Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bill Clinton

Obama’s Stealth Welfare Reform Rollback

It happened almost without anyone noticing it but last month, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a new policy directive effectively gutting the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.  With a single stroke, the Obama administration ended the work requirements that began the push to end the dependency of the poor on government assistance and to impose accountability on the system. The popular and successful law was something both President Clinton and the Republican Congress took credit for, but when Obama overturned it last month, it generated little comment except from conservative watchdogs like the Heritage Foundation. But today, the Mitt Romney campaign has unveiled a new ad that will put the issue on the front political burner.

The Democrats will probably seek to label the issue as a racist provocation while also claiming the poor economic situation and high unemployment makes it impossible to impose work requirements on the needy. But the issue here is neither race nor sympathy for the poor. If the Obama re-write of the law is allowed to stand, the president will have gotten away with reversing a fundamental reform of the welfare state. Without the work requirements created by the 1996 legislation, we will be dooming a new generation of Americans to the sort of thralldom to the government that most Americans believed we had finally ended during the Clinton administration.

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It happened almost without anyone noticing it but last month, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a new policy directive effectively gutting the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.  With a single stroke, the Obama administration ended the work requirements that began the push to end the dependency of the poor on government assistance and to impose accountability on the system. The popular and successful law was something both President Clinton and the Republican Congress took credit for, but when Obama overturned it last month, it generated little comment except from conservative watchdogs like the Heritage Foundation. But today, the Mitt Romney campaign has unveiled a new ad that will put the issue on the front political burner.

The Democrats will probably seek to label the issue as a racist provocation while also claiming the poor economic situation and high unemployment makes it impossible to impose work requirements on the needy. But the issue here is neither race nor sympathy for the poor. If the Obama re-write of the law is allowed to stand, the president will have gotten away with reversing a fundamental reform of the welfare state. Without the work requirements created by the 1996 legislation, we will be dooming a new generation of Americans to the sort of thralldom to the government that most Americans believed we had finally ended during the Clinton administration.

It should be expected that liberals will go all out to label the attack on Obama’s policy as racist. Like the attempt to depict the discussion about the lamentable rise in food stamp usage under this administration, the Democratic strategy will be to tar anyone who has the chutzpah to note the president’s effort to expand the welfare state as somehow prejudiced. But like the arguments claiming that point was a racist “dog whistle,” the defense of Obama’s gutting of welfare reform isn’t likely to persuade most voters.

Far from the critique of this rollback of reforms being racist, it is the liberal effort to take us back to the pre-Clinton era when welfare was a liberal sacred cow that is harmful to minorities. In 1965 then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his famous report on the way African-American families had been reduced to a state of permanent dependency by the welfare state. The Moynihan Report, which pointed out that well-intentioned government policies were recreating the evils of slavery, set off an important debate about the unintended consequences of liberal ideology. Moynihan discussed the issue in an article in COMMENTARY in February 1967. It would take decades for Americans to finally demand change, but common sense eventually prevailed in 1996 when a Republican Congress passed and a Democratic president signed the Welfare Reform Act.

While this issue will be seen as merely an attempt by the GOP to score points in the presidential race, it is actually far more serious than that. The bad economy makes it all the more important that the cycle of dependency not be restarted or expanded. With the press distracted by the presidential campaign and Congress immersed in partisan bickering about the deficit, President Obama was able to slip through an HHS directive that has destroyed the work that Moynihan began. The consequences of this stealthy move, if it is not reversed by either congressional action or a presidential reversal, are incalculable. While most of the focus on Obama’s liberal agenda has been on his expansion of federal power via his signature health care legislation, his decision to undo welfare reform may be just as significant an indication of his intent to restore failed liberal policies of the past. Romney is right to point this out. The question is, does the public understand just how important this issue will be in shaping our nation’s future?

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Convention Lineups: More Upside for GOP?

The Republican Party has released the first round of names for the national convention speaking slots in Tampa later this month, and the response has been mostly yawns from the conservative media. That’s understandable: unlike the Obama campaign, which (presumably) doesn’t have a vice presidential announcement to make, and thus nothing to hide in its convention schedule, the Romney campaign has yet to announce Mitt Romney’s choice for running mate. So the big names will have to wait.

The Tampa Bay Times reports:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are among seven headline speakers announced today for the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

The first look at featured speakers also includes South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

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The Republican Party has released the first round of names for the national convention speaking slots in Tampa later this month, and the response has been mostly yawns from the conservative media. That’s understandable: unlike the Obama campaign, which (presumably) doesn’t have a vice presidential announcement to make, and thus nothing to hide in its convention schedule, the Romney campaign has yet to announce Mitt Romney’s choice for running mate. So the big names will have to wait.

The Tampa Bay Times reports:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are among seven headline speakers announced today for the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

The first look at featured speakers also includes South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

This is a mix of rising stars (Martinez, Haley), popular party figures (Rice, McCain, Kasich), and the obvious home-stater (Scott). These are not the names conservatives are lining up to hear, though Huckabee should be considered an exception. The former Arkansas governor’s great talent has always been communication–just contrast the tone of coverage Huckabee tends to receive from the notoriously socially liberal press with that of Rick Santorum. As important as evangelicals are to GOP get-out-the-vote efforts, Huckabee could be an important campaign surrogate for a candidate many social conservatives are still unsure about.

Otherwise, the Democratic convention is the subject of far more chatter, and appropriately so. In addition to the high-profile role Bill Clinton will play, Politico has a story today examining the risk of giving Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren a prime-time speech. Warren’s candidacy has been mired in controversy since news broke that Warren apparently listed herself as a minority to exploit quota hiring in academia by claiming Native American heritage she has been unable–and unwilling–to confirm.

Perhaps even more damaging, however, is that Warren popularized the “you didn’t build that” line of argument that was picked up by President Obama in an attempt to praise government that seemed to sneer at business owners. (Obama has said that his words were taken out of context, but arguably the worst part of his remarks were what came before the infamous lines, when he said, in a mocking tone: “I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.”)

Republicans will also luck out by the prominence–or lack thereof–given to potential Democratic presidential candidates for the 2016 cycle. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, expected to be a serious contender in four years, is practically avoiding the entire convention rather than use the free media as a launching pad. But it gets even better for Republicans: In what has to have GOP 2016 contenders practically giddy, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is still, amazingly enough, talking about running for president in 2016. He will have a speaking role at the convention, and is also chairing the rules committee.

O’Malley’s sensational inability to govern is by now legendary. He seems to have accepted his failures as well; he has pretty much stopped spending time in the state he governs. O’Malley (or O’Taxey, as Marylanders have taken to calling him) seems to be following California’s model of governing but, like Jon Corzine in New Jersey, hopes to be out of office when the state finally goes careening off the fiscal cliff (Corzine was defeated in time to save the state’s finances). The Republican convention will likely feature a prime-time speech from Chris Christie. If so, the contrast between the two parties’ ability to govern will be starkly in the GOP’s favor.

If O’Malley, Warren, and an impeached former president are the best the Democratic convention will have to offer, expect a lot more enthusiasm from conservatives when the GOP’s big names are finally announced this month.

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Clinton and Palestinian Culture: Not So Fast

Over at the Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta contrasts Mitt Romney’s opinion of Palestinian “culture” (or, rather, how the media interpreted his comments) with that of Bill Clinton. With a hat-tip to National Journal’s Matthew Cooper, who dug up the quote, Franke-Ruta publishes a comment Clinton made in a speech last year in Riyadh that would seem to put him at stark odds with Romney on their evaluations of Palestinian culture.

When I read the quote, I immediately recognized it: I once heard Clinton deliver the same line–only it was to a Jewish audience, and it was meant to make the opposite point he was making to the Saudis, a point that comports much more with what Romney said. (Classic Clinton there, by the way.) First, what Franke-Ruta quotes, via the Arab News:

He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have done a remarkable job in the West Bank. “It is just an example of what would happen for the Palestinian people if they are given a chance to govern,” Clinton said. “Palestinians are a hard-working and an incredible community. They have done remarkably well outside their country. I have never met a poor Palestinian in the United States; every Palestinian I know is a college professor or a doctor.”

