Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 29, 2012

Obama’s Response to Hurricane a Contrast to Benghazi

As Jonathan mentioned yesterday, Hurricane Sandy is giving President Obama a break from his shrinking campaign of “Romnesia” jokes and conservative trolling. The president held a press conference to address the hurricane earlier today, and it was hard to recognize him without the anti-Romney zingers:

President Obama said in a news conference at the White House this afternoon that he is “confident that we’re ready” for Hurricane Sandy, the massive storm expected to make landfall later today and churn up much of the East Coast. …

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As Jonathan mentioned yesterday, Hurricane Sandy is giving President Obama a break from his shrinking campaign of “Romnesia” jokes and conservative trolling. The president held a press conference to address the hurricane earlier today, and it was hard to recognize him without the anti-Romney zingers:

President Obama said in a news conference at the White House this afternoon that he is “confident that we’re ready” for Hurricane Sandy, the massive storm expected to make landfall later today and churn up much of the East Coast. …

Obama spoke for about five minutes after being briefed by FEMA and other agencies. He answered only one question, about next week’s election, and said his focus is not on campaigning right now.

“I am not worried, at this point, about the impact on the election,” Obama said. “I’m worried about the impact on families, and I’m worried about the impact on our first responders. I’m worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation. The election will take care of itself next week.”

Obama rushed back to Washington to coordinate with FEMA and hold a press conference, as he should have. But it’s also a stark contrast to his response to the 9/11 attack. It’s been a month and a half since the Benghazi assault, and the president still hasn’t held a press conference or given a speech to the American public about the terrorist attack. He also rushed out of Washington the day after the attack, flying to Las Vegas for a campaign fundraiser.

Why such different reactions? Maybe because a natural disaster isn’t a result of any presidential failures. It’s something the Obama administration has no control over, just like (as administration officials repeatedly told us) it had no control over an anti-Islam movie that was initially blamed for the Benghazi attack.

But it’s also true that the president will get most of the political blame if something happens to go wrong with the federal hurricane response, and little credit if things go smoothly. The optics of Obama campaigning in a swing state during a FEMA failure would be disastrous.

Which is why he’s back in Washington and finally taking a pause from the pettiness of his campaign to focus on national concerns. But will he return to the trivialities when the hurricane ends? Or will he use this as a chance to elevate his campaign rhetoric between now and next Tuesday?

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Infallible Election Prognosticators Tend to Have Brief Careers

Back in May 2011, the leading liberal poll analyst of this election cycle returned to his roots in an op-ed published in the New York Times. Nate Silver, who had parlayed a brilliant record as an independent numbers cruncher in the 2008 presidential election into a gig as the paper’s political blogger in the age of Obama, first made his name as a writer as a baseball guy and one of the leading exponents of new and advanced ways of looking at baseball statistics. On May 9, 2011, Silver penned a piece for the Times explaining why New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter was finished as a baseball star. Given that that the Yankees shortstop had an uncharacteristically mediocre 2010 season and was off to a slow start in 2011, it was hard to argue with Silver’s conclusion.

Except the very same day that Silver was planting Jeter’s tombstone in the Times, the future Hall-of-Famer got four hits, including two home runs in a game. I noted this embarrassing development in a blog post here titled, “The Perils of Punditry: That’s Why They Play the Games.” For my pains, I was subjected to a chorus of abuse via e-mail and Twitter from Silver’s fans, most of whom knew nothing about Sabermetrics. Indeed, another Times blogger noted my criticism (which was laced with respect for Silver’s work on both baseball and politics) and ironically noted, “the jury was out” on whether the results of “one game” could disprove the great Nate.

The jury was out in May, but within a few months, Silver’s fans would be dropping that prediction of his down the proverbial memory hole as Jeter put together a stellar second half of 2011 and followed it up with a brilliant 2012 in which he led the Major Leagues in base hits. That didn’t mean Silver didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was proof that a proper understanding of what has already happened didn’t necessarily give even the smartest of researchers the ability to predict the future. Fast forward to the last days of the 2012 presidential election campaign, and it looks like that day in May wasn’t the only time Silver’s crystal ball has clouded up.

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Back in May 2011, the leading liberal poll analyst of this election cycle returned to his roots in an op-ed published in the New York Times. Nate Silver, who had parlayed a brilliant record as an independent numbers cruncher in the 2008 presidential election into a gig as the paper’s political blogger in the age of Obama, first made his name as a writer as a baseball guy and one of the leading exponents of new and advanced ways of looking at baseball statistics. On May 9, 2011, Silver penned a piece for the Times explaining why New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter was finished as a baseball star. Given that that the Yankees shortstop had an uncharacteristically mediocre 2010 season and was off to a slow start in 2011, it was hard to argue with Silver’s conclusion.

Except the very same day that Silver was planting Jeter’s tombstone in the Times, the future Hall-of-Famer got four hits, including two home runs in a game. I noted this embarrassing development in a blog post here titled, “The Perils of Punditry: That’s Why They Play the Games.” For my pains, I was subjected to a chorus of abuse via e-mail and Twitter from Silver’s fans, most of whom knew nothing about Sabermetrics. Indeed, another Times blogger noted my criticism (which was laced with respect for Silver’s work on both baseball and politics) and ironically noted, “the jury was out” on whether the results of “one game” could disprove the great Nate.

The jury was out in May, but within a few months, Silver’s fans would be dropping that prediction of his down the proverbial memory hole as Jeter put together a stellar second half of 2011 and followed it up with a brilliant 2012 in which he led the Major Leagues in base hits. That didn’t mean Silver didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was proof that a proper understanding of what has already happened didn’t necessarily give even the smartest of researchers the ability to predict the future. Fast forward to the last days of the 2012 presidential election campaign, and it looks like that day in May wasn’t the only time Silver’s crystal ball has clouded up.

