Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 13, 2012

Obama Entering a World All His Own

Barack Obama’s increasingly desperate struggle to win re-election is causing some of his worst traits to be put on display, including petulance and self-pity. The latest example occurred during a fundraiser in Baltimore, when the president said, “Because folks are still hurting right now, the other side feels that it’s enough for them to just sit back and say, ‘Things aren’t as good as they should be, and it’s Obama’s fault.’”

This is rich. No president in human history has quite equaled Obama when it comes to blaming others for his problems. And during the 2008 campaign, everything wrong with America could be laid squarely at the feet of President Bush. But now Obama, having presided over what at this stage must qualify as among the most inept presidencies in American history, is complaining because he’s being held accountable.

What is fairly astonishing in all this is the utter lack of self-awareness by the president. A jolting collision is occurring between his own self-conception (Obama views himself as a world-historical figure and Great Man) and the multiple and multiplying failures of his presidency. Obama appears incapable of processing the truth or coming to grips with reality. And so he’s spinning tales day after day, including his fantastic (and thoroughly discredited) claim that “Since I’ve been president, federal spending has risen at the lowest pace in nearly 60 years.”

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Barack Obama’s increasingly desperate struggle to win re-election is causing some of his worst traits to be put on display, including petulance and self-pity. The latest example occurred during a fundraiser in Baltimore, when the president said, “Because folks are still hurting right now, the other side feels that it’s enough for them to just sit back and say, ‘Things aren’t as good as they should be, and it’s Obama’s fault.’”

This is rich. No president in human history has quite equaled Obama when it comes to blaming others for his problems. And during the 2008 campaign, everything wrong with America could be laid squarely at the feet of President Bush. But now Obama, having presided over what at this stage must qualify as among the most inept presidencies in American history, is complaining because he’s being held accountable.

What is fairly astonishing in all this is the utter lack of self-awareness by the president. A jolting collision is occurring between his own self-conception (Obama views himself as a world-historical figure and Great Man) and the multiple and multiplying failures of his presidency. Obama appears incapable of processing the truth or coming to grips with reality. And so he’s spinning tales day after day, including his fantastic (and thoroughly discredited) claim that “Since I’ve been president, federal spending has risen at the lowest pace in nearly 60 years.”

Obama has now entered a world all his own. It’s a world where up is down, hot is cold, north is south, and Barack Obama is fiscally responsible and blameless.

In its own way, it’s a fascinating psychodrama that’s unfolding. Given that there are still 146 days until the election, it’s hard to imagine where the president will eventually end up.

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Syria Inaction Messier Than the Alternative

Last year’s Western decision to intervene in Libya prompted some debate, but the scale of the conflict and its fairly swift conclusion limited the debate to some extent. But the growing tally of atrocities and the thousands of casualties in Syria have necessarily amplified the arguments being conducted as both the United States and its European allies continue to stand aside from the fighting there. As the weeks go by and new outrages are reported, it is increasingly clear to even the optimists in the Obama administration that the Assad regime will not go unless they contribute materially–giving him the push. Consequently, the debate among informed observers about the wisdom of intervention is growing in intensity.

Among the loudest of voices opposing intervention is scholar Daniel Pipes, who writes in National Review to urge the West to stay out of the Syrian morass. While acknowledging the arguments that allowing civil strife there to continue might be dangerous, he argues that such a war might actually be in America’s interest so long as the U.S. doesn’t get dragged in. Walter Russell Mead is more equivocal about intervention than Pipes. But Mead writes in his blog at The American Interest that the humanitarian argument to be made on behalf of intervention is weaker than we think. Both make strong arguments, especially Mead, who acknowledges that there are no good answers here. He’s right about that, but the alternative of a long war there or an Assad victory is not an acceptable outcome.

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Last year’s Western decision to intervene in Libya prompted some debate, but the scale of the conflict and its fairly swift conclusion limited the debate to some extent. But the growing tally of atrocities and the thousands of casualties in Syria have necessarily amplified the arguments being conducted as both the United States and its European allies continue to stand aside from the fighting there. As the weeks go by and new outrages are reported, it is increasingly clear to even the optimists in the Obama administration that the Assad regime will not go unless they contribute materially–giving him the push. Consequently, the debate among informed observers about the wisdom of intervention is growing in intensity.

Among the loudest of voices opposing intervention is scholar Daniel Pipes, who writes in National Review to urge the West to stay out of the Syrian morass. While acknowledging the arguments that allowing civil strife there to continue might be dangerous, he argues that such a war might actually be in America’s interest so long as the U.S. doesn’t get dragged in. Walter Russell Mead is more equivocal about intervention than Pipes. But Mead writes in his blog at The American Interest that the humanitarian argument to be made on behalf of intervention is weaker than we think. Both make strong arguments, especially Mead, who acknowledges that there are no good answers here. He’s right about that, but the alternative of a long war there or an Assad victory is not an acceptable outcome.

Pipes is right to worry about the nature of a successor regime to that of Assad. Given what other so-called Arab Spring protests have led to elsewhere, his prediction of an Islamist government following the dictator is probably on target. And Mead does an excellent job of pointing out that the blowback from even an intervention that seemed as clean as that in Libya can be far greater than we think. The current troubles in Mali are a direct result of what happened in Libya, so the moral calculus there wasn’t as neat as some of us thought.

