Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 31, 2013

NYT to GOP: Remember Monica Lewinsky

On Wednesday I mentioned the possibility that President Obama will be treated as though his name is on the ballot in 2016 even though he won’t be running–much the way Obama himself ran against George W. Bush in 2008. But today the New York Times tackles a much more immediate version of this story: whether and how Obama will be used against Democrats in next year’s mid-term congressional elections.

The conceit of the Times story is that Republicans are tempted to tie Obama to the various scandals of his administration currently in the news, and then tie Democrats to Obama, but they face a major obstacle: voters give Obama high marks for personal likability. It is another article warning Republicans against “overreaching,” with an added–and, frankly, bizarre–twist. The Times claims Republicans risk re-enacting the fallout from their predecessors’ conduct during Bill Clinton’s scandal-plagued year in his second term.

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On Wednesday I mentioned the possibility that President Obama will be treated as though his name is on the ballot in 2016 even though he won’t be running–much the way Obama himself ran against George W. Bush in 2008. But today the New York Times tackles a much more immediate version of this story: whether and how Obama will be used against Democrats in next year’s mid-term congressional elections.

The conceit of the Times story is that Republicans are tempted to tie Obama to the various scandals of his administration currently in the news, and then tie Democrats to Obama, but they face a major obstacle: voters give Obama high marks for personal likability. It is another article warning Republicans against “overreaching,” with an added–and, frankly, bizarre–twist. The Times claims Republicans risk re-enacting the fallout from their predecessors’ conduct during Bill Clinton’s scandal-plagued year in his second term.

There are plenty of sensible suggestions in the article, but the overarching comparison doesn’t hold up. Although many Americans believed Clinton had acted unethically with Monica Lewinsky and illegally by misleading the grand jury, many of those same Americans also agreed when Clinton said that he had been asked “questions no American citizen would ever want to answer.” He would later be impeached for it.

Additionally, plenty of Clinton’s supporters argued the personal scandal had nothing to do with Clinton’s presidential responsibilities. That cannot be persuasively argued in the case of President Obama’s scandals, which are on the issues and which are completely intertwined with his approach to governing and how his decisions in the White House impact Americans. The tragedy in Benghazi is testament to the dangers of the president’s “lead from behind” foreign policy and refusal to be frank about the threats facing America.

The IRS scandal was about a powerful enforcement arm of the government targeting those who disagreed with Obama and blatantly trampling on the constitutional rights of his political opponents. As McClatchy reports, the IRS abuse may have been much more comprehensive than first reported:

A group of anti-abortion activists in Iowa had to promise the Internal Revenue Service it wouldn’t picket in front of Planned Parenthood.

Catherine Engelbrecht’s family and business in Texas were audited by the government after her voting-rights group sought tax-exempt status from the IRS.

Retired military veteran Mark Drabik of Nebraska became active in and donated to conservative causes, then found the IRS challenging his church donations.

While the developing scandal over the targeting of conservatives by the tax agency has largely focused to date on its scrutiny of groups with words such as “tea party” or “patriot” in their names, these examples suggest the government was looking at a broader array of conservative groups and perhaps individuals. Their collective experiences at a minimum could spread skepticism about the fairness of a powerful agency that should be above reproach and at worst could point to a secret political vendetta within the government against conservatives.

The emerging stories from real people raise questions about whether the IRS scrutiny extended beyond applicants for tax-exempt status and whether individuals who donated to these tax-exempt organizations or to conservative causes also were targeted.

McClatchy’s use of the term “real people” here is awkward to say the least, but the point the reporters are making is that the IRS was initially believed to have targeted organizations but in fact may have been targeting individuals as well, expressly for their political beliefs. The IRS appears to have gone looking for possible conservatives to hassle and silence.

Obama’s health-care reform sets out to expand the size and scope of both the federal government generally and the IRS specifically. Whether Obama personally ordered the IRS to target conservatives and pro-Israel groups beyond simply egging on suspicion of them publicly and repeatedly doesn’t change the way his approach to governing enables this behavior. Clinton’s dalliances may have had limited or no relevance to Americans’ own lives, but the opposite is true of the Obama administration’s IRS scandal.

