Campaign 2012

Can Romney Win? Yes, He Can!

The New Yorker warms the hearts of Republicans everywhere by asking a question no true-blue liberal Democrat wants to even contemplate: can Mitt Romney really beat Obama?

In my neck of artisanal, hormone-free Brooklyn, the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, which shows Mitt Scissorhands leading “The First Gay President” by three points, landed with a nasty thud. “I can’t believe he might lose,” my wife said when she spotted the offending numbers on the Web. “People are really willing to vote for Mitt Romney? They hate Obama so much they’d vote for Romney?”

Evidently so—not that you’d know it from a casual read of the print edition of today’s Times. The editors buried the lead in the fifteenth paragraph of a down-page story on A17. (I’ve got a helpful suggestion: if Romney’s ahead in next month’s poll, maybe it could go in the Metro section—the one that no longer exists.) Not surprisingly, conservative news sites made rather more of the story. Under the headline “Kaboom: Romney Leads Obama by 3 in New CBS/NYT Poll,” Guy Benson, the political editor of Townhall.com, pointed out several other noteworthy findings [i]n the survey, including the facts that Romney leads Obama by two points among women (so much for the gender gap) and seven points among independents. Two thirds of the survey’s respondents said the economy was in “very bad” or “fairly bad” shape, and Obama’s favorability rating is still stuck in the mid-forties—at forty-five per cent, to be exact.

Now, the piece does explain why Romney still has a long way to go to win, but the fact that The New Yorker is running a piece worrying about Obama’s electoral chances is in itself telling.

But there’s even more interesting data. Wisconsin was a state that Obama won handily in 2008 and Kerry very narrowly won in 2004. Wisconsin hasn’t really been on the radar as a swing state – but a poll commissioned by the ultra-liberal ghouls at the Daily Kos finds that Obama is leading Romney by only a single point in the Badger State. That result is somewhat shocking, but perhaps less so when you consider that the unions have spent tens of millions to recall Gov. Scott Walker and that same poll shows Walker beating his Democratic opponent by a 4%. Wisconsin is a state where Romney might have a chance, especially given massive voter fatigue on the left.

And there’s gay marriage. While it wasn’t clear whether the gay marriage issue would hurt or help Obama, the polls show that it’s hurting him. As The New Yorker piece mentions, a supermajority of voters think that Obama’s sudden “evolution” on gay marriage was little more than a political stunt. More people dislike Obama’s newfound old position on gay marriage than like it. And North Carolina, the site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention and a potential swing state, is starting to look redder and redder. None of this news is fatal to Obama’s reelection chances, but the slow drip of bad news for his campaign, combined with the Obama campaign’s relatively ham-fisted attempts to shape the narrative suggest that 2012 will not look much like 2008.

Behold, A God Who Bleeds!

This is all starting to remind me of a classic Star Trek episode (as many things often do). In that episode, Captain Kirk’s memory is wiped and he ends up being treated as a god by the local Native American stereotype aliens. One jealous alien manages to cut his hand, and exclaims, “Behold, a god who bleeds!” The same thing is happening here: during 2008 Obama was the epitome of cool, a demi-god in American politics with a following that bordered on a cult of personality.

Today is much different. Obama is just another politician. The American people don’t buy his gay marriage conversion. Obama has a record now, and cannot be what he was in 2008: a blank slate upon which voters could project their hopes and dreams. Instead, Obama has to run on what he’s actually done: and Americans are not feeling the “hope and change” any longer.

That’s the problem with being a cool cipher – the minute you start losing your mystique, the game is over. The same quasi-messianic messaging that worked so well for Obama in 2008 will not work for him in 2012—now it just comes off as creepy. The American people are seeing an increasingly whiny President who is running a tight race against someone who is ostensibly a weak candidate and saying “Behold, a god who bleeds!”

But Romney Has To Define Himself

But don’t count Obama out or Romney in. The American people have soured on President Obama to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that Romney is in the clear. He still has to define himself, and Romney has thus far failed to do so. Voters know that they don’t like Obama, but just that is not necessarily going to be enough for Romney to pull ahead. Voters need to have a clear answer to the question “who is Mitt Romney?”

This is Romney’s Achilles heel—he does not have the “common touch” of someone like Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. He’s hard to relate to on a human level because he doesn’t open himself up in the way that other politicians do. But to win national election, Romney has to define himself as a person. He doesn’t have to be the guy you have beers with, but he has to be someone who voters can trust and relate to. Ann Romney has helped humanize her husband, but Gov. Romney can’t rely on surrogates to make that connection.

The Obama campaign is already running ads trying to define Romney to voters—if Romney can’t define himself first, he’s going to have a lot of trouble winning in the key states he needs to win.

One thing is certain, however: if the Democrats are thinking this will be another 2008, they’re wrong. The political environment has changed, and it has not changed in a way that benefits President Obama.

Campaign 2012

The State Of The Race 2012 – Part I

The dust has settled from the contentious GOP primary battle, and it looks like Mitt Romney will be the GOP’s 2012 nominee. It’s now on to the general election, where the future of Barack Obama’s Presidency will be tested.

Even though polling this far out is of limited usefulness, it does give us some idea of how the race could turn out in seven months. There are certain factors and historical data that can give us some idea of where this race will go. But elections are shaped by current events rather than past history—in September 2008, John McCain was briefly ahead of Obama until Sarah Palin flamed out and McCain’s bizarre campaign suspension eliminated his momentum through the end of the race. In 2000, George W. Bush was looking to beat Al Gore by a substantial margin—until DWI allegations put him on the defensive and cost him votes, resulting in one of the closest races in American history and a popular vote loss. We have no idea what may happen in 2012 that could have a profound impact on the race.

But, with those caveats in mind, we can start to see the shape of the race as it stands now, and what it means for President Obama and Governor Romney:

This Race Will Be A Referendum

First, this is a race between an incumbent President and a challenger – which means that the 2012 election will largely be a referendum on Barack Obama. (Joe Klein’s arguments notwithstanding.) In general, an incumbent President either stands or falls based on his performance in office. If the American electorate is generally happy with the performance of a President, he’ll be reelected. If they are not, and the other side puts up a credible challenger, that President will lose.

