Jonathan Coppage

Criminal Justice Reform Steps Out of the Shadows

Rolling back the reach of America’s “tough on crime” laws was, for many years, a subject that most politicians could at best discuss at a whisper, off the record, in a dark and obscure corner. The crime waves that peaked in the 1990s made the careers of many politicians (especially on the right) who swept into Washington on promises of more jails and longer sentences, and they scarred the remaining Democrats too deeply for them to easily open a potential “soft on crime” flank again. Even as crime collapsed and the mounting toll of mass incarceration came into view in the 20 years that followed, Americans’ continued to believe in an increasingly mythical rise in crime, and political campaigns saw little reason to disabuse them of that notion.

Yet on Thursday, a significant bill reducing mandatory minimum sentences along with other substantial reforms was announced in the Senate. The bill’s press conference was attended by members of the Democratic leadership, Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, the Republican leadership, John Cornyn, the conservative insurgency, Mike Lee and Tim Scott, and the next generation of Senate liberals, Cory Booker and Sheldon Whitehouse. Perhaps most importantly the press conference included both the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy (long a reformer), and the committee’s present, Republican, legendarily resistant chairman, Chuck Grassley.

2015 has seen the culmination of years of work in forging a bipartisan coalition around rolling back the worst excesses of mass incarceration and drug war overreach, as the right learned from evangelicals led by Chuck Colson and his successor, Pat Nolan, and Right on Crime’s Mark Levin. Conferences have been held at swanky Washington hotels trumpeting the political progress, and politicians from such opposite ends of the spectrum as Mike Lee of Utah and Dick Durbin of Illinois co-authored reform bills. All the while, however, the specter of Senator Grassley hung over the optimism. Grassley is not part of the new wave of Tea Party Republicans decrying the government’s cruel excesses in the explosion of the carceral state; he is an old-school tough-on-crimer. And Grassley holds the keys to the Senate’s consideration of any crime bill. Without him, more sweeping reforms were doomed to fail; with him, the first real rollback of the mass incarceration era has a real chance at becoming law.

Russell Berman at The Atlantic summarized the resulting compromise well:

The bipartisan proposal would reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences, and limit them to serious drug felonies and violent crimes. It would ban solitary confinement for juveniles and allow them to apply for parole after a maximum of 20 years, and it would grant judges more flexibility in doling out sentences for a range of crimes. The bill would also bolster re-entry programs in federal prisons aimed at reducing recidivism.

The CORRECTIONS Act is the synthesis of Lee and Durbin’s extensive sentencing reform bill, Cornyn and Whitehouse’s more modest recidivism prevention bill, and Cory Booker’s committment to end solitary confinement for minors, with compromises between all. Grassley’s support came conditioned on the addition of two new mandatory minimum sentences, but they are for comparatively rare federal cases of arms trafficking and interstate domestic violence.

While reformist critics may fear that this bill sweeps up most of the politically attractive low-hanging fruit of helping nonviolent drug offenders that could have been needed to pass more controversial reforms around violent crime, it can also be seen as the signifier of a new era. The vast majority of American prisoners are in state institutions, not federal ones, so most of the work will still have to be done at more local levels. Encouragingly, red-state Republican governors have often been at the forefront of pushing for such reforms, including Rick Perry of Texas and Nathan Deal of Georgia.

A potentially more devastating blow to the encouraging trend criminal justice reforms could be lurking in a few statistical upticks in violent crime in major cities. Most of those are not statistically significant, and nationally any uptick would be following the lowest levels of violent crime in decades. Jesse Walker did a helpful dive into the numbers after a widely-reported New York Times story, and gave ample reason for caution. If a combination of potential reality and political persuasion does spark fears of a return to the bad old days, however, the politics of law and order could threaten to eclipse the decades-in-the-making coalition of compassionate (and conservative) criminal justice reformers. For the present, however, that coalition is moving forward in Congress, and in the states.

The best and most famous study of America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, was the result of a trip ostensibly taken to study the prisons in the New World in hopes of bringing more humane reforms to the French. Today, one of America’s foremost exceptionalisms can be found in that same prison system: the United States contains 5 percent of the world’s population—and 25 percent of its prisoners.

If Mike Lee and Tim Scott represent the future of conservative thinking on justice, then perhaps the United States can still recover its original exceptionalism, which drew and inspired a young French aristocrat and made the young nation a “shining city on a hill” to be admired, rather than a trap of mass institutionalization to be feared.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor of The American Conservative.


Volkswagen’s Failed American Gamble

Volkswagen has always been the German “people’s car,” not just by being affordable for the volk but also by being the Deutschland’s largest employer, representing almost 300,000 jobs in a country of 80 million. The automotive titan’s sudden and surprising fall from grace into scandal over the past week, then, is an economic event potentially on par with or even greater than the Greek debt crisis.

