Thursday, October 29, 2009

Democrats Old Hat

Quoting the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger without comment:

In a world defined by nearly 100,000 iPhone apps, a world of seemingly limitless, self-defined choice, the Democrats are pushing the biggest, fattest, one-size-fits all legislation since 1965. And they brag this will complete the dream Franklin D. Roosevelt had in 1939.

If we were really living in the world of leading-edge politics that many people thought they were getting with Barack Obama, he would have proposed an iPhone for health care--a flexible system for which all sorts of users could create or choose health-care apps that suited their needs. Over time, with trial and error, a better system would emerge.

No chance of that.

People thought something small, agile and smart was coming to government, but so far it's turning out to be just big-box politics.

So long as the Democratic Party is the party of the Old Hat People, dependent on public-sector unions with Orwellian names like the Service Employees International Union, it will remain yoked to a pre-iPhone political model that will increasingly strike average everyday American voters as weird and alien to their world.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gallup: America leans conservative.

In July, Gallup found that Americans identify Democrat over Republican by 34% to 28%. By pushing independents to lean one way or the other, Gallup increased the margin for Democrats to 49% over 40%. Good news for Democrats, though down from April’s 52% to 39% margin.

Gallup just released findings that paint a less favorable picture for the liberal President Obama’s supporters. After 16 separate surveys involving over 5,000 people a quarter, Gallup concludes Americans are conservative over liberal by 40% to 20%. The last time conservatives polled this high was 2002-04. Liberals are lower than they’ve been since 2005. Also, Gallup’s findings are consistent with an earlier Pew survey that reported a 2:1 conservative:liberal ratio.

Obama’s liberal agenda is up against the reality America remains a moderate-conservative nation.

Zingales Tells GOP to Go Populist

In an earlier post, I summarized Luigi Zingales’ analysis of why the big business pursuit of security differs from market capitalism’s desire for competition. At the end of my summary, I said
Zingales suggests where Republicans should be—leaving the corporate elite to the Democrats, and channeling populist rage into political support for genuinely pro-market reforms.
Now Zigales has his own Investor’s Business Daily article directly stating the GOP must go populist, and “take on the financial industry on behalf of everyone else.”

Obama Attacks, FOX News Thrives

Last week, FOX News programs topped the combined audience of CNN + MSNBC every day, every hour, between 5 pm and midnight. In fact, CNN, MSNBC, plus HLN (the old “Headline News”) combined beat FOX in only 5 of the 35 measured time slots, 3 of those during Greta Van Susteren’s “On the Record” hour. Understand, Greta beat everyone handily, but she did fall short of topping the other three’s combined audience on 3 of 5 nights.

Bill O’Reilly’s 11 pm re-run of his earlier, 8 pm show beat the other three networks combined every night.

I believe the White House knew it would drive FOX’s ratings even higher with its attacks. The White House’s objective isn’t to knock down FOX’s numbers. Rather, it’s to stop news stories jumping from FOX to the other networks.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why Moderate Republicans Are Worried

Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen of “Politico” have an article entitled “Conservatives roar; Republicans tremble” that is generating attention. GOP Congressman Mike Pence took strong exception to the piece, calling it “hogwash” (see here). I’m less inclined to dismiss the article’s analysis.

Vandehei and Allen quote several Republicans concerned that the loud, belligerent roars coming from anti-Obamaists like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck alienate the very independents that Republicans need to win in 2010. The concerned Republicans or conservatives include Minnesota Governor Tom Pawlenty, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Bush White House staffer Ed Gillespie, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the New York Times’ David Brooks, and some people close to John McCain.

Vandehei and Allen damage their case a bit by quoting Bob Michel, the ex-House minority leader the conservative Newt Gingrich pushed aside before in 1994 leading the party to its first House majority in 40 years. Conservatives point to Michel-style Republicanism as the kind of ill-defined mush the GOP must discard, if it hopes to return to power.

