‐ Air America has ceased operations: Talent on loan from God still trumps talent on loan from Al Franken.
‐ Scott Brown, a dodgy economy, deficits big as the Rockies: The Obama administration has its problems, but maybe one they should look at is Obama himself. Obama told George Stephanopoulos his one regret so far: “We were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises” that “we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people.” So a man who was on camera more than Lady Gaga thinks he didn’t get his message out, and promises to do so more zealously in the future. Then Marion Berry, a retiring Arkansas congressman, reported that when he and other Blue Dogs worried about a replay of the Democratic wipeout of 1994, the White House “just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 [is] you’ve got me.’” So everything’s fine, and if it’s not, I’ll fix it. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns,” he said . . .
‐ In an interview with his booster Joe Klein, President Obama said, “I’ll be honest with you. . . . This is just really hard.” He was talking about the creation of Middle East peace: peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He said, “This is as intractable a problem as you get.” Former President Bush — excoriated by Obama, among others, for supposedly not working hard enough on the problem — would be less than human if he did not chuckle a bit.
‐ Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, declared himself against “don’t ask, don’t tell” in congressional testimony on the heels of Obama’s call for its repeal in the State of the Union. It’s important to remember the purpose of the policy, which wasn’t to persecute gays or to exclude them from serving, but to allow them to do so with a quiet dignity consistent with the overriding need for discipline and order in the ranks. It shouldn’t be controversial to note that sexual attraction is a powerful and potentially disruptive force. All things considered, “don’t ask, don’t tell” has worked rather well, even with its imperfections. Gays and lesbians who have served honorably have been kicked out of the military on the basis of information provided by third parties. That’s unfair, but it’s the integrity of the military as an institution that matters most. Its purpose is not to be an instrument of social justice or to bestow symbolic recognition upon certain classes of people, but to fight and win the nation’s wars, and this requires maintaining a culture and practices different from those dominant in civilian life. No doubt, if most combat NCOs were asked whether they want the complexity of integrating openly gay soldiers into their units added to their already formidable tasks, they’d say no — waging two wars of counterinsurgency is already difficult enough. For us, that’s dispositive.
‐ Obama used two teleprompters to address his Middle Class Task Force (a group of about 20 people, sitting around a U-shaped table in a conference room), and two to speak at an elementary school in Falls Church (not to the students, his flacks pointed out, only to reporters afterward, so that’s all right then). Obama’s verbal walkers have earned the scorn of Jon Stewart. We worry less that Mr. Eloquence is so scripted, more about possible glitches. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this [CUE NOW PLS] wall!” “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is four itself. [FIX TYPO NEXT TIME OK?]” “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains, and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or [WHO LOST THE LAST LINE DAMMIT!?]”
#page#‐ Kidding aside, the president is perfectly capable of deploying a glib intelligence without mechanical assistance. He proved this while addressing House Republicans and taking their questions, all of it on television. There is some talk of repeating the performance, even (for no compelling reason) institutionalizing it. Reactions to these things are subjective, but our impression is that Obama should be keener on a second booking than the Republicans. Their attempts at gotcha questions fizzled, and he sounded reasonable even discussing policies that are not. Nobody had the wit to ask him a pointed question or two about the Christmas bomber. (Are they waiting for an NBC reporter to do it at a press conference?) President Obama had done his homework. If there is a next time, the Republicans should too.
‐ Let’s go to the videotape. President Obama tells the audience of his State of the Union address that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission “reversed a century of law. . . . I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. . . . And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.” Democratic members of Congress give a standing ovation, the justices of the Supreme Court sit silently — except for Justice Alito, who shakes his head and murmurs, correctly, “Not true.” The separation of powers entitles the powers to duke it out, and National Review believes that Congress and the executive should show less deference to the judiciary. But there should be a decorum to their struggles. It will be easier to observe if the justices stop coming to these events.
