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Special Section: Hunt Watch (Series 4)
What and Why
Everybody has a least favorite columnist. Mine (despite stiff competition from many quarters) is Al Hunt, whose smirking, inaccurate, idea-free, ad hominem insinuations have appeared in every Thursday's Wall Street Journal for more years that I care to look up. The purpose of this section is to subject Mr. Hunt's effusions to what I hope will be rational analysis. I shall do my best to be fair and, in particular, to give the target credit for any wisdom that he imparts. I'm not anticipating, however, that I will face that task very often.
Headline dates are those on which the column appeared. I don't expect to respond on the same day but will try to be more or less timely.
April 22, 2004
This week Al Hunt combines two varieties of wishful thinking: first, that troubles in Iraq will lead to the political demise of George W. Bush and his neoconservative cabal; second, that those troubles were brought on by simple, ideologically driven missteps and thus are curable through political and diplomatic acumen.
The starting point for “The U.N. the Bush’s Rescue?” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is the President’s bestowal on Lakhdar Brahimi, a United Nations functionary and former Algerian foreign minister, of responsibility for arranging an interim Iraqi administration to assume power (subject to American supervision) at the end of June. Mr. Brahimi played a similar role in Afghanistan, which is why he was selected this time.
Any Brahimi-nurtured government will fill only a caretaker role until elections are held, and it is not obvious that its composition is of crucial importance. Mr. Hunt, however, taunts the White House with what he calls “the prospect of turning this mess over to the much-maligned (by the Bush administration) U.N.”
George Bush’s re-election may well hinge on the success of a Sunni Arab and an institution he considers feckless, the United Nations.
Forget the president’s grand rhetoric about “staying the course” and a free, democratic Iraq. The administration’s hopes to avoid a bloody quagmire now rest with the U.N.’s Lakhdar Brahimi negotiating some political settlement in the months ahead.
This is not what they wanted, but there’s little choice; six more months like the last one and, to paraphrase Dick Cheney, George W. Bush will be “toast” in November.
At the very end of the column, Al returns to this delightful prospect, borrowing from another Bush Hater:
In a delicious essay last weekend, the New York Times’ Frank Rich traced the stages of the Bush Iraq debacle through the lens of movie plots: “High Noon” in those early days became “Top Gun,” but as events unfolded it turned into “Fog of War,” and more recently, “Black Hawk Down.” Now, for George W. Bush, who prefers his information on the short side, it’s a television series: “Survivor.”
We aren’t given Mr. Hunt’s theory as to why “six more months” will have a more dramatic impact on the polls than “the last one”, during which the President was “toasted” very lightly, if at all. His standing against presumptive opponent John Kerry remained steady or even improved a bit.
There is no need to traverse the gloomy Huntian picture of the current situation on the ground in Iraq. Let’s assume arguendo that it’s about as awful as he asserts, i. e., “Violence is escalating and not limited to one region; other countries are pulling back resources as the costs for America, in lives and dollars, are soaring.” If that is so, the first question to ask is what is the source of the trouble.
Mr. Hunt answers, “abysmal post-Saddam planning”.
The neoconservatives got two things right: The initial phase would be quick and easy and Saddam would be killed or captured.
About everything else they got wrong: We weren’t greeted as liberators; we needed far more troops than the Pentagon supplied; it was catastrophic to dismantle all remnants of the Iraqi governing and military structure without anything to fill the void; there weren’t anywhere near the oil revenues to finance reconstruction; other nations didn’t quickly rally to be with the victors; the capture of Saddam four months ago didn’t quell the insurgency; and virtually every timetable or political plan has not been met or failed.
These strictures treat the Iraqi problem as a generalized breakdown of law and order, stemming from the absence of sufficiently staffed and funded governmental authorities. Yet the news from Iraq is not of rampant crime, clashes between ethnic groups or widespread chaos. Rather, we read of bombings, rocket attacks and ambushes carried out by small bands of terrorists. Very few Iraqis have taken up arms against their neighbors. Eyewitness accounts suggest that life is by and large peaceful, indeed vibrant, save for the occasional horrific interruptions by suicide bombers. One can say much the same about life in Israel.
That pro-Ba’athist and pro-mullarch terrorists have persisted is not the effect of any failure of “post-Saddam planning”, except in the sense that their ranks would be depleted if last year’s war had been longer and more brutal. Sending more soldiers would have had no impact, unless we had sent numbers that simply aren’t available. The 150,000 troops whom we have in Iraq outnumber the terrorists by ten or twenty to one and outgun them by much more than that. They are more than sufficient to deal with any military threat. On the other hand, if we are planning to suppress terrorism by guarding every possible target, 550,000 men wouldn’t be enough. Maybe 5,550,000 would do.
Similarly, leaving Ba’athist soldiers and administrators in place would merely have given our enemies more inside help rather than fill any “void”. The U.N. learned that when it hired ex-Ba’athist guards to protect its mission in Baghdad. Some of them assisted the bombers who destroyed the building. U.N. personnel have stayed away ever since.
That is not to say that American planners possessed 20/20 foresight and never made a mistake. Of course they didn’t, and they did. Still, little that they saw blurrily or did wrong contributed seriously to the negative side of the present equation. There is violence in Iraq today, because supporters of tyranny are willing to make war on the Iraqi people in order to thwart liberalism (of the old-fashioned kind) and democracy, not because the U.S. disbanded the Ba’athist army or France, Russia and Germany haven’t joined in peacekeeping there.
The belief that Mr. Brahimi’s efforts are central to improving the situation is an odd delusion. Anti-Western terrorists don’t care about the composition of the caretaker government. They want to frustrate progress toward democracy. Their hopes are transparent: that the Coalition will withdraw its troops, leaving behind no central government and that civil war will ensue, in which foreign intervention (Syrian for the Ba’athists, Iranian the “Mahdi Army”) will secure victory. That they direct most of their attacks against Iraqi civilians shows how little support they anticipate from their countrymen.
Inevitably, Mr. Hunt presents a Vietnam analogy, though it is a strange one that, looked at carefully, undermines his position.
. . . in recent days several wise veteran Washington hands separately have likened the past few weeks to the Tet offensive in 1968, when during the holiday the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong sprung a massive surprise offensive throughout South Vietnam.
Tet was a military defeat for the Communists but a huge political and psychological victory. It demonstrated to the public that the American government had misled them – that proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” never materialized – and instead of a satisfactory resolution, a brutal and endless conflict lay ahead. Sound familiar?
What sounds familiar is the unbalanced pessimism of the liberal media. The Communists’ “huge political and psychological victory” and many Americans’ perception “that the American government had misled them” sprang from the nonexistent Communist military victory that Walter Cronkite and his peers “reported” (not corrected by historians until years after the fact). Today’s media concentration on every casualty inflicted by terrorist attacks, untempered by perspective or an honest appreciation of the balance of forces, could eventually have the same effect; Mr. Hunt seems to hope so.
The other apt analogy is American policy makers’ indifference to the history of the country. Stanley Karnow, in his classic history of Vietnam, describes the effects of this ignorance: “Unfamiliar with Vietnam’s past, very few Americans knew that one of the most famous exploits in the nation’s history occurred during Tet of 1789, when the Emperor Quang Trung deceptively routed a Chinese occupation army celebrating the festival in Hanoi. Nor did they understand the Vietnamese, after centuries of internecine turmoil, were inured to duplicity.” Sound familiar?
I haven’t looked up Mr. Karnow’s passage, but, as he is rarely silly, I doubt that he claims that the Tet Offensive was made possible by Americans’ historical ignorance. It was, after all, the South Vietnamese military, presumably not unaware of Quang Trung’s feat, that granted extensive leaves for the holiday and was initially left short of men when the attack occurred.
But from what in Iraqi history does Al Hunt want us to draw lessons? That will become clear as we examine his preferred approach to bringing about a resolution to the country’s difficulties.
In his eyes, dampening terrorism depends upon such factors as Mr. Brahimi’s “relationship with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite in a country that is more than 60% Shia” (though both public opinion surveys and the handful of local elections so far indicate that Iraqis have no desire for a cleric-led state) and in keeping out of power “Dick Cheney and Richard Perle’s favorite Iraqi leader, Ahmed Chalabi, whose support in neoconservative Washington salons never translated to the streets of Iraq”. He insinuates that Mr. Chalabi “may have to be dissuaded by military force”, a slander for which he offers no support and that is peculiar if the putative rebel has no indigenous following.
What is not crucial to Mr. Hunt is the kind of government that Iraq has in the future. So much is clear from his summary of what he called “the good case scenario”:
Security for the foreseeable future will have to be maintained by the U.S. But politically, power has to shift to the Iraqis, and one knowledgeable observer predicts Mr. Brahimi will seek a more active role from others in the region – “an Arab solution to an Arab problem.” Under this scenario, American forces certainly will have to take some direction from non-Americans.
“An Arab solution to an Arab problem” can mean nothing but an inter-Arab struggle for control of Iraqi oil revenues. Not a single Arab government practices or sympathizes with democracy or the rule of law, and we can be sure that one of their high priorities would be to keep those dangerous concepts from gaining a foothold in the Middle East. In short, Al Hunt, a self-proclaimed liberal, heir to the French and American Revolutions, thinks that returning Iraq to the ancien regime is a “good case scenario”, one that he prefers to the tedious, perhaps expensive labor of rooting out terrorists and fostering liberal institutions where they have never existed before.
The “lesson” of Arab and Iraqi history, then, is that illiberalism is the only road and that all that we can hope to do in the region is, as one observer said about John Kerry’s similar notions, “pick the next Saddam Hussein and turn the place over to him”. If that is the vision that liberalism will be offering for the next six months, let me suggest a movie title for the Kerry campaign: Dead Man Walking.
[To comment, click here.]
April 15, 2004
When I saw that Al Hunt was writing about the Toomey-Specter Senatorial primary and that his column was titled “Down and Nasty in the Keystone State” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], I was quite sure that I knew what to expect: heroic Arlen Specter, embodiment of all that is good (well, tolerable) in the Republican Party, versus right-wing zealot Pat Toomey, who wants to cut taxes for the rich, rob the Social Security lockbox and turn the country over to Jerry Falwell.