I think where Canter, Graham, Brooks, etc. are right is that Republicans need moderate/independent support to win. Barry Goldwater may have excited the Republican base in 1964, but he also delivered the GOP its worst election disaster between the Depression and today. Conservatives can’t win by themselves.

Nevertheless, it should be obvious even to those folks who live in the BosWash media corridor so disconnected from Limbaugh and Beck that the Republican Party begins with conservatives, secular and religious, just as the Democrats’ soul is liberal. Goldwater paved the way for Reagan, the GOP version of Obama, a person who transparently projected his basic values in a non-threatening way that gathered a majority.

Republicans need a modern Reagan, a GOP Obama.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Polls Favor Health Care Public Option

The Washington Post/ABC News poll says so. When asked, “Would you support or oppose having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans?”, 57% answered, “support.” Other similarly-worded polls found even higher numbers in favor.

But according to Gallup:
With respect to one of the more contentious issues being debated -- whether the plan should include a government-run insurance plan to compete with private providers (a so-called public option) -- Americans are about evenly split, with 50% in favor and 46% opposed.

Jay Cost, who is skeptical of poll results favoring a public option, goes through the kind of long-winded explanation that usually indicates one’s holding the stick’s short end. Yet Cost makes a valid point. Gallup added the damning words “government-run” to its question, and support dropped to 50%.

Still, most polls supporting means the public option will be part of the bill that passes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

White House Communications Director looks to Mao for political advice.

Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, calls Mao Zedong a “favorite political philosopher.” Dunn also said this in June to an audience of high school students:

Mao Tse Tung and Mother Teresa. Not often coupled with each other, but the two people that I turn to most to basically deliver a simple point, which is: You're going to make choices. ... But here's the deal: These are your choices; they are no one else's. In 1947, when Mao Tse Tung was being challenged within his own party on his own plan to basically take China over, Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Chinese held the cities, they had the army. … They had everything on their side. And people said “How can you win? How can you do this against all of the odds against you?” And Mao Tse Tung says, “You fight your war, and I'll fight mine.” … You fight your war, you let them fight theirs. Everybody has their own path.

Mao had a small red book full of pithy sayings. He also twice tore his country apart after liberating it from Chiang Kai-shek (and by the way, Mao in 1947 led a peasant-backed party unified in its struggle against Chiang's U.S.-supplied army; better to have the countryside than the cities, contrary to what Dunn suggests). After liberation, Mao killed more people than Stalin or Hitler, #1 in the 20th century. China is still working to live past the damage Mao wrought.

Why would Anita Dunn—the person who from the White House launched the Obama administration’s initial attack on FOX News—turn to Mao for political advice? Why? Why?

Monday, October 19, 2009

White House employs “Chicago way” against FOX News.

In 1972, I knew the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times—courageously pursuing the Watergate story—were right about Nixon being a gangster-president. But I worried about the power Nixon had, and about his intense hatred of his enemies. Could Nixon prevail and actually silence his media critics, many of whom wouldn’t touch the Watergate "caper" with a 10-foot poll? It was a truly scary time for America. Nixon was very popular, carrying 49 states that November.

Tom Bevan runs the website, RealClearPolitics, valuable because it covers opinion from both sides of our national debate, including the right. If people want both sides, he’s a great source. If they view liberal media alone—the major networks except FOX, the major print media except the Wall Street Journal—as sufficient, well then, why bother with RealClearPolitics? So Bevan has a self-interest in balanced coverage.

Still, I’m shaken by the intensity of Bevan’s attack on the White House for going after FOX News. I’m shaken because I think Bevan’s truly worried about the White House’s gangster-like (Chicagoan Bevan calls it “the Chicago way”) effort to crush America’s leading cable news network. If Bevan weren’t truly worried, why risk his site’s reputation for balanced coverage by going after the White House?

