"Our Country!
In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right;
but right or wrong, our country!"

    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Monday, October 29, 2012

Weather that Changed American History

Hurricane Sandy

As the monster hurricane that has been dubbed "Frankenstorm" makes landfall on the eastern seaboard, it already seems clear this will be a historic weather event. In that spirit, the Prolix Patriot has compiled a list of ten major events in which weather affected the course of American History, presented in chronological order.

1. The Mayflower

In October of 1620, the Pilgrims encountered fierce winter gales in the North Atlantic. At several points during the voyage, the Mayflower's master, Christopher Jones, even considered returning to England and only continued on after realizing that the deteriorating weather might be even worse if he turned back. After making landfall at Cape Cod the Pilgrims attempted to sail south to their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River, but continued stormy weather made this impossible and after spending the winter aboard the ship they ultimately ended up settling what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts in the spring of the following year.

2. Cornwallis' Surrender at Yorktown

As the combined Continental and French forces under the command of General Washington and Comte de Rochambeau overran the last ring of British defenses during the Siege of Yorktown in October of 1781, Lord Cornwallis attempted a desperate evacuation of his army across the James River at Gloucester Point, but was blocked by a sudden freak squall after only getting one group of boats across. The following morning he met with his officers and all agreed that their situation was now hopeless and they began to draw up the articles of capitulation which would bring the Revolutionary War to an end.

3. The Burning of Washington

In August of 1812, British Royal Marines under the command of Admiral George Cockburn landed in Maryland for an assault on the young nation's capital. After routing the American defenders at Bladensburg, the British sacked Washington and began setting public buildings on fire. Fortunately, a hurricane arrived the very next day and the heavy rains extinguished the conflagration which preserved the exterior structure of the Capitol and the White House, prevented the fire from spreading to civilian structures, and also forced the British to return to their ships and depart from the city.

4. Burnside's "Mud March"

Despite his own incompetence and his inability to control the insubordination of his officers, President Lincoln decided to give General Ambrose Burnside one more chance to prove himself with an ill-fated winter offensive in January of 1863. However, the muddy conditions caused by unseasonably mild weather slowed his progress to a standstill and forced him to abort the mission. In the end, this probably saved the Army of the Potomac from complete destruction or capture at the hands of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, because the early snowmelt was causing the Rappahannock River to rapidly flood, which would have cut off Burnside's only line of retreat. As a result of the fiasco, the bungling General Burnside was finally relieved of command which probably saved the lives of thousands upon thousands of his men.

5. The Great Johnstown Flood

In May of 1889, a massive rainstorm passed over the steep river valleys of southwestern Pennsylvania dumping an estimated 6-10 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. The extremely heavy rainfall caused the Conemaugh River to flood and crest the South Fork Dam, which soon collapsed, releasing a torrent of 20 million tons of water over the course of 40 minutes--an amount equal to the flow rate of the mighty Mississippi River. The aftermath of the flood was the first time the American Red Cross responded to a natural disaster and the unsuccessful attempts by the victims to obtain compensation from the dam's owners had lasting consequences in tort law.

6. The Dust Bowl

Throughout the 1930's, severe droughts killed off the fragile crops that were never meant for the semi-arid conditions of the Great Plains. Without plant roots to hold the fine soil together, strong winds tore up the dry soil and blew millions of tons of dust clouds across the empty prairie. With the economy already in ruins from the Great Crash of 1929, the persistent agricultural failure and ecological devastation of the Dust Bowl caused untold hardships, illness, starvation, and displacement for prairie farmers and worsened the economic calamity of the Great Depression.

7. The Battle of the Bulge

During the winter of 1944, Allied forces under the supreme command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower had slowed their advance through the thick forests of the Ardennes. Under heavy cloud cover, the Germans launched a last-ditch winter offensive on December 16 which might have succeeded if the weather had not cleared just in time for Allied air power to finally relieve battered ground forces tenaciously holding out at key crossroads blocking the Germans' access to crucial resupply. Also, due to the extremely cold temperatures tanks and trucks had to keep their engines running to prevent the diesel fuel from gelling which may have contributed to the German defeat by forcing them to expend their limited fuel reserves more quickly.

