Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

Bobo is reeking of flop sweat again today.  In “The Possum Republicans” he whines that in recent decades, one pattern has been constant within the Republican Party: Wingers fight to take over the party, mainstream Republicans bob and weave to keep their seats.  With you as the cheering section most of the time, Bobo.  Mr. Cohen says we should “Arm Syria’s Rebels,” and that Western and Arab states need to step up the flow of matériel and training for the Free Syrian Army.  I’m sure Mr. Nocera doesn’t live in an area where it would happen, so he’s all excited about “How To Frack Responsibly.”  He states that an environmental group takes a practical approach to the problems with drilling for hard-to-get natural gas.  Maybe if his tap water caught on fire…  Mr. Bruni point out that “It’s a College, Not a Cloister,” and suggests that Rick Santorum misses the belief-testing point of education.  That’s not the only point that the pious little prick misses…  Here’s Bobo:

Politicians do what they must to get re-elected. So it’s not unexpected that Republican senators like Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch would swing sharply to the right to fend off primary challengers.

As Jonathan Weisman reported in The Times on Sunday, Hatch has a lifetime rating of 78 percent from the ultra-free market Club for Growth, but, in the past two years, he has miraculously jumped to 100 percent and 99 percent, respectively. Lugar has earned widespread respect for his thoughtful manner and independent ways. Now he’s more of a reliable Republican foot soldier.

Still, it is worth pointing out that this behavior is not entirely honorable. It’s not honorable to adjust your true nature in order to win re-election. It’s not honorable to kowtow to the extremes so you can preserve your political career.

But, of course, this is exactly what has been happening in the Republican Party for the past half century. Over these decades, one pattern has been constant: Wingers fight to take over the party, mainstream Republicans bob and weave to keep their seats.

Republicans on the extreme ferociously attack their fellow party members. Those in the middle backpedal to avoid conflict. Republicans on the extreme are willing to lose elections in order to promote their principles. Those in the mainstream are quick to fudge their principles if it will help them get a short-term win.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the fight was between conservatives and moderates. Conservatives trounced the moderates and have driven them from the party. These days the fight is between the protesters and the professionals. The grass-roots protesters in the Tea Party and elsewhere have certain policy ideas, but they are not that different from the Republicans in the “establishment.”

The big difference is that the protesters don’t believe in governance. They have zero tolerance for the compromises needed to get legislation passed. They don’t believe in trimming and coalition building. For them, politics is more about earning respect and making a statement than it is about enacting legislation. It’s grievance politics, identity politics.

Of course, the professional politicians don’t want to get in the way of this torrent of passion and resentment. In private, they bemoan where the party is headed; in public they do nothing.

All across the nation, there are mainstream Republicans lamenting how the party has grown more and more insular, more and more rigid. This year, they have an excellent chance to defeat President Obama, yet the wingers have trashed the party’s reputation by swinging from one embarrassing and unelectable option to the next: Bachmann, Trump, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum.

But where have these party leaders been over the past five years, when all the forces that distort the G.O.P. were metastasizing? Where were they during the rise of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck? Where were they when Arizona passed its beyond-the-fringe immigration law? Where were they in the summer of 2011 when the House Republicans rejected even the possibility of budget compromise? They were lying low, hoping the unpleasantness would pass.

The wingers call their Republican opponents RINOs, or Republican In Name Only. But that’s an insult to the rhino, which is a tough, noble beast. If RINOs were like rhinos, they’d stand up to those who seek to destroy them. Actually, what the country needs is some real Rhino Republicans. But the professional Republicans never do that. They’re not rhinos. They’re Opossum Republicans. They tremble for a few seconds then slip into an involuntary coma every time they’re challenged aggressively from the right.

Without real opposition, the wingers go from strength to strength. Under their influence, we’ve had a primary campaign that isn’t really an argument about issues. It’s a series of heresy trials in which each of the candidates accuse the others of tribal impurity. Two kinds of candidates emerge from this process: first, those who are forceful but outside the mainstream; second, those who started out mainstream but look weak and unprincipled because they have spent so much time genuflecting before those who despise them.

