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Wehner: An Interesting Time to Be Alive (If You’re a Republican)
| February 22, 2013 | 9:12 am | Pete Wehner | No comments

Published for Commentary Magazine, February 22, 2013

In his appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Democratic strategist James Carville was asked what the Republican Party has to do in order to recover. Mr. Carville pointed out that “It’s hard when you’re a congressional party.” What he meant by that is that without a titular head, a party is relatively undisciplined and often sounds cacophonous. The press will focus on the most outrageous statements made by backbenchers, which leads to responsible members of the party often finding themselves with “a fist in your forehead.”

That’s a fair point. At the same time, a period like the Republican Party is in right now can also lead to some intellectual creativity, with good ideas being generated by governors and members of Congress. Wilderness years can help a party that has become ideologically rigid and somewhat out of touch with the changing nature of America. As Rod Dreher pointed out in a recent symposium in COMMENTARY, in the short run political cohesion and effectiveness have their advantages, but this can be “a disaster for a party that needs–as every party does–to have its intellectual base replenished by fresh, creative discussion and argument.”

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Wehner: More on the GOP’s Intellectual Unfreezing
| February 20, 2013 | 12:45 pm | Pete Wehner | No comments

Published for Commentary Magazine, February 20, 2013

In reaction to my post on the intellectual unfreezing of the GOP, I received an e-mail from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

His argument to me (which he said I am free to share) is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement has in fact developed sound policies without a president pushing and pulling it and that we’re beyond waiting for the next Ronald Reagan, having developed many Jack Kemps.

What Norquist means by that is that there are exciting and encouraging developments that are occurring in the House (see especially Representative Paul Ryan’s last two budgets) and in the states, where Republican governors are advancing reforms dealing with taxes, pensions, education and more. Mr. Norquist’s broader point is that Members of Congress, governors, and state legislators are making real progress in the “new ideas” department, and that deserves to be recognized.

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Wehner: Entitlement Reform and Common Ground
| February 20, 2013 | 11:52 am | Pete Wehner | No comments

Published for Commentary Magazine, February 20, 2013

In a New York Times op-ed, my Ethics and Public Policy colleague Yuval Levin offers a simple, excellent idea that offers a way out of our current political impasse on entitlements.

He argues that Medicare and Social Security should be means-tested (e.g., allocating benefits according to need) and explains, with typical intelligence and clarity, why that’s something both Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on. He writes:

Some on the left might complain that curtailing our entitlement programs’ universal character would undermine their social purpose and political support. But targeting benefits to those who most need them is surely better than reducing payments to providers (many of whom will drop out of Medicare), as President Obama’s 2010 law does. Some on the right might complain that such reforms would punish success. But surely rewarding achievement with government aid is no one’s idea of conservatism.

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Wehner: The GOP’s Intellectual Unfreezing
| February 19, 2013 | 2:00 pm | Pete Wehner | No comments

Published for Commentary Magazine, February 19, 2013

Ramesh Ponnuru, a leading thinker on the right, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that is worth reading. He argues that Republicans “slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones.”

Ponnuru provides examples; including pointing out that the top tax rate when Reagan took office was 70 percent v. 35 percent for most of the last decade. (The payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people.) He also points out Reagan inherited an economy in which inflation was in double digits v. just two percent over the last five years. The conditions we face in 2013 are, as one would expect, quite a bit different than what Reagan faced more than three decades ago.

In the March issue of COMMENTARY, Michael Gerson and I offer a similar argument, saying:

And it is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.

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Wehner: Where’s Steve Kroft When You Need Him?
| February 13, 2013 | 11:44 am | Pete Wehner | No comments
Published for Commentary Magazine, February 13, 2013
In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama spent much of the early part of his speech savaging the idea of sequestration. In his typically understated way, Mr. Obama referred to the sequester cuts as “sudden, harsh, and arbitrary.” In case he wasn’t clear, Obama also referred to them as “reckless.” And just in case this indictment was too vague, the president said the sequester was a “really bad idea.

Which makes this interview  between Fox News’ Bret Baier and White House press secretary Jay Carney so delicious. Under Baier’s firm, skillful questioning, Carney is forced to admit that yes, that really bad, terrible, awful, reckless, harsh, vicious, offense-against-God-and-Man idea was … the president’s.

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Wehner: The Virtue of Moderation
| January 29, 2013 | 2:43 pm | Pete Wehner, Uncategorized | No comments

Published for Commentary Magazine, January 29, 2013

I recently read a splendid book by Harry Clor, On Moderation: Defending an Ancient Virtue in a Modern World, whose purpose is to “articulate a coherent, defensible case for moderation as a virtue, the possession and encouragement of which is important for us.”

Maybe the best way to begin is to be clear on what Clor says moderation is not. Political moderation is not, he writes, the antithesis of holding principled and wholehearted commitments. It’s not simply a matter of being in the middle of two extremes. It is not “tepid, middle compromise” between opposing ideals.

