Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Rand Paul: The pied piper

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 24, 2014 19:35 UTC

The warm welcome that Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) received from an audience of mostly young Americans at the University of California, Berkeley, last week should send a shiver down the spines of Democrats.

Paul was in the Bay Area ostensibly to complain about the National Security Agency’s snooping on Americans. He described “an intelligence community drunk with power, unrepentant and uninclined to relinquish power.” The crowd applauded as he said, “What you do on your cell phone is none of their damned business.”

His real purpose, however, was to demonstrate to Republican primary voters that he alone is capable of extending the party’s reach beyond its current narrow boundaries. He likened the Republicans to a tarnished brand that had finally turned itself around. “Remember when Domino’s finally admitted they had bad crust?” he said. “Think Republican Party. Admit it. Bad crust. We need a different kind of party.”

By appearing in jeans and cowboy boots on the Berkeley campus, scene of the high point of the 1960s student protests and the epicenter of California liberalism, the closet libertarian did more than survive 40 minutes in the liberal lion’s den. He showed that his anti-domestic spying message rings true with young progressive Americans who are inclined to vote Democrat.

Not long ago, Paul reminded Republicans that they cannot win elections if they pursue lines of argument that seem irrelevant to the majority of Americans. He acknowledged that the GOP is the incredible shrinking party, the last bastion of the old white men who have resented every change in American society in the last 50 years — from the twist to Twitter.

The fight over the best form of defense

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 4, 2014 15:57 UTC

With Europe on the brink of a shooting war over Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, it may seem an odd time to propose a sharp reduction in the size of the U.S. Army. But that is what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will do Tuesday when President Barack Obama’s new budget request to Congress is published.

Hagel wants to reduce the Army to its smallest size since 1940 — before Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor propelled  the United States into World War Two. Hagel’s plan would see the Army shrunk to 450,000 regulars, slightly less than the 479,000 troops we had in 1999, before we rapidly expanded after the 2001 al Qaeda attacks and we embarked as well on the optional war to free Iraq from the despot Saddam Hussein.

Obama’s appointment of Hagel, a former moderate Republican senator from Nebraska, was canny. Democrats have often employed Republicans in Defense to disguise what is often regarded as a weakness on military matters by the Democratic Party, which has become the natural home to the nation’s pacifists.

The pope’s divisions

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 30, 2013 15:29 UTC

The political roundups of 2013 make little mention of perhaps the most important event to alter the political landscape in the last 12 months. It was not the incompetence of the Obamacare rollout — though that will resonate beyond the November midterms. Nor was it House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) finally snapping at the Tea Party hounds who have been nipping at his heels.

No, it was the March 13 election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a cardinal from Argentina, as pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is significant the new pope chose as his name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, the 12th century saint who shunned comfort and wealth, and devoted his life to helping the poor and treating animals humanely. Pope Francis said he was inspired by a Brazilian colleague, who whispered to him, “Don’t forget the poor.” Since then he has rarely missed the chance to reprimand the rich and embrace the poor, as shown by his refusal to adopt the palatial papal lifestyle in favor of more modest accommodation.

Enlightening the puzzled Republicans

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 31, 2013 18:00 UTC

Moderate Republicans cannot fathom what has happened to their party.

Once a happy band of no-nonsense, pro-business conservatives, cautious in everything from money to marriage — including their wary response to the onward march of 1960s liberal social values — they were prepared, within reason, to trim their policies to match the voters’ mood. After all, to achieve anything in government you first have to win elections.

But that was before the revival in fundamental conservatism that has turned the GOP from a pragmatic party to a collection of inward-looking ideological tribes. Republicans puzzled by the rise of dogma and division in their party can find answers in a new survey that explains how large the factions are and what they think. They will be surprised by the findings.

The GOP has long been considered a three-legged stool: big business, Southern evangelical Christians and anti-government Westerners. But, largely since the world financial panic of 2008-9, these three have been joined by two new aggressive, popular movements: the Tea Party and the libertarians.

