‐ Vaccines seem to do strange things to the mind — at least for politicians.
‐ Wisconsin governor Scott Walker took an early, if narrow, lead in a poll of Iowa Republicans. They know him as a plainspoken conservative who took on his state’s public-employee unions, and the Left nationally, and won — repeatedly. Before too long, though, presidential-primary voters will want to hear what Walker has to say about national issues. (He has been dodging questions about immigration policy, but will not be able to get away with it forever.) His reputation as a foe of public-sector privilege could help him make the case for restoring a government that works for the people and not for itself. If he can withstand the new kind of scrutiny he will now receive, this might not be the last time he has a lead.
‐ Three tries has a bad record in American presidential politics: Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Bob Dole (Ronald Reagan did pull it off). Although Mitt Romney believed that another nomination was winnable, he concluded that a fight in 2016 would be too bruising for him and for the GOP, and so he bowed out. Romney is smart, capable, and decent, and would certainly have made a better president than the incumbent (his forebodings about Russia, mocked in 2012, were prescient). But there was always that little bit missing from his politician’s DNA. Romney’s great achievement was ultimately religious: His runs, a few squawks from Mike Huckabee and a couple of low-level Democrats excepted, were untainted by bigoted opposition. Mormonism’s trajectory, from persecution and violence to national acceptance, is remarkable, and a great American success story.
‐ Midcentury children ran a gauntlet of four diseases: mumps, chickenpox, German measles, measles. The last was no mere rite of passage, but a potential danger to children weakened by other ailments and to pregnant women. Almost-universal vaccination had eliminated measles in the United States by the 1990s. The tide was about to turn, however. A study — later revealed to be a fabrication — published in the British journal The Lancet argued that vaccination was a cause of autism. Ex-Playboy model Jenny McCarthy evangelized the lie. Credulous parents, both New Age types and wealthy control freaks, claimed opt-outs for their kids. Politicians on both sides of the aisle — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie and Rand Paul — pandered to them. Now measles is back, with an outbreak at Disneyland of all places, and more coming. Parents should be free to put their children at risk for common, dangerous contagious diseases — so long as they move to Catalina, Midway, or some other remote preserve. Salus populi suprema lex.
‐ The Koch brothers and their network of donors announced that they expect to spend $889 million in the 2016 election cycle. A nice, round $1 billion might have been the better rejoinder to Harry Reid’s campaign of vilification, but the lesser figure still made the point: The Koch brothers aren’t going anywhere, nor should they be. The Left got the vapors over what it calls an attempt to buy the election. Yet buying elections is easier said than done — the Kochs spent about $400 million in 2012 and came up empty. Another complaint is that the Kochs and other outside groups are supplanting the political parties, although campaign-finance reformers can’t abide the idea of making it easier for the parties to compete by loosening fundraising restrictions on them. At bottom, the Koch network is a band of like-minded people trying to effect their ideas in public policy. This shouldn’t only be allowed in a free society; it is practically the definition of a free society.
‐ In her confirmation hearings to be attorney general, Loretta Lynch stated unequivocally her belief that President Obama’s executive order granting effective amnesty to 5 million illegal immigrants is “legal and constitutional.” She went further, telling Alabama senator Jeff Sessions that “the right and the obligation to work is one that’s shared by everyone in this country regardless of how they came here.” Her contention is both ahistorical and constitutionally insupportable. Senate Republicans nonetheless seem ready to confirm her handily, having apparently forgotten what they have the right and the obligation to work for.
‐ Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress has been scorned as somehow unconstitutional. The president takes the lead in foreign policy, though Congress plays weighty roles (it declares war, and the Senate confirms treaties, ambassadors, and secretaries of state). The administration squawked about this invitation because it is irked with Netanyahu and Israel, while congressional Republicans, and some Democrats, are dismayed by Obama’s seemingly open-ended negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The White House protests that the address violates protocol. But what is the protocol for dealing with allies the president doesn’t like?