Conservatives don’t have to accuse Obama of unethical behavior to make this point. The president’s vision for the country, and that of his party, is to increase the power and reach of the IRS into the health care of Americans. If Democrats think that constitutes a personal attack, then they object to any criticism of their leader. And they shouldn’t expect congressional candidates around the country to play along.

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Holder Should Resign, but Obama Is the Problem

A prediction: there will be an effort by Team Obama to rally around Eric Holder, but before too long he will resign as attorney general. He’ll do so because he’s doing considerable, even durable, damage to the president–and the president, well-versed in the Chicago Way, will jettison Holder if he determines it’s in his political interest.

It is.

The attorney general is being criticized, and being urged to resign, from those on both the left and the right. The House of Representative is considering looking into whether Mr. Holder committed perjury (he clearly misled Congress on his role in the James Rosen matter). And in the background of all this is the fact that Holder is a man of unusual incompetence.

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A prediction: there will be an effort by Team Obama to rally around Eric Holder, but before too long he will resign as attorney general. He’ll do so because he’s doing considerable, even durable, damage to the president–and the president, well-versed in the Chicago Way, will jettison Holder if he determines it’s in his political interest.

It is.

The attorney general is being criticized, and being urged to resign, from those on both the left and the right. The House of Representative is considering looking into whether Mr. Holder committed perjury (he clearly misled Congress on his role in the James Rosen matter). And in the background of all this is the fact that Holder is a man of unusual incompetence.

Set aside Holder’s record of pushing to reopen an investigation of CIA interrogators who had already been cleared by career prosecutors and wanting to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a civilian court in Manhattan, both of which were busts (for more, see here); Mr. Holder can’t even organize a mea culpa with the press without turning it into a controversy.

Now, I’d prefer for Mr. Holder to resign, if only because I’d prefer that a man who misled Congress regarding his role in secretly monitoring the private e-mails of Fox’s James Rosen and for his role in the Fast and Furious operation (for which he was held in contempt of Congress)–a man who is self-righteous as well inept–not be attorney general of the United States. But whether Holder stays or goes is, if not exactly beside the point, not the central issue involved here.

What matters is that we have an administration that had contempt for the rule of law and believes it is right and proper to use the power of the federal government to target, intimidate, and silence its political opponents. That has been happening since nearly the beginning of the Obama Era. Eric Holder is not the generator of this culture of intimidation and corruption; he is merely one of its executioners. The real problem with the Obama administration begins at the top. Getting rid of Eric Holder may be a good idea. But it won’t solve the deeper pathologies of this presidency.

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Is Benghazi Taking Its Toll on Hillary Clinton’s Poll Numbers?

In discussing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects, media commentators have made a common and constant error, which I tried to point out repeatedly. They noted Clinton’s high approval ratings as secretary of state, and suggested those numbers buoyed her chances in 2016. But her approval numbers at State were unimpressive: her predecessors had those numbers too, and some had approval ratings even higher than Clinton. Secretary of state is viewed as an apolitical position and the face of the American government abroad, and as such earns inflated poll numbers.

I pointed out that those numbers not only don’t portend future political success (anyone remember President Colin Powell, who left office with a 77 percent approval rating at State?), but they would also come down to earth once Clinton left Foggy Bottom and began to re-enter the political arena. And so they have. Quinnipiac’s new survey finds Clinton’s favorability rating dropping to 52 percent (from Quinnipiac’s previous finding of 61). Her once-daunting lead over hypothetical challengers has narrowed to a surmountable 8 percent over Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.

And all that comes before Clinton actually begins campaigning–that is, if she decides to run. It would be difficult to beat her in a Democratic primary, but even the typical primary campaign process would expose some of her flaws as a candidate, as Keith Koffler writes in Politico. Clinton is hardworking, determined, sharp, and well connected, but that hasn’t stopped her from being, in Koffler’s determination, “the most overrated politician of her generation.” Koffler gets it exactly right when he notes that after her failure to produce results in health care, “The rest of Clinton’s record reads like an excruciatingly long CV that seeks to overwhelm with content but out of which nothing particularly impressive pops out.”

