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Jacob Heilbrunn

In Praise of A Government Shutdown

The possibility of a government shutdown is being treated as equivalent to a fiscal Armageddon. In reality it's more likely to resemble the Y2K problem—it won't be that big a deal. Republicans and Democrats will huff and puff about how terrible each side is because Americans can't use the national parks for a few weeks.

But the shutdown could be an opportune moment to figure out how to prune government. In a way, President Obama will be given that opportunity since he will have to choose between what is being called "essential" and "nonessential services." The prudent thing would be to reopen the government slowly. In fact, Obama could set up a special commission that would have the responsibility of figuring out what to shutter permanently.

In my view, Congress itself should do the same. The Republicans in the House have gone after the budget, but have they looked at the size of their own staffs? It's no secret that staff sizes have become grossly corpulent since the 1970s. My own pet peeve is that congressmen and Senators now boast a praetorian guard of staff and advisers. They should be slashed. The limit could be five staff members for a Congressman and fifteen for a Senator. House Speaker John Boehner's staff has grown to 75—the staff's slogan is apparently "Once you've been to Boehnerland, you never leave." Is Boehner running a lifetime employment program? It would be interesting to see how much could be saved on salaries simply by limiting the size of congressional staff.

Once the government shutdown is lifted, no backpay should be doled out to government employees. The shutdown could even be permanently instituted on a yearly basis for one month. Among other pluses, congestion in the DC metro area would be considerably reduced. And citizens would be able to measure what they really miss when the government shuts down—and what they don't.

When government reopened, perhaps Democrats and Republicans could talk about real cuts to the budget rather than the bogus ones that are being floated. In other words, entitlement programs and Defense, which make up the real budget busters, not the puny programs currently being targeted by House Republicans. But it may take a government shutdown to concentrate minds on the fiscal crash that faces America—namely $2,500 in debt per person simply on the interest being paid on the debt by the end of this decade.

America can survive a government shutdown. But not that kind of debt. It needs, in other words, to go into survival mode.

Israel's Moronic Foreign Minister

Israel's foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman isn't just a thug. He's also a moron. Lieberman is huffing and puffing about two Iranian warships that are headed toward the Suez Canal. To him it's a national emergency.

 In reality the Iranians are simply trying to distract attention from their own internal woes. Their ally, Hezbollah, is issuing dire threats about storming Galilee in the event of a new war with Israel. But this, too, is bluff and bombast.

It's clear that the mullahs would love to stage a provocation that would allow them to depict Iran as the victim of hostile foreign powers. It's obvious that the Iranian leadership, in Brechtian fashion, would love to vote in a new population. Instead, the regime's legitimacy is almost completely spent.

But Lieberman told American Jewish leaders in a closed meeting that Iran's move is a serious cause for concern. According to the Wall Street Journal,


He said the plan "proves that the self-confidence and chutzpah of the Iranians are growing from day to day," according to a text issued later by his office.

"To my regret, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations," he added. "The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations."


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by contrast, has been steering a more cautious course. The best thing Israel can do is to let Iran implode, or, failing that, grapple with a roiling insurgency that refuses to go away. It's becoming increasingly clear that Iran is not a totalitarian power about to take over the Middle East, creating some kind of Shiite crescent of power. That notion is as fantastical as the idea that the Soviet Union was about to encircle America in the 1970s.

Iran, plagued with a demographic youth bulge, faces enormous turmoil in coming years. The last thing Israeli leaders should do is to step into the traps that the Iranian leadership is trying to set for it. How much longer will Netanyahu remain in a coalition with Lieberman before this lunatic triggers an unnecessary war?


The Return of Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff is talking. That's a big deal. Madoff fell off the charts as various crises erupted around the world. Back in the USA, the economy seems to be perking up, which has also relegated Madoff to obscurity, at least where the television cable channels are concerned.