How did the economic face of such a famously rule-following people slide into one of the most brazen corporate cheating scandals of recent memory? The answer appears to be an unhealthy mixture of bad bets, worse timing, and an ill-fated attempt to export Germany’s favorite car onto American roads.

On September 18, the EPA announced that Volkswagen had been employing a “defeat device” to cheat its emission tests on the widely admired 2.0L four-cylinder TurboDiesel engines deployed in many of its smaller cars. This was the culmination of a year-long investigation after a few curious academics attempting to use VW’s cars as models for what clean diesel can achieve inadvertently found their real-world emissions to be astronomically higher than what the cars put out in the testing facility. VW’s explanations for this discrepancy gradually unraveled until the company revealed, under threat, that their cars had been cheating the entire time. The devices used to reduce emissions were turned off at all times except when the cars detected they were being tested.

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned yesterday even as he insisted that he had no knowledge of the cheating. VW’s board promises that many more heads may roll, but that has not kept the company’s share prices from plummeting as regulators and criminal investigators around the world are just beginning to put the company’s practices under the microscope.

While Volkswagens have always been a significant presence in German markets, and have enjoyed relative success around the world, for decades the company has been unable to make strong inroads into the biggest, most car-mad auto market in the world: the United States of America. The now-departed CEO Winterkorn aimed to turn that trend around with a European solution to skyrocketing gas prices: clean diesel.

As demand for economical vehicles surged along with the price at the pump in the 2000s, Japanese and, to a lesser extent, American automakers were investing in hybrid technologies that allowed traditionally-fueled gasoline engines to burn less gas per mile by supplementing with electric power. The Toyota Prius became the face of hybrid automobiles and quickly spurred imitators.

VW, on the other hand, already had decades of experience making fuel-sipping diesel engines for expensive European markets, even if they hadn’t caught on in cheap-gas America. And their engineers had been hard at work on a new engine that would be coming online just in time. An apparent new era of $100-a-barrel oil and $4.00-a-gallon gasoline seemed the perfect disruptive opportunity to finally get Americans on board with diesel. The only hitch was emissions.

Diesel is a dirty fuel, which doesn’t have to be as refined as gasoline in order to compress and combust. The upside is a strong advantage in torque and fuel economy. The downside is that the burned gas contains much more particulate pollution that tends to settle near the earth, causing air pollution and asthma. European particulate emission standards are much laxer and more diesel-friendly than those in the United States, resulting in more air pollution, higher fuel economy, and lower carbon dioxide emissions. While the diesels of a decade ago were much cleaner than the black smoke-belching engines of yesteryear, the EPA imposed (possibly unreasonably) stringent new air-pollution standards in 2007, just as VW was hoping to make its diesel engines the centerpiece of its American push.

Most manufacturers responded to the new standards by equipping their vehicles with a tank of a urea solution that could be sprayed on the exhaust in order to clean it. That system took up too much space and was too expensive for the smaller, cheaper cars like the Golf and Jetta that VW was hoping to popularize, however. So they turned to a much less complicated, less expensive system: a loudly publicized NOx trap combined with exhaust gas recirculation. The first uses unburned fuel to clean its filter, worsening fuel economy, and the latter degrades engine performance, worsening power. VW’s TDI engines have been cherished for providing ample amounts of both economy and power, and now it appears we know why.

When it came time to hit the U.S. market with its new engines, VW seemed to have trouble delivering, announcing instead that the Jetta TDI would be delayed six months after encountering what was widely rumored and reported to be emissions issues. They soon hit the market, however, and for several years the company enjoyed surging success selling VW’s as a hip Euro alternative car that was clean-diesel green to boot. Until it wasn’t.

It appears that Volkswagen took a gamble on its ability to produce an economical, powerful, clean diesel engine via technology that just couldn’t deliver by the time the EPA’s deadline arrived. Too much money, publicity, and planning had been invested in the “blue” diesel engines to abandon them, but rolling out a fleet of new diesel cars with the mediocre fuel economy and/or the exhaust-choked engines it would take to meet the EPA’s demands could have been even more embarrassing for proud German engineering.

And so, under the pressure to produce an engine that could be all things to all people without compromises, someone along the highly centralized Volkswagen production line cracked. Maybe VW’s engineers were just buying time to rush a urea-based system and were hoping no one would notice their hack-job in the interim. Perhaps significantly, in retrospect, VW had already begun implementing the more common urea-based system when the cheating scandal came to light. But whether it was one engineer taking a shortcut with programming, or, what seems more likely, an entire team out of answers and desperate to meet their goals, Volkswagen’s fleet of nimble TDI’s were programmed to monitor themselves and detect an emissions testing-like situation; only then were the cars to switch on their “clean diesel” facade.

