Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 25, 2013

Hillary the Inevitable … Again?

All throughout the 2012 presidential campaign season, we heard complaints from those covering the election about how nasty and trivial the campaign had become. It would often be compared wistfully to a bygone era of American politics before social media brought the twin plagues of pettiness and excessive informality on the unsuspecting American voter. And while it can be fun to take a stroll down memory lane, the youthful political press is indulging its nostalgia in an odd way: by reprising the 2008 election.

At least that’s the impression one gets reading the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s effect on the emerging field of Democrats seeking to succeed Barack Obama. Politico reports today:

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All throughout the 2012 presidential campaign season, we heard complaints from those covering the election about how nasty and trivial the campaign had become. It would often be compared wistfully to a bygone era of American politics before social media brought the twin plagues of pettiness and excessive informality on the unsuspecting American voter. And while it can be fun to take a stroll down memory lane, the youthful political press is indulging its nostalgia in an odd way: by reprising the 2008 election.

At least that’s the impression one gets reading the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s effect on the emerging field of Democrats seeking to succeed Barack Obama. Politico reports today:

Since it is really too early to ask this question, let’s do it: Can anybody stop Hillary? 

Can any of the other Democrats in the race stop Hillary Clinton from getting the nomination? Who? And how?

Sorry–that was Politico reporting in 2007. Here’s Politico reporting today:

But even as they eye a move from the statehouse to the White House, there’s broad recognition among the chief executives that the next generation of Democrats may have to wait longer than four more years to take their place as Barack Obama’s heir….

Among the Democratic governors who descended on Washington this weekend for the National Governors Association winter meeting, the only difference of opinion when it came to Secretary Clinton was whether she would clear the 2016 field entirely or merely loom colossus-like over the race until, and upon entering, the campaign.

To Politico’s credit, they acknowledge that this all sounds a bit familiar: “Clinton wasn’t supposed to lose the nomination in 2008, either; that is, until a freshman senator from Illinois came along with a message of Hope and Change.” But on the other hand: “she’s in an even stronger place today than she was then, coming off a stint as Obama’s loyal Secretary of State and showing up in polls as the most popular political figure in America.”

Maybe. High approval marks for secretaries of state are common and bipartisan–and don’t usually translate into anything more than a pat on the back. There’s also the possibility that part of Clinton’s high approval numbers at Foggy Bottom had something to do with the fact that voters much preferred her there to being in the White House, which is why she didn’t win her party’s nomination despite her supposed inevitability.

There’s no denying that Clinton would be a strong candidate in 2016. Her name identification will of course help, as will her ability to raise money. Not only will she have one former president on the campaign trail with her in her husband, but she’ll probably have at least the tacit support from Obama as well. But the most telling bit of the story–and easily the most frustrating to the other Democratic contenders–was this:

It’s an unprecedented scenario, noted some of the governors: a first lady-turned-senator-turned-presidential candidate-turned Secretary of State with 100-percent name ID and deep popularity who would, oh yes, make history as the nation’s first female president.

Even the most impressive health care delivery reforms and far-reaching gun control restrictions pale by comparison.

Translation: identity politics still rule the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean a Clinton campaign would be nothing but empty sloganeering and personality cult politics, as Obama’s was in 2008. He was always more of an ideologue who still can’t seem to get out of campaign mode long enough to govern. Clinton’s strengths are in the policy arena; she’s detail-oriented, tireless, and a formidable debater.

Nonetheless, as Democrats see it, her biggest strength may be that if Obama’s second term sputters, as so often happens, Clinton is the kind of candidate who could run to succeed Obama without having to defend eight years of Democratic policies coming out of the White House because she could raise the argument above discussion of policy altogether. Just look at the two issues, for example, that the Politico story brought up: guns and health care reform. Obamacare is not now and has never been popular, and by the time Obama leaves office it may very well be even less so. And gun control has been a losing issue for liberal Democrats on the national stage for quite some time.

Democrats would really like to keep passing relatively unpopular legislation and not have to own it or be punished by the voters for it going forward. It would be a neat trick; ironically, nominating one of Obama’s high-profile Cabinet members may be the their best chance to pull it off.

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Obama’s Hypocritical Access Sale

To say that Barack Obama has never practiced what he preached about campaign finance reform is the understatement of the century. The president rode to office and then was re-elected with the help of a massive influx of private cash, all the while saying that money was the root of all political evil. He routinely denounces the wealthy and the influence of big business while taking their money and selling access to the White House to the same Wall Street moguls to whom he accuses Republicans of being in thrall.

