It’s the Establishment, Man

The establishment isn’t what it used to be, and neither is the anti-establishment.

Readers of a certain age will recall an era when the establishment was widely understood to be the squares. The establishment was why you couldn’t smoke dope in class or say dirty words on television, and why you had to get married and work for a living. The anti-establishment was easily recognized by its long hair, tie-dyed apparel, and screeching guitar music.

Now the anti-establishment is former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and all the hard-working married people who support his presidential campaign, which raises the question of who is the establishment.

Gingrich supporters are quite right to think that they’re not the establishment, square though they may be. At some point since the baby boom a new establishment was established, and while it hasn’t yet achieved classroom dope smoking there are dirty words aplenty on the television, there is no longer any societal pressure to marry, working for a living is increasingly optional, and all manner of mores have changed in ways that are not to the liking of a Gingrich supporter. The folks found at “Occupy” protests share the same tonsorial, sartorial and musical tastes of an earlier anti-establishment generation, but they’re protesting on behalf of the same establishment that a Gingrich supporter rails against.

The Gingrich supporters believe they’re also standing in opposition to a Republican establishment, however, and in that case it’s less clear who they’re talking about. If they mean the Republicans who have held office or worked in other capacities in Washington, D.C., their own candidate is a longtime congressman, former Speaker of the House, and has had many dealings with the federal government. If they mean Republicans who sometimes stray from conservative orthodoxy, their own candidate has committed heresies on such important issues as health care reform, global warming and Medicare reform. If they mean anyone who offers criticisms of their candidate, the establishment would include such stalwart conservatives and anti-establishmentarians as Andrew Brietbart, Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge.

Should someone other than Gingrich wind up the nomination, we expect his acolytes will quickly remember which establishment they’re most against, and realize it isn’t the Republican nominee.

— Bud Norman

Obamanomics Explained

For more than three years, ever since President Barack Obama was elected on a promise of hope and change, America has been waiting for the speech that reveals his bold economic vision and precisely explains what kind of transformational change he hopes to effect. That speech finally arrived last week when Obama told an Arizona audience that he envisions “an America where we build stuff, and make stuff, and sell stuff all around the world.”

We have no fancy-schmantzy economics degree, and are therefore only vaguely familiar with such technical terms as “build,” “make,” “sell,” and “stuff,” but we suspect that Obama might be on to something. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, an economy based on both building and making things, and then selling them, could be viable. Indeed, now that the idea has been laid out in the crystalline prose that has earned Obama a reputation as the greatest orator since Demosthenes, one is left wondering why nobody ever thought of it before.

While speaking a day later at a campaign event in Las Vegas, Nev., a city that somehow survives on a markedly different economic model, Obama elaborated on his so-crazy-it-just-might-work scheme by saying that he wants an America “where we’re making stuff and selling stuff and moving it around and UPS trucks are dropping things off everywhere.” This plan omits the building of stuff but retains the making of it, an elegant simplification, then adds the brilliant idea of moving the stuff around, perhaps to the people who bought it, although Obama was not clear on this point.

We assume that the moving around of the stuff will be done exclusively in UPS trucks because that company’s workforce is more heavily unionized than that of its main competitor, Federal Express, and yet not as inefficiently government-run as the United States Postal Service, but we hope that future Obama orations will answer a few nagging questions that remain

In both of the aforementioned speeches Obama devoted much time to his call for a higher tax on the wealthiest Americans. Apparently the current rates prevent the building, making, selling, and moving around of stuff, but Obama did not explain why this is so. We do know that Obama’s insistence on higher taxes for the rich is not intended to exploit any envy of the rich, however, because he assured us that “Nobody envies the rich.” He sounded genuinely baffled by the suggestion that anyone does envy the rich, as it is a well-known fact that all people regard them with pity. The rich have to eat all that caviar, ride around in fancy automobiles, and consort with glamorous women, after all, and thus will never know the simple pleasures of ground beef, aging pick-ups, and a drunken peroxide blonde at closing time.

We’re also wondering who will decide what stuff to build and make, who to sell it to, and at what price, and except for the part about the unionized UPS trucks we’re not clear who will determine how and where the stuff is to be moved around. Such weighty decisions cannot be left to the people who are doing the building, making, selling, and moving around, of course, so we suggest that a government agency be formed to ensure that any building, making, selling, or moving around of stuff is strictly regulated by at least one regulator per builder, maker, seller, or moving around person. This would not only help to achieve full employment, but the agency could also make sure that the building, making, selling, and moving around of stuff is done only by individuals or corporations or that have made the correct campaign contributions, as with Solyndra.