That dynamic appears most clearly in the President’s approval ratings on a state-by-state basis. An incumbent President’s approval ratings are a good predictor of whether they will be reelected or not. As it stands right now, President Obama’s approval rating is at 47% in the RealClearPolitics polling composite. He’s slightly underwater with his disapproval rating at 48%. For an incumbent, that’s a danger zone—not fatal, but not where an incumbent President wants to be. As a point of comparison, President Bush was at 52% approval in mid-April 2004.

As we dig down to the state level, this becomes more important. Traditionally, an incumbent with approval rating over 50% is regarded as “safe” and one with an approval rating under 50% is regarded as “in trouble.” Political prognosticator Ronald Brownstein, writing in the National Journal, argues that 47% is the real “tipping point”, and if a President’s approval rating is below 47%, then he’s in real trouble.

So, we can assume that if President Obama is over 50% approval in a state, he’s likely to win that state’s electoral votes. On the other hand, if he’s at 45% or below, he’s not going to win that state unless his approval rating changes dramatically. If he’s at 47% or less, that state would lean towards the Romney, and if Obama’s approval rating is over 47%, the state would lean towards Obama.

Obama’s Electoral Battlefield

Gallup performed state by state polling in 2011 that gives some contours to where Obama stands in each state. It isn’t pretty for Obama. He is above 50% in only a few states. If we use the 47% approval rating as a guidepost, Obama is cruising towards a huge loss in the Electoral College. He would lose 215 to 323, an electoral blowout. Crucially, he’d lose the key states that he needs to hold to win: namely Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, and Iowa. He’d also lose Oregon, a state that has tended to be Democratic, but only by a close margin.

Obviously, Obama losing Oregon seems like a rather distant proposition, and Gallup’s numbers are fairly old, and were taken before the GOP race had settled. But, what this does show is that the race is far from over: Obama’s approval rating on a national and a state-by-state basis indicates a much tighter race than 2008.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

The biggest factor in this race will be the economy. Unemployment is trending downward, but the results are mixed at best. But, it’s hard to judge just what effect the unemployment rate really has an election—electoral data doesn’t give us much to go on in predicting how unemployment will effect the race. It’s true that no President since FDR has won reelection with more than 7.2% unemployment, but that by itself does’t give us much to go on. The sample set is simply too small.

But subjective feelings will matter. If in the fall of 2012 people really do feel that the economy is getting better, they’ll be more inclined to reelect the President. If they feel that they are no better off than they were in 2008, they’ll be more inclined to get rid of him. The data on Obama’s economic record spells trouble for Obama—high gas prices are hurting his rating on economic issues, and the electorate doesn’t really seem to think that the economy is truly turning a corner.

That’s why the data points will only tell you so much. In the 1992 election the economy was recovering, but George H.W. Bush still lost to Bill Clinton (thanks in large part to Ross Perot). People don’t respond to economic data, they respond to their subjective feelings. Unfortunately, that’s hard to measure and doesn’t follow the raw data—it could well be that unemployment drifts down by November 2012, but that doesn’t mean that President Obama is a lock for re-election.

The Hope And Change Is Gone

There is one more subjective factor worthy of mention: this isn’t 2008. In 2008, Obama could run as a cypher, a blank slate upon which voters could project their hopes and dreams. His campaign of “hope” and “change” and his ability to position himself as a post-partisan, post-racial figure helped him appeal to independents and even some Republicans. He ran less on his record (scant as it was), and more on a set of vague promises. But four years later, that is no longer an option for the President. He has to run on his record now, and his policies from from bailouts to Obamacare have been more divisive than uniting. The 2010 election could also be considered a referendum on his performance, and that should give the Obama team pause.

Obama simply doesn’t have the option of running as the Obama of 2008—but that doesn’t mean that he can’t reinvent himself into a form that’s palatable to enough independents to get reelected. But that also means that the unprecedented wave of support that lifted him up in 2008 may not materialize this time: in 2008 Barack Obama was the Next Big Thing, the great figure that would bring the country together and wipe away the supposed sins of the Bush years. Now, he’s just another politician. The Democrats may have a deep reserve of support to draw upon, but they’ve always had that. At this time, it doesn’t seem like Obama can rekindle the magic of 2008. It’s safe to assume that even if Obama is re-elected, it won’t be by the same margins he got four years ago.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, with all those factors in play, what can we say about the current state of the race? The honest answer is that it’s looking close, but we don’t know much more than that. It’s too early to say that Obama is a shoe-in for re-election or Romney should start thinking about Cabinet appointments. This is anyone’s game, and with such partisan polarization, it’s very likely that it will stay a tight race for most (if not all) of the race.

That being said, the structural factors give a slight edge to Romney. Obama has a weak approval rating for an incumbent President. The economy may recover, but it’s questionable whether it would be enough. Obama’s state-by-state approval ratings show weakness in key swing states. But that slight edge is very slight indeed, and could disappear if trends change.

As the race continues other factors will start emerging—the most important of which may be the discipline and effectiveness of Romney’s campaign. The McCain campaign was horrendously mismanaged, botching McCain’s “suspension” of his campaign, mishandling Sarah Palin, and was generally weak and ineffective. So far Romney has shown great discipline and messaging—but also a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. If you want to know how the dynamics of the race may play out, watch how well organized the Romney camp is over the next few months. Because when it gets down to the post-Labor Day crunch time, campaign discipline can make or break a political campaign.

Campaign 2012

The Inevitable Mr. Romney

Nate Silver, the political oracle behind Five Thirty-Eight argues that Mitt Romney is becoming close to the inevitable GOP nominee in 2012—and while Silver notes that Romney certainly can lose, there’s no one else in the field that has the staying power to take him down. Even though the GOP isn’t in love with the idea of a Romney candidacy, no one has been able to mount a serious, long-term challenge to Romney.

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The past few months of the 2012 campaign has seen a dynamic between Romney running slow but steady, with a series of putative challengers rising and falling. At first, Michele Bachmann was looking like the anti-Romney, until the GOP electorate realized that she was great as an ideological happy warrior, but has no appeal outside her base. Congresswoman Bachmann is a solid and principled conservative, but she is no the sort of person who can win in a national election. So she peaked early and has not regained momentum since.