As Dylan Byers notes today in Politico, Silver is fast on his way to being a one-term celebrity. Having become the top liberal swami by predicting the 2008 election, it’s fair to ask whether as many people will pay attention to him if it turns out the forecast model he has been using all year to reassure worried Democrats that President Obama had to win was fatally flawed. But the possibility that Silver could be wrong or had let his own bias affect his judgment is sending his liberal fan base over the edge, as this post by fellow Timesman Paul Krugman indicates.

Let me stipulate that some of the attacks on Silver’s attempts to establish what the percentages of an Obama win are a little unfair. His model, like similar attempts to weigh the percentages in baseball games, is a matter of probability not certainty. A game-tying home run in the ninth inning can make previous projections that the team with the lead had a 95 percent chance of winning look silly, even if they were reasonable at the time. But the problem with his forecast model is not just that it’s not infallible, but that it is probably a little harder to being purely objective about political analysis than baseball. There are just too many moving parts and political judgments about which polls to believe to make his system work as well as his PECOTA model for projecting what a player will do in the upcoming baseball season–and even that is often wrong.

Even when I think Silver’s conclusions are incorrect, I learn something from his analyses. But those who point out that his Times on-line column that has consistently showed the president with a 75 percent chance of winning the election appears absurd in a race that is a tossup or heading in Mitt Romney’s direction are not off base.

Silver survived his whopper of a mistake in underestimating Derek Jeter. He’s not likely to fare as well if he has been calling the presidential election wrong all year.

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Will Sandy Haunt Current Governors Long After the Storm?

David Rothkopf grapples with the question Jonathan asked yesterday: Will Hurricane Sandy have a discernible impact on politics in the home stretch of the presidential campaign? Rothkopf’s answer is an emphatic Yes. He outlines three main areas the political conversation is susceptible to Sandy’s disruption, avoiding the topic of turnout on Election Day in favor of looking a bit farther into the future.

The most interesting of these, and where I think Rothkopf may hit the nail on the head, is in the way attitudes may change toward making preparations for such storms, especially if Sandy does the damage many fear. But I would make a slight adjustment to the winners and losers, politically speaking, of a population seeking to cast blame on political leadership deemed to have its priorities terribly askew. Rothkopf writes:

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David Rothkopf grapples with the question Jonathan asked yesterday: Will Hurricane Sandy have a discernible impact on politics in the home stretch of the presidential campaign? Rothkopf’s answer is an emphatic Yes. He outlines three main areas the political conversation is susceptible to Sandy’s disruption, avoiding the topic of turnout on Election Day in favor of looking a bit farther into the future.

The most interesting of these, and where I think Rothkopf may hit the nail on the head, is in the way attitudes may change toward making preparations for such storms, especially if Sandy does the damage many fear. But I would make a slight adjustment to the winners and losers, politically speaking, of a population seeking to cast blame on political leadership deemed to have its priorities terribly askew. Rothkopf writes:

Next, Sandy will also remind Americans and the world of the foolishness of some recent U.S. fetishes. I live in Washington, D.C., ostensibly the nerve center of the U.S. national security apparatus and target No. 1 for anyone interested in attacking America. The city is surrounded by military facilities and is home to a Department of Homeland Security that spends billions of dollars seeking to protect America against disruption. Yet this storm, like virtually all others of any size, will almost certainly knock out power to many of our nation’s leaders and the infrastructure on which our government depends for days. The city has already been brought to a standstill. Could burying power lines and strengthening critical infrastructure prevent all that? Of course. But is it as sexy as buying more drones, water boards, and stealth helicopters? Nope.

But what if the federal government were responsible for national security and state and local governments responsible for some of those infrastructure improvements, especially ones that would make a noticeable dent in the public’s frustration? In fact, that is the case already. Contra Rothkopf, improvements in storm-related public infrastructure are not being sacrificed on the altar of “sexy” drones and water boards (an odd choice of words, to be sure).

For example, the notoriously unresponsive power company Pepco, scourge of Montgomery County, Maryland, could plausibly be reined in. Recently, after a storm knocked out power for days there, Gregg Easterbrook, a MoCo resident, took to the pages of the Atlantic to warn Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a comically inept governor who is marching straight at a run for the White House, that his inability to get Pepco under control could, and should, follow him on his quest for more power. Easterbrook wrote:

You’ve already guessed that your correspondent lives in a Pepco-served neighborhood of Montgomery County. I will recount just the recent outrages in my neighborhood: In 2010, three extended power failures of at least three days’ duration, plus four hour-long failures. In 2011, a three-day outage, plus five failures of at least two hours. In 2012, two multiple-hour failures before the current outage. At noon Monday, on the fourth day of the latest failure, I checked the Pepco website for my neighborhood. It said, “No crew assigned.”

How does Pepco get away with this? Maryland’s Public Service Commission is a notorious lapdog, in part because although Maryland local government traditionally is clean, the Maryland statehouse traditionally is corrupt….

Pepco faces a simple reliability equation: The more it spends on improving service, the less is available for dividends and executive bonuses. CEO Rigby is a major shareholder, so in effect awards himself a commission when he keeps infrastructure spending low and dividends high. After the mega-thunderstorm, Dominion Power took 14 hours to restore all its transformers and main feeder lines — this is the first step in any utility’s storm recovery — while Pepco took 36 hours. That’s because Pepco transformers were in poor repair when the storm hit, despite an advertising campaign promising improvements. Within 48 hours of the storm, Dominion had 2,000 out-of-state workers present to assist in restoration; Pepco had just 300. If Pepco drags its feet on recovery, the utility avoids paying doubletime or tripletime, plus expenses, to out-of-state crews. And Pepco knows it can drag its feet without any risk of action by Maryland regulators.

