‐ We knew Obama would go negative in this campaign. We didn’t expect that his first target would be Rutherford B. Hayes.
‐ The fatal encounter of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., left Martin shot to death, Zimmerman in hiding, and the Occupy movement joining Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in the streets. If Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch volunteer who killed Martin, committed a crime beforehand — e.g., assault, which he might have committed by following Martin in a threatening manner — then the state’s “stand your ground” law, which allows armed Floridians to shoot in self-defense even outside their own homes, does not apply, even if Martin attacked in turn. But we do not yet know what happened, apart from the tragic denouement. That’s why we have investigations. Prodding the investigators is one thing. But now we are in the court of spectacle, as Spike Lee retweets Zimmerman’s purported address (which turns out actually to belong to a bewildered elderly couple), the New Black Panther party offers a $10,000 reward for his “capture” (“an eye for an eye,” a spokesman explained), and the New York Times debuts a new racial category, “white Hispanic” (Zimmerman’s mother was Peruvian, but that disrupts the racial narrative). President Obama commented on the case, perhaps fearing that Sharpton would call him a white black if he did not. We say, let justice be done.
‐ The second anniversary of Obamacare’s enactment passed without fanfare from the administration. The Supreme Court marked the occasion with lengthy oral arguments about its constitutionality, concerns about which Democrats had dismissed contemptuously during the legislative debate. Republicans crowed about the act’s unpopularity, with at least two polls finding that the number of people “strongly” opposed to the act matched the total number of strong and weak supporters. This law, ambitious to the point of hubris, was jammed through Congress against the wishes of the public and the commands of the Constitution. May its second anniversary be its last.
‐ Eric Fehrnstrom, a top adviser to Mitt Romney, was asked on CNN whether the primary campaign had placed his candidate too far to the right to win in November. He answered, “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” Democrats seized on the comment as a confirmation that Romney has no fixed principles; his Republican critics warned that he intends to abandon conservatives once he has the nomination. The Romney campaign maintained that Fehrnstrom was merely saying that voters give a candidate a new look once he has won the nomination. There is nothing scandalous in a candidate’s use of different themes, arguments, and emphases to appeal to different audiences, so long as there is some consistency, both in logic and tone, to his entire campaign. Romney has managed to become identified as a moderate Republican while adopting conservative positions on issues from judicial appointments to Medicare reform. It is a good design — and if Romney shakes it up too much, his candidacy may disappear.
‐ President Obama’s off-mic moments, like his derisive comment about Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, often only confirm what we already know or suspect. When he thought he was conversing sub rosa with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, he suggested that, “on all these issues, but particularly missile defense, . . . after my election I have more flexibility.” We hope that after the election he will have the flexibility to take any position he wishes, with no consequence for the standing of the U.S. in the world.
‐ Rick Santorum was judged to have stepped in it badly when he discussed Internet porn on the campaign trail. These are scary economic times, went the criticism, and what does government have to do with pornography anyway? What Santorum did, in fact, was point out that the Obama administration has been lax in enforcing laws on the books. Under the previous president, there was an Obscenity Prosecution Task Force in the Justice Department. Under the current president, that was disbanded. Santorum is pointing out the harm that pornography is doing to men, women, and children, and to our society at large. He knows that there is more to a healthy and decent society than solvency. Good for him.
#page#‐ In the course of a speech on energy at a Maryland college, President Obama mentioned former president Rutherford B. Hayes, one of those bearded 19th-century Rs, who was also, as Obama told it, a technophobe. He claimed that Hayes said of the telephone, “It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?” But then the switchboards lit up with Hayes historians calling to say that the quotation is apocryphal; that in fact Hayes had the first telephone in the White House (his number was, simply, 1), as well as the first typewriter; and that Thomas Edison came to the Hayes White House to demonstrate the phonograph. Jay Carney, scrambling, noted that Ronald Reagan had told the bogus Hayes story in 1985. But Reagan, characteristically, used it in a self-deprecating joke: “I thought at the time that he might be mistaken.” Self-deprecation is not exactly this president’s line, is it?
