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Posts For: March 20, 2013

On the Rhetoric of the United Nations and the United States

Sitting in the back of the room as the UN’s member states negotiate the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a disorientating experience. That’s partly because it’s not a negotiation as Americans understand the term: it’s a series of more or less unconnected national interventions on particular points of interest, while the actual drafting happens out of sight. It’s also because Iran and North Korea are treated with at least as much formal respect as the United States and South Korea. Before last summer’s ATT negotiations, I had naively expected that the North Korean diplomats, for example, would be just a touch embarrassed to be representing their regime, and that as a result they would try to fade into background. On the contrary–it’s the U.S. that intervenes as little as possible, while the totalitarians speak up loud, proud, and often.

But it’s mostly because of the sleep-inducing effect of UN-style rhetoric, which only a few nations have failed to master. Phrases like “colonial and alien domination” (meaning, of course, Israel and the United States), “right of resistance” (meaning Palestinian and Islamist terrorism), “balanced and objective criteria” (meaning that nothing should inconvenience human rights abusers), “open and inclusive negotiations” (meaning that the conference has to work entirely in plenary, because Iran and the other dictatorships do not want anything happening out of their sight), and the “disproportionate effect of armed violence on women, children, the elderly, and the disabled” (meaning that the speaker is very eager to sound progressive, either because they are Norway or because they are speaking on behalf of a Third World autocracy) roll off tongue after tongue.

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Sitting in the back of the room as the UN’s member states negotiate the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a disorientating experience. That’s partly because it’s not a negotiation as Americans understand the term: it’s a series of more or less unconnected national interventions on particular points of interest, while the actual drafting happens out of sight. It’s also because Iran and North Korea are treated with at least as much formal respect as the United States and South Korea. Before last summer’s ATT negotiations, I had naively expected that the North Korean diplomats, for example, would be just a touch embarrassed to be representing their regime, and that as a result they would try to fade into background. On the contrary–it’s the U.S. that intervenes as little as possible, while the totalitarians speak up loud, proud, and often.

But it’s mostly because of the sleep-inducing effect of UN-style rhetoric, which only a few nations have failed to master. Phrases like “colonial and alien domination” (meaning, of course, Israel and the United States), “right of resistance” (meaning Palestinian and Islamist terrorism), “balanced and objective criteria” (meaning that nothing should inconvenience human rights abusers), “open and inclusive negotiations” (meaning that the conference has to work entirely in plenary, because Iran and the other dictatorships do not want anything happening out of their sight), and the “disproportionate effect of armed violence on women, children, the elderly, and the disabled” (meaning that the speaker is very eager to sound progressive, either because they are Norway or because they are speaking on behalf of a Third World autocracy) roll off tongue after tongue.

It’s disconcerting that the dictatorial nations are among the most effective dispellers of this nearly impenetrable fog of code words. UN press releases are surprisingly good at capturing the substance of what is said, but they cannot capture discordant tones. That is because every speaker gets a summary of about the same length, which diminishes the impact of the longer and more dictatorial rants. (Syria clearly does the best crazy act–if act it is–in the room, though Algeria also has much to be proud of in this regard.) But it also diminishes the impact of plain speaking, even when it’s hypocritical. When Venezuela spoke yesterday morning, for example, it disconcertingly pointed out that the draft ATT would prevent a nation under massive foreign attack from importing arms if there was a likelihood that the victim nation would commit any human rights violations in the course of defending itself. It was the sharpest point made in the debate, and Liechtenstein’s response–which echoed David Bosco’s foolish argument that I summarized on Monday–only made the democracies look even more woolly-headed.

Curiously, the other nation that does not use the UN style is the United States. When the U.S. delegation–normally, Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman–speaks, it is short and to the point. There are no code words, and while Countryman is far from discourteous, U.S. statements conspicuously lack the flowers and genuflections of many other delegations. The U.S. approach conveys the attitude that the purpose of negotiations is actually to negotiate something, and that the purpose of speech is to say something that will move the negotiations forward. It’s the mentality of a very competent engineer, or of a nation with the presentational style of Jack Webb: just the facts, ma’am. True, the U.S. doesn’t use code words partly because at the UN those code words stand for ideas of which it profoundly disapproves. But it’s more than that.