Now and then one is surprised. The column is not penetrating political reporting and presents no news that those who have been following the race don’t already know. In fact, it leaves out one rather important fact: the incumbent’s frantic efforts to persuade Democrats to re-register as Republicans in order to vote for him in the primary (vide Jim Geraghty, "Primary Base"), as well as the gushing praise that Senator Specter has received from the Loony Left, including an endorsement by The Nation.
Still, what Mr. Hunt does say is free of his usual invective and reasonably informative. Perhaps he can’t make up his mind about whose victory would best serve liberal interests. Arlen Specter is a liberal but, from a left-wing point of view, a disappointingly tepid one. Pat Toomey is a solid conservative, but liberals can hope that he will be easier to defeat in November (though the fact that the state’s other Senator is the yet more conservative Rick Santorum should undermine their optimism). So the hopes and fears of the Left are nicely balanced.  The Nation’s pro-Specter editorializing tells us more about the delusions of neo-Stalinism than what outcome strategic-minded leftists should prefer.
Let me just note quickly the column’s key points (embellished with my own gloss, naturally):
1. The reason why Rep. Toomey has hopes of victory is his strength in the areas where the Republican Party is growing stronger:
Sen. Specter has been challenged from the right before, but never by anyone so formidable. And the political demographics are working for the challenger. Pennsylvania once was described as a state with two big cities – Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and their suburbs – as bookends, with the rest of the state resembling Alabama with no African Americans. Republican primaries used to hinge heavily on the four big suburban Philadelphia counties. Now, notes Rick Robb, a longtime GOP operative in the state, "the growth of the party" is west and north of that region – Lancaster and York and Lehigh Counties.
That is, of course, a national pattern. The GOP is turning into the party of those who work, the Democracy into the one of those who don’t, whether they are super-rich or welfare-poor.
2. The Specter campaign is almost completely detached from political issues. (Mr. Hunt refers below to the Senator’s legislative work on medical research, but the medical-related area in which he has been most prominent is one that he is unlikely to emphasize during the primary season: efforts to overturn the Bush Administration’s limitations on human cloning.)
If Arlen Specter ekes out a victory in those areas, it'll be a tribute to the hardest working politician this state has ever seen. While he has made a legislative mark on important national issues – medical research most notably – he is a prodigious producer of pork and unsurpassed in constituency services. "It's hard to find any group or community in this state that he hasn't helped," says Terry Madonna, director of Franklin and Marshall College's Keystone Poll.
The transformation of legislators from makers of laws to purveyors of government largess, while hardly a new development, is both a cause and effect of the swollen role of the state in our lives. It is also pretty much the only rationale for anybody, liberal or conservative, to give Senator Specter his vote.
3. Senator Specter sounds like a man with an entitlement mentality. He’s the incumbent; he’s been endorsed by the honcho of the Republican Party; how dare people try to vote him out of office just because they disagree with his voting record?
The incumbent dismisses the prospects of a Toomey win, but says it "would be a huge victory for the right wing . . . and for the Democrats." He adds of his opponent: "He and the Club for Growth think they run the party. But the leader of our party is the president." He's annoyed by the whole experience, complaining in an interview the other day about unwarranted shots he has taken in the press, including this newspaper. [emphasis added]
“Annoyed by the whole experience”? Yep, it’s annoying to have to beg hoi polloi for their votes. Is the Senator’s middle name “Coriolanus”? It’s not surprising that some of the voters are annoyed in the opposite direction:
In a focus group Tuesday night in Philadelphia, the kindest comment voters offer is that he's a politician. "Arlen always wins ugly," notes Mr. Madonna.
I wonder what the less than kindest comments were. Mr. Hunt usually quotes focus group participants at greater length.
Finally, because I really shouldn’t end without at least one stinging criticism, let me note this instance of political correctness taken to the point of comedy:
Thus, after a year of acrimonious debate and more than $15 million of expenditures, there is only one area of agreement between these two dissimilar Republicans: If their opponent wins, it's bad for the party in November. [emphasis added]
The opponent that Messrs. Toomey and Specter have in common is Rep. Joe Hoeffel, the unopposed candidate for the Democratic nomination, but Al doesn’t mean that both men agree that his winning in November would be bad for the Republican Party. Rather, he has so absorbed feminist phobias that he automatically uses a grammatically incorrect genderless pronoun, even where it obscures his meaning. A small example of why left-wing ideology is bad for writers and other living things.
[To comment, click here.]
April 8, 2004
"Weeks ago I vowed to refrain from the Democratic vice-presidential sweepstakes speculation," Al Hunt begins. A pity that he didn't end "Three Rise Above the Pack" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] right there. The "three" are – try to hold back your gasps of surprise – John Edwards, John McCain and Bob Kerrey. To evaluate their merits, Mr. Hunt calls on Hamilton Jordan and James Carville. The former is a jork [if you get that, you're older than you want to be] and the latter demented, but they did manage the only successful Democratic Presidential campaigns since 1964, so their opinions could be interesting. In this instance, they aren't. By the end of the column, we still don't know why Al holds his three subjects in such high esteem. Indeed, he himself describes the exercise as pointless:
The probability is none of these three will be selected. Thinking conventionally, John Kerry more likely will weigh what helps most with a particular place or group. These three then can take their place alongside Vice Presidents Sam Nunn and George Mitchell in my personal pantheon of they could have done worse and they did.
Far be it from me to give strategic advice to Senator Kerry, but he would, IMHO, have trouble making worse picks than this prima donna trio. Senator Edwards would reinforce one of his major weaknesses; both men have nugatory records of accomplishment in the Senate and give the impression of wanting the Presidency just for the sake of adding the nation's highest office to their collections of goat feathers. Senator McCain is erratic, occasionally strange, a guy whom you would rather see leading a battalion into action than directing a war. As for ex-Senator Kerrey, his ludicrous performance last week on the 9/11 Commission (after Mr. Hunt's column appeared, so I won't fault Al for not foreseeing this) would make him a figure of ridicule if he were now to show up on a national ticket. We could look forward to hours of replays of Mr. Kerrey refusing to let Condoleeza Rice answer his questions, rambling off-topic and then complaining that the witness was "filibustering".
My guess is that Senator Kerry will follow the Mondale playbook (if you're gonna be the tax hike candidate, why not copy Walt's other ideas?) and pick a female understudy. Luckily for him, the field of possibilities is a lot wider and more talented than 20 years ago. A Granholm or Cunningham or Stabenow would do no harm to the ticket, might help a little bit and would draw attention away from H. R. Clinton, the would-be Queen of the Democratic Party, which can only please the man who, win or lose in November, probably hopes not to sink instantly into Gore-like [not a pun on "Gorelick"] obscurity.
Update, 4/15/04: Jim Rittenhouse, Lisle, Illinois, informs me that Governor Granholm of Michigan would be a less clever choice than I imagined. She is a naturalized citizen (born in Canada) and thus, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, would need a Constitutional amendment to be eligible to become President or Vice President.
[To comment, click here.]
April 1, 2004
It is only coincidence that Al Hunt’s new variation on “BUSH LIED!!!”, under the marginally less shrill “Bush’s Credibility Canyon” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], appeared on April Fool’s Day, but the piece is replete with the usual foolishness. The long-ago attack on Richard Nixon’s honesty is remembered by liberals as one of their shining moments of success. They have forgotten that the original, pre-Watergate “credibility gap”, centering on Vietnam, was largely a fiction. The government told the truth about progress in defeating the communists (vide Lewis Sorley’s A Better War), while the media told lies. Unhappily, the lies prevailed and persuaded public opinion to acquiesce in a policy of cut-and-run at any cost. The closest resemblance between Vietnam and the War on Terror is that the Left is trying the same strategy once again.
What non-Bush partisan believes the administration's current contention that counterterrorism was a big priority prior to 9/11? Or that the White House straightforwardly evaluated intelligence before going to war in Iraq? Or that the administration didn't deceive Congress on the true cost of a Medicare bill in order to ensure the measure's passage?
The Medicare charge is just a fillip, so let’s get it out of the way quickly. The Administration and the Congressional Budget Office estimated the ten-year cost of the prescription drug benefit passed last year at $400 billion. Late in the day, Medicare’s chief actuary concluded that the estimate was too low and proposed upping it by about 20 percent. The White House, according to news accounts, squashed his revision and insisted on sticking to the original number. If it had been disclosed, some Republicans who voted for the bill only under intense Administration pressure might have been harder to persuade. But they would have come around in the end. A guy who is going to vote for a $40 billion a year boondoggle has no innate resistance to $50 billion. Substantively the cost estimates made little difference. Everyone knew that the real cost was impossible to calculate, since the range of values of the pertinent parameters was extremely wide. The only sure thing was that it would be much higher than $400 billion; every modification to Medicare has been far more expensive than projected. The notion that Congress was “deceived” by this fuzzy math and would have known the “true cost” if only the actuary had been allowed to speak out is an implausible fib. It’s a particularly odd fib from Al Hunt, who favors a much bigger and more costly prescription drug benefit. Is he really unhappy that the Bush Administration pushed for a more generous bill than many Congressional Republicans wanted? (It would have been better, for both the country and, I suspect, the Administration’s political standing, if Republicans had been more rebellious, but that is a different argument.)
The serious – or, to be accurate, faux-serious – accusations of lying are related to the war but are not related to the war’s essence. The essential question about any commander-in-chief’s record is whether he made the right decisions on the most important issues. Fair subjects for debate are whether President Bush negligently exposed the country to terrorist attack before 9/11 and whether deposing Saddam Hussein was worth the cost. If Mr. Hunt believes that the answer to the former is “yes” and to the latter “no”, he should set forth his case. Instead, he whimpers that the President now exaggerates the extent to which he regarded terrorism as a threat before the attacks and that he employed some arguments in favor of liberating Iraq that cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Those complaints could be 100 percent true, but they would prove only that Presidents are reluctant to admit to having been caught off guard and prone to mix arguments of varying merit in building public support for their policies. If that creates than a “credibility canyon”, then credibility has never been attained by any leader of a democratic nation.
