Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Can Tea Party afford the shutdown cost?

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 23, 2013 20:35 UTC

Victories come in many sizes. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, for example, at first seemed an overwhelming win for the Sioux. But it soon became clear their success would not last. Who really won the Alamo? The Mexicans? Try telling that to a Texan. So, who won the Battle of the Shutdown 2013? The conventional view is that the Tea Party Republicans were seen off by the congressional leadership in both parties. Having made their protest, disrupted the nation and cost Americans a great deal in anxiety, time and treasure, they lost the battle — but promise to resume the war another day. Perhaps as early as January.

While moderation appears to have triumphed and dogmatic extremism held at bay, the 800,000 federal workers and those who need their services were the obvious losers of the budget and debt ceiling battle. But so were those who hoped to derail the Affordable Care Act, freeze federal government spending and balance the budget.

A complete audit of the shutdown, however, shows the Tea Partiers suffered a more profound setback than they would like to admit — or perhaps even know. The exact philosophy of the Tea Party is hardly clear, but in as much as there is a manifesto it states: the government is too big and should shrink; government borrowing is out of control and the nation should live within its means; big business executives are unfairly propped up by government even when they make sizable mistakes; the government should stop manipulating the dollar through quantitative easing, and taxes should be reduced but never be raised.

It is a visceral creed, born of anger at the government’s bailout of the bankers in 2008-9 and the scale of the borrowing to prevent a full-blown slump, heavy on dogma but light on intellectual rigor. It could be called Austria Lite — all the prejudices of the big conservative thinkers without the trouble of having to read what they wrote.

The scale of the revolution that the Tea Party is attempting to foment is vast. It would turn the last 80 years of the federal government’s largely bipartisan social and economic policy on its head. It would entail closing government departments, privatizing popular entitlements like Social Security and Medicare and shrinking the military by withdrawing U.S. troops from abroad. It would mean deliberately slowing the pace of economic growth, returning to “sound money” that does not inflate and forcing Congress to stop spending other people’s money.

The GOP’s age of unreason

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 10, 2013 21:00 UTC

If the federal government fails to pay its bills and the interest on its borrowing by the middle of the month, it is the overwhelming verdict of the nation’s smartest economists that financial mayhem will ensue.

Until this week, no one on either side doubted that. In fact, it was implicit in the Republican case for using the debt ceiling as a lever to cut public spending. Only with the threat of Armageddon in the markets and the prospect of a return to the Crash of 2008 did the Republican bartering made any sense.

Now the looser cannons on the GOP deck have changed their tune. At last count, seven House members and six senators have suggested the government can remain shut down in perpetuity and America can fail to make interest payments on its borrowing and nothing much will happen.

In Nairobi mall, a layered ‘clash of civilizations’

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 25, 2013 20:06 UTC

What can we make of the terrible events in Nairobi, where innocent shopping trips turned into a bloodbath? It is usual to think of such horrors as acts of senseless killing. For every civilized person, the slaughter is inexcusable and incomprehensible. But in this case, as in so many others, it is not inexplicable.

The notion of a “clash of civilizations” has gained widespread currency since the September 11 al Qaeda attacks, particularly in the United States, where the idea has not only been used to explain why many young Muslims hate the West but to encourage a general fear and suspicion of all Muslims.

Islamists set out to violently counter the perceived decadence of Western capitalism. Those who use such intolerance to promulgate hatred against Muslims in general do not do justice to the subtlety of the arguments on the “clash of civilizations” made by Bernard Lewis, the Princeton professor who requisitioned the phrase for modern use, and the late Samuel P. Huntington, the Harvard and Columbia academic who came to similar conclusions.

Government shutdown threat means it’s high noon for Obama

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 20, 2013 14:44 UTC

As the nation heads towards a government shutdown and defaulting on its debts, the two battling sides cannot even agree which election they are fighting. Republican presidential hopefuls are jostling for position ahead of the 2016 primaries while President Obama has his eyes on the midterms next year. Both sides insist they will not compromise; yet both sides cannot win.

The president’s blink over Syria has encouraged the GOP. His failure to act resolutely and stand by his promise to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing his own people suggests that when he declared over the debt ceiling, “I will not negotiate over whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations. I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States,” he may have been bluffing, just like when he said about Syria, “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

The Republicans who hope to launch their presidential bids by tapping into the energy of the Tea Party, currently obsessing about killing the Affordable Care Act by defunding it, are prepared to call the president’s bluff. For Senator Marco Rubio, whose reputation among Tea Partiers was dimmed by his attempts to broker immigration reform, the debt ceiling showdown at the end of the month is the perfect way to strangle Obamacare before it comes into full force. “I’m in favor of funding the government at the levels that were agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act and not spending a single penny more of hardworking taxpayer dollars on a disaster, which is Obamacare,” he said.

On Syria, Obama shouldn’t text while he’s driving

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 17, 2013 15:50 UTC

The confusion surrounding the American response to the Syrian government gassing its own people has shocked foreign policy wonks. Here is Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, after the president threw the problem to Congress, then, facing defeat, handed negotiations with Bashar al-Assad to his nemesis Vladimir Putin: “The President has essentially allowed the red line in Syria to be somewhat ignored.” And here is Haass’s final verdict on the president’s dillydallying: “Words like ‘ad-hoc,’ ‘improvised,’ ‘unsteady’ come to mind. This is probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”

There is little sign the president has yet grasped the cost of contradicting all his top foreign policy advisors. Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were each asked for advice, then ignored. Obama appears oblivious to the fact that his fumbling over Syria has severely diminished his authority, even among close colleagues and his own party. He is under the impression that marching to the top of Capitol Hill and marching down again and backward flipping on decisive action against a despotic perpetrator of dastardly mass murder is simply a matter of “style.”

