Special Section: Hunt Watch (Series 1)
What and Why
Everybody has a least favorite columnist. Mine (despite stiff competition from many quarters) is Al Hunt, whose smirking, inaccurate, idea-free, ad hominem insinuations have appeared in every Thursday's Wall Street Journal for more years that I care to look up. The purpose of this section is to subject Mr. Hunt's effusions to what I hope will be rational analysis. I shall do my best to be fair and, in particular, to give the target credit for any wisdom that he imparts. I'm not anticipating, however, that I will face that task very often.
Headline dates are those on which the column appeared. I don't expect to respond on the same day but will try to be more or less timely.
September 5, 2002
For the third time in less than three months, Al Hunt is back to exhorting his fellow Democrats to stand athwart the war against Iraq and yell “Stop!” This week’s effort, “Iraq: Where Have All the Democrats Gone?” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] carries undertones of despair. Mr. Hunt perceives that Democratic opinion leaders desperately want to sidestep questions of war and peace. Their first imperative is to get reelected, and solidarity with Saddam Hussein is not seen as the most direct route to that end. Senator Daschle has intimated that his strategy will be to put off any vote on authorizing the use of force until after the November elections. George Mitchell did the same in 1990, at a time when public sentiment was much more closely divided than it is today.
Mr. Hunt deserves credit for spurning such cowardly expedients.
We're getting Democratic doublespeak. Former Vice President Al Gore says he's all for "the overthrow of Saddam," but "the principle of 'first things first' does apply." North Carolina Sen. John Edwards thinks Americans will support "whatever action is necessary," but argues it'd be "very helpful" to have the support of Saudi Arabia. House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt says he shares "President Bush's resolve to confront this menace head-on," but later says the president has not made the case.
He’s right about the doublespeak, of course, but his attempts to reassure Messrs. Gore, Edward, Gephardt et al. that they can oppose the war without adverse consequences aren’t likely to do the job.
The Democrats' timidity is unnecessary even politically. There was a heated debate in 1991 over the Gulf War and most Democrats -- including Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle -- opposed the first Bush administration's war plans. President Bush waged a highly successful and quick -- if abbreviated -- war, threw Saddam out of Kuwait, and not a single Democrat suffered from their position.
What politicians remember is that the Congressional vote came on January 12, 1991, 22 months before they would again face the electorate. By November 1992, positions on the Gulf War were part of the cobweb-wrapped past. It also doubtful that “not a single Democrat suffered”. All three men to appear on the party’s national tickets since then came from the minority that gave the war at least nominal support, while many observers believe that Sam Nunn ruined his Presidential hopes by voting “no”. It is noteworthy, too, that on the day of the vote both Houses of Congress had substantial Democratic majorities. Four years later, Republicans won control of both. The Gulf War was not the principal reason, but memories of Democrats’ overwhelming opposition to liberating Kuwait fostered the image of reactionary liberalism that consigned the perennial majority party to nearly a decade in the minority.
Since U.S. public opinion is not currently friendly toward doves and the Democratic Party is not about to turn into an eyrie of hawks, the party’s leaders have strong motives to resort to the doublespeak and delay that Mr. Hunt rightly finds odious. Unless political pressure grows overwhelming (and it takes a lot to overwhelm Daschle & Co.), there’s no hope that the Senate will do anything regarding Iraq during the next two months. Bill Clinton - of all people - warned as long ago as 1998 that Saddam Hussein was a menace (without, needless to say taking effective action against the threat), but Senator Levin needs “more time” to think about the issues and Senator Kerry mutters that it is improper for wars to start shortly before elections. In the spirit of the pre-Maccabean Israelites, who would not fight on the Sabbath, the Senator from Massachusetts thinks that America’s enemies should be able to feel safe in the run-up to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years.
So rhetorical smoke will continue to emanate from Democratic rostra, the Senate leadership will drag its feet until January - longer if Mr. Daschle remains Majority Leader - and the invasion will eventually go forward, after a delay that will not, one hopes, cost too many American lives.
Not that Mr. Hunt wants it to go forward ever, as he has made clear in previous columns. His views in this one are more ambiguous, or perhaps simply less coherent.
Iraq poses two potentially grave risks: Sending hundreds of thousands of young American men and women into harm's way, destabilizing important allies, then requiring a lengthy and costly occupation of Iraq -- former Reagan Navy Secretary Jim Webb charged that occupation would weaken America's security interests elsewhere, and for decades America would have "50,000 terrorist targets." Or we allow a genuinely evil despot to continue to develop lethal weapons which, under the best case, he would use as dangerous political leverage in a strategically critical region.
For many people, including the President, it isn’t hard to see which arm of the balance is weightier. As September 11th fearsomely demonstrated, America already has 250 million terrorist targets. Indeed, before that date, at least 800 Americans had died in Islamofascist attacks. (Vide Daniel Pipes, “More Americans Have Been Killed by Islamic Fanatics Than by Any Other Enemy Since the Vietnam War”.) The notion that the costs of deposing Saddam are so high that we are better off perpetuating a status quo in which the best case is Iraq’s use of chemical, biological and perhaps nuclear weapons “as dangerous political leverage” is addled to the point of insanity.
That is an inescapable conclusion that isn’t acceptable in the Hunt world view. Still, his head is inching in the direction that his heart doesn’t want to go. We are told that Democrats have three choices, alliteratively labeled “containment”, “coalition” and “confrontation”.
“Containment”, the idea that “for more than 11 years [Saddam] has been too weak to pose a threat to his neighbors, and the only way he'll use weapons of mass destruction is if attacked” - is the line taken in previous Hunt columns. This time it is described in neutral terms, as is “confrontation”. The middle choice is “coalition”, which satisfies the impulses toward both action and inaction:
This is the Holbrooke (and the Jim Baker) position: The road to Baghdad leads through the United Nations and the U.S. must try to assemble international support. Mr. Holbrooke believes it's politically critical to seek an unconditional, no-notice resumption of U.N. inspectors in Iraq. If this is blocked in the U.N., or if Saddam then thwarts this initiative -- one of which Mr. Holbrooke finds inevitable -- then the U.S. would have more standing when it attacks Iraq. Soon Sen. John Kerry, one of the few Democrats willing to criticize the administration's national security team, which he considers unfocused, will take a similar stand. The decorated Vietnam veteran will argue domestic and international legitimacy are essential before going to war.
Reasonable as that stance looks on first reading, it is really an amalgam of two concepts. The first is finding a proper trigger for the U.S. attack by setting conditions for peace that Saddam won’t accept, just as President Bush issued an ultimatum to the Taliban before driving them from Afghanistan. As “coalition building”, that course of action is merely colorable. Note that, in Richard Holbrooke’s formulation, the U.S. would attack even if the U.N. refused to endorse our demands.
The rival concept lurking under “coalition”, that one that Mr. Hunt and Senator Kerry probably have more distinctly in mind, is practically the opposite: waiting for the unambiguous approval of “world opinion” before taking further hostile action. Given the desire of so many governing left-wing political parties to appease Saddam and embarrass America, that wait may be very, very long.
By muddling these incompatible ideas, it is possible to advocate action and stasis simultaneously. Mr. Hunt, to be fair, is not so logical a thinker as to be aware of such contradictions. Senator Kerry, by contrast, is capable of clear thought and probably knows exactly what he is doing.
Filling out the column are the customary Huntian sneers, mistakes and absurdities, a few of which I note for the record:
"The Democrats confidently expect to benefit in the November elections."
Perhaps that is correct as a description of the Democrats’ state of mind, but virtually all of the generic Congressional polls at present show Republican leads, often by historically large margins, six percentage points, for instance, in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (47%-41%). By comparison, the GOP had about a three-point lead in the same poll at the time of its 1994 victory. In light of the economy’s unimpressive strength, the media attention to corporate accounting scandals and the inertia of Congressional Republicans, any Democrat with half a political instinct has to wonder why his party hasn’t surged into a big lead.
"With concern soaring about health care, corporate corruption and the economy, the president wants to cushion the blow from recent stock market declines; never mind that the market has more than doubled since 1993 when the Clinton administration increased taxes."
It sounds like Mr. Hunt is saying that there’s no reason to be concerned about the 25 percent decline of the Dow from its peak. Along with this eccentric opinion, he insinuates that the Clinton tax increases were a cause of the bull market. In fact (see chart), the Dow meandered downward between the beginning of 1994, when the tax hikes went into effect, and November. The upward trend started with the changeover of Congress to Republican control. Its end more or less coincided with the even split in the Senate that resulted from the election in 2000.
"With the economy still stalling the Bush answer is -- this isn't a tough one -- more tax cuts tilted to the wealthy. These expected initiatives would exacerbate the fiscal plight of the federal and state governments and not do much to boost the economy or stock markets. But it's his one-size-fits-all panacea. Want to eradicate the West Nile virus? Cut capital gains taxes."
I’m not aware of the West Nile tax cut proposal, nor of any other suggestion by the President that tax cuts will do anything other than stimulate the economy. One can argue about the extent of that stimulus, but Mr. Hunt isn’t engaging in that argument (bald assertion doesn't count as argument); he is attempting to distract attention from it with an untrue and irrelevant jibe.
"On foreign policy, once considered this administration's forte [though certainly not by Al Hunt!], the daily sniping reveals a national security team even more divided than the George Shultz-Cap Weinberger conflict 20 years ago."
Liberals want to see “daily sniping” - Hunt quotes Clinton nastyboy John Podesta on “the Freudian psychodrama that's been going on between Bush 41 and Bush 43” - but there hasn’t been much vocal or visible disagreement within the White House team. Maybe Colin Powell is secretly opposed to military action against Iraq, but he hasn’t said so, and it’s hard to see a dime’s worth of difference among Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice. The sniping comes from a handful of former government officials and various anonymous voices that get quoted not because they represent a significant body of opinion within the Administration but because New York Times reporters and Hunt-like commentators agree with what they say.
August 29, 2002
Only Al Hunt could take the themes of "Patriotism, Idealism and Voting" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] and turn them into so much treacle. His subject is a do-gooder project called "Freedom's Answer", the purpose of which is to get under-18 high school students to nag their slightly older contemporaries into promising to cast ballots on November 5th.
Far be it from me to sneer at voting; I haven't missed an election since I turned 21 (back when people who were too young to drink weren't trusted to vote). Nor do I see anything wrong with Freedom's Answer, provided that it leads students to think seriously about the rationale for constitutional government and the duty of citizens to exercise their franchise in an intelligent and informed manner. Maybe that is what the project's promoters have in mind, but it isn't a thought that occurs, however fleetingly, to Mr. Hunt.
His concern, so far as one can tell from what he writes, is with voting as an end in itself. "No one has been more turned off than younger voters; only about a third of young people bother to vote and far fewer are politically active."
Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, an expert on voter performance, thought until very recently that "we were heading toward a record low turnout this year." Now, he believes, there may be a "modest increase," for one reason: rising economic concerns. Harvard's Tom Patterson worries he may be right, noting that the indigenous factors that have caused voting declines over the past decade -- a weakening of political parties, negative campaigning and attack journalism -- still are omnipresent.
Even as he deplores "attack journalism", Mr. Hunt reflexively practices it. Alongside those "indigenous factors" (interesting use of "indigenous", though I suppose that "weakening of political parties, negative campaigning and attack journalism" are not foreign imports) looms another villain: George W. Bush, naturally:
President Bush has not summoned Americans to rise above self-interests in any national atmosphere of crisis or sacrifice. He talks of a long-term war against terrorism and then preaches tax cuts, buying stocks, consuming and returning to normalcy.