Neither is likely to win in the fall. Before the G.O.P. meshugana campaign, independents were leaning toward the G.O.P. But, in the latest Politico/George Washington University Battleground Poll, Obama leads Mitt Romney among independents by 49 percent to 27 percent.

Leaders of a party are supposed to educate the party, to police against its worst indulgences, to guard against insular information loops. They’re supposed to define a creed and establish boundaries. Republican leaders haven’t done that. Now the old pious cliché applies:

First they went after the Rockefeller Republicans, but I was not a Rockefeller Republican. Then they went after the compassionate conservatives, but I was not a compassionate conservative. Then they went after the mainstream conservatives, and there was no one left to speak for me.

Go eat a bag of salted rat dicks, Bobo.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Here are some home truths about Syria. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Nobody can put this genie back in a bottle. This is the mother of all proxy fights. The remorseless Assad regime is finished, when it dies being the only question.

Nations get to freedom from tyranny by different routes. When Communism fell, some glided from the Soviet empire into the West as others agonized. Yugoslavia — a beautiful idea that never worked — is one of several nations being invoked as possible exemplars of Syria’s bloody fate; others include Lebanon and Iraq.

The ingredients are familiar: Syria is a multiethnic state ruled with an iron fist by one minority — the quasi-Shiite Alawites — and including Christian, Druze and other minorities that between them compose about a quarter of the population. The majority is Sunni. When the iron fist comes off in countries like this, liberty is more readily seen as getting free of each other than uniting in the give-and-take of a new liberal order.

So it has proved for a year now in the Syria of Bashar al-Assad who, taking a leaf from his father’s book, has attempted to suppress through mass slaughter the quest of a broad uprising to be free of the family stranglehold. Assad is a doctor by training! No doctor ever trampled so brazenly on the Hippocratic Oath.

The Assads are a mafia, a minority (the family) within a minority (the Alawites) within a minority (the Mukhabarat secret police). They co-opted others — notably the Sunni merchant class — through imposed stability, but in essence, like every tyrant dislodged in the Arab Spring, they have ruled a nation as if it was their personal fiefdom, a plaything to be passed from father to son for the benefit of cousins and cronies.

Well, that’s over. Aleppo is the not the new Marrakesh after all. Those lovely tourism posters on London buses have been packed away. Arabs have had it with their Godfathers.

I said it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The Syrian compact is broken; a new compact under the Assads is inconceivable. Wider interests are in play. Iranian Shiite theocracy, increasingly isolated, is defending the regime against a Free Syrian Army funded in part by Saudi Sunni theocracy: that’s the proxy war.

Vladimir Putin, fearful of Russian Springs in his own neighborhood, has with signature cynicism opted to defend an old ally against U.S. demands that Assad go, an objective not pursued with any coherence until now by the Obama administration. Israel knows Assad, who helps arm Hezbollah but is a predictable and largely passive enemy. It does not know what may lie beyond a security state whose habits it can predict.

In short, Syria is dangerous. But that not a reason for passivity or incoherence. As the Bosnian war showed, the basis for any settlement must be a rough equality of forces. So I say step up the efforts, already quietly ongoing, to get weapons to the Free Syrian Army. Train those forces, just as the rebels were trained in Libya. Payback time has come around: The United States warned Assad about allowing Al Qaeda fighters to transit Syria to Iraq. Now matériel and special forces with the ability to train a ragtag army can transit Iraq — and other neighboring states — into Syria. This should be a joint effort of Western and Arab states.

At the same time, mount a big U.N.-coordinated humanitarian effort centered on enclaves for refugees in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere, establishing, where possible, safe corridors to these havens.

Push hard to bring Russia and China around: They will not defend Assad beyond the point where that defense looks like a liability for other bigger interests in the United States, the Gulf and Europe.

I hear the outcry already: Arming Assad’s opponents will only exacerbate the fears of Syria’s minorities and unite them, ensure greater bloodshed, and undermine diplomatic efforts now being led by Kofi Annan, a gifted and astute peacemaker. It risks turning a proxy war into a proxy conflagration.

There is no policy for Syria at this stage that does not involve significant risk. But the only cease-fire I can see that will not amount to an ephemeral piece of paper is one based on a rough balance of forces. For that, the Free Syrian Army must be armed.