Mead is also correct that even the most successful of Western interventions will not give us a storybook ending. But as even he points out, the situation in Syria isn’t a purely humanitarian question. As much as he deplores the “Wilsonian” instincts of those of us who believe it is morally insupportable for the West to stand by and let thousands die when we can do something to stop it, he also understands that:

If we don’t act, others will. The arming of the Sunni opposition by Gulf Arabs, some with Salafi sympathies, will go on no matter what we think or say, and that is likely both to affect the balance of power within the Syrian opposition in ways we don’t like and to change what happens on the ground. At the same time, our strategic interest in pressuring Iran and in that way hoping to avoid a war between the U.S. and Iran makes the ouster of the Syrian regime a much more important goal than it might otherwise be.

Pipes’ arguments in favor of allowing a Syrian civil war to fester also are not convincing. Such a war might distract the bad guys there from committing enormities elsewhere as he suggests, but I also think he is way too optimistic about Iranians taking a lesson from Syria and starting a revolt against the ayatollahs. Nor do I believe that the blowback from Assad’s reign of terror will channel much Middle Eastern outrage against Moscow and Beijing even though it would be well-deserved.

The main argument in favor of action isn’t purely humanitarian, and it rests not so much on what we think will happen as a result of our intervention. Rather, it rests on what will happen if we don’t. Assad’s survival will mean not just more Syrian slaughter but will be a huge victory for his Iranian allies that will strengthen their position enormously. One way or another, the West needs to prevent that from happening. The reasons for not doing something about Syria are like those for not doing something about the Iranian nuclear threat. The consequences of intervention will be messy and possibly awful. Yet the alternative is far worse.

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McGurk Put Through Nomination Ringer

No one who has read Allen Drury’s great novel, Advise and Consent, or seen the movie, can be surprised by how sordid Washington confirmation battles can get. Nevertheless, I am dismayed to see the treatment being accorded Brett McGurk, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Baghdad, whom I met during his days as a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

McGurk is a controversial choice for U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He is young (39-years-old), he is not a Foreign Service officer, and he is not an Arabist. Rather, he is a former NSC official under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama whose experience in Iraq extends from 2004 to last year. He spent much of 2004 working for the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. embassy, and he returned frequently thereafter as an NSC official under Bush and subsequently as an outside adviser working alongside the U.S. ambassador. McGurk was an early supporter of the surge and had a central role in the negotiation of both the status of force agreement in 2008 (successful) and the one last year (unsuccessful). Critics claim he is too close to Prime Minister Maliki; the opposing Iraqiyah coalition has even come out against McGurk’s nomination, which could limit his effectiveness were he to be confirmed.

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No one who has read Allen Drury’s great novel, Advise and Consent, or seen the movie, can be surprised by how sordid Washington confirmation battles can get. Nevertheless, I am dismayed to see the treatment being accorded Brett McGurk, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Baghdad, whom I met during his days as a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

McGurk is a controversial choice for U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He is young (39-years-old), he is not a Foreign Service officer, and he is not an Arabist. Rather, he is a former NSC official under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama whose experience in Iraq extends from 2004 to last year. He spent much of 2004 working for the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. embassy, and he returned frequently thereafter as an NSC official under Bush and subsequently as an outside adviser working alongside the U.S. ambassador. McGurk was an early supporter of the surge and had a central role in the negotiation of both the status of force agreement in 2008 (successful) and the one last year (unsuccessful). Critics claim he is too close to Prime Minister Maliki; the opposing Iraqiyah coalition has even come out against McGurk’s nomination, which could limit his effectiveness were he to be confirmed.

But his confirmation appears increasingly embattled not because of his policy views but because of the recent leaks of salacious emails he exchanged with Gina Chon, a Wall Street Journal reporter, while he was stationed in Baghdad and she was covering the story. (Both were reportedly married to other people at the time and are now married to each other.) Chon has lost her Wall Street Journal job because she did not disclose the relationship to her editors, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has put off a vote on McGurk’s nomination, even though, as the Washington Post notes, “the e-mails don’t indicate that McGurk actually shared any sensitive information with Chon.”

Unless there is more to this story than is apparent at first blush, it appears that McGurk is being put through the ringer because of his private life—not because he is unqualified for the job or because his professional conduct has been thrown into serious doubt.

The members of the Senate do not necessarily have to share the judgment of Ryan Crocker, Chris Hill and James Jeffrey—the last three ambassadors to Iraq, all of whom worked closely with McGurk and who have just released a letter offering their “strongest possible endorsement of Brett’s nomination”—but they do at least owe McGurk an up or down vote rather than simply letting his nomination disappear in a morass of innuendo and gossip. And if the senators are worried about leaks, as they should be, they should focus on whoever it was who got access to McGurk’s private emails and leaked them for all the world to read.

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Why Did DOJ Appoint Two Prosecutors for Leak Investigation?

