Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bill Clinton

Why Obama Chose Podesta

The potential impact of President Obama’s decision to bring veteran Democratic figure John Podesta on board to save his floundering presidency continues to be debated, and is the subject of a Glenn Thrush analysis today. But Thrush’s article seems to have fallen victim to the reportorial success of its author, with Thrush having been able to get such a juicy quote out of Podesta that the quote itself has overshadowed the rest of the story.

That’s too bad, because the more important element of the story is not Podesta’s quote, though that’s worth mentioning as well: “[Obama and his team] need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” Podesta told Thrush, comparing the GOP and the large segment of the American public that elected them to the cult movement that ended in infamous mass suicide.

There’s not much surprising about the quote. Now that the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has all but disappeared, unhinged rhetoric and uncontrolled temper tantrums characterize much of the left’s discourse. And the modern Democratic Party has an unhealthy fascination with murder fantasy, from their political ads depicting legislators throwing people off a cliff to their columnists’ attachment to effigy executions. What’s important about the quote is not its morbid conclusion but the first half of it, which is the subject of Thrush’s article:

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The potential impact of President Obama’s decision to bring veteran Democratic figure John Podesta on board to save his floundering presidency continues to be debated, and is the subject of a Glenn Thrush analysis today. But Thrush’s article seems to have fallen victim to the reportorial success of its author, with Thrush having been able to get such a juicy quote out of Podesta that the quote itself has overshadowed the rest of the story.

That’s too bad, because the more important element of the story is not Podesta’s quote, though that’s worth mentioning as well: “[Obama and his team] need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” Podesta told Thrush, comparing the GOP and the large segment of the American public that elected them to the cult movement that ended in infamous mass suicide.

There’s not much surprising about the quote. Now that the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has all but disappeared, unhinged rhetoric and uncontrolled temper tantrums characterize much of the left’s discourse. And the modern Democratic Party has an unhealthy fascination with murder fantasy, from their political ads depicting legislators throwing people off a cliff to their columnists’ attachment to effigy executions. What’s important about the quote is not its morbid conclusion but the first half of it, which is the subject of Thrush’s article:

This is not just about providing added muscle to a beleaguered and undermanned West Wing staff. According to interviews in recent weeks with an array of Obama insiders and a dozen current and former senior aides, Podesta’s hire is explicitly meant to shake things up inside the White House. In effect, I was told, it represents the clearest sign to date of the administration’s interest in shifting the paradigm of Obama’s presidency through the forceful, unapologetic and occasionally provocative application of White House power. Podesta, whose official mandate includes enforcement of numerous executive orders on emissions and the environment, suggested as much when he spoke with me earlier this fall about Obama’s team. “They need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” he told me.

“I think [White House officials] were naturally preoccupied with legislating at first, and I think it took them a while to make the turn to execution. They are focused on that now,” Podesta added. “They have to realize that the president has broad authority, that he’s not just the prime minister. He can drive a whole range of action. They always grasped that on foreign policy and in the national security area. Now they are doing it on the domestic side.”

The confirmation that Obama wants a divisive partisan steering his second-term agenda isn’t exactly breaking news, and neither is the fact that he wants to ignore Congress and continue amassing power in the executive branch. But it’s significant precisely because it isn’t surprising. None of this would constitute a change of course for Obama, but a change of course can often be a productive way for a president to salvage a second term from the challenge of lame-duck status and diminishing political capital.

Obama is often compared to the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and this should be no different. Even before Clinton’s second term really fell apart, he understood the growing influence of the House Republican caucus and the public appetite for some of the right’s policy preferences. When Clinton needed to replace Leon Panetta as his chief of staff, he did not give the job to Panetta’s deputy, Harold Ickes, but instead brought in Erskine Bowles.

The Baltimore Sun reported on a January 1997 one-day retreat in which Clinton stressed bipartisanship and working with congressional Republicans on balancing the budget. Though these were general administration priorities, the Sun noted that the event “very much had the stamp of new Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles.” His organizational skills and ability to work with Republicans were going to be key in getting the president’s second-term agenda off the ground. The Sun added:

Top Cabinet officials suggested that a good relationship with Congress isn’t as difficult as it sounds and that it essentially entails being willing to compromise with Republicans on tax and spending cuts while delivering a budget that is in balance by the year 2002.

The Democrats have certainly come a long way from those days of compromise and fiscal responsibility. Those are not priorities for Obama-era Democrats, but more than that, the Obama administration doesn’t believe it needs to compromise with congressional Republicans because the president doesn’t recognize their authority.

The Sun had noted that Clinton was more open to compromise with Republicans after his reelection because he didn’t “need Republicans as a foil anymore.” But for Obama, the campaign never ends, so the need for a foil is always there. Because the campaign never ends, serious governing–as opposed to executive power grabs and bureaucratic rulemaking–never begins. The perfect candidate for this job, the president believes, is John Podesta. And Podesta seems to agree.

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Can Obama’s Promise Still Be Kept?

Between the military cuts, the push to expand subprime mortgages, the colossal failure of Mideast peace negotiations, and the recession that greeted his exit from office, Bill Clinton made a habit of ill-considered policies that he would later, in true Clintonesque fashion, blame on his successors. So it is with some sympathy that I read Ezra Klein’s take on the former president’s role in the recent health-care debacle.

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Clinton took a shot at President Obama for his promise that if people liked their health-care plans they could keep them. Klein counters that Clinton poisoned the well for his successors, making clear messaging on health-care reform impossible. Clinton, he explains, tried to pass a health-care reform law that would upend the insurance market, thus dooming the plan because most people who have insurance tend to be happy with it. Klein continues:

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Between the military cuts, the push to expand subprime mortgages, the colossal failure of Mideast peace negotiations, and the recession that greeted his exit from office, Bill Clinton made a habit of ill-considered policies that he would later, in true Clintonesque fashion, blame on his successors. So it is with some sympathy that I read Ezra Klein’s take on the former president’s role in the recent health-care debacle.

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Clinton took a shot at President Obama for his promise that if people liked their health-care plans they could keep them. Klein counters that Clinton poisoned the well for his successors, making clear messaging on health-care reform impossible. Clinton, he explains, tried to pass a health-care reform law that would upend the insurance market, thus dooming the plan because most people who have insurance tend to be happy with it. Klein continues:

In the aftermath of Clinton’s failure, health-care reformers swung far to the other side. Rather than building a plan in which almost everyone lost their insurance, they began trying to build plans in which almost no one lost their insurance — and selling them under the promise that literally no one would.

Klein is right that it takes a certain chutzpah for Clinton to kick sand in Obama’s face in order to help his wife’s potential 2016 presidential campaign. But Klein’s argument only goes so far. Klein is essentially arguing that Clinton’s health-care experience had two major effects on the current law: that it would be crafted to minimize insurance turnover, and that Obama would have to sell the plan by pushing a major falsehood. Neither of those two things is true, but the latter–that Clinton deserves the blame for someone else’s lie–seems pretty unjustifiable.

The idea that ObamaCare was designed to enable people to keep their insurance is not accurate. As we know, it was designed to kick large numbers of people off their insurance by rendering many existing plans noncompliant. But the more important part of Clinton’s statement is that Obama should keep his promise, because it’s unclear, as Politico explains, that he can:

Allowing the 2013 plans to continue to operate into 2014 — a proposal that has generated interest in Congress — is considered unlikely. Insurers wouldn’t be able to quickly restore plans that are already being shut down and it would undercut some central promises of Obama’s signature law.

Jonathan Gruber, one of the authors of the Massachusetts health plan and an MIT economics professor, says such an idea is impractical. There is no “free lunch” in which people can just decide not to join the Obamacare plans, which were priced on the assumption that the insurers would get a certain number of customers.

The White House is “just reacting to one broken promise by imposing a much larger and harmful one: our promise to insurers that if they priced fairly, we would deliver a broad pool of insured,” Gruber wrote in an email. “If you allow the healthy enrollees to stay out in their old policy, the insurers lose money and the program falls apart.”

The “keep your insurance” nonsense wasn’t the only broken promise, and fixing it may require breaking other promises. ObamaCare was always unwise policy, but it’s becoming clear to the public just how faulty this reform law is. That surely has something to do with the latest dismal polling on Obama from Quinnipiac. The most telling result in the poll is probably the fact that when asked whether they trust Obama or Republicans in Congress more on health care, congressional Republicans edge the president 43-42 percent. Here’s Quinnipiac’s trend chart to show the significance of it:

quinnipiacHC

The president has dropped eleven points on that question since his high of July 2009. But the danger here is not just that Americans find Republicans more trustworthy on the president’s signature issue. It’s that these numbers may not represent the president’s floor.

It now appears, as the Washington Post reports, that the Healthcare.gov website may not be fixed by its end-of-November deadline. In light of the other issues, the website may seem like the least of the administration’s troubles. But it’s not, because if the numbers of those who get kicked off their insurance plans keep rising, and those policies can’t be reinstated, then a broken exchange website means that ObamaCare will have cost many their insurance and is now keeping them from getting new insurance.

They can extend the deadline for compliance with the individual mandate all they want: those losing their insurance due to the health-care law that is also preventing them from getting new insurance are probably not worrying primarily about the mandate noncompliance penalty. They are worried about the rest of the damage ObamaCare is doing to their health care and that of millions of others because of a promise that wasn’t, and probably can’t be, kept.

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Bill Clinton Sticks a Knife in ObamaCare

The five-year-long dance between the Clintons and President Obama has always been an interesting show, but never more so than now as the runner-up in the 2008 Democratic presidential contest starts to maneuver in preparation for 2016. Hillary Clinton spent her four years as secretary of state playing the good soldier for the president, doing little of value but also (and unlike her spectacularly inept successor John Kerry) causing him little trouble. She exited the cabinet with a presidential love fest that had to annoy Vice President Joe Biden, her only likely rival for 2016. But now that she is safely out of the Washington maelstrom and embarked on a path that she hopes will see her return to the White House as president rather than first lady, her relationship with Obama has undergone a not-so-subtle change. That has allowed some of the old antagonism between her and, in particular, her husband and the man who beat her in 2008 to resurface.

