The Hell of Gates

Despite his past association with the Obama administration, we’ve long had a fondness for the former Defense Secretary, Central Intelligence Agency director, and National Security Council member Robert Gates. It’s partly because he grew up here in Wichita, and partly because of his long record of distinguished service to every president since Nixon except for Bill Clinton, but now we can also appreciate him as a memoirist.
Gates’ “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” won’t be in the bookstores until for another week, but enough of it has been leaked to the press to create a fuss. Although the book reportedly contains some kind words for the current president, which seem to be the sort of thing one might expect from a man who has carefully guided his career of public service through administrations from both parties, Gates has also offered some pointed and apparently newsworthy criticisms. Currently getting the most attention are his observations that the president was not committed to the success of his “surge” strategy in Afghanistan, that both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted they had opposed a similar but more successful strategy in Iraq during the Bush administration only for political reasons, and that Vice President Joe Biden has been wrong about every major foreign policy issue of the past 40 years.
That last allegation prompted the White House to issue a statement calling Biden “one of the leading statesmen of his time,” providing the nation with a much-needed belly-laugh during this cold and bleak winter, but has otherwise the administration’s spokesmen has been cautious in their response. Gates was effusively praised for his service, vigorous debate and frequent disagreement within the administration was proudly admitted, and otherwise the spokesmen seemed content to let the press defend their president against such lese majeste.

Such a cordial reaction is probably best, as the administration has nothing to gain from further publicizing Gates’ book. Tell-all tomes by ex-administration officials are a staple of political non-fiction, and there are sure to be many more by Obama associates eager to disassociate themselves from his presidency, and in most cases they will quickly pass through the news cycle and be remaindered. In this case, though, the book raises points the president will be especially eager to ignore.

Gates’ book may soon be forgotten, but the failures of Obama’s foreign policy will be long remembered. There is nothing surprising about Gates’ revelation that Obama was not committed to success in Afghanistan, as the president has publicly ridiculed the very notion of victory, nor did any objective observer ever doubt that Senator Obama’s insistence on a premature surrender in Iraq was motivated by anything other than political ambition. We would have preferred that Gates had been similarly critical of Obama’s abandonment of allies in eastern Europe and South America and the Middle East, his groveling appeasement of the some of the world’s worst actors, and the general incoherence of his foreign policy, but perhaps he felt that was outside his duties as Secretary of Defense.
Whatever the literary and historical value of Gates’ book, he has done a public service even before its publication by forcing the media to at least briefly allude to foreign affairs. Obama put the lives of brave American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines at risk in Afghanistan without confidence that it would achieve anything in the country’s interests, and a war-weary public seems too satisfied to be getting out to be properly outraged about it, so it is good that the issue has at least been forced into the national conversation. The fledgling democracy that American forces gave birth to in Iraq might yet survive the latest onslaught by Islamist terrorists, but Gates deserves gratitude for pointing out that our erstwhile allies have to do it on their own for political rather than strategic reasons.
The debate should continue through the next presidential election, and much of the press already seems worried that Gates’ views will harm the chances of potential Democratic contenders Biden and Clinton. Even the sympathetic scribes at the McClatchy news chain had a hard time finding anything that Biden has been right about in the past 40 years, and it will take a most creative memoir by Clinton to disentangle from the messes created during her four years as Secretary of State. One book won’t win the debate, but this one seems to have started it well.

