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Posts For: March 14, 2014

The Unbearable Lightness of Barack Obama: Desperation, Cunning, or Disengagement?

It’s been less than six months since Bret Stephens used a version of this headline, but four events in the last week have caused it to scream in my mind. Before I get into those four events, let me say that I understand the only way to stay remotely sane in Washington, D.C., is to ignore 85 percent of whatever is trending at any given moment. That said, there are times anyone less isolated than a Carthusian monk is unavoidably exposed to “news” that 25 years ago would be considered fit only for National Enquirer.

The four events that have disturbed my tranquility while delighting DC Twitterati and radio talk show hosts are President Obama’s appearance on a web show called “Between Two Ferns” with comic actor Zach Galifianakis, his shopping trip to a Gap store in Manhattan, a visit to the White House by singer Lance Bass to discuss Obamacare, and lastly, an interview with someone named Ryan Seacrest about his “mom jeans.”

Few of the media reports on all this seem particularly concerned that these escapades have taken place in the week leading up to the Crimea referendum and what may become the most serious great power confrontation since the end of the Cold War. But once the initial reaction to the absurdity of reporting on the President’s shopping tastes or his choice to go on an obscure web show has passed, the episodes leave a decidedly more bitter taste in the mouth.

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It’s been less than six months since Bret Stephens used a version of this headline, but four events in the last week have caused it to scream in my mind. Before I get into those four events, let me say that I understand the only way to stay remotely sane in Washington, D.C., is to ignore 85 percent of whatever is trending at any given moment. That said, there are times anyone less isolated than a Carthusian monk is unavoidably exposed to “news” that 25 years ago would be considered fit only for National Enquirer.

The four events that have disturbed my tranquility while delighting DC Twitterati and radio talk show hosts are President Obama’s appearance on a web show called “Between Two Ferns” with comic actor Zach Galifianakis, his shopping trip to a Gap store in Manhattan, a visit to the White House by singer Lance Bass to discuss Obamacare, and lastly, an interview with someone named Ryan Seacrest about his “mom jeans.”

Few of the media reports on all this seem particularly concerned that these escapades have taken place in the week leading up to the Crimea referendum and what may become the most serious great power confrontation since the end of the Cold War. But once the initial reaction to the absurdity of reporting on the President’s shopping tastes or his choice to go on an obscure web show has passed, the episodes leave a decidedly more bitter taste in the mouth.

The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker had a good “do I or don’t I” piece on whether to criticize the President for his vacuous appearance with Galifianakis, musing “Health care is important, of course, but, I repeat, he’s the leader of the free world, parts of which are under siege.” Or, should she just “lighten up” as she chides herself later. Rush Limbaugh said essentially the same thing on radio, while Jonah Goldberg shared similar sentiments at National Review. As Goldberg says, it’s not about whether it was dignified, it was about whether it was “small,” if not pathetic.

But then tie that together with the Gap spree, Lance Bass, and mom jeans and a clear pattern emerges. It’s easy to be churlish and to reflexively criticize Obama for everything he does, but while his national security officials are impotently complaining about Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and while his Secretary of Health and Human Services can’t (or refuses to) answer the most basic of Congressional questions about the on-going healthcare debacle (to list just two issues of rather large concern), the President feels its appropriate to show the world he is shopping for sweaters for his girls or to welcome a boy band singer with no expertise whatsoever to the White House to talk about healthcare?

Perhaps he is cunning like a fox. He continues to look hip and cool, and pundits like me spend some part of our day talking about his actions as opposed to his policies. Or, perhaps he is desperate, as many conservatives want to believe, that he fears the collapse of ObamaCare and depredations of Putin and is doing anything to keep up his popularity. Maybe he is just disengaged, unaware of what is important and what is not, feeling in his media and staff cocoon that whatever choice he makes is the right one.

Or perhaps Barack Obama is simply the manifestation of a continuing and alarming decline in our political culture: the unseriousness of American politics in a world turning more and more dangerous. When Bill Clinton played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show while running for the highest office in the land, at least the Cold War had just ended and we unrealistically felt a new age was dawning. Today, we certainly should have wised up, but it’s no secret we remain a celebrity-driven culture, so having Lance Bass visit the Oval Office and Seth Rogin trade barbs with Congressmen before testifying on Alzheimer’s is now the very mainstream of our politics. If so, why not watch Barack Obama pick out pastel sweaters or defend his jeans?

Indeed, to beat a twice-dead horse, it was his political celebrity status that got Barack Obama elected in the first place, a politician of the very thinnest of resumes, whose new-age blather caused vapors in a press that was itself as filled with celebrity worshipers as the viewers they seek. There’s no reason to re-litigate two elections, but the track record of this White House can only give credence to the judgments of so many who feared a popularity-driven candidate with no experience and who was so clearly hiding an ideological streak at odds with the majority of his fellow citizens. Yet none of that mattered next to the dancing and the star-studded endorsements and the coolness factor.

It’s the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, entertainment by our leaders that is eagerly swallowed by unserious and uneducated segments of the American public. Unlike other blessedly eternal optimists, however, as an historian, I am far more pessimistic that, once having started down this road, American political culture can easily recover its balance, competence, or clarity of purpose.

