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At least she can console herself that she’s still the first female House minority leader.

President Obama had a good December in the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress, signing a 9/11 first-responders bill, a new START treaty, and a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. The first-responders bill, despite its name, is a slab of New York City pork allowing first responders, Manhattanites, and their trial lawyers to file claims for 20 more years. The START treaty had serious advocates (Henry Kissinger); its critics argued, plausibly, that in the vain hope of making nice with an increasingly post-post-Soviet Russia, it puts us on a path that will limit our missile-defense capabilities. DADT repeal heedlessly burdened a military engaged in two wars. Obama’s successes remind conservatives and Republicans that even a weakened president is still the big dog in American politics. Not as big as he was, though. Obama extended the Bush tax cuts in a deal with the congressional GOP that reflected its new clout, and Congress failed to enact DREAM (the amnesty program for young illegal immigrants) and a grotesque $1 trillion omnibus spending bill slapped together by Harry Reid. And starting now, Reid’s majority shrinks, John Boehner takes the speaker’s chair — and Obama’s leash shortens.

Congress’s repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” removes one of the grounds for a great divorce in American life: the sundering of military service and elite education. In the late Sixties and Seventies, ROTC was kicked off Ivy League and other high-end campuses because of student protests against the draft and the Vietnam War. Since 1993, the Ivies could point to DADT as ongoing justification for the ban. ROTC students at ROTC-less schools are treated as aliens, obliged to do their training at less-bigoted campuses nearby. Gay rights is a fig leaf; the Ivies didn’t like ROTC because of misplaced snobbery (ROTC courses were not as rigorous as, say, cultural studies) and sheer pacifism. The separation is mean-spirited, parochial, and an affront to the example of Lt. George H. W. Bush (Yale ’48), Lt. John F. Kennedy (Harvard ’40), and Gen. Alexander Hamilton (King’s College, now Columbia — never graduated because he quit to join an artillery company). May it end soon.

As the 2010 census counted more than 308 million people in the United States, it also showed them shifting away from Democratic bastions in the Northeast and toward Republican strongholds in the South and West. States that voted for John McCain in 2008 will gain six seats in Congress as well as six electoral votes in presidential elections. This bodes well for the near-term prospects of the GOP. Republican strength in the states may squeeze more than a six-seat bonus out of redistricting. And if the 2012 election is close, the increase of Texas (four new electoral votes) or the decrease of New York (two fewer electoral votes) could prove decisive. Yet the long-term picture is more complicated. About three-quarters of the last decade’s population growth was the result of immigration. In time, these newcomers could tip Arizona, Florida, and Nevada into the Democratic column. For now, at least, one fact is indisputable: People who vote with their feet prefer to live in Republican jurisdictions.

Because state and local governments have neither the guts to say no to their rapacious employees nor the testicular fortitude to tax their constituents to make good on their promises to the union goons, they face a pension crisis. A big one: They are more than $3 trillion short, with the states of Illinois and California on the verge of crisis, and large cities, including Pittsburgh and San Diego, teetering on insolvency. Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican, already detects the stirrings of a government-employee-pension bailout, and has introduced legislation that will force state legislatures and city halls to clean up their acts and disclose their real liabilities. More important, the bill prohibits the federal government from bailing out insolvent pension funds. That is critical: Questions of local responsibility aside, transferring those liabilities from the states and cities to the national balance sheet would very likely speed up the deterioration of our already limping federal finances, to potentially catastrophic effect. Paul Ryan and Darrell Issa already are on board, and their Republican colleagues would do well to make passing Nunes’s Public Employee Pension Transparency Act a first-order priority in the new Congress.

President Obama says his “attitudes” toward same-sex marriage are “evolving.” To say that he is telegraphing a flip-flop is to understate the cynicism of the gesture. The truth is that the president’s opposition to same-sex marriage has never been anything more than rhetorical. He openly supported same-sex marriage when he was appealing to left-wingers at the start of his political career. While claiming to be opposed to it in subsequent years, he has also opposed doing anything to stop it. Thus when California’s supreme court read same-sex marriage into the state constitution, he opposed a ballot initiative to take it out. He opposes the Defense of Marriage Act, which protects states from having to recognize same-sex marriages contracted elsewhere. His administration, in the course of supposedly defending that law in court, has abandoned arguments that courts had previously used to uphold it — and a federal judge cited its weak showing as a reason for striking down the law. So what the president is really saying is that he will stop even pretending to oppose same-sex marriage the moment the polls indicate it is safe to do so. Nobody who has been paying attention needed the hint.