That antagonism was on display today as Bill Clinton joined the growing chorus of critics of the ObamaCare rollout in an interview published in a web magazine. Speaking much as if he was one of the angry red-state Democrats who think the president’s lies about ObamaCare can sink their hopes of reelection next year, the 42nd president stuck a knife into the 44thpresident by saying the law should be changed to accommodate the demands of those who are losing their coverage despite the president’s promises to the contrary:

“I personally believe even if it takes a change in the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got.”

In doing so, the former unofficial “explainer in chief” for Obama has helped undermine the notion that the president’s signature health-care legislation can be kept intact. But he has also begun the process by which Hillary will begin to disassociate herself from an administration that is beginning to take on the odor of lame-duck failure.

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The five-year-long dance between the Clintons and President Obama has always been an interesting show, but never more so than now as the runner-up in the 2008 Democratic presidential contest starts to maneuver in preparation for 2016. Hillary Clinton spent her four years as secretary of state playing the good soldier for the president, doing little of value but also (and unlike her spectacularly inept successor John Kerry) causing him little trouble. She exited the cabinet with a presidential love fest that had to annoy Vice President Joe Biden, her only likely rival for 2016. But now that she is safely out of the Washington maelstrom and embarked on a path that she hopes will see her return to the White House as president rather than first lady, her relationship with Obama has undergone a not-so-subtle change. That has allowed some of the old antagonism between her and, in particular, her husband and the man who beat her in 2008 to resurface.

That antagonism was on display today as Bill Clinton joined the growing chorus of critics of the ObamaCare rollout in an interview published in a web magazine. Speaking much as if he was one of the angry red-state Democrats who think the president’s lies about ObamaCare can sink their hopes of reelection next year, the 42nd president stuck a knife into the 44thpresident by saying the law should be changed to accommodate the demands of those who are losing their coverage despite the president’s promises to the contrary:

“I personally believe even if it takes a change in the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got.”

In doing so, the former unofficial “explainer in chief” for Obama has helped undermine the notion that the president’s signature health-care legislation can be kept intact. But he has also begun the process by which Hillary will begin to disassociate herself from an administration that is beginning to take on the odor of lame-duck failure.

White House spokesmen Jay Carney tried to represent Clinton’s defection as somehow consistent with the president’s comments during his cribbed “apology” for the false information about the bill that he repeated ad nauseum during the last three years (“If you like your health care plan…”) during an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd last week. The president said his team would study how to make it up to the millions who are losing their coverage and being hit with huge increases in their premiums. But he knows very well that to do that would essential destroy the system on which ObamaCare is based. The point is there is no way for responsible citizens who pay for their insurance not to be the losers in this scheme since without bilking them (as well as the recruitment of vast numbers of young, healthy people who will pay for more insurance than most will want or need) it will be impossible to carry off the vast redistribution of wealth that is at the core of ObamaCare.

That’s why the willingness of Democrats to embrace the bill proposed by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (one of those endangered red-state Democrats) to legislate a fix that would allow Americans to keep their existing coverage is so dangerous for ObamaCare. It’s not clear such a fix is even possible, but the willingness of Democrats like California’s Dianne Feinstein to jump at that wagon shows that the ground is slipping away from underneath the president’s feet. While the White House has said their concern is eliminating substandard insurance policies, this is another barefaced lie as the whole point here is roping in more people to pay for those who are currently uninsured, not improving their coverage.

This may be a turning point in the history of ObamaCare as the dysfunctional website now appears to be the least of the president’s problems. But it is also a sign that his would-be successor now believes that she must detach herself from what appears to be a disastrous second term. If we needed an official notification that the future of the Democratic Party wants no part of the problems of the present, Hillary’s husband just delivered it.

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Is the U.S. Too Engaged in Peace Talks?

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

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Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

A large majority of Americans believe the U.S. should have minimal involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to the results of a new survey released by the Anti-Defamation League.

Some 62 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis to solve their own problems. Any lasting peace agreement between them must be reached with minimal involvement from the U.S.,” while only 29% agreed with the statement, “Peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will never take place without the leadership and involvement of the U.S. government.”

A few caveats: we don’t know what “minimal involvement” means exactly, so there is only so much we can take away from such results. Additionally, the ADL’s report on the poll seems to present only two options, so how the choices are phrased could make a real difference. And finally, it’s impossible to know just how much of the response to this question is intended as a referendum not on the broad contours of the peace process but on the hapless and often clueless chief American diplomat leading the charge, John Kerry.

With that said, the peace process fatigue is a good instinct. The series of events that led to Oslo and the famous handshake at the White House between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were part of a conscious peace process, admittedly, but one without the attention of later years. It’s no coincidence that this period was also the most productive diplomatic push of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even after the formal process got underway, the two sides were doing two things that were crucial to progress: keeping expectations modest and talking directly. And this was at a time long before the Likud Party officially adopted the model of “two states for two peoples” as its guiding force for the talks–even Rabin was famously uncomfortable with the idea of an independent Palestinian state–so there was plenty of reason on the Palestinian side to doubt Israel’s ability to carry out any comprehensive deal.

The problem is that when the sole superpower becomes closely involved (and at the time of the Madrid conference the Soviet Union was well on its way to dissolving, leaving the U.S. alone on the world stage), everyone’s incentives change. For the Americans, there is the lure of legacy. President George H.W. Bush was less susceptible to this than his successors because he already presided over America’s official emergence as the world’s great power. But politicians are only human, and the longer the conflict drags on, the more impressive “peace in the Middle East” appears.

The incentive structure got no better for the U.S. as time dragged on because of the natural evolution of the process. At first, vague notions of “peace” were seen as the objective. But after Bill Clinton left office and George W. Bush took over, the creation of a Palestinian state became the benchmark by which the conflict would be deemed “resolved.” The race to create a Palestinian state has run up against a by-now familiar obstacle: the sense of urgency among world opinion for a Palestinian state progressed while the actual task of state-building in the West Bank and Gaza stagnated.

The expectations game has been managed terribly by all involved, and the high profile of the peace process has become an obstacle. With their domestic populations–and the world–following along, Israeli and Palestinian leaders behave as though their every step is being watched closely, because it is. All the American attention has resulted, finally, in needing to lure the Palestinians to the table.

This is insanity. If the Palestinians have to be bribed to even enter negotiations, then they don’t have a desire to end the conflict. And Israeli leaders are not going to take major diplomatic risks if they’ve already spent their political capital on freeing Palestinian terrorists from jail or halting construction in Jewish communities for a process that keeps going nowhere. The United States has a constructive role to play in the peace process, but it’s not the one Kerry envisions. And the ADL polls suggests Americans are starting to agree.

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Obama’s Plea for Irrelevance

President Obama’s political instincts are generally compared unfavorably to those of the previous Democratic president, the glad-handing triangulator Bill Clinton. But there is one mistake of Clinton’s that Obama is almost sure not to replicate. The lowest moment of Clinton’s first term was his plea that “the president is still relevant here,” an indication that at the moment he was a bystander to political events and wanted desperately to change that perception in the media.

The reason Obama is unlikely to make that mistake, however, is that he refuses to countenance the idea that he is relevant at all. Whether it’s the IRS scandal, Benghazi, the targeting of journalists, or other controversies, the president has portrayed himself as always the last one to know. And now, as Politico points out, he is reacting to the abysmal rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges the same way:

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President Obama’s political instincts are generally compared unfavorably to those of the previous Democratic president, the glad-handing triangulator Bill Clinton. But there is one mistake of Clinton’s that Obama is almost sure not to replicate. The lowest moment of Clinton’s first term was his plea that “the president is still relevant here,” an indication that at the moment he was a bystander to political events and wanted desperately to change that perception in the media.

The reason Obama is unlikely to make that mistake, however, is that he refuses to countenance the idea that he is relevant at all. Whether it’s the IRS scandal, Benghazi, the targeting of journalists, or other controversies, the president has portrayed himself as always the last one to know. And now, as Politico points out, he is reacting to the abysmal rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges the same way:

His “nobody’s madder than me” Monday echoed the kinds of statements he’s repeatedly made about problems over the last few months — “Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it” (the IRS scandal), “It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest” (the NSA scandal), “This is not a world we should accept” (Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons). He puts himself forward as a man frustrated with what’s happened on his watch, promising change, insisting that nothing of the sort could ever happen again.

There’s a level of semantic distance there, though, that often gets interpreted as an inherent refusal to take responsibility. Obama is, after all, the president. He has more than a little say in what happens within his own administration.

This time, however, Politico wonders how the president could hope to sell this excuse to a public that should know better:

And on this issue, at least, there’s no question the president has been very involved. Leading up to the launch of the website and the rest of the Obamacare rollout, the president was receiving regular briefings, even dropping in to occasional meetings that weren’t on his schedule. Part of the president’s frustration appears to stem directly from that involvement — the question of why wasn’t he given more accurate or expansive information, or a full sense of the problems once they started to appear.

“He’s had a level of skin in this game that’s been under-reported,” said one former senior administration official. “This isn’t a problem that crept up on him. He has been very, very, very focused on it for a long time. He understood the importance of it, and he has made time for it.”

Yes, this is the president’s signature “achievement” (if it ever gets off the ground). His name is on it. As yesterday’s embarrassing press conference/infomercial showed, he will continue to sell it until he’s blue in the face.

But all this amounts to a sense that the president should have known about the kinks in the program. That’s unflattering enough, as it suggests Obama was confused by his own legislation. But as the Washington Post reports today, it was worse than that: the administration did know what was wrong with the ObamaCare web portal. It turns out the system crashed during a weak test–and the White House took the site live anyway.