Given how bad Pepco is, O’Malley would seem to have a tremendous opportunity to make his mark as a reformer, bringing a tainted regulatory hierarchy to heel. This is especially true because Maryland law assigns all authority over power utilities to the state level — there’s nothing the Montgomery County Council can do. If O’Malley runs for the presidency, his performance in Annapolis would be expected to be his strongest credential.

If Rothkopf is right, and the strengthening of infrastructure in anticipation of more wind storms suddenly becomes a major national political issue, O’Malley will just as suddenly have among the country’s worst resumes for higher political office. If the public gets tired of blaming Mother Nature and decides it is being ill-served by its politicians, O’Malley—considered by everyone to be among the high-profile candidates for president in 2016 and whose campaign, at the expense of Marylanders, has effectively already started—will be the poster-boy for malfeasance and ineffective leadership. Even worse, that reputation will be on an issue that—again, if Rothkopf is right—may soon be elevated to the level of national security, always considered the first duty of the commander-in-chief.

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Pentagon Makes the Right Call on Immigrant Enlistment

Winston Churchill was said to have remarked: “The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” The same might be said of the Pentagon, which has finally, after a long delay, done the right thing with regard to letting immigrants sign up for the armed forces even if they lack green cards.

This program, known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), was a big success during the one year it was in existence, from 2009 to 2010. As the New York Times notes, in the first class of 1,000 immigrants, one-third had master’s degrees or higher and on average they scored 17 points higher (out of a total of 99) on an entrance exam. Fully one-third went into the Special Forces, which is not easy to get into. And among those initial enlistees was Sgt. Saral Shrestha, a Nepalese immigrant who was just named the Army’s Soldier of the Year.

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Winston Churchill was said to have remarked: “The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” The same might be said of the Pentagon, which has finally, after a long delay, done the right thing with regard to letting immigrants sign up for the armed forces even if they lack green cards.

This program, known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), was a big success during the one year it was in existence, from 2009 to 2010. As the New York Times notes, in the first class of 1,000 immigrants, one-third had master’s degrees or higher and on average they scored 17 points higher (out of a total of 99) on an entrance exam. Fully one-third went into the Special Forces, which is not easy to get into. And among those initial enlistees was Sgt. Saral Shrestha, a Nepalese immigrant who was just named the Army’s Soldier of the Year.

Yet the program was suspended, in large part it seems over security concerns arising from Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s shooting at Fort Hood–even though Hasan was not himself an immigrant and had no connection to this program. Now at long last the Pentagon has decided to open the MAVNI program for another 3,000 recruits over the next two years.

Given our pressing need to enroll more personnel in the military–not to mention other government departments–who speak important languages (such as Dari and Arabic) and are familiar with foreign lands, I would expand the program even further by not limiting it to those who are already in the U.S. on temporary visas. We should open it up to anyone anywhere who speaks English, can demonstrate his or her character and reliability, and desires to become a U.S. citizen by serving in our armed forces. The potential gains are huge, even if there is a small security risk–but as Maj. Hasan proved (as have such notorious traitors as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen) even those born here can pose a security risk.

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Corruption in China Isn’t Just a Local Story

Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, must have felt like he was hit by a political hurricane last week when the New York Times published a front-page story claiming that he and his family control a fortune of at least $2.7 billion.

While it has been generally known that the Communist Party elite were acquiring considerable wealth, that is still an eye-popping amount. All the more so because it is hardly an aberration. As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elizabeth Economy notes in a trenchant blog post on the Wen scandal, “the annual 2011 Hurun report on the wealthiest Chinese reveals that the top seventy members of the National People’s Congress are worth a combined total of $89.8 billion; in contrast, the net worth of the top 660 U.S. officials is only $7.5 billion.”

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Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, must have felt like he was hit by a political hurricane last week when the New York Times published a front-page story claiming that he and his family control a fortune of at least $2.7 billion.

While it has been generally known that the Communist Party elite were acquiring considerable wealth, that is still an eye-popping amount. All the more so because it is hardly an aberration. As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elizabeth Economy notes in a trenchant blog post on the Wen scandal, “the annual 2011 Hurun report on the wealthiest Chinese reveals that the top seventy members of the National People’s Congress are worth a combined total of $89.8 billion; in contrast, the net worth of the top 660 U.S. officials is only $7.5 billion.”

Economy is right to note that the scale of Chinese corruption should put to rest the fashionable opinion that the U.S. government should emulate the one in Beijing. Corruption on this scale is not only a major obstacle to the further development of the Chinese economy; it is also a huge problem for an unelected elite that hungers for popular approval. Beijing tried to block access via the Internet to the Times, but it is a safe bet that this scoop will become generally known on the mainland and will further the people’s cynicism about the motives of their leadership.

Unfortunately, the way that the Chinese leadership generally responds to such scandals is disconcerting. The typical Chinese counterattack is to push nationalist propaganda that demonizes the U.S., Japan, and other states, thus trying to channel popular anger outward at foreign devils. This is an inherently unstable status quo, with a small elite amassing vast wealth while whipping up xenophobic feelings to justify the way they rob their own people, and it portends greater choppiness in U.S. relations with China.

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Report: Petraeus Briefing Contradicted by FBI, NCTC?

FNC’s Catherine Herridge reports that the FBI and National Counterterrorism Center told lawmakers the Benghazi assault appeared to be an al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-affiliated attack in a Sept. 13 briefing, contradicting a briefing by CIA Director David Petraeus that took place the next day:

Two days after the deadly Libya terror attack, representatives of the FBI and National Counterterrorism Center gave Capitol Hill briefings in which they said the evidence supported an Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated attack, Fox News has learned. 