‐ Democrats are planning a publicity stunt for April 15, Tax Day. They will introduce legislation to enact the so-called Buffett Rule, which would radically increase tax rates on some Americans. The usual rhetorical sleight-of-hand is at work: Democrats talk about “millionaires and billionaires,” but the Buffett rule would apply to taxpayers making as little as $500,000 a year — not chump change, but not Warren Buffett money, either. But don’t think that there’s big money in taxing big money: A congressional report estimates that high-income taxpayers would adjust their tax and investment strategies in response to the new law, and that the tax increase would generate less than $50 billion in new revenue over the next decade. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, two energetic tax-hike enthusiasts, have between them enough money to simply hand the Treasury that $50 billion and still be among the world’s wealthiest men. Fortunately, this stupid and destructive tax increase has practically no chance of getting out of Congress, but getting the law out of Congress is not the point: This is another salvo in the Democrats’ 2012 class-warfare campaign.
‐ A number of high-profile Goldman Sachs employees have quit in recent months, including a half-dozen from its U.S. proprietary-trading group, which is being closed down because of new regulations. But none of the big dogs made quite as big a splash as Greg Smith, a relatively junior trader in foreign-equities derivatives, who took to the pages of the New York Times to excoriate his former employer on the way out the door. It is an odd essay, full of strange little boasts (he works in the fact that he once won a bronze medal in ping-pong at the Maccabiah Games), and it brims with career frustration: “If you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.” Smith was with the firm for twelve years — twelve years during which Goldman Sachs was not known as the Boy Scout of Wall Street — but apparently only recently discovered that the firm is in the business of maximizing its returns. (The Times being the Times, his essay was accompanied by a cartoon of vultures feasting.) Goldman Sachs, lately a major financial benefactor of Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, is not without its sins, but its clients, far from being the feckless rubes of Smith’s essay, are among the most financially sophisticated players in the market, and they keep coming back, which suggests that Goldman is giving them what they want.
#page#‐ There has been a new development in Operation Fast and Furious, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives project that involved allowing buyers for Mexican drug gangs to purchase guns in the U.S. and walk away without being tracked. Apparently, government officials actually managed to capture Manuel Celis-Acosta, the chief suspect in the operation, in April 2010. Then they let him go. Celis-Acosta was stopped and released again in May 2010. Not much is known about the first incident, but the second encounter with the law involved the top ATF agent on the Fast and Furious case; the officer released the suspect on the condition that he agree to cooperate with the operation. Meanwhile, the operation — which allowed more than a thousand guns to cross the U.S. border into Mexico — dragged on until a Border Patrol agent was killed with one of the lost firearms in December 2010. Operation Fast and Furious is often described as a “botched sting operation” that tried to bring down major players based on information about where smuggled guns ended up. But when the ATF actually caught a big player, they let him go. It’s now even harder to imagine what the agency was thinking.
‐ While Democrats rage on about an imaginary conservative “war on women,” the Obama administration has just declared, in Texas, the first front in its own war on women’s health care. Their casus belli? Over the past several years, the Texas legislature has continually (and lawfully) redirected health-care funds away from clinics that perform abortions or refer women to doctors who do, leading to the closure of twelve Planned Parenthood clinics. In particular, on March 15, HHS cut off $30 million worth of Medicaid family-planning funding for Texas because abortion clinics were ineligible. Governor Rick Perry has insisted that the state will fund the program on its own. Liberals have made their true health-care mantra perfectly clear: Don’t mess with abortions.
‐ President Obama has been itching to shake off the $500 million albatross that is Solyndra, and in his haste he’s been indifferent to facts. On the radio program Marketplace, he reassured host Kai Ryssdal that “obviously” he wished the solar-panel maker “hadn’t gone bankrupt.” (Given his aversion to profit, we’re not certain it’s obvious.) “But understand,” he added in one of his let-me-be-clear obfuscations, “this was not our program per se.” Really? We seem to remember a 2010 State of the Union address in which a rather self-assured president bragged to Congress, “You can see the results of last year’s investments in clean energy . . . in the California business that will put a thousand people to work making solar panels.” Obama also suggested that a bipartisan-approved loan program financed Solyndra, when in fact it received funds through the stimulus, for which no House Republican voted. But Obama isn’t lying, per se.