Having already told us that “At some point, you’ve made enough money,” Obama should also let us know when we’ve built, made, sold, and moved around enough stuff, and can get back more spiritually rewarding pursuits such as community organizing. We expect that at some point in Obama’s post-presidential career as a speaker, writer and corporate board member we’ll find out exactly how much money is enough, and expect that it will prove a very large sum, but he should set a limit now so that no one will be in danger of expending any excess energy.

Building, making, selling, and moving around stuff is darned hard work, after all, just like figuring out this economics stuff.

— Bud Norman

Stimulating Reading

Few things in life provide as much voyeuristic thrill as a leaked memo, at least for people afflicted with a politics obsession. Previously the most tantalizing batch of purloined documents we’d come across were the embarrassingly frank e-mails hacked from some alarmist climate scientists a few years back, but even those juicy missives might be topped by the “sensitive and confidential” memo recently provided to The New Yorker.

The 57-page document was written in December of 2008 by Larry Summers, then an economic adviser to President Barack Obama, offering advice to his boss on the “stimulus plan” being developed by the White House. Filled with arcane economic and political arguments, and laden with the awful bureaucratic jargon common to inter-office communications, the memo makes for sluggish reading, but critics of the plans who slog through to the end will find plenty of vindicating nuggets along the way.

James Pethokoukis, one of the smart guys at the American Enterprise Institute, discovered “11 stunning revelations” in the memo. One was that the stimulus was intended “as a key tool for advancing clean energy goals and fulfilling a number of campaign commitments.” We find this stunning in much the same way that Claude Rains’ Captain Renault was “shocked, shocked” to learn of gambling at Rick’s American Café in “Casablanca,” but are pleased to find confirmation for a long-held suspicion that the stimulus bill wasn’t crafted for the sole purpose of stimulating the economy.

Also stunning to Pethokoukis was Summers’ warning to Obama that the deficit spending for the bill was greater than the campaign had promised, posed serious dangers to the long-term health of the American economy, and that no one at the White House seemed to have any idea what to do about it. Although we are somewhat stunned to learn that Summers was ever so prescient, the rest of these revelations are not surprising. Another of Pethokoukis’ stunners was Summers’ admission that “it is difficult to identify feasible spending projects on the scale need to stabilize the macroeconomy,” a highfalutin way of putting what Obama himself laughingly admitted when he said that “shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected.”

Summers’ memo also reveals that the stimulus bill could have been worse, and one might even say stunningly worse. Several administration officials wanted more spending, fewer tax cuts, and using the courts to force massive mortgage principal write-downs, all ideas that were rejected not because of their inherent craziness but for fear they would outrage international financial markets, the American public, and even congressional Democrats. Only one economist consulted by the Obama team, Greg Mankiw, now an advisor to Republican candidate Mitt Romney, voiced any skepticism about the Keynesian assumptions underlying the stimulus plan.

The New Yorker might seem an unlikely publication to reveal such a document, given its previous enthusiasm for all things Obama, but rest assured that Ryan Lizza’s lengthy article strives mightily to make the best of it. He begins by noting the angry, divisive, and harshly partisan atmosphere that prevailed at the time, caused entirely by those crazed right-wing extremist Republicans, and recalling the glorious promise of hand-holding unity offered by candidate Obama. Lizza concedes that perhaps the Obama of ’08 wasn’t an entirely immaculate messiah, noting his hypocritical decision to forgo public campaign funding in order to blanket the airwaves with negative advertising, among other things, but he clearly blames Obama’s opponents for preventing a more expensive and therefore better stimulus plan.

Democrats so thoroughly controlled both chambers of Congress at the time that the stimulus was passed with few Republican votes, and Obamacare with none at all, but Lizza helpfully explains Obama’s fear of being “caricatured by the right-wing press” as a free-spending liberal restrained his ambitions. Although Lizza seems slightly disappointed that Obama didn’t turn out to be the transformational figure of his campaign, a failure entirely attributable to those darned Republicans, he settles for portraying Obama as the moderate, centrist fellow he also claimed to be.