The description of the attack by those in the Sept. 13 briefings stands in stark contrast to the now controversial briefing on Capitol Hill by CIA Director David Petraeus the following day — and raises even more questions about why Petraeus described the attack as tied to a demonstration. …

On Capitol Hill, Petraeus characterized the attack as more consistent with a flash mob, where the militants showed up spontaneously with RPGs. Petraeus downplayed to lawmakers the skill needed to fire mortars, which also were used in the attack and to some were seen as evidence of significant pre-planning. …

Fox News is told that Petraeus was “absolute” in his description with few, if any, caveats. As lawmakers learned more about the attack, including through raw intelligence reports, they were “angry, disappointed and frustrated” that the CIA director had not provided a more complete picture of the available intelligence. 

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FNC’s Catherine Herridge reports that the FBI and National Counterterrorism Center told lawmakers the Benghazi assault appeared to be an al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-affiliated attack in a Sept. 13 briefing, contradicting a briefing by CIA Director David Petraeus that took place the next day:

Two days after the deadly Libya terror attack, representatives of the FBI and National Counterterrorism Center gave Capitol Hill briefings in which they said the evidence supported an Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated attack, Fox News has learned. 

The description of the attack by those in the Sept. 13 briefings stands in stark contrast to the now controversial briefing on Capitol Hill by CIA Director David Petraeus the following day — and raises even more questions about why Petraeus described the attack as tied to a demonstration. …

On Capitol Hill, Petraeus characterized the attack as more consistent with a flash mob, where the militants showed up spontaneously with RPGs. Petraeus downplayed to lawmakers the skill needed to fire mortars, which also were used in the attack and to some were seen as evidence of significant pre-planning. …

Fox News is told that Petraeus was “absolute” in his description with few, if any, caveats. As lawmakers learned more about the attack, including through raw intelligence reports, they were “angry, disappointed and frustrated” that the CIA director had not provided a more complete picture of the available intelligence. 

Without seeing a transcript, it’s hard to know exactly how absolute Petraeus’s description was, though FNC reports he “seemed wedded” to the spontaneous demonstration narrative.

NCTC director Matthew Olsen was the first administration official to call it a terrorist attack in a Sept. 19 congressional hearing, which makes sense if his office had told lawmakers about al-Qaeda evidence in an earlier briefing. But if the NCTC had evidence of al-Qaeda involvement from the beginning, why did the Office of the Director of National Intelligence say its initial assessment was that the attack was a spontaneous response to the protests? The NCTC reports to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as well as directly to the president. It’s hard to imagine this information wouldn’t have made it up either line, especially since the whole point of the NCTC is to act as a hub to integrate intelligence from across multiple agencies. 

This is also a key addition to the timeline: The FBI and the NCTC believed al-Qaeda or affiliates were linked to it as early as Sept. 13. Yet not a single administration official even publicly called it a “terrorist attack” until over a week later — and the White House didn’t call it that until September 26, via Jay Carney.

The silence on this story from the vast majority of the political media is deafening. It’s like they’re trying to marginalize it as a manufactured controversy, or at least deprive it of enough oxygen so that it fades before the election. It’s similar to what happened with the Fast and Furious and Solyndra scandals, both of which were broken by the Center for Public Integrity, hardly a conservative outlet. These stories never got the attention they deserved from the press, and they’re only kept alive by conservative reporters, a few serious mainstream journalists, and congressional Republicans. The Benghazi attack is more consequential, and more difficult for the press to ignore, but it looks like it’s getting the similar treatment.

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Crossing the Line Between Satire and Hate

Last year, I took issue with Forward cartoonist Eli Valley’s Halloween graphic in which he explained why Israel was inevitably heading toward absorption into a majority Palestinian state. That was a nasty piece of agitprop combining tastelessness with shameless distortions of history. But in comparison to this year’s edition, I have to admit it seems a bit more reasonable than I thought it was at the time. After all, arguing that Israel’s defenders are harming it may be unreasonable and disconnected from reality, but underneath Valley’s deliberate attempts to outrage Jewish and Zionist sensibilities there is an argument, even if it is a foolish one.

But that’s more than you can say for his disgusting “Scary Science Experiment” in which he depicts a Dr. Frankenstein-style Jewish scientist (“Dr. Lowenstein”) being commissioned in 1957 by David Ben Gurion to clone Anne Frank with some DNA from Judah Maccabee. The result is — get it? — Anne Frankenstein, a monster who escapes in 1967 and then madly spreads havoc and fear around the world and whose latest escapade is to warn about red lines about Iran in a lame spoof of Benjamin Netanyahu’s United Nations speech last month.

There will be those who will argue that this is merely satire–and Halloween-themed satire at that–and should be taken as merely an attempt to provoke thought about Jewish and Israeli sacred cows. No doubt the editors of the Forward who allowed their pages to be polluted by it told themselves that. Maybe they even believe it. Maybe they also think turning a symbol of the Holocaust into a metaphor for Zionism gone mad is clever, even if there’s nothing particularly funny about Valley’s screed. Perhaps it even reflects their own sensibilities about the reality of contemporary Israel in which they think its right-wing/religious majority doesn’t represent their values and is therefore unworthy of support or respect. But that they think Valley’s work is within even the most generous definition of reasonable comment ought to be a sign that it is they who have lost their way. When a Jewish publication begins to publish a cartoon that is firmly within the tradition of Nazi ideologue Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic illustrations, it is time for those associated with the Forward to ponder whether they have lost touch with not just Jewish values but with those of responsible journalism.

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Last year, I took issue with Forward cartoonist Eli Valley’s Halloween graphic in which he explained why Israel was inevitably heading toward absorption into a majority Palestinian state. That was a nasty piece of agitprop combining tastelessness with shameless distortions of history. But in comparison to this year’s edition, I have to admit it seems a bit more reasonable than I thought it was at the time. After all, arguing that Israel’s defenders are harming it may be unreasonable and disconnected from reality, but underneath Valley’s deliberate attempts to outrage Jewish and Zionist sensibilities there is an argument, even if it is a foolish one.

