Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 4, 2012

What Are the Stakes for Israel? Part Three

In parts one and two of this series, I discussed President Obama’s often problematic relationship with Israel. While noting his decision not to interfere with the existing security relationship between the two countries, there is no doubt that the alliance has suffered from his lack of empathy for Israel, his active hostility toward Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and doubts about his willingness to do more than talk about the threat from a nuclear Iran. But the other side of the question facing pro-Israel voters is whether Mitt Romney provides a clear alternative to Obama on Israel-related issues.

Romney would come into office with a lot of good will from Israelis, whom polls show prefer him to Obama. He also has a better relationship with Netanyahu (though it is hard to imagine anyone having a worse one). But arguments for Romney on Israel-related issues have a lot more to do with the fact that he is not Barack Obama than with his own virtues. Though there are some fundamental differences between the two that speak well for Romney, Jewish Republicans are in some respects taking a leap of faith about the GOP candidate in much the same way as some Democrats did with Obama.

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In parts one and two of this series, I discussed President Obama’s often problematic relationship with Israel. While noting his decision not to interfere with the existing security relationship between the two countries, there is no doubt that the alliance has suffered from his lack of empathy for Israel, his active hostility toward Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and doubts about his willingness to do more than talk about the threat from a nuclear Iran. But the other side of the question facing pro-Israel voters is whether Mitt Romney provides a clear alternative to Obama on Israel-related issues.

Romney would come into office with a lot of good will from Israelis, whom polls show prefer him to Obama. He also has a better relationship with Netanyahu (though it is hard to imagine anyone having a worse one). But arguments for Romney on Israel-related issues have a lot more to do with the fact that he is not Barack Obama than with his own virtues. Though there are some fundamental differences between the two that speak well for Romney, Jewish Republicans are in some respects taking a leap of faith about the GOP candidate in much the same way as some Democrats did with Obama.

One clear difference is as much philosophical as it is practical. Though Romney does not have much of a record on foreign policy issues and is generally far less comfortable speaking about foreign affairs than he is about economics and other domestic policies, he is clear about one thing: he doesn’t want there to be much public daylight between the U.S. and Israel. President Obama came into office determined to open up some distance between the two nations, because of either his own inclinations or a belief that too much closeness undermined the peace process. While he did create that distance due to constant fights about settlements, borders and Jerusalem, the peace process didn’t prosper–and that is a lesson that has not been lost on Romney and his advisors.

However, to assume that Romney will never quarrel with Israel or Netanyahu is probably a bit naïve.

First of all, the nature of the relationship will be defined as much by the people Romney chooses to run the State and Defense Departments as well as his national security apparatus. Should Romney succumb to the siren song of James Baker-style “realists” and fill at least some crucial positions with persons who are wedded to the failed patent nostrums of the peace process or who are not serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear threat, then all the good vibes between Mitt and Bibi will not count for as much as some think.

Second, even if Romney does fulfill his vow for Israel to be his first foreign destination while president (and let’s not underestimate the value of the symbolism of such a trip, after Obama’s refusal to go to Israel, in terms of demonstrating to Israel’s foes the strength of the alliance), anyone who thinks Romney will act on Iran rather than just talk about the threat–as Obama has–is operating on faith, not tangible proof. The problem with having no real track record on foreign policy is not just that we don’t know for sure what Romney will do but that this weakness could make him vulnerable to listening to the foreign policy establishment, and that would not be good for Israel.

It is worth pointing out that even George W. Bush, who enjoyed a justified reputation as an ardent friend of Israel, did many things during his eight years in office that disappointed the Jewish state. In his second term, he virtually handed over the relationship to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose policies were little different from those of President Clinton and diverged from those of Obama only in tone rather than substance. Bush didn’t choose to act on Iran and forbade the Israelis from doing so on their own.

Stating this doesn’t mean that Romney hasn’t stated excellent positions on foreign policy and defense that make good sense as well as being supportive of Israel. His intentions seem good. But running for president and being president are two different things. If Romney is elected, he will have to be judged by the same standard by which many Republicans damn Obama: his actions, not his campaign rhetoric.

The point here is not that Romney isn’t different from Obama on Israel. He does seem to have more innate sympathy and isn’t handicapped by hostility to Netanyahu or the political culture of the country. But to assume that he will stand by it consistently and have the guts to take heat for doing so, or that he would actually do something about Iran if that were what the situation called for, is an act of faith motivated largely by distrust of Obama, not a conclusion that can be supported by his record.

Jewish supporters of both the president and Romney will probably cast their votes based on each candidate’s positions on a host of other issues. Most Democrats acknowledge that the hyperbole about Obama’s love for Israel is bunk but think him passable nonetheless. Romney shines more by the comparison to Obama than on the merit of his own record. The issue here is not so much certainty about what either would do in the next four years but whether fears about Obama will overshadow doubts about Romney.