Even in the midst of such strained apologetics, however, Lizza makes a few grudging concessions to Obama’s critics. He notes that Obama’s most ambitious proposals, so-called “moon shot” programs such as smart grid energy systems and high-speed railroads, were found to be well beyond the government’s means and had little support even among a star-struck Democratic congress. Even the actual moon shot programs at NASA wound up taking budget cuts. Lizza even admits that “Obama didn’t remake Washington.”

Ending on the obligatory high note, though, Lizza recalls the heady days of total Democratic control as “one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history,” and repeats the now-familiar claim that Obama “saved the economy from depression.”

The stimulus bill objectively failed to live up to the claims that were made for it at the time, by the administration’s own predictions it has made things worse, and the reckoning for its deficit spending might yet come crashing down us, so its defenders have to say something, and they’re saying that it saved us from catastrophe. The boast can’t be disproved, as there is no way for economists to conduct a laboratory experiment that recreates the economic circumstances of early 2009 and tests what would have happened without the stimulus, but one can doubt it. The claim that economic cataclysm would have resulted if we hadn’t racked up $800 billion in debt, handed it out to Democratic Party allies, blew millions of it on far-fetched and soon gone “green jobs” run by campaign contributors, and forestalled the necessary changes in state budgets for two years, is going to be a hard sell.

Thanks to Lizza, though, at least we have documented proof that someone in the White House had at least pondered the possibilities.

— Bud Norman

Right is Rare

The good folks at the Rasmussen polling firm have found that a third of Republican voters would like to see another candidate enter the race for their party’s presidential nomination. The number seems low, given the highly publicized flaws in
the current field, but it’s hard to think of the candidate they’re hoping for.

The disgruntled third are likely conservatives who believe that each of the remaining candidates has too often deviated from conservative orthodoxy, and they do have a point. Despite its reputation as a bastion of right-wing extremism, however, the Republican party doesn’t seem to have any true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool, bred-in-the-bones, any-cliché-you-can-think-of conservatives on hand.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachman, and former pizza magnate Herman Cain were all arguably more conservative than the surviving contenders, but each had their own insufficiently right-wing stands and all were knocked out of contention for other reasons. Some still pine for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has shown admirable grit in cutting a bloated government down to size, but he has a decidedly northeastern attitude toward guns and other issues dear to conservative hearts. Others are calling for Mitch Daniels, who has done some conservative things as Governor of Indiana, but was budget director for deficit-prone George W. Bush and has toyed with such decidedly un-conservative ideas as a value added tax. Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan and Florida Senator Marco Rubio are both impeccably conservative, but both have declared themselves too young and inexperienced to seek the presidency.

All of which raises the question of why there are no sufficiently conservative candidates with the necessary qualifications to run for president. Conservatism has a long and distinguished history in the country, as many as 40 percent of Americans consider themselves conservative, and there are prominent and respected conservatives in nearly every field, yet when it comes time to pick a president the right is usually reduced to find the least objectionable choice. This has long been true, too, with only a precious few presidents meeting the conservative stand in the past century or so.

One reason, of course, is that most conservatives are reluctant to enter politics in the first place. They’re unashamed to make a good living in the private sector, confident they can do good for their country as private citizens, and by definition believe that government isn’t the solution to every problem. Conservatism holds that the government is more likely to screw things up, and few people will enter the rough game of politics with the modest hope of limiting the damage done.

Those who do enter the political arena, and manage to win office on the platform of not screwing things up, quickly find themselves being pulled to the left. Most voters, even the ones who describe themselves as conservatives, want their states and districts to get a share of the goodies government hands out. Everyone enjoys good press, and compromising conservatives principles are always the best way to get it. Invitations to the swankest Georgetown parties are nice, too, and they also require a certain amount of liberalism.

The few genuinely conservative presidents have usually taken office after the country had become exasperated with the failures of liberalism, as with Harding after Wilson or Reagan after Carter, and this year could have provided another opportunity. Harding and Reagan were extraordinary historical accidents, though, and another one doesn’t seem to be on hand at the moment. The country will have to muddle through with a sort-of-conservative, and take hope in the knowledge that Ryan and Rubio are growing older and more seasoned by the day.

— Bud Norman

State of Confusion

President Barack Obama gives a lot of speeches, more than even his most ardent admirers now bother to hear, but it’s almost a patriotic duty to listen in on a State of the Union address. Being dutifully patriotic only to a reasonable extent we sat down to read the transcript instead, figuring it would save time and spare us the soporific effects of Obama’s sonorous baritone, and we found the text quite confusing.

