Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 2, 2014

Jim Webb Is Hillary’s Dream 2016 Opponent

Perhaps it’s just part of the ritual of a book tour by an out-of-work politician, but Jim Webb’s coy refusal to rule out a 2016 presidential bid has heightened speculation that the former Virginia senator means to run. Webb is making the rounds of the news talk shows to flog his modestly titled new memoir, I Heard My Country Calling, while also making it clear that he is willing to listen to the nation’s pleas for him to make the sacrifice of being its next president.

This is a ritual as old as the republic. Webb’s false modesty about his all-consuming ambition is as familiar as it is transparent and it’s doubtful that most Democrats will buy into his conceit. But there is one particular Democrat who should be hoping that Webb once again hears the voice of Uncle Sam imploring him to serve: Hillary Clinton.

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Perhaps it’s just part of the ritual of a book tour by an out-of-work politician, but Jim Webb’s coy refusal to rule out a 2016 presidential bid has heightened speculation that the former Virginia senator means to run. Webb is making the rounds of the news talk shows to flog his modestly titled new memoir, I Heard My Country Calling, while also making it clear that he is willing to listen to the nation’s pleas for him to make the sacrifice of being its next president.

This is a ritual as old as the republic. Webb’s false modesty about his all-consuming ambition is as familiar as it is transparent and it’s doubtful that most Democrats will buy into his conceit. But there is one particular Democrat who should be hoping that Webb once again hears the voice of Uncle Sam imploring him to serve: Hillary Clinton.

The 2016 Democratic presidential contest is shaping up to be a boring coronation of the former First Lady, but she’ll still have to fend off challenges from one or more Democrats who are not deterred by impossible odds. The only possible impact such a race would have on her chances in the general election would come from a contest in which she would be pushed from the left by a genuine populist who could tap into the liberal base’s resentment of Clinton’s establishment tendencies. If someone with the stature of an Elizabeth Warren were to take up the cause of pushing Hillary to the left in the primaries, it could force the frontrunner to take positions that could haunt her later on. A less credible figure like Brian Schweitzer might also take a run at Clinton from the left, but it’s doubtful the prospect of facing off against the former Montana governor frightens her in the least.

Nor would Webb give Clinton much of a scare. The former Reagan administration secretary of the navy is a one-of-a-kind politician. But his uniqueness doesn’t necessarily translate into political gold. Webb entered the political fray in 2006 as a man for a specific moment in our political history. His disorganized run for a Virginia Senate seat was predicated on his GOP credentials combined with his vehement opposition to the Iraq War. Though he didn’t seem much like one of them, Virginia Democrats embraced him for his anti-war fervor because of his Reaganite tendencies as much as in spite of them. Had George Allen not imploded with his “macaca” gaffe it’s doubtful Webb would have had a chance, but the Democratic midterm landslide that year garnered him a narrow victory. Once in office, Democrats found that he was more or less a party of one and were by no means disappointed that he declared himself unhappy with the Senate and didn’t run for reelection in 2012.

Is there a national constituency for Webb among Democrats? With 9/11 firmly in their rearview mirror, Democrats no longer see any need to embrace problematic figures because of their military credentials. Nor is there much of a constituency left in the party for those whose main claim to leadership stems from a reputation for toughness abroad. Indeed, Clinton’s own reputation as being slightly more aggressive on foreign policy than many members of her party is something of a liability among Democrats.

That’s why if she could handpick her primary opponent, I don’t think Clinton would choose anyone other than Webb. Facing off against him would make Clinton look better to the liberal base on many issues without the candidate having to adopt positions that might embarrass her in the fall. And unlike the case with a liberal Democratic challenger who is genuinely liked by the party base, there’s no need to worry about Webb’s challenged campaign style posing any real threat to win any primaries. While Webb may think he’s exactly what Democrats need, the party’s voters aren’t going to give him much of a chance. But if Clinton is going to have an opponent, it’s far better for her to have someone who sometimes sounds more like a Republican than a genuine Democrat. Though political professionals will, no doubt, advise Webb to keep talking about the presidency until he’s done selling books and then stay out of the race, Hillary is probably praying that she could entice him into a raise that would be a win-win proposition for the likely nominee.

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Obama’s Embrace of Hamas Betrays Peace

When Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas chose to scuttle peace talks with Israel this spring by deciding to conclude a pact with Hamas rather than the Jewish state, he was taking a calculated risk. In embracing his Islamist rivals, Abbas sought to unify the two leading Palestinian factions not to make peace more possible but to make it impossible. Since Palestinian public opinion–indeed the entire political culture of his people–regards any pact that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state as a betrayal of their national identity, bringing Hamas back into the PA fold illustrated that he would not take the sort of risks that peacemaking required.