This Hunt leitmotif is becoming as dull as it is irrational. Sacrifice and a "national atmosphere of crisis" are not the positive side of war, nor ends to be achieved at any cost. They are evils. If Franklin Roosevelt could have won World War II without rationing, price controls, high taxes, a gargantuan national debt and over a million Americans killed and wounded, he would have been delighted. Happily, the sum total of the world's pro-terrorist regimes is comparable to, maybe, Mussolini on his own, not to the Axis Powers. We ought, it is true, to be pursuing the war more vigorously, but what holds back our hand is a factor that Al Hunt heartily approves, namely, the Administration's unwillingness to act without at least the passive acquiescence of European opinion. A President who warned constantly of "crisis" and "sacrifice" would already have toppled Saddam Hussein without regard for any backlash in Europe and the Third World.
The rest of the column burbles about the gimmicks dreamed up by the Freedom's Answer honchos: "Friday night football events to showcase the importance of voting", "Adopt a Block" and "Bring Ten" campaigns. . . . No mention of an appearance by Britney Spears, but perhaps that's being saved for the final push. Mr. Hunt seems to see great potential in such antics. Wasn't he ever a teenager himself? I know how I would have reacted if, as a senior in high school, I had been bugged by sophomores and juniors about my civic responsibilities. Probably I would have wound up like the crusty English gentlemen who, asked by a pollster for whom he intended to vote, replied, "No one. I never presume to advise Her Majesty on her choice of ministers."
August 22, 2002
It is the inalienable right of every American male to pose as an authority on baseball. Al Hunt exercises that right today. His view of the game’s current imbroglio, “Major League Baseball: A Case Study in Mismanagement” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] sounds like one of the tirades that one hears on the sports-talk radio shows. Like many callers, Al holds opinions that are both unshakable and incoherent.
On the one hand, he agrees with the team owners on all of the substantive issues, identifying the sport’s fundamental problem as the competitive imbalance that arises from “huge differences in local TV revenues”. He writes in favorable tones of proposals for “a 50% luxury tax on higher payrolls with the proceeds to be doled out to poorer clubs if they met a minimum payroll level; increased revenue sharing from local receipts; and . . . relocating seriously struggling franchises”. Those are the owners’ desiderata in the current round of labor negotiations. On all counts, the players’ union fiercely objects.
Still, Al is on the side of the union. Maybe it “resists change essential to restoring competitive vibrancy”, but feeling “solidarity” with it is “a lot easier . . . when you consider the opposition: major league baseball owners, selfish, short-sighted and duplicitous”.
We know from many other Hunt columns that “selfish, short-sighted and duplicitous” is just his ordinary description of businessmen. He omits telling us what this specific coterie of capitalists has done to justify those adjectives. It is sufficient for his purposes to cite “the ‘reserve clause’, which treated players as chattel [sic]” and the post-reserve clause collusion among owners to prevent bidding wars for star players. As justifications for “animosity and vitriol” against the owners, however, those bits of history are becoming long in the tooth, rather like the Serb obsession with the Battle of Kosovo. The reserve clause ended a quarter century ago. No currently active player ever was bound by it. The “collusion era” - during which salaries skyrocketed, despite the owners’ efforts to restrain competition lasted only into the early ‘80’s, when today’s veterans were rookies. Few of them could have extracted higher compensation in a fully open market.
Let’s remember, too, that the “chattels” didn’t suffer all that direly under the reserve clause regime. When I first started paying attention to baseball, in 1955, the Major League minimum wage was $7,000, then a decent middle class income for eight months of work a year. The $100,000 salaries of superstars were comparable to the pay of top-flight doctors, lawyers and corporate executives. Slavery it wasn’t.
The misconduct of past owners is evidently a sin that taints their descendants by some species of apostolic succession. Merely adopting rational bargaining positions is not enough to mitigate it. Therefore, Al reasons, these villains must be stripped of the power to influence the future direction of the game. He advocates restoring the power of the baseball commissioner, replacing the current figurehead with leadership “by someone who understands the centrality of ending the acrimony and trying to grow the troubled game - someone it'd be tough to fire”.
Liberals usually confine such faith in the ability of a wise and benevolent despot to solve intractable problems to the political arena. I doubt that Mr. Hunt would look favorably upon any other business that concentrated vast authority in an undismissable CEO. Nor would the step do any immediate good. If the root cause of baseball’s problems is that “The Players Association doesn't believe anything the owners or Commissioner Bud Selig say”, will it trust a successor to Mr. Selig appointed by those same villainous owners? Especially when he reiterates the need for a luxury tax, revenue sharing and relocation of franchises? If Mr. Hunt urged either the imposition of a commissioner by some force outside of baseball or the new leader’s adoption of a radically different bargaining position, he would at least preserve a modicum of consistency. As it is, he is simply ranting. One envisions the talk show host signaling frantically for a station break.
Whether Al Hunt is right or wrong about baseball is not very important, but this column furnishes insight into his approach to other issues. The same personalization of politics, ignorance of history and failure to think proposed “solutions” through are the hallmarks of his work on political and social questions. In those respects his consistency can never be faulted.
August 15, 2002
Al Hunt may be aghast at the casualties that our armed forces might suffer in an attack on Saddam Hussein, but he wants us to know that he is not happy with the fact that, “Unless you're a combat soldier or of Middle Eastern descent, George Bush's war on terrorism is pain-free: travel freely and spend money with those big tax cuts you're getting, the president advises.” He wants to introduce a measure of pain - not for the Iraqi tyrant and his supporters, of course, but for a truly evil group: American businessmen.
In “Corporate Accountability on Terrorism?” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], he lauds - and to some extent invents - a fringe campaign to “spotlight any publicly traded companies that, directly or indirectly, may be aiding terrorism”.
Well, if publicly traded companies, or privately held ones, for that matter, are giving aid and comfort to terrorists, one hopes that our government would do quite a bit more than “spotlight” them. In fact, it has been laboring to shut down the flow of funds from U.S. sources, notably pseudo-charities, to al-Qaeda and its sister terrorist enterprises. That kind of aid to terrorism is not, however, what Mr. Hunt has in mind.
Instead he is thinking of a venture called “Global Security Risk Monitor”, which has compiled a list of 300 public corporations (only 50 of them based in the U.S.) “that either do business with six countries the State Department says sponsor terrorism -- Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Sudan -- or aid those providing weapons of mass destruction”. (Isn’t “the State Department says” a nice, Huntian touch? Al cannot quite bear to associate himself with the idea that the six regimes that he names really sponsor terrorism.)
GSRM is not, however, a public spirited effort to make the public better informed. It is “offering to sell the research for $12,500 to public pension systems, big mutual and index funds”, using the sales pitch that -
If the war on terrorism is protracted and intense, as the president predicts, this information should be vital to long-term investors, advocates say. "The negative impact this would have on share value and corporate reputations is a very legitimate market concern."
My hat is off to these guys if they can sell their data. If I ran a mutual fund, I might even buy it. But how much would it advance the War on Terrorism if the names of all 300 companies were to appear on the front page of tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal? Mr. Hunt specifies that “The firms aren't violating any laws and the Monitor doesn't propose any new sanctions.” They are, in other words, engaging in transactions that their home governments regard as harmless. At least some of what they do probably is not harmless and ought to be prohibited, and I would applaud Mr. Hunt if he called on the State Department to take the lead in identifying and banning commercial activities that strengthen our enemies. That course of action, however, never enters his purview.
What he wants is for GSRM to “make the Monitor more accessible to the general public” and for Congress to enact “a proposal by Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) that would require companies seeking access to U.S. capital markets to publicly disclose any financial dealings of $100,000 or more with countries that sponsor terrorism”.
Mr. Hunt can’t understand how anyone could be against such a measure: “the argument against identifying which companies are dealing with rogue states is an argument against transparency and indefensible.” He hints darkly that Bush Administration is afraid of embarrassment to big corporations, especially “oil concerns or energy-related firms”, which, not at all surprisingly, make up 40 percent of the GSRM list. “That'll cause confusion for a president whose sense of moral clarity doesn't always appreciate ambiguity,” he tells us, quite indecipherably.
Mr. Hunt is using “transparency” as an incantation rather than a rational concept, but I suppose that the proposed disclosures would do little harm. The question, though, is whether they would do enough good to justify giving another chore to the already over-busy staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Here is the Hunt rationale:
Affected companies realize that any blow to its reputation -- and labeled as aiding a terrorist state surely does that -- could be lethal. The South African divestiture plan was largely successful. Nike pulled back its sweatshop operations under public and investor pressure. A Canadian company, Talisman Energy, has taken a big hit because of publicity over its ties to Sudan. Companies currently dealing with Iraq -- the big German corporation, Siemens, which has sold telecom and other materials, and Volvo, which has peddled trucks to the Iraqis -- are under attack.
So - investors will read about dealings with Iraq and will pressure companies to pull out, after which, one supposes, the Ba’ath regime will collapse. Yeah, sure. Government-enforced sanctions have a poor record of affecting the behavior of tyrants; haphazard private initiatives will hardly do better.
Mr. Hunt’s prescription is astonishingly beside the point, a compound of his generalized dislike of private enterprise and a desire not to advocate total inertia toward pro-terrorist governments. Unfortunately, while transparency promotes efficient use of capital, it isn’t much of a weapon against armed despots.
Other reading: Though I stick strictly to print, Mr. Hunt is pretty ridiculous on television, too. Here is a quick putdown of his amateur climatology.
August 8, 2002
In “Slow But Steady Progress on Adoption” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], Al Hunt engages in covert, long-range debate with those who fear that various social trends are making adoption less available as an avenue of escape for children born into risky environments. A summary of these concerns appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of Philanthropy magazine, where Patrick Purtill, president of the National Council for Adoption, lamented that, despite strong evidence that both children and birth mothers fare better if children born out of wedlock are adopted rather than raised by a single parent,
adoption rates have plummeted over the past 30 years. Adoption as we traditionally think of it—the voluntary relinquishment of a child by a birth mother or birth parents—is in danger of utter extinction in the United States. For all never-married women under age 45, the proportion of birth mothers who relinquished for adoption fell from 8.75 percent in 1973 (the year the Supreme Court gave unmarried fathers the right to challenge adoptions) to 0.9 percent between 1989 and 1995. For black women in the same category, the decline was from an already meager 1.5 percent in 1973 to a number so low that it is statistically unmeasurable. For white women, voluntary adoption decisions dropped by over 1,000 percent—from 19.3 percent before 1973 to 1.7 percent between 1989 and 1995. Today, the adoption numbers of never-married white women under 45 look like the numbers for black women 30 years ago.
If these trends are not reversed, 30 years from now voluntary adoption could cease to exist in the United States, as it has for all practical purposes in Western Europe. [To avoid confusion, quotations from Mr. Purtill are quoted in blue, from Mr. Hunt in black.]
Without identifying this article to his readers, Mr. Hunt sets out to dispel its apprehensions. His effort is surprisingly feeble, illustrating how ingrained liberal theology can diminish one’s analytic capability.
Against the statistics cited by Mr. Purtill are set polling data showing that “[a]lmost two-thirds of Americans have a favorable view [of adoption] and have a family member or close friend in the adoption community”. I’m surprised that the percentage is only two-thirds, but the public’s benign attitude has had done nothing to help the children who need adoption most, the one in three “born out of wedlock and living in single-parent homes—circumstances that put these children at high risk of living in poverty, dropping out of school, engaging in crime, and suffering substance abuse and emotional problems”. The problem is not “any shortage of couples wishing to adopt” but the declining number of at-risk children whose birth mothers are willing and able to agree to adoption. Mr. Hunt does not notice, much less address, that side of the problem. Instead, he seeks to deny that there is anything to fear from the factors that Mr. Purtill identifies as underlying adoption’s decline. Mr. Hunt summarizes these “culprits” as “a wider acceptance of single parenting, giving birth fathers more rights to interfere with adoption plans, ignoring the adoption option in family-planning settings and too much openness”. To Mr. Hunt those trends are either beneficial or nonexistent.
