Archive for December, 2015

Two paths for conservatism: Trump’s nostalgia versus Rubio’s optimism

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

Originally published at Every Joe

Politics is a multifaceted business. To those interested in policy-making, the often vapid marketing central to campaigning can grow tiresome. Nevertheless, politicians have to capture the imagination of voters through soundbites and slogans that leave little room for in-depth issue analysis. The truth is, average political observers have short attention spans and need to get a general feel for what a candidate believes before they even contemplate policy – if they ever do so at all.

Consider the slogans of two Republican presidential frontrunners: Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. Trump rests his reputation on being a businessman who can allegedly fix the problems politicians he deems “clueless” can’t. “We don’t win anymore,” says Trump of the United States, invoking a nostalgia that appeals primarily to working class, predominantly white voters who feel left behind in a changing global economy. Thus, Trump promises to “Make America Great Again,” pushing protectionist ideas such as border walls and import tariffs with the, frankly unattainable, goal of keeping foreign competition from our nation’s shores.

Marco Rubio on the other hand, takes an inverse but equally emotional approach with his “New American Century” slogan. As a few keen political observers have pointed out, this branding invokes the neoconservative “Project For a New American Century,” headed by Washington’s most hawkish intellectuals, which existed between 1997 and 2006 and played a large role in shaping President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. While these views are in line with Rubio’s and play into what his campaign is promoting, the PNAC reference is an obscure one, and not what the vast majority of voters think of when sizing up his campaign.

Instead, Rubio’s “New American Century” slogan invokes an optimistic and inclusive look at the future in a context much broader than foreign policy alone. Rubio’s forward-thinking rhetoric ties well into his family story. A staple of his stump speech, Rubio is fond of telling voters that his Cuban immigrant parents were working class: His mother, a housekeeper, his father, a bartender. “Only in America,” says Rubio, “can their son grow up to be a United States Senator.” Rubio’s focus on extending the American Dream to those who seek it as a means to create a prosperous future is in direct conflict with Trump’s retrograde, wall-building rhetoric.

Ultimately, these slogans reveal the fault lines between perhaps this cycle’s loudest faction – what National Review’s Kevin Williamson calls Grow The Hell Up Conservatism – and the rest of the Right. As Williamson noted this past summer, “Trump brings out two of the Right’s worst tendencies: the inability to distinguish between entertainers and political leaders, and the habit of treating politics as an exercise in emotional vindication.” I agree, but would go a step further and say Trump brings out an uglier side of the Right as well; the tendency among some to engage in a form of soft bigotry, often without realizing they’re doing it.

This is the trouble with a slogan like “Make America Great Again.” On its face, there’s nothing wrong with the words, or even what it’s meant to invoke. It’s understandable that countless people yearn for the return of a time rife with abundant manufacturing jobs and livable working class wages. Trump of course, in promising unrealistic economic protectionism, won’t achieve this, but his rhetoric certainly stokes the emotions of many. As my Facebook friend Ben Kilpatrick astutely noted on one of my posts, “[Trump is] playing to the people who think there is some sort of economic magic that can restore the time when China and half of the world were Communist, everything in Europe had been destroyed, and most of the rest of the world was an undeveloped backwater. In other words, a time when the US didn’t have any competition and people could get skilled labor pay rates for unskilled jobs.”

What Trump is also doing, whether he realizes it or not, is alienating virtually everyone for whom returning to a bygone era is a nightmarish proposition. There’s a faction of largely older white voters – many of whom are Democrats and independents as well – who yearn to return to a time that for them, was prosperous; hence the appeal of “making America great again.” Perhaps what they haven’t considered is how that sounds, for example, to a black voter. Does “making America great again” entail returning to a time when people of color were legally segregated and terrorized? And what of young females? Does “making America great again” mean living in a society where women weren’t welcome in the workplace?

