The Fast and Furious Investigation: Quick or Dead?

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On June 28 the US House of Representatives voted 255-67 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents subpoenaed by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Although the vote was largely along party lines, it still represented the first time in American history that a cabinet member has been found in contempt of Congress.

Partisan or not, the contempt vote was more than justified by the facts. The attorney general has stonewalled Congress’ investigation of Operation Fast and Furious, a crazy policy which amounted, in substance, to running guns into Mexico with the expectation that this would lead to prosecutions and the interdiction of weapons trafficked to Mexican drug cartels. One US border patrol agent has already died as a result of Fast and Furious, as have an untold number of Mexicans. Hundreds of the guns remain in the hands of criminals who will not hesitate to use them to kill people. While it should be noted that tactics resembling Fast and Furious were first employed by the Bush Justice Department, the stupidity was ratcheted up in a big way under Holder. In any case, the attorney general has provided Congress with about one tenth of the documents under subpoena, and contradictions have cropped up in his congressional testimony. The whole business stinks, and yet the scandal remains (except on the Fox News channel) for the most part under the radar screen.

On the day of the contempt vote I heard some talking head on a cable news program declare that the timing of the vote showed that the Republicans were not veryserious about pursuing their investigation. On the contrary, the vote was scheduled to coincide with what the Republicans thought would be an overturn of Obamacare by the Supreme Court — the second blow of a double whammy that would jumpstart the Republican effort to take the White House. This plan backfired when Chief Justice John Roberts found a way to declare Obamacare constitutional. The unexpected reversal of fortune for Obamacare washed the contempt vote right out the public consciousness.

It is a fact that the New York Times and the Washington Post have done little to get to the bottom of Fast and Furious. Nothing illustrates the mainstream media’s bias in favor of Obama more than its (non)response to this scandal. Even less surprising is the absence of a Democrat version of Howard Baker asking publicly “What did the attorney general (and possibly the president) know, and when did he know it?” Obama is no Nixon, but Holder might be another John Mitchell. We’ll never know for sure, because Holder, unlike Mitchell, will never wind up in the dock (the Justice Deptartment is not about to file criminal contempt charges against its own AG). So much in life depends on who you are, and even more on who your friends are.




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Fiscal Sanity

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When the Tea Party took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, my worry was that they would sell out and become status quo conservatives — like most Republican politicians who have paid lip-service to laissez faire.  After the 2011 debt crisis, my fear is precisely the opposite.  The Tea Party House is too idealistic, too unwilling to compromise.

It seems to me that most Tea Party House members have been influenced (at some distance, granted) by Murray Rothbard, who suggested that you must insist upon total capitalist freedom right now. They have also been influenced by Ayn Rand, who likened compromise to poison. This must make a lot of libertarians happy, but it makes me both scared and happy. There are two reasons why I am scared, and one very different reason why I am happy.

First, as someone who believes in practical idealism, I believe that change must be enacted slowly or it will be doomed to long-term failure. The government has been quasi-socialist since the New Deal, and the American economic system has developed in such a way that it is designed for government to play a role. Simply eliminating all government intervention overnight instead of gradually phasing statism out would almost certainly harm the economy and worsen the recession, as the system would be unable to cope with the gaps in its structure.

Going from freezing to boiling instantly is a shock to any system, whereas increasing temperature gradually enables an organism to adjust and adapt. If the United States government shuts down before the free market has a chance to adapt and develop systems to replace government functions, the result will be chaos.

Second, if the Tea Party House refuses all compromise and continues to insist upon an idealism-or-nothing approach, the American public may become afraid of the dangers of radical change, and popular sentiment may easily turn against the Tea Party and libertarianism. The Tea Party and libertarianism are not identical, but the Tea Party movement is essentially a populist lowbrow form of libertarianism. If the Tea Party brand becomes unpopular it could set the libertarian movement back decades. The majority of the voting public can easily get scared by apparent extremists who threaten economic calamity in the name of abstract ideals.

This is so even though the Tea Party represents the very best ideals embodied in a long history of American patriotism dating back to the American Revolution. As a case in point, many Tea Party House idealists voted against the debt ceiling compromise, meaning that they wanted the government to default on its debt, which would have triggered a doomsday scenario for the American economy. I suspect that this scared many mainstream voters.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the above, I am actually happy as well as scared that the Tea Party House has taken such an insane approach. The Tea Partiers are crazy, but the modern liberals and conservatives are crazy too, and our insanity is better than theirs. A debt default would have been no more insane than ObamaCare or the war in Iraq. Trillions of dollars of unchecked growth in entitlement spending and more tax-and-spend Democratic budget deficits over the next decade would do more harm than a temporary government shutdown. Lofty idealism is a breath of fresh air, given the stagnant corruption that has emanated from Washington for the past century, and “much must be risked in war” (to quote The Return of the King).

I am happy with the Tea Party House’s strategy because the Tea Party could easily lose the House in 2012 and the movement might stall and dissolve, so this 2011–12 era may be our one and only opportunity to shrink government and restore fiscal sanity. Therefore the Tea Party should continue to fight to cut the government as much as possible, and make it difficult for future Congresses to undo its achievements, because the Tea Party may not last forever. The Tea Party House could be our one shot at saving America from an Obama-led collapse into socialism. In the context of my happiness over the Tea Party House’s unyielding idealism, a little bit of fear isn’t really such a bad thing after all.




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The Cliché Crisis

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I don’t know about you, but for me the worst thing about this year’s budget “crisis” was the gross overspending of clichés.