Then the GOP electorate moved on to Rick Perry—until Governor Perry opened his mouth and made a fool of himself. One bad debate performance is not necessarily enough to doom a candidacy, but a series of them made it clear that Perry was not remotely ready for prime-time. If Perry can’t win over a friendly audience, he would have zero chance against Obama. What momentum Perry had after announcing was quickly diminished as Perry proved himself unprepared and prone to embarrassing verbal gaffes.

Then came Herman Cain, the next flavor of the week. Cain made some bold policy moves with his “9-9-9? plan. But his bold policies had no chance of working in the real world. Then Cain, like Perry, demonstrated that he was criminally unprepared for the task of running for President. (Yes, Mr. Cain, you should know something about those countries with “-stan” at the end if you want to be taken seriously as a candidate.) Then a drip of scandal turned into a torrent, as numerous women accused Cain of having affairs with them—and while a few anonymous allegations don’t count for much, a flood of them with details do. In the end, Cain was forced to leave the race in relative disgrace.

The last flavor of the week has been Newt Gingrich—who unlike Cain and Perry is an intellectual force to be reckoned with. But as brilliant as Newt may be, he is equally undisciplined. His attack on the judiciary was intended to be red meat for the conservative base, but it was deeply irresponsible and not at all in line with constitutional conservatism. Newt has taken many of the same positions that Romney has, and to call him the conservative alternative to Romney is a joke. Newt may be a great thinker who does well in debates, but he would likely implode long before mounting a challenge to Obama.

The rest of the field also underwhelms. Santorum’s last electoral experience was a double-digit blowout loss, and he has little appeal outside hardcore social conservatives. Jon Huntsman is running in the wrong party’s primary. Ron Paul is, to put it charitably, an isolationist conspiracy-mongering nutball.

By nothing more than default, Mitt Romney is the only candidate left on the field that is not damaged goods in some form or fashion. But the question then becomes, is Romney an acceptable candidate for the GOP nomination in 2012?

The Case For Romney

John Hinderaker at Power Line makes the case for Romney as the 2012 GOP nominee:

In electing a president, we are choosing someone to run the Executive Branch. A leader, to be sure, but not a speechmaker, a bomb-thrower, a quipster, a television personality or an exemplar of ideological purity. At this point in our history, the United States desperately needs a leader who understands the economy, the world of business, and, more generally, how the world works. We have had more than enough of a leader who was good at giving speeches and was ideologically pure, but who had no clue how the economy works or how the federal government can be administered without resort to graft and corruption. It is time for a president who knows what he is doing.

Hinderaker gives four arguments why Romney is the strongest candidate in the race, and the candidate most likely to beat President Obama, including the fact that in a time when the United States is badly in need on a turnaround, who better suited to fix our national problems than someone who has years of experience turning around failing companies?

On the other side, John Hawkins provides 7 reasons why he believes that Romney’s “electability” is a myth.

Hinderaker seems to have the better of the arguments here. What we do know of Romney’s general-election prospects come from early polling—and of the early general-election polls, Romney runs ahead of the rest of the Republican field in key states like Ohio. What candidate has a chance of doing better than Mitt Romney at this point? Gingrich? Paul? Perry? Santorum? Does anyone believe that anyone else in this field has a credible shot at taking on Obama and winning?

Romney’s conservative bona fides are constantly questioned, but Gingrich is no less an “establishment” figure and has departed from conservative orthodoxy just as much as Romney. Romney may not be every conservative’s ideal candidate, but he’s the most conservative candidate with a realistic prayer of winning.

A President Romney is not going to veto a conservative Congress’ budget cuts. A President Romney would not dramatically increase the size and scope of the federal government—certainly not when paired with a conservative Congress. A President Romney is a step forward for the nation—four more years of President Obama would be a disaster at a time when fiscal discipline is no longer optional.

Mitt Romney has a compelling narrative going into 2012: the turnaround artist for a country that faces bankruptcy. While the Republican Party should listen to Hawkin’s arguments against Romney’s electability and start working on contingencies to address them, the fact remains that Romney has the best chance to beat President Obama in 2012. He’s the only candidate that has a realistic chance to beat the President this year and restore some semblance of fiscal sanity to the Executive Branch.

And that is ultimately why I believe than Romney will be the 2012 nominee for the Republican Party. At the end of the day, the one thing that Establishment Republicans and conservative activists all want is to unseat President Obama. Romney is the one that is most likely to do it, and the GOP electorate has run through all the alternatives in the hopes of finding a more conservative challenger. At the end of the day, Romney has survived while others have faltered, and he is the candidate best positioned to take on the President and beat him.

Finally, the next four years will be crucial for the future of this country. While every election is tagged as the “most important” election ever, the stakes continue to get higher and higher for this country. Say what you want about Romney, he has years of experience in the private sector taking failing organizations and turning them into profitable and efficient ones. Taking on the U.S. government will be orders of magnitude more difficult than that, but Romney’s experience is relevant to the challenges ahead. We may not be getting our dream candidate, but we never were going to get that. Romney is conservative enough to be acceptable, is effective enough to run a disciplined campaign, and is smart and tough enough to lead this country. In the end, that is what matters.

Political Philosophy, Politics

Andy Stern’s Liberal Fascism

Andy Stern, the head of the SEIU and one of President Obama’s biggest supporters has a shockingly honest piece in The Wall Street Journal calling for the United States to mimic China’s model of state-run economic development. Say what you will about Stern’s piece, it’s probably the most honest description of where the American left wants this country to go.

Let’s ignore the fact that China, while having improved its human rights record somewhat, is still a single-party totalitarian society that routinely arrests political dissenters, engages in torture of political prisoners, and censors the free exchange of information. Even beyond all those horribles, China is no model for the United States.

Here’s what Stern has to say about China:

. . .I was part of a U.S.-China dialogue—a trip organized by the China-United States Exchange Foundation and the Center for American Progress—with high-ranking Chinese government officials, both past and present. For me, the tension resulting from the chorus of American criticism paled in significance compared to reading the emerging outline of China’s 12th five-year plan. The aims: a 7% annual economic growth rate; a $640 billion investment in renewable energy; construction of six million homes; and expanding next-generation IT, clean-energy vehicles, biotechnology, high-end manufacturing and environmental protection—all while promoting social equity and rural development.

