Entries from November 2008

The Obama Illusion

David Frum November 27th, 2008 at 8:39 am Comments Off

Barack Obama faces a heavy burden of expectations from the rest of the world, just as Shrum has said.

Many Europeans hope that Obama will somehow lead America to being less obnoxiously American: less religious, less nationalist, less self-certain, less ready to use force, a country of fewer guns and more tramcars.

In the Middle East, many hope he will undo—or at least de-emphasize—the U.S.-Israel alliance.

In Russia, China, and Iran, leaders may well assess that a President Obama will be less assertive and more accommodating.

And in Africa, those dancing Kenyan villagers we saw on Election night plainly expect that a mighty torrent of American money will soon be heading their way.

Probably, almost all those expectations will be disappointed. (OK, maybe not China’s and Russia’s.) What then?

Ah, then my crystal ball goes blurry. Here, however, are two alternative hypotheses, both of which I suspect will be largely realized.

Hypothesis one:

The world is heading for massive Obama disillusionment as its Obama expectations are deflated one by one.

America is too big and its policy consensus too deep for Obama to transform the U.S. in the way in which his most ardent international supporters would wish—even supposing he wanted to himself.

He may end the increase in military spending; he won’t dare cut it very much. America in 2012 will still spend more on its military than the rest of the world combined.

He may devote more energy to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But there are tight political limits to how much pressure he can deploy against Israel.

The Senate will not ratify the Kyoto treaty on global warming or the Rome treaty that would subject the U.S. to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

And while Democratic presidents have more enthusiastically pretended to care about the United Nations than Republicans have, from Truman to Clinton they have never hesitated to ignore it when it got in their way.

As for those Kenyan villagers, they will soon discover that Democrats find it tougher than Republicans to increase spending on foreign aid. An enterprising reporter who visits Kenya six months from now will be able to collect hundreds of disappointed quotes from Obama relatives: “My cousin was elected president and all I got was this lousy tee shirt.”

Hypothesis two:

All of the above may be true, but none of it will matter. For much of the world, Obama is not a man but an icon. And icons never disappoint, because they exist in the realm of myth, not the realm of politics.

To millions of people, Obama represents a certain set of attitudes, a certain style of aesthetics, an inarticulate compilation of yearnings. Those feelings are not political, and politics will not affect them. Does it matter that John F. Kennedy was not a very good president? Does it matter that Marilyn Monroe dyed her hair or that Che Guevera was a mass murderer? Not to those who blazon their images on their sweatshirts!

Will it be that way for Obama too? If so, Shrum can rest assured that the menu at his favorite trattoria in Florence will continue to feature the owner’s grandchild in an Obama tee shirt. That will say a great deal about the trattoria owner. It will say nothing about the Obama administration.

Originally published in The Week.

Obama’s Power Play At State

David Frum November 20th, 2008 at 8:36 am Comments Off

We must be getting close to Christmas—even Shrum is getting sentimental!

In the leak of Hillary Clinton’s name as a prospective secretary of state, Shrum conjures a scene out of Stover at Yale: the hand extended in sportsmanship to the defeated opponent.

“Well played, Hill. Here, let’s get the dust off you.”

“You hit hard, Barry. But it was a clean hit.”

“It could have gone the other way just as easily, Hill. We need you to keep fighting for Varsity. I want you as my deputy captain.”

Or possibly the scene comes by way of Parson Weems …

Now, let’s tell a story for grown-ups.

Obama and Clinton are engaged in a complex series of maneuvers, animated on each side by—surprise!—self-seeking motives.

The leak—with its list of possible alternates, including another defeated presidential rival, Bill Richardson—seemed to emanate from the Obama side. Now here’s a question to consider: Why does a president-elect leak news that a job has been offered? Why doesn’t he wait until the offer has been accepted, and then go public with the accomplished fact, thereby sparing himself the risk of public rejection?

