The mini-boomlet fueling the attempted comeback of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got a boost yesterday from an unlikely source: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. As Haaretz reported, Abbas claims that had Olmert remained in office only a couple of months longer, peace might have been possible. Abbas praised Olmert in a meeting with a group of Israeli politicians in his Ramallah headquarters. This says more about Abbas’s desire to avoid blame for his walking away from Olmert’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in exchange for peace than it does about the latter’s political future. But even though Abbas has zero credibility with the Israeli public, this is a message that is integral to Olmert’s far-fetched hopes to replace Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Olmert scenario, promoted by such otherwise savvy observers like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, is based on the idea that the Israeli people can be made to forget just how rotten a prime minister Olmert was and how unpopular he became during his three years in office because he can persuade the Palestinians to make peace. If what’s left of his Kadima Party backs him along with other opposition centrists as well as the left-wing Labor Party, then it is theoretically possible that this coalition can hold its own against incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu and his center-right and religious party allies. The problem with this scenario is not just that Olmert might not be eligible to run for the Knesset because of ongoing legal problems or even how utterly unlikely it is that such a coalition could be cobbled together. The real fallacy at the heart of the Olmert comeback is that the Israeli people are not so stupid as to forget what actually happened in 2008 no matter what Olmert and Abbas say.
Because tomorrow’s debate will be in a town hall format with audience interaction, it’s going to pose different challenges for the candidates than the last podium debate. Here are six pitfalls President Obama and Mitt Romney might run into:
1. Getting too personal:
President Obama’s campaign has said he’ll be more aggressive in this debate, leading some to wonder whether that will play negatively in a town hall format. But an aggressive back-and-forth over policy can actually be a good thing; President Bush and Senator John Kerry had some engaging but heated exchanges at their town hall in 2004 over national security. The problem is when the attacks are perceived as bitter or personal, like Senator John McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one” in 2008. Obama comes in with a disadvantage tomorrow, since his supporters expect him to aggressively criticize Romney to make up for his lackluster performance last time. Unless he keeps the attacks funny and light, they could backfire on him.
2. Rambling too much:
Keeping answers focused and succinct is a good idea in any debate, but it’s particularly important during town hall debates because the faces of audience members are visible and the feedback is more obvious. Speakers often feed off the energy level of an audience, and a room full of bored people isn’t going to encourage a lively debate. Plus, high definition means that viewers at home are going to pick up on every yawn, glazed eye or baffled expressions in the audience. SNL mocked some of McCain and Obama’s rambling answers after their town hall debate in 2008.
Tomorrow night’s presidential debate and the one that follows the next week may be the only opportunities for either President Obama or Mitt Romney to score a victory at their opponent’s expense before Election Day. So it’s no surprise that both are viewing it as having the potential to help determine the outcome of the contest. It remains to be seen whether the president’s attempt to correct his lackluster performance in the first debate will lead him to overcompensate by being too aggressive. Another point to watch will be whether Romney will be as on top of his game in a town hall setting where he will have to interact with voters — never his strong suit — as he was in the first debate. But almost as important as these questions will be how many Americans will actually watch it.
The first presidential debate was the most watched presidential debate since the first 1980 dustup between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as 67.2 million watched at home on television with many millions more seeing it at hotels and airports or taking it in on their computers and tablets. Traditionally, the first debate always draws a bigger audience than the next two or the vice presidential debate. That was certainly true of the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan slug- and smirk-fest last week that drew only 51.4 million seeing it at home. Those ratings were not only lower than the presidential debate showing, but a considerable drop from the 2008 veep debate in which nearly 70 million tuned in to see Sarah Palin. If the same holds true for the Tuesday night event at Hofstra University, that poses the question as to whether anything that happens there can possibly be as significant as Romney’s triumph two weeks earlier. If so, then President Obama will have to do more than simply improve on his first debate. He will have to mop the floor with Romney to create the momentum switch he needs.
When libertarians (and Libertarians) object that despite the popularity of some of their causes they are not taken seriously as a voting constituency by the two major American parties, it’s easy to see where they’re coming from. Republicans and Democrats seem to hate the TSA’s invasive and pervasive screening process; opposition to the drug war is growing in both camps; and the popularity of gay marriage on the left and opposition to Obamacare on the right would seem to remind voters on both sides of the political divides of their libertarian streaks.