The speech opened with praise for the veterans of the Iraq war, with Obama saying they have “made the United States safer and more respected around the world.” We’re always happy to hear to praise for our fighting men and women, and gladly welcome Obama to the crazed cowboy warmonger camp, but we couldn’t understand how such a happy outcome might have resulted from what Obama had called “a stupid war,” or how it might have occurred without the surge strategy that Obama had opposed while calling for an early surrender.

Moving on to paint a Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of the America he hopes to create, Obama said he envisions a country “where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world.” Recalling the president’s recent decision to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, we were left wondering if Canada can truly be considered an unstable part of world.

Waxing nostalgic about his grandparents’ halcyon days of World War II, when hard work guaranteed a happy life, the millions of hard-working but unhappy Americans of the time notwithstanding, Obama said he hoped to “restore an America where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” This led us to think Obama would announce he was revoking the many waivers from his health care reforms that had been handed out to his political allies, but no such announcement followed.

Obama then mentioned how technological innovation causes unemployment, a favorite them, but he offered no specific plan for returning to dial-up internet access or other primitive technologies.

The next part, where Obama explained the mortgage crisis that led to the economic downturn, was especially confusing. He said that only after the recession Americans “learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them,” but somehow forgot to mention that it happened because government policy encouraged and required it, political allies such as ACORN protested for it, and lawyers such as Barack Obama sued banks to do it. He went on to lament that “regulators had looked the other way, or didn’t have the authority to stop the bad behavior,” but neglected the key point that it was his own party that ignored and slandered the regulators who had tried to warn of the impending collapse of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac. Obama added that he “will oppose any effort to return to the policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place,” but we are unaware of any Republicans advocating more subprime lending.

Moving on to a vigorous yet vague call for a new manufacturing policy, Obama took time to boast of bailing out General Motors and Chrysler. While reeling off the companies’ successes, the Chevy Volt conspicuously unmentioned, Obama said that “Some even said we should let it die.” We can’t recall any saying that, and are sure that most opponents of the government argued that the companies should be re-structured under new private ownership through a proven bankruptcy system, but perhaps Obama did meet someone of that opinion, so we’ll let it slide. What made the boast utterly baffling, though, came what seemed to be several hours later into the oration when he sternly demanded that “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bail-outs, no hand-outs, and no cop-outs.”

We found ourselves drifting further at sea when Obama made his pitch for a jobs re-training program. Beginning with an obligatory personal anecdote, this one about Jackie Brey, a single mother — the best kind, for personal anecdote purposes — who went from being an unemployed mechanic to a manager of a robotics plant by attending her local community college, Obama then demanded that the government “cut through the maze of confusing training programs, so that from now on, people like Jackie have one program, one website, and one place to go for all the information and help they need.” This left us mulling why Brey is smart enough to run a robotics plant but too stupid to choose from a variety of educational options, and why private enterprises or local governments should be barred from offering services in the name of simplicity, but perhaps Obama hopes to spare us further confusion by giving only one government-run choice.

Oh, and he also demanded “Let’s make sure that people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can’t lobby Congress.” If he also wants to make sure that bundlers can’t lobby the White House for things such as guaranteed loans to their phony baloney solar panels he didn’t mention it, but that might have been a mere oversight.

There was plenty more, of course, including a laid-off furniture-maker who is now making wind turbines, despite the devastating economic effects of high technology, some shameless kowtowing to the teachers’ unions, and the usual soak-the-rich rhetoric, complete with Warren Buffet’s now-legendary secretary. We’ll save that for another day, though, as we’re starting to feel dizzy from confusion and really should lie down.

— Bud Norman

The Not-So-Friendly Skies

Three cheers for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Although we’re not of the jet set, being more from the old Chevro-let set, as George and Tammy used to sing, we have traveled by air often enough to appreciate Paul’s refusal on Monday to submit to a pat-down by the Transportation Security Administration.

A longtime critic of the TSA, Paul was en route from Nashville, Tenn., to an anti-abortion rally in Washington, D.C., when he set off one of those damnable airport scanners. As many a weary traveler has learned, TSA procedures require that any time the scanners are set off, even for the most obviously innocent reasons, which are always why the scanners are set off, the offending passenger must allow security officers to perform a search of his body that ranges from the merely annoying to the downright degrading. Paul refused, which led to him being briefly detained and missing his flight.

