GOP and Wealth: The Party of Main Street, Not Wall Street

Posting my latest City Focus piece published by the Daily Mail yesterday. It examines Mitt Romney’s private-equity past – did he destroy jobs or create them? And it looks at the attacks by his rivals, notably Newt Gingrich, on his time as head of Bain. It suggests also that his economy policy is vague in some key areas — e.g. how he would pay for income taxes.

Well, Repenting Works.

Newt Gingrich’s win in South Carolina is certainly one of the biggest comebacks seen in recent U.S. election history. And is especially impressive when you consider that he was outspent significantly by Mitt Romney. Exit polls provide some of the reasons for the victory. The former House Speaker  performed well in the two debates preceding the vote, and 88 percent of those surveyed said the debates played an important factor in how they cast their vote. Men favored Gingrich — and the woman vote seemed to be depressed.

What will, though, worry the Romney camp the most is that the exit polls also suggest that Gingrich was seen as a better candidate when it comes to the economy. That is a switch: up until now Romney has been the candidate seen as the better bet for the economy. And, of course, that has been the central message of his campaign: coming from the private sector, he is the man who can turn the U.S. economy around. Also significant is that the exit polling found that Gingrich was seen as the best equipped candidate to go head to head with Obama in the general election.

So, Florida next. South Carolina has never been favorable territory for Romney. But he now faces a serious rival who will enter the next primary on a bounce.

The Surprising Rise of Rick Santorum.

A late surge in Iowa by Rick Santorum has the chattering class…well, chattering.  The former Pennsylvanian Senator has worked Iowa hard and the state tends to reward those politicians willing to engage in close personal encounters – retail politics is all in the Hawkeye state.

But the big question is whether the sudden enthusiasm for Santorum is a reflection less of his innate skills or what he has to offer than the continuing lack of excitement for frontrunner Mitt Romney.

The GOP primary race from the get-go has been about a search by the Republican faithful for a conservative alternative to Romney. A good showing for Santorum – being in the final three – would presumably put paid to Michelle Bachmann: a poor showing for her in Iowa, a state she too has banked on, would imprison her in the low single digits from here on.

My prediction for Iowa: Romney pulls off a win because the anti-Romney vote gets hopelessly split with Ron Paul coming in second and possibly Santorum third. Curiously, Newt Gingrich just hasn’t taken fire in Iowa, despite his national surge. Maybe that’s because his field operation in the Hawkeye State was late in being formed.  Some good blog reporting by The Hill’s Niall Stanage here.

Boehner the Ogre?

What on earth are White House strategists thinking by seizing on the GOP”s House leader, John Boehner, as the Republican scary pin-up to attack ahead of the mid-term elections? The Republican Minority Leader may not be to everybody’s taste but he is “a hard man to demonize,” as The Economist has pointed out. He is a mild-mannered country-club-type Republican, who even back in the mid nineties when he aligned with Newt Gingrich wasn’t one of the trusted members of the praetorian guard.

Convivial and clubby, Boehner is sociable with Democrats in the Capitol Hill watering holes. His style is not dissimilar from Bob Dole’s, another Midwestern conservative able and willing when circumstances demanded to make deals across party lines. In some ways Boehner comes across as your dad’s genial brother, ready with a crack and the offer of a drink and a cigarette. He’s also not that well-known nationally. So painting him as the ogre moderate Republicans, centrists or independents should flee from at the polling booths is unlikely to secure the Democrats much advantage.

And if the the GOP does capture the House, as opinion polls suggest consistently the party will, then Boehner is someone the Whte House will need to be able to negoiate with – that is if there isn’t going to be another nineties-style government shut-down.

Targeting Boehner strikes me as another major misstep by the White House when it comes to strategy and thinking things through. Strategic and communication errors have marked this administration almost from the start. In the first summer of this administration, President Obama and senior aides neglected to sell the health-care reform – something that still hasn’t been sold to most Americans.

From the beginning they failed to focus on the economy. No FDR-style “fireside chats,” no trying to manage expectations and to explain that recovery from the financial crisis would not be speedy (as is the case always from recessions caused by financial crashes), no preparing Americans for the long haul and no cheering of them up.

Only belatedly has the President and his senior aides started to talk about the economy. Too little and too late.

So who should the White House target? Surely, they should be highlighting the civil war underway in the GOP, pitching Republican moderates and a new generation of Tea Party-aligned ideologues. Boehner is a small-government conservative while a lot of the likely GOP freshmen are more “no-government” and this, from a strategic point-of-view, is surely what the White House should be emphasizing. Earlier this week, I argued that the GOP primary results were a godsend for the White House and Democrats but they seem to want to throw away what the Republicans give them.

