Posted: April 5, 2011
After the Midterms
I read James Ceaser's analysis of the midterm elections with great interest ("The Great Repudiation," Fall 2010). As I wrote in "Day of the Democratic Dead" (National Review Online, November 1), there is simply no other way to interpret this midterm other than as a "great repudiation" of President Obama and the Democratic Congress's agenda. Whether that repudiation implies an endorsement of a "great restoration" of conservative ideals is another matter.
November's massive result was historic in its scope but not in its nature. Since the birth of the modern conservative movement in 1955, Republicans have gained more than 16 seats in the House only four times: 1966, 1980, 1994, and 2010. Each pickup came after the Democrats had enjoyed for a while control of the White House and control of both houses of Congress with significant majorities. The 2010 election was not unique: Americans have a history of repudiating liberalism whenever it is on full display.
Americans do not, however, have a modern history of endorsing small-government, constitutional conservatism. In 1964, they decisively rejected Barry Goldwater; in 1996, they re-elected Bill Clinton who had presented himself as a brake on an ultra-conservative Congress. Even Ronald Reagan in 1980 reassured Americans he would not challenge the core pillars of the welfare state.
The question conservatives must answer is whether this time is different. Recent polls suggest Americans want to cut spending and not raise taxes, but are as committed as ever to the core programs-Social Security and Medicare-which contribute the most to the federal government's spending habits. What's more, identification with the Republican Party remains at near 30-year lows and President Obama's approval rating hovers at a respectable 50%.
Conservatives often believe America is a center-right nation, relying on poll data that shows about twice as many people say they are conservative as say they are liberal. But as I wrote in "After the Wave" (National Affairs, Winter 2011), many partisan Democrats call themselves moderates. What Republicans and independents view as liberalism, Democrats themselves view as moderation. This means there is a hidden liberal component to the electorate, one which makes the actual election results of the past 18 years (rough partisan balance, with the GOP winning the popular vote for president only once) more understandable.
This is not to say that constitutional conservatives should despair, but it does mean the road ahead is harder than we think. It would be relatively easy to summon forth a latent majority; it is harder by an order of magnitude to create a new majority out of disparate strands of a divided electorate.
Such statesmanship is rare, but we do find it. Abraham Lincoln created the Republican Party by uniting German immigrants and anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, tariff-loving Whigs and tariff-hating anti-slavery Democrats, around a core commitment to renewing America's promise of liberty for all. Reagan re-created that party by uniting anti-government Goldwaterites with neoconservatives, Western libertarians with Southern evangelicals around a similar core commitment. All parts of those coalitions came to understand their particular causes were only a part of a larger cause and gladly adopted their new partisan identity.
The midterm elections gave conservatives an opportunity to practice statesmanship, but do not foreordain the result in 2012. It is not too far of a stretch to say that the future of our unique American identity rides on the ability of conservatives, collectively or through the ascension of a politically gifted person to national leadership, to summon forth again the better angels of our political nature.
American Enterprise Institute
I have no disagreements with Jim Ceaser, with whom I coauthored Epic Journey, a book on the 2008 elections. Rather, I take his article as an occasion to reflect on what may come next.
In Losing to Win, their book on the 1996 elections, Ceaser and Andrew Busch argued that American voters tend to prefer divided government. Each side can win votes by portraying itself as a check on the other. Accordingly, President Bush's defeat in 1992 enabled the GOP to take the House in 1994. Conversely, that takeover helped President Clinton win reelection in 1996. President Obama's supporters are hoping that something like the 1996 scenario will play out next year. There is nothing automatic about this process, however. In 1996, President Clinton benefited not only from the electorate's Madisonian tendencies, but from the congressional Republicans' blunders. If John Boehner and company can avoid the traps that snared their predecessors, and if the party nominates a strong presidential candidate, then the GOP has a chance to defeat Obama. Of course, much depends on future developments in national security and foreign policy that we cannot foresee.