News of the offer confers a series of benefits on Obama. It makes him look magnanimous. It also solves a very practical problem. There do not seem to be many women in Obama’s rumored top tier appointments. With Joe Biden in the veep’s office, Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, Bob Gates retained at Defense, Tom Daschle at Health and Human Services, Eric Holder at Justice, and, very possibly, James Steinberg as National Security Adviser, it’s testosterone, testosterone, testosterone. Aggravating the problem is the fact that the front-runner for Treasury Secretary—Larry Summers, whose reign as president of Harvard University was short-circuited by his transgressions against political correctness—remains a special demon figure among feminists. What better way to placate Democratic women than by circulating Hillary Clinton’s name for the most honorific cabinet post of all?

Note, too, that by circulating her name, Obama makes it difficult for Hillary to say no. Can she afford to be less gracious in defeat than Obama has been in victory? But if she says yes—poof, there vanishes her independent power base. She serves at the pleasure of the president. More consequential still, in order to pass the vetting process, she must open to Obama’s team all the tangled financial records of the Clinton family. If there is any part of her that imagines, say, a primary challenge to Obama in 2012, or even a campaign to replace Biden on the ticket in the VP slot, that hope diminishes with the opening of the files. She will have done Obama’s oppo research for him. From then on, she is utterly exposed and vulnerable.

She gets only what Obama chooses to give.

Obama talked of change. But in politics, some things never change. One of those things is the hard reality of power. The other—sorry Bob!—is our perpetual susceptibility to gauzy illusions about the motives and actions of those who wield it.

Originally published at The Week.

Republican Resilience, Democratic Dilemma

David Frum November 13th, 2008 at 8:31 am Comments Off

In the euphoria of Democratic victory, Shrum seems to have read my last column with something less than the intense scrutiny he normally applies to his ideological opponents’ lightest utterances.

I was not suggesting that John McCain’s super-majority among white working-class voters offered a basis for Republican rebuilding. Just the opposite! I have been banging the drum for a year warning of Republican trouble ahead—and emphasizing the need for new Republican policies to attract new voters, especially college-educated voters.

My point was simply this: While Republicans lost in 2008, they did not lose nearly so badly as might have been expected. John McCain won only 46 percent of the vote. That’s a beating, yes. But it’s not nearly so bad a beating as the elder George Bush received in the recession year of 1992 or as Jimmy Carter suffered in 1980. McCain ran nine points stronger than Bush and six points stronger than Carter. I think that’s interesting and useful information.

As Republicans rebuild, they need to take the measure of their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses are obvious to all. Others are less apparent: for example, our fundraising difficulties look likely to grow even more acute in the 2010 cycle.

Yet the strengths are real, too. The Republican Party remains in touch with something deep and integral to the American nation. Republicans are more likely to describe themselves as proud of America than Democrats. They are more optimistic both about themselves and the country. And as this election proved beyond doubt, they have an important, residual attachment to their party even in bad times.

At the same time, Democrats face some severe strategic dilemmas. The party is a coalition that draws its strength from the top and bottom of American society. That raises questions like: How will Democrats handle the immigration problem?

It’s an issue that has become more and more important to more and more voters. The Democrats’ upper-income supporters profit from current loose immigration policies. Many of the Democrats’ lower-income supporters are recent immigrants themselves or else the relatives of recent immigrants. They profit, too.

But the costs of current policy are borne by middle-income taxpayers, who through their property taxes pay the cost of the schools, hospitals, roads, and prisons required by legal and illegal immigrants, and by less-skilled workers, including many black Americans, whose wages are squeezed by the newcomers.

Democrats will likely continue the current lenient policy. Middle-class voters will very rationally prefer a policy of enforcement. Reconciling these imperatives will not be easy. The choice that Democrats make will reveal much truth about what today’s Democratic Party is—and about whom it most faithfully represents.

Celebration’s over, Shrum. Politics has resumed.

Originally published in The Week.