Statistics show most kids do better in dual parent households. But it's hypocritical for conservatives to talk about personal responsibility and then demean single mothers or coerce them into relinquishing their babies.
Only to liberal super-sensitivity is an honest evaluation of single women’s performance as mothers tantamount to “demeaning” them, and no one advocates “coerc[ing] them into relinquishing their babies. Rather, as Mr. Purtill points out, the “coercion” is on the other side: Fathers who will not take responsibility for children often have the right to prevent their adoption, while many social workers, who are in a position to exert heavy pressure on unwed mothers, are positively hostile toward separating children from even the most unfit birth mothers. But the negative roles of fathers and social workers do not disturb Mr. Hunt:
[I]f society insists that dads need to bear a greater responsibility for kids they father -- and it should -- then these fathers certainly should be involved in the critical decision of giving up a child for adoption. . . .
The charge that family planning centers finesse the possibility of adoption is exaggerated; Planned Parenthood requires expectant mothers to be told of this option at its 900 health centers around the country. Still, there should be greater emphasis and education.
These statements do little to respond to Mr. Purtill’s indictments:
[S]ince the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Lehr v. Robertson, the courts have given unmarried, uninvolved birth fathers the right to interfere with a woman’s adoption plan. In many states a father can veto an adoption even if he is unwilling to provide financial support, essentially forcing a woman to become a single mother. . . .
Much could also be done to change the professional culture of social service providers so that they better understand the facts of adoption themselves and better present adoption to their clients. Even among health care professionals—the first professionals to serve a pregnant woman—a number of myths and negative stereotypes persist. In Orientations of Pregnancy Counselors Towards Adoption, Edmund Mech found that 60 percent of pregnancy counselors never mentioned adoption to their clients. Of those counselors who did mention adoption, 40 percent gave inaccurate or negative information.
When the information was corrected, Mech and his researchers saw a nineteen-fold increase in the number of women who planned adoption. In truth, many social workers have an ideological bias against adoption, since they are trained to view “success” as either reuniting children with biological parents (whether or not those parents have proven themselves dangerously deficient) or as assisting a woman to be a better single parent.
By characterizing the remaining “culprit” as “too much openness”, Mr. Hunt mischaracterizes Mr. Purtill’s position, which is that birth mothers should be permitted, not required, to keep their identities confidential. He calls for state laws that -
allow for the option of confidential adoption while providing a mechanism by which individuals can voluntarily waive their privacy, such as the mutual consent registries that exist in a growing number of states. These registries need to be better publicized to increase their voluntary use and to help stop aggressive attempts to violate the privacy of birth mothers. Again, Western Europe provides a cautionary tale. After Great Britain ended the option of confidentiality for birth mothers, adoption effectively ceased to exist.
Mr. Hunt responds that some birth mothers like open adoption, which he terms “transparency”. He offers no evidence that mandatory “transparency” improves the chances that children in need of better homes will find them.
After failing so thoroughly to undermine Mr. Purtill’s thesis, the column turns to the related but separate issue of foster care. He points out that children in foster care are older and less attractive to adoptive parents than newborns, facts that are sadly true. In typically liberal fashion, he sees this problem as amenable to a federal remedy, demanding “a Bush agenda committing resources, particularly to help those that take in these older, more at risk, tougher-to-place kids”. The foster care system is, however, operated by the states, not by the federal government, and is replete with inefficiencies and perverse incentives that an influx of federal funds are unlikely to remedy. Doug Bandow, in a study that will surprise those who know him only as a libertarian firebrand, has described the deficiencies of the system in exhaustive detail. President Bush will do more good by keeping his attention on the war.
Needless to say, no Hunt column would be complete without a touch of Clinton worship:
Over the years Bill and Hillary Clinton -- with the help of key Republicans in Congress -- compiled an impressive pro-adoption record; an adoption tax credit, support for transracial adoptions, and special bonuses to states which move more kids out of foster care and into adoption.
Nice of him to concede a role to “key Republicans”, but the adoption tax credit was part of the Contract With America and was enacted as part of the Republican-sponsored Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 (which escaped a Clinton veto only because it was passed in an election year and included a minimum wage increase). Eliminating barriers to cross-racial adoption has been a longstanding conservative policy, still widely opposed by liberal-dominated social service agencies that view it as an affront to multiculturalism. Support for adoption over foster care is likewise a conservative preference, though one that, as already noted, that federal government has only limited ability to implement.
It is bad enough to give Bill Clinton credit for Republican initiatives. Worse is to bring in Mrs. Clinton, whose only memorable contribution to the adoption dialogue was her declaration, during the 1996 Presidential campaign, that she and Bill were thinking of adopting a child themselves. After the election, we were told that adoption plans would have to be put on ice until Mr. Clinton left office, as he was too busy to take part in raising a child. Now he is out of office, well-heeled and without a steady job. When did we last hear about how the adoption was progressing?
Adoption is one of those issues that most Americans regard as relatively unideologized. Unfortunately, they are wrong. Patrick Purtill has drawn attention to the serious consequences of years of liberal nostrums, and Al Hunt is wrong to dismiss his concerns.
August 1, 2002
“Let the Iraq Debate Begin” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is essentially a repeat of the June 20th Hunt column, seeking to displace revulsion at Saddam’s Hussein’s tyranny with fear of the consequences of doing anything about it. The column begins with a strange assertion:
One Washington ambassador of a top American ally says he hasn't the foggiest idea what the U.S. policy on Iraq is. Neither do prominent political leaders in the region nor most Americans, perhaps including President Bush.
“Most Americans” will be surprised to learn of their own puzzlement, for President Bush has certainly stated often enough that his policy toward Iraq is to oust the current rulers and replace them with a friendly regime. Perhaps Mr. Hunt perceives that “U.S. policy” is different from the President’s, or maybe he means by “policy” the means by which a policy decision is carried out. The latter - the way in which the United States will crush Saddam Hussein - is indeed shrouded in secrecy, and why shouldn’t it be? Allied policy in World War II, to extract unconditional from Germany, was publicly proclaimed, but there was no open debate about how to carry out Operation Overlord.
One of the most serious dangers of hearings like those that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened last week is that members of Congress will try to plan a military campaign in full public view, delving into, in Mr. Hunt’s words,
How many troops might be necessary for an invasion, where to base them, the resolve of the Iraqi army, and how to deal with a cornered Saddam trying to unleash chemical or biological weapons.
The imbalance of forces between the United States and Iraq is so lopsided that we probably could win handily even if the Pentagon sent Saddam’s high command daily briefings on our strategic and tactical plans, but that may be carrying sportsmanship a bit too far.
Mr. Hunt’s hope is not, of course, that Senator Biden and his fellow Napoleons will construct a better invasion plan than the Joint Chiefs of Staff but that they will “rais[e] doubts as J. William Fulbright's famous Vietnam hearings did in the 60’s” about whether the U.S. should take any action at all. On June 20th, Mr. Hunt was urging Senator Biden to model himself on Senator Fulbright. The Senator from Delaware claims to be in favor of deposing Saddam, but his record - he voted against the Gulf War and last year denounced the air campaign against Afghanistan, saying that it was the act of a “high tech bully” - offers hope to the doves. Mr. Hunt calls on him to pursue three lines of attack, er, “inquiry”, which, with lame alliteration, he labels “rationale”, “region” and “replacement”.
The first point is one heard often among liberals, who persist in treating 9/11 as simply a law enforcement issue:
Saddam has invaded two countries, used chemical agents against his own people, and is developing more lethal weapons as he keeps UN inspectors out. But there is no clear-cut Iraqi link to Sept. 11 or bin Laden; one of the most prominent administration hawks puts the possibility of such a connection “no more than 20%.”
Does the uncertainty about whether Iraqi agents directly assisted Mohammed Atta and his co-conspirators really outweigh all that is said or could be said before the “but”? The Iraqi regime has a 12-year record of seeking to damage American interests in every way that it can. To paraphrase John Adams in 1776, Saddam Hussein acts like a war is going on between Iraq and America. Why can’t we?
Next comes the customary jab at the first President Bush:
An invasion can't be a case of the president trying to atone for his father's sins -- the failure to finish off Saddam after the Gulf War -- or a diversion from other problems in the region.
Hearing leftists who opposed the Gulf War complain that it wasn’t prosecuted vigorously enough is becoming dreary. The lesson that we should have learned from Bush I’s miscalculation is that leaving hostile thugs in place, in the hope that they will fade away without our having to exert ourselves, simply stores up trouble for the future. Mr. Hunt’s other straw man is comical. Saddam has employed the Palestinian Authority to divert American attention from himself. Our keeping our eye on the ball is no “diversion”.
Nor can the justification to replace him simply be that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction; so does North Korea, or for that matter, China. Nor, realistically, can it be that we're going to topple any government that promotes terrorism. Iran and Syria, through Hezbollah, are greater exporters of terrorism than Iraq.
Here we come to the nub of the left-wing objections to the current war. “We’re going to topple any government that supports terrorism” was the overriding theme of the President’s post-attack speech. Organized terrorism is a grave threat to civilization, and the President made the destruction of its safe havens and infrastructure a national objective. To Mr. Hunt that objective is a reductio ad absurdam. Why? Because it will be difficult? So were World War II and the Cold War. Because terrorism isn’t a real threat? The liberal commentators who used to say that before 9/11 have been strangely silent for the past eleven months. Because there is no way to preclude all terrorist acts forever? Demented ideologues like the Unabomber will always be with us, but we can eliminate, for the foreseeable future, highly organized, well-funded terrorist operations. (I’ve noted an historical parallel elsewhere.)
Under the rubric of “Region”, Mr. Hunt places fuzzy worries of “the devil you don’t know” sort.
The hawks say we should ignore worried rhetoric from much of the Arab world. These Arab leaders privately would love to see Saddam toppled but quickly and cleanly. . . . But the nervousness is palpable. Jordan's King Abdullah suggests an Iraqi invasion, before more progress on the Palestinian issue, is “ludicrous”. Privately, serious questions are raised about the king's ability to survive the potential backlash of such an action. Other experts see a pervasive uprising in the region. If so, would America then be willing to man the Middle Eastern oil fields to head off a world-wide oil-induced downturn?
Leaving aside the possibility (raised by an article in The Jerusalem Post) that King Abdullah is a traitor who does not deserve “to survive the potential backlash”, one cannot deny that Saddam’s overthrow might make the Middle East less stable (not that it is an oasis of serenity right now). The question is whether the collapse of other narrowly based, fundamentally (though sometimes covertly) anti-Western governments would be any kind of disaster. The worst case scenario is “a pervasive uprising” followed by the installation of narrowly based, overtly anti-Western regimes. That outcome would not be as good as the spread of economic freedom and democracy throughout the region, but it is only marginally worse than what we have now. In fact, a Saudi-controlled Arabia that subsidizes suicide bombers and churns out Islamofascist propaganda is perhaps harder to deal with than a Ladeni-controlled Arabia that tried to elevate the heir to the late Osama to the Caliphate.
Finally, we are warned that overthrowing Saddam will mean a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq.
To be successful, most experts agree, will take a concerted U.S. commitment after Saddam is toppled. Otherwise, chaos would ensue, producing even more dangerous instability in the region.