But that’s more than you can say for his disgusting “Scary Science Experiment” in which he depicts a Dr. Frankenstein-style Jewish scientist (“Dr. Lowenstein”) being commissioned in 1957 by David Ben Gurion to clone Anne Frank with some DNA from Judah Maccabee. The result is — get it? — Anne Frankenstein, a monster who escapes in 1967 and then madly spreads havoc and fear around the world and whose latest escapade is to warn about red lines about Iran in a lame spoof of Benjamin Netanyahu’s United Nations speech last month.

There will be those who will argue that this is merely satire–and Halloween-themed satire at that–and should be taken as merely an attempt to provoke thought about Jewish and Israeli sacred cows. No doubt the editors of the Forward who allowed their pages to be polluted by it told themselves that. Maybe they even believe it. Maybe they also think turning a symbol of the Holocaust into a metaphor for Zionism gone mad is clever, even if there’s nothing particularly funny about Valley’s screed. Perhaps it even reflects their own sensibilities about the reality of contemporary Israel in which they think its right-wing/religious majority doesn’t represent their values and is therefore unworthy of support or respect. But that they think Valley’s work is within even the most generous definition of reasonable comment ought to be a sign that it is they who have lost their way. When a Jewish publication begins to publish a cartoon that is firmly within the tradition of Nazi ideologue Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic illustrations, it is time for those associated with the Forward to ponder whether they have lost touch with not just Jewish values but with those of responsible journalism.

Let’s be clear about what Valley has done in this cartoon. This is not just the usual leftist argument about self-destructive right-wingers, but a full-blown attempt to depict Israel as a monster, built on the ashes of the Holocaust but instead replicating its horrors. This is not just hostility to Zionism masquerading as an attempt to save it from the Zionists, but propaganda illustrated in the language of hate. The problem here is not just that using Anne Frank in this manner is tasteless and calculated to offend Holocaust survivors and any Jew who cares about the subject, though it is all those things. It is that by doing so in this manner, Valley has stepped across the divide between fair comment and political satire into the realm of anti-Semitic invective.

To have expected the editors of the Forward to say that this was something that should be considered beyond the pale in their pages is not to try to impose conservative sensibilities on them or to make them conform to a standard by which the Holocaust should be treated as a religious theme never to be offended by sacrilege. One needn’t advocate a rule in which the toes of important Jewish constituencies are never trodden upon to understand that there are some lines that should not be crossed. Even on Halloween, that pagan tradition that is so popular today that it has even begun to challenge Christmas as America’s favorite holiday, depicting Israel as an Anne Frankenstein monster is the sort of thing that should have been seen as vile rather than clever. It is one thing to claim that we shouldn’t take the threats to Israel’s existence from Palestinians and Iran seriously or to depict fears of anti-Semitism as exaggerated. It is quite another to draw modern Israel as a Holocaust-inspired monster.

Valley went too far this time, yet somehow those in charge of the Forward are too much the prisoners of their own prejudices about Israeli politics and their own conceit about their role in Jewish intellectual life to see it. Instead of congratulating them for their capacity to generate outrage, those who fund the Forward need to do some soul-searching about how far the paper has sunk from its mandate to stand up against anti-Semitism and where it is going.

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Obama Pretends to Be Well-Read, Proves He Isn’t

I’ve written previously about the opportunity that the Democratic Party seemed to have in recent years to woo libertarians into their camp. Even right-leaning libertarians were frustrated by the Bush administration’s spending and some of the national security infrastructure put in place after September 11. In addition, the surging support on the left for gay marriage and other social issues seemed to present an opening if the Democrats nominated in 2008 an even modestly pro-market candidate.

They didn’t, and instead nominated Barack Obama, who promised to increase the federal government’s reach into private life, enact a top-town government-run health care system (he was a vocal supporter of the single-payer system), and spread the wealth around. So it was strange to watch libertarians vote for Obama in reasonably large numbers. Reason magazine’s 2008 list of their editors and contributors’ vote preferences makes for sobering reading to any libertarian-leaning voter. And so does part of President Obama’s Rolling Stone interview with historian Douglas Brinkley.

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I’ve written previously about the opportunity that the Democratic Party seemed to have in recent years to woo libertarians into their camp. Even right-leaning libertarians were frustrated by the Bush administration’s spending and some of the national security infrastructure put in place after September 11. In addition, the surging support on the left for gay marriage and other social issues seemed to present an opening if the Democrats nominated in 2008 an even modestly pro-market candidate.

They didn’t, and instead nominated Barack Obama, who promised to increase the federal government’s reach into private life, enact a top-town government-run health care system (he was a vocal supporter of the single-payer system), and spread the wealth around. So it was strange to watch libertarians vote for Obama in reasonably large numbers. Reason magazine’s 2008 list of their editors and contributors’ vote preferences makes for sobering reading to any libertarian-leaning voter. And so does part of President Obama’s Rolling Stone interview with historian Douglas Brinkley.

Obama is asked at one point if he has ever read Ayn Rand. He responds “sure,” though it soon becomes clear that this is highly unlikely. Brinkley asks Obama about what he terms Paul Ryan’s “obsession with her work,” and how Obama thinks it would be relevant should Ryan become vice president. Since a silly question deserves only a silly answer, Obama gleefully provides the silliest he could come up with:

Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a “you’re on your own” society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.

