Stories by Shawn F Summers
So far, three images in the media coverage of Osama bin Laden’s untimely (only in the sense of being ten years overdue) death are most prominent. The first is the ubiquitous undated file photo of a raggedly bearded, white-robed bin Laden staring off to the left of the camera. This is the boogeyman image, the icon that’s leered out from televisions and computer screens for as long as someone my age can remember. It and a handful of others – bin Laden in military garb, with an AK-47 propped nearby, or a short clip of him firing it at an al-Qaeda training camp – are the collective cultural imagery of a concept more than a man, the maddeningly elusive ghost behind the great atrocity at the center of the last ten years of American history.
The second is that of President Obama standing at the end of a long hallway in the East Room, announcing to the world what the world had begun to suspect. The United States had finally made good on its promise from atop the rubble of the World Trade Center; finally, justice had been brought to Osama bin Laden. Better yet, it had been brought in person, courtesy of the US special forces personnel and intelligence services who were and are the most effective weapons the United States has against non-state enemies. The man who masterminded the destruction of so many millions of tons of American steel had met his end from a tiny bit of American lead – delivered, as the President could reveal, after an investigative process that stretches back four years at least and in operational planning for weeks or months.
The third image on every news site and front page today is that of the cheering crowds which spontaneously assembled in front of the White House and Ground Zero after the news broke. The celebrators, mostly students, abandoned dorms and finals and late nights in the library in order to take part in our generation’s V-E Day, or something like it. As Lafayette Square filled with cheering students from Georgetown, American, and George Washington, draped in American flags (Noah Kristula-Green does a good job of capturing the atmosphere here) and chanting “U-S-A”, it became impossible not to get caught up in the sheer jubilation of it, though the signage (my favorite, despite its inaccuracy: “Bin Laden’s body = Bo’s breakfast”), the significant fraction of the crowd affiliated with the military, and the occasional cries of “fuck Osama!” served as potent reminders to why we were there.
There’s already been a lot of tut-tutting; disapproving clucks from internet opinionistas that the kind of celebration that broke out at Ground Zero and serenaded the president to sleep was inappropriate. Some say that we shouldn’t celebrate the death of a human being, no matter how vile. Some spectacularly idiotic commenters I’ve seen have even compared the cheering last night to the mythical Palestinian celebration on the day of 9/11 itself, as if expressing joy at the calculated murder of 3,000 innocents is somehow morally equivalent to expressing joy at the demise of the man responsible. More practical-minded people might say that a perception of American gloating might cause a backlash in the rest of the world, squandering a moment of genuine global solidarity with the United States.
Maybe some of them are right. But I think the writers condemning the jubilation fail to grasp that this event is profoundly generational.
I’ll be 21 years old in a week. I was 11, in sixth-grade science class when the first plane hit the World Trade Center and the teacher turned on the classroom television – the one on which we saw the second plane hit and the towers collapse, the one that showed the Pentagon in flames and debris strewn across a Pennsylvania field.
People my age and a little older can just remember the time before color-coded security warnings, and two extraordinarily costly wars, and the use of the phrase “the terrorists” to describe the vast array of nebulous enemies the United States faces at any particular moment. But only just. We remember the day itself down to the last detail, but none of us were old enough to have lives and personalities and preferences unshaped by a day of unpredictable terror. We asked our parents and teachers who this Osama bin Laden was who could do such a thing, though we couldn’t have hoped to understand and they couldn’t have explained the vast array of causes that led to that September morning. There was no hope for a return to normalcy for us – we didn’t have a normal to go back to. And as we’ve grown up since that day, we’ve done the bulk of the fighting and dying in the conflicts which, rightly or wrongly, came about as a direct consequence of the 9/11 attacks.
For us, the narrow generation that can recall the day in crystal clarity but for whom memories of the “pre-9/11 world” fade dimmer every year, Osama bin Laden’s death is the banishment of a specter that’s haunted our lives as far back as we can remember. Yes, bin Laden was probably not in operational control of al-Qaeda; yes, there’s also a place for quiet reflection on those we’ve lost or vigilance against revenge attacks. And yes, because we’re now college-aged, we celebrated as college students know how – with sports cheers and home-made signs on Natty Light cases – loudly, crassly, perhaps even drunkenly. But for we who have had precious little to unequivocally celebrate in the last few years, this moment represents a triumph over the various anxieties of our times. The federal deficit looms out of control, we find ourselves increasingly disgusted with a political system that seems tailor-made to operate dishonestly and at our expense, and many of us still can’t find jobs – but at least we finally got the bastard. And if America can do that, finally, after most people had assumed he was long dead, or would never be found, then maybe things really will turn out right in the end.