The problem in Israel, he said, is what happens in multiparty democracies around the world. “If you take a poll today, two-thirds of Israelis will support peace and a peace agreement,” Clinton said. “However, it is hard to get an Israeli Parliament that reflects the people’s views on this one issue. But we all have to keep pushing.”

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Over at the Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta contrasts Mitt Romney’s opinion of Palestinian “culture” (or, rather, how the media interpreted his comments) with that of Bill Clinton. With a hat-tip to National Journal’s Matthew Cooper, who dug up the quote, Franke-Ruta publishes a comment Clinton made in a speech last year in Riyadh that would seem to put him at stark odds with Romney on their evaluations of Palestinian culture.

When I read the quote, I immediately recognized it: I once heard Clinton deliver the same line–only it was to a Jewish audience, and it was meant to make the opposite point he was making to the Saudis, a point that comports much more with what Romney said. (Classic Clinton there, by the way.) First, what Franke-Ruta quotes, via the Arab News:

He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have done a remarkable job in the West Bank. “It is just an example of what would happen for the Palestinian people if they are given a chance to govern,” Clinton said. “Palestinians are a hard-working and an incredible community. They have done remarkably well outside their country. I have never met a poor Palestinian in the United States; every Palestinian I know is a college professor or a doctor.”

The problem in Israel, he said, is what happens in multiparty democracies around the world. “If you take a poll today, two-thirds of Israelis will support peace and a peace agreement,” Clinton said. “However, it is hard to get an Israeli Parliament that reflects the people’s views on this one issue. But we all have to keep pushing.”

This was a clever rhetorical trick here. Clinton doesn’t say the problem is in Israel, he just switches immediately to the problem in Israel, leaving the impression this is Israel’s fault without explicitly saying so. (Also, his comment about Israelis being unable to elect a Knesset that shares the popular view on the peace process is nonsense; the Israelis have such a government now.)

That line about rich Palestinians in America made it easy to find my own account of Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish World Service in 2007. There, he made the same remark about all the Palestinian professors he knows, but then Clinton expressed his frustration that the Palestinians in Gaza possess some of the most beautiful beaches he’s ever seen, beaches that could be tourism cash cows, if only they could get their act together. He also noted that the Palestinians chose to destroy much of the infrastructure Israel left behind after the 2005 disengagement, rather than use it and build on it as free capital.

Their obsession with violence and warfare, he noted–not just against Israel but against each other as well–was destroying their development. Then he said this: “Those of us who are in a position to know better, and have the circumstantial freedom to do better, have a very real obligation to act on what we know.”

Now that is quite the condescending statement. Those of us who know better than the Palestinians–who have the resources and intelligence but, according to Clinton, not the cultural drive to prioritize economic development over retaliatory conflict–have a responsibility to take our values global to help others.

Clinton’s speech at that AJWS event, by the way, was flawless and universally well-received. Not a single objection during or after, as far as I can remember, was raised about the condescending manner in which Clinton spoke about Palestinian culture or the fact that he clearly laid the blame at the Palestinians’ own feet. Perhaps that’s because he was out of office. Or perhaps it’s because hypocrisy is the lifeblood of manufactured outrage, and the media’s response to Romney’s remarks contain a whole lot of both.

UPDATE: Turns out my old article on the event for a now-defunct Jewish newspaper was somehow still online. I’ve added the link to the story.

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Obama’s Excuses Are Getting Weaker

President Obama’s response to the latest dismal federal jobs report was as predictable as it was weak. Speaking on his bus tour of Ohio, he repeated the theme we’ve heard so often since January 2009: It’s not his fault. Only this time he not only heaped blame on the administration of his predecessor but also claimed the problems dated to the Clinton administration, which heretofore Democrats have spoken of as a golden age of prosperity:

“We’ve got to deal with what’s been happening over the last decade, the last 15 years.”

It’s not clear what event it was that happened in 1997 — when his secretary of state was serving as First Lady and President Obama had just begun his first term in the Illinois State Senate — whose impact was so far-reaching that even today the administration is helpless to ameliorate its effects. But whatever it was that the president had in mind when he threw out this puzzling alibi, blaming Bill Clinton is about as pointless as pointing the finger at George W. Bush, Obama’s usual punching bag. But the way things are going for the president, one more bad jobs report and he may be blaming the elder President Bush as well his son and  Clinton for all of his troubles.

As even a liberal stalwart like Robert Reich pointed out today at the Huffington Post, the excuse that he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression is “wearing thin.” In fact, it has already worn out, a fact made all too clear by the president’s obfuscations about the jobs numbers that Reich was honest enough to report.

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President Obama’s response to the latest dismal federal jobs report was as predictable as it was weak. Speaking on his bus tour of Ohio, he repeated the theme we’ve heard so often since January 2009: It’s not his fault. Only this time he not only heaped blame on the administration of his predecessor but also claimed the problems dated to the Clinton administration, which heretofore Democrats have spoken of as a golden age of prosperity:

“We’ve got to deal with what’s been happening over the last decade, the last 15 years.”

It’s not clear what event it was that happened in 1997 — when his secretary of state was serving as First Lady and President Obama had just begun his first term in the Illinois State Senate — whose impact was so far-reaching that even today the administration is helpless to ameliorate its effects. But whatever it was that the president had in mind when he threw out this puzzling alibi, blaming Bill Clinton is about as pointless as pointing the finger at George W. Bush, Obama’s usual punching bag. But the way things are going for the president, one more bad jobs report and he may be blaming the elder President Bush as well his son and  Clinton for all of his troubles.

As even a liberal stalwart like Robert Reich pointed out today at the Huffington Post, the excuse that he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression is “wearing thin.” In fact, it has already worn out, a fact made all too clear by the president’s obfuscations about the jobs numbers that Reich was honest enough to report.

Though the president preferred to take a “glass half full” approach to the jobs numbers, as the New York Times delicately described his rhetoric, Reich was more frank about Obama’s excuses. Far from the creation of 84,000 new jobs being a hopeful sign, the truth is very different:

Remember, 125,000 new jobs are needed just to keep up with the increase in the population of Americans who need jobs. That means the jobs situation continues to worsen.

After a good week in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ObamaCare decision that led to more focus on Mitt Romney’s weaknesses, the jobs report brought the president back to the reality of a sinking economy that, as even Reich pointed out, he owns. The voters don’t care what he inherited. After four years, the Bush alibi, not to mention the swipe at Clinton, isn’t fooling anyone.

Reich also stated the obvious when he noted that Obama hasn’t any real ideas about dealing with the crisis. Even worse for the president — and the country whose fiscal affairs he is steering into the ditch — at this point the European debt crisis and China’s economic slowdown are likely to only make things a lot worse before they get better. Democrats may hope voters aren’t paying attention to the election and economic statistics until Labor Day, but by then the president’s goose as well as the economy may already be cooked.

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Clinton Advises Americans to Vote Against Obama (sort of)

As Alana noted earlier, back in September 2010, former President Bill Clinton – in making what at the time seemed like an effective case for Democrats – said this:

And [Republicans] say [Democrats] had 21 months, put us back in. The Democrats are saying something like this: Look, we found a big hole that we did not dig, and we didn’t get out of it in 21 months, but at least we quit digging. So, so, so, don’t go back in reverse. Give us two more years. If it doesn’t work you have another election in just two years, you can vote us all out then. But for goodness sakes, we quit digging don’t bring back the shovel brigade.

Here’s the thing, though: that “other election” isn’t just two years away any more. It’s now less than five months away. And I for one believe the standard set out by Bill Clinton is an entirely reasonable one. We’ve given the president 21 additional months to turn things around. And guess what? It’s still not working.