‐ Maybe he’s finally found those “shovel-ready” projects. President Obama has proposed a dead-on-arrival budget to Congress with more than $2 trillion in tax increases to pay for another round of roads-and-bridges spending — the very thing that the administration fumbled so comically with the so-called stimulus program — and his risible “free” community-college scheme. The president’s proposal would raise taxes across the board — personal-income taxes, business taxes, capital-gains taxes, sales taxes (the punitive levy on cigarettes would nearly double), etc. — but, even with all of the new taxes, the plan would add heavy debt to our already encumbered national finances. As it turns out, that “free” community college is shockingly expensive. To the administration’s credit, the budget recognizes the phenomenon of “lockout” — that high U.S. corporate-tax rates shrink the tax base by ensuring that overseas profits are not repatriated — but goes about addressing it in the wrong way: The answer here is not fiddling with rates but establishing a territorial tax system of the sort in force in the rest of the developed world rather than having Washington try to act as tax collector in Amsterdam, Beijing, London, etc. Budgeting is properly a congressional task, not an executive one, and Mitch McConnell has already signaled that he’s going to treat this proposal roughly the way he treated Alison Lundergan Grimes — speeding it on its way toward being forgotten.
#page#‐ President Obama has broken his campaign pledge not to raise taxes on middle-class families plenty of times. But he came up short with one of his plans to do so in this year’s budget, abandoning the idea of removing the tax-exempt status of “529” college-savings plans even before the budget was released. The plan was privately ripped apart by Democrats, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and New York senator Chuck Schumer, though not quickly enough to have it removed from the actual budget. The 529s are a very generous tax benefit that allows parents to save basically as much as they want for college. Most of the benefits go to those who are comfortably in the upper middle class — with incomes of $200,000 or more. But a large number of Americans of more modest means have 529s, too, and see saving for their kids’ education as part of the American dream. Nice to see that middle-class resistance to tax increases is alive and well in Obama’s America, and in his party.
‐ Governor Mike Pence of Indiana has become the latest, and most conservative, Republican governor to acquiesce in Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid. The program is expensive without being any great boon to its beneficiaries, most of whom would be better off if the money were used to help them buy insurance in a larger private market. But Medicaid has long been structured in a way that tempts even the most rock-ribbed conservative to go along with its growth: The federal government has for decades picked up about half the tab, so state legislators and governors have been able to give their voters extra benefits while charging them half price. Obamacare made the deal even harder to resist: The federal government, which is to say mostly taxpayers from other states, pays for nearly the full cost. Pence says that he won some important concessions from the administration in return for the expansion; most conservative observers find them rather less impressive. It’s a bad bargain, which makes it typical of Medicaid.
‐ When it entered the Union in 1959, Alaska, like many western states, was obliged to deed over the majority of its public lands to the federal government as a condition of statehood, setting up an inevitable conflict over the development of the state’s energy resources, the rights to which the state is forbidden to sell, a peculiar relic of midcentury progressive thinking. For years, the state wrestled the federal government over drilling in a tiny sliver of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, without much success. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act designated some 100 million acres of public land in Alaska as conservation zones, shutting them off to energy development — and it also forbade the federal government to establish new conservation zones in Alaska without an act of Congress. The Obama administration, habitually contemptuous of the legislative branch in which the president briefly served, has announced that it will designate new wilderness-conservation areas, including 1.5 million acres on the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea, an area thought to be a promising candidate for energy development. This is mainly grandstanding — the president does not have the power to make the designation without Congress — and partly harassment, in that the administration will treat the areas as conservation zones until there is a vote in Congress. The immediate problem is the White House’s hostility toward the energy industry, but the long-term problem is the domination of western states by federal landlords. Address the latter and the former is largely moot.
Recently Ramesh Ponnuru and Kevin D. Williamson — both colleagues and friends — had an interesting argument in our group blog, the Corner. Ramesh proposes a bold child tax credit to offset or eliminate the way our tax code penalizes raising children. Encouraging people to have kids is not only a good in itself, he says; it also helps America’s fiscal solvency because it means eventually adding more taxpayers, who will help finance Social Security and other entitlements. Kevin objects to the idea as nothing more than “social engineering” and points out that “given the upside-down finances of those programs, every new contributor-beneficiary is a net loss.”
The at-times brusque conversation proceeded to get weedier than the parking lot of a Blockbuster Video store.