With the few lines of engine management software coding that it took to program the Volkswagen EPA “defeat device,” then, Germany’s iconic national brand, the largest company of its largest industry, a company whose largest shareholder is still the regional government of Lower Saxony, has now been laid low. What’s more, when Martin Winterkorn looks back on the scandal that felled him as CEO mere weeks after he had beaten back an internal coup attempt from the chairman of the board, he will see the bitter truth that, even if VW had never been caught, their U.S. gambit was already failing.

A few years ago the strategy was seemingly peaking in success, as “[b]rand-wide volume in 2012 improved to the highest level since 1973, when Type 1 Beetles filled the driveways of America.” VW’s growth almost immediately hit the skids, however, and hobbled for years with outdated models, the company saw double-digit declines quarter after quarter.

What’s more, the seeming new normal of $4.00 gas as far as the eye could see that was so evident as 2012 set American gas price records, proved to be a high-water mark. Global oil prices have been falling thanks to booms in domestic American production via shale gas extraction and fracking techniques. The shifts in American sentiment towards small, fuel-efficient cars to which VW offered a new lease on diesel life soon tracked back to the bigger cars, trucks, and SUVs the country famously preferred. Belatedly, Winterkorn announced this year that VW would be trying to play catch-up and aggressively enter the SUV and crossover market.

Ironically, diesels are a natural fit for SUVs, where their “torquiness” and fuel-economy can both be put to good use. Volkswagen’s reputation will presumably be shot for years to come, however, especially if they start “fixing” people’s cars by turning the emissions traps on all the time, draining the vehicles of fuel economy and power. And the slowly recovering reputation of diesel fuel in the U.S. may have been set back by another 10 to 20 years.

Volkswagen itself will be beset by criminal investigations, angry regulators, and opportunistic class-action lawsuits the world over. The company has already set aside $7.3 billion to address those claims. Only time will tell if it will be enough. Already there is sweeping fear in Germany of potential layoffs as the industrial icon of Europe’s steadiest and strongest economy suddenly finds itself under peril.

Angela Merkel presides over a country that has girded itself against the Greek economic crisis, promised that it could absorb vast numbers of refugees from that current crisis, withstood the economic disruptions resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and prepared to weather the presumed depressed demand to result from China’s stock collapse. Yet for all the world has thrown at it, Germany finds itself economically rocked by a few lines of car software code thrown in by panicked engineers trying to satisfy the EPA and California Air Resources Board.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative.


The Optimism of the Cross in the Face of Genocide

Mar Mattai monastery outside Mosul, continually inhabited by monks since the 4th century A.D. Chris De Bruyn / cc

A year and three months ago, the militant group then calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the vital Iraqi city of Mosul as government forces melted away. The sudden loss of such an important city seized the world’s attention, and the brutality with which ISIS then purged Mosul of its Christian and other religious minorities shocked those newly focused eyes.

A year ago this past Friday, the newly founded organization In Defense of Christians (IDC) reached the culmination of a three-day summit bringing a historic collection of the heads of the oldest churches in Christianity to Washington in order to raise awareness of the plight of Christians and plead for assistance. The solidarity gala dinner closing the summit was keynoted and summarily crashed by Senator Ted Cruz, who threatened to overshadow the calls for unity with a provocative speech that ended with the senator storming off stage.

While Cruz’s cynical performance was roundly and harshly criticized in many conservative circles, there was no denying that the spectacle was a distraction that threatened to overshadow the progress made. Many feared that the potential opening for rallying broad support to the defense of persecuted Christians was closed as Senator Cruz walked off the stage.

Last week IDC returned to Washington, however, and opened its convention with a bang: the announcement of bipartisan legislation introduced in the House to officially recognize the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians as a genocide, as Kelley Vlahos reports. The bill picked up dozens of cosponsors within days.

This year’s solidarity dinner did not culminate with angry denunciations, but with a sobering, powerful presentation. As Georgetown professor Thomas Farr was honored with a lifetime achievement recognition of his career fighting for religious liberty, IDC senior advisor Andrew Doran announced that Dr. Farr would be entrusted with a crucifix.

When ISIS troops rolled into Mosul, St. Joseph’s Chaldean church soon joined the rest of the 45 Christian institutions in Mosul in being destroyed, shuttered, or converted into mosques. As Doran related, the church bells fell silent in Mosul for the first time in nearly 2,000 years. The guardians of St. Joseph’s were able to seize a crucifix from the church as they fled before the oncoming militants, and they carried that crucifix across the Atlantic where it was placed in the hands of Dr. Farr “not to keep but for safeguarding and its eventual return.” The presentation looked forward to a day when Farr and his team would be able to travel to a Mosul liberated, and return the crucifix to its rightful home within St. Joseph’s: a day when the bells would once again be able to be heard tolling above the ancient city.