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Hillary’s Russia Problem More Than ‘Reset’

Hillary Clinton, a presumptive contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, chose Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, to be a top aide for Clinton’s presumptive run. Tauscher is a long-time loyal ally to Clinton, who brought her in to handle arms control during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State. As they say in Washington, personnel is policy, as Clinton presumably wanted a Russophile to be her top aide. While working for Clinton, Tauscher was a key advocate for the START agreement.  At the time, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, outlined several concerns, which Tauscher pooh-poohed. After all, Tauscher argued, the Cold War was over and the Russians could be trusted. The need to work with divergent interests and views necessarily constrains government officials. Seldom does anyone have enough power to push his or her views in their entirety over career bureaucrats and political appointees who might have different views. The true test of one’s opinion, therefore, is what they do when they are outside government.

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Hillary Clinton, a presumptive contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, chose Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, to be a top aide for Clinton’s presumptive run. Tauscher is a long-time loyal ally to Clinton, who brought her in to handle arms control during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State. As they say in Washington, personnel is policy, as Clinton presumably wanted a Russophile to be her top aide. While working for Clinton, Tauscher was a key advocate for the START agreement.  At the time, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, outlined several concerns, which Tauscher pooh-poohed. After all, Tauscher argued, the Cold War was over and the Russians could be trusted. The need to work with divergent interests and views necessarily constrains government officials. Seldom does anyone have enough power to push his or her views in their entirety over career bureaucrats and political appointees who might have different views. The true test of one’s opinion, therefore, is what they do when they are outside government.

Tauscher joined the Atlantic Council; there is nothing wrong with that: The Atlantic Council is home to an impressive array of former officials.  Tauscher, however, used her perch to launch a project to push her personal re-set even further. Here is the press release announcing her initiative:

The Atlantic Council and the Russian International Affairs Council today launched a new initiative to help reframe US-Russia relations and get past the Cold War-era nuclear legacy in our relationship, particularly the dominant paradigm of “mutual assured destruction.” The goal is to reconfigure the bilateral relationship towards “mutual assured stability” and refocus arms control and disarmament toward the development of reassuring measures, and thus help promote closer cooperation between Russia and the West.

The problem, in Tauscher’s view, was that President Obama hadn’t gone far enough in pushing détente with Russia. “We are committed to help our respective authorities revitalize US-Russia relations in this direction,” she declared. She did, however, continue in the same statement to praise the Obama administration’s decision to cancel missile defense projects promised to Poland and the Czech Republic.

What isn’t quite as obvious from the statement is the apparent funding for Tauscher’s “Mutually Assured Stability” initiative. She (and the Atlantic Council, at the time chaired by Chuck Hagel, Obama’s subsequent pick to be Defense Secretary) entered into partnership with the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). That sounds innocuous enough, unless one realizes that RIAC is actually funded by the Kremlin and remains a Kremlin-front. Alas, it would not be that much of an exaggeration to say that the woman whom Hillary Clinton considers her top advisor on Russia, arms control, and perhaps more broadly foreign policy effectively put herself partly in Russia’s pocket. Her actions were legal, but there is a sharp difference between legality and good judgment.

Where does Clinton really stand on Russia? Russia’s invasion of Crimea should be pause to consider what lessons should be learned. Alas, if her reliance on Tauscher is any indication, Clinton’s “re-set” moment was not simply a photo-op gone awry; it is symptomatic of bad judgment and a continuing self-destructive embrace.

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Obama, Deportations, and the Rule of Law

President Obama did not completely satisfy Hispanic members of Congress yesterday when he told them he had ordered a review of the administration’s enforcement of immigration laws. As the New York Times reports, what these lawmakers and the activists on behalf of the cause of illegal immigrants want is not a review but a presidential order halting deportations. In speaking of the review the president said he was concerned about the impact deportations have on the families. The question is how far the president, whose administration has actually reportedly deported two million people since he took office, will go on this issue in disregarding the law and Congress. Coming at a time when House Republicans are already up in arms about the president’s selective enforcement of other measures like his ObamaCare legislation, a decision to effectively annul immigration laws would be something akin to a declaration of war on Congress.

A deportation suspension would appeal to a Hispanic base that the president badly needs to turn out for Democrats this fall, as well as to his party’s base. But it would be a terrible mistake. Doing so would not only lend even more credence to the accusations being leveled at Obama about his contempt for the Constitution. It would also kill any hope for immigration reform for the foreseeable future.

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President Obama did not completely satisfy Hispanic members of Congress yesterday when he told them he had ordered a review of the administration’s enforcement of immigration laws. As the New York Times reports, what these lawmakers and the activists on behalf of the cause of illegal immigrants want is not a review but a presidential order halting deportations. In speaking of the review the president said he was concerned about the impact deportations have on the families. The question is how far the president, whose administration has actually reportedly deported two million people since he took office, will go on this issue in disregarding the law and Congress. Coming at a time when House Republicans are already up in arms about the president’s selective enforcement of other measures like his ObamaCare legislation, a decision to effectively annul immigration laws would be something akin to a declaration of war on Congress.

A deportation suspension would appeal to a Hispanic base that the president badly needs to turn out for Democrats this fall, as well as to his party’s base. But it would be a terrible mistake. Doing so would not only lend even more credence to the accusations being leveled at Obama about his contempt for the Constitution. It would also kill any hope for immigration reform for the foreseeable future.