This is the danger, in my view, of elevating nostalgic conservatism over opportunity conservatism. While for most people who ascribe to it, rhetorically nostalgic conservatism isn’t meant to invoke segregation or misogyny – though incidentally, white supremacists seem to think Trump is speaking for them – conservatives would be remiss if we blind ourselves to how that branding feels to those who fall outside of older, white categories. This is why what Rubio is doing from a marketing perspective – promoting an inclusive opportunity conservatism – matters. I’d wager that it goes a long way toward explaining why Rubio is the Republican who polls best against Clinton.

As Greg Sargent recently noted at the Washington Post, “The NBC/WSJ poll’s toplines are that Rubio holds a 48-45 lead over Clinton among adults nationally, effectively a tie. By contrast, Clinton leads Donald Trump by 50-40.” Sargent then goes on to explain what could very well be at the root of Rubio’s success. “Recall that the Rubio campaign is actively building its long term strategy around the belief that a GOP candidate must make inroads among Dem voter groups to win … Rubio is trying to strike hopeful, optimistic tones, and repeatedly says that a new generation of leaders is required … Rubio’s apparent performance edge over Trump and Cruz among young voters is another sign that nominating Trump or Cruz might be self-destructive demographic folly for the GOP.”

Sargent’s point about Rubio’s hopeful tone is crucial. While he isn’t my candidate of choice, primarily due to his extremely hawkish foreign policy views, I strongly believe that conservatism needs more of Rubio’s branding, and less of Trump’s. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia as a motivating factor, the Republican Party needs to appeal to voters beyond its aging white base if it’s to survive as the 21st century unfolds. Trump’s rhetoric moves conservatism backwards while Rubio’s pushes it toward the future. Policy aside, branding matters. On this front, Rubio is undeniably doing something right – and Republicans who want to win in today’s political climate ought to take notes.

Rand Paul “appalled” to learn NSA spies on congressmen and U.S. allies

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Originally published at Rare

Senator Rand Paul joined “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday to comment on a shocking revelation that details the extent of NSA spying on both foreign U.S. allies and members of Congress.

After a Wall Street Journal expose revealed this week how the White House used the NSA to spy on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by proxy, U.S. congressmen, Paul seized on the opportunity to double down on his view that we need targeted rather than broad surveillance.

“I’m appalled by this,” said Paul when asked how he feels about the fact that several of his fellow elected officials were spied on by the White House. “This is exactly why we need more NSA reform,” Paul added.

Paul explained that the surveillance debate in Washington has gone in the wrong direction since the shootings in San Bernadino, California earlier this month, that have been linked to Islamic terrorism. While people’s fears are justified, Paul believes government cannot be trusted with indiscriminate power, and that the latest information about politically motivated NSA spying proves his point.

“Senator Wyden has been warning about this for years now,” said Paul, referencing his Democratic colleague who has been a leading advocate in the fight for NSA reform. Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had long railed against spying practices he was unable to reveal that later became clear as a result of Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

“When we listen in on foreigners’ conversations when they’re talking to Americans, we’re scooping up tens of thousands of conversations with Americans, which is a real problem,” said Paul, echoing Wyden’s warnings. “It’s is an invasion of privacy. You can see how it stifles speech when you eavesdrop on congressmen. It might stifle what they say, and who they communicate with.”

While Paul made his point discussing the recently discovered surveillance of congressmen, he has long attributed the same issue of stifled speech to indiscriminate spying on all American citizens. “We absolutely need more controls on the NSA and more controls on our intelligence agencies,” Paul concluded.

Since the Wall Street Journal’s report, Paul’s fellow senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio has also voiced his outrage about the fact that the Obama administration is spying on Israeli politicians and members of Congress. Rubio however, has long been a proponent of spying on U.S. citizens absent basic constitutional protections such as warrants.

Although Rubio is witnessing the government power he advocates turned on his allies, he has not to date expressed any regret of his position in favor of expanding NSA spying, despite his apparent selective outrage in this case.

As for Paul, he appears set to continue making the case for NSA reform that targets specific terrorists rather than serving the political interests of whichever party happens to occupy the White House.

Congressman Justin Amash reveals his pro-liberty New Year’s resolution

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Originally published at Rare

Congress continues to prove it won’t change its ways as 2015 comes to a close.