‐ When Chantell and Michael Sackett purchased some land from a friend in 2005, they had no reason to doubt that they could build a house on it: It had a sewer hookup, it was part of a subdivision, and other houses separated it from the nearest body of water, Idaho’s Priest Lake. But when they began building, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a “compliance order,” threatening them with fines of $75,000 a day if they didn’t return the land to its previous state. The lot, the EPA claimed, contained “wetlands” that were adjacent to the lake, and building on the land would violate the Clean Water Act. Worse, the EPA refused even to give the couple a hearing so that they could prove otherwise. In a 9–0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that once the EPA issues a compliance order, property owners may sue. This is a major victory for property owners who are contending with EPA overreach, but it’s only a small victory for the Sacketts, who still have to make the case that their land isn’t wetlands. We wish them all the best.
#page#Obama’s Auto-Bailout Fiction
As the president has ramped up into campaign mode, he has studiously avoided mentioning most of his signature accomplishments. One can see why. The health-care legislation is unpopular, as is the stimulus. The one thing President Obama always seems to mention is the auto bailout. Given that automakers are profitable now, he asserts, his actions, which were purportedly opposed by Republicans, have been proven wise.
There is much about this line of argument that is objectionable. The auto bailout began in earnest when President Bush, in 2008, allocated part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to the automotive industry. That decision was not without controversy in Republican circles, since there was arguably no legal basis for this use of the funds designated to help financial firms. But Obama’s assertions about widespread Republican recalcitrance are incorrect.
President Obama did support the bailout once he assumed the presidency, and he bailed away with gusto. At the end of 2008, the Treasury had agreed to lend only $17.4 billion to General Motors and Chrysler, but by June 2009 the size of the bailout had grown to $55 billion, and by the end of 2009 it had reached $80 billion.
In the majority of his comments, the president focuses on the negative consequences that the bailout prevented and the number of jobs it created in the industry. According to Obama’s website, he “made the tough and politically unpopular decision to extend emergency rescue loans to the American auto industry, saving more than 1.4 million jobs and preventing the loss of over $96 billion in personal income.” The White House also states that “the industry has added 200,000 jobs in the last two-and-a-half years, and GM is once again the top-selling automaker in the world — posting its largest-ever annual profit in 2011.”
These assertions are poppycock. If the government had allowed the automakers to reorganize in bankruptcy courts, unions would have taken a bigger haircut, the automakers would be stronger today, and the government would have saved money.
But the administration’s most objectionable false statement regards the cost of the bailout to taxpayers. In a February 28 speech, President Obama referred to this expenditure of $80 billion as a bet on the American worker, and added: “Now, three years later . . . that bet is paying off, not just paying off for you, it’s paying off for America.” His implication that the bailout is succeeding — that it will not ultimately be a loss for taxpayers — is a constant theme of Democrats.
The nearby chart, drawn from information released by the Treasury, shows the current status of the financial assistance that the automotive industry has received through TARP. Out of the total $80 billion that has been paid out, only $35 billion has been repaid, some $7 billion has been written off, and $37 billion is still outstanding. That is, 9 percent of the original amount has already been lost, and close to half is still in limbo.
The latest Congressional Budget Office report estimates that the total cost of the bailout will end up being $20 billion. The biggest culprit will be GM, since the Treasury has no remaining investment in Chrysler, having sold its shares in July 2011.
The automakers may be profitable now, but only because we are not counting the taxpayer losses against the profits. If the president continues to avoid this simple math, perhaps someone should ask him why he didn’t shower billions on every industry and create millions more jobs.
#page#‐ In the tranquil town of Toulouse in the south of France, a masked gunman shot dead three paratroopers. The victims were Muslims serving in the French army. Four days later that same gunman entered a local Jewish school and shot dead a rabbi teacher and his two sons. When his gun jammed, he pulled out another gun he had brought along and put a bullet into the head of an eight-year-old girl. The murderer was widely assumed to be a neo-Nazi. Special police traced the man, surrounded his house, and shot him after a lengthy and violent siege. He turned out to be Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French-born Muslim of Algerian descent. After youthful delinquency and two spells in prison, he had gone to Afghanistan and Pakistan to train for al-Qaeda. The United States had him on a no-fly list. French authorities were too lax to monitor him, and, worse, they were unable to imagine that a Muslim could kill Muslims merely for assimilating. Merah was no “lone wolf.” One accomplice was his brother Abdelkader, now under arrest and boasting how proud he is of Mohammed. As it happens, France is about to hold a presidential election, and a major issue is now that Jews are leaving the country, Muslims are immigrating into it, and Merah’s terrorism is an omen of worse to come.