But given the PA’s almost complete dependency on the United States and Europe for the aid that keeps its corrupt apparatus operating, there was a genuine risk that the unity pact would generate a cutoff of assistance that could topple his kleptocracy. U.S. law mandated such a rupture of relations, as did the officially stated policy of the Obama administration that rightly regards Hamas as a terrorist group, not a legitimate political player. But there was a chance that Washington would accept a Palestinian deception in which technocrats would be appointed to rule in the name of the Fatah-Hamas coalition in order to pretend that the terrorists were not in charge.

In the weeks since the unity pact was concluded it wasn’t clear which way the U.S. would jump on the question of keeping the money flowing to Abbas, though at times Secretary of State John Kerry made appropriate noises at the PA leader about the danger of going into business with Hamas. But today’s press briefing at the State Department removed any doubt about President Obama’s intentions. When asked to react to today’s announcement of a new Fatah-Hamas government in Ramallah, spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the U.S. would accept the Palestinian trick. As the Times of Israel reports:

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday that Washington believes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has “formed an interim technocratic government…that does not include members affiliated with Hamas.”

“With what we know now, we will work with this government,” Psaki said. She did, however, warn that the US “will continue to evaluate the composition and policies of the new government and if needed we’ll modify our approach.” She later added that the administration would be “watching carefully to make sure” that the unity government upholds the principles that serve as preconditions for continuing US aid to the Palestinian Authority.

In recognizing the fig leaf of a “technocratic” government that is meant to distract the world from the reality that Hamas is now in full partnership with Abbas, the Obama administration may think it has put Israel’s government—which publicly called for the world not to recognize the Palestinian coalition—into a corner. But by discarding its own principles about recognizing unrepentant terror groups, Obama has done more than betrayed Israel. He has betrayed the cause of peace.

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When Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas chose to scuttle peace talks with Israel this spring by deciding to conclude a pact with Hamas rather than the Jewish state, he was taking a calculated risk. In embracing his Islamist rivals, Abbas sought to unify the two leading Palestinian factions not to make peace more possible but to make it impossible. Since Palestinian public opinion–indeed the entire political culture of his people–regards any pact that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state as a betrayal of their national identity, bringing Hamas back into the PA fold illustrated that he would not take the sort of risks that peacemaking required.

But given the PA’s almost complete dependency on the United States and Europe for the aid that keeps its corrupt apparatus operating, there was a genuine risk that the unity pact would generate a cutoff of assistance that could topple his kleptocracy. U.S. law mandated such a rupture of relations, as did the officially stated policy of the Obama administration that rightly regards Hamas as a terrorist group, not a legitimate political player. But there was a chance that Washington would accept a Palestinian deception in which technocrats would be appointed to rule in the name of the Fatah-Hamas coalition in order to pretend that the terrorists were not in charge.

In the weeks since the unity pact was concluded it wasn’t clear which way the U.S. would jump on the question of keeping the money flowing to Abbas, though at times Secretary of State John Kerry made appropriate noises at the PA leader about the danger of going into business with Hamas. But today’s press briefing at the State Department removed any doubt about President Obama’s intentions. When asked to react to today’s announcement of a new Fatah-Hamas government in Ramallah, spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the U.S. would accept the Palestinian trick. As the Times of Israel reports:

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday that Washington believes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has “formed an interim technocratic government…that does not include members affiliated with Hamas.”

“With what we know now, we will work with this government,” Psaki said. She did, however, warn that the US “will continue to evaluate the composition and policies of the new government and if needed we’ll modify our approach.” She later added that the administration would be “watching carefully to make sure” that the unity government upholds the principles that serve as preconditions for continuing US aid to the Palestinian Authority.

In recognizing the fig leaf of a “technocratic” government that is meant to distract the world from the reality that Hamas is now in full partnership with Abbas, the Obama administration may think it has put Israel’s government—which publicly called for the world not to recognize the Palestinian coalition—into a corner. But by discarding its own principles about recognizing unrepentant terror groups, Obama has done more than betrayed Israel. He has betrayed the cause of peace.

It would be a mistake to waste much time debating whether the cabinet Abbas has presented to the world is not really affiliated with Hamas. The people he has appointed are nothing but stand-ins for the real power brokers in Palestinian politics—the leaders of Fatah who lord it over those portions of the West Bank under the sway of the PA and the Hamas chieftains who have ruled Gaza with an iron fist since the 2007 coup in which they seized power there. Just like Abbas’s previous attempt to swindle the West into thinking that the PA intended to embrace reform during Salam Fayyad’s ill-fated term as prime minister, the “technocratic” cabinet isn’t fooling anyone. Americans and Israelis may have lauded Fayyadism as a path to a responsible Palestinian government that would eschew corruption and try to actually improve the lives of its people. But Fayyad was a man without a political constituency and, despite the support he had in Washington, was thrown overboard by Abbas and the PA went back to business as usual without a backward glance.