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What Are the Stakes for Israel? Part Two

As I discussed in part one of this post, the discussion of the impact of the U.S. presidential election on Israel tends to be exaggerated. Just as it is absurd to speak of a man who clearly has little genuine sympathy for the Jewish state as its best friend ever to sit in the White House (as Democrats falsely assert), it is equally foolish to claim that Israel’s survival hangs on the outcome, since the alliance between the two countries is so entrenched in our political culture that severing it is probably beyond the capacity of even a re-elected president. However, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that four more years of Barack Obama will mean more tension between the U.S. and Israel that will undermine the relationship and encourage the Jewish state’s foes, to no purpose. Yet the inevitable spats over the peace process with the Palestinians pale in significance when compared to what may be Israel’s greatest current security challenge: a nuclear Iran.

Any account of the last four years of U.S. policy toward Iran must begin with the fact that President Obama has left himself very little room to maneuver out of a commitment to stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The president has been consistent in stating that he will not allow this to happen on his watch since he was first running for president in 2008. Since then, he has repeated this mantra and significantly elaborated on it while running for re-election. He has acknowledged that a nuclear Iran is a danger to U.S. security, rather than just an existential threat to Israel. This past March, the president specifically repudiated the possibility of “containing” a nuclear Iran but said that it must be stopped from attaining such a weapon. During the third presidential debate, he said the only deal he will accept with Iran is one that precludes their having a “nuclear program,” something that would preclude the sort of compromise favored by America’s European allies that would allow Tehran to keep its reactors and fuel–leaving open the possibility of a North Korea-style evasion of international diplomatic efforts.

Yet the question remains what will a re-elected President Obama do if the belated sanctions he imposed on Iran (and whose loose enforcement is itself an issue) do not convince them to give in to his demands? Will he keep the “window for diplomacy” open to allow the Iranians to go on delaying until they reach their nuclear goal? That’s something no one can know for sure, but which must haunt friends of Israel.

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As I discussed in part one of this post, the discussion of the impact of the U.S. presidential election on Israel tends to be exaggerated. Just as it is absurd to speak of a man who clearly has little genuine sympathy for the Jewish state as its best friend ever to sit in the White House (as Democrats falsely assert), it is equally foolish to claim that Israel’s survival hangs on the outcome, since the alliance between the two countries is so entrenched in our political culture that severing it is probably beyond the capacity of even a re-elected president. However, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that four more years of Barack Obama will mean more tension between the U.S. and Israel that will undermine the relationship and encourage the Jewish state’s foes, to no purpose. Yet the inevitable spats over the peace process with the Palestinians pale in significance when compared to what may be Israel’s greatest current security challenge: a nuclear Iran.

Any account of the last four years of U.S. policy toward Iran must begin with the fact that President Obama has left himself very little room to maneuver out of a commitment to stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The president has been consistent in stating that he will not allow this to happen on his watch since he was first running for president in 2008. Since then, he has repeated this mantra and significantly elaborated on it while running for re-election. He has acknowledged that a nuclear Iran is a danger to U.S. security, rather than just an existential threat to Israel. This past March, the president specifically repudiated the possibility of “containing” a nuclear Iran but said that it must be stopped from attaining such a weapon. During the third presidential debate, he said the only deal he will accept with Iran is one that precludes their having a “nuclear program,” something that would preclude the sort of compromise favored by America’s European allies that would allow Tehran to keep its reactors and fuel–leaving open the possibility of a North Korea-style evasion of international diplomatic efforts.

Yet the question remains what will a re-elected President Obama do if the belated sanctions he imposed on Iran (and whose loose enforcement is itself an issue) do not convince them to give in to his demands? Will he keep the “window for diplomacy” open to allow the Iranians to go on delaying until they reach their nuclear goal? That’s something no one can know for sure, but which must haunt friends of Israel.

The worries about Obama and Iran center on doubts about whether he will keep his word about containment and no nukes for Iran. Given the president’s “hot mic” promise to Russia that he will be “more flexible” with the Putin regime if he is re-elected, it is reasonable to ask whether he will show just as much flexibility on this issue and either punt or craft some compromise that will leave the door open to a nuclear Iran some time in the future.

Obama’s defenders insist that he means what he says about stopping the Iranians. But critics ask why a president who has always shown a greater inclination to talk about the danger than to do anything about it would ever move on Iran. Obama’s instincts have always inclined him toward pursuing the sort of diplomatic activity that allows the Iranians to keep spinning their centrifuges. The president insists that he will not allow himself to be played for a fool by a series of talks whose only purpose is to let the Iranians run out the clock until their program becomes unstoppable. Yet he has specifically refused to agree to the sort of “red lines” that Iran would not be allowed to cross without risking U.S. action. The president’s palpable anger at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for making such a request reminded observers that throughout his presidency he has always seemed a lot more anxious about preventing the Jewish state from acting on its own against Iran than in stopping the ayatollahs.

Even if one takes Obama at his word on Iran in terms of his intentions, the idea that he has another year or two or three that he can use to wait out the ayatollahs while sanctions weaken them may be mistaken. The staying power of the Islamist regime should not be underestimated. Nor should we assume that there are years rather than months before the Iranian stockpile of enriched uranium safely stored in underground bunkers is so great that force will no longer be an option.

Lack of faith in Obama’s willingness to act on Iran is not just the product of the fact that he seems an unlikely candidate for launching a limited war on Iran over its nuclear program, though that is certainly true. The bigger problem is that the president is so in love with the United Nations and the idea of negotiations that it is hard to imagine that he will ever come to a moment where he will be willing to accept that diplomacy is no longer an option.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that if Obama cannot be trusted to do the right thing on Iran — even if that means the use of force — that this will have a tremendous impact on Israel’s security as well as that of the United States. Should Israel ever conclude that Obama has no intention of doing more than talk about Iran it may decide to act on its own, a course that brings with it a host of military and diplomatic problems that are almost too great to contemplate.