Those who follow politics will recognize immediately the president’s signature on this answer. Clutching mightily to any straw man Obama can find rather than grapple honestly with, or seek to begin to understand, any political philosophy that stands in the way of his own political agenda, is classic Obama. But it also makes clear, as Hans Schulzke at United Liberty suggests, that the president hasn’t actually read Rand. Schulzke writes:

If President Obama had read Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, or We the Living, he’d know that Rand’s characters often undergo pain, difficulty, or danger for the sake of their friends. This isn’t sacrifice; Rand rejected sacrifice saying,  “‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.”[sic] In the Objectivist ethos, a man’s physical security or well-being could be valued less highly than his integrity, his love for friends, or his compassion for the poor. The distinction lies in it being a conscious choice between values….

Put in simplest terms, the success of the free market relies on cooperation and trade. You can be free and isolated, but you cannot have a market without society. That’s a basic definitional distinction that the President fails to grasp.

Schulzke’s whole post is worth a read. I am not a fan of Ayn Rand or her philosophy, and I tend to think that conservatism as I envision it could not credibly thrive in a Randian Objectivist world, and that neither could religion in the organized way nor even faith as a private common value. Nonetheless, there are two points worth making here.

First, I don’t know where Obama gets his idea of Rand being the province of brooding 18-year-olds, but most people come into contact with Rand’s work because they went to high school. (I was a freshman in high school when first assigned Rand.) That is, Rand’s work is interesting and worthwhile even if you don’t agree with the philosophy behind it, just like many of the other authors commonly assigned to high school students. I don’t know much about the president’s education, but it does not seem to have produced a particularly well-rounded or open-minded attitude toward fiction and literature, and that goes double for political philosophy.

And second, neither Brinkley nor Obama seem to be paying much attention to the current presidential race, which is a shame in Brinkley’s case because he is a historian and in Obama’s case because he is one of the candidates running. As I wrote last week, Ryan believes the strength of the polity lies in part in volunteer organizations and a community-minded ethos that holds charity and personal sacrifice in fairly high regard. The president’s hostility to these and to the role of faith groups in American society is closer to Rand than to Ryan. Which he would know, if he were even superficially familiar with either of them.

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Benghazi and Obama’s Unfinished Business

As Max wrote on Friday, the explanations for the Pentagon to act in time to save the Americans trapped in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on 9/11/12 are unraveling the more we learn about what happened and the real-time information that was available to decision makers. But though the facts about the incident continue to dribble out, the response from most of the mainstream media to this scandal remains one of indifference. Indeed, to listen to many liberal pundits, once President Obama put the issue to sleep in the second presidential debate with a significant assist from CNN’s Candy Crowley, the only people who continue to think about the issue are right-wing nutcases. That the president responded by “taking offense” to a question on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about the information he and other senior officials might have known about the situation shows he thinks he can get away with the same sort of grandstanding he exhibited at that debate.

If the president’s campaign was counting on their cheerleaders in the mainstream media having their back on Libya, they were right. The latest developments in the story have gotten little or no play in major newspapers or networks other than Fox. Though foreign policy was never going to be a decisive factor in the presidential election, the relative silence about Benghazi has ensured that although the president says he “takes responsibility” for what happened, there is little chance he will be held accountable in any meaningful way about it before the presidential election. But like some other scandals that have been percolating below the radar, this is one more that will hang over the administration in the months and years to come. The best that can be said for the president is that if he wins next week, Benghazi will be added to the list that already contains items like the cyber-war security leaks and the “Fast and Furious” scandal that will haunt his second term. If he loses, it ensures the GOP will be able to continue to haul administration figures over the coals over these failures with impunity.

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As Max wrote on Friday, the explanations for the Pentagon to act in time to save the Americans trapped in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on 9/11/12 are unraveling the more we learn about what happened and the real-time information that was available to decision makers. But though the facts about the incident continue to dribble out, the response from most of the mainstream media to this scandal remains one of indifference. Indeed, to listen to many liberal pundits, once President Obama put the issue to sleep in the second presidential debate with a significant assist from CNN’s Candy Crowley, the only people who continue to think about the issue are right-wing nutcases. That the president responded by “taking offense” to a question on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about the information he and other senior officials might have known about the situation shows he thinks he can get away with the same sort of grandstanding he exhibited at that debate.

If the president’s campaign was counting on their cheerleaders in the mainstream media having their back on Libya, they were right. The latest developments in the story have gotten little or no play in major newspapers or networks other than Fox. Though foreign policy was never going to be a decisive factor in the presidential election, the relative silence about Benghazi has ensured that although the president says he “takes responsibility” for what happened, there is little chance he will be held accountable in any meaningful way about it before the presidential election. But like some other scandals that have been percolating below the radar, this is one more that will hang over the administration in the months and years to come. The best that can be said for the president is that if he wins next week, Benghazi will be added to the list that already contains items like the cyber-war security leaks and the “Fast and Furious” scandal that will haunt his second term. If he loses, it ensures the GOP will be able to continue to haul administration figures over the coals over these failures with impunity.

As a political strategy, the president’s continuing outrage about questions about Libya has been successful. But it is one with a limited shelf life. Once the election is over, the stalling tactics won’t work. Sooner or later, answers must be forthcoming. If there is to be a scapegoat for the apparent decision to have U.S. forces “stand down” rather than rescue Ambassador Stevens and the other besieged Americans, you can bet it won’t be the man who says he “takes responsibility” for what happened.

It is possible a Romney administration will decide to pass on further investigations of Obama’s scandals in order to avoid being accused of petty partisanship or pointless recriminations. But if Obama wins but is still, as is likely, is faced with at least one branch of Congress in the hands of the Republicans, the accounting for Libya will become a major problem for the president. At that point, fake anger won’t be enough to derail serious investigations that could prove both embarrassing and damaging. Senator John McCain’s pointed comments about Libya yesterday on CBS constitute not so much a partisan talking point as a harbinger of what the president and his team will face in the future as Congress digs into the issue.