No, I’m not crying wolf. I am not holding America hostage. Neither am I rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Nor am I gleefully informing my close friends and colleagues that their favorite proposals will be dead on arrival when they hit my desk. Hopefully, I am acting more responsibly than anyone in the nation’s capital. I hold no brief for revenue enhancements (i.e., taxes), or for throwing grandma under the bus. I consider myself the adult in the room.

Nevertheless, I can’t claim that I cared very much about the budget emergency. I knew that I wouldn’t get what I wanted — even a small attempt to reform the federal government’s fiscal racket — so I couldn’t be disappointed by the spectacle that took place during the last week of July.

You can’t feel very bad because some Nigerian spam artist didn’t send you the $15 million he promised “in the name of God.” In the same way, you can’t feel very bad about the two political parties for failing to fulfill their promise and impart economic health to the country. But you can feel bad about how everyone with a microphone kept insisting, night and day, that we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

An older cliché informs us that actions speak louder than words. I deny it. Often words speak much louder than actions. We all do a lot of impulsive things that don’t say much about who we usually are. But the words we carefully marshal to impress people in argument: those words are us. If not, what are they?

Here’s a way to measure a mind. Does it invent interesting means of saying things, or does it just repeat what others have been saying, thousands of times over? Does it use words, or do words use it? Is it working with words, or is it just . . . kicking the can down the road?

By this standard, nobody in Washington turned out to be very smart during the great budget embarrassment. Nobody said anything original or interesting. It was too much trouble. Take the cliché I just mentioned. The political geniuses thought about it for a while, then decided to picture themselves standing like idle boys on a country road, gazing balefully at a can that was begging to be kicked — and refusing, in an access of self-righteousness, to kick it. Dennis the Democrat was itching to give it a boot. So was Randy the Republican. But they controlled themselves. They did nothing — a very complicated nothing, but nothing nonetheless. Unfortunately, the can had a life of its own. It vaulted down the road and lodged in weeds from which it will be very hard to extract it.

Well, so much for that cliché. It didn’t work. But the horrible thing was that all these people thought they were being extraordinarily clever when they talked about the can.

This shows you what is so awful about clichés. They stay with us because people keep thinking that these are the words that make them clever. President Obama smiled at his cleverness when he urged Americans to sacrifice some never-specified largesse of the federal government. “Eat your peas,” he said, and smiled. He was being clever, he thought.

An older cliché informs us that actions speak louder than words. I deny it. Often words speak much louder than actions.

Today, it is considered very clever, when responding to some request for a serious opinion, to say, “It is what it is.” That’s what one of the Casey Anthony jurors said, when asked about the possibility that, although he voted “not guilty,” in the legal sense, Anthony might not have been “innocent,” in the moral sense. He wasn’t interested in reflecting on the question. “It is what it is,” he replied. Is that what John Galt meant to say when he suggested that A equals A? Or was the juror paraphrasing some dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre? In any case, I’ve heard that expression four times today, and it’s barely past noon. Last night, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), said in support of the budget compromise, the provisions of which she had not yet read, “it is what it is.”

Daring souls who venture beyond it is what it is have many other choices of clichés. One of them is to emphasize the idea that, no matter what idiotic decisions they make, they have done their due diligence, just by showing up. A whiff of legalese makes any choice legitimate. Sheer laziness, as we know, can always be justified as an abundance of caution, or a pious respect for what will emerge at the end of the day. At the end of the day the jury may reject the obvious and irrefutable evidence. At the end of the day the Republicans may (and probably will) sell out their voters. At the end of the day we’re all dead. Such things are, apparently, good, because they happen at the end of the day.

That’s a lax, supine, virtually inert locution. Somewhere toward the opposite end of the spectrum is a cliché as old, and as batty, as the House of Ussher. The expression is raves, as in “The New York Times raves.” Have you ever seen a movie trailer that didn’t use that cliché? It’s possible that the thing has become a self-reflexive joke among the producers of these silly ads — a reflection of their knowing superiority over the audience they are hired to manipulate. That’s us, the boobs in the theater — the mindless herd that is supposed to be taken in by the image of the newspaper of record screaming and frothing at the mouth. Of course, that’s what the Times actually does, every day, on almost every page; but why imply that there’s something special about its movie notices?

Speaking of clichéd images, how about the face of? This is another advertising cliché, closely related to poster boy for. Every time I turn to a cable news channel, I see the same old codger in the same ad for the same ambulance-chasing law firm, proclaiming, as if in answer to outraged objections, “I am not an actor. I am the face of mesothelioma.” Who could doubt it? And who could doubt that Casey Anthony is the face of jury imbecility? So what? I am the face of Word Watch. So, again, what? Advertising is intended to convince you to feel something extra about the obvious (or the nonexistent). That doesn’t mean that it’s clever.

Well, let’s escape. Let’s refuse to cast ourselves as the faces of anything other than ourselves. Let’s be individuals. But even then, clichés will pursue us. If we’re successful, we will probably be regarded as a breath of fresh air. And that’s not a good thing. The prevalence of this expression shows how easy it is to turn individualism into something quite the opposite.

Let me put it this way: have you ever met a breath of fresh air who wasn’t either a lunatic or a bore of Jurassic proportions? Or both? And no wonder, because the people who look for breaths of air are usually the stuffiest people around — the biggest conformists, dominators, and fools, in whatever group or institution you encounter them. In my experience, they tend to be people who think that Marxism is the newest idea in town. They are always people who welcome change because they’ve got theirs and know they will keep it, whatever damage their radical protégés may inflict on others. (Recall the late Senator Edward Moore Kennedy.) With the aid of progressive clichés, establishments maintain their existence.