‐ Bashar Assad must think Kofi Annan is an idiot. The Syrian dictator accepted the former U.N. chief’s peace plan with the transparent purpose of buying more time while he shells his opposition into submission. The U.N. estimate is that Assad the Younger has killed 9,000 people so far. The U.S. and Turkey announced that they will increase “non-lethal” aid to the opposition — if nothing else, a step toward getting a better grasp of the players on the ground. We should be pressing Turkey to create an enclave in the north of Syria where a rival government can be organized and recognized. What is certain is that nothing good will come of any initiative sponsored by Kofi Annan.
‐ The Cuban dictatorship did a pretty good cleaning job in advance of Pope Benedict’s visit. For example, they arrested more than 70 “Ladies in White,” i.e., women who hold candlelight vigils for their loved ones in prison. They arrested many more potential “troublemakers” too. Benedict did not plan to meet with any democrats or dissidents during his visit, though in the natural course of things he met with their persecutors. If the pope had said, “I wish to see Oscar Biscet,” would the dictatorship really have denied him? Could they have? On his way to Cuba, the pope said, “Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality.” The reality for Cubans in the 53 years of this totalitarian dictatorship has been miserable. May the pope’s visit — the mere presence of a good and inspiring man from the outside world — alleviate this misery.
‐ Queen Elizabeth II is more in the public eye than usual because she’s celebrating her diamond jubilee on the throne. The pageantry opened when she and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, arrived in the thousand-year-old Great Hall at Westminster, where she addressed the assembled members of both houses of Parliament. The great and good from other spheres had also been invited along. For this occasion, the queen had written her speech herself. Twelve prime ministers had come and gone in her reign, she pointed out, and she had signed 3,500 bills into law. A little old lady in a smart yellow outfit with a hat to match, she spoke of the virtues of resilience, ingenuity, and tolerance that have made Britain what it is. She still had a promise to make, “I rededicate myself to the service of our great country.” Three more years, and she will have the historic distinction of reigning longer than her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.
#page#‐ In mid-March, the terminal casuist and archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, announced that he was stepping down from his position as head of the Anglican clergy. This is no great loss. Among his many mistakes was a public pronouncement that the British policy of just “one law for everybody” was “a bit of a danger,” which opinion he neatly coupled with the suggestion that sharia law in Britain was “unavoidable.” These were not isolated gaffes. By chance in New York City on September 11, 2001, Williams later averred that terrorists “can have serious moral goals” and warned against “bombast about evil individuals.” He followed up by writing a book that claimed, among other things, that “every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game.” Such sentiments will no doubt be welcome in the halls of academia — to which Williams is returning after his resignation becomes effective in December — but they were not helpful in our difficult times. We hope for a church less militant, at least when it comes to foolish politics.
‐ The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, made a statement that raised some eyebrows. It is “necessary,” he said, “to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula.” We would have thought it was superfluous.
‐ The difference between Che Guevara and Pol Pot, Anthony Daniels once observed, was that Guevara never studied in Paris. The fathers of Galway, Ireland, have now decided to erect a monument to Guevara — the master of La Cabaña, his abattoir; the architect of the Cuban gulag; a man who seemed to get an almost sensual pleasure out of murdering the innocent. As Paul Berman once summed up, “Che was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version, and he has been celebrated as a freethinker and a rebel.” After 60 years, there is little excuse for not knowing who Che Guevara was.
‐ For more than three decades, Brian Lamb has been the nonpartisan Bill Buckley. While admittedly lacking WFB’s panache, the C-SPAN founder, like Buckley, started with an idea that seemed unpromising to many and turned it into a powerful force in politics — among other things, giving Americans the instructive if enervating experience of seeing how banal most congressional debate is. As the channel’s ubiquitous host until quite recently, he asked incisive questions without a hint of political bias, and was never hostile or ingratiating. He typically spent 20 hours preparing for a one-hour interview with an author, during which he would speak for perhaps five minutes. Now, like Buckley in his last years, Lamb is easing himself out of the institution he created. Having previously given up hosting Booknotes and Washington Journal (though he will continue to do Q&A), he has announced that he will retire from active participation in the company’s management. We wish him many more happy years as that rarest of Washington creatures: a genuine nonpartisan whose sole interest is the truth.