– Bud Norman

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A Poor Excuse for an IRS

The Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of numerous conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt status was quite the scandal a while back, so bad that even the media took notice, the president was obliged to express his outrage, and the government’s more dogged apologists were forced to come up with some sort of explanation. Those bold enough insist there was no scandal at all thought they’d finally come up with the proof, a document indicating that the IRS was also ordered to “Be On the Look Out” for liberal groups, but it now looks as if they’ll have to find another excuse.
Claiming that the agency was mistreating citizens equally was an odd enough defense to begin with, but more information from the Treasury Department’s Inspector General who originally exposed the scandal indicate that it also has the disadvantage of being untrue. In a letter to Rep. Sander Levin, the Michigan Democrat who has been making much of the document, Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George notes that the “BOLO” — in the IRS acronym — did not apply during the years being investigated, and that agency’s treatment of various groups was not equal in any case. In his politely worded slap-down of a letter George further noted that only six groups with “progressive” or “progress” in their names were cited as potential political cases between May 2010 and Mary 2012, while 292 groups with names suggesting a conservative leaning were listed, with 100 percent of the conservative groups subjected to review while only 30 percent of the liberal groups received the same treatment.
As much as some people would hate to believe that anyone in the government might want to punish its law-abiding critics for their exercise of free speech, George’s revelations are hardly surprising. The IRS’ unequal treatment of “tea party” groups followed the President’s expressed opinion that the groups were racist, the Vice President’s likening the groups to terrorists, the Mayor of New York City’s speculation that they were involved in a plot to bomb Times Square which predictably enough turned out to be the work of an Islamist extremist, and vulgar efforts to vilify the anti-tax-and-spend movement by journalists, celebrities, activists, and partisans too numerous to mention. When “tea party” groups are receiving unequal treatment from the IRS in such an atmosphere, it will take more than one document to suggest that it’s mere coincidence.
The latest excuse was better than the previous efforts to blame Republican budget cuts, which became all the more laughable in light of subsequent scandals about the IRS spending habits, but in the end it will only have the effect of getting the scandal briefly back in the news. With so many people willing to overlook this outrageous abuse of government power, the better strategy might be a shrug and hopes that yet another scandal will crowd it out of the news.

– Bud Norman

Rock On, Joe

Times are tough for the humble civil servant, what with that “sequester” cutting a full $44 billion out of the scheduled growth in the federal government’s $3.8 trillion budget, but at least Vice President Joe Biden is sleeping well.
One would hope so, at least, given The Weekly Standard’s recent revelation that the veep racked up a $585,000.50 hotel tab for one night in Paris, as well as a relatively economical $459,388.65 bill for lodging on a slightly longer stay in London. The totals include accommodations for Biden’s sizeable entourage, to be fair, but throw in a $321,655 bill for Biden’s limousine service that the dogged reporters of The Weekly Standard also uncovered and it’s still the sort of expense account that would have raised eyebrows even at The Who’s record company.
Such rock-star extravagance is characteristic of the Obama administration — . to say that the First Family lives like royalty would understate the matter by many millions of dollars, given that no European country indulges its kings and queens with anything near the funding provided for the presidential lifestyle — but it is somewhat surprising for a second-rate opening act such as Biden. Not that we’d want such a eminent official of the United States government staying in the sort of hotel that budget-minded businessmen favor, although the bed would likely be just as soft, the courtesy bar just as well-stocked, and the pay-per-view pornography offerings just as titillating, but we would have expected someone of a mere vice presidential stature to be a bit more conscious of public relations.
The administration is still lamenting the supposedly devastating effects of the recent slight slow-down in the rate of federal spending, after all, and blaming such outrages as the end of guided White House tours for the kiddies on the psychotic stinginess of those darned congressional Republicans and their crazed fixation on fiscal solvency. They’re still clamoring for ever-higher taxes on the wealthy, too, having recently won re-election on the argument that the other guy was too rich and out-of-touch to identify with the common folks, and Biden’s “Regular Joe” shtick is a big part of the class envy campaign, so a million dollar hotel bill is not what the political professionals call “good optics.”
Biden probably figures that it will go unnoticed by everyone outside The Weekly Standard’s already-angry readership, though, and he’s almost certainly correct. Anyone old enough to remember the brouhaha that ensued when Nancy Reagan bought some pricey dinner plates for the White House with private funds be astounded at the lack of interest in Biden’s high living, but that was a different time and an administration of a different party.