‐ In his State of the Union address, President Obama had a few words to say about Iraq: “We are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as president.” He said “we will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and we will continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity. But make no mistake: This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home.” Not a word about the purposes for which our troops have been there. Not a word about the inhuman dictatorship we toppled. Not a word about the victory we have apparently won. Not a word about the importance of that victory to the Middle East at large. We understand that President Obama does not “do” Iraq. And neither do the Democrats in general. Obama was always dead-set against the Iraq War, and as recently as the summer of 2008 was saying, “The surge is not working.” The year before, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, declared, “This war is lost.” The Democrats seem embarrassed about Iraq; they are grudging about our success there; they are sometimes outright churlish. In this war, victory is an orphan.
‐ What are we to make of the president’s announcement that he supports more nuclear power? Certainly the Left didn’t like it; MoveOn.org members reacted more negatively to that part of the State of the Union address than to any other part. So does that mean we give the announcement three cheers? Perhaps two. The problem with the president’s support is not the principle but the form it takes. Rather than slashing the massive regulatory burden on the nuclear industry that makes it uneconomic, he is merely providing $54 billion of taxpayer money in loan guarantees to make it less costly to navigate the regulatory maze. The nuclear industry has been cowed by decades of government abuse and so views this as a positive development. What has happened is that it has moved from being the red-headed stepchild of energy policy to being a ward of the state.
‐ Perhaps the greatest eye-rolling moment in the State of the Union came when Obama proclaimed: “My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil-rights violations and employment discrimination.” Never mind that in his compulsive comparisons of himself with George W. Bush, the president sounds like your friend who can’t stop dumping on his wife’s first husband. What exactly has Obama’s Civil Rights Division done? It has dropped a case against New Black Panther Party thugs who brazenly intimidated white voters in Philadelphia — a case the division had already won. It has banished the CRD lawyer who initiated that case (under Bush) to a remote office, and has stonewalled a federal investigation of the affair. In Kansas, a pair of CRD lawyers who refused to provide evidence for racial-discrimination claims against a real-estate company have been made to pay the defendants’ legal expenses. And the division has boasted of plans to expand “disparate impact” lawsuits against employers who use any test on which white applicants outperform blacks. If the division is serious about prosecuting civil-rights violations, it should begin with those committed by its own staff.
#page#‐ Among the projects announced in the address was an $8 billion appropriation for high-speed rail. That’s just seed money; the projected 13 regional projects will run about $10 billion apiece, not including operating costs, right-of-way acquisition, and the inevitable litigation expenses and cost overruns. And since most states are not exactly flush with cash these days, it seems likely that Uncle Sam will get stuck with the bill. All this for a “network” whose sections will not all be connected, and that will be slightly faster than driving on short hauls (Tampa to Orlando, the first route to be started, is about 90 miles) and considerably slower than flying on long ones. Yet it sounds green and will create lots of union jobs, so Democrats love it. The hard truth is that outside a very few densely populated corridors, inter-city passenger rail has been obsolete for half a century. This boondoggle is one piece of history that is well worth standing athwart.
‐ Looking for a bright spot after their Brown-out in Massachusetts, liberals found one in a pair of ballot initiatives in Oregon that raised taxes to fund social services. The national dailies and newsmagazines praised Oregonians for “end[ing] two decades of tax scrimping” (Los Angeles Times) and “behav[ing] like responsible adults” (Newsweek). Upon closer examination, Oregon voters look less noble. The ballot measures raised taxes only on high-income Oregonians and corporations. Public-sector unions — which outspent the anti-tax coalition three to two — played up the populist angle, running ads that bashed “big corporations” and “Wall Street banks” for not paying their fair share. The ballot measures accomplished what few thought was possible, by making the state’s tax base even more lopsided: The top 1 percent of Oregonians already pay approximately one-quarter of the state’s personal-income taxes. It is easy to raise taxes on somebody else, but neither Obama, who wants to follow Oregon’s lead, nor our bankrupt state governments can go very far toward solving their enormous budget problems by soaking the rich.
