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Nat Hentoff, RIP

The first notable death of the year is that of journalist and author and critic Nat Hentoff, who died Saturday at the age of 91, and although that’s a ripe old age we wish he could have stuck around a bit longer. For the most of his seven-decades-long career and even right up to the end he was one of those durned back east big city liberals we’re always railing against, but he was one of the rare principled sorts who really did believe in life and liberty and individualism and everything else that liberalism claims to champion, so such principled conservatives as ourselves will need such stubbornly independent allies in the coming years.
Hentoff was born to Russian and Jewish immigrant parents in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, which way back then was a hotbed of both orthodox Judaism and radical politics, and by the age of 12 he was spending Yom Kippur conspicuously eating a salami sandwich on his tenement’s porch steps to signal his affiliation with the latter influence. A star student at America’s oldest public high school, Hentoff went off to Northeastern University, where he ran in to trouble as the student newspaper’s editor by publishing accounts of anti-Semitism at the the school, but still graduated with honors and started a career in journalism.
The jazz-crazed Hentoff’s first gig was as a music columnist with Downbeat, at that time the very Bible of jazz criticism, but despite an avid readership he was forced out after a few years because of his outspoken insistence the magazine hire more black writers. He then started a short-lived but briefly influential jazz journal of his own, and would later write several important books about the subject, and although he liked all that noisome be-bop and modernism more than we did his writings celebrated the glorious freedom of both the old and new jazz with a passion that’s still worth reading.
After that Hentoff wound up at the Village Voice, which was then as now the very Bible of radical chic liberalism, and at that point he was so eager to get out of the contentious field of jazz criticism that he started covering politics. He mostly concerned himself with any governmental attempts to restrict freedom of expression or pretty much any other freedom, and way back in the ’50s and into the ’60s he could find plenty of material about censorious right-winters and foul-mouth comedians and gay bars and Watergate to satisfy his avid liberal readership. He was still at it when we first started reading him in our junior high’s library in the ’70s, and although we picked up the Village Voice mostly because it gave our teenaged punk sensibilities a certain satisfaction to refute its radical chic liberalism we usually had to admit that the Hentoff guy had a point. Something in our own much-later prairie protestant upbringing in a hot bed of conservative orthodoxy had imbued a similar philosophy of First Amendment absolutism, and we vowed not to abandon that even for the sake of our side.
By the time we started our own journalism career in the early ’80s the liberals had been in charge for a while, at least in part because of Hentoff’s compelling arguments, and we already were noticing that they were suddenly the censorious and bossy ones. Conservative speakers were being literally shouted down at campus appearances and orthodox religious viewpoints were being excluded from public discussion, and all sorts of folks were suddenly confronted with new rules and regulations they never voted on. Hentoff couldn’t help noticing, either, and we have to admire that he wouldn’t abandon his First Amendment absolutism even for the sake of his side. He wrote column after column excoriating the rescinded commencement address invitations to conservative speakers, the silliness of a campus culture that insisted on ideological purity, the charges of racism leveled against any who dared speak out against the ostensible consensus on race, or the charges of homophobia against anyone who hewed to traditional religion, or any of the familiar rest of it. Of course it didn’t play well with his erstwhile avid readership on the left, and neither did it gain him much from respect from his erstwhile enemies on the right, but that’s all the more reason we’re going to miss the guy.
In his final years Hentoff was still as outspokenly atheistic as ever, but he was every bit as anti-abortion as any Orthodox rabbi, making a case for life from the very moment of conception to the end that was probably all the more convincing to many readers because it was grounded in the scientific and secular principles he’d always championed, and he even wound up writing admiringly of the radically anti-government Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul during that past crazy election year. Although we’re not so crazy about Paul ourselves neither are we crazy about the Republican president-elect with the censorious streak and the crazy idea that his government can make America great again, and although Hentoff was still a back east big city atheist liberal to the end we think we could have used his help in a time when principled conservatives few few and far between. In any case we wish Hentoff well, and hope that the God he never believed in will nonetheless welcome his soul to the perfect freedom he always wanted for the rest of us.

— Bud Norman

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On the Day After Opening Day

