And the winner is…?

August 6, 2012

For the first time in weeks, President Obama took the lead in the Rasmussen tracking poll survey (by 2). As of this posting, he still leads in the Gallup tracking poll by 1. Most of the non-tracking, “snapshot in time” polls also have the president ahead. Worried Republicans are already starting to whisper about Election 2012 slipping away. It’s as if no one has paid attention to the last 25 years.

This is not to say I am certain Mitt Romney will win; in fact, I don’t know who will win at this point in time – and neither does anyone else. Predicting election results before the conventions is foolhardy. Full Stop.

Of course, it didn’t use to be this way. Based on Gallup’s historical numbers, between 1936 (when they first started polling) and 1984, the leader in the polls before the conventions won all but once (the infamous 1948 foul-up), and of the twelve who won, ten never lost their lead (Kennedy fell behind Nixon in 1960 before recovering after the first televised debate; and Reagan fell behind Carter in 1980 before his own post-debate recovery). So if one were basing their predictions on that 48 year span, the president is in fine shape.

Unfortunately for the president and his backers, things became much more unstable after 1984. Of the six front-runners going into the convention period between 1988 and 2008, only one was still in front coming out of it (Clinton in 1996, and even he saw 7 points shaved off his lead). Two of them (Dukakis in 1988 and Bush the Elder in 1992) fell behind and never recovered; two others (Bush in 2000 and Obama himself) were able to recover in September; one (Kerry 2004) managed a temporary recovery only to fall back again by Election Day.

In other words, being in the lead before the conventions start isn’t what it used to be.

This may surprise many political observers (and even a few activists and consultants) who have perceived conventions to be on the wane. Yet the 2008 conventions broke viewership records, and the GOP gathering actually topped the final American Idol episode from earlier in the year (a first in the AI era). Whatever one may think of conventions, they remain the best opportunity for the major parties to present their case to the American people.

This year the conventions begin and end later than ever before, meaning two vital pieces of information (how America reacts to them) are still unknown. Woe to (s)he who tries to guess the election winner without them.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

1812: the culmination of a fourteen-year mistake

June 26, 2012

Two centuries ago this month, the United States of America completed a fourteen-year series of blunders by starting an unnecessary war that led to the destruction of the capital, embarrassing defeats in what is now the Midwest, a peace that solved none of the issues that started the war in the first place, and a battle (two weeks after the peace was signed) that inflicted Andrew Jackson upon the nation. The events from 1798 to 1815 are a clear-as-crystal warning from history of the dangers of geopolitical naivete, “non-intervention,” and general disinterest in foreign affairs that, sadly, still find favor in far too many classical liberals today. That their prominent political progenitors (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) were forced to jettison nearly every belief they had in limited government to justify Adams’ mistake is an irony so painful it is clearly lost on them.

Normally, when it comes to a major foreign policy decision, it is about an action taken – usually a war. This is one of those rare instances where we can examine the effects of a war not undertaken: in this case, a 1798 war with France. Much of the arguments against war (outside of the ones openly sympathetic to the tyrannical “Republic” in Paris) became “non-intervention” mainstays: the risk of state expansion, the preference for a foreign policy based on commerce only, the value of diplomacy, and the danger of lost blood and treasure. What the events after 1798 reveal is that non-intervention does not take place in a vacuum. In fact, it is quite clear that the decision not to go to war with France made the very fears aforementioned come true – and then gave us a war with France’s enemy to boot.

For example: Government power growing and danger to commerce didn’t need a war with France to rear their ugly heads. Jefferson himself, in a desperate attempt to avoid the merchant marine getting slammed by both France and Great Britain, convinced Congress to pass the hideous Embargo Act of 1807, easily the most intrusive peace-time economic measure this side of Obamacare. Commerce was ground to a halt not due to war, but ostensibly to prevent one. Ditto the expansion of government power. By contrast, Great Britain would have certainly maintained and protected US trade had we been at war with France (lest we forget, Britain herself had been at war with France since 1793).