– Bud Norman

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the World

The rest of the world has been back in the news lately, reminding Americans what a dangerous place it is.
Iran’s mad mullahs continue their quest to acquire nuclear weapons, a most dire possibility given the openly apocalyptic yearnings of the regime, and are now close enough that even the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama administration has taken alarmed notice. Vice President Joe Biden offered the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee a characteristically mangled assurance that “as long as I and he are president and vice president of the United States” Obama will be committed to the security of Israel, and Secretary of State John Kerry took to the airwaves to do some uncharacteristic saber-rattling, going so far as to say that “If they keep pushing the limits and not coming with a serious set of proposals or prepared to actually resolve this, obviously the risks get higher and confrontation becomes more possible.” It is hoped that Iran’s theocratic rulers will take these statements more seriously than we do, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued far more explicit threats, which will not be doubted by anyone, and some sort of “confrontation” now seems inevitable.
Whatever the Iranian government decides to do it will have to be without the assistance of longtime friend Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan dictator who went to his final reward on Tuesday despite the best efforts of Cuba’s vaunted medical system. One is not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but surely in Chavez’ case an exception should be made. The fat twerp impoverished his citizens and trampled on their rights, fomented socialist troublemaking and allied himself with totalitarian thugs around the world, and racked up a sizeable personal fortune as he posed as a protector of the downtrodden common man. Such a resume gave Chavez a radical chic cachet among some progressives, from movie stars to congressmen to a particularly ditzy young woman of our acquaintance, but we think it says it all that his death prompted yet another police state crackdown in his unfortunate land.
The already nuclear-armed North Korean regime, a reliable pal to Chavez and Iran’s mullahs, was also grabbing its share of headlines. Not so much for it’s recent nuclear tests or its threat to end the decades-old cease-fire in the Korean War, but rather because of a recent state visit by Dennis Rodman. For those of you fortunate enough to have forgotten, Rodman was a professional basketball player who contributed tenacious defense, strong rebounding, and few points to some championship Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls squads back in the short-shorts days, then parlayed that meager accomplishment and a penchant for cross-dressing, garish tattoos, and outrageous pronouncements into a brief career as a B-list celebrity. Although Rodman’s status has been downgraded several notches in the meantime he was treated as a sort of royalty during his visit to Pyongyang, hanging with the dictator at sporting events and soaking up more media attention than he’s received in years, and he repaid the favor by talking up the virtues of the world’s worst state. Rodman was so inarticulate in the effort that he made Biden seem eloquent by comparison, but as best as we can decipher he seemed to suggest that America’s gulags are just as bad as North Korea’s and that the dictator and Obama share a love of basketball that should serve as the basis for a lasting peace.
Suddenly the domestic news, which has lately been dominated by stories about the disastrous consequences of a $44 billion cut from the growth of a $3.8 trillion budget, seems almost reassuring. The rest of the world can be very intrusive, however, and we can’t keep it at bay with manufactured budget crises forever. We not that the rest of the world even seems to want to meddle in the marijuana laws of Americans states, and there’s no telling what other mischief it might have in mind.