I won’t wade into the middle of their actuarial squabble, largely because I don’t have to.
But I will stick my toe in the arena on the question of social engineering. Ideologically, Kevin is a bit like a glowing silicon-based life form that shares attributes with animals, vegetables, and Ikea furniture. That is to say that even experts find him hard to categorize. But he has strong anarcho-capitalist libertarian tendencies (save when he’s mocking self-described anarcho-capitalist libertarians), and they are on display here. He says of Ramesh’s tax-credit proposal that “using public policy to create incentives for behavior believed to be socially desirable is something close to the definition of social engineering.”
Well, yes. But definitions can often obscure more than they reveal. After all, one common definition of a tax is money taken from the people for the greater good. That hardly means that all taxation contributes to the greater good.
The term “social engineering” was born in the late 1890s and early 1900s with a fairly specific, and dismayingly positive, connotation. It’s hardly surprising that the term first appeared in an age when the masses were feared and engineers were revered (no extra charge for the rhyming). The unofficial mandate of the social engineers was to free society from the ignorance and backwardness of tradition. Belief in the “liberating” power of social-scientific expertise was a great contributor to the lexicological crime that resulted in progressivism’s being called “liberalism.”
One of the great triumphs of social engineering was Buck v. Bell, in which Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. upheld the forced sterilization of those the state deemed “unfit.” “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Holmes famously — and quite gleefully — wrote in his opinion.
I bring up this example for a reason. We can all agree — I hope — that forced sterilization in the name of eugenics really is textbook social engineering. But is the reverse true? Once social engineers transform a society, is counteracting or undoing what they’ve done social engineering too? China, for example, has lived with its one-child policy for decades. Would abolishing that policy be social engineering? Personally, I don’t think so.
Surgery that’s not intended to heal is just mutilation or assault. Social policy aimed at imposing some abstract design on society is social engineering, but policy aimed at letting people live normal, productive lives strikes me as something else.
Yuval Levin, author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, points out that one of the great differences between Burke’s rhetoric and Paine’s was that the conservative talked about the need to provide “space” for private lives, families, and communities to thrive. Meanwhile, Paine, as the progenitor of the American Left, constantly talked about movement, the need to guide and shape the direction those lives take. Both inclinations involve using the state to one extent or another, but I think only one belongs under the rubric of “social engineering.”
#page#‐ New York politics was jolted by the arrest and fall of Sheldon Silver, longtime speaker of the state assembly. Silver stands accused of using a friendly doctor to funnel asbestos claims to a New York City law firm, which rewarded him with fat fees (Silver did no work on the cases and never even met the claimants). He had a relationship with a second law firm that handled tax-reduction cases for real-estate developers, Silver once again claiming finder’s fees. Silver the politician helped the patrons of Silver the lawyer, by opposing tort reform and influencing New York City rent regulations. Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara told New Yorkers to “stay tuned” for more. Would he light on other legislators? On the state’s supreme court, whose bench Silver stuffed with friends? On Governor Andrew Cuomo, who suddenly ended an anti-corruption investigation he himself had launched, perhaps because it was coming too close to Silver? It is a shame that in New York’s frozen politics — a Democratic assembly, a narrowly Republican senate, a governor who must deal with both, all united in venality — the closest thing to a two-party system should be federal gumshoes.
‐ Win some, lose some. California, which has effectively decriminalized marijuana, has declared war on “vaping,” the consumption of nicotine vapor through tobacco-free vaporizing devices, launching a public-health campaign against them and introducing legislation to ban their use in the places where smoking is banned, which in California practically means California. The state cites the presence of certain carcinogens in nicotine vapor in its casus belli, but the same substances (benzene, nickel, etc.) are present in marijuana smoke, and in marijuana vapor, too, potheads having discovered the efficacy of vaporizing technology well before the nicotine fiends came along. This is partly a matter of the usual progressive nannies’ clutching at their pearls (vaping looks like smoking, good heavens!), with California officials fretting that vaping — which is not smoking — “renormalizes smoking behavior.” So there’s the question of taste, but it’s probably partly about money, too: California, where the smoking rate is low, wants to raise cigarette taxes to feed the ravening maw of its union-dominated Democratic political machine, and it has already cashed out the millions in payments it is due under a settlement with tobacco companies, securitizing those future revenues to put cash in the coffers immediately. Treating vaporizing devices and the “juice” that fuels them like cigarettes because using them looks sort of like smoking is suspected to be a first step on the road to taxing them like cigarettes. Californians may not need another addiction, but they don’t need another tax, either.