At bottom, I’m convinced, the U.S. still retains something of its founding ambivalence toward the stylistic formalities of professional diplomacy, which is as much about concealing meaning as revealing it. American diplomacy, like America itself, is exceptional and individualistic, unwilling to adopt the conventions that others find simple and convenient. That is who we are, and it is a good thing–but only up to a point, because the engineer’s mentality can all too easily lead to the belief that everything can be fixed through negotiations, if only you try hard enough. The example of our nuclear negotiations with Iran should be enough to dispel that belief, but national myths die very hard. We are far too slow to recognize that for many nations, the point of negotiations is to spend a pleasant few weeks in New York, to be ranked as an equal to the U.S., to waste time, or just to show up.

No one believes in American exceptionalism more than I do, but inherent in exceptionalism, after all, is recognizing that the other guy may have an utterly different reason for sitting down at the table than you do. Right now, we have the worst of both worlds: an administration that doesn’t believe in exceptionalism, and a diplomacy that too often embodies exceptionalism’s most unreflective and self-absorbed aspects. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here at the United Nations listening to Syria rant about the need to control the supply of arms to terrorists.

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Has Obama Reversed Cairo?

Four years ago during his first visit to the Middle East as president, Barack Obama not only snubbed Israel but gave a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world in which he made it clear that he viewed the plight of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to that of the Holocaust. In doing so, he didn’t merely elevate the Palestinian claim to statehood as his diplomatic priority but downgraded the Jewish claim to their homeland as purely a function of international pity in the aftermath of the slaughter of European Jewry. This slight was not lost on the people of Israel who regarded these statements as much as the fights the president picked with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu over the following years as evidence of his utter lack of sympathy for the Jewish state.

But after years of tilting the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians the president arrived in Israel today singing a very different tune. He may have come into the presidency determined to open up daylight between the positions of the United States and Israel and succeeded in doing so. But his opening remarks upon arriving in Israel today effectively closed the gap between the two countries to the minimum. Even more important, his recognition of Israel’s rights effectively dashed the hopes of many in the Arab and Muslim world that this president, especially after his re-election, would further downgrade the alliance between the two nations.

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Four years ago during his first visit to the Middle East as president, Barack Obama not only snubbed Israel but gave a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world in which he made it clear that he viewed the plight of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to that of the Holocaust. In doing so, he didn’t merely elevate the Palestinian claim to statehood as his diplomatic priority but downgraded the Jewish claim to their homeland as purely a function of international pity in the aftermath of the slaughter of European Jewry. This slight was not lost on the people of Israel who regarded these statements as much as the fights the president picked with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu over the following years as evidence of his utter lack of sympathy for the Jewish state.

But after years of tilting the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians the president arrived in Israel today singing a very different tune. He may have come into the presidency determined to open up daylight between the positions of the United States and Israel and succeeded in doing so. But his opening remarks upon arriving in Israel today effectively closed the gap between the two countries to the minimum. Even more important, his recognition of Israel’s rights effectively dashed the hopes of many in the Arab and Muslim world that this president, especially after his re-election, would further downgrade the alliance between the two nations.

Barack Obama isn’t the first American president to stand with the people of Israel, but his speech today was important precisely because of the expectations that he has raised among those who hope to isolate the Jewish state and undermine its ability to defend itself. There may be many in Israel and in the United States who still regard Obama with skepticism–and with good reason. He may still be, as veteran peace processer Aaron David Miller memorably said, the first U.S. president in a generation that wasn’t “in love with the idea of Israel” and a persistent critic of both Netanyahu and the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. But his remarks upon arriving in Israel today show he may have learned from his mistakes.