For such avid fans of the blood sport of American politics as ourselves, the quadrennial Iowa presidential caucuses are like the opening day of a once-every-four-years baseball season. Some youthful enthusiasm left within us wants to extrapolate the rest of the reason from the season from the first day’s statistically insignificant scores, some more sober sensibility acquired over the years reminds us that are plenty of games left to be played in what is always an up-and-down season, and we always wind up indulging in the obligatory speculation.
Over on the Democrats’ senior-in-more-ways-than-one circuit we note that former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and long-presumed Next President of the United States Hillary Clinton is still going into extra innings as we write this against self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which bolsters our pre-season suspicion that it’s going to be a long and hard-fought contest. In a far more crowded field the upstart Republicans’ winner was controversial right-fielder Texas Sen. Cruz, who had a plurality of 28 percent, with real-estate-and-gambling-and-reality-show-and-professional-wrestling mogul Donald J. Trump coming in from way out in the metaphorical left field to take an unaccustomed second place with 24 percent, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, now cast as the party’s steady center-fielder, just behind with an intriguing 23 percent, which at least provides hope for another long and hard-fought race.
Of course, one needs to keep in mind the peculiar ground rules that govern Iowa’s opening games. The Democrats require caucus-goers to spend all night standing with their fellow rooters in the corners of various frigid high school gymnasiums and senior centers spread across the state, staring one another down to attract the rooters from the candidates disqualified in the first rounds, which should have given her opponent’s more youthful and fired-up supporters an edge, so even a slight win will still count as a win even by pliable rules of politics. The next game will be played according to more traditional primary rules in New Hampshire, but that’s right next door to Vermont and Sanders has held a comfortable lead in the polls there for some time, so a win in Iowa means at least Clinton won’t get off to that 0-for-2 start so many formerly front-running candidates have never recovered from. Still, those bettors who put their chips on Clinton a full four years ago are likely in for a nervous season. Veteran political sports fans will recall that a similarly spirited far-left candidacy by Sen. Eugene McCarthy knocked sitting President Lyndon Johnson out of the race with a win in New Hampshire way back in the memorable ’68 season, and although those with more reliable memories will more accurately recall that Johnson eked out a victory it was close enough it was still enough to convince Johnson that he wouldn’t make it to the general election finish line, which makes it a potentially worthwhile analogy.
Cruz only won eight delegates to Trump’s and Rubio’s seven, and long-shot retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson got three, with even longer shots libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and erstwhile starting center fielder Jeb! Bush of the erstwhile Bush dynasty getting one apiece for finishing fifth and sixth, respectively, so with 1,114 delegates needed to clinch the pennant there’s still plenty of race of left. It’s still a crucial tally in the win column for Cruz, however, and although he’s starting from behind in New Hampshire the Iowa winner has traditionally picked up a few points in other contests. Veteran political sports fans will also recall how little-known Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter got a sudden amount of name-recognition-generating publicity from an upset win in Iowa and rode it to the Democratic nomination back in that sub-.300 year of ’76, and although those with more reliable memories will recall that Carter actually finished second to “undecided,” which ultimately proved poetically appropriate enough, the point still obtains. For someone running against a reality-star with almost unlimited free publicity and near-universal name recognition, it’s an especially important point.
In an ordinary season an ordinary candidate could claim more than seven delegates from a second-place finish in Iowa, but Trump is no ordinary candidate. The most likely explanation for the front-running Trump’s second-place finish is that Iowa’s Republican caucus is largely dominated by evangelical Christians who prefer a Baptist minister’s son such as Cruz to a thrice-married gambling mogul who publicly boasts of the billions he made by buying off politicians and all the married babes he’s bagged along the way, but we don’t think even Trump will attempt that spin and we don’t think New Hampshire voters would buy it even if they are next door to Vermont. Much of Trump’s appeal is based on his argument that he always wins, and that Americans might even get bored with all the winning he’s going to do for America, making it hard for him to spin an actual vote where he not only came in second but a full 76 percent of the voters went for someone else. He wisely declared himself “honored” by a second-place finish, noting only obliquely how many observers had thought Iowa an unfriendly field, and he’s still got the lead in New Hampshire before getting back on evangelical turf in South Carolina, but to mix the sports analogies somewhat at least he won’t be getting that early-round knock-out.
Rubio’s close third-place finish, on the other hand, should be worth more than just seven delegates over the coming weeks. It represents a significant bump in his previous poll standings, will merit enough mention to up his name recognition a few notches, and will likely even knock out some of the other players vying for the centerfield position. When the fourth-place Carson sooner or later bows out we suspect most of his support will flow to Cruz, so Rubio will need all the meager votes scattered about the rest of the soon-to-drop-out candidates, and when Bush makes his inevitable exit Rubio will at least be spared the millions of dollars of negative advertising that have been aimed him, so in this game opening day does matter more than in baseball.
Both leagues might wind up battering themselves into a sorry state for the eventual general election World Series, but that’s way too far away to speculate about now.