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In discussing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects, media commentators have made a common and constant error, which I tried to point out repeatedly. They noted Clinton’s high approval ratings as secretary of state, and suggested those numbers buoyed her chances in 2016. But her approval numbers at State were unimpressive: her predecessors had those numbers too, and some had approval ratings even higher than Clinton. Secretary of state is viewed as an apolitical position and the face of the American government abroad, and as such earns inflated poll numbers.

I pointed out that those numbers not only don’t portend future political success (anyone remember President Colin Powell, who left office with a 77 percent approval rating at State?), but they would also come down to earth once Clinton left Foggy Bottom and began to re-enter the political arena. And so they have. Quinnipiac’s new survey finds Clinton’s favorability rating dropping to 52 percent (from Quinnipiac’s previous finding of 61). Her once-daunting lead over hypothetical challengers has narrowed to a surmountable 8 percent over Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.

And all that comes before Clinton actually begins campaigning–that is, if she decides to run. It would be difficult to beat her in a Democratic primary, but even the typical primary campaign process would expose some of her flaws as a candidate, as Keith Koffler writes in Politico. Clinton is hardworking, determined, sharp, and well connected, but that hasn’t stopped her from being, in Koffler’s determination, “the most overrated politician of her generation.” Koffler gets it exactly right when he notes that after her failure to produce results in health care, “The rest of Clinton’s record reads like an excruciatingly long CV that seeks to overwhelm with content but out of which nothing particularly impressive pops out.”

That might not have been such a weakness before Benghazi. Genuinely revolutionary foreign-policy accomplishments emanating from the State Department are the exception, not the rule. The fact that the dispute over Kashmir remains unresolved is not a failure of each American secretary of state, and the same goes for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other such issues. If anything, a bit of modesty from America’s diplomats would do them some good. But Benghazi changed the calculus on her tenure because Clinton’s massive failure of leadership, organization, attention, and accountability in the death of an American ambassador and three others tips the scales in the wrong direction for Clinton.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times conducted one of its “Room for Debate” roundtables on Clinton and her legacy at State. No one was able to drum up a genuine accomplishment, because there weren’t any. She was praised for traveling a lot, which seems damning with faint praise at best. She was lauded as a voice for women’s rights, which is important but which yielded no tangible results. No doubt she will use this experience in the campaign by name-dropping world leaders and other impressive names from her Rolodex. But sounding like a living, breathing Tom Friedman column isn’t going to win over many of those who don’t already support her.

It isn’t just Benghazi, either; there isn’t much for Clinton to brag about in the developments of the Arab Spring or her administration’s silent acceptance of an overtly anti-Semitic new Islamist tyrant in Egypt. Her mishandling of the Russian “reset” is a topic she’ll probably want to ignore as well. Which leaves the mostly superficial “pivot” to Asia. Yet “Vote for Hillary: She’s been to Laos” strikes me as an underwhelming campaign theme.

None of this may matter in a Democratic primary, however, since her party seems desperate to hand her the nomination and because the Democrats have for a decade run solely on identity politics and stayed miles away from serious policy discussions. And whatever her flaws, Clinton would be a far better nominee than her would-be rivals like Martin O’Malley and Joe Biden–though Biden’s chances would depend much on how the Obama presidency ends.

But for a general election, it should matter a great deal. Clinton is no longer an up-and-coming party insurgent. She is a veteran near the end of her political career, and ought to have some accomplishments–or any, in fact. She will have to make the argument that if they elect her, voters can expect more than just speeches and photo-ops. That might be a tougher sell than her fans realize.

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Can Mitt Be Our Favorite Ex-Non-President?

There is no better job in the world than being an ex-president. We build museums and libraries to honor them like ancient Egyptians built pyramids for dead pharaohs and they live on the government tab for the rest of their lives, free to play golf as well as doing good works that burnish their reputations and make occasional side trips into partisan activity to help friends and allies.