There were strong speeches given that evening by Ambassadors and Beatitudes, Canons and Supreme Knights, but the entrance of that small cross and chain, fastened behind the glass of the frame, brought the audience to its feet in a hushed reverence. Where cynicism had sparked shouts from the seated a year before, the reckless optimism of the cross summoned the whole hall to stand and witness a promise that genocide would not have the last word in the cradle of Christianity.


Donald Trump Isn’t Herman Cain

When an oft-bankrupted reality-show billionaire declared for the GOP presidential nomination two months ago, I resolved to do my best to shield my vision, guard my pen, and strive in all things to avoid acknowledging a sure-to-be soon-passing (if depressing) storm. Two months and three days later, though, The Donald is still among us, and riding higher than ever.

There are many good and sound reasons to expect that Trump’s summer surge will soon enough pass away, and few good or sound reasons to expect that he will ever get within shouting distance of actual nomination. But there is one comparison often being made to dismiss Trump’s candidacy that doesn’t quite hold, and which perhaps obscures full understanding of the Trump phenomenon more than it illuminates: Herman Cain.

Like Trump, Cain was a successful businessman who threw his hat into the presidential race as an anti-politician. He also at one point claimed the lead in the polls, reaching the mid-20 percent range Trump now occupies. That is where most of the similarities end, however, for while Cain was a mostly unknown former executive who was elevated in the course of 2012’s pursuit of an anti-Romney, any anti-Romney, Donald Trump is a force in his own right.

As has been frequently noted by now, Donald Trump is a bona fide media celebrity, with a long-running network reality TV show and a well-established career commanding tabloid covers before that. A real-estate mogul who accumulated vast wealth by, in his words, taking “advantage of the laws of this country,” Trump bankrupted and bullied his way into cronyism-begotten gains. He has specialized in courting public spats in order to keep his name in circulation, and has built his brand on a brash design aesthetic that one of my Parisian friends would only describe as “very American.”

Cain was a mostly honest broker who got in over his head due to structural politics beyond his control, and he bowed out when charges of scandal emerged. Trump is a degraded capitalism’s high aristocrat, and shows no sign of being shamed by scandal. Indeed, he courts it.

Trump’s celebrity status and experience do not mean that he definitely has staying power, but they do mean that his candidacy is sufficiently different from Cain, or any other of the 2012 attempted anti-Romneys for that matter, to merit separate analysis. I wouldn’t be shocked if Trump eventually pulled into the mid-30 percent range many of the 2012 alternatives reached, but I would be very surprised if reports of a sexual harassment accusation gave Trump a moment’s hesitation about jumping on the plane for his next campaign event.

We shall eventually be rid of Trump, but the mechanism of his removal is far from clear. In related news of our democracy, apparently the Independent candidate “Deez Nuts” is polling near double-digits in my home state of North Carolina.

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‘Game of Thrones’ Between Two Battles

HBO; a White Walker

After two of the most apparently subpar episodes of the series occupied the middle of this current “Game of Thrones” season, many watchers were starting to wonder if the “double-D” showrunners extraordinaire, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, were starting to run out of material to write well.

Though the show is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, this season has for the first time begun to forge well past the confines of the books, not just taking liberties with its adaptation, but spinning storylines of its own anew, setting the new canon. And the past two weeks’ episodes prior to this past Sunday boded poorly for the success of “Game of Thrones” without A Song of Ice and Fire.

Then “Hardhome” happened.

This past Sunday’s episode opened by uniting the storylines of two of the most compelling characters in the series, the drunken, witty, apparent political genius dwarf Tyrion Lannister and the fierce, charismatic, apparently fireproof Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, and closed by confronting humans led by the youthful Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow, with the very visage of death itself, unstoppable hordes of newly raised undead and their commanding White Walkers.

The grand battle scene between Snow’s Night’s Watch men and the tens of thousands of Wildlings they had come to persuade to flee to relative safety south of the Wall, and the White Walker-led zombie hordes, immediately drew comparisons, most favorable, to “Blackwater,” the full-episode siege of the capital city of King’s Landing. Yet if the appearance of the armies of the dead marks the turning point in the series that it does seem to indicate, then the contrasts between the battles may be the more relevant point.

“Blackwater” was about relationships. What felt like a grand, cinematic battle scene unprecented on the small screen on the first watch now reads as a series of close, intimate set pieces upon rewatching. There is very little actual fighting, relatively speaking, as the camera moves around to documenting the intersection of most of the series’ storylines at one moment of peak stress.

With Stannis Baratheon’s troops laying siege to Kings’ Landing to claim the throne from the illegitimate Lannister children, the yellow-haired Worst Family in Westeros (up to that point) all understand acutely that the stern Stannis will give them no quarter. Queen Cersei prepares drastic measures of euthanasic mercy to spare her children Baratheon blades. Her hated brother and temporary Hand of the King, Tyrion, nervously commands the city’s defense, as the titular King and psychopath Joffrey betrays the full teenage petulance that his mother’s shielding has allowed to flourish when he is not torturing and maiming. The Hound personally abandons the battle and his post, while Stannis mounts the walls essentially unaided.