Arlen Specter used his last speech in the Senate to decry the “sophisticated cannibalism” now allegedly rampant in the Republican party he abandoned. In particular he condemned Republicans who supported primary candidacies against incumbents. Nobody other than an incumbent can possibly believe that as a matter of principle it is wrong to support such challengers. Did Ed Schultz, the MSNBC host who lauded Specter’s speech in a later interview, raise a peep when Ned Lamont challenged Joe Lieberman from the left? But then Specter may not quite grasp what a principle is.

Sarah Palin’s bracing contempt for Washington’s official pieties has brought her into conflict with First Lunchlady Michelle Obama, Surrogate Mother and Scold-in-Chief, over our nation’s chubby children. Palin, preparing s’mores during an episode of her reality-television show (which is an odd thing to write about a potential presidential candidate), joked that the gooey treat was “in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert.” That brought down the wrath of all Washington’s holy, who complained that Mrs. Obama had not literally condemned dessert and that Palin insufficiently appreciates the gravity of the obesity epidemic. But the health of the body politic probably is better served by Palin’s salubrious skepticism of government intrusion into private dietary affairs than by the busybody campaigns reflecting, as Palin put it, “some politician’s — or politician’s wife’s — priorities.” We are more interested in seeing Americans do something about big government than in seeing government do something about big Americans.

Star quarterback Michael Vick served 19 months in prison for running a dog-fighting ring and brutally killing the losers. Since his release he has played two seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles, showing his old prowess, and done volunteer work for the Humane Society. A sad crime; a penalty paid. President Obama inserted himself into the story when, in the course of a conversation with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, he commended him for hiring Vick. “It’s never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail,” Obama said. As ethnic politics, Obama’s call was needless — black people surely remember that he is black. As a social lesson, it was pointless. Vick is a young specialist who became a wealthy man, and who will remain one — not the typical released prisoner. He can put his life back together without cheerleading from the White House.

Ivy Chase

It is the time of year when high-school seniors zip uncountable college applications across the country. Many yearn to be accepted in top private colleges and universities such as Harvard or Williams and fear that they might get stuck at a lowly “state school.”

This bias is age-old, and was perhaps most succinctly described by Friedrich Nietzsche, who said that “in large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.”

But are public universities in the U.S. really that bad? A new study by the website analyzed a massive data set representing millions of observations and estimated the rate of return on investment in higher education for people who attended a wide array of U.S. colleges and universities.

Payscale has a large database of wage and salary data, allowing it to compare the pay of workers who attended, say, the University of Florida with that of a control group of high-school graduates and then estimate what the typical student gets out of her investment in college. The calculations are done for a very large sample of U.S. institutions of higher learning, so one can compare the annualized return on investment (ROI) for public and private universities.

The results, which are summarized in the nearby chart, are startling. The public institutions trounce the private ones in terms of the percentage return on investment. With the exception of Brigham Young University, which is somewhat unrepresentative because it receives much support from the Mormon Church, the top 16 rates of return were all posted by public institutions.

To see how much this turns conventional wisdom on its head, consider that the 15th-place institution is the University of Delaware, the 16th is the University of California at San Diego, and the 17th and 18th places are held by Caltech and MIT.

Note: Average-cost data are as of 2009; 30-year return on investment is in 2010 dollars. Source:

All told, the average annual ROI for the top ten public institutions is 13.4 percent. The average annual ROI for the top ten private institutions is 12.3 percent.

The chart also provides a clue about why the public institutions are such good buys. The average total cost for a bachelor’s degree from a public institution is $83,695; for a private institution it is $171,026. The higher tuition at top schools brings diminishing returns.

While annual ROI is a useful measure of bang for the buck, one caveat is in order. Even though the rates of return are lower for private schools, they are compounding off of an investment that is larger, so the actual cash haul associated with a private college education can be higher. For example, a person with an MIT degree can expect to earn about $1.7 million more than a high-school graduate over the next 30 years, while a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology will see a return of $1.1 million more over the same period.

Neither number is chump change, and the relatively high returns for the public universities mark them as first-rate investments. The University of Virginia and Williams College, for example, provide almost exactly the same 30-year income.