‐ The New York Jets acquired Tim Tebow from the Denver Broncos, as a backup quarterback for Mark Sanchez. But of course Tebow, with his brilliant hits, gaping misses, public prayers, and straight-arrow persona that seems to go all the way down, will be first-string media fodder. Gotham/Gomorrah has a longstanding fascination with the pure of heart. In the 1920s, Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson visited Texas Guinan’s speakeasy; Guinan returned the favor by attending McPherson’s next revival meeting, chorus girls in tow. The wicked want to see the virtuous stumble; the flâneurs accept them as a piece of the city’s gorgeous mosaic. And Christians have their own marching orders: “Put on therefore . . . bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness . . .” Tebow can etch Colossians 3:12 on his eye black.
#page#‐ What do Barry Bonds and a goat have in common? Okay, let’s rephrase that. What do major-league sports have in common with state-fair animal contests? Answer: drug scandals. Last year in Colorado, a sister-and-brother pair of 4-H members had their prize-winning goats disqualified when tests showed the presence of a banned substance that stimulates muscle growth. They were banned from future competition, but now they have had their honor restored (though not their prizes) and can participate in this year’s contest, after making a case that their goats’ feed was adulterated, presumably by a jealous rival. Readers of P. G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth stories know that the world of competitive animal husbandry can be cutthroat, but performance-enhancing drugs are a whole new dimension. Next season on Fox: Goat Wars.
‐ In one of those inexplicable German enthusiasms, like Limburger cheese or the euro, an earless bunny named Til drew overflow crowds to a small zoo in Saxony until a clamor arose for him to make his television debut. That, sadly, led to his Icarian downfall: On the television show’s set, he burrowed into a pile of hay, where a cameraman stepped on him, causing 17-day-old Til to hop off this mortal coil. A shattered nation plunged into mourning — though there has been talk of having the plucky but doomed little bunny stuffed, so he can continue to inspire future generations.
‐ It is often said that Hilton Kramer, who died last month at 84, was best known as an art critic. Yes and no. His long tenure at the New York Times, where he was chief art critic, made him famous, but Hilton always ranged far beyond the visual arts in his writings. He began his career as a literary critic, and at bottom he was best known, and most feared, as a cultural polemicist. His subject might be some grotesquerie in the art world, but it was just as likely to be the latest travesty in academia or elsewhere in the bloody crossroads (to snitch Lionel Trilling’s term) where culture and politics meet. By the late 1970s, Hilton had long been restless at the Times. He rankled at the confines of daily journalism — not everything, he used to say, could be adequately discussed in 800 to 1,000 words. But he was also disgusted by the demotic imperatives of pop culture and political correctness that were beginning to make inroads at the Times. In 1982, he left to start The New Criterion with the pianist and music critic Samuel Lipman. It was a bold experiment: a journal of high culture that was at once conservative in its politics and devoted to the aesthetic principles of high modernism. Many people thought he was crazy, but he never looked back. And it was an immense satisfaction to him to see that The New Criterion, like T. S. Eliot’s magazine, The Criterion, exerted an influence far beyond its numbers. R.I.P.
The Constitution vs. Obamacare
The Supreme Court heard arguments concerning specific, grave constitutional concerns about Obamacare: most prominently, whether the federal government has the power to order all Americans to purchase health insurance that meets the federal government’s standards. But it is worth taking a few steps back to remind ourselves that while this requirement is an unprecedented infringement on Americans’ liberty, the legislation as a whole — in its conception, not just its details — is an offense against constitutional government. As is much of modern government, and conservatives should not shrink from saying so.
The Constitution provides few and defined powers to the federal government, as James Madison put it. The precise scope of those powers has always been subject to debate, but that the description does not apply to today’s federal government cannot seriously be denied. The Constitution divides power among the branches of the federal government: but today’s government features countless agencies that combine executive, legislative, and judicial functions. The Constitution’s structure and logic militate against commingling state and federal powers. Today’s government includes vast state-federal spending programs in which the division of responsibility is blurred by design. These are not merely formal deviations from the constitutional template. They subvert its goals of liberty for citizens, accountability for governments, and security for property. What is needed today, then, is not so much the protection of constitutional government as its reclamation. The courts have an indispensable role to play in that project, but it will also necessarily involve shrewd and patient political action.
