith became majority leader. Democrats say Gill’s money probably put them over the top.” 

Gill’s efforts were joined with a new story line in the national press: Republican opposition to gay marriage was crumbling. 

On April 17, Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager (widely credited with running one of the worst presidential campaigns in history), in an aggressively publicized speech to the Log Cabin Republicans, argued that the GOP has no reason to oppose gay marriage: “It cannot be argued that marriage between people of the same sex is un-American or threatens the rights of others. On the contrary, it seems to me that denying two consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies them two of the most basic natural rights affirmed in the preamble of our Declaration of Independence — liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The next day, Meghan McCain reinforced that message.

Both had previously come out for gay marriage in print, but television networks covered their Log Cabin appearances anyway, helping to cement the new story line. The Borg rules: Resistance is futile. Even the Republicans see this now. 

The most surprising defector is Mr. Federalist Society, former solicitor general Ted Olson. He has joined with his old foe David Boies to make a federal case against California’s Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage. The Federalist Society, to its credit, is an intellectually diverse organization with no single party line, but it is still startling to see such an influential member of a group founded to promote judicial restraint make the case to the Supreme Court that our Constitution requires gay marriage. Madison would be surprised, too. 

How do you end a debate when the majority of American people rather persistently disagree with you? A Supreme Court victory is one strategy. Using the power of elites to shut down the debate is another. 

A vignette: In June, I met with a partner in a major D.C. law firm — a former Reagan- and Bush-administration official and movement conservative — to ask for advice about hiring a lawyer to take on Ted Olson and fight for the right of the people of California to protect marriage. He told me point blank that neither he nor anyone else who worked for his law firm could take the case. Most likely no one who worked for any major law firm could take the case, he explained. It would just be too expensive — too much economic retaliation and potential interference with its capacity to recruit top legal talent at Ivy League campuses.

I should not have been surprised. In 2006, the best law firm in Boston, Ropes & Gray, had to drop the Catholic Church as a client because of the Church’s opposition to gay marriage. They were told that, otherwise, they would not be welcome to recruit at Harvard. 

“If they had agreed to represent a mass murderer, that wouldn’t cause a boycott,” a friend noted. Of course not. The legal culture is a culture of advocacy. Lawyers believe everyone is entitled to a defense — except the majority of Americans who believe marriage means a husband and a wife. (This is what being treated like racists means.)

Okay, then, why don’t politicians speak out more often? After all, nearly 60 percent of Americans are on our side. The answer: Politicians even in conservative parts of the country do not want to speak out, because they do not want to be targeted by Tim Gill’s money. Thus has another whole category of symbolic analysts been silenced.

Silencing the opposition is also at the heart of a new tactic that emerged in the wake of Prop 8: going after donors to California’s marriage amendment, whose names and addresses are publicly disclosed by law. One woman e-mailed me recently. She had given a few hundred dollars to the pro–Prop 8 effort. Her home address was put on an Internet site, and she continues to receive angry, nasty, sometimes vile letters from strangers. “Should I be afraid to go outside my door?” she asked. Probably not, I tell her. But most Americans aren’t used to the idea that peacefully participating in democratic processes requires any degree of physical courage.

Since Prop 8, a tide of licensed hatred has been let loose. Violence was minor and sporadic (although it happened to some people I know). But the intimidation has been widespread and public, and it has generated very little general public backlash. 

The harassment campaign directed at donors to Prop 8 is ugly enough to have direct PR costs for the gay-marriage movement, but it also serves a key strategic goal: silencing the opposition by intimidating the donors. (Because donors to 501(c)(4)s like the National Organization for Marriage are not subject to public disclosure, the harassment campaign may also be indirectly feeding the massive funding growth that NOM has experienced — we raised $3.5 million in the first five months of this year.)

Meanwhile, conservative talk radio and television is almost silent on the gay-marriage issue, with the exception of some explicitly Christian shows. Why? I cannot tell you. I can tell you that I was recently invited (by a substitute host) to appear on a major conservative talk program. The producer came into the room just before we went on the air to offer (nervously) some instructions: “We don’t talk about gay marriage directly on this show. We talk about the religious-liberty side, but not gay marriage.” Deep in the red heart of America, in the control room of a major conservative talk-radio show, people are afraid to speak against gay marriage.