So if you are anxious this application season, relax. In most cases, the impact of ending up at a state school rather than a “first choice” will be small indeed.

On Labor Day, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo published an op-ed in the New York Daily News that, though making many rhetorical genuflections, said what had once been sayable only by New York’s conservative think tanks: “Public employees unions must make sacrifices.” And Cuomo has kept up the pleasant surprises post–blowout election. “The words ‘government in Albany’ have become a national punchline,” he acknowledged at his January 1 inauguration, a symbolically terse one. “This state has no future if it is going to be the tax capital of the nation.” He then gave himself a 5 percent pay cut and requested a one-year government-employee pay freeze. Maybe only Andrew Cuomo — a creature of the Albany Democratic-machine/public-sector-union complex — can solve the bloated-government crisis that his father’s governorship, seminal in the creation of the union-kickback system that has enabled Democratic ascendance in Albany, wrought. We hope Cuomo II will keep his harsh word — but hope rarely triumphs over experience.

New York City got 20 inches of snow after Christmas, made worse by high winds and drifting — and still worse by a tardy cleanup that left New Yorkers, especially in the outer boroughs, marooned and furious. The blizzard of ’10 hurt Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reputation for managerial competence, his great strength (he has no others). New Yorkers put up with his unpleasant personality and increasingly annoying hobby-horses — bike lanes, trans-fat bans — because he ran the ordinary operations of the city well. No more. They may conclude that he spends too much time on national politics to do his job. (Time to relabel No Labels “No Plowing”?) The blizzard also crystallized public anger at public-sector unions. A city councilman, Dan Halloran (R., Queens), claimed that sanitation men told him there had been a de facto work slowdown “to make the mayor pay” for recent layoffs. These were trivial: 400 firings and 100 demotions out of a workforce of 6,300. What will the public-sector unions do when real cuts have to be made, as surely they will (and soon)? Pray for global warming.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling that privately erected crosses on Utah highways bearing the names of deceased police officers violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Denver court found that juxtaposing crosses and the insignia of the highway patrol creates “the impermissible effect of conveying to the reasonable observer the message that the state prefers or otherwise endorses a certain religion.” This fails the very “reasonable man” test on which the appeals court relies. At Arlington National Cemetery, Roman crosses (and other religious symbols, including Stars of David), do not by any means constitute an endorsement of faith; they simply recognize it, and mark the fallen.

We’ve been beating the hell out of the Taliban in and around its traditional stronghold of Kandahar. A mid-level Taliban commander quoted by the New York Times complained that “the government has the upper hand now.” The conventional wisdom about the war hasn’t yet caught up with this military progress — a phenomenon that General Petraeus must consider standard operating procedure by now. The corruption and unreliability of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the double-dealing and instability of our ally Pakistan remain, of course, enormous problems. They aren’t susceptible to any easy solution, but we can at least minimize the hedging of Karzai and the Pakistanis if we convince them that we intend to stay until we finish the job. It helps that the administration has walked back its self-defeating July 2011 deadline for the beginning of withdrawal; it doesn’t help that Vice President Biden says the new deadline of 2014 will bring the withdrawal of all U.S. troops come “hell or high water.” Biden has an infallible instinct for saying whatever is most foolish or damaging. Regardless, events on the ground show that the futility of this war has been greatly exaggerated.

Iraq managed to form a multiethnic coalition government, and its security has continued to improve even as U.S. troop levels have declined to 50,000. This is all to the good. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the Wall Street Journal he has no interest in negotiating a new status-of-forces agreement with the United States and wants all of our troops out by the end of the year, when the current agreement expires. Such a U.S. exit would signal to the region our lack of staying power, which is one reason that Iran will pull all available political levers within Iraq to try to make it happen. If Iraq is more peaceful and stable than anyone had a right to expect after it descended into sectarian bloodletting in 2006, it’s still fragile. U.S. troops have been helping patrol the border with Kurdistan in the north; their absence would make Arab–Kurdish conflict more likely. The administration must do all it can to convince Maliki to think again.