Libertarians and the Tea Party — Back Off

I have to take issue with my former Cato colleague Dan Mitchell and Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, someone who I agree with on many issues. Like them I want to see the cost of government curtailed and agree that we shouldn’t live at the expense of future generations. We would no doubt disagree on the priorities for government – I believe in a greater welfare role – but even so on the issue of reducing government we are on the same side.

But I part company with them on whether the Tea Party movement is a net plus for America. Steve and Dan maintain that it is a good thing on the grounds that “there is a growing mass of citizens who think it’s important to restrain government.”  They are prepared to overlook the fact that like any mass movement it has a “few odd characters.” Steve admits in a recent column that his first impression of the movement was: “It’s a rabidly right-wing phenomenon with a shaky grasp of history, a strain of intolerance and xenophobia, a paranoia about Barack Obama, and an unhealthy reverence for Fox News. Any movement that doesn’t firmly exclude Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes is not a movement for me.”

But his second impression is that “we are lucky to have them.”

I am afraid I can’t overlook “the strain of intolerance and xenophobia.” I can’t overlook the “Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes.” And I think it highly dangerous for libertarians, economic conservatives and small-government Democrats (yes, there are some out there) to do so. You can be for restraining government and fiscal responsibility without aligning with the Tea Party – it isn’t an either/or proposition.

American libertarians have had a tendency in the past to feel that they can ignore the racial blots and social authoritarianism of those who share their limited government/fiscal responsibility positions. It ends in tears though. Should limiting government and curtailing expenditure be more important to a libertarian or smaller government advocate than anything else, than, say, civil liberties? Surely not. The importance of both of those is intertwined with a respect for the individual, with a yearning for individual liberty, with an openness to other cultures and races or as Reason magazine’s tag would have it, “Free Minds and Free Markets.”

This tendency to overlook the bad has a lot to do with aligning with those who might be able to carry out part of the libertarian agenda. The GOP may win control of Capitol Hill in the fall, so let’s be nice to them. Libertarians formed an alliance with the Gingrich Republicans but didn’t get much out of that except Health Savings Accounts. Out of George W. Bush they got a foeign policy they were appalled out, civil liberty abuses that shocked them and the economic nonsense of Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter.”

Similar disappointment awaits them if they carry on flirting with the Tea Party. Brink Lindsay, a former Cato scholar, was right to look to the left for more appropriate allies but alas Washington DC libertarians didn’t follow.

In Defense of the American Soul

“We are engaged in a battle for the soul of America,” TV actor Joseph Phillips writes in the Daily Caller – a political journalism site I contribute to. Apparently the building of a mosque dedicated to the principles of integration, tolerance and inter-faith understanding two blocks from Ground Zero would mean America losing its soul.

Phillips’ argument goes thus: if the Muslims who want to build the mosque were really tolerant and understanding, they would build the mosque somewhere else, and anyway the only Americans supporting the mosque are leftists who just hate America. In fact, about half of Phillips’ article opposing the mosque is dedicated to a rant against leftists. An argument can be correct even if you don’t like the people making it.

He adds: “It is important to point out that there have been no pronouncements from opponents of the mosque that the American Society for Muslim Advancement does not have a right to build the mosque wherever they wish.  Opponents have simply asked that the building not be built in that location. What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.”

While Phillips recognizes Muslims constitutional right to build the mosque he can’t help but wonder why the federal government can’t step in to prevent it – a point that totally undermines his recognition of the rights of American (sic) Muslims. “I am fascinated that the same people who have been able to find a Constitutional right to government control of education, health care, and the energy industry are unable to divine from that same document any rational basis for the government to prevent a mosque from being built on Ground Zero,” he writes. So much for the constitutional rights of Muslims – if Phillips could have his way the feds would step in.

Why exactly the building of a mosque would be of such an affront necessitating the intervention of the federal government is not explained overtly, except for that talk of “offense and emotional injury.” So all we get in terms of true substance is a tautological argument – the mosque is an affront because it has caused offense. And then his article relies on the “secondary” argument: the mosque should be opposed because “hard-core leftists” who “do not respect America’s traditions or institutions” support it — in other words, traitors.

So, presumably Mayor Bloomberg is a leftist traitor. And apparently I am as well, even though I am an American by choice and not by accident. By the by, my 25 years of writing and journalism has seldom been characterized as leftist.

I don’t disagree with Phillips that this fight over the mosque is a fight for the soul of America. From my point of view the fight is over whether the country will stay true not only to the letter but more importantly the spirit of the Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Constitution – the bedrocks of the United States of America. I can’t recall reading anywhere in either document any comments suggesting either that Muslims should not be allowed to build mosques or that they should not be permitted to build one in a place deemed sensitive or out-of-bounds by others. Yes, we have local zoning rules nowadays but the so-called Ground Zero mosque apparently does not infringe them.