Here’s what bothers Bevan:

➢ Obama’s top two politicos, Chicagoans David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, made clear on Sunday talk shows that White House efforts to delegitimize FOX News are deadly serious.

➢ Axelrod told George Stephanopoulos: "[FOX News] is not really a news station. It's not just their commentators but a lot of their news programming it's really not news it's pushing a point of view. " Axelrod also went out of his way to suggest to Stephanopoulos that ABC News adopt the White House strategy and not treat FOX News as legitimate. "The bigger thing is," Axelrod said, "other news organizations, like yours, ought not to treat them that way. We're not going to treat them that way. "

➢ Emanuel echoed the line to John King on CNN's State of the Union: "The way the president looks at it - we look at it - it's not a news organization so much as it has a perspective. And more importantly is not have the CNN's and others in the world basically be led and following FOX, as if what they're trying to do is a legitimate news organization, in the sense of both sides and a sense of valued opinion."

Bevan feels
the current presidency [depends entirely on] the President's personal popularity. President Obama has, out of necessity, become the Salesman-in-Chief for his progressive agenda. . . the White House . . . is [apparently] unable to brook criticism of the President . . . Thus FOX News is targeted as the enemy. [And, as] Axelrod and Emanuel made clear, they also want to drive a wedge between the rest of the media and FOX News, enlisting other television networks in the effort to paint FOX News as illegitimate.

All this prompts Bevan to editorialize:
And MSNBC doesn't push a certain "perspective?" . . .The White House is all for news organizations taking certain "perspec- tives" -- so long as they're favorable to the administration's agenda. It's actually quite brazen [for Axelrod and Emanuel to suggest] that ABC, CNN and other networks . . . join [the] White House's war to marginalize a competitor because it takes a "perspective" that displeases the President.

Such tactics may not be frowned upon by brass-knuckle operatives working for the political machine in a one party town. But it's different when you're the President. . . the White House's strategy may be the Chicago way, but it isn't the American way.

Hope Yet: Washington Post Supports Troops to Afghanistantan

The Washington Post, a newspaper heretofore unambiguously behind President Obama, last week editorialized against those around Obama (think Vice President Biden) who would defeat al Qaeda but not the Taliban. Saying it’s clear the Taliban’s effort to gain control over nuclear-armed Pakistan is “bad news” for the U.S., the newspaper writes, ”it's curious that spokesmen for the Obama administration continue to talk down the Taliban threat.”

The Post first quotes White House press secretary Robert Gibbs:
I think the Taliban are, obviously, exceedingly bad people that have done awful things. Their capability is somewhat different, [from al Qaeda] though, on that continuum of transnational threats.

The newspaper then adds,
That analysis—which is being used by many who oppose sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan—is badly out of date. Al-Qaeda. . . has suffered serious reverses in the past several years, while the Taliban has gone from struggling for survival to aiming for control over both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Post finds it ironic that with Pakistan’s army “at last” ready to go after the Taliban in Waziristan, the Obama administration is “considering a strategy that would give up” on defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. The editorial concludes,
Adopting such a strategy would condemn American soldiers to fighting and dying without the chance of winning. But it would also cripple Pakistan's fight against the jihadists. With the pressure off in Afghanistan, Taliban forces would have a refuge from offensives by Pakistani forces. And those in the Pakistani army and intelligence services who favor striking deals or even alliances with the extremists could once again gain ascendancy. [If the U.S.] gives up trying to defeat the Taliban, can it really expect that Pakistan will go on fighting?

To me, the pro-Obama Post’s stance provides hope Obama may do right by Afghanistan, in spite of leftist pressure to get out.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Markets value competition, big business doesn’t, the difference matters.

Luigi Zingales writes, in the inaugural issue of National Affairs, about how Wall Street’s growing dependency on government threatens American capitalism. Traditionally, U.S. business doesn’t want government around, preferring a free, competitive market. Americans have supported our open market economy with its freedom of entry, widespread access to financial resources, and its level playing field. But now, concentrated power at the top, shared between government and corporate and financial powers out to stifle competition, mean America is developing what Zingales calls “crony capitalism,” the stogy political economy that prevails most everywhere else.