Although Paul caught a later flight without interference by scanner or agents, and his delay was brief and painless, we applaud even such minor sacrifices as a protest against an airline security system that does not allow for common sense. White House spokesman Jay Carney felt obliged to defend the TSA’s actions, saying “I think it is absolutely essential that we take necessary actions to ensure that air travel is safe,” but there is no reason why it was necessary to pat-down Paul.

Common sense would note that Paul is unlikely to commit a suicide bombing. He is a United States Senator, after all, and thus in a position to inflict far more damage on the country than he could ever hope to achieve with an explosive device on an airplane. He is also the son of Texas congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, which we concede might lead to a reasonable concern about nuttiness running in the family, but the Paul family nuttiness manifests itself as an indifference to terrorism rather than an enthusiasm for it. The TSA’s fetish for religious neutrality prevents it from taking into consideration that Paul is also a Presbyterian, but we are unbound by any rules against profiling and think it worth noting that Presbyterianism is a denomination not known for suicide bombing.

Terrorism remains a legitimate concern for the government to address, even after 11 years of lethal warfare have greatly weakened the most ambitious terror organizations, but it does not justify the harassment of elderly women, children, and the occasional member of congress.

— Bud Norman

The Grandiose Canyon

In a campaign season full of discordant notes, one moment in particular last week had approximately the same aural effect as pair of unclipped fingernails scratching slowly across a chalkboard.

The moment came near the middle of Thursday night’s debate, shortly after former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum remarked, apparently half in jest, that “grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich; he handles it very, very well.” The comment, or at least the half of it that wasn’t in jest, was music to our ears, as we’ve been waiting for someone to note this annoying tendency of former House Speaker Gingrich. What followed, however, was an affront to the English language.

Gingrich took the statement was a compliment. Boasting of his undeniably impressive efforts to win a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, he described the plan as “grandiose.” He went on to say that “I think grandiose thoughts,” and praised America as “a grandiose country.”

At the risk of sounding pedantic, an ever-present danger here at The Central Standard Times, we’re certain that “grandiose” was not le mot juste that Gingrich intended. The well-worn Random House Dictionary we rely on here defines “grandiose” as “affectedly grand or important,” or “more complicated or elaborate than necessary.” A third definition is “grand in an imposing or impressive way,” which is probably what Gingrich reaching for, but it is followed by the psychiatric meaning of “having an exaggerated sense of one’s importance, sometimes reaching delusional proportions, and occurring as a common symptom of mental illnesses such as manic disorder,” which is probably what Santorum meant to imply. Synonyms given include “pompous,” “overblown,” and “pretentious.”

Unless he intended his remarks as an homage to the comedy stylings of Norm Crosby, or was seized by a fit of honest self-reflection uncommon to politicians, Gingrich misspoke. A small error, one might well say, but one that illustrates two big problems we have with the candidate.

His use of the word, rather than the simpler, less grandiose choice of “grand,” is all too typical of Gingrich’s pompous, overblown, and pretentious speaking style. The great Mark Steyn, who handles the English language as well as anybody these days, has already noted Gingrich’s tendency to describe everything as “fundamentally” this or “profoundly” that, loading his remarks with enough adverbs to make what he’s saying seem smarter than it actually is. Gingrich’s many admirers gush about his verbal ability, but we expect that it won’t prove as effective with those not yet smitten.

More importantly, we believe that grandiosity — even in the most complimentary sense of the word — is not what is called for in these times. Rather than a candidate with the confidence that he can create the bold new ideas with which the government can solve all of the nation’s problems, we would prefer a president with the humility to understand the limits of government’s power and to rely instead on the mundane old ideas that have been tried and proved true. Despite his constant claims to be a conservative, that doesn’t seem to be the Gingrich temperament. He strikes us as, well, more grandiose.