Some Americans are drawing lessons from this. Last month, the China Daily quoted Orville Schell, who directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, as saying: “I think we have come to realize the ability to plan is exactly what is missing in America.” The article also noted that Robert Engle, who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for economics, has said that while China is making five-year plans for the next generation, Americans are planning only for the next election.

There are times when I think that it’s hyperbole to accuse the left of being closet socialists, when that attack is over the top. Then I see something like this. Here is the head of one of the Democratic Party’s most important constituency, a friend and informal advisor to President Barack Obama, saying that America should start adopting a five-year plan. Stern doesn’t even try to hide his arguments, or finesse them as does Sinophile Thomas Friedman. He goes right out and says that America should emulate a country that is 100% controlled by the Communist Party.

Liberal Fascism Is Right

Stern’s argument is the same argument that has been made time and time again about totalitarian states. The phrase “Mussolini made the trains run on time” came from somewhere—and as Jonah Goldberg demonstrated in his important and utterly misunderstood book Liberal Fascism, the statist intelligentsia of the 1920s and 1930s saw Fascist Italy as a model for the rest of the world. Stern’s love letter to Communist China is in the same vein.

In the 1930s, American journalist Walter Duranty of The New York Times covered for the crimes of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and held Stalinism as a model for the West to follow. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his work. Stern is just following in Duranty’s footsteps.

Stern argues that free-market capitalism has failed, and that the state-run model as exemplified by China is superior. Anyone who believes that has some screws loose—China’s development is not a model for anyone, not even the Chinese. Yes, the Chinese have boosted their economy and are rapidly industrializing and becoming a 21st Century powerhouse. But their fortune is not due to their model of government. If anything, within my lifetime we are likely to see a catastrophic economic collapse unless China fundamentally reforms.

Clean energy vehicles? Look at China’s high speed rail system—the one held up as a model by Sinophiles like Andy Stern and Thomas Friedman. It is not only massively over-budget, but what has been completed is shoddily constructed and unsafe. This has already lead to fatal accidents and a reexamination of the whole project.

Environmental protection? The environmental ruin of China provides more evidence why the China model is not one to emulate. Beijing and other major Chinese cities are filled with smog, and the government has been attempting to hide the truth about how bad China’s air is from its own citizens. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam caused massive environmental and cultural damage, but the Chinese government steamrolled it through. There’s no Chinese equivalent of the Sierra Club to lobby against the government on projects, at least nothing with anywhere near the power of the American environmental lobby. Is that a model that Stern would like the U.S. to adopt?

Economic equality? China’s level of corruption is endemic, as Freedom House notes in its Index of Economic Freedom. Bribery is all too common in China at all levels. The Chinese system is a system where the politically well-connected receive the spoils, and the rest mire through. Now, for someone like Andy Stern, who is part of the politically well-connected set, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. But for those not part of the political elite, Chinese-style corruption is the antithesis of economic equality.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. China is rapidly industrializing in the way that the post-World War II Soviet Union rapidly industrialized. The Chinese government is not as totalitarian as the Soviets were, but the result will be the same. China can produce all the “five-year plans” that it wants—just as the Soviet Gosplan did for decades. But the 20th Century was filled with the littered husks of governments that tried and failed to execute state-run central planning and failed. Even the ones that didn’t practice Stalinism failed. They failed not because they weren’t good enough at central planning, they failed because central planning of an economy doesn’t work.

And let me make a bold prediction—within my lifetime the Chinese system will either substantially reform or end up in a messy collapse that sends ripple effects across the globe. In fact, I don’t think that prediction is particularly bold, because that is what has happened every time a state has embraced central economic planning.

This Is What They Actually Believe

All of this supports Jonah Goldberg’s thesis in Liberal Fascism—not that American liberals want to strap on jackboots and invade Poland, but that American liberals have an ideological blind spot that causes them to embrace state control of the economy, which inevitably leads to totalitarianism. What liberals like Andy Stern miss is that the Chinese government has the power to implement “five-year plans” because it also has the power to arrest dissidents, attempt to culturally eradicate the Tibetan people, and censor the free expression of its citizens. Once you give the government virtually unfettered power to control the economic affairs of the people, you’ve given them virtually unfettered power to control everything else.

That’s the lesson of the 20th Century, the one that American liberals never seem to have grasped. You cannot get to Bismarck’s welfare state without eventually getting to Adolph Hitler. You cannot get a Mussolini that makes the trains run on time without getting a Mussolini that oppresses the people. You cannot have a Chinese economy without emulating the bad parts of China either. Political power in a controlled market is a zero-sum game—every bit of power and authority you give to the government has to be taken from somewhere else.

That’s why America should not emulate China. America should start emulating America. Our Founding Fathers figured out, centuries ago, that the best way to have a successful and prosperous country was to unleash the people and allow them to flourish. The Founding Fathers didn’t fully understand this concept at the time, but they got it right.

Stern argues that free-market capitalism is failing America. Bullshit. What is failing in America is the very model that Stern wants—a system where the government controls ever more functions of the economy. Over the last few decades the size and scope of government has grown at an almost exponential rate—but has life gotten better because of it? What parts of the economy are the biggest messes? We have an education system that’s a basket case and is harming the future of this country. The education system is controlled almost entirely by the government, either directly or indirectly. Our healthcare system is a mess. Who’s the biggest power in healthcare? It’s Uncle Sam, through Medicare and Medicaid and a whole host of other programs. Our financial system has lurched from one disaster to another. And contrary to the spin, the financial fatcats by and large supported President Obama and have been getting rich off of his largesse since he was elected.

No wonder Stern wants more of the same. His union has gotten fatter and more powerful under President Obama, and if the United States emulated China, Andy Stern would be even more powerful.

China is no model for the United States. China is no model for China. The fact that one of the most powerful figures in American liberalism in the Democratic Party would openly embrace central planning in such stark terms is shocking—even though it’s been clear for some time that’s what they believe in private.