In fact, the First Amendment of the Constitution is uncompromising when it comes to the practice of religion – any religion and not just religions deemed “American” by Phillips or anyone else for that matter. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Rights are at their most important when most under threat, when the clamor is at its loudest to deny them. Alas, when the Patriot Act was being forced through too few people were raising a hue and cry about the tremendous and disturbing civil rights violations it brought with it. Anyone who truly values the Constitution should be supporting the building of the mosque – and this has nothing to do with the left-right spectrum of American politics, or shouldn’t have.

The real affront that is going on in the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque is that of seeing the First Amendment as unimportant or something that one is loyal to when convenient rather than uniformly and consistently.

There are other affronts, too. The opposition to the mosque relies on two other arguments, sometimes made openly and sometimes issuing more covertly. It relies heavily on the notions that American Muslims are somehow not real Americans and that all Muslims are somehow collectively responsible for 9/11 and the odious Osama bin Laden.

This is exactly what is implied when Newt Gingrich argues, as he did the other day, this: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a sight next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” These are emotive but erroneous comparisons: German Nazism was a political ideology and Japan is a nation – Islam is a religion with Americans who are also adherents. The real comparison to make would be German Nazism with Al Qaeda – and as far as I am aware no one has shown that the proposed mosque is going to support Al Qaeda or the philosophy espoused by Osama bin Laden.

So now we have the added affronts from those who oppose the mosque – namely, their suggestion that there are different classes of Americans – some real and others not – and that a whole religion, or all the adherents of a religion, should be held accountable and responsible for the actions of a small minority claiming to speak in the name of that religion. That is the kind of language and thinking of Osama bin Laden and his medieval ilk. Are we to allow him and the radical Islamists to change us – to make us the mirror image of them? If we do so, then we have allowed him a victory and handed him something even more damaging to us than 9/11. We would have added to the risk of a war of religions.

And that is precisely the point that answers Phillips’ when he writes: “What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.” The Ground Zero mosque should go ahead in defiant answer to Osama bin Laden and to all those who would damage the soul of America and who fail to understand that you can’t pick and choose when it comes to the fundamental rights announced by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. It should go ahead because the people who want to build are American and want commemorate those who died at 9/11. It should go ahead because we don’t believe in collective punishment, unlike Al Qaeda.

Gingrich and those Republicans opposing the mosque may think they have stumbled on a Willie Horton moment ahead of the mid-term elections. But it is a Willie Horton moment profoundly damaging to the soul of America and one that they may well regret indulging in.

Islam Wasn’t Responsible for 9/11 — Al Qaeda Was

Sadly some American politicians and talk show hosts have decided that the proposal to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero should be opposed — their arguments lean heavily on conflating Islam and Al Qaeda. My take on the Cordoba House debate was carried by the Daily Caller today.

The Silliness of Simon Heffer

What a strange creature the Daily Telegraph has become. Some of its economics and business coverage is truly excellent – nuanced, intelligent and knowledgeable. Jeremy Warner, Edmund Conway and Roger Bootle are must-reads.

Obviously, I am not including Ambrose Evans Pritchard in that line-up: his presentation of himself as some kind of media Cassandra becomes increasingly a bore. Nuanced is not a word that could be applied to Ambrose’s journalism — and that goes way back before his surprising re-incarnation as an international business writer after his far right coverage of the Clinton administrations. Why surprising? His Clinton coverage did the reputation of the Telegraph much harm in the States, although not with the “black helicopter” right-wing talk radio crowd.

There are only three things that Ambrose is wedded to: a pre-Bretton Woods belief in the gold standard, an insistence that Vince Foster was murdered and a conviction that Bill Clinton was recruited by the KGB while a Rhodes Scholar. If Ambrose were back in Washington DC, he would be filing copy no doubt “proving” that Barack Obama is a secret adherent to Islam and was never born in the States.

On the plus side, the Telegraph exclusives about the expenses abuses were brilliant and an example of fine investigative journalism – the kind that is alas becoming all too rare in the UK these days among the national daily newspapers.

But the political commentary coming from the paper is devaluing the exclusives the political reporters are securing. Much of that devaluing commentary comes from Simon Heffer.

I ought to introduce a personal note here. I know Simon: we were contemporaries at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and we overlapped at the Telegraph, where I had two stints at the Sunday Telegraph as a political correspondent and as an investigative writer. I have always liked Simon – although I don’t share his passion for Trollope but I do share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and T.E. Utley.