In fact, Mr. Hunt’s assertions are much less than half right. Of the run-up to 9/11 he writes:
Anti-terrorism clearly wasn't a top priority in the first half of 2001; it wasn't for most politicians. An exception was the outgoing Clinton administration, and anything it favored was poison to the Bush team. But after the damning testimony of former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, the administration's line is that terrorism was a big deal for them even before September 11; they were shaping a much tougher policy than the ineffectual Clinton approach.
If anti-terrorism was a “top priority” for the Clintonites, one wonders how much they did about second and third priorities, for this “top priority” led to remarkably little action. Richard Miniter, author of Losing Bin Laden, has summed up the record:
Here's a rundown. The Clinton administration:
1. Did not follow-up on the attempted bombing of Aden marines in Yemen.
2. Shut the CIA out of the 1993 WTC bombing investigation, hamstringing their effort to capture bin Laden.
3. Had Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a key bin Laden lieutenant, slip through their fingers in Qatar.
4. Did not militarily react to the al Qaeda bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
5. Did not accept the Sudanese offer to turn bin Laden.
6. Did not follow-up on another offer from Sudan through a private back channel.
7. Objected to Northern Alliance efforts to assassinate bin Laden in Afghanistan.
8. Decided against using special forces to take down bin Laden in Afghanistan.
9. Did not take an opportunity to take into custody two al Qaeda operatives involved in the East African embassy bombings. In another little scoop, I am able to show that Sudan arrested these two terrorists and offered them to the FBI. The Clinton administration declined to pick them up and they were later allowed to return to Pakistan.
10. Ordered an ineffectual, token missile strike against a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory.
11. Clumsily tipped off Pakistani officials sympathetic to bin Laden before a planned missile strike against bin Laden on August 20, 1998. Bin Laden left the camp with only minutes to spare.
12-14. Three times, Clinton hesitated or deferred in ordering missile strikes against bin Laden in 1999 and 2000.
15. When they finally launched and armed the Predator spy drone plane, which captured amazing live video images of bin Laden, the Clinton administration no longer had military assets in place to strike the archterrorist.
16. Did not order a retaliatory strike on bin Laden for the murderous attack on the USS Cole.
Richard Clarke was in charge of anti-terrorism efforts during that period. To give him credit, he was a consistent advocate of more vigorous action – and was almost always overruled. As David Frum wrote after reading Mr. Clarke’s new book,
[F]or all the praise that Clarke pours on Bill Clinton personally, he presents an absolutely damning account of the terrorism record of the Clinton administration. Time and time again, he and his team agree that a course of action is vital . . . . And nothing happens. Either the bureaucracy refuses to carry out the order or the military drags its feet or (most typically) President Clinton rules out courses of action that carry any risk at all. . . .
(For more on the contrast between Clinton's rhetorical energy and practical sloth, as documented by Richard Clarke himself, vide Daniel C. Twining, "Who Lost Osama?") If “anything that [Clinton] favored was poison to the Bush team”, its decision to retain Richard Clarke, the dissenter from Clintonian paralysis, is no surprise and hardly bespeaks indifference to terrorism. As for the line that the new Administration was “shaping a much tougher policy than the ineffectual Clinton approach”, that is what Mr. Clarke was telling reporters a year and a half ago. Back then he said that the incoming national security team “decided then, you know, in late January [2001], to do two things. One, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert action findings. . . .  The second thing the administration decided to do is to initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years and get them decided. . . . [T]hat process which was initiated in the first week in February . . .decided in principle . . . in the spring to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after Al Qaeda.”
In front of the 9/11 Commission, Mr. Clarke claimed that he had merely been trying to put the Administration’s record in a positive light, but he also affirmed that his factual statements had been truthful. Those facts speak more eloquently than his guesswork about the priorities of his superiors.
Mr. Hunt has, however, what he seems to regard as damning proof of Bush indifference to al-Qaeda:
OK, leave aside Mr. Clarke's testimony, and simply try to explain reaction to the U.S.S. Cole, a destroyer that was attacked, while docked in Yemen on Oct. 12, 2000, and 17 Americans were killed by terrorists. It wasn't until the closing weeks of the Clinton administration that the FBI and CIA were willing to definitively say it was the work of al Qaeda – although Dick Clarke knew it was instantly – causing President Clinton to hold off any actions.
But the al Qaeda tie was established by the time the new administration took office, supposedly determined to end the Clinton vacillation on such matters. Yet for eight months they not only did nothing, but the record suggests they didn't even seriously consider retaliation.
Richard Miniter’s account of what “caus[ed] President Clinton to hold off any actions” is a bit more detailed:
At a meeting with Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Attorney General Janet Reno, and other staffers, Clarke was the only one in favor of retaliation against bin Laden. Reno thought retaliation might violate international law and was therefore against it. Tenet wanted to more definitive proof that bin Laden was behind the attack, although he personally thought he was. Albright was concerned about the reaction of world opinion to a retaliation against Muslims, and the impact it would have in the final days of the Clinton Middle East peace process. Cohen, according to Clarke, did not consider the Cole attack "sufficient provocation" for a military retaliation.
Bill Clinton was President until noon on January 20, 2001. He vigorously exercised other powers of office (remember the midnight pardons?), sometimes in a manner that seemed designed to make life difficult for his successor (such as signing the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, despite the certainty that Senate ratification was impossible). His decision to refrain from pursuing al-Qaeda after the Cole bombing guaranteed a long delay. A brand new Administration, still busy appointing officials and acquainting itself with its work, was in a poor position to plan a major anti-terrorist campaign. It is not quite true, however, to say that it “did nothing”, at least if Mr. Clarke was telling the truth when he said that it approved a fivefold increase in funds for covert action “to go after al-Qaeda”. In retrospect, greater urgency would have been wonderful, but lack of precognition is not a unusual failing in human beings.
Mr. Hunt concludes this trope with –
Telling was the reaction to Dick Clarke's book and testimony. Rather than focus on the substance of these charges, the White House and its political surrogates trashed Mr. Clarke's veracity, character and expertise, and labeled him a Democratic partisan.
One wonders whether Mr. Hunt has bothered to read any of the pro-Bush commentary on Mr. Clarke’s allegations. Almost unanimously, the President’s partisans have praised Mr. Clarke’s expertise and his premature hawkishness. They have had little to say about his character (quite unlike the way the last Administration reacted to critics). As to veracity, they have pointed to major discrepancies between what he says today and what he said yesterday, as well as to obvious mistakes that suggest a jaundiced view of Bush appointees (such as his inference that Condaleeza Rice had never heard of al-Qaeda before March 2001 – she had spoken publicly and knowledgeably about the organization months before). Unless one believes that it is improper to doubt Mr. Clarke at all, the questions raised about his conveniently supple memory are central to the dispute.
Mr. Hunt’s defense of his witness is limited to former Senator Warren Rudman’s vouching for his nonpartisanship. That’s fine. It is possible that Mr. Clarke is not interested in advancing the fortunes of the Democratic Party. He does, on the other hand, have very clear motives for presenting himself as the Cassandra of counterterrorism, whose prophecies were never heeded. If he wasn’t that, he could very plausibly be seen as one of the key players in the greatest disaster in American history, the man who, as of September 11, 2001, had been working longest and hardest to thwart terrorist activity – and therefore the man who had most spectacularly failed. It is only human to try to shift blame for such a catastrophic, desperately undesired outcome. You or I would most likely to the same under parallel circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that our post factum rationalizations of our own lack of responsibility would accurately portray the historical events.
The second front in Mr. Hunt’s assault is old ground:
The misinformation on Iraq has been well documented. The Bush administration still refuses to admit there was no significant Saddam-al Qaeda connection and that they – and many others –  were simply wrong on weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't too long ago that the president, well after Saddam had been toppled, unequivocally declared, "We've found the weapons of mass destruction," alluding to the supposedly infamous mobile units to produce biological weapons.
Now the president says he doesn't like to read newspapers, but it'd be good to make an exception and look at last Sunday's Los Angeles Times front page. He'd find a brilliantly reported story that these much-ballyhooed mobile units were based on a discredited Iraqi defector with the appropriate code name of Curveball. His story was totally bogus, the former Bush weapons inspector David Kay told the Times, as Curveball "was an out-and-out fabricator."
To fill in a few details: Secretary of State Powell revealed in February 2003 that the United States had intelligence information indicating that Iraq possessed mobile laboratories used to develop biological agents. According to General Powell, this information came from four independent sources. During the invasion, laboratories matching the description were found. CIA analysis, while not conclusive, was consistent with the pre-war allegations. Since then it has become fashionable to scoff at that conclusion, yet it hasn’t been refuted. If it is false, we have to account for the oddity that independent “fabricators” would devise identical lies about an innocuous apparatus.
In any event, if the evidence that Saddam Hussein had an active chemical and biological warfare program really was weak, what was the standard of proof? On that point, star witness Richard Clarke offers an opinion worth hearing. To this day he defends President Clinton’s decision to bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998. The Administration suspected that the facility was being used to produce chemical weapons, but the evidence was thin indeed, much weaker than any brought forward about Saddam. Nonetheless Mr. Clarke thought then, and thinks now, that the risks of leaving a weapons plant intact were such that only minimal proof was needed to justify action. That was a single factory. Ba’athist Iraq was an entire country with active WMD research programs (as the Kay Report demonstrated), large financial resources and long-standing pro-terrorist, anti-American animus. Why did we need conclusive evidence before acting there? And in what way did President Bush’s decisions open wide a credibility crack, much less a canyon?
We will hear much further nonsense about the President’s supposed prevarications between now and November, much of it no doubt from Al Hunt’s pen. Already the Angry Left is baying “Vietnam” and “Watergate”. Those cries are all that it has to disguise the fact that its anti-terrorist policy amounts to nothing better than, “Blame the President, try to maintain a passive defense of three million square miles of territory, and hope that our enemies will leave us alone.”
[To comment, click here.]