— Bud Norman

Another What-If Episode

Many of the old television shows that used to take up far too much of our childhood would occasionally encounter a creative lull about mid-season and resort to the old gimmick of having the characters transported by harp music and a wavy dissolve into some alternate reality. What if the guys at WJM had met the irresistible Mary Richards when they were single, or Felix and Oscar had never met? What if Gilligan or the Skipper had bothered to check the damned weather forecast before that three-hour cruise?
The Republican Party’s reality show of a presidential nomination race was reduced to the same hackneyed formula Thursday night, inviting viewers to imagine the storyline without the love-him-or-hate-him star-of-the-show-as-always Donald J. Trump. Being on the booing-and-hissing side of the divide of the show’s fans, we happily accepted the invitation.
If you’ve been binge-watching the series thus far with the same rapt attention as ourselves, you already know that Trump wrote himself out of the script because the episode was being broadcast by the Fox News Network, which always elicits booing and hissing from the left and is now the hated by the supposed savior of the right because it employs Megyn Kelly, a most comely and seemingly competent broadcast journalist who had the lese majeste in an earlier to episode to ask Trump about his longtime habit of calling her less comely sisters by such names as “‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.'” When Trump responded afterwards that the seemingly calm and undeniably comely Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes” and “blood coming out of her wherever” it seemed to us to prove her implied point yet nonetheless improved his poll numbers, and viewers will recall it it was one of the highest-rated episodes ever. Trump declined the long-anticipated sequel, with all his fanzines proclaiming it a stroke of tactical genius, and next Monday night’s much-anticipated “Iowa Caucus and Actual Voting” episode might yet prove it so, but we’re hopeful the next episode will reawaken to a different storyline.
Trump might have reasonably calculated that he would be all the more conspicuous by his absence from Thursday night’s episode, but he was only mentioned in passing. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the main rival for the love-him-or-hate-him starring role, got some laughs by doing some Don Rickles shtick and saying “that concludes the Trump portion,” and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is the embodiment of the hated “establishment” hovering over the whole series even in the harp-music-and-wavy-dissolve transition to an alternate reality, sounding quite reasonable and even statesmanlike as he noted the higher tone of the proceedings. For the most part, it was pleasantly easy to close one’s eyes and imagine what it would have been like in an “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Donald J. Trump had never been born. All the candidates would still be talking about the unavoidable costs of both illegal and legal immigration to be weighed against their widely doubted benefits, there would still be same unavoidable discussion about Islamic terrorism and all the other international problems the Democrats don’t seem to want to talk about, there would d be the same talk about free markets and individual liberty, only without all the bragging by the front-runner about the politicians he’s bought off and the powers he would seize, the hated “establishment” would still be hated no matter how reasonable and statesmanlike it sounded, and the storyline would still be lively enough to generate some ratings.
Even in the would-be world of Thursday night’s debate there was a love-him-or-hate-him character in Cruz, and although we’re inclined to love him we think he got the worst of his first night in the crossfire. His opening bit about Trump’s tiring insult comic act played well enough, but a later attempt at ironic humor seemed to backfire when the audience didn’t seem to get his joking threat to leave the stage if he got any more tough questions. His reasonable arguments for his consistent resolve on illegal immigration inevitably got bogged down in talk of amendments and parliamentary procedure and all that stuff that even federal neophytes are bogged down with, and his blunt talk about those ridiculous ethanol subsidies that are so beloved in first-in-line Iowa and hated everywhere else probably did him little good in Iowa but boosted him past the absent Trump everywhere else, so some blows were clearly landed. He came off with the requisite ratings-grabbing feistiness, and landed a few blows of his own here and there, but he probably should have more relished the villain’s role.
There were some good lines by the unimportant New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the bumptious but establishment guy, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the establishment but bumptious guy, and even the loony libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and as always we thought retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was quite good with his brief few lines, and Bush somehow didn’t come across the least bit villainous, but the surprising co-star of the night was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Longtime fans of the show know Rubio was the handsome and youthful character who was once the true-blue conservative hero of an earlier season but then fell in with the Gang of Eight who conspired to unleash the immigrant hordes upon America, and has since been on a mission of penance, but he made a good accounting of himself. He swore his newfound toughness and noted the similarly evolving position of the anti-immigrant horde Trump, who bravely chose to not be around to defend himself from the undeniable charge, and he rightly noted that he was at least more anti-immigrant horde than Bush or any of those other guys, and he bogged Cruz down in all that talk of amendments and parliamentary procedure, and he wound up sounding more electable in a general election than the rest of them.
After the next round of harp music and slow dissolves we’ll be back to real world where there really is a Donald J. Trump, and all that entails, and by late Monday night or early Tuesday morning we’ll find out how the story resumes. We’ve also been watching the Democrats’ mini-series, which is weirder yet, and we’re starting to worry that might be the weirdest of these reality shows.