Like thoughtful scholarship, political moderation, according to Clor, takes a disinterested account of opposing perspectives on complex questions. It is synonymous with proportionality. And it recognizes limits and takes into account circumstances. For example, determining how much liberty and how much restraint a society embraces can’t be answered in the abstract; it depends on circumstances. “A course of action, policy, or pronouncement that is valid in some or most cases would be wrong, even disastrous, in certain situations, and there will be exceptions to any proposition you could affirm,” Clor writes. Immoderation, on the other hand, “is characterized by a one-sided or absolute commitment to a good that is in fact only one good among several.”

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Wehner: Political Debate As Theater
| January 28, 2013 | 4:00 pm | Pete Wehner | No comments

Published for Commentary Magazine, January 28, 2013

I’ve been critical of CNN’s Piers Morgan in the past, but his interviewwith former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was quite good and enlightening. I say that because both men laid out reasonable arguments to support their case.

Mr. Morgan, in response to Gingrich’s concern that politicians should not be in the business of deciding how to “permit” Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights, pointed out that Gingrich himself believes the same thing. That is, Mr. Gingrich agrees we should ban automatic weapons–which means he agrees the government ought to be in the business of drawing lines and granting, or not granting, permission to use certain types of weapons.

On the flip side, Gingrich pressed Morgan on why he doesn’t advocate banning handguns, since the overwhelming number of gun-related homicides in America are caused not by “semi-automatic, military-style assault weapons” but handguns. And Gingrich, while conceding that he believes automatic weapons should be banned for civilian use, argued that we should be very cautious about extending to government the power to ban yet more weapons; that this step will embolden the government to further restrict the right of Americans to bear arms.

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Wehner: The Significance of Obama’s Inaugural Address
| January 22, 2013 | 5:16 pm | Pete Wehner | No comments

Published for Commentary Magazine, january 21, 2013

President Obama’s inaugural addresswas eloquent and moving in parts. It was also deeply partisan and polarizing, something that is unusual for a day normally devoted to unity and common purpose.

But not in Barack Obama’s America. In his inaugural speech he did what he seemingly cannot keep himself from doing: portraying himself and his followers as Children of Light and portraying his opponents as Children of Darkness.

You are either with Obama–or you are with the forces of cruelty and bigotry. In Obama’s world, there is no middle ground. He is the Voice of Reason; those who oppose him are the voice of the mob. They are the ones who (to cite just one passage from his speech) mistake absolutism for principle, substitute spectacle for politics, and treat name-calling as reasoned debate.

In that sense, Obama is the perfect president for our current political culture. And for all of his self-perceived similarities with Abraham Lincoln, he is the antithesis of Lincoln when it comes to grace, a charitable spirit and a commitment to genuine reconciliation. Mr. Obama is, at his core, a divider. He seems to relish it, even when the moment calls for a temporary truce in our political wars.

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Wehner: Barack Obama, Man on a Liberal Mission
| January 10, 2013 | 5:11 pm | Pete Wehner | No comments

In a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, “Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.”

Brooks is on the mark with his analysis, and I’d add several things to it.

1. It’s quite telling that the one agency that the president wants to slash is the one that (a) is operating best and has garnered the most trust from the public and (b) is the area in which the federal government’s role is the most explicit and appropriate.

For those who still wonder whether Mr. Obama is at heart a pragmatist or a liberal ideologue, it’s worth pointing out that Obama has shown zero interest in cutting spending in non-defense related areas. In fact, during his presidency non-defense spending has skyrocketed. Mr. Obama has no desire to pare back the welfare state; his goal is to expand it beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Except when it comes to national defense. There he can barely contain his budget cutting ways.

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Wehner: More on Statecraft as Soulcraft
| January 9, 2013 | 4:01 pm | Pete Wehner | No comments

My post on the intellectual evolution of George Will created some interesting reactions, including this one from NRO’s Jonah Goldberg. This is probably as good a time as any to elaborate on my views related to Will’s 1983 book Statecraft As Soulcraft and the broader political philosophy it touches on.

There are two separate issues to consider. One is the size of government. As anyone who reads Contentions knows, on this matter, my views are pretty clear. The federal government needs to be re-limited. It’s too large, it spends too much, and (to borrow from a formulation by Margaret Thatcher) it takes too much from us in order to do too much for us.

The second issue has to do with the purpose of politics. Some, like Goldberg—whose writings I enjoy and admire—are left cold by the claim that “the state must take it upon itself to create better people.” My argument is that (i) politics is an extension of ethics and (ii) whether one likes it or not, there is a moral component to many of our laws. Hence government is involved in affecting the habits, values and sensibilities of the citizenry.

For example, the 1996 welfare reform bill is perhaps the most successful piece of social legislation in generations. At the heart of the law was a moral, not an economic, argument: welfare is creating dependency, which is enervating character, which in turn is harming individuals and society. The goal with welfare reform was not to save money; it was to foster self-reliance and dignity. That was the state taking upon itself the task of creating better people, and having some success at it.

That doesn’t mean that the state is always, or even often, successful in this undertaking. But that’s an argument for modesty of expectations and to get the policies right; it’s not an argument against the role government inevitably plays in shaping conduct and character. As Will argues in his book, we frequently “legislate morality” in ways that influences actions, dispositions, and values. That’s been the case, to one degree or another, with desegregation, drug use, smoking, incarceration, sexual assault, abortion, adoption, movie and video-game ratings, marriage and family structure, child support payments, child tax credits, and charitable deductions, to name just a few.

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