Culture, Economics, Politics

Rebooting America

Niall Ferguson has an excellent article in Newsweek on how American civilization can avoid a precipitous collapse. His advice boils down to a proposition that’s simple in theory, but difficult in practice: the United States must return to the system of values that made it what it is today.

Specifically, Ferguson identifies six “killer applications” that made the West stand out from the rest of the world from the 1500s through the end of the 20th Century. He identifies competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law and representative government, modern medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic as the factors that led success of the West for five hundred years.

The challenge that America faces, and Western nations face generally, is that at the same time we are turning our backs on those values, other civilizations have figured out that they can copy our success. India, which gained some benefits from its days as a British colony, is rapidly industrializing and developing its own transnational elite. The industrialization of China has transformed it from a Maoist hellhole to a unique hybrid of state oligarchy, crony capitalism, and small-scale free markets. Despite its lost decade, in 50 years Japan transformed from a bombed-out shell to a global powerhouse. Other Asian countries, from Singapore to Taiwan to even Communist Vietnam are combining their cultural work ethic with open markets to power a major economic boom. The 21st Century could see the world’s centers of economic power shift from London, New York, and Berlin to Mumbai, Beijing, and Taipei—and in many ways, this is already happening.

But the biggest enemy that the West faces isn’t other upstart civilizations—it is its own complacency. As Ferguson implies, the rise of the modern welfare state undercuts many of the factors that led the West to success in the first place. For example, a society with a cradle-to-the-grave welfare state will always be a society that has a lesser work ethic. The hard truth of the matter is that if you remove many of the risks of failure, there’s less incentive to work hard. If the state takes care of you no matter what, then why bother with hard work? This harm is not a theoretical one—we can already see it playing out across multiple sectors of American society today. The same is true of competition. Why should GM be truly innovative? They have already gotten bailed out by the government, and their main market is no longer the American consumer, but their government keepers. The Chevy Volt is not a vehicle designed for American drivers, it’s a vehicle designed to meet the artificial mandates of the United States Government. When the state picks winners and losers, the market will start being more responsive to the state’s preferences rather than the consumers.

America cannot simply keep going on like this. Ferguson is right—we’re heading for an “Oh, shit!” moment. The continuing collapse of the Eurozone is a preview of our own future. Greece is just further ahead on our same path.

Hard Choices

In theory, all we have to do is get everyone to embrace the values that made America strong and things will sort themselves out. After all, they did in the past. We survived the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War all in a row, didn’t we?

The problem is that the theory and the practice of “rebooting America” as Ferguson calls it are two entirely different things. The self-absorbed Baby Boomer generation systematically turned its back on the values that made America what it was (and Jesse Jackson got Stanford students to attack Western civilization itself). We replaced competition with a radical and false sense of egalitarianism. We replaced the rule of law and representative government with an administrative state that has sweeping and largely unconstrained powers. We replaced modern medicine with the inane idea that health care is a “right” and that medicine should be free. We replaced the value of the consumer society with a parody of itself fueled by cheap credit. And finally we replaced our work ethic with a culture of entitlement. In short, we made a mockery of our own success. We chipped away at our own cultural foundation, slowly but surely undermining it.

But that was the past. The question is how do we go back? And that will be more challenging than anything this country has ever faced. How do we tell an entire society that all the things they’ve thought that they were entitled to they will have to earn from now on? We can’t make minor changes to our entitlement programs without huge controversy? How do we expect to start facing the difficult reality that those programs are fundamentally broken and can’t survive into the future?

To be pessimistic, I don’t see this country making those hard choice until that “Oh, shit!” moment actually comes. We will have to suffer a collapse before the body politic will embrace substantial reform. We will have to face something worse than a Greek-style debacle before things can get better. We are simply too attached to the status quo. In most circumstances, that’s a benefit—we don’t want a society prone to wild swings in the social status quo. Those seeking to change society rightfully bear the burden of persuasion to get people to change. But in this case, our status quo is unsustainable, and the body politic wants to cling to their comfortable illusions for as long as possible. They will not let go until all other avenues are exhausted.

But there is an optimistic side to all of this—if there is to be a collapse of the current status quo, the values that underpin our society haven’t been erased. America is still a land of innovative people. America is still a land with an incredible work ethic. America is still a nation, and will be so even if the state were to evaporate overnight. If tomorrow Washington DC were hit by a rogue asteroid and the entire federal government were to stop, America would not stop running. We would form voluntary organizations to take care of each other—it’s what we’ve always done. In fact, many of those voluntary organizations would be better off than they would be if the state could coopt them as it so frequently does.

Starting from the Ground Up

Can America reboot itself? It is possible, but it is going to require this country to make substantial sacrifices and be willing to make substantial changes. Our political system is not designed for that. Ultimately, if we want to look to Washington D.C. for change, we will never find it. The changes necessary to reboot America are not going to come from the halls of government, they will come from the people.

The fact is that culture influences politics much more strongly than politics influences culture. Washington can create some of Ferguson’s “killer applications,” such as enforcing the rule of law, but ultimately there can never be a law that creates a strong work ethic. The focus must be on instilling small-r republican values in the population—which requires strong families and a culture that rewards hard work, thrift, and the entrepreneurial spirit. We can create such a culture, but that takes time, and a willingness to shed cultural baggage from the failed counterculture of the 1960s. And it must come from the bottom up, not the top down.

And that’s the problem. We want easy solutions, and pushing our problems off on Congress is as easy as it gets. Finding out that we are personally responsible for America’s future success is a hell of a lot more daunting. But at the same time, it’s also an acknowledgment of something positive: that we are part of America’s success when it fails. And those values still exist, waiting to be unleashed.

It’s time to reboot America by first rebooting the American spirit, which is the fuel for the engine of American prosperity. We have the “source code” for America’s “killer applications.” It’s time we used it again by first getting government out of the way as much as possible and secondly by working on an individual level to restore our commitment to the culture that makes this country the world’s preeminent superpower.

Campaign 2012, Economics, Politics

Stimulus II: High-Speed Rail Bugaloo

As the old saying goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By that definition, President Barack Obama is frigging bugnuts.