Let’s escape. Let’s refuse to cast ourselves as the faces of anything other than ourselves. Let’s be individuals.

Here’s another one: “she [or he] is a very private person.” We hear that constantly. I heard it the other day on CNN, in reference to Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s chief aide, and wife of the disgraced Congressman Weiner. The expression evokes the whole range of faux-individualist dogmas about privacy and the right to privacy (a cliché invented by a Supreme Court impatient with the stately and accurate language of individual rights provided by the constitution). The implication is that there’s something good about being “private,” meaning “sheltered,” as opposed to being a real person and not giving a damn what the rest of us think of you, or whether we think enough about you to want to take your picture. A sheltered person is someone who cares very much what you think about him, and what the picture looks like; therefore he becomes very private, until he thinks the camera may offer a flattering angle. The people acclaimed as private are almost always celebrities and politicians — creatures of the media, who then resent (or pretend to resent) the media’s incursions into their affairs. Private person is a particularly dangerous cliché, a cliché that distorts reality, a cliché that turns American values upside down.

Someone out there is counseling straightforward thieves and murderers to portray themselves as the compassionate Buddha. But why would you want to be the Buddha’s penpal?

The same kind of expression, though one that generally appeals to a different social group, is compassionate. A couple of years ago, when I was writing The Big House, my book about prisons, I looked at a lot of convict penpal sites. Almost without exception, the prisoners seeking correspondents described themselves as compassionate. Now, I’m not one to shy away from convicts. All the convicts and ex-convicts I interviewed treated me very well. I’m grateful to them. And I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world to have a prison record. But compassionate shows all too clearly that the televised clichés of the middle class are seeping even into the prisons, polluting and corrupting everything they touch. Someone out there is counseling straightforward thieves and murderers to portray themselves as the compassionate Buddha. But why would you want to be the Buddha’s penpal?

One of the worst things about clichés is that they establish themselves as immortal statements of values. No matter how skewed the values are, the antiquity of the clichés attached to them implies that they are worthy of grave respect. This is a major problem with the insufferable clichés of the 1960s, which now, half a century years later, are reverently prescribed to hapless youth, as if they were the cadences of the Latin Vulgate. Hence the young denounce apathy, long to speak truth to power, idolize movements, embrace social justice, declare themselves for peace and global cooperation, commit themselves to the environment, the balance of nature, and (something quite different) change, and haven’t a clue that they are using the cunning vocabulary of the Old Left, c. 1935, and the birdbrain lingo of spirituality, c. 1900. Like a breath of fresh air, long-discredited phrases were transmitted by the Old Left to the New Left of the 1960s, to people (of the whom I am one of which) who had no idea that the words in their mouths had been put there by generations of silly old fuds. They (we) had no idea that even empty clichés can be repulsive and dangerous.

The other night I finally got a chance to see The Spanish Earth (1937), a famous movie that almost nobody who talks about it has ever seen. It was cowritten by the crypto-communist Lillian Hellman; Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos also participated (before they learned better). The film is a “documentary” about the Spanish Civil War, presented from the communist point of view, and it has about as much to do with the truth about that war as Triumph of the Will, from which it freely borrows, has to do with the truth about Hitler. I got a special kick out of the movie and its communist heroes constantly denouncing their enemies as rebels. Take that, you ring-in-the-nose college Marxist! You never realized it before, but the mission of the working class is to quell the rebels.

The most wonderful thing was the survival of so many wretchedly misleading political clichés, the kind of phrases that have soldiered on from Marx to Hellman to Rigoberta Menchú to the presidential aspirations of John Edwards and Barack Obama.

“Why do they fight?” the narrator asks about the Spanish people. Most of them didn’t fight, of course; and those who did took many sides, from Stalinist to anarcho-syndicalist. But never mind; a clichéd question deserves a clichéd answer: “They fight to be allowed to live as human beings.”

Human beings. How many times have we heard that, since? It’s an “argument” for every political program you can imagine.

“How ya doin’ today, Mr. Voter?”

“Uh, I dunno. Not so good, I guess. I think I’d feel more, like, more human if I owned a house. I’d feel more like I was living the American dream. Too bad I come from a working family.

“But that’s good for you — very good indeed! Working families are the meaning of America. So how much do you make?”

“Well . . . nothin’, right now. I been on disability these past few years. Ya know, this acne’s really actin’ up . . .”

“No problem! That’s why there’s a government! No reason why you can’t get a loan. As a working man, it’s your right.

“Damn! Really? Thanks, Congressman!”

“So, anything else I can do for you?”

“Well, uh, I guess I’d feel more human if I could retire at 60 . . .”

Most clichés aren’t deployed to answer questions; they’re meant to anesthetize them. So, if you say, in regard to The Spanish Earth, “Wait — I’m confused. Exactly who are these people who fight to be allowed to live as human beings?”, the film will tell you that they are “the men who were not trained in arms, who only wanted work and food.” These are the people who, we are told, “fight on.”

So at the end of the day, it’s the pacifists who inherit the earth — the pacifists who take up arms. Are you confused? I am. I’d like to know more about these people who are fighters because they don’t want to fight. But what I’m given is another cliché. I’m told that they are people who only want work and food.

Most clichés aren’t deployed to answer questions; they’re meant to anesthetize them.