The situation on Capitol Hill is a bit clearer. House Democrats will have a tough time recapturing a majority in 2012. If President Obama loses, then he will probably take some of his co-partisans with him. It is difficult to picture a 2012 election plotline that ends with a Republican president and a Democratic House. If the president wins, however, House Democrats won't necessarily have any coattails to clutch. In the last four presidential reelections under divided government-1956, 1972, 1984, and 1996-the electorate kept the opposite party in control of the House.
Democratic prospects in the Senate are even chancier. Because of the cycle of Senate elections, the Democrats' big gains in 2006 mean big vulnerabilities in 2012. They have to defend 23 seats, compared with only 10 for Republicans. The retirements of Senators James Webb (Virginia), Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico), and Kent Conrad (North Dakota) have already given the GOP three clear pickup targets.Others will emerge in the months ahead. The strong possibility of a Republican majority will have the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it will make it easier for GOP candidates and party committees to collect campaign contributions.
Right after the 2008 elections, as Ceaser wrote, Democrats thought that their happy days were here again. It could be a while before they get that feeling again.
John J. Pitney, Jr.
Claremont McKenna College
Every other two years we have something that today is widely called the midterm election. Sometimes it is known as the off-year election. And Professor Ceaser in his usually insightful way has pointed out that the 2010 midterm election is a Great Repudiation of the 2008 vote for the Democratic Party in general and Barack Obama in particular. My purpose is not to challenge the facts of Ceaser's essay, but to encourage readers to reflect on the constitutional framework that he appeals to in order to make sense of the facts.
He says "the midterm election is one of the distinctive features of America's constitutional system. By allowing an expression of voter sentiment separate from the presidential selection, midterms help supply the Congress with concrete political support for checking the president's power." To be rather literal for a moment, the phrase "midterm election" is nowhere to be found in America's constitutional system. The term is an invention. It probably emerged in the early 20th century as a reflection of the Progressive disposition that Congress-including congressional elections-is a sideshow to the main event. Since the New Deal, we have been taught that the presidential election is the one and only true expression of national democracy. It is as if we are supposed to view the American constitutional system as if it were-or should be-the British parliamentary system.
But the president is not supposed to be the prime minister and the Congress is not supposed to the Parliament. And the congressional elections are not constitutionally midterm or off-year unless we buy into the notion that we are or ought to be a parliamentary system or a mixed regime. The framers did not refer to the House as the lower house and the Senate as the upper house. Rather they called them the first branch and the second branch, respectively.
So, getting back to Ceaser's article, which I hope it is clear I find fascinating and correct, perhaps we should also engage in an additional Great Repudiation. Let's abandon the "midterm" and "off-year" terminology and talk about first-branch and second-branch elections. And by the way, did you know there is also this additional odd election, namely the presidential election, which only occurs in leap years?
James W. Ceaser replies:
Fully expecting to be chastised by the likes of a Paul Krugman (for an indiscriminate use of violent terms like"repudiation") or an E.J. Dionne (for a failure to denounce the Tea Party's purported racism), I am instead delighted to have the opportunity to respond to three insightful comments.
Professor Gordon Lloyd reminds us that language is the deepest factor structuring our thought, often in ways of which we are entirely unconscious. I plead guilty to using the neologism "midtermelection" without having considered how it privileges that other biennial election, in which members of Congress are chosen alongside, as it happens, the president of the United Sates. Lloyd adds a theory of originalism, which makes that of Justice Scalia look lax by comparison. It demands that when referring to the institutions in our constitutional system we use only terms found in the original document or employed by the founders. Bravo once more. From this moment forward I will do my very best to avoid ever speaking of "judicial review,""federalism," or the "electoral college."
Readers of this review will recognize Professor Jack Pitney as one of the keenest observers of American politics inside of academia today. He is an expert on everything from congressional midterm elections to federalism. Pitney seems to me to be right on target in his assessment of the context in which the 2012 campaign will take place. Voters will be expecting Republicans to keep control of the House and perhaps to win the Senate. President Obama's broad electoral strategy, already inevidence, tacitly acknowledges and embraces this situation. Obama is running as a leader in a divided partisan arrangement, willing to concede defeat for his party in Congress in exchange for boosting his own chances of victory as president. If Republicans are to control Congress, Obama is telling voters, then you will want a Democrat as president to serve as a buffer against Republican sternness. The hard-edged populism President Obama displayed during his first two years has already begun to give way to a gentler form of pandering, where a more avuncular figure, greying nicely at the temples, protects favored groups from too many cuts. Voters are unlikely to find this campaign strategy bold, heroic, or even audacious, but the bet from the White House is that it will keep "Uncle Barry" around for another term.