Even when practiced at such Olympian levels, hypocrisy is not against the law. Thus the news that a new pro-Obama 501(c)(4), organized by the rump of the Obama re-election campaign, is gearing up to not only advocate for the president’s policies but to reward donors with access to the White House and the president himself is not so much a question of legality but a matter of setting a new low in ethical standards. As even the New York Times noted in an article published this weekend, the access sale being conducted by the president’s Organizing for Action group crosses a line that most groups that similarly label themselves as educational rather than political don’t:

Giving or raising $500,000 or more puts donors on a national advisory board for Mr. Obama’s group and the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president, along with other meetings at the White House. Moreover, the new cash demands on Mr. Obama’s top donors and bundlers come as many of them are angling for appointments to administration jobs or ambassadorships. …

Many traditional advocacy organizations, including the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association, are set up as social welfare groups, or 501(c)(4)’s in tax parlance. But unlike those groups, Organizing for Action appears to be an extension of the administration, stocked with alumni of Mr. Obama’s White House and campaign teams and devoted solely to the president’s second-term agenda.

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To say that Barack Obama has never practiced what he preached about campaign finance reform is the understatement of the century. The president rode to office and then was re-elected with the help of a massive influx of private cash, all the while saying that money was the root of all political evil. He routinely denounces the wealthy and the influence of big business while taking their money and selling access to the White House to the same Wall Street moguls to whom he accuses Republicans of being in thrall.

Even when practiced at such Olympian levels, hypocrisy is not against the law. Thus the news that a new pro-Obama 501(c)(4), organized by the rump of the Obama re-election campaign, is gearing up to not only advocate for the president’s policies but to reward donors with access to the White House and the president himself is not so much a question of legality but a matter of setting a new low in ethical standards. As even the New York Times noted in an article published this weekend, the access sale being conducted by the president’s Organizing for Action group crosses a line that most groups that similarly label themselves as educational rather than political don’t:

Giving or raising $500,000 or more puts donors on a national advisory board for Mr. Obama’s group and the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president, along with other meetings at the White House. Moreover, the new cash demands on Mr. Obama’s top donors and bundlers come as many of them are angling for appointments to administration jobs or ambassadorships. …

Many traditional advocacy organizations, including the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association, are set up as social welfare groups, or 501(c)(4)’s in tax parlance. But unlike those groups, Organizing for Action appears to be an extension of the administration, stocked with alumni of Mr. Obama’s White House and campaign teams and devoted solely to the president’s second-term agenda.

The intermingling of money and power is nothing new. Indeed, the myth that campaign finance reform laws can eliminate this nexus is itself a problem because it has led to more and more such legislation that has only made the problem worse, as donations have become less accountable and transparent.

They hypocrisy of a president and an administration that continues to portray itself as being as pure as the driven snow is bad enough. The stench of this sort of brazen behavior ought to shock both the press and the public, but the double standard by which the president always seems to be given a pass for everything he does seems to apply to this as well.

But the problem with selling access to this particular White House is that for all of its high-flown rhetoric about ethics, it seems as malleable to the whims of big contributors as any of its less highly regarded predecessors. A quick look at the list of companies that benefited from the president’s first-term stimulus boondoggle reveals a roster of Obama campaign contributors. We should expect that this latest example of administration venality would increase the number of Solyndra-style “investments” by the Treasury.

This is not the first White House for sale, as both Republicans and Democrats have often played the same game. But the industrial level of this kind of access sale makes the use of the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House as a motel for Democratic cash cows and celebrity donors by the Clintons look tame.

The solution to this sort of thing is not more laws that will only create ever more subterfuges and even less accountability, just as past efforts have done. What is needed is a vigorous press keeping close watch on the administration and prepared to treat future Solyndra-type scandals as major stories–as they would were George W. Bush playing such a cynical game–rather than footnotes. But given the president’s ability to play puppet master to the press, that is about as likely to happen as Laura Bush being asked to announce the Best Picture Oscar.

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The Sequester Airport Shakedown

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been under fire the past few days for his role as one of the leading front men for the president’s effort to scare Americans about the sequester. There are good reasons to fear the impact of these across-the-board spending cuts, especially to defense, as Max wrote last week. But the manner in which the administration is attempting to claim that the country’s business will grind to a halt is prompting some skepticism about the sequester as well as the government’s credibility.