It sounds good. Modesty is becoming. But one thinks of succeeding clichés, logically deduced from wanting only work and food: “It’s the economy, stupid.” “This election isabout one thing: putting America back to work.” “They work all day long, many of them scraping by, just to put food on the table. And . . . they see leaders who can't seem to come together and do what it takes to make lifejust a little bit better for ordinary Americans. They are offended by that. And they should be.”

That last remark is President Obama’s. The first remark is James Carville’s, back in the election of 1992. The one in the middle is sadly common at all times and everywhere, left, right, and center. Each remark suggests that ordinary Americans want only one thing — work and food. And that is why they vote the way they do.

Consider this the received wisdom, the grand cliché.

I’m offended by that. And ordinary Americans should be too.




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Duh . . . Winning!

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I became a Republican so I could vote, in the 2012 primary, for the most libertarian-congenial candidate. Already I am wondering whether this will do any good.

Do I want to be lectured on morality by serial adulterer Newt Gingrich? Can I trust America will be safeguarded from creeping Sharia law by some moralist like Rick Santorum? May I hope the federal takeover of our healthcare system will be rolled back by Mitt Romney, whose plan in Massachusetts so inspired Obamacare? And behind the wild rhetoric and Bride-of-Chucky eyes of Michele Bachmann, can I be certain rationality reigns?

Both the Republican and the Democratic “teams” are in the same league. The overriding concern of both parties is the league’s survival. Each will win a few, each lose a few. But they are both deeply invested in the league — and in the big show it gives the fans.

When Team Red is in ascendancy, libertarians should probably reach as many as possible of those fans in blue jerseys with the bags over their heads. When Team Blue is back on top, we should peel off as many as possible of their disgruntled opponents.

It’s tempting to think there must be a shortcut — that one entire franchise can be purchased by reason and principle. Some will follow reason and principle, but many will not. In every era, many in the citizenry are simply fanboys and fangirls in red or blue jerseys, rah-rahing for their side.

Libertarians tend to want to change the game. We don’t usually think of politics as a game, which may be why we fare so poorly in it. We view the public square as a place for debate, for the engagement of thinking minds. If we sign up to play on one team or another, perhaps we lose something greater than a game. We may lose the chance to make politics something more than the silly, childish bloodsport it has always been inclined to be.

To win maximum public support, libertarians need players on both teams. I’m becoming less optimistic about the prospect of simply capturing the Republican flag and giving up on the Democrats. When I speak with left-leaning friends and relatives, I find them more willing to listen than many libertarians realize. The term “libertarian” has been tainted for them, freighted with all sorts of nonsense that has nothing to do with who we are or what we believe. But they understand government force, because it has been used against them and they live under the constant cloud of its return.

We have been seduced into hoping the GOP has finally gotten it, because it’s become fashionable for people in that party to call themselves libertarians. Some really do understand what that means, but for a frightful number of others, this is only the latest ploy for winning back power. Once they can take the bags off their heads, they’ll return to calling us dope-smoking hippie peaceniks and accusing us of opposing all that’s holy. They’ve done it too many times for us not to suspect they might do it again.

If we want a clearer picture of where these newly-minted Republican “libertarians” want to take this country, we need to pay closer attention to their presidential popularity polls. If polls can be believed as to the general direction of the party, any one of the players currently enjoying big numbers in the GOP will end this exercise in vanity with a second Obama term. Yet polling also shows that no more than half the population wants that. What do they really want instead?

All the leading contenders peddle the notion that more power will win the game, that if they’re nominated, their team can be champ again. If most Republican voters were not still stuck in this fantasy, they would be supporting very different people. But those who will really decide the contest are in the swelling mass of independents who are disaffected with the very idea of league play.

These people give every indication of being more open to libertarian ideas than they have been in years — perhaps ever. They lean libertarian, but describe themselves — in increasing numbers — simply as independents. They are no longer content merely to root for a team. If we don’t want to lose them, perhaps we shouldn’t join one.




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Libya and 2012

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By intervening in the Libyan civil war and dragging the United States into war with Libya, President Obama has effectively signed his resignation papers. There is no way that he will win in 2012.

Republicans already hate Obama, but more and more the modern-liberal Democrats are turning on him. Some say he hasn’t done enough to fight global warming (although he’s done too much already); some say he should implement the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell more quickly (which is quite true); some say that he makes too many compromises (although he doesn’t make enough of them). But all these things aside, Obama was elected first and foremost on an anti-war platform. He has failed to stabilize the situation in Iraq, he has failed to get us out of Afghanistan, and now he has started a war with Libya, a war that he cannot blame on Bush.

And why did we get involved in Libya? Either because of its oil reserves, or because we are now the world’s policeman. Neither reason befits an anti-war politician. The anti-war people are soon going to start abandoning Obama in droves, and he will find that the modern-liberal wing of the Democratic Party is not going to worship him as it did back in 2008. Obama’s “change” has been revealed for what it always was, more of the same old politics. He is vulnerable in 2012, especially if the Republic Party nominates an anti-war, libertarian-leaning candidate.




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The Hollow Revolution

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On the morrow of Governor Scott Walker’s brilliant tactical victory in Wisconsin (stripping the public employee unions of collective bargaining rights while Democratic lawmakers loitered in Illinois), it is perhaps timely to examine the “revolution” of November 2010. In the November elections the Republicans made major gains not only in statehouses across the country, but also in Congress. Sixty House seats changed hands. Eighty-seven freshman Republicans, most of them backed by the Tea Party, entered the House in January with a mandate to bring federal spending under control.