While there is no way of knowing for sure what Obama will do, the reasonable doubts about him are part of the reason why the Iranians have been so confident about their ability to outwait the West.

In part three of this series of posts, I will discuss whether it is fair to assert that Mitt Romney will be different than Obama on Iran and other aspects of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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What Are the Stakes for Israel? Part One

If you listen to President Obama’s Jewish surrogates, you hear them tell you that Barack Obama is the best friend Israel ever had in the White House. According to the president’s Jewish detractors, he is one of its worst foes and his re-election could lead to its destruction. Where does the truth lie?

Let’s start with one clear fact. Israel’s survival does not depend on who is elected president of the United States. As important as the U.S.-Israel alliance may be — and it is absolutely vital to the state of Israel’s well-being and security — the Jewish state will not collapse if Barack Obama is re-elected. Nor will it enter a new golden age if Mitt Romney wins. Responsibility for Israel’s defense falls primarily on the shoulders of someone who is not on the ballot on Tuesday: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If the president of the United States seeks in the next four years to pressure Israel to do something that will undermine its security, Netanyahu — or one of his opponents, should he fail to be re-elected in parliamentary elections that will take place the day after the American president is inaugurated — can say no, just as his predecessors have done. Israel’s leaders have rarely been shy about taking unilateral or pre-emptive action to forestall a threat, and that won’t change. It should also be pointed out that the infrastructure of the U.S.-Israel relationship is so deeply entrenched into America’s political culture that even should the president seek to significantly alter or undermine that alliance, the political price for such a decision would be so costly as to deter all but the most fanatical ideologue.

That said, there would be significant differences between a second Obama administration and a first one for Romney in terms of the impact on Israel.

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If you listen to President Obama’s Jewish surrogates, you hear them tell you that Barack Obama is the best friend Israel ever had in the White House. According to the president’s Jewish detractors, he is one of its worst foes and his re-election could lead to its destruction. Where does the truth lie?

Let’s start with one clear fact. Israel’s survival does not depend on who is elected president of the United States. As important as the U.S.-Israel alliance may be — and it is absolutely vital to the state of Israel’s well-being and security — the Jewish state will not collapse if Barack Obama is re-elected. Nor will it enter a new golden age if Mitt Romney wins. Responsibility for Israel’s defense falls primarily on the shoulders of someone who is not on the ballot on Tuesday: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If the president of the United States seeks in the next four years to pressure Israel to do something that will undermine its security, Netanyahu — or one of his opponents, should he fail to be re-elected in parliamentary elections that will take place the day after the American president is inaugurated — can say no, just as his predecessors have done. Israel’s leaders have rarely been shy about taking unilateral or pre-emptive action to forestall a threat, and that won’t change. It should also be pointed out that the infrastructure of the U.S.-Israel relationship is so deeply entrenched into America’s political culture that even should the president seek to significantly alter or undermine that alliance, the political price for such a decision would be so costly as to deter all but the most fanatical ideologue.

That said, there would be significant differences between a second Obama administration and a first one for Romney in terms of the impact on Israel.

The first and most obvious difference will be in terms of the tone of the relationship. Though Democrats have spent the last year trying to make the public forget about it, President Obama has spent most of his time in office feuding with the Israeli government about a number of different issues.

Though Obama has not overturned and has, in fact, strengthened the security relationship between the two nations in some respects (something for which he deserves credit but which was nothing more than a continuation of the policies of his predecessors, as his defenders claim), Obama came into office determined to reverse what he thought was his predecessor’s mistake in being seen as too close to Israel. He succeeded in putting more daylight between the two allies, but that was about all he accomplished. His foolish decision to push hard for another round of talks with the Palestinians just at the time that the latter had signaled their inability to negotiate a peace deal on any terms was his first misjudgment. He compounded that error by pushing the Israelis to make unilateral concessions on settlements that did nothing to appease Arab demands, but ironically put the Palestinian Authority in the position of having to sound as tough on Israel as the Americans. Even when Netanyahu agreed to a settlement freeze, the Palestinians balked at talking.

Even worse, the president established a position on the status of Jerusalem in 2010 that did more to undermine Israel’s claim on its capital than that of any previous American administration. That led to unnecessary and quite bitter fights with Netanyahu that strengthened the Israeli at home and convinced the majority of his people that Obama wasn’t their friend.

Then in 2011, Obama tried to push hard on Israel to agree to the 1967 lines as the starting point for future negotiations. This was a slight, though significant, alteration of previous American positions that was made worse by Obama’s repudiation of Bush’s promises to respect the changes on the ground since 1967 (i.e. the major settlement blocs and new Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem).

Even the Iranian nuclear threat, an issue on which Obama has always paid lip service to Israeli concerns, the president managed to turn agreement into dispute by refusing to agree to Netanyahu’s request for “red lines” that would put some limits on the time allowed for diplomacy before action was contemplated. While there are genuine differences between the two allies on Iran, this was one point that could have been finessed had Obama wished to do so. But even after nearly a year of an election-year charm offensive, the president refused to meet with Netanyahu and produce even a limited consensus on the issue.