— Bud Norman

The Political Pre-Season Begins

Alright then, we’ll admit it, we didn’t watch the entirety of the first debate of the Republican presidential nomination race. We’re as addicted to this story as any other reality show watcher, and we already have our rooting interests in the plot line, but our older brother is in town and there’s this great Mexican restaurant over in the nearby barrio and we cut off our television cable years ago, and besides, it all has such a sense of those meaningless pre-season games that the National Football Leagues starts all too early, so we we figured we’d rely on the more diligent internet sources for our opinions of it all.
Pretty much everyone on our right-wing reading list seemed to agree that former Hewlitt-Packard honcho and failed California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina won the “jayvee team” debate among those who didn’t poll in the top ten, with accomplished two-term Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal coming in second, and the arguably even more accomplished two-term Texas Gov. Rick Perry exceeding expectations well enough to come in a credible third. The other three really aren’t worth mentioning, as any experienced reality show viewer can rightly assume they’ll soon be written out of the plot. We’d like to see Fiorina, Jindal, and Perry all get into the prime time debate, and can easily name three candidates we’d be happy to see them replace, so we’re heartened by the reviews.
There doesn’t seem to be much consensus about the main event. which suggests that nobody won. So far as we can tell from the snippets at the Fox News Channel’s website, real estate magnate and literal reality show star Donald Trump apparently was his usual bombastic and buffoonish self, but there’s no telling whether that will add to or detract from his poll-leading numbers. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gave a reassuringly ambiguous statement about his past support for the “Common Core” curriculum, the unabashedly libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a spat about national intelligence-gathering that most of the judges scored a win for Christie, neurosurgeon and political neophyte Dr. Ben Carson seems to have had no gaffes but no impression, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s just-regular-hillbilly-folk schtick seems have done its usual black magic, and the rest of it seems equally pointless.
Of course there’s much chatter about how tough the Fox moderators were in their questioning, but we figure all the candidates should be prepared for far worse then they meet the rest of the press. Our early favorite, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, used the opportunity of a question about his past support for “comprehensive immigration reform” to explain that he was previously wrong but has since been looking at the issue from a more national perspective and is now right, and when we try to imagine Trump speaking the words “I was wrong” we impressed by his candor.
If Trump didn’t commit his inevitable self-immolation and our guy Walker didn’t boost his numbers, and the more worthy contenders didn’t move into contention, we’ll not be worried. This is Grapefruit League and Cactus League stuff, and the numbers won’t count until some very cold days that won’t arrive until winter, and the lady at the bar we were at our brother earlier tonight who was shouting the pre-season football was about to arrive even as a Kansas City Royals victory was underway on the television care mores about that game that we care about this political game. The political game will wind up making a difference, but what happened in that debate we mostly skipped probably won’t.

–Bud Norman

Reassembling the Three-Legged Stool

Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul is expected to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination today, and although this is far too early to be talking about the ’16 election it’s as good a time as any to ponder the state of the conservative coalition.
Anyone old enough to have lived through the glory days of President Ronald Reagan will recall how he somehow managed to construct a winning “three-legged stool” from the oft-warring factions of economic libertarians, social traditionalists, and national security hawks. With Paul currently being the most prominent standard-bearer of economic libertarianism, much of the national press coverage of his candidacy has gleefully concerned itself with how he might fare with the Republican primary voters from the other two legs of the stool, and whether anyone might be able to bring that coalition together again. So far the press seems doubtful about Paul’s chances, and we generally agree with that assessment, but we remain hopeful that someone can pull off the trick.
Social conservatives such as possible presidential contender Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and former governor of Arkansas, tend to regard libertarians as libertines. Already the press is anticipating Paul having trouble in South Carolina and other early southern primary states, despite Paul’s recent carefully calculated courtship of the crucial religious voters in those states, but the press isn’t much aware of how social conservatives are thinking these days. The religious right is now on the defensive, less concerned with banning abortion or preventing same-sex marriages than the increasingly real possibility of being forced to pay for abortifacients or bake cakes or pizza pies for homosexual wedding ceremonies, and they will find the libertarians invaluable allies in those fights. Besides, most of the religious right is quite comfortable with free market capitalism, unless they’re working in industries that require protectionism or some other government protection, and Paul, like his father, the obstetrician and libertarian hero and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, is anti-abortion, staking out a not uncommon libertarian position that the unborn are also due liberty.
Those rooting against the conservative coalition seem more hopeful that foreign policy will prove the dividing issue, but this seems doubtful. Only the most doctrinaire sorts of libertarians are strict isolationists such as Paul’s father, with most understanding that the national defense is crucial to the preservation to liberty, and even the younger Paul has lately been espousing a more robust foreign policy by advocating for increased military spending and signing on to that controversial letter opposing the proposed deal with Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program. It remains to be seen if Paul can persuade the defense hawks that his recent conversion is sincere, the past six years have so thoroughly discredited isolationism that the Republican party will almost certainly be united behind a more pragmatic philosophy.
Paul doesn’t strike us as the one who will ultimately reunite that conservative coalition, but not for the reasons that press cites. We expect the Republicans will not only be looking for Reagan’s three-legged conservatism but also experience and results, which a one-term Senator cannot claim, and even Paul’s impeccable anti-establishment credentials won’t help with the party’s anti-Washington mood. Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker has a record of withstanding the most brutal left-wing attacks in taking on the public and private sector unions to enact capitalist reforms, he’s managed to avoid giving offense to either the religious or secular populations of his state, his utter lack of foreign policy experience allows him to articulate whatever defense policies he chooses, and anyone with a similar resume should be able to re-build that three-legged stool. Whatever qualms any of the three parts of the stool might have about the others, they’ll likely find the Democratic alternative far worse.