So before the rush to wag a finger at us out rejoicing in the third panel of this bin Laden triptych, consider for a moment another image or two. The World Trade Center, billowing smoke. A fully loaded airliner disappearing into a ball of flame in the side of the South Tower. Tiny figures jumping from a hundred stories up, deciding to plunge to concrete rather than be snuffed out or crushed. The Pentagon suddenly reduced to four sides as plumes of smoke rise over the Potomac and the Hudson and southwest Pennsylvania. For the generation out in the streets last night, perhaps more than most Americans, these images are seared into our brains as what evil looks like in the 21st century, and every one is superimposed with Osama bin Laden’s face. Yesterday, the hold which that ghastly visage had on us was shattered when an American probably not much older than us went to its lair and put a bullet through it. The problems of this country and the world are still here in the morning. Last night, how could we keep from singing?
Could a Japanese style nuclear disaster happen here? There are currently 23 GE nuclear plants currently operating in the United States with a design that is identical to the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi installation which has been in the news. Even more troubling, many of the plants are operating past their intended 40-year operating life. This is only one of the many concerns of Henry Sokolski, the Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
Sokolski’s advice for those concerned about Japan’s apparent nuclear failure is to slow down, expect the worst, and be willing to reconsider everything. In an interview with FrumForum, Sokolski emphasized that no one can possibly know yet the extent of the destruction that will be caused by the Fukushima crisis.
Sokolski has problems with both the optimists and the pessimists. He blamed media outlets and pro-nuclear politicians for jumping quickly to calm the public and hide the potential scope of the disaster. “Here in Washington, there’s lots of spinning going on. The New York Times was trying to downplay this before… but they’re not anymore,”
He also pointed out that it is still too early to compare it to a disaster such as Chernobyl, “Does it have to be Chernobyl to be important? We’ve had three explosions in three days.” Sokolski added, “It’s not Chernobyl, but it’s no Three Mile Island either.”
The scope of the disaster can’t be understated. Even the American military has taken action in response to the disaster. As of Tuesday morning, radiation dosage levels around the plant had been reported as high as 400 millisieverts per hour. A dose of 400 millisieverts per hour is generally adequate to induce mild (relatively speaking) radiation sickness after less than two hours of exposure. Sokolski noted to FrumForum that the US Navy’s aircraft carriers, which had been sent to help, had been repositioned to 100 miles offshore, ostensibly to avoid radiation danger to the sailors on board the (nuclear-powered) vessels.
Sokolski had the most to say about the potential policy implications of the Fukushima disaster, telling FrumForum that even pro-nuclear advocates are taking a collective breath about the future of nuclear power. “Everyone’s going to have to review stuff – even Lieberman’s taking a second look,” Sokolski said. He related the story of a Republican congressman who confided in him that “it’s not clear” that the House GOP caucus would still be supporting President Obama’s plan for the expansion of the American nuclear energy program, an outcome which was previously a foregone conclusion.
It is unclear how much the Japan disaster is attributable to “acts of God” and how much can be laid at the feet of “operator cock-up.” (Sokolski added that it’s increasingly looking like both.) However, there are still changes to its energy policy that America should take.
Sokolski is set to testify on the Hill on Thursday on nuclear export regulations. The US needs to make sure that anybody to whom it sells nuclear technology must be able to safely operate it. He warned that until the disaster, the US government was preparing to sell nuclear energy technology to the governments of both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, neither of which possesses adequate operational expertise.
Sokolski also quoted approvingly a speech given by John Rowe, the CEO of Exelon Energy (a large electrical utility provider), at the American Enterprise Institute. In the speech, Rowe said that of all the various problems facing the United States, energy is the one where the government would do good if it would just get out of the way, cease picking winners and losers with subsidies and taxes, and “stop telling us how to boil water.”
If nuclear power turns out to be what a fair, free market considers the best way to boil water and turn a turbine, then so be it, said Sokolski. But one gets the sense that, in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, Sokolski wouldn’t bet on it.
Follow Shawn on twitter: @shawnfs33
Reminisce with me for a moment on the summer of 2009. Remember it? Swine flu? Protests in Iran? The Hangover? Think back now on another memory from that bygone era – an endless parade of spittle-flecked seniors harassing their representatives at the town hall meetings that popped up like so many dandelions in the July heat. As the luster began to come off of the Obama presidency for the first time, controversy hinged on the outlines of Obama’s promised health care reform – whether or not it would include a “public option” (a government-run health care plan), for example. Sarah Palin, managing to retain the spotlight after ignominious defeat less than a year earlier, gave us her “death panels”, and a sitting US president could be called a socialist, an Afro-Marxist, and a fascist, all at the same time and with a straight face. Heady days, indeed!
The Summer of Tea kept going into 2010, through filibusters and “nuclear options”, until a bill was finally rammed through, with no Republican support, in March. Immediately afterward, opponents of reform crowed of the certain success of lawsuits against the bill, filed by several state attorneys general. But, as one war ended and another escalated, unemployment stayed at 10%, and both conservative activists and the GOP establishment began looking toward the midterms, the rage over health care reform gradually faded.