The irony is that Obama’s spats with Israel were completely unnecessary, as the Palestinians took no advantage of his attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction. Nor have the Iranians used the time Obama has granted them, first by his engagement policy and then by a belated sanctions regime that has allowed them to get closer to a nuclear weapon, to come to an agreement that would remove the possibility of a conflict.

Since Netanyahu is the odds-on favorite to be re-elected in January and, barring an unforeseen development, be in office for all of the next four years, should Obama win, the one thing we can be certain of is that relations between the two countries will not be smooth. The variables involve how much Obama has learned from the failures of his policies over the past four years and how much they would differ from what Romney would do.

On the first point, there is room for debate.

It is entirely possible that Obama has learned his lesson, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned. Anyone who believes that Mahmoud Abbas has the will or the ability to actually negotiate or sign a peace accord hasn’t been paying attention to anything he’s done during the eight years of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. There is even less reason to believe Abbas’s Hamas rivals will be willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Would Obama really be so foolish as to risk another bruising battle with a re-elected Netanyahu for the sake of a peace process that even he must know is doomed?

Maybe. Given Obama’s loathing for Netanyahu and his lack of general sympathy for Israel (as Aaron David Miller memorably put it, he’s the only U.S. president in a generation “not in love with the idea of Israel”), it’s a certainty that he will be picking more fights with the Israeli if he is re-elected.

While, as we have seen, the alliance can survive even four years of near-constant tension, one shouldn’t underestimate the damage these battles do to Israel. They encourage, as they have in the past four years, Israel’s Palestinian antagonists to be even more intransigent. They also help isolate Israel at a time when a rising tide of anti-Semitism is causing Europe to be even more hostile to the Jewish state.

There is little doubt that, despite the ardent defense of his pro-Israel bona fides by Democrats, a re-elected Obama will be inclined to be even more intolerant of Netanyahu and Israel’s insistence on standing up for its rights in the peace process and on the question of the Iran threat. Though Romney’s relationship with Netanyahu is probably not as close as some Republicans imply, it is a given that there will, at least for a time, be more cooperation and a lot more trust between the two governments, even if the vital security relationship won’t be altered all that much.

In part two of this post, I’ll discuss the impact of a second Obama administration on the question of Iran. In part three, I’ll go into more detail about whether a President Romney might be any different.

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What’s Going on With Chris Christie?

Those inclined to consider the talk about the embrace between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy as being more the result of hyperactive political reporting on the eve of the election than a genuine controversy might have been right. But yesterday’s Politico story about the governor being Mitt Romney’s first choice to be his running mate lent credence to the notion that there was some substance to the notion that Christie was up to something. The anonymously sourced story seemed to indicate Christie was the likely veep nominee until late in the process when he was suddenly dropped in favor of Paul Ryan. The upshot of the piece seemed to be that Christie and his friends were mad about being used as decoys or thought he had been snubbed.

All this is leading some observers to not unreasonably connect the dots between this, Christie’s convention speech in which he barely mentioned Romney, and his much-publicized post-hurricane “bromance” with Obama. Whether they are right about that is an open question, but there is little doubt that if Christie doesn’t want Republican activists (whom presumably he will need if he runs for president in the future) holding a grudge against him for sandbagging their candidate in the last week of a close race, then he needs to listen to this New York Post editorial and give the country a loud and clear reminder that he wants Romney to win on Tuesday, not Obama.

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Those inclined to consider the talk about the embrace between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy as being more the result of hyperactive political reporting on the eve of the election than a genuine controversy might have been right. But yesterday’s Politico story about the governor being Mitt Romney’s first choice to be his running mate lent credence to the notion that there was some substance to the notion that Christie was up to something. The anonymously sourced story seemed to indicate Christie was the likely veep nominee until late in the process when he was suddenly dropped in favor of Paul Ryan. The upshot of the piece seemed to be that Christie and his friends were mad about being used as decoys or thought he had been snubbed.

All this is leading some observers to not unreasonably connect the dots between this, Christie’s convention speech in which he barely mentioned Romney, and his much-publicized post-hurricane “bromance” with Obama. Whether they are right about that is an open question, but there is little doubt that if Christie doesn’t want Republican activists (whom presumably he will need if he runs for president in the future) holding a grudge against him for sandbagging their candidate in the last week of a close race, then he needs to listen to this New York Post editorial and give the country a loud and clear reminder that he wants Romney to win on Tuesday, not Obama.

In thinking about this story, we are inevitably forced to wonder who benefits from the leak? In doing so, we can certainly eliminate Romney or his campaign, since the story does nothing to help the GOP candidate. But does it help Christie? Perhaps.

It could be that Christie supporters are floating the story in order to point to his absence from the GOP as the reason why they think Romney will fall short on Election Day. Republicans should be unhappy about anyone in their party starting the blame game before rather than after the election (though some Democrats started doing so last month). But if this is the result of Christie seeking to score points at Romney’s expense in the week prior to the election, this is something many in the GOP aren’t going to forget.