There’s no doubt the sequester will inflict real pain on the Department of Transportation and other government sectors. But Republicans are publicly wondering whether that pain will be disproportionately applied to services that will directly affect the public as opposed to other, far less vital expenditures that might well be eliminated without creating the sort of havoc that the White House has been warning us about. Who is right? We’ll find out soon enough, as at this point either side of this argument can say anything it wants without fear of being proven wrong. But once the sequester starts going into effect it will be possible to see whether the government is being straight with the public or not. That’s the danger for the White House.

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been under fire the past few days for his role as one of the leading front men for the president’s effort to scare Americans about the sequester. There are good reasons to fear the impact of these across-the-board spending cuts, especially to defense, as Max wrote last week. But the manner in which the administration is attempting to claim that the country’s business will grind to a halt is prompting some skepticism about the sequester as well as the government’s credibility.

There’s no doubt the sequester will inflict real pain on the Department of Transportation and other government sectors. But Republicans are publicly wondering whether that pain will be disproportionately applied to services that will directly affect the public as opposed to other, far less vital expenditures that might well be eliminated without creating the sort of havoc that the White House has been warning us about. Who is right? We’ll find out soon enough, as at this point either side of this argument can say anything it wants without fear of being proven wrong. But once the sequester starts going into effect it will be possible to see whether the government is being straight with the public or not. That’s the danger for the White House.

Up until this week, the contest to see who will get the lion’s share of the blame for the sequester has been the main event in Washington. Part of that was involved in the White House’s effort to disavow the paternity of this awful idea. But now that Bob Woodward has blown that up, they are back to their main task of arguing that any suffering or inconvenience that stems from the measure will be due to the GOP refusing to accept the president’s demands and raise taxes. While talking about the long-term impact of layoffs or lower allocations for programs can certainly drive the argument about the sequester, Democrats also know that the way the cuts impact the daily life of Americans will be even more influential.

That’s why the focus this week has been on things like the possible travails that travelers will experience at airports when the sequester goes into effect. In theory that ought to create tremendous pressure on Republicans to give in to the president, evoking the spectacle of aggravated passengers as canceled flights and long security lines bring air travel to a grinding halt.

But if it comes out that these delays have been as much the result of manipulative decisions by the authorities that are geared toward maximizing inconvenience rather than just cutting expenditures, it could cause some real blow back for the administration. Figures such as LaHood need to be very careful in the way the sequester is administered. As much as the president is the beneficiary of a largely complacent press corps, any monkey business aimed at making things look even worse than they are could erase any temporary advantage the president might get from this dustup.

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In Praise of Bob Woodward

I want to add to what Jonathan wrote about Bob Woodward calling out the White House for misrepresenting its role in sequestration and “moving the goalposts” in order to get its way.

Mr. Woodward is clearly sympathetic to President Obama’s approach; he’s said as much. (“Obama’s call for a balanced approach is reasonable,” Woodward writes, “and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more.”) But Woodward has enough integrity as a journalist not to allow a willful distortion to go unchecked and unchallenged.

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I want to add to what Jonathan wrote about Bob Woodward calling out the White House for misrepresenting its role in sequestration and “moving the goalposts” in order to get its way.

Mr. Woodward is clearly sympathetic to President Obama’s approach; he’s said as much. (“Obama’s call for a balanced approach is reasonable,” Woodward writes, “and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more.”) But Woodward has enough integrity as a journalist not to allow a willful distortion to go unchecked and unchallenged.

Many in the elite media–NBC’s Chuck Todd prominently among them—have made a concerted effort to downplay the role of paternity when it comes to the sequestration idea. (Todd declared, “Of all the dumb things Washington does, this ‘who started it’ argument has proven to be one of the dumber ones, especially since we’re so close to the actual cuts going into place.”)

But this is a ludicrous position. Any journalist worth his salt must know that for a president to eviscerate a “brutal” idea that his own White House championed and that the president himself approved of is a big story. And you can be sure Chuck Todd would think so, and treat it as such, if the president was George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan instead of Barack Obama. 

In any event, we only know about the White House’s role because of Woodward’s book The Price of Politics. And now Woodward himself is holding the White House accountable for disfiguring the truth.