The battle of Blackwater Bay is much more a series of two-person set shots revolving around a central moment of stress than it is a war film. And regardless of who prevails, one of the sides we have been following will in fact win, and continue their story.

Of “Hardhome,” however, showrunner David Benioff in the perfunctory post-show filmed discussion says, “This isn’t a battle, really, it’s a massacre.” When the White Walkers appear with their hordes of zombie “wights,” it is immediately known that there is no hope of victory. A partial sea evacuation was already underway, so time could be bought for it to get a few more boats off. But the deaths of tens of thousands could only be forestalled. And while episode director Miguel Sapochnik has rightly received much praise for narrowing the battle and the shots to the last defense of the bay, there are no relationships or storylines at stake in Hardhome: there is only death.

And with the reanimated corpses of about 50,000 freshly slaughtered Wildlings newly drafted into the apparent Night’s King’s White Walker and zombie army, death is now officially on the march.

As GOT returns for its second-to-last episode of the season tomorrow night, “The Dance of Dragons,” we will begin to look in earnest for resources and leaders who can save the race of men from the creep of eternal winter. And few seem more naturally suited to that task than Daenerys Stormborn, the Mother of Dragons. Carried by Emilia Clark’s commanding performance, Queen Daenerys’s strength has poured through the screen, even as she has often let her youth and idealism run ahead of her potential better wisdom. She commands armies, frees slave cities, and she rose from the ashes of her husband’s funeral pyre with dragons reborn upon the earth.

And it only stands to reason that if dragonglass can kill White Walkers, and Valyrian/dragon steel can as well, then dragon fire should be a powerful weapon against the wintry death. The “song of ice and fire” appears to be approaching full volume.

Ultimately, though, one queen, even a queen with dragons, will not be able to defeat Death. It would seem likely that a coalition will have to be marshaled among many if not all the forces of Westeros. And that will require more than force of will, more than Unsullied and Second Sons and dragons. Obtaining the resources to defeat the march of the dead will require politics. And, as Tyrion so helpfully instructed Daenerys this last Sunday, “killing and politics aren’t always the same thing.

Last week we saw the icy White Walkers in their full fearsome display. Hopefully this Sunday we will see the fiery dragons fully grown. Most of all, we hope to see Tyrion’s political genius channel Daenerys’s epic presence and power. The fate of life itself may depend on the show’s unity in that balance.


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Rand Gets Abortion Politics Right

In the 24 hours after Rand Paul officially announced his presidential campaign, the Kentucky doctor has shown off both edges of his trademark combative political style.

On the “Today Show” yesterday morning, Paul went after NBC reporter Savannah Guthrie when she pressed him on his frequent attempts to split the foreign-policy baby. For a candidate with unconventional politics that will necessarily not fit into the easy categories relied on by 24-hour news, Paul has often displayed thin skin and a paucity of patience that could bode poorly for his ability to weather an 18-month campaign that will only get more confrontational.

Before the day was out, however, Paul performed the abortion-politics reversal so many pro-life conservatives have been anxiously waiting for in the years following the Obama campaign’s “war on women” meme. In doing so, he reminded us that he first truly broke out as a national figure by picking a filibuster fight no other Republican would touch.

As Dave Weigel reports, the Associated Press pressed Paul on the issue of abortion exceptions, and he responded by noting his votes for bills that included exceptions and those that didn’t. When Paul was again questioned by a local reporter citing a DNC e-mail blast that referenced his previous answer, however, he turned it back around, asking,

Here’s the deal—we always seen to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts … Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it’s okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.

As the earnest people at Vox have been documenting, the ideological uniformity that distinguishes activists on both sides of the abortion issue is far rarer in the American public at large. Yet for reasons that readers can supply for themselves, pro-life politicians and positions are far more likely to receive widespread critical media coverage, examining their answers on questions about fringe cases. The fringe cases of very late-term abortions, and whether they should be legal or not, are rarely given the same intensity of mainstream media examination.

Wasserman Schultz’s response revealed her lack of practice:

Here’s an answer … I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul. We know you want to allow government officials like yourself to make this decision for women — but do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of ‘personal liberty’? And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ’shushing’ me.

While she may not get raked over the coals the same way an RNC chair would for an equivalent categorical statement, Wasserman Schultz immediately concedes the abortion ballgame, declaring legal abortion apparently up to the moment of delivery to be the official Democratic party position.

What stands out in Rand’s reversal is that he did not go after the media for a perceived unfairness. He went right after the DNC. As much as many conservatives may enjoy sticking it to their perceived media enemy, even in our disintermediated age it doesn’t do a candidate any favors to constantly be showing up the ref.