While Christie’s decision to abandon any thought of politics in the wake of the hurricane was appropriate, he has to know that his lauding of Obama has been interpreted as a statement about his feelings about Romney. As I wrote on Friday, I think he is probably more focused on his re-election than on a putative run for president that may not come for four or eight years — or never materialize. Yet he needs to debunk that notion pronto. If he doesn’t — whether out of characteristic stubbornness or genuine pique at Romney for actual or perceived slights — he needs to understand that like their cartoon symbol the elephant, Republicans have long memories.

UPDATE:

As Reuters reports (h/t Politico), Chris Christie has made a statement that might pass the bar the New York Post editorial set about him needing to clarify his stand on the election:

I’m a Republican and I have endorsed Mitt Romney, I support him and I intend to vote for him on Tuesday,” said Christie, interviewed in his home state by a visiting Israeli television reporter.

That may go a long way toward tamping down the controversy but it will also still leave a lot of people wondering about Christie’s motives as well as the source for the Politico story about the vice presidential nomination. One suspects that if Romney loses, we won’t have heard the last of this.

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Some State Polls Point to Romney Upset

As I wrote last night, liberal analysts are right when they point out that the preponderance of state polls have greatly strengthened President Obama’s hopes for re-election. But a couple of the latest ones published this morning contradict that conviction, which caused New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to claim only stupid people think the election is not a cinch for Obama. One Democratic-leaning pollster has Romney ahead by one point in supposedly deep-blue Michigan, while a new Pennsylvania poll shows the race there deadlocked.

These may be outliers, but even a Nobel laureate (and, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto likes to say, “former Enron advisor”) like Krugman is smart enough to understand that if Romney wins Pennsylvania and Michigan, Obama has virtually no chance to get to 270 electoral votes. The point here is that while we are all rightly focused on who will win Ohio, the president’s hold on a number of states that were thought to be likely Democrat wins is far from secure. What’s happened in the last month since the Denver debate turned the race around is not just a surge of Republican strength in the South and the West but a surprising comeback for the GOP in the rust belt and the Midwest.

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As I wrote last night, liberal analysts are right when they point out that the preponderance of state polls have greatly strengthened President Obama’s hopes for re-election. But a couple of the latest ones published this morning contradict that conviction, which caused New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to claim only stupid people think the election is not a cinch for Obama. One Democratic-leaning pollster has Romney ahead by one point in supposedly deep-blue Michigan, while a new Pennsylvania poll shows the race there deadlocked.

These may be outliers, but even a Nobel laureate (and, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto likes to say, “former Enron advisor”) like Krugman is smart enough to understand that if Romney wins Pennsylvania and Michigan, Obama has virtually no chance to get to 270 electoral votes. The point here is that while we are all rightly focused on who will win Ohio, the president’s hold on a number of states that were thought to be likely Democrat wins is far from secure. What’s happened in the last month since the Denver debate turned the race around is not just a surge of Republican strength in the South and the West but a surprising comeback for the GOP in the rust belt and the Midwest.

The Michigan poll is from the Democratic firm of Baydoun/Foster sponsored by WJBK Fox Channel 2 in Detroit, and has a sample that has a nine percent edge for the Democrats in terms of partisan identification. More tellingly, it is a fairly large number of respondents for a state poll — 1,913 likely voters — and a relatively low margin of error at 2.24 percent. Yet shockingly it shows Romney up by more than half a percentage point: 46.86 percent to 46.24 percent.

It should be specified that most other Michigan polls are still showing the president with a lead there. Another Democratic pollster, Public Policy Polling, has Obama up 52-46 percent in their latest poll. Just to confuse things, that poll has a smaller Democratic edge in partisan identification at only six percent but it is also the product of a much smaller sample — only 700 likely voters — and therefore has a margin of error that is nearly double that of the Baydoun/Foster poll.

In Pennsylvania, a Susquehanna poll sponsored by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review shows the race in Pennsylvania a virtual tie. Indeed the poll’s sample of 800 likely voters showed 378 say they would vote for Romney and 372 for Obama. Again, Susquehanna is a bit of an outlier in that it has shown more strength for Romney throughout the campaign than other polls. The Real Clear Politics average of polls for Pennsylvania still shows the president up by more than four points. But it should also be pointed that a clear difference between Susquehanna and the others is the same one that has been stirring discussion about virtually all the presidential polls on both the state and the national level: partisan identification. Susquehanna (whose sample is larger than that of the other Pennsylvania polls) shows a six-percentage point advantage for the Democrats. By contrast, two other polls that show Obama ahead in the state, PPP and Franklin & Marshall, had samples with 10 and nine point edges for the Democrats.

Those numbers make the contradictions between these polls more explicable. It can’t be said often enough that turnout is the key to this election. Those polls that are assuming a large advantage for the Democrats are pointing toward an Obama win. Those that are not are favorable to Romney. It’s as simple as that. If the Obama campaign machine can manufacture a replica of the 2008 electorate, the polls and the analysts predicting and Obama win will be vindicated. If not, then Romney may be on his way to victory and Krugman will be the one sitting in the corner wearing the dunce cap.