The question is: why? The administration understood the stakes, and so did the president. What made officials release a broken version of Obama’s signature policy that the public already disliked?

The Post suggests it was a combination of stubbornness and pride:

Some key testing of the system did not take place until the week before launch, according to this person. As late as Sept. 26, there had been no tests to determine whether a consumer could complete the process from beginning to end: create an account, determine eligibility for federal subsidies and sign up for a health insurance plan, according to two sources familiar with the project.

People working on the project knew that Oct. 1 was set in stone as a launch date. “We named it the tyranny of the October 1 date,” said a person close to the project.

They set a date and were unwilling to take the embarrassing step of admitting it wasn’t ready by then. One developer, the AP reports, “was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time.”

Both the Post and AP reports are worth reading in full for the whole story, but they paint a picture of a government program in complete disarray. And it is fitting that this is the accomplishment that bears Obama’s name, since its disastrous rollout embodies the president’s flaws as a chief executive. He may not be experienced, voters were told in 2008, but he has a presidential temperament, a compromising spirit, a gift for management and efficiency, and a preference for adaptability and ideological flexibility over dogma. The brief history of his most prized accomplishment proves otherwise.

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Let Us Now Praise Public Morality

By the time New York’s Democrats voted in their primary this week, the issue that transfixed the chattering classes earlier in the year had virtually disappeared. As it turns out, both of the disgraced celebrity politicians who sought redemption in this year’s municipal elections were soundly thrashed. The prospect that the political careers of both Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are over is a source of understandable grief to headline writers and the bottom lines of New York’s tabloids, but the rest of the nation surely breathed a sigh of relief at the demise of the hopes of that unholy duo. That should cause those of us who wondered about what the ability of such figures to survive personal scandals meant for America to not be quite as shy about putting forward a case for public morality in the future.

The idea that public figures should be held to a standard of moral conduct is widely ridiculed by most of the chattering classes these days. It’s not that they approve of aberrant or immoral behavior, they tell us, but when those in the cross hairs of scandalmongers are either useful or popular, especially if they are liberals, then we are told not to confuse private conduct with public duties. The notion that there can be any link between immorality and qualification for high office is generally considered to be either passé or downright perverse. But it is also possible that after Weiner and Spitzer flopped at the polls, what we are seeing is that many voters, even in cosmopolitan New York, expect more from those they entrust with public honors than pop stars. If so, then that is something we should not only welcome but also encourage.

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By the time New York’s Democrats voted in their primary this week, the issue that transfixed the chattering classes earlier in the year had virtually disappeared. As it turns out, both of the disgraced celebrity politicians who sought redemption in this year’s municipal elections were soundly thrashed. The prospect that the political careers of both Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are over is a source of understandable grief to headline writers and the bottom lines of New York’s tabloids, but the rest of the nation surely breathed a sigh of relief at the demise of the hopes of that unholy duo. That should cause those of us who wondered about what the ability of such figures to survive personal scandals meant for America to not be quite as shy about putting forward a case for public morality in the future.

The idea that public figures should be held to a standard of moral conduct is widely ridiculed by most of the chattering classes these days. It’s not that they approve of aberrant or immoral behavior, they tell us, but when those in the cross hairs of scandalmongers are either useful or popular, especially if they are liberals, then we are told not to confuse private conduct with public duties. The notion that there can be any link between immorality and qualification for high office is generally considered to be either passé or downright perverse. But it is also possible that after Weiner and Spitzer flopped at the polls, what we are seeing is that many voters, even in cosmopolitan New York, expect more from those they entrust with public honors than pop stars. If so, then that is something we should not only welcome but also encourage.

It must be admitted that each such case of a transgressor seeking redemption is different. The free pass much of the nation gave—and continues to give—President Clinton for his lies about sex and dalliances with a White House intern in the Oval Office led some, like William Bennett, to lament “the death of outrage” and to rightly point out the deleterious impact this would have on society as a whole. Perhaps if Weiner or Spitzer had not both been generally despised as obnoxious political loners even when they were riding high, they, too, might have been quickly forgiven and their detractors ostracized as Puritan hypocrites. Perhaps also the nature of some of these offenses has something to do with it as straight-forward adultery, such as that committed by former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, was more easily understood by voters in a society where divorce is commonplace than the bizarre doings of Weiner or Spitzer’s money-laundering that enabled his patronage of prostitutes.

Indeed, in Weiner’s case, it was, as was true of Clinton, the lies that were most damnable. Perhaps the time has not yet arrived when Americans will think nothing of a member of the House of Representatives tweeting photos of their genitals to strange women, but I doubt there will ever be much tolerance for those who do such things and then claim that the journalists (like the late Andrew Breitbart) who reported it were perpetrating a hoax. Nor will the public ever accept a politician who claims he’s reformed and then is revealed to have continued his mad behavior long after he said he went straight, as Weiner did.

But in a country whose worst problems are caused in no small measure by social pathologies such as illegitimacy and the breakdown of the family, can we really afford to be blasé about those who aspire to lead the nation whose personal immorality becomes a matter of public record?

To praise public morality doesn’t mean that we should be putting politicians who can’t behave in the stocks. We all make mistakes and those who are not reticent about casting the first stone should remember what happened to the political careers of adulterous House Republicans who impeached Clinton on charges relating to sexual impropriety. Neither party has a monopoly on morality or truth.

But it does mean that we should not treat these matters as lightly as many in the media would have us do when their favorites are not the targets of the tabloids. Outrage about wrongdoing doesn’t mean we must chain those who sin to a rock. A nation with high moral standards need not be a nation of saints, but it is one that knows the difference between right and wrong. Heaven help us if we ever become a country where not knowing that difference is no longer a political problem. The idea that there is no connection between loose morals and public integrity is a theory that admirers of John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and others adhere to. But that is a case that is hard to make for most ordinary politicians whose honesty is usually a fungible commodity.

Earlier this year, Mark Sanford ran for and won a congressional seat by apologizing endlessly for his misdeeds. That played well in a religious state where belief in redemption is widespread. Weiner and Spitzer’s apologies were perfunctory and quickly abandoned and they found out that in sophisticated New York, not so many people love a former sinner as in the south. Let’s hope their defeats will serve as an example that will help remind our leaders that their belief that they have impunity to misbehave says more about their egos than it does public opinion.

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Israel Is Not a Single-Issue Country

One of the most pernicious and lasting effects of the Oslo Accords, whose 20th anniversary will be marked this Friday, was to warp the prism through which most non-Israelis view Israel: From a country with the same broad spectrum of concerns as all other countries, it became, in the world’s eyes, a single-issue country, where nothing but the “peace process” could possibly matter. This attitude is epitomized by a 1998 conversation between President Bill Clinton and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, whose transcript was published in Haaretz two weeks ago. Though the main topic was an impending military operation in Iraq, Clinton also briefed Mubarak on the peace process:

I think the Israeli public is coming along [in regard to the Oslo process]. The problem is, when they have elections there, Israeli society is becoming more complicated, and a lot of people get elected to the Knesset for reasons that don’t have much to do with the peace process. Then we have trouble getting a solid majority to do the right thing.”

One can practically hear the outrage in his voice: How dare those Israelis elect legislators who care about the same issues American voters do–jobs, cost of living, education, crime, etc.–rather than exclusively about the peace process? The fact that Israelis actually have to live in their country–and therefore must care about those issues, which are vital to any country’s well-being–appears to have escaped him entirely.

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One of the most pernicious and lasting effects of the Oslo Accords, whose 20th anniversary will be marked this Friday, was to warp the prism through which most non-Israelis view Israel: From a country with the same broad spectrum of concerns as all other countries, it became, in the world’s eyes, a single-issue country, where nothing but the “peace process” could possibly matter. This attitude is epitomized by a 1998 conversation between President Bill Clinton and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, whose transcript was published in Haaretz two weeks ago. Though the main topic was an impending military operation in Iraq, Clinton also briefed Mubarak on the peace process:

I think the Israeli public is coming along [in regard to the Oslo process]. The problem is, when they have elections there, Israeli society is becoming more complicated, and a lot of people get elected to the Knesset for reasons that don’t have much to do with the peace process. Then we have trouble getting a solid majority to do the right thing.”

One can practically hear the outrage in his voice: How dare those Israelis elect legislators who care about the same issues American voters do–jobs, cost of living, education, crime, etc.–rather than exclusively about the peace process? The fact that Israelis actually have to live in their country–and therefore must care about those issues, which are vital to any country’s well-being–appears to have escaped him entirely.

Having presided over Oslo’s signing, Clinton was perhaps uniquely invested in the Oslo process. Yet his attitude is far from unique. After Israel’s new government took office in March, for instance, a Hungarian journalist called me with a burning question: How could Yair Lapid’s center-left Yesh Atid party possibly sit in the same government as Naftali Bennett’s right-of-center Bayit Yehudi? I explained that despite their differences on the peace process, Lapid and Bennett have similar views on many domestic issues, and since the peace process had at that point been frozen for four years and showed no signs of thawing, the election was mainly about Israel’s many serious domestic problems. To which he replied, “But how can they sit together when they disagree about the peace process?” After several iterations of this, we both gave up in despair.

A comedy writer could probably make a good sketch of the scene, but there’s nothing funny about it. The failure to grasp that Israelis have concerns other than the peace process is a major reason why so many diplomats and pundits consistently misread Israel. Even worse, this attitude has undermined pro-Israel sentiment worldwide by reducing Israel from a complicated, multifaceted country to a one-dimensional caricature. For who can have sympathy or affection for a caricature?

The truth is that Israel can live without peace if necessary; it’s done so successfully for 65 years now. But it can’t live without a functioning economy, decent schools, adequate health care and all the other things that distinguish successful states from failed ones. And Israelis, because they live here, never have the luxury of forgetting that for long.