I don’t always agree with Mr. Woodward’s judgments, and I’ve expressed those differences publicly. I’m also aware of the fact that it’s fashionable among some, including some conservatives, to disparage Woodward. But the truth is that he’s a monumentally important figure in the history of journalism. His books have genuine historical value. He’s not afraid to take on either Republican or Democratic presidents. And whatever his own political views are, he is first and foremost a reporter, and an awfully good one. Which he’s showed once again, in this most recent dust-up with the White House.

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Why the Syrian Rebels Don’t Trust Kerry

In January, as the Syrian civil war closed in on its second anniversary, news broke that was tantalizingly close to a game-changer. Josh Rogin reported that a State Department cable indicated the strong belief that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. The next day, Rogin reported a stern denial from the State Department. In the fog of war, the two claims seemed to have roughly equal credibility. But the Obama administration’s denial raised some eyebrows, since President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons a clear red line that would necessitate intervention in the conflict. Was he moving the red line again, as he had appeared to do just months before, to avoid taking action?

The perception that President Obama was far too willing to find any excuse not to increase help to the Syrian rebels was especially unhelpful for the administration since the president had recently sent another dispiriting message to the Syrian opposition: the announcement of the nomination of John Kerry to be his next secretary of state. Kerry was, of course, one of the least perceptive American senators with regard to the cruelty of the man he called—as aides cringed—his “dear friend” Assad and bought hook, line and sinker the idea that the bloodthirsty tyrant might be ready to reform and moderate his behavior. So it’s not a complete surprise that, as Kerry seeks a meeting with them, the rebels are wondering whether they have any reason to let Kerry use them as props for a photo op to be almost certainly discarded thereafter. CBS News reports:

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In January, as the Syrian civil war closed in on its second anniversary, news broke that was tantalizingly close to a game-changer. Josh Rogin reported that a State Department cable indicated the strong belief that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. The next day, Rogin reported a stern denial from the State Department. In the fog of war, the two claims seemed to have roughly equal credibility. But the Obama administration’s denial raised some eyebrows, since President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons a clear red line that would necessitate intervention in the conflict. Was he moving the red line again, as he had appeared to do just months before, to avoid taking action?

The perception that President Obama was far too willing to find any excuse not to increase help to the Syrian rebels was especially unhelpful for the administration since the president had recently sent another dispiriting message to the Syrian opposition: the announcement of the nomination of John Kerry to be his next secretary of state. Kerry was, of course, one of the least perceptive American senators with regard to the cruelty of the man he called—as aides cringed—his “dear friend” Assad and bought hook, line and sinker the idea that the bloodthirsty tyrant might be ready to reform and moderate his behavior. So it’s not a complete surprise that, as Kerry seeks a meeting with them, the rebels are wondering whether they have any reason to let Kerry use them as props for a photo op to be almost certainly discarded thereafter. CBS News reports:

The Syrian Opposition may boycott their first opportunity to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry, despite his efforts to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria and the Obama administration’s longtime support of a political transition away from the Assad regime.

That’s a lot of spin for one opening paragraph, giving the Obama administration credit for hoping Assad spontaneously combusts. But perhaps the reporter misses the obvious point that the rebels’ skepticism might not be despite, but rather because of, Kerry’s “efforts to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” which the rebels might suspect means giving up their fight for freedom in return for a superficial personnel change at the top of the regime.

Kerry certainly has done nothing to earn any credibility from the rebels in Syria or elsewhere, and so he won’t be granted it. But at the end of the day, as terrible a spokesman as Kerry is for the cause of freedom, it’s Kerry boss the rebels are speaking to by dissing Kerry. As we learned recently, Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, as well as David Petraeus and Leon Panetta, wanted to intervene in Syria on behalf of the rebels. Obama turned them down. Kerry, therefore, wasn’t selected as secretary of state to set diplomatic policy but rather because he was the perfect representative of the administration’s policy already in place.

Though the analogy is imperfect, the conflict’s trajectory has been reminiscent of another such rebellion: the insurgency sparked in Chechnya and which spread across the Caucasus, especially to Dagestan and Ingushetia. The first Chechen war was one of independence, as the Chechens were eager to exploit the breakup of the Soviet Union and claim a form of long-awaited retribution for the abuses inflicted upon them by the Russian empire–especially under Stalin–and go their own way. They defended themselves from Russia’s troops more ably than expected, and eventually incurred the wrath of Vladimir Putin, who was eager to make a name for himself with the second Chechen war.