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As Alana noted earlier, back in September 2010, former President Bill Clinton – in making what at the time seemed like an effective case for Democrats – said this:

And [Republicans] say [Democrats] had 21 months, put us back in. The Democrats are saying something like this: Look, we found a big hole that we did not dig, and we didn’t get out of it in 21 months, but at least we quit digging. So, so, so, don’t go back in reverse. Give us two more years. If it doesn’t work you have another election in just two years, you can vote us all out then. But for goodness sakes, we quit digging don’t bring back the shovel brigade.

Here’s the thing, though: that “other election” isn’t just two years away any more. It’s now less than five months away. And I for one believe the standard set out by Bill Clinton is an entirely reasonable one. We’ve given the president 21 additional months to turn things around. And guess what? It’s still not working.

This year’s first quarter growth rate was downgraded to 1.9 percent. The most recent jobs report was dismal (in May we gained less than 70,000 new jobs, while the jobs reports in March and April were revised downward). Long-term unemployment increased from 5.1 million to 5.4 million. The average work week fell to 34.4 hours. And new orders for factory goods fell in April for the third time in four months as demand slipped for everything from cars and machinery to computers, indicating alarming weakness in a sector that has carried the economic recovery, such as it is.

If we pull back the lens a bit, we find that Americans have experienced 40 consecutive months of unemployment above 8 percent, the longest such stretch since the Great Depression. (If the work force participation rate today was what it was when Obama was sworn in, the unemployment rate would be right around 11 percent.) That Obama is overseeing the weakest recovery on record. That he’s on track to have the worst jobs record of any president in the modern era. That the standard of living for Americans has fallen more dramatically during his presidency than during any since the government began recording it five decades ago. That home values are nearly 35 percent lower than they were five years ago. That we’re seeing a record number of home foreclosures. That a record number of Americans are now living in poverty. That a record 46.4 million Americans are receiving food stamps. And that under Obama’s watch, health care premiums have gone up significantly.

Based on the counsel of America’s 42nd president, then, we should –  in the name of accountability and under the banner of meritocracy – vote Barack Obama and members of his party out of office. That, at least, is the indisputable logic of the Democratic party’s most politically successful president since FDR.

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Clinton in ’10: Vote Dems Out if Economy Doesn’t Rebound

Bill Clinton may be shaping up to be the worst surrogate of all time. Not only has he pummeled President Obama’s campaign’s economic message in present time, he also managed to plant this ticking time bomb back in 2010 (h/t Joe Schoffstall):

And [Republicans] say [Democrats] had 21 months, put us back in. The Democrats are saying something like this: Look, we found a big hole that we did not dig, and we didn’t get out of it in 21 months, but at least we quit digging. So, don’t go back in reverse, give us two more years and if it doesn’t work you have another election in just two years, you can vote us all out then. But for goodness sakes, we quit digging, don’t bring back the shovel brigade.”

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Bill Clinton may be shaping up to be the worst surrogate of all time. Not only has he pummeled President Obama’s campaign’s economic message in present time, he also managed to plant this ticking time bomb back in 2010 (h/t Joe Schoffstall):

And [Republicans] say [Democrats] had 21 months, put us back in. The Democrats are saying something like this: Look, we found a big hole that we did not dig, and we didn’t get out of it in 21 months, but at least we quit digging. So, don’t go back in reverse, give us two more years and if it doesn’t work you have another election in just two years, you can vote us all out then. But for goodness sakes, we quit digging, don’t bring back the shovel brigade.”

Clinton made this comment the September before the 2010 midterm elections, so the argument from Democrats will probably be that the economic recovery was set back after the obstructionist Republicans took back the House. Still, the GOP will more than likely hold onto the House even if Obama wins reelection, so what message does that send the public? If Obama is basically conceding that he can’t reboot the economy as long as there’s divided control of Congress, then he’s pretty much saying that the next two-to-four years of his second term would bring no progress either. Considering that Obama ran in 2008 as a bipartisan uniter, that’s an interesting case to make.

Clinton’s line is attack ad gold for the GOP. If they pair it with Obama’s “one-term proposition” comments, it will be doubly brutal.

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“Feel Your Pain” Strategy Won’t Work

Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Erica Seifert issued a new memo late yesterday, warning the Obama campaign that its current strategy is doomed to fail. And they seem right about one thing: the Obama campaign is going to have a hard time convincing the public that the economy is on the path to recovery, especially with greater economic pitfalls looming.

The strategists argue that the Obama campaign should forget trying to make the case that the president’s economic policies are working. Instead, it should focus on its support and empathy for the middle class, and highlight how Mitt Romney’s policies would leave struggling Americans vulnerable during tough economic times:

It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance – and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction. They are wrong, and that will fail. The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy; they know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the president talk about the future. They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle – and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand. They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way – not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery. …

But we underscore the sentiment they expressed in the postcards to the president they wrote at the end of the exercise: overwhelmingly, these voters want to know that he understands the struggle of working families and has plans to make things better.

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Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Erica Seifert issued a new memo late yesterday, warning the Obama campaign that its current strategy is doomed to fail. And they seem right about one thing: the Obama campaign is going to have a hard time convincing the public that the economy is on the path to recovery, especially with greater economic pitfalls looming.

The strategists argue that the Obama campaign should forget trying to make the case that the president’s economic policies are working. Instead, it should focus on its support and empathy for the middle class, and highlight how Mitt Romney’s policies would leave struggling Americans vulnerable during tough economic times:

It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance – and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction. They are wrong, and that will fail. The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy; they know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the president talk about the future. They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle – and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand. They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way – not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery. …

But we underscore the sentiment they expressed in the postcards to the president they wrote at the end of the exercise: overwhelmingly, these voters want to know that he understands the struggle of working families and has plans to make things better.

This is the opposite of “hope and change.” The message proposed in the memo is inherently pessimistic: Economic struggle is the new normal. You need to be protected from it. President Obama will provide a safety net, while Mitt Romney will not.

It’s also inherently reactionary: Mitt Romney wants to bring change. His reforms pose a risk to your social welfare programs during dangerous economic times.

Carville, Greenberg, and the gang seem to want Obama to channel Clinton’s “I feel your pain” message. But there are a few problems. First, Obama isn’t Clinton when it comes to personal connection with voters. The focus group members in this memo wanted to know that Obama empathizes with them. But Obama has played plenty of lip service to the concerns of the middle class during the past year. If the public is wondering whether he understands their pain, that seems to suggest a deeper connection problem. Why aren’t they already convinced?

Second, focusing on empathy seems like it would be less effective for an incumbent, particularly one whose policies have utterly failed to revive the economy. Romney has a clean rebuttal: Obama may feel your pain, but what has he done about it? Maybe the president sympathizes with you in a campaign speech, but at the end of the day, where is he? Jetting off to fundraisers, with rich people and celebrities.

And when Obama had a chance to help you, what did he do? He pushed through ObamaCare, which will rack up more debt and kill more jobs. And he jammed through a failed stimulus, stuffed with billions in funding for pet projects. He might feel your pain, but he clearly has no clue what to do about it.

Sure, the economy may tank and we may be teetering on a fiscal cliff — but at least Obama will be there to hold your hand when we finally step over the edge.

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Bill Clinton for VP (for Romney)?

Michael Takiff has written a new book, A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him. My guess is President Obama might share the judgment that Clinton is a complicated fellow.

Within the last week or so the former president has declared that Mitt Romney had a “sterling” business career; that Romney easily crosses the qualification threshold for being president; that Bain Capital’s work is “good work;” that Congress should extend all the Bush-era tax cuts, including those for the wealthiest Americans; and that we’re still in a recession.

This all comes from the most prominent Democrat in America after Obama.

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Michael Takiff has written a new book, A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him. My guess is President Obama might share the judgment that Clinton is a complicated fellow.