Non-Israelis, in contrast, won’t suffer if Israel has failing schools or high unemployment, so it’s easy to overlook these issues. But nobody who cares about Israel should do so. For by treating Israel as a single-issue country, they are helping to reduce it to a caricature that’s all too easy to hate.

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Same Old Clintons Back at Work

The process of preparing Hillary Clinton’s likely 2016 presidential candidacy is bringing some new scrutiny to an institution that has largely flown below the radar of the mainstream press in the last decade: the Clinton Foundation. Though it has garnered a lot of good publicity and huge corporate donations due to the visibility of the former president at its head, little is generally known about the philanthropy that has given a useful platform to Bill Clinton and his family since he exited the White House in January 2001. The governance of the foundation as well as questions about its practices and its incestuous ties with various corporations can’t be ignored any longer since Hillary Clinton is set to use it as a convenient landing spot while she prepares to run for president. It is in that context that a lengthy front-page feature in the New York Times today on the foundation should be read. While the article raises far more questions than it answers, it should remind Americans that the once and possibly future first couple of the land are the same characters that presided over a corrupt Little Rock governor’s mansion and a White House where ethical considerations were checked at the door.

The causes—health, AIDS, obesity and poverty—that the Foundation has funded are unexceptionable. But the team of old Clinton loyalists and faithful family retainers that has operated the global initiative has played fast and loose with its finances and management. More to the point, it’s hard to see where the foundation ends and the influence peddling begins. The story of its operations is also rife with conflicts of interest that have a familiar ring from those who remember the Clinton White House’s shameless fundraising record that had such trouble staying on the right side of the law. A major housecleaning now going on in order to try to sanitize the foundation for Hillary’s arrival and its renaming to include the former first lady and first daughter makes it clear that the foundation is going to have to be on its best behavior lest its hijinks sabotage their political ambitions.

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The process of preparing Hillary Clinton’s likely 2016 presidential candidacy is bringing some new scrutiny to an institution that has largely flown below the radar of the mainstream press in the last decade: the Clinton Foundation. Though it has garnered a lot of good publicity and huge corporate donations due to the visibility of the former president at its head, little is generally known about the philanthropy that has given a useful platform to Bill Clinton and his family since he exited the White House in January 2001. The governance of the foundation as well as questions about its practices and its incestuous ties with various corporations can’t be ignored any longer since Hillary Clinton is set to use it as a convenient landing spot while she prepares to run for president. It is in that context that a lengthy front-page feature in the New York Times today on the foundation should be read. While the article raises far more questions than it answers, it should remind Americans that the once and possibly future first couple of the land are the same characters that presided over a corrupt Little Rock governor’s mansion and a White House where ethical considerations were checked at the door.

The causes—health, AIDS, obesity and poverty—that the Foundation has funded are unexceptionable. But the team of old Clinton loyalists and faithful family retainers that has operated the global initiative has played fast and loose with its finances and management. More to the point, it’s hard to see where the foundation ends and the influence peddling begins. The story of its operations is also rife with conflicts of interest that have a familiar ring from those who remember the Clinton White House’s shameless fundraising record that had such trouble staying on the right side of the law. A major housecleaning now going on in order to try to sanitize the foundation for Hillary’s arrival and its renaming to include the former first lady and first daughter makes it clear that the foundation is going to have to be on its best behavior lest its hijinks sabotage their political ambitions.

Calling it the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation gives the operation a homier feel that suits both its philanthropic image as well as their desire to associate the likely 2016 presidential candidate and the family’s crown princess, who has political hopes of her own, with its good works. But suspicions about the way the foundation mixes charity with old-fashioned influence peddling won’t go away when Hillary and her staff (including their unofficial “adopted daughter” Huma Abedin) move into the operation’s New York headquarters.

The problem is not just that, as the Times details, Clintonistas like Ira Magaziner and Doug Band run a philanthropic endeavor with the kind of predilection for red ink that would do the federal government proud. It’s that the line between the good works and lucrative private capital ventures headed by many of the same people has been so blurred as to be largely indistinct. Teneo, a consulting and banking firm founded by Band (described by the Times as the president’s “surrogate son”) is also mixed up in the foundation’s business and largely profits from Clinton’s donors.

That may be par for the course in the world of high finance and do-gooding that the Clintons move in these days. But while it may have been considered a non-issue while the Foundation gave Bill something to do in his post-presidency, it will be a bigger deal as his wife uses it as a platform for her candidacy before she formally declares sometime in the next two years. That makes it imperative that the foundation not be a liability but also raises concerns about its use as political platform with tax-exempt status.

The foundation has been the perfect vehicle for the Clinton family as they cleaned up the former president’s image and kept their ties to former political donors and big business partners for future use. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion after reading about it in depth that it is just as much the function of the Clintons’ absent moral compass as their past political operations often were. As with the Clinton presidency, we are expected to let their stated good intentions wash away any doubts about their behavior or inattention to ethics. Let’s hope the press as well as responsible legal authorities keep a sharp eye on the foundation rather than let it play the same game as Hillary transitions to the next stage in her long slog to the top of the political heap.

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NBC Miniseries Won’t Do Hillary a Favor

The news that NBC is planning to film a miniseries on the life of Hillary Clinton may be interpreted in some quarters as just another lollipop being thrown by the network at its Democratic crush. The movie will star actress Diane Lane as the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state and will cover her life from the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal up until the present day. Though we are told the work would include “aspects that were both critical of Mrs. Clinton and supportive of her,” it’s not likely the network with a cable news outlet where nary a discouraging word is uttered about liberalism and the Democrats will exert itself to highlight the less savory parts of the Clinton story. But anyone under the assumption that this project, which must be completed and aired before Clinton announces for the presidency in 2016 to avoid NBC having to give her opponents equal time, will boost the drive to make Hillary President Obama’s successor is probably wrong. As the Clintons were reminded this past week as the Weiner scandal caused many Americans to think back on l’affaire Lewinsky, this kind of scrutiny, even if done by friends, doesn’t help them.

If, as Fred Dicker reports today in the New York Post, Bill and Hillary are “livid” about the comparisons being made between their conduct and that of the couple that married at their Chappaqua estate, it can’t be just because they think the former president’s dalliances with an intern in the Oval Office and escapades with various girlfriends and mistresses during his time as governor of Arkansas are not as icky as Weiner’s bizarre Internet activities (a point I thought Peter Beinart rightly disputed last week). It’s because Huma Abedin’s pathetic performance last week beside her disturbed husband is highly reminiscent of the decision by Hillary to stand by her man and to regard his critics as merely the effusion of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Hillary’s potential candidacy is at its intimidating best—at least to serious Democratic contenders who will probably pass on the presidency rather than taker her on—when the discussion is about the need for America to elect its first female president. When the conversation turns to the history of Mrs. Clinton’s troubled marriage, her expected coronation in January 2017 seems a bit less inevitable.

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The news that NBC is planning to film a miniseries on the life of Hillary Clinton may be interpreted in some quarters as just another lollipop being thrown by the network at its Democratic crush. The movie will star actress Diane Lane as the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state and will cover her life from the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal up until the present day. Though we are told the work would include “aspects that were both critical of Mrs. Clinton and supportive of her,” it’s not likely the network with a cable news outlet where nary a discouraging word is uttered about liberalism and the Democrats will exert itself to highlight the less savory parts of the Clinton story. But anyone under the assumption that this project, which must be completed and aired before Clinton announces for the presidency in 2016 to avoid NBC having to give her opponents equal time, will boost the drive to make Hillary President Obama’s successor is probably wrong. As the Clintons were reminded this past week as the Weiner scandal caused many Americans to think back on l’affaire Lewinsky, this kind of scrutiny, even if done by friends, doesn’t help them.

If, as Fred Dicker reports today in the New York Post, Bill and Hillary are “livid” about the comparisons being made between their conduct and that of the couple that married at their Chappaqua estate, it can’t be just because they think the former president’s dalliances with an intern in the Oval Office and escapades with various girlfriends and mistresses during his time as governor of Arkansas are not as icky as Weiner’s bizarre Internet activities (a point I thought Peter Beinart rightly disputed last week). It’s because Huma Abedin’s pathetic performance last week beside her disturbed husband is highly reminiscent of the decision by Hillary to stand by her man and to regard his critics as merely the effusion of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Hillary’s potential candidacy is at its intimidating best—at least to serious Democratic contenders who will probably pass on the presidency rather than taker her on—when the discussion is about the need for America to elect its first female president. When the conversation turns to the history of Mrs. Clinton’s troubled marriage, her expected coronation in January 2017 seems a bit less inevitable.

There’s never been much evidence that movies, whether produced for the big screen or the small one, have much impact on presidential elections. Last year, many Republicans feared that various films that focused on the killing of Osama bin Laden would give President Obama a huge edge. But while they probably didn’t hurt the Democratic campaign, it’s not as if Americans—who were reminded about bin Laden’s shooting by Navy SEALs in virtually every speech the president gave for more than year—needed a movie to remind them of the fact. Obama’s historic status and slavish press coverage ensured his reelection and no film, whether positive or negative, was going to change that.

An even better example is the impact that The Right Stuff, the 1983 film version of Tom Wolfe’s book about the original Mercury astronauts, had on the 1984 presidential election. One of the Mercury seven, Ohio Senator John Glenn, was portrayed in the book as something of a prig. That caused some to worry that the film would harm his prospects for the Democratic nomination in 1984. But Ed Harris’s portrayal of Glenn made him appear to be not just moral, but a shining example of a true American hero and the film was thought to boost his chances. But not even a Hollywood lollipop that reminded the nation that the senator had been the first American to orbit the earth was enough to turn Glenn into a viable candidate, and he spent the next 20 years trying to pay off his $3 million campaign debt.