Fast forward to 2011. Now, with Republicans in control of the House, and many provisions of the Obamacare reform set to take effect this year, one would think that it would be the perfect time to restart the right-wing outrage machine over health care. But the GOP, despite its victories, is signaling that another apocalyptic showdown over health care may not be in the near future. Consider the symbolic “repeal” of the reform that took place on Wednesday. The repeal bill, only two pages long, simply serves as a big CTRL-Z on the reform bill. Last year, the GOP promised “repeal and replace”, asserting that the controversial Obamacare plan would be replaced by one fixing the worst aspects of the current system while stopping short of an individual mandate to buy health insurance. If there are conversations going on within the GOP caucus over what form such a plan might take, we aren’t hearing them, and they aren’t going into any bills.
There are other indicators, too, that the Republicans are willing to let sleeping health care reforms lie, at least for the time being. The new House leadership, with the power to subpoena witnesses to testify, could be shutting down the business of the House with hundreds of hearings about the possible negative consequences of Obamacare, offered by experts from any number of right-leaning think tanks. Though such threats were made before the election, no plans have actually been made for such a parade of testimony.
One of the most embarrassing aspects of opposing health care reform, for Republicans, has been the similarity of Obama’s plan to a proposal by the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1994, as well as the system that was actually put into place in Massachusetts by then-governor Mitt Romney in 2006. A small sign that Republicans may be willing to come to terms with this legacy – and an acceptance of Obamacare, at least in its broad outlines – is the hiring of Sally Canfield several weeks ago as the new legislative director for incoming Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Republican rock-star if ever there was one. That Rubio hired Ms. Canfield, who worked on the Romney 2008 campaign and wrote a piece in the conservative Townhall Magazine in 2007 defending Romney’s Massachusetts plan from Republican attacks, indicates that he may be favorable to a strategy on health care other than “Cry, ‘communist!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”
None of this is to suggest, of course, that the Republicans can make any measurable progress toward repealing Obamacare until 2012 at the earliest. Any bill (like the provocatively-named “Repeal the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”) to that effect which passed the House would stall in the Senate. If, by some freak occurrence (the entire Democratic caucus were sick with Swine Flu 2.0, perhaps) such a bill passed both houses, President Obama would veto it. The Republican attitude toward health care in 2011 won’t be anything more than a pose, but it indicates the overall strategy that Republicans are going to take now that the voters have handed them back some of the reins of power. Two solid years of rage and hyperbole helped get the GOP back into office after a historic defeat, but it seems that the new leadership understands that it will have to do some actual governing if it wants to stay there.
It’s worthwhile for those of us who occupy what might be called the dissident liberal remnant of the Republican Party – especially those who hesitate to label themselves or their instincts generally “conservative” – to remind ourselves what we’re doing here in the first place. There is no one who has ever felt the sting of the epithet “RINO” who hasn’t wondered, even if only for a moment, if it might be true. After all, one might think, those other conservatives, with their hatred and their vitriol and their shamelessness, seem so self-assured. Why can we see shades of gray when the “real Republicans” only seem to live in black and white? We sometimes feel a more visceral dislike toward our would-be purgers on the right than we do about our nominal leftist opponents. In the midst of wondering why it was that I had not yet given up on the once-and-future Grand Old Party, I was greatly aided by an unlikely source: British MEP Dan Hannan’s new book The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America. In it, the contrarian parliamentarian makes an honest and convincing case that the European social democratic model has not led to good political or economic outcomes, that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit, and that, above all, the US should not attempt to copy Europe’s example lest it destroy everything that makes America special and valuable.
Hannan’s work is perhaps done the largest disservice by the company it keeps and the appearance of hackery that it presents. Included in the review copy is a publisher’s information sheet with favorable quotations from Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris as well as a glowing reference to Liberty and Tyranny. The cover screams “SERFDOM” in gigantic print, while a wrinkled red banner provides the backdrop for the foreboding subtitle. The book jacket repeats Gingrich and Morris’ quotations as well as one from professional TV bonehead Sean Hannity, while reminding the reader of Hannan’s sudden Fox News fame in 2009, of which this book is a direct consequence. In his acknowledgments, Hannan thanks a list of the usual suspects: Jonah Goldberg, Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich, Heritage, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, etc., etc. Before reading a word, it would be easy to dismiss this as nothing besides one more piece of conservative mass-market agit-prop; like all apologetics, enjoyable for the already-persuaded but inane pabulum for anyone who isn’t yet in the club. Within a few pages, though, and to my pleased surprise, Hannan reminded me of the truth of the old adage about books and covers. The first three chapters are more or less a love letter to the American republic. Perhaps we Americans in 2010 are so unused to foreign praise that we lap it up like a hungry dog when we get it, but the overall effect – mentioning especially the hilarious account of a conversation with what can only be described as a gay redneck – is nonetheless extremely obliging.