Why did the Department of Justice appoint two prosecutors to lead its leak investigations? That’s the question Sen. Jon Kyl asked Eric Holder during his testimony at yesterday’s Senate Judiciary hearing. Holder gave a hopelessly vague and evasive answer, but Kyl’s question is worth asking again, given what we know about the two U.S. Attorneys.

One of these prosecutors, Ronald Machen, is an Obama appointee who donated $4,350 to the Obama campaign, as the blog Fire Andrea Mitchell pointed out. The other is a holdover Bush appointee, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein.

So one Bush appointee and one Obama donor should balance each other out, right? Actually, no — not necessarily. The DOJ has opened two separate leak investigations with different scopes, and the prosecutors could be asked to lead them separately.

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Why did the Department of Justice appoint two prosecutors to lead its leak investigations? That’s the question Sen. Jon Kyl asked Eric Holder during his testimony at yesterday’s Senate Judiciary hearing. Holder gave a hopelessly vague and evasive answer, but Kyl’s question is worth asking again, given what we know about the two U.S. Attorneys.

One of these prosecutors, Ronald Machen, is an Obama appointee who donated $4,350 to the Obama campaign, as the blog Fire Andrea Mitchell pointed out. The other is a holdover Bush appointee, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein.

So one Bush appointee and one Obama donor should balance each other out, right? Actually, no — not necessarily. The DOJ has opened two separate leak investigations with different scopes, and the prosecutors could be asked to lead them separately.

Here is why this could pose a problem. So far, we have no official word on which leaks each of these probes will be looking into — remember, there have been multiple leaks recently, including the drone “Kill List,” the Flame cyberattack, and the al-Qaeda affiliate story. Will one prosecutor be investigating the Flame story, while another looks into the al-Qaeda Yemen disclosure? We don’t know, and Holder has refused to say.

But, based on a recent Wall Street Journal report, it appears that neither of the two DOJ investigations include the New York Times’s “Kill List” story — the most overtly political and pro-Obama article out of the bunch. Lawfare Blog’s Jack Goldstein draws this conclusion:

If the WSJ is right, it would appear that the investigations do not concern leaks about drone attacks and related matters that, like leaks about the Iranian cyber-operation and the AQAP infiltration, have been the subject of recent congressional complaint.  That would make the leak investigations relatively narrow, and would be relatively good news for the White House since, according to Daniel Klaidman’s book and other indications, some White House officials have participated in disclosure of some of the classified information related to drone attacks.

The Journal reports that one of the investigations is focused on the al-Qaeda Yemen affiliate story, and the other is on the Iranian cyberattack story.

It seems unlikely that the al-Qaeda informant leak was politically motivated, even if it was put out there by high-level administration officials. But the Times’s Iranian cyberattack story was a different beast altogether. From the headline to the Situation Room details, the leaks were clearly a) from top administration officials, and b) intended to make Obama look as good as possible.

In other words, the Iranian cyberattack investigation seems much, much more likely to uncover damaging revelations about the White House than the al-Qaeda informant probe. The question is, will both prosecutors be leading the Iranian cyberattack probe? And if not, which one will the DOJ put in charge of it — the Bush appointee or the Obama donor?

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Is the AFL-CIO Bailing on Obama?

Payback for President Obama’s decision to refuse to get personally involved in the Wisconsin recall fight may not be long in coming. U.S. News reports that the AFL-CIO will “redeploy funds away from political candidates” in the coming campaign in favor of spending on strengthening the union movement’s infrastructure. The magazine’s Washington Whispers blog quotes a spokesman as saying that this will mean a drastic cut in donations to candidates including the man at the head of the Democratic ticket, but that “this will not be a slight to President Obama.”

This is, as the magazine points out, a major policy change for the organization that once provided much of the money and the muscle for the Democrats’ national campaigns. But whether it is being done out of spite or, as is entirely possible, merely a recognition that the shrinking union movement needs to concentrate its dwindling resources on keeping itself alive, it must be considered a blow to a Democratic campaign that has already found itself facing a Republican presidential campaign that may be able to match the president’s ability to raise money. Either way, it is just one more sign that the Democrats will not be enjoying the same fundraising advantage in 2012 that they had in 2008. It also means that the AFL-CIO is conceding that its days as a national political force to be reckoned with are finished.

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Payback for President Obama’s decision to refuse to get personally involved in the Wisconsin recall fight may not be long in coming. U.S. News reports that the AFL-CIO will “redeploy funds away from political candidates” in the coming campaign in favor of spending on strengthening the union movement’s infrastructure. The magazine’s Washington Whispers blog quotes a spokesman as saying that this will mean a drastic cut in donations to candidates including the man at the head of the Democratic ticket, but that “this will not be a slight to President Obama.”

This is, as the magazine points out, a major policy change for the organization that once provided much of the money and the muscle for the Democrats’ national campaigns. But whether it is being done out of spite or, as is entirely possible, merely a recognition that the shrinking union movement needs to concentrate its dwindling resources on keeping itself alive, it must be considered a blow to a Democratic campaign that has already found itself facing a Republican presidential campaign that may be able to match the president’s ability to raise money. Either way, it is just one more sign that the Democrats will not be enjoying the same fundraising advantage in 2012 that they had in 2008. It also means that the AFL-CIO is conceding that its days as a national political force to be reckoned with are finished.