Indeed, there is a serious case that the U.S. should seek to turn Iraq into a cradle of democracy in a region where, apart from Israel, none exists. That laudable objective might pose a scary model for some of America's key allies in the area such as Saudi Arabia.
It also, Sen. Biden notes, would be a Herculean national-building task, “somewhere between” Bosnia and post-World War II Japan. Who would be the Iraqi-version of Douglas MacArthur, the fabled American general who fashioned the post-World War II Japanese system? This would entail billions and billions of American dollars and a lengthy stay. Nation building in Japan was a remarkable success; today, 57 years later, there still are American troops there.
Does Mr. Hunt seriously believe that the American troops currently stationed in Japan have any connection with “nation building”? That all will not go smoothly in post-war Iraq is not a daring prediction, but we need to compare the range of likely outcomes of a victorious war to those of porous containment. The prospect of a nuclear bomb exploding in Tel Aviv worries President Bush more than sending gendarmes and foreign aid to Baghdad for the next few years. As it ought to.
July 25, 2002
In the box introducing this section, I promise to give Mr. Hunt "credit for any wisdom that he imparts". After nine weeks, I have my first occasion to do so.
"Take the Cuffs Off Nunn-Lugar" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] makes a sensible argument about an important issue, the need to prevent enemy nations from illicitly obtaining nuclear, biological or chemical weapons from Russia's vast Cold War stockpile. "The threats from Saddam Hussein's Iraq look like a picnic next to the lethal arsenal lying around in Russia, much of it anything but secure." A recent visit by Messrs. Nunn and Lugar to the a major chemical weapons plant in Siberia found rows of lightly guarded shells containing the nerve gas sarin. One shell could, under the wrong conditions, kill 100,000 people, and this one plant holds two million shells.
"Nunn-Lugar" is shorthand for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, a law enacted in 1991 under which the U.S. pays for the destruction of Russian armaments, a task that is beyond the financial means of a country whose GDP approximates that of Belgium. A lot of work remains to be done.
Mr. Nunn estimates that with U.S. and Russian efforts, about 40% of the Russian nuclear material is now secure. That's the good news. That means that 60%, he adds, is "not up to the safeguards we deem essential."
Sen. Lugar lists other areas that deserve attention: the need to secure biological pathogens in Russia, shutting down plutonium-producing facilities, dismantling non-strategic submarines that can carry missiles and making reactors safer.
And it's still imperative to help those many Russian scientists who possess crucial knowledge. An example: the only two internationally-sanctioned repositories of smallpox are the Center for Disease Control in America and VECTOR, the state research center for virology and biotechnology in Siberia. The Americans were told about an Iranian delegation that recently came to see Russian bioscientists at VECTOR in the hopes of getting access to biological agents. They were rebuffed . . . this time.
Given these unreassuring facts, a strong case can be made for the Bush Administration's request for a permanent waiver of Congressionally imposed restrictions on the expenditure of Nunn-Lugar funds. Under the restrictions (which Congress last week waived through September 30th), new contracts for destroying Russian weapons (the work is performed by private firms) cannot be signed until Russia provides a better accounting of its arsenal.
There are good reasons to be suspicious of statements by the Russian government on military matters, but this is one of those times when the perfect is the enemy of the good. We should be forging ahead to neutralize all of the ex-Soviet arms that we can find. There will be time enough later to worry about whether all of them have been revealed.
July 18, 2002
Now and then the Democratic Party displeases Al Hunt by failing to embrace some trendy left-wing cause as enthusiastic as he desires. His latest tirade urges the Democrats to “At Least Be Purer Than Caesar” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], by which he means that some members of his party are so “impure” as to express heretical ideas about campaign finance “reform”.
The Senate Democrats' policy lunch today will feature a campaign finance reform debate between longtime advocate Fred Wertheimer and Bob Bauer, a prominent election lawyer and foe of reform.
One problem: Democrats supposedly have a clear-cut position on campaign reform: 95% of congressional Democrats voted for McCain-Feingold. A centerpiece of the party's 2002 political message is that it stands up to special interests.
What a terrible thing that Democratic lawmakers should listen to debate about an issue rather than march in lockstep with John McCain, Russ Feingold and Al Hunt.
The impetus to debate came from the Federal Election Commission’s regulations interpreting the McCain-Feingold Act. The commissioners declined to accept all of the interpretations of the law advanced by its architects, who are now in a serious snit. Senator McCain has been trying to hold up every one of President Bush’s executive and judicial nominations, even the few that Majority Leader Daschle is at last willing to unblockade, until the President agrees to replace one of the majority commissioners with the wife of a Feingold aide.
To Al Hunt, the FEC’s recalcitrant attitude can only be a symptom of moral corruption. He calls the Commission “discredited’ and “a lapdog for monied interests” that is trying to “gut” or “heist” McCain-Feingold and is guilty of “arrogant usurpation”. Since the commissioners are obviously corrupt, he sees no need to discuss the merits of their regulations. The substantive issues receive cavalier disposition:
In 4-to-2 votes, the FEC, overriding both its own staff and the bipartisan House and Senate architects of the campaign reform bill, has moved, as Fritz Mondale suggests, to "heist" the legislation by creating loopholes and drawing permissive interpretations in devising regulations. The FEC claims it's necessary to avoid calamitous, even criminal, consequences; one example they cite is that the supposedly fuzzy ban on federal office holders soliciting soft money might prevent them from even attending state or local party events.
Baloney. Politicians never are indicted for fundraising abuses. The Commission, long a lapdog for monied interests, is trying to craft the law "to their liking; that's not their job," notes Larry Noble, former FEC general counsel. It's "nonsense," he adds, that terms like solicitation are ill-defined: "The commission has worked with the definition of solicitation for more than 25 years with no real problems."
A reader who has not followed the controversy over the regulations will be left no wiser by Mr. Hunt’s reportage. He is muddling together two issues, on both of which the FEC’s position is far more reasonable than the McCain-Feingold alternative (which in each case the Senators were unable to have incorporated into statutory language - they are looking to the commissioners to reverse their inability to get their way completely in Congress).
The legislation generally bars candidates for federal office from soliciting “soft money” (funds used for activities peripheral to campaigning and subject to fewer limits than “hard money” donations). It allows state political parties to raise soft money. It also specifically permits candidates to attend and be featured speakers at state party fund raising events. The rather clear implication is that the ban on soliciting soft money does not apply at those events. That was the FEC’s view. To restrict candidates to asking for hard money at a time and place where others can legally raise soft money would place them in an impossible position and require the FEC to, in the words of Commission Vice Chairman Karl Sandstrom, “investigate what the candidate said as he worked the crowd” or talked to his dinner companions. The prudent course for office seekers who did not care to risk jail if they said the wrong thing would be to stay away from fund raisers altogether.
The Act prohibits soliciting soft money but does not define the term “solicit”. The commission staff recommended the definition “to request or suggest or recommend”. The commissioners instead settled on “to ask”. The former FEC counsel quoted in the column prefers no explicit definition at all.
Mr. Hunt’s rejoinder to the Commission is passing strange. By “Politicians never are indicted for fundraising abuses”, does he mean that the most draconian regulations possible should be adopted, since they won’t be enforced in any event? Or is his argument that politicians have been treated too leniently in the past, so there’s no need to be fair to them in the future?
It is odd, too, that Mr. Hunt should suggest that having no definition of “solicit” is the best approach. It was the absence of a clear definition that made it possible for a certain candidate to assert that there was “no controlling legal authority” prohibiting him from raising funds out of his executive office. While loyal Democrats may not mind that Al Gore got off the hook, it isn’t very consistent to call for strict election laws while leaving in place an escape hatch that has been used successfully in the past. (A defined term also helps to prevent abuses on the other side. The FEC’s definition will make it more difficult for overeager prosecutors to find “imaginative” ways to treat innocent acts as illegal solicitations.)
Much of the remainder of the column consists of further attacks on Democrats who are skeptical of “reform” and a vacuous denunciation of Democratic Senators who accepted trips to a conference in Nantucket on corporate jets. The incident shows that nothing that the Democrats do will alienate business lobbyists (many of them former Democratic staffers themselves) but is hard to get excited about, especially in light of the fact that the Democratic Party reimbursed the companies that provided the transportation. These bloviations can be passed over with as little comment as they deserve.
Finally, there is the usual slinging of mud at Republicans (also at accountants, casually labeled "bandits"), of which the most notable example is, “It's legitimate to question Mr. Bush's shifting explanations for his deals or hypocrisy in imploring reporters to check the Harken corporate or SEC records and then refusing to release them.”
All that has “shifted” is the President’s explanation of why he was late in filing an unimportant SEC form, and the shift is not all that damning: First he said that he left the filing to his lawyers and they filed on time, though the SEC lost the form, then that he left the filing to his lawyers and they botched it. Since Mr. Bush had no motive not to file on time - he had already informed the SEC that he was going to sell the stock - an innocent mistake on someone’s part is highly likely.
There is no need for the President to “release” any records to enable reporters to find out what happened in his sale of Harken Energy stock. The pertinent documents are available on-line at the Center for Public Integrity’s Web site [set one and set two]. Other, unreleased documents also exist, but those that have been made public show clearly that the rest of the SEC files contain nothing to indicate wrongdoing.
There is also a swipe at the Vice President. “It's also worth asking whether Mr. Cheney's now-dubious stewardship of Halliburton raises questions about his vaunted competence.” As pointed out elsewhere, the action that, in Mr. Hunt’s opinion, renders Mr. Cheney’s stewardship “dubious” involves a perfectly proper accounting change that increased the corporation’s reported revenues by one-half of one percent. If Al Hunt could increase the proportion of sense in his writings up to that level, we would have cause to rejoice.
July 11, 2002
If President Bush had proposed the death penalty for erring executives and an SEC the size of the Department of Defense, Al Hunt would still have shrieked, "Loud Words, Little Action" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only]. His preference is snarky words and symbolic action, in furtherance of the hope that the issue of "corporate corruption" will give "Democrats an opening for this fall's elections", and his "analysis" is aimed at stirring up populist resentment rather than doing anything concrete about real issues.
In Mr. Hunt's eyes, America is suffering from "systemic problems". The headlines that he reads tell of "accounting fraud and executive rip-offs causing massive layoffs and pension forfeitures", which is a bit hyperbolical. Companies like Enron, Worldcom and Global Crossing have suffered more from intense competition, unprofitable acquisitions and incompetent business strategies than from their managements' efforts to put an attractive gloss on results through accounting tricks. Meanwhile, the economy as a whole is growing, albeit more slowly in the second quarter than the first (whose six percent growth rate would be difficult to sustain). Were it not for the persistent bear market, it would be hard to find much to complain seriously about in the overall economic picture, and the weakness of stocks may be caused less by investor distrust of corporate accounting than by fear of what sledgehammers the government will wield in response.
To a soft-socialist like Al Hunt, however, capitalism is always in the midst of a systemic crisis. This time he dreams that the crisis has become visible to the electorate.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart believes the corporate issue itself may be a winner for his party this November, but, more importantly [sic], is the cumulative effect of shattered confidence in once-respected institutions: the FBI, the Red Cross, the Catholic Church, the Olympics, and business integrity. "It comes down to one simple theme, people feel this is a time we need checks and balances."
"Checks and balances" is a clever euphemism for "more government regulation" (Senator McCain has now started repeating it), but will the Democrats really win on a platform of "Everything's rotten, and the government can make it better"? Given a choice between the President's "view there are a few bad corporate apples" and jeremiads about a "systemic crisis", it isn't obvious that U.S. voters, mostly fond of private initiative and suspicious of the government's efficacy as a regulator, will listen to the latter.