Yet they are unloved. Instead of finding the Koch brothers convenient allies given their social libertarianism and dedication to funding the arts, the left has turned the Kochs into the villains of the election cycle, offering some of the most ignorant and self-defeating politics of personal destruction in years. And now Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, claims to be shut out by the GOP and feels that his voice has been trampled by Republicans who fear he could cut into Mitt Romney’s vote share in several key states. The New York Timesreports:
Today’s New York Timesarticle featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.
But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”
The controversy over the anti-Islam YouTube film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” isn’t going away. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for mass demonstrations last week, and yesterday thousands of Muslims converged outside Google in London to demand the removal of the YouTube clip:
A protest by 10,000 Muslims outside the offices of Google in London today is just the first in an orchestrated attempt to force the company to remove an anti-Islamic film from website YouTube in Britain. …
Organiser Masoud Alam said: “Our next protest will be at the offices of Google and YouTube across the world. We are looking to ban this film.
“This is not freedom of expression, there is a limit for that. This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed. …
One of the speakers, Sheikh Faiz Al-Aqtab Siddiqui, told The Daily Telegraph: “Terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well. The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people.
Democrats are crowing today about how their early voting operation is giving President Obama a big edge over Mitt Romney. Early voting has been a priority for the Democrats who have fought hard to preserve it in the crucial swing state of Ohio. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, they are being rewarded for this emphasis by gaining a huge edge among early voters. Reuters reports the poll says Obama leads Romney 59-31 percent among the seven percent of the electorate that has already cast their ballots. If those numbers were accurate and hold up by Election Day, that could make an enormous difference in what has otherwise been considered a tossup election. But, as the Romney campaign has pointed out, the poll doesn’t seem reliable. Nor is it necessarily indicative of what the results will be in various states.
Liberals who have been quick to pounce on any poll with an inadequate sample in the past should steer clear of this Reuters poll. Not only is the margin of error in the survey a whopping 10 percent and therefore so large as to render its results meaningless, but also the sample in each state is miniscule. As Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, pointed out in a memo, the total sample of early voters was only 361 with only 115 of them in swing states. That means the average number of early voters polled in each state is less than 10. Early voting hasn’t even begun for the general population in Colorado, the state with the highest number of early voters four years ago. More important is the identity of the groups the campaigns are targeting in their early voting turnout programs. According to Politico, the Democrats have focused on getting Obama’s base out early while the Republicans think their core voters don’t need to be rousted out to the polls before Election Day, and instead concentrate on wavering potential GOP voters. Whether the latter strategy is smarter than the former is yet to be seen. But the Reuters poll is so flimsy that it’s difficult to see why it should be taken seriously.
A leading European satellite provider has taken 19 Iranian television and radio broadcasters off the air.
Satellite provider Eutelsat and media services company Arqiva said the decision has been made because of “reinforced” European Union sanctions aimed at punishing human rights abusers.
People in Iran still have access to most of the channels operated by Iranian state broadcaster IRIB, but the channels are no longer broadcast in Europe and elsewhere.
Iran’s English-language Press TV, Farsi-language channels for Iranian expatriates, and Arabic-language offerings, including the news channel Al-Alam, are among the channels cut by the Eutelsat decision.
Today’s Politico/GWU poll has Mitt Romney trailing President Obama by one point nationally, but leading by two points in the swing states. In even better news for the Romney campaign, Mitt’s nearly closed the likability gap with Obama:
Even as the head-to-head number held stubbornly steady for the past month, Romney improved his likability numbers. A slim majority, 51 percent, now views Romney favorably as a person, while 44 percent view him unfavorably.
The former Massachusetts governor had been underwater on this measure. In mid-September, 49 percent of respondents viewed him unfavorably. Going into the first presidential debate in Denver on Oct. 3, the electorate was evenly split 47 percent to 47 percent on what to make of Mitt. …
Obama’s enduring personal popularity has been a key reason for his political resiliency. But Obama and Romney are now essentially tied on likability: 53 percent of those surveyed have a positive impression of Obama personally, and 45 percent do not. The same number view both Romney and Obama strongly favorably as view them strongly unfavorably.
Writing at the Atlantic, Michael Koplow observes that in the vice presidential debate last week, Joe Biden referenced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by nickname only—and presumed (correctly, one imagines) that most viewers knew exactly who he was talking about. Koplow also notes that “Bibi” was raised in a discussion about Iran, and that this tells us something about the prime minister’s familiarity with American voters and officials and the issue foremost in his mind during the course of that relationship. (Koplow doesn’t mention that the public’s proclivity, especially in Israel, to call the prime minister “Bibi” prevailed over Netanyahu’s initial objections, as recounted in Jonathan’s 1996 piece on the subject.)