Nor is there any use arguing about whether it is Hamas that has been co-opted by Abbas and Fatah rather than the other way around. The two rival parties have very different visions of Palestinian society with Hamas hoping to eventually install the same kind of theocratic rule in the West Bank that it established in the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza. But at the moment there is no fundamental difference between the two on dealing with Israel. Despite its unwillingness to recognize Israel even in principle and its refusal to back away from its charter that calls for the Jewish state’s destruction and the slaughter of its people, Hamas doesn’t want an open war with Israel anymore than Fatah. But by the same token, Fatah has demonstrated repeatedly over the last 15 years that it is as incapable of making peace with Israel, even on terms that would have gained it sovereignty over almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem, as Hamas. The two parties are genuinely unified in their desire to keep chipping away at Israel’s international legitimacy and to avoid peace at any cost.

Admitting this would be a bitter pill for an Obama administration that has invested heavily in Abbas, a man they have wrongly portrayed as a peacemaker even as they have vilified Netanyahu as an obstacle to a deal. So rather than honestly assessing their policy and owning up to the fact that five and a half years of attempts to appease Abbas and tilt the diplomatic playing field in his direction have done nothing to make him say yes to peace, the administration will go along with the PA’s deception.

That’s a blow to Israel, which now finds itself more isolated than ever. But the real betrayal doesn’t involve Obama’s broken promises to the Jewish state or to pro-Israel voters. By buying into the myth that Hamas isn’t involved with the new PA government, the president is putting a spike into the last remote chances for a peace deal in the foreseeable future. So long as the Palestinians are allowed to believe that there is no price to be paid for rejecting peace, there will be no change in their attitudes. By allowing American taxpayer dollars to flow to a government controlled in part by Hamas, Obama is violating U.S. law. But he’s also signaling that the U.S. has no intention of ever pressuring the Palestinians to take the two-state solution they’ve been repeatedly offered by Israel and always rejected. For a president that is obsessed with his legacy, that’s a mistake for which history ought never to forgive him.

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Cuomo’s Left Flank Gets Back in Line

Over the last few weeks a minor drama broke out within New York’s political left. The Working Families Party, a mix of liberal activists and interest groups that includes labor unions, threatened to run its own candidate for governor against incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican challenger Rob Astorino. On May 29, the New York Times quoted the WFP’s co-chair as saying that, due to Cuomo’s apparently insufficient leftist instincts (yes really), “Unless there is a significant new development in the next 24 hours, I don’t expect the state committee to endorse the governor.”

That development did not come within 24 hours, so the WFP went into its Saturday nominating convention with the threat intact. It didn’t happen even when Cuomo made an appeal Saturday night via video to the convention and live phone call. The leaders of the WFP were clear. “Party leaders had detailed specific language for Mr. Cuomo to use in his video, according to people familiar with the matter, and on at least one topic—increasing the minimum wage—he hadn’t used it,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The Journal notes that Cuomo remembered his lines just in time:

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Over the last few weeks a minor drama broke out within New York’s political left. The Working Families Party, a mix of liberal activists and interest groups that includes labor unions, threatened to run its own candidate for governor against incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican challenger Rob Astorino. On May 29, the New York Times quoted the WFP’s co-chair as saying that, due to Cuomo’s apparently insufficient leftist instincts (yes really), “Unless there is a significant new development in the next 24 hours, I don’t expect the state committee to endorse the governor.”

That development did not come within 24 hours, so the WFP went into its Saturday nominating convention with the threat intact. It didn’t happen even when Cuomo made an appeal Saturday night via video to the convention and live phone call. The leaders of the WFP were clear. “Party leaders had detailed specific language for Mr. Cuomo to use in his video, according to people familiar with the matter, and on at least one topic—increasing the minimum wage—he hadn’t used it,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The Journal notes that Cuomo remembered his lines just in time:

With the clock ticking, Mr. Cuomo spoke by phone to a smaller group backstage, including a top aide to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Emma Wolfe, and WFP members Jonathan Westin, Javier Valdes and Deborah Axt. This time, Mr. Cuomo used the agreed-upon language (concerning giving local authorities the ability to adjust the minimum wage within a formula), according to people familiar with the call.

Why would Cuomo go through all that trouble just to secure his left flank? The answer is that the WFP is more influential, and can make more trouble, than people outside the New York area (most of whom haven’t heard of the party) tend to think. As the Times mentioned in its report, a recent statewide Quinnipiac poll found Cuomo at 57 percent in a one-on-one matchup with Astorino, but sliding to 37 percent with the addition of a WFP candidate on the ballot.