But now Madoff is making his move. In an interview with the New York Times, he announces "they had to know." The "they" requires no explanation. JP Morgan is already howling that the court-appointed trustee Irving Picard (who himself is earning millions off the investigation--hunting down Madoff's misdeeds has become its own industry) is going beyond his mandate. As Frank Rich recently observed, Madoff was a "second-tier player." But he could lead to bigger fry. The Wilpons, who own the New York Mets, are already in big financial trouble for their extensive dealings with Madoff--Donald Trump is angling to buy a majority stake in the team. Then there are the hedge funds and banks that were linked to, or in cahoots with, Madoff.

At this point Madoff has little to lose. President Obama shows little appetite for curbing the excesses that led to the last financial crash. Madoff cannot achieve redemption. His historical role as the biggest Ponizi schemer (so far) in history is set. He became the type-cast bad guy. For awhile Madoff took all the credit, if that's the right phrase, for the malversation he oversaw. That's changed. Now he seems to be interested in ensuring that his collaborators, witting or unwitting, also take the fall (though he is notably exempting his own family members from any knowledge of his transgressions).

Madoff's own crediblity is shot. But if the information that he's apparently providing to Picard pans out, then he may get his own measure of revenge for the humiliations he has suffered, and is suffering.  Balzac said that behind every great fortune is a crime. Madoff now seems intent on demonstrating the truth of that axiom. One thing seems clear: Madoff is not going to go down quietly. The aftershocks from his exposure may well continue to roil the financial world.

If Obama had some gumption, he might consider pardoning Madoff and putting him in charge of financial regulation. After all, Franklin Roosevelt made the former bootlegger Joseph P. Kennedy head of the SEC on the theory that he knew full well where and who the criminals were. Kennedy did a spectacular job. Madoff probably would as well. He would have everything to prove. For now, however, the specter of Madoff talking is probably scary enough for the banks that were involved with him.

Muckety Mucks
United States

Obama's Crafty Press Conference

President Obama was at his most conciliatory at his press conference. To listen to him, you might think that the budget differences between Democrats and Republicans are about as divisive as figuring out which brand of yoghurt to purchase. Obama is a master of sanding down differences, at least rhetorically, emitting a blur of words to disguise conflict. He returned to his familiar evocation of "folks" several times. What "folks," specifically? He never said.

Obama was similarly vague when he said that "somebody" had visited him as part of writing a book about the 10 letters he receives each day. That "somebody" visited him yesterday. Surely Obama knew his or her name. But he never said. As David Bromwich has observed, Obama likes to keep things vague and to talk down to much of his audience, at least when he isn't addressing his fellow elites. Then he talks about people clinging to their guns.

But even Obama couldn't disguise that he feels a little embarrassed about his budget cuts. He made a wincing expression about lopping off Pell grants for the summer, claiming that it would allow him to maintain the viability of the program for the rest of the year. Ditto for heating costs. Somehow helping people to insulate their homes becomes less important when energy costs are down. In any case, the cuts are mostly trivial, at least in relation to the deficit. Social Security and Medicare are not on the table, at least not yet. The GOP, it appears, is talking more seriously about curbing entitlement programs. Now that could get interesting, especially if it wields Obama's own deficit commission against him. For his part, Obama says he is ready to negotiate a deal with Republicans. They should take him up on the offer.

Obama was clearly more at home in discussing Egypt, which turned out OK. At least it seems to have gone well in the sense that a virulently anti-American regime does not appear in the offing. Obama claimed that at every "juncture" history will show he was on the side of the angels. Still, he took a pounding from conservatives and neoconservatives who said he was too slow to embrace the Egyptian revolution. If Obama gets really lucky, then the upheaval will jeopardize the regime in Iran. But that seems about as likely as serious deficit reduction.

It seems clear that in everything he does over the next two years, Obama is fervently going to cast himself as the moderate. That means he's going to leave as little room between himself and the GOP as possible. Obama is showing that he is a master of self-preservation.

The Presidency
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Israel and the Arab Revolutions

If generals are prone to fight the last war, a similar phenomenon may occur with historians and political scientists who read contemporary political events through the lens of the past. Specifically, they often assume that a replay of the past is inevitable. But it isn't.