It is in the context of an already hypertrophied government that the discrete yet momentous legal controversies over Obamacare should be judged. As the plaintiffs contend, a federal mandate would expand federal powers still further, and in a way that does not admit of any principled limit. It would mean that the federal government would have the kind of general police power that has heretofore been considered a monopoly of the states. Thus even someone who believes today’s administrative state to be broadly in accordance with the Constitution should balk at the mandate.
The federal government has the power to regulate commerce among the states, but that power neither includes nor implies the authority to force individuals to purchase particular products. If it is read to include or imply that authority, then it must surely follow that the federal government may institute a compulsory calisthenic program for all Americans. The administration argues that an individual’s decision not to purchase health insurance has an effect, however minute, on health-care markets nationally, and that such decisions when aggregated have a large effect. But of course the same is true of individuals’ decisions to remain sedentary or eat too many sweets.
The mandate cannot be justified, either, under the Constitution’s grant of authority to Congress to make all laws “necessary and proper for carrying” its legitimate powers “into execution.” The mandate is not necessary to execute Obamacare’s insurance regulations. It is necessary only to stop some of their unwanted effects. Obamacare requires insurers to offer the same policies at the same prices to the sick and the healthy alike. Absent a mandate, that regulation will cause insurance premiums to rocket skyward. But regulatory folly cannot itself be a source of additional constitutional authority. Nor can a blunt command to citizens be a “proper” method of executing a regulation.
That should close the constitutional case. But we need not worry that the Constitution has barred us from adopting a policy indispensable to solving the problems of American health care. The mandate is supposedly a measure to reduce cost-shifting by the uninsured, and the insurance regulations a measure to help those with preexisting conditions get insurance. But there are less intrusive, and indisputably constitutional, ways to address these concerns. A deregulatory program would reduce cost-shifting by making it easier for the uninsured to purchase coverage, and would enable people to keep their insurance while sick by making them rather than their employers the owners of their policies.
Democrats chose to include the mandate in the bill because, notwithstanding its unpopularity, it was more politically expedient than other ways to reach their goals. That calculation does not make it constitutional. It does, however, suggest that the legislation would never have passed without the mandate. The provisions interlock, and they must either stay or go together. A proper understanding of the Constitution compels them to go — and that should remain conservatives’ goal whatever the Court does.
Paul Ryan Leads
Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has produced another bold budget. He knows that President Obama and the Democrats will not allow his budget plan to become law this year, but he wants to recommit the Republican party to spending restraint, tax reform, and a strong defense.
Naturally, the Obama White House is already shrieking. Ryan’s budget, it says, “fails the test of balance, fairness, and shared responsibility.” The test of balance? Ryan’s plan moves the federal budget into sustainable balance, even on the unfavorable assumptions of the Congressional Budget Office. President Obama has never produced a plan to balance the budget on any time frame; his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, admitted as much in recent testimony before the House. Nor have Senate Democrats, who have not produced any budget at all for three years. We doubt that most Americans will find that consistently large deficits and ever-rising debt levels meet their definition of fairness, balance, and responsibility. Nor will they favor what we suspect is the president’s real, though secret, plan: to allow taxes to rise on everyone, in effect cycling the middle class’s money back to it through Washington for the benefit of the Democratic party.
The Ryan budget would spend $5 trillion less than President Obama plans to spend over the next decade. It repeals Obamacare. It limits Medicaid spending by offering states a capped amount of funds, ending the current practice of bribing them to expand coverage. It commits to a tax code that raises the same amount of revenue, as a proportion of the economy, as we have historically raised, but does so with lower tax rates, less hostile treatment of capital, and fewer loopholes.
As in last year’s budget, Ryan would replace the current Medicare program with “premium support”: Seniors would pick a plan and the government would defray the cost. Older and sicker beneficiaries would receive more help, but all would have to pay more if they chose more expensive plans. In last year’s budget, the average subsidy level would have risen with inflation. This year, the budget proposes that it instead depend on the results of a bidding process in which insurers in each of Medicare’s administrative regions compete to cover the minimum benefits package at the lowest price. The new budget also lets seniors choose a traditional fee-for-service plan run by the government.