In typical Hunt style, the column precedes criticism of President Bush's specific proposals with an inaccurate attack on his "tainted business background".
Whether he violated the spirit of the securities laws in his 1990 Harken Energy transactions obscures a larger point: Much of his business career, particularly the Harken directorship, was due to cronyism and family connections. He was put on the board of directors of this dubious energy company - this newspaper reported 11 years ago on its link to the sleazy international outlaw bank BCCI - to solicit foreign business while his father was president.
Mr. Bush was actually put onto the Harken board because Harken acquired his oil exploration company, making him a significant Harken shareholder. Maybe he tried to solicit overseas business, in hopes of increasing the value of his investment, but so what? The company itself was a bona fide enterprise. It had dealings with BCCI, but no evidence has ever suggested that it had any connection with the bank's criminal activities. The guilt by association is far-fetched even for Mr. Hunt. He is right to imply that the President's business career was not notably successful. Neither was Harry Truman's. Most contemporary politicians have never been in business at all.
Mr. Bush is incensed that a more than decade old story is being recycled. Remember Whitewater? A major difference was that the Clinton's lost money, while Harken Director George W. Bush pocketed over $300,000 by selling weeks before the company reported unexpectedly bad news.
Another major difference is that the Whitewater investigation led to a string of criminal convictions, including those of Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker and the Clintons' close business associates, Jim and Susan McDougal. Mr. Hunt never thought that such company tainted a Democratic President and First Lady. For Republicans his standards are infinitely higher. A reading of the pertinent SEC documents (well summarized by Byron York) shows that the events leading to the "unexpectedly bad news" occurred after Mr. Bush sold his stock and that, in any event, the news had almost no impact when it was released. A year later the stock price had doubled.
After that detour, Mr. Hunt proceeds to a grab bag of proposals that, in his opinion, the President ought to have made. All of them are Democratic rallying cries; few bear any relationship to any problem that exists in the real world.
"Mr. Bush didn't embrace Sen. Paul Sarbanes' legislation, mandating much tougher standards and conflicts of interest rules of [sic] the accounting profession." Senator Sarbanes' key proposal is that a government-appointed board, with a non-accountant majority, supersede the privately run Financial Standards Accounting Board as the formulator of generally accepted accounting principles. There would be argument for that step if Enron, Worldcom etc. had done their accounting in accordance with GAAP and had nonetheless been able to mislead investors. In every instance, however, the proper application of GAAP would have forestalled any fraud. FASB deserves not an iota of blame for the current mess, and it is stupefying evidence of how thoroughly liberals dislike the private sector that they would call for its replacement by a quasi-government agency.
"Mr. Bush does nothing about the blatant conflict of an accounting firm auditing and consulting for the same company or a stock touter who provides investment advice to the same company." As I've discussed elsewhere, the separation of auditing from consulting will hurt audit quality more than it will help. (Vide The Enron Mythos, 2/5/02 and 3/5/02.) I hope very much that I am wrong about that, for the Big Four have already divested themselves of their consulting operations. If the President had wanted to talk about those "conflicts of interest", there's not much that he could have done in his speech except pat the firms on the back. (The other conflict to which Mr. Hunt alludes - not too precisely; it involves the influence of underwriting relationships on stock recommendations - has nothing to do with the accounting scandals.)
"And he won't support a truly independent full-time oversight board for the discredited accounting industry." In addition to setting accounting standards, Sen. Sarbanes' board would possess draconian enforcement powers with minimal judicial oversight. The problems of a single accounting firm hardly suggest that the entire industry is "discredited". If they did, one would still hope for remedies that didn't make a shambles of due process of law. Mr. Hunt is, after all, highly solicitous of the rights of suspected terrorists. Accused accountants deserve at least as much consideration. After all, one man's accountant is another man's freedom fighter.
"He railed about sending corporate executives to jail, but punted on a simple approach: make corporate fraud in publicly traded companies an explicit crime. Now prosecutors have to use mail or wire fraud or other circuitous routes." This proposal has been unanimously approved by the Senate and seems likely to become law. As a matter of statutory housekeeping, it may be a good idea, but it is substantively meaningless. Prosecutors have no trouble drawing up indictments under current law. The fact that the statutes require the use of electronic communications or the mails as predicates stems from Constitutional limitations and is the reason for the names of the crimes. Changing the labels won't send anybody to jail who wouldn't go there under the present setup.
Mr. Hunt regards the President's proposed $100 million increase in the SEC's budget as inadequate, adding, with utter irrelevance, that "it's only half as much as Ken Lay got his last three years at Enron". Yawn. What's important is not how much money the SEC gets but what it does with it. If priorities are left the the Senate, I imagine that Senator Byrd will push through the construction of a new commission headquarters in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Joining a Democratic hue-and-cry, Mr. Hunt attacks SEC chairman Harvey Pitt. The sins imputed to him are that (i) he "initially promised a kinder, gentler SEC", (ii) he "has had to recuse himself 29 times for potential conflicts" and (iii) "he's lost the confidence of most Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill, of many investors, and of much of the agency's own staff". The crusade against Mr. Pitt has certainly been venomous, but it springs from the same source as numerous similar Democratic attacks against Bush appointees: To diehard Dems, Mr. Bush isn't the legitimate President, and his appointments are therefore objectionable per se. Mr. Pitt's performance in office was summarized by the Wall Street Journal (the liberal news staff, not the editorial page) in yesterday's paper:
Through the first three months of this year, the SEC opened 64 financial-reporting cases, up from 30 during the same period a year earlier [before Mr. Pitt became chairman]. In the past four months, the SEC has sought to strip four executives from ill-gotten compensation [<sigh> what ever happened to the Journal's copy editing?; surely the compensation was stripped from the executives], equal to all of last year. Since last fall, it has sought to bar 54 officers and directors from holding office in public companies.
At the same time, Mr. Pitt has stretched his existing authority using creative interpretations of SEC laws, like pressing fraud charges against Edison Schools Inc. for fudging its books even though it complied with generally accepted accounting principles. And he is expanding disclosure requirements, adding at least 13 new "significant events" that will require companies to disclose information to shareholders within 48 hours of discovery.
Almost every one of the scandals now making headlines originated during the term of Mr. Pitt's predecessor, whom Mr. Hunt hails as "the most effective and investor-friendly chairman in modern times", and was caught during Mr. Pitt's. That may be a coincidence, but Mr. Hunt would regard vice versa as significant.
Mr. Hunt concedes that "Symbolic scapegoats serve little purpose", then demands that the President engage in symbolic scapegoating of Mr. Pitt. Doing so would further hyper-partisan Democrats' goal of making it unpleasant to serve in the "illegal" Bush Administration but would be no boon to investors.
"Mr. Bush criticized ill-gotten gains but ignored the larger issue of runaway executive compensation. CEOs in America two decades ago made 50 times as much as average workers. Now they make more than 500 fold more." Mr. Hunt calls that discrepancy a "social equity outrage", an old leftist war cry, and attributes it to "incentives to artificially inflate stock prices" in order to profit from stock options. He does concede that the use of options as compensation has "the laudable intent to align the interests of investors and executives", thus missing out on the latest socialist shibboleth, currently becoming popular in Europe: that executives ought not to be concerned with maximizing shareholder value but should instead pursue goals different from those of the corporation's owners, should essentially become government overseers keeping the capitalists in line with "the common good".
There are two issues here: Do executives commit accounting fraud in order "to artificially inflate stock prices" for their own benefit, and would Mr. Hunt's favored remedy - charging stock option gains against reported corporate earnings - alter the current incentives?
The record on executives' motives is unambiguous: At Enron, Worldcom and elsewhere, the officers who engaged in dubious practices held onto the great bulk of their company stock instead of selling for a quick profit. In general, stock acquired by option exercises is not sold quickly, particularly not by the highest ranking employees. That is why the dotcom bust in 2000 left so many unlucky executives (including one future United States Senator) with huge tax bills for their option exercise gains and near-worthless shares whose sale wouldn't cover the taxes. Compared to investors like mutual funds, with their near-100 percent annual portfolio turnover, top executives have strong incentives to increase stock value in the long term, without short-term gimmicks.
The small minority of executives who want to exercise their options and get out quickly would not be discouraged from doing so by a change in how options are accounted for. There are fine theoretical arguments for expensing options (and not inconsiderable ones against), but it is simply a delusion to think that changing the rules would take away a motive for accounting fraud. What advocates really seem to hope is that fewer firms would issue options, since subsequent increases in stock price would depress profits with an ever larger compensation expense. Should that actually happen, the effect would be to reduce the effectively of compensation aligning the interests of management and shareholders. Alignment may be a "laudable intent" but apparently is not laudable enough for Mr. Hunt to worry about discouraging it.
In its final paragraphs, the column comes back to pollster Hart:
Voters don't usually vote strategically. But in seeking checks and balances, Mr. Hart ventures, that's where their impulses will take them.
"It's sitting out there," he proclaims, "for the Democrats to take advantage of."
Having no gift of political prophecy, I won't speculate on whether Democrats can or will take up this theme and carry it to success in November. What I do know is that Al Hunt - and, I suspect, most of the Democratic Party - haven't a clue about what is happening on Wall Street or how to approach it. Their own words are proof enough.
1. The lone exception is Edison Schools, which the SEC accuses of having inflated its revenues by including in income, with an offsetting expense, the salaries of the government-paid teachers at schools that it manages. The company argues that its treatment of this item is in accordance with GAAP and may be right, but the situation is so idiosyncratic that FASB's failure to foresee and provide for it is not a serious fault.
July 4, 2002
The Journal doesn't publish on Independence Day, so we are spared a Hunt column to comment on.
June 27, 2002
Just from the headline, "Welfare Reform Should Be About Kids" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], veteran Hunt connoisseurs can practically write the whole column. Sure enough, being "about kids" means gutting the work requirements enacted as part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. It's true that, even on Mr. Hunt's tendentious presentation of the evidence, Welfare Reform (up for reauthorization this year) has been a striking success. "Welfare rolls have dropped dramatically to 5.3 million from 12.2 million, and the overall poverty rate is down, including for children." But he has anecdotes to counter statistics, in this case the story of a 25-year-old single mother who, owing to the demands of finding a job, doesn't get to spend enough time with her family.
Ostensibly, Mr. Hunt is not against Welfare Reform in principle. His fire is directed at the bill passed last month by the House, under which states would be required, under pain of reductions in federal funding, to get 70 percent of their welfare recipients into the sort-of-full-time work force (40 hours a week, but up to 16 hours of that can consist of job training and other nonremunerative activities). Mr. Hunt calls this "a more punitive welfare system", but, unless one believes that work itself is a form of punishment, he does not make much of a case for that characterization.
His centerpiece is a young welfare recipient named Sandra Ashby, with whom he has conducted "an hour-long conversation":
Ms. Ashby, a 25-year-old single mother of three, has moved from job to job between welfare stints since the 1996 welfare reform bill was enacted. For her, there have been good and bad experiences. But for her kids it's been mostly bad: "I haven't been there enough for my kids," she says.
* * * *
Over the past four years she had gotten her GED, but has been stymied as she tries to get more education within the welfare-to-work system. Jobs have been erratic, low-paying and short-term; her one good one in a warehouse for $10.70 an hour ended when she came down with hives which doctors attributed to the dust. [Dust no doubt spread by wicked Republicans!]
She perseveres -- next week she'll start a nurses' aid training program which she found herself -- but there has been a toll on her kids. Her mother supplies most of the childcare. Of her four-year-old daughter, also named Sandra, she laments that with the new requirements "I wasn't able to raise my baby." And as her schedule and shifts change it's affected her eight-year-old son, Anthony: "He really is having problems in school and thinks I'm not there for him."