The timing of the announcement is bound to feed into speculation that the unions are mad about the president’s wise decision not to waste any of his own political capital on the Wisconsin recall. In the closing weeks of that campaign, the White House rightly saw that there was much to lose and little to gain from a presidential campaign stop in Wisconsin to bolster the flagging effort to oust Republican Governor Scott Walker. Though he was rightly mocked for only contributing a solitary tweet of encouragement to Walker’s opponent, no amount of presidential involvement would have saved the unions from their foolish desire to exact revenge on Walker for his successful campaign to cut back their ability to hold the state hostage in contract negotiations.

But even without the anger about their loss in Wisconsin, the AFL-CIO’s decision marks a sea change in the way our national campaigns are fought. In past decades, the union movement was a central, if not the major player in organizing Democratic presidential campaigns. The Democrats are no longer solely dependent on big labor, and they also understand that the price paid for too much help can be politically expensive. Nevertheless, the unions remain an important part of the Democrat coalition, and if they have decided to stop being players in electoral politics, the void they are leaving behind will be difficult to fill.

Though President Obama will probably not miss the union money too much, other candidates further down on the Democratic ticket will. It’s one more sign that a difficult election year just got a bit tougher for the president and his party.

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Romney Now Leading Obama in Wisconsin

That was fast. Exit polling from last week’s Wisconsin recall election had already showed the state shifting from Obama’s column into toss-up territory, and now Rasmussen’s latest poll actually has Romney with a slight lead:

Mitt Romney now leads President Obama for the first time in Wisconsin where the president’s support has fallen to its lowest level to date.

The latest Rasmussen Reports statewide telephone survey of Likely Voters shows Romney with 47 percent of the vote to Obama’s 44 percent. Five percent prefer some other candidate, and four percent are undecided.

That lead is still within the poll’s 4.5 percent margin of error, but it is the latest sign that Wisconsin — a must-win state for Obama — is in play for November.

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That was fast. Exit polling from last week’s Wisconsin recall election had already showed the state shifting from Obama’s column into toss-up territory, and now Rasmussen’s latest poll actually has Romney with a slight lead:

Mitt Romney now leads President Obama for the first time in Wisconsin where the president’s support has fallen to its lowest level to date.

The latest Rasmussen Reports statewide telephone survey of Likely Voters shows Romney with 47 percent of the vote to Obama’s 44 percent. Five percent prefer some other candidate, and four percent are undecided.

That lead is still within the poll’s 4.5 percent margin of error, but it is the latest sign that Wisconsin — a must-win state for Obama — is in play for November.

At the National Journal, Josh Kraushaar paints a gloomy electoral picture for the Obama campaign if it loses the Rust Belt. The campaign’s focus on winning the Hispanic vote was designed with Florida and the southwest states in mind. But that strategy assumed that Obama would hold on to Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania:

For much of the presidential campaign, President Obama’s top strategists have outlined their numerous paths to 270 electoral votes: win Florida, sweep the Southwest, or pick off a Southern state or two. But they didn’t prepare for the possibility that working-class white voters in the Rust Belt could abandon the president en masse, throwing his well-laid plans into disarray.

With the economy struggling to pick up steam, three must-win “blue-wall” states are looking increasingly winnable for the Romney campaign: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Both election results (from the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall) and reputable polling show that all three states are shaping up to be highly competitive, and that both campaigns will be devoting significant resources there.

Now that the campaign will have to devote more resources to the Rust Belt, that limits the impact it can have in Florida and the southwest. The Obama campaign increasingly looks like the crew on a sinking boat, trying to patch one leak as two more spring up behind their backs.

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Adelson Ponies Up for Romney

Casino owner Sheldon Adelson became the symbol of what liberals think is the abuse of the campaign finance system this past winter when he and his wife donated $21 million to the failing presidential campaign of their friend Newt Gingrich. Some on the left even floated the preposterous idea that the pro-Israel billionaire had influenced Gingrich to support the Jewish state even though the former Speaker of the House had a record on the issue that long preceded his connection with Adelson. The intense focus on the Adelsons faded after they pulled the plug on Gingrich, but liberal bashers of the couple will get a new reason to scream after reading this report in the Wall Street Journal. According to the Journal, the Adelsons have given $10 million to a pro-Romney PAC that appears to be the largest single donation to the Republican’s campaign.

Left-wingers and those opposed to Israel will highlight these donations as proof of either the undue influence of the wealthy on our political system or another instance of the fabled pro-Israel lobby manipulating American foreign policy. But while the Adelsons’ contributions are certainly impressive, they are no more sinister than those of left-wing magnates like George Soros or the way the pro-Arab oil lobby throws its cash around. More to the point, despite the effort to paint the couple as somehow being the Republican puppet masters, their participation in the campaign proves just the opposite. Their money may give the ideas and the candidates they like a hearing, but they can’t buy an election.