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Benghazi Revelations Show Lack of Preparation After Gaddafi’s Fall

The administration spent almost two months releasing as little public information as possible about the Benghazi attack, presumably for reasons both strategic and political–it is sensitive information from a national security standpoint and from a campaign standpoint. But now a deluge of new information is pouring out of the government, thanks in part to what looks like finger-pointing between the State Department and CIA over who bears responsibility for not preventing or stopping the attack which left four Americans dead.

The Wall Street Journal is in the forefront with this long article, which has an anti-Petraeus spin because it leads with the information that the CIA director did not attend the funerals of two of his security contractors who were killed in Benghazi (he did not want to blow their covers, even posthumously). See also this David Ignatius column and an article in the New York Times.

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The administration spent almost two months releasing as little public information as possible about the Benghazi attack, presumably for reasons both strategic and political–it is sensitive information from a national security standpoint and from a campaign standpoint. But now a deluge of new information is pouring out of the government, thanks in part to what looks like finger-pointing between the State Department and CIA over who bears responsibility for not preventing or stopping the attack which left four Americans dead.

The Wall Street Journal is in the forefront with this long article, which has an anti-Petraeus spin because it leads with the information that the CIA director did not attend the funerals of two of his security contractors who were killed in Benghazi (he did not want to blow their covers, even posthumously). See also this David Ignatius column and an article in the New York Times.

The picture painted by all of these articles is complex but overall, despite the anti-Petraeus spin noted in the Journal piece, it serves to exonerate the CIA of culpability for the attack response–it turns out that pretty much all of the security response came from the CIA annex in Benghazi and from the CIA station in Tripoli. The CIA security personnel did what they could, but they obviously lacked transportation, heavy weaponry, and other essentials that the military could have provided. They were also hoping for assistance from Libyan militias that never arrived.

Why wasn’t there more military assistance? That remains murky, but the best explanation–and the one most exonerating to the administration–has come from none other than Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense. He writes, based on information that apparently comes from senior military figures (albeit second hand), that “decision makers in Washington appear to have been leaning forward, as they should have been.” He goes on to to note that:

The military’s most capable rescue force, based on the East Coast, was deployed immediately (something that is very rarely done), but – given the distances involved – arrived at Sigonella only after the crisis was over.

Also, the European command (EUCOM) deployed its number one counter terrorism force, which was training in central Europe, as quickly as possible, but it arrived in Sigonella after the evacuation of the Annex was complete.

Other special forces deployed to Sigonella but arrived on the 12th after it was too late to make a difference in Benghazi.

There was no AC-130 gunship in the region. The only drone available in Libya was an unarmed surveillance drone which was quickly moved from Darna to Benghazi, but the field of view of these drones is limited and, in any case, this one was not armed.

The only other assets immediately available were F-16 fighter jets based at Aviano, Italy. These aircraft might have reached Benghazi while the fight at the Annex was still going on, but they would have had difficulty pinpointing hostile mortar positions or distinguishing between friendly and hostile militias in the midst of a confused firefight in a densely populated residential area where there would have been a high likelihood of civilian casualties. While two more Americans were tragically killed by a mortar strike on the Annex, it’s not clear that deploying F-16’s would have prevented that.

If accurate, Wolfowitz’s account would certainly explain why more wasn’t done and would appear to exonerate senior decision makers during the heat of the crisis. It is actually a much better defense of the administration action (or lack thereof) than the lame explanation offered by Defense Secretary Panetta that “you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on.”

However, it still leaves major questions unanswered about why more wasn’t done to prepare for an emergency such as this, and in particular–a point I stressed in a recent Los Angeles Times oped–why wasn’t more done to help Libyan security forces stand up after Gaddafi’s fall? It also leaves unanswered the question about why the administration hasn’t been more forthcoming, at least until recently, about what exactly transpired. There is still a need for a major independent report that addresses these issues.

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The Cursing Mommy as Hero

In the New York Times Book Review, Judith Newman reviews Ian Frazier’s laugh-out-loud funny book, The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days — the year-long diary of the fictional character he made famous in his New Yorker pieces. Frazier’s character writes a local advice column, conveying helpful household hints that somehow always produce catastrophes for her instead, which she then generally blames on … the Bush administration. 

Demonstrating the proper use of a hammock, she becomes entangled as it spins in one direction and then another, finally depositing her in a clump on the ground — which she blames on the eff’n goddamn hammock lobbyists who “pushed this goddamn hazardous hammock through Congress with the help of the Bush administration.” Explaining the use of a new travel suitcase with multiple compartments and zippers, she gets caught in the zippers, ultimately destroys the bag — and blames it on the eff’n Bush administration, “when suitcases in this country started going to shit!” Early in the year, the Cursing Mommy’s book club is reading Why the Bush Administration REALLY Sucks, and she records in her diary that: 

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In the New York Times Book Review, Judith Newman reviews Ian Frazier’s laugh-out-loud funny book, The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days — the year-long diary of the fictional character he made famous in his New Yorker pieces. Frazier’s character writes a local advice column, conveying helpful household hints that somehow always produce catastrophes for her instead, which she then generally blames on … the Bush administration. 