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.

The return of isolationism

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 29, 2013 13:07 UTC

Isolationism is back in the news. The big thinkers of the Tea Party, in their pursuit of slashing taxes, lowering public spending, and severely shrinking the size and power of the federal government, have revived an idea that has not been respectable among senior Republicans for more than 70 years. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky believes that, to encourage more young people to vote for the GOP, the party should stop chasing divisive social issues, like incarcerating people for petty drug offenses, and take up civil liberties issues, like protecting American suspected terrorists on American soil from being summarily executed by American drones.

But that is just a start. According to a recent speech in Cincinnati, Paul thinks that, for the GOP to win younger voters, “even bigger to me than the social issues is the idea of war.” “If we didn’t have to be everywhere all the time, if maybe we tried to reserve it for when our national interests were impacted or a vital interest of ours was . . . [he left the thought unfinished] — and if Republicans didn’t seem so eager to go to war — I think we’d attract more young people.” He would prefer it “if we had a less bellicose approach, if we were for a strong defense but a little bit less aggressive defense around the world.” Paul is not suggesting pacifism. What he means by “a less aggressive foreign policy” is that he wishes America would stop taking its international responsibilities so seriously because it costs taxpayers a lot of money.

This is an extraordinary about-face for a leader of a party that in the post-war world has always proudly defended America’s right to intervene with force when and wherever it wishes. The GOP has always been the natural home for isolationists. The “Irreconcilables” that kept America out of the League of Nations were overwhelmingly Republican and it was largely Republican isolationists who advocated the neutrality laws in the Twenties and Thirties. Robert Taft nudged the party towards isolationism in his many failed bids to become the Republican presidential candidate through the Forties and Fifties. And rogue isolationist Patrick Buchanan gave the GOP establishment a scare when in both 1992 and 1996 he prospered in early primaries.

Sarah Palin and the rejection of scientific method

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 22, 2013 18:56 UTC

The most recent episode in the long-running Punch and Judy show between Sarah Palin and Karl Rove is shedding light on the schism between old-school Republicans and the Tea Party insurgents who are steadily pushing them aside. It appears it is not merely Palin’s personal antipathy to Rove that drives her spleen but a contempt for the dark arts he employs.

It is no surprise, perhaps, that the anti-intellectualism that underpins many of the Tea Party’s most absurd and offensive stances – the insistence that evidence of global warming is invented; the notion that women who are raped do not conceive; the belief that Darwin’s theory of evolution is contradicted by the Bible; the failure to understand that all economics is Keynesian; and so on – also informs Palin’s assault on the science practiced by Rove and every other established political strategist around the world.

In a zinger directed at Rove, Palin blamed Mitt Romney’s defeat on the “top-down political process” directed by a “permanent political class” in “permanent political mode” in Washington that is “busy worrying about their own political future.” “Now is the time to furlough the consultants, and tune-out the pollsters, send the focus groups home and throw out the political scripts, because if we truly know what we believe, we don’t need professionals to tell us,” she declared.

Has military Keynesianism come to an end?

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 15, 2013 15:34 UTC

The outcome of the sequester ultimatum appears to have taken everyone by surprise. Two long summers ago, when the president and House speaker John Boehner conjured a prospect so terrible that even spending on defense would be deeply cut, they both assumed Congress would buckle rather than approve such a blow to the nation’s pride. According to Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics, Boehner said, “Guys, this would be devastating to Defense. This is never going to happen.”

But neither man appears to have taken account of the clearly stated views of the Tea Party. There are few better ways of appreciating how the Republican Party has transformed in the last two years from a party of defense hawks to a party of deficit hawks than tracking how the sequester has turned from a threat to the nation’s defenses to an unparalleled opportunity to bring the government to heel.