‐ James O’Keefe, the prankster who posed as a pimp and filmed ACORN staffers conspiring to abet the trafficking of underage prostitutes, has done something foolish: He was caught dressing up as a telephone repairman to get into the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.). There were accusations of attempted bugging. He tells a different story: Having been informed by the senator’s long-suffering constituents that she refused to take their calls, explaining that her lines had been “jammed for weeks,” he “decided to investigate why a representative of the people would be out of touch with her constituents for ‘weeks’ because her phones were broken. In investigating this matter, we decided to visit Senator Landrieu’s district office — the people’s office — to ask the staff if their phones were working.” Mr. O’Keefe is accused of a serious crime. It is not obvious that he is guilty — that’s what trials are for — but surely this is not the best application of his puckish energies. We hope he proves innocent, and can continue his excellent work more prudently.
There was an interesting dispute between Karl Rove and David Axelrod in January. Rove, the erstwhile Bush adviser, wrote in the Washington Post that Democrats “will run up more debt by October than Bush did in eight years.” Axelrod responded to this assertion with a strident broadside, writing that “of all the claims Rove made, one in particular caught my eye for its sheer audacity and shamelessness.” He added, “There’s an old saying that everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. The next time Karl Rove would like to offer us some advice, I’d urge him to take that to heart.” Axelrod went on to indict the Bush administration as the worst deficit criminals in history.
Which gentleman is better supported by the facts? The nearby chart sheds some light on the question.
For a budget guru, there are two ways to score a presidency. The first — identified on the chart as “debt added” — would be simply to take the national debt when a president leaves office and subtract from it the national debt that existed when the president took office. The difference, by definition, is the debt that was added on that president’s watch.
#page#The second method — on the chart, “debt surprise” – would be to compare the debt that exists when a president leaves office with the debt that nonpartisan forecasters at the Congressional Budget Office projected would exist eight years after the president took office.
As can be seen in the first two bars in the chart, for Bush, the two methods give strikingly different answers. In 2001, when he took office, the CBO projected that there would be large surpluses in 2008 and that the national debt would decline steadily. Those surpluses never appeared, in part because of Bush’s profligate spending and tax cuts and in part because hopes of economic growth were disappointed. The sum of money that the U.S. owed to all lenders increased on Bush’s watch by almost $5 trillion more than the CBO expected in 2001. But since the CBO started with a forecasted surplus, the actual increase in U.S. debt was much smaller, a bit more than $2 trillion.
When Obama took office, the CBO already knew that the economy was terrible, so it projected large deficits. The national debt has increased by more than expected, but only by $1.47 trillion more. The absolute increase in the debt over that same time, however, was a whopping $3.5 trillion. So if you think that presidents should be scored by what actually happened, Rove wins. If you think they should be scored relative to expectation, Axelrod does.
The final bar in the chart, however, might quiet any celebration in the West Wing. For effect, Rove compared eight years of Bush with two years of Obama. An apples-to-apples comparison would roll Obama’s policies forward for a hypothetical eight years, and compare that record to Bush’s. By that metric, Axelrod loses the argument either way.
‐ While we are willing to forgive much private misbehavior in our politicians, there are limits to our tolerance. Former senator John Edwards comes in well beyond those limits. During his presidential campaign in 2007, the National Enquirer reported that Edwards was having an affair with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter. Edwards denounced the story as “tabloid trash.” Learning that Miss Hunter was pregnant, Edwards urged campaign aide Andrew Young to claim paternity, promising that Young “would be taken care of for life.” In August 2008 Edwards confessed to the affair but denied paternity of the child. Now, just ahead of publication of a tell-all campaign book by Young, Edwards has finally admitted paternity. Edwards’s wife, Elizabeth, who has been fighting cancer for more than half a decade, has now left him. A federal grand jury is investigating allegations that Edwards used campaign funds to cover up the affair. What a snake! A reputable polling firm reports that Edwards is viewed positively by only 15 percent of voters in his home state, making him the “most unpopular person we’ve polled anywhere at any time.” So while John Edwards may be bereft of moral sense, at least the people of North Carolina still have theirs.