— Bud Norman

To Vaccine, or Not to Vaccine

There’s been a spate of news stories about vaccinations lately, and we’re not sure why. It seems to have something to do with an outbreak of measles that started in California and has since spread to seven other states, Mexico, and the bloodstream of the nation’s politics as far away as New Jersey, as the press has avidly pressed all the prominent public figures about their stands on mandatory vaccinations. Most of the brouhaha seems to involve two of the more prominent potential Republican presidential candidates, rather than what the people who actually make current policy are doing, so we suspect all the coverage might have more to do with partisanship rather than the public health.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have both been pilloried for offering the opinion that perhaps in some cases vaccinations should be voluntary, with many pundits extrapolating that such anti-science craziness is running amok in the Republican party, but the storyline might lead to conclusions that the press does not intend.
Although we’re not inclined to support the presidential candidacies of either Christie or Paul their comments don’t seem so very extreme, and to the extent they are it’s hardly a craziness unique to the Republican party. Christie reportedly called for “balance” between individual rights and community health and “some measure of choice” before clarifying the comments by saying “there is no question that children should be vaccinated.” Paul waded into deeper waters by claiming vaccinations should be voluntary as they have been associated with mental disorders and saying that parents “should have some input,” which led to the resurrection of earlier quotes likening mandatory vaccinations to martial law, but he’s also done some clarifying by saying that he didn’t mean to find a causation rather than just a correlation between vaccination and mental disorders and the demonstrating his acceptance of vaccination as a medical practice by “tweeting” a photograph of himself getting a booster shot. Both men might be mistaken even in their most carefully clarified opinions, but neither seem to be on the lunatic fringe.
We have no expertise in any medical field that would entitle us to comment on the matter, but our general experience of civilization has inoculated in us a belief that individual liberty and parental rights should not weigh lightly on the scale counter-balancing communal concerns. Nor do we trust blindly in scientific expertise, which has never been infallible and lately seems more fallible than ever. If the people who truly do know what they’re talking about are verifiably correct that such coercive measures as barring un-vaccinated children from school are required to protect the reset of the population from outbreaks of deadly disease we have no problem with those policies, but that conclusion can only be verified by the most skeptical analysis. There’s a long history of public policy and jurisprudence on the question of mandatory vaccinations, with public debate pushing the scales on both sides at various times, and one can only hope that if the debate isn’t shut down prematurely it will lead to the most beneficial outcome this time around.
Skeptical analysis will strike some as a superstitious and anti-scientific attitude, and this may well be one of those occasions when skepticism is overcome by scientific proof, but it is by no means unique to any particular party or political philosophy. The eminently conservative National Review makes an eminently conservative case for mandatory vaccinations, while the anti-vaccination groups are largely funded by liberal donors. Such an influential pundit as Jon Stewart let Robert Kennedy Jr. go on about his anti-vaccination views,  and fellow agitprop comic Bill Maher voiced opinions that go beyond what Christie or Paul ever while said  token Republican guest former Republican Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist was calling him “crazy.” For as long as we can remember the pretty face of the anti-vaccination movement has been former Playboy model and reality television star Jenny McCarthy, and although we’re not sure of her political views on any other topic we doubt she’s a doctrinaire Republican. An instinctive distrust of the medical establishment is now more common among the holistic and homeopathic sort of liberals than it is among those simple rural Republican folk who used to fall for goat-gland quackery but now sign up for insurance that will cover all the latest medical marvels, and if we all die for lack of vaccination it will be hard to pin it on the Republican party or conservatism generally.
This all started in California, as we recall from a few paragraphs ago, and there’s no plausible way to blame the Republicans for anything that happens there. After several giddy stories about Christie’s and Paul’s apparent missteps The Washington Post got around to reporting that even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton might take a mistaken step in the “political minefield” of vaccination politics, but in her case they worry that her past advocacy of mandatory vaccinations will be a liability and that her brief flirtation with the now-assumed-debunked theory that vaccinations cause autism will also be a problem. Given that Clinton is more likely to be the Democratic nominee than either Christie or Paul are to be the Republican standard-bearer, that story might stick around longer.
In case you’re wondering where the current president stands on this, be assured that a grand total of three reporters among the ravenous pack at the latest press conference put the question to the White House spokesman. It took all three tries and more than an hour, but at they at last elicited the answer that parents certainly should have their children vaccinated, and that therefore every parent will do so,  so the federal government need not force them to do so. This strikes us as very similar to the more controversial remarks by Christie and Paul, and just as incoherent, but it comes from the White House and is therefore assumed to be a very centrist and reasonable position. There were no question regarding the $50 million that Obama’s budget proposes cutting from vaccination programs for the uninsured, but we would have enjoyed hearing the response.
Having no children we don’t have to reach any decisions concerning pediatric inoculations, and unless any of our personal problems can be somehow attributed to some previously undetected form of autism we are grateful that our parents chose to follow the prevailing medical advice of decades past, although we’ve forgone any shots for many years now without any apparent ill effects, but we offer no advice to anyone regarding vaccinations. Whatever you might be forced to choose, you’ll probably make as good a guess as any politician.