The importance of Obama’s airport speech lies mainly in the fact that these are the words of the same person who went to Cairo University and spoke in a manner that gave much of the world the idea that the U.S.-Israel alliance was on hold. It might not have been significant had George W. Bush or Bill Clinton spoke of 3,000 years of Jewish history and of its citizens being the “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah,” and to refer to the U.S.-Israel alliance as being “eternal,” but from Barack Obama this is remarkable.

This can be dismissed as mere rhetoric that can always be ignored or reversed at the whim of a president who has shown that he is confident that his cheerleaders in the mainstream press won’t hold him accountable. But they also have a power in and of themselves. When the world heard Obama downgrading the alliance with Israel, they drew conclusions that were dangerous to the stability of the region as well as to the security of the Jewish state. But when the president makes plain that even he regards the relationship with Israel as unbreakable and that the rights of the Jews to their “historic homeland” must be respected, that has great meaning too.

One would think that it wouldn’t be a big deal for a U.S. president to express his support for Zionism in the fulsome manner that Obama used today. But in doing so he sent a chill down the spines of Israel’s foes. The campaign to delegitimize Zionism and to regard any act of self-defense on Israel’s part as a war crime may have gained ground in recent years in Europe and on American campuses. But the willingness of the president to speak in this manner is a blow to the hopes of those who think Israel’s days are numbered.

Obama may say plenty tomorrow in his address to Israeli students that may upset some friends of the Jewish state. Given his history, the president’s critics have reason to wonder whether he is hoping to use any leverage gained by this trip to orchestrate pressure on Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians. But given his present unpopularity in Israel, the best he can hope for out of this is to lower his negatives there. The idea that he can mobilize Israelis against Netanyahu isn’t realistic.

As much as Obama deserved criticism for his past record of picking fights with Israel and undermining its position in the world, today’s speech undid at least some of that damage. Even his fiercest critics must give him credit for that.

The following is the text of his opening remarks upon arriving in the Jewish state. Let’s hope Israel’s enemies and critics who regarded the Cairo speech as the beginning of the end of the U.S.-Israel alliance take it to heart.

I’m so honored to be here as you prepare to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a free and independent State of Israel.  Yet I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here.  And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.

Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.”  And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.

As I begin my second term as President, Israel is the first stop on my first foreign trip.  This is no accident.  Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril.  So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.

I want to begin right now, by answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship — why?  Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel?  And the answer is simple.  We stand together because we share a common story — patriots determined “to be a free people in our land,” pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies.

We stand together because we are democracies.  For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man.

We stand together because it makes us more prosperous.  Our trade and investment create jobs for both our peoples.  Our partnerships in science and medicine and health bring us closer to new cures, harness new energy and have helped transform us into high-tech hubs of our global economy.

We stand together because we share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world.  When the earth shakes and the floods come, our doctors and rescuers reach out to help. When people are suffering, from Africa to Asia, we partner to fight disease and overcome hunger.

And we stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land.  For even as we are clear-eyed about the difficulty, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.

So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can –the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel.  It makes us both stronger.  It makes us both more prosperous.  And it makes the world a better place.  (Applause.)

That’s why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the State of Israel 65 years ago.  That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today.  And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.

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Palestinians Welcome Obama with Demands and Ultimatums

Israeli leftists may not be excited about President Obama’s trip to Israel, as Jonathan wrote yesterday, but they are taking it a lot better than the Palestinians. The president is not in Israel to try to play Weekend at Bernie’s with the moribund peace process, and that’s not a bad thing. A friendly visit from the American president and a chance to interact with Israelis in person is a fairly low-risk way to try to build some good will, especially for a president who feels he has been misunderstood by Israelis.