Hannan’s ideological pedigree is hard to pin down – within a few pages he affirms the generally liberal idea of America as a propositional nation (though he does not use those words), heaps praise on The West Wing, and then admiringly quotes Kipling’s infamous poem “White Man’s Burden”, which was, to say the least, jarring to see on a page of a 21st century book. He presents himself most successfully as a fierce advocate of limited government on largely practical, rather than ideological, grounds. Some of Hannan’s best prose occurs when he is directly confronting arguments for the European economic model and criticisms of the American one. He attacks a powerfully simple statement of the European mindset – “Let the Americans work like drones […] Let them gobble sandwiches at their desks instead of having a proper two-hour lunch. There is more to life than GDP” – with an acknowledgment of its appeal and then an economic argument that “eventually, reality imposes itself”. Regardless of whether there is in fact more to life than GDP (I for one think there is, though not perhaps so much more as the average European takes for granted), Hannan is to be praised for confronting the argument rather than ignoring or hand-waving at it, and then countering with evidence and reason rather than unfounded assertions served up with a steaming dose of vitriol. It is sad that the best qualities of Hannan’s writing, his decorum and intellectual honesty, are so basic yet so sorely lacking in American political discourse that his arguments are compelling even when they aren’t entirely coherent. One wants to believe them for the sheer earnestness in which they’re made.
But his arguments aren’t always convincing. The weakest parts of Hannan’s case are the chapters in which he offers his warning about the U.S. adopting European social democracy. He makes a reasonable though boilerplate argument about the harm caused by the New Deal and the ratchet effect in government spending and programs. He rightly praises federalism, and laments its weakening in the 20th century. He holds up American governmental institutions, particularly those of open primaries and elected local officials, as a model to the world. What he does not convincingly do, however, is convince the reader that those institutions are under any special threat from the Obama administration. He, of course, mentions the auto bailout, the stimulus bill, and a revision of the 1996 Clinton welfare reform, but the accusations that the Obama White House is leading the U.S. down the primrose path to European social democracy seem half-hearted, almost pro forma. He notes that American (read: Fox News) TV personalities “are forever trying to get me to be disobliging about President Obama,” and then gives the reader a list of reasons why he is not and will not be. On the list: decorum, diplomacy, democracy, decency, doubt, and, unalliteratively, because “no friend of the United States wants an American president to fail.” (Rush, would you like some ice for that burn?) Clearly, whatever else he is, Dan Hannan is a very decent human being and a valuable friend of America.
Furthermore, this member of the European Parliament is a shockingly effective guide to the malformed inner workings of the European Union. “Laws and sausages,” you may say – every government, not least the American one, looks bad from the inside. But Hannan devastatingly and successfully argues that over-centralization and bureaucratic overreach has produced a democratic deficit at all levels of European government. Like some aggrandized old imperial civil service, the profusion of unelected agencies, boards, and commissions which answer only to Brussels has produced a governmental class that is wholly remote and unaccountable to the people whose lives its decisions impact. The takeaway: Hannan, a reasonable and well-spoken chap, lays out a compelling case that these shores shouldn’t be infected by European social democracy and bureaucratism – but falters when he tries to say that they are, whether by Barack Obama or anybody else. As a midterm polemic, The New Road to Serfdom is undoubtedly a disappointment. As a call to Americans to reassert the virtues of federalism, decentralization, and individual liberty, it is invaluable.
Like the vast majority of people who’ve ever lived, I’ve never had the pleasure – or displeasure, if you’ve earned his ire – of meeting Christopher Hitchens. Despite our mutual friend (writer from Canada named David – runs a blog site – you might have heard of him) and residential proximity (a mere seventeen blocks or so), the Anglo-American literary and political giant has never yet had reason to run into this particular anonymous undergraduate. However, like millions of others, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Mr. Hitchens through his astounding written and spoken body of work, including eleven books and innumerable pamphlets, articles, and essays over the course of a four-decade career. He estimated recently that he writes at least a thousand words a day of printable copy.
But now, Hitchens is in the news not for the prodigious growth of his literary corpus but rather for that of the squamous cells in his esophagus. By this point anyone who takes even the slightest interest in Hitchens or his work is well aware of his ongoing battle (the word suggests itself naturally, though the man himself finds it misleading and inaccurate) with a very deadly, very advanced cancer. Fortunately, neither the “alien” (as he calls his cancer) nor the poisons stemming its further advance has dulled Hitchens’ pen. And though treatment has robbed him of his hair and his sense of virility, one can be thankful he still retains his voice, oft described as “cut-glass” but more accustomed to cutting down opponents in debate.
