Tuesday, November 29, 2011

ABM (Anybody but Mitt)

"I don't claim to be the perfect candidate. I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anybody else."

--Newt Gingrich

As I said, the media are “joined at the hip” with government leaders who have the capacity to put in place the media agenda. And I now realize that the national media as we know it—the networks, TIME, national columnists such as Walter Lippmann and Scotty Reston, the national reach of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times—all came to life and grew along with the federal government’s rise under Franklin Roosevelt and successive Democrats. It has been, from the beginning, a symbiotic relationship. And since World War II, academia and non-profits have become increasingly dependent on federal money. It’s one big, mutually-dependent family.

Today, now, that big glob no longer works. Former GOP presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in the Wall Street Journal, is guessing at the reason Obama fails to see the crisis his presidency faces:
the most harmful aspect of the president's leadership style is that all of his political instincts were honed and settled before 2008, when he was rising. What he learned before he reached the presidency is what he knows. But everyone else in America knows the crash and the underlying crisis it revealed—on our current course, we are bankrupt—changed everything. Strangely, inexplicably, the president thinks the old political moves apply to the new era. They do not.
Noonan would write Obama off—the president missing in action as America’s economic crisis enters year four—except that she senses the underlying strength of the Democratic coalition, including its grip on our entertainment and arts.
The Democrats have . . . going for them [that] American culture, high and low, is governed and run by the entertainment industry. And the entertainment industry is, and has been since the New Deal, firmly rooted in the Democratic Party. It was invented by the ethnics of the East. . . who joined the Democratic Party as soon as they got here. And they let everyone in America know, and they do it to this day, that the Democratic Party is the cool party, and the Republican Party is the one [not cool], the one that seems like a character flaw to belong to. . . Democrats were, through most of the 20th century, better at propaganda.
“Propaganda.” The power of a unified media, pushing a single message.

“The ethnics.” First came the Irish, Italians, and Jews. Then other white ethnic groups, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, other nonwhites, and women, especially those without husbands, of any color or background. The Democratic Party is their home, their family. Even though Democrats have royally screwed up, how are Republicans to beat this powerful coalition?

Noonan and her fellow media- and New York/Washington-based intellectual friends know, not think but know, that Mitt Romney is the only Republican capable of beating the mighty Democratic coalition they live with and eat among every day. Here’s Noonan on Mitt:
A big Romney virtue is the calm at his core. The word unflappable has been used[;] a nation in trouble probably wants a fatherly, or motherly, figure at the top. . . Romney’s added value is his persona. . . like the father in one of those 1950s or ‘60s sitcoms . . . Robert Young in “Father Knows Best,” or Fred MacMurray in “My Three Sons: You’d quake at telling him about the fender-bender, but after the lecture on safety and personal responsibility, he’d buck you up and throw you the keys. . . The Republican Party is going to make Mitt Romney work for it. They’re going to make him earn it. They’re going to make him suffer. Because that’s what Republicans do.
But in the end Noonan believes that if Republicans care about winning, they will nominate Mitt.

We have already recorded our objection to Romney—he’s unlikely to provide the depth of change this country requires to overcome addiction to big government. Noonan doesn’t see it our way. But we can’t win with Mitt, because he is “Democratic lite,” relatively untroubled by big government. He's the Republican mirror of Democrat John Kerry in 2004, who ran and lost as "national security lite."

People want the real thing, so if it’s big government they want, they will vote Obama, not Romney. As Stanford’s Hoover Institution conservative Thomas Sowell points out, there have been a long string of Republican presidential candidates who, like Mitt, fought for the center. They lost.

Look at the following chart. In the past, even GOP “extremists” have done better than GOP moderates such as Mitt. But the winning choice is a conservative—they do best.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Middle Way Won't Work

the best thing that the Government can do is to get out of the business of running (or subsidising, or initiating, or incentivising) things altogether – not just in the interests of saving money, but because the effects of such interference are counter-productive. What the economy is suffering from is not an insufficiency of overweening, fussy, bureaucratic initiatives that inevitably unleash an avalanche of unintended consequences, but a lack of cash in the hands of people who might spend it in ways that would actually create wealth and stimulate (in the proper sense of the word) economic growth.

--Janet Daley, Telegraph (U.K.)

In a nutshell, big government’s time is over. Not only the failed bigness of Hitler, Mao, and the Soviet Union, but the failed broad bureaucratic reach of welfare state Western Europe, of industrial Japan (no longer #1), and even of “Blue Model” America. But don’t tell our leading pundits.

