Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 10, 2014

The Media’s Obama Protection Society

The news that CBS News investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson is leaving the network does not come as any great surprise to those who have followed her career. Last year, at a time when we learned that the Obama Justice Department was spying on Fox News’ James Rosen as well as a group of reporters at the Associated Press, Attkisson reported that her computer had been hacked. But, as Dylan Byers wrote in Politico, Attkisson had an even bigger problem: most of her colleagues at CBS didn’t like the fact that she had spent the last few years reporting aggressively about the Obama administration’s various shortcomings and scandals. Journalists at mainstream media outlets like to pretend that they play it down the middle when it comes to whoever is in power. But it was hardly a coincidence that the prevailing office culture at the network that the president trusted, in Steve Kroft’s memorable phrase, not to make him “look stupid,” would think ill of a reporter that thought it worth her time to investigate stories like Fast and Furious, Solyndra and Benghazi. If, as Byers reports today, Attkisson has come to a parting of the ways with CBS after “hard fought negotiations” that led to her departure prior to the expiration of her contract, it was due to the following factors:

Attkisson, who has been with CBS News for two decades, had grown frustrated with what she saw as the network’s liberal bias, an outsize influence by the network’s corporate partners and a lack of dedication to investigative reporting, several sources said. She increasingly felt that her work was no longer supported and that it was a struggle to get her reporting on air.

At the same time, Attkisson’s reporting on the Obama administration, which some staffers characterized as agenda-driven, had led network executives to doubt the impartiality of her reporting. She is currently at work on a book — tentatively titled “Stonewalled: One Reporter’s Fight for Truth in Obama’s Washington” — that addresses the challenges of reporting critically on the administration.

While Attkisson is just one reporter and CBS has long since ceased being a dominant force in the national media, this may be a crucial moment in the history of American journalism. It was assumed that any major news outlet would regard aggressive coverage of all administrations as a given. But that ceased to be the case when Barack Obama entered the White House. If Attkisson is being shown the door at CBS it is not because her work is not highly regarded but because she has violated the prime directive of liberal media insiders: thou shalt not report on Obama in the same way that you reported on George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton. The liberal bias that conservatives have long complained about is out of the closet.

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The news that CBS News investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson is leaving the network does not come as any great surprise to those who have followed her career. Last year, at a time when we learned that the Obama Justice Department was spying on Fox News’ James Rosen as well as a group of reporters at the Associated Press, Attkisson reported that her computer had been hacked. But, as Dylan Byers wrote in Politico, Attkisson had an even bigger problem: most of her colleagues at CBS didn’t like the fact that she had spent the last few years reporting aggressively about the Obama administration’s various shortcomings and scandals. Journalists at mainstream media outlets like to pretend that they play it down the middle when it comes to whoever is in power. But it was hardly a coincidence that the prevailing office culture at the network that the president trusted, in Steve Kroft’s memorable phrase, not to make him “look stupid,” would think ill of a reporter that thought it worth her time to investigate stories like Fast and Furious, Solyndra and Benghazi. If, as Byers reports today, Attkisson has come to a parting of the ways with CBS after “hard fought negotiations” that led to her departure prior to the expiration of her contract, it was due to the following factors:

Attkisson, who has been with CBS News for two decades, had grown frustrated with what she saw as the network’s liberal bias, an outsize influence by the network’s corporate partners and a lack of dedication to investigative reporting, several sources said. She increasingly felt that her work was no longer supported and that it was a struggle to get her reporting on air.

At the same time, Attkisson’s reporting on the Obama administration, which some staffers characterized as agenda-driven, had led network executives to doubt the impartiality of her reporting. She is currently at work on a book — tentatively titled “Stonewalled: One Reporter’s Fight for Truth in Obama’s Washington” — that addresses the challenges of reporting critically on the administration.

While Attkisson is just one reporter and CBS has long since ceased being a dominant force in the national media, this may be a crucial moment in the history of American journalism. It was assumed that any major news outlet would regard aggressive coverage of all administrations as a given. But that ceased to be the case when Barack Obama entered the White House. If Attkisson is being shown the door at CBS it is not because her work is not highly regarded but because she has violated the prime directive of liberal media insiders: thou shalt not report on Obama in the same way that you reported on George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton. The liberal bias that conservatives have long complained about is out of the closet.

While most journalists have been reliably liberal in their politics for decades, the culture of the profession has always valued an “agin’ the government” mentality in which all politicians are viewed with cynicism. So long as even liberal journalists regard it as their duty to ferret out stories about corruption, mismanagement and failure within the government, we can feel safe that no administration, even one that is favored by the left, will escape the scrutiny necessary to provide accountability.

But there is little doubt that this has begun to change since Obama came to office. After the media hammered both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush throughout their presidencies, Obama has had it relatively easy. Part of it is due to the special hold that this historic president has over liberals. The growing bifurcation of American society in which the country has been divided between those who read the New York Times, listen to NPR and watch mainstream networks and MSNBC and those who read the Wall Street Journal, listen to talk radio and watch Fox News, has also affected journalists who should know better. The culture at CBS and like-minded outlets is to see any aggressive reporting about the president and his policies as evidence of wrong thinking rather than part of their obligation to ask uncomfortable questions and speak truth to power.

There was some hope last year that the spying on the AP and James Rosen would, especially when combined with other scandals involving the IRS and Benghazi, motivate the liberal media to start doing its job with regard to this administration. But the ouster of Attkisson combined with the relative lack of interest on the part of most of the press to follow up on those scandals while treating those involving Republicans — like Chris Christie’s Bridgegate — as the second coming of Watergate, means that partisanship has prevailed over integrity in much of the mainstream media.

One has to wonder why anyone interested in anything but White House talking points would choose to watch CBS News if a reporter like Attkisson couldn’t work there. This partly explains the decline of CBS and other liberal networks. But it also sends a clear message to the public that they can’t trust CBS and any other network where aggressive coverage of the administration is no longer welcome. This confirms what conservatives have been talking about for years but it ought to sadden anyone, no matter their politics, who understands the role of a free press in a democracy.