Presidents ardently desire second terms, but most find that the scandals, failures and fatigue that inevitably crop up turn those four years into a nightmare. President Obama may have dodged the bullet on Libya prior to the election, but if he wins, Benghazi will be one more bit of unfinished business that will come back to bite him.

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Independents Shift to Romney

Today’s Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Romney leading Obama by one-point with just one week to go. Notice that WaPo can barely bring itself to say Romney has a lead (however slight) in its write-up:

For the third consecutive day of the Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll, a single — statistically insignificant — percentage point separates the two presidential contenders: 49 percent of likely voters back Republican Mitt Romney, and 48 percent support President Obama.

The parity in the contest shows up elsewhere as well: the two candidates are just two points apart when it comes to dealing with taxes, and they are three points apart on health care policy. The poll’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for the sample of 1,278 likely voters.

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Today’s Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Romney leading Obama by one-point with just one week to go. Notice that WaPo can barely bring itself to say Romney has a lead (however slight) in its write-up:

For the third consecutive day of the Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll, a single — statistically insignificant — percentage point separates the two presidential contenders: 49 percent of likely voters back Republican Mitt Romney, and 48 percent support President Obama.

The parity in the contest shows up elsewhere as well: the two candidates are just two points apart when it comes to dealing with taxes, and they are three points apart on health care policy. The poll’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for the sample of 1,278 likely voters.

WaPo’s tracking poll also shows Romney maintaining a double-digit lead with independents. Chris Cillizza writes that this is a serious problem for Obama, but may not be definitive:

First, while the election is national in scope, it will be decided in a handful of swing states, including Virginia, where Post polling released Sunday showed Obama with a four-point edge.

Second, enthusiasm among independents can be a fleeting thing — as shown by the movement in the numbers among GOP-leaning independents over the past few weeks.

Third, even Republicans acknowledge that Obama’s turnout operation is the best that has ever been built, meaning (a) the incumbent’s campaign will find every Democratic partisan there is in a swing state and (b) it will work hard to contact and energize those Democratic-leaning independents in the final eight days of the campaign.

True, but whatever happened over the last few weeks that suddenly made independent voters across the country shift toward Romney is having an impact in the swing states as well. There’s been a disconnect between national and state polls, but there are signs the latter are catching up. Enthusiasm can always change, but with just a week to go Romney has a strong lead in that area. If Romney maintains his advantage with independents on election day, Obama would need to get his base to turn out in the same numbers as in 2008. No matter how great his turnout operation, he’s still working with a far less enthusiastic pool than he was last time around.

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All Four Major Iowa Papers Endorse Romney

If Mitt Romney doesn’t win Ohio, then his path to the White House rests on a handful of other states, including Iowa. He got a boost there this weekend after winning the endorsements of all four major newspapers: 

As far as newspaper endorsements are concerned, Mitt Romney made a clean sweep in Iowa: all four major newspapers, including the state’s largest paper, The Des Moines Register, backed Mitt Romney. …

The Cedar Rapids Gazette’s editorial board said President Obama “made his mark during his historic first term” with passage of the health care law, reforms to the financial sector and investments in green energy, but they say the president has “come up short” on the economy and debt.

Simply put, the Quad City Times’ editorial board wrote, “We invested heavily in hope back in 2008. Our 2012 endorsement of Mitt Romney comes with an imperative for change.” The Sioux City Journal editorial board offered a similar assessment: “We are neither satisfied nor confident. In our view, change is needed.”

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If Mitt Romney doesn’t win Ohio, then his path to the White House rests on a handful of other states, including Iowa. He got a boost there this weekend after winning the endorsements of all four major newspapers: 

As far as newspaper endorsements are concerned, Mitt Romney made a clean sweep in Iowa: all four major newspapers, including the state’s largest paper, The Des Moines Register, backed Mitt Romney. …

The Cedar Rapids Gazette’s editorial board said President Obama “made his mark during his historic first term” with passage of the health care law, reforms to the financial sector and investments in green energy, but they say the president has “come up short” on the economy and debt.

Simply put, the Quad City Times’ editorial board wrote, “We invested heavily in hope back in 2008. Our 2012 endorsement of Mitt Romney comes with an imperative for change.” The Sioux City Journal editorial board offered a similar assessment: “We are neither satisfied nor confident. In our view, change is needed.”

The Des Moines Register’s endorsement wasn’t a total surprise, since the paper had taken a transparent swipe at Obama on its front page last week. But it’s still out of character for the Register, which hasn’t endorsed a Republican for president since Richard Nixon in 1972.

Newspaper endorsements obviously don’t have as much influence as they once did, but these do indicate openness to supporting Romney, even among typically liberal-leaning editorial pages. At the Washington Examiner, Michael Barone writes:

But occasionally there comes an editorial page stance that matters. The Des Moines Register has endorsed Mitt Romney. The Register is not quite the statewide paper that it once was, but it is still clearly the most prominent paper in a state that is closely divided and has 6 critical electoral votes. The endorsement editorial is very much worth reading, because it tends to appeal to the high-minded affluent voters that can be found in large numbers on the west side of Des Moines and in its west side suburbs in Polk County and fast-growing Dallas County to the west. …

The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls shows Iowa as 49%-47% Obama, and this endorsement could make a significant difference in this closely divided state. If we assume that Mitt Romney is leading Barack Obama in the following Obama 2008 states, as he is in RCP polling averages—Indiana, the Nebraska 2nd congressional district, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and Colorado, Romney can win the presidency without Ohio if he wins Iowa and Wisconsin. The Register endorsement could go some ways to making the difference.

I’m not sure this will change many votes, and there aren’t many undecideds left to influence. But if it’s a reflection of the general sentiment among unaffiliated and Democratic-leaning independent voters in the state, it’s promising for Romney.