But the Palestinians don’t see it that way. The New York Times reports today that the Palestinian leadership is promising to make President Obama regret this trip by punishing him for his lack of interest in pressuring Israel while he’s here. One of the great mistakes made by Obama in his first term was his demand for a Jewish building freeze as a precondition to negotiations–a demand that boxed Mahmoud Abbas in as well. But now Abbas is threatening that if Obama doesn’t repeat this mistake now, Abbas is going to the International Criminal Court:

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Israeli leftists may not be excited about President Obama’s trip to Israel, as Jonathan wrote yesterday, but they are taking it a lot better than the Palestinians. The president is not in Israel to try to play Weekend at Bernie’s with the moribund peace process, and that’s not a bad thing. A friendly visit from the American president and a chance to interact with Israelis in person is a fairly low-risk way to try to build some good will, especially for a president who feels he has been misunderstood by Israelis.

But the Palestinians don’t see it that way. The New York Times reports today that the Palestinian leadership is promising to make President Obama regret this trip by punishing him for his lack of interest in pressuring Israel while he’s here. One of the great mistakes made by Obama in his first term was his demand for a Jewish building freeze as a precondition to negotiations–a demand that boxed Mahmoud Abbas in as well. But now Abbas is threatening that if Obama doesn’t repeat this mistake now, Abbas is going to the International Criminal Court:

A Palestinian legislator, Ziad Abu-Amr, said Mr. Abbas would make clear to Mr. Obama that he would return to the negotiating table under either of two conditions. One is a mutual six-month freeze in which Israel halted building in West Bank settlements and Palestinians refrained from using their new observer-state status in the United Nations to pursue claims in the International Criminal Court or other agencies. The other is a broad agreement on borders, dividing the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea along the pre-1967 lines, with some land swaps to accommodate the largest Israeli settlements.

This is a remarkably petulant and inane stunt. One of the concerns held by Israel and the U.S. when the Palestinians went to the United Nations in the fall to ask for unilateral recognition was that Abbas and his cronies would go to the ICC and wage lawfare against the Jewish state–and almost certainly, as the Palestinians have themselves suggested, against Americans as well. Abbas is now proving this concern to have been well founded.

The story, by Jodi Rudoren, goes on:

“If he manages to convince the Israelis to sit and negotiate, then the Palestinians wouldn’t go to any other place — if he fails to deliver the Israelis, Abu Mazen will be forced” to go to the international agencies, Mr. Abu-Amr said, using the Palestinian president’s nickname. “If Obama goes back without any significant visible step that will revive the peace process or give hope to the parties, the visit may be counterproductive.”

Does Abbas think having his allies threaten the president this way will get results? Does he think Obama intimidates easily? He’s not going to use his meeting with Obama to threaten the president to his face, is he?

Later on in the article, Rudoren qualifies for some kind of non sequitor award when she writes:

Not far away, at the Al Bireh Youth Foundation, which was expanded in 2010 with $336,000 from the United States Agency for International Development, workers spent Tuesday afternoon erecting a covered entry in preparation for Mr. Obama’s visit. From the road outside, the Israeli settlement of Psagot is easily visible.

And? Why is it important that you can see one town from another? Rudoren doesn’t explain, and the sentence doesn’t come amid a discussion of Israeli settlements. But that’s clearly the implication, since it appears in an article comprised wholly of Palestinian grievances. Yet Psagot could serve to remind readers not of Israeli intransigence but of Palestinians’ predilection for violence. Way back in 2001, reporters were writing of Psagot’s proximity to Ramallah/al-Bireh for another reason entirely: “Since peace talks broke down last year, Palestinian gunners in Ramallah have taken aim at Psagot’s homes almost every night,” explained one report from April of that year.

And that violence was part of the Palestinian terror campaign waged in the wake of the Palestinians’ rejection of the two-state solution. It’s quite a pattern: commit widespread violence to get the international community to pressure Israel to do whatever it can to offer the Palestinians their own state with a capital in Jerusalem, then reject that offer, then shoot at every innocent Israeli civilian they can find. Lather, rinse, repeat. You’ll excuse the president for not allowing himself to be manipulated by bad-faith extortionists on his long-awaited trip to the region. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he tells Abbas that himself while he’s there.