Rahm Emanuel: The Man From Delta

David Frum November 7th, 2008 at 8:33 am Comments Off

Within seconds of the news of the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff, all Washington was quoting an anecdote from an article in last year’s Rolling Stone:

Friends and enemies agree that the key to Emanuel’s success is his legendary intensity. There’s the story about the time he sent a rotting fish to a pollster who had angered him. There’s the story about how his right middle finger was blown off by a Syrian tank when he was in the Israeli army. And there’s the story of how, the night after Bill Clinton was elected, Emanuel was so angry at the president’s enemies that he stood up at a celebratory dinner with colleagues from the campaign, grabbed a steak knife and began rattling off a list of betrayers, shouting “Dead! … Dead! … Dead!” and plunging the knife into the table after every name. “When he was done, the table looked like a lunar landscape,” one campaign veteran recalls. “It was like something out of The Godfather. But that’s Rahm for you.”

Of the three stories, only the second is a myth …

Wow! That is intense. Or is it? The people quoting the steak-knife anecdote have all overlooked the possibility that Emanuel was not re-enacting The Godfather but rather a very different American film classic.

Bluto: What the f— happened to the Delta I used to know? Where’s the spirit? Where’s the guts? This could be the greatest night of our lives … but you’re gonna let it be the worst. ‘We’re afraid to go with you, Bluto. We might get in trouble.’ Just kiss my ass from now on. Not me! I won’t take this! Wormer is a dead man! Marmalard: dead! Neidermeyer …

Otter: Dead.

The movie of course is Animal House — and Rahm Emanuel is not the first senior White House official to be inspired by it.

In the investigation of the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity, federal attorneys uncovered a baffling piece of code. One of the journalists who published Plame’s identity was Matthew Cooper, a writer for Time magazine. Under threat of jail, Cooper surrendered his notes to investigators. The notes revealed that Cooper’s source for his information was White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, who spoke to Cooper on “double super secret background.”

Washington insiders were puzzled. Some speak to reporters on background. Others prefer deep background. More nervous officials will sometimes request “deepest background.” But only Karl Rove — that nefarious man! — could ever have invented anything as murky and sinister as “double super secret background.”

Er … no so fast.

Dean Wormer: This year we’ll grab the bull by the balls … and kick those punks off campus!

Greg Marmalard: What do you intend to do, sir? Delta’s already on probation.

Wormer: They are?

Greg: Yes, sir.

Wormer: Oh … Then as of now, they’re on double secret probation!

Coincidence? Yes probably … but maybe not. There is something about the spirit of Animal House that speaks to everybody involved in practical politics. Journalists who cover campaigns use language that conjures images of military precision: “organization,” “targeting,” “an army of volunteers,” “field offices,” etc.

Anybody who has ever done any canvassing — and especially anyone who has ever had responsibility for organizing a canvas — knows that the reality is barely controlled chaos: volunteers who don’t show up, who show up in the wrong place, who go to the wrong street, talk to the wrong voters, and say the wrong thing.

Once elected, politics becomes a matter of egos, vanities and petty personal quarrels, summed up by that ancient British political joke:

New MP: I cannot wait to enter the House of Commons and get my first glimpse of the enemy!

Veteran MP: Young man, those are your political opponents. Your enemies will all be found on your side of the House.

Sloth, stupidity and petty authoritarianism are all integral to the political experience — and what movie depicts them better?

Dean Wormer: Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

A few years ago, I had my own equivalent of an Animal House experience. During the battle over the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, I got a call from a White House friend. His mood was sad. He told me I had badly let down the old team by my oppositional attitude.

And then he said: “You had better forget about that invitation to the White House Chanukkah party.”

Buck Henry could not have written it better. The new Obama team will fit right in.

Originally published in the National Post.

Republicans Face Fraught Choice Between Two Roads To Revival

David Frum November 5th, 2008 at 8:32 am Comments Off

In the wake of yesterday’s bruising result, the Republican party faces an excruciating and divisive choice between two very different futures.