March 25, 2004
Hollywood has been making movies about Jesus since there was a Hollywood. The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905) is available on DVD. Many of those movies have been undistinguished, and some have been controversial, but Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is, I believe, the first ever to become the object of political controversy. Al Hunt’s venture into film criticism, “A Passion That Offends” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], is on the trailing edge of liberal denunciations. The column’s title conveys the writer’s sentiments and is followed by a lead paragraph in which, calling on the authority of “five deeply spiritual, religiously knowledgeable men and women” with whom he had dinner last week, he labels the movie “too violent, unfaithful to history and incendiary”.
After that opening, one expects a few explosions – but instead gets snap, crackle and pop. The criticisms leveled by Mr. Hunt’s panel of academics, all from the religion department of his alma mater Wake Forest University, are mild to the point of triviality, at least to anyone whose last-viewed flick didn’t star Shirley Temple.
“The repeated violence and the sameness of the violence is numbing,” says Diane Wudel, a New Testament scholar. . . . The violence – the pain inflicted upon Christ starts early and is punishing and cruel throughout – bothered them. This pervasive brutality, like the relentless scourging of Christ, doesn’t reflect the gospels, despite Mel Gibson’s insistence he followed scripture. Notes Prof. Wudel: “If you add everything up in the gospels, there’d be three minutes of scourging.”
Say, what? The Gospels don’t dwell on the sadism of a Roman execution, because contemporary readers didn’t need reminding. If the Evangelists had gone into detail, they would certainly have recorded more than “three minutes of scourging”. How the reality would have compared to what is depicted in The Passion of the Christ I can’t say, but we can be sure that violence of the former was “repeated” and “numbing”. Crucifixion is among the most hideous methods of killing human beings ever devised. Merely displaying a body on a cross is far from conveying the agony. From the standpoint of historical truth, Mr. Gibson cannot be criticized for attempting to show the sufferings of Our Lord in a way that elicits more than an intellectual reaction. It is Professor Wudel who blots out the truth.
Whether portraying that aspect of the truth is edifying is a separate question. One of Mr. Hunt’s experts complains –
that the story shortchanges God. “When you limit the gospel story only to the crucifixion – when you don’t have the story of the prodigal son, the words of the Sermon on the Mount,” he says, “It doesn’t tell the story that Jesus shows us what God is like. The love of God is not simply revealed in the brutality of the cross.”
One might think from this that the centrality of the Cross to Christ’s message is Mel Gibson’s invention rather than the historical Christian view. The Sermon on the Mount and the parables are important and beautiful, but they aren’t what made it into the Creed; “crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, He suffered and was buried” did. It is astonishing that a man described as an ordained Baptist minister would scoff that concentrating on the Crucifixion “limits the gospel story”.
The strictures against the movie’s relationship to historical fact are yet more tenuous.
On the historical inaccuracy, the scholars note that the four gospels were written decades after Christ died and “we’re only getting highlights,” observes Professor Kimball. Then the movie picks and chooses from them, with John the dominant one. “Gibson plays fast and loose with the gospels,” says Prof. Foskett. One example: the scene when Jesus is in front of the high priest and the answer is taken from Mark, but the question isn’t. “Thus, says Diane Wudel, the viewer is presented with “an altered question from Mark, a trial from Luke and a dialogue from John.”
Nitpicking celluloid semi-history is, of course, great fun, but these are feeble examples. Blending the Gospel narratives has been a standard Christian practice virtually since the books were first read by Christians. What else can one do, if the goal is to tell the story only once without leaving out familiar, beloved elements? The differences in detail among Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not such that any distortion results from this mixing, nor can I imagine how it could “offend” anyone but the most sensitive pedant.
What would be offensive, if present, is antisemitism. Mr. Hunt’s panel sees it lurking in the film, but the signs of its presence are so slight that they seem unlikely to catch the attention of an ordinary audience.
To varying degrees, they all worry about an anti-Semitic message. The movie depicts Roman soldiers treating Jesus sadistically and viciously, but most of the wrath is heaped upon the Jews; it was the Jewish high priests, led by Caiaphas, who were adamant that Christ be crucified and who, when he was on the cross, rode up Calvary on donkeys with a smug arrogance.
If portraying the leaders of the Sanhedrin as seeking Jesus’ death is antisemitic, there is no unbigoted way to retell the Gospel story, and making Caiaphas a witness to the Crucifixion doesn’t seem like a particularly effective way to heap wrath upon his people. It is worth noting that the movie leaves untranslated the Biblical verse most often used to justify Jew-hatred, “His blood be on ourselves and on our children.” Only viewers who are fluent in Aramaic will realize that it is there.
Two particular scenes in this vein caught their eye. In one Judas, after betraying Christ, is jesting with some Jewish children, who then morph into something demonic. And a strange Satan figure, conceived by producer Gibson, is smiling with the Jewish crowds as Jesus is taken to crucifixion. These "were chilling," Bill Leonard laments.
The Rev. Dr. Leonard must be easily chilled. The appearance of demons to Christ’s betrayer and at his death cannot reasonably be said to implicate the Jewish people. Hell would have been eager to witness this event had it occurred in Scandinavia.
Charles Kimball has Jewish relatives and says that he's "never seen anything like the kind of response that people are sending around in Jewish circles. They're terribly distressed."
Did their distress spring from seeing the movie or from the relentlessly negative publicity that preceded its release? It wasn’t irrational to worry that Mr. Gibson, whose elderly father is a Holocaust denier and who has made ambivalent statements on that subject, might want to present Jews as “Christ killers”, but the distress is starting to sound contrived, now that The Passion has proven to be as innocuous as the average Biblical epic.
This is aggravated by the sympathetic, almost benign, portrait of the regional Roman ruler Pontius Pilate; he and his wife separately want to save Christ; they give in only for fear of the Jewish rabble. That's not the way it was. "We know Pilate was a brutal thug," says Prof. Kimball.
Actually, we don’t know that. The extra-Biblical evidence about Pilate, while generally hostile, is neither extensive nor reliable enough to support a definitive judgement. Mel Gibson cannot be blamed for adhering to the Gospels, where the procurator of Judea is a weak-willed man unable to resist the passions of the mob. The story that his wife urged him to free Jesus comes straight from Matthew 27:19.
All in all, there is so little substance to the indictment that Mr. Hunt presents that one can only assume that ulterior motives play a role. Why should a political columnist be so zealous to find fault with the umpteenth rendition of history’s most familiar tale? And why is he only one of a brigade of left-wing critics?
I can’t claim to know the answer for certain, but I do have a couple of theories.
The first is that the vocal public animosity toward The Passion is a symptom of the Left’s increasingly self-confident anti-Christian militancy. A film that would have aroused controversy only on points of cinematography a decade ago nowadays offends the guardians of a public square that is being progressively shorn of all religious emblems (with limited, no doubt temporary exceptions for those church leaders who sway to the dictates of political correctitude).
Second, large segments of the Left have edged, through a common loathing for the War on Terror, the Bush White House and the Likud government in Israel, into close proximity to real antisemites. What better way to distract attention from those unsavory allies than to publicize contrived accusations of antisemitism against a perceived right-winger and his “fundamentalist” audience?
Or maybe Al Hunt has motives that I can’t guess. What doesn’t require guesswork is that he is very determined to take offense, whether or not there is anything in The Passion by which a reasonable being would be offended.
[To comment, click here.]
From Scott Street, Cincinnati, Ohio:
Wonderfully entertaining was Al's uncritical acceptance of "scholarly" dismissal of the conflation of elements from different gospels as essentially inauthentic. Weren't these, after all, four perspectives on the same Life? Imagine some film school nimrod arguing that intercutting shots from four cameras falsified the captured events. . . .
March 18, 2004
Republicans have lately had fun characterizing John Kerry as a “nuancy boy” (Mark Steyn) who “has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue” (George Bush). Other GOPers quote Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I’ve got others.”
Naturally the President isn’t immune to the tu quoque retort. Every politician (leaving aside Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders and a bunch of guys who never get elected) has occasionally changed his mind, for good reasons or bad, or tried to lull diametrically opposed voting blocs into thinking that he is on both their sides. An effective defense for Senator Kerry would be that his famous u-turns have been understandable in the light of circumstances or have reflected the development of his political philosophy. Effective, if it could be made to sound plausible. But not even Al Hunt, it appears, is willing to try to make that case. Instead, Mr. Hunt strains and shouts to label President Bush “The Real Flip-Flopper” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], insisting that, while the Senator may be inconsistent, the President is vastly worse:
George Bush charging someone with flip-flopping is like Michael Jackson decrying the promiscuity of Janet Jackson; Barry Bonds charging Babe Ruth's performance was enhanced by aspirin; or Dennis Kozlowski criticizing the ethics of Martha Stewart. John Kerry is a waffler on issues like the Iraqi war; George W. Bush is a serial flip-flopper.
You can almost see the tendons straining in Al’s neck as he bellows that, evidently believing that, as on The Capitol Gang, the loudest voice wins the debate.
To prove his point, Mr. Hunt cites four issues:  trade, “nation building” as a foreign policy goal, same-sex “marriage” and federal spending. In each area, one can argue that the President has changed his positions, but, when one looks more closely, the picture is scarcely of a “serial flip-flopper”. In a couple of instances, the Bush Administration has been timid about upholding its principles in the face of political pressure. In others, what has altered is not principles but the circumstances to which they must be applied. Sticking to the same foreign policy prescriptions before and after 9/11 is the sort of foolish consistency that Ralph Waldo Emerson decried. What is clear on the whole, though, is that George W. Bush has principles, that those principles are known to the world, and that his gravest weakness as a leader is his occasional unwillingness to resist calls, primarily from within his own party, to give in to politically inspired compromises.
Senator Kerry is a different political species, for he has managed to mire his principles in obscurity. That his general position is well left of center is evident – he had the most liberal voting record in the Senate last year – but it is harder now to figure out how he would act as President than it was when he entered the race.
Let’s examine the four heads of Mr. Hunt’s indictment one by one.