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The West Has Leverage Over Russia

It’s quite likely, as so many commentators from Bob Gates on down have noted, that there is little likelihood of forcing Russia to disgorge Crimea. But much remains in play in Ukraine: namely will Russia try to annex the eastern portion of the country too and will Russia succeed in putting Viktor Yanukovych back into power? Beyond Ukraine there is also much at stake, as I have previously noted: The world is watching what happens in Ukraine and the less of a price that Russia has to pay for its conquest, the greater the likelihood that other predatory states will be tempted to stage similar power grabs.

The Russians who are most vulnerable to Western retaliation–the infamous oligarchs–are certainly worried about what will happen. As New York Times correspondent Ellen Barry notes from Moscow, “the prospect of losing access to Western finance is a frightening thought for Russian business leaders.”  

And what would truly frighten them would be “any sanctions’ affecting banks. Large Russian corporations have significantly increased foreign borrowing in recent years, and 10 were negotiating loans when the crisis boiled over, said Ben Aris, the editor and publisher of Business New Europe. Financial sanctions could set off a chain reaction of blocked transactions, frozen accounts and bank closings. “

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It’s quite likely, as so many commentators from Bob Gates on down have noted, that there is little likelihood of forcing Russia to disgorge Crimea. But much remains in play in Ukraine: namely will Russia try to annex the eastern portion of the country too and will Russia succeed in putting Viktor Yanukovych back into power? Beyond Ukraine there is also much at stake, as I have previously noted: The world is watching what happens in Ukraine and the less of a price that Russia has to pay for its conquest, the greater the likelihood that other predatory states will be tempted to stage similar power grabs.

The Russians who are most vulnerable to Western retaliation–the infamous oligarchs–are certainly worried about what will happen. As New York Times correspondent Ellen Barry notes from Moscow, “the prospect of losing access to Western finance is a frightening thought for Russian business leaders.”  

And what would truly frighten them would be “any sanctions’ affecting banks. Large Russian corporations have significantly increased foreign borrowing in recent years, and 10 were negotiating loans when the crisis boiled over, said Ben Aris, the editor and publisher of Business New Europe. Financial sanctions could set off a chain reaction of blocked transactions, frozen accounts and bank closings. “

The West has leverage should it choose to use it. So far President Obama has not been aggressive in implementing sanctions, hoping no doubt that Putin can be encouraged to pull out of Crimea on his own. Fat chance. Barring any miraculous chain of heart on the part of the former KGB agent in the Kremlin, it’s time to get tough with precisely the kind of financial sanctions that the Russian elite fears. We need to make clear that Russia will pay a price for transgressing the most basic norms of international conduct.

Putin could, of course, try to retaliate by blocking natural gas shipments to Ukraine and to customers in the rest of Europe, such as Germany. But that would be a costly course for Moscow to adopt: Lost gas shipments means lost revenue and the Russian state is totally dependent on oil and gas revenues. Putin has some leverage; it is true, but the West holds a stronger hand–should it choose to play it.

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The Futile Search for Middle East Solutions

In today’s Mosaic Magazine, author Hillel Halkin provides yet another entry in the growing list of proposed “solutions” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Put forward as a response to Yoav Sorek’s Mosaic essay in which that writer essentially called upon Israel to annul the Oslo peace process and establish what might be termed a one-state proposal. Unlike most such ideas put forward by Israel’s enemies which amount to nothing more than replacing the one Jewish state with one more Arab one, Sorek’s idea — which was endorsed here by Tom Wilson — is rooted in extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank but within a context in which it is understood that the country will remain a Jewish state.

Both Sorek’s proposal and that put forward by Caroline Glick in her new book (which was given a persuasive endorsement by Seth Lipsky in the New York Sun) take it as a given that the two-state solution that has been sought in vain during the 20 years since the Oslo Accords were signed will never succeed. Halkin doesn’t disagree on that point but is less sanguine than either Sorek or Glick about Israel’s ability to incorporate the large Arab population of the West Bank into Israel. In response he offers a compromise that is neither a pure one- or two-solution. He calls it “two-state minus” in which a Jewish state would co-exist alongside a Palestinian one in the territory that is now controlled by Israel. The majority status of the two peoples in their enclaves would be protected but both Jews and Arabs living in the two states would be free to choose either nationality no matter where they lived as well as to travel and work in either sector. He likens it to the way the nation states of the European Union retain their individual sovereignty while having that power restrained by their mutual obligations.

But while it sounds nice it is no more realistic than any other “solution” out on the market. Like the advocates of the other two state concepts, Halkin’s idea rests on the assumption that the Palestinians will be satisfied with anything less than the end of Jewish sovereignty in any form over any part of the country. Until the Palestinians embrace the reality of Israel’s permanence and renounce their century-old war on Zionism, the only viable scenario is one that manages the conflict rather than solving it.

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In today’s Mosaic Magazine, author Hillel Halkin provides yet another entry in the growing list of proposed “solutions” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Put forward as a response to Yoav Sorek’s Mosaic essay in which that writer essentially called upon Israel to annul the Oslo peace process and establish what might be termed a one-state proposal. Unlike most such ideas put forward by Israel’s enemies which amount to nothing more than replacing the one Jewish state with one more Arab one, Sorek’s idea — which was endorsed here by Tom Wilson — is rooted in extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank but within a context in which it is understood that the country will remain a Jewish state.