Demonstrating the proper use of a hammock, she becomes entangled as it spins in one direction and then another, finally depositing her in a clump on the ground — which she blames on the eff’n goddamn hammock lobbyists who “pushed this goddamn hazardous hammock through Congress with the help of the Bush administration.” Explaining the use of a new travel suitcase with multiple compartments and zippers, she gets caught in the zippers, ultimately destroys the bag — and blames it on the eff’n Bush administration, “when suitcases in this country started going to shit!” Early in the year, the Cursing Mommy’s book club is reading Why the Bush Administration REALLY Sucks, and she records in her diary that: 

“Gail had suggested the group read it, and I had seconded the suggestion, despite some of the other book group members saying that the subject is somewhat out of date. Gail replied that we’ve read other books with the same basic theme and always enjoyed them, but there were so many that we never had time to get to this particular book … In book group, we believe it is the responsibility of each and every citizen to keep herself informed.” 

Newman describes the Cursing Mommy as “a comic-strip heroine for the chattering classes” — someone who “can’t help telling the truth as she sees it,” and “her truths are our truths.” Newman praises Frazier as a humorist who does “more than make us laugh,” imbuing his book with “serious intent” — to show us that (in Newman’s words) it is “far better, and funnier, to rage against these [little] things than the things we can’t control, which is just about everything.” 

I think Newman mistakes the nature of Frazier’s “serious intent,” and the book is funnier than she realizes. Imagine if the Cursing Mommy were president — proposing panaceas such as “stimulus” or “investments” or “green jobs,” each one exploding like a cigar from the Acme Company, and blaming each failure on the eff’n Bush administration. The surest sign of success of Frazier’s satire is that the reviewer for the New York Times thinks it is a heroic portrait of someone like herself.

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Reid: Senate Dems Wouldn’t Work With Romney

Remember this story the next time you hear Democrats lament the “philosophy of obstructionism” in the “extremist” Republican-controlled House:

“Mitt Romney’s fantasy that Senate Democrats will work with him to pass his ‘severely conservative’ agenda is laughable,” Reid said in a statement released by his office.

“In fact, Mitt Romney’s tea party agenda has already been rejected in the Senate. In the past few months, we have voted down many of the major policies that Mitt Romney has run on, from the Ryan plan to end Medicare as we know it, to the Blunt Amendment to deny women access to contraception, to more tax giveaways for millionaires and billionaires, to a draconian spending plan that would gut critical services for seniors and the most vulnerable Americans.”

Reid added: “Mitt Romney has demonstrated that he lacks the courage to stand up to the tea party, kowtowing to their demands time and again. There is nothing in Mitt Romney’s record to suggest he would act any differently as president. As governor of Massachusetts, he had a terrible relationship with Democrats, cordoning himself off behind a velvet rope instead of reaching out to build relationships. And in the near-decade that Mitt Romney has spent running for president, both his words and his actions have shown that pleasing the far right is more important to him than working across the aisle.”

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Remember this story the next time you hear Democrats lament the “philosophy of obstructionism” in the “extremist” Republican-controlled House:

“Mitt Romney’s fantasy that Senate Democrats will work with him to pass his ‘severely conservative’ agenda is laughable,” Reid said in a statement released by his office.

“In fact, Mitt Romney’s tea party agenda has already been rejected in the Senate. In the past few months, we have voted down many of the major policies that Mitt Romney has run on, from the Ryan plan to end Medicare as we know it, to the Blunt Amendment to deny women access to contraception, to more tax giveaways for millionaires and billionaires, to a draconian spending plan that would gut critical services for seniors and the most vulnerable Americans.”

Reid added: “Mitt Romney has demonstrated that he lacks the courage to stand up to the tea party, kowtowing to their demands time and again. There is nothing in Mitt Romney’s record to suggest he would act any differently as president. As governor of Massachusetts, he had a terrible relationship with Democrats, cordoning himself off behind a velvet rope instead of reaching out to build relationships. And in the near-decade that Mitt Romney has spent running for president, both his words and his actions have shown that pleasing the far right is more important to him than working across the aisle.”

The funny part is, most of the progressives decrying the “Do-Nothing Congress” would probably agree with Reid. Of course, they’ll fight tooth and nail to save Obamacare if Romney wins the election, and cheer on Democratic obstructionism in the Senate (assuming Democrats actually keep the Senate). This, despite polls showing that majorities still want Obamacare repealed.

But when Republicans block legislation they’re philosophically opposed to, that’s totally different. TPM has a story up this afternoon about Romney’s “closing argument.” The headline reads: “Romney: Elect Me Or House GOP Will Wreck The Economy.” Here’s what Romney said: 

Romney said that Obama “promised to be a post-partisan president, but he became the most partisan” and that his bitter relations with the House GOP could threaten the economy. As his chief example, he pointed to a crisis created entirely by his own party’s choice — Republican lawmakers’ ongoing threat to reject a debt ceiling increase. Economists warn that a failure to pass such a measure would have immediate and catastrophic consequences for the recovery.

“You know that if the President is re-elected, he will still be unable to work with the people in Congress,” Romney said. “He has ignored them, attacked them, blamed them. The debt ceiling will come up again, and shutdown and default will be threatened, chilling the economy.” 

We can argue over who did what right and who did what wrong during the debt-ceiling debate, but some of the most definitive reporting on the issue by Bob Woodward blamed “gaps” in Obama’s leadership for the failure to strike a “grand bargain.” 

So Romney makes a fair point. Obama didn’t have a record of bipartisanship before he took office, and he certainly didn’t build one during the past four years. 