Here’s a summary of Zingales’ main points:

➢ Public support for capitalism is positively associated with the perception that hard work, not luck, determines success, and is negatively correlated to any perception of corruption.

➢ Instead under “crony capitalism”, the best way to make money is not to come up with brilliant ideas and work hard to implement them, it’s to cultivate a government connection.

➢ Only in America, democracy predated industrialization. The U.S. enacted regulations reducing the power of big business, developing anti-trust law—pro-market but often anti-business—fueled by an inquisitive press and a populist (but not anti-market) political movement. When Louis Brandeis attacked the money trust, he was trying to make markets work better, not stifle them.

➢ Until World War I, America had a tiny federal government, due in part to our facing no military threat. With government small and weak, people made money by starting a successful business. But as government grew, it became easier to make money by diverting public resources. Starting a business involves a lot of risk—getting a government contract is easier and safer.

➢ In countries with powerful Communist or socialist parties, pro-market and pro-business forces merged to fight the common enemy. Facing the prospect of nationalization (control of resources by a small political elite), “crony capitalism” (control of resources by a small business elite) seemed the lesser evil.

➢ Though American capitalism came closer than any other to the ideal of economic freedom and open competition, obscene wages and profits over the last 30 years have attracted our best talents to finance—with profound implications for government. The brightest undergraduates used to go into science, technology, law, and business. Now, it's finance. Four of the last six Treasury secretaries in fact were directly or indirectly linked to one financial firm: Goldman Sachs. By contrast, only one of the previous six Treasury secretaries even had a finance background.

➢ America’s financial industry is fragile because it relies on the sanctity of contracts and the rule of law. That sanctity cannot be preserved without broad popular support. Yet public mistrust of government, mistrust of bankers, concerns about wasting taxpayer dollars, and worries about rewarding Wall Street threaten a vicious cycle.

➢ To avoid being linked with the companies they are working to help, politicians encourage an assault on finance, which in turn scares off legitimate investors, no longer able to count on contracts and the rule of law. And this in turn forces troubled businesses to seek government assistance.

➢ This is the unhealthy cycle capitalism faces elsewhere. On one hand, entrepreneurs and financiers feel threatened by public hostility, and thus justified in seeking government privileges. On the other hand, ordinary citizens are outraged by the privileges entrepreneurs and financiers receive, which inflames even greater hostility.

We just saw how populism threatens both Democrats (big government) and Republicans (big business). Zingales suggests where Republicans should be—leaving the corporate elite to the Democrats, and channeling populist rage into political support for genuinely pro-market reforms. Republicans should seek to limit the financial industry’s power—any businesses’ power—and restore the fundamental principles that make capitalism ethical: freedom, meritocracy, a direct link between reward and effort, and willingness to ensure those who reap the gains also bear the losses. This would mean abandoning the notion that any firm is too big to fail, and adopting a pro-market, rather than pro-business, approach to our economy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Populism Hurts Both Parties

Naftali Bendavid [picture] writes for the Wall Street Journal, but was until recently the Chicago Tribune’s #2 in Washington and its White House correspondent. He wrote a book about how Rahm Emanuel and Democrats “thumped” Republicans in 2006.

You should read Bendavid’s latest article, which argues that populism—strong negative feelings about both big business and big government or elites in general—is dominating current politics. That’s bad for both Republicans (big business) and Democrats (big government). Bendavid cites poll numbers to make his point: 43% don’t like Republicans, 39% don’t like Democrats; 45% say the stimulus was a bad idea; 49% feel government tries to do too much; and the $700 billion Wall Street bailout is “especially unpopular”.