Launching attacks at Democrats cuts out the middleman, and may be one of Paul’s best rhetorical tactics to win enough of the traditional Republican base to have a chance at the primary nod. Paul’s libertarian streak will always keep him from being the candidate to reassuringly confirm the base’s priors, and his attempts to shroud foreign policy restraint in hawkish rhetoric can at times appear ungainly. Distinguishing himself as the most skilled assailant of Hillary Clinton, then, could give Paul an appealing in with the base.

In a GOP primary field that will likely eventually turn into a circular firing squad, Rand’s ability to rise above the intraparty fray, while still appealing to untraditional constituencies, may be his best political path to success. To pull it off, however, he’ll have to display more skilled reversals, and fewer thin-skinned retorts.

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Scott Walker Is Quick to Retreat

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is proud to preen before a CPAC audience, and affirm that his experience weathering a crowd of protesters in Madison proves that he has the mettle to stare down ISIS and the Russians. The power brokers of Des Moines, however, are one adversary that will apparently send him running for the hard-to-find Midwestern hills.

For those blessed with lives that do not involve keeping up with political staffing intrigue, Scott Walker’s PAC announced on Monday that it was hiring the political consultant Liz Mair to advise on social media and online outreach. Mair is a young, talented, rather libertarian consultant who is widely respected for being damn good at her job. Congratulations were quickly in order, and the Walker organization seemed to headed in a very smart direction.

Then the powers-that-be in Iowa noticed that Mair, like many intelligent observers of politics, had criticized their death grip on the presidential nomination process.

Mair also took shots at the grossly market-distorting ethanol mandates that the corn industry has paid handsomely to maintain, and which has been additionally protected by Iowa’s favored status.

Mair was not hired as a policy adviser on energy policy, nor as an adviser on social issues or immigration, where her libertarian streak likely runs counter to Walker’s views, or at least those he has an interest in being viewed as holding. She was hired as a consultant, a sign that Walker was willing to surround himself with the best people. It was a move born out of confidence.

And it has now become an embarrassing display of cowardice.

Late last night, one day after Mair was hired, it was announced that she had resigned, saying, “The tone of some of my tweets concerning Iowa was at odds with that which Gov. Walker has always encouraged in political discourse.”

As Philip Klein wrote when Walker first reversed himself to kowtow to the ethanol mandate earlier this month: “If Walker can’t stand up to Iowans, how will he stand up to the Islamic State?”

Walker has enjoyed rock-star status among the conservative grassroots and many insiders alike, precisely because of his cultivated image as a principled fighter who could take a punch and still come up victorious. His battles with Wisconsin public sector unions are his calling card, and chief credential, to the aforementioned point that he tries to stretch them into the foreign policy credential he sorely lacks.

Walkers’s rapid capitulation to an Iowa and Breitbart backlash to a smart staff hire is more than a misstep on his way to building a campaign, then. It undermines his entire rationale for being a candidate.

Being president requires saying no to allies expecting a yes even more than refusing adversaries who never had any other expectations. If Scott Walker is happy to get conservative kudos for fighting unions, but unable to resist the slightest bit of pressure on his right (with even Erick Erickson providing cover), he won’t look like the man needed to clean up the right, much less the country.

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A Beginner’s Guide to ISIS

Graeme Wood of The Atlantic has just published one of the most serious, searching profiles of the ideology of the self-proclaimed Islamic State that you will encounter. In it, Wood travels the globe in order to interview ISIS’s intellectual champions and allies, asking them to articulate why they find Baghdadi’s claims to authority to be rigorous, authoritative, and binding (though they each skirt the issue of their own professions of allegiance in order to stay out of jail). Wood goes on  to interview the foremost scholars on the organization’s ideology, who heap scorn on those who seek to dismiss ISIS as simply “un-Islamic.” Wood writes,

Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Wood explains just how damaging some of that misguided miscategorization has been, when he details how the U.S.’s attempt to use a senior jihadist cleric, and ISIS critic, to persuade ISIS to free U.S. citizen Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig may have guaranteed his demise:

It entailed the enlistment of Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Zarqawi mentor and al-Qaeda grandee, to approach Turki al-Binali, the Islamic State’s chief ideologue and a former student of Maqdisi’s, even though the two men had fallen out due to Maqdisi’s criticism of the Islamic State. …

Maqdisi gets mocked roundly on Twitter by the Islamic State’s fans, and al‑Qaeda is held in great contempt for refusing to acknowledge the caliphate. Cole Bunzel, a scholar who studies Islamic State ideology, read Maqdisi’s opinion on Henning’s status and thought it would hasten his and other captives’ death. “If I were held captive by the Islamic State and Maqdisi said I shouldn’t be killed,” he told me, “I’d kiss my ass goodbye.”