But by that time five years later, the nature of the Chechen insurgency had had begun a dramatic change. The cause of Chechen independence would be effectively hijacked by an Islamist core that would go on to found the Caucasus Emirate and lead a band of insurgents easily able to replicate Putin’s brutality. The world could be forgiven for wondering just who they were supposed to be rooting for and turning their attention elsewhere.

The Syrian rebellion formed as part of the Arab Spring, but when the West refused to play favorites and get involved, others–notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia–did. Money and weapons started flowing ever faster to terrorist groups like the al-Nusra Front and other Islamist radicals. The West throws up its hands. And so Ricochet’s Judith Levy’s interview with the journalist Jonathan Spyer, who has reported from Syria throughout the conflict, contains this exchange:

Judith: So is it a foregone conclusion that a victorious rebellion will mean an Islamist Syria?

Jonathan: Well, I think it is more and more looking that way now. I’m not sure if that was the case right at the beginning. To some degree, what’s happened now — and I stress to some degree, I don’t want to say this is the whole picture, but to some degree what’s happening now is the result of Western policy.

It’s a Western policy that Clinton and others opposed, to no avail. And it’s a policy that John Kerry is perfectly suited to carry out, something of which the rebels seem to be well aware.

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Last Call for Accountability on Hagel

There isn’t much doubt Chuck Hagel will finally be confirmed as secretary of defense this week when the Senate reconvenes. Some Republicans have abandoned their support of delaying the nomination. Meanwhile, Democrats–even those who have reputations as stalwart friends of Israel–have closed ranks behind President Obama’s choice. The result is that a man who was widely ridiculed for his incompetent performance during his confirmation hearing and who has a long record of troubling stands on Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah will soon be running the Pentagon. As Pete wrote earlier today, having a “dim-witted” secretary of defense who isn’t up to the task of helping to set policy is bad for national security. There is also good reason to worry that whatever influence Hagel does have will be used to downgrade the alliance with Israel and to act as a brake on efforts to isolate Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

But before the book on the Hagel confirmation fight is closed, it’s worth re-examining one of the excuses used by some Democrats in refusing to stand up against such an unsuitable nomination. Many of those who otherwise count themselves as staunch friends of Israel—and who almost certainly would have gone to the barricades to oppose a similar candidate had he been put forward by a Republican president—have defended their support of Hagel by saying that it was impossible for them to speak out on the issue when Jewish and pro-Israel groups were silent. While many Jewish groups did keep quiet about Hagel, the initial reluctance of others went out the window in the last weeks as more information came to light about Hagel’s past statements about Jews and Israel. Earlier this month, Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said Hagel’s statements were disturbing and called for an explanation. 

The latest to do so was B’nai B’rith International. On Friday, it said it was troubled by Hagel’s record as well as by his statements and urged the Senate to re-examine his record before voting. In doing so, it joined the American Jewish Committee, another large mainstream and generally liberal organization, in calling for a halt to the rush to confirm Hagel.

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There isn’t much doubt Chuck Hagel will finally be confirmed as secretary of defense this week when the Senate reconvenes. Some Republicans have abandoned their support of delaying the nomination. Meanwhile, Democrats–even those who have reputations as stalwart friends of Israel–have closed ranks behind President Obama’s choice. The result is that a man who was widely ridiculed for his incompetent performance during his confirmation hearing and who has a long record of troubling stands on Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah will soon be running the Pentagon. As Pete wrote earlier today, having a “dim-witted” secretary of defense who isn’t up to the task of helping to set policy is bad for national security. There is also good reason to worry that whatever influence Hagel does have will be used to downgrade the alliance with Israel and to act as a brake on efforts to isolate Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

But before the book on the Hagel confirmation fight is closed, it’s worth re-examining one of the excuses used by some Democrats in refusing to stand up against such an unsuitable nomination. Many of those who otherwise count themselves as staunch friends of Israel—and who almost certainly would have gone to the barricades to oppose a similar candidate had he been put forward by a Republican president—have defended their support of Hagel by saying that it was impossible for them to speak out on the issue when Jewish and pro-Israel groups were silent. While many Jewish groups did keep quiet about Hagel, the initial reluctance of others went out the window in the last weeks as more information came to light about Hagel’s past statements about Jews and Israel. Earlier this month, Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said Hagel’s statements were disturbing and called for an explanation. 