Hitchens has written several columns since his diagnosis, including one long-form essay about his cancer in Vanity Fair. He has also conducted three interviews, all in his Dupont Circle home, with Anderson Cooper of CNN, The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg, and Charlie Rose (who left his customary oak-tabled studio to accommodate Hitchens). In each case, Hitchens has been asked the same questions – about his father “the Commander”, his mother’s suicide pact in Athens and her failed attempt to reach him, the possibility of a deathbed conversion, the suitability of praying for him, etc., etc. It’s not that such questions are inappropriately personal – the biographical ones are in his recent memoir, after all – it’s that they’re tedious, Cooper’s especially. How many times does Hitchens have to make clear that while his mind is whole he will not be asking for salvation from an entity he doesn’t think to exist? How often need he be asked about how his mother was a ray of color in a gloomy postwar childhood?
Hitchens is a man of ideas, the greatest of which is an unshakable antipathy for totalitarianism in all its forms, especially those stemming from the followers of the heavenly Dear Leader of Abrahamic faith. In some ways, it’s a shame that Hitchens was not born a generation or two earlier in order to have the opportunity, like his hero George Orwell, to fight the twentieth century’s greatest monsters at the peak of their power. Of course, I’m still plenty glad that the world has him now. So when all anyone can bother to ask the star correspondent to the land of malady about is whether the old canard about atheists and foxholes is true, I start to feel as the though the world is wasting whatever supply may be left of the thoughts of an irreplaceable mind.
I’m very happy to have Hitch-22. Along with Letters to a Young Contrarian, it’s the most illuminative glimpse into Hitchens’ life and thoughts. “Topic of Cancer” was, in a word, brilliant. But if I were Christopher Hitchens, I would find it very tiresome to be asked whether I wish I had abstained from alcohol and tobacco instead of my feelings on the Cordoba House or North Korea’s latest provocations. So, Hitch, if you’ll permit one exhortation from an admirer and friend-once-removed – keep up your strength, continue your invaluable “Fighting Words” column for Slate, and don’t let TV interviewers treat you like a relic, a curiosity, or a dead man walking. We need your perspective now as we ever have and will enjoy it, with luck, for years still to come.
President Obama has managed to thread a seemingly-impossible needle in his handling of the McChrystal/Rolling Stone controversy. By replacing General Stanley McChrystal with the unimpeachable General David Petraeus (with Petraeus literally flanking the president, nodding along to his words at this afternoon’s press conference, no less), repeatedly stressing McChrystal’s honorable and frankly superhuman service to the nation, and reaffirming his commitment to the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan, the president has found the best way to salvage this military and political debacle and allow everyone involved to move on with some modicum of dignity.
It is, undoubtedly, an ignominious end to the career of one of America’s most valuable military leaders. McChrystal, even at the stratospheric heights of four-star generalship, never seemed to lose his rapport with the men under his command. The main deficiency of the offending staffers in the Rolling Stone article seems to be an overzealous loyalty to the man they called “the Boss”. Even when ordinary soldiers took issue with McChrystal’s COIN policies (like the increased emphasis on restraint around civilians), they blamed “Big Army” for distorting orders down the chain of command, rather than the policies themselves. With 120,000 American and NATO soldiers under his command, McChrystal’s famed accessibility was nothing short of remarkable, even if loose lips around one freelance reporter proved to be his undoing. His personal discipline and near-mythical status in the Special Forces community in particular are already well-documented. President Obama appeared pained to have to announce his resignation; whether or not this sentiment was genuine, it was wholly appropriate for a man of McChrystal’s three and a half decades of service in America’s most dangerous operations.
However, this is not the first time that McChrystal has been embroiled in public furor. His complicity in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death in 2004 extended to McChrystal’s personal authorization of the Silver Star for Tillman, an award which is normally reserved for combat with the enemy (Tillman, an NFL-star turned soldier, was killed in a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan). Last year, McChrystal was criticized for publicly stating that he felt he needed at least 40,000 additional soldiers in Afghanistan, a move that was seen as trying to box Obama into a policy of escalation lest he suffer the perception of giving up on his generals.
Actually, compared to trying to outflank the president on a critical strategic decision, McChrystal’s criticisms in Rolling Stone are positively toothless. The most barbed comments came from anonymous staffers in the general’s “Team America” retinue. It’s unfortunate that the general is taking the fall for the comments of others, but the principle of command responsibility is an important one – what soldiers say to one another in private is one thing, but with a reporter present, McChrystal should not have allowed such disrespectful talk (some certainly prosecutable under Article 88 of the UCMJ) about civilian officials with whom he had disagreements. Combined with McChrystal’s previous lapses in judgment, and the practical impossibility of working effectively with the officials he or his people mocked, the president’s decision to remove him is certainly justifiable and probably for the best.