What has resulted from this? Has the Republican sweep produced legislation to reform entitlements, curb defense spending, and eliminate entire chunks of government (the Department of Education, for example)? Make no mistake, nothing less is required if the astronomical budget deficit (almost $1.5 trillion this year) and the crushing national debt (now equal to 100% of GDP) are to be tamed.

Well, the answer is no. After all the electioneering, all the emotion and bloviation about the terrible fiscal crisis America faces, the Republicans produced a plan to cut $100 billion from domestic discretionary spending. That $100 billion represented about 7% of the deficit. And of course the figure was quickly negotiated down to 61 billion, then 32 billion. In any case, domestic discretionary spending is not the problem, or at least represents a minor and noncritical aspect of the problem.

Only real entitlement reform and a willingness to reduce America’s commitments around the world (ergo the defense budget) can cure the fiscal illness that is killing America. And despite the willingness of a few politicians in Washington, DC — Paul Ryan and Rand Paul spring to mind — to enact real reforms, neither of the major parties will ever summon the will to do so. The Democrats will remain in thrall to the teachers’ unions and the trial lawyers and the 43% of Americans who pay no federal tax; the Republicans will continue to craft sweetheart legislation for the corporate donors that fund their party. Neither party dares touch a hot button like agricultural subsidies. And both, apparently, remain convinced that America must bestride the globe militarily, despite the absence of any overweening threat to the American people.

The smaller, statewide revolutions initiated by Walker, Governor Christie of New Jersey, and Governor Kasich in Ohio may offer glimmers of hope. But we shall have to see what the next round of elections brings. If these states fall back into the Democratic column in 2012 and 2014, the work of these governors will be undone. And we shall be back to square one.

In any case, Washington will never change in a fundamental way, even if the Republicans sweep the Senate and the White House in 2012 (don’t hold your breath). We are fated to live in interesting times.




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Words from On High

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Thomas Babington Macaulay, the great classical liberal poet and historian, often spoke of the “insolence” of the British kings. At first it seems an odd expression. Almost always, insolence is associated with inferiors acting disrespectfully to superiors. Macaulay may well have intended an irony: to him, an arrogant public official was, simply by virtue of his arrogance, rendering himself inferior to the people over whom he wished to tyrannize.

But perhaps Macaulay was simply identifying a psychological characteristic that is obvious but needs to be made explicit: the empty pride of politicians, or any other people, who mistake their office for themselves.

Amid the multiform responses of President Obama to his disastrous defeat at the polls on Nov. 2 were some much trumpeted invitations to G.O.P. leaders to come to the White House for discussions with him. For a year after his inauguration he had refused all meaningful talks with them. Then he had staged televised “discussions” in which he treated them as if they were the backward students of a tetchy master. He pontificated, he filibustered, he rolled his eyes and pointed his finger; he did everything except respond to them as equals.

Then, flying back from his strangely pointless post-electoral trip to Asia, he told reporters that he was looking forward to talking things over with the Republicans. Well, isn’t that nice? But no, not the way he said it. He announced that when he sat “down with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner this week,” he expected “that there are [i.e., would be] a set of things that need to get done during the lame duck [session of Congress], and that they are not going to want to just obstruct, that they’re going to want to engage constructively. . . . Then we’re going to have a whole bunch of time next year for some serious philosophical debates. And they should welcome those debates next year.”

I tried to set that quotation up so it would be as syntactically and grammatically correct as possible. I realize that I did not succeed completely, but you have to understand how hard it is to do that with the oral statements of the current Great Communicator. Nevertheless, several things are clear.

First, Obama spoke blithely of meeting “this week,” which is something the Republicans had not agreed to do, and something that they never did agree to do, before Obama flew off on another flippin’ trip.

Second, he posed a false and invidious alternative: the Republicans would either “engage constructively” with him — in other words, agree substantially with his own program — or they would “just obstruct.” The posing of such false alternatives is Obama’s stock in trade. He does it constantly. He is incapable of imagining that anyone who dissents from (“obstructs”) his legislative ideals could possibly be working toward a “constructive” end.

Third, he told his opponents what their own ends should be: they should welcome wasting their time on “philosophical debates” with him.

Suppose you have a falling out with the president of the local PTA or the chairman of your condo association. Then there’s an election, and your side wins. How would you feel if he then announced to the world, without your agreement, the time when you were going to meet with him, publicly admonished you not to become obstructive, and stipulated the plans and even the emotions you should have. Would you say that was insolent? I would. And I might find some other adjectives for it, too.




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Causes and Consequences of the Great Election

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With the Republicans scoring a decisive victory in the Nov. 2 election, the salient questions are: why did it happen, and what effect if any will it have on this country’s governance?

Let me amplify my remark that the Republicans scored a decisive win. As of this writing, the GOP has gained a net of 61 House seats, with the possibility of picking up more (as close races get sorted out). This is the greatest gain in House seats in 60 years. The Republicans have taken a net of six senatorial seats; and they have netted six, possibly seven, governorships. Flying under the mainstream media radar, but hugely consequential, is the net gain of 20 state legislatures and about 700 state legislative seats — consequential, because the state governors and legislators have great redistricting power, and redistricting will necessarily follow the 2010 census. There is just no way to spin away the fact that this was a severe pounding for Obama's party.

For all their mistakes, the Republicans, like hedgehogs, got the one big thing right: they made the election a referendum on Obama and his policies.