Our media are wired directly to activist government. The two are “joined at the hip.” Why bother writing policy recommendations to an audience larger than a president able to execute the enlightened one’s recommendation with one shouted command? Why would these journalists opt instead for slowly winning over millions of people? Scribes prefer the efficiency of talking to the guy at the top who gets it done.

Matt Welch of the libertarian Reason has insightfully gone after the pragmatism by which our elite commentariat profess to live. Elite writers claim to sit in the middle between the small government ideologues of the right and the left’s virtual socialists (Moveon.org and public sector unions). It’s no small coincidence that pundits outside government, just like the policymakers inside, frame their recommendations to the president as a favored middle option between two deliberately undesirable extremes.

Libertarian Welch oozes contempt for America’s so-called “problem solvers” in the middle:
Do something. Is there a two-word phrase in politics more loaded with disguised ideological content? Embedded within is both an urgent call for powerful government action and an up-front declaration that the policy details don’t matter. The bigger the crisis, the more the urgency, the sparser the detail. . . American discourse is saddled with a large and influential do-something school of political punditry, a cadre of pragmatists from Meet the Press to your local editorial board who are forever seeking to solve the country’s problems by transcending ideology, demanding collective citizen sacrifice, and—always—empowering authority. . . [David] Brooks and [Thomas] Friedman [pictures] may be the most prominent practitioners, but the do-something school is evident just about anywhere the political class is talking shop.

Do-something punditry means almost never considering the possible benefits of getting the government out of the way of a given issue, since that would be “ideological” and require walking away from the world’s largest problem-solving tool. Pragmatism also means never having to say you’re sorry about the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation, the capture by industrialists of the regulators who were supposed to constrain them, or even the basic failure of government action to produce the promised results. By the time such flaws make front-page news, there is always a new crisis requiring urgent intervention. And if all else fails, you can blame it on the competence of the government that followed your advice.
Welsh appreciates that our “non-ideological” problem-solvers do in fact have an ideology of their own:
it involves increased taxes (especially on energy), short-term spending boosts, long-term entitlement cuts, and roughly the same foreign policy commitments as today. It calls for renewed citizen engagement, a return to political civility, and a rejection of coarse cynicism. Better teachers, trained workers, and cleaner air. Although advocated by pundits from all over the traditional political spectrum, the program is remarkably uniform when it comes to giving the government more power. Just don’t call it ideological.
The middle ground is a false choice. In a time of “fish or cut bait,” those who believe in better government come down on the side of big government. They reject less government, the choice America should make in 2012.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

We coulda had an agreement.

The Congressional “supercommittee” couldn’t agree on how to cut $1.2 trillion from our national debt. In the aftermath of failure, two columnists, one from each side, are both recommending Washington go for real cuts and some revenue increase, thereby grabbing the vital middle and success.

The New York Times’ Tom Friedman believes “the best way” for Obama to win next year is by declaring he “made a mistake in spurning his own deficit reduction commission,” and “is now adopting Simpson-Bowles” as his fiscal plan. Friedman rightly notes that any Obama-like short-term “stimulus” (tax cuts) won’t work, because “nobody knows what is waiting around the corner, after the stimulus runs out.”

Obama should instead back a deficit-cutting plan “with substantial tax reform and revenue (i.e., tax) increases. . . and cutbacks to both Social Security and Medicare. . . Simpson-Bowles.” Friedman adds that in times of crisis, “leaders jump first, lay out what truly needs to be done to fix the problem, not just to win re-election.”

His pitch to a higher goal, along with Friedman’s saying “I voted for Barack Obama, and I don’t want my money back” and “the Republican Party has gone nuts” are part of his effort to win back Obama’s ear, a task he gave up on earlier when he advocated finding a third-party candidate for president. No third party? No matter. The point here is Obama should embrace Simpson-Bowles—major, long-term cuts in the budget combined with some tax increase.

Over in the Wall Street Journal, columnist Holman W. Jenkins, Jr has pushed the same line, advocating that Obama should take GOP senator Pat Toomey's tax-reform plan and “pick it up and run with it, instantly redeeming the super-committee ‘failure’ with an act of presidential leadership.” Like Simpson-Bowles, Toomey’s plan emphasized getting economic growth through budget-cutting fiscal responsibility, combined with “a big revenue hike on ‘the rich.’”

Unfortunately, Toomey’s plan hit “the rich” by taking away $250 billion worth of their deductions, not by raising tax rates, the campaign pitch to which Democrats and Obama seem deeply wedded. Note that Simpson-Bowles similarly proposed raising revenue by closing loopholes, and specifically recommended lowering, not raising, tax rates.