‐ Sen. Arlen Specter (D., for now), in a moment of broadcast pique, condescendingly advised Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) that she should “act like a lady.” For once, the senator is happy to follow his own prescription: Unhappily, the lady he acts like is Norma Desmond. Infamous for his tireless abuse of underlings, Specter has been voted among the worst bosses on the Hill in a Washingtonian poll, while Roll Call has likened him to Simon Legree, the vicious slavemaster of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Washington Post once identified “Specter flunky” as the worst job in Washington, ranking it below cleaning toilets on the Mall. Traveling abroad, the senator has been known to issue rock-star-caliber directives to State Department staff, demanding a fresh local squash opponent each afternoon at 5 o’clock, a case of Evian at every stop, and “no evening events, including dinner with the ambassador or at the embassy. The Specters like to do their own thing at night.” Doing his own thing is what Specter excels at. Representative Bachmann may console herself that being lectured on graciousness by Arlen Specter is like being lectured on party loyalty by — Arlen Specter.
#page#‐ Ben Bernanke has been reconfirmed as chairman of the Fed, an event to be celebrated inasmuch as it has denied President Obama the opportunity to replace him with somebody much worse. Our advice to Helicopter Ben: Stop the presses — the ones churning out greenbacks over at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
‐ President Obama wants people to know he’s angry, very angry, at Wall Street. This is the political point of the new limits on the trading activities of banks he announced in the wake of Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. The policy itself is less objectionable than the rhetoric he is using to sell it — firms that enjoy a federal backstop should indeed be prohibited from taking large risks with house money. But the details weren’t thought through: The prohibition on so-called proprietary trading could be easily evaded, and such activity did not play a major role in the crisis. A week after the president delivered his fiery speech, economic adviser Paul Volcker, the architect of the plan, penned a New York Times op-ed explaining the prescriptions more coolly and with greater attention to detail. Volcker’s vision for reform extends beyond the narrow proposals that Obama announced. The former Fed chairman supports an FDIC-like resolution agency with the power to liquidate or merge large firms on the verge of collapse. Again, the details are crucial: Such an agency must be prohibited from placing failed firms on permanent life support, as the chief regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has done with them. But if the agency’s power were narrowly constrained, it would reintroduce to the market what has become a foreign concept: the prospect of failure and the brake on risk-taking it provides.
‐ Academic journals are not free from political pressure — as the Climategate e-mails revealed, global-warming enthusiasts have a penchant for ousting journal editors who run skeptical papers. Apparently, however, even well-policed journals do not provide enough evidence to buttress every facet of the case for apocalyptic, man-caused climate change. In its 2007 Working Group II report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argued that the loss of mountain ice in the Andes, the Alps, and Africa is related to global warming. To support this claim, the panel cited two sources. One was a dissertation by a Swiss geography student who interviewed mountain guides from the Alps, the other an anecdotal article in a climbing magazine. Other problems with the report abound: It cited 16 non-peer-reviewed reports by the World Wildlife Fund, an environmentalist group. It claimed the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035, an estimate the IPCC now admits is off by centuries. It included a graph purporting to show that global warming causes extreme weather in the U.S., but the data in the graph did not come from peer-reviewed sources. These blunders may imply little about the existence or non-existence of anthropogenic global warming, but they say volumes about the trustworthiness of the IPCC.
‐ The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2009, for the first time, more than half of American union members worked for the government. No surprise there, with private employment plunging while government continues as the nation’s premier growth industry. Working for the government is a sweet gig; not only will your employer never go out of business, but if the elections turn out right, you get to choose your boss — for example, Hilda Solis, Obama’s union-approved secretary of labor, who agrees that the falling percentage of private union members reveals a problem. Is that problem the never-ending expansion of the federal civilian work force, which will grow by more than 10 percent this year? The sickly economy, with its disincentives for businesses to hire new employees? Not a chance. “These numbers show a need for Congress to pass legislation to level the playing field to enable more American workers to access the benefits of union membership,” Solis said. “This report makes clear why the administration supports the Employee Free Choice Act [i.e., card check].”