And at precisely this moment, as a few legislatures began to pass gay marriage and a handful of Republicans ostentatiously began to endorse it, as gay-marriage advocates tried to break the back of the opposition by demonstrating that the debate was over, along came Carrie Prejean.

A stunning young Christian beauty-pageant contestant was asked on national television by a gay celebrity blogger (whatever that is) what she thought about gay marriage. Watch the video clip on YouTube. You can see in her eyes that she knows: If she says what she thinks, she is not going to be Miss USA. She’s 21 years old. She’s worked very, very hard for that tiara. She comes from a modest family background. Money is tight, especially since she had to quit her job to prepare for the pageant. 

The tiara means a luxury apartment. It means the possibility of a lucrative modeling career. You can see in her eyes that she realizes all she has to do is . . . fudge. “I don’t like to watch that video,” Carrie has told me. She doesn’t like it for the very reason I found it so powerfully moving: In the space of 30 seconds, you see a young woman first be tempted and then decide that no, she cannot fudge, she has to tell the truth. “I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there.” You see her choose between truth and the tiara. She never asked for this ordeal, but she was tested and she triumphed. 

Another vignette: I was in a different control room a few days later, waiting to go on TV. A man in the entertainment industry angrily told me, “Carrie Prejean is going to die broke and alone like Anita Bryant!” “Why would you wish that upon a nice girl like that?” I asked him. “I’m not wishing, I’m predicting!” he said. I tried another tack: “Do you know what she was in college studying to be?” No, he said. I continued: “A special-education teacher. She has a ministry to help disabled kids.” I paused. “Carrie is going to be okay,” I told him, “because she has already chosen to give up everything Hollywood has to offer, if she has to, rather than give up the truth.”

The romance, the moral drama, unfolding on national TV captured Americans’ attention. All of a sudden, opposition to gay marriage was all over radio and TV. The new face of opposition to gay marriage was a young, beautiful woman who did nothing other than answer a question honestly in a beauty pageant — and the hatred unleashed against her made the current strategy of the gay-marriage movement highly visible. Perez Hilton’s angry, expletive-packed diatribe reminded too many people of what they saw after Prop 8. Most important, Carrie singlehandedly ended the virtual news blackout on gay marriage in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, and trumped the media’s attempt to portray public response to developments there as muted. 

She gave permission to conservative cultural elites to talk about the issue — and so gave ordinary Americans permission to tell pollsters what they really think.

Gay marriage did not start passing legislatures as the result of a sudden wave of populist sentiment for it. Public sentiment has not shifted one bit toward gay marriage since last November, when voters in a blue state (California), a purple state (Florida), and a red state (Arizona) once again affirmed that the majority of Americans oppose it. 

A Gallup poll released in late May demonstrates the surprising stability of opposition to gay marriage: “Americans’ views on same-sex marriage have essentially stayed the same in the past year”: 57 percent opposed, 40 percent in favor. “Though support for legal same-sex marriage is significantly higher now than when Gallup first asked about it in 1996, in recent years support has appeared to stall.” Gallup asked voters whether gay marriage would make the country better off, make it worse off, or make no difference. Only 13 percent of Americans said gay marriage would help the country; 48 percent said it would make the country worse off.

Even in Massachusetts, six years after courts imposed gay marriage, public opposition remains surprisingly high. In a poll of Massachusetts voters taken in late March by the National Organization for Marriage and the Massachusetts Family Institute, respondents narrowly opposed it, 44 percent to 43 percent. 

Other polls confirm the stability of Americans’ views on marriage. In an April 2009 Pew poll, even a plurality of 18- to 29-year-olds — the most pro-gay-marriage age group — opposed it, by a margin of 45 percent to 43 percent.

There is a generation gap on gay marriage, but the biggest gap is between cultural elites and everyone else. The urgent job facing marriage advocates is to take an issue on which we have the agreement of almost 60 percent of the American people and translate that into politically effective organizations that can elect our friends and defeat our enemies. If we continue to fail to do so, our political opponents will use their cultural power to create an America in which traditional religious groups are redefined by the government as the moral and legal equivalent of racists.

That was the point of the strange public outburst of hatred that ensued when Carrie Prejean said, “I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.” Gay-marriage advocates understand that if you can persuade elites that gay marriage is inevitable, public opinion won’t matter, because it will be silent. An idea that people are afraid to speak ceases to matter.

That is their best hope, and our opportunity.

– Maggie Gallagher is president of the National Organization for Marriage.

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