Within the last week or so the former president has declared that Mitt Romney had a “sterling” business career; that Romney easily crosses the qualification threshold for being president; that Bain Capital’s work is “good work;” that Congress should extend all the Bush-era tax cuts, including those for the wealthiest Americans; and that we’re still in a recession.

This all comes from the most prominent Democrat in America after Obama.

At this rate, Clinton may be nominated to be vice president – by Mitt Romney. After all, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more damage to Obama, or more on behalf of Romney, than what Clinton is doing day in and day out. Call it a unity ticket for America.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t so wise of Barack Obama to accuse Bill Clinton of playing the race card in the South Carolina primary in 2008. It turns out The Big Dog has a long memory.

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Obama Surrogates Need Better Material

Last year, the New York Times ran a story on the phenomenon of good actors taking silly roles in bad movies. Fans generally assume the actors take those roles for the paycheck, but the story offered a different defense: it can actually help prove the skill of the actor: “The more preposterous the situation, the more impressive the feat of seeming to take it utterly seriously. There are other measures of excellence of course — emotional subtlety, psychological acuity, wit — but this kind of unwavering, fanatical commitment is surely a sign of greatness.”

Alas, despite his gift for triangulation and spin and near cameo in “The Hangover 2,” former President Bill Clinton fails this test. Handed a script too far from reality by the Obama campaign, Clinton just couldn’t go through with it. So he told CNN that Mitt Romney’s business career was “sterling,” that the folks at Bain do good work, and that Romney clearly “crosses the qualification threshold.” Then yesterday he declared his support for extending the Bush tax cuts (though he later said he meant only some of the Bush tax cuts). Some roles are just too preposterous–even for Bill Clinton.

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Last year, the New York Times ran a story on the phenomenon of good actors taking silly roles in bad movies. Fans generally assume the actors take those roles for the paycheck, but the story offered a different defense: it can actually help prove the skill of the actor: “The more preposterous the situation, the more impressive the feat of seeming to take it utterly seriously. There are other measures of excellence of course — emotional subtlety, psychological acuity, wit — but this kind of unwavering, fanatical commitment is surely a sign of greatness.”

Alas, despite his gift for triangulation and spin and near cameo in “The Hangover 2,” former President Bill Clinton fails this test. Handed a script too far from reality by the Obama campaign, Clinton just couldn’t go through with it. So he told CNN that Mitt Romney’s business career was “sterling,” that the folks at Bain do good work, and that Romney clearly “crosses the qualification threshold.” Then yesterday he declared his support for extending the Bush tax cuts (though he later said he meant only some of the Bush tax cuts). Some roles are just too preposterous–even for Bill Clinton.

But Clinton isn’t the exception in the case of the Obama campaign’s attacks on Romney’s career. He is only the most high-profile Obama surrogate to improvise on the set. This morning, Larry Summers, who worked for both Clinton and Obama, also threw his (unqualified, as of yet) support for extending the tax cuts. After Cory Booker couldn’t go through with the Bain attacks either, and subsequently was asked by the Obama campaign to record the infamous “hostage video,” the Obama campaign sent out Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Romney’s successor, to sully his predecessor’s reputation as an executive. Patrick couldn’t do it either, singing Bain’s praises and admitting that Romney left the state with low unemployment.

The popular theory about Clinton’s behavior is that he doesn’t want Obama to win a second term. That might be the case, but I doubt that’s true of Booker, Patrick, or Summers. Other explanations seem closer to the mark: the sitting politicians, like Booker and Patrick, don’t want to burn bridges with Wall Street, and Summers, unlike his former boss, knows a thing or two about economics, and therefore cannot bring himself to attach his own name to the Obama campaign’s economic illiteracy.

In other words, the script is the problem. This may be “silly season,” but the Obama campaign’s rhetoric is too silly even for his allies.

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Obama’s 1996 Scenario is Finished

Last year, as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives stood its ground on the debt ceiling standoff, President Obama’s strategy for 2012 became apparent. Throughout the torturous negotiations over entitlements, budgets, taxes and spending, the president issued statements about wanting a compromise, but these were a thin veil covering his obvious desire for a confrontation. Demanding new taxes that the House majority elected in 2010 had vowed never to accept, the administration more or less dared the GOP leadership to allow the country to default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling.

It was painfully obvious as the controversy lingered throughout the summer that President Obama was working from Bill Clinton’s 1995 playbook when he similarly bluffed a Republican Congress into shutting down the government over a budget standoff. Though Congress’s popularity plunged, the president was disappointed in his hopes that House Speaker John Boehner or Majority Leader Eric Cantor refused to step into the Newt Gingrich clown suits he had prepared for them. Nevertheless, the White House still hoped that lingering disgust for Congress combined with an economic recovery would allow the president to win re-election in the same manner as Clinton did. But if there was any doubt about the inapplicability of the 1996 template, this year it was removed on Friday as another dismal jobs report more or less guaranteed that a summer recovery wasn’t in the cards. The bad economic news isn’t just a setback that will give the Democrats a few shaky news cycles. It is confirmation that the president’s re-election strategy has already failed.

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Last year, as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives stood its ground on the debt ceiling standoff, President Obama’s strategy for 2012 became apparent. Throughout the torturous negotiations over entitlements, budgets, taxes and spending, the president issued statements about wanting a compromise, but these were a thin veil covering his obvious desire for a confrontation. Demanding new taxes that the House majority elected in 2010 had vowed never to accept, the administration more or less dared the GOP leadership to allow the country to default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling.

It was painfully obvious as the controversy lingered throughout the summer that President Obama was working from Bill Clinton’s 1995 playbook when he similarly bluffed a Republican Congress into shutting down the government over a budget standoff. Though Congress’s popularity plunged, the president was disappointed in his hopes that House Speaker John Boehner or Majority Leader Eric Cantor refused to step into the Newt Gingrich clown suits he had prepared for them. Nevertheless, the White House still hoped that lingering disgust for Congress combined with an economic recovery would allow the president to win re-election in the same manner as Clinton did. But if there was any doubt about the inapplicability of the 1996 template, this year it was removed on Friday as another dismal jobs report more or less guaranteed that a summer recovery wasn’t in the cards. The bad economic news isn’t just a setback that will give the Democrats a few shaky news cycles. It is confirmation that the president’s re-election strategy has already failed.

This realization comes through in some of the accounts of the White House’s reaction to the bleak jobs report. Though the president was undaunted during his various campaign appearances and statements, even the usually pro-Obama coverage of the New York Times could not fail to note that the hopes of the president’s staff for a 1996 rerun have been crushed. Though the Democrats are still going all-out to demonize the congressional Republicans, blaming them or George W. Bush for the poor economy is a perilously weak re-election strategy for a man running on the slogan of “Forward.”

The Democratic counter-attack to the GOP carping about jobs is to accuse the opposition of rooting for a bad economy. But that is a talking point that will work just about as well for the Democrats as the Republican effort to claim critics of the Iraq war were cheering for America to lose. The problem here is that, as the Times noted, the president seems to have no viable options to change the situation other than to whine about Republicans not passing mini-stimulus bills he claims will jump-start the economy.

As the Times notes, in 1996 with the economy booming. the Republican Congress passed legislation that aided Clinton as well as bolstered their own reputation. Democrats will brand the GOP as obstructionists for not working with the president for the common good this year, but the big difference between the two situations is that Clinton co-opted Republican positions and moved to the center as he cruised to re-election. By contrast, President Obama has run to the left this year, making it impossible for the House to embrace his proposals even if they wanted to.

The president hoped to make the election a referendum on the GOP and on Mitt Romney’s fitness for the presidency. But with a failing U.S. economy and the prospect that an even worse tailspin in Europe will drag America’s finance down even further this year, that is looking like a losing bet. Nothing is worse for an incumbent than the appearance that he is not in control of events. The president’s helplessness on the economy — an issue that is his opponent’s one great strength — is scuttling his 1996 blueprint for victory in an election in which the odds appear to be starting to turn against him.