Finally, Henry Olsen correctly points out that a great repudiation does not a majority make. The past couple of decades are replete with repudiations—1994, 2006, and 2008—none of which brought that elusive realignment that many partisans proclaimed. Hope springs eternal, however, and Olsen has his sights set on a broader conservative majority fashioned by a saving statesman on the model of Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan. And yet, as he knows full well, statesmen of this ilk are rare, or, as Gordon Lloyd might demand that we say, "enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm." Olsen will surely settle for a majority, permanent or not, in 2012 that will last long enough to repeal Obamacare, set spending on a sensible course, and return Barack Obama to a respectable sinecure at a prestigious lawschool, a position for which his talents so richly suit him. Would it be too much to count on the former president for a law review article defending punishment of terrorists by military commissions and indefinite detention of enemy combatants?
* * *
Judith Miller is a well-respected investigative journalist, but her review of Andrew McCarthy's The Grand Jihad ignores a few critical facts ("Know Thy Enemy," Fall 2010).
For example, she writes: "Relying largely on this document [a Muslim Brotherhood document written in 1991 that was disclosed in the 2007 trial of the Holy Land Foundation], McCarthy argues that Americans err in focusing exclusively on combating Muslim ‘terrorism.'" Not only did McCarthy pore through encyclopedic amounts of evidence during his years of service as one of America's premier prosecutors of terrorists, the "document" in question was part of two truck-loads of evidence, including 80 banker's boxes of files, seized during an FBI search. It was entered into evidence and uncontested by the defense, establishing as a legal fact at trial that the Muslim Brotherhood's goal "is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within." This jihad begins with a decades-long, well financed campaign of Information Warfare to gain public support and sympathy, and culminates in seizing power to establish a worldwide Islamic Nation under which all parties and Islamic groups are united.
This campaign is far from being, as Miller puts it, a "largely peaceful effort by Islamists to ‘conquer America.'" Our enemy is simply conducting the pre-violent operations of their violent plan. In his book, Andrew McCarthy courageously warns against some of the most prominent Islamic groups and spokespeople in America. But Miller doesn't see it this way. She writes:
McCarthy confesses that in his "heart of hearts" he does not believe there truly is a distinction between "Islam" and "Islamism." In other words, he believes that Islam itself may be our enemy. This leads him to a conclusion that should be disconcerting to liberals and conservatives alike.
But McCarthy's fears are disconcerting only if he is wrong. Unfortunately, he is not. Our political correctness has become—as McCarthy put it in the title of a previous book—a "willful blindness" that prevents us from seeing Islam for what it is: antithetical to the United States and its principles. Andrew McCarthy presents facts to a candid world. We would do well to pay attention to these facts or suffer the consequences.
Michael J. Del Rosso
The Center for Security Policy
Judith Miller replies:
In his first book, Willful Blindness, Andrew McCarthy, the dedicated prosecutor who led the investigation of Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and others who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, brilliantly explored the errors, biases, and naïvete among federal officials that led to the attack which, in retrospect, was militant Islam's opening salvo on American soil in its larger war against the West. With the passion and attention to detail for which he is respected by lawyers of many political persuasions, McCarthy showed how our nation's refusal to acknowledge the true goals and nature of the determined, deadly adversary we still battle emboldened al-Qaeda and lulled Americans into a dangerous complacency and false sense of security.
But as I wrote in my review, McCarthy takes an intellectual leap in his second book, The Grand Jihad, suggesting that the enemy we face may be not just al-Qaeda and like-minded militants, but Islam itself. Michael Del Rosso obviously believes this. In his letter, he chides me for failing to see Islam "for what it is: antithetical to the United States and its principles." In so doing, he has defined 1.5 billion people who call themselves Muslims as part of our "enemy."