Both Sorek’s proposal and that put forward by Caroline Glick in her new book (which was given a persuasive endorsement by Seth Lipsky in the New York Sun) take it as a given that the two-state solution that has been sought in vain during the 20 years since the Oslo Accords were signed will never succeed. Halkin doesn’t disagree on that point but is less sanguine than either Sorek or Glick about Israel’s ability to incorporate the large Arab population of the West Bank into Israel. In response he offers a compromise that is neither a pure one- or two-solution. He calls it “two-state minus” in which a Jewish state would co-exist alongside a Palestinian one in the territory that is now controlled by Israel. The majority status of the two peoples in their enclaves would be protected but both Jews and Arabs living in the two states would be free to choose either nationality no matter where they lived as well as to travel and work in either sector. He likens it to the way the nation states of the European Union retain their individual sovereignty while having that power restrained by their mutual obligations.

But while it sounds nice it is no more realistic than any other “solution” out on the market. Like the advocates of the other two state concepts, Halkin’s idea rests on the assumption that the Palestinians will be satisfied with anything less than the end of Jewish sovereignty in any form over any part of the country. Until the Palestinians embrace the reality of Israel’s permanence and renounce their century-old war on Zionism, the only viable scenario is one that manages the conflict rather than solving it.

Sorek and especially Glick, who writes with her characteristic clarity about the fatal mistakes of Israel’s leaders, perform a valuable service in debunking many of the false assumptions about the conflict that are the foundation of the two-state idea. Both rightly point out that Arab rejectionism is not based on anger about Israel’s occupation of territory in June 1967 but on their belief that Zionism is illegitimate. As Sorek writes about the Israeli embrace of Oslo, “In embracing the Palestinian national movement as its partner, Israel pretended not to see that, absent its fundamental objection to the existence of the Jewish state, there was no Palestinian national movement.” The reckless pursuit of peace on these false terms led to the abandonment of Israel’s claim to its own rights in the dispute, a form of unilateral moral disarmament that has helped legitimize the arguments of anti-Zionists, which have grown louder and more vituperative despite the Jewish state’s sacrifices at Oslo and in the Gaza withdrawal. They also call into question the conventional wisdom that the growth rates of the two peoples will inevitably lead to an Arab majority West of the Jordan, based as it is on unreliable population data and projections that may not be accurate.

But it is hard to argue with Halkin’s dismissal of their assumptions that, with patience and creative energy, the population of the West Bank can be integrated into a democratic Israel without fatally undermining the democratic and Jewish nature of the state. Indeed, the same factors that render the two-state solution a forlorn hope for peace also undermine the notion that the Palestinian Arabs will ever accept permanent minority status in a Jewish state even if they were never able to out reproduce the Jews. Some form of separation is inevitable.

Even more to the point, those who imagine that the Oslo genie can be put back into the bottle at this late point are mistaken. Israel’s predicament is that it can’t go back to the situation that preceded Oslo or that of the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War when it might have been theoretically possible (if still unlikely) for Israel to annex the West Bank in some manner or to give somehow give some of it back to Jordan. By bringing back Yasir Arafat to the country and giving his Fatah movement control over the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s leaders implicitly recognized the right of the Palestinians to self governance in some part of the country and made it only a matter of time until some sort of Palestinian state was going to be created. Though the reality of the PA under the reign of Yasir Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals makes that acceptance look like a self-destructive delusional nightmare, it can’t be walked back. The U.S. and Europe may vainly rail at Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in contravention to international law, an Israeli annexation of the West Bank (which, in contrast to Russia’s aggression, Israel could, contrary to conventional wisdom, make a reasonable case for under international law) would never be accepted by the rest of the world, including Israel’s vital American ally. Israel hasn’t the strength to resist the rest of the world in that matter. Nor, it should be pointed, do most Israelis have much appetite for such an idea. In spite of the fact that Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza was a disaster, only a minority of Israelis would favor a plan to reassert their control’s permanent control of the area.

Sorek and Glick are right about the dangers of the two-state solution under the current circumstances and Halkin is right that a one-state solution in which the one state is a Jewish state of Israel is a fantasy. Other one-state proposals are merely thinly veiled programs for the eradication of the Jewish homeland and/or genocide of its population.

So where does that leave Israel and its government? In a difficult position where it stands to be criticized from the left for doing too little to achieve peace and to be blasted by the right for both countenancing a retreat from the country’s vital interests and the rights of the Jewish people. While the former critics are mistaken and the latter have a point, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu hasn’t the luxury of pontificating from the sidelines. Instead he is left to try and do the only thing any Israeli government can do: manage the conflict until the other side comes to its senses and is willing to make a permanent peace on reasonable terms.

In the absence of that sea change in Palestinian public opinion that will make it possible for Abbas or one of his successors to recognize Israel as a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and to give up the hope of a “right of return” on the part of the 1948 refugees, talk of a solution of any kind is a waste of time. And though Israel has been told for the past 46 years that the status quo isn’t viable, that has proven to be equally mistaken. As unsatisfying as merely preserving the current unsatisfactory arrangement may be for both sides, doing so in a manner which limits the bloodshed and the involvement of the two peoples in each other’s lives is undoubtedly preferable to giving in to the temptation to replicate Gaza in the West Bank or to imagine that Israel can annex the territories without a terrible cost.

That is not the sort of thing most people want to hear since they prefer to believe that all problems are soluble, especially those related to life and death. But it is nonetheless true. 

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The GOP’s Unpopularity Is…Complicated.

An eye-opening observation from Stuart Rothenberg in Roll Call about the relative popularity and unpopularity of the Democrats and the Republicans: “Independent voters had almost identical feelings about both parties,” despite the fact that Democrats have a 9-point advantage when those polled by the New York Times/CBS News were asked if they view the parties favorably or unfavorably.

“I assumed most of the Democratic brand advantage stemmed from the GOP’s terrible reputation among independents,” Rothenberg writes. “But the survey showed that while 31 percent of independents had a favorable view of the GOP, 30 percent had a favorable view of the Democratic Party. And while 60 percent of independents had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, 61 percent had an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party.”

What this means, he says, is that the problem with Republican numbers is that Republicans told pollster they have an unfavorable view of the GOP. This makes sense. Tea Partiers dislike the Republican “establishment”; more mainline Republican voters do not think highly of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Each side thinks the force they dislike defines the GOP at present, so they say they don’t like the GOP much.