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Clinton’s Motivation for Killing Bain Attack

To be fair, Cory Booker and Deval Patrick were really the ones who killed Obama’s Bain Capital strategy. But last night on CNN, Bill Clinton basically dipped it in cement and threw it in the East River:

Bill Clinton, in an appearance on CNN last night, said that Mitt Romney has a “sterling business career” and that the campaign shouldn’t be about what kind of work Romney did.

“I don’t think we ought to get into the position where we say this is bad work; this is good work,” Clinton said, adding: “There’s no question that, in terms of getting up, going to the office, and basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”

Clinton urged the Obama campaign to instead focus on contrasting its vision for the country with Romney’s. His comments came at the tail end of a day in which another Obama surrogate, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), called Bain a “a perfectly fine company.”

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To be fair, Cory Booker and Deval Patrick were really the ones who killed Obama’s Bain Capital strategy. But last night on CNN, Bill Clinton basically dipped it in cement and threw it in the East River:

Bill Clinton, in an appearance on CNN last night, said that Mitt Romney has a “sterling business career” and that the campaign shouldn’t be about what kind of work Romney did.

“I don’t think we ought to get into the position where we say this is bad work; this is good work,” Clinton said, adding: “There’s no question that, in terms of getting up, going to the office, and basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”

Clinton urged the Obama campaign to instead focus on contrasting its vision for the country with Romney’s. His comments came at the tail end of a day in which another Obama surrogate, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), called Bain a “a perfectly fine company.”

Obviously, Clinton can’t be excused as a political neophyte and probably knew exactly what he was doing when he made that comment. The choice of words — lauding Romney’s “sterling business career” — went beyond what even Patrick or Booker have said about Romney. If Clinton wanted to merely express his disapproval of Obama’s strategy, he could have done it more subtly and without praising Romney’s career. He had to know he was giving Romney a priceless campaign soundbite that it will play on a loop whenever the Obama campaign tries to drag out the Bain attack again, effectively destroying any possibility that the strategy can be salvaged.

The question is, why? In the best case scenario, maybe Clinton was actually trying to help Obama. The former president is extremely well attuned to political trends, and maybe he senses that the Bain strategy will continue to bog down the Obama team if they keep pursuing it. Clinton’s argument that the election has to be about the big picture was similar to an argument his former pollster Douglas Schoen has made: Obama needs a clear, sweeping message for his campaign, a vision for a second term that transcends attack politics. Maybe Clinton was hoping his comments last night would be a sharp nudge in that direction.

Or, more cynically, maybe this wasn’t about helping Obama at all. Clinton has caused some headaches for this White House, and maybe he just doesn’t feel he has much to gain from Obama’s reelection, particularly if he wants Hillary to try again in 2016.

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Clinton-Obama Comparison Helps Romney

Liberal commentators could barely contain their scorn this week after hearing Mitt Romney make some unfavorable comparisons between President Obama and Bill Clinton. They do have a point. For Democrats listening to the Republican candidate praise Clinton, albeit only by contrasting him to Obama, less than two decades after the man from Hope engendered such rage on the part of conservatives, must be insufferable. The retrospective GOP affection for Clinton is as phony as the respect now given Ronald Reagan on the part of many Democrats. It is a time-honored political tradition to blast your opponents as being unworthy to be the successors of their party’s former leaders even if you happened to hate the objects of praise while they were in office. Anyone doubting this theme need only notice that even George W. Bush — a president so despised on the left that he inspired a syndrome that could only be described as derangement — is starting to get a little love from liberals because he was more civil than the current crop of Republicans.

But just because Romney’s praise of Clinton is insincere doesn’t mean he hasn’t honed in on one of the president’s problems. President Obama won in 2008 largely on the basis of the historic nature of his candidacy as the first African-American to be nominated by a major party as well as by a successful attempt to position himself as a post-partisan centrist. Though many voters may still feel the weight of history when contemplating rejecting Obama’s bid for re-election, ObamaCare, the stimulus and now his stance on gay marriage mean his pose as a moderate has been exploded. That is why the contrast between the incumbent and Clinton’s “New Democrat” efforts to distance his administration from many traditional liberal positions is helpful to Romney. Though Democrats may complain this is a bogus tactic, it helps to define Obama as a doctrinaire politician who is out of step with many centrist and independent voters.

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Liberal commentators could barely contain their scorn this week after hearing Mitt Romney make some unfavorable comparisons between President Obama and Bill Clinton. They do have a point. For Democrats listening to the Republican candidate praise Clinton, albeit only by contrasting him to Obama, less than two decades after the man from Hope engendered such rage on the part of conservatives, must be insufferable. The retrospective GOP affection for Clinton is as phony as the respect now given Ronald Reagan on the part of many Democrats. It is a time-honored political tradition to blast your opponents as being unworthy to be the successors of their party’s former leaders even if you happened to hate the objects of praise while they were in office. Anyone doubting this theme need only notice that even George W. Bush — a president so despised on the left that he inspired a syndrome that could only be described as derangement — is starting to get a little love from liberals because he was more civil than the current crop of Republicans.

But just because Romney’s praise of Clinton is insincere doesn’t mean he hasn’t honed in on one of the president’s problems. President Obama won in 2008 largely on the basis of the historic nature of his candidacy as the first African-American to be nominated by a major party as well as by a successful attempt to position himself as a post-partisan centrist. Though many voters may still feel the weight of history when contemplating rejecting Obama’s bid for re-election, ObamaCare, the stimulus and now his stance on gay marriage mean his pose as a moderate has been exploded. That is why the contrast between the incumbent and Clinton’s “New Democrat” efforts to distance his administration from many traditional liberal positions is helpful to Romney. Though Democrats may complain this is a bogus tactic, it helps to define Obama as a doctrinaire politician who is out of step with many centrist and independent voters.

Part of the Clinton-Obama contrast is one of tone. Clinton deliberately sought to persuade Americans that his approach was a departure from traditional liberalism. Indeed, it was his ability to persuade so many that he was a pragmatic centrist that drove conservatives — who saw him as the embodiment of the self-indulgent liberal Baby Boomers who came of age in the 1960s — so crazy. Clinton went out of his way to show that he was not in thrall to left-wingers. while Obama’s administration has alienated moderates.

But Romney’s not entirely wrong to point out the differences between the last two Democrats elected to the presidency.

Veterans of the Clinton administration are quick to point out that Clinton was no conservative and embraced many measures such as tax increases that Romney opposed then and now. But Clinton was also the man who told the country that “the era of big government is over,” presided over balanced budgets and signed the welfare reform bill while Obama is the quintessential big government Democrat. Though many of Clinton’s achievements were more a case of him co-opting Republican positions and taking credit for things that would have been impossible without the election of a GOP Congress (such as the balanced budget and welfare reform), they also reflected a willingness to move to the center rather than govern from the left. If Clinton had succeeded in passing his wife Hillary’s health care bill, perhaps we wouldn’t think of him as a centrist, but in contrast to Obama, the 42nd president ultimately learned that ramming such a measure down the throats of an unwilling people was a mistake and moved on to more productive matters. Most of all, Romney can contrast the relative prosperity of the 1990s to the dismal economy of 2012.

Democrats are right that the problem with Romney’s stratagem is that Clinton will be campaigning for Obama this year. But while his appeal to party loyalists is still strong, it isn’t likely that many voters believe there is any real affinity between the two Democratic presidents. Many suspect that Clinton is merely setting the stage for another try for the presidency by his wife.

Romney isn’t the only American to notice that Barack Obama is the most liberal president since Jimmy Carter and represents a different kind of Democrat than Clinton was. It may be hypocritical for Republicans to sound this theme, but it also reflects the fact that Obama doesn’t have the same appeal to moderates and independents that Clinton had. And that’s something that can make a big difference in November.

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The End of “No Drama Obama”

Remember the phrase “No Drama Obama”? Perhaps it should be retired after this week.