The Christmas season brought murderous attacks on Christians in Iraq, the Philippines, Nigeria, and Egypt. A visibly distressed Pope Benedict spoke publicly of “these absurd acts of violence.” In all cases, Islamist extremists have convinced themselves that they are restoring the caliphate, and if Christians will not submit, then they must be killed or driven out. The Christians of Iraq have understood the message, and some two-thirds of the community — more than half a million people — have fled. Now it is the turn of the Christian Copts in Egypt, thought to be about 8 million strong, or 10 percent of the population. On New Year’s Eve in Alexandria, the country’s largest city after Cairo, a suicide bomber self-detonated at the end of Mass, killing 21 and wounding 97. Even before this outrage Copts had been regularly targeted, and churches set on fire. In power for 30 years, President Mubarak has made sure to clamp down hard on Islamists, but now he is 82 and not well. He and his son are already deep in a struggle for power with the Islamists. These parishioners may be casualties of that struggle.

International pressure is mounting to create a state of Palestine. Palestinian leaders are laying down numerous preconditions, and one of them is that their state must be racially pure. Hamas spokesmen in Gaza quite straightforwardly propose to achieve this through genocide. Speaking as leader of the movement’s military wing, Muhammad Deif informs Israelis that they have “no right to even an inch” of land but are “on the path to extinction.” For another Hamas leader, Ahmed al-Jaabari, Israelis face only the choice of “death or exile.” The future state will consist of the West Bank alone, however, as Mahmoud Abbas, its titular president, wages undeclared war against Hamas and cannot even return to his house in Gaza. But he shares their racism. In the event that there is a Palestinian state, he emphasized at a press conference, “we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli in it.” The Germans had a word for that.

Morgan Tsvangirai is the prime minister of Zimbabwe and the leader of the democratic opposition: the opposition to the president and strongman, Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai is one of the bravest men in Africa, or anywhere. As the Zimbabwe Mail put it, “Tsvangirai has survived several attempts on his life, had his wife killed in an ‘accident’ and was a hunted man for years. Only the unwaiving attention of the world’s powers kept him alive.” He will need such attention now. In a conversation with American and European diplomats, he said that he supported sanctions on Mugabe and his cronies, because they were forcing concessions from them. He could not support the sanctions in public, however, because Mugabe had succeeded in painting them as anti-Zimbabwe instead of anti-regime. How do we know about this conversation? Because a U.S. diplomat memorialized it in a cable, and this was one of the thousands of such cables released by WikiLeaks. Tsvangirai will now be investigated for treason, and faces the death penalty. The Zimbabwe Mail said, “Wikileaks may have just signed Morgan Tsvangirai’s death warrant. It will take an enormous effort on the part of the diplomatic corps of many nations to prevent that.” Let them make that effort, then. It seems strange, doesn’t it? Brave democrats are in jeopardy while Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, accepts applause and largesse as a freedom fighter.

“Come clamb zeh kheel vid me, bebby!” Who could resist such an enticement? Not any Russian citizen desirous of remaining at liberty, for the enticer there was Supreme-Leader-for-Life Vladimir Putin. The kheel, sorry hill, in question was the Blueberry Hill made most famous by Fats Domino in his 1956 R&B hit song of that name. Vlad was crooning the classic to a celebrity audience at a charity show in St. Petersburg on Dec. 10. The enthusiastic attendees included Goldie Hawn, Kevin Costner, Sharon Stone, and other American showbiz luminaries. Among Russians not present were Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova, and the scores of other journalists and activists murdered since Putin took charge. Nor was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most humane and capable but least Putin-compliant entrepreneur, in the audience. He was in jail awaiting sentence — delivered three weeks later — on preposterous, rigged-up charges. (For more on these acts of oppression, see David Pryce-Jones’s article on page 24.) As Putin crooned to the worshipful celebs: “Oll of zose vows ve made vair neveh to be.”

The town of Trevélez, in the hills of Granada province, southern Spain, is famous for its air-cured hams. A schoolteacher in the neighboring province of Cádiz told his students about this in a geography class, explaining that the cold, dry climate of Trevélez is ideal for the curing process. A Muslim student objected to hearing the word “ham,” as his religion taught that the pig is unclean. The teacher said that he was simply giving an example. The student reported the incident to his parents, who called the police, who went to the school and took a statement from the teacher. A prosecution was threatened under Article 525 of the Spanish penal code, which makes it a crime to “offend the feelings of the members of a religious confession,” but the complaint was dismissed. Still, the law includes no exception for, and thus encourages, the hypersensitive and the deranged.