The week before Christmas, congressional leaders struck a deal with President Obama to pass a catch-all omnibus bill, adding $1.8 trillion to the already burgeoning $18 trillion national debt before everyone went home for the holidays.

Unfortunately for limited government advocates, the madness wasn’t relegated to new special interest spending alone.

Congressional leaders managed to sneak a government spying provision into the 2,000 page omnibus bill that comes from the pre-existing Cyber Information Sharing Act (CISA).

Congressman Justin Amash (R-Mich.), well-known for his efforts to curb unconstitutional surveillance, had this to say about his New Year goals:

 

Amash told the Daily Dot’s Kevin Collier, “Many of my colleagues remain unaware that a massive surveillance bill was snuck into the omnibus. And if they are aware, they may have been misled into believing this bill is about cybersecurity.”

Collier explained, “Two days before its inevitable passage, lawmakers updated the bill to include language from the Cyber Information Sharing Act (CISA), a bill that makes it easier for companies to share details of cyberattacks with the government but is universally loathed by privacy advocates.”

“The Cybersecurity Act of 2015 allows companies like Facebook, Google, or Visa to share cyber threat data—digital evidence of a cyberattack—with the Department of Homeland Security,” Daily Dot reported. “It also grants American firms immunity from prosecution for sharing data that may include customers’ personal data.”

Unfortunately, this shady down-to-the-wire behavior is typical in Congress. Controversial provisions are often snuck into catch-all bills, particularly must-pass ones that will lead to a government shutdown if not signed into law, as was the case with this year’s omnibus.

One pertinent example of this sneaky governing is the ongoing battle that started as a result of language drafted in 2011 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). A generally straightforward spending bill, the NDAA lays out the yearly expenditures of the Department of Defense. When the NDAA for 2012’s fiscal year was released however, it contained a provision that could lead to the indefinite detainment of American citizens merely suspected of terrorism.

Rep. Amash has long fought unconstitutional detention of this sort, alongside extended battles against the Patriot Act and other numerous bills – the latest being CISA – that falsely promise security at the expense of liberty.

This winter break, Amash has made it clear that he has no intentions of backing down from this fight as 2016 begins.

 

Civil liberties advocates on both sides of the aisle can look forward to the debate around Amash’s impending bill, which will no doubt put both transparency in how Congress legislates and the extent to which government is spying on us at the forefront.

Happy New Year!

This Christmas, open your heart to all victims of terrorism

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Originally published at Every Joe

Christmas is just days away. For most families, holiday travel can be stressful, but it’s rarely life-threatening. In some parts of the world however, getting home for Christmas is more complicated than a TSA patdown followed by a cramped plane ride. In Kenya, an east African country besieged by terrorist group Al Shabaab, travel near the country’s border with Somalia can be a death sentence for Christians and Muslims alike.

This week, a bus heading to the Kenyan city of Mandera near the Ethiopian and Somali borders was raided by Al Shabaab fundamentalists. As is typical of this particular Islamic terror group, which has been affiliated with Al Qaeda since 2012, they asked the Muslims on the bus to separate themselves from the Christians, with the intent of murdering the latter group during the busiest travel time of the year. In this particular instance, the Muslim passengers aboard the bus refused to cooperate.

As CNN reported, the bus contained more than 100 passengers, and the heroic Muslim women on board gave the Christians their hijabs to fool the terrorists while helping besieged individuals hide. This was done in addition to a flat out refusal among the Muslims to identify themselves, thus pointing out the Christians and leaving them for dead. The fact that the Muslims aboard said kill us all or kill no one, led the terrorists, whose broad goal is to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia, to leave the bus all together.

Al Shabaab, though fractured, is an Al Qaeda affiliate, and they often go out of their way to kill non-Muslims, especially in the Christian-majority country of Kenya. They were originally founded as early as 2004 a part of a nationalistic struggle against Somalia’s government, but have morphed over time into more of a religious fundamentalist group, especially as the Somali and Kenyan militaries have reduced them in size and scope.