The president’s concern for the families of the deported should not be dismissed by conservatives who are used to trashing everything the president does. Tearing apart these families, many of whom are legal residents or American citizens, takes a toll on our social welfare system. With an estimated 11 million illegals in the country, enforcement of these laws is, at best, haphazard and often arbitrary and capricious. Those caught by the Immigration and Naturalization Service are often in legal limbo for indefinite periods where due process is not always a given.

But while those affected deserve compassion, the fact remains that a system that not only tolerates the flouting of the law but also actively encourages it from the very top of the political food chain is one in which the rule of law has collapsed. It’s one thing for pro-immigration forces to call for a change in the laws to allow those who have entered the country without permission to have a path to legality or even citizenship. It’s quite another to say that the president should single-handedly abrogate the laws of the land.

Critics of Rep. Trey Gowdy’s proposed legislation that would allow Congress to sue the executive branch to enforce the law are right to point out that presidents have been selectively enforcing the law since the earliest days of the republic. Even if Gowdy’s bill passed, no court would touch a dispute that would be rightly understood as essentially a political controversy rather than a legal one. But if the president goes down the path of suspending all deportations, we will have passed a critical tipping point toward the creation of a new super-imperial presidency that transcends law or the Constitution.

That should worry everyone. But doing so should particularly concern immigration activists who still hope that Congress will act to fix a broken system. Though the bipartisan comprehensive immigration compromise that passed the Senate has no chance of getting through the House this year, supporters of the measure should not treat that as the end of the battle. There is a decent chance some kind of reform will pass in the next Congress no matter whether it is still split between the parties or under sole Republican control. But if Obama unilaterally annuls the existing laws by suspending deportations, it will worsen the split on the issue in the country and especially in Congress. If Congress no longer believes the executive branch will secure the border—an essential part of any possible immigration fix—there will be no way to convince them to change the system. Such a move could end any chance of reform for the foreseeable future.

With that in mind, Obama needs to tread carefully on deportations. As much as he likes to rule on his own, this is one executive order that he should never issue.

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In Trashing Ryan, Liberals Forget Moynihan

In 1965, future U.S. senator and then assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a seminal report that began the process of changing the way America approached the issue of inner city poverty. The report, “The Negro Family: The Case for Action” raised a storm of controversy because it noted the impact of the breakdown of the nuclear family and the destructive nature of the culture of urban ghettos in which work was devalued. Rather than economics determining the social conditions, the report pointed out that the opposite was true.

Though he traced the roots of this depressing pattern back to slavery and Jim Crow discrimination, Moynihan was blasted as a racist and for denigrating blacks. But for those who truly cared about helping the poor and doing something about the way the welfare state had created a permanent urban underclass, the report was prophetic and helped pave the way for future efforts to reform welfare.

But for those who still make a living from race baiting and diverting the attention of the country from the facts about what produces multi-generational poverty, the truth of Moynihan’s conclusions are still blasphemy. Such persons lie in wait not only to derail efforts to address the problems of the black family and urban poverty but to tar all those who speak about the issue as racists in the same way that Moynihan was attacked nearly 50 years ago. And it is into just such a trap that Rep. Paul Ryan walked earlier this week when Rep. Barbara Lee blasted him.

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In 1965, future U.S. senator and then assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a seminal report that began the process of changing the way America approached the issue of inner city poverty. The report, “The Negro Family: The Case for Action” raised a storm of controversy because it noted the impact of the breakdown of the nuclear family and the destructive nature of the culture of urban ghettos in which work was devalued. Rather than economics determining the social conditions, the report pointed out that the opposite was true.

Though he traced the roots of this depressing pattern back to slavery and Jim Crow discrimination, Moynihan was blasted as a racist and for denigrating blacks. But for those who truly cared about helping the poor and doing something about the way the welfare state had created a permanent urban underclass, the report was prophetic and helped pave the way for future efforts to reform welfare.

But for those who still make a living from race baiting and diverting the attention of the country from the facts about what produces multi-generational poverty, the truth of Moynihan’s conclusions are still blasphemy. Such persons lie in wait not only to derail efforts to address the problems of the black family and urban poverty but to tar all those who speak about the issue as racists in the same way that Moynihan was attacked nearly 50 years ago. And it is into just such a trap that Rep. Paul Ryan walked earlier this week when Rep. Barbara Lee blasted him.

Ryan was forced to backtrack yesterday from remarks he made on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show in which he spoke of the problems of poverty, family, and work in blighted neighborhoods. As Politico reports, Ryan said the following:

“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” he said, urging everyone to get involved in blighted communities even if they live in the suburbs.

Lee responded with this statement:

My colleague Congressman Ryan’s comments about ‘inner city’ poverty are a thinly veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated. Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black,’” Lee said.

Ryan denied he was attacking blacks but said that perhaps he had not fully articulated what he was trying to say.

What is most unfortunate about this is not just the way our political culture rewards hypocrites like Lee for crying racism where none exists or that Ryan felt that he had to apologize for saying something that is not only factual but painfully obvious. Rather, the real problem here is that all these years after Moynihan first took the heat for breaking the silence about what causes the cycle of poverty, speaking the truth about the subject is still controversial.

For people like Lee and a host of other racial inciters and their liberal media enablers like Ana Marie Cox, the imperative to address the breakdown of the culture of work and family in poverty-stricken areas is still trumped by their need to use the racist label as a political weapon.