Meanwhile, diplomacy and concern for loss of men and resources in battle is essentially laid waste by the actual War of 1812, in which we took on a much more formidable enemy (Great Britain as she defeated Napoleon) than we would have faced in 1798 (a weakened French Directorate that had sent Napoleon to Egypt). A War of 1798 would have likely meant the easy seizure of Louisiana (instead of paying $15 million five years later) as well as American possessions in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, most of the reasons for war with Britain in 1812 would have been resolved quickly years before that. London would have hardly considered Royal Navy deserters to American ships as a mortal threat if said deserters were still fighting the French (albeit under different colors). Border issues in re Canada would have been transformed from interesting geopolitics to useless distractions drawing men and arms away from the common enemy. As mentioned before, Great Britain would now consider American commerce abroad as a value to be protected, rather than a problem to be fought.

Would the War of 1798 have been unpopular in some areas? Yes, including most likely Virginia. Would it have been worse than the controversy surrounding the War of 1812? Only those with no knowledge of New England would even ask the question.

In short, the alternative to war is not always “peace.” It can often be twisted policies that surrender the very things peace was supposed to protect and a different war against the wrong adversary. In the case of War of 1798, its avoidance led America to both, the latter being the lamentable War of 1812.

Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon

In Russia, the president reveals his arrogance . . . and ignorance

March 26, 2012

The blogosphere practically exploded over President Obama’s admission to his outgoing Russian counterpart that he could easily make a deal on missile defense once this whole pesky election thing was out of the way (ABC via Weekly Standard, emphasis added):

President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.

President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…

President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.

From one angle, this simply confirms every worst fear about the president – once he is no longer accountable to the people, he will be free to impose his will on the country without limitation.

Clearly, that’s how he, himself, sees the situation, and that should give any voter considering his re-election pause.

However, it also reveals something else – just as important, in my view – his rather stunning ignorance of American history on the subject.

America has only had five presidents who by law were disallowed from seeking another term (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush*). If one considers the pre-FDR two term tradition as one solid enough to create the same impediment for a third term (and in the case of Ulysses Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, it wasn’t), one could add Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, and Wilson to the list.

Nearly all of these twelve presidents began their second term with roughly the same sense of energy and optimism that Obama would (Madison is the exception, having been re-elected in the midst of the disastrous War of 1812). Nearly all (Madison excepted again) took their re-election as a mandate to establish their vision of America as permanent American policy.  All of them (including Madison) had their plans thoroughly wrecked by either the political opposition (in Lincoln’s case, fatally), maneuverings within their own party, or – the favorite fear of Harold MacMillan – events. To wit…

Jefferson took his re-election (which was arguably the most lopsided contested national result until 1964) as the mandate it really was, but the Napoleonic Wars dominated his second term, and led the champion of limited government to impose the most intrusive economic regulation this side of Obamacare (the Embargo Act).

Madison’s second term was almost completely dominated by the War of 1812, the end of which was known to Americans halfway through the term. The realities of war led him to some dramatic flip-flops, such as pushing Congress to bring back the Bank of the United States just five years after he let its charter expire in 1811.

Monroe, whose supporters actually needed to find an elector willing to vote against him to preserve the uniqueness of Washington’s unanimous elections, began his Administration as the political master of the universe, and ended it with the Jeffersonian Republicans blasted to factional pieces.

Jackson, whose re-election in 1832 was arguably the most policy-driven campaign since 1800, was actually censured by the Senate in his second term, forced by southerners to restrict freedom of speech via mail, and – by historian Sean Wilentz’s account – watched his hard-money policy go up in smoke at the hands of Whigs and state-bank-backed Democrats, even as the BUS charter expired in 1836.

Cleveland’s plans for his second term (which came in a revenge election, dethroning the man who defeated his own re-election plans four years earlier) were laid waste by the Panic of 1893. By 1896 his own party had abandoned him, and most of his supporters quietly backed the Republicans.