While this particular terrorist organization’s recent mode of operation has been to single out Christians, especially amid criticism that they were targeting Muslims, many of its members are presently moving toward a more fundamentalist model. Although Al Shabaab is technically Al Qaeda’s east African affiliate, there have been recent defections to the more militant ISIS, the brutal organization that has found itself in western crosshairs for its wholly destructive behavior.

Just two months ago, CNN reported that a major spiritual leader within Al Shabaab, Abdul Qadir Mumin, who used to live in the United Kingdom, pledged allegiance to ISIS. His new loyalty reflects similar jihadi defections in Somalia, and is a boon to ISIS, which has most notably ravaged Syria and taken responsibility for the terror attacks in Paris. This move toward higher levels of religious radicalization increasingly puts east African Muslims in an at-risk situation that could, if unchecked, rise to the level that has created the refugee situation in Syria.

Although the Al Shabaab terrorists who raided the Kenyan bus this week spared the Muslim heroes who protected their Christian countrymen, not all terrorist organizations, especially ISIS, behave that way. Factionalization even within Al Shabaab has led to disparate behavior, including the targeting of Sufi Muslims, a group that radical Sunni Muslims see as insufficiently Islamic. It’s largely this Sunni ideology, particularly the militant Wahhabi offshoot, that drives ISIS and its increasingly violent behavior.

This speaks to why it’s important to remember, as we sit down celebrate Christmas, that victims of terrorism are not exclusively Christian, nor are all Muslims terrorists. As another new year dawns, we will undoubtedly continue our national debate over whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees. There are legitimate national security arguments to be made about potential dangers, particularly in the wake of the terror attack in San Bernardino. A trap that Americans cannot let ourselves fall into however, is one of dehumanization.

Born of fear and an instinct toward cathartic collectivism, humans have a tendency to engage in dangerous scapegoating when we feel threatened. People are right to loathe the kind of radical Islam that drives ISIS, but it doesn’t excuse the recent uptick in crimes against peaceful Muslims that have occurred in the United States since the attack in Paris. This is why it’s crucial to understand that radical Islamic terror comes in different forms, and to do our best as Americans to extend grace to all victims of terror, many of whom are Muslims that have engaged in heroic feats to stop attacks.

An important read toward this end comes from Jonathan Brown, a former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant and Arabic linguist, who recently traveled to Germany in an effort to help displaced Syrians who have fled to Europe. (Disclosure: Jonathan is a friend and I helped publish his refugee stories.) Jonathan’s first-hand accounts go a long way toward humanizing these victims of terror who have been deemed terrorists themselves. He paints a picture of largely secular young professionals whose lives have been torn apart by ISIS. Men and women forcibly separated from their families, unable to provide for themselves or their dependents as Islamic fundamentalists who consider them insufficiently Muslim destroy their homeland.

This snippet from Brown speaks to what life has devolved into in Syria:

“(Solomon) was quick to curse Syrian President Al-Assad’s heavy-handed tactics to me, but saved special derision for these fundamentalists. It was probably that attitude that first put him on their radar. One day, as he was leaving his home for work, two Daesh (ISIS) members stopped him and told him that smoking was a sin. He ignored them and kept walking, but quickly found himself on the ground, face in the concrete, being pummeled and stomped in the back.

This was the second time he’d been beaten by people like them, the wounds from his previous lashing still tender. His prior offense: Trimming his beard.

But this time, the damage was more severe than a few flesh wounds. Two years prior, Solomon had undergone surgery to repair the discs in his lumbar spine. He showed me the scar from his surgery, and I cringed at the thought of each blow wrecking the repair, literally step by step. Now, he lives with radiating pain in his extremities, and he has lost all sensation in his left leg except for occasional excruciating burning. So I was astonished to learn that when he was finally forced to flee Syria, he did so on foot.

Without time to make arrangements for his young family – two little girls and an adorable infant son – his wife told him, ‘Just go, before they come back and kill you. You can make some more money and send for us.’ So he went. Leaving his family in the care of his parents, he stole out under cover of night. With him he carried nearly his entire life savings, around $10,000, a portion of it sewed into the lining of his underwear.”