– Bud Norman

The “What, Me Worry?” Administration

Vice President Joe Biden was sounding quite bullish during his remarks at the White House on Monday, going so far as to say that Americans are no longer worried about the economy or “America’s ability to be in position to lead the world in the 21st Century.”
He was obviously making an overstatement, as proved by our own incessant worrying about these matters, but we suppose that vice presidents are obligated to engage in such hyperbole. There’s something troubling about it in this case, though, and for a couple of reasons.
One is the frightening possibility that he’s right, and Americans actually have stopped worrying about the economy. Not all Americans, as the many millions of unemployed and the millions more struggling to get by on their more highly taxed wages are no doubt as worried as ever, but at least enough of them to keep the pressure off the administration to do something about it. Anyone still feeling secure in a well-paid job who gets his information from the usual news sources could easily believe that the economy no longer requires worry, as the usual news sources now mostly concern themselves with sequesters and pointless gun control proposals and an illegal immigration problem that has largely gone away due to the lousy economy. The average news consumer has likely also gleaned a general impression that to whatever extent the economy is still struggling it is because of those darned Republicans and their bizarre fetish about the national debt, a view that might even be especially common among the unemployed and the working poor.
Even more frightening is the possibility that Biden and his boss also believe there is nothing to worry about, which would neatly explain the Obama administration’s economic program. Obama’s main preoccupation seems to be punitive tax rates on the rich, which is always couched in terms of “fairness” and never in terms of economic growth or job creation. Whatever arguments one might make for the “fairness” of the administration’s signature legislation, derisively known as “Obamacare,” it unquestionably provides hugely expensive disincentives for every business to hire no more than 49 employees or any new workers at more than 29 hours a week. The ever-expansive regulatory state that Obama seeks might also provide some benefit, but no one is arguing that it will cause an economic boom any time soon. There are still the occasional calls for more stimulus spending, even as the president poses as a fiscally sober sort, but at this point it seems rather perfunctory.
Everything on the Obama agenda seems to be sorts of things that liberals want to do when the economy is churning along, confident that the great engine of free enterprises will withstand a few tweaks, but it’s not all the sort of thing that one does during times of economic contraction. Biden might be offering the obligatory pep talk, but the scarier possibility is that he’s being sincere.

– Bud Norman

Veep, Veep

Joe Biden didn’t say anything memorably laugh-out-loud stupid in Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, which will likely suffice for the Obama administration’s many media cheerleaders to declare him a runaway victor, but it is unlikely that he talked anybody into voting for his ticket. Paul Ryan didn’t deliver the expected mauling, which will likely be enough for those same media cheerleaders to declare him a flop, but he also probably didn’t convince anybody to vote for the Obama-Biden ticket.

We followed the debate on an over-the-airwaves broadcast, as God intended, but through the miracle of Twitter we learned that a focus group of allegedly undecided voters at CNN seemed to think that Ryan got the better of it. Indeed, the network’s newfangled approval meter was so consistently going up during Ryan’s time and down during Biden’s that several liberals complained it was somehow rigged in the Republican’s favor. There’s no telling if this was an outlier response, but it does seem far-fetched that the folks at CNN, of all people, have suddenly become members of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

The distaff portion of the focus group was most impressed with Ryan, the “Tweeters” report, which is especially good news for a ticket that has until recently struggled to win over women voters. At the risk of sounding slightly sexist, we’ll venture that such a response might be at least in part because Biden is an aging, pudgy, and hair-plugged fellow while Ryan is youthful, famously buff, and thickly coiffed, but Biden’s rather rude behavior throughout the proceedings might also have been a factor. Barack Obama has blamed his universally-panned performance in the first presidential debate on being “too polite,” and Biden was clearly eager not to make such a mistake, interrupting, pouting, inappropriately smiling and smirking to the point that even reliably liberal pundits were “tweeting” their annoyance.

Biden’s reputation for stupid statements also provided Ryan with the only laugh line of the evening. When Biden tried to score points with Mitt Romney’s famous secretly recorded remark about the “47 percent” of Americans who take more from the government than they contribute, Ryan effectively blunted the attack by noting that Biden should understand that “words don’t always come out of your mouth the way you intend.”

Stylistic considerations aside, we thought Ryan prevailed on most of the substantive points. The debate opened with a question about the attack on America’s embassy in Libya and the four resulting deaths, and Biden attempted to deflect attention from the administration’s outrageously incompetent and dishonest role in the fiasco by criticizing Romney for addressing a mealy-mouthed message sent by the embassy in Egypt after a riot there the same day. Biden noted that Romney’s comment was “criticized by media around the world,” but surely most Americans are more concerned with the deaths of four countrymen than the predictable response of the media.

As the debate moved on to broader foreign policy matters, Biden tried to portray the Republicans as blood-thirsty war-mongers while simultaneously boasting how very hawkish and cold-blooded his boss has been. Biden made a similar attempt to have it both ways on the national debt, a pressing problem that Ryan has at least made a serious attempt to address during his congressional career, blasting the Bush administration for its half-trillion deficits while shrugging off the trillion-plus deficits that have occurred during the Obama administration. He even criticized Bush’s expensive prescription drug plan for seniors, then later boasted how seniors don’t have to pay for their prescription drugs.