There is no worse job than being a failed presidential candidate. While your opponent gets to hear “Hail to the Chief” every time he walks into a room, November’s loser must slink off into obscurity, generally despised even more by members of his own party (who will never forgive their candidate for losing) than even their opponents.

But judging from the latest reports about Mitt Romney’s plans, he sounds as if he’s trying to combine the two jobs. As the Wall Street Journal writes today, Romney’s plans to “rejoin the national dialogue” seem to be based on the idea that he still has the potential to do his country and his party some good. While Republicans desperately need to turn the page from his failed 2012 campaign and put new faces in front of the voters, Romney may be on to something.

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There is no better job in the world than being an ex-president. We build museums and libraries to honor them like ancient Egyptians built pyramids for dead pharaohs and they live on the government tab for the rest of their lives, free to play golf as well as doing good works that burnish their reputations and make occasional side trips into partisan activity to help friends and allies.

There is no worse job than being a failed presidential candidate. While your opponent gets to hear “Hail to the Chief” every time he walks into a room, November’s loser must slink off into obscurity, generally despised even more by members of his own party (who will never forgive their candidate for losing) than even their opponents.

But judging from the latest reports about Mitt Romney’s plans, he sounds as if he’s trying to combine the two jobs. As the Wall Street Journal writes today, Romney’s plans to “rejoin the national dialogue” seem to be based on the idea that he still has the potential to do his country and his party some good. While Republicans desperately need to turn the page from his failed 2012 campaign and put new faces in front of the voters, Romney may be on to something.

According to the Journal:

As a first step, the former Republican presidential nominee plans to welcome 200 friends and supporters to a three-day summit next week that he will host at a Utah mountain resort. He is considering writing a book and a series of opinion pieces, and has plans to campaign for 2014 candidates.

The “Experts and Enthusiasts” summit is apparently more than just a GOP gabfest. It will center on philanthropic and business issues as well as political ones and even includes an appearance from former top Democratic strategist David Axelrod. Which makes it sound like something that we’d expect to be run by a popular ex-president like Bill Clinton, who has helped build his brand by combining advocacy with charity work in his foundation.

The point is Romney doesn’t want to go away and hide, though that is precisely what a lot of conservative Republicans may want him to do. In his characteristic technocratic can-do style, he still wants to help brainstorm solutions to the country’s problems while also keeping his hand in politics and doing good works.

There are good reasons for him to worry about becoming too prominent, and according to the Journal he’s sensitive to those concerns. Romney is a favorite whipping boy of the left and liberal media outlets and there’s little doubt they will take every opportunity to pour on the abuse. The deep bench of GOP presidential prospects for 2016 also provides a variety of views that makes it unnecessary for Romney to become too visible. The party needs to avoid doing anything that makes it seem as if a rejected politician like Romney is its de facto leader. His image as a plutocrat that was reinforced by a year’s worth of Democratic attack ads, gaffes as well as his views on issues like immigration are not the sort of things that can help Republicans win in 2014 or 2016.

But there is plenty of room for Romney to play a role as an elder statesman who is no longer out for his own personal advancement while still seeking to help America. That’s the sort of perch usually reserved for ex-presidents, not mere failed politicians who either return to the political fray in some other guise (like John Kerry or John McCain) or just fade from view other than the occasional television commercial like Bob Dole.

Republicans need a completely different style of candidate in 2016. One more in touch with common concerns—something the remote Romney never could master—as well as someone who isn’t filthy rich would be a good place to start. But there is a place in our national discussion for a figure that can be both a political voice and a wealthy do-gooder with the stature to bring out attention to issues when he deems it vital to do so.

Mitt Romney might have made a good president, but he was a terrible politician, so we’ll never get to know just how well he might have done if he had been given the chance to sit in the Oval Office. But he can skip the four- or eight-year waiting period and jump right into the business of being an ex-president, using his prestige, wealth and ability to speak out to do as much to aid needy causes or highlight issues as the two Bushes or Clinton can while also avoiding the vitriol and ill will toward Israel that has ruined Jimmy Carter’s ex-presidency.