The first choice is the choice on display at the excited rallies that cheered Sarah Palin all through the fall. This is a choice to fall back on the core base of the Republican party. The base is almost entirely white, almost entirely resident in the middle of the country, moderately affluent, middle-aged and older, more male than female, with some college education but not a college degree. Think of Joe the Plumber and you see the core of the Republican party.

Republicans have won a string of elections thanks to Joe.

Joe came through in 1994, delivering both houses of Congress to the Republicans. Joe was not enough to elect Bob Dole president, but thanks to him the Republicans kept  a dwindling hold on Congress in 1996, 1998, and 2000.

Joe rallied to President Bush after 9/11. Republicans owed their gains in 2002 to Joe. And without Joe, George W. Bush would not have won in 2004.

Joe has not changed much over the past two decades or so. But the country has. The Hispanic population of the United States has almost doubled since 1990. The proportion of white Americans with a college degree has jumped from 22% in 1990 to almost 28 ½% .

In order to keep competitive, the GOP has had to win more and more of the Joe vote. Ruy Texeira, perhaps America’s leading expert on the voting behavior of the white working class, observes that George W. Bush won in 2004 by only 3 points – but won the white working class by 23 points.

This year, an economically squeezed Joe did not come through for the GOP. But once the dust settles, many Republican leaders will urge the party to return to the tried and true. They’ll say: 2008 was an unusual year! Iraq, Bush, Katrina, the financial meltdown, and a too-moderate candidate at the head of the ticket: No wonder we lost! But the messages that won for Reagan in 1980 and Newt Gingrich in 1994 and George Bush in 2002 will win for us again. Taxes – guns – right to life – patriotism – the formula is all there. Stick to it.

If 60% of the Joe vote is no longer enough, nominate Palin – and win 65%. Or 70%. Whatever it takes.

As I said: that’s one path.

There’s another. It’s the path that begins by facing up to the arithmetic that says – Joe is no longer enough. God bless him, he’s the GOP base, and no Republican wants to lose him. But he needs reinforcements.

George W. Bush tried to reinforce Joe by appealing to Hispanic voters. But that approach failed, and for predictable reasons: American Hispanics are poor – and they vote majority Democrat for the same reasons that poor people of all races vote Democratic. Bush hoped that he could win Hispanics by (1) granting amnesty to illegal immigrants, (2) expanding federal programs like Medicare and federal education aid, and (3) pressuring banks to relax lending standards to help lower-income workers to buy homes.

But Bush could not get (1) through Congress – and anyway it alienated Joe, whom Republicans still needed. He did (2), but Democrats outbid him, as they always will. And (3) … well we all know how that ended. If Hispanics benefited disproportionately from the U.S. housing boom (as the early data suggest they did), they are suffering disproportionately from the U.S. housing bust.

There will not be an Hispanic future for the GOP for years and years.

But there is another way to reinforce Joe – and that’s the way so old and dusty as almost to feel new and unexplored.

A generation ago, Republicans dominated among college graduates. In 1984 and 1988, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won states like California, Pennsylvania and Connecticut – states that have been “blue” for a generation. (America’s least educated state, West Virginia, went for Michael Dukakis in 1988.)

Those days are long gone. Since 1988, Democrats have become more conservative on economics – and Republicans have become more conservative on social issues.

College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats – but that their values are under threat from Republicans. And there are more and more of these college-educated Americans all the time.

So the question for the GOP is: Will it pursue them? To do so will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. And it will involve potentially even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues. That’s a future that leaves little room for Sarah Palin – but the only hope for a Republican recovery.

Originally published in the National Post.

Latkes And Caviar, Doughnuts With Champagne!

David Frum November 1st, 2008 at 8:28 am Comments Off

“Daddy, can we hang lights for Hanukkah?”

“No, of course not! That’s a Christmas custom.”