We recently (“The Week,” December 31) had occasion to report that shark attacks near the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh were being blamed, by Egyptian experts and officials, on Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. We now learn that similar urban legends about Mossad siccing animals on Arabs are commonplace around the Middle East, frequently rising to the level of being soberly reported by Arabic-language news outlets. In May 2006, the International Middle East Media Center, a Palestinian outlet, reported that the Israeli Army had released herds of wild boar into Palestinian districts to ravage crops and threaten residents. In July 2008, the Palestinian Authority’s official news agency, Wafa, alleged that Israel was using poison-resistant rats to drive Arab families out of their homes in the Old City of Jerusalem. (How Mossad taught the rats to distinguish between the district’s Arab and Jewish populations was not explained.) Boars, rats, sharks — has Mossad recruited Dr. Doolittle to talk to the animals? Yet these tales are widely credited among Arabs — just one more reminder that in dealing with the Middle East, rationality should not be assumed.

The fashion of calling Christmas the “winter solstice” began with Hitler. He liked to hold that Christianity had weakened the human spirit, and wished that Europe had instead adopted militant Islam. His Third Reich introduced pagan festivals. Photographs taken by Hugo Jaeger, one of his several official photographers, have just come to light showing Hitler and his cronies celebrating Christmas in a Munich beer cellar in 1941. Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, emerges as the Norse god of war Odin, and a swastika replaces the customary angel at the top of the Christmas tree erected behind Hitler. In these photographs Hitler, Goering, and others can be identified already looking gloomy — as well they might.

Several years ago, the government of Romania officially registered its first practitioner of witchcraft. The nation’s spellcasters rejoiced in their newfound recognition (something the burgeoning local vampire population can only envy), but it was a poisoned chalice, because we all know what inevitably comes next. Sure enough, authorities have announced that Romania will start imposing an annual tax on witches to practice their profession. Infuriated sorceresses have reacted as you’d expect; one told a popular website that “she plans to cast a spell using black pepper and yeast to create discord in the government” — something that, in Romania, is about as difficult as creating government overspending is in the U.S. We join, a bit less dramatically, in the protest against this soak-the-witch mentality, and caution that if Romania goes any further in merging medieval occult thaumaturgy with modern liberal democracy, it will soon require reflective tape on black robes, sanitary inspections for eye of newt, and full-body scans before flying on broomsticks.

The “Vows” column in the Sunday New York Times selects one newlywed couple per week for in-depth coverage. Readers thus learn, not just that another administrative assistant–slash’artist has married another lawyer with a social conscience, but that he pretended to enjoy bowling on their first date and she gushed about him to her girlfriends afterwards. But one recent column was a little different: The bride and groom got to know each other at school functions for their children, while married to other people. True, such things happen every day, and if the newlyweds’ soul-searching (“Were we brave enough?”) and rationalizations (“We’re going to have a big, noisy, rich life, with more love and more people in it”) are not exactly on par with Madame Bovary, that makes them no less sincere. Yet telling the whole world about it in the New York Times ratifies a cultural shift from the old-fashioned notion of marriage as commitment to the 21st-century view of marriage as self-fulfillment. So we can’t help wondering whether, as the bride “donned a Nicole Miller strapless gown for a small ceremony in the presidential suite of the Mandarin Oriental New York hotel” and the pair exchanged vows, the “till death do us part” clause may have lacked just a bit of conviction.

Ezra Klein, Washington Post blogger, was commenting on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown about House GOP promises to judge proposed laws by their fealty to the Constitution. Klein said it was all a gimmick. The problem with “the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than a hundred years ago, and what people believe it says differs from person to person . . .” Anything one hundred years old must seem very old to Klein, who is 26 — it is almost four times as old as he is! Since the Constitution was actually written 223 years ago, it is even older — about nine times as old as Klein. Who can understand such old things? “The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.” That is from Ecclesiastes (2:14) — and we won’t even tell him how old that is.

Hugh Hefner, fugleman of the post-war sexual revolution, has become engaged at age 84. The lucky lady is former Playmate of the Month Crystal Harris, who is 24. “I don’t notice the age difference with Hef at all,” avers the bride. Uh-huh. A summer wedding at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles is planned. The glamour of the thing was compromised somewhat by concurrent revelations from ex-Playmate Izabella St. James, who described the fabled Mansion as a squalid, smelly dump with dog poop on the carpets, and Hefner’s deportment in the activity for which he is best known as having put her in mind of a dead fish. But let’s not be cynical at a nuptial announcement; let’s hope that amor vincit omnia is the appropriate Latin here, not Juvenal’s Tenth Satire.