#page#‐ Attorney general Eric Holder has been on a one-man campaign to discredit the Obama administration’s legalistic approach to the War on Terror. Holder decided to try KSM in New York City, and someone high up in his Justice department — probably Holder himself — ordered that would-be Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab get a Miranda warning shortly after his capture. The New York trial has now collapsed in a heap, after city officials realized that making Lower Manhattan an armed camp for years in order to try a man the president of the United States has already condemned as guilty would be expensive, disruptive, and senseless. The administration is hunting for another venue in the U.S., but it should ditch the civilian trial entirely. We have already spent a fortune to make Gitmo the ideal location for the military-commission trials Congress has authorized. As for Abdulmutallab, he readily chatted to custom officials and the FBI after his attempted act of mass murder — until he was Mirandized and, predictably, shut up. Press reports say he is talking again, but it was foolhardy not to designate him an enemy combatant and subject him to intensive interrogation immediately, as even national intelligence director Dennis Blair has admitted. The best way to discredit counterterrorism-as-law-enforcement turns out to be to put it into practice.
‐ Here’s the thing about missile-defense systems: It sure is nice to have them when you need them. In recent months, the United States has upgraded its anti-ballistic capabilities in the Persian Gulf region, with an eye toward containing Iran. Patriot-missile batteries are now on alert in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, and Aegis missile-defense cruisers patrol the waters nearby. This deployment protects against short-range attacks. Yet Iran also wants to develop longer-range threats that can target Europe and, eventually, North America. The Obama administration has cut back on plans to counter these ambitions with interceptors in Poland and elsewhere. As a result, when we face an urgent need for those missile-defense systems, we may not have them.
‐ Britain’s official inquiry into the causes of the Iraq War expresses the isolationism and self-hatred of Britain at decade’s end: The war was concocted by Bush and enabled by Tony Blair, who should be tried as a war criminal. On January 29 Blair testified on his own behalf. Saddam, he said, was arming and dangerous. “Given his use of chemical weapons, given the over 1 million people whose deaths he had caused, given ten years of breaking U.N. resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons program? . . . The crucial thing after September 11 is that the calculus of risk changed. . . . If [the] people inspired by this religious fanaticism could have killed 30,000, they would have.” Blair told President Bush, “We are going to be with you in confronting and dealing with this threat” — by U.N. resolutions, preferably, though France and Russia scotched that; by war if necessary. If he had not acted, “we would be facing a situation where Iraq was competing with Iran . . . on nuclear-weapons capability [and in] support of terrorist groups.” Tony Blair is a man of many flaws, but this was a necessary defense of his finest hour.
‐ The recent execution of Ali Hassan al-Majid brings Iraq that much closer to coming to terms with its dreadful past. In normal circumstances, al-Majid, a particularly vicious and uneducated man, would have been able to terrorize only those on his small-town turf. But he was Saddam Hussein’s first cousin and crony, and as such promoted to posts that left the whole of Iraq at his mercy. These like-minded accomplices ran a regime in which no crime was ever too extreme so long as they kept power. Al-Majid liked to boast about his gassing of Iraqi Kurds, which killed some 5,000 of them and destroyed the health of thousands more. “Who is going to say anything?” he asked sarcastically on the eve of the atrocity. “The international community?” This chemical attack against civilians earned him the grim sobriquet “Chemical Ali.” He also specialized in repressing the rebellions that regularly broke out against Saddam Hussein. A video exists showing him brutalizing tied-up prisoners and personally shooting other captives with his revolver. In answer to one charge of ordering the death of the entire village of Dujail, he said, “I am not defending myself, I am not apologizing. I did not make a mistake.” By the end of the judicial process he had received four sentences of death for crimes against humanity, and most Iraqis evidently wished for justice to be done by hanging him as many times.