What makes this even more pathetic is that the patterns that Moynihan first wrote about in 1965 now apply to other groups afflicted by poverty. The epidemic of fatherless homes and single mothers on welfare has long since ceased being primarily a black problem but become one that impacts whites and other groups just as harshly. To claim that talking about this vicious cycle of poverty and government dependency is a matter of code words about race is not only a canard but also outdated.

This sorry chapter teaches us that as much as we may think we have transcended the past, the race baiters are bound and determined to see to it that the country doesn’t learn the lessons from decades of failed liberal policies. Race has nothing to this. What this country needs are more people in public life like Ryan who are knowledgeable enough to speak about this basic problem and fewer who thrive on avoiding honest discussions about poverty.

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The Question Obama Should Ask Abbas

Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry “put the kibosh on the demand which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made central to peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” according to the report in The Times of Israel:

“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it [Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state] again and again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace, and we’ve obviously made that clear,” Kerry said.

Kerry noted that the “Jewish state” issue was addressed by UN resolution 181 in 1947, which granted international recognition to the fledgling state of Israel. There are “more than 40 – 30 mentions of a “Jewish state” in the resolution, Kerry said, and added that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “confirmed that he agree it [Israel] would be a Jewish state” in 1988 and in 2004.

Seth Mandel and Tom Wilson have each addressed this issue in excellent posts. If it’s been internationally recognized since 1947, and if Arafat “confirmed” it in 1988 and 2004, what is the problem with confirming it again? Kerry’s argument reminds one of the reply that Talleyrand once made to a diplomat who proffered the “goes-without-saying” argument to him: “if it goes without saying, it will go still better by being said.”

This past Monday, the State Department tried to walk back comments from the prior week that indicated the U.S. was about to bail on any requirement that the Palestinians recognize a Jewish state. Spokesperson Jen Psaki had the following colloquy with reporters:

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Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry “put the kibosh on the demand which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made central to peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” according to the report in The Times of Israel:

“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it [Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state] again and again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace, and we’ve obviously made that clear,” Kerry said.

Kerry noted that the “Jewish state” issue was addressed by UN resolution 181 in 1947, which granted international recognition to the fledgling state of Israel. There are “more than 40 – 30 mentions of a “Jewish state” in the resolution, Kerry said, and added that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “confirmed that he agree it [Israel] would be a Jewish state” in 1988 and in 2004.

Seth Mandel and Tom Wilson have each addressed this issue in excellent posts. If it’s been internationally recognized since 1947, and if Arafat “confirmed” it in 1988 and 2004, what is the problem with confirming it again? Kerry’s argument reminds one of the reply that Talleyrand once made to a diplomat who proffered the “goes-without-saying” argument to him: “if it goes without saying, it will go still better by being said.”

This past Monday, the State Department tried to walk back comments from the prior week that indicated the U.S. was about to bail on any requirement that the Palestinians recognize a Jewish state. Spokesperson Jen Psaki had the following colloquy with reporters:

QUESTION: There seems to be some confusion over some comments that you made on Friday about the whole recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. I’m wondering if you can address those. Has the Administration changed its position on this?

MS. PSAKI: We have not. Our position has been for quite some time that Israel is a Jewish state.

Then Psaki said the issue was something to be determined in negotiations and that she wasn’t going to say what should or should not be in a framework agreement. Now the secretary of state says it’s a “mistake” to raise the issue. With this administration, one can never rely on its “positions.” They are always subject to revision when the going gets tough. The red line turns out not to be red. The position stated with “Period!” at the end turns out to have a hidden asterisk. The position held “for quite some time” turns out to have no operational significance. It’s just a “position.”

In his March 4, 2014 address to AIPAC, after his meeting the day before with President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized the importance of the issue to Israel:

Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — (applause) — where the civil rights of all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, are guaranteed. The land of Israel is the place where the identity of the Jewish people was forged. It was in Hebron that Abraham bought the cave of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs. It was in Bethel that Jacob dreamed his dreams. It was in Jerusalem that David ruled his kingdom. We never forget that, but it’s time the Palestinians stopped denying history. (Applause.) Just as Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, the Palestinians must be prepared to recognize a Jewish state. (Applause.)

President Abbas, recognize the Jewish state, and in doing so, you would be telling your people, the Palestinians, that while we might have a territorial dispute, the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own is beyond dispute. (Applause.) You would be telling Palestinians to abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees, or amputating parts of the Negev and the Galilee. In recognizing the Jewish state, you would finally making clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict.

So recognize the Jewish state. No excuses, no delays, it’s time. (Applause.)

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has been one of Israel’s central demands in the “peace process” long before Netanyahu brought the issue into its current focus. It is the critical indicator of whether the Palestinians are engaged in a search for a two-state solution or a two-stage plan. So perhaps President Obama will use his meeting Monday with President for Life Abbas to address this issue. He can ask him the same question he used in another connection in his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg: “If not now, when?”

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Scott Brown’s New Hampshire Gamble

Republicans around the country have been heartened by David Jolly’s defeat of Democrat Alex Sink in Tuesday’s special election and what it could portend for the upcoming congressional midterms. But perhaps no one was more delighted by the result than Scott Brown. As CBS reported yesterday, the former Massachusetts senator is staffing up for a campaign and spreading the word that he’s ready to run for Senate from New Hampshire.