However, without a credible replacement, firing McChrystal would have appeared dangerously self-serving for the Obama administration and probably would have put what looks like an increasingly endless war beyond any reasonable hope of satisfactory conclusion. The president’s decision to tap General David Petraeus, widely credited as the savior of the war in Iraq, to take direct control of operations in Afghanistan is probably inspired. Petraeus is one of the authors of the COIN strategy; policy-wise, there is no daylight between him, the president, and General McChrystal. While this may be disappointing for critics of COIN (like the vice-president), a change in strategy in Afghanistan was never remotely feasible even with a change in command – the president has invested far too much blood, treasure, and political capital into an Iraq-style “surge” in Afghanistan to make an about-face now. In crude political terms, Obama has also blunted predictable Republican criticism about his decision to relieve McChrystal of command. Petraeus is a hero on the right for his salvaging of the Iraq war, and is often floated as a future GOP presidential candidate in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower. It will be hard for Republicans to cast Obama’s decision as reckless when he has put Afghanistan under the command of the only man with a successful COIN track record.
No matter its resolution, the McChrystal fiasco has not been a positive military development for the NATO war effort. While Petraeus may be the most capable man for the job, he needs to be especially wary of the differences between his successful strategy in Iraq and the current situation in Afghanistan. Iraq, for all its dysfunction, is at least a quasi-functional state with some experience of civil society and orderly government. When the bombs stop in Baghdad it will eventually become a city befitting its history. Afghanistan, by contrast, seems like The Land that Time Forgot, where the only items that would have been out of place in the tenth century are the AK-47s and high explosives that menacingly lie in wait on the side of the road. Building anything approaching a functional state there will be a much more difficult task, even for a leader of Petraeus’ considerable skills.
As the president was leaving the podium this afternoon, a reporter yelled out, “Mr. President, can this war be won?”
The question hung in the air, unanswered.
Yesterday, I predicted that Republican Tim Burns – given the national mood, the closeness of the polls, and my personal assessment of his momentum on the ground – would manage to squeak by his opponent, Democrat Mark Critz, in Pennsylvania’s rural but heavily Democratic 12th District. Now I get to eat crow – as some of our commenters have already pointed out, Critz “rather handily” managed to keep a Democrat in the seat formerly occupied by Rep. John Murtha, who died suddenly in March. Critz’s victory, had it been just any special election, would not have mattered more than any one vote out of 435 ever does. However, PA-12 was the field where both the DCCC and NRCC decided they would do battle; both sides declaring it a midterm bellwether that would either vindicate the new Republican populism or predict a GOP snatching defeat from the jaws of victory come November.
PA-12 certainly had one quirk that isn’t really applicable beyond its borders: the titanic legacy of John Murtha. Critz belonged to Murtha’s machine and largely ran on his legacy, and it’s impossible to know how much he benefited from that association. But beyond that, PA-12 is precisely the kind of district the GOP needs to win in order to realize the Congressional realignment it is so brazenly predicting.
A pro-Tea Party friend of mine tried to downplay Critz’s victory by saying that he ran as a conservative, even trying to outflank Burns on the right. So, her argument goes, it doesn’t matter that he won, because even that is a vindication of the populist ideology. Maybe so, but the GOP can expect practically all of the Democrats in similar districts – Blue Dogs to the last man – to distance themselves as far from the liberal, cosmopolitan Obama-Pelosi image as they possibly can. The GOP conventional wisdom holds that, given the choice between a “fake conservative” (a Blue Dog Democrat or moderate Republican) and a “real conservative,” voters will choose the latter. PA-12 shows that, to quote Gershwin, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
The GOP’s objectives in districts such as this are simple and straightforward: first, they need to link Democratic candidates with the national party and the Obama administration. Obama would hardly be popular in rural, blue-collar districts at the best of times; with a national anti-incumbent sentiment, he’s a veritable millstone around the neck of his compatriots in conservative districts. Though they certainly tried hard, the NRCC failed to do this in PA-12. Critz’s association with Murtha was both stronger and more favorable.
Secondly, PA-12 is a lesson in managing expectations for the GOP. We got greedy, trusting in a made-for-Fox-News narrative about how the GOP would come riding back on a wave of anti-administration anger in districts that, despite their conservatism, are 2-1 Democratic. With all the crowing about taking up to 100 seats in the House in November, the GOP is setting itself up for a very, very rude awakening in November if/when that unrealistic goal isn’t met. Optimism, sure. A little red meat for the base. But if there’s one problem with the GOP leadership these days, it’s that they seem to believe their own propaganda (see Bachmann, Michele). They would do well to remember that talking smack beforehand only works if you win the game.