Bendavid writes:

➢ With voters simultaneously recoiling at laissez-faire policies and a big-government approach neither party in Washington seems capable of corralling an angry public. . . [There’s] an angry distrust of government, and politicians of all stripes, that is palpable . . .

➢ Some don't see government and business as opposing forces. They see a unified elite pursuing one big swindle, as government takes taxpayers' money and bails out powerful companies such as banks and auto makers. . .People on both sides . . . share a frustration with larger forces.

➢ "They're mad at institutions -- all institutions," said Karin Johanson, a Democratic strategist. "Nobody can underestimate the angst, or even fear, of the American voter right now...The institutions they were relying on which were assuring them of their security were not there."

➢ Episodes of populism in U.S. history are marked by "people being fearful of and opposing concentrated power of any kind," said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian and author of The Populist Persuasion. "Big corporations and big government can be seen as parts of the same problem."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

How Now Peace in Afghanistan?

how [are] the truly self-sacrificing professionals who are attempting to create a sound American policy on Afghanistan . . . going to experience this[?] “Hmm, can a president who just won the left's great peace prize decide to increase American troop strength and presence in a foreign war?”

--Peggy Noonan, 10.10.09

We struggle to get Afghanistan right. Do we follow the path of “peace through strength,” allowing the military to prevail the way they did in Iraq after the surge, as they did in Kosovo, in the Gulf War (1991), and as they might have in Vietnam, as Lewis Sorley argued in his book A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, had the opposition at home not blocked their efforts?

Sorley’s 1999 book about Vietnam is must reading for military brass in the aftermath of the Iraq surge’s success—it shows counterinsurgency can work. But the White House political powers, including Vice President Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and the President himself, are reading a different book about Vietnam, Lessons in Disaster, Gordon Goldstein’s 2008 study of National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and decision-making in the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses. As Goldstein’s title suggests, the book is about how bright men can make dumb decisions, especially when relying on military power. Obama, as we have said, doesn’t want to be another Johnson, Obama is president, and so Goldstein should win any “battle of the books” with Sorley.

Now does the Peace Prize make it even more likely Obama will overturn his generals’ advice and go for less—the same underfed force in Afghanistan that Bush and Rumsfeld’s “small footprint” unsuccessfully provided Iraq in 2003-06? What is this White House line about the Taliban not being al Qaeda, meaning we don’t have to defeat the Taliban, because they are Afghanistan nationalists, just as the enemy Kennedy-Johnson fought in the 1960s were Vietnamese nationalists? Take on al Qaeda in Pakistan with its worldwide ambitions, but ease off the Taliban, who are only local nationalists? Does this make sense, when the Taliban and al Qaeda, defined by their mutually militant Islamic practices, have worked together so closely over two decades?

What about Holbrooke [picture, top figure], the foreign policy dog fighter Obama has made responsible for Afghanistan and Pakistan? Is Holbrooke comfortable with this emerging strategy of downgrading the war against the Taliban, in the belief that we can just go after al Qaeda in Pakistan?

George Packer has a fantastic, detailed New Yorker profile of Holbrooke and his views. I find Packer’s article reassuring. Holbrooke wants to prevail over al Qaeda, Holbrooke knows how closely linked the Taliban is to al Qaeda, Holbrooke still believes in the “win their hearts and minds” counterinsurgency strategy we were unable to implement successfully in Vietnam but did in Iraq, and Holbrooke is the consummate bureaucratic infighter, especially skilled at winning in liberal Democratic administrations.

Obama still may go wobbly on Afghanistan-Pakistan, especially in the aftermath of his Peace Prize. But with Holbrooke, we have the best chance of being able to continue the fight that has real peace as its final goal.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Great Day for President

Feels like I'm in a race
But I already won first place

--Keri Hilson, “Knock You Down”

Or as Michael Gerson put it:
the Nobel Committee has . . . decided to give a ribbon before the race, a trophy for aspiration, a gold star for admirable sentiments. Which means [its] decision . . . is entirely, purely, solely political. Members of the committee like Obama's goals and rhetoric. And since they aren't American citizens, this is the only way they could vote for him.

Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize. And his work has yet to begin. Really!

But bully for Obama! That he won; it’s not his fault! And the same day, the stock market hits 52-week highs. My FOX INDEX has reached its new high for 2009 [chart]. The INDEX measures as a percentage the distance traveled from the market’s March 9 bottom; while also marking the distance remaining to its pre-crash healthy level (12,000 Dow, 1,300 S&P, 2,500 NASDAQ). As of today, the distance traveled from the bottom to healthy has covered 63% of the full path.

Monday, October 05, 2009

National Parks: America’s best idea.

We are the most dangerous species of life on the planet, and every other species, even the earth itself, has cause to fear our power to exterminate. But we are also the only species which, when it chooses to do so, will go to great effort to save what it might destroy.

--Wallace Stegner
The National Parks,” Episode 6

Ken Burns’ comprehensive story of our national parks, just concluded on PBS, is a largely positive picture of how activists interested in preserving the best of American beauty and history have mostly succeeded. The photography is beautiful, the message uplifting, the cause important. In the end, we are encouraged to help keep our parks going.

Burns’ concluding focus on preserving and bringing back the wolf from near extinction, on stopping a paved road into Denali (Mt. McKinley) National Park [picture], and on the vast new parkland set aside in unpopulated Alaska suggest an agenda of 1) greater attention to preserving endangered species, and 2) growing concern about humans over-running unspoiled nature. Earlier shows covered the historical problem of unfettered automobile access to Yellowstone and Yosemite.

One gets the impression the Park Service has pushed back on campers filling the parkland. The series, however, doesn’t cover the Park Service's actual strategy, including its apparent severe restrictions on how many people can stay in parks overnight, actions that have led to creation of small cities just outside some park entrances, but have saved the parks themselves.

John Muir and especially Stephen Mather, the marketing genius who first headed the National Park Service, understood the importance of building a constituency of park supporters by making it easier for people to visit. Needless to say, the idea was an overwhelming success: 270 million now visit park facilities annually. The parks do belong to the people, and the people do love their parks.

We may have a good balance between people and nature in the parks, a parallel system of wilderness areas for those who want fewer humans around, and Burns may be pleased with the balance. But maybe not. Anyway, ambiguity about how to deal with the human power to preserve, or to destroy, may be just the right way to conclude Burns’ excellent series.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Obama Job Gap (updated)

More jobs lost last month, with the unemployment rate rising to 9.8%, its highest level since 1983. Thus far in 2009, employment has dropped 4.1 million. Earlier, President Obama promised his stimulus plan would create or retain 3-4 million jobs by 2010 (average 3.5 million). The resulting gap between what Obama promised and the actual job count currently stands at 7.9 million jobs [chart]. We follow the Obama job gap in the same spirit as former “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert followed Bush’s job count throughout Bush 43’s first term, at least until Bush’s numbers turned positive (the term ended with Bush up 4.2 million jobs; Obama too is likely to be in positive territory by 2012).

Thursday, October 01, 2009

A Strange 60th

China today celebrated the 60th anniversary of Communist China’s creation, when Mao Zedong told the world, “the Chinese people have now stood up.” No one doubts Mao’s words now. China is an astounding economic success, due to the dedication and hard work of hundreds of millions of Chinese. Of course, this is more Deng Xiaoping’s China than it is Mao’s. It’s Deng who had the vision decades after Mao uttered his words to institute capitalism in China, thereby unleashing the drive of China’s population.

So maybe it’s odd to celebrate Mao’s anniversary. But odder still is the way China is celebrating its national day, doing so without ordinary people, in fact banning them from central Beijing and putting the surrounding six provinces under marshal law. People only get to watch the festivities [picture, click to enlarge] on TV! How unlike America. And how insecure of the Chinese regime, to separate itself from its own people.