Trade. The President’s imposition of tariffs on steel, now rescinded, was unquestionably at odds with his declared free trade principles. Mr. Hunt cites that, along with the long-running dispute over Canadian lumber and the retention of sugar quotas in the recently negotiated trade pact with Australia, as proof that “Mr. Bush has been the most protectionist president in recent times”. The exaggeration is quite ridiculous. The Australian treaty, except for sugar and concessions to “protect” the Australian film industry, is a huge step toward reducing trade barriers. The Administration has also worked to bring more countries into NAFTA, has fought against restricting trade with Red China (a position that I disagree with, but it does show how the White House’s support of free trade overrides its political ideology) and has otherwise followed generally, if not perfectly, pro-liberalization policies.
What about Senator Kerry? Trade is his signature somersault. If Al Hunt thinks that George Bush is a “protectionist”, he ain’t seen nothing yet.
The Senator, who voted in favor of the NAFTA treaty, no longer likes it. If one takes his words seriously, he is prepared to scrap it unless Canada and Mexico agree to revise their labor and environmental laws in ways that would undermine their competitiveness. He has also become an outspoken opponent of free trade in services, denouncing “Benedict Arnold CEO’s” who hire people in Bombay or Seoul to perform technical support or clerical tasks. This venture into setting up new obstacles to commerce isn’t just protectionism but stupid protectionism. The United States has a $50 billion a year surplus in service sector imports and exports.
And there’s more: The Senator favors amending the corporate income tax to punish companies that invest overseas. Instead of paying only foreign income taxes so long as they reinvest their profits abroad (the rule ever since the income tax came into being), they would have to pay the higher of the U.S. or foreign rates. Again, the is stupid protectionism, a way to ensure that non-U.S. companies gradually become dominant in the world economy.
In sum, President Bush supports liberalized trade but hasn’t always translated his support into action. Senator Kerry used to support it, too, but is now a steadfast protectionist – unless, that is, his current stance is no more than a cynical appeal to Democratic primary voters. We’ll find out which the real John Kerry only after Inauguration Day.
Nation building. During the 2000 campaign, candidate Bush was dubious about employing American power to carry out reform programs in foreign countries, as President Clinton had tried to do in Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti. “I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building,” he averred in one of the Presidential debates.
To Al Hunt, that position contradicts what the President is now doing in Iraq.
. . .  the Iraq war was one of choice, not necessity. Perhaps it was a good choice, but did George W. Bush have any notion that it would then require the most massive "nation-building" venture in half a century, with sizeable American forces in harm's way for years?
If not, it was stunningly incompetent. If yes, what changed his dismissive view of nation building? Afghanistan can be justified on 9/11 grounds alone; Iraq cannot.
Even by Huntian standards, that is a silly argument. The President did not “choose” to depose Saddam Hussein simply because he wanted to bring good government to Baghdad but because the United States had a strong strategic interest in replacing a pro-terrorist regime with a friendly, pro-democratic one. “Nation building” is a fine descriptive label for that enterprise, but it is a very different kind of effort from one carried out in backwaters where America has almost nothing at stake. What “changed [Mr. Bush’s] dismissive view of nation building” was the need to win the War on Terror, a cause that will be greatly advanced by changes in the political climate in the Islamic world. Liberating Iraq was designed as a step in that direction. One can rationally argue that we shouldn’t have taken that step, but to claim that it is inconsistent with what the President said in 2000, when America seemed to be at peace and “nation building” was being promoted independently of American interests, is – well, “silly” is the apt word.
There is no need here to review in extenso Senator Kerry’s twistings and turnings on foreign policy in general and Iraq in particular. Suffice it to say that nobody has more than a foggy notion at this point of what a Kerry Administration would do on the world stage.
In this area, President Bush hasn’t flip-flopped at all. He has reacted to the great alteration in the world scene brought about by the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, his opponent is, to put it mildly, less than a beacon of clarity.
Same-sex marriage.  During the Presidential race, George Bush made a temporizing statement about the question – not a burning one at the time – of whether same-sex “marriages” should be legally recognized. “The states can do what they want to do,” he said.
Mr. Hunt thinks that the President’s recently announced support for a Federal Marriage Amendment contradicts the President’s former endorsement of states’ rights.
The excuse for his reversal now is that the Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered the state to sanction gay marriages, so the president had no choice. Why? The Massachusetts decision, which could be overturned by the state's voters, doesn't affect other states. Yet our "states' rights" president warns: The United States Supreme Court may rule that other states have to recognize Massachusetts' gay marriages.
Never mind that there is no case, no precedent as to how the current court, much less a future one, would divide, and many legal experts – supporters of gay marriage – think it's very unlikely that one state could be forced to recognize such a union that's contrary to its laws.
It's doubtful that the president weighed these legal imponderables; what he did weigh was this was a good issue to energize his Christian right base as his polls slipped. In short, he's a politician who would write sex into the Constitution for short-term political gain.
The “contradiction” here is trivial. The President has not yet endorsed any version of the proposed amendment but is almost certain to prefer one that leaves decisions about marriage to the legislatures of the individual states rather than letting this far-reaching change be imposed by the courts. If that is any departure from states’ rights, it is a small one.
Mr. Hunt scoffs at the prospect that courts might compel states to recognize other states’ same-sex “marriages”, but it isn’t a merely colorable concern. Eugene Volokh, a libertarian law professor with no animus against homosexuality, has furnished a good answer to the argument that no constitutional amendment is needed because the weight of precedent is against applying the Full and Faith and Credit Clause to grants of marriage licenses. It has, he writes,
an obvious weakness – it only works so far as courts are willing to recognize "longstanding precedent."
Lawrence v. Texas shows that the Supreme Court is willing to overturn a directly on-point Supreme Court precedent that's under 20 years old, and at the same time strike down statutes that have been seen as constitutional for centuries. Goodridge shows that some judges are willing to overturn a many-centuries-old practice of limiting marriage to male-female couples; sure, that was state judges interpreting the state constitution, but what state judges do now, federal judges might do later. On matters of gay rights, quite a few judges – not by any means all, but quite a few – are quite willing to set aside both precedent in the sense of traditional understandings and precedent in the sense of squarely controlling Supreme Court decisions. And of course many legal scholars in the gay rights movement have been assiduously arguing that courts should use the Fourteenth Amendment to require states to recognize in-state same-sex marriages, and the Full Faith and Credit Clause to require states to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages. Judges might well listen to them. . . .
To say that the President “would write sex into the Constitution for short-term political gain” is a gross slander. Reserving the definition of “marriage” to the popular organs of government and ensuring that a single state will not be able to revolutionize domestic relations law in all of the rest is a serious purpose, not, as Mr. Hunt would like to pretend, an essay in politically inspired prurience.
It’s rather surprising that a backer of Senator Kerry’s candidacy would mention this particular controversy in a column on flip-flops. On the one hand, the Senator has declared in favor of amending his home state’s constitution to bar same-sex marriage. On the other, he was one of only 14 Senators who voted against defining “marriage” as the union of a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. Indeed, he denounced that measure as “gay bashing”. Which opinion is the real John Kerry’s?
Federal spending. There’s no doubt that President Bush has disappointed those who expected him to put a brake on the growth of domestic spending, though some were not surprised. Mr. Hunt quotes candidate Bush’s line, spoken during a debate with Al Gore, “If this were a spending contest, I'd come in second”, but far more frequent were invocations of “compassionate conservatism”, which of course means expensive conservatism.
Not that Mr. Bush’s campaign trail statement was untrue: In a spending contest with Al Gore, he undoubtedly would have trailed behind, just not as far behind as fiscal conservatives would like.
In this arena, it is true, Senator Kerry bears no stigma of inconsistency. He has a long, virtually unvarying record of wanting to spend more on every budget line item that doesn’t have to do with defense or intelligence gathering. It’s hard to see his consistency as a virtue.
The column concludes with a list of other measures that the President accepted after, in some instances, expressing initial doubts: “the creation of the Homeland Security Department, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, negotiating with North Korea [an odd item to include, particularly as the President’s diplomatic strategy for undoing Bill Clinton’s disastrous failure to pay attention to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program has kept on a pretty steady course], the Sarbanes-Oxley business reform measure, and an independent commission to investigate September 11”, which supposedly justify the verdict, “Agree or disagree with either Bush position, there's a pattern: He always flops to the side of popular opinion.”
One would hope that any President “flops to the side of popular opinion” much of the time. This is a democracy, after all and the White House often has to make the best of half a loaf or less. But President Bush hasn’t limited himself to easy, popular courses of action. The domestic cause with which he is most closely identified is, after all, tax cutting – on which public opinion is sharply divided. Al Hunt, as it happens, has frequently expressed the opinion that raising taxes is a winning issue for the Democrats, so here, at least, he must not think that the President “flops to the side of popular opinion”.
Also noteworthy are the Administration’s space initiative, which has, alas, aroused little public interest, and its immigration reform program, which is strikingly unpopular with what Mr. Hunt labels “his Christian right base” and not, again unfortunately, especially well received by the broader public. Would a politician who formulates policy purely by polls have put forward either of these proposals? I wait eagerly for Senator Kerry to be similarly adventurous rather than unwaveringly ambivalent.
[To comment, click here.]
October 9, 2003
This week Al Hunt says something with which I fully agree: For Governor-Elect Schwarzenegger, "Now the Tough Part Begins" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only]. Who can dispute that winning an election against the likes of Gray Davis and Cruz Bustamante vivid testimonies to the corruption wrought by absolute power is easier than undoing their legacy of misrule? Especially when the dominant faction in the state legislature believes that all that was wrong with the old regime was that it wasn't free-spending and anti-bourgeois enough.
Since Mr. Hunt isn't always capable of seeing the obvious, let's put this overall insight into his credit column. As for the details well, he doesn't join the Democratic chorus proclaiming that Californians voted against Davis-Bustamante in order to express their outrage at George W. Bush. There are, it seems, depths of delusory analysis into which our Al is unwilling to sink (though his paper's leftish news pages tiptoed toward it with Thursday's subhead "Vital Democratic Base Erodes, But Focus on Incumbents, Deficit Could Hurt Bush Too").