To be sure, as the Arab revolutions sweep through the region--for something like this is happening--it is possible that old regimes will simply be replaced by more subtle authoritarians. There is no guarantee, after all, that Egypt's military will actually cede the democratic reforms it has promised. The protesters may have succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak with little to show for it.

But that is probably too sullen an analysis. Unrest, as the Wall Street Journal observes, is spreading in the Middle East. It's becoming a little more uncomfortable if you're in the dictator line of work. The portraits of Mubarak are coming down. While Mubarak presumably won't have to flee to a spider hole, he is now in a form of internal exile. The army has suspended the Constitution, dissolved the bogus parliament, and promised new elections.

The peaceful resolution of the crisis is emboldening protesters in Yemen, Libya, and Iran, where chants of "Death to the dictator" resounded on Sunday night. The Egyptian example would seem to suggest that perhaps the Arab world can, at least in some areas, transition to some form of democratic government. This, at its core, is the question that has tormented the region for over a century.

If the answer is yes, then the real loser will be the Israeli right. Israel trembled as it watched the Egyptian uprising. Had Egypt been taken over by radical Islamic forces, the hardliners in Israel would have been immeasurably strengthened. And now? Any move toward democracy weakens the last-ditchers who want no peace agreement with the Palestinians. It's already clear from the WikiLeaks that the Palestinian Authority was prepared to compromise with Israel and desperate to reach a peace agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu, however, couldn't, or wouldn't, take yes for an answer. He stalled, obfuscated, punted.

Now a wave of revolutions in the Arab world, particularly in Iran, would upset those calculations. Israel has been moving toward a more authoritarian form of government as the right takes over. If the Arab world moves, however haltingly, toward more freedom, Israel's current stance will become unsustainable. It faces the prospect of tumult in the Arab world that may increase the pressure on it to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians.


CPAC and the Tea Party

The bustling atmosphere of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last night testifies to the ferment that has swept the right. Where else can you find someone wearing a dark suit coupled with a fluorescent red T-shirt that has the word "capitalism" emblazoned on it in white letters? More significantly, at last night's dinner House Speaker John Boehner made it clear that the Tea Party will not be held at arms-length but embraced. There is "no limit" to government cuts in spending that he is prepared to institute, Boehner declared.

It was a bold statement. Already House Republicans, under pressure from the Tea Party, are pushing for broader cuts for this fiscal year, seeking at least $60 billion. It actually shouldn't be that hard to find them. But of course with the Senate and presidency controlled by the Democrats, it's more of a rhetorical exercise than a practical one. Or is it? It could have real consequences if the GOP rebels at raising the debt debt (something that President Obama, by the way, voted against doing when he was a Senator and George W. Bush was president). Now the administration is warning that it would lead to world financial chaos if the GOP stymies raising the limit, which it could and might.

But such considerations seemed remote at last night's affair, where American Enterprise Institute head Arthur Brooks, who had been preceded by country western singer Ray Stevens, a foe of big government, both in its economic and security manifestations, warned about the perils of statism. Even Brooks' speech, however, had a somewhat folksy character as he recounted to the audience that he came from a liberal family and that his mother told him about a decade ago that she had a "personal question": "Are you voting for Republicans?"

Of course that question will loom large in 2012; as the savvy Boehner observed, the GOP must keep up its "momentum" and could only accomplish so much given Democratic dominance. The GOP has a treacherous road ahead of it as it attempts to navigate between establishment Republicans and the Tea Party. But so far, little has been able to disturb the festive spirit of CPAC as its founder David Keene goes on to become president of the National Rifle Association. It was a colossal error for Sarah Palin not to show up. CPAC has become an integral part of the GOP and the right. As Keene proudly observed, CPAC had about 750 attendees at its outset. Now it boasts over 11,000.

United States

Who Killed the Patriot Act?

The Patriot Act failed to pass the House, thanks to some recalcitrant Tea Party members who refused to vote for it. It was supposed to be put on a fast track that required a two-thirds majority. House members, who are usually easily rolled, finally showed a little gumption by rebelling. The vote suggests that the GOP will have increasing difficulties with the Tea Party whose anti-government credo isn't just rhetoric. No doubt the Patriot Act will be muscled through. But the vote has symbolic importance.