If Mitt sticks with it, he may turn out to be our best and most beloved ex-non-president in history. While it’s not as good as being president, it’s nothing to snicker at either.

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Confusing Cause and Effect in Pakistan

In this New York Times op-ed and in a book he has written, Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani official now teaching at American University in Washington, tries mightily hard to blame U.S. drone strikes for the growing radicalization in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He thereby confuses cause and effect.

He notes correctly that tribal authority has weakened in the frontier regions of Pakistan. The same thing has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Yemen, Somalia, and other lands where violent Salafist organizations such the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Shabaab have tried to substitute their own form of militant rule in favor of the traditional structures that have governed tribal life.

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In this New York Times op-ed and in a book he has written, Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani official now teaching at American University in Washington, tries mightily hard to blame U.S. drone strikes for the growing radicalization in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He thereby confuses cause and effect.

He notes correctly that tribal authority has weakened in the frontier regions of Pakistan. The same thing has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Yemen, Somalia, and other lands where violent Salafist organizations such the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Shabaab have tried to substitute their own form of militant rule in favor of the traditional structures that have governed tribal life.

But in the case of Pakistan, Ahmed chooses to place the blame not where it belongs–on a corrupt and ineffectual Pakistani state that can’t govern its own territory and on a violent movement called the Pakistani Taliban which has been taking advantage of state weakness–but rather on America’s program of drone strikes. He does so by clever juxtaposition of timelines, which implies causality where the evidence for it is actually tenuous.

He writes that “over the past few decades,” the pillars of tribal society in western Pakistan

have weakened. And in 2004, with the Pakistani army’s unprecedented assault and American drones’ targeting suspected supporters of Al Qaeda in Waziristan, the pillars of authority began to crumble.

In the vacuum that followed, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, emerged. Its first targets were tribal authorities. Approximately 400 elders have been killed in Waziristan alone, a near-decapitation of traditional society.

Note how this conflates two separate developments–carefully targeted U.S. drone strikes and the Pakistani Army’s ham-handed and brutal assault into South Waziristan–as if they were one and the same. Ahmed makes no attempt to disentangle the threads here; rather he prefers to blame all of the weakness of tribal society and all of the brutality of the Pakistani Taliban on U.S. drone strikes. That’s a lot of weight to assign to an estimated 356 drone strikes since 2004–or roughly 40 a year, less than one a week–all of which are far more carefully targeted than the Pakistani Army’s blunderbuss use of artillery and air strikes against villages.

That rate actually exaggerates the pace of strikes since the average is driven up by an especially high number of strikes in 2010 (122); the number was much smaller before under President Bush and has fallen since. The reason why the number of drone strikes has increased is precisely because of the growing sway that militants have established in the tribal areas; the notion that the strikes themselves have caused the growth in militant activity remains, at most, an unproven supposition.

I have never believed that drone strikes can be the end all and be all of counterterrorism policy. I do believe that we need a more effective state-building strategy in Pakistan and that simply eliminating individual terrorist leaders will not make the threat go away.

But at the same time I don’t for a minute believe–as Ahmed and other critics of the strikes implicitly suggest–that if we simply stopped the drone strikes, then the tribal elders would re-establish their authority and the threat from the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups would recede. Quite the opposite: The drone strikes are one of the few effective measures keeping these extremist groups in check. Stop the strikes and the threat to the Pakistani state will grow. And that, in turn, means that the threat to the U.S. will grow because we can’t allow Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to fall into the wrong heads.

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Holder’s Divide and Conquer Strategy

Attorney General Eric Holder’s press charm offensive began earlier this week with an interview in the Daily Beast in which he expressed regrets for the Justice Department’s spying on journalists. It escalated yesterday with the first of a series of meetings with publication executives and bureau chiefs where he claimed the DOJ would rethink its guidelines for dealing with journalists who have been leaked government information.