Kassig’s death was a tragedy, but the plan’s success would have been a bigger one. A reconciliation between Maqdisi and Binali would have begun to heal the main rift between the world’s two largest jihadist organizations.

He also details ISIS’s obsession with the town of Dabiq, where they believe a final millenarian battle with Rome will take place, bringing about the Day of Judgment.

If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.

Wood finally offers “quietist Salafism” as a possible ideological off-ramp that could channel those seeking extremist faith into pursuing their own purification, instead the purification of the world of an ever-growing list of apostates: “The people who arrive at the faith spoiling for a fight cannot all be stopped from jihadism, but those whose main motivation is to find an ultraconservative, uncompromising version of Islam have an alternative here.”

The entire essay is very worthwhile, and a serious engagement with ISIS’s ideology in order to try and understand how to use ISIS’s commitments against it. He writes, “It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism,” and that its authority will wane should it not be able to continue expanding as it is ideologically committed to continually attempt. How best to starve the Caliphate is a difficult and fraught question, however. I recommend reading the whole thing.


Conservatives, Grab Your Pitchforks!

Illustration by Miguel Davilla

Could Republicans get around the Democratic populist flank? Heavens, let’s hope so.

Thomas Edsall, the New York Times online columnist and veteran WaPo political reporter, fretted this week that a surging group of young conservative reformers might have learned the GOP’s lessons after 2012 well enough to steal the Democrats’ traditional economic thunder, and that Hillary could be too tied up in Wall Street to stop them. For those of us on the reformist right that may seem rather too rosy a scenario to hope for, but the column did bring out several noteworthy political developments. (Ramesh and Yuval offer the official reformocon corrections at NRO, justly pushing back against Tea Party firebrand Mike Lee being part of a lurch to the center.)

Edsell worries that “The danger for Democrats is that they will lose ownership of the issues of stagnation, opportunity, and fairness.” Most of the elected Republican rhetoric on wage stagnation and income inequality that we’ve heard in recent months, coming as it is from Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, rings pretty hollow. Haranguing Obama for the fact that the post-recession economic recovery has overwhelmingly benefited the 1 percent smacks more of partisan opportunism than a reformed platform when it is unaccompanied by any serious effort to grapple with the deep structural forces that have been driving that economic polarization for several decades now. Occupy rhetoric in Republican mouths often sounds even more jarring than Congressmen who decry the cronyism of Solyndra in the same breath that swears fealty to the farm bill. Jeb may be the only major politician currently alluding to the wave of work deskilling and automation.

Opportunity is much more comfortable territory for conventionally conservative politicians, but as for fairness, Wick Allison wrote here immediately following the 2012 election,

A capital gains tax rate (making money off money) that is lower than the earned income rate (making money off work) is just not fair. Bestowing that rate on hedge-fund managers through a specially designed loophole is just not fair. Allowing the rich to take mortgage deductions for second and third homes, or for homes worth over $1 million, is just not fair. Allowing business owners like me to take myriad deductions that our employees cannot take is just not fair. But, most of all, allowing the wealthy to pay very low tax rates while interest on the war debt accumulates, deficits continue, and middle-class incomes deteriorate is just not fair.

The times are indeed changing, as the reform conservative™ Lee-Rubio tax plan offers expanded child tax credits that are—very significantly—refundable against the payroll tax, and which are paid for, in part, by capping the home mortgage interest deduction for the first more-than-modest $300,000 of a home. While that may sting relatively middle-class homeowners in expensive markets like Washington, D.C., it seems a reasonable trade-off to keep from continuing to subsidize holiday homes in the Hamptons with an intended middle-class tax break.

The most humorous part of Edsell’s column comes as analysis of what reform economics could do to the GOP coalition:

If Republicans compromise on taxes, conservative Christians are going to worry that compromise on abortion will be next. Anti-immigrant forces are already convinced that Republican leaders will cave in to pressure to enact liberal immigration reform. Many of the party’s most loyal constituencies fear that if this leftward turn continues, the entire conservative edifice could implode.

Conservative Christians need not worry that abortion abandonment is next; it’s already past. Likewise, comprehensive immigration reform has long ranked just behind expanded free trade agreements on the Congressional GOP list of priorities. If there’s one constituency the GOP has not dared disappoint, it is the donorists.

Conservative reform ideas are certainly still under heavy attack from the conventionally minded right, but what Edsell gets very right is that there is currently an dynamic open policy debate on the right, where the Democratic party, as I have heard echoed by frustrated friends on the left, mostly seems economically exhausted.

It has been over 25 years since the Clinton family was engaged in any similar sort of policy entrepreneurship, and their past 15 years have been spent overwhelmingly in the donorist circles that run the gamut from simply self-interested to the disturbing and predatory. One great unknown is whether Hillary has the political wherewithal to upset the coterie of plutocrats who have been funding the Clinton Foundation and placing advance down payments for influence in the form of her lucrative speaking fees.