Wilson, elected in 1912 due largely to Teddy Roosevelt’s hubris and driven almost entirely by a vision of dramatic domestic reform, saw his second term literally explode in World War I – a war he loudly and categorically opposed in his re-election campaign (his slogan: “He kept us out of war”). In one of the bizarre ironies of history, the rickety, overarching, nearly-collapsed-under-its-own-weight rationale Wilson threw together in desperation to explain his switcheroo became the basis for international diplomacy. Except that would be a generation later. Wilson himself saw the American people completely reject his “vision”, first with the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, and then with the Harding landslide of 1920.

Even FDR’s second term was a complete mess (before Hitler invaded Poland, Bob Taft was running even with FDR in election polls, and incumbents in that position are always in deep trouble). TR would have gone down in history as the Panic of 1907 president had J.P. Morgan not bailed out the country. Grant’s triumphant re-election actually left him weaker politically as party factions maneuvered under him. Finally, Washington himself – the creator of the two-term tradition – probably came up with it after realizing his effort to be the nonpartisan national leader had collapsed in reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion and the Jay Treaty (Washington gave up trying in 1796, endorsing John Adams and essentially declaring himself a Federalist).

Now, one could say that tradition is one thing, while the law is another, and that the imposed and certain liberation of having to go to the voters can change things. There’s only one problem with that logic: it didn’t.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first president blessed with the “no more elections” freedom. His second term was dominated by Sputnik hysteria and the first clamors for civil rights, neither of which was on his radar (unlike most 1950s-era Republicans, Ike cared little about civil rights, and was largely pushed into it by southern intransigence on the one hand and the latent Nixon-1960 campaign pushing him to do more on the other). He actually wanted to remake the Republican Party entirely in his image – which the party (led again, quietly, by Nixon) almost completely rejected.

Nixon himself was thoroughly emasculated by Watergate, which consumed his second term before it even began. The Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War were seen more as a sign of weakness then strength, and the guarantees he made to protect South Vietnam were thoroughly rejected by Congress. Nixon’s “detente” foreign policy with the Soviets, meanwhile, was savaged even by left-wing Democrats (who bashed it as a way to temporarily re-enter into the anti-Communist consensus). No Republican aspirant for President in 1976 would even touch it (Ford himself refused to mention it even though he was still employing co-architect Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State).

One could argue the Ronald Reagan had the most successful second term of just about any President; however, that was mainly reaping rewards from the hard choices of the first term. The rapid defense buildup of the early 1980s actually went into reverse during the second term (not by Reagan’s choice); Congress imposed trade sanctions against South Africa over Reagan’s veto; aid to the Nicaraguan anti-Communist resistance practically dried up (leading in part to the Iran-Contra fiasco); and by 1988, a majority of his own party’s candidates for president opposed his signature arms-control treaty (the INF treaty).

Finally, whatever plans Bill Clinton may have had for his second term, a Republican Congress made sure he almost never mentioned them. Instead, government spending as a percentage of GDP went down, and on foreign policy, Clinton was forced into reactions by the UN, Saddam Hussein, and Congressional Republicans. His one success came in Bosnia, largely because the Serbian opposition used the war as an opportunity to challenge and dethrone Slobodan Milosevic – which was not a part of Clinton’s plan. What were in his plans – namely, Kyoto and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – were summarily rejected by Congress.

Bush the Younger used his inauguration to dramatically lay down foreign policy marker for the Wahhabist-Ba’athist-Khomeinist War. By the end of 2005, the reaction to Hurricane Katrina and events in Iraq weakened him so much politically it took all his political capital just to save the latter (during this time, Afghanistan began its own deterioration). By the end of his term, Bush was talking about destroying the free market to save it (TARP), and nearly all the political energy for the WBK War had evaporated.

In other words, a president doesn’t quite have the free hand in his second term as is generally believed. Even in foreign policy, Congress can be much more powerful than even they realize, and events can completely upend a president’s actions. An Iranian ICBM test could lead Congress to force SDI funding down the president’s throat – and while Obama himself might be more than willing to veto a defense bill to stop SDI, the numerous Democrats running to succeed him would probably run for cover, jeopardizing his position substantially. Moreover, as the Clinton (and Wilson) treaty problems reveal, any actual agreement to stop SDI would run into serious trouble.