8. Typhoon Cobra

On the same day the Germans launched their attack, but on the other side of the world, Admiral Halsey was trying to resupply his forces that were launching attacks against Japanese airfields in the Philippines. On December 17, as the weather rapidly worsened, Halsey received incorrect weather reports and unwittingly sailed his entire fleet directly into a massive typhoon instead of away from it. The violent winds in excess of 100 m.p.h. caused damage and losses comparable to a defeat in a major fleet engagement. The disaster likely delayed the American recapture of the Philippines and caused Halsey to be temporarily relieved of command although he was later reinstated.

9. The Challenger Disaster

The Space Shuttle Challenger was originally scheduled to launch on January 22, 1986, but delays eventually pushed the launch back to January 28. During that time, south Florida experienced unusually cold temperatures which plummeted well below freezing on launch day itself. This combined with a design flaw in the infamous O-ring seals to cause a catastrophic failure of the Challenger and the death of all aboard--including the first civilian astronaut, Christa McAuliffe. The disaster was a major setback to the space program and delayed the next attempt to send a civilian into space by many years.

10. Hurricane Katrina

After causing destruction across the Bahamas and south Florida, Hurricane Katrina made its third landfall on August 29, 2005 near Biloxi, Mississippi. As the storm flattened towns on the Gulf Coast, tidal surge and heavy rains combined to overflow the levee system around New Orleans causing more than 1,800 deaths and more than $100 billion in damage. The perceived inability of the George W. Bush Administration to respond effectively in aftermath of Katrina was greatly exaggerated at the time, but nevertheless caused a shift in public opinion from which he never recovered and resulted in huge losses for his party in the 2006 election.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

As Goes Ohio...

As we enter the final two weeks of this election cycle, let us consider the question of whether President Obama or Governor Romney can win without Ohio. Currently, the only two bellwether states with any kind of reputation are Ohio and Nevada. These two states have only voted against the winner three times between them in the last hundred years: Nevada once in 1972 and Ohio twice in 1944 and 1960, and that last was one of the closest elections in history. Ohio especially, which has a population of 11.5 million to Nevada's 2.7 million, has become THE essential state to win for anyone who seeks the Presidency. Thus we have the saying, "As goes Ohio, so goes the Union."

You may be asking yourself, what is a bellwether anyway? The bell is obvious enough, but the wether has nothing to do with meteorology, but rather derives from the German widar or ram and is most often encountered in animal husbandry. The story goes that shepherds would place a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (the wether) to keep track of the whole flock, the thinking being that the ram would stay with his ewes wherever they roamed. This is not the most flattering comparison, but nevertheless, residents of bellwether states typically consider it a point of pride because of the unique role they play as an indicator of broader trends in electoral politics.

Following the etymology then, the chart above classifies states into sheep and bellwethers based on comprehensive election results from Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. The sheep (shaded in yellow) are states which have voted with the winner three or more election cycles in a row. Aside from Franklin D. Roosevelt, no president has served more than two full terms--and indeed this is now constitutionally prohibited--so three in a row is more than just happenstance. The bellwethers (shaded in green) are states that have voted with the winner for three decades or more and have begun to acquire a more exceptional historical status.

Returning to our original question then, let us assume that Romney will win Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, and Virginia. It is possible then that Romney could win Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire and go on to win the Presidency without Ohio. Meanwhile, Obama could theoretically win those same four states while losing Ohio to Romney and still win the election. However, both scenarios are quite unlikely. According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Colorado and New Hampshire are to the right of Ohio while Iowa and Nevada are to the left. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that whoever wins Ohio will win the election.

It is worth noting that bellwethers are fundamentally a backwards-looking indicator of broader trends. As the old adage goes, "Every streak is good until it isn't." For example, as recently as 2004, Missouri and Tennessee were considered reliable bellwethers of the electorate, but both went to McCain in 2008 by a large margin. However, as the graph below illustrates, it is also true that if either Ohio or Nevada loses its bellwether status, there would be fewer such states than at any time since the end of Reconstruction--and that was with fewer states in the Union overall. Therefore, we can still make a few predictions about this election in the larger context of history.