— Bud Norman

Romney Rides Again

The Washington press is abuzz that Mitt Romney seems poised for another run at the presidency, but we wonder how many of the people who will be voting in the Republican primaries and caucuses share the excitement.
There’s no wondering why the press is excited. The investment mogul and former Massachusetts governor and past Republican nominee adds a familiar name to to their too-early-to-read campaign reports full of little-known governors and congressional long shots, sets up an intriguing storyline about the inevitable fight for big-money donors and the party establishment’s support against a former Florida governor with the familiar last name of Bush, and otherwise serves a favorite press narrative about top hat-wearing and moustache-twirling plutocratic Republicans and their internecine battle with the tin foil hat-wearing conservative crazies. Romney will also be a legitimate contender for the nomination, given all that big-donor money and establishment support and the fact he was once palatable enough to the people who vote in Republican primaries and caucuses to become the past nominee, so there are even valid journalistic reasons for the attention being paid.
Presidential re-runs are not unprecedented, of course. In the early 1800’s Charles Pinckney was twice the candidate of the Federalist Party, losing both times, which helps explain why there is no longer a Federalist Party. Grover Cleveland won, lost, then won again for the Democrats in the late 1880s. William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination three times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with his brand of prairie populism, and lost the general election in each case. Thomas Dewey was twice the Republican nominee in the ’40s and twice the loser to Franklin Roosevelt, and Adlai Stevenson was twice the Democratic nominee in the ’50s and twice the loser to Dwight Eisenhower. Nixon was the Republican nominee in ’60 and lost but came back “tanned, rested, and ready” to win in ’68, so unless you remember how that turned out the record isn’t entirely gloomy.
There were those polls a while back showing that Romney would have won a re-match with President Barack Obama, too, and the next batch of surveys will no doubt show that he has a lead on all the candidates whose names are being thrown in the mix. Whoever survives the early blows between Romney and Bush will have the “establishment” support to himself while a wide field of contenders are still battling for “conservative” bloc, and that does provide a plausible plot for the Romney scenario. Money and organization and professional expertise matter, as well, and Romney will have plenty of them. There’s also an argument to be made that he would be a good president, and we proudly made the argument that he would have been better than Barack Obama, and that also matters even if it won’t be a part of the press narrative.
All of that will earn Romney a look from Republicans, but we expect it will be quite skeptical. A more robustly conservative candidate running an effective national campaign could have beaten Obama at any point in the last two years, which Romney failed to do when he had the chance, and that lead you see in the next batch of polls is over a group of more conservative Republicans that have not yet announced their candidacy much less launched a campaign. Among those little-known governors and congressional long shots are some impressive candidates, and they comprise a field far more formidable than Romney faced last time around.
Texas’ Gov. Rick Perry imploded with poor campaigning after a surgery and the weight of the deals he had made on immigration to win a crucial share of the Latino vote in his home state, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was tarred by personal scandals and lobbying ties and the years of vituperation by the left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum couldn’t resist being lured into divisive social issues, former pizza magnate and future talk show host Herman Cain had a sex scandal, “tea party” favorite Rep. Michelle Bachmann dropped out early on, promising former Minnesota Gov. Tom Pawlenty dropped out for no apparent reason even earlier, and the likable and competent Romney suddenly seemed the best shot. This time he’ll face the likes of Gov. Scott Walker, who has won three elections to serve two astoundingly successful terms despite the most furious efforts of the Democratic left, Governors Rick Snyder and John Kasich of Michigan and Ohio, respectively, who have won re-election in their crucial states with the same sort of conservative policies, as well as a fully-recovered Perry who managed to demonstrate his anti-illegal immigration bona fides before leaving office, and the likes of Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul and Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz, who have shown the sort of boldness conservatives desire on economic issues and represent the polar ends of a crucial intra-party debate on foreign policy.
Any candidate that emerges from that field should be able to win the nomination. Our guess is that the Romney will win the fight with Gov. Jeb Bush for the “establishment” mantle, given that Bush has irrevocable positions on illegal immigration and that horrible “Common Core” curriculum that the federal wants to impose on local education systems that are anathema to all but the wealthiest Republicans, but the Washington press doesn’t seem to understand that “establishment” is now a most foul epithet among the people who vote in Republican primaries and caucuses. The intense scrutiny that the other contenders have already endured suggests there won’t be scandals to knock any of them out of the race, and they’ll have strong arguments to make about Obamacare and regulations and taxes and getting the government out of the way that the technocratic Romney will have trouble countering. He’s a legitimate contender, but by no means a front-runner.
We might be proved wrong, of course, in which case our only consolation is in knowing that Romney would be a better candidate than anyone the Democrats might put up.