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The New York Times’s War on Wolfowitz

The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq unfortunately has provided the occasion for some who ought to know better to propagate bizarre myths about the war. In this regard, the New York Times editorial board is in a class by itself. In an editorial today, “Ten Years After,” the Times casually writes: “In 2003, President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, used the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to wage pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein and a nuclear arsenal that did not exist.”

It is perhaps a sign of how far gone into the land of fantasy the Times editorialists actually are that they could write a sentence like this and not have anyone fact check their assertion. Was it really the case that the Iraq War was the result of a plot by President Bush and, of all people, the deputy secretary of defense? Weren’t there some other, rather more important figures in the Cabinet who supported the invasion too–not only the president but also Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice?

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The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq unfortunately has provided the occasion for some who ought to know better to propagate bizarre myths about the war. In this regard, the New York Times editorial board is in a class by itself. In an editorial today, “Ten Years After,” the Times casually writes: “In 2003, President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, used the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to wage pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein and a nuclear arsenal that did not exist.”

It is perhaps a sign of how far gone into the land of fantasy the Times editorialists actually are that they could write a sentence like this and not have anyone fact check their assertion. Was it really the case that the Iraq War was the result of a plot by President Bush and, of all people, the deputy secretary of defense? Weren’t there some other, rather more important figures in the Cabinet who supported the invasion too–not only the president but also Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice?

More significantly, wasn’t the war authorized by both houses of Congress? Perhaps the Times editorialists have forgotten that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq was approved in October 2002 by a vote of 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate. This was a war that had bipartisan support, winning the backing of 82 Democrats in the House and 29 in the Senate.

Among those who backed this undertaking were, inter alia, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel, former Secretary of State (and possibly future presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton, and then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Their position–that we had to be willing to use force against Saddam Hussein–was overwhelmingly popular, backed by over 70 percent of those surveyed.

The Times is right that, no matter the vote in Congress or the state of public opinion, President Bush ultimately bore responsibility for the invasion because he was commander-in-chief. But, news flash, Paul Wolfowitz was only the No. 2 official in the Department of Defense. Not only was he not in the chain of command (which runs from the president to the secretary of defense to the combatant commander), he was often ignored by his boss, Donald Rumsfeld. So why on earth, out of all the possible candidates in Washington, would the Times ascribe 50 percent of the responsibility for the invasion of Iraq to Wolfowitz?

The obvious explanation, although the Times editorialists don’t use the word, is that this is an attempt to resuscitate the old canard about how the “neocons lied us into war.” That is the kind of nonsense you expect to hear from the likes of Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul. Shame on the Times editors–they should know better.

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Reid Tries to Save Liberals from Themselves

President Obama and Senator Dianne Feinstein are not happy with Harry Reid. The feeling is mutual. And no one is hiding it very well. The three Democratic leaders are reacting to the announcement that Feinstein’s ban on certain so-called “assault weapons” will not be included in the final Senate gun-control bill and will not be voted on. The assault-weapons ban was always going to end this way; the votes were never there for it.

And while Feinstein believes she was promised a vote and Obama isn’t thrilled about elevating this issue only to have it bow to political reality, there is something disingenuous in focusing their ire on Reid. After all, Reid’s strategy of grinding the Senate to a halt, locking out the opposition from getting votes or amendments, and obstructing even basic Senate business and responsibilities has always been about protecting Democrats from having to vote on their very unpopular, ill-considered policy ideas that the voters would surely hate.

In other words, fully aware of the absurdity of the Democratic policy agenda, Reid’s leadership has always been geared toward saving liberals from themselves–and the voters. And that is exactly what he’s doing on the gun bill. What’s more, while the White House says it’s not giving up on the ban, Reid is telling them to drop it. The Washington Post reports on Reid’s admission that a possible Republican filibuster of the bill is not the cause of its demise:

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President Obama and Senator Dianne Feinstein are not happy with Harry Reid. The feeling is mutual. And no one is hiding it very well. The three Democratic leaders are reacting to the announcement that Feinstein’s ban on certain so-called “assault weapons” will not be included in the final Senate gun-control bill and will not be voted on. The assault-weapons ban was always going to end this way; the votes were never there for it.