And what would Miss Ashby's life be like if she were not being pressed to work in return for her welfare checks? We aren't told how she has "trie[d] to get more education", but she doesn't sound like a top candidate for college. Absent work requirements, she presumably would stay home, getting no work experience and no training. Would that really be best for her children? Or would it merely give them a head start toward becoming part of the next generation of welfare dependents? As for their mother, it would surely be the falsest kindness to support her until her youngest child is grown up, and then thrust her into the world to make a living as a 40-year-old black woman with no employment history or up-to-date skills. The whole point of Welfare Reform is to halt the process that has made poverty almost an hereditary caste.
Mr. Hunt does not ask such questions. He does call up, in a helter-skelter fashion, research findings that indicate that children are better off if they have a parent at home round-the-clock. That is a highly plausible theory, but one cannot say that the Ashby children are worse off in this respect than millions whose parents are not on welfare. For instance, Al Hunt is himself married to a woman with a full-time job (CNN broadcaster Judy Woodruff), and they have three children.
Liberals widely predicted that the 1996 welfare reform bill would significantly increase poverty, even if the economy improved. In fact, their predictions were completely wrong. By 2001, the rolls for the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program had fallen by more than half, from over 5 million in 1995 to 2.1 million in 2001. In the meantime, the actual number of children deemed "food insecure with hunger" by the USDA had decreased by two million, or almost half, by 1999. The percentage of black children living in poverty had fallen from over 40% to just below 33%. Also, by 2001, the number of black children in intact families had increased by 4%.
Sandra Ashby's not-totally-heartrending saga frames a series of statistics that are intended to show that Welfare Reform has "hardly been the runaway success supporters claim" but merely demonstrate that it has not, all by itself, eliminated the problems of the underclass.
The reduction in welfare rolls and poverty has come, Mr. Hunt rightly observes, "during an unparalleled economic boom". How good of Mr. Hunt to extend credit to what he and his fellow liberals regularly disparage as "trickle down economics". It's true that prosperity has lifted all boats, but the economy did well prior to Welfare Reform, expanding steadily from 1983 on, with no interruption except for one of the shortest and shallowest recessions on record. Yet that pre-Reform period saw welfare and poverty grow rather than diminish.
". . . initial research shows the vast majority of former welfare recipients who get jobs earn poverty level or lower wages and experience little income growth." Is it surprising that people with limited education, poor job histories and, very often, negative attitudes toward work, not to mention other handicaps, don't leap instantly into the middle class? Entering the work force on a low level is better than never entering it at all.
"The poverty rate for children has declined, but it remains higher than twenty-five years ago, and higher than other industrialized nations. Almost one-third of African American and Hispanic kids live in poverty." Before Welfare Reform, that figure was 40 percent. The new system should be compared to what preceded it, not to utopia.
In 1996 Al Hunt (8/29/96), complaining about President Clinton's decision to sign Welfare Reform (after vetoing it twice), said, "even some Clinton insiders privately acknowledge [that it] is a disgrace". Hunt's own term was "mean-spirited legislation", though he feared that its "deficiencies" would be difficult to "correct", because it "will cost money to provide jobs, child care and drug treatment for those tossed off the rolls; honest welfare reform costs money in the short run." If Congress had heeded Mr. Hunt and his fellow ideologues back then, old-style welfarism would still be churning out misery. Not much of a reason to listen to them today.
June 20, 2002
"Needed: A National Debate on Iraq" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is an unexceptional sentiment, save for the fact that Al Hunt is looking not for a national debate but a national filibuster.
Mr. Hunt ostensibly believes that Saddam Hussein "ought to go" but not before we have engaged in a thorough public discussion of "how to achieve that and what it portends". He calls on Senator Biden to "revive the Fulbright role of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this fall with full-scale hearings on the Bush doctrine of preemptive strikes in general and on Iraq in particular". That call by itself suggests a certain reluctance to do anything about the Iraqi dictator beyond praying for his demise. The original "Fulbright role", let us remember, was to castigate America's "arrogance of power" and determinedly obstruct a defensive war against a tyranny at least as bad as Saddam's. Fulbright-like Democrats are more likely to seek ways to stop the war than to win it.
Significant, too, is Mr. Hunt's desire to apply Fulbrightian scrutiny to "preemptive strikes . . . on Iraq in particular". Does he seriously think that the U.S. can oust Saddam without striking the first blow? Are we supposed to wait patiently for a provably Iraqi-orchestrated terrorist attack against a major U.S. target? Mr. Hunt worries about "the probability that Saddam, facing extinction, would use his weapons of mass destruction, certainly his SCUD-type missiles with biological and chemical warheads and perhaps even crude nuclear devices" against U.S. soldiers. Should we wait until he launches them against our civilians before taking action?
The need for preemption in this case is not open to real debate, if one accepts the premise that Saddam "ought to go". Mr. Hunt's call for "full-scale hearings" on the matter suggests that he either has great difficulty connecting ends to means or does not in his heart agree that regime change in Iraq is vital to American interests. A clue to his true feelings may lie in his sneer at the motives underlying President Bush's choice of objectives:
As well as any policy imperative, the president's political manhood is at stake. Having drawn the line in the sand, he can ill afford to run for reelection with Saddam still a threat.
This is the language that one hears again and again from the left-liberal commentators who openly oppose anti-Iraqi moves: It all comes down to threatened masculinity and cynical political calculus. At least Mr. Hunt doesn't complete the triad by throwing in "Texas oilmen".
Assuming that Senator Fulbright, reincarnated in Joe Biden, takes up Mr. Hunt's summons to initiate a great debate, what are the questions to be debated? Mr. Hunt has four, all of the kind designed to paralyze rather than promote effective action.
1. "What are the consequences, intended and otherwise, of a new Bush doctrine?" Mr. Hunt refers to the President's "West Point Doctrine", that the U.S. will not wait to be attacked by terrorists before taking the offensive against them. For Mr. Hunt, that approach stirs up a host of shadowy doubts and fears:
Sandy Berger, National Security Adviser under Bill Clinton, notes that America has long reserved the right to preemptively strike against an imminent threat. "As a principle I have no problem with that," he says. "My concern is when it is elevated to a defining doctrine of American foreign policy. That can be counterproductive."
Mr. Berger, a major shaper of the most muddled foreign policy in our country's history, seems to have become no clearer a thinker upon leaving the government. In what way does the public announcement of a right that we have "long reserved" "elevate[ it] to a defining doctrine of American foreign policy"? Perhaps the meaning is that making the doctrine public deprives us of the element of surprise, but nothing can be done about that now. More likely, Mr. Berger's concern is that the President's public statements make it more likely that the U.S. will exercise its preemptive rights in practice rather than merely reserve them in theory. If so, his real quarrel is with preemption itself. The drift of Mr. Hunt's own thought is tolerably clear from the series of rhetorical questions that he next poses:
Does it erode a half century system of international laws and alliances?
If "America has long reserved the right to strike preemptively", presumably without eroding this "half century system", the answer to that question is a glaringly obvious "no". I somehow doubt, however, that "no" is the response that Mr. Hunt desires to evoke from his readers. To his mind, quite clearly, preemption has never been an American right, and Mr. Bush's claim to it undermines international law.
It would be nice if the noisy friends of international law would apply it now and then to America's enemies instead of solely as a constraint on U.S. actions. The Iraqi regime agreed to a cease fire to end the Gulf War in 1991, an agreement that it has flagrantly and repeatedly violated. That conduct is, in legal terms, casus belli enough. (Vide Lee A. Casey & David B. Rivkin, Jr., "We Have the Right to Oust Saddam".)
Will the other two legs of the axis of evil -- North Korea and Iran -- be the next targets? If, as the president says, supporting terrorism is a criterion, the Iranians back Hezbollah, which the CIA considers every bit as dangerous as al Qaeda.
Again, the answer should be obvious: Replacing the current governments of North Korea and Iran ought to be an American goal. Mr. Hunt, however, appears to regard the question as a reductio ad absurdam: Making "targets" of these hostile, terrorist-friendly regimes is not to be taken seriously; hence, we should rethink taking aim at Iraq.
Will this make it easier for other countries to justify responding similarly? What if China sees Taiwan as an imminent threat? Or what if in several years we see a more bellicose China as a threat? Would American threats of action make rogue countries behave better -- as in the case of Libya -- or serve a pretense for more aggressive behavior as in the case of Iraq?
Are we to suppose that mainland China is restrained from invading Taiwan by America's forebearance elsewhere in the world? Or that Saddam Hussein needs a "pretense for more aggressive behavior"? As for launching a preventive war against "a more bellicose China", that would certainly be justified if it could be done prudently, but American power is not infinite. A preemptive attack, like every other military tactic, sometimes makes sense and sometimes doesn't.
It is heartening to see Mr. Hunt's concession that "American threats of action" can "make rogue countries behave better", though Libya is a weak example. A spate of conciliatory words is hardly conclusive evidence that Colonel Gaddaffi has suddenly reversed anti-Western policies pursued for over twenty years.
2. "Is this a unilateral doctrine?" Mr. Hunt offers the shopworn liberal shibboleth that the U.S. shouldn't do anything important without the consent of other governments. He cites Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government:
A doctrine of preemptive actions can work with alliance and partners, he believes. This was driven home, Mr. Nye says, in a London session this week with top British foreign policy and defense officials. "If America just picks targets and acts, we're not going to get support, even from allies.But if we work to make a case the common threat exists, we will." On Iraq he describes himself as a "patient multilateral hawk," avoiding the risk that the "impatient unilateral hawks" would incur.
The not-too-hidden premises are, first, that allied support is essential to a successful operation against Iraq and, second, that the U.S. has a reasonable prospect of obtaining it by "mak[ing] a case [that] the common threat exists". Unfortunately, our allies, with the exceptions of Britain, Turkey and Israel, are militarily negligible. While their assistance would naturally be welcome, the United States cannot hope for victory over Saddam unless we have the strength to win on our own. France, Belgium and Canada won't tip the scales.
Yet more unfortunately, most of our allies have firmly declared their opposition not only to military measures against Iraq but even to maintaining the current, steadily more porous economic embargo. If our diplomats have not yet convinced their politicians that Saddam Hussein is a "common threat", how likely is success in the future? If we had waited for an allied consensus on expelling al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan, we would still be waiting. In practice, "patient multilateral hawk" is a functional synonym for "dove".
3. "Have these policy makers read The Guns of August?" Barbara Tuchman's fable in the guise of history is popular with leftists, because its moral is that wars are caused by preparation for war. Very few scholars today agree Miss Tuchman's view of the causes of World War I. Careful research in the Imperial German archives has shown that Germany went to war deliberately and knowingly, after weighing benefits against risks, just as Bismarck did in 1864, 1866 and 1870. The conflict was not the inevitable consequence of setting forces into motion that were beyond rational human control.
Supposing, though, that The Guns of August were the last word on the genesis of World War I, its lessons are not very instructive today. The world is not divided between two powerful blocs of nations that risk being toppled into war by a peripheral dispute between their lesser members. For his 1914 analogy, Mr. Hunt has to stretch a long distance:
[Former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke] notes there are four rings of crisis -- Iraq, the Middle East, Afghanistan and India/Pakistan -- "completely separate with their own history but with all the marks of interacting with each other." The religious, cultural, geographic and geopolitical interconnectiveness, Ambassador Holbrooke worries, poses "a spectacular danger." The now daily bloodshed in Israel is a gruesome reminder of this danger.