If Ohio and Nevada lose their bellwether status and the election is decided on the barest of margins, it would signal that we have entered a new era of extreme hyper-partisanship similar to the antebellum period. In this scenario, Obama would certainly have lived up to his apparent goal of emulating the last President to come from Illinois, although not in a very good way. It would be a tragedy if after everything we have suffered through in the last four years that Obama's greatest similarity to Abraham Lincoln ends up being a legacy of bitter division and distrust.

There is also the possibility that Obama wins re-election with a broad mandate. In this case, Obama would be able to consolidate the disastrously extreme liberal policies of his first term and it seems likely that the Democrats' dream of a permanent majority would finally come true. Fortunately for conservatives, this seems more and more unlikely with each new poll. If Obama does win, it will almost certainly be by the narrowest of margins.

Finally, if Romney wins a solid victory it would signal a continuing realignment in American politics that started during the 1990's with the elderly and socially-conservative minorities continuing to assert ever greater importance in the electorate. The sheep today could become bellwethers of tomorrow. In the continuing realignment scenario, states like Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and especially Florida--all of which are leaning towards Romney in the most recent polls--may eventually overtake Ohio in electoral importance in future years. However, in this election, it’s still up to Ohio.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Check the Transcript"

On the record is forever

When Obama said, "Check the transcript," during last night’s presidential debate, it could have been the big line of the evening, but that will depend on whether Romney or his surrogates use it to advantage. The consensus is that Obama got the better of Romney last night, if only because he actually showed up this time, which was viewed as an infinite improvement over his previous performance. Nevertheless, Obama's imperative to "check the transcript" viz. the Libya 9/11 attack and subsequent cover-up is a potential opening that may make Obama's victory last night a Pyrrhic one.

When you check old transcripts, sometimes you come up with inconvenient quotes. For example, the Weekly Standard notes that Hillary Clinton once said, "The buck stops in the Oval Office" which conflicts with her statement yesterday that responsibility for the security lapses in Benghazi is hers alone. Another example, in the VP debate there was this exchange:

MS. RADDATZ: What were you first told about the attack? Why were people talking about protests? When people in the consulate first saw armed men attacking with guns, there were no protesters. Why did that go on for weeks?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Because that's exactly what we were told —
MS. RADDATZ: By who?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: — by the intelligence community. The intelligence community told us that. As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.

If Biden was being truthful, then Obama didn't know on September 12 that the Libya attack was an act of terrorism and yet Obama claimed last night that he did know and that in his Rose Garden remarks, he said as much. Well, Mr. President, let's follow your advice to check the transcript on that (emphasis added):

As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.

But we also know that the lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers. These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity. They should give every American great pride in the country that they served, and the hope that our flag represents to people around the globe who also yearn to live in freedom and with dignity.

The only mention of terror was a banal generality in his closing statement. Worse still, the statement is false. In the very same speech he criticized an American citizen for exercising his freedom and the right to free speech which is one of the "values that we stand for." That citizen is now in jail on trumped-up charges of violating probation for an entirely unrelated matter. So in fact, an act of terror did alter the character of this great nation. We now put citizens in jail for purely political reasons. That's something they do in Venezuela or Cuba or Iran before an "election." Not in America.

Furthermore, the quote that was reported at the time was when the President said, "We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others." That was the storyline that the Obama Administration was pushing with their liberal media allies, not the terror angle.

Ironically, Candy Crowley speaking to the CNN post-debate panel said that the moderator was incorrect when she supported the President's "check the transcript" line. Unfortunately the moderator happened to be herself. More puzzlingly still, Crowley also made statements on the record that directly rebut Obama's and her own assertion that the administration immediately recognized that Libya was a terror attack. At the time she said, “There's a back and forth now about why didn't this administration -- why did it take them until Friday after a [Tuesday] September 11th attack in Libya to come to the conclusion that it was premeditated and that there was terrorists involved."

Even then, Crowley was being very generous. Even on September 25th, terrorism in reference to Libya was still that-which-must-not-be-named for the President. The Prolix Patriot wrote in these pages several weeks ago about the President’s UN speech:

Just as with the Tucson massacre, the motives of the killers in Libya are very clear. This was not a "protest" against an amateur video. This was an act of pure slaughter in violation of every precept of international law and diplomacy. Despite this, and even though leaders in the intelligence community, the Secretary of State, and his own Press Secretary have all admitted that it was a premeditated and overt act of terror aimed directly at the United States, the President only mentioned the word "terrorism" once in his address—and not even in reference to the violence in Libya.