Instead, we are told that
the national implications of this contest, as Democratic political strategist Bill Carrick had said all along, are "None. Not a one." In reality holding the state house, other than rare occasions like Texas in 1980 or Nevada in 1992, is a hugely overrated factor in presidential races. (Unless there's a recount and your brother is governor.)
Let's overlook the Angry Left crack about the 2000 race. (Governor Bush had no way to influence the recount, whose Florida antagonists were elected county commissions and a state supreme court to which he had appointed half a judge out of seven.) The remainder of the statement shows a rather narrow concept of "national implications". Voters in the nation's largest state, one that everyone had presumed to be as safely Democrat as Texas is Republican, ousted a Democratic governor by a landslide margin and cast fewer than a third of their ballots for a Democrat to succeed him. What's more, every major figure in the state Democratic party, as well as a wide array of national grandees, identified themselves loudly and clearly with the defeated side. Dianne Feinstein taped a swathe of pro-Davis commercials. Bill Clinton and Wesley Clark campaigned at the governor's side. Howard Dean and John Kerry denounced the recall.
It's conceivable that, by November 2004, the California electorate will have forgotten Gray Davis and his loyalists. It's conversely conceivable that they have formed a bad impression of his party's judgment and capacity to govern that will color their opinion of the Democratic Presidential nominee. As a result, both parties may well regard California as being "in play", a circumstance that can only fill Democratic strategists with foreboding. However the Dems react my guess is that they'll flog the Iraqi war, the class war and the deficit to the point of lunacy their conduct will differ vastly from what it would have been had the California recall never happened.
The column then turns to the obstacles that face the incoming governor:
Conservatively, Arnold Schwarzenegger will face a $10 billion budget shortfall -- more than all other 49 states combined. He has vowed to avoid tax increases and not to cut state aid to primary and secondary education, which accounts for more than 40% of the budget.
This leaves him with a much tougher situation than that facing the last actor-turned-successful-politician. . . .
Now Al begins to meander his way to a point, which is that Ronald Reagan agreed to a tax hike to help alleviate California's mid-Sixties fiscal crisis. Therefore, Governor Schwarzenegger can only do likewise.
The boldest move would be to cut the sort of deal that Gray Davis never cut -- this year's budget was passed with fraudulent short-term gimmicks, which are under court challenges now -- and enact budget reforms that entail major spending cuts and tax increases on those that can afford it. There is a model: Ronald Reagan, who [Lou] Cannon reminds us in 1967, as a pragmatic realist, increased state taxes by $1 billion -- $5 billion in today's dollars and in a very progressive fashion.
This, Mr. Cannon notes in Governor Reagan, His Rise to Power created a fiscal balance that greatly benefited the new Republican governor and marked him, for the first time, as an "accomplished politician."
This is the first time ever, I imagine, that Al Hunt has urged anyone to imitate Ronald Reagan. The flaw in his advice is that California has changed since 1967. Governor Reagan agreed to tax increases at a time when the state collected and spent much less than it does today. For FY1967 state revenues were $4.2 billion, and expenditures were $4.6 billion. Dollars were worth more then, it's true, and there were fewer people. Nonetheless, it was a much smaller government, with less leeway to cut spending and more room to raise taxes. Even in those circumstances, Governor Reagan's inaugural address warned against turning to tax hikes as a first resort:
For many years now, you and I have been shushed like children and told there are no simple answers to the complex problems which are beyond our comprehension.
Well the truth is, there are simple answers; they just are not easy ones. The time has come for us to decide whether collectively we can afford everything and anything we think of simply because we think of it. The time has come to run a check to see if all the services government provides were in answer to demands or were just goodies dreamed up for our supposed betterment. The time has come to match outgo to income, instead of always doing it the other way around.
The cost of California's government is too high; it adversely affects our business climate. We have a phenomenal growth with hundreds of thousands of people joining us each year. Of course, the overall cost of government must go up to provide necessary services for these newcomers, but growth should mean increased prosperity and thus a lightening of the load each individual must bear. If this isn't true, then you and I should be planning how we can put up a fence along the Colorado River and seal our borders.
Well, we aren't going to do that. We are going to squeeze and cut and trim until we reduce the cost of government. It won't be easy, nor will it be pleasant, and it will involve every department of government, starting with the Governor's office. I have already informed the legislature of the reorganization we hope to effect with their help in the executive branch and I have asked for their cooperation and support.
The new Director of Finance is in complete agreement that we turn to additional sources of revenue only if it becomes clear that economies alone cannot balance the budget.
Disraeli said: "Man is not a creature of circumstances. Circumstances are the creatures of men." You and I will shape our circumstances to fit our needs.
Let me reaffirm a promise made during the months of campaigning. I believe in your right to know all the facts concerning the people's business. Independent firms are making an audit of state finances. When it is completed, you will have that audit. You will have all the information you need to make the decisions which must be made. This is not just a problem for the administration; it is a problem for all of us to solve together. I know that you can face any prospect and do anything that has to be done as long as you know the truth of what you are up against.
We will put our fiscal house in order. And as we do, we will build those things we need to make our state a better place in which to live and we will enjoy them more, knowing we can afford them and they are paid for.
That is good advice to Governor Schwarzenegger, and it is advice that, notwithstanding all of the jeers from the sophisticated "can't-do" crowd, isn't unrealistic. No one thought that California's public sector was starving in 1998, when Gray Davis was elected governor. If state spending since then had increased at the same rate as population plus inflation, it would be $14 billion lower today ($64 billion vs. $78 billion), and the deficit would be a manageable problem. (Vide Michael New, "Gov. Fix-It".) Would it be too extreme a sacrifice for the state to cut back services to the level of just six budgets ago?
Al Hunt probably does regard such sacrifice as unthinkable. He quickly singles out the two major road blocks in the way of his preferred "compromise":
The hard-right vote, as represented by Tom McClintock in Tuesday's election, may be only 15%. But any tax increase, some Republican insiders warn, would tear the conservative-dominated party apart. . . .
Any legislative deals will be complicated by another inane California "reform" term limits, which are reducing the number of experienced legislators while those with experience are figuring out what they're doing after next year; this is not an environment conducive to skillful compromises.
How odd that the candidate of the "hard right", who campaigned on a platform of balancing the budget without tax increases, wound up, according to exit polls, with the highest favorable rating of any candidate. Maybe there are a lot more hard-right sympathizers that Mr. Hunt realizes.
The makeup of the legislature is unquestionably a barrier to any rational action. But that is not because the legislators lack knowledge of the ins and outs of government. It is because gerrymandering has eliminated almost all competitive seats. In most districts the real election is the Democratic primary, a contest that is dominated by the party's Angry Left faction. Thus there are not many moderate Democrats in Sacramento. The last minute enactment of  a far left wish list drivers' licenses for illegal aliens, de facto same-sex marriage, mandatory health care coverage for businesses (fortunately preempted by federal law and therefore harmless), mandatory domestic partner benefits for government contractors, etc. shows how little interest the legislative majority has in fostering a welcoming climate for businesses. The average Angry Leftist would be delighted to see all of those plutocrats move to Colorado and leave his state unpolluted by capitalist greed.
As I said, Al has the big picture right: The tough part is just beginning.
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October 2, 2003
Every now and then, Al Hunt tries to imitate John Fund by bringing us the "inside story" of the current political campaign. His reporting is, alas, so pedestrian that fisking them is barely worth the bother. "The Profile of Granite-State Success" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] falls squarely into that dubious tradition. Did you know that -
It's tough to find commonality between such diverse politicians as George McGovern, Pat Buchanan, Gary Hart and John McCain. But all were independent-minded, angry voices that unnerved the party establishments. They all also triumphed in the New Hampshire primary. (Sen. McGovern actually finished second but it was tantamount to victory.)
The other point that all four have in common is that none of them became President, suggesting that "angry voices" don't wear well as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November draws near. But Mr. Hunt is full of hope. He enthuses over the prospects of the candidate who "most naturally fits this silhouette":
Howard Dean's strengths -- money, message and organization -- are awesome even to once skeptical rivals. His anti-Bush, anti-war, no more business-as-usual pitch has energized a large cadre of committed supporters; some leading New Hampshire Republicans have warned the White House not to underestimate Mr. Dean. The Dean headquarters, in an old cotton storage mill, bustles with activity; there are 40 full-time organizers. One Sunday in August 427 New Hampshire Dean supporters gathered for an eight-hour organizing session.
Strategists for other candidates argue the accumulated assaults on issues like Medicare and various illiberal Dean positions eventually will take a toll. Karen Hicks, his state campaign chief, disagrees: "People won't make decisions on a laundry list of litmus tests," she says. "Most voters form an overall gestalt. . . . They're looking for someone they can trust." The odds are that Howard Dean's support is so solid that it only will seriously be shaken if the stubbornly self-confidant and not always predictable candidate makes serious blunders.
Last week, Wesley Clark had, according to our sage, "excited Democrats across America" and thrown fear into the hearts of "the political right". Since then, Al had evidently had second thoughts, for we are told that "most smart New Hampshire politicians suspect the general's campaign will be an ephemeral flash" and that he "has a challenge to get his act together here. The Draft Clark headquarters in Dover is quaint and amateurish especially in contrast to the crack Dean effort. The Clark supporters put up placards for the general last week but they read 'Wesly,' misspelling his first name."
About John Kerry, currently polling in second place, there is ambivalence:
John Kerry only six months ago enjoyed the same commanding advantage in the Granite State that Howard Dean does today. Ever since, the Massachusetts Democrat has had a rocky time. He has been hurt by a lack of any clear message, by waffling on his Iraqi war position, and a patrician demeanor in a state that revels in retail politics.
Still, it's too early to write off John Kerry, a view shared privately by the Dean command. He has a reputation for performing best when behind, he is an exceptionally smart, tough customer and has the support of the state's most powerful Democrat, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. The Kerry campaign rolled out the widely expected Shaheen endorsement last week, earlier than anticipated but necessary given his slide. If Sen. Kerry doesn't win here in his neighboring state, or at least finish a strong second, his campaign is history.