In principle, these changes could be advances for conservatism rather than concessions. If competition and price sensitivity drove costs down, a competitive-bidding model could reduce Medicare spending more than last year’s proposal would have. (If the program failed miserably, spending would still be capped at the level the Obama administration has stipulated.) So long as the implementing legislation gave no artificial advantages to plans that operate on the fee-for-service model, the reform would be a giant step toward free markets and national solvency.
Liberal attacks on the Medicare plan have not caught up with these changes. Last year, Democrats argued that a subsidy that rises only with inflation would leave seniors paying an ever-higher share of rising health-care costs. They’re making the same argument this year. But the new plan is immune to this critique: Seniors will always have an option to pay no more than they are paying now. Ryan can be said to be “ending Medicare as we know it” only in the sense of stopping it from being quite as centrally micromanaged, and unsustainable, as it is now.
As ambitious as Ryan’s plan is — it would accomplish more conservative reform than the last three Republican presidents combined — it has unfortunate omissions. It says nothing about Social Security. It is either too vague about tax reform or not vague enough: There is no sense in committing to a tax code with a 10 percent and a 25 percent rate but remaining silent on deductions and even on the level of income to which each rate would apply. The plan says nothing, for example, about the tax treatment of health-care coverage; but if Obamacare is to be repealed, that treatment should be changed to allow a market for insurance purchased by individuals to grow. In at least one respect, meanwhile, the plan goes too far, imposing federal limits on malpractice suits, an area that states have traditionally and rightly governed.
Ryan and the Republicans have, nonetheless, put forward a plan to bring the federal debt under control and to avoid massive tax increases. Neither the president nor his Democratic allies have done these things. The contrast is very much to the former’s credit and the latter’s shame.
Priscilla Buckley, R.I.P.
The universal consensus, of all who exchanged e-mails in the wake of her death, was that Priscilla Buckley was the most gracious person each of us had ever known. Alternatively, the most genial, the warmest, the best-humored (what a smile). Don’t call her the sweetest, though, for her humor could have a citrus edge.
It helped her many times in her almost 30 years as managing editor of National Review, an assignment she took on at the behest of her younger brother, WFB. Intellectuals are a contentious lot, journalists a scruffy one; a journal of opinion acts as a magnet for both vices. There was the senior editor (ex-Communist) who schemed against a fellow senior editor (ex-Trotskyite); she absorbed their shocks. There were the two talented young men, neither of whom seemed to be able to complete the big piece he had been assigned; she finally announced a contest — a pack of cigarettes to the first finisher (today that would get you arrested, but in the post–Mad Men era it worked). She even, occasionally, rode herd on WFB himself, telling him there could be no revisions to the blues — a late stage in the Gutenberg-era production process (there could, but she didn’t want him to know, lest some perfectionist tinkering cause the magazine to miss its printer’s deadline).
She also had to deal with equally difficult readers. Two of her earliest pieces for NR explained that Alaska was not being prepared as a concentration camp for fans of Senator McCarthy, and that fluoride was not a Red plot. One on one, she fielded the complaints, starbursts, and life stories of nuts, fanatics, and the sweet but tireless.
Priscilla was steeled to fulfill these tasks by her pre-NR experience in journalism, working for United Press in New York and Paris during the Forties and Fifties. Her tales of those days could make an hour over drinks fly; some of the best appeared in String of Pearls, her 2001 memoir. Best of all: how she and a UP colleague guessed that Dien Bien Phu had fallen, by noticing a shift between different forms of the past tense in consecutive Agence France-Presse bulletins (they scooped AP by 15 minutes).
After she stepped down as managing editor in 1985, she traveled — she had always been curious and footloose — printing the occasional postcard in NR. One of her many keepers: a description of hot-air ballooning (and hot-air-balloon crashing) over her beloved France. In the interstices she painted, golfed, and skied.
She celebrated her 90th birthday with a great blowout in Sharon, Conn., last October. She died this March, quickly and calmly. Like hitting a deadline. R.I.P.