He seems to think his real enemies are not Assad, Putin, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top mullah, and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean tyrant, but “folks here in Washington.” “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear [the 'folks in Washington’] would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy,” he told George Stephanopoulos.

The isolationists’ dilemma

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 5, 2013 15:33 UTC

There has been a lot of loose talk about the return of isolationism since President Obama asked Congress for permission to degrade Bashar al-Assad’s ability to gas his people. Isolationism hasn’t been a respectable thread of political thinking in America since the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made redundant the clamor to keep America out of World War Two.

The isolationists grounded their belief that America had no business interfering in other countries’ affairs in Washington and Jefferson’s warnings not to become entangled in foreign alliances. They scuppered Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. And they came to full blossom in 1938-1941, when their hope that the distance from Europe and West Asia could keep America out of Hitler’s war led Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph Kennedy, and others to make excuses for Nazism. Little wonder that in the last seventy years few have wanted to be thought of as isolationist.

Isolationism was always a combination of ideas. Around its central core — that America was too far away to be attacked and that we enjoy a self-sustaining economy that could, if necessary, prosper without foreign trade — was also an intense dislike of government, a belief that the profiteering defense industry was driving American foreign policy, and a detestation of Wall Street (which often disguised a rich seam of anti-Semitism that even in the Thirties was politically toxic) and the Federal Reserve.

How King’s speech took the world

Nicholas Wapshott
Aug 28, 2013 03:53 UTC

It would be easy to assume that the stirring words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech affected Americans most of all. His goading of a nation to live up to the democratic principles of its founders was a sharp display of America’s private grief. The wrongs he set out to right were internal and shaming — American sins that stretched back to the days of slavery. When he rose to speak, King was clearly aiming his remarks at his fellow Americans.

But King’s dignified appeal to the better nature of his countrymen had a resonance far wider than just the United States. When he addressed what he called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” he would inadvertently set off a worldwide movement for racial emancipation. Tangible evidence of the long march he set off on 50 years ago can be found in the endless roads and civic facilities around the world to which the name Martin Luther King has been appended — celebrating the American civil rights leader’s universal cry for a more generous and humane world.

Africans found a particularly poignant message in King’s plea for racial tolerance and his declaration that “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” It is no surprise that there is a Martin Luther King Road in Lusaka, Zambia, and a Martin Luther King Street in Mpumalanga, South Africa. King’s appeal to the goodness in Americans and the struggle for black liberation in South Africa led by Nelson Mandela were made of the same cloth.

Jeff Bezos and the new publishing revolution

Nicholas Wapshott
Aug 8, 2013 16:10 UTC

The last few days have seen a flurry of purchases of ailing print journalism flagships. The Boston Globe was sold. Newsweek changed hands again. And, most spectacular of all, the Washington Post was bought for chump change. Meanwhile, the Tribune group — publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune – is readying itself for sale.

There is nothing new about rich men buying newspapers. The surest way to enhance personal prestige is to become a press magnate. As Rupert Murdoch’s second wife Anna replied when asked how she was enjoying Beverly Hills, “It’s not the same if you don’t own the paper.” But something more interesting is going on than social climbing. New technology billionaires are picking up old money properties for a song. Online is moving in on hard copy. This is not evolution, it is a revolution.

The history of the press from its inception, when Bi Sheng invented moving type in 1041, to the proliferation of online publications today, has been a succession of tidal waves as typeset printing and rival media technologies have battled it out. Despite the contention that capitalism thrives on competition, in practice the market tends towards monopoly.

The never-ending war on Obamacare

Nicholas Wapshott
Aug 7, 2013 15:05 UTC

What is behind the continuing campaign to repeal Obamacare? The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the name by which it is never known, was signed into law by the president in March 2010 and, after a legal challenge, was confirmed as the law of the land by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court in June last year.

Yet Republicans and conservative commentators continue to urge its overthrow. As that is not going to happen, at least not until there is a Republican president backed by a Republican Senate and House, which may be some time off, why are they wasting their time and our money?

The best chance of overturning Obamacare without benefit of all three departments of government was in the legal challenge on the grounds that Congress should not oblige a citizen to buy a certain product. That cut to the heart of the new law, for if a later Congress were to insist we buy Kellogg’s Corn Flakes under pain of a fine we would all be up in arms at the overreach of government.

It’s time for Obama to defy Putin

Nicholas Wapshott
Aug 5, 2013 15:44 UTC

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to grant asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden leaves President Obama looking weak. Putin meant it that way. His political base likes him thumbing his nose at the American president and he took a gamble that Obama  would not retaliate over a freelance spy.

It might be argued that this is just another Russian mosquito bite, an embarrassing irritation but not a major incident. It makes little difference where Snowden lives under what amounts to house arrest. In Russia, civil rights will be almost as severely curtailed as if he were locked up here. Like the WikiLeaks leaker Julian Assange, self-exiled to one room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Snowden is going nowhere and is no longer free to do his worst. The Russians have already accessed his most damaging information, as did the Chinese before they sent him packing. Even the Guardian, the most ardent conduit of his erudite revelations, must have a data dump to keep it occupied for years.

That does not mean the president should do nothing. Harboring Snowden comes on top of a number of other offensive Russian actions that suggest Obama should draw one of his famous lines in the sand. Most egregiously, Putin has continued to bolster the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, the tyrant of Syria who has used Russian military hardware to kill 100,000 of his own people. Russia not only continues to provide heavy arms, missiles, and aircraft parts that allow Syria to continue bombing civilians in rebel-held cities, it repeatedly vetoes U.N. efforts to broker a peace deal.

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