#page#‐ With a pre-trial hearing in January, the Dutch government opened its case against parliamentarian Geert Wilders, head of the libertarian-conservative Party for Freedom. The full-dress trial will begin later this year. The charges against Wilders allege that he incited discrimination and hatred, and furthermore “intentionally offended a group of people, i.e. Muslims, based on their religion.” If convicted, Wilders faces two years in prison and heavy fines. A central point is Wilders’s comparisons of the Koran to Mein Kampf, the latter currently banned in the Netherlands. For speaking of Islam as a murderous, intolerant religion, Wilders has received countless death threats, is under 24-hour police protection, and is obliged to sleep in an assortment of secret locations under armed guard. The political, judicial, and academic establishments of the Netherlands, like those of other Western nations, are sunk deep in “diversity” authoritarianism. Instead of hunting down Geert Wilders’s persecutors, the authorities have joined forces with them. There may be a political reckoning at hand, though: Polls show that Wilders’s party could now be the most popular in the Netherlands. The nation that gave birth to Erasmus, Grotius, and Spinoza may yet have some lessons to teach the world.
‐ Whatever is going on in the case of Abdelbeset Ali al-Megrahi? He is the Libyan found guilty of blowing up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people. Last August, the Scottish authorities announced that he was suffering from terminal cancer and had no more than three months to live. At that very moment, al-Megrahi’s lawyers were claiming to have new evidence that showed him to be innocent, as he had always claimed to be, and they had won the right to appeal. A deal was struck whereby al-Megrahi was freed in return for dropping this appeal. With much sentimental talk about allowing him to go home to die, al-Megrahi was flown to Libya on a private jet sent by his boss, Moammar Qaddafi. And there he has gone to ground. Three months have now extended to six. Either Scottish doctors are unable to diagnose cancer properly, or those with the disease ought to visit Libya promptly for a cure.
‐ In Haiti, after the earthquake, no country except the United States did more than Israel. It sent a delegation of about 235, which searched the rubble and set up a field hospital. According to one report, this delegation “treated more than 1,100 patients, conducted 319 successful surgeries, delivered 16 babies including three Caesarean sections, and saved many from the ruins.” And the team left behind more than 30 tons of medical equipment and supplies. It is remarkable that this tiny Middle Eastern nation — with more than enough problems of its own — should have cared so much about a woebegone people in the faraway Caribbean. Unfortunately, Israel has ample experience in disaster relief, having been bombed and terrorized incessantly. In 2003, Iran suffered a terrible earthquake, which killed more than 25,000 people. The Israelis wanted to come immediately and rescue those they could. But Iran refused. Better to die than to suffer the ignominy of being saved by Jews. This is an indication of the psychosis besetting the Middle East. Fortunately, Haiti, for all its problems, does not have that.
‐ The proprietor of a small business in England wanted to post an ad for an $11-an-hour cleaning position at the local “Jobcentre,” which is to say, government-run employment exchange. She was surprised to be told that the ad could not be displayed. Why not? Because it specified that applicants for the position “must be very reliable and hard-working.” This, the exchange told her, might open them to lawsuits for discrimination against unreliable workers. To call someone “discriminating” (“careful or fastidious in selection” — Webster’s Third) used to be a form of praise. Nowadays it connotes thoughtcrime, even when the trait being discriminated against is undesirable.
‐ Focus on the Family, the evangelical Christian group, bought air time to run an ad during the Super Bowl. In the ad, Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow will reportedly praise his mother for ignoring the advice of her doctors to abort him. NOW and NARAL urged CBS not to run the ad. But why? The advance publicity does not suggest that the ad says anything about how governments should treat abortion. It advocates neither the end nor the continuation of legal abortion. It merely seeks to influence people who have the power to choose life. Organizations that object can rightly be described as pro-abortion rather than pro-choice.