The question is: is there anyone other than a Bush to pass out the conservative pitchforks and torches?

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Can Mike Lee Make Romney a Rugged Communitarian?

Dave Lawrence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When the news broke this weekend that Willard Mitt Romney looks to be seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency one more time, the conservative reaction in much of the media was a mix of laughter and grim disbelief.

As expected (and necessarily, given 2012’s results) the Romney camp has been persistently messaging that “this time will be different.” Or in language Mitt might be comfortable with, “past performance does not necessarily predict future results.” So let’s, for the sake of argument, think through how 2016’s Mitt Romney could actually be different.

First, we have to look at where Mitt is. A 67-year-old long-term unemployed former Staples director, Romney has spent the past two years with grandchildren and his extended family, heartily denying any interest in renewing his former job search. After so recently failing in a campaign mostly distinguishable for its lack of authenticity, one would think that the only way for Mitt to be emotionally up for another run is to cut himself loose to simply be the man he was always reported to be: a loving, decent, warmly awkward family man fiercely committed to his church and community. That is the “Mitt” that the Romney 2012 advisers bizarrely didn’t want voters to see.

According to Politico‘s survey of former Romney advisers, Mitt sees a new campaign being built around three pillars: poverty, middle-class mobility, and a muscular foreign policy. Politico notes that poverty has become a passion of Mitt’s former running mate Paul Ryan following inner-city tours conducted by civil rights leader Bob Woodson.

The question is how a man described by one of his supporters as “the worst communicator in the world [with] no message,” who in the immortal words of @DragonFlyJonez “reminds me of every boss I ever hated,” and who reportedly chalked up his 2012 rejection to “gifts” showered by President Obama to young and poor voters, could possibly come up with a credible message to sell about his poverty-fighting sincerity.

Fortunately, yesterday morning at the Heritage Foundation, Romney’s co-religionist Sen. Mike Lee gave a speech laying out just such a message:

But as I see it there is one issue – one challenge facing the American people today – that rises above the rest in its complexity, its magnitude, and the reach of its consequences. Directly or indirectly it affects nearly every other public issue you can think of, and should therefore be placed squarely at the center of our reform agenda.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, that issue is the family – its increasing importance and its declining stability – and I believe it may be the single defining challenge of our time.

What makes Lee’s message particularly promising—and important—is that he acknowledges the economic as well as the cultural pressures that have dramatically reshaped the state of the American family. Conservatives all too often treat the family as an institution that exists outside of economics, a natural byproduct of rightly ordered souls. The decline of stable, intact families and the rise of premarital childbearing are seen solely as signs of moral decline and social dissolution, rather than also being results of escalating economic pressures on Americans at each stage of life. That habit has been particularly convenient for the GOP’s power brokers as it has meant that social conservatism has not threatened corporate conservatism’s monopoly on fiscal policy priorities.

Lee counters,

Many of the men retreating from marriage today are not doing so confidently. They’re not defiantly rejecting tradition and embracing postmodern values. No. For many, their retreat from marriage is a constrained, insecure choice, driven by a lack of social and economic opportunity. So our pro-family, anti-poverty agenda must account for both sides of the coin.

Lee’s “pro-family, anti-poverty” agenda goes beyond his child tax credit proposals to include criminal justice reform to reunite vulnerable young men with their fathers, and he points to “transportation, labor, and housing systems that make it harder for parents to find decent jobs, get by without two full-time incomes, or make it home in time for dinner with the kids.”

A social conservatism more focused on strengthening families than fanning culture war flames, motivated by a modest economic populism, and demonstrating an understanding of the full range of pressures working- and middle-class Americans are under, could be truly formidable. Lee’s rugged communitarianism derives in part from his understanding of the Mormon settlement of Utah, and the tremendous civil society networks that have grown out of his church. Mitt Romney would seem as likely of a candidate as any to be able to grasp the roots of such an appeal to family and community.

In the end, is Mitt Romney the man to carry that banner all the way to the White House? Almost certainly not. Too much of 2012 Mitt was the real thing as a candidate, a corporate consultant who lost four-to-one among voters whose top priority was a candidate who “cares about people like me.” And if Politico is to be trusted, Romney’s circle is already teeming with more excuses for his 2012 failure than sound acceptances of their shortcomings. What’s more, the 2016 field will be much stronger, with faces much fresher in a country desperate for a change.

However, if Romney splits enough support from Jeb to weaken them both, he could conceivably still play kingmaker, and grant the full family-friendly reform platform to another candidate (John Kasich? Marco Rubio?) along with his financial network.

There would be something altogether fitting about the successful reform of the Republican party in 2016 coming about through the political redemption of Mitt Romney.

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