So, while Obama’s comments say quite a bit about him, they say little about his prospects for “flexibility” in a second term . . . assuming he even gets one.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

* Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman were eligible for another term in 1968 and 1952, respectively. Johnson actually won the New Hampshire primary, but faced certain defeat in Wisconsin, and chose not to tun again. Truman, facing certain defeat in New Hampshire, also pulled out of the race in early 1952.

Portsmouth Historical Commission Dedicates May as Southern Unionist History Month

March 22, 2012

For a whole slew of reasons, Southern Unionism during the War of the Rebellion is of special importance to me. Some time in 2010 (during the whole Confederate History Month brouhaha), I came up with the idea of Southern Unionist History Month. Late last year, a friend of mine (Greg Eatroff) who serves on the Portsmouth Historical Commission came across a memorial in Lincoln Cemetery built by the Silas Fellows Post #7 of the Grand Army of the Republic, in honor of local Unionist veterans who had gone to their greater reward.

That inspired us to push forward on SUHM. Greg took the ball and presented this resolution to the Portsmouth Historical Commission; the Commission passed it last Tuesday night:

Whereas the history of the Civil War has at times, understandably but mistakenly, been seen as a battle between regions . . .

Whereas in reality the dedication to Union and Emancipation was shared by millions of Americans north and south . . .

Whereas there were many in the states that formed the Confederacy “who in the darkest hour of slavery kept alive in their souls a love of manhood rights, justice, and the unity of the United States of America”

Whereas these men and women who risked everything to preserve the Union are rarely remembered as much as they should . . .

Whereas in Virginia especially, support for Union was so pronounced that the state split itself in two . . .

Whereas many of the people of present day Virginia can also look to the family histories of Unionism of which they can be proud . . .

And whereas the city of Portsmouth was, for much of the war, a haven for Virginia’s Unionists, both black and white . . .

Be it resolved that the City of Portsmouth through its History Commission. . .

Declare May of this year to be Southern Unionist History Month,

Encourage other localities in Virginia and the Commonwealth itself to join in this declaration, and

Provide for various events and information during May to make Virginians more aware of Civil War Unionism in and around Portsmouth, Virginia.

The resolution will be present to the Portsmouth City Council next week.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

Elections matter – even in 2012

March 6, 2012

The Washington Post is writing in public what most conservatives have heard from some of their brethren in private (except in George Will’s case, where he also went public): better to write off the presidential election this November and move on to 2016. Granted what Will says publicly (focus on flipping the Senate and holding the House) and what the unnamed sources are telling Chris Cillizza privately (better to crash and burn now for a complete rebuild later) are not quite the same things, but I would humbly submit that neither should be entertained.

Both Will and insert-consultants-bending-Cillizza’s-ear-here cite the election of 1964, which has been stunningly rewritten as a “victorious defeat” reminiscent of the Republicans’ first ever effort to win the presidency (1856). The consultants see the ’64 race as a time when the party just hit rock-bottom and then . . .

Four years later, Republicans — showing their lesson learned — nominated establishment favorite and political pragmatist Richard Nixon. (Nixon had been defeated by John Kennedy in 1960 and declined to run in 1964.) Nixon ended eight years of Democratic control of the White House when he beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election.

This analogy has so many problems that I can only assume none of Cillizza’s sources actually lived through the 1960s. Admittedly, I didn’t either, but I have reviewed the accounts of several who did, and it tells a very different story of 1968.

For one, the “pragmatic” moderates and liberals in the GOP did not want Richard Nixon as their candidate. Nelson Rockefeller was their man, without question. It was the conservatives in the party (John Tower, Strom Thurmond, and others) who pushed for Nixon to come out of his self-induced, post-1962 retirement. The 1960s equivalent of the consultants whispering in Cillizza’s ear were terrified of Nixon being nominated (he had, after all, lost the nearly unlosable election for Governor of California in 1962). We remember Ronald Reagan as the conservatives’ choice in 1968, but Reagan was a “favorite son” of California until the day the convention opened. For much of the campaign, it was the Nixon and the conservatives against Rockefeller and the moderates.