And while Feinstein believes she was promised a vote and Obama isn’t thrilled about elevating this issue only to have it bow to political reality, there is something disingenuous in focusing their ire on Reid. After all, Reid’s strategy of grinding the Senate to a halt, locking out the opposition from getting votes or amendments, and obstructing even basic Senate business and responsibilities has always been about protecting Democrats from having to vote on their very unpopular, ill-considered policy ideas that the voters would surely hate.

In other words, fully aware of the absurdity of the Democratic policy agenda, Reid’s leadership has always been geared toward saving liberals from themselves–and the voters. And that is exactly what he’s doing on the gun bill. What’s more, while the White House says it’s not giving up on the ban, Reid is telling them to drop it. The Washington Post reports on Reid’s admission that a possible Republican filibuster of the bill is not the cause of its demise:

Reid (D-Nev.) is preparing to move ahead with debate on a series of gun-control proposals when the Senate returns from a two-week Easter recess in early April. Although he has vowed to hold votes on measures introduced after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December, Reid told reporters Tuesday that the proposed assault-weapons ban isn’t holding up against Senate rules that require at least 60 votes to end debate and move to final passage.

The proposed ban, “using the most optimistic numbers, has less than 40 votes. That’s not 60,” Reid said.

No, 40 is not 60. More importantly, it’s not 50, which means a straight up-or-down vote on the assault weapons ban would see Democrats knock the bill down. That’s Reid’s message to the White House (and to Feinstein). Reid doesn’t want to force Democrats to vote on the gun ban because the ensuing result would be both more damaging to the Democratic Party and more embarrassing for the White House, as enough Democrats went on record opposing the ban to publicly reject the president.

Obama may bristle at getting a brushback pitch from Reid, but electorally this strategy is better than the approach taken by Nancy Pelosi in the House. Reid represents a moderate state that leans conservative on some issues (like guns), which tempers his Senate leadership with a measure of reality. Not so with Pelosi. She hails from a very liberal district in the liberal state of California. The legislative agenda that comes out of the leftmost fringe of a Democratic Party already without moderates makes life even more difficult for lawmakers who aren’t as liberal as Pelosi. As such, when Democrats had the majority in the House and Pelosi served as speaker, she forced the House to vote on bills that were sure to go nowhere in the Senate and never be enacted but which put them on record in support of bad policy. That was the case, for example, with the cap-and-trade global warming bill back in 2009.

“We passed transformational legislation which takes us into the future,” Pelosi said after voting on legislation everyone knew would never become law. The following November, as Democrats approached a shellacking in the midterm elections, the New York Times reported that “House Democrats are bracing for tough losses across the country today, and the controversial cap-and-trade climate bill is sure to be part of any post-election analysis.” The Times added that the bill “has haunted” those who voted for it.

So the White House and Feinstein may want to lay off Reid. But they’re not. The Post adds:

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday that Senate Democrats’ decision is not a setback for Obama’s gun-control efforts. He said that the bill can still be brought up as an amendment and that there should be a concerted effort to pass it.

“We’re going to work on this. We’re going to find the votes,” McDonough said, according to a transcript. “It deserves a vote, and let’s see if we can get it done.”

The Times reports that Feinstein is “angry” over the exclusion of the gun ban. But that anger is misdirected. There are two parties in the U.S. Congress, and neither of them wants the gun ban. Most of the Senate Democrats seem to have learned a lesson from the 2010 midterms, even if Obama and Feinstein have not.

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Republicans Recognize Their Party in Peril

The new RNC report has elicited a lot of reaction. I wanted to highlight just one element that I found encouraging, which is it clearly understands the magnitude of the challenging facing the national GOP.