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An eye-opening observation from Stuart Rothenberg in Roll Call about the relative popularity and unpopularity of the Democrats and the Republicans: “Independent voters had almost identical feelings about both parties,” despite the fact that Democrats have a 9-point advantage when those polled by the New York Times/CBS News were asked if they view the parties favorably or unfavorably.

“I assumed most of the Democratic brand advantage stemmed from the GOP’s terrible reputation among independents,” Rothenberg writes. “But the survey showed that while 31 percent of independents had a favorable view of the GOP, 30 percent had a favorable view of the Democratic Party. And while 60 percent of independents had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, 61 percent had an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party.”

What this means, he says, is that the problem with Republican numbers is that Republicans told pollster they have an unfavorable view of the GOP. This makes sense. Tea Partiers dislike the Republican “establishment”; more mainline Republican voters do not think highly of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Each side thinks the force they dislike defines the GOP at present, so they say they don’t like the GOP much.

This is actually startlingly good news for the GOP in the upcoming elections, because despite this supposed antipathy, when push comes to shove and it’s time to go to the polling booth, self-identified partisan votes almost always show up and vote for the party to which they belong.

Despite silly claims to the contrary, both John McCain and Mitt Romney received record numbers of votes among self-described Republicans, and with the exception of some numbers in Ohio, there’s little evidence to support the claim that millions of Republican voters “stayed home” in 2012 and helped swing the election to Barack Obama. In fact, in the end, Romney received 1 million more votes than McCain did, while Obama’s vote total declined by nearly 4 million.

The Democrats are going to work hard to try and make the electorate act as it did in 2012, but the president will not be on the ticket and they will be lucky to have a third of the money they had to spend in 2012 in getting out the vote. If the GOP base turns out in November—and there’s little reason to think it won’t, with ObamaCare on the line and with this final opportunity to send a message to the White House while Obama is in office—and independents aren’t feeling especially antipathetic toward Republicans, it could be a very significant Election Day indeed.

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Why Does the U.S. Call Kurds Terrorists?

Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

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Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

That said there is reason why the United States might once have designated the PKK to be terrorists. The PKK certainly engaged in violence, and killed a number of civilians for their ideological transgressions.

Recently, the continued designation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as “Tier III” terrorist organizations under the Immigration and Naturalization Act has raised the issue again, although KDP leader Masud Barzani is not being truthful when he says he cancelled a recent visit to Washington because of the issue. (Rather, Barzani was upset that he did not get a meeting with President Obama and that his second son, Mansour Barzani, had trouble getting a visa; regardless, eldest son Masrour traveled to Washington against the backdrop of the supposed boycott on Washington so that his wife could deliver their baby at Sibley Hospital).

Regardless, the Tier III designation is wrong. The PUK and KDP—both U.S. allies—fought an insurgency and killed many civilians. But at its root, they were engaged in insurgency rather than terrorism. Lest anyone forget how violent the KDP insurgency could be, here’s a blast from the past: A young and svelte-looking Hoshyar Zebari—now Iraq’s Foreign Minister—narrating a propaganda video showing a KDP attack on what appears to be a civilian truck. Zebari seems to suggest that their goal is to disrupt Iraqi oil flow. In addition, both the KDP and PUK murdered several thousand civilians and captured opponents during the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war.

Most American policymakers understand the Tier III designation of the KDP and PUK to be a mistake, the result of a poorly worded law. But as the United States considers its terror designation of our Iraqi Kurdish allies, perhaps it is also time to reconsider whether the PKK’s activities differ considerably from those of the PUK and KDP, other than in the length and breadth of their insurgency that, at any rate, is now suspended as peace talks continue.

The PKK is certainly not non-violent, and its roots in hard left doctrine certainly were dangerous in the context of the Cold War. But the PKK—like much of its leftist brethren—has evolved with the recognition that communism was a failed ideology. The information at the root of the PKK designation certainly should also be re-examined to ensure that information contributed by Turkey is reliable and that the KDP’s corroboration of that information is based on subjective evidence rather than a desire to drag the United States into an intra-Kurdish tribal struggle.

Perhaps now is the time to reflect on a broader Kurdish strategy and policy, one that reflects the 21st century reality of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, and recognizes that the United States and regional Kurds have many mutual interests and can benefit from partnership.

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Netanyahu’s European Border Fantasy

While Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have often taken on the air of farce, in recent days they appeared to cross over into the realm of the truly bizarre. Over the weekend it was announced that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has tasked his cabinet secretary with researching the complex border arrangements that exist between Belgian Baarle-Hertog and Dutch Baarle-Nassau. Naturally, this is not some purely academic exercise concerning the eccentric cartography of the Low Countries. Rather, it seems that Israel’s prime minister is entertaining the disturbing notion that that the Jewish state might seek to emulate these border arrangements as a way of surmounting the problem of what to do about the Jewish communities in the West Bank, if a Palestinian state were to be established.

Belgium and Holland have what has been described as one of the most complex border arrangements in the world. Under these arrangements enclaves of each country sit within the territory of the other, with 24 separate and mostly non-contiguous fragments of land existing as minute islands within the greater territory of the two states. With the Palestinians having made clear that they want to join with the other countries of the region in enjoying the luxury of a Jew-free state, Netanyahu’s earlier suggestion that Israeli civilians would stay behind after an Israeli withdrawal has been rendered null and void. Yet while many were skeptical about whether Netanyahu had ever really been serious about that first proposal, it would seem that he is far more serious about his pledge not to forcibly evacuate any Israelis from their homes. 

Since the Palestinians are insisting that they won’t share a future state with Jews and with Israel’s prime minister saying he won’t make the Jews of the West Bank leave, it seems that the Baarle-Nassau plan has arisen as a farfetched attempt to bridge a clear impasse in negotiations. When President Obama attempts to set up Netanyahu as intransigent in the peace process, as he did in his recent interview in Bloomberg, proposals such as this one demonstrate the fantastical, and indeed ridiculous, lengths that Netanyahu is apparently willing to go to so as to assist Kerry’s plan. One can only imagine what kind of things the Obama administration might be threatening Israel with behind closed doors.

