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But Enough About Me

From The Scrapbook

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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One of the most amazing moments following the Iowa caucuses went largely unremarked​—​our friend Wlady Pleszczynski at the American Spectator seems to have been the only other scribbler who was properly agog. It came when Rick Perry conceded his fifth-place finish in a speech to supporters. Such smoldering disasters usually call forth from experienced candidates a cheerful and tearful mixture of chagrin, gratitude, praise, personal modesty, and, depending on future prospects, either fatalistic resignation or steely resolve.

But Enough About Me

Not the governor of Texas. Rick Perry had just lost an electoral contest for the first time in his political career; this was his first concession speech. It’s no surprise that he looked slightly lost as he inched his way through this unfamiliar terrain. But it’s the manner in which he regained his footing that amazed us. He thanked all the fine folks who had traveled from 30 states to help the Perry cause, whatever that may be. Then he pulled out from his trimly tailored suit a letter he had just received from one of those fine folks, which he said he wanted to “share.” (He meant he was going to read it aloud, not chop it up in a hundred pieces and hand them out to everybody.)

Perry read: “Words cannot express how thankful I am for being able to serve you this past week. My name is Colt Smith. .  .  . I’m 24 years old and .  .  . this has been the best experience of my life. Today I saw you for the first time in Perry, Iowa. I realized you were a good man, but I never realized”​—​here the governor’s voice caught for a moment​—​“what a great man you were.” The governor looked up from the letter and smiled his agreement. We didn’t get to see the reaction of poor Colt Smith, who was probably slipping quietly out the fire door in the back of the room. As for The Scrapbook, we had a strong urge to dive under the couch.

The Perryites (if such there be) in the ballroom applauded politely. Surely at least a few of them were taken aback by Perry’s insouciant display of undraped ego. They might have wondered, as we did: Is it possible that this November, Americans could elect to the White House a man with even greater self-regard than its current occupant? 

It’s a good thing we won’t have a chance to find out.

Isolation in Our Time

Richard Cohen, op-ed columnist of the Washington Post, surprised us last week. He usually begins his essays with a casually deft name-drop​—​“I happen to know Martha Stewart”​—​but this time (“Paul’s amoral policy,” January 3) he launched almost immediately into an attack on Rep. Ron Paul’s isolationism. The surprise for The Scrapbook was not only the absence of Cohen’s well-known friends​—​no dinner-party chat with, say, Eliot and Silda Spitzer​—​but the fact that The Scrapbook agreed, up to a point, with what Cohen had to say.

Pointing to Paul’s opposition to foreign aid, “all international treaties and organizations,” including NATO, and his desire to abolish the CIA, Cohen described this as “pretty much what used to be called isolationism, and it allowed Hitler to presume .  .  . that America would not interfere with his plans to conquer Europe.” Which is certainly true, and one of many reasons to have reservations about the congressman from Texas. But then, inevitably, Cohen stepped over the line into op-ed hackery, an occupational hazard: “The isolationism of the 1930s and early ’40s has come roaring back,” he writes. “The old isolationism was deeply conservative, both socially and economically.” 

Except that it wasn’t. Cohen spends the rest of his column telling the story of Americans (such as Charles Lindbergh) who sought to appease Nazi Germany, or at any rate keep the United States out of World War II, and does his best to attach conservatism to isolationism with Super Glue. Of course, since most Post readers have no memory of the late 1930s and early ’40s, it is not difficult for him to pull this off. The problem is that Cohen’s argument is not just disingenuous, but flat-out wrong. 

It is true that the Republican party was dominated by its isolationists in the runup to World War II; but that was not the result of any affinity for Nazi Germany (as Cohen implies) but because of disenchantment with the consequences of U.S. participation in World War I. Moreover, there was a sizable and far-from-silent internationalist wing in the GOP as well. When President Franklin Roosevelt sought to “nationalize” his cabinet in 1940 by putting two prominent Republicans in charge of the War and Navy departments, he recruited Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state (Henry Stimson) and Alf Landon’s 1936 running mate (Frank Knox).

Better yet, any close examination of the isolationist movement reveals that it was, at the very least, a bipartisan affair. The America First Committee, whose most famous member was Lindbergh, featured among its leadership such prominent Democrats as Senators Burton Wheeler of Montana and David Walsh of Massachusetts. Even the perennial Socialist candidate for president, Norman Thomas, was an enthusiastic America Firster, and its student auxiliary featured such future left-wing icons as Gore Vidal (Phillips Exeter Academy) and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (Cornell). 