From the GOP perspective, the Hunt analysis is good news. He is usually a bellwether of liberal conventional wisdom, which is still determined, it seems, to fight the next election on foreign policy. In a way, that is a patriotic strategy. Defeating Islamofascism really is our nation's most important task at the moment. Once that looming threat is gone, we can go back to arguing about tax cuts, unemployment, Medicare reforms, privatization and other day-to-day topics. Till then, politicians ought to be telling us how they intend to win the war. If Dr. Dean or Senator Kerry or General Clark can convince the American public that passivity is the ideal grand strategy – well, then they'll get their chance to try it out, and we'll have only ourselves to blame for failure.
At the very end of the column, there is an anecdote that, while it doesn't disturb Mr. Hunt at all, should fill the rest of us with foreboding.
An interesting perspective comes from Jayne Lynch, a waitress at the Merrimack Restaurant in Manchester. She waited on the table last week, when Gen. Clark met with 10 undecided voters and notes: "He did well. He didn't evade any questions, he seemed pretty personable and they (those voters) liked him." The war, says this 2000 Bush voter, is a big factor "People were for it when we fought it, but now they think we've been there too long and too many Americans are dying."
Spoken like a true member of the MTV generation. How would the "people" whom Miss Lynch hears have made it through World War II?
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September 25, 2003
One of liberals' favorite daydreams is that the time will come when Americans will embrace tax hikes. In 1984 they thought that Walter Mondale's forthright call for negating the Reagan tax cuts would be a winning issue; he carried two states. In 1994 they were sure that the public would applaud Bill Clinton's careful targeting of "the rich"; his party lost both houses of Congress for the first time in over 40 years. In 2002 they anticipated Democratic gains, decisively fueled by popular revulsion at President Bush's favoritism of the wealthy; the GOP regained its briefly interrupted Senate majority and increased its margin the House.
So this year, naturally, Al Hunt believes that the Dems have "a real opening to effectively attack the Bush tax cuts for upper-income Americans". What has brought about this hypothesized opening is the cost of occupying Iraq, whose "implications" are confusingly explored under the catch-all headline "Bush, Iraq, Taxes and Clark" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only].
Republicans are, Mr. Hunt assures us, "scared stiff about the $87 billion [Iraqi] reconstruction measure following the nearly $79 billion already approved". Now, some Republicans are scared of almost everything, so this assertion isn't incredible, but the reasons that Al reports are a trifle hard to fathom:
It's not because, as unprepared as the administration was for the postwar phase, Americans want to cut and run; they don't. And it's not because soaring budget deficits, as problematic as they are, cut politically; they never do.
So Americans are willing to stay the course in Iraq even if it means enduring the exceedingly mild pain of budget deficits smaller than those incurred during past wars; what, then, do the Republicans fear? It is –
the implications of these two realities, which provide a real opening to effectively attack the Bush tax cuts for upper-income Americans. This week's Wall Street Journal/NBC News national poll shows a strong majority of Americans would prefer to pay for the massive reconstruction bill by canceling the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, rather than adding to the deficit or scaling back on domestic spending.
Perhaps so, but, as Mr. Hunt himself has just noted, voters aren't very interested in or alarmed by the budget deficit. A policy centered on how to finance a small increment to government expenditures is not an obvious winning issue. The dichotomy is in any event phony. "Canceling the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy" would not produce anything close to $87 billion of revenue this year, so occupation and reconstruction can't be paid for from that source. (Restoring the pre-2002 upper tax brackets and eliminating other "tax breaks for the rich" would produce, according to my back-of-the-pixel calculation, less than $10 billion of additional federal revenue in FY2004. Repeal can't gain much revenue, because the tax cuts weren't all that big and are phased in over a decade.) The total income tax bill of the upper one percent of taxpayers (the group that Democrats typically characterize as "the rich" when they bother to be specific) is about $300 billion. I doubt that any politician to the right of Dennis Kucinich is going to advocate hitting them with a 30 percent increase to pay for Iraq.
Why, for that matter, should the "rich", who already pay a substantially disproportionate share of taxes, be called on to foot this particular bill? America's past wars haven't been funded by mulcting the elite but by spreading the burden broadly. During World War II, President Roosevelt expanded the reach of the income tax to middle and lower income Americans who had never been liable before. If more money is really needed, the fairest and most efficient course of action is to take it from those who currently pay minimal taxes, not to try to squeeze yet more from those who already turn over close to a third of their income to Uncle Sam.
In fact, however, it isn't necessary right now to increase taxes for anyone. The federal government can readily accommodate additional debt. Moreover, the benefits of a successful war – that is, one that demonstrates to the Islamic world the futility of terrorism and leads to friendlier and more democratic Middle Eastern regimes – will be enjoyed by the next generation. The money spent to reach that outcome is a capital expenditure, not a current expense, and thus can rationally be met by borrowing. If the outcome is less than favorable, our children and grandchildren will have bigger worries than an extra $87 billion of government indebtedness.
There is a second element to the Democrats' attack:
What really worries Republicans is the formulation set forth by the always politically engaged Congressman Rahm Emanuel. It is called the American Parity Act and simply states that funds spent in Iraq have to be matched with comparable spending at home.
"You go to any community and schools are shutting down, police are being laid off and community health centers cut back, and then people hear $87 billion for Iraq," charges the freshman Illinois Democrat who supported the war. "Paul Bremer brags about opening up 100 hospitals and Ravenswood in my district is being closed."
Here is a touching example of liberal "compassion". Rep. Rahm's district is the wealthiest in Chicago, with a plethora of hospitals. (I know that first hand, because I live in it.) Yet the congressman isn't happy to see impoverished people get desperately needed medical facilities if his affluent constituents are meanwhile losing a few hundred underutilized beds.
Mr. Hunt thinks that Rep. Rahm's proposal "resonates" and that "Republicans will squirm". He doesn't mind that it contradicts his solicitude about "soaring deficits" or that its transparent intention is to reduce funds for the Iraqi operation and thus make it more likely that we will eventually have to either "cut and run" or take emergency measures at far greater cost.
One further confusion lies in the column's characterization of the Administration's $87 billion request as earmarked for "reconstruction". In fact, over three quarters of the money is for ongoing military operations. Deploying a modern army abroad is expensive, though a lot less expensive in the long run than living with an incessant terrorist threat. Aid for the Iraqis is pegged at $20 billion, a large sum but not extravagant when one considers the damage inflicted on the country by decades of Ba'athist misrule.
Perhaps realizing that $20 billion won't raise cries of alarm, Mr. Hunt tosses in a "sexier" number: "GOP lawmakers . . . fear Rep. John Spratt, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, is right when he projects Iraqi reconstruction costs at a minimum of $238 billion and as high as $418 billion." Whence Rep. Spratt derives his estimates we aren't told.  The lower one is roughly four times Iraq's annual GDP. Translated in U.S. equivalents, it would be like pouring $40 trillion into our economy. Perhaps the gentleman is being just the slightest bit fanciful?
The reader may by now be wondering how Wesley Clark fits into this picture. Mr. Hunt's answer has little to do with tax cuts, budget deficits or reconstruction costs. It is simply –
As Iraq becomes costlier and messier, George W. Bush's leadership credentials are eroding. And, despite uncertainties about his views and political talents, Gen. Clark is surging as a Democratic presidential hopeful precisely because he appears to offer leadership credentials.
Does that mean that General Clark has a less expensive, more effective Iraqi strategy? Al doesn't claim that; instead, he falls back on biography:
For all the initial blunders he still has excited Democrats across America, most of who have never met him. One of his former bosses as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Hugh Shelton, can't stand him; another, John Shalikashvili, is a Clark booster. Clinton Defense Secretary Bill Cohen is a critic, but his predecessor, Bill Perry, is a fan, as is former U.N. Ambassador Dick Holbrooke.
The Clark biography – rising from a struggling childhood to the top of his West Point class and with authentic national security expertise – is a perfect profile to take on George W. Bush, lots of Democrats hope. That assures him an audience; then he has to have something to say.
Which is precisely the rub: To date, the general has said only that he would have been content to let the Iraqis languish under Saddam Hussein. About what ought to be done now, he hasn't offered a crumb of leadership. Indeed, dwelling on might-have-beens instead of realities is one of the diagnostic traits of an ineffectual leader.
Al avers that "the political right, threatened by [Clark's] national security credentials, has gone after him with a vengeance". It would be more accurate to say that conservative commentators have paid so much attention to the general because his contradictions and occasional absurdities are easy targets. They don't have much reason to be frightened. Notwithstanding the assertion that he "has excited Democrats across America", he has a long way to "surge" in the polls. It's true that he led the Democratic field in a survey taken right after his entry into race, but that lead was unimpressive: He was the first choice of just 14 percent of Democrats. In the New Hampshire polls, he trails by a substantial margin. In the latest Zogby tally, for example, the candidates line up neatly: Dean 30%, Kerry 20%, Clark 10%.
Anything can happen in politics, but so far General Clark looks like one of those candidates who, like the allure of higher taxes, excites journalists more than voters.
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September 18, 2003
My long summer vacation from reading Al Hunt's weekly screeds is now at an end. Is it worth the agony to take up the cudgels again? Mr. Hunt's bile-laced, heterogenous prose is barely digestible, and one can write whole pages exposing the fallacies in single paragraphs. Nonetheless, his opinions (or feelings – they rarely rise to the level of cogitation that an opinion demands) are common property of many liberals. He writes what the leftist-on-the-street emotes and thus is a useful barometer of the state of "mind" among those who seriously believe that the United States, after the Golden Age of William Jefferson Clinton, has fallen into what his current column calls "this gilded age of greed".
His subject in "Greed, Grasso and a Gilded Age" [link for on-line Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is the contretemps surrounding New York Stock Exchange CEO Dick Grasso, who was forced out of his position after a wave of negative publicity about his deferred compensation package. On the surface, the indignation directed at Mr. Grasso is, as a Wall Street Journal editorial observed, rather off-target. All parties agree that he merely accepted the terms presented to him by the NYSE board's compensation committee. His offense seems to lie in his failure to do the committee's job for it by insisting upon less pay. That, at least, is the Huntian interpretation, for he dismisses Mr. Grasso's insistence "that he never even talked to the board's compensation committee about his remunerations" as merely showing that "he didn't get it", i. e., didn't understand that accepting an over-generous offer is a dereliction of duty.