Secondly, Richard Nixon hardly helped the Republican recovery – and probably damaged it. With the exception of Zachary Taylor, no president-elect in American history ever provided less support to his fellow party nominees in the year he won. Nixon’s 1968 vote (43%) was the lowest of any president-elect in over a century. Even as he won his 1972 re-election in a massive landslide, he became the only president to never deliver even one house of Congress to his party. By the time his second term expired (without him) in 1977, the Republicans were in worse shape than they were in 1968.

Finally, the Democrats used Johnson’s full term to dramatically expand government. Medicare and Medicaid were created in 1965, two-thirds of the entitlement monster that threatens to devour us (while the former has become the Democrats’ “model” for their health care end-state). This dovetails with Will’s assertion that the right might be better off letting the White House go in 2012. Johnson’s 1964 campaign made little mention of the massive expansion of government he was planning, but that didn’t stop him from doing it anyway.

Now, one could say that Obama – faced with a GOP Congress – could do less damage. However, two of the biggest government encroachments of the “aughts” – in campaign finance and Medicare Part D – began as talking points used by Clinton to brow-beat Republican Congressional majorities.

All of this is just in the domestic realm. We have said nothing of the foreign policy consequences. After romping to victory in 1964, Johnson moved forward on Vietnam in a manner so confusing, limited, and hamstrung that the entire GOP was united against him (even Rockefeller was more hawkish than LBJ). Meanwhile, as the 1970s progressed toward the event that in Will’s mind supposedly justified the ’64 drubbing (the election of 1980), Vietnam fell to the Communists, Cambodia was bled white by Pol Pot, Central America was sucked into the Cold War (with devastating consequences), and long-time ally Iran was abandoned by the Carter Administration and seized by a radical Shiite cleric who imprisoned his own people and built a regime that is still the scourge of the region.

Is that really the model we want to follow?

I understand the frustration so many on the right have with the current field. It was one of the reasons I waited so long to make a decision myself. However, just because the nominee won’t be perfect, or the campaign may become difficult, doesn’t mean you discount the importance of an election. An elected President Ford might have made the history of Iran – and by extension, the rest of the Middle East – very different. A re-elected President Bush the Elder might have put more focus on Afghanistan as the Taliban first stretched its muscles. President McCain would have reacted very differently to the 2009 Iranian protests and Hamid Karzai’s blatant election theft that same year; dramatically rewriting recent history in both places.

So, as fashionable as it may be to think or say otherwise, elections always matter. If they didn’t, no one would miss them.

This one matters, too.

Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon

Steve Jobs: Only in America

October 6, 2011

The passing of Steve Jobs has led to a lot of commentary. Most, as expected, focuses on his later life: the innovations he spawned, the consumer tech revolution he led, the fact that his vision came without government regulations or subsidies, etc. Kevin Williamson – over at NRO - summarizes it better than anyone:

Mr. Jobs’s contribution to the world is Apple and its products, along with Pixar and his other enterprises, his 338 patented inventions — his work — not some Steve Jobs Memorial Foundation for Giving Stuff to Poor People in Exotic Lands and Making Me Feel Good About Myself. Because he already did that: He gave them better computers, better telephones, better music players, etc. In a lot of cases, he gave them better jobs, too. Did he do it because he was a nice guy, or because he was greedy, or because he was a maniacally single-minded competitor who got up every morning possessed by an unspeakable rage to strangle his rivals? The beauty of capitalism — the beauty of the iPhone world as opposed to the world of politics — is that that question does not matter one little bit. Whatever drove Jobs, it drove him to create superior products, better stuff at better prices.

This is how most will remember Jobs, and I can understand why. However, there was more to it than that. Steve Jobs wasn’t just a great success story, he was arguably one of America’s greatest failure stories as well. His success speaks well for him, but the fact that he could recover from the depths to which he fell speaks more profoundly for America (and, I hope, to America as well).