If Obama and Boehner had taken heed of the strident voices offstage, they might have guessed their ostensibly idle threat to the Pentagon would be taken as a chance to reduce the size of the federal government. They didn’t, and the sequester is upon us, promising, according to the Central Budget Office and IMF, to throw 750,000 out of work and slow down already anemic economic growth by 0.6 points. No surprise there: If you take money out of an economy, activity flags and the economy shrinks.

Immigration reform could tear GOP apart

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 25, 2013 17:06 UTC

Immigration reform is being discussed again on Capitol Hill. At his inauguration, President Barack Obama declared, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.” Senior Republicans, too, seem ready to make a deal. They sorely need to do so, because Mitt Romney’s damaging policy of self-deportation ensured that Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Obama, and demographic changes mean unless the party changes tack fast it will keep losing. But there is an enormous gulf between what the Republicans need to do and what the base will go along with. What is at stake is whether the GOP remains a party of government or becomes a mere protest movement.

Although he does not have a majority in the House, the president appears in no mood to compromise. He wants to help create a more tolerant America and believes he has the country behind him. Recent polling confirms that his views on gay marriage, gun control, abortion, immigration and other social issues all chime with a majority of the electorate, and he is determined to press his case. His inauguration speech spelled out the direction he is heading in, and his Feb. 12 State of the Union address is expected to chart the course. He appears to be relishing the chance to embarrass the Republicans if they stand in the way of progress. Catching Obama’s new sense of purpose, House Speaker John Boehner has become convinced the president wants “to annihilate the Republican Party” and “shove [it] into the dustbin of history.”

Senior Republicans appear to be aware that they are out of step with America and need to make significant changes to policies and their public image if they are to stand a chance of winning the midterm elections in 2014 or the White House in 2016. Former Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice believes “the Republican Party certainly has to stop turning off large segments of the population” and urges it to face “the big issue,” immigration reform. Says Senator Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.): “We’re in a death spiral with Hispanic voters because of rhetoric around immigration.” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who burned his fingers pushing for immigration reform in 2006-07, thinks “we have to do immigration reform … There is no doubt whatsoever that the demographics are not on our side.” Conservative commentator Seth Mandel suggests it may be too late: “When they arrived here with nothing but the clothes on their back, desperate for a chance at a better life for themselves and their children, one party said, ‘Come on in,’ and the other said, ‘Turn around and go back.’”

Austerity still doesn’t work

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 16, 2013 16:26 UTC

Does austerity work? As many Tea Party activists and conservative economists suggest that the solution to America’s economic ills is a large spoonful of the bitter medicine of austerity, it is a question worth asking. A few months of misery may be worth it if the result is strong growth and full employment. First witness for the austerity prosecution is Latvia, for which some extravagant claims are being made. The economy of the former Soviet satellite and current member of the European Union was nose-diving in 2008-9. Now it is growing again.

Latvia’s premier, Valdis Dombrovskis, has written a self-congratulatory book, How Latvia Came through the Financial Crisis, with the help of Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute, who claims that if America followed the Latvian example we would all be better off. Aslund extrapolates from the Latvian example, “Keynesian thinking has been tested, and it has failed spectacularly.” So what does Latvia’s experience of austerity really tell us? As you might expect, things are not quite as rosy as they are made out to be.

Back in 2008-9, Latvia was at its lowest ebb, losing a fifth of its output in just two years. Its second largest bank went bust, leaving thousands of Latvians without their lives’ savings. Unemployment was above 20 per cent, and 40 per cent among the young. Credit froze and construction, which prior to 2008 was booming thanks to low interest rates, collapsed. In December 2008, the Latvian government won a €7.5 billion bail-out from the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU – worth more than a third quarter of its annual GDP of $28.25 billion – on the condition that it introduce “structural reforms” and a generous, temporary safety net to offset the harsh effects of austerity. The reforms meant slashing public spending from 44 per cent of GDP to 36 per cent and removing legal safeguards from trade unions to reduce labor costs. By early 2009, violent rioting erupted on the streets of the capital, Riga.

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