Friedman talks to Democrats, so he quotes Simpson-Bowles, the commission Obama created. Jenkins talks to Republicans, so he quotes GOPer Toomey. Yet Friedman, Simpson-Bowles, Jenkins, and Toomey are all in the same place, with Obama somewhere else. I wrote earlier that Obama must advocate tax rate increases before the election, if he is to raise taxes enough on everyone after the election to keep the budget at its gigantic, current 25% of GDP.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Remembering JFK

"I didn't leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me."

--Ronald Reagan

My thoughts on the 48th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and after watching Greg Kinnear’s pitch-perfect portrayal of him last night in the little-seen (Reelz TV, what?—Netflix has the episodes) miniseries, “The Kennedys.” Kennedy was a hero and in the consensus, post-war evaluation of our leaders, a “near great” president kept from greatness by his untimely death. I loved him and his brother Robert (“Bobby”).

After JFK, things went bad for Democrats. Republican Reagan is the best president we’ve had since; his really the only presidency after Kennedy’s that succeeded. Clinton was not a hero; he was blessed with post-Soviet Union peace and a dot.com prosperity bubble and he blew it anyway. Clinton’s last presidential act was pardoning international tax-cheat and fugitive Marc Rich.

I look back on the Kennedy era, “Camelot,” with nostalgia, but it was a very dangerous time. The Chinese under Liu Shaoqi (the internally-focused Mao pushed into the background) were competing with the Soviets to expand Communism throughout the newly-independent Third World, and making real headway in Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia. The Soviets were ahead in the space race. Castro was turning Cuba into a Communist beachhead 90 miles off our shore. Eisenhower had been inept, allowing a “missile gap” to develop and a U-2 spy plane with a pilot who wouldn’t take his own life to be shot down over the Soviet Union, leading to a major summit cancellation. Bad, bad world.

Kennedy was the president to turn this world around. An authentic war hero, son of the ambassador to our most important ally, a Pulitzer-prize winning Harvard graduate who wrote Why England Slept, Kennedy was well-prepared to lead the U.S. at the height of the Cold War to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Kennedy made mistakes, and learned from them. In 1961, he allowed the ill-conceived and executed Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward, then publicly took responsibility for its failure while more privately reorganizing and professionalizing the CIA. He was faced down by Khrushchev at Vienna that summer and allowed the Berlin Wall to go up, but had the sophistication to appreciate that Berlin was, as Khrushchev said, a “bone in my throat,” and it was best to get the bone out.

Under Robert McNamara, the Pentagon not only closed the missile gap (which turned out to be mostly fiction), but with the rapid development and deployment of the solid-fueled Minuteman ICBMs and with Polaris missiles in nuclear submarines off the icy Soviet coast, turned the strategic balance strongly in the U.S.’s favor.

In 1961, Kennedy made the bold pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And we met that pledge. What a different time.

By 1962, the Soviets were so worried about U.S. strategic superiority that they attempted to sneak Soviet medium-range missiles into Cuba and close their missile gap. Kennedy’s response was among America’s finest hours. He rejected the aggressive options recommended by the military and CIA, and instituted a blockade that avoided direct military action. He secretly offered to pull obsolete Jupiter medium-range missiles out of Turkey and Italy if the Soviets would pull back from Cuba, providing Khrushchev a face-saving way to back down. He avoided World War III.

In 1963, he negotiated a limited test-ban treaty with the Soviets, the first big step back from the brink of nuclear war. In 1964, Khrushchev lost his job, in part because of his failed Cuban confrontation with Kennedy, however much the defeat had been downplayed in public.

In 1962, Kennedy recommended lower tax rates, and the reduced tax rates triggered domestic prosperity that lasted throughout the 1960s.

Vietnam undid the Cold War Democrats Kennedy so ably led. We don’t know how Kennedy would have handled Vietnam after 1963, but we do know he was far more able than Lyndon Johnson to maneuver through international crises. Moreover, his assassination deprived Kennedy of the opportunity to sue for peace in Vietnam during his 1965-69 second term, when he would have no longer faced re-election. Johnson couldn't stop believing that failure in Vietnam would cost him re-election in 1968, so would not consider a real peace agreement. (In the end, Vietnam cost Johnson re-election anyway.)

I have argued that McNamara had given up on Vietnam by 1966—wouldn’t Kennedy have too? Most casualties came after 1966. I also believe the true turning point in Southeast Asia came with the failed Communist coup in Indonesia in 1965, an event the significance of which Kennedy would have appreciated far better than Johnson did.

Kennedy, Reagan. Not Johnson, Carter, Clinton. Not Obama.