This evening, President Obama called on Congress to pass the “American Jobs Act,” which is little more than another round of the same failed stimulus that was passed back in 2009. Since then, unemployment has hovered near double-digit levels, the economy has been limping, and our national debt has skyrocketed.

Instead of admitting what the majority of Americans can see with their own eyes, President Obama decided to double-down with more of the same. It was the same plans for “shovel-ready jobs” and high-speed rail, all to be paid with tax increases on the “rich,” of course.

Take the bizarre fascination with “high-speed rail.” It has been tried over and over again and it has never worked. It has always cost more than planned, required massive subsidies to work, and ended up being little more than a massive white elephant. emulating China’s failures is not the way to the future. Yet politicians keep pretending like the way to improve American infrastructure is to create a bunch of expensive high-speed rail lines. And even if China’s high-speed rail network makes sense for China, it doesn’t make sense in the slightest for the United States.

And then there’s the usual blather about “shovel ready jobs” and how if we just build a bunch of roads and bridges we can employ the millions of Americans who are just sitting idle. Now, I know that the President and most of the political elites know virtually nothing about manual labor, but if one is going to propose a jobs plan, it might be a good idea to learn about jobs.

President Obama needs to learn that not all “construction workers” are monolithic drones who can do anything that remotely resembles putting things together. You can’t take an unemployed sheet rocker or house framer and tell them to grab a shovel and build a bridge. Even in construction, the basic concept of division of labor still applies. There’s something vaguely condescending about the idea that all manual labor is basically interchangeable.

And finally, there’s the idea that taxing the “rich” will magically pay for all of this. Someone needs to inform the President (provided he would listen) about the concept of deadweight loss. It works like this:

Let’s say you take a million dollars from Warren Buffet. Had you not done that, Warren Buffet would have invested that million dollars in the hope of earning a nice return on his money. That million dollars would go to different companies, where it would pay for capital improvements, wages, new factories and offices, etc.

But that didn’t happen. The government took that million dollars. But that million dollars doesn’t get pumped directly into the economy. Instead part of it pays the salary of the government apparatchiks that process all the paperwork necessary to take the money, distribute it to the right agencies, and so on. Now, some will say that those salaries help the economy, and they do, but only to a point. Those bureaucrats don’t actually produce anything—they just push paper. That’s in contrast to someone who could take that money and invest it in something that would add value along the way. And it’s not just one layer of bureaucracy that the money has to get filtered through, it’s dozens or even hundreds. And each time, some of that million dollars gets lost.

And not only that, but the government does not spend money on what the best investment is. The government allocates money based on what the most politically well-connected want. When then happens is that money gets shoveled into politically-connected firms that quickly go best when the government turns the money spigots off. The failure of President Obama’s pet “green jobs” generator Solyndra is just one example of how government allocation of assets is not the way to build an economy.

So, by taking more money from Warren Buffet, the money has gone to government bureaucrats and the politically well-connected, but hasn’t produced any additional value. Had the government not taken the money from Warren Buffet, that money would have been invested prudently, and everyone would have been better off.

That’s why the idea of a Keynesian multiplier is a myth—government spending $1.00 does not magically produce $2.00 of value. But investing $1.00 in Apple in 1997 would produce way more than $2.00 today. The question is not whether the Keynesian multiplier exceeds 1, it’s whether it exceeds zero.

It may well be that building roads and bridges is a good idea—there are certainly valuable and needed infrastructure projects that constitute real public goods. (For example, the Stillwater Lift Bridge here in Minnesota is near collapse and serves thousands of motorists each day.) But why does it make sense to tax someone in California, send the money through Washington D.C. and then distribute it to local governments in Minnesota? That’s the problem of deadweight loss—government is not free, and while there are some projects that make sense to be done by government, those are few and far between.

President Obama’s speech tonight laid out yet another tired argument for “stimulus” spending that will fare no better than the already-tired arguments that he trotted out in 2009. Since then, the economy has suffered, leaving millions of Americans without the hope they were promised in 2008.

We need to change directions, and instead of empowering Washington D.C., we need to empower the American entrepreneur. We need to unleash America’s creative impulses and make it easier for Americans to start their own business and live their dreams. More of the same will not produce any different results. It is time for the President to end the madness and change direction.

International Relations, Politics, War On Terror

Obama’s War

The Washington Examiner has an interesting article on how President Obama used parliamentary trickery to talk Congress into approving a Libyan no-fly zone. It’s as though we have traveled into some bizarre parallel universe: President Obama, the peace candidate, has now fully embraced the the doctrine of preemptive military action. President Obama, who in 2007 said that “the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation” has unilaterally authorized a military attack on a nation that posed no imminent threat to this country.

President Obama speaks in Cairo

President Obama speaks in Cairo

Not to mention the fact that President Obama has now endorsed military tribunals at Guantanamo for al-Qaeda detainees

Exactly what is the difference between President Obama’s military policy and President Bush’s?

If You Strike At The King…

Of course, Obama’s supporters will argue that the difference between Obama’s wars and Bush’s is that Obama is supposedly more competent as a Commander in Chief. But the evidence suggests otherwise. What is our goal for military action in Libya? Are we trying to bring the rebels into power—without knowing who they really are? That hardly seems like a smart strategy. Is it to overturn Qaddafi? If that’s the goal, then why is President Obama denying any intention to assassinate the dictator? There is no clear goal, and the President’s desire to fight only a limited, bloodless war… or “kinetic military action” is in contradiction to the reality of war.

If our goal is to get rid of the Qaddafi regime, then the goal should be to blown Mohammar Qaddafi straight to hell. No questions asked. If we want to support the rebels, we should be doing what we did in Afghanistan—sending CIA teams to work directly with them in getting rid of the regime. (Which, admittedly, may already be happening.) We should not be fighting a war with half measures.

And worse of all, we may not be winning. We have committed to this fight, and once this nation commits to a fight, we should see it through. What message would Qaddafi’s continued rule over Libya send to the rest of the world. Al-Qaeda has always played off the Arab psychology of the “strong horse” versus the “weak horse,” and if Qaddafi hangs on, America (and the rest of its allies) will undoubtedly look weak.