It might even be argued that, all things considered, the left has been the traditional isolationist haven in America, not the right. Especially after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the American Communist party was fiercely opposed to U.S. participation in World War II, and the leading interventionist organization of the time​—​the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies​—​was a brainchild of the Republican journalist William Allen White.

Indeed, it would be difficult, even for Richard Cohen, to find many remnants of isolationism in the Republican party after the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. That, among other things, is what makes Ron Paul so anomalous. But can the same be said for the party of George (“Come home, America”) McGovern, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich?

Recess Games

Even though President Obama is on pace to make significantly fewer recess appointments than his immediate predecessors, he’s courted far more controversy over this presidential prerogative than Bush or Clinton ever dreamed of. Last week, Obama made four new recess appointments​—​Richard Cordray to head the controversial new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, along with three more members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

There’s one significant problem, however. In order for a president to make recess appointments​—​which are an end run around Senate confirmation​—​Congress actually has to be in recess. The Senate GOP had been holding pro-forma sessions explicitly to keep the president from making recess appointments. The Obama administration simply declared such pro-forma sessions “gimmicks” and bulldozed ahead, Constitution be damned.

Even ardent supporters of the president raised eyebrows. “Liberals would be hitting the roof if George W. Bush did this,” conceded the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, on the other hand, applauded the move, showing more flexibility than a circus contortionist. Only three years ago, Reid declared on the floor of the Senate: “I had to keep the Senate in pro-forma session. .  .  . That necessarily meant no recess appointments could be made.”

The GOP is rightly outraged by these appointments, which are likely to spur court challenges. While the controversy is litigated, it’s worth remembering why Senate Republicans insisted on keeping the Senate in session, a demand that Reid agreed to during negotiations last year: Obama had previously used recess appointments to install candidates who were so radical as to be unacceptable not just to Republicans, but to his own party.

Let’s revisit Craig Becker’s recess appointment to the NLRB in March 2010. Becker had a lengthy history as a lawyer representing the AFL-CIO and SEIU, so there were serious concerns about his ability to pass judgment impartially on entities that once employed him. And then there was Becker’s clearly enunciated desire to see America’s unions employ radical and coercive tactics.

In February 2010, the Senate failed to get enough votes to invoke cloture on Becker’s nomination. Two Democratic senators, Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln, broke ranks and voted against him, and a few other Democratic senators abstained.

However, America’s big unions wanted an advocate, not an impartial judge. Given that unions had coughed up $400 million in campaign funds the year Obama was elected, their president was going to give them what they wanted. So how has Becker’s tenure on the NLRB worked out? He’s led a number of outright assaults on America’s employers​—​including the NLRB’s unprecedented move to prevent Boeing from building a factory in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. The NLRB’s overreach with Boeing was condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike. More broadly, nearly everyone in the business community has been alarmed by the board’s radicalism during Becker’s tenure.

Thankfully, recess appointments are only temporary, so Becker had to step down. But in his absence, the NLRB falls short of a quorum and is thus unable to act. Obama’s patrons in the labor movement won’t stand for that, so the president is ignoring the Constitution’s advice and consent clause to keep the NLRB operating.

Complaints of Republican obstructionism by the Obama team are disingenuous. The Senate committee handling the NLRB nominations has yet to receive the required paperwork for two of the new NLRB recess appointments, Democrats Sharon Block and Richard Griffin. According to the Heritage Foundation, that means they’re being appointed without the “background checks required of all nominees to the board, which are used to determine any past impropriety or conflicts of interest.” Then again, impropriety and conflicts of interest weren’t an obstacle with Craig Becker​—​more of a recommendation​—​so why would Obama care this time around?

Becker isn’t an anomaly​—​Donald Berwick, outgoing administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, was recess appointed before nomination hearings commenced. His controversial statements in favor of rationing health care would likely have torpedoed his chances before the nomination process even began in earnest.

Those two appointments alone demonstrate that the GOP had more than enough reason to take an aggressive stance blocking Obama’s nominees. Given that his own party has had trouble supporting Obama’s past appointees, he has no one to blame but himself. Not that this slowed him down. Obama apparently stands with 19th-century New York solon Timothy Campbell, who asked: “What’s the Constitution among friends?”

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