Some of that took place before Jolly’s win over Sink, and indeed it was clear for months that Brown was seriously considering challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen in November. But that activity increased in the wake of Tuesday’s election and Brown is expected to announce that he’s forming an exploratory committee today. The exploratory committee is a first step, and it’s not too much of a surprise. As CBS noted, some were taken aback he was only going that far while giving the impression he has made up his mind:

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Republicans around the country have been heartened by David Jolly’s defeat of Democrat Alex Sink in Tuesday’s special election and what it could portend for the upcoming congressional midterms. But perhaps no one was more delighted by the result than Scott Brown. As CBS reported yesterday, the former Massachusetts senator is staffing up for a campaign and spreading the word that he’s ready to run for Senate from New Hampshire.

Some of that took place before Jolly’s win over Sink, and indeed it was clear for months that Brown was seriously considering challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen in November. But that activity increased in the wake of Tuesday’s election and Brown is expected to announce that he’s forming an exploratory committee today. The exploratory committee is a first step, and it’s not too much of a surprise. As CBS noted, some were taken aback he was only going that far while giving the impression he has made up his mind:

Some of Brown’s former colleagues were surprised that he decided to form an exploratory committee, instead of just announcing that he is running after all these months of playing coy, Cordes reports. He has signaled that he wants to go on a listening tour of sorts in New Hampshire, the way Hillary Clinton did when she ran for Senate in New York in 2000 to try to shed the carpetbagger label.

Brown spent much of the past two weeks calling key New Hampshire Republican officials and influential GOP activists, saying he was going to run and seeking their support. At the same time, Brown’s camp has quietly begun offering paid positions to Republican operatives for a prospective New Hampshire campaign.

Several people involved in the discussions told the Associated Press that some in the GOP establishment remain skeptical given the former Republican senator’s recent track record. The 54-year-old Brown angered Massachusetts Republicans last year after indicating he would run in the state’s special U.S. Senate election, only to change his mind late in the process.

Brown has good reason to leave himself room to back out. No matter how good a year it seems to be for Republican congressional candidates, Brown is taking more of a risk running for this particular seat than most GOP candidates this year. Brown had his pick of recent and future elections in which to attempt to make his return to elected office after losing to Elizabeth Warren in 2012. He could have jumped into the special election to fill John Kerry’s seat after he was nominated to be secretary of state, but that would have necessitated not only another (expensive) election right after his loss but a second soon after that to defend the seat for a full term.

Brown was well aware of the pitfalls of such an effort; after all, he won the seat originally in a special election but then lost it on a regular election year (and when President Obama was on the ballot). The national GOP would have loved to have him in Congress, but he had a better shot at winning the upcoming Massachusetts governor’s race, which some analysts thought he’d run in. The state more readily elects Republicans as governor than as senator, and Brown left office with high approval ratings. A term as governor would also have helped any national aspirations he had. In the end, he passed on that race too.

That left the possibility he’d run in New Hampshire, where he owns a home. The challenge here is that he’d risk getting tagged as a “carpetbagger” for switching states. Such a tag rarely holds politicians back, especially in the Northeast (New York’s junior Senate seat almost seemed to be reserved for out-of-state Democrats when the possibility arose that Hillary Clinton could be succeeded by Caroline Kennedy). But in a close race, every vote counts.

More importantly for Brown, running for Senate from New Hampshire likely leaves him without a fallback option. Had he stayed in Massachusetts and lost another election there, he’d almost surely still have a future anyway, or at least one more run for office before state Republicans thought he’d pass his sell-by date. But he probably cannot run and lose multiple times in New Hampshire, which will be less tolerant of a candidate from another state. And it’s doubtful he can return to statewide elections in Massachusetts after spurning the party and passing up two important elections there to run in New Hampshire instead.

But that also tells you just how encouraged Brown was by this year’s political trends. The test for Brown in New Hampshire was always going to be whether there was a national issue that would take precedence among voters over a local issue they might not trust him with. ObamaCare appears to be that national issue, and its potency was displayed in Sink’s defeat. (She wasn’t even in Congress to vote for ObamaCare and it still held her down.) It’s also an issue Brown knows well, having successfully campaigned on it once before.

If Scott Brown goes all-in this round, he wants to be sure to have a strong hand to play. Thus Sink’s defeat on Tuesday may not only be evidence of a tough year for Democratic candidates, but a strong one for Republican candidate recruitment.

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Kerry’s Unprepared for the Palestinian “No”

Secretary of State John Kerry knows that time is fast running out to get the Palestinians to agree to keep talking with Israel. In April the nine-month negotiating period that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas gave Kerry to pursue a deal will expire. He has sought to extend it by getting both sides to agree to a framework for more discussions. While the Israelis have, despite misgivings, indicated that they will sign on to the framework, the Palestinians are balking. The administration’s response to this has been to start peeling away elements of the framework that gave the Israelis some sense that they were not being railroaded. The first to go was, as Tom Wilson noted, the insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which Kerry discarded yesterday in congressional testimony. But if Kerry thinks not forcing Abbas to say the two little words that will signify that the conflict is over will get him to agree to the framework, he’s dreaming.

As I wrote yesterday, the Palestinians and their apologists like Peter Beinart think Kerry has been too kind to the Israelis since he has incorporated some of their demands about security into the framework as well as leaving the parties room to negotiate about borders, settlements, and Jerusalem. And he has also, at least to date, refused to budge on the question of the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. In his Pressure Points blog, Elliott Abrams rightly points out that this is the sticking point that no amount of American diplomacy or pressure on Israel will solve. Abbas can’t give in on refugees and that makes, as Abrams says, “a genuine peace agreement unrealistic and in fact impossible.” After all the months of negotiating and the various statements from Kerry and President Obama hammering Israel, the U.S. is in exactly the same position it was in last summer when Kerry embarked on his Middle East mission: the same reasons that prevented the Palestinians from saying yes to offers of statehood and peace in 2000, 2001, and 2008 still apply: they are never going to agree to anything that ends the conflict.

Though I took issue with Beinart’s silly effort to blame Kerry for being too pro-Israel, he was right about one thing. The messy aftermath of the collapse of diplomacy and the likelihood that the secretary has no clue about how to deal with the possibility of a revival of violence and increased diplomatic attacks on Israel mean that what will follow is very much Kerry’s fault.

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Secretary of State John Kerry knows that time is fast running out to get the Palestinians to agree to keep talking with Israel. In April the nine-month negotiating period that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas gave Kerry to pursue a deal will expire. He has sought to extend it by getting both sides to agree to a framework for more discussions. While the Israelis have, despite misgivings, indicated that they will sign on to the framework, the Palestinians are balking. The administration’s response to this has been to start peeling away elements of the framework that gave the Israelis some sense that they were not being railroaded. The first to go was, as Tom Wilson noted, the insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which Kerry discarded yesterday in congressional testimony. But if Kerry thinks not forcing Abbas to say the two little words that will signify that the conflict is over will get him to agree to the framework, he’s dreaming.

As I wrote yesterday, the Palestinians and their apologists like Peter Beinart think Kerry has been too kind to the Israelis since he has incorporated some of their demands about security into the framework as well as leaving the parties room to negotiate about borders, settlements, and Jerusalem. And he has also, at least to date, refused to budge on the question of the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. In his Pressure Points blog, Elliott Abrams rightly points out that this is the sticking point that no amount of American diplomacy or pressure on Israel will solve. Abbas can’t give in on refugees and that makes, as Abrams says, “a genuine peace agreement unrealistic and in fact impossible.” After all the months of negotiating and the various statements from Kerry and President Obama hammering Israel, the U.S. is in exactly the same position it was in last summer when Kerry embarked on his Middle East mission: the same reasons that prevented the Palestinians from saying yes to offers of statehood and peace in 2000, 2001, and 2008 still apply: they are never going to agree to anything that ends the conflict.

Though I took issue with Beinart’s silly effort to blame Kerry for being too pro-Israel, he was right about one thing. The messy aftermath of the collapse of diplomacy and the likelihood that the secretary has no clue about how to deal with the possibility of a revival of violence and increased diplomatic attacks on Israel mean that what will follow is very much Kerry’s fault.

When Kerry began his effort to revive negotiations his chances seemed slim, but he was determined nevertheless to solve a problem that had defeated all those who had gone before him. But what is now becoming clear is that Kerry never had a plan other than a belief that his diplomatic skills were equal to any test. Over the last eight months both Kerry and President Obama have chimed in to keep the heat on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu while continually praising Abbas for his commitment to peace. But if, even after all this and Kerry’s ditching of the Jewish state demand, Abbas still says no, the consequences will be more serious than just another proof of Kerry’s diplomatic incompetence.

Up until now Kerry’s effort has been portrayed as a noble endeavor made all the more heroic by the long odds that were stacked against it from the start. But if, as Kerry himself noted yesterday, distrust between the parties is greater than ever, it’s fair to ask how much of this is his fault. Though the framework he tried to craft was flawed, it was based on the notion that if there was to be an agreement it had to be one that would bring real peace. Yet what we are learning as the process unravels is that by focusing all the pressure on Israel the secretary has done nothing to bring the Palestinians closer to understanding that they must end the conflict. By speaking of violence and boycotts aimed at Israel after he fails, Kerry has made it certain that such things will happen but done nothing to avoid that outcome.

As the moment of truth looms closer on Kerry’s effort, it is time for him to stop badgering the Israelis and to begin to come to grips with Palestinian rejectionism. Abbas has come to rely on the animus of the Obama administration for Netanyahu, but he must be informed that a fourth “no” will have consequences. If not, then Obama and Kerry will truly be complicit in the mayhem that will follow. 

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Putin Expects Western Inaction

Faced with the most direct military aggression in Europe since the days of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Obama administration and our European allies have been treating Russia so far with kid gloves.

We have been afraid of imposing economic sanctions on Russia or providing military equipment to Ukraine for fear of an escalation from Moscow which could take the form of invading eastern Ukraine, seizing the property of Western companies (including Ford and Boeing) in Russia, cutting off western Europe and Ukraine from Russian natural gas, or even selling advanced air-defense systems to Iran.

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Faced with the most direct military aggression in Europe since the days of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Obama administration and our European allies have been treating Russia so far with kid gloves.

We have been afraid of imposing economic sanctions on Russia or providing military equipment to Ukraine for fear of an escalation from Moscow which could take the form of invading eastern Ukraine, seizing the property of Western companies (including Ford and Boeing) in Russia, cutting off western Europe and Ukraine from Russian natural gas, or even selling advanced air-defense systems to Iran.

So what has the Western policy of restraint gotten us so far? Nothing, as far as I can tell. Crimea is preparing to vote this Sunday on an illegal referendum under the guns of Russian occupiers which will result in a predetermined endorsement of Anschluss with Russia. Meanwhile Russian troops are massing for maneuvers on Ukraine’s border, raising fears that Vladimir Putin is planning to annex more of that unfortunate country which most Russians regard as part of their empire. Oh and to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic criticism, Putin has just blocked the websites used by his critics Garry Kasparov and Alexei Navalny.

Only those who are unfamiliar with history can be surprised by Putin’s actions. Autocrats like him habitually keep pushing further and further as long as they sense weakness on the other side–and Putin obviously senses that today since he, like Bashar Assad, is able to violate our red lines with impunity. First we told him not to invade Georgia and he did. Then we told him to abide by a ceasefire and he did not; far from pulling his troops back, Putin has maintained effective control of significant chunks of Georgian territory. More recently we told him not to invade Crimea and he did. We told him not to annex Crimea and he seems to be in the process of doing just that.

It is well past time for the West to respond with serious sanctions that will inflict real damage on the Russian economy. For a start, block Russian financial institutions from access to dollar-denominated trades. Freeze the assets, held in the West, of so many of Putin’s oligarch pals. And block those same oligarchs from visiting their properties and families in the West. Already the Russian stock market is down more than 20 percent this year; that could be only the beginning of a free fall that will slice billions of dollars out of the value of Russian companies, most of them (given the nature of the crony capitalism in Russia) closely linked to the Kremlin.

None of that is likely to make Putin disgorge Crimea, which he sees as Russia’s historic territory, and unfortunately it will also inflict some pain on Western economies. But at least it will make him think twice about going any further. At the moment, the tyrant in the Kremlin no doubt feels like he has a green light for further aggression.

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Barack Obama, Political Wrecking Ball

By now it’s settled on most people, including Democrats, that the loss of Alex Sink to David Jolly in Florida’s 13th Congressional District was, in the words of the New York Times, “devastating” to Democrats. It’s a district Ms. Sink carried in her unsuccessful race for governor against Rick Scott, a district that Barack Obama carried in his two elections, and a district that demographically now favors Democrats. In addition, Ms. Sink raised more money and ran a better campaign than Jolly. Even Bill Clinton lent his efforts to her campaign. And yet she lost.

What should particularly alarm Democrats is that Ms. Sink, who was not in Congress in 2010 and therefore did not cast a vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, ran what Democrats considered a “textbook” campaign when it came to dealing with ObamaCare. She said she wanted to fix it, not repeal it; and she attempted to paint Jolly as a right-wing extremist on abortion, Social Security privatization, and in wanting to repeal ObamaCare. And yet she lost.

Even someone as reflexively partisan as Paul Begala said Democrats shouldn’t try to spin this loss.

But there’s another, broader point worth making, I think. It is that Barack Obama, who was the embodiment of liberal hopes and dreams, is turning out to be a one-man political wrecking ball when it comes to his party–and to liberalism more broadly.

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By now it’s settled on most people, including Democrats, that the loss of Alex Sink to David Jolly in Florida’s 13th Congressional District was, in the words of the New York Times, “devastating” to Democrats. It’s a district Ms. Sink carried in her unsuccessful race for governor against Rick Scott, a district that Barack Obama carried in his two elections, and a district that demographically now favors Democrats. In addition, Ms. Sink raised more money and ran a better campaign than Jolly. Even Bill Clinton lent his efforts to her campaign. And yet she lost.

What should particularly alarm Democrats is that Ms. Sink, who was not in Congress in 2010 and therefore did not cast a vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, ran what Democrats considered a “textbook” campaign when it came to dealing with ObamaCare. She said she wanted to fix it, not repeal it; and she attempted to paint Jolly as a right-wing extremist on abortion, Social Security privatization, and in wanting to repeal ObamaCare. And yet she lost.

Even someone as reflexively partisan as Paul Begala said Democrats shouldn’t try to spin this loss.

But there’s another, broader point worth making, I think. It is that Barack Obama, who was the embodiment of liberal hopes and dreams, is turning out to be a one-man political wrecking ball when it comes to his party–and to liberalism more broadly.

The evidence is scattered all around us, from the epic defeat Democrats suffered in the 2010 midterm, to the (likely) lashing that awaits them in 2014, to collapsing trust and confidence in the federal government, to an agenda that is unpopular virtually across the board. Add to that the rising disorder and chaos in the world that is the predictable result of Mr. Obama’s disengaged and impotent foreign policy.

The American people, having lived with the Obama presidency for more than five years, have come to the conclusion–later, I think, than they should have–that he is incompetent, weak, and untrustworthy. And that judgment is directed not just at Mr. Obama; it is implicating his entire party.

Barack Obama produced a health-care proposal that was a liberal dream for a half-century. It is a bitter irony for him, and a predictable result for many of us, that having achieved it, it may well set back the cause of liberalism for years to come.

Liberals wanted Mr. Obama. Now they have him. And now they may be undone by him.

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Kerry Caves on Jewish State Demand

It was only ever a matter of time before Secretary of State John Kerry–desperate to hold together some semblance of a peace process–caved to Arab pressure and turned against Israel’s primary requirement that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as part of an end to the conflict. Speaking to members of Congress on Thursday, Kerry made it clear that he thought that such a demand on Israel’s part was a “mistake.” Once again the administration is trying to set the bar for an agreement so incredibly low that even the intransigent Palestinians can be slipped over it, whether they wish to be or not.

Kerry’s reasoning on this point was as shoddy as ever. He explained that since international law already confirmed Israel’s status as a Jewish state, there was no need for the Palestinians to give their recognition to this fact. Yet this is an unbelievable proposition. If Israel’s status as a Jewish state is mandated by international law, which it most certainly is, then it is hardly any great ask to require that any emerging Palestinian state comply with international law and recognize this fact. A meaningful end to the conflict clearly requires that the Palestinians confirm a cessation of any further claims against Israel, by accepting that they will no longer attempt to extinguish the Jewish state either by trying to flood it with the descendants of Arab refugees or by continuously demanding further territory.

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It was only ever a matter of time before Secretary of State John Kerry–desperate to hold together some semblance of a peace process–caved to Arab pressure and turned against Israel’s primary requirement that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as part of an end to the conflict. Speaking to members of Congress on Thursday, Kerry made it clear that he thought that such a demand on Israel’s part was a “mistake.” Once again the administration is trying to set the bar for an agreement so incredibly low that even the intransigent Palestinians can be slipped over it, whether they wish to be or not.

Kerry’s reasoning on this point was as shoddy as ever. He explained that since international law already confirmed Israel’s status as a Jewish state, there was no need for the Palestinians to give their recognition to this fact. Yet this is an unbelievable proposition. If Israel’s status as a Jewish state is mandated by international law, which it most certainly is, then it is hardly any great ask to require that any emerging Palestinian state comply with international law and recognize this fact. A meaningful end to the conflict clearly requires that the Palestinians confirm a cessation of any further claims against Israel, by accepting that they will no longer attempt to extinguish the Jewish state either by trying to flood it with the descendants of Arab refugees or by continuously demanding further territory.

In these negotiations, Israel has made relatively few demands, simply insisting that an agreement must mean an end to the conflict and Palestinian claims, and that as such the Jewish state be recognized and that its security be assured. Yet Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whose own demands multiply and mutate endlessly, has proven incapable of even agreeing to these basic requirements. Aware that this will mean the end of their shambolic peace process, Obama and Kerry are now putting pressure on Israel so that without the Palestinians having had to concede anything of any substance, an agreement will appear to have fallen into place nonetheless.

Yet, it will indeed only ever be the appearance of a peace agreement. In recent days southern Israel has been hit by a barrage of rockets from Gaza. Israel struck back, then a ceasefire was reached. The only problem is the rockets have kept falling on Israel anyway, as if the ceasefire had never existed. It is quite possible that the leaders of Islamic Jihad who agreed upon the ceasefire have upheld their part of it, but that would not necessarily prevent splinter groups from carrying on. This tells us a couple things about the agreements that Israel can make with its enemies. First, there is no guarantee that those who sign agreements one day will not just break them the next. Second, making agreements with Palestinian leaders is meaningless if those they claim to represent actually want no part in accepting Israel.

Speaking during a press conference with Abbas earlier on Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Israeli and Palestinian leaders would need to take certain steps, even if they were unpopular with their wider publics. This really is a mistake. An end to the conflict cannot be imposed top-down by the leadership of either side. In the unlikely event that Abbas could be made to sign an agreement, nothing will have been achieved if large parts of the Palestinian population are in favor of continuing the war on Israel. Even if they are not given the means to elect leaders to fulfill this wish, as in Gaza, sooner or later they will be able to sweep away those that agreed to an unpopular peace and resume attacks on Israel, which will have made the territorial concessions that will make fending off such an assault all the more difficult, if not impossible.

Thursday saw one other event of major import; Israel’s Knesset passed a bill requiring that further territorial concessions on Israel’s part will have to be approved by the Israeli public in a referendum. Naturally, Tzipi Livni and the rest of the Israeli left voiced their opposition to such a law. Not only does the Israeli left hold much of the Israeli public in contempt as backward reactionaries, but it seems that some of them have such messianic impulses where a peace agreement is concerned that they want one implemented whether or not it can be justified strategically. And they certainly don’t want a security cautious Israeli public getting in the way of any of this.

More importantly, not only should the Israeli public have a referendum on any final agreement, but so must the Palestinians. It won’t really be peace unless the vast majority of people on both sides agree the conflict is over. Israel needs to know that it is the Palestinian people who really accept a Jewish state, not just a group of politicians in Ramallah whose own democratic mandate expired years ago. Nevertheless, it would at least be a start to have the likes of Abbas recognize the very same Jewish state that Obama claims the Palestinian president is currently negotiating with in “good faith.” For Kerry to now be faltering on Israel’s most basic requirement for peace renders him virtually redundant as someone who can oversee the process effectively.

Both the Palestinians and the EU have been making a lot of noise about what unilateral actions they will take if and when talks fail. Perhaps it is time that Israel started to air some talk of its own unilateral moves if talks are to fail. There are several leading figures in the governing coalition who would like to see Israeli sovereignty applied to the West Bank settlement blocs. A gentle reminder of this fact might start to get Israel taken a little more seriously in Washington once again.   

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