In reality, the high drama wasn’t all that dramatic. Cuomo doesn’t want a challenger to his left because he doesn’t want the narrative of being too conservative, not because he would actually have his reelection spoiled by the WFP. The WFP wanted something similar: they know they can’t cost Cuomo his reelection, but they don’t want the narrative of seeming to cave on principle.

So Cuomo pretended to care about their opinions, and the WFP leadership pretended to believe him.

None of this is particularly surprising, and in fact speaks to the general mood of the left nationwide. The Democrats have, almost without exception, become the party of government. Their agenda is the agenda of the state, and their power is the bureaucracy. This wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, Democrats believed the establishment was essentially conservative–not just the government’s muscular foreign policy but the social mores of the age as well. Even as late as 1980 there was a genuine struggle within the party, leading to Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge to a sitting Democratic president–a turn of events hard to imagine taking place today.

But today’s conformist left takes it one step further. While the Republicans were struggling to free their party from next-in-linism, the Democrats became the party of get-in-linism. Forget truly challenging a sitting president; the Democrats don’t want a primary fight for an open nomination, as evidenced by the emerging Clinton juggernaut. They went from challenging an incumbent president to hesitant to challenge a presumptive nominee.

This is not, by the way, spinelessness. It’s logic. As the Democrats’ policies have become increasingly unpopular, the party’s approach to governance has adjusted accordingly. Rather than compromise on legislation, they have simply empowered unelected bureaucrats and shielded them (not always successfully) from accountability. This has become a vicious circle: if Democrats don’t have to win public approval for their actions, they become less adept at engaging actual arguments, which forces them to turn to ever more executive power grabs.

It also means left-wing activists, such as those at the WFP, have more to gain by getting in line and ensuring Democrats win elections, because the vast expansion of the bureaucracy means there are more spoils to go around. The WFP is not going to defeat Cuomo, but they do need to make an occasional point about their own relevance. Their point has now been made, and they’re back in line. And the party of government rolls on.

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Sacrifices on the Altar of Obama’s Vanity

By ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to enact sweeping new regulations that will transform the U.S. economy by essentially putting hundreds of coal-fired power plants on the road to extinction, President Obama is finally making good on his famous campaign promise that his election would signal “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” The goal of the new regulations that bypass Congress is to reduce power plant carbon emissions by 30 percent by the year 2030. But in order to do that, hundreds of the more than 600 coal-burning plants will have to close. Though it is impossible to say with any certainty how much damage this will do to the U.S. economy, what Obama is doing with a stroke of a pen will turn the energy industry upside down, send energy prices skyrocketing, and likely send those regions of the country that are dependent on either the coal industry or the plants that use the stuff into crisis.

Though EPA chief Gina McCarthy claimed that the move would actually help the economy and emphasized the plan’s flexibility, that’s the sort of usual empty “green jobs” rhetoric that no one, even on the left, believes anymore. While the more the president wraps himself and his party in the environmentalist flag the better his liberal base and young voters–who have been indoctrinated in the catechism of global warming throughout their education–will feel, Democrats will pay a price for this piece of ideological governance. Embattled red state incumbents may seek to distance themselves from the president, as will Democrat Senate challengers like Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes. But the White House clearly regards Grimes and others like her as falling into the same category as the large numbers of jobs that will be lost by this decision. They are acceptable collateral damage that can be lived with because the main goal here is to burnish the president’s legacy as a leader who took serious steps to stop the warming of the planet.

Liberals are celebrating the decision both for its supposed benefits on climate change and for the sheer exercise of executive power to achieve liberal ends, but even one of the president’s leading cheerleaders admitted that what happened today won’t really do much to fix the environment. As the New York Times reports:

On Monday, Mr. Obama is bypassing Congress and taking one of the biggest steps any American president has ever taken on climate change, proposing new rules to cut emissions at power plants. Yet, by itself, the president’s plan will barely nudge the global emissions that scientists say are threatening the welfare of future generations.

In other words, all the pain that the EPA will cause won’t actually save a single cute polar bear, keep an Arctic ice flow from melting or those pesky oceans from rising, assuming you believe all of the alarmist claims at the heart of the new warming orthodoxy. What, then, is this all about? The answer lies in the gargantuan conceit of the man in the Oval Office.