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Casino owner Sheldon Adelson became the symbol of what liberals think is the abuse of the campaign finance system this past winter when he and his wife donated $21 million to the failing presidential campaign of their friend Newt Gingrich. Some on the left even floated the preposterous idea that the pro-Israel billionaire had influenced Gingrich to support the Jewish state even though the former Speaker of the House had a record on the issue that long preceded his connection with Adelson. The intense focus on the Adelsons faded after they pulled the plug on Gingrich, but liberal bashers of the couple will get a new reason to scream after reading this report in the Wall Street Journal. According to the Journal, the Adelsons have given $10 million to a pro-Romney PAC that appears to be the largest single donation to the Republican’s campaign.

Left-wingers and those opposed to Israel will highlight these donations as proof of either the undue influence of the wealthy on our political system or another instance of the fabled pro-Israel lobby manipulating American foreign policy. But while the Adelsons’ contributions are certainly impressive, they are no more sinister than those of left-wing magnates like George Soros or the way the pro-Arab oil lobby throws its cash around. More to the point, despite the effort to paint the couple as somehow being the Republican puppet masters, their participation in the campaign proves just the opposite. Their money may give the ideas and the candidates they like a hearing, but they can’t buy an election.

Contrary to the notion that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is destroying democracy, letting people put their money where their mouths are only creates more political speech. It doesn’t guarantee any outcome. All of the Adelsons’ money couldn’t convince the public Newt Gingrich was ready for the White House. And even though the Journal says the couple plan on donating more than $100 million to conservative causes and candidates, it isn’t likely that they can buy office for anyone else either. What they can do, however, is to help ensure that the beliefs they cherish — principally support for Israel — are not drowned out in the chaos of the electoral hurly burly. The willingness of the Adelsons to pony up for Romney also makes it a given that unlike in 2008, the Obama campaign’s financial juggernaut will not dominate the airwaves.

The Adelsons are also sending an important signal to other conservatives about the need to rally around the winner of the GOP nomination. There were many predictions that a Romney victory would alienate the Republican base and cause contributors to his rivals to sit out the general election. But the decision of the Adelsons to go all in on the Romney campaign is just one more indication that Republicans are uniting behind their nominee.

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4 in 10 Liberals Hold Anti-Mormon Bias

Pundits have speculated that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism may hurt him with some Christian conservatives, but it appears that anti-Mormon prejudice is actually on the rise among liberals more than any other group. BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins flagged a new academic study out of the University of Sydney that found liberal anti-Mormonism has skyrocketed since 2007:

According to the paper, concern about Mormonism has remained relatively stable among evangelicals, with 36 percent expressing aversion to an LDS candidate in 2007 and 33 percent doing so in 2012. But among non-religious voters, that number shot up 20 points in the past five years, from 21 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in February. There were also substantial increases in Mormon-averse voters among liberals — 28 percent in 2007 and 43 percent in 2012 — as well as moderates, who went from 22 percent in 2007 to 32 percent this year.

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Pundits have speculated that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism may hurt him with some Christian conservatives, but it appears that anti-Mormon prejudice is actually on the rise among liberals more than any other group. BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins flagged a new academic study out of the University of Sydney that found liberal anti-Mormonism has skyrocketed since 2007:

According to the paper, concern about Mormonism has remained relatively stable among evangelicals, with 36 percent expressing aversion to an LDS candidate in 2007 and 33 percent doing so in 2012. But among non-religious voters, that number shot up 20 points in the past five years, from 21 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in February. There were also substantial increases in Mormon-averse voters among liberals — 28 percent in 2007 and 43 percent in 2012 — as well as moderates, who went from 22 percent in 2007 to 32 percent this year.

Some liberals might argue that this negative view of Mormonism is a response to perceived Mormon intolerance on the gay marriage issue. But it seems to go beyond that. It’s hard to imagine any other religious belief of a presidential candidate being mocked in the same way Romney’s Mormonism has been. There is an undercurrent of hostility in the ridicule that is troubling.

Is this a trend to be worried about? Any rising religious or racial prejudice is always a concern, but it seems as if there are certain ideas in anti-Mormonism that could become problematic. The theory that Mormons are plotting a theocratic takeover under Romney — an idea that the New York Times gave a disgraceful dog whistle to in an op-ed today — resembles other conspiracy theories about religious minority groups that have been used to justify persecution in the past.

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Yes, Conservatives Criticized Reagan Too

What do you call a forum during which two people holding different opinions argue their respective cases in an attempt to win over the audience? Conservatives rightly call this a “debate.” But according to Dana Milbank, liberals have another term: “show trial.” That’s what Milbank called a debate this week between Norm Ornstein and Steve Hayward hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. The topic was whether Ornstein was correct about the modern Republican Party’s supposed historic intransigence.

It’s telling that the free flow of ideas makes liberals so uncomfortable. That is one aspect of the larger point Milbank was making, which is that in his opinion Jeb Bush’s recent comments on the difficulty his father and Ronald Reagan would have in today’s GOP were spot-on. But what did Jeb Bush say that Milbank found so damning? Here it is, from his column:

“Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party . . . as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground,” Bush said Monday in a meeting at Bloomberg headquarters in New York, according to the online publication Buzzfeed.

“Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time — they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support,” Bush added. Reagan today “would be criticized for doing the things that he did.”

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What do you call a forum during which two people holding different opinions argue their respective cases in an attempt to win over the audience? Conservatives rightly call this a “debate.” But according to Dana Milbank, liberals have another term: “show trial.” That’s what Milbank called a debate this week between Norm Ornstein and Steve Hayward hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. The topic was whether Ornstein was correct about the modern Republican Party’s supposed historic intransigence.

It’s telling that the free flow of ideas makes liberals so uncomfortable. That is one aspect of the larger point Milbank was making, which is that in his opinion Jeb Bush’s recent comments on the difficulty his father and Ronald Reagan would have in today’s GOP were spot-on. But what did Jeb Bush say that Milbank found so damning? Here it is, from his column:

“Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party . . . as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground,” Bush said Monday in a meeting at Bloomberg headquarters in New York, according to the online publication Buzzfeed.

“Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time — they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support,” Bush added. Reagan today “would be criticized for doing the things that he did.”

Chilling, I know. Reagan would be criticized. Talk about Stalinism! It’s fair to say, then, that liberal reaction to Bush’s comments has been disproportionate to their content. It’s hard to imagine conservatives criticizing Reagan–unless, of course, you were alive during the Reagan administration. Here’s just one of many examples, from the L.A. Times, to which Richard Viguerie ran down a list of a few things conservatives were upset with Reagan about: “abortion, pornography, busing and economic issues, but at the core of the criticism is anti-communism. Across the board he seems to be deserting his anti-communist position he has had for the last 30 years.”

The headline on the story was “Reagan Seeks to Calm His Right-Wing Critics.” Both liberals and conservatives have taken some poetic license during the years with Reagan’s legacy. But Reagan was criticized. He responded to the criticism. The right engaged in a debate. There was plenty of disagreement, yet Reagan continues to be lionized by conservatives who, unlike Milbank and the left, aren’t terrified by the clash of ideas.

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The Wages of Global Détente

A foreign policy that stands for nothing but easing tensions is yielding some very tense results. As Max notes, Russia is reportedly sending attack helicopters to Syria for Bashar al-Assad to better mow down Syrians. Hillary Clinton responded by describing the development. The shipment “will escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” she said, and registered “concern.”

There are indeed multiple reasons to be concerned—even if you’ve decided that population slaughter is no longer any of America’s business. Vladimir Putin has used the Obama administration’s reset policy as an opportunity to elevate himself and humiliate America before the world. He is positively giddy about his good fortune. When the U.S. approached him to help ease Assad out of power he responded by arming Assad instead. He had three perfectly good reasons for doing this. First, Assad is his client (as this shipment demonstrates). Second, he and Assad are autocrats up against local manifestations of a global anti-autocratic revolt. Squelching such revolt in one place makes it easier to dampen it in the next. Three, going bold in Syria where the United States fears to tread gives him a much-needed boost at home. This is especially true among members of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church who fear an anti-Christian explosion in a post-Assad Syria. Needless to say, Syria is Iran’s closest ally. With additional boosts from Russia and no counter move from the U.S., there’s no reason to think Assad can’t put down the rebellion and survive as the mullahs’ link to the Mediterranean.

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A foreign policy that stands for nothing but easing tensions is yielding some very tense results. As Max notes, Russia is reportedly sending attack helicopters to Syria for Bashar al-Assad to better mow down Syrians. Hillary Clinton responded by describing the development. The shipment “will escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” she said, and registered “concern.”

There are indeed multiple reasons to be concerned—even if you’ve decided that population slaughter is no longer any of America’s business. Vladimir Putin has used the Obama administration’s reset policy as an opportunity to elevate himself and humiliate America before the world. He is positively giddy about his good fortune. When the U.S. approached him to help ease Assad out of power he responded by arming Assad instead. He had three perfectly good reasons for doing this. First, Assad is his client (as this shipment demonstrates). Second, he and Assad are autocrats up against local manifestations of a global anti-autocratic revolt. Squelching such revolt in one place makes it easier to dampen it in the next. Three, going bold in Syria where the United States fears to tread gives him a much-needed boost at home. This is especially true among members of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church who fear an anti-Christian explosion in a post-Assad Syria. Needless to say, Syria is Iran’s closest ally. With additional boosts from Russia and no counter move from the U.S., there’s no reason to think Assad can’t put down the rebellion and survive as the mullahs’ link to the Mediterranean.

It’s one thing for the United States to implement bad policies; it’s another to approach the perfectly wrong people on a given issue and ask them to do something they’d never do in a billion years. The one-way reset policy has proved to be the mistake that keeps spoiling. Putin’s got Barack Obama’s number. He knows the United States is out of the superpower game and is now testing the limits of unfettered cynical realism.

The reset must be coupled with the Obama administration’s Libyan lead-from-behind strategy to see the dimensions of the corner we’re in regarding Syria. Would Assad be so comfortable with wholesale butchery in service of regime survival if America had led from the front in Libya? If Obama had given Muammar Qaddafi a short deadline to step down and then unapologetically led an international coalition in a short and devastating mission when he refused? If an American presence remained in Libya to track weapons, money, and terrorists? If Obama then made a credible statement that the United States would not fence-sit while anti-democratic rulers kill their people?