Following In Bush’s Footsteps

So what should President Obama do? It’s clear that he faces a skeptical public and a restive Congress. (George W. Bush must be feeling at least some schadenfreude at this turn of events.) Plus, time may be running out. The Libyan rebellion cannot hold out forever, unless they are resupplied and rearmed from outside.

The President needs to admit that Qaddafi’s regime must be destroyed. We have committed to that end, and we have to see the task through. That means more than just engaging in limited and sporadic military action. That means decapitating Qaddafi’s military, cutting their supply lines, and killing them before they can kill civilians or the rebels. It is messy, it is bloody, and for all our technological advancement, it can’t be done effectively from 30,000 feet in the air.

But in the end, President Obama is right about one thing—even if inadvertently. For too long we have tolerated Arab dictators who have systematically oppressed their people, and the result has been the growth of groups like al-Qaeda. These dictators have systematically tried to suppress the normal civil society of a functioning state and replace it with cults of personality, pan-Arab nationalism, or sectarian intimidation. But what has happened is to create a situation in which the only groups that dare speak out, that give the people some escape valve, have been the religious fanatics.

President Bush seemed to instinctively understand this. President Obama does not, except in a deeply attenuated way. But ultimately, President Obama has stumbled into following the path of his predecessor. He has embraced everything that Candidate Obama railed against just a few short years ago: preemptive war, indefinite detention, all the sins of the Bush Administration. Next thing you know, he’ll be mispronouncing “nuclear.”

But the problem is that if President Obama is going to follow this path, he should do it boldly. If President Obama wants to be a champion of democracy in the Arab world, he should do so consistently. But sadly, this does not seem likely. Instead, President Obama is only taking action in Libya because the rest of the world has endorsed it. There is no “Obama Doctrine,” no grand strategy other than the hope that Qaddafi will fall and everything will be alright. Just as the Bush Administration (and some of its supporters) naively hoped that the fall of Saddam would lead to a flourishing of Iraqi democracy.

What is sad about this state of affairs is that not only is President Obama emulating many of President Bush’s strategies, he is emulating many of President Bush’s mistakes.

Political Philosophy, Politics

Reagan At 100

This Sunday marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, the 40th President and the “Great Communicator.” Reagan’s Presidency still shapes American politics even though he left office over 20 years ago. Conservatives continue to idolize him, and even liberals (including President Obama) try to take on his mantle from time to time.

But why? What is it that made Reagan stand out?

The Great Communicator

Reagan had one of the rarest gifts: the ability to take complex political philosophy and communicate it clearly and effectively. Take Reagan’s 1964 masterwork A Time for Choosing:

Even though this speech is over 40 years old, it still stands the test of time. It encapsulates the heart of conservatism as a political philosophy in a way that is clear and straightforward. Reagan had a singular talent for taking complex political ideas and distilling them down to their essentials. Few politicians have such a gift. He didn’t need to rely on the cheap political tricks that have become a standard in political rhetoric. He was a master political communicator, and there are only a few who come close.

But what sets Reagan apart from the rest was that he was not only a great communicator, but he was a man of ideas. Far from the “amiable dunce” that was portrayed in the media, Reagan’s voluminous writings and notes from his radio addresses show that Reagan had a mind like a steel trap. He was fascinated with the details of public policy and how policies effected everyday Americans. From health care to taxes, Reagan spend years studying the details of public policy.

And there is a lesson there: Reagan did his homework. It’s not enough to be a skilled communicator: in order to be a truly effective President, you have to know the issues. Reagan had years of experience: as Governor of California, as a radio host, and as political candidate. He was able to explain the issues so clearly because he understood the issues himself in depth.

The Liberator

But ultimately, Reagan was more than a political icon. He was one of the instrumental figures that helped end the Cold War. It’s easy to forget that even in the 1980s, many in the West thought that the Soviet Union would be with us for decades longer. But Reagan spent much of his life fighting the evils of Soviet Communism. He had the moral integrity to call the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire. Just as now, the foreign policy establishment didn’t have the courage to stand up for principles of human rights. But Reagan pushed on regardless.

And this tenacity helped fell an empire:

When Reagan told Gorbechev to “tear down this wall” it sent shock waves through the Iron Curtain. Ironically, the State Department, and even some in Reagan’s own Cabinet thought that those words should have been removed. But Reagan insisted they remain, and a seminal moment in Cold War history was born.

It isn’t fair to say that Reagan singlehandedly won the Cold War. But he was instrumental in the process of tearing down the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union may have collapsed from its own internal contradictions—Reagan was right that Marxism-Leninism would be consigned to the ash heap of history—but it could have lingered on for decades.

The Optimistic American

But ultimately what made Ronald Wilson Reagan such a lasting figure in American politics is that he embodied the optimism of a nation. He saw America as that shining city on hill, and it came through in every speech. Reagan wasn’t a cynic who saw political power as its own end. He wasn’t another self-serving politician. He was an optimist who believed that America’s best days were still ahead.

And that is why Reagan is remembered so fondly today, even by his former critics.

Today, more than ever, we need leadership possessed of Reagan’s optimism and spirit. In a time when many Americans are worried about the state of the economy, the state of the world, and feeling like the American dream is slipping away, Americans are looking for someone who still sees this country as that shining city on the hill. They are looking for someone who still sees America’s best days ahead—and for whom that isn’t just an applause line.

There are few in politics that combine Reagan’s essential optimism, his knowledge of the issues, and his ability to reach out to the average American. Many have been called the next Reagan, but so far none have lived up to the reputation of the 40th President of the United States. Reagan’s cowboy boots are not easy to fill.

One hundred years after his birth, Reagan remains the paragon of modern Presidents, an almost legendary figure. But we should be careful not to let Reagan the legend overwhelm Reagan the man. There is much to be learned from Reagan’s career and Presidency, but in the end future leader should not ask “what would Reagan do” but “how would a leader like Reagan apply enduring principles to the problems of today?” (Which doesn’t exactly fit on a bumper sticker.)

So, even though it’s late, happy birthday to President Reagan. May his optimism inspire the next generation of American politicians to carry forward the principles that he defended in an amazing political life.