Despite all of that, I can muster no enthusiasm or respect for his commentary, which is jejune, immature, pompous, backward-looking, and often ill-informed when it comes to the facts and about the World beyond London Clubland. The Young Fogey has become an Old Bore. What was endearing back in the 1980s has become tiresome in this century.

Take three of his most recent columns – on President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and on the importance of updating Trident. The first has all the nuance of a sledge-hammer – it is all noise. Actually, that could be said for all three, come to think of it.

With Obama, Simon begins by registering his shock at how President Obama has become even more unpopular since his last visit to the States four months previously. He then goes on to suggest there is good reason for the falling esteem. Obama has done nothing recently apparently. “It is not clear what Mr. Obama actually does. He isn’t engaged with the economy; he certainly isn’t engaged with foreign policy; he has abandoned hope of a climate change bill this year (and probably for ever); he has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented; he is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration…”

And now, according to Simon, he just “appears to be reading the newspapers and the blogs and watching television.” Is that last point meant to be a serious comment from a supposedly serious commentator writing for a daily paper that believes it should be taken seriously?

Let’s look at the meat of the claim – at what Obama did or omitted to do before he became a shadow of his former self and resorted to just reading newspapers, etc.

  1. “He isn’t engaged with foreign policy”. Well, Simon, he seems pretty engaged with Afghanistan by shifting US policy from a counter-terrorist strategy to a counter-insurgency one, it strikes me, and his administration is trying out a bit of a détente with Moscow. Now, granted, I don’t believe the COIN approach to Afghanistan will work – neither will the CT strategy for that matter – and the détente with Moscow will fail, but he is engaged and a better and more mature column would have been to analyze Obama foreign policy, its strengths and weaknesses, the chances for success, the internal and external challenges the administration faces in forming and executing policy and whether the policy is right rather than claiming that the President is “not engaged with foreign policy.”
  2. “He isn’t engaged with the economy”. Simon undermines this claim himself by noting the massive stimulus package the President forced through in his first year in office, his push for an extension on unemployment benefits and his wanting to raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year. Again, I don’t agree with raising taxes. What is even more shocking, though, is Simon’s complete ignoring of the truly radical financial reform legislation that has been passed. Wasn’t that worth a mention? Or was our commentator unaware it had been passed or how significant it is?
  3. “He has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented.” Well, Simon, old boy, it was a huge accomplishment, whether you like it or not, to get major reform through on health care – it was something other Presidents would have liked to do, notably the last Democratic White House incumbent, but failed to do. And one of the reasons Americans are waiting news about implementation is that many of its major provisions don’t start immediately and come into effect over time. By the way, the delay in implementation has much to do with the lobbying by the insurance companies and brinkmanship by the Republicans.
  4. “He is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration.” There is nothing casual about the Obama Justice Department’s challenge to the new Arizona anti-immigrant law. And, overall, “casual” isn’t the word best applied to what Obama is not doing on the immigration front. He is not fighting for reform – the same reform that his GOP predecessor in the White House wanted to introduce but also decided that cowardice was better part of valour. Although that might be more preferable than Senator John McCain’s betrayal of immigration reform.

Among other silly points Simon makes in this column is the author’s belief that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the “serious Republican” who could beat Obama. “He is the sort of opponent Mr. Obama should fear, because he is experienced, an intellectual, and has widespread name recognition,” says Simon, who scolds silly “Democrats (including Howard Dean, the party chairman),” who are urging Gingrich to stand in 2012. According to Simon, they are only doing so “to ensure that the Republicans make some policies that the Democrats can attack.”

In fact, Dean and other Democrats are doing so because if Gingrich were the GOP candidate they could rest easy in their beds – oh, yes, the Tea Party members would turn out in droves to back the hero of the “Contract with America” – but the Democrats would not only see their own base energised by the presence of Gingrich on the ticket but they would see independents and the centre swing back to them, too.

What would have been a far more interesting column to write on a trip to America would be something along these lines: Obama has, in fact, achieved much – health care reform, financial services overhaul, a stimulus package that may have prevented the US recession becoming a Depression; in fact, his legislative record is more impressive than either Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s at equivalent stages in their first terms. Even so, Obama has failed to gain real credit from Americans for the legislative accomplishments and this raises the big question of why. Is it because American economic pain and uneasiness has clouded appreciation that may be forthcoming once the property market improves and unemployment decreases? Or were expectations too high for Obama? Were Americans voting for different kinds of change when they backed him? And will the Republican tactic pay off of offering nothing in the way of policy? That article is, of course, beyond Simon because he can only engage in polemical support of political allies or polemical damnation of opponents.

In Part Two I’ll look at Simon’s articles on Prime Minister Cameron and Trident.