So why did the Republicans score such a victory? Several factors are important. To begin with, Obama’s two years in office have revealed him as a narrow-minded leftist ideologue, and a shallow-thinking one at that, who lied about all manner of things. His foreign policy failures have been exceeded only by his domestic policy failures, making him already appear worse than Jimmy Carter, in only a fraction of the time it took Carter to reveal himself as bad. After two years in office, Obama's habit of whining about everything being Bush’s fault rings especially hollow.

For all their mistakes, the Republicans, like hedgehogs, got the one big thing right: they made the election a referendum on Obama and his policies, and the voters responded accordingly.

And there is the undeniable role played by the populist Tea Party organization. This loosely-knit group of populists consists mainly of people discontented about the fiscally ruinous policies that the Troika of Obama, Reid, and Pelosi implemented. The tea partiers brought enthusiasm to the election cycle, and they rightly saw the need to get rid of RINOs such as Mike Castle and Lisa Murkowski. For this they deserve praise. My major criticism is that they stink at vetting candidates — they chose some whose backgrounds were shaky at best (such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Carl Paladino). Angle, for instance (a candidate whom I reluctantly supported financially), proved to be not exactly a polished public speaker. She lost to Reid in what should have been an easy pickup.

I generally support groups that are unafraid to challenge liberal or overly “moderate” Republicans in primary contests. I'm thinking of such organizations as the Club for Growth, which helped to fund Pat Toomey’s defeat of Arlen Specter in the primary and Toomey’s victorious run for the Senate for Specter’s old seat. But going RINO hunting only makes sense when you have done your homework and identified outstanding candidates to replace the RINOs. Notable here was the Club for Growth’s support of the seasoned and powerfully articulate Marco Rubio — a man with a compelling life story. His candidacy was precisely the way to dump an unprincipled “moderate” hack such as Charlie Crist.

The Tea Partiers show the normal drawbacks of populists. I share their dislike of big government, but I don’t think that the traits of ignorance and passion sit well together. The Tea Party won’t go away, and I wouldn’t want it to; but some coherent thought about what is wrong with the government and what can be done to fix it would be useful. Interesting in this regard was a poll of Tea Party members, showing that 62% of them opposed cutting Medicare and Social Security.

Populists usually profess support for free market economics, but curiously oppose many of the practices that define the system.

I believe that passionate populism was the main reason why the election went the way it did. I also believe that anti-government sentiment will continue to grow, and that the passion we have witnessed so far will reach a public-choice tipping point regarding the welfare state. As the baby boomers age, the expenses of massive entitlement programs will rise inexorably. Ever increasing deficits will wreak havoc with our economy, and we will see repeated outbursts of anti-government populism.

But populism is a two-edged sword. Anti-government populism can get out the vote, but it is an incoherent position, containing within itself the seeds of its own incompetence. The populists hate political pros, and want only neophyte Mr. Smiths going to Washington. But that sets the stage for many more Carl Paladino meltdowns: the populists get charmed by a seemingly likeable outsider (someone who never held any political office, not even a freaking school board seat) and give him the primary victory over more established candidates, only to find numerous defects exposed in the main campaign.

Worse, populists usually profess support for free market economics, but curiously oppose many of the practices that define the system. For example, free market economists from Adam Smith on have stressed the importance of free trade. But populists on both the Left and the Right reject it, espousing a mercantilist philosophy that Smith fought hard to overturn centuries ago. Obama claims that he is creating jobs, but in stoutly opposing free trade, he ensures that job creation will remain lower than it would otherwise be. Many populists would do likewise.

Again, many populists (especially those of the Right) hate the free flow of labor, aka immigration; and the arguments they use make it clear that they are just as opposed to legal as to illegal immigration. They believe that immigrants cost large numbers of jobs, result in lower wages, and (this is usually directed at Latinos) that they refuse to assimilate. Of course, if these ideas are sound — and I do not think that they are — then they argue against all immigration, legal or illegal.

Yet again, many populists (especially those of the Left) love government programs that supposedly help the working class. As I noted earlier, even the majority of Tea Partiers have passionate feelings for Medicare and Social Security. Indeed, Republicans made great hay of pointing out that Obamacare cuts $500 billion from Medicare. But let’s be honest: even without Obama's dramatic expansion of governmental healthcare and the comparatively modest expansion under Bush’s senior drug assistance program, the system of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security have been admitted to be unsustainable even by its own trustees.

The Republicans gained from the populist anti-government surge. But the question is what they will be able to do with it, and here I remain skeptical. What are the chances they will actually be able to repeal Obamacare? Rather small. And even if they did repeal it, would that solve the entitlement explosion built into Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security? Certainly not. The dirty secret is that while people rage against big government, even tea partiers love certain government programs, at least until those programs explode.

And what are the chances the Republican House will be able to get America back on track towards free trade? Again, almost nil. As to the chances of the Republicans getting comprehensive immigration reform, one that insures a reasonable flow of labor to American business, well, these are completely nil also.

The Republicans will be able to do some modest good, such as stopping the proliferation of bailout and stimulus bills, and the creation of new entitlements. And I suspect they may save Bush’s tax cuts, including those for the wealthy. But the bankruptcy of the nation still looms. It is doubtful that, in the near term at least, Republicans can institute the radical changes that are needed to bring entitlement programs into sustainability, or to expand our free market economic system — slashing regulation, lowering corporate income taxes, reforming immigration, getting more free trade agreements enacted, and expanding free choice in education.