Exactly what this observation is supposed to lead to, and how a more passive American foreign policy would cause these "rings of crisis" to cease interacting, is opaque to me. Nor is it obvious that the four, each springing primarily or in large part from militant Islamism, were ever "completely separate".
4. "Apres Saddam, le deluge?" Timidity about coping with the problems involved in establishing a successor to Saddam's rule was, as Mr. Hunt does not mention, the primary reason why the first President Bush stopped Coalition troops short of Baghdad in 1991. Mr. Hunt now conjures up the same fear. He begins with the obvious. "Saddam is a brutal thug".Then comes the fatal "but":
But it does little good to replace one thug with a new set. The first Bush administration abandoned Afghanistan after the Russian-backed puppet dictator was toppled, resulting in the rise of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
Slipping in historical disinformation is standard Hunt technique. Maybe George H. W. Bush could have done more for Afghanistan, but what he did do was precisely what multilateralists like Mr. Hunt normally approve: He let the United Nations take charge of arranging a settlement. As a result of U.N.-sponsored negotiations, the leftover Soviet puppet Najibullah surrendered control of Kabul in April 1992. The peace process soon went the way of most similar U.N. efforts, but by then the U.S. had a new President. The rise of the Taliban, who occupied the capital in 1996, and their colonization by al-Qaeda all took place while Mr. Hunt's hero Bill Clinton was in office.
There follows a litany of potential post-Saddam dangers. A successor state "has the potential to be a new hotbed of violence and terror, unless there is a considerable international presence led by the U.S., an incredible challenge in nation building. It will take years, the cost will be billions and the result uncertain." A sharply weakened Iraq, on the other hand, risks leaving a vacuum to be filled by Iran, which could prove "more menacing than today's Iraq" (surprise, surprise).
That these risks are real is undeniable. There is not much point, though, in a great national debate about them now. Dispute about what the U.S. would like to see is minimal: Our goal is a competent, constitutional government with a pro-Western foreign policy, a market economy and no sympathy for Islamofascism. But until Saddam is removed from power, it will be impossible to know the configuration of forces in post-war Iraq or to judge what is feasible as well as desirable.
Mr. Hunt's chief purpose in dwelling on what may happen after Saddam is gone appears to be to cool enthusiasm for sending him on his way. That suspicion is confirmed when he continues:
There are other issues, including the probability that Saddam, facing extinction, would use his weapons of mass destruction, certainly his SCUD-type missiles with biological and chemical warheads and perhaps even crude nuclear devices. What is the response of the U.S. and Israel?
Then comes, without pause, an abrupt change of front:
This underscores why it's worth going after him: this is a dictator who not only possesses weapons of mass destruction but, unlike others, has demonstrated he's willing to use them. He is trying to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons, a horrifying prospect.
As Mr. Nye says, he ought go, but what's missing is an important national debate: how to achieve that and what it portends. That should begin forthwith.
No. What should "begin forthwith" is the despot's expulsion, before the "horrifying prospect" comes to pass. That work that will be hindered, not moved forward, if Democrats follow Mr. Hunt's advice on how to conduct "an important national debate". The debate that the nation needs is over how to assemble the resources needed to bring the present war to a successful conclusion, not a second advent of J. William Fulbright's rationalizations for abandoning Vietnam.
June 13, 2002
As political analysis, "Al Gore on the Comeback Trail" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] wavers between pedestrian and banal. What pundit hasn't decried the allegedly conventional wisdom (so conventional that it is espoused by practically nobody) that the former Vice President is washed up as a candidate? Mr. Hunt joins this chorus, declaring the all-but-certain Gore candidacy to be "good for the challenging party". His rationale: "either the former vice president learned lessons from his mediocre run two years ago, when he should have blown George W. Bush away, and is more formidable; or, the now 54-year-old Tennessee Democrat is unable to adjust his political persona and someone will defeat him, gaining credentials as a giant killer".
That reasoning could apply to any defeated nominee who tries again, but it is a rather thin motive for Democrats to welcome Mr. Gore to their primaries. By Mr. Hunt's own evidence, the man is not much of a giant. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds that, among the general public, 33 percent give him a positive and 36 percent a negative approval rating. Moreover, one can infer from his rating among Democrats (58 percent positive, 12 percent negative - the full poll results have not yet been published) that Republicans and independents give him a combined approval rating of about 20 percent, compared to 50 percent negative. For a man who was nearly elected President less than two years ago and has not been a cynosure of controversy since, those numbers, far worse than any other potential Democratic nominee's, portend unelectibility. Janet Reno's bid for governor of Florida offers a striking parallel. Her statewide approval/disapproval ratio is almost exactly the same, and she trails more than 20 points behind Jeb Bush in the polls, even though the incumbent's last year has been rocky.
It is presumably by applying lessons from the last campaign that Mr. Gore can escape going the way of Miss Reno. What are those lessons? Mr. Hunt suggests only this: "One of the glaring failures of his last campaign was the vice president's inability to separate Mr. Clinton's personal travails from the Clinton-Gore record; he seemed to run from both. In speeches now, he specially cites the accomplishments that he and Bill Clinton achieved." Otherwise, Hunt thinks that the current round of Gore speechmaking - left-liberal monologues delivered to left-liberal audiences - is just about right. The "sometimes disjointed criticisms of Mr. Bush in the last campaign - that he would squander the nation's prosperity and budget surpluses with irresponsible tax cuts, and ignore environmental and health care needs - will be the centerpiece of the campaign against the incumbent in 2004". For foreign policy, he proclaims that Mr. Gore has "the experience and maturity to be commander-in-chief", adding the observation - more than a little damning from the pen of a partisan Democrat - that he "is one of the few Democratic possibilities who easily passes that test". Left unmentioned is the substance of foreign policy. Is the Clinton-era pattern of random interventions in areas that happen to catch the President's eye what a nation at war is looking for?
The essence of Mr. Hunt's analysis is that candidate Gore needs to learn nothing except better style and greater reverence for the man under whom he served. If that turns out to be the prevailing opinion in the Democratic Party, George Bush will sleep easily in 2004.
The rest of the column is horse-race material that differs not at all from what one reads in a dozen other places, except for one item that I find cheering:
Also up for reelection in two years is Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. The political right has waged a vitriolic campaign against the South Dakotan and his wife; this hasn't dented his popularity at home but has offended him personally. Some supporters who've spoken with him recently suspect he may forego both a presidential and a Senate reelection race in 2004, bowing out of politics. That would be a double disaster, losing a valuable public servant and a victory for practitioners of personal vilification.
What did Democratic saint Harry Truman say about heat and kitchens? To call criticisms of Senator Daschle "personal vilification" is quite a stretch. The principal theme has been his crucial role in blocking the President's executive and judicial appointments. If that is not a valid subject for political debate, what is? That the Senator's wife is a high-paid lobbyist has inspired an occasional jibe, but a columnist who regularly accused Newt Gingrich of bribe-taking, embezzlement and tax fraud is in no position to complain about hyperbolic ethical accusations!
This week's verdict: merely mediocre. Dozens of college newspaper editors couldn't have been any more acute and penetrating.
June 6, 2002
This week Mr. Hunt accuses Attorney General Ashcroft, one of his perennial villains, of doing too little to thwart terrorism before September 11th - and too much thereafter. "The Unaccountable Attorney General" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] argues that "the attorney general considered counterterrorism a low priority" and thus should be blamed for the FBI's unprepossessing performance, then switches to denouncing the detention of suspected terrorists and the expansion of the FBI's authority to gather publicly available information about Islamofascist organizations.
Mr. Hunt starts with the reasonable point that, on the day of the attacks, much-criticized FBI Director Robert Mueller "had been in office seven days, his boss, the attorney general, had served more than seven months." Actually, it was a bit less than six months (Mr. Ashcroft was sworn in on March 18th), but that is a quibble. What is important is that, just as Mr. Mueller could not change the FBI in a week, six months is a very short time for a new attorney general to put new priorities into place. The Department of Justice throughout the first part of 2001 was still operating on the last Administration's budget and with many of its personnel. The refusal of FBI lawyers to authorize extracting data from Zacarias Moussaoui's laptop is a much publicized instance of the persistence of Clinton era habits. John Ashcroft had no way, between March and September, to provide more resources for counter-terrorism or, more vitally, to shatter the institutional lethargy that had built up over almost a decade. Colleen Rowley's now-famous memorandum chronicles longstanding bureaucratic practice, not defects that suddenly appeared in March 2001.
To read Mr. Hunt, one would think that the Justice Department had been pursuing terrorists vigorously under Janet Reno, then abruptly reversed course with the new Administration. He cites Miss Reno's occasional pronouncements that counter-terrorism was one of her "top tier priorities". Perhaps it was. A Congressional sycophant once called her "general-in-chief of the war against terrorism", but her record in that war was more like Braxton Bragg's than Robert E. Lee's. News accounts have reported abundant FBI bungling before 2001, after Miss Reno had been serving for years rather than months. If anything was done to hinder al-Qaeda's activities, it has escaped the notice of the media. (For discussions of what was and wasn't done while Miss Reno was in charge, vide the articles cited under the May 23rd entry.)
No one can claim - and Mr. Ashcroft, despite an insinuation to the contrary by Mr. Hunt (one of those casual, unsupported insults that pepper his columns) does not claim - that the attorney general took office with any idea that the country faced an imminent terrorist threat. Like practically everybody else in the federal government, he was complacent about radical Islamist capabilities. To that extent, he deserves criticism, but not singling out as especially culpable for our ill-prepared state.
That Mr. Hunt takes criticism somewhat further than is reasonable is not especially outrageous. What gives this column its peculiarly Hunterian touch is the final few paragraphs, which abruptly insist that Mr. Ashcroft is now pursuing terrorists too forcefully.
Since Sept. 11 the attorney general has thrown some 2,000 supposedly suspicious Middle Eastern men in prison, some for months, but has not indicted even a single one on a terrorist charge. Withholding information and secrecy are a way of life with the attorney general.
CAIR could not have put it more prejudicially. Does Mr. Hunt really believe that those arrested have been only "supposedly suspicious"? If they are innocent victims, why have they been unable to gain release through habeas corpus? Contrary to the left-wing myth alluded to in the paragraph's final sentence, no one is being held secretly incommunicado. All have access to lawyers and, if they so desire, to the media. As for indictments, the purpose of investigations at this stage is to gather information about would-be attackers and their plans, not to put al-Qaeda small fry on trial.
So is arrogance. Last week when he decided to let FBI agents roam around mosques and churches, without any "reasonable indication" of a crime -- overturning a more than quarter-century-old guideline promulgated by former president Jerry Ford and his attorney general Edward Levi -- he gave congressional leaders only two hours notice. That infuriated lawmakers like Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, whose anti-government conservative instincts were offended by the substance of the change.
Since the "more than quarter-century-old guideline" was purely a Justice Department administrative pronouncement, it is not obvious why rescinding it without notice to Congress constituted "arrogance". The executive branch does have its own article of the Constitution and is not required to get Congressional approval for its every act.
Mr. Hunt would no doubt have preferred that the new policy be delayed and diluted until it satisfied every member of Congress from Right to Left, thus postponing the day when FBI agents investigating terrorism would be allowed to visit public places and review publicly available data without special permission. The Vietnam era restrictions imposed on the politically impotent President Ford were intended to hinder law enforcement agencies from learning about the personnel and plans of radical groups. They have the same effect when applied for the benefit of Islamofascism. Mr. Hunt's desire to perpetuate them today shows the insincerity of his complaints that Mr. Ashcroft gave terrorism too little attention before September 11th. The only attention that Mr. Hunt will tolerate is rhetorical. Steps to do anything about our enemies are abhorred in direct proportion to the likelihood that they will be effective.