No matter how adoring the film will be, any movie about the Clintons in 1998, even one that also discusses her subsequent government service, distracts the public from the story her campaign will want to tell about her intended rendezvous with history in 2016. Even worse, any biopic will serve as an excuse for critics and defenders to rehash past scandals, whether it involves the Rose law firm, Whitewater, or Paula Jones, that the Clintons had hoped were permanently in their rear view mirror. As much as her career has its roots in her husband’s overwhelming electoral success and the continuing admiration he inspires among Democrats, Hillary’s presidential hopes are based not so much on a desire to go back to the 1990s as on a view of her career that is independent of that of her spouse.

Should Clinton run for president, as everyone assumes will happen, she will be the presumptive Democratic nominee no matter whether Lane makes her seem a goddess or not. But, like the Weiner blowback on Hillary because of her close ties to Abedin, a revival of interest in the most memorable incident of her time in the White House should not be considered a favor to her.

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What Weiner and Clinton Have Taught Us

All veteran journalists know that the only thing to do with fish in a barrel is to shoot them, as the cliché demands. Thus, all members of the media, left, right, and center, have spent this week eagerly popping away at Anthony Weiner and his hapless wife Huma Abedin. And who can blame us? The spectacle of the serial sexter and flasher and his enabler wife is the stuff of implausible fiction, not normal political news. But not everyone is chortling along with a public that can’t seem to get enough of this scandal.

Over at the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart writes to say the calls from conservatives as well as liberal organs like the New York Times for Weiner to leave the race immediately and take his severe behavioral disorder somewhere out of the public square are wrong. Beinart believes it is anti-democratic for prudes to seek to deny the voters their right to vote for the man better known by the name of his alter ego Carlos Danger. Since the need for the body politic to make room for sexual deviants is, I think, nowhere mentioned in the Federalist Papers, I think that’s an odd conception of the essentials of democracy. But in order to make this argument, Beinart stumbles across a profound truth: Democrats have already excused behavior that is, if anything, far worse than Weiner’s bizarre act. And by that he is, of course, referring to Bill Clinton:

By any reasonable standard, Weiner’s behavior is less damning than Clinton’s. Yes, Weiner committed adultery (of a kind). Yes, he repeatedly lied about it. Yes, he humiliated his wife in an effort to save his candidacy. Clinton did all that, too. What Weiner, in contrast to Clinton, has not done—as far as we know—is use his office to reward his paramours. He has not publicly besmirched their character. He has not asked them to violate the law. And he has not violated campaign disclosure laws in his effort to keep them silent. According to legal experts, he has also not committed sexual harassment.

Beinart leaves out Clinton’s lying under oath, but he’s right. But rather than using the refusal of the New York Times to condemn Clinton, let alone demand that Clinton leave the 1992 presidential race or resign once in office, as a rationale to justify Weiner’s continued presence in the public square, what he has done is remind us of the moral bankruptcy of Clinton’s many defenders who continue to ignore the voluminous evidence of his misconduct and treat him as a revered elder statesman–not to mention a future presidential spouse.

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All veteran journalists know that the only thing to do with fish in a barrel is to shoot them, as the cliché demands. Thus, all members of the media, left, right, and center, have spent this week eagerly popping away at Anthony Weiner and his hapless wife Huma Abedin. And who can blame us? The spectacle of the serial sexter and flasher and his enabler wife is the stuff of implausible fiction, not normal political news. But not everyone is chortling along with a public that can’t seem to get enough of this scandal.

Over at the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart writes to say the calls from conservatives as well as liberal organs like the New York Times for Weiner to leave the race immediately and take his severe behavioral disorder somewhere out of the public square are wrong. Beinart believes it is anti-democratic for prudes to seek to deny the voters their right to vote for the man better known by the name of his alter ego Carlos Danger. Since the need for the body politic to make room for sexual deviants is, I think, nowhere mentioned in the Federalist Papers, I think that’s an odd conception of the essentials of democracy. But in order to make this argument, Beinart stumbles across a profound truth: Democrats have already excused behavior that is, if anything, far worse than Weiner’s bizarre act. And by that he is, of course, referring to Bill Clinton:

By any reasonable standard, Weiner’s behavior is less damning than Clinton’s. Yes, Weiner committed adultery (of a kind). Yes, he repeatedly lied about it. Yes, he humiliated his wife in an effort to save his candidacy. Clinton did all that, too. What Weiner, in contrast to Clinton, has not done—as far as we know—is use his office to reward his paramours. He has not publicly besmirched their character. He has not asked them to violate the law. And he has not violated campaign disclosure laws in his effort to keep them silent. According to legal experts, he has also not committed sexual harassment.

Beinart leaves out Clinton’s lying under oath, but he’s right. But rather than using the refusal of the New York Times to condemn Clinton, let alone demand that Clinton leave the 1992 presidential race or resign once in office, as a rationale to justify Weiner’s continued presence in the public square, what he has done is remind us of the moral bankruptcy of Clinton’s many defenders who continue to ignore the voluminous evidence of his misconduct and treat him as a revered elder statesman–not to mention a future presidential spouse.

Beinart is also correct to note that if phone cameras had been available back in Arkansas when then Governor Clinton was running riot with the assistance of his faithful State Trooper bodyguards, the evidence of his disgusting carryings-on might have been too much for even his cheering section in the press to ignore or excuse. There is more than a grain of truth in his point that the difference between Weiner’s indiscretions and those of Clinton and previous generations of sexual predators and philanderers entrusted with high public office is primarily one of technology.

The point about Clinton is telling because it reminds us that allowing people who abuse and lie in the manner that Bill and Hillary did—and which Anthony and Huma would like to emulate—has consequences. The willingness of Democrats and liberal soapboxes like the Times to embrace Clinton in 1992 set us up for what would follow. From that point on, every lying predator in political office or seeking one has been able to say that if Clinton could be excused, so could they.

People like Beinart and others continually tell us that we were right to give the Clintons a pass and that it would have been a tragedy if other sexual miscreants who found their way into the Oval Office like John F. Kennedy had been made accountable for their conduct since it would have deprived of us of their gifts. Yet if there is anything that is an eternal truth about democracy it is that no man or woman is indispensable. We are a nation of laws, not men. That’s something that should not be forgotten three years from now when Huma’s mentors the Clintons attempt to regain their lapsed lease on the White House.

Perhaps what Beinart calls the “disproportionate” response to Weiner is merely the result of him being a “pioneer” in the field of using social media to misbehave rather than more private means. But instead of shrugging at this spectacle and resigning ourselves to more like it in the future as Beinart glumly expects we must, perhaps this is the moment for Americans to finally say that we demand more of those charged with the public’s trust. If the Clintons and the Weiners have taught us anything, it is that there is still a viable argument to be made for public morality.

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Bill Clinton on Syria: Don’t Rely on the Polls

On Tuesday night I attended a benefit dinner in New York for the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. The star attraction was Bill Clinton, in conversation with John McCain. Like other attendees I was startled to hear Clinton come out in favor of aiding the Syrian rebels, but I wasn’t planning to write about it because the event was off the record. However, Politico has obtained a tape recording of Clinton’s talk and posted an article about it.

The article quotes Clinton as follows: “My view is that we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past. I don’t think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan — no one has asked us to send any soldiers in there. I think it’s more like Afghanistan was in the ’80s when they were fighting the Soviet Union … when President Reagan was in office [and] got an enormous amount of influence and gratitude by helping to topple the Soviet-backed regime and then made the error of not hanging around in Afghanistan.”

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On Tuesday night I attended a benefit dinner in New York for the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. The star attraction was Bill Clinton, in conversation with John McCain. Like other attendees I was startled to hear Clinton come out in favor of aiding the Syrian rebels, but I wasn’t planning to write about it because the event was off the record. However, Politico has obtained a tape recording of Clinton’s talk and posted an article about it.

The article quotes Clinton as follows: “My view is that we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past. I don’t think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan — no one has asked us to send any soldiers in there. I think it’s more like Afghanistan was in the ’80s when they were fighting the Soviet Union … when President Reagan was in office [and] got an enormous amount of influence and gratitude by helping to topple the Soviet-backed regime and then made the error of not hanging around in Afghanistan.”

Clinton also suggested that any president who refused to intervene simply because it would be unpopular to do so is not acting very presidential: “When people are telling you ‘no’ in these situations, very often what they’re doing is flashing a giant yellow light and saying, ‘For God’s sakes, be careful, tell us what you’re doing, think this through, be careful.’ But still they hire their president to look around the corner and down the street, and you just think–if you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken, is that, ‘Oh my God, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.’ Right? You’d look like a total fool.”

The implication is obvious: Obama is in danger of looking like a “total fool.”

On one level Clinton’s criticism is not terribly surprising since his wife was in favor of aiding the rebels last summer. But Clinton, whatever resentment he may feel toward Obama, has been loyal in public. That he has chosen to break with the White House over Syria is significant. One hopes his comments, which he surely knew would leak, may presage a wider revolt among Democrats in Congress who, like Clinton, are disgusted with Obama’s do-nothing policy on Syria.

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Bill Clinton’s Big Israeli Payday

We are constantly reminded of the fact that there’s no better gig in the world than being an ex-president. With lucrative book contracts (for books that don’t always get read but for which publishers feel obligated to shell out big bucks in advances), highly paid speaking engagements and uncounted perks as well as lifetime security, our former commanders-in-chief live the rest of their lives high on the proverbial hog. And when they’re done repairing their personal finances, they can start foundations and shake down everyone who wants their ear or to link their names with a former president. That’s pretty much the story of the last 12 years of Bill Clinton’s life, as he has become a wealthy man as well as one with a personal foundation to which he can funnel almost unlimited amounts of contributions from those who wish to earn his good will or that of his wife, who has her own eye on the White House in 2016.