An essay in the September 19th WSJ [subscriber-only link] by John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group, offers insight into what is really going on. Mr. Bogle sardonically declares that Mr. Grasso earned his tens of millions, for he was extremely valuable to a major constituency among the Big Board's owners, namely, specialist firms that profit from their assigned duty of "making orderly markets" in listed shares. The specialist system has been under strong attack as both unnecessary in an age of electronic trading and unfair to institutional investors. Whether those complaints are right or wrong, Mr. Grasso has firmly rebuffed them and successfully fended off would-be reformers. Vanguard is not the only major player that sees his departure as the elimination of a formidable adversary, and it isn't far-fetched to suspect that the sudden outpouring of abuse heaped on his compensation tells us more about hardball financial politics than corporate greed.
Mr. Hunt prefers to draw a different conclusion: that the outcry reflects public "revulsion" at the pay levels of "CEOs who have made out like bandits". Those who say otherwise "arrogantly assume Americans have little problem with rewarding success", which "may be a miscalculation". Not, mind you, that Mr. Hunt thinks that Americans do have a problem with rewarding success.
Most Americans are upwardly mobile and celebrate the riches of the truly successful and deserving, whether it's Michael Jordan, Kevin Costner, or Bill Gates. But in a time when sacrifices are being made by firefighters, schoolteachers and Marine staff sergeants, many of these same Americans resent the Dick Grassos.
So, then, some successful people are deserving, and some are not. Is that a brand new phenomenon? Before George W. Bush cast his malevolent shadow over the land, did success and desert march hand in hand, only to be sundered by an Administration "hell-bent on widening wealth disparities"? (Like so many other liberals, Mr. Hunt denies that the President believes in the economic merits of his own policies; they must be designed to achieve nefarious ends.)
What Mr. Hunt wants, of course, is not to examine the relationship among success, desert and monetary rewards but to stir up the resentment that he professes to perceive. Thus he launches into a tirade about how CEO's bask in luxury while ordinary Americans have to struggle. On the one hand –
In 1980 the average CEO of a major American company was paid 40 times more than the average worker; today it's about 400 times as much. If the average worker's pay had gone up as much over the past two decades, it would be more than $160,000 a year. Median pay for the CEOs of Fortune's 100 largest companies rose 14% to $13.2 million last year, while everything else – jobs, stock value, profits – was dropping.
On the other –
Localities all across America face budget squeezes, exacerbated by these tax cuts for the wealthy: firefighters and cops are being laid off, school days are being cut back, and poor kids are losing health-care coverage. Meanwhile many of the same corporations that so lavishly care for their chief executives are trimming employee health-care benefits and pensions for workers.
Would the states be better off if federal taxes were higher? Are the CEO's of the Fortune 100 less worthy of their paychecks because state governments from New York to California vastly increased their expenditures during the past decade and now can't sustain that level of spending? If the states were flourishing, would higher corporate compensation be okay?
Take two small, and seemingly unrelated, matters in the context of the war in Iraq, a lesson of which was supposed to be the need for more energy independence. Yet in this year's tax cut, Congress, with the concurrence of the administration, quadrupled write-offs for owners of luxury SUVs to $100,000. Thus, over the next decade American taxpayers will lose $1.3 billion to subsidize more gas-guzzling Lincoln Navigators and Cadillac Escalades.
Mr. Hunt's knowledge of the 2003 amendment to section 179 of the Internal Revenue Code apparently comes entirely from environmentalist press releases. What the amendment did was allow all small businesses to expense (rather than depreciate) up to $100,000 of capital equipment placed in service in 2003, 2004 or 2005. An SUV that is used for business purposes is eligible for this write-off on precisely the same basis as any other property used for the production of income. Environmental groups would like it if the tax laws discriminated against SUV's, but Congress's failure to do so is not some special boon to the malefactors of great wealth. (BTW, we aren't told the source of the $1.3 billion revenue loss figure. The Joint Tax Committee [warning: PDF file] estimates that the increase in the section 179 limit will cost less than $1 billion over ten years. Even if SUV's were the only capital good acquired by eligible enterprises, Mr. Hunt's number would be too high; in fact, it is fantasy.)
One person who probably can't afford those high-priced gas-guzzlers is Marine Staff Sgt. Bill Murwin. A grenade exploded inside his Humvee during the Iraq war. He had to spend four weeks at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where his left foot was amputated. The St. Petersburg Times reported last week he had to pay the government $8.10 per day for food while in the hospital to off-set per diem allowances military personnel get. To a corporate CEO $243 is chump change; to a Marine staff sergeant it's real money.
This is about as odd a complaint as I've ever heard. If Sergeant Murwin weren't in the hospital, he would have to pay for food, and he probably would spend more than $8.10 a day. And how, in any event, are either Dick Grasso or the tax treatment of SUV's at fault for hospital dining charges? Here Mr. Hunt is merely yawping with envy.
The reason why the pay of corporate leaders rose steeply over the past 20 years is easy to fathom. During that same period, the Dow was up well over a thousand percent. The bull market high was roughly 15 times the 1982 bear market low. That increase in value didn't come about because rank-and-file workers labored 15 times as hard or because a benevolent government "grew the economy". A very large share of the credit belongs to corporate management, and managers' pay increased commensurately. Mr. Hunt himself says, "Compensation ought to be tied explicitly to performance, whether it's shareholder return or market share or another serious standard." By that criterion, whether or not Dick Grasso or any other particular executive is paid too much, the managerial class as a whole is not exorbitantly compensated now in relation to 1980.
Furthermore, a large proportion of top executives' remuneration has until recently (practices are in rapid flux right now) consisted of options and other stock-based compensation, which make short-term comparisons like Mr. Hunt's "Median pay for the CEOs of Fortune's 100 largest companies rose 14% to $13.2 million last year" meaningless. These forms of income are recognized in toto in a single year despite having been earned over longer periods. An option holder is more likely to take his gains at a time when stock prospects look dismal (like last year) than when he is confident of further years of swift appreciation, so there is nothing surprising or outrageous about last year's trend.  Mr. Hunt might want to look back over all the boom years when nominal executive pay was rising more slowly than stock value. Was that because execs were then exercising ascetic self-restraint? Accrual accounting would show that they earned more than reported from 1994 through 2000, because options, restricted stock and stock appreciation rights were gaining value rapidly, then lost a bundle over the last three years – exactly the pattern that one expects when compensation is tied to performance.
Needless to say, "pay for performance" is not Mr. Hunt's explanation of compensation trends. He invokes chicanery and avarice:
The "acid test" of corporate reform is CEO compensation and accountability, says Warren Buffett, America's foremost investor. A board challenging CEO pay, warns the sage of Omaha, "is like belching at a dinner party." Bill McDonough, former head of the New York federal reserve and now running the SEC's new accounting and oversight board, says the current level of executive pay cannot be "justified economically . . . or morally."
The empirical problem with that analysis – no less facile for being uttered by Warren Buffett – is that variations in output can't be explained by inputs that remain constant. Boards of directors were just as cozy with CEO's in 1980 as in 2003, probably more so. There were fewer outside directors then, and independent compensation committees were unheard-of. Similarly, greed is a constant of human nature. Anybody who thinks that it is worse now than a quarter century ago doesn't remember the "Go-Go Years".
The fact that executives' pay moves in the right direction is not, one should note, proof that the mechanisms for setting it are optimal for a market economy. [1] It is conceivable that managers in the aggregate have always been overpaid and undeniable that executives in some particular cases succeed in profiting at the expense of shareholders. It would be interesting to know what reforms Mr. Hunt and other cavilers at "uneconomic and immoral" compensation think would improve the situation.
Other reformers have slightly less unserious ideas, but most of their remedies haven't had the advertised impact. Imposing punitive taxes on top executives' non-performance-based pay in excess of $1 million a year (I.R.C., §162(m)) made stock options more desirable, but options made it possible for Michael Eisner to receive close to a billion dollars in compensation from a company that performed unspectacularly. (Mr. Hunt calls him "the grand old man of abusive pay" – not utterly without justice, though the root cause of the "abuse" was investors' continued appetite for Disney stock.)  Now options are out of favor. The new enthusiasm is for restricted stock, though the incentives offered by that mechanism are indistinguishable from options in any way that matters to critics of executive pay. This seems to be simply an instance of putting a new label on the bottle and imagining that one is getting a different medicine.
Independent compensation committees have been just as ineffective as stock-based compensation. The New York Stock Exchange had such a committee. Now Mr. Hunt complains that its chairman wasn't independent enough and that "many of the other Big Board directors were chosen by Mr. Grasso". He doesn't mean that statement literally, of course. The owners of seats on the Exchange elect the board; the CEO has no authority to appoint even a single member. But he does have the right to recruit congenial candidates, and nobody is likely to agree to serve as a director of a company without having antecedent confidence in its management. No procedures exist for creating sublimely objective and disinterested boards that will also be willing and able to carry out their work.
Perpetual tension between owners and managers is all but inevitable. Shareholders don't have the time to oversee the day-to-day operations of the companies that they own, and management faces an inevitable temptation to place its own compensation before profits. No perfect method of harmonizing these divergent interests has ever been invented, but luckily none appears to be needed. The dynamics of the market steadily grind down self-interested managerial solipsists, as capital and credit flow elsewhere and underutilized assets attract takeover bids. The process may be messy at times, and it may work imperfectly with semi-regulatory entities like stock exchanges, but it has been reasonably successful so far. If Al Hunt has any brilliant ideas for improving the situation, he has shown himself remarkably reticent to tell the world what they are. All that he wants are tax hikes and Democratic election victories – and those he would want if all CEO's lived like eremites on Mount Athos.
[1] An elementary example of how the effects of a free market are in some respects mimicked by anti-market structures is the reaction of monopolies to increases and decreases in demand. Ceteris paribus prices increase and decrease, just as when there are plenty of competitors, though they remain above free market levels.
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