Roger Milliken, a South Carolina textile magnate who died in late December, was an enthusiastic supporter of conservative causes, helping to establish Young Americans for Freedom and serving on the board of the Heritage Foundation, among many other things. He was a leading force behind the revival and eventual dominance of South Carolina’s Republican party, though he broke with the GOP over its support for free trade (Milliken chaired the “Crafted with Pride in the USA” campaign) and supported Ross Perot for his anti-NAFTA stance. He was a gifted and ethical businessman whose company won awards for quality control and recognition for its treatment of employees and environmental practices. During his half century of service to Wofford College, he led the drive to integrate the school, pledging to make up any donations lost because of the move. Here at National Review, Milliken, a 1937 Yale graduate, is best remembered for providing generous and indispensable financial support; during the magazine’s shaky early years, scarcely an issue was without a full-page advertisement from Deering-Milliken Research Corp. Dead at 95, R.I.P.

Alfred Kahn may have been something of a radical — a student of Joseph Schumpeter’s, he brought a tingly jolt of “creative destruction” to everything he touched in government — but he was guided by a deeply conservative principle: “Society’s choices are always between or among imperfect systems.” After achieving the deregulation of airfares, which saves American consumers billions of dollars a year to this day, during his time as head of the Civil Aeronautics Board in the 1970s, Kahn did something most of the big talkers in politics only give speeches about: He shut the doors, overseeing the closure of the agency. His deregulatory model was later applied with great success and even more significant results to telecommunications. Fellow economist Thomas Hazlett reports that the 93-year-old Kahn spent his last days working on a new article, and then playing the piano and singing with friends after falling ill. R.I.P.

Operation Rewind

While we like a good party now and again, the fact that House Republicans held no official gala to celebrate their accession to the majority in the new Congress reflects both a becoming modesty and the accurate understanding that it is time to get to work. John Boehner, now speaker, acknowledged on Election Night that in modern America the president, for the most part, sets the agenda. His job — and that of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and of their Republican colleagues — is to work with President Obama where constructive cooperation is possible, and to begin making the case for starting on a better agenda than his in 2013.

Undoing Obamacare must be near the very top of that agenda, and House Republicans were right to announce that they would hold a vote on repeal in their first days on the job. The law weakens our economy by adding to the cost of employment. It threatens our already-parlous fiscal condition by creating a new entitlement and only pretending to pay for it. It staves off real Medicare reform by relying on price controls. It impedes upward mobility by raising effective marginal tax rates on low- and middle-income workers. It promises to retard medical innovation. And it is flatly inconsistent with the constitutional design.

The health-care legislation is also an integrated plan that cannot be fixed piecemeal or more than modestly improved. Republicans should not be intimidated by polls that appear to show that this or that aspect of the law is popular. Those features of the bill are inseparable from its least popular provisions, the package as a whole remains unpopular, and there is no reason to expect that to change any time soon. The ban on insurers’ taking account of sickness when offering policies and setting rates is popular in isolation, for example, but in order to work, it requires making the purchase of government-approved insurance compulsory.

Senate Democrats and the president will block full repeal, but Republicans should not let the struggle end there. Republicans should next attack Obamacare’s sources of funding. They could offer legislation to repeal the bill’s taxes on medical devices, for example, and make up for the lost revenue by delaying Obamacare’s subsidies. Another bill could undo Obamacare’s cuts in Medicare Advantage and recoup the money the same way. Still another could bar Obamacare from funding abortions (an amendment to that effect passed by a large margin in a heavily Democratic House in 2009, but did not make it into the final law). These bills would put supporters of the health-care law in a very tough spot. They would also keep the controversy over Obamacare from fading. What opponents of the law have to fear is not that it will become more popular but that the public will become resigned to it — that it will come to be seen as inevitable, like death and taxes. Republicans ought to keep hope (for repeal) alive.