For reasons known only to the moderator, who once counted Obama as a guest at one of her weddings, both candidates were also asked their shared Catholic faith and how it affects their differing views on abortion. Ryan was forthrightly anti-abortion, stressing his ticket’s moderation in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother, thus coming across as the more centrist of the two candidates. Biden also flat-out lied about the administration’s dictate that the Catholic church must provide contraception to the employees of its hospitals and social service organizations, allowing Ryan to wonder out loud why the Church is currently suing the administration.

Ryan also got the better of the closing statements, we thought, reminding the audience of the administration’s many failures and offering a believable argument that he and Romney could do better.

On the whole, that CNN focus group probably got it right.

– Bud Norman

On the Slavery Issue

We rarely inveigh against slavery anymore, not because of any fondness for it but rather because we have long assumed that in these enlightened times one’s abolitionist opinions can go without saying. Imagine our surprise, then, upon hearing that the Republican party’s presidential nominee is intent on restoring the peculiar institution.

Vice President Joe Biden made that extraordinary claim while speaking Tuesday at a campaign event in Danville, Virginia, where he told a cheering crowd that Mitt Romney and his party are “going to put y’all back in chains.” He appeared to be looking a mostly African-American section of the audience as he said it, and unless “y’all” is a Delawarism that we weren’t previously aware of it also sounded very much as if the remark was intended for their benefit.

In the interest of providing context, lest we be accused of misquoting the famously quotable Biden, the line was wedged into the middle of a tirade about Romney’s proposed financial regulation reforms and his running mate Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. After looking over the Ryan budget rather carefully and finding no provision for the restoration of slavery, we can only assume that it’s buried somewhere in one of Romney’s Wall Street position papers.

Any financial regulatory reform that entails the restoration of slavery will likely be found unconstitutional, probably on thirteenth amendment grounds, but then again one can’t really count on the Supreme Court for anything these days, and in any case it’s quite appalling that Romney would even want to do such a thing. Setting aside any moral qualms about the proposal, it seems a most unpromising political position. One wonders about the focus groups the Romney campaign used to the test the idea.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising, however. The Obama campaign has already helpfully informed us that Romney is a dog-torturing, gay-bashing, tax-cheating, Swiss bank account-holding cad who killed a guy’s wife, and is one of those rich guys to boot, so it isn’t much of a stretch to him as a latter day Simon Legree as well. There’s still plenty of campaign left, too, and it will be interesting to see what accusation the Obama crew will come up with to top this one.

Biden might very well be incorrect about Romney’s pro-slavery sentiments, of course. He was apparently under the mistaken impression that he was in North Carolina when he made the speech, after all, and he has gained something of reputation over the years for saying outrageously stupid things. He’s not backing down, and the campaign’s spokeswoman has declined to disavow the comment, but we’re still awaiting some proof of the allegation before rendering a final judgment.

We don’t care for slavery, but we’d sure hate to have to vote for the ticket with Biden.

– Bud Norman

Ryan Gives Hope

Vice presidential selections are usually of little interest to us, as the office is typically of such little consequence that even Joe Biden has done only minor damage with it, so we’ve happily refrained from the constant speculation and debate of the past weeks about the possible choices that Mitt Romney might make. Now that Romney has chosen Rep. Paul Ryan, though, we must say that we’re just pleased as punch.

There is no one currently active in American politics that we hold in higher regard than Ryan. He has the clarity of vision to see the economic calamity the lies at the end of our fiscal path, the broad imagination and hard-earned understanding of budgetary details needed to devise a workable solution, and most importantly — and most rare — he has the courage to confront his countrymen with harsh realities and offer his plan despite the fury he knew it would provoke. By selecting Ryan, Romney has demonstrated that he also understands the overriding issue of this election and is also bold enough to confront it.