The most memorable line from that speech was, "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." Even weeks after the attack, the President was still hanging--nay clinging--to the video protest story, even when it was thoroughly discredited by everyone around him.

There are also other clips out there, for example the President equivocating about the nature of the Libya attack while being interviewed on "The View." [N.B., it's a sad state of affairs in journalism today when the pack of liberal harpies on "The View" are tougher on the President than the moderator of a nationally-televised debate.]

Out of all of this, we have two potential explanations. Either the President knew it was a terrorist attack and deliberately mislead the American people for weeks until the lie started to unravel, or he genuinely did not know even when everyone around him had already admitted it. Both are disturbing prospects. Worse still, given Obama's aloofness from foreign affairs, both are entirely plausible.

Unfortunately, most people in this country are not following the Libya story--which is a shame, because it has very real consequences for the security of our country. Nevertheless, the economy is still the number one issue of this election, and in that area, Romney completely dominated the President last night.

Regardless of whether Romney made an unforced error or cleverly flushed Obama out into the open, it may not even matter. The real question is whether Romney sees this as a potential opening and decides to capitalize on it, or decides to just stay focused on the economy and jobs and let the Libya story fester inside the beltway until it starts to really stink.

That said, foreign policy really should be more of an issue in this election. As a friend observed during the debate, the President has many powers, but he is not able to repeal the laws of supply and demand. Even though the economy stinks, the President can only do so much about it, whereas on foreign policy, the President literally has a sworn obligation to protect the American people.

We live in an increasingly dangerous world. Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others are up to no good. Al Qaeda is rebuilding across the Muslim world. Piracy is still a threat to our shipping off the Horn of Africa and in the Straits of Malacca. The Drug Wars in Mexico continue to spill over into border towns and even deep into the country to places as far north as Denver and Detroit.

The President's handling of the Libya attack can best be described as a fiasco. Instead of just admitting that we were unprepared, this whole cover-up demonstrates that politics no longer stops at the water’s edge, especially when foreign events are inconvenient to the President's political fortunes and aspirations. The last four years under this President have been dark and perilous times. We should recoil in sheer horror when we even begin to imagine what another four years would look like.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Liberal Chameleon

If You Don't Like My Principles, I Have Others

Last night's vice-presidential debate was the first time in our nation's history when two Catholics shared that stage, but this was not the only historic first of the evening. It was also the first time that a nationally televised debate constantly seemed on the edge of becoming a drunken bar brawl. Throughout the evening, Biden was playing to his far-left base, and like a chameleon, displayed all the left's most unattractive qualities. He was by turns haughty, surly, and morose. Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, Ryan was calm and consistent. Both men played to type in a way that was deeply revealing of their political philosophies.

In the opening phase, mainly in the area of foreign policy, the Vice President laughed and sneered with derision at every word that Congressman Ryan spoke, drawing unflattering comparisons to the Joker from the Batman comics. The left's unserious mockery of opposing views is all too common in public discourse today, such as when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi snorted at the suggestion that the ObamaCare individual mandate might be unconstitutional. In the end, the joke was on her when the Supreme Court held that the commerce clause does have limits, and that the individual mandate could only be constitutional if construed as a tax.

Then, the topic shifted to the economy to entitlements in the second phase, and as Chris Wallace observed with evident dismay, "I don't believe that I've ever seen a debate in which one participant was as openly disrespectful of the other as Biden was to Paul Ryan tonight." Vice President Biden and so-called moderator Martha Raddatz noticeably combined forces, at one point almost constantly interrupting Congressman Ryan and cutting him off without letting him respond to Biden's increasingly vicious verbal attacks. It is telling that in the area where Ryan is strongest--on economic and fiscal issues--there seemed to be a deliberate effort to block him from speaking.

On this point, many conservatives might complain of media bias, but during his debate preparations, Paul Ryan probably knew it was going to happen and decided to take the high road anyway. In the aftermath of Obama's humiliating defeat in the previous debate, many liberals criticized Jim Lehrer for not being assertive enough and Martha Raddatz obviously got the message. Both were terrible moderators for different reasons, but whereas Jim Lehrer's legacy as a well-respected veteran news anchor from an earlier and more civilized age remains intact, Martha Raddatz's fifteen minutes of fame are over, and she will now return to the comfortable obscurity she deserves as a correspondent for a network news program that hardly anybody watches anymore.