— Bud Norman

The Silly Season of Politics

There are still a couple of weeks left in 2014, according to that damnable calendar icon that taunts us with the relentless passage of time whenever we log on to our computer, but the presidential campaign of 2016 already seems well underway. An otherwise slow news day was full of speculation about the Republican contest on Tuesday, but none of it was quite so compelling as the Wichita State University Wheatshockers’ basketball squad home court win over an unranked but upset-minded University of Alabama Crimson Tide by a score of 53-52. Our beloved ‘Shockers went on a 13-1 run over the final five minutes to seal the narrow victory, and we don’t expect the Republican race to be quite so exciting as the pre-season hype would indicate.
All the talk on Tuesday was about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who announced that he was thinking about pursuing the nomination. Bush is also the son of former President George Herbert Walker Bush and the brother of President of George W. Bush, and the grandson of Sen. Prescott Bush, and an heir to God only knows how many previous generations of big deal Bushes, so running the country is pretty much his family business and his announcement that he was all but announcing his candidacy for president was not a surprise. More surprising was that so much of the press took serious the notion that Bush might actually win, and regarded his admittedly impeccable “establishment” credentials as a likely reason. These scribes are apparently too far removed from the Republicans’ fly-over country base to know that “establishment” is now as much a pejorative to its primary electorate than it ever was the hippies, and that the Bush name is now synonymous with a big-government style of conservatism that is widely considered unsuited to the nation’s needs or the party’s desires. Bush has already staked on stands on illegal immigration and the federalization of education that are anathema to Republican stalwarts, both of which remind the party’s activist base of everything they hated about his brother and father and grandfather and all those previous generations of big deal Bushes, and no amount of fund-raising is likely to negate those disadvantages.
The press gleefully noted that Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul was already issuing advertisements against Bush, a clear signal of his unsurprising intention to seek the nomination, but neither do we regard Paul as pre-season favorite for the nomination. He’s certainly not at all “establishment,” being heir only to the quixotic campaigns of his father, former quadrennial presidential candidate and Texas’ Rep. Ron Paul, but he’s staked out accommodating positions on foreign policy issues that will not play well at a time when Russia and China and Islamism are all ascendant. There was even some attention paid to to disparaging remarks made about Bush by Donald Trump, a real estate mogul and reality star ever eager for paid attention, although we expect that “The Donald’s” ambitions are primary to produce publicity for whatever eponymous project he is planning in the private sector.
This is the “silly season” in presidential politics, to borrow yet another sports metaphor from golf, and the day’s headlines will be long forgotten by the metaphorical playoff time. The real contest begins with an impressive slate of governors get done with their necessary state business, and a smaller and less impressive slate of Representatives and Senators show what they’re willing to do with their party’s majorities, and a robust debate about who’s the most solid conservative is underway. The contestant from the prestigious confederation won’t necessarily prevail, as the Shockers’ hard-fought win over the Southeastern Conference demonstrated, and anyone who can plausibly deny responsibility for what’s been going in the big leagues of Washington will have an underdog’s leg up.
We expect an exciting race for the Republican nomination, and maybe even one of those improbable come-from-behind victories that cause you to shake hands with the bartender when you’re watching at Merle’s Tavern, but it never goes according to what the press is saying.