In the end, this course will support, not undermine, Annan’s diplomacy and perhaps open the way for the sort of transition outlined by the Arab League. In return, the divided Syrian opposition must provide a firm commitment to respect the rights of minorities. The treatment of minorities — like that of women — is one of the many pivotal tests of the Arab Spring.

If Assad falls, Iran is critically weakened. Tehran’s established conduit to Hezbollah disappears. Choosing between engineering the downfall of Assad and bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is really a no-brainer: The former is smart and doable, the latter is folly. Assad’s wife has been buying property in London: Make her use it and make the Syrian people free.

Ooooh goody — a new war in the middle east for us to screw around in…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Fracking isn’t going away.

To put it another way, the technique of hydraulic fracturing, used to extract natural gas from once-impossible-to-get-at reservoirs like the Marcellus Shale that lies beneath New York and Pennsylvania, has more than proved its value. At this point, shale gas, as it’s called, makes up more than 30 percent of the country’s natural gas supply, up from 2 percent in 2001 — a figure that is sure to keep rising. Fracking’s enemies can stamp their feet all they want, but that gas is too important to leave it in the ground.

Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, understands this as well as anyone. Last summer, he was a member of a small federal advisory panel that was charged by Steven Chu, the secretary of energy, with assessing the problems associated with fracking. The group came up with a long list of environmental issues. But it also concluded that “the U.S. shale gas resource has enormous potential to provide economic and environmental benefits for the country.”

One thing I’ve always liked about the Environmental Defense Fund is its hardheaded approach. Founded by scientists, it believes in data, not hysteria. It promotes market incentives to change behavior and isn’t afraid to work with industry. Utterly nonpartisan, it is oriented toward practical policy solutions.

And that has been its approach to fracking. When I spoke to him recently, Krupp didn’t back away from the idea that domestic natural gas could be the “bridge fuel” that helps bring us toward a renewable energy future. Unlike others in the environmental movement, he and his colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund don’t want to shut down fracking; rather, their goal is to work with the states where most of the shale gas lies and help devise smart regulations that would make fracking environmentally safer.

Let’s take one example: the problem of methane leaks. Every natural gas well leaks methane — methane is natural gas, after all — and while the natural gas that winds up being burned as fuel is, indeed, relatively clean, methane that escapes into the air is potent. Though it eventually disintegrates, for several decades methane can add significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

Question No. 1: How much methane leaks into the air as a result of fracking? Incredibly, nobody knows. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the leak rate at a little more than 2 percent, but a recent study suggested it might be twice that. And a controversial Cornell University study last year said it was closer to 6 percent. Clearly, it is critical to know the answer, which is why the Environmental Defenses Fund is currently participating in a study that is expected to provide one.

Question No. 2: How big a difference will it make to the environment if industry can minimize methane leaks? A lot. To illustrate the point, Steven Hamburg, the group’s chief scientist, showed me a model he had devised. It allowed me to see the effect on greenhouse gas emissions as methane leaks were reduced. Suppose, for instance, the current leak rate turns out to be 4 percent. Suppose we then reduce it in half. That would mean an immediate reduction in overall U.S. greenhouse gases by — are you sitting down for this? — 9 percent. If the leaks are reduced to 1 percent, the decrease in greenhouse gases jumps to 14 percent. (That number eventually gets smaller as the potency of the methane wears off.) Meanwhile, failing to reduce methane leaks largely eliminates the environmental advantage of natural gas over coal. You can plug in different estimates and get different results, but the point is this: There is no denying the huge difference it can make to the environment to reduce methane gas leaks.

Nor is this some kind of impossible dream. “There are cost-effective ways to reduce methane leaks,” says Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, a number of the better producers, like Shell, are already employing technology to minimize leaks and taking other steps to drill for natural gas in a responsible fashion. Nor is there much doubt that the outcry by environmentalists over fracking helped awaken the industry to the problems.

But, of course, not all drillers can be counted on to drill responsibly, which is why regulation is so critical. “Wouldn’t it be better,” I asked Krupp, “for fracking to be regulated by the federal government rather than by the states? Wouldn’t that mean better, more uniform regulation and tougher enforcement?”