“What if we use only blue and white?”

“No, absolutely not. It’s just not Jewish.”

“So why do they call it, ‘The Festival of Lights?’”

Game, set and match to the kids. (Again.)

Like nearly half of all Jewish Americans, I married a non-Jew. Two years into our marriage, my wife converted, and we have been trying to raise a Jewish family ever since.

It’s turned out that one of the biggest impediments to success has been my inadequate knowledge and understanding. Again like many Jewish Americans, I had often defined my Jewishness more by what I don’t do than by what I do do.

Some of these self-prohibitions do preserve genuine Jewish ways and Jewish ethics. Many Jews who remember almost nothing else from their tradition remember the supreme importance of charity, of learning and of a loving family life. They may not know the texts that command these ethics and folkways, but they honor them as much as any scholar.

At other times, however, discussions of what is “Jewish” and what is not “Jewish” remind me of that Lenny Bruce routine about which food is Jewish and which is goyish: “All Drake’s cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish. White bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes—goyish. Black cherry soda is very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish—very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.”

Shifting uneasily during the invocation before the Big Game: Jewish.

Wincing a little when a politician says “God Bless America:” Jewish.

Going to the movies and eating Chinese food on Christmas Day: Very Jewish!

Yes, dissenting from the prevailing norms and customs is essential to the Jewish condition. But it can’t be the whole of it—especially not at this season of the year.

The end of December is a time of celebration for almost all Northern Hemisphere cultures. The modern American Christmas is an amalgam of ancient pagan practices. “Yule” was the name of the winter solstice holiday of the ancient Germans. Mistletoe and holly symbolized the immortality of Norse gods. And Santa Claus or Father Christmas originated from the “lord of misrule” who presided over the Roman midwinter holiday, Saturnalia.

Jewish culture, too, adapts. The rabbis accepted the need for a midwinter holiday. Ancient Jews had no concept of anniversaries. They did not even celebrate birthdays.

While Hanukkah commemorates an indubitably historical event, the miracle of the lamp in the dead of winter is a pious fiction to justify fixing Hanukkah in the winter month of Kislev.

We teach our children that hamantashen were inspired by Haman’s tricorn hat—as if this fictitious ancient Persian vizier dressed himself in the fashions of colonial Williamsburg. In fact, hamantashen preserve the ancient Canaanite custom of baking cakes in the shape of female pudenda in honor of the fertility goddess. See Jeremiah 44:19: “And, said the women, ‘when we were burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and were pouring out drink offerings to her, was it without our husbands that we made for her sacrificial cakes in her image and poured out drink offerings to her?’” Later religious authorities, though, seem to have decided that if you can’t beat them, join them, and invented a respectable origin for the custom.

Instead of making our kids “feel Jewish” by requiring them to glumly sit out the biggest holiday extravaganza of the year—or, worse, taking part in it—let us relearn the wisdom of the rabbis and reinvent our own midwinter holiday. Let us have presents…and latkes with caviar…and, yes, blue and white house lights.

Drive to Krispy Kreme at midnight for hot doughnuts. Open that bottle of champagne you have been saving.

They have Handel’s Messiah? Well, Handel also wrote an oratorio to honor Judah Maccabee—that’s the work from which we get the tune “See, the Conq’ring Hero Comes.” And, while you are listening to this great piece of English music, tell your children the amazing story of Operation Maccabee, the 1948 military campaign that secured safe passage along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. (If you don’t know the story already, learn it from Benny Morris’ definitive account of Israel’s war for independence.)

Hanukkah: Fried food, gifts, lights, the Fourth of July and V-E-Day all rolled into one. Surely we can get our children excited about that! We are, after all, the people who invented show business.


Published in the November/December 2008 issue of Moment Magazine.

McCain’s Campaign Of Opportunities Lost

David Frum November 1st, 2008 at 8:27 am Comments Off

The president of the country was massively unpopular. His party was hammered by scandals. The economy was bad, unemployment was rising and polls showed worrying levels of public pessimism.