The latest to do so was B’nai B’rith International. On Friday, it said it was troubled by Hagel’s record as well as by his statements and urged the Senate to re-examine his record before voting. In doing so, it joined the American Jewish Committee, another large mainstream and generally liberal organization, in calling for a halt to the rush to confirm Hagel.

Prior to this, the Zionist Organization of America had made its negative views about Hagel very clear. The Republican Jewish Coalition had also been doing its best to galvanize opposition to the nomination. But since neither group can be said to represent the views of most liberals, it was possible for Hagel’s defenders to say they didn’t represent most Jews. But with ADL, AJC and B’nai B’rith speaking up, that just isn’t possible anymore.

There should be no misunderstanding, heading into the final debate about Hagel, about the insincerity of his confirmation conversion in which his past positions on Israel and its foes were abandoned. Israel-bashers are confident that the process by which Hagel morphed into a supposed ardent backer of the alliance with the Jewish state will be forgotten once he is ensconced in the Pentagon. But the willingness of so many pro-Israel Democrats to turn a blind eye to Hagel’s shortcomings in an effort to please President Obama is a shocking abandonment of principle. This is a not insignificant point that deserves to be brought up whenever some of the Democrats, like New York’s Chuck Schumer, who will vote for Hagel this week, parade their pro-Israel credentials in an effort to garner support and raise funds. It may be too late in the game to expect these politicians to behave in a manner that is consistent with their past statements, but, like Hagel, they should be held accountable.

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The Oscars, the Obamas and Camelot

No one who decided to go to bed or just switched the channel sometime before the end of a spectacularly boring Oscars show last night should be blamed. But if you did, you missed more than the identity of the winners of the major awards. In a night full of not particularly funny jokes or entertaining production numbers, and winners that most of the movie pundits predicted, the biggest surprise came when First Lady Michelle Obama appeared live from the White House to help Jack Nicholson present the Best Picture Award that capped the evening. Mrs. Obama is as graceful, attractive and well dressed as most of the film stars present at the ceremony. But the decision to include her at its conclusion illustrated a salient fact about the advantages her husband has been given and why the laws of political gravity do not seem to apply to him.

In the last year I have often written about how conservatives have underestimated President Obama’s political appeal as well as the kid glove treatment he gets from the media. The full explanation of his ability to escape the sort of critical scrutiny his recent predecessors have received is multifaceted, but I believe the most important aspect of this phenomenon is what I call the “Camelot” factor. The Obamas are the beneficiaries of a media whose liberal bias is beyond doubt. They also have a skillful staff that is ruthlessly manipulative and takes full advantage of social media and creative tactics. But mere bias and smart tactics don’t fully explain it. No president or presidential family has been treated by the mainstream media with the sort of deference if not reverential awe the Obamas get since John F. Kennedy and his beautiful wife were in the White House.

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No one who decided to go to bed or just switched the channel sometime before the end of a spectacularly boring Oscars show last night should be blamed. But if you did, you missed more than the identity of the winners of the major awards. In a night full of not particularly funny jokes or entertaining production numbers, and winners that most of the movie pundits predicted, the biggest surprise came when First Lady Michelle Obama appeared live from the White House to help Jack Nicholson present the Best Picture Award that capped the evening. Mrs. Obama is as graceful, attractive and well dressed as most of the film stars present at the ceremony. But the decision to include her at its conclusion illustrated a salient fact about the advantages her husband has been given and why the laws of political gravity do not seem to apply to him.

In the last year I have often written about how conservatives have underestimated President Obama’s political appeal as well as the kid glove treatment he gets from the media. The full explanation of his ability to escape the sort of critical scrutiny his recent predecessors have received is multifaceted, but I believe the most important aspect of this phenomenon is what I call the “Camelot” factor. The Obamas are the beneficiaries of a media whose liberal bias is beyond doubt. They also have a skillful staff that is ruthlessly manipulative and takes full advantage of social media and creative tactics. But mere bias and smart tactics don’t fully explain it. No president or presidential family has been treated by the mainstream media with the sort of deference if not reverential awe the Obamas get since John F. Kennedy and his beautiful wife were in the White House.

It almost goes without saying that it is impossible to imagine any other recent First Lady being invited to present the Best Picture Oscar. Mrs. Obama’s many fans will argue that she is the most stylish and perhaps attractive of recent presidential wives, and perhaps they have a case to make in that regard. But you don’t have to be a conservative or a Republican to realize that with the Obamas the already obvious political preferences of the arts world–and the film industry in particular–have crossed a new boundary.