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While Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have often taken on the air of farce, in recent days they appeared to cross over into the realm of the truly bizarre. Over the weekend it was announced that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has tasked his cabinet secretary with researching the complex border arrangements that exist between Belgian Baarle-Hertog and Dutch Baarle-Nassau. Naturally, this is not some purely academic exercise concerning the eccentric cartography of the Low Countries. Rather, it seems that Israel’s prime minister is entertaining the disturbing notion that that the Jewish state might seek to emulate these border arrangements as a way of surmounting the problem of what to do about the Jewish communities in the West Bank, if a Palestinian state were to be established.

Belgium and Holland have what has been described as one of the most complex border arrangements in the world. Under these arrangements enclaves of each country sit within the territory of the other, with 24 separate and mostly non-contiguous fragments of land existing as minute islands within the greater territory of the two states. With the Palestinians having made clear that they want to join with the other countries of the region in enjoying the luxury of a Jew-free state, Netanyahu’s earlier suggestion that Israeli civilians would stay behind after an Israeli withdrawal has been rendered null and void. Yet while many were skeptical about whether Netanyahu had ever really been serious about that first proposal, it would seem that he is far more serious about his pledge not to forcibly evacuate any Israelis from their homes. 

Since the Palestinians are insisting that they won’t share a future state with Jews and with Israel’s prime minister saying he won’t make the Jews of the West Bank leave, it seems that the Baarle-Nassau plan has arisen as a farfetched attempt to bridge a clear impasse in negotiations. When President Obama attempts to set up Netanyahu as intransigent in the peace process, as he did in his recent interview in Bloomberg, proposals such as this one demonstrate the fantastical, and indeed ridiculous, lengths that Netanyahu is apparently willing to go to so as to assist Kerry’s plan. One can only imagine what kind of things the Obama administration might be threatening Israel with behind closed doors.

After all, Netanyahu is astute enough to know whom he is dealing with when negotiating about the contours of a future Palestinian state. That is why the Israeli government is insisting that Israel maintain defensible borders by holding onto the Jordan Valley. They make this demand precisely because they know that a future Palestinian state would be neither Belgium nor Holland. Indeed, the Dutch-Belgium border has been pretty quiet for several centuries now; the Dutch have not been embroiled in a generations-long conflict to extinguish the Kingdom of Belgium; one doesn’t generally hear statements from Brussels about how they will never recognize the Netherlands as a Dutch state.

That said, even in these two countries, supposedly at the heart of the project for a post-national European federation, neither exactly known for being rocked by fierce inter-ethnic strife, there is still constantly talk of Belgium being partitioned between the Flemish and the Walloons. Brussels might well become the divided capital of two states while Jerusalem remains the united capital of just one. Even for Europeans it turns out national identity cannot be made to vanish so easily.

Yet, where as in sleepy Baarle-Nassau the international border between Holland and Belgium passes between sidewalk cafes, with residents strolling casually between the two states without noticing, can anyone in their right mind imagine that the same jovial atmosphere would be repeated along an Israeli-Palestinian border? It was not so long ago that Palestinians were venturing to Israeli pavement cafes simply for the purpose of blowing them up. Experience should have taught Israel by now that it can vacate the West bank if it so chooses, but that the only prudent thing to do would be to prepare for that territory to become yet another terror state too.

Even if a Palestinian state in the West Bank managed to somehow resist becoming a second Gaza, it is still quite plausible that relations between the two states might often be strained. What then would become of the Jews clinging on in these many isolated and perhaps stranded communities? Think blockaded West Berlin during the Cold War, only instead of half a city, just a small Jewish village perched precariously on a hilltop, surrounded on all sides. Those who could massacre the Fogel family in their sleep, who could jubilantly hold up their blood stained hands to a cheering mob after murdering two IDF reservists in the Ramallah police station they stormed, might find such vulnerable outposts all too tempting.

And under such an arrangement, would there be Palestinian enclaves in Israeli territory? Through land swap deals, might Arab border towns go to the Palestinian side? After the Netanyahu government has insisted it must hold the Jordan Valley, it makes a mockery to talk of the need for defensible borders in one place while proposing such impossible borders elsewhere. The only comfort here is the thought that the Palestinians’ compulsive tendency for fleeing peace agreements means this kind of derangement will likely never come to fruition.       

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On Public Service and Political Ambition

In his remarks at CPAC, former Senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum said this

I want to win too. I think everybody here wants to win, but unlike a lot of these beltway talking heads, I’m not pontificating. I actually put my neck out there — and just about every other body part. 

Senator Santorum is a man of strong convictions and impressive achievements, including his role in welfare reform and his defense of unborn children. But I think his remarks on this matter are incomplete and to some degree unfair. 

First, on the matter of “beltway talking heads,” it needs to be said that not all talking heads are created equal. Some are worthless, and some are outstanding. And the ones who are good, really good, make a difference. They inject arguments and facts, policies and language into the public conversation that are valuable — more valuable, at times, than what many candidates and office holders offer up. I can also say from experience that the best writers, thinkers and policy experts are paid attention to in the White House, including at the highest levels. So I wouldn’t be too quick to denigrate “pontificating.” George Will has contributed more to our public life than Herman Cain. 

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In his remarks at CPAC, former Senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum said this

I want to win too. I think everybody here wants to win, but unlike a lot of these beltway talking heads, I’m not pontificating. I actually put my neck out there — and just about every other body part. 

Senator Santorum is a man of strong convictions and impressive achievements, including his role in welfare reform and his defense of unborn children. But I think his remarks on this matter are incomplete and to some degree unfair. 