But there is a point when even the usual post-presidential gravy train becomes excess and it appears that Clinton has reached just such a moment. By accepting a $500,000 honorarium from the Shimon Peres Academic Center, Clinton has exposed himself and his hosts (which include the Jewish National Fund, which is co-sponsoring the event as part of its president’s summit in Israel this summer) to scorn and criticism. Clinton apparently demanded that the Center and the JNF pony up a cool half million and deliver it to his foundation a year in advance to secure his appearance at an event honoring the Israeli president’s 90th birthday. This raises questions not only of good taste but also of the propriety of one charitable endeavor profiting at the expense of the other.

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We are constantly reminded of the fact that there’s no better gig in the world than being an ex-president. With lucrative book contracts (for books that don’t always get read but for which publishers feel obligated to shell out big bucks in advances), highly paid speaking engagements and uncounted perks as well as lifetime security, our former commanders-in-chief live the rest of their lives high on the proverbial hog. And when they’re done repairing their personal finances, they can start foundations and shake down everyone who wants their ear or to link their names with a former president. That’s pretty much the story of the last 12 years of Bill Clinton’s life, as he has become a wealthy man as well as one with a personal foundation to which he can funnel almost unlimited amounts of contributions from those who wish to earn his good will or that of his wife, who has her own eye on the White House in 2016.

But there is a point when even the usual post-presidential gravy train becomes excess and it appears that Clinton has reached just such a moment. By accepting a $500,000 honorarium from the Shimon Peres Academic Center, Clinton has exposed himself and his hosts (which include the Jewish National Fund, which is co-sponsoring the event as part of its president’s summit in Israel this summer) to scorn and criticism. Clinton apparently demanded that the Center and the JNF pony up a cool half million and deliver it to his foundation a year in advance to secure his appearance at an event honoring the Israeli president’s 90th birthday. This raises questions not only of good taste but also of the propriety of one charitable endeavor profiting at the expense of the other.

The Center and the JNF attempted to recoup some of the money by charging those who attended the gala to take place on June 17 in Reshoot, Israel approximately $800 a head. But Peres was scandalized by the idea of asking so much from those coming to his birthday party and the Times of Israel reports he said he wouldn’t attend if it was nothing but a fundraiser.

Of course, it is almost certain that the half million was not taken out of the money Jews around the world donate to the JNF to plant trees or otherwise help the environment in Israel. A major donor probably pledged the money Clinton demands for the pleasure of his company and writes it off as a charitable deduction. The assumption is that Clinton’s name will be enough to draw in enough paying customers to the event to make it worth the charity’s while. But Peres’s embarrassment at the egregious nature of the former president’s fee has obviously made it difficult for the JNF and the Center since they must absorb the costs of the evening.

Nevertheless, there is something unseemly about Clinton, who will receive the President’s Award from Peres at an event scheduled for two days later where Tony Blair and Mikhail Gorbachev will also show up (their fees have not been made public), shaking down the JNF and its donor base for this kind of money for his personal charity. As New York Magazine noted, that amounts to $11,111.00 per minute.

Clinton may escape the kind of opprobrium that Ronald Reagan received when he received large fees for speeches in the first years after his presidency ended (and before Alzheimer’s Disease claimed him) because the money he gets will go to his foundation. But any claim that the Clinton family’s political brand doesn’t benefit from the foundation’s work is completely disingenuous. If Clinton wants to honor his old friend Peres, it shouldn’t require someone who cares about the Peres Center or the JNF to fork over that kind of money to a cause that, for all of its good work, is a vanity project for a former president who would like very much to be the nation’s First Gentleman three years from now.

Throughout his post-presidency, Clinton has engaged in this kind of money making taking six-figure fees from all sorts of charities and even churches and synagogues without coming in for much criticism. We seem to take it as a given that former presidents are not only entitled to have the nation build them pyramid-like monuments in the form of libraries and museums, but also to rake in cash in a manner that previous generations would have considered beneath the dignity of a president. Given that these fees are donated by rich people who are happy to pay for the honor of hobnobbing with Clinton for an hour or two, perhaps we should consider this a question of public relations rather than ethics. But it can also be observed that once again the 42nd president has found another way to diminish the high office with which he was entrusted.

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NYT to GOP: Remember Monica Lewinsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Mitt Be Our Favorite Ex-Non-President?

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to the Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Obama Scandals and Republicans

Republican lawmakers are receiving lots of advice–some from people sympathetic to the GOP, some less so–on the political dangers posed to them by the scandals engulfing the Obama administration.

It seems to me the proper approach is fairly obvious. Don’t get ahead of the facts. Don’t talk about impeachment or declare this or that scandal to be worse than Watergate (which placed the president at the center of a criminal conspiracy). Don’t allow opposition to President Obama to slip into hatred for him. Don’t come across as zealous partisans. And don’t become so obsessed by scandals that they set aside the hard and necessary work of recalibrating the GOP, which still faces significant problems in terms of its appeal to a changing electorate. Remember the words of Chekhov: “You don’t become a saint through other people’s sins.” 

At the same time, Republicans should of course pursue the scandals through the appropriate investigative channels, including congressional hearings. They have an obligation to do so in the name of the public interest. Those on the center-left and hard left who are urging Republicans to play down these scandals, in order to avoid a repeat of the Clinton-Lewinsky blowback, may have something other than the GOP’s interests in mind.

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Republican lawmakers are receiving lots of advice–some from people sympathetic to the GOP, some less so–on the political dangers posed to them by the scandals engulfing the Obama administration.

It seems to me the proper approach is fairly obvious. Don’t get ahead of the facts. Don’t talk about impeachment or declare this or that scandal to be worse than Watergate (which placed the president at the center of a criminal conspiracy). Don’t allow opposition to President Obama to slip into hatred for him. Don’t come across as zealous partisans. And don’t become so obsessed by scandals that they set aside the hard and necessary work of recalibrating the GOP, which still faces significant problems in terms of its appeal to a changing electorate. Remember the words of Chekhov: “You don’t become a saint through other people’s sins.” 

At the same time, Republicans should of course pursue the scandals through the appropriate investigative channels, including congressional hearings. They have an obligation to do so in the name of the public interest. Those on the center-left and hard left who are urging Republicans to play down these scandals, in order to avoid a repeat of the Clinton-Lewinsky blowback, may have something other than the GOP’s interests in mind.

Perhaps it’s worth restating the obvious: Scandals and criminal investigations always harm an administration. Ask yourself this question: Do you think that Bill Clinton and Democrats, in looking back at the 1990s, are glad that Lewinsky scandal occurred? Of course not. The same goes for Watergate, Iran-Contra and countless minor ones. Political scandals are not good for presidencies–and they are not good for the country. But if they occur, they need to be pursued.

Republican lawmakers should approach the unfolding scandals in a manner that is sober, measured, purposeful, and rhetorically restrained. Follow the facts. Connect that dots when necessary–and don’t be afraid to say when the dots don’t connect. Resist the temptation to twist facts to fit into a preferred narrative.

All of this is easier to understand in theory than it is to execute in practice. But if Republicans do so, they’ll serve themselves, and the nation, well.

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Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

As I wrote on Monday, Republicans may live to regret Mark Sanford’s victory in the special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District. The former governor is a lightening rod for liberal attacks, and his hijinks will likely hurt the Republicans’ national brand and serve as yet another distraction in a GOP caucus that is already burdened by a host of other problems. But his decisive win illustrates that while scandal exacts a price from politicians, it need not destroy them. Ideology appears to trump morals for most of us.

Just as even those Democrats who were disgusted by Bill Clinton’s behavior were willing to defend him because they despised his Republican opponents, so, too, there were more than enough South Carolina Republicans who were willing to schlep to the polls to allow their party to hold onto this seat. The verdict was not so much one of the “redemption” that Sanford said he was seeking as much as it was one that registered a conservative constituency’s unwillingness to elect an ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

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As I wrote on Monday, Republicans may live to regret Mark Sanford’s victory in the special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District. The former governor is a lightening rod for liberal attacks, and his hijinks will likely hurt the Republicans’ national brand and serve as yet another distraction in a GOP caucus that is already burdened by a host of other problems. But his decisive win illustrates that while scandal exacts a price from politicians, it need not destroy them. Ideology appears to trump morals for most of us.

Just as even those Democrats who were disgusted by Bill Clinton’s behavior were willing to defend him because they despised his Republican opponents, so, too, there were more than enough South Carolina Republicans who were willing to schlep to the polls to allow their party to hold onto this seat. The verdict was not so much one of the “redemption” that Sanford said he was seeking as much as it was one that registered a conservative constituency’s unwillingness to elect an ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Of course, Sanford did pay a price for his shabby personal reputation. As New York Times blogger Nate Silver notes, his nine-point margin of victory represents a marked decrease from what he or any other Republican might have expected to win by in a neutral environment. The First District is, Silver calculates, 22 percent more Republican than the rest of the nation. Silver says the 13-point drop off is consistent with the results that researchers have found elsewhere when scandals are thrown into the electoral mix.

Thus, we can reasonably conclude that while quite a few Republicans simply couldn’t bring themselves to back a loathsome Republican, even more were unwilling to do anything that might empower a political party they consider even more repugnant. The moment Sanford stopped talking about being redeemed and starting campaigning with a cardboard cutout of Pelosi turned the election around.

Should we think ill of these conservative voters or brand them as religious hypocrites for acting in this manner? I think Jonah Goldberg has it exactly right when he writes today over at National Review that doing so is ridiculous. Defense of traditional moral values was not on the ballot in South Carolina yesterday. Indeed, it’s a cause that was lost a long time ago in this country and there’s no going back. Asking conservatives to punish Sanford in the name of their values by electing a liberal whose beliefs are antithetical to what they cherish was not reasonable. And Democrats who treat Bill Clinton like royalty and swear they would have given him a third term if they had been given the opportunity are in no position to blast Republicans for concluding that Sanford was the lesser of two evils.