After all, we learned that Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, apologized to the president for forcing him to accelerate the timetable when it came to announcing Obama’s support of same-sex marriage. The West Wing is reportedly enraged at Biden. Here’s how Politico put it:

Biden’s remarks on “Meet the Press” deeply annoyed Obama’s team, people close to the situation tell Politico, because it aggrandized his role at the expense of Obama’s yeoman efforts on behalf of the community and pushed up the timing of a sensitive announcement they had hoped to break — at a time and place of their own choosing — in the weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this fall.

Nor did it tickle anyone, from Obama on down, that Biden — who backed the Defense of Marriage Act while serving in the Senate in the 1990s — seemed to be getting more credit in the LGBT community than a president who has actually taken steps to repeal the Clinton-era law that defined marriage as something that could only take place between a man and a woman.

And it chafed Obama’s team that Biden had, at times, privately argued for the president to hold off on his support of marriage equality to avoid a backlash among Catholic voters in battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to two officials familiar with those discussions.

It’s not a good situation for any vice president to steal the applause and credit from the president; that must be triply the case when it comes to a man with Obama’s self-regard and tendency toward narcissism.

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Remember the phrase “No Drama Obama”? Perhaps it should be retired after this week.

After all, we learned that Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, apologized to the president for forcing him to accelerate the timetable when it came to announcing Obama’s support of same-sex marriage. The West Wing is reportedly enraged at Biden. Here’s how Politico put it:

Biden’s remarks on “Meet the Press” deeply annoyed Obama’s team, people close to the situation tell Politico, because it aggrandized his role at the expense of Obama’s yeoman efforts on behalf of the community and pushed up the timing of a sensitive announcement they had hoped to break — at a time and place of their own choosing — in the weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this fall.

Nor did it tickle anyone, from Obama on down, that Biden — who backed the Defense of Marriage Act while serving in the Senate in the 1990s — seemed to be getting more credit in the LGBT community than a president who has actually taken steps to repeal the Clinton-era law that defined marriage as something that could only take place between a man and a woman.

And it chafed Obama’s team that Biden had, at times, privately argued for the president to hold off on his support of marriage equality to avoid a backlash among Catholic voters in battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to two officials familiar with those discussions.

It’s not a good situation for any vice president to steal the applause and credit from the president; that must be triply the case when it comes to a man with Obama’s self-regard and tendency toward narcissism.

Then there’s the New York Post’s coverage of a new book by Edward Klein, The Amateur, in which it’s reported that Bill Clinton thought so little of President Obama — mocking him as an “amateur” — that he pressed Mrs. Clinton last summer to quit her job as secretary of state and challenge him in the primaries. “The economy’s a mess, it’s dead flat. America has lost its Triple-A rating . . . You know better than Obama does,” Bill reportedly told Hillary.

In addition, Bill Clinton insisted he had “no relationship” with Obama and had been consulted more frequently by his presidential successor, George W. Bush.

Obama, Bill Clinton said, “doesn’t know how to be president” and is “incompetent.”

When a presidential campaign is less than six months away from an election, trailing the challenger in several polls, the president has to publicly reprimand his vice president for getting “out a little bit over his skis” and “jump[ing] the gun,” and his administration has to respond to reports that the husband of the secretary of tate (and himself an ex-president) encouraged her to challenge the president in a primary, the West Wing is edging toward becoming a hostile working environment.

It looks as if “No Drama Obama” has exited stage left.

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Romney’s Sister Souljah Moment

Democrats weren’t long in trying to blame Mitt Romney for the over-the-top denunciation of President Obama by singer Ted Nugent. Nugent told an audience at the national convention of the National Rifle Association that Obama was “vile,” “evil,” and “America-hating” and vowed that “if Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” Subsequently, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz sought to rally her partisans to pressure Romney to condemn Nugent because he has publicly endorsed the likely GOP nominee.

But rather than allow the kerfuffle to fester, the Romney campaign has quickly responded to the charge. Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul issued a statement today that made it clear the candidate wouldn’t allow himself to be associated with Nugent’s rhetoric.“Divisive language is offensive no matter what side of the political aisle it comes from. Mitt Romney believes everyone needs to be civil,” Saul said.

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Democrats weren’t long in trying to blame Mitt Romney for the over-the-top denunciation of President Obama by singer Ted Nugent. Nugent told an audience at the national convention of the National Rifle Association that Obama was “vile,” “evil,” and “America-hating” and vowed that “if Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” Subsequently, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz sought to rally her partisans to pressure Romney to condemn Nugent because he has publicly endorsed the likely GOP nominee.

But rather than allow the kerfuffle to fester, the Romney campaign has quickly responded to the charge. Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul issued a statement today that made it clear the candidate wouldn’t allow himself to be associated with Nugent’s rhetoric.“Divisive language is offensive no matter what side of the political aisle it comes from. Mitt Romney believes everyone needs to be civil,” Saul said.

While lacking the drama that Bill Clinton achieved when he rebuked rapper Sister Souljah for suggesting African-Americans would be justified in killing whites, it still provides Romney with an opportunity to put a little air between intemperate right-wingers and him. In 1992, Clinton seized on Souljah’s comments specifically to prove to the American public that he was moderate and to distance himself from Jesse Jackson who criticized him for his attack on the singer. While Romney doesn’t have quite the same need, he has nothing to lose by establishing an elevated tone in the campaign.

It should also be noted that Wasserman-Schultz should be careful about making too much about the nasty things said by right-wing artists. For every one Nugent on the right, there are a score of left-wing comics, singers and actors who routinely say hateful things about Republicans. If the DNC chair is going to start keeping tabs on the likes of Nugent, she may find herself spending much of the next few months apologizing for comments by liberals.

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Making a Federal Case Out of Jerusalem

Last year, I suggested there was no need for President Obama to make a federal case out of Menachem Zivotofsky’s request to have “Israel” designated on his passport as his place of birth, pursuant to a law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right to that designation if they requested. My idea — which I thought might resonate with Obama — was to blame Bush!

Congress enacted the law in 2002; President Bush signed it, but said he would not enforce it; Obama had campaigned against Bush’s many signing statements, saying a president generally had only two choices – sign a bill or veto it; and Obama could have said he was simply faithfully executing a law his predecessor had signed. If he wanted, Obama could have done what President Clinton did regarding Taiwan: comply with the passport law while declaring American foreign policy remained unchanged. Case closed! But Obama proceeded to the Supreme Court, which ruled the issue can be adjudicated; and because the controversy continues, we may continue to be treated to colloquies like the one at the State Department yesterday.

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Last year, I suggested there was no need for President Obama to make a federal case out of Menachem Zivotofsky’s request to have “Israel” designated on his passport as his place of birth, pursuant to a law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right to that designation if they requested. My idea — which I thought might resonate with Obama — was to blame Bush!

Congress enacted the law in 2002; President Bush signed it, but said he would not enforce it; Obama had campaigned against Bush’s many signing statements, saying a president generally had only two choices – sign a bill or veto it; and Obama could have said he was simply faithfully executing a law his predecessor had signed. If he wanted, Obama could have done what President Clinton did regarding Taiwan: comply with the passport law while declaring American foreign policy remained unchanged. Case closed! But Obama proceeded to the Supreme Court, which ruled the issue can be adjudicated; and because the controversy continues, we may continue to be treated to colloquies like the one at the State Department yesterday.

State’s spokesperson was tortured with a series of questions about whether Jerusalem is part of Israel. Given the position the administration is still defending in court, she had to refuse to acknowledge even West Jerusalem (where Zivotofsky was born) as part of Israel. She thus repeatedly had to dodge the question, obviously acting on instructions to say only that Jerusalem is an issue to be resolved by negotiations. She gave the same answer to the question, “What is the capital of Israel?”