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The Limits of Victory

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American voters rebuked the president’s impatient leaps toward statism by ending his party’s control over the House of Representatives. This is important: Obama’s ability to force ill-conceived bills into law is gone.

Yet voters showed restraint, even in their rebuke. Some of the candidates who had been the most strident critics of the president did not win their elections.

Much attention was paid to the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Delaware, a seat left open when Joe Biden became vice president. Biden had tried to stage-manage events so that his son could take over in a few years. Roughly stated, the scheme was to arrange the election of an ancient and amiable Republican “moderate,” who would keep the senate seat warm for Biden fils. Local voters, sensing and resenting the scheme, booted the seat-warmer and chose one Christine O’Donnell in the GOP primary. If nothing else, she and her supporters should be applauded for foiling Biden’s dynastic ambitions.

Statist media types insisted that Ms. O’Donnell was a “face of the Tea Party” movement for the 2010 elections, but this was an exaggeration. Although she did have the support of one large Tea Party group, Rush Limbaugh, and (relatively late in the process) Sarah Palin, O’Donnell never seemed comfortable making the case for limited government. In fact, she never seemed comfortable at all. She stumbled into several statements that made her sound like an inexperienced religious fundamentalist.

O’Donnell is a particular sort, fairly common on the coasts and in college towns. She’s a contrarian who lives by the feud with “liberals” and establishment elites. Rather than ignoring their barbs, she engages statists on their ground — bickering over trivia rather than making affirmative arguments. Example: during a critical televised debate, O’Donnell artlessly (though correctly) made the point that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the constitution. Her opponent, an effective rhetorical mechanic, was able to make her precision sound like small-mindedness. He won the election easily.

When the unions figure out that their precious pension systems are underfunded (nay, bankrupt), they’re going to march up and down the Strip with Harry’s head on a pike.

Much attention was also paid to the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by shady cretin Harry Reid. Sharron Angle, another “face of the Tea Party” and a former state legislator from Reno, mounted a credible challenge to the sitting Senate majority leader. In front of smaller groups (including FreedomFest last July), Angle made an effective case for limited government. But, like O’Donnell, she wasn’t very smooth in front of cameras.

More importantly, Reid counted on his sleazy Big Labor masters in the Las Vegas area to mobilize the minions. On election night, a talking head on one of the cable television channels boasted that Labor “really flexed its muscles” for Reid. Asked which unions, particularly, got out the vote, he said, “SEIU, AFSCME, and, uh, the AFL-CIO.” In other words, two government-employee unions and an umbrella organization that includes . . . government-employee unions.

Reid’s retention of his seat (and his party’s retention of a narrow majority in the Senate) was a triumph of sullen government clerks. When these people figure out that their precious pension systems are underfunded (nay, bankrupt), they’re going to march up and down the Strip with Harry’s head on a pike.

The real face of the Tea Party, an election-eve winner who will likely make life difficult for Reid and others, is Kentucky’s senator-elect Rand Paul. The son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul (and, like his father, a medical doctor), the new Gentleman from Kentucky has already been battle tested. During his campaign, he stuck to his critique of the “public accommodations” language in the Civil Rights Act. This was a courageous and coherent criticism of a troubling section of black-letter law. Paul made it and won. He should do a lot to keep the statists of both major parties honest.

But the key to keeping the statists in check will be the House of Representatives, not the Senate. And the new speaker of the house will be Ohio Rep. John Boehner. Not known as a small-government idealist, the new speaker did make some heartening comments in the hours after the GOP reclaimed the House. He restated his opinion that Obamacare is a “monstrosity” that he would like to overturn.

The manner in which he tries to do this will be important. The whole law needs to be revoked and rescinded. Parliamentary compromises and budgetary tricks aimed at trimming the edges will not be enough to save the country from the mischief that this perverse “reform” is already causing.

Lastly, it’s worth noting the president’s press conference on the day after the midterm elections. Living up to his burgeoning reputation for being thin-skinned and petulant, he hemmed and hawed on the matter of his role in his party’s congressional losses: “Some election nights are more fun than others. . . . We lost track of the ways we connected with the folks who got us here in the first place. . . . I've got to do a better job, like everybody else in Washington.”

In moments of adversity, Obama’s rhetorical skills vanish. He sounds and looks like a man who’s been graded on a curve his whole life.

Sixteen years earlier, in similar circumstances, Bill Clinton called a press conference and took responsibility more directly and emphatically for his party’s losses. After that press conference, he changed the course of his presidency, proceeding pragmatically through a reelection and second term. But Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton.




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A Libertarian Election

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In emails sent on election day to prospective Democratic voters, President Obama said, “Today, the country will make a choice about the direction we take in the years ahead. " We’ll see now whether he respects that choice. I predict he won’t. Yet the Republicans have won an enormous victory.

Of the 435 seats in Congress, two-thirds are safe preserves for Democrats or Republicans. During this election, the Republicans put two-thirds of the rest of them in play. And of those seats, they won about two-thirds. If America operated with a European parliamentary system, Obama would not be president today. He lost the confidence of the majority of parliamentary districts.

Libertarians should be happy, though perhaps not ecstatic, about the Republican victory.

Why?

Because the Republicans are, on the national level, the only effective barrier to the enormous expansion of government personified by Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi.

Stereotypes? Yes. Amusing targets of ridicule? Right again. Yet until now, these ridiculous figures have been potent encroachers on the freedom of every American.