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Gay or Liberal? Don’t Even Ask

The gay-advocacy group GLAAD portrays itself as a voice in the LGBT community that “promotes understanding, increases acceptance, and advances equality.” In the March issue of our magazine James Kirchick discussed the LGBT community’s inability to see past politics in order to do what is best for those who they claim to represent: LGBT individuals. As if on cue, GLAAD were all too willing to prove his point with two recent stunts that show the group to be nothing more than a front for liberals’ favorite pastimes: hating Fox News and promoting flawed heroes like Bill Clinton.  

Last week GLAAD made news and garnered applause from liberal groups like Media Matters when it loudly uninvited future guests with the Fox News network from its events. It soon came out, however, that the group banned Fox News attendees after two of the network’s anchors were invited to and attended their most recent media awards dinner. Hilariously, TVNewser obtained a copy of an email from the director of creative development at GLAAD buttering up a Fox News employee, asking for financial sponsorship of the awards event beforehand. It seems that GLAAD was more than happy to take a principled stand against Fox–but only after they had invited their anchors and quietly asked the network for cash. If GLAAD were really interested in garnering better coverage for LGBT issues and individuals from Fox, publicly humiliating two supporters, one of whom was on the “NY Host Committee” for the event, this was not how to do it. GLAAD’s objective was merely intended to cause a splash among liberals who care more about taking down Fox News, rather than their stated mission of growing their movement’s ranks.

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The gay-advocacy group GLAAD portrays itself as a voice in the LGBT community that “promotes understanding, increases acceptance, and advances equality.” In the March issue of our magazine James Kirchick discussed the LGBT community’s inability to see past politics in order to do what is best for those who they claim to represent: LGBT individuals. As if on cue, GLAAD were all too willing to prove his point with two recent stunts that show the group to be nothing more than a front for liberals’ favorite pastimes: hating Fox News and promoting flawed heroes like Bill Clinton.  

Last week GLAAD made news and garnered applause from liberal groups like Media Matters when it loudly uninvited future guests with the Fox News network from its events. It soon came out, however, that the group banned Fox News attendees after two of the network’s anchors were invited to and attended their most recent media awards dinner. Hilariously, TVNewser obtained a copy of an email from the director of creative development at GLAAD buttering up a Fox News employee, asking for financial sponsorship of the awards event beforehand. It seems that GLAAD was more than happy to take a principled stand against Fox–but only after they had invited their anchors and quietly asked the network for cash. If GLAAD were really interested in garnering better coverage for LGBT issues and individuals from Fox, publicly humiliating two supporters, one of whom was on the “NY Host Committee” for the event, this was not how to do it. GLAAD’s objective was merely intended to cause a splash among liberals who care more about taking down Fox News, rather than their stated mission of growing their movement’s ranks.

This week GLAAD followed their Fox News announcement with another, far more transparently partisan, one. The group has decided to honor former President Bill Clinton, the signature on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), for its “Advocate for Change award.” The group’s strategic giving officer, Wilson Cruz, told Politico that “leaders and allies like President Clinton are critical to moving our march for equality forward.” What President Clinton has accomplished for the “march for equality” besides repudiating a bill he himself signed into law after leaving office is unclear. There is no indication that the group has extended any sort of similar award to Republican Senators Olympia Snowe, Mark Kirk or Rob Portman, all of whom have, while still in office, made public statements in support of gay marriage. It’s far more politically risky for a Republican to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, yet three sitting Senators have chosen to do so in the last several weeks.

For Democrats like Hillary Clinton and President Obama, reversing their previously held positions on the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman has now become politically necessary both for fundraising and for youth support. It would behoove those at GLAAD to support Republican politicians like Snowe, Kirk and Portman who are in a far more precarious position, at risk of alienating a large portion of their party’s base. Democrats don’t need any of the reinforcement that an award from GLAAD would provide, though Republicans wavering on announcing a change of heart could be swayed by a sincere attempt by GLAAD to support their announcement. If GLAAD were really interested in more sitting politicians coming out in support of their message, this political calculus would be taken into account while deciding who should receive an award from the group.

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Ashley Judd and the Will Rogers Democrats

As the Republicans rose in revolt over the GOP’s next-in-linism and the Democratic president won a second term surrounded by potential successors in aging party stalwarts, November’s election seemed to finally flip the old Will Rogers quip: “I am not a member of any organized party—I am a Democrat.” In truth, however, this was a process that began in earnest with Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy as chairman of the DNC. And it is the same process that led to this week’s announcement that the actress Ashley Judd will not challenge Mitch McConnell for the latter’s Senate seat.

The Judd saga began typically enough. The actress has dabbled in political activism over the last few years in much the same way others in the entertainment industry have: enlisting in the cloudy and creepy cult of Obama. “I think that he is a powerful leader. I think he’s a brilliant man. I think that he has an incredible devotion to our constitution, and that he is now able to flower more as the president I knew he could be,” Judd said last year. She cut an ad for the president’s reelection campaign, rallied for the president, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. to frame the importance of the president’s reelection—par for the Obama personality cult course. But then things took a less conventional turn.

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As the Republicans rose in revolt over the GOP’s next-in-linism and the Democratic president won a second term surrounded by potential successors in aging party stalwarts, November’s election seemed to finally flip the old Will Rogers quip: “I am not a member of any organized party—I am a Democrat.” In truth, however, this was a process that began in earnest with Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy as chairman of the DNC. And it is the same process that led to this week’s announcement that the actress Ashley Judd will not challenge Mitch McConnell for the latter’s Senate seat.

The Judd saga began typically enough. The actress has dabbled in political activism over the last few years in much the same way others in the entertainment industry have: enlisting in the cloudy and creepy cult of Obama. “I think that he is a powerful leader. I think he’s a brilliant man. I think that he has an incredible devotion to our constitution, and that he is now able to flower more as the president I knew he could be,” Judd said last year. She cut an ad for the president’s reelection campaign, rallied for the president, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. to frame the importance of the president’s reelection—par for the Obama personality cult course. But then things took a less conventional turn.

Some Democrats started encouraging Judd to run for the Senate from Kentucky. GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s seat is up in 2014, and liberals think he’s more vulnerable than in past cycles. Following their old Will Rogers instincts, some Democrats saw an entertaining way to blow their chances by nominating a classic Hollywood liberal instead of a conservative Democrat. McConnell’s campaign was giddy at the prospect.

At some point the story went from being “hey, wouldn’t it be fun if Ashley Judd ran for Senate” to “Ashley Judd is seriously considering running for Senate” and the Dean Democrats panicked. They called in party elders to do something, and party elders called in Bill Clinton to run Judd’s budding campaign off the road, which Clinton gladly did. It soon became clear why Democrats feared nominating Judd. “I have been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell,” Judd said about the race last month.

Then on Wednesday came the moment national Democrats were waiting for: ABC News reported that Judd announced—“in a series of tweets,” naturally—that they could rest easy:

After serious and thorough contemplation, I realize that my responsibilities & energy at this time need to be focused on my family. Regretfully, I am currently unable to consider a campaign for the Senate…. Thanks for even considering me as that person & know how much I love our Commonwealth. Thank you!

Judd’s decision not to run—which, it seems from the ABC report, was made for her by Bill Clinton—represents the new Democratic Party, in which discipline is enforced from the top along with a willingness to completely get in line and have party leaders make the decisions. (Witness my earlier post about Democrats who voted for Obamacare expressing shock and disbelief at discovering over the course of three years what was actually in the bill.)

Democrats don’t even seem to want a primary fight for the 2016 presidential nomination, preparing instead to pave the way for Hillary Clinton, wife of the previous Democratic president and secretary of state in the current Democratic president’s first term. The other plausible challenger for the nomination is the current vice president.

Republicans, on the other hand, tried to nominate anyone but the next in line last time and have no next in line for 2016 unless Paul Ryan runs. And as far as congressional races are concerned, Republicans are the minority in the Senate in large part because the so-called establishment is unable to pick and choose its candidates around the country, ending up with Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock and the like to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In fact, these days the lack of establishment money and support is more likely than not to win you the nomination; call yourself a “Tea Party” candidate and watch the primary votes roll in.

That phenomenon of course often yields far better candidates, such as Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, and Ted Cruz. It connects the party agenda with the zeitgeist of the grassroots, and thus makes a candidate’s principles more valuable than his campaign war chest. (This concept is unimaginable to Democrats, as is the idea that political principles can have any intrinsic value beyond their immediate utility in any given election cycle.)

The post-Dean era Democrats have neither the benefits nor the drawbacks of such a state. For 2014, that means no Ashley Judd.

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Obama Channels Clinton, Not Carter

In the wake of President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli leftists are hoping for a new lease on life for a peace process that was left for dead by the country’s voters in January. But given the unenthusiastic reaction from Palestinians to the speech, any idea that negotiations will be revived anytime soon seems far-fetched. That’s especially true since most of those cheered by the president’s call for a new commitment to peace ignored the fact that the one tangible shift in American policy was that Obama backpedaled on his desire to force Israel to freeze settlement building. Much to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s displeasure, he also echoed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for negotiations without preconditions.

But one thing has undoubtedly changed in the aftermath of the presidential visit to Israel: Barack Obama’s image as an antagonist of the Jewish state. In terms of his attitude toward Israel, in the past three days Obama has altered his status in that regard from being the second coming of Jimmy Carter to that of another Bill Clinton. That won’t exempt him from criticism, nor does it mean that he will have even a remote chance of succeeding in moving the region toward peace. But it does mean that many of his Jewish and Democratic defenders have been to some extent vindicated and his critics chastened, if not silenced.