Osama bin Laden undoubtedly has his followers who, like him, want to destroy America and other Western countries. We also know that many Muslims oppose him, among them the patriotic American Muslims on whom we rely for information about homegrown radicals. The Egyptian and other Muslim protesters this winter did not raise Korans in the air or denounce Western style democracy. They risked their lives to achieve it.
For Del Rosso to denounce all Muslims, in effect, as terrorist sympathizers is as wrong as for Bin Laden to call all Westerners "infidels." Yes, we must defend ourselves from al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists. But to treat all Muslims as hostile or suspect is to play Bin Laden's game. And to paint Islam itself as "antithetical" to our nation's principles not only plays into Bin Laden's hands by accepting his perverse interpretation of Islam as that of the majority of believers, but weakens America's ability to fight Islamic militancy by defining those who should be natural allies as the enemy. Does Del Rosso really propose a campaign against 1.5 billion Muslims?
As for my assertion that Andy McCarthy relies "largely" on a 1991 Muslim Brotherhood document to support his argument that the Ikhwan and like-minded groups are engaged in a "grand Jihad" to destroy Western civilization from within, I did not mean to imply that McCarthy did not, as Mr. Del Rosso put it, "pore through encyclopedic amounts of evidence" used in his and other trials-hundreds of documents and Islamic tracts. McCarthy, one of our nation's most dogged opponents of Islamic extremism, a man whom I greatly admire and whose blog I religiously follow, so to speak, is nothing if not thorough. But he returns repeatedly to the 1991 document to support his premise that the threat of militant Islam may run broader and deeper than we know.
I, too, have disdain for those who dismiss or downplay the seriousness of the militant Islamist threat that confronts us. But the defeat of repeated efforts by such militants to stage another spectacular strike on American soil or to erode the widespread support for democracy, tolerance, and other core Western values that seem to be spreading throughout the world leads me to conclude that the militant Islamist movement is losing ground among those they wish to persuade or destroy, not the opposite. The thrilling pro-democracy upheavals in the Middle East, at least in their initial stage, should give us cause for optimism. For the moment, Bin Ladenism and militant Islam are clearly on the defensive.
* * *
The Second Sex
Christina Hoff Sommers ("Not Lost in Translation," Fall 2010) confesses to some residual affection for Simone de Beauvoir—despite the latter's affection for Soviet-style dictatorship, and abysmal subservience to the notoriously sexist Jean-Paul Sartre. These and other Beauvoirian habits and attitudes evoke little save sorrow and anger in me: sorrow that her feminism is an unreal evocation of an entirely abstract reality tethered to an altogether too real loathing of all things female, especially the female body; and anger that the upshot is little save contempt for the compromises of liberal democracy.
Sommers rightly points out that maternity, for Beauvoir, was an utter disaster with the fetus designated delicately as a "parasite", among other things. Her entire discussion of "The Data of Biology" repeats and extends Sartre's most loathsome musings on the overall nastiness of the female body. (For details on this, I suggest my 1981 book, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought, one of the first sustained critiques of Beauvoir. Needless to say, this was not greeted with huzzahs in most feminist circles—and I considered myself a feminist.) One of the most striking and memorable bits was Beauvoir's insistence that a woman's breasts are really unnecessary appendages and can be excised without any real harm to the woman's overall physical economy. Imagine the outrage were a male physician to approach mastectomy in such casual and dismissive terms.
Of course I, like every other woman my age at the time, read Beauvoir, as did Sommers, and we were all enjoined to embrace the book, to cling to it as if it were a life-saving device of some sort. As a young mother, reading the text as I tended to three children to whom a fourth was soon to be added, The Second Sex seemed a recipe for self-loathing and a permanent depressive attitude, a contempt for embodied human life lived out, in, and through relationships. Why anyone, then or now, could construe that as liberating was, and is, beyond me.
So I would urge Sommers, who criticizes Beauvoir quite appropriately, to shake off the residual affection!
Jean Bethke Elshtain
University of Chicago