May 30, 2002
Some weeks Al Hunt is defamatory; some weeks he is vacuous. This week he is in the latter mode. The thesis of "Waiting for the Call" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is easy to summarize: Millions of idealistic young Americans want to perform unselfish service for others, but they can't, because the government won't tell them how.
After three paragraphs designed only to shower praise on the Left's favorite Republican John McCain, Mr. Hunt starts meandering in the general direction of a point, assuring us that, "Even before crisis, young Americans were more involved and interested in service than their parents' generation." The proof offered for this assertion consists of poll findings of dubious relevance, such as, "A clear majority of 18-to-30-year-olds finds the appeal of government service more to help people and make a difference while serving their community; five years ago the focus was on decent pay and job security." Maybe that means that youth are more idealistic. Maybe it means that the relative attractiveness of government employment's pay and job security has declined. Nonetheless, I'm willing to believe arguendo that a vast number of kids would like to do things to help others.
What I'm not willing to believe is that they can't and don't find opportunities to do so. Every day a multitude of charitable and educational organizations send out pleas for volunteers. An idealist who can't fill with service as many hours as he has to spare just hasn't looked very hard. Mr. Hunt cites a poll showing that three-quarters of college students engage in volunteer work in some form, but, not unexpectedly, that is his sole allusion to the private sector. To his soft-socialist way of thinking, people aren't being helped unless the government arranges for their succor.
On that score, he gives President "high marks for embracing expansion of the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps and promoting more volunteer service; poor marks for declaring a war on terrorism yet demanding no sacrifice, and for making service only a sporadic part of his presidency".
How much kudos the President deserves for his proposals to expand government-funded volunteerism is arguable. The Peace Corps at least serves a discernible purpose - fostering economic development through imparting skills to inhabitants of Third World countries - that perhaps cannot be carried out by the private sector (though churches and other private charities sponsor substantial educational activities abroad), but AmeriCorps is a redundant domestic boondoggle, frequently criticized by the General Accounting Office for its shoddy bookkeeping and lack of accomplishments. (Vide James Bovard, "Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps Horror", Kate O'Beirne, "Corps-Crazy", Tom McClusky, "National Service Programs Won't Serve Taxpayers".)
Without pausing to examine whether AmeriCorps does any good or usefully fills gaps in private philanthropy, Mr. Hunt endorses legislation introduced by Senators Bayh and (natch) McCain to expand it fivefold. He doesn't, in fact, seem to think that doing good is the purpose of the program. The objective is, in Senator Bayh's words, to "have service become part of the fabric of our society". Left obscure is how that goal is advanced by setting up a bureaucracy to pay young people for performing worthwhile tasks for which many of them now volunteer. Completely opaque is why, if youth are already brimming with eagerness to help, the government needs to lure them with cash.
Mr. Hunt does not elaborate very much on the President's negative marks. The evidence that he is "making service only a sporadic part of his presidency" is the fact that, according to another poll, "three-quarters of 18-to-30 year olds -- about half of college men or women -- were unaware of President Bush's call for every American to give 4,000 hours of their lifetime to service and [for] the creation of a USA-Freedom Corps". Is it possible that the President has weightier matters on his mind? By Mr. Hunt's account, exhortations to volunteer aren't needed for the 18-to-30 year age group, while the USA-Freedom Corps faces only minimal Congressional opposition. If more people knew more about it, it would probably have a harder time slipping through.
The charge of "declaring a war on terrorism yet demanding no sacrifice" gets no elaboration at all, except in the column's final paragraph: "Since Sept. 11 there has been much focus on what the country can do for us: tax cuts for the rich, farm subsidies, a blank check for the energy companies. It's time for the President to start asking instead what everyone, especially young Americans, can do for their communities and their country." There we have a neat encapsulation of the liberal idea that the object in warfare is not to win but to spread "sacrifice" ratably among all citizens.
Note that Mr. Hunt did not complain that the declaration of war against terrorism was not joined to a call for adequate resources to ensure victory. That is a complaint that we haven't heard, and are never likely to hear, from him. With the full approval of liberal opinion,the government is trying at the moment to win the war without any dramatic increase in either defense spending or military manpower. If the day comes when the President asks for a couple of hundred billion dollars and a million more troops, it will be time to debate how the cost should be divided between taxes and borrowing and whether conscription is needed to fill the ranks. Right now, there isn't a need for sacrifice, unless one sees an abstract virtue in imposing hardship for its own sake. That kind of virtue is what Mr. Hunt comes very close to commending.
May 23, 2002
“Why So Fearful of an Independent Inquiry?” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] Mr. Hunt asks, meaning, “Why hasn’t President Bush appointed an independent commission to investigate pre-9/11 intelligence failures?”
Naive minds might think that the answer is pretty simple: The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are already conducting a joint investigation, to which the Administration has been providing voluminous data and the testimony of pertinent officials (15,000 documents and 184 interviews so far). If the President is “fearful” of a redundant probe, the reason might be that there’s a war going on, and furnishing information to two, three, many committees takes time, energy and resources away from vital national concerns.
That answer is, naturally, not good enough for Mr. Hunt. His column all but ignores the inquiry in progress and proceeds as if the Administration were attempting to keep anybody from looking into why al-Qaeda’s murderous plans were not detected in advance and thwarted. The only two mentions of any investigation by Congress are, first, an assertion that the White House has pressured Congressional leaders not to conduct one (for which the only disclosed source is Senator Daschle) and, second, an off-hand statement that “the current congressional intelligence committees have seemed like the Keysone Kops in recent weeks”. The hasty reader is left with the impression that no one is looking into the matter at present and is thus prepared for the Hunt answer to his headline’s question: “Only crazies believe that George W. Bush, or anyone else in power, had prior information about September's terrorism and didn't act on it [a concession that separates Mr. Hunt from Cynthia McKinney and Thierry Meyssan]. . . . Yet the administration's actions suggest a cover-up.”
What is the President so eager to hide? “Most likely a political embarrassment; any investigation would show that terrorism, before Sept. 11, was a low priority for the Bush administration and that the president seemed incurious about the issue.”
Mr. Hunt never tells us how he knows in advance what “any investigation would show” or why a Congressional investigation won’t be good enough to show it. (Perhaps the word “any” was a slip.) Interestingly, both the New York Times and the Washington Post (not the Administration’s loudest cheerleaders) have reported that President Bush was sufficiently interested in the activities of Osama bin-Laden prior to September to order the CIA to prepare a plan for eliminating his terrorist network. According to the Times (12/30/01),
Administration officials say the president was concerned about the growing threat and frustrated by the halfhearted efforts to thwart Al Qaeda. In July, [Condoleezza] Rice said, Mr. Bush likened the response to the Qaeda threat to "swatting at flies." He said he wanted a plan to "bring this guy down."
The Post had already (12/22/01) reported the CIA's response to this Presidential desire, a $200 million a year program "to destabilize the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan" and "destroy bin Laden's organization worldwide".
The 9/11 attacks preempted that effort, but its existence is hard to reconcile with Mr. Hunt’s version of history.
Mr. Hunt’s thesis boils down to this: The President is covering up his pre-9/11 incompetence by leaving its investigation to Congress (one half of which is controlled by the most partisan and uncooperative opposition party since Senator Lodge’s “little group of willful men”) rather than hand picking his own investigative apparatus.
Once one removes the “cover-up” allegation, the argument reduces to the relative efficacy of Congressional committees versus Executive-appointed commissions. There the record is mixed on both sides. As Mr. Hunt notes, President Roosevelt set up an independent commission, headed by a Supreme Court Justice, to find out what went wrong at Pearl Harbor. That it wasn’t much of a success is shown by the fact that there were six later investigations (Oxford Companion to World War II, p. 872), of which the post-War Congressional hearings turned out to be the most fruitful. Also unencouraging are the Warren Commission (which found the truth but in such a slovenly fashion that it helped spawn the never-ending Kennedy Conspiracy industry) and, to take a very recent example, the President’s Council on Bioethics, which,as an intellectual forum, has turned has turned out to be about as valuable as “The Capitol Gang”.
On the other hand, the famous Church Committee assault on U.S. intelligence operations was arguably the greatest single American disaster of the Cold War, and Rep. Henry Gonzalez’ retracing of the Warren Commission’s steps was a farce.
There is no guarantee that any particular body chosen to study America’s past responses to terrorism will reach correct, or even rational, conclusions. It’s hard to avoid suspecting, though, that correct conclusions are not Mr. Hunt's primary interest. After all, he knows the answer already. His dismissal of the ongoing Congressional investigation hints at a fear that it won’t arrive at the same conclusion. An independent panel also isn't likely to agree with Mr. Hunt, but its composition and mandate are unknown at this point, so there is always hope. In any event, calling for its establishment presents an opportunity to shout “cover-up!” when the President doesn't go along.
APPENDIX: A characteristic feature of the Hunt Method is the insertion of nonfactual, marginally pertinent jabs at persons on the author’s very extensive enemies’ list, interspersed with similar bouquets for his liberal heroes. Here are some instances from this week’s column:
A lame attempt to catch Vice President Cheney (Mr. Hunt’s number one bugbear at the moment) in a contradiction:
When asked why the president didn't pay more heed to the Aug. 6 briefing about bin Laden's plans, he insisted it was merely a "rehash," that "it didn't give us anything new or anything precise or specific." A few second later this benign memo suddenly became malignant when Mr. Cheney was asked why it was not turned over to Congress: It contains "the most sensitive sources and methods . . . it's the family jewels," he said.
A report that contains no new information can, of course, reveal how and whence information is collected. Consider this hypothetical: “Our high ranking source in the leadership of the Palestinian Authority stated that Osama bin-Laden has frequently reiterated his intention to take further action against U.S. interests.” Nothing substantively new there, but I doubt that we would want that sentence to be broadcast to the world.
Rearguard defense of the Clinton team (always a Hunt priority):
It took several years and several incidents before the Clinton administration took terrorism seriously. The Bush administration reversed course.
If President Clinton ever “took terrorism seriously”, the evidence has vanished from the public record. His one-off cruise missile barrage against a deserted al-Qaeda training camp and a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory was his most visible anti-terrorist action. The CIA's efforts to keep track of bin-Laden's whereabouts and trace his bank accounts might eventually have borne fruit but don't suggest great urgency. They were, incidentally, continued and, after the usual fumbling that besets any new administration, stepped up by President Bush. (Vide Gabriel Schoenfeld, "Counterterrorism Before September 11th"; Andrew Sullivan, "The AWOL President"; Dick Morris, "While Clinton Fiddled"; Byron York, "Clinton Has No Clothes"; Bob Woodward, "CIA Paid Afghans to Track Bin Laden"; The New York Times, "Many Say U.S. Planned for Terror But Failed to Take Action".)
John Ashcroft (number two bugbear) is another inevitable target:
. . . and the now famous directive [sic] sent by the Phoenix FBI agent, Kenneth Johnson [sic - his name is Kenneth Williams], warning about terrorists using American flight schools. It was serious enough for Attorney General Ashcroft to start taking private jets last summer.
The reader is expected to infer that Mr. Ashcroft read agent Williams' report, took steps to ensure his personal safety and did nothing to protect the public. If that were true, it would be almost treasonous, but it is almost certainly false. The agent’s warning was dated July 10th and marked "routine". It apparently didn’t reach FBI headquarters until early September. There is scarcely any possibility that the Attorney General read and acted on it “last summer”. (Vide Bill Miller & Dan Eggen, "FBI Memo Author Did Not Envision Sept. 11", Washington Post, 5/23/02).