Despite the gross imperfections of the Republican Party, we have to recognize that it is a party that could not exist without essential libertarian ideas. Just as Obama’s most potent ideas come from European socialism, so the Republicans’ most potent ideas come from American concepts of individual liberty. I refer to default notions of limited government, private property, freedom from unnecessary taxation, ownership of self-protective devices (guns), and unabridged freedom of speech and association. Without these ideas, a libertarian society is impossible. Never mind the rest of it: at this moment, the Republicans are friends of these ideas; the Democrats are not — although even Obama was constrained, in his post-election press conference on Wednesday afternoon, to pay tribute to free enterprise and entrepreneurship as the source of American prosperity.

If America operated with a European parliamentary system, Obama would not be president today.

“Across the country,” says David Harsanyi of the Denver Post, “the electorate laid down a resounding angry vote against activist government. And, mind you, no one had to wrestle with any ambiguity about the objectives of the Republicans. Democrats helpfully hammered home all the finer points of libertarianism, and Republicans typically embraced them. Exit polls showed that this election was a rejection of the progressive agenda of ‘stimulus,’ of Obamacare, of cap and trade. Exit polls show that there was great anger with government — not government that didn't work, or government that didn't do enough, but government that didn't know its place.”

Yet the election wasn’t just about ideas; it was about what can be done with ideas in the electoral marketplace. With this in mind, let’s try to put the events of Nov. 2 into some kind of libertarian perspective.

Many people, such as Neil King, Jr., writing for the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 1, wonder about the volatility of American elections, about the electorate’s movement between, for instance, the 2008 and the 2010 elections. How, King wonders, can the country “solve its long-term problems . . . when voters seem so uncertain which party should lead the charge.” I agree with King’s list of specific problems — deficits, Social Security, healthcare costs: yes, those are real issues. But I disagree with his analysis of the situation.

Even Obama was constrained, in his post-election press conference on Wednesday afternoon, to pay tribute to free enterprise and entrepreneurship as the source of American prosperity.

For one thing, “voters” are not quite “so uncertain.” In American politics, huge results can follow from the shift of only 4.6% of the voters, which was the difference between the returns for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 and the returns for the same party’s nominee in 2008. As I’ve often pointed out in Liberty, the two big American parties live by getting as many marginal votes as they can, wherever they can get them. If one party falls beneath its normal margin, it will try to find a group of issues that will allow it to annex some new group of voters, or bring some new inspiration to the formerly faithful. That’s why the Republicans (or the Democrats) can stand for one thing in certain years, and nearly the opposite in others, and why individual candidates within each party can stand for both at the same time.

This year, the Republicans put new life into their dormant libertarian principles, and they won decisively. It is not inconceivable that the Democrats will create some simulacrum to those principles, for use in the next election. But the important thing is to reduce the power of politics to “solve” our problems.

When government is perceived as the source of solutions, the problems ordinarily get worse — because, as many voters saw this year, the fundamental problem isn’t the deficit or healthcare or old-fashioned entitlements programs. The fundamental problem is the reach of government. The libertarian idea — originally, the American idea — is to conserve the power of the individual to decide what his indebtedness shall be, what his investments shall be, and what steps he should take to provide for himself in sickness and old age. The problems that King enumerates would not be political if the friends of government hadn’t “led the chargeto extend government’s power and purview.

The two big American parties live by getting as many marginal votes as they can, wherever they can get them.

That’s why the victory of the Republicans is important and interesting, even exciting. In 2010, the Republicans responded to the repudiation of Bush in 2008 by seeking voters everywhere outside the Democratic base. They largely abandoned their appeals to “social issues,” which hadn’t been getting them any crucial amounts of votes, and they appealed instead to the people’s resentment of the Obama regime as arrogant, spendthrift, anti-property, and anti-individual — in short, fanatically expansive and power-seeking. They saw the Democratic regime as the American phalanx of the European nanny state, now in retreat even in Europe.

After World War II, the two big American parties studied the complex art of gerrymandering. In most states, they perfected it. They learned how to ensure that whoever had a seat in Congress would be able to keep it. To maintain their hold on “minority” (i.e., especially, African-American) voters, the Democrats created “urban” districts in which voters would never have a real choice of parties. But often the Republicans cooperated with the Democrats in the great effort to preserve legislators’ individual seats. In this year, however, some of the most gerrymandered districts in the union changed hands: look at the map of Illinois congressional district 17, and notice what happened there, and you’ll see what I mean. The appeal of an essentially libertarian platform inundated many of the carefully fenced-off legislative fiefdoms, and swept their lords away.

Walter Shapiro of AOL’s “Politics Daily” describes the current situation clearly: “At a time when the percentage of voters who call themselves liberal (about 20 percent) has remained constant, the number of self-identified conservatives among voters has risen from 32 percent (2006) to 34 percent (2008) to a whopping 41 percent (2010). In fact, conservatives outnumbered moderates (39 percent) among 2010 voters. Since such ideological markers normally move at a glacial pace, the dramatic increase in conservatives may be the most lasting legacy of the 2010 election.”

The fundamental problem isn’t the deficit or healthcare or old-fashioned entitlements programs. The fundamental problem is the reach of government.

Consider now that conservative “social issues” were not a factor in the current contest, hence did not increase voters’ self-identification as “conservatives.” The new “conservatives” were attracted to that label largely by the libertarian idea of limited government.

In this way, the Republicans found their voters. On the scale in which elections are won and lost in America, they found them in enormous numbers. And this discovery will have enormous effects — if people who believe in the American ideal of individual liberty continue to demonstrate that they will settle for nothing less.




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