Of course, the problem with political narratives, in general, is that they’re often based on so little. Five thousand votes the other way, and we’d all be writing about how PA-12, just like Chris Christie’s win in New Jersey and Scott Brown’s (remember him?) in Massachusetts, portends the inevitable GOP midterm landslide. So, mea culpa. I was wrong. We really won’t know whether the new quasi-Tea Party GOP will be able translate popular discontent into electoral victory until November, nearly six months away.
It’s a long, long, way off.
Ever since his dramatic switch to the Democratic Party last April, Senator Arlen Specter’s bid for re-election has promised to be a dramatic one. But as he faces his first major hurdle on the way back to Washington – winning the Democratic primary today over congressman and former admiral Joe Sestak (D-PA-7) – the Senate race is increasingly a sideshow.
Today, as Pennsylvania goes to the polls, forget about Specter v. Sestak.
The real race worth watching is going down in the 12th district, in Pennsylvania’s rural, ex-industrial extreme southwest corner. Today, voters in that serpentine district that covers much of the area still devastated by the failure of Pittsburgh’s steel mills will elect a successor to Rep. John Murtha, who died suddenly in March after more than 30 years (and millions upon millions of pork-barrel dollars) in the House. The PA-12 special election carries much greater significance than simply replacing a longtime congressman – it has, without a doubt, become the strongest yet referendum on President Obama and Speaker Pelosi’s performance heading into the midterm elections this November.
The reasons why PA-12 has become so fascinating are several – as the DCCC reminds us, it is the only Democrat vs. Republican race in the country today. Murtha’s ability to bring home the bacon, as well as the heavily unionized workforce helped keep the seat in Democratic hands for three decades, but the economically depressed, rural, socially conservative voter base is a natural target for the GOP and its message of economic populism. After all, PA-12 is the only district in the country that John Kerry won in 2004 but Barack Obama lost in 2008. It’s a natural test bed for the GOP’s electoral strategy before November. If the GOP can’t win in PA-12, its ability to take the House or even gain a significant number of seats outside its traditional strongholds will be seriously thrown into question.
And, finally, like all good electoral races, it’s a nail-biter.
The most recent poll, conducted by PPP this week, has Republican candidate Tim Burns up by 1 point, 48-47 – well within the margin of error. His opponent, Democrat Mark Critz, has benefited from his previous work in the Murtha political machine. Despite (or perhaps rather because of) his questionable ethics, Murtha remains a powerful and popular figure, even in death, for the people of PA-12. Polls purporting to rank enthusiasm, while imprecise, show a slight advantage for Burns, but both candidates have enjoyed a last-minute surge of undecideds.
But many a political race has been decided on the basis of “intangibles”, and it seems they are decidedly on Burns’ side. Driving through the 12th district this week, one sees signs and posters for Burns everywhere. One shop owner used his marquee space to urge independents and Democrats to cross party lines and vote for Burns. His commercials run nonstop, and many a voicemail box runneth over from the deluge of Burns’ robocalls. Advertising – of any sort – for Critz is nowhere to be found.
On the one hand, money (of which the NRCC has invested a great deal) can’t always buy an election. Critz and Burns are still, statistically speaking, in a dead heat. But Burns and his ubiquitous presence on the lawns and TV screens of western Pennsylvanians has created an impression of momentum, one left utterly unanswered by Mark Critz. The race will assuredly be close, but you heard it here first: expect the first GOP trophy of the midterm season today in PA-12.
Current American conservatism is becoming untenable as the debate has been ceded to the loudest, angriest voices on the farthest right – voices who care much more passionately about inciting angry mobs than they do about governing well. The cycle of being dismissed because you’re angry and angry because you’re dismissed is ultimately self-destructive for conservatives.
But nature abhors a vacuum, and the US is still, at least compared to the rest of the developed world, a remarkably conservative place. When the current right-wing composition – which, like the left forty years ago, increasingly resembles a shrinking core of true believers held together with slogans, anger, and duct tape – finally crumbles, what might replace it? A true libertarian party? A conclave of unabashed theocrats? A kinder, gentler, “socially-liberal-yet-fiscally-conservative” center-right coalition?
At Georgetown University last week, one of the contenders for conservatism’s future –already a force in the Tory parties of Britain and Canada – made a splash in the US in a way that it never has before. Invited by Georgetown’s Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, a panel including author Ross Douthat, conservative blogger Rod Dreher, and The American Conservative Senior Editor Daniel McCarthy discussed a political philosophy known as “Red Toryism”. Red Toryism is an interesting hybrid that’s ill-suited to our love of pigeon-holing ideologies into a neat conservative-liberal spectrum.
On the one hand, Red Toryism is a reactionary conservatism. Distrusting the “atomized individualism” of the last half-century as leading ironically to ever-greater government as local civil society broke down, Red Tories emphasize the importance of local institutions – church, family, school boards, etc. – as a counterweight to excessive intrusion from an ever-prying state.