While all presidents, including some of the most revered like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, have always been subjected to abuse in the political arena, popular culture had always tended to treat presidents with deference. But ever since Kennedy, that salute-the-flag way of looking at our political leaders has gone out the window. Since then all denizens of the White House have been subjected to the same cynical and sarcastic treatment accorded everybody else in contemporary American culture. Though liberals were certainly treated better than conservatives, they were not exempt. Not, that is, until Barack and Michelle Obama.

President Obama’s historic status as our first African-American president grants him the sort of edge that no other contemporary politician or any of his successors can ever hope to acquire. But the strength of his position is not just a function of a lapdog liberal media that is so easily led around by the nose by White House flacks. The Obamas are not just the leading figures in our politics; they are treated by popular culture as the uncrowned king and queen of America.

In parliamentary political systems the duties of head of state and head of government are separated. In the United States they are combined, but in the last half-century presidents have not been able to step out of their politician role in the way that their predecessors might once have done. Not so the Obamas, who are subjected to less mockery and more courtesy than even the queen of Great Britain is given in her own realm.

Part of this is seen in the way the first lady and the Obama children are held exempt from the sort of nasty criticism that has been the normal fare of every presidential family since Jacqueline Kennedy, Caroline and John-John were the darlings of the press. The children of even liberal presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were the butts of jokes–but not the Obama kids.

But the ability of the Obamas to preside over American culture like apolitical monarchs while simultaneously taking part in some of the most bitter, partisan and demagogic political warfare against their opponents gives the president an enormous advantage in everything he does, whether it is conducting a re-election campaign or bullying Congress to raise taxes.

Prior to the Oscars, it was understood that politics had torpedoed the chances of the superior “Zero Dark Thirty” from winning the top award. But Mrs. Obama’s presence in the ceremony told us more about the intersection of culture and politics than even that travesty.

Republicans have spent much of the last few months since their defeat at the hands of President Obama engaged in an orgy of introspection and recrimination. A good deal of that is justified. But as much as they need to rethink their approach to some issues, as well as their messaging, they would be foolish to think that their losses in 2008 and 2012 are unconnected to their bad fortune in being matched up against a Camelot presidency.

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Why a Dim-Witted Defense Secretary Matters

Much has been said, and rightly so, about Chuck Hagel’s dismal confirmation hearing, his noxious statements about Israel, his alarming attitude toward Iran, and his eagerness to gut the Defense Department.

But what Dan Senor has done better than anyone else is to explain, in a specific and accessible manner, what a secretary of defense does, what the job entails, and why competence in that Cabinet post, more than any other, matters. Mr. Senor’s article in the Weekly Standard can be found here

In the wake of Senator Hagel’s dim-witted performance in his confirmation hearing, his supporters were forced to argue that Hagel is acceptable precisely because he won’t really be in charge. “After all,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, “the president is the one who sets policy.” Mr. Hagel himself, in order to allay concerns of his critics, actually said, “I won’t be in a policy-making position.”

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Much has been said, and rightly so, about Chuck Hagel’s dismal confirmation hearing, his noxious statements about Israel, his alarming attitude toward Iran, and his eagerness to gut the Defense Department.

But what Dan Senor has done better than anyone else is to explain, in a specific and accessible manner, what a secretary of defense does, what the job entails, and why competence in that Cabinet post, more than any other, matters. Mr. Senor’s article in the Weekly Standard can be found here

In the wake of Senator Hagel’s dim-witted performance in his confirmation hearing, his supporters were forced to argue that Hagel is acceptable precisely because he won’t really be in charge. “After all,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, “the president is the one who sets policy.” Mr. Hagel himself, in order to allay concerns of his critics, actually said, “I won’t be in a policy-making position.”

Except that he will–and Senor explains all that this means.

In his conclusion, Senor writes:

The most that can be said in favor of Chuck Hagel’s nomination is that his hands will be tied, that he won’t have much scope to affect policy. But no one should be under any illusions: If Chuck Hagel becomes secretary of defense, he will be captain of the Pentagon ship, choosing its crew and charting its course. The decisions he makes on the job will have tremendous consequences for the wars America fights today, and perhaps an even greater impact on the wars which America might fight in the future. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, like every secretary of defense before him, will be a consequential policymaker, for better or for worse.

If Hagel is confirmed it will be, in every important respect, for worse.

These are not going to be easy years for America.

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