Brown went on to chronicle similar stories of young men and women alike who were forced out of their homeland by fundamentalists, looking for any possible path toward providing for their families in the wake of this disruption, but meeting largely with bureaucracy that makes it all but impossible to find work. The reason Brown’s first-hand accounts are important is the same reason you should know of men likeAhmed Merabet and Adel Termos; just two of many Muslim heroes, many of whom remain unknown, who have sacrificed their lives in an effort to combat the terror ravaging their communities.

While it’s true that we cannot blind ourselves to the dangers Islamic fundamentalism poses both at home and abroad, we should open our hearts this Christmas to victims who may not share our culture, but are humans nonetheless worthy of our love. We can engage in reasonable debates over the proper governmental response to refugees, terrorism, border security, and the like yet while doing so, refuse to engage in the ugly practices of dehumanization and scapegoating. Spreading love and refusing to succumb to fear would be a welcome way to start anew in 2016.

Ted Cruz’s Delicate Balancing Act

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Originally published at Every Joe

Ted Cruz
is rising. Going into the last Republican debate, in which he was undoubtedly a star, he garnered solid numbers. He’s now beating Trump in Iowa while moving up nationally. Ever since his race for Senate, of which I was an early backer, Cruz has skillfully walked the thin line between being the ultimate political insider – Ivy league alum, Supreme Court Clerk, White House staffer, Solicitor General – and a tea party rebel bent on harnessing the anger of conservatives to – once and for all! – “Make DC Listen.”

When I first met Cruz at a tea party event in central Texas nearly five years ago, he was polling at two percent – a talking point that would become a staple in his future Senate stump speeches. He struck me as the kind of person for whom ambition had no limits, and I was impressed with his willingness to put in the legwork. Cruz is adept at sensing the direction of political winds and seizing dramatic moments that place him at the center of the intrigue.

Anyone who got to know Cruz during his Senate primary can tell you that he was dedicated, one hundred and ten percent, to winning. He criss-crossed the behemoth that is Texas at a seemingly impossible clip, spending quality time with activists heartened by the prior cycle’s tea party victories but frustrated with an establishment still ignoring their concerns. Cruz, skillfully reading the political tea leaves, quickly stood out as the antidote to David Dewhurst – the Lieutenant Governor whose team employed the Hillary Clinton strategy: Keep the front-runner out of sight, make some big ad buys, and let name-ID finish the job.

The Cruz Crew wasn’t having it. Riding the tea party wave with the seemingly elitist and often absent Dewhurst as an easy target, we declared victory during a low-turnout midsummer runoff, joking at the party in scorching hot Houston that all of Dew’s supporters must’ve been in Martha’s Vineyard. Thus began, in earnest, Cruz’s rise to national prominence. He was no longer an impressive secret hoarded by tea party activists. And we were waiting for him to, as he said he did in the latest debate, keep his campaign promises.

Of course, no politician will ever be the same as he was once elected. Governing and marketing are, by definition, distinctly different activities. Plus, the priorities of voters change. As I’ve previously lamented, it seems that the “libertarian moment,” to which Cruz pandered strongly in 2012, was more blindly “anti-establishment” than philosophically grounded. Frankly, this goes a long way toward explaining Cruz’s present behavior, some of which I see as favorable, and other aspects that to me, demonstrate the vapid nature of his “courageous conservative” branding.

Take this past week’s debate. Cruz’s bizarre “carpet bombing” commentary aside, he was excellent on the matter of regime change. “If we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests,” said Cruz, sounding like the only rational voice besides Rand Paul. “And the approach, instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter, we ought to hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to take control of new countries,” he added.

In that moment, he sounded like throwback campaign trail Ted, telling my husband at a Republican Liberty Caucus event at Texas A&M that he believes war is only necessary to protect American interests and nation building is a negative. Where Cruz has strongly adjusted his rhetoric, however, is on immigration – a development I’ve long followed as he’s morphed from introducing a bill to expand work visas and an amendment to allow legal status, to saying he “stands with Jeff Sessions and Steve King,” representatives of the hardline anti-immigrant wing within the GOP.