‐ “Sons tend to follow fathers into lines of work,” Jay Nordlinger writes in this issue (page 23). Yes. Meet Christopher Barry, who is running for the city-council seat once held by his father, Marion, who went on to achieve notoriety as the most flagrantly law-breaking mayor in the history of Washington, D.C. “Bitch set me up,” the mayor complained as D.C. cops and FBI agents arrested him for possession of crack cocaine in a hotel room in 1990. In later life he augmented his résumé with tax troubles and courtroom wrangling over alleged traffic violations — two categories of crime in which Barry fils, 34, can claim some achievements, too, but those are such sedate and boring ways of doing wrong. Apparently he has ambitions to rise above them. He was recently charged with hurling a trashcan at a bank teller who told him he couldn’t withdraw from his account because it was overdrawn. Barry pled not guilty and as we went to press was scheduled for an additional hearing. It can be hard for sons to live up to famous fathers, but give him time.
‐ These are glory days in Iran. The ayatollahs belong to the Shiite branch of Islam, down the centuries inferior in numbers and power to the Sunni branch. No longer. Financing and arming local Shiite militia and terrorist groups to do their bidding, the ayatollahs are already able to congratulate themselves on their rising influence in four Arab capitals, namely Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sanaa. Civil war is a present danger in every one of these cities, and Iranian proxies would be well positioned to win in them. On behalf of the Sunni, neither Saudi Arabia nor the aspiring Islamic caliphate in the Iraqi desert is capable of mounting a realistic challenge for regional hegemony. Alberto Nisman, public prosecutor in Buenos Aires, was about to reveal evidence compromising Iran in the act of terror that killed 85 Jews in his city, but he was found dead just in time to shut him up. Iran is not quite an evil empire yet, but it’s not for want of trying.
‐ President Obama says he can’t reach a nuclear deal with Iran if Congress authorizes consequences in the event he reaches a bad deal or the Iranians keep stalling. Even members of his own party recognize the folly here, so Senator Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, and nine other Democrats support a bill that would reimpose sanctions if no satisfactory deal is reached by June, or if Iran demonstrates its bad faith in other ways. They want to wait until March to pass the bill; it would be better to pass it immediately, as co-sponsoring Republican senator Mark Kirk of Illinois has proposed all along. President Obama and the arms-control clerisy protest that the measure could derail talks. But they value negotiations for the sake of negotiations, and consider Iran’s current leadership a potential partner in the Middle East. Sensible people don’t. Any talks that the Kirk-Menendez proposal would scuttle are talks we shouldn’t have joined in the first place.
‐ It wasn’t the most important, or most glorious, victory in the two-millennia-long history of Kurdish warriors, but the heroic tale of the Battle of Kobani, Syria, will be on the tips of their tongues for years to come. Kurdish militias hailing from Syria, Turkey, and Iraq spent the last six months driving Islamic State jihadists from the streets, and then the outskirts, of Kobani. The Islamic State did make a battle of it: They can boast that they had the Kurds boxed in for six months and withstood hundreds of Western air strikes. In the meantime, the Islamic State has also been snapping up rural territory all across eastern Syria and advancing on the country’s largest city, Aleppo. It’s a good thing the Obama administration and Turkey belatedly provided the Kurds with the airpower and support they needed to win back Kobani — but it is just one town, and the Kurds are just one people, in a much bigger war, one in which the forces of jihad still have the upper hand.
#page#‐ In December, President Obama declared a new day between the United States and Cuba. The Castro dictatorship is having trouble accepting this dawn. Raúl Castro said his regime would not cede “a millimeter”: It would continue exactly as before. If normalization of relations with the United States were to proceed, he said, the U.S. would have to meet several conditions, including the handing over of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to the dictatorship. Come to think of it, that would be a neat way for Obama to keep a campaign promise. The Castros’ arrest of innocent people continues apace. As part of an apparent bargain with Obama, the government released some political prisoners. One of them was the rapper known as “El Crítico.” But the Castros are always loath to leave cells vacant. Another rapper, El Dkano, has been imprisoned on the charge of peligrosidad predelictiva. That means “dangerousness likely leading to a crime.” The Castros’ Cuba is written by Orwell.
‐ Things are going from bad to worse in Ukraine. In the Russian separatist uprising, at least 5,000 have been killed, over a million are refugees, and numbers are rising fast. Russia has not kept to an agreement that its relationship with Ukraine had to be settled by diplomacy, not arms. Fighting is heavy on several fronts, particularly in Donetsk and in Debaltseve, a road and rail hub. In recent weeks, Russia has shipped in a great deal of weaponry, including its newest tanks, artillery, and multiple-launch rocket systems. According to NATO officials, about a thousand Russian military and intelligence personnel are operating in Ukraine. Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the separatists, is calling for the general mobilization of an army 100,000 strong. “Force,” he says, “is the only way to protect our cities, villages, and streets.” In the face of this aggression, the NATO commander, General Philip M. Breedlove, supports providing Ukraine with the means of defense. An independent report prepared by eight former senior officials urges the United States to send arms and equipment, to the value of $3 billion, thus “raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive.” Fearful of a war with Russia by proxy, the White House to date is under the illusion that sanctions and the falling price of oil are a sufficient response. In the continued absence of a serious policy, the ghost of the Cold War will return to haunt Europe.
‐ A common currency for the European Union was always a bad idea, because it required a common monetary policy for very different economies. The European Central Bank’s response to the dilemma has been to follow a monetary policy appropriate for Germany. That meant a policy that was too loose for rising countries during the boom, and is now much too tight for countries facing a bust. In recent weeks the ECB has loosened its policy, making the euro much cheaper in terms of dollars. (It’s a good time to travel to Europe.) It’s not a solution to the one-size-fits-all problem, but it should ameliorate the pressure on the EU’s weakest links. Ignore any ominous talk you hear about a “currency war” breaking out: American stocks rose at the news.
‐ During the loose-money years, the Greek government went on a spree, gorging on cheap debt that proved to be anything but cheap. Now the country is locked in a deflationary cycle. Hopes that Greece’s unimpressive economy might generate the growth needed to make a dent in that debt (which is denominated in unforgiving euros rather than helpfully depreciating drachmas) have been crushed by the country’s attempt at austerity. The result has been a catastrophic slump and, now, a government dominated by the radical-Left party Syriza, with an assist from the Independent Greeks, a party of the paranoid Right. All that unites these two gangs is a fondness for Russia and a dislike of paying Greece’s (admittedly unpayable) debt. Greece wants to restructure that debt. Its creditors do not. There’s been tough talk on both sides, but (at the time of writing) the best guess is that the usual kabuki will be followed by the usual fudge. A chunk of the debt will be forgiven, but that forgiveness will be called something else. Greece will keep the euro, which will continue to crush the country, but at a slower pace than before. Can kicked down the road again. Mission accomplished.
‐ Americans have heard a great deal of talk about French “no-go zones” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and on occasion the discussion has tipped over into hyperbole. There is no question that, by encouraging so much immigration without assimilation, France has created a significant problem for itself. In Paris and beyond, there are now ghettos filled with the unemployed, the criminal, and, increasingly, the chronically resentful. Drug-dealing is common, illegal firearms are a scourge, and, in some areas, Jews are so threatened that synagogues are protected around the clock by the military. Seven in ten prisoners in France are Muslims, and the jails are becoming hotbeds of radicalization. In consequence, local police tend to ignore minor infractions lest the resulting pushback hinder their more important work. If present trends continue, in a few years we will look back and say that all this talk about “no-go zones” was ahead of its time.
‐ If you want to write the next “Three Little Pigs,” you had better choose another animal — or you will not be published by Oxford University Press. The venerable publisher has ruled that its educational materials must be halal, so to speak: They must adhere to Islamic law. So they cannot mention pigs or sausages or “anything else which could be perceived as pork.” The publisher said, “Many of the educational materials we publish in the U.K. are sold in more than 150 countries, and as such they need to consider a range of cultural differences and sensitivities.” Hilariously, and shamefully, the publisher claimed that it was respecting the sensitivities of both Muslims and Jews. At least one Jew would have none of that: A spokesman for Britain’s Jewish Leadership Council said, “Jewish law prohibits eating pork, not the mention of the word, or the animal from which it derives.” Little piggies will no longer go to market — at least from Oxford University Press.
#page#‐ The California supreme court voted in January to forbid state judges to belong to nonprofit youth organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Their target was the Boy Scouts, which does not permit openly gay adults to serve in leadership positions. While holding an official volunteer position with the Scouts is now verboten, judges have not yet been disallowed from helping boys earn their merit badges. So San Diego County judge Julia Kelety, who must resign her position as committee chairwoman for Troop 24, plans to continue to offer a presentation on the Constitution to boys working towards their Citizenship in the Nation badge. She ought to consider inviting California’s supreme-court justices to attend the session on the First Amendment.
‐ This semester, Arizona State University is offering a graduate English class called “U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness.” The course description is not very informative; in its entirety, it reads: “Major critical schools of recent decades — postcolonialist, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, feminist, new historicist.” Few of today’s college English classes would not fit that description; indeed, the syllabus is a collection of standard texts. But would any college in America allow a course called, say, “The Problem of Islam”? The teacher — a living white male, if that makes any difference — professes shock at the negative reactions the course has gotten based on its title, and he has a legitimate gripe. This is what the liberal arts are these days.
‐ In mid January, Tahj Blow, an ecology and evolutionary-biology major at Yale, was returning to his dormitory when he was ordered to the ground by a campus police officer responding to reports of a robbery in progress. The officer had his gun drawn. Because Tahj is the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who has spent the last months in a state of perpetual outrage over events in Ferguson and Staten Island and elsewhere, his story was destined for the pages of America’s Paper of Record. “Had I come close to losing him?” Blow fretted in his column on the incident. “In these moments, what you’ve done matters less than how you look.” What Blow conspicuously omitted were facts that clearly distinguished his son’s encounter with law enforcement — for instance, that the cop who approached Tahj was black, as is the chief of Yale’s police. Charles Blow’s son encountered a black cop, from a department run by a black police chief, on the campus of one of the most racially hypersensitive institutions in the United States, in Connecticut. What is the opposite of racism?
‐ A nine-year-old boy in Kermit, Texas, has been suspended for bringing a ring to school, telling a friend that it was forged in Middle Earth and had magic powers, and threatening to make him disappear. School officials deemed this a “terroristic threat” serious enough to keep him home for a day. Defenders of the school point out that the boy is a repeat offender: His two previous offenses were calling a black classmate “black” and bringing to school a children’s science encyclopedia that contained a section on pregnancy. Sauron’s eye was not half so observant as the modern school’s enforcers.
‐ If Henry Manne had done nothing more than devote himself to legal scholarship, he would have left behind an important legacy: His groundbreaking work on insider trading and corporate mergers shaped entire fields of study that remain active today. Yet he was also an academic entrepreneur, driven by a vision of a law school that emphasized economics education — in particular, the idea that legal rules and procedures must be evaluated not merely for how they dispense justice, but also for their economic consequences. For years, he tried to establish beachheads at Rochester, Miami, and Emory. Nothing took hold. In 1986, he became dean of the George Mason University School of Law in Virginia, where he finally met with success, turning a third-rate institution into a powerhouse of conservative and libertarian legal thought. Today, George Mason is a top-50 law school, according to U.S. News & World Report, and it would rank even higher if the assessments were based strictly on student quality and scholarly impact rather than the prejudices of left-wing law professors. As its young graduates become lawyers, professors, and judges, Manne’s influence will only grow. Dead at 86. R.I.P.