#page#‐ Sports Illustrated decided to honor “10 memorable acts of sportsmanship from the 2000s.” One was an act by an Ohio high-school student, a golfer, who had won the state tournament. But he had signed an incorrect scorecard — and he brought this to the attention of officials. It cost him the tournament, as signing an incorrect scorecard means instant disqualification. All honor to the student, Adam Van Houten, and to Sports Illustrated for honoring his act: sportsmanship, indeed. He brings to mind Bobby Jones, who called a penalty on himself in the ’25 Open, probably costing himself the championship. Praised for this, Jones would have none of it: “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”
‐ Rolling Stones guitarist and actuarial puzzle Keith Richards has gone off the sauce. It didn’t take wild horses, only the spectacle of Keef’s former bandmate Ronnie Wood’s deteriorating very publicly into serious alcohol addiction. Let us hope that Wood does not revel too much in being the rare man dissipated enough to scare straight rock and roll’s poster drunk. With any luck, Richards’s rehabilitation will be an example to those fans whom he seduced into imitating his indulgent lifestyle; with special luck, he will be an example to Wood. Richards has our congratulations.
‐ How strange to think, as the critic Terry Teachout observed, that Louis Auchincloss and J. D. Salinger were such near contemporaries. Auchincloss was an old friend of WFB’s. But then, he was an old friend of everyone in the upper crust of New York, not only or even primarily because of his celebrity as a writer, but because of his birth into the brownstone aristocracy that was his subject. He seemed to inhabit Edith Wharton’s world, and indeed knew her family. Auchincloss’s novels suffered from the same flaw: When in doubt, he introduced a new narrator — a sign that his true métier was the short story. He must have heard a million of them in his long life as a lawyer and diner-out, and he refashioned them into vignettes of his class and time. J. D. Salinger’s world abutted Auchincloss’s — the hero of The Catcher in the Rye is a prep-school student — but he treated it very differently. Holden Caulfield was unhappy and inarticulate, the original rebel without a clue. Unfortunately he was embraced as the symbol of an age group. Even dark fiction once gave young readers something to aspire to. Caulfield left them with their sometimes tender, always ineffectual feelings: a pernicious legacy. Salinger enacted his hero’s funk, retiring to the womb of a cabin in New Hampshire, and assorted food manias. The lawyer died at age 92, the recluse at age 91. R.I.P.
‐ Howard Zinn was a historian who rose to fame and fortune by turning heroes into villains. Columbus wasn’t an intrepid explorer, but a bringer of genocide — and so on, ad nauseam. His signature book, A People’s History of the United States, sold millions. It became required reading on many campuses. It was also a piece of unabashed leftist agitprop (as Roger Kimball explains in detail on page 29). “I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of the social struggle,” he once said. “History itself is a political act.” Honest historians may have viewpoints, rooted in fact and argument, even to the point of revisionism. Zinn, by contrast, pushed an agenda. In his mind, capitalism always exploited and America always oppressed. On January 27, he became just another dead white male. R.I.P.
Everything changes except President Obama. His agenda doesn’t change. As his State of the Union address demonstrated, he has had no second thoughts about the wisdom of his health-care policies, or any of his policies; resistance is always and only a reason for redoubling. Also unchanging is the condescension with which he articulates his agenda: He faulted himself for not explaining health care well enough to the easily confused American public. The same familiar straw men dot the landscape of his rhetoric. (Republicans want to “maintain the status quo” on health care. This president is willing to listen to Republican ideas, just so long as he can then forget that he has ever done so.) Narcissism, too, is a constant companion. The opening of the speech, and the end, invited us to regard Obama as the embodiment of the nation. But it is not the country’s future that has suddenly come under doubt. It is his administration’s. It is not the country’s spirit that is in danger of breaking. It is contemporary liberalism’s.
“Let’s try common sense,” said the president. For Obama, common sense tells us that expanding Medicaid is the way to reduce the deficit. That increasing the price of energy is the way to create jobs. That further socializing medicine is the way to stay ahead of India. Nothing in his speech suggested that the government’s most important economic task might be to create the context of stability in which growth can occur. (Perhaps that thought would have interfered with the theme of “change.”) Beyond a pro forma sentence, nothing in the speech suggested that any positive economic trend could ever take hold without a direct assist from the federal government. Without its help, firms wouldn’t export or get credit. The proposal to forgive student-loan debt on special terms for people who go into “public service” typifies this administration’s attitude toward the economy: Producing wealth is less noble than rearranging it. On one of the country’s true economic challenges, runaway entitlement spending, Obama punted to a commission.