When Cruz was on the stump in Texas, he made the virtues of legal immigration, through the story of his father, a campaign mainstay. He still speaks well of his Cuban-exile father’s impressive background, but he’s been careful to adjust both his rhetoric – and policy – to appeal to those seduced by Trump’s desire to wall-off Mexico. Cruz went from proposing a 500% increase in H-1B visas while extolling the free market virtues of immigration, to seeking protectionist restrictions on allowing people to enter the U.S. and work legally; all in a span of two years.

Buried underneath these significant policy and poise changes is, naturally, a strategy. Cruz isn’t wrong in his desire to tap into the type of populist energy that led him to an underdog victory in Texas, hence his refusal to take the gloves off when it comes to Trump. The problem for Cruz, however, is that he’s now engaged in a very delicate and, frankly, transparent balancing act.

On the one hand, we’re told that he’s a rock-ribbed conservative, unafraid to – rightfully, by the way – call Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor. On the other hand, when Cruz sends out a tweet deeming Hillary donor Trump “terrific,” his supporters expect us to believe it’s simply because he won’t attack his fellow Republicans. It doesn’t work both ways.

During the debate, Cruz made the aforementioned hypocrisy even more obvious when he went after Rubio on immigration. But when asked about how he differed from Trump, our “courageous conservative” demurred. For someone allegedly unafraid to take the fight to Republicans who are part of the problem, Cruz is tellingly unwilling to, not just attack Trump, but even explain how they’re different. Perhaps “courageous conservatism” isn’t a guiding principle but a politically convenient pandering tool.

I find myself agreeing with Red State’s Leon Wolf, also an early Cruz supporter, who wrote:

“Having called Marco Rubio a liar, unprincipled, and someone who doesn’t understand the issues, he better discover soon that Donald Trump is without question a much bigger unprincipled liar who has no understanding of the issues, and muster the testicular fortitude to say so in public. If you’re going to be a happy warrior who doesn’t attack other Republicans no matter what they say about you, then be that happy warrior. If you’re going to be an attack dog when attacked, then turn the same vitriol on Trump that you turned on Rubio.”

All of this said, it’s possible that Cruz’s strategy, hypocritical as it may be presently, will work. It’s just unfortunate that we apparently occupy a world where “courageous conservatism” entails licking the boots of a lifelong Democrat with authoritarian tendencies, all because polls show his numbers rise when he attacks foreigners.

Cruz may well gain a portion of Trump’s supporters with his new-found anti-market views. If he does, fine, I’d prefer they go to him than Trump, or even most of the Republicans on that stage. But he needs to make sure his tightrope walking doesn’t cause him to look like the kind of politician engaged in doublespeak that he claims not to be.

Cruz hasn’t convincingly explained the discrepancies between his 2013 immigration amendment and his current rhetoric, coming across defensive in a recent interview with Bret Baier. As Baier pointed out, Cruz either lied to bolster his amendment to the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, that would have, as he said, “allowed those here illegally to come out of the shadows.” Or Cruz is lying now with his hardline talk and new-found admiration for Pete Sessions. Frankly, I hope it’s the latter. Realistically though, I think his ambition trumps all, and his willingness to change with the populist winds guides him more than principle.

Ultimately, it’s clear through all of this that Cruz is incredibly intelligent. He’s undoubtedly one of the smartest people I’ve had the privilege of interacting with. But as he rises in the polls, he’s walking on thin ice. He and his team need to do a better job of answering the charges currently before them rather than simply pretending the obvious discrepancies between his past record and current rhetoric don’t exist.

And while Cruz’s apparent gentlemen’s agreement with Trump might ultimately be the right gamble for him, his team also cannot pretend that his earliest supporters aren’t taking notice of the blatant hypocrisy. Cruz is a talented politician but the balancing act he’s currently engaged in would be almost impossible for anyone to undertake flawlessly. Where he goes from here will no doubt be watched with great interest, especially as the Iowa caucuses draw ever closer.