— Bud Norman

An Isolationist Moment

The first casualty of war is truth, according to a popular old saw, and in the case of the as-yet-unlaunched Syrian war the second casualty is likely to be America’s formerly robust foreign policy.
There is an isolationist streak in America’s character which reasserts itself from time to time, and we seem to have arrived at once again at one of those times. All the polling indicates a deep skepticism among the American people about any intervention in Syria’s brutal civil war, despite the President Barack Obama’s plausible allegations that the ruling regime there has used chemical weapons against its people, and there’s no mistaking a sense that it reflects a deep skepticism about the very notion of American as the enforcer of international norms.
Such skepticism has always been found on both the left and right of the political spectrum, and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are now expressing opposition to any action in Syria. The president might yet win Congressional approval for his planned missile strikes, which he promises which will be insignificant nature and done with in a short time, but it looks likely the vote will nonetheless reflect significant opposition within both parties. Naysaying Democrats will cite all the same arguments that candidate Obama made back in’ 07 and ’08 about the Iraq war, citing the folly of trusting unproved intelligence, acting without the consensus approval of the international community, and of course using military power than cultural sensitivity and soothing rhetoric to solve problems, and no amount of assurances of that the war will be barely noticeable will lessen their disappointment that Obama has now tossed aside all that campaign blather. Some Republicans will vote against action because of the promises it will be limited, and thus almost certainly ineffectual, as well as a suspicion that such a bungling administration which can’t line up any allies other than famously feckless France shouldn’t be trust with war powers, but others will vote “no” because of the same weariness with America’s global role found on the left.
The president will also find support on both sides of the aisle, of course. Formerly dovish House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi is among the sudden hawks on the who will support their president no matter how cravenly partisan they might seem, her party’s formidable discipline will force many likeminded Democrats into line, and the party’s numerous internationalists will also vote with Obama despite the lack of allies and international sanction they have usually insisted on. House Speaker John Boehner is among Republicans who plan to vote for an authorization of military action, even though he surely knows it won’t stop Obama from disparaging him and his party as a heartless plutocrats during the upcoming debt-ceiling negotiations, and despite Boehner’s promise not to “whip” his members a principled disregard for international opinion many other internationalists in the party will join him.
No matter how the arguments play out in Congress, the isolationists are likely to win public opinion. Even such a perfunctory war as Obama promises cannot win support from a left that still seethes over an Iraq war that enjoyed more domestic and international support at its outset and was based on more convincing arguments and pursued by a more steadfast president, and most of the right are too reluctant to support yet another ineffectual effort by a president they do no trust. Those in the middle are tired of hearing about wars and the always troublesome rest of the world, and now they’re even reading critical coverage of the president in the big newspapers, and it’s not as if the president and his equally hapless spokesmen are making a compelling case to rebut all the criticisms. With little good likely to come from a few symbolic missiles lobbed at Syria, and with all of the chemical arsenal safely tucked away among the civilian population during the interminable lead-up to the strikes, the case for intervention will be all the harder to make afterwards even if it doesn’t provoke a catastrophic response from the Syrians, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, or any of the other bad actors on the other side.
The public’s displeasure with this mess will provide an opportunity for such conservative isolationists as Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul, who has assumed a leading role in the opposition with his aggressive interrogation of Secretary of State John Kerry during Senate hearings on the war. Five years of slow growth and stubborn unemployment have caused many Americans to question if high taxes, huge deficits, and hyper-regulation are the right economic policy, revelations about the Internal Revenue Service and Justice Department and National Security as well as the countless intrusions of Obamacare and other big government schemes have left people feeling less free, and now Syria is the latest foreign fiasco to foster an isolationist mood, and Paul’s brand of pure libertarianism suddenly seems to have all the answers. The isolationism of the left has now been repudiated by Obama himself, and the left is still stuck with the effects of his economic policies and the scandals of his ever-growing government, making Paul or some like-minded outsider the best positioned candidates to run on a platform of staying at home in peace.
Which won’t make the world any less troublesome, or keep it out of our home, but so long as American power is wielded so ineptly has it has been lately the argument will be hard for the public to resist.

— Bud Norman

A Bigger Bite of the Apple

These words are being written on an Apple computer, and there is a good chance that you are reading them on one. We are grateful to the folks at the Apple computer company for this valuable contribution to modern literature, whatever faults they might have, and therefore wish them well in their current spat with the United States government.
The United States government has so many spats brewing at the moment that you might have missed it, but a Senate subcommittee spent much of Tuesday grilling Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook about his company’s shockingly unpatriotic tax dodging. By all accounts the company has paid every penny of taxes that the law demands, which adds up to such an astounding amount of money that Apple might be the world’s biggest contributor to the national treasury, but some Senators are nonetheless shocked that Apple isn’t voluntarily paying many billions of dollars more out of pure love for country.
Apple freely admits that it has availed itself of a number of complicated laws to shelter much of its considerable foreign earnings from America’s corporate income tax, and the Senators think it is unfair for the company to do so. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, said the company was using “gimmicks” to avoid paying taxes, and Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said the company was exploiting “egregious loopholes that exist in the tax code.” All of the gimmicks and egregious loopholes the Senators refer to are laws passed by the Senate, of course, but apparently it is unsporting for a company to take advantage of such generosity. One way to get more money out of Apple would be to lower the nation’s corporate income tax rate, which is by far the highest in the world, and otherwise amend the tax code to make it economically feasible for companies such as Apple to increase its businesses while paying a reasonable but helpful portion of their profits to America rather than the less-greedy foreigners who offer shelter, but the Senators seem to prefer slicing the goose wide open and grabbing all the golden eggs at once.
The only Senator to side with Apple during the hearings was Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, whose opening and closing speeches were so brilliant that even we cannot improve them. Although we fret that Paul might have the same kooky isolationist streak as his father, libertarian hero Rep. Ron Paul, his performance at the hearing provided yet another reason to regard him as a rising political star. Among other fine arguments he noted that none of his fellow Senators ever pay more than they are legally required, and that it is rank hypocrisy for them to expect others to cough up more than the law demands. We would have seized the opportunity to remind the public how Bill and Hillary Clinton were so scrupulous as to deduct the value of the used underwear they donated to charity, but this is a mere quibble.
There is some irony in Paul rushing to Apple’s defense, given the company’s long history of donating to Democratic candidates and publicly identifying itself with Democratic causes, but perhaps having a Senate subcommittee treating its executives like Michael Corleone in “Godfather II” will cause the company to reconsider its political policies. Admitting its capitalist tendencies might endanger the Apple’s hip and up-to-date image, which has done almost as much for its success as the innovation, reliability, and value of its products, but it could prove more helpful to its bottom line. Besides, the way things are going for big government lately, capitalism might soon be perceived as hip and up-to-date.

— Bud Norman