The truth is we can’t know for sure. But we do know that the strenuous effort to downplay our differences with bad actors hasn’t saved us any trouble. The point about a bold foreign policy that’s been lost is that it’s aimed at avoiding larger conflicts. With a pusillanimous American administration pushing a global détente, what reason does Russia or Syria—or China, North Korea, and Iran—have for checking their ambitions? And so, the global order spins further from our reach a little more each day.

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President’s Plea for Mulligan Won’t Work

There’s little doubt the main obstacle to President Obama’s re-election is the country’s sinking economy. But in his scheduled major address on the subject in Ohio tomorrow, he is, as Reuters reports, “not likely to unveil new ideas to boost the economy and create new jobs, according to Democrats familiar with the preparations for the address.” That means the president will be returning to a familiar theme: blame it all on George W. Bush and plea for more time to fix things. While that may have seemed a reasonable position to take early in his administration, to say that this is an uninspiring campaign theme after three and a half years in office is an understatement.

Re-election campaigns can hinge on one of two themes: a referendum on the president’s record or one on the challenger’s unsuitability for high office. While the White House would like to make this election all about Mitt Romney and the Republicans, so far their efforts to demonize his business career or the GOP via the bogus “war on women” theme hasn’t worked. And with the latest economic statistics showing little sign of a genuine recovery, that leaves the Democrats with very little to say, especially because the president’s signature legislative achievements in health care and the stimulus are deeply unpopular. That’s the conceit behind his expected appeal for a “reset” on the economy. With no record to run on and an opponent who is demonstrating greater strength than expected, all the president can do is ask the public to give him an “incomplete” on his transcript and grant him another four years to complete the course. But a third straight summer of economic bad news requires a better answer than a request for a presidential mulligan.

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There’s little doubt the main obstacle to President Obama’s re-election is the country’s sinking economy. But in his scheduled major address on the subject in Ohio tomorrow, he is, as Reuters reports, “not likely to unveil new ideas to boost the economy and create new jobs, according to Democrats familiar with the preparations for the address.” That means the president will be returning to a familiar theme: blame it all on George W. Bush and plea for more time to fix things. While that may have seemed a reasonable position to take early in his administration, to say that this is an uninspiring campaign theme after three and a half years in office is an understatement.

Re-election campaigns can hinge on one of two themes: a referendum on the president’s record or one on the challenger’s unsuitability for high office. While the White House would like to make this election all about Mitt Romney and the Republicans, so far their efforts to demonize his business career or the GOP via the bogus “war on women” theme hasn’t worked. And with the latest economic statistics showing little sign of a genuine recovery, that leaves the Democrats with very little to say, especially because the president’s signature legislative achievements in health care and the stimulus are deeply unpopular. That’s the conceit behind his expected appeal for a “reset” on the economy. With no record to run on and an opponent who is demonstrating greater strength than expected, all the president can do is ask the public to give him an “incomplete” on his transcript and grant him another four years to complete the course. But a third straight summer of economic bad news requires a better answer than a request for a presidential mulligan.

The president’s advisers may be only playing the cards they have left in their hands, but even they must find it hard to believe that the public is willing to accept this sort of alibi. Fairly or unfairly, George W. Bush is still deeply unpopular and Congress is widely despised by the public. But presidents are judged on their own records, not those of their opponents. Though Democrats are still trying to convince themselves that Romney can be branded as an extremist, they know better than that by now. Indeed, for all of his shortcomings, the GOP standard bearer’s one great strength is his economic expertise. That means the president must present the voters with a more convincing rationale for a second term than a request for more time to finish the test.

The president may have inherited a difficult economy, but after a full term in office, the electorate expects the man in the White House to do more than point fingers at his predecessor or Congress. But the problem here is that the president and his inner circle are still so caught up in his historic status and the messianic hopes he engendered in his supporters that they believe the normal rules of politics don’t apply to them. Any other politician might think he needed to do more than just ask for a do-over, especially because President Obama needs to avoid a discussion of whether the American people are better off today than they were four years ago.

It is no small irony that a man who was swept into the White House by a belief that he would transcend partisanship and usher in a new age of positive hope-based politics is now left with nothing to say but to speak ill of his opponents. Though the president still has many advantages including his historic status and a very friendly mainstream media, he appears to be stuck with a message that would, were it articulated by a lesser office-holder, be instantly labeled a loser. Unless the president comes up with something better, his re-election campaign may start to resemble the economy that he failed to fix.

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Obama’s Economic Plans Lag with Voters

At first glance, the ABC News/Washington Post poll appears to show equally bad news for both Romney’s and Obama’s economic plans:

More than half of independents, 54 percent, say they see the president’s economic plan negatively, while just 38 percent say they consider Obama’s proposals in a positive light. For Romney, 47 percent rate his plans unfavorably, versus 35 percent who rank his proposals positively.