It should have been an easy vote. But it wasn't. As the National Journal put it,"Deserting and embarrassing their GOP House leadership, 26 Republicans—including several members of the Tea Party Caucus—bolted Tuesday night to join Democrats in a surprise rejection of a centerpiece of Bush-era powers to fight terrorism that curbed American civil liberties." The Patriot Act is one of those anti-terrorism measures, all too common in the age of the Transportation Security Agency and the Homeland Security Department and a CIA that seem to get caught napping again and again, that provides the illusion but not the substance of security. What's more, the very name of the act is itself repugnant, suggesting that anyone who would vote against it is unpatriotic. They aren't. They are, in fact, the true patriots.

One thing the vote suggests is that it will be more difficult for the GOP to demagogue national security as it did during the George W. Bush era. Bush used the Patriot Act as a club to bash Democrats as soft on fighting terrorism. If you think that the government should be allowed to roam through your medical and library records, and, furthermore, that this will help stop terrorists in their tracks, then I suppose the failure of the House to renew the legislation will come as a blow. But the 26 Republicans who voted against reauthorization deserve praise. The Patriot Act, which President Obama is cravenly supporting, represents a flagrant intrusion on the civil liberties of Americans. Adam Serwer argues in the Washington Post that it wasn't really a vote en masse by Tea Party members against the Patriot Act.

Which is why it's fair to wonder if this vote doesn't presage more hiccups for the GOP. The fact is that on defense spending the Tea Party represents a hope that big government can be slashed in an area that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct by conservatives. But their conservatism in name only. A true conservative seeks to conserve. There is no reason that the Pentagon should be exempt from worries about the budget deficit and big government.

The question for the GOP, then, will be whether it can fully emancipate itself from the Bush legacy in the next two years or whether it will cling to it. Reinventing the party would require a wholesale makeover that has only partially begun. The GOP has rhetorically shed the profligate approach to budgets that epitomized Bush. But it will have to demonstrate that it is doing so in deed as well. Otherwise, it will simply be further contributing to another kind of inflation--verbal--that continually afflicts Congress.

United States

A Serious Man: the Return of Donald Rumsfeld

Image of Known and Unknown: A MemoirKnown and Unknown: A Memoir Donald Rumsfeld is a serious man. The cover of his engrossing, informative, and well-written memoir shows the former two-time defense secretary and fighter pilot wearing a fleece vest, brown shirt open at the neck, and blue jeans. He is casual but confident, at peace with himself, leaning against a wooden fence with mountains faintly in the background, presumably at his Jackson Hole retreat. He could be a wealthy business executive enjoying his retirement about to go horseback riding on his ranch. Not, in other words, the kind of guy who would order the torture of foreigners or anything else unpleasant. The photo on the back of the jacket flap displays a quite different Rumsfeld--middle-aged, probing, questioning, earnest, wearing large glasses, a suit and tie, and leather shoes with a hole in the sole. Deep cerebration is the message.

In many ways, the photos in Rumsfeld's book, and there are dozens of them, form some of the most interesting parts of it. They remind us not only of Rumsfeld's saga, but America's odyssey. The photos gradually become more complex, giving way from the assemblages of white men forming government cabinets to the multi-racial ones of the George W. Bush presidency. Rumsfeld zipped in and out of public life over the decades, seemingly a spent political force by the 1990s, only to reemerge in 1998 with his Rumsfeld Commission issuing dire warnings of a North Korean missile aimed at America in a few years (where is it?), then total, or seeming, resurrection when George W. Bush, in an act of filial impiety, tapped his father's former adversary to become his defense secretary.

Perhaps Rumsfeld's reemergence shouldn't have been altogether surprising. In the various photos of him a shrewd and sly grin often crosses his face. Rumsfeld, the former Princeton wrestler, has been a fighter all his life. His memoir is his last battle and one, it must be said, that, by and large, he fights well, collapsing only at the end when he retreats into defenses of the Iraq War that don't withstand serious scrutiny. Rumsfeld's tenure is a reminder of how a hugely popular official, which he was during the outset of the Iraq War, can come crashing down into utter ignominy. Rumsfeld went almost overnight from seer to villain. By 2006, after the GOP's drubbing in the midterm congressional elections, even the Decider decided that he had had enough and evicted Rumsfeld from the Pentagon.