— Bud Norman

Crossing the Exes

William Shakespeare almost always gets the credit, but it was William Congreve who came up with the line that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” He put it more poetically, too, writing in “The Mourning Bride” that “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

We wanted to set the record straight on poor Congreve’s behalf because his classic observation is bound to be endlessly misquoted in the wake of Marianne Gingrich’s raging and furious remarks about her ex-husband, former House Speaker and current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

In an interview aired Thursday night on ABC’s “Nightline,” the former Mrs. Gingrich recalled her ex-husband’s six-year affair with the woman he’s now married to, a fact that has long been publicly known and which Gingrich frankly admits, and claimed that he asked for a sort of “open marriage” that would allow him to continue the affair with her permission, a new twist on the story and one that Gingrich denies. In a separate interview with the Washington Post, she said that Gingrich asked for a divorce within days of giving a speech to the Republican Women Leaders Forum in Erie, Pennsylvania, on “The Demise of American Culture.”

We sat down to watch the television interview, our first visit to “Nightline” since Ted Koppel was counting off the days of the Iranian embassy hostage crisis, and for what it’s worth we found Marianne Gingrich to be bitter, vindictive, and completely believable.

The truth of her allegations will matter little to Gingrich’s many bitter and vindictive critics on the left, who are always eager to pounce on any Republican who preaches family values in public but acts quite differently in private. Gingrich, who was engaged in affair while he called for impeachment charges against the left’s beloved Bill Clinton for lying about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, is an especially tempting target and unlikely to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Alas, Gingrich’s defenders on the right don’t seem very concerned with the truth or falsehood of his ex-wife’s allegations, either. The talk radio hosts, who had been alerted to the story by a Drudge Report scoop on Wednesday, spent much of the afternoon railing against the double standards of a national media that ignored Democrat John Edward’s cheating on a cancer-stricken wife, recalling the left’s rationalizations for the serial indiscretions of Clinton, Ted Kennedy and numerous other liberal icons, and noting the left’s lack of outrage about the hypocrisy of wealthy and privileged liberals waging class warfare the self-made rich. All of this is true, of course, but none of it is a defense for what they would surely consider abhorrent behavior if it were committed by a Democrat.

The other argument popular among Gingrich’s defenders is that the scandal is old news, as if a person’s moral failings are somehow unimportant once they’re known to the public. The argument makes some sense if the behavior in question occurred long ago, has since been repented, and won’t be repeated, but we’re not convinced that is the case with Gingrich. While we don’t worry that the 68-year-old grandfather will wade into another dispiriting and distracting sex scandal while in office, á la Clinton, we do see the latest allegations as yet another example of a self-centeredness and arrogance that appear to remain very much a part of Gingrich’s character. Gingrich has lately been presenting himself as a true conservative while making leftist attacks on rival Mitt Romney for being a venture capitalist and paying his taxes at the legal rate, which is at least as inconsistent as speaking about moral values while carrying on an extra-marital affair.

Attacking the media messengers, who truly are as hypocritical and arrogant as Gingrich, seems to be working so far. Gingrich won yet another standing ovation in Thursday night’s debate with a fiery response to a question about the interview, and it might even put him on top in South Carolina’s crucial primary on Saturday. We expect the squeaky-clean and thoroughly conservative Rick Santorum will pick up a few votes from the crucial disgruntled ex-wife bloc, though, and that many more Republicans will ponder how the Gingrich scandals might play with a general electorate.

Gingrich fans will point out that the great Ronald Reagan won despite a divorce, but he only had one, it wasn’t because of his infidelity, and his ex-wife wasn’t out to make political life miserable for him. Marianne Gingrich is likely to be giving interviews from now to election day, and to misquote William Congreve, hell hath no fury like an angry ex-wife with a microphone.

— Bud Norman

Pipeliner Blues

Politics is often puzzling, but the Obama administration’s decision to nix the Keystone XL pipeline leaves us feeling downright nonplussed.

Looking at it strictly as a matter of public policy, which may well be a waste of time, the project seems a good idea. Construction of the $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas was expected to require thousands of workers at a time when millions of workers are in need of a job, and would no doubt have created many more economic benefits over the coming years by increasing the nation’s supply of gasoline and thus limiting its price. The pipeline also would have facilitated the flow of oil from Canada, a nation we have some suspicions about because of its single payer health insurance system, dubious commitment to free speech, and a weird habit of punting on third downs, but one that isn’t prone to terrorism and the other dysfunctions of most oil-exporting countries. Despite its generally friendly disposition toward the United States, Canada will end up selling its oil to China if the pipeline isn’t built, giving an advantage to America’s main economic competitor.