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By ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to enact sweeping new regulations that will transform the U.S. economy by essentially putting hundreds of coal-fired power plants on the road to extinction, President Obama is finally making good on his famous campaign promise that his election would signal “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” The goal of the new regulations that bypass Congress is to reduce power plant carbon emissions by 30 percent by the year 2030. But in order to do that, hundreds of the more than 600 coal-burning plants will have to close. Though it is impossible to say with any certainty how much damage this will do to the U.S. economy, what Obama is doing with a stroke of a pen will turn the energy industry upside down, send energy prices skyrocketing, and likely send those regions of the country that are dependent on either the coal industry or the plants that use the stuff into crisis.

Though EPA chief Gina McCarthy claimed that the move would actually help the economy and emphasized the plan’s flexibility, that’s the sort of usual empty “green jobs” rhetoric that no one, even on the left, believes anymore. While the more the president wraps himself and his party in the environmentalist flag the better his liberal base and young voters–who have been indoctrinated in the catechism of global warming throughout their education–will feel, Democrats will pay a price for this piece of ideological governance. Embattled red state incumbents may seek to distance themselves from the president, as will Democrat Senate challengers like Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes. But the White House clearly regards Grimes and others like her as falling into the same category as the large numbers of jobs that will be lost by this decision. They are acceptable collateral damage that can be lived with because the main goal here is to burnish the president’s legacy as a leader who took serious steps to stop the warming of the planet.

Liberals are celebrating the decision both for its supposed benefits on climate change and for the sheer exercise of executive power to achieve liberal ends, but even one of the president’s leading cheerleaders admitted that what happened today won’t really do much to fix the environment. As the New York Times reports:

On Monday, Mr. Obama is bypassing Congress and taking one of the biggest steps any American president has ever taken on climate change, proposing new rules to cut emissions at power plants. Yet, by itself, the president’s plan will barely nudge the global emissions that scientists say are threatening the welfare of future generations.

In other words, all the pain that the EPA will cause won’t actually save a single cute polar bear, keep an Arctic ice flow from melting or those pesky oceans from rising, assuming you believe all of the alarmist claims at the heart of the new warming orthodoxy. What, then, is this all about? The answer lies in the gargantuan conceit of the man in the Oval Office.

The official explanation for the gap between the president’s rhetoric and the actual impact of the EPA’s dictates is that what the president wants is to start moving the country in “the right direction.” That’s a sobering thought if you consider that what is happening here is a massive government intervention in the private sector to achieve an ideological rather than an economic goal. Anyone inclined to accept the EPA’s new role riding roughshod over both Congress and the economic interests of the country should think long and hard about the prospect that this is merely the first of a new series of rulings from Washington that could hamstring any hopes of a real recovery in the coming years.

More than that, though, is the fact that what Obama really wants here is to show the international community that he means business about restricting the ability of America to do business. The real audience for this spectacle isn’t so much in blue states where any bow in the direction of environmentalism is applauded as it is abroad where other nations are watching to see if the U.S. is really going to walk the walk on climate change rules that could do damage to the American economy. The president wants the Chinese to see that the U.S. will handicap its own industries in order to set a good example for the Communist nation that almost certainly will do little if anything to cap their own growing carbon emissions.

Why would the U.S. hurt itself merely to take the high ground in negotiations with the Chinese and other developing countries even when the move will do very little to solve the climate problem?

President Obama has sorely missed the international adulation that greeted his election in 2008 but which quickly evaporated when most of his foreign fans began to rightly perceive him as nothing more than a left-leaning garden variety U.S. politician rather than the revolutionary figure they applauded. Obama’s various foreign-policy initiatives have largely failed to garner much interest, let alone cheers, abroad. But by recapturing that moment when perhaps many on the left actually believed his boast about turning back the oceans, he hopes to reestablish himself as the prince of hope and change.

Seen in that light, the large numbers of Americans who will be the losers in this exchange are nothing more than human offerings on the altar of Obama’s vanity. He may not heal the planet or even save his party’s chances in the midterm elections as he slides inevitably into lame-duck status. But as long as he can pose as a new messiah, there is no limit to the number of friends, foes, and innocent bystanders that he will sacrifice.

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Shinseki’s Ouster Solved Obama’s VA Problem, Not the Country’s

In what was one of the most transparent attempts to dampen interest in the denouement of a scandal, the Obama administration orchestrated the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday afternoon. After weeks of appearing utterly clueless as to the severity of the scandal at the VA and the need for accountability, the pre-weekend news dump was as clever a piece of public-relations work as the West Wing has managed in months. The bipartisan calls for Shinseki’s resignation that reached a crescendo last week were answered and silenced. The former general’s departure was long overdue but finally made it look as if the White House had finally responded decisively to an issue that had gotten out of their control. In short, with one fell stroke the president solved, albeit temporarily, the most pressing political problem on his current agenda.