The report cites the results of presidential elections from 1968-1988, when Republicans were utterly dominant (winning an average of 417 electoral votes); and from 1992-2012, when Republican have lost the popular vote five out of six times. (During that period no Republican presidential candidate reached even 300 electoral votes.)

I wanted to add several more data points to reinforce the reasons for concern.

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The new RNC report has elicited a lot of reaction. I wanted to highlight just one element that I found encouraging, which is it clearly understands the magnitude of the challenging facing the national GOP.

The report cites the results of presidential elections from 1968-1988, when Republicans were utterly dominant (winning an average of 417 electoral votes); and from 1992-2012, when Republican have lost the popular vote five out of six times. (During that period no Republican presidential candidate reached even 300 electoral votes.)

I wanted to add several more data points to reinforce the reasons for concern.

On demographics: In 2012, Governor Mitt Romney carried the white vote by 20 points. If the country’s demographic composition were still the same last year as it was in 2000, Romney would now be president. If it were still the same as it was in 1992, he would have won going away. And if it were the same last year as it was in 1980, Romney would have won by a larger margin than Ronald Reagan. Instead Barack Obama won easily. 

On public perceptions: Last month a Pew Research Center poll found that 62 percent of respondents (and 65 percent of independents) agreed with the statement that the Republican Party was “out of touch with the American people.” Even 36 percent of Republicans thought their party was out of touch. And more than half of those surveyed (52 percent) said the Republican Party was “too extreme” (only 39 percent said that same thing of Democrats).

On party affiliations: In the Pew Research Center poll, respondents identified with Democrats more than Republicans by 14 points (51 v. 37 percent) when independents were pressed to say which party they leaned toward.

To add insult to injury, the RNC conducted focus groups in Columbus, Ohio and Des Moines, Iowa with people who formerly considered themselves Republicans. They described the GOP as “scary,” “narrow-minded,” and “out of touch” and said it was comprised of “stuffy, old white men.”

What this means is that unless the GOP makes some fairly significant course corrections, losses will continue to mount. To be clear: It’s not that a Republican candidate can’t beat a Democratic candidate at any particular point in time; it’s that the trajectory of events means that absent a new Republican Party, and a modernized conservatism, it will be harder and harder for the right to win. Republicans will have to produce more and more exceptional candidates and hope Democrats produce more and more sub-par ones.

For the GOP to once again become dominant will require significant upgrades in the mechanics of campaigning (from improvements in data-gathering, micro-targeting and social media outreach to earlier primaries and a better ground game). But it will also require a particularly talented presidential candidate who can recalibrate the party without ripping it apart, and a policy agenda committed to limited government while also repositioning the GOP in ways that addresses its weaknesses and signals to the public that it’s changing.

Fortunately, a lot of work is being done by policy thinkers, public intellectuals and lawmakers and governors on ways to deal with social mobility; exploding college and health care costs (including replacing the Affordable Care Act); pension and collective bargaining reforms; ending corporate welfare; breaking up the big banks; a simpler and leaner tax code; increasing child tax credits; taking advantage of the revolution in energy technology; strengthening our social and civic institutions; reforms in education and immigration; extending the principles of welfare reform to other federal-aid programs; overhauling our prison system; making adoption easier; and more.

This is not the time for intellectual rigidity and repeating the same slogans, only with volume turned up. Rather, people who represent different strands within the party need to engage each other with real arguments.

I have a hunch, too. Those who believe their main purpose in life is to expel heretics from the temple–who believe in addition by subtraction and purity over prudence–are going to make a lot of noise and issue a lot of threats. They’ll cite the Constitution without ever recognizing that it was the product of an extraordinary series of political compromises. And they will repeatedly invoke the name of Reagan even as they come across in most un-Reagan-like ways: agitated and angry, unhappy and bitter, full of scores to settle. They are fading figures, and on some deep level they recognize it.

The good news for the GOP is that political fortunes can shift fairly dramatically. But this will require an honest appraisal of this moment in time. The RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project does that, and for that reason alone it’s a useful contribution to the Republican future.

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