On the other hand, the arguments against the project are not persuasive. The State Department cited concerns about the pipeline’s possible effect on the “uniquely sensitive terrain of the Sand Hills in Nebraska,” but the risk of environmental damage to that gloriously rough and empty region is likely overstated, and we see no reason they couldn’t have found an alternate route. Some environmentalist have more frankly objected to project on the grounds that it will result in gasoline, which they regard as the leading cause of an impending apocalypse, but they can offer no reason to believe that the use of gasoline in China is less harmful to the planet than its use here.

Looking at it as a political issue, which usually provides some explanation for a politician’s conduct, only leaves us more perplexed. Republicans in congress and on the presidential campaign trail have charged that Obama’s decision was politically motivated, but we can’t see how it will benefit him in the coming election. Stopping the pipeline pleased environmentalists such as Bill McKibben, who told Reuters that “The knock on Barack Obama from many quarters has been that he’s too conciliatory, but here, in the face of a naked political threat from Big Oil to exact ‘huge political consequences,’ he’s stood up strong,” but he and any like-minded voters will end up pulling the lever for Obama in any case. We also wonder how many like-minded voters there are, as the vast majority of Americans, including Obama’s supporters in the unions, love the planet but prefer their jobs, and are “green” enough to sign a petition or slap a “Save the Earth” bumper sticker on their sports utility vehicle but draw the line at paying $4 for a gallon of gasoline.

Most confusing of all, though, is that the Republicans who wanted the pipeline are responsible for it not being built, and that the president who is once again a hero to his environmentalist supporters for not building it should also get credit for wanting to build it. Administration officials told the National Journal that the 60-day deadline imposed by congress as part of that convoluted tax payroll cut extension last year forced the White House to say no, and that the company backing the project is welcome to start the whole review process all over again. The National Journal calls this “trying to thread a needle between two segments of the base split over the pipeline,” and we have no idea what to call it except maybe audacious.

Then again, we’re still trying to figure out why the conservatives who didn’t want the country to go another trillion dollars in debt were responsible for America’s credit rating downgrade. This politics stuff is darned puzzling.

— Bud Norman

That Sinking Feeling

The analogy is so obvious, so easy, so likely to soon become hackneyed, that it should be below the high standards of this publication. Still, we can’t resist likening the European Union to the cruise ship that sank last Friday off the coast of Tuscany.

Early press reports indicate that the Costa Concordia crashed against rocks and went under because of the captain’s hubris and incompetence, that the ensuing rescue efforts were a disastrous chaos of every man for himself, and that much finger-pointing and excuse-making will follow. The similarities to the EU are simply too obvious to explicate.

The metaphorical ship of state in Greece will be the first of the EU members to sink entirely into a sea of red ink, according to the Fitch rating agency. Edward Parker, who must keep very busy as managing director of Fitch’s Sovereign and Supranational Group in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told Reuters that “It is going to happen. Greece is insolvent so it will default.” Such blunt assessments usually provoke vague denials by politicians, but in this case the Greek Prime Minister told the New York Times that if his country’s bondholders didn’t agree to take losses they would be forced to do so, and either option matches Fitch’s definition of a default. Fitch tempered its dire forecast with an assurance the default would be “orderly,” unlike the Costa Concordia’s demise, but given that Greece has already seen widespread and murderous rioting over austerity measures even that might be optimistic.

Greece’s sinking economy might well drag down Portugal, which has already seen its bonds downgraded to junk status by all three of the main ratings agencies. Investors have lately been stampeding out of the Portuguese bond market with all the ferocity of a Costa Concordia crew member knocking over little old ladies on the way to a lifeboat, and the Financial Times reports that the country “moves into default territory.”

Many of the bondholders that Greece and Portugal will be abandoning without a metaphorical life preserver are banks spread throughout the rest of Europe, many of them already under severe stress that threatens their national economies. The credit ratings of nine other European countries, including such big ones as France and Italy, have already been downgraded, and if they’re counting on help from the EU’s bail-out fund, that’s been downgraded as well. Germany has retained its top-notch credit rating, despite signs that it is slipping into a recession, but Germans are increasingly resistant to rescuing their fellow EU passengers.

Europe’s sinking feeling, along with slower growth in such developing countries as Brazil and India, has prompted the World Bank to warn of a global economic downturn. None of this is likely to affect America’s indebted and down-graded economy, judging by the questions being asked at the rare White House press conference or the all-too-common Republican presidential debates, but just in case the United States does turn out to be part of the world we urge a return to the chivalrous days of women and children first.

— Bud Norman