The president’s foreign-policy remarks were both perfunctory and otherworldly. Bringing our resources and our ideals into balance is always the difficulty in American foreign policy. Obama resolved the tension by pretending that he had consistently favored democrats and freedom fighters the world over. In Iran, in Cuba, in China, his actual policy has been the reverse.
Anyone could find something to agree with in an endless speech, and we will dutifully applaud the president’s professed desire for new nuclear plants. All in all, though, our impression was of an administration that has no real understanding of the political straits in which it finds itself, and thus no way to escape them.
The Bucks Don’t Stop
Federal fiscal policy has run completely off the rails. Budgetary pressures have been building for decades because of unconstrained entitlement spending and Washington’s unchecked appetite for ever more activist government — and Obama’s budget proposes nothing to resolve those fundamental problems. Instead, the president announced a gimmicky “freeze” in spending that affects only a very small part of the federal budget: non-defense discretionary spending. Which is to say, it is a spending freeze that does not freeze spending. The real problems — unsustainable entitlements and the growing scope of federal activity — either remain unaddressed or are exacerbated by the president’s desire to enact a huge new entitlement under a national health-care bureaucracy.
The president’s main line of political self-defense has been: “Don’t blame me — it was a mess when I got here.” That’s a timid sort of leadership. George W. Bush made a bold and thankless effort to begin the essential process of entitlement reform, starting with Social Security, and was pilloried by Obama’s party for his efforts. Even as they blame every problem on the preceding administration, neither President Obama nor his Democratic colleagues in Congress contemplate anything one-tenth as meaningful as Bush’s entitlement efforts, settling for a largely symbolic tweak here and there: $20 billion in purported savings out of a $3.6 trillion budget.
And here’s what Obama’s dodging the difficult work at hand will cost us: According to his own budget, the federal deficit for 2010 is expected to reach nearly $1.6 trillion, a record. And that would come on top of a $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009 and before a $1.3 trillion deficit in 2011. Between 1789 and 2008, the U.S. government borrowed a total of $5.8 trillion. But in just the first three years of the Obama administration, the government is set to borrow $4.4 trillion. And that would not be the end of it. If the Obama budget is adopted in full, federal borrowing will top $18 trillion by 2020. Over the period 2011 to 2020, the president’s plan is to run deficits totaling an astounding $8.5 trillion.
In 2008, total spending stood at nearly $3 trillion — not exactly a period of austerity. But Obama wants to take the swelling juggernaut he inherited and supersize it. Under his budget, government spending would reach $5.7 trillion by 2020, driven heavily by mounting entitlement costs. Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone would nearly double over a decade, going from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to $2.6 trillion in 2020.
Even without the health-care plan, so excessive is this spending that the massive tax increases Obama plans will not stanch the flood of red ink. And they are indeed massive: According to Republican staff on the Senate Budget Committee, the tax hikes already in the Obama budget exceed $2.3 trillion over ten years. If he gets health care locked in, the president plans to solicit Republican cooperation in passing a further massive tax hike to help pay for it and his other spending. The specific form of this hike remains unknown, as it would be proposed by an independent commission of “wise men” handpicked mainly by Democrats to ensure a predetermined outcome — one they hope is not covered in Democratic fingerprints. For added electoral protection, the commission’s tax-increase recommendations would not be unveiled and voted on by Congress until after the November elections, all the better to keep the nuisance of public opinion from interfering with the grand Democratic plan to pursue another Great Society.
Add to the bill some $800 billion in new levies from “cap and trade” and about $500 billion in taxes from the health-care plan. Which is to say, rather than hit the fiscal brakes and address the entitlement crisis, the president proposes to create another runaway entitlement program and “pay for it” with new taxes and with Medicare cuts that will never actually be enacted, but instead postponed and ignored by Congress — as such proposals have been, consistently, for years.
It is true that President Obama did not create the entitlement-spending problem, but neither did George W. Bush — and Obama might consult President Truman’s notes to remind himself exactly where the buck stops.