Politics

Yet Another State Of The Union

President Obama delivered yet another State of the Union address tonight. (The full text of the address is here.) As is typical of these speeches, it offered about as much substance as meat from Taco Bell. It was yet another predictable stream of cliches in a setting that’s become as stylized and predictable as Kabuki theater.

More of the Same

The essential problem with this State of the Union address was that it ignores the spirit of the time. The President’s party just got its asses handed to it in a major electoral loss. The American people are angry at the state of government. They are being forced by the poor economy to constantly cut back their expenses—but they see their government continuing to spend with the reckless abandon of a drunken sailor. They see a President who promised a more accountable, transparent, and efficient government and failed to deliver on those promises. They see a political class that is utterly and completely out of touch with the average American.

And what did the President offer tonight? More of the same tired rhetoric.

No, the path to economic prosperity is not going to be through government “investing” in pie-in-the-sky schemes like “green energy” or high-speed rail networks. No, the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough teachers, it’s that our educational system doesn’t work well enough with the teachers that it has. Everything in this speech was predictable, right down to the applause lines.

Of course, just about every solution that the President mentioned involved growing the size and the scope of government. Yes, he threw a few bones to the right about reducing government bureaucracy and freezing spending—and all of that is well and good. But President Obama’s speech tonight was all about the typical laundry list of goodies that every President promises in just about every State of the Union speech.

A Conflict of Visions

The President spoke extensively about American exceptionalism—but he doesn’t really seem to understand the source of America’s strength. Our political class sees our entrepreneurial class and thinks how great our government is for producing such things. Our entrepreneurial class sees our political class and thinks about how much they keep getting in the way. All the pablum about green energy and high-speed rail sounds great to the political class: but the rest of the country sees it as more expensive boondoggles.

America is an exceptional nation. And it is an exceptional nation because we have a government that, for the most part, gets the hell out of people’s way. The more intrusive and powerful government becomes, the more it slows the pace of American innovation. We can’t out-innovate and out-build nations like India and China from the top down. The spirit of American innovation is being crushed by a sea of red tape, and the President only gave lip service to changing that.

The most important issue for the future of this country is spending: and the President failed to lead on this issue. We cannot continue to spend like we have in years past. We cannot continue to assume that government can grow year after year as it has. The President doesn’t really seem to get this. The State of the Union made the right overtures on fiscal discipline, but it was just that: an overture.

While Rep. Ryan had the unenviable task of responding to the State of the Union, at least he understands the issue. The American people are worried about the pace of spending. And while Rep. Ryan wasn’t the orator that the President was, he cut directly to the key issue. We cannot continue to spend as we have, and the political class should know it.

Ultimately, this State of the Union was forgettable. There was no grand themes, no memorable lines. It was all formula: a grab-bag of new government initiatives wrapped in a few token exhortations to fiscal discipline and slathered liberally with grand-sounding but ultimately empty rhetoric.

The state of our union may be strong, but the state of our political class is abysmal.

Political Philosophy, Politics

The Real Climate Of Hate Behind The Giffords Assassination Attempt

The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona at a Tuscon supermarket was a horrendous act committed by a madman. Rep. Giffords was fortunate to have survived, having been shot in the head. Had she perished in the attack, she would have been the first member of Congress killed in office since Rep. Leo Ryan was gunned down in French Guyana in 1978. Fortunately, in the United States political assassinations are rare.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ)

This horrific attack was bad enough. But making things worse was the reaction of some on the left. Within minutes of the attack, Markos Moulitsas, the left-wing pitbull and proprietor of the left-wing fever swamp The Daily Kos instantly blamed the attack on Sarah Palin. One would think that by now Mr. Moulitsas would know better that to unleash his inner ghoul, but that appears to be giving him too much credit. But he wasn’t alone. Even as it became clear that the shooter was not a member of the Tea Party or a fan of Sarah Palin, the media consensus was clear: the real cause of the shooting was not a deranged madman, but a supposed “climate of hate” from the right.

But the facts tell a different story. Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter behind the attack, was not a member of the Tea Party or a fan of Sarah Palin. He wasn’t part of the right. In fact, it appears that he was a conspiracy theorist and a nutcase who left a trial of online ramblings about mind control through English grammar. Trying to use him as a political prop to bash on the right is simply disingenuous, and does a gave disservice to the innocents who lost their lives in Loughner’s craven murder.

The Climate of Hate Behind “The Climate of Hate”

It’s hardly surprising that partisan attack dogs would try to make political hay out of the Tucson murders. But it isn’t just the left-wing fever swamps who tried to smear their political opponents: a veteran Democratic operative was quoted by The Politico as wanting to associate the Tea Party with the attacks. The Pima County Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik wasted no time in blaming political “vitriol” for the shooting. The mainstream media has joined in the chorus, accusing the right of a blood libel in the shooting.

The totalitarian temptation of the left is on full display here: their instant reaction was to blame the right and call for restrictions on the political speech of those they don’t like. For them, it isn’t relevant that Loughner was not part of the right, and this shooting had little if anything to do with immigration, or Sarah Palin, or Fox News. They have seized upon an opportunity to demonize their political opponents, and tacitly accuse them of all manner of heinous crimes.

There is great irony in complaining about a climate of hate while fostering such a climate oneself. And that is precisely what the left is doing by using this terrible event as an excuse for pushing their pet causes.

This weekend, a federal judge was gunned down by a lunatic. A 9-year-old girl, born on September 11, 2001, was murdered by a crazed fool. A Congressional aide was killed at a campaign stop by an unhinged nut. Instead of concentrating on the facts and remembering those who died, the left has cynically turned this tragedy into yet another excuse to have a political shouting match.

There is a climate of hate in this country. It’s the hate of those who would use events like these as nothing more than another attempt to flaunt their ideological self-superiority. It is the hate of those who would use a horrific murder as an excuse to clamp down on political dissent. It is the hate of those who see conventional political rhetoric as a dangerous threat to society—unless it is used by their side, of course.

Rep. Giffords is fortunate to have survived this attack, and with luck she will make a full recovery. The murderer has been apprehended, and will pay for his crimes. But what this shooting has told us is that there are altogether too many people willing to use this tragedy as a blood libel against their political opposition. If they wish to argue that a “climate of hate” led to this shooting, perhaps they should consider the climate they are creating.