The reporter might have referenced the State Department website, which identifies Israel’s capital as Jerusalem (and says Israel’s area is 20,330 square kilometers, “including Jerusalem”); or the CIA website, which says the same thing; or the Department of Defense website, which is replete with references to “Jerusalem, Israel” – including a picture of Secretary Gates and Prime Minister Netanyahu “during a working lunch meeting in Jerusalem, Israel.” But for the same reason the White House scrubbed its website of references to Vice President Biden in “Jerusalem, Israel” and scrubbed references even in Bush administration documents, the official policy had to be restated yesterday no matter how the question was asked.

This all could have been avoided if the White House had followed my advice last year; ended the charade about the city that has been Israel’s capital since 1950; and stopped fighting a nine-year old boy’s passport designation in the Supreme Court and beyond. Sometimes I think the White House doesn’t read my posts.

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State Department Spin on Jerusalem Meltdown is Already Wrong

This morning, the State Department will begin to walk back the spectacular meltdown that was yesterday’s press briefing, wherein State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland gave the Palestinians a de facto retroactive veto over Israel’s 1949 decision to make Jerusalem its capital.

The talking point will be that the Obama administration, by insisting that the status of West Jerusalem is subject to final-status negotiations, was only reiterating the explicit policies of past administrations. If that were true, then Obama critics would be making the same points they’ve made throughout this White House’s diplomatic campaign against Israel: that Obama, by making controversies out of issues everyone had been content to leave quietly buried, was unnecessarily damaging the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the prospects for long-term Middle East peace. Read More

This morning, the State Department will begin to walk back the spectacular meltdown that was yesterday’s press briefing, wherein State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland gave the Palestinians a de facto retroactive veto over Israel’s 1949 decision to make Jerusalem its capital.

The talking point will be that the Obama administration, by insisting that the status of West Jerusalem is subject to final-status negotiations, was only reiterating the explicit policies of past administrations. If that were true, then Obama critics would be making the same points they’ve made throughout this White House’s diplomatic campaign against Israel: that Obama, by making controversies out of issues everyone had been content to leave quietly buried, was unnecessarily damaging the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the prospects for long-term Middle East peace.

As it so happens, the claim is false. Previous administrations have recognized Israel’s right to at least part of its capital city. The debate has turned on whether the Jewish State is entitled to “all” of Jerusalem, not whether it’s entitled to any part of the city. It was always about not prejudicing whether Israel would have share Jerusalem with a Palestinian state, not whether the entire city was up for grabs (let alone whether the Palestinians can retroactively veto Israel’s sovereign decision to make the parts of Jerusalem it controlled pre-1967 its capital).

White Houses have declined to move the embassy out of Tel Aviv because it would be treated as a symbolic acknowledgement of Israel’s rights over all Jerusalem, e.g. a statement that Israel wouldn’t have to share the city. Sitting on their hands on the embassy allowed presidents to dodge broader questions, which had the benefit of not running contrary to black-letter American law going back to 1995 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Until now, no administration has ever put Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem as such on the table, or implied that even West Jerusalem was up for grabs. Bush even used to insert language into his waivers stating “My administration remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”

Also, there’s this from President Clinton: “the benefits of the agreement… [include] the incorporation of most of the settlers into Israel, and the Jewish capital of Jerusalem recognized by all, not just the United States, by everybody in the world.”

Also, there’s this from President Bush: “Mr. Bush said the Palestinians must elect ‘new and different’ leaders who were not ‘compromised by terror’… As soon as the Palestinians changed their leadership, stopped terrorist attacks on Israel and moved towards democracy, the U.S. would boost their economy and push Israel into meaningful negotiations… He refused to speculate on the three major sticking points: Palestinian demands that Israel return the territory won in the 1967 war, share Jerusalem as the capital and allow millions of Palestinian refugees to return.”

Also, there’s this from Senator Barack Obama. Note that while he took back the part of the speech that spoke of Israel’s capital remaining undivided, even his clarification emphasized “that Israel has a legitimate claim on” at least part of Jerusalem. Apparently that position has changed in the last few years, but the administration shouldn’t be allowed to pretend this is just the way things have always been.

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Re: The Courts and Jerusalem

Jonathan Tobin makes a valuable point about the Zivotofsky case: the law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right, if they want, to have the State Department put “Israel” on their passports as their place of birth reflects the fact the American people, through their elected representatives, have long recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The idea that American foreign policy would be adversely affected by letting Zivotofsky put “Israel” on his own passport is not a cogent thought.

Chief Justice Roberts’ masterful opinion (which attracted eight votes) provides a way out of the corner into which the administration has painted itself. Because the case will now return to the lower courts for further proceedings, the administration has an opportunity to reflect further on its legal strategy. There is a way in which everyone could win without further litigation – assuming President Obama is willing to learn from what President Clinton did in a similar situation.

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Jonathan Tobin makes a valuable point about the Zivotofsky case: the law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right, if they want, to have the State Department put “Israel” on their passports as their place of birth reflects the fact the American people, through their elected representatives, have long recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The idea that American foreign policy would be adversely affected by letting Zivotofsky put “Israel” on his own passport is not a cogent thought.

Chief Justice Roberts’ masterful opinion (which attracted eight votes) provides a way out of the corner into which the administration has painted itself. Because the case will now return to the lower courts for further proceedings, the administration has an opportunity to reflect further on its legal strategy. There is a way in which everyone could win without further litigation – assuming President Obama is willing to learn from what President Clinton did in a similar situation.

In 1994, Congress directed the State Department to permit American citizens born in Taiwan to have “Taiwan” put on their passports as their place of birth, instead of the People’s Republic of China, despite American foreign policy recognizing the Communist regime as the only Chinese state. The State Department initially refused to comply on grounds it would adversely affect relations with China – but the Clinton administration eventually complied while issuing a statement that American foreign policy about “one China” remained unchanged.

That is exactly what Zivotofsky’s counsel, Nathan Lewin, suggested to the Supreme Court during oral argument:

This is not in our view a recognition case. This is a passport case. The question is, what goes on the passport, and may somebody self-identify? … If in fact the statute had said “we don’t say Jerusalem is part of Israel, but you can identify yourself as being in Israel,” my – we submit that result can very easily be achieved and was achieved in the case of Taiwan by a public statement by the executive.

The New York Sun notes that Zivotofsky’s case was brought on his behalf by his mother, who sought a passport for him after he was born in West Jerusalem (which has been Israel’s capital since 1950), and that Menachem has now been trying for most of his life to get a passport showing his place of birth as “Israel.” President Obama can decide to keep litigating – making this a huge constitutional issue that will go on for years, or he can adopt the Clinton precedent and end the case now, while issuing a statement that his foreign policy remains unchanged.

It is the obvious way out, but Obama may prefer to have the Justice Department keep litigating, rather than focus attention on his position on Jerusalem (which has been somewhat amorphous in the past and has involved web-scrubbing to boot) – particularly because he will likely be running against a Republican candidate promising to travel to Jerusalem as his first foreign trip, and who probably will not require a court decision for him to put “Israel” on Menachem Zivotofsky’s passport.

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Lessons of Presidential Persuasion: Be the Commander-In-Chief

I finally got around to reading Ezra Klein’s interesting take on what I consider to be a fascinating subject: the power of presidents to persuade the public. Klein’s piece, in the March 19 New Yorker, takes a dim view of the practical uses of presidential rhetoric, using mostly presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama as case studies. Reagan, Klein notes, was considered to be a great communicator (or, as he is remembered, the Great Communicator), yet his approval ratings were average and many of his primary policy prescriptions never caught on with the public.

Overall, he writes, the same is true of Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Bush was unable to convince the country to accept social security reform, and Obama has been unable to sell additional fiscal stimulus and most notably his health care reform law, which remains broadly unpopular. The overestimation of the power of the bully pulpit, he finds, is more likely to harm a president’s domestic policy agenda than advance it. But I think the key word there is “domestic.” Switch the subject to foreign policy, and the power is somewhat restored.