But the very qualities that enraged Rumsfeld's detractors when he was defense secretary--his tart judgments and impatience--ensure that his book is extremely lively. Much of it is devoted to chronicling his early career as a congressman in the 1960s, when he supported civil rights legislation, and his service to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Rumsfeld knew how to manuever to protect himself, turning down Richard Nixon, not once but twice when asked to take on political jobs. In 1972 Nixon asked him to become head of CREEP--the Committee to Reelect the President. Rumsfeld refused, telling him that the "`organ-grinders will all be in the White House.' I didn't have any desire to be the trained monkey." He also turned down becoming chair of the Republican National Committee. Years later he recounts that Nixon would seek to counsel him on his career, instructing him in a classic Nixon aside that "I should stop wearing glasses and use contact lenses instead."

He also settles scores. Condoleezza Rice, at a National Security Council meetings, took umbrage at Rumsfeld's attire. According to Rumsfeld,


one time Rice and I were sitting together in an NSC meeting, and I was wearing a pinstripe suit--one that I very well might have owned since the Ford administration. The suit was so well used that the pinstripes on the right leg above the knee were worn off. Rice noticed this, frowned, and pointed disreetly at my leg. Looking down at my suit, I noticed for the first time the missing pinstripes. `Gee,' I whispered to her with a smile, `maybe Joyce [Rumsfeld's wife] can sew them back on.' Condi's eyes widened."


The thrust is that Condi, always dressed elegantly, was a superficial twit, while he, Rumsfeld the stolid Midwesterner, was focused on the real task at hand. He sticks the shiv into her, observing that "I knew the burdens of the job of national security adviser were taxing for even the most seasoned foreign policy specialist and could be particularly so for someone with modest experience in the federal government and management." Her meetings, he says, were "not well organized." Rumsfeld tried to help her by sending notes that, he complains, seemed to be unappreciated: "She seemed unaccustomed to constructive suggestions, and not much changed for the better." Bad Condi!

Colin Powell gets drubbed as well. "Some of Powell's actions fostered an impression," Rumsfeld writes, "that he saw his service in the cabinet as a means of representing the State Department to the President as much as he saw it as representing the President at the State Department." Powell, in other words, had been captured by the State Department bureaucracy. L. Paul Bremer III is dismissed as being oblivious to indigenous Iraqi concerns: "it remained difficult to get him to accept the idea that Iraq belonged to the Iraqis, and that the Iraqis were entitled to their own culture and institutions." So the insurgency that developed was Bremer's fault, not Rumsfeld's. Even Bush comes in for a few jabs. While Bush was not the dope that he was often made out to be, Rumsfeld says, "NSC meetings with the President did not always end with clear conclusions and instructions."

But what would have been clear-cut? The problem isn't necessarily that the decisions about the Iraq War were ambiguous. It is that the premise for war was itself fatally flawed. On the issue of intelligence about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld breezily observes that "recent history is abundant with examples of flawed intelligence..." Well, yes. But not on the scale of launching a preemptive war against another country. Rumsfeld concludes that the "limits of intelligence...are a reality that should make us all humble."

But humility has never been Rumsfeld's long suit. It would be kind of shocking if he were to confess to the errors that led up to the Iraq War or that resulted in Abu Ghraib, probably the single biggest blow to America's image abroad in decades. It would create shock but not awe among readers of his tome if a penitent Rumsfeld were to emerge. No McNamarian effusion of tears for him. But if Rumsfeld is reluctant to concede error, he is hardly the first high-ranking official to do so. His memoir may be evasive, but evasion is the calling card of most memoirs. Trenchant and never less than stimulating, Rumsfeld's memoir perfectly reflects his character. In that sense it is entirely truthful.