Lest we forget, at age 30, Steve Jobs was an abject failure. Fired from his own company, bested by rival Bill Gates, he was – in 1985 – just another visionary who had a hand in the computer age, but was laid low by his own hubris. The 1980s Steve Jobs was a tragic story about the rough-and-tumble world of American business (the best depiction of this comes from a now long-forgotten 1998 TNT TV Movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley). That said, at least the 1980s Jobs was a noble failure. By contrast, the 1997 version was a joke: a last gasp move by a desperate and dying Apple; a has-been who needed funding from Gates himself retake the tech version of the Titanic. Those who remembered and admired Jobs shook their heads as he talked about moving Apple into consumer products. What could he be thinking?

Fourteen years later, the joke’s on us. Hardly anyone remembers (and no one under 30 is even knows) the events of the paragraph above. But I think they should, because while Jobs’ success is praiseworthy, his recovery is a remarkable and stunning tale that should provide hope and inspiration to every American.

We’d like to think that Steve Jobs could only succeed here, but success stories circle the globe these days. However, I genuinely believe there is nowhere else on Earth where someone could fail as spectacularly as Jobs did and come back to be such a great success and pivotal person. Jobs “had it all,” lost it all, and earned it all back.

That happens only here, in the land of the second chance; the land where we still let the market pick winners and losers; where we still let the market turn yesterday’s winner into today’s loser and – if justifiable – tomorrow’s winner once more.

Steve Jobs began his second act in technology at 42; in just fourteen years he rescued his company, restored his reputation, and revolutionized how we work, live, and play. As I said, he could have “made it” just about anywhere. But plumb to the depths he fell and still come back to do all he did?

Only in America; only in America.

Why the 1967 borders are not safe for Israel (Part 4)

October 3, 2011

The long-interrupted series on the history of Israel now – finally – picks up where it left off in the 1990s (here’s the Intro, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3): the decade that should have made clear why returning to the 1967 borders was not feasible for Israel. Sadly, it did not.

In 1991, fresh off defeating Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I, the United States decided it could bring Israel and the Palestinians together in peace. Two years later, Israel and America had replaced leaders (each newcomer greatly pleasing to the other’s elite) and an interim deal with Yassir Arafat was a reality. A final deal seemed on the way.

Then things got problematic.

Arafat put himself up for “election” as Palestinian leader in 1996 – and only an ex-DFLP terrorist backer was willing to provide token opposition – but by 1999 he decided to cancel all elections and enforce his rule via the guns of his Fatah organization. Palestine has seen four “elections” – ballots in which only members of the various terrorist groups active in the place (Fatah, Hamas, PFLP, and DFLP) were allowed to compete (and Islamic Jihad called for boycotts – thus even tainting that option). In short, rather than present to their voters records of good governance, Palestine’s “leaders” preferred intimidation and extreme nationalism to silence and intimidate opponents. This meant only those who also had guns and wallowed in extreme nationalism had any chance of competing for power – and thus the people were forced to “choose” between Terrorist Group A, Terrorist Group B, Terrorist Group C, etc.

While all of this was going on, America and Israel tried to make peace with Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, with increasingly generous offers.  All have been refused since 2000, since neither Arafat nor Abbas had a true mandate for anything accept appeasing the militants who kept them in power.

Today, Abbas is trying to get recognition from the United Nations for a Palestinian state without bothering to make peace – so he can have his state and the guns that keep him in office, too. Meanwhile, Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, having won the corrupted “elections” of 2006. Neither has made any attempt to even acknowledge that Israel would remain in existence.

So, in effect, President Obama and his defenders, in calling for Israel to go back to roughly the 1967 borders, want her to watch a Palestinian tyranny under terrorist control spring up on both sides of her, while supposedly relying on a deeply conflicted ally with an unreliable history (that would be us) to prevent her from disappearing in a bloody massacre.

Should it really surprise any of us that she refuses to do that?

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift


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