First, on the matter of “beltway talking heads,” it needs to be said that not all talking heads are created equal. Some are worthless, and some are outstanding. And the ones who are good, really good, make a difference. They inject arguments and facts, policies and language into the public conversation that are valuable — more valuable, at times, than what many candidates and office holders offer up. I can also say from experience that the best writers, thinkers and policy experts are paid attention to in the White House, including at the highest levels. So I wouldn’t be too quick to denigrate “pontificating.” George Will has contributed more to our public life than Herman Cain. 

On the matter of those who run for public office and put their neck out: I agree; there’s something impressive about those who run for public office. It can be wearying and often you’re the target of fierce criticisms. It can be quite unpleasant. But there is also a tendency among those who run for office to present themselves as simply and only public servants, individuals willing to sacrifice their time and comfort in order to advance the good of the nation.

It’s certainly my experience that those who run for public office believe they have something important to contribute. But that’s not all there is. For people of a certain personality, the ones who are most often drawn to politics, campaigning and being elected to high public office can be an adrenaline rush and play to vanity. There are certainly worse and harder jobs in America than soaking up the applause of the crowd, to be surrounded by earnest young aides, to do non-stop television and radio interviews, to hold town hall meetings and meet with mostly supportive voters, and be on a debate stage speaking to a national audience. 

In Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, Michael Ignatieff, who was a leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, in talking about the truth of why people enter politics, wrote this refreshingly straightforward account:

The truth might be that you want to lead your country because the job comes with a plane, a house, a bureaucracy at your beck and call, and a security detail of men and women in suits with guns and earpieces. The truth may be that you long for power and enjoy the thrill of holding people’s futures in your hands. It might be that you are in search of posterity. You want to be famous, to be in the history books, to have schools named after you and your portrait hung in hallowed halls. It might be that you want to settle scores with your past. You want to revenge yourself on everyone who ever said you wouldn’t amount to anything. 

You wouldn’t want to say any of this. There are few rewards for candor in politics. What you say – always – is that you want to make a difference. You believe your experience qualifies you to serve. These circumlocutions are the etiquette of democracy, the ritual salute to the sovereignty of the people. The people themselves may suspect that the difference you want to make is to your own life, not to theirs. But they want to hear you say that you are in it for them.

The truth is that most politicians I have known – and by now I’ve known quite a few – are in it for themselves and for others. I don’t mean to point a finger only at politicians; what I say is true of me and of almost everyone I know. We’re driven, deeply and constantly driven, by self-interest, which is not necessarily bad. (See the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiment for more.) 

But in politics, there’s often a pretense. We tend to make it sound as if those of us who enter public life are unusually altruistic and self-giving; as if serving in the White House, campaigning and holding public office, being called “Senator” or “The Honorable” or (if you’re fortunate) “Mr. President,” is the equivalent of taking up your cross daily. It’s not.  And pace Ignatieff, I believe a bit more candor and authenticity about all this would go a long way in politics just now.

In any event, the desire for public service and personal ambition are intermixed in a complicated way. Our greatest president, Lincoln, was also a man of unsurpassed ambition. He couldn’t have achieved what he did without it. Yet he carried himself so very well.   

I’m not recommending politicians turn their campaigns into a confessional or an in-depth exploration of their interior lives. I am suggesting that a good many people would be pleased if, particularly in the hangover from the Obama years, politicians of every party and rank acknowledged what is true, and what we know to be true. The best of the best are in it for us. But they are also in it for them.  

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Release Apache Helicopters to Egypt

Who would have thought that, three years after the Arab Spring uprisings, the only two countries friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood would have been U.S. ‘allies’ Qatar and Turkey? In its year in power in Egypt, the only thing the Muslim Brotherhood accomplished was to turn the vast majority of the Egyptian people against it. Whereas many analysts and, apparently, the entirety of the State Department and White House, took the Muslim Brotherhood at its word, Muhammad Morsi’s rule showed that any chance within the Brotherhood was rhetorical only but that its intolerant policies and support of terror remained unchanged. Not only did the Brotherhood support and encourage Hamas terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip, but it also empowered Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. No one should lament the Brotherhood’s fall after mass popular protests topped off by a military coup.

The Egyptian military are no angels but their year in the shadows successfully demonstrated to the Egyptian public more than any rhetoric could what would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood got its way. Now that the Brotherhood has been driven underground, the Egyptian government has once again taken up the anti-terror fight. Given what is at stake and so long as Egypt’s transition to elections and a new constitutional order continues apace, it is imperative the United States support them.

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Who would have thought that, three years after the Arab Spring uprisings, the only two countries friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood would have been U.S. ‘allies’ Qatar and Turkey? In its year in power in Egypt, the only thing the Muslim Brotherhood accomplished was to turn the vast majority of the Egyptian people against it. Whereas many analysts and, apparently, the entirety of the State Department and White House, took the Muslim Brotherhood at its word, Muhammad Morsi’s rule showed that any chance within the Brotherhood was rhetorical only but that its intolerant policies and support of terror remained unchanged. Not only did the Brotherhood support and encourage Hamas terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip, but it also empowered Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. No one should lament the Brotherhood’s fall after mass popular protests topped off by a military coup.

The Egyptian military are no angels but their year in the shadows successfully demonstrated to the Egyptian public more than any rhetoric could what would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood got its way. Now that the Brotherhood has been driven underground, the Egyptian government has once again taken up the anti-terror fight. Given what is at stake and so long as Egypt’s transition to elections and a new constitutional order continues apace, it is imperative the United States support them.

Such was the recommendation by General Lloyd Austin last week before the House Armed Services Committee, in the following exchange with Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican representing Oklahoma:

SENATOR INHOFE: “OK, and I appreciate that, and I agree with that. And there’s a lot of misunderstanding, back when we had the argument about the Apache helicopters. And I — I feel that — but I’ll ask you. From a military perspective, would you — would the resumption of the delivery of the Apache helicopters assist the Egyptians in their efforts to fight terrorists?”