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I finally got around to reading Ezra Klein’s interesting take on what I consider to be a fascinating subject: the power of presidents to persuade the public. Klein’s piece, in the March 19 New Yorker, takes a dim view of the practical uses of presidential rhetoric, using mostly presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama as case studies. Reagan, Klein notes, was considered to be a great communicator (or, as he is remembered, the Great Communicator), yet his approval ratings were average and many of his primary policy prescriptions never caught on with the public.

Overall, he writes, the same is true of Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Bush was unable to convince the country to accept social security reform, and Obama has been unable to sell additional fiscal stimulus and most notably his health care reform law, which remains broadly unpopular. The overestimation of the power of the bully pulpit, he finds, is more likely to harm a president’s domestic policy agenda than advance it. But I think the key word there is “domestic.” Switch the subject to foreign policy, and the power is somewhat restored.

Bush may not have been able to sell Social Security reform, but it would be difficult to conjure a more memorable scene from Bush’s eight years in office than his speech atop the fire truck at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It was—and remains—both moving and inspiring to hear the president emerge brilliantly from the shell of his tendency toward the folksy, and sometimes awkward, when ad-libbing, at that scene. It all could have gone very differently, since the bullhorn he was using worked only intermittently, and the crowd began losing patience. Yet, as they shouted that they couldn’t hear him, Bush remained calm, steady, and delivered a fine moment when he responded, “I can hear you. I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

Reagan’s most famous line, obviously, was “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” It is what he is remembered for as well—not just the words, but the sentiment, and the political risk involved. Very few conversations about Reagan center on what he said before or after his first-term tax deal with the Democrats. It’s fitting, because though presidential elections usually turn on the economy, the chief executive has more influence on foreign affairs. This is no different for Obama.

After Obama announced a troop “surge” in Afghanistan in December 2009, polls showed a 9-percent jump in Americans who thought staying in Afghanistan was the right course of action, and a 6-percent drop in those who opposed the war. Americans favored the speech itself by a 23-point margin. And the president saw a 7-point jump in public approval of his handling of the war.

None of this is out of the ordinary. When I interviewed James Robbins about his book on Vietnam, This Time We Win, he argued that polls at the time showed Lyndon Johnson to have more support for the war effort—especially its escalation—than most people think in retrospect.

“According to opinion polls at the time taken directly after Tet and a few weeks after Tet, the American people wanted to escalate the war,” Robbins told me. “They understand that the enemy had suffered a terrible defeat, so there was an opportunity if we had taken concerted action to actually win this thing.” Even on college campuses, he said, more people identified as hawks than doves: “The notion that young people were long-haired dope smoking draft resisters in 1967-68 is not true. The ‘Forrest Gump’ view of history is wrong.”

If you expand the category to national security in general, Clinton gets a boost as well. This one is more difficult to measure than support for a war, but leading up the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton had been marginalized to such a degree by Newt Gingrich’s masterful ability to control the narrative that Clinton offered his much-mocked plea at a briefing: “The president is still relevant here.” The bombing happened the next day, and Clinton’s ability to project empathy and his portrayal of opposition to his presidency as right-wing anti-government excess partly to blame for any dark mood in which someone bombs a federal building completely changed the pace and tone of the coverage of his presidency.

Speeches delivered in the service of selling a tax increase or even solving a debt-ceiling showdown are often treated as the president taking his eye off the ball. The president as commander-in-chief, however, is a role for which voters consistently express their support.

I want to offer Klein one more note of optimism. He writes:

Back-room bargains and quiet negotiations do not, however, present an inspiring vision of the Presidency. And they fail, too. Boehner and Obama spent much of last summer sitting in a room together, but, ultimately, the Speaker didn’t make a private deal with the President for the same reason that Republican legislators don’t swoon over a public speech by him: he is the leader of the Democratic Party, and if he wins they lose. This suggests that, as the two parties become more sharply divided, it may become increasingly difficult for a President to govern—and there’s little that he can do about it.

I disagree. The details of the deal matter, not just the party lines about the dispute. There is no way the backroom negotiations Clinton conducted with Gingrich over social security reform could have been possible if we had prime ministers, instead of presidents. The president possesses political capital Congress doesn’t. History tells us there are effective ways to use that capital. One lesson: quiet action on domestic policy, visible and audible leadership on national security.

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Infidelity and Double Standards

The revelation by Newt Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, that he wanted an “open marriage” has once again forced voters to consider to what degree, if any at all, a politician’s private conduct should factor into whom they vote for. My own view, which I’ve written about several times, is that one’s personal character matters — but how much it matters depends on facts and circumstances. (For more, see here:)

Critics of Newt Gingrich will say this information merely confirms their pre-existing concerns about Gingrich — that he’s a man who is self-indulgent, terribly undisciplined, and capable of unusual personal cruelty. Supporters of Gingrich will argue that while his conduct doesn’t reflect well on the former speaker, it happened more than a decade ago and, on top of all that, he’s a changed, and better, man. Gingrich himself is using his daughters to make his case, informing us they have sent a letter to the president of ABC News saying, “from a family perspective, they think this is totally wrong.” And while Gingrich himself insists he won’t say anything negative about his former wife, his aides are referring to her as “bitter.”

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The revelation by Newt Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, that he wanted an “open marriage” has once again forced voters to consider to what degree, if any at all, a politician’s private conduct should factor into whom they vote for. My own view, which I’ve written about several times, is that one’s personal character matters — but how much it matters depends on facts and circumstances. (For more, see here:)

Critics of Newt Gingrich will say this information merely confirms their pre-existing concerns about Gingrich — that he’s a man who is self-indulgent, terribly undisciplined, and capable of unusual personal cruelty. Supporters of Gingrich will argue that while his conduct doesn’t reflect well on the former speaker, it happened more than a decade ago and, on top of all that, he’s a changed, and better, man. Gingrich himself is using his daughters to make his case, informing us they have sent a letter to the president of ABC News saying, “from a family perspective, they think this is totally wrong.” And while Gingrich himself insists he won’t say anything negative about his former wife, his aides are referring to her as “bitter.”

For now, I’ll set aside my views on the relevance of these newest revelations in order to make a separate point.

When it came to Bill Clinton, those on the left insisted adultery was irrelevant when it came to political figures. Infidelity is a victimless behavior, understandable in many circumstances, and we needed to “compartmentalize” the private actions of a politician from their public duties. We needed to be more like Europe — sophisticated, tolerant, and non-judgmental. Grace and forgiveness were the virtues of the day. Those who criticized Clinton for his “indiscretions” were moralistic, judgmental, and sex-obsessed.

For many on the right, it was very much the opposite. When Bill Clinton was president, private character mattered. It was said those in political power should be individuals of good character. A person who is willing to cheat on his spouse and break his marital vows is highly unreliable. Betrayal is a garment without seams. George Washington, a man of impressive personal virtues, was cited as a model. The danger was bestowing “cheap grace” on those who didn’t merit it.

I understand as much as the next person the difficulty in offering detached judgments about those with whom we agree politically and philosophically versus those with whom we disagree. But often there doesn’t seem to be the slightest inclination to check the impulse of the double standard. Some conservatives who found Bill Clinton’s personal behavior repellent, and very nearly disqualifying, have suddenly developed a good deal more understanding for the wandering eye of a powerful politician (there are some impressive exceptions, including William Bennett). The fact that a self-proclaimed “Reagan conservative” wanted an open marriage while he was speaker of the House is considered old and irrelevant news. In fact, the true victim in all this is Newt Gingrich. And those who were furious about the assault that was leveled against women who claimed they had affairs with Bill Clinton now seem to have a fair amount of tolerance when it comes to dismissing Marianne Gingrich as the “bitter” and “angry” ex-wife.

Hypocrisy is a vice as old as mankind. We all view the world through tinted lenses. And all of us are naturally inclined to cut more slack to those on our side of the aisle than those on the other side. What matters, I suppose, is the degree to which those in the political class place intellectual and moral honesty above partisan and philosophical affiliations. