We have to admit that President Obama’s line about not being consumed by personal ambition was pretty good. He should save it for volume three of his memoirs.
To the extent President Obama’s State of the Union address had a theme, it was an implicit one: that federal spending, debt, and the size of government generally should be of less concern to voters than all the ways that government can supposedly help them. The government can, on his telling, reduce tuition by nudging colleges to ignore the incentives that federal higher-education policies produce. It can help a small number of people stay in their homes by reducing their interest payments (which will do little for people who owe more than their houses are worth). It can strike a symbolic blow for fairness by making a very small and unrepresentative group of rich people pay extra taxes. It can bribe manufacturers into producing things here even when the economic fundamentals counsel against it. Obama wrapped up the speech by insisting that his is a lean and market-oriented vision of government. It would be more honest to say that the government of his speech is too hidebound to question its existing commitments and too overextended to promise attractive new ones.
President Obama began and ended the address by invoking the killing of Osama bin Laden, and rightly so: It was a great deed, and the man at the helm when it was done gets bragging rights. But note the moral he drew from it: “At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, [the armed forces] exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. . . . This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.” It’s as though Obama were cribbing Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, under the impression that it was a how-to manual. The patriotism and discipline of the armed forces deserve all praise, but they fight to protect higher ideals. These are not secret: “inalienable rights,” “blessings of liberty.” Could the president give the documents that invoke them a look? (They are how-to manuals.)
Pressure from his rivals and the press prompted Mitt Romney to release his last tax return, which confirmed things we already knew: He has a lot of money, he has given a lot of it to his church, and he pays a lower average tax rate than do some people who make less than he does. This last fact is a result of the features of our tax code: The payroll tax is capped, as are the Social Security benefits it is supposed to be linked to; and returns to capital are taxed more lightly than labor income, although not as lightly as other countries tax them. Romney also has assets in the Cayman Islands, and until recently had some in a Swiss bank account, though in neither case avoiding U.S. taxes. When Romney dismissed his labor income as a trivial amount and it turned out to be $374,000, we also learned, once again, that he has a tin ear about the politics of wealth. Romney has done nothing wrong, but if he is the Republican nominee he will need to buy himself a robust set of working defenses against demagoguery.
Gingrich has wrapped himself in Reaganism, referring to “the Reagan-Gingrich model” of government, and saying, in essence, that he and the Gipper won the Cold War together. By one count, Gingrich mentioned Reagan 55 times in the first 17 debates. (The other candidates combined for 51 mentions.) This has not sat well with many people, including Elliott Abrams, who was a State Department official in the Reagan years. For National Review Online, he wrote a piece pointing out that at a critical time for Nicaragua policy, Gingrich trashed Reagan’s approach from the right, calling his foreign policy a “pathetic” failure. Reacting to Abrams’s critique and others, Sarah Palin decried a “Stalin-esque rewriting of history” and “Alinsky tactics at their worst.” Look, Gingrich’s accomplishments — particularly his leadership of the Republican takeover of the House — are impressive enough on their own. He does not need to gild the lily quite so heavily.
“By the end of my second term,” Gingrich told a cheering crowd of supporters on Florida’s Space Coast, “we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American.” He added that when the colony’s population reaches 13,000, they should apply for statehood. In the face of such inspirational romantic uplift, it may seem churlish to inquire as to means and ends, but we’ll inquire anyway. How much will this colony cost? The Apollo program, which put twelve astronauts on the lunar surface for an aggregate of less than 300 hours, cost $170 billion in 2005 dollars — say around $50 million per astronaut-hour in current dollars. A colony would cost far more, even allowing for technical advances. Apollo did not require any of the major civil-engineering works that a colony would call for — to house the colonists well underground for protection against solar radiation, for instance. Disinterested cost estimates for a colony start at a quarter-trillion dollars. Newt insists that private enterprise would help with this gargantuan tab. Why? For what return on its investment? What, if it is not impertinent to ask, would the colonists do?