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In the wake of President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli leftists are hoping for a new lease on life for a peace process that was left for dead by the country’s voters in January. But given the unenthusiastic reaction from Palestinians to the speech, any idea that negotiations will be revived anytime soon seems far-fetched. That’s especially true since most of those cheered by the president’s call for a new commitment to peace ignored the fact that the one tangible shift in American policy was that Obama backpedaled on his desire to force Israel to freeze settlement building. Much to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s displeasure, he also echoed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for negotiations without preconditions.

But one thing has undoubtedly changed in the aftermath of the presidential visit to Israel: Barack Obama’s image as an antagonist of the Jewish state. In terms of his attitude toward Israel, in the past three days Obama has altered his status in that regard from being the second coming of Jimmy Carter to that of another Bill Clinton. That won’t exempt him from criticism, nor does it mean that he will have even a remote chance of succeeding in moving the region toward peace. But it does mean that many of his Jewish and Democratic defenders have been to some extent vindicated and his critics chastened, if not silenced.

The president may have spent his first three years in office picking fights with Netanyahu and seeking, as administration staffers openly said in 2009, to create some distance between Israel and the United States. But after the stirring Zionist rhetoric uttered by the president during his stay in the Jewish state, it’s simply no longer possible for his opponents to brand him as a foe of Israel or as someone who is unsympathetic to its plight. Though his appeals for peace were addressed to the wrong side of the conflict, it just isn’t possible to ask any American president to have said more.

As much as many conservatives have, with good reason, hammered Obama both for the tone and the substance of his policies toward Israel, there can be no denying that he went some way toward rectifying his past mistakes. His speeches didn’t merely give the Israelis some love. He specifically endorsed the Zionist narrative and rationale about Israel’s founding and its purpose. Unlike his 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, when he seemed to say that its creation was merely a sop to the Jews suffering in the Holocaust, this week the president cited the thousands of years of Jewish history that gave them a right to sovereignty in their historic homeland. He reaffirmed the U.S. alliance with Israel as being both “eternal” and “unbreakable.” The president also specifically endorsed Israel’s right of self-defense against terrorism and pointedly said those who seek its destruction are wasting their time.

At this point, the comparisons between Obama and Jimmy Carter or even the first President Bush, who were both rightly criticized for their hostile attitudes toward Israel, ought to cease. Instead, the more apt comparison would be Bill Clinton, who went out of his way to express warm friendship for Israel even as he pushed hard to continue a failed peace process.

That doesn’t mean the president’s stands on issues relating to Israel are exempt from criticism. Though he once again promised in the most absolute terms that he would never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon and that all options, including force, remain on the table, there is room for plenty of skepticism about whether he will make good on that pledge even if he wants to. Obama’s naïve views about the chances for peace and his mischaracterization of Abbas as a reliable partner for Israel also deserve close scrutiny.

It is here that the Clinton analogy is most telling. Though Clinton is rightly remembered in Israel for his “Shalom, haver” farewell to Yitzhak Rabin and as being a stout friend of the Jewish state, his blind faith in the Oslo Accords—whose signing he hosted on the White House Lawn—wound up doing Israel more harm than good.

As State Department veteran Dennis Ross subsequently admitted in his memoirs, the U.S. became so committed to the idea of peace that it blinded itself to the reality of the Palestinian Authority that Oslo created. The Clinton administration refused to acknowledge the PA’s incitement of hatred toward Israel and Jews as well as its cozy relationship with Fatah’s own terrorist auxiliaries. That foolish tunnel vision led to the chaos and bloodshed of the second intifada that cost the lives of more than a thousand Israelis and far more Palestinians.

Yet for all that, Clinton, who to this day faults Arafat’s refusal to accept Israel’s offer of statehood at Camp David in the summer of 2000 for his failure to win a Nobel Peace Prize, must still be regarded as a friend of Israel–albeit one that sometimes urged it to adopt mistaken policies.

Obama, who seems prepared to make the same mistake about Abbas that Clinton did with Arafat, must now be regarded in much the same way. Though it would have been more useful for him to preach peace to Palestinian students than to a handpicked group of left-wing Israelis, the lengths to which he went to demonstrate his support for Israel must be acknowledged and applauded.

This entitles Jewish Democrats who spent the last year extolling the president as a true friend of Israel to a skeptical Jewish electorate to feel as if Obama has made them look prophetic. And Republicans, who were right to hold Obama accountable for his past record of hostility, will by the same token have to take their criticism of him down a notch, at least on this issue.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will use his new standing as a friend of Israel for good or for ill. He will be judged on his actions toward Iran as well as on whether his peace advocacy takes into account the utter lack of interest toward that goal on the part of the Palestinian people. But there is no escaping the fact that from now on—or at least until events dictate another shift in opinion—his relations with Israel will be remembered more for his embrace of Zionism than his squabbles with Netanyahu.

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Is the President Still Relevant Here?

After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they continued to dominate debate and marginalize President Bill Clinton. That led to one of Clinton’s most memorable moments, when he declared at a 1995 press conference: “The president is still relevant here.” It was a low moment for Clinton, but he would have the last laugh—he’d recover his voice and easily win re-election. Looking back on that moment, George Stephanopoulos explained Clinton’s ill-advised remark by noting it was a “Perfect example of the stage direction coming out of the actor’s mouth, as opposed to the script.”

One wonders what kind of stage direction President Obama is currently receiving from his advisors, but it’s not unthinkable that someone has to remind him he’s relevant (but not to say so). Aside from the defense establishment, the president’s threats about the sequester’s budget cuts are receiving a collective yawn from the public. Polls show the public doesn’t know much about it, nor care to. Republicans have seemingly accepted the inevitability of the cuts, and some are even cheering them. The president’s bizarre behavior, in which he threatens to make the budget cuts hurt as much as possible and go after reporters who don’t regurgitate the White House’s ridiculous spin, is not moving the needle. And now, Ben White reports, when confronted with the sequester’s supposed impact, the business community is practically laughing in the president’s face:

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After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they continued to dominate debate and marginalize President Bill Clinton. That led to one of Clinton’s most memorable moments, when he declared at a 1995 press conference: “The president is still relevant here.” It was a low moment for Clinton, but he would have the last laugh—he’d recover his voice and easily win re-election. Looking back on that moment, George Stephanopoulos explained Clinton’s ill-advised remark by noting it was a “Perfect example of the stage direction coming out of the actor’s mouth, as opposed to the script.”

One wonders what kind of stage direction President Obama is currently receiving from his advisors, but it’s not unthinkable that someone has to remind him he’s relevant (but not to say so). Aside from the defense establishment, the president’s threats about the sequester’s budget cuts are receiving a collective yawn from the public. Polls show the public doesn’t know much about it, nor care to. Republicans have seemingly accepted the inevitability of the cuts, and some are even cheering them. The president’s bizarre behavior, in which he threatens to make the budget cuts hurt as much as possible and go after reporters who don’t regurgitate the White House’s ridiculous spin, is not moving the needle. And now, Ben White reports, when confronted with the sequester’s supposed impact, the business community is practically laughing in the president’s face:

The administration has not been able to tap into the heavy pressure that comes from deep-pocketed and well-connected groups like the Chamber, the Business Roundtable, the Financial Services Forum and many others putting out statements and sending breathless letters to the Hill demanding immediate action, as they did during the cliff fight….

Corporate groups are also taking cues from financial markets, which largely have ignored threats about the sequester’s potential impact. Stocks sold off early this week, but that had much more to do with worries over the muddled outcome of elections in Italy and their possible impact on the European debt crisis than Washington and the sequester, analysts said.

“Investors have been hearing a lot of hysteria out of the politicians for the last two years over all the different end-of-the-world deadlines,” said Michael Obuchowski, portfolio manager at North Shore Asset Management. “We are human beings with vertebrate nervous systems, and there is a desensitizing effect when you hear it so many times. You eventually ignore it.”

That suggests the president has a serious credibility problem on spending and crisis management. White also quotes Michael Bloomberg’s response to the sequester threats: “come on, let’s get serious here.” White adds that the Chamber of Commerce has made it clear that, in their opinion, the Democrats’ plan to replace the sequester with tax increases “would be worse than even the sequester.”

That sums up much of the attitude, even on the Republican side, to the sequester: Obama’s own ideas about the debt and deficit are actually worse for the country than the sequester–which was also his idea–so they’ll take the lesser of two evils. In their opinion, the president goes from one bad idea to the next, and they’d like him to maybe stop talking for a while. The Washington Post carries a story today on the sequester rhetoric, and finds that experts in the relevant fields cannot confirm the White House’s dire warnings. Everyone seems pretty skeptical of the president’s rhetoric, in part, the Post reports, because the sequester’s structure is so unique:

What is not new, however, is the impulse of officials to resort to melodrama when they are faced with budget cuts. Getting people’s attention has been a challenge in the case of the sequester. In the latest Washington Post-Pew Research Center survey, only one in four said they were closely following news about the automatic spending cuts.

The ploy even has a name: the “Washington Monument” syndrome, a reference to the National Park Service’s decision to close that landmark and the Grand Canyon for two days a week after the Nixon administration cut funding in 1969.

They’ve seen this play before, and they believe life goes on. As Jonathan mentioned, the press’s reaction to this debate has been to push back a bit on the White House, first with regard to Bob Woodward and now with the Post accusing the president, and those who echo his pronouncements, of “melodrama.” And it also marks a shift on the Republican side. The GOP has often fallen into the president’s PR traps and allowed him to effectively divide their ranks, then step back and watch them point fingers at each other. There was even (overblown) talk of a mutiny against Speaker John Boehner when the new Congress took office.

But this time, the Republicans are putting up a much more unified front, and calling the president’s bluff. It’s a shift Obama ignores at his own peril. Clinton, after all, was still relevant–he was running for re-election. Obama has already put that victory behind him–and, it seems, may have squandered the momentum and political capital that came with it.

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