The choice is not without risk, of course. Human nature is such that most people are disinclined to hear the kind of hard truths that Ryan proclaims, and millions of Americans will no doubt prefer the reassuring fairy tales of never ending and ever expanding entitlements that the president has so successfully peddled for the past four years. The complexities of baseline budgeting and other arcane tricks of the politician’s trade will permit Ryan’s opponents to convincingly lie about the prudent and necessary spending he has proposed, and when compared to the opposition’s false promises of government largesse at somebody else’s expense the Ryan plan will seem a most bitter medicine.

Still, the risk is justified by the possible benefits. The inevitable attacks on Ryan will only serve to focus attention on the issue of the government’s looming insolvency and the Democratic ticket’s conspicuous lack of a plan to prevent it, and Ryan is uniquely qualified to win that debate. Although his speeches rarely reach the level of rhetorical loftiness that characterize the president’s orations, Ryan’s style is grounded in hard facts, clear logic and plain logic. His fans still recall how Ryan left Obama speechless and seething during the health care debate, and the upcoming vice presidential debate against Biden promises to be the most fun Republicans have had in many years.

Critics will quibble that Ryan doesn’t have the ethnic appeal of a Sen. Marco Rubio, who would have also been fine choice, or isn’t as likely deliver an important number of electoral as Ohio’s Sen. Rob Portman would have been, and he was good, too, but these are mere quibbles. Having a man of Ryan’s stature on the ticket is a good thing.

– Bud Norman

Obama’s Green Lemon

Of all the financial fiascos that have resulted from the Obama administration’s “green” initiatives, the Fisker Karma might be the most hilarious.

The Fisker Karma, in case your other news sources have been too embarrassed to mention it, is an electric sports sedan developed with help from $193 million of federal money, part of a total $529 million loan package sanctioned by the Department of Energy. Anyone old enough to remember the post-war British car industry, the communist Trabant, or even the more recent Chevy Volt already knows the sorry history of state-run auto enterprises, but the Fisker Karma adds an especially strange chapter.

To begin the saga, the Fisker Karma sells for a bit more than $102,000, meaning that the same administration which egged on a protest movement against the wealthiest 1 percent and lectured Americans that “at some point you’ve made enough money” has decided to subsidize the creation of a toy for the super rich. Early buyers of the vehicle include movie star Leonardo DiCaprio, teen dream pop singer Justin Beiber, and jet-setting environmentalist Al Gore, hardly the sort of people who require the taxpayers’ assistance.

Gore is a senior partner, by the way, in the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, a major backer of the Fisker company and s big-time donor to the Democratic party. In another interesting coincidence, Fisker’s loan application was handled by the firm of Debevoise and Plimpton, whose employees donated nearly $200,000 to Obama’s campaign, a smart investment given the $1.8 million they charged Fisker for their services.

One might argue that the blue collared types who build the car should be able to draw on public funds, and Vice President Joe Biden made that very point when he was photographed with the workers at a Fisker Karma plant in his native Delaware, but shortly afterwards the company shut down the plant and moved the assembly of the vehicle to Finland. Not since President Obama visited the soon-to-be-bankrupt Solyndra solar panel company to proclaim that the company was the “model” for a new economy has a photo opportunity looked so retrospectively ridiculous.

The latest installment in the Fisker Karma tale is what truly raises it to the level of high comedy, however. Another early buyer of the vehicle was Consumer Reports, which forked over $107,000 for a brand new hybrid model and was unable to complete its tests when the thing completely broke down after less than 200 miles. The magazine tells its reader that “We buy about 80 cars a year and this is the first time in memory that we have had a car that is undriveable before it has finished our check-in process.”

Consumer Reports beat us to the “Bad Karma” headline, and concluded its unflattering review by noting that “so far, Fisker ownership is proving to be a bumpy ride.” Unless you’re a big Democratic donor, or Finnish, he brave world of the green economy seems to be stalled on the side of the road, as well.

– Bud Norman

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