Muckety Mucks
United States

The AOL-Huffington Post Merger

Arianna Huffington is now officially one of the biggest media stars in America. AOL's purchase of the Huffington Post for $315 million ratifies her importance. It's an amazing feat for a woman who began on the right side of the political ledger, ended up on the left, and has created a major media organization almost singlehandedly. The web is clearly far from done in shaking up the media landscape. Whether or not Huffington succeeds in solidifying the success of her website, she has already established herself as a major media presence. One thing is clear: you underestimate Huffington at your peril.

Her task now will be to transform the Huffington Post, where I've occasionally contributed, into the New York Times of the web, which is clearly her goal. Huffington has been on a hiring spree. Among her recent hires is Newsweek's Howard Fineman and she'll hardly stop there. She might also hire foreign correspondents. In any case, she's branching out into a variety of fields, ranging from food to sex advice.

The real risk is for AOL. It needs the Huffington Post more than the Huffington Post needs it. What is it getting for its money? The real question about most internet sites is whether they can create an actual revenue stream. Success, at this point, is counted in terms of breaking even.

But if anyone can pull it off, apparently Huffington can. A Greek immigrant to England, she studied at Cambridge and wrote her first book called the Female Woman at age twenty-two. It decried the feminist movement. She herself was something of a femme fatale. She dated the columnist Bernard Levin and went on to write books about Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso. She also married Michael Huffington, an oil heir, in 1985. The wedding party was thrown by Ann Getty. Divorce followed. Huffington turned out to be gay. Arianna herself morphed into a liberal. But she didn't really hit the big time until the Huffington Post became a wild success, thanks largely to the Bush administration.

It will be interesting to see if the Huffington Post now begins to publicize some more conservative voices as well. If the website is to grow, it will have to continue to turn itself into a slightly racier version of the New York Times or the Washington Post. For the old media the portents remain grim. The Los Angeles Times still doesn't have a buyer. Newsweek is on the ropes. Subscriptions to the Washington Post keep going down. AOL has to hope that its $315 million isn't simply an act of faith, but an investment in the future, which is here now.

Image (c) World Economic Forum

United States

Rand Paul And Ending American Aid to Israel

Sen. Rand Paul did it. He told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that all foreign aid should be halted. Even the $3 billion a year that Israel collects. Paul's point is simple: we can't afford it. Keep shelling out precious American money to foreign mendicants and soon enough we won't be able to fund Medicare.

To be sure, it took some prodding from Blitzer. Paul prefaced his remarks with some pious bows toward Israel's great worthiness as a fount of democracy in the Middle East. But he didn't flinch.

Paul's remarks signify that he is set to become a disaster for the GOP and to remain a hero for the Tea Party. The GOP actually might have made inroads with Jewish voters in 2012. But if Paul sends up enough signal flares against Israel, he's going to make Jewish voters extremely nervous about the GOP's overall position. For House Republican leader Eric Cantor, a pal of William Kristol, Paul is a certified nightmare. Already Democrats are seizing upon Paul's remarks to trumpet their own Israel bona fides and induce doubts about the GOP's loyalty to the Jewish state.

Paul evinces every sign of sticking to his Tea Party positions. His maiden address in the Senate, as Dana Milbank pointed out in the Washington Post, consisted of a lengthy denunication of the "Great Compromiser" Henry Clay. How weird is that? Talk about dissing a Kentucky homestate hero. That's like saying Seattle Slew wasn't really a great race horse. Paul's point was that he won't compromise and that Clay foolishly did. (In fact Clay helped keep the United States from splitting in two. He also happened to be a hero of Abraham Lincoln's. But never mind.)

The real story is that Paul is going to give the GOP heartburn over the next few years, as he drubs Israel, attacks the size of the Pentagon budget, and demands retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul is going to be a media lightning rod. Most politicians work to try and sand off their edges. Not Paul. There may not be a Pauline conversion in the GOP, but it can hardly be doubted that Rand Paul will journey far and wide to spread his credo. Could he even be preparing for a run for the presidency? Stranger things have happened.

Image © Gage Skidmore


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April 19, 2014