But while these efforts may seem like futile gestures that won’t get Holder off the hook, they are actually a clever tactic. Those who attend these meetings need to be conscious that what is going on is not so much an attempt to mend fences with the media but an effort to divide and conquer the press. The attorney general and the president know that if they can tap into the liberal mainstream media’s inherent sympathy for Obama and antipathy for his critics, they can divert attention from the current spate of scandals. The refusal of many liberal pundits–who had joined in the universal condemnation of the government’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News reporter James Rosen–to connect the dots when it comes to Holder’s lies about the issue shows that there is good reason to believe the administration can succeed in avoiding being held accountable for their actions. Getting journalists to make nice with Holder rather than hold his feet to the fire is the first step toward making this a reality.

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Attorney General Eric Holder’s press charm offensive began earlier this week with an interview in the Daily Beast in which he expressed regrets for the Justice Department’s spying on journalists. It escalated yesterday with the first of a series of meetings with publication executives and bureau chiefs where he claimed the DOJ would rethink its guidelines for dealing with journalists who have been leaked government information.

But while these efforts may seem like futile gestures that won’t get Holder off the hook, they are actually a clever tactic. Those who attend these meetings need to be conscious that what is going on is not so much an attempt to mend fences with the media but an effort to divide and conquer the press. The attorney general and the president know that if they can tap into the liberal mainstream media’s inherent sympathy for Obama and antipathy for his critics, they can divert attention from the current spate of scandals. The refusal of many liberal pundits–who had joined in the universal condemnation of the government’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News reporter James Rosen–to connect the dots when it comes to Holder’s lies about the issue shows that there is good reason to believe the administration can succeed in avoiding being held accountable for their actions. Getting journalists to make nice with Holder rather than hold his feet to the fire is the first step toward making this a reality.

Though most of those invited to the meetings begged off because holding an off-the-record talk with the person at the center of this scandal was inappropriate, those who did show up dished most of the details. As Politico, whose editor-in-chief John Harris was there, reported, the talk centered on non-controversial suggestions about seeking a better “balance” between protecting national security and respecting the First Amendment rights of journalists.

That’s all well and good but what the press needs to be doing with General Holder is not holding his hand and pledging mutual coexistence. He needs to be pressed on why he lied to Congress on May 15 about knowing nothing about potential prosecutions of journalists when he had already signed off on documents accusing Rosen of being a “co-conspirator” in a crime for doing his job. Holder and his boss President Obama also need to explain how it is the same person that was responsible for these outrageous attacks on press freedoms can possibly be trusted to stop such abuses in the future.

The point is we don’t really need a redrawing of guidelines about national security and the press. What we need is an attorney general who respects the Constitution.

No one disputes that the government has a duty to protect genuine secrets or that the press should not publish or broadcast material that would endanger lives or compromise America’s ability to defend itself. But despite the pious proclamations on these subjects emanating from those seeking to rationalize the indefensible treatment of the AP and Rosen, what’s happened the past four and half years can’t really be excused in that manner.

Holder’s jihad against the press isn’t really about leaks. Leaking is, after all, something the Obama White House has turned into an art form. The series of flattering stories about Obama’s prowess as a national security leader that wound up on the front page of the Sunday New York Times last year prior to his re-election were all anonymously sourced from administration figures. But we have yet to hear of anyone in the White House or their little friends in the media getting the James Rosen treatment.

This administration has prosecuted more people for speaking about government secrets than all of its predecessors combined. What Holder has done is to create an atmosphere of intimidation aimed at preventing people from talking about government operations with the press, not making it harder for officials to puff the president even if, as with the case with last year’s stories in the Times, they were based on highly secret national security matters.

What is needed at DOJ is a change of leadership, not better communication skills. Anyone in the media, especially those who troop to Holder’s office to make nice with him this week, needs to keep that in mind. Liberal journalists who protect this president and his attorney general rather than defending the principles of a free press are falling prey to a divide and conquer strategy aimed at isolating the president’s critics, not a reevaluation of a flawed policy.

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