Krupp frowned. “Given the dysfunction in D.C., a state-by-state approach will be more effective,” he said. “We need to focus on getting the rules right, and complied with, in the 14 states which have 85 percent of the onshore gas reserves.”

Here’s hoping that the anti-frackers someday join him.

Here’s hoping that Mr. Nocera moves right on top of a natural gas field that’s being fracked and enjoys his tap water.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

What good are ideas formed and fortified in a protective cocoon, without exposure to other ways of thinking? Or convictions that haven’t been tested by, and defended against, competing ones?

Not much, I’d submit. And in this, as in so much else, I apparently part company with Rick Santorum.

By now it verges on overkill and laziness to tease out and examine his overwrought statements. They’re legion. He outdid himself over the weekend, for example, by casting Camelot as ipecac — and saying that when he long ago encountered John F. Kennedy’s words on the rightful separation of church and state, he felt like throwing up. I wonder not only about the degree of hyperbole in that memory, but also where Santorum ate just before he aquainted himself with Kennedy’s speech. I think he got a bad clam.

His recent attack on college, though, is just as unsettling, and worthy of even more attention than it has received.

Most of that attention has focused on his complaint that President Obama’s stated goal of making higher education accessible to all is a snobby one that assumes academic inclinations where they may not exist. But Santorum has also decried universities as enemies of faith, environments that leach some of the unquestioned piety out of young adults who are, in this new setting, being prodded to ask questions. He went so far as to call colleges “indoctrination mills” that ridicule and isolate young conservatives.

I’ll grant him that many universities skew more politically progressive than the general population. They’re dominated by people in their late teens and 20s, the age range that represents a particularly experimental chapter in life. And over the last half century, when it comes to issues of, say, race and sexual orientation, younger generations have often demonstrated more acceptance and open-mindedness than older ones. That, fortunately, is the arc of social change, distilled on campuses.

I’ll grant him, too, that at many universities, it’s more fashionable to veer left than right. But there’s no shortage of college-educated Republicans, unscathed and successful in business and government. I haven’t noticed or heard reports of Young Republicans on today’s campuses meeting in undisclosed locations, behind locked doors. And conservatives on the speaking circuit have little trouble finding gigs at universities. They’re not met at the gates with torches.

If you couple the selectiveness and stridency of Santorum’s lament about college with his and his wife’s decision to home-school all seven of their children, you have to wonder if his real beef with higher education is that it threatens the indoctrination that has sometimes occurred already around the kitchen table. It does what it’s supposed to do, encouraging young adults to survey a broader field of perspectives, exhorting them to tap into a deeper well of information, inviting them to draw their own conclusions, and allowing them to figure out for themselves what they believe and who they are.

About 1.5 million American children were home-schooled in 2007, the latest year for which the Department of Education provides an estimate. When their parents were asked why, they most commonly cited moral and spiritual reasons. There’s a positive way to regard that: these moms and dads are making a greater personal investment in their kids. There’s a negative way as well: they’re not so much impressing as radically imposing their values on their offspring by cutting them off from alternative viewpoints.

Is that really good parenting? The likelihood is already strong, when you rear kids, that you’ll turn out rough copies of yourself, whether you mean to or not. Home schooling is like firing up a Xerox machine to seal the deal.

And is it really good policy for Santorum to fill young adults with suspicions about higher learning, which rightly exists to challenge — in a healthy sense — what parents and maybe pastors have poured into them?

If their beliefs survive that, then those beliefs can be seen as genuinely earned and are probably all the stronger for it. Santorum’s did. He went not only to college but also to two graduate schools, getting an M.B.A. from one and a law degree from the other.

But to listen to him talk about universities is to get the sense that he doesn’t trust others to emerge from such an obstacle course of unsavory influences as uncorrupted as he did. For safety’s sake, he’ll bless a little ignorance.

He’ll also massage facts. In explaining his Kennedy-induced nausea, he claimed that the former president had said that people of faith had no place in public life. What Kennedy asserted was infinitely more nuanced than that. He said people of all faiths were welcomed, so long as they weren’t slaves to their creeds.

Kennedy championed autonomy. Santorum champions adherence — to his way of thinking. And his qualms aren’t just with college today. They’re with the true purpose and importance of education.



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