GENERAL LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: “First, sir, I’ll say that I support the president’s policy. But from a military perspective, just looking at what the Egyptians have done in the Sinai, and the equipment that they are using — the Apache has been very instrumental in their efforts there.”

INHOFE: “Is that yes?”

AUSTIN: “That’s a yes, sir.”

The Obama administration had suspended the delivery of those helicopters. Unfortunately, while it might be satisfying on the part of some diplomats to cancel the transfer of the Apaches to Egypt such symbolic action should not come at the expense of regional security and, indeed, when it comes to Al Qaeda in the Sinai that is exactly what is at stake.

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The Impact of Politics on Military Justice

In what many Americans may have seen as an eerie echo of the “House of Cards” television series, last week an effort to change the way sexual assaults of military personnel are prosecuted failed to amass the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster. It was an issue on which normal party and ideological lines were completely blurred as Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the primary advocate for the bill, was joined by Republicans such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and opposed by her normal liberal allies like Carl Levin and, more crucially, Claire McCaskill. While Gillibrand claimed that opponents of taking such crimes out of the military chain of command “turned their back” on the survivors of sexual assaults, they responded by saying that this reform might have unintended consequences. One such critic of the bill was Amy Davidson who wrote in The New Yorker last week that this change might actually result in fewer prosecutions of assaults.

 Given the experiences of many rape survivors in the military, Gillibrand’s stand is hard to argue with. While, as Gillibrand has noted, every secretary of defense has enunciated a zero tolerance policy for the past 20 years, the number of assaults continue to rise with many in the military still convinced they have more to lose by speaking up about these crimes than by staying silent. But, as the New York Times’ coverage of a sensational sexual assault case now being tried at Fort Bragg, North Carolina shows, the military’s desire to avoid being labeled as insensitive to this issue may be leading to some poor decisions. The trial of Brigadier General Jeffrey A. Sinclair for sexual assault of a female officer with whom he had an affair illustrates just how messy the nexus between politics and justice can be in the military.

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In what many Americans may have seen as an eerie echo of the “House of Cards” television series, last week an effort to change the way sexual assaults of military personnel are prosecuted failed to amass the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster. It was an issue on which normal party and ideological lines were completely blurred as Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the primary advocate for the bill, was joined by Republicans such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and opposed by her normal liberal allies like Carl Levin and, more crucially, Claire McCaskill. While Gillibrand claimed that opponents of taking such crimes out of the military chain of command “turned their back” on the survivors of sexual assaults, they responded by saying that this reform might have unintended consequences. One such critic of the bill was Amy Davidson who wrote in The New Yorker last week that this change might actually result in fewer prosecutions of assaults.

 Given the experiences of many rape survivors in the military, Gillibrand’s stand is hard to argue with. While, as Gillibrand has noted, every secretary of defense has enunciated a zero tolerance policy for the past 20 years, the number of assaults continue to rise with many in the military still convinced they have more to lose by speaking up about these crimes than by staying silent. But, as the New York Times’ coverage of a sensational sexual assault case now being tried at Fort Bragg, North Carolina shows, the military’s desire to avoid being labeled as insensitive to this issue may be leading to some poor decisions. The trial of Brigadier General Jeffrey A. Sinclair for sexual assault of a female officer with whom he had an affair illustrates just how messy the nexus between politics and justice can be in the military.

Davidson made the following argument about why Gillibrand’s reform might backfire:

 Is any involvement by the chain of command in sexual-assault cases a mistake? Gillibrand would say yes—that it’s a conflict of interest. She is disappointed that Obama didn’t put his weight behind her bill now. Many survivors and advocates who have long, painful experience with the workings of the military would agree.

One can fully respect that view and not share it. It’s not just that, as many around the military argue, this is how it works for all sorts of crimes. McCaskill, who has prosecuted sexual-assault cases herself, has argued that, as well-meaning as it sounds, pulling out sexual assault in this way would result in fewer prosecutions. Part of the reasoning is technical and structural: while commanders are motivated by discipline and order (as well as, one hopes, respect for the law and concern for and loyalty to all their troops), prosecutors are often looking for cases that they can win. If it is left up to the prosecutors alone, they might have a more jaundiced view of how a jury would hear a witness than does a commander—again, no longer the unit commander, and no longer alone.

The Sinclair court martial seems to demonstrate the truth of this assertion. Sinclair is accused of coercing a junior office into sexual relations and then threatening her if she told anyone about what had happened. But the chief military prosecutor in the case withdrew from the court martial because he believed the evidence showed that the alleged victim in this case — who acknowledges that she had a three-year affair with Sinclair — had been untruthful and that the most serious charges of assault against the general should be dropped. He was overruled and the case has gone to trial only on those counts since the general has entered a guilty plea on the lesser charges of having an inappropriate relationship. The victim has testified about what she says is the general’s violent behavior and his threats. Sinclair, who was once the deputy commander of U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan and a rising star in the army and whose future in the military is now finished, claims the female officer only accused him of rape after he refused to leave his wife as well as to avoid prosecution herself for adultery after their affair was revealed.

Davidson’s point about experienced prosecutors being reluctant to go to trial without an open-and-shut case seems to be vindicated by what happened here. The military establishment has been rightly excoriated for a lackadaisical approach to sexual assaults as well as a culture of apathy toward the victims. But it may be overcompensating for that here by deciding that the bad press and probable political firestorm that would have resulted from a dismissal of rape charges against a high-ranking officer was far worse than going to trial with a case that seems unlikely to result in a conviction or to be upheld on appeal.

As Davidson writes, previous reforms of the Defense Authorization Act have made it easier for such prosecutions to continue and to take the immediate unit commanders out of the decision since they may be part of the problem. She also argues that the growing number of female officers is creating a better atmosphere in the military for dealing with the problem. However, it may also be that the Sinclair case points out the pitfalls of expecting the military chain-in-command to deal wisely with these issues. Gillibrand rightly worries about officers who want to cover up these crimes or are involved with them being part of the process of victims seeking redress. But by the same token, an army that is worried about being branded as soft on rape may proceed with shaky or unsubstantiated cases that would never be prosecuted in civilian courts.