The nation’s left-wing opposition party had united behind a charismatic and appealing challenger: the first major party nominee to be something other than the usual white male.

Really, the whole thing seemed hopeless.

America 2008? No — France 2007.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s triumph over Ségolène Royal provided John McCain with a clear, easy-to-follow template for party renewal.

Like George W. Bush, incumbent French president Jacques Chirac was massively unpopular. Like John McCain, Nicolas Sarkozy belonged to Chirac’s party. Like John McCain again, Sarkozy had repeatedly tangled with Chirac during their years in government.

Unlike John McCain, Sarkozy used his record to present himself as the real force for change in France. Sarkozy achieved this in two ways:

*  First, he presented a clear and simple analysis of what was wrong with France — and plausible solutions to the problems he diagnosed. According to Sarkozy, the French economy suffered because it punished work. He proposed a package of relevant reforms, most notably a cut in the payroll tax for all work beyond the 35-hour legislated maximum.

*  Second, in direct debates with his opponent, he proved himself more knowledgeable and more thoughtful about the issues worrying the French — including issues deemed taboo by the French establishment, such as crime and immigration.
The French were persuaded: The best way to obtain real change from Jacques Chirac was to vote for the candidate of Jacques Chirac’s party.

As this example shows, McCain’s task in this election was not hopeless. Difficult, yes; hopeless no.

If it looks hopeless now, hours before voting day, it is McCain himself who has made it so.

It was McCain who never offered a coherent economic program. It was McCain who pronounced the fundamentals of the economy “sound” on the very day that Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was McCain who could not defend his own healthcare plan in toe-to-toe debate with Barack Obama. It was McCain who was ultimately responsible for a campaign that emphasized stunts and tactics over policy and strategy.

As a decision-maker, McCain proved himself impulsive and emotional, hasty and over-personal — and the revelation of those faults has frightened many voters at a time of economic anxiety.

Yet if this result is McCain’s doing, it is not entirely McCain’s fault.

It’s been evident for a long time, for example, that the average American worker did not benefit much from the Bush economy. Real wages stagnated between 2000 and 2006, while prices of essentials, such as food and fuel, rose. But the Republican party and the conservative movement asserted against the facts that everything was fine — that the Bush economy was the “greatest story never told” and that those who thought otherwise were “whiners.”

Had McCain attempted a more innovative and responsive economic policy, he would never have won the Republican nomination. By the time he got the nomination, he had so firmly locked himself to the Bush economic legacy that he had no space to pull off a Sarkozy. In the same way, had McCain chosen the running mate he wanted, he would have faced a walk-out from the floor of the St. Paul convention center.

Over-attached to old policies, Republicans could not develop an interesting new platform for McCain. Anyway, McCain is not a policy guy — and Sarah Palin even less so. Lacking substance, the party fell back on the “Country first” slogan that emphasized McCain’s heroic biography.

But what happens when a campaign based on biography falls behind in the polls? At that point, it has no choice but to start attacking the other guy’s less heroic biography: It has to go negative. Which is how John McCain, who promised a “respectful” campaign, who wrote campaign finance laws intended to stifle negative ads, has ended by running the most negative campaign of modern times: Almost 100% of his ad spending in the final month of the election has paid for negative ads, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group.

These ads badly backfired. McCain’s ads attacked Obama for his radical associations, but the longer the campaign lasted, the less radical Obama looked. Like Nicolas Sarkozy, McCain faced a weak opponent: an untested left-winger of scanty experience. Unlike Sarkozy, it was McCain who consistently seemed less cool, less calm, less steady in every encounter. McCain needed to convince Americans that Obama was the high risk choice. By the end of the campaign, despite Bill Ayers, it was Obama who had seized the centre ground.

As things look, it will take another Republican candidate — and a very different Republican party — to take that ground back.

Originally published in the National Post.