While more independents are undecided about Romney’s plans, giving the Republican challenger more room to attract support, the former Massachusetts governor is also likely benefiting from the fact that more conservatives identify themselves as independents than do liberals. Among self-described moderates, the president’s economic plan is actually favored, 48-46 percent, while Romney’s plan shows a 37-47 percent deficit.

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At first glance, the ABC News/Washington Post poll appears to show equally bad news for both Romney’s and Obama’s economic plans:

More than half of independents, 54 percent, say they see the president’s economic plan negatively, while just 38 percent say they consider Obama’s proposals in a positive light. For Romney, 47 percent rate his plans unfavorably, versus 35 percent who rank his proposals positively.

While more independents are undecided about Romney’s plans, giving the Republican challenger more room to attract support, the former Massachusetts governor is also likely benefiting from the fact that more conservatives identify themselves as independents than do liberals. Among self-described moderates, the president’s economic plan is actually favored, 48-46 percent, while Romney’s plan shows a 37-47 percent deficit.

But when you take a closer inspection, the news here is far worse for Obama than it is for Romney. For one, there are more respondents who are undecided on Romney’s plan, giving him more room to maneuver. Also note that Romney’s plan is less popular with conservatives than Obama’s is with liberals — but we can assume those conservatives would still be more inclined to support Romney over Obama at the polls.

Obama’s economic plan, meanwhile, receives poor marks from precisely the groups he needs to win over — middle-income Americans making $50,000 to $100,000 per year:

Romney lags among moderates, and does less well among conservatives than Obama does among liberals. But the president’s economic plans are underwater among middle- to upper-middle-income Americans, while Romney manages an even split in this group. And Obama’s economic program is especially unpopular – by 2 to 1 among whites, though he does far better than Romney among nonwhites.

Obama also lags with registered voters and independents:

Obama also crosses the 50 percent negative line among registered voters, who see his economic program unfavorably rather than favorably by 51-43 percent. Romney’s rating among registered voters is 46 to 40 percent unfavorable-favorable, again with more undecided.

Obama’s challenges vs. Romney show more starkly when two of the president’s weaker groups are combined – independents who are registered to vote. In this group, more see Obama’s economic plans unfavorably than favorably by 56-36 percent; on Romney’s it’s 45-39 percent.

No wonder the Obama campaign is aggressively trying to reframe the narrative on his economic plan. It may be too late to convince voters to support his proposals, but he still has a chance to turn the undecided ones against Romney’s plan.

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North Carolina Slipping Away From Obama

In 2008, Barack Obama not only won the expected key battleground states but swiped some that were assumed to be Republican strongholds such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia as he racked up a huge Electoral College win. While not even Democratic insiders think the president can win Indiana this year, they have held onto hope about North Carolina and are feeling very confident about Virginia. Their confidence about the president’s prospects in these two key southern states whose combined 28 electoral votes could make the difference in November stems in large measure because they believe changing demographics have permanently altered the GOP’s traditional edge in both.

But while polls show that the Democrats are continuing to nurse a small yet significant lead in Virginia, North Carolina seems to be slipping away. A PPP poll there published this week makes it unanimous, as all of the surveys of the state now show Mitt Romney in the lead. The four outfits that have polled the state differ on the margin that ranges from one percent to eight, but for the first time Romney leads in each of them. North Carolina may not be the same state that repeatedly sent Jesse Helms to the Senate a generation ago, but it appears that it is not ready to vote for Barack Obama again.

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In 2008, Barack Obama not only won the expected key battleground states but swiped some that were assumed to be Republican strongholds such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia as he racked up a huge Electoral College win. While not even Democratic insiders think the president can win Indiana this year, they have held onto hope about North Carolina and are feeling very confident about Virginia. Their confidence about the president’s prospects in these two key southern states whose combined 28 electoral votes could make the difference in November stems in large measure because they believe changing demographics have permanently altered the GOP’s traditional edge in both.

But while polls show that the Democrats are continuing to nurse a small yet significant lead in Virginia, North Carolina seems to be slipping away. A PPP poll there published this week makes it unanimous, as all of the surveys of the state now show Mitt Romney in the lead. The four outfits that have polled the state differ on the margin that ranges from one percent to eight, but for the first time Romney leads in each of them. North Carolina may not be the same state that repeatedly sent Jesse Helms to the Senate a generation ago, but it appears that it is not ready to vote for Barack Obama again.

Like Virginia, North Carolina has become more urban and diverse since the days when it was one of the cornerstones of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” The influx of northerners into the technology centers of the Tar Heel state made it more competitive and led to Obama’s 2008 win.

What ought to trouble Democrats most is that the president’s problems there this year are reflective of national trends, not a reversion to the politics of the old south. North Carolinians have as much reason as Americans in the rust belt states in the north to worry that the economy has not recovered on the president’s watch and may get worse. If North Carolina, a state where the Democrats’ hold on the voters’ affections is shakier than in true blue states is slipping away, then the chances of the president holding other battlegrounds may also be declining. Though Romney’s advantage is slight, if by the fall North Carolina reverts to being a pink “leaning Republican” state rather than one that is up for grabs, it will be an ominous portent for the president.

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