On spending in general, the Republicans have to favor repeal as well. Non-security discretionary spending increased 24 percent over the last two years, not counting the stimulus. The run-up in the budget of federal departments has been spectacular: Since 2007, the Department of Labor is up 340 percent, the Department of Commerce 158 percent, the Department of Energy 90 percent, the Department of Agriculture 68 percent, and so on. House Republicans are committed to taking this portion of the federal government back to 2008 levels. It is only a $500 billion slice of a $4 trillion budget, but cutting that slice by 20 percent will be a significant, nay unprecedented, accomplishment. Every inertial force in Washington will resist this effort, not least the United States Senate.

Conservatives will have two points of leverage in the spring, but should be careful to use them with care. The debt ceiling must be raised — since there is no chance that the deficit is going to be brought down to zero in short order — and a new spending bill must be passed to keep the government from shutting down. It will be tempting to use these must-have pieces of legislation to bend the federal budget to conservatives’ will in one fell swoop. But one lesson from Newt Gingrich’s battles with President Clinton in the mid-1990s is that whichever side seems most eager to risk default or a shutdown will lose. Limited-government conservatism only recently recovered from that earlier defeat. But getting nothing in return for passing these bills would also be a mistake. Our preference would be to couple them with caps on discretionary spending that last several years.

The long-term driver of our debt crisis is not discretionary spending but entitlements. One of the most heartening developments of the midterm elections was the success of several candidates who campaigned on entitlement reform, including new senators Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul. In the House the reformers are led by new Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan. Unfortunately these reformers are still in a minority of Republican congressmen, most of whom do not understand the issues nearly as well — an ignorance they share with the public. If President Obama proposes real reform of Medicare and Social Security, Republicans should by all means work with him. They should not, however, hand the Democrats an opportunity to demagogue without the prospect of actually enacting reform. If President Obama refuses to lead on the old-age entitlements, Republicans should concentrate on getting the discretionary portions of the budget, and perhaps Medicaid, under control.

Tax reform probably also requires presidential leadership — but Republicans can move the cause forward by advancing proposals to make the tax code less hostile to economic growth and middle-class families. Capping the deduction for state and local taxes, pruning back the mortgage-interest deduction, and broadening the top tax bracket to include more people should all be on the table, and any proceeds should go toward cutting taxes on investment and expanding the child tax credit. Republicans should not allow their message on taxes to consist wholly of the permanent extension of the Bush tax rates, which over time will put them in the position of defending an unacceptable and unpopular status quo.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac represent unfinished business. They were significant contributors to the financial crisis but have not undergone serious reform. Republicans ought to put them on a path to privatization or elimination — and should consult extensively with Peter Wallison, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who sounded the alarm about the government-sponsored enterprises early and has developed several options for moving to a market-based system of housing finance. One promising idea is to shrink the companies’ presence in the market by gradually reducing the size of mortgages they are allowed to buy. They could then eventually be dismantled without disrupting the housing market. Studies have shown that Fannie and Freddie have done little to reduce mortgage rates or increase homeownership, and claims that they are necessary to stabilize the market are at this point a sick joke. Who needs them? Not a reformist, free-market-minded House majority.

The new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Darrell Issa, is making Fannie and Freddie one of his first targets for hearings, appropriately. All signs are that he will be extremely energetic on all fronts, giving the administration a strong dose of the accountability it has not gotten from the legislative branch over the last two years. As long as he does not get diverted into obsessing over minute scandals, as congressional Republicans did too often in the 1990s, Issa’s work will be welcome and important.

Speaking of scandal, Republicans must have zero tolerance for it in their own ranks. Every new majority comes in pledging purity. Then human nature intervenes. It is always easy to find an excuse for giving your own side a pass — personal relationships and political considerations crowd out ethics and standards. The last Republican majority slid down this path until it became a watchword for corruption. The Tea Party movement is partly a reaction against that self-serving politics, and Republicans had best not forget it.

We should not end on an admonitory note, though. Instead, pause to consider that even before they arrived in Washington, the new Republicans had effectively ended most earmarks, forced President Obama to accept an extension of all the Bush tax cuts, and dealt Senate appropriators a stunning setback by defeating a $1.1 trillion omnibus bill in the lame-duck session. If nothing else, the new Congress will stop Obama’s legislative agenda cold, and that in itself is a wondrous change from the last two years of arrogant and overweening liberalism. Operation Rewind can’t truly succeed without a Republican president in 2013. If congressional Republicans help set the table for one, they will have done their part in inaugurating a historic era of conservative reform.

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