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The Rationale for the Racism Canard

Last week, John Sununu lost his perch as one of the Mitt Romney campaign’s leading cable news talking head surrogates when he surmised that the reason former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed President Obama again this year is because both men are African-American. While, as I wrote, there were other, perhaps more compelling reasons for Powell to back the president, liberals seized on Sununu’s statement as evidence of Republican racism. The race theme resurfaced again yesterday when liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan said on ABC’s “This Week” that the potential return of Virginia and Florida to the Republican column this year (along with likely GOP pickup North Carolina that he failed to mention) would mean the revival of “the Confederacy.”

Sullivan’s rather simplistic thesis was quickly shot down by George Will who pointed out that it was more likely that the whites who voted for Obama in 2008 but who won’t this year are judging the president on his performance in office rather than having become racist in the last four years. That’s obvious, but the willingness to jump on Sununu and to start talking about the Confederacy is no accident. In an election in which the president seems to be losing independents, Democrats desperately need voters to think more about Barack Obama’s historic status as the first African-American president and less about the record that he can’t run on. The president’s difficult electoral predicament is not a function of prejudice but the fact that more Americans are looking beyond race rather than obsessing about it.

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Last week, John Sununu lost his perch as one of the Mitt Romney campaign’s leading cable news talking head surrogates when he surmised that the reason former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed President Obama again this year is because both men are African-American. While, as I wrote, there were other, perhaps more compelling reasons for Powell to back the president, liberals seized on Sununu’s statement as evidence of Republican racism. The race theme resurfaced again yesterday when liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan said on ABC’s “This Week” that the potential return of Virginia and Florida to the Republican column this year (along with likely GOP pickup North Carolina that he failed to mention) would mean the revival of “the Confederacy.”

Sullivan’s rather simplistic thesis was quickly shot down by George Will who pointed out that it was more likely that the whites who voted for Obama in 2008 but who won’t this year are judging the president on his performance in office rather than having become racist in the last four years. That’s obvious, but the willingness to jump on Sununu and to start talking about the Confederacy is no accident. In an election in which the president seems to be losing independents, Democrats desperately need voters to think more about Barack Obama’s historic status as the first African-American president and less about the record that he can’t run on. The president’s difficult electoral predicament is not a function of prejudice but the fact that more Americans are looking beyond race rather than obsessing about it.

Race is the original sin of American history, and anyone who attempted to argue that it no longer plays a role in our society is being disingenuous. But while the 2008 election did not mean it disappeared, it did remove it as an explanation for the voting behavior of the majority of Americans. While it is possible that some people will not vote for the president because of prejudice against his race, it is hardly a sign of bias to notice that there are many Americans — both white and black — who believe the symbolism of his ascendancy to the presidency is an act of historic justice that is an argument in itself for voting for Obama. Indeed, the president has very little to recommend his re-election other than party loyalty on the part of Democrats and lingering good feelings about what happened in 2008.

By contrast, Sununu is not a particularly sympathetic figure, and there are those of us who still bitterly recall that when he was the governor of New Hampshire he was the only U.S. governor who refused to repudiate the United Nations’ infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution. But rehashing his past, including the ethical problems that led the first President Bush to fire him from his post as White House chief of staff, as the New York Times’ Charles Blow did this past weekend during the course of a column that attempted to first brand Sununu a racist and then to smear Romney as one by association, tells us more about the Obama campaign than it does about the GOP. That canard is a disreputable political tactic and nothing more.

The remarkable thing about both the 2008 and the 2012 elections is how unremarkable we have come to see the idea of an African-American running for and then serving as president. The decline in the president’s fortune has nothing to do with the revival of prejudice but is, instead, a result of the sober judgment of a significant portion of white Americans that the man they voted for in 2008 has not merited re-election. Republicans are asking the American people to assess the president on his record, not his race. It is, unfortunately, the Democrats who are the ones who are attempting inject race into the campaign.

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Why Does the State Department Help Autocrats Silence Journalists?

Over Sunday brunch, an opposition Russian journalist mentioned a State Department policy that symbolizes everything that is wrong with the American approach toward autocratic regimes: In order for foreign journalists to get State Department credentials, the journalists must not only have a letter in hand from the organization for which they work, but they also need a cover letter from the press attaché from their country’s embassy in Washington.

Opposition Russian journalists must therefore get a letter testifying to their journalist credentials from the Russian government or the Russian embassy in Washington; Opposition Venezuelan journalists must get credentials from the Venezuelan embassy; and opposition Turkish journalists must get certified by the Turkish embassy. Needless to say, these countries grant credentials only to those journalists who at worst sing the praises of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and at best self-censor.

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Over Sunday brunch, an opposition Russian journalist mentioned a State Department policy that symbolizes everything that is wrong with the American approach toward autocratic regimes: In order for foreign journalists to get State Department credentials, the journalists must not only have a letter in hand from the organization for which they work, but they also need a cover letter from the press attaché from their country’s embassy in Washington.

Opposition Russian journalists must therefore get a letter testifying to their journalist credentials from the Russian government or the Russian embassy in Washington; Opposition Venezuelan journalists must get credentials from the Venezuelan embassy; and opposition Turkish journalists must get certified by the Turkish embassy. Needless to say, these countries grant credentials only to those journalists who at worst sing the praises of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and at best self-censor.

There is no waiver for journalists from such countries who would use their residence in the United States to report critically about their home countries. President Obama may on occasion talk about democracy and freedom but, in effect, the State Department’s policy carries water for the world’s worst dictators and uses a pointless bureaucratic impediment to help them silence the very people whom the United States should be doing the most to support. Perhaps it’s time to reset the bureaucratic mindset in Washington, and help Russian journalists while we are at it.

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