‐ Abdullah, late king of Saudi Arabia, cannot be judged apart from our dealings with his problematic country. Saudi Arabia resists Iranian expansion, and sometimes lowers the price of oil, to further its objectives. It sees itself, correctly, in a war to the death with al-Qaeda and its successors. It is at the same time a bigoted autocracy, softened only by money, hypocrisy, and baby-step reforms (Saudi women now compete in the Olympics). It exports vicious interpretations of Islam worldwide. The posthumous praise Abdullah has received is grotesque (the Joint Chiefs of Staff sponsored an essay contest in his honor). There have been bold leaders in the Muslim Middle East — Ataturk, Anwar Sadat. Abdullah’s epitaph was written two centuries ago: “The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Dead at 90. R.I.P.
‐ Baseball had never seen anything like Ernie Banks, the game’s first shortstop to hit for power. Chicago had never seen anything like him either, a black player in a Cubs uniform, when he broke in with the club in 1953. In his first seven full seasons he led the National League in home runs twice, and twice in runs batted in, but the primary virtues by which he won over his teammates and the fans at Wrigley Field were on display most conspicuously off the field. He radiated optimism that was inversely proportional to the Cubs’ usual sorry prospects for winning the pennant. Mr. Cub was also Mr. Sunshine. A Cub his entire career, he never played in the postseason, though he and the 1969 team came tantalizingly close. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts called him “the warmest and most sincere person I’ve ever known.” He died in January, eight days shy of his 84th birthday. Ernie Banks, rest in peace.
‐ Though Rod McKuen thought of himself primarily as a songwriter, he was also America’s last popular poet of the printed word. In the late 1950s he was a conscientious beatnik, appearing at bohemian readings with the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac, but a decade later his books were selling millions of copies — inconceivable for poetry today. In the era of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Carlos Castañeda, and Timothy Leary, McKuen was a down-to-earth oracle; his cloudy soup of love, nature, sentimentality, and practical mysticism soothed and emboldened the nation’s increasingly restless upper middle class, though it was viciously mocked by critics in those long-gone days when a poet could be popular enough to be hated. Nowadays rappers are our bards for the masses, and for better or worse, their words are much more incisive than McKuen’s — though love, McKuen’s favorite subject, rarely gets a mention. He had joy, he had fun, he had seasons in the sun . . . Dead at 81. R.I.P.
Childish in the House
House Republicans had a plan for January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the date of the annual March for Life. They were going to vote on a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks, highlighting an issue on which pro-lifers have a healthy majority of the public on their side. At the last minute, though, the Republicans decided not to hold that vote.
Several House Republicans — most prominently Representatives Renee Ellmers (N.C.), Jackie Walorski (Ind.), and Ann Wagner (Mo.) — complained about the bill. Ellmers said that holding an early vote on it would alienate young voters, even though polling indicates they are the age group most in favor of it. All of them objected to the provision of the bill allowing late-term abortions for women who reported rapes to law enforcement. They wanted a broader rape exception, although Wagner, bizarrely, said she would also be satisfied if there were no rape exception at all.
Ellmers was especially ham-handed in dealing with the issue. She said the offending language in the bill was new; it had been in the bill she voted for in the last Congress. She said in public that if the vote were held, she would back the bill and simultaneously issue a press release attacking it; in private she kept pressing for it not to be held. When pro-lifers criticized her waffling, she accused them of “abhorrent and childish behaviors.”
House leaders may have been right to delay a vote. It would not have done much to advance the pro-life cause to hold it amid cries of extremism from some female Republicans, especially ones who identify themselves as pro-life. And it might have set back the unity of Republican members of Congress in a way that did lasting damage.
The damage will be much worse, however, if the leaders do not move quickly to hold a vote. To prepare for a vote, they will have to do something they have clearly failed to do so far: explain to their backbenchers why the bill is written the way it is and talk through the issue. The leaders should convey to them that holding a vote is not only the demand of pro-life groups and voters, but strategically imperative. Some Republicans may wish they could “stop talking about this divisive issue,” but if they do not set the public debate over it on their terms they will end up talking about it on the Democrats’ terms (Republicans plan to ban all abortions today). If the critics can come up with a way to word a rape exception that meets their objections without creating a loophole for all late-term abortions, let them do so.
At that point, Republicans will be able to concentrate their fire on those Democrats who, in defending late-term abortion, actually deserve the label “abhorrent.”