However, Red Tories can also espouse traditionally leftist shibboleths like anti-corporatism with a fervor that would make Michael Moore blush. Red Toryism’s greatest modern proponent, British author Phillip Blond (who was also present at Georgetown) seems convinced that the neoliberal economic consensus of the 1990s hasn’t done much for the little man except restrict his ability to exert any economic power for himself. According to Blond, neoliberalism “has created a new serfdom”. Indeed, said Blond, “Obama and Alinsky aren’t nearly radical enough” – they are still in support of the statist status quo.
What to make of such an amalgam? Is this a movement that simultaneously advocates a greater role for religion in public life while exhorting consumers to protest the construction of new Wal-Marts? It’s difficult, to be sure. They certainly have important insights, as Dreher, Douthat, and McCarthy all readily agreed. Republicans and conservatives have, even as they claim to defend the rights of the individual against the state, always been vulnerable to the charge of abandoning workers and consumers to the tender mercies of private corporations. Conservatives need to offer an economic program for the average worker that goes beyond “taxes bad, freedom good” and this communitarian emphasis can be a boon.
Unfortunately, there is no doubt that local governments and associations can be just as nosy and intrusive as faraway ones. Indeed, anyone who’s ever dealt with a petty bureaucrat knows, the smaller someone’s power is, the more zealously he generally guards it. Local government is much more susceptible to provincialism, corruption, and the like than the bureaucratic and professional federal and state governments. The virtuous small town is great if you’re one of the folk – if you’re an atheist or a homosexual in rural Alabama, then not so much. In conversation after the speech, Blond, and Dreher acknowledged the importance of legal protection for freedom of conscience and individual rights.
Red Toryism is a fascinating undercurrent of conservative thought. It’s not a panacea, but in a Republican Party in the dying throes of its current security-fiscal-social conservative alignment, frankly, we need all the help we can get. There are good things we can learn from Blond and other thinkers, and we as conservatives would do well to open our ears to them.
Noted basketball-expert-cum-President Barack Obama filled out his NCAA Tournament brackets today live on ESPN. The Baller-in-Chief’s record is excellent – he correctly picked UNC to go all the way last year and predicted three of the Final Four. Given his well-demonstrated love of the game (and his picks), I have to believe that the Leader of the Free World didn’t let domestic political considerations affect his picks for the tournament. But considering how many of his fellow Democrats in Congress are staring electoral defeat in the face this November, maybe he should have. Some of the schools that don’t fare well in the president’s bracket:
- Pittsburgh – though President Obama has the Panthers going to the Sweet Sixteen, Representative Jason Altmire (D-PA) is facing a tough challenge in a traditionally Republican district north of Pittsburgh and could use some more help from the First Bracketeer. This is assuaged only by the fact that many rural Pennsylvanians root for the West Virginia Mountaineers, whom President Obama has making it to the Final Four.
- Ohio teams (Ohio State, OU, Xavier) – Ah, Ohio, the perpetual swing state. The President has Ohio falling to Georgetown in the first round and OSU being slain by the same Beast of the Big East in the Sweet Sixteen. As a die-hard Hoyas fan, I have no problem whatsoever with this. Xavier, hailing from Cincinnati, is projected to lose in the Round of 32. However, perhaps Obama should have considered that Democratic Reps. Steve Dreihaus (OH-1), Betty Sutton (OH-13), Mary-Jo Kiroy (OH-15), John Boccieri (OH-16), and Zack Space (OH-18) are all facing tough challenges from Republican opponents. That’s five of the 25 seats Democrats are projected to lose in 2010. I don’t mind some Presidential love for the Blue and Gray, but perhaps it would have been more prudent to throw Ohio Democrats a bone.
- Indiana teams (Purdue, Notre Dame, Butler) – Although Obama has Butler going all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, #4 seed Purdue is set to lose in one of President’s Obama’s few projected upsets to Siena. The Fighting Irish don’t get off much better, losing to Baylor in the second round. Not necessarily wise, when South Bend’s second-term Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly (IN-2) is barely holding on against GOP state representative Jackie Wolarski. Democrat Baron Hill (IN-9), too, is down eight points against Republican challenger Mike Sodrel.
- UNLV – regardless of whether Harry Reid is an asset or a liability for the president, the guy’s going to lose his seat this year. At least give his state a first-round victory.
It’s silly, I know, but prediction becomes preference – the president has a reputation for accuracy to keep up, after all. Voters have made choices based on sillier things before.
As a Republican and a Georgetown fan, I have no personal interest in advising President Obama on his basketball diplomacy. My only dog in the fight is Jack the Bulldog.
But a congressional windfall for the GOP this year could bode ill for the president’s chances of reelection in 2012. If I were President Obama, though, I wouldn’t worry too much about my post-presidential prospects. After all, I hear ESPN is hiring.