The impact of the resignation on the media and the political class will be decisive. Though his leaving solves none of the endemic problems at the VA, Shinseki’s deadpan monotone response to the scandal gave it a face and an address. With him gone, the investigations will return to the more mundane problems of completing the inspector general’s report as well as finding out the extent of the wrongdoing. That will play out in various congressional committees as well as in the confirmation hearings for Shinseki’s successor. But the result of the move is that the president now has some breathing room on the VA that will enable him to put forward a semblance of a recovery plan for the agency and its vast hospital system to be implemented by a new secretary. Though the incompetence of the VA—which got worse rather than better on Obama and Shinseki’s watch—provided a window into the president’s absentee management style as well as its complacent acceptance of big government corruption, the political crisis that stemmed from exposure of this scandal may be over.

But though Obama has solved his political problem, it is important to point out that merely removing Shinseki from office does nothing to fix the VA or the mindset that produced this disgrace.

Getting the VA scandal off the front pages was the president’s goal on Friday and he succeeded. The president tried to preempt his critics by accusing them of playing politics with the VA when he was still dithering and his spokesman was speaking of how he had learned about the whole thing while watching television. Without Shinseki to serve as a focal point for protest about the deaths of veterans who were kept waiting for health care in order to help bureaucrats collect bonuses, the story has already started to fade. It’s entirely possible that by the time the next VA secretary takes office, the media’s interest in the story will have waned to the point where it will struggle to compete for airtime against the daily avalanche of new stories.

But Congress and the public should not allow the president off the hook so easily.

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In what was one of the most transparent attempts to dampen interest in the denouement of a scandal, the Obama administration orchestrated the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday afternoon. After weeks of appearing utterly clueless as to the severity of the scandal at the VA and the need for accountability, the pre-weekend news dump was as clever a piece of public-relations work as the West Wing has managed in months. The bipartisan calls for Shinseki’s resignation that reached a crescendo last week were answered and silenced. The former general’s departure was long overdue but finally made it look as if the White House had finally responded decisively to an issue that had gotten out of their control. In short, with one fell stroke the president solved, albeit temporarily, the most pressing political problem on his current agenda.

The impact of the resignation on the media and the political class will be decisive. Though his leaving solves none of the endemic problems at the VA, Shinseki’s deadpan monotone response to the scandal gave it a face and an address. With him gone, the investigations will return to the more mundane problems of completing the inspector general’s report as well as finding out the extent of the wrongdoing. That will play out in various congressional committees as well as in the confirmation hearings for Shinseki’s successor. But the result of the move is that the president now has some breathing room on the VA that will enable him to put forward a semblance of a recovery plan for the agency and its vast hospital system to be implemented by a new secretary. Though the incompetence of the VA—which got worse rather than better on Obama and Shinseki’s watch—provided a window into the president’s absentee management style as well as its complacent acceptance of big government corruption, the political crisis that stemmed from exposure of this scandal may be over.

But though Obama has solved his political problem, it is important to point out that merely removing Shinseki from office does nothing to fix the VA or the mindset that produced this disgrace.

Getting the VA scandal off the front pages was the president’s goal on Friday and he succeeded. The president tried to preempt his critics by accusing them of playing politics with the VA when he was still dithering and his spokesman was speaking of how he had learned about the whole thing while watching television. Without Shinseki to serve as a focal point for protest about the deaths of veterans who were kept waiting for health care in order to help bureaucrats collect bonuses, the story has already started to fade. It’s entirely possible that by the time the next VA secretary takes office, the media’s interest in the story will have waned to the point where it will struggle to compete for airtime against the daily avalanche of new stories.

But Congress and the public should not allow the president off the hook so easily.

Many in the liberal press have reacted to the problems at the VA by blaming the president’s critics or seeking to deflect attention to the stale debates about the decisions to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the New York Times put it in a particularly sour editorial on Shinseki’s resignation on Saturday, the main priority for liberals now is now to defend the existing VA system from those who believe that reform must be structural rather than superficial. At the heart of this issue is a vast federal bureaucracy in which a parallel health-care system for veterans seems to have embraced all the defects of socialized medicine. The VA is a broken model that may well serve as a model for future adventures in government health care that follow ObamaCare if it is allowed to remain in place without fundamental change.

The danger here was never about Republicans politicizing the VA’s misconduct but rather from an approach to the problem that essentially minimized the structural nature of the problems that stem from a vast government agency that no administration has ever been able to fully hold accountable. In the weeks and months that will follow, we will hear increasingly less about the VA but the debate about it should not be allowed to shrink into one about a few individuals or the abilities of the department’s next leader. The country’s VA problem isn’t fixed and won’t be by a piecemeal approach that is more interested in preserving the system that created the scandal than in changing it.