Koplow writes that Biden may have referred to Netanyahu this way in part to demonstrate his foreign-policy chops against an opponent less experienced on the topic, but cautions that Bibi’s familiarity with the American public (and vice versa) carries with it some downside: Netanyahu, having warned of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East for so long, may have less credibility; the constant use of his nickname may make Netanyahu overly familiar here, and thus taken less seriously; and that it conflates Netanyahu’s position on Iran with that of his country when, if I may paraphrase Golda Meir, it is a country of eight million prime ministers. Yet it’s possible to discern which of these theories is window dressing and which tell us what we need to know about Netanyahu’s standing in America.
How big of a disaster is the Obama administration’s approach to Syria? So big that even reporter David Sanger, who can hardly be accused of being unfriendly to the administration (he has been the recipient of some of its most self-serving leaks), is essentially editorializing disapprovingly on the front page of the New York Times about where this is heading. He writes:
Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.
That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.
The second paragraph may be phrased as a question but there is little doubt what Sanger thinks. Pretty much the same thing that most informed observers think. As Jackson Diehl writes in the Washington Post (in an opinion piece that is labeled as such): “His catastrophic mishandling of the revolution in Syria” may well turn out to be “the signal foreign policy disaster for Barack Obama.”
With the public and the pundits hungry for more information about the election, the focus on polling seems to be greater than ever. Unfortunately for the pollsters, so has skepticism about their results. Part of that lies in the natural unwillingness of partisans to accept that their side is losing. Thus, Republicans take polls that show their side winning as truthful while scoffing at those that show Democrats ahead; Democrats play the same game. We’ve seen a lot of this during this election cycle. But as much as we should guard against the partisan knee-jerk when reacting to certain polls, that doesn’t mean that they must all be taken at face value. Case in point is the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll of the presidential race published today. It gives President Obama some much-needed good news by showing that he leads Mitt Romney 49-46 percent. That three-point margin is an improvement by one point over the last Post poll taken two weeks ago.
But the problem with the Post poll is revealed in the paper’s story about its findings:
Partisan identification fluctuates from poll to poll as basic orientations shift and with the sampling variability that accompanies each randomly selected sample of voters. In the current poll, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine percentage points among likely voters; the previous three Post-ABC polls had three-, six- and five-percentage-point edges for Democrats. The presidential contest would now be neck and neck nationally with any of these margins.
In other words, the pollsters know this is a bad poll but went ahead and published it anyway.
UNESCO director Irina Bokova griped publicly last week about how much her organization is suffering from the U.S. funding cutoff sparked by its admission of “Palestine” last year. That provides Washington with real leverage to foil the Palestinian Authority’s planned bid for UN General Assembly recognition as a nonmember observer state later this fall. Incredibly, however, the administration doesn’t seem to be making use of it.
It ought to be clear that thwarting the PA’s bid is an American interest. First, as Washington itself acknowledged in a memo to European countries reported by The Guardian two weeks ago, it would have “significant negative consequences” for the peace process, to which America officially remains committed. Second, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said explicitly that he wants recognition mainly so he can “pursue claims against Israel” in various legal forums, including the International Criminal Court – which in April declined to indict Israel for “war crimes” in Gaza solely on the technical grounds that the UNGA hadn’t yet recognized “Palestine” as a state. But an ICC case against Israel over Gaza, as I explain here, would significantly increase the risk that American officers could someday face ICC indictments as well.
The Bush administration’s decision to oust Saddam Hussein involved not one choice, but rather four:
First, the decision to use military force against Iraq
Second, the decision to occupy Iraq rather than to oust Saddam and leave as many Iraqis had advised.
Third, the decision to aim for democracy rather than install a general as a new dictator;
And, fourth, the decision to reconstruct and develop Iraq.
The first and third choices George W. Bush made were wise; the second and fourth were not. The occupation of Iraq—pushed at the policy level by those who believed the U.S. would have more influence to shape governance with boots on the ground rather than by working to form a coherent coalition prior to the invasion—was disastrous. Once the Americans established themselves in Baghdad, mission creep cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Few USAID and Coalition Provisional Authority projects had any discernible impact; to this day, Iraqis identify conversion to a new currency as the only truly successful American project beyond ousting Saddam.