As the debate entered its mercifully brief final phase, Biden's tone changed dramatically when questioned about his views on abortion in the context of his professed Catholic faith. Shifting from his earlier jocosity and bravado, he suddenly seemed to bow his head and assumed a very serious and reverent tone of voice--almost as if seeking absolution for his many sins--as he tried to explain his own warped personal vision of Catholicism which somehow permits murder of the unborn under one of the most grotesque abortion policies in the entire world. Even atheist liberal European countries have some limits on when and how abortions can be performed, but not in Joe Biden's America.

Through it all, Paul Ryan maintained his composure and, like an accountant, stuck to the numbers and the hard facts throughout the debate. His performance was entirely consistent with his whole worldview, as a man of faith who is guided by principles over political considerations. Conversely, Biden constantly changed his mode of attack, just as he has changed his positions on the issues many times throughout his long career in the Senate. In the end, the liberal chameleon finally showed his true colors, and we were offered the clearest picture so far in this entire election of how extreme and how unhinged the political left has become.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What Goes Around Comes Around

Fighting Fire With Gasoline Doesn't Work.

President Obama claims to stand on the side of police, firefighters, paramedics, teachers, librarians, and other public-sector employees. This is perhaps true insofar as he has committed the federal government, and thus the American taxpayer, to spend inconceivable amounts of money to win the affections of these groups. However, the new contract that will be voted on today by the Chicago Teachers Union and an internet video being circulated by the International Association of Fire Fighters both make clear that in the long run, Obama's policies will do more harm than good for public-sector employees.

While most private sector employers and even the federal government have transitioned to defined-contribution plans like the 401(k), most municipal governments continue to use defined-benefit pension plans. Unfortunately, defined-benefit plans are going bankrupt because the money that was supposed to be set aside for future pension payments was spent frivolously by local governments during the boom times under the flawed assumption that the economy would always be good. Unlike the federal government, state and local governments can't just print money to pay their pensioners when expenses exceed revenues. They have to issue new debt which usually has to be approved by voters in a referendum.

The biggest reason for funding shortfalls in the great recession is the decline in home prices and thus property tax revenues on which local governments depend. The crisis is real. Because of their profligacy, cities like Stockton, California and Camden, New Jersey are now unable to pay for even basic services like police. Eventually home prices and tax revenues will recover, but consider that sometime in the next 20-30 years there will be another major recession and tax revenues will collapse again, except that if we don't have pension and entitlement reform, next time the burden of payments on state and local governments will be many times worse than what we have seen in the last few years.

Of course, senior employees who have dedicated their whole lives to serving public health, safety, and education are right to be upset that their retirement is now in jeopardy. Any plan to address the public sector pension crisis must ensure that people do not lose the retirement that they have worked for. However, opposition to reform from public-sector unions like the IAFF and the CTU will ultimately result in less money to fund salaries, benefits, training, and equipment for their current and future employees as state and local governments are forced to spend more and more on pension payments. Moreover, just throwing more money at the problem now is like fighting fire with gasoline.

Winston Churchill probably never said that, "Any man who is under 30 and is not a liberal has no heart; and any man who is over 30 and is not a conservative has no brains," which is just as well, because it is false. As the slow-motion train wreck of the pension and entitlement crisis makes clear, people under 30 years of age have the most at stake in this election. If Obama is re-elected, his liberal policies of pandering and procrastination will continue and we will see more bailouts, more "stimulus" plans to pay for bankrupt public sector pension plans, and ever higher deficits and taxes to fund it all.

Who will pay these taxes? Obama has been traveling the country promising adoring college students that if he is elected they will not have to worry about the cost of federally-subsidized student loans going up. What he isn't telling them is that his own ObamaCare law eliminated subsidies for student loans issued by private banks, and that because of his policies, when their parents retire, current students will inherit a debt so shockingly enormous that a 3.4% increase in student loan interest will seem like a very small price to pay indeed. The old saying that "what goes around comes around" has never been more true.