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Blaming the GOP for Being Right All Along

Spinning ObamaCare’s failures as blips or mere bumps in the road is no easy task for the administration and its defenders in the media. But it pales in comparison to the mountain Politico seeks to climb today: assigning blame to Republicans because they were right all along. To say the Politico piece goes off the rails would be inaccurate, because it would require the piece to have been on the rails to begin with.

The headline itself is something of a wonder: “GOP’s Obamacare fears come true.” The article is actually about the fact that the state health exchanges created under ObamaCare are failing at a disturbing rate and are being abandoned to the government, which is taking on their responsibilities and simply expanding the federal structure. In other words, the article is about the GOP’s ObamaCare predictions coming true. But the article’s more serious offense is its attempt to pin a fair share of the blame on Republicans.

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Spinning ObamaCare’s failures as blips or mere bumps in the road is no easy task for the administration and its defenders in the media. But it pales in comparison to the mountain Politico seeks to climb today: assigning blame to Republicans because they were right all along. To say the Politico piece goes off the rails would be inaccurate, because it would require the piece to have been on the rails to begin with.

The headline itself is something of a wonder: “GOP’s Obamacare fears come true.” The article is actually about the fact that the state health exchanges created under ObamaCare are failing at a disturbing rate and are being abandoned to the government, which is taking on their responsibilities and simply expanding the federal structure. In other words, the article is about the GOP’s ObamaCare predictions coming true. But the article’s more serious offense is its attempt to pin a fair share of the blame on Republicans.

Here’s Politico:

Liberals wanted a national enrollment system under Obamacare.

They might just get it.

Right now, 36 states rely on HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange, to enroll people in health coverage. At least two more states are opting in next year, with a few others likely to follow. Only two states are trying to get out.

That’s precisely the opposite of the Affordable Care Act’s original intent: 50 exchanges run by 50 states.

So what happened? Here’s the brief explanation from the authors leading into the article’s broader discussion of policy (my emphasis):

The federal option was supposed to be a limited and temporary fallback. But a shift to a bigger, more permanent Washington-controlled system is instead underway — without preparation, funding or even public discussion about what a national exchange covering millions of Americans means for the future of U.S. health care. It’s coming about because intransigent Republicans shunned state exchanges, and ambitious Democrats bungled them.

There are more such phrases attempting to blame Republicans, though if you stick around and read through, you’ll actually find out what really happened:

In theory, states can still tap into virtually unlimited funding to create exchanges. But a number of state officials say the administration has signaled that it doesn’t want to keep pouring millions into broken state systems. …

Nevada in mid-May became the latest to scrap its system and opt into HealthCare.gov. A few days earlier, Oregon had bailed on its $250 million exchange. Massachusetts is still trying to salvage its exchange, but it’s also laying the groundwork to join HealthCare.gov.

Hawaii and Minnesota both insist they are moving ahead with their underperforming exchanges; skeptics predict they’ll have to jettison them and join the federal system sooner rather than later. And some small states with high-performing exchanges may have trouble keeping them over the long haul as federal financial support ends.

There it is: Democrats massively bungled the exchanges and the federal government abandoned them–or at least signaled its intention to do so. ObamaCare was a poorly designed system of diktats from Washington. It is really quite inane to imply that the state exchanges were somehow imposing significant limits on federal control of health care. They weren’t. They were simply ways for the Obama administration to saddle what they hoped would be a bipartisan group of governors with a share of the costs and headaches of the federal program.

Republicans were too smart for that, but Democrats were either unquestioningly loyal to the administration or didn’t really understand how health care works (the latter is probably true of most of them, as it is surely true of the White House). Republicans argued, correctly, that the federal government was still in the process of adding rules and regulations to ObamaCare and that it would be irresponsible and not especially honest of them to devote their resources to enabling arbitrary government.

They argued, correctly, that the Obama administration’s handling of the health-care reform law was setting the state exchanges up for failure. They argued, correctly, that the state exchanges were “state exchanges” largely in name only. And they argued, correctly, that the federal government could not be trusted to provide unlimited funds going forward, and that the price tag for keeping the state exchanges would be higher than anticipated.

What has happened is not really either side’s fears coming true. For the right, it’s the confirmation of what ObamaCare always was and would be. For the left, it’s an unanticipated series of disasters because Democrats ignored all the evidence and information that didn’t fit their narrative. The Politico article adopts the canard that Republicans are partly to blame for not sharing in the Democrats’ failures or saving the left from its own ignorance. It’s no more persuasive today than when Democrats first began trying to fool the press into echoing their panicked talking points.