The more the Times reports about the Sinclair court martial, to which they have devoted a steady stream of articles, the more Gillibrand’s assertion about the military’s incapacity to deal with these cases appears to be justified. Georges Clemenceau, France’s prime minister during World War One famously said that, “military justice is to justice what military music is to music.” The less the soldiers have to do with prosecuting rapes committed in the military, the better it may be for both the victims and the cause of justice.

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Can Crist Hold Lead as ObamaCare Loyalist?

On a national electoral map that has a lot of bright spots for Republicans, Florida is a problem. As Marc Caputo wrote yesterday in the Miami Herald, Governor Rick Scott’s polling numbers are enough to turn the stomachs of the GOP party faithful in the Sunshine State. Even polls conducted by Republicans all show Scott trailing renegade Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in his attempt to win re-election. Crist leads Scott in Republican strongholds in the state and can count on landslide-type advantages in areas where Democrats predominate. If those patterns hold, that’s a formula for certain defeat for the Republican.

It is true that there’s still plenty of time for Scott to recover and he has the kind of personal wealth that can finance a formidable counter-attack in the coming months. But his problem is that Crist, who preceded Scott as governor when he was a fellow Republican, is viewed favorably by the public while the controversial incumbent is not. That’s why Scott may view Crist’s decision to link himself inextricably with President Obama as providing his only path to victory. Crist went on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday and played the loyal Democrat in an awkward interview that had to make members of his current party wince. Crist denied that hundreds of thousands of Floridians had lost their insurance coverage as a result of the president’s signature health care law and even stuck to that implausible position even when Candy Crowley told him “that’s a fact.”

That exchange raises the prospect that the Florida governor’s race may provide an interesting test case as to whether the national GOP theme of running against ObamaCare in the midterms can salvage the party’s otherwise gloomy prospects in Florida. As we’ve seen in past midterms the vastly different electorate in non-presidential years can turn easy wins for the party of the incumbent president into nail biters, especially when a race can be nationalized. While there’s good reason to believe that Scott’s unpopularity makes such a scenario extremely unlikely in Florida, embracing the president and his unpopular and misnamed Affordable Care Act may be a case of Crist unnecessarily tempting fate.

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On a national electoral map that has a lot of bright spots for Republicans, Florida is a problem. As Marc Caputo wrote yesterday in the Miami Herald, Governor Rick Scott’s polling numbers are enough to turn the stomachs of the GOP party faithful in the Sunshine State. Even polls conducted by Republicans all show Scott trailing renegade Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in his attempt to win re-election. Crist leads Scott in Republican strongholds in the state and can count on landslide-type advantages in areas where Democrats predominate. If those patterns hold, that’s a formula for certain defeat for the Republican.

It is true that there’s still plenty of time for Scott to recover and he has the kind of personal wealth that can finance a formidable counter-attack in the coming months. But his problem is that Crist, who preceded Scott as governor when he was a fellow Republican, is viewed favorably by the public while the controversial incumbent is not. That’s why Scott may view Crist’s decision to link himself inextricably with President Obama as providing his only path to victory. Crist went on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday and played the loyal Democrat in an awkward interview that had to make members of his current party wince. Crist denied that hundreds of thousands of Floridians had lost their insurance coverage as a result of the president’s signature health care law and even stuck to that implausible position even when Candy Crowley told him “that’s a fact.”

That exchange raises the prospect that the Florida governor’s race may provide an interesting test case as to whether the national GOP theme of running against ObamaCare in the midterms can salvage the party’s otherwise gloomy prospects in Florida. As we’ve seen in past midterms the vastly different electorate in non-presidential years can turn easy wins for the party of the incumbent president into nail biters, especially when a race can be nationalized. While there’s good reason to believe that Scott’s unpopularity makes such a scenario extremely unlikely in Florida, embracing the president and his unpopular and misnamed Affordable Care Act may be a case of Crist unnecessarily tempting fate.

Crist’s decision to play the die-hard Democrat/Obama enthusiast is presumed to be smart politics. Democrats know that his decision to abandon the GOP had little to do with principle and everything to do with opportunism. He left the Republicans because they preferred to nominate Marco Rubio for the U.S. Senate seat the former governor coveted in 2010. Crist needs to convince rank-and-file Democrats who voted against him when he was a Republican and then an independent to turn out in November rather than to sit out the governor’s race. But while liberals may find his turncoat act distasteful, they tend to be more pragmatic about such things than the conservative base. Unlike the conservative base that places a higher value on ideological purity (as establishment Republicans who have been unseated by implausible Tea Party candidates could testify), liberal Democrats generally prefer winning elections. 

The irony here is that while being rejected by conservatives somehow enhanced Crist’s popularity, he seems to think that his future rests on transforming his political persona to that of a Democrat who is determined to march in lockstep with the leader of his party even on his most unpopular and least successful initiatives. Given the widespread dissatisfaction with Scott, Crist would probably do better trying to run this year as a moderate independent running on a Democrat line rather than to do a complete makeover as a true Blue Obama acolyte. But his comments about ObamaCare show that Crist’s opportunism may be getting the best of him.

Crist’s lead may be strong enough to withstand his decision to double down on ObamaCare and perhaps his loyalty to his new leader may induce Democrats to turn out in the numbers he needs to retire Scott. It’s also possible that Scott’s unpopularity rather than any national issue will determine the outcome of the race. But Crist’s ObamaCare comments won’t go unnoticed and will be used against him by the GOP. Florida may have gone for Obama in the last two elections and its changing demography may, like other purple states, may be making it a more friendly state for Democrats. But Crist’s over-the-top and blatantly insincere embrace of the president could give Republicans the chance to hold onto a governor’s seat that might otherwise be a lost cause.

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