Romney, on the other hand, does have a history of working across the aisle with a Democratic legislature in Massachusetts. Some liberals argue Romney’s record isn’t as good as he claims, since he only compromised with Democrats because they had a veto-proof majority and he had to, otherwise nothing would get done. He had to? Well what’s Obama’s excuse, then?

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Are the Polls Biased? Democrats Hope Not

The latest crop of opinion polls has generally brought good news for Democrats. The Real Clear Politics average of all the national polls has given President Obama a slight lead, after this poll of polls had shown him trailing since Mitt Romney’s post-Denver debate comeback changed the race. Even more important, polls of likely voters in the battleground states have given the president leads in most of them. This caused New York Times blogger Nate Silver to double down on his forecast predicting an Obama win. According to Silver, Obama now has an 83.7 percent likelihood of prevailing on Tuesday.

We’ll leave aside the arguments about Silver’s odds-making, which depicts what even most liberals concede is an extremely close election as a near certain Obama win. Suffice it to say, as I wrote on Thursday, Silver’s belief that Obama had a field goal lead with 3 minutes left in the game (which he may now think is more like a 4-point lead with 2 minutes left) is based on a belief that the polls he trusts are accurate. On Saturday, however, he returned to the question that has to be haunting his readers: what if these polls aren’t accurate? While he admits the possibility, he thinks it unlikely that so many surveys could be in error. That seems logical, even persuasive. But the problem with that assumption is the same as it has been for the past month. Most of the polls showing Obama ahead either nationally or in some states reflect a common bias: their sample reflects a picture of the electorate that resembles the 2008 Democratic advantage. But this year we expect the gap in party identification to be smaller. In short, unless the Democrats match or exceed the massive “hope and change” surge of four years ago, then what Silver and the Democrats who look to his column for encouragement fear will be true: all the pro-Obama state polls are going to turn out to be quite wrong.

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The latest crop of opinion polls has generally brought good news for Democrats. The Real Clear Politics average of all the national polls has given President Obama a slight lead, after this poll of polls had shown him trailing since Mitt Romney’s post-Denver debate comeback changed the race. Even more important, polls of likely voters in the battleground states have given the president leads in most of them. This caused New York Times blogger Nate Silver to double down on his forecast predicting an Obama win. According to Silver, Obama now has an 83.7 percent likelihood of prevailing on Tuesday.

We’ll leave aside the arguments about Silver’s odds-making, which depicts what even most liberals concede is an extremely close election as a near certain Obama win. Suffice it to say, as I wrote on Thursday, Silver’s belief that Obama had a field goal lead with 3 minutes left in the game (which he may now think is more like a 4-point lead with 2 minutes left) is based on a belief that the polls he trusts are accurate. On Saturday, however, he returned to the question that has to be haunting his readers: what if these polls aren’t accurate? While he admits the possibility, he thinks it unlikely that so many surveys could be in error. That seems logical, even persuasive. But the problem with that assumption is the same as it has been for the past month. Most of the polls showing Obama ahead either nationally or in some states reflect a common bias: their sample reflects a picture of the electorate that resembles the 2008 Democratic advantage. But this year we expect the gap in party identification to be smaller. In short, unless the Democrats match or exceed the massive “hope and change” surge of four years ago, then what Silver and the Democrats who look to his column for encouragement fear will be true: all the pro-Obama state polls are going to turn out to be quite wrong.

Silver sums up this equation quite succinctly:

I do not mean to imply that the polls are biased in Mr. Obama’s favor. But there is the chance that they could be biased in either direction. If they are biased in Mr. Obama’s favor, then Mr. Romney could still win; the race is close enough. If they are biased in Mr. Romney’s favor, then Mr. Obama will win by a wider-than-expected margin, but since Mr. Obama is the favorite anyway, this will not change who sleeps in the White House on Jan. 20.

My argument, rather, is this: we’ve about reached the point where if Mr. Romney wins, it can only be because the polls have been biased against him. Almost all of the chance that Mr. Romney has in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, about 16 percent to win the Electoral College, reflects this possibility.

Yes, of course: most of the arguments that the polls are necessarily biased against Mr. Romney reflect little more than wishful thinking. …

But the state polls may not be right. They could be biased. Based on the historical reliability of polls, we put the chance that they will be biased enough to elect Mr. Romney at 16 percent.

That 16 percent chance that Silver talks about though is far more potent than the forlorn hope he implies. Quite simply, if Democrats do not have the near 10-point lead in partisan affiliation that many polls show — which mirrors the 2008 results — then the polls that show the president leading are a misreading of a race, which is either tied or actually trending in Romney’s favor.

This is a possibility that Silver and those who look to him for comfort try not to think about, but which looms large in the final days of the race. The president may have gained some ground as coverage of Hurricane Sandy diverted the public from the election and allowed Obama (with an assist from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie) to appear in control of events. But it strains credulity to believe even that advantage can conjure up a Democratic turnout that would rival that of 2008.

That’s why the polls not only could be wrong, but are likely to be wrong. Silver may be right and our expectations of a more even partisan split may not materialize. But if that isn’t the case, then November 6, 2012 will prove to be the Waterloo not only for President Obama but also for the pollsters who are predicting victory for him.

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