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COMMENTARY: Time to Subscribe

We’ve lifted our “paywall” and made the entire Commentarymagazine.com site accessible—including our 69 year archive. Every visitor to our site will have free access to 8 pieces every month. Once you reach the eighth visit, we will be asking you to join Commentary’s loyal and enthusiastic band of subscribers. You will be offered two kinds of subscriptions. The first we call COMMENTARY COMPLETE—unlimited access to the blog, the archive, and magazine articles online—as well as our two monthly versions, print and iPad. The second kind of subscription is “Digital Access” —just the same as COMMENTARY COMPLETE but excludes the print edition. If you are already a subscriber, all you need to do is register in the upper-right-hand corner of this page with your email address and set up a password, and you will have complete access. (If you’ve already done that, you’re good to go. Nothing changes.) I hope a couple of bucks a month doesn’t seem too much to ask. Click here to subscribe.

We’ve lifted our “paywall” and made the entire Commentarymagazine.com site accessible—including our 69 year archive. Every visitor to our site will have free access to 8 pieces every month. Once you reach the eighth visit, we will be asking you to join Commentary’s loyal and enthusiastic band of subscribers. You will be offered two kinds of subscriptions. The first we call COMMENTARY COMPLETE—unlimited access to the blog, the archive, and magazine articles online—as well as our two monthly versions, print and iPad. The second kind of subscription is “Digital Access” —just the same as COMMENTARY COMPLETE but excludes the print edition. If you are already a subscriber, all you need to do is register in the upper-right-hand corner of this page with your email address and set up a password, and you will have complete access. (If you’ve already done that, you’re good to go. Nothing changes.) I hope a couple of bucks a month doesn’t seem too much to ask. Click here to subscribe.

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How Not to Handle a Prisoner Swap

Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Ehud Olmert traded five living terrorists–one of them responsible for killing a four-year-old girl by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle–for two dead Israeli soldiers. So there is nothing new about making deals with terrorists or exchanging captives with them. It’s even possible that President Obama did the right thing by freeing five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. Certainly Obama as commander in chief had the power to do so even if some members of Congress are miffed at not being consulted. 

What I find offensive is that the president and his team are not treating this as a grubby and inglorious compromise–an attempt to reconcile our competing ideals of “don’t deal with terrorists” and “leave no man behind.” Instead the administration seems to be taking a victory lap. The president held a White House event with Bergdahl’s parents. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flew to Afghanistan to commemorate the occasion. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called it “a great day for America.”

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Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Ehud Olmert traded five living terrorists–one of them responsible for killing a four-year-old girl by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle–for two dead Israeli soldiers. So there is nothing new about making deals with terrorists or exchanging captives with them. It’s even possible that President Obama did the right thing by freeing five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. Certainly Obama as commander in chief had the power to do so even if some members of Congress are miffed at not being consulted. 

What I find offensive is that the president and his team are not treating this as a grubby and inglorious compromise–an attempt to reconcile our competing ideals of “don’t deal with terrorists” and “leave no man behind.” Instead the administration seems to be taking a victory lap. The president held a White House event with Bergdahl’s parents. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flew to Afghanistan to commemorate the occasion. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called it “a great day for America.”

If only the president and his team showed as much passion about actually winning the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, it appears that the handling of this whole issue is symptomatic of the administration’s approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Their emphasis has always been on bringing the troops home, no matter the price, not on making sure that the troops accomplish their objectives.

In the case of Bergdahl the price includes encouraging the Taliban (and other Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda) to think that we are weak and can be rolled–to think that they can win American concessions if they take Americans hostage. This makes a mockery of our criticism of allies such as France, Italy, and South Korea, which have provided payoffs to get their hostages released. And it exposes our troops to greater danger down the line, once the Guantanamo releasees return to the fight–as they surely will, even if Qatar sticks by its pledge to keep them out of trouble for a year.

And what makes it all the more annoying is that Bergdahl is hardly a hero as he is now being portrayed. We still don’t have a definitive accounting of how he was captured, but members of his unit believe he was a deserter who walked off his guard post. And they’re angry about the whole situation–as former army officer Nathan Bradley Bethea writes in the Daily Beast

Bethea served in the same battalion as Bergdahl and participated in attempts to free him in the summer of 2009. Bethea is upset, and understandably so, because good men died trying to free Bergdahl–not only in the search itself but, he argues, indirectly, because the search pulled in so many intelligence and surveillance assets that other units were left exposed to Taliban attack. Bethea writes: “The truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”

If those assertions are true, then Bergdahl, now that he’s freed, should be court-martialed, because desertion in the face of the enemy is a serious offense. Whatever his ultimate fate, Bergdahl deserves our sympathy for his ordeal. His parents deserve sympathy for what they have had to endure too. But he should not be canonized and the administration should not treat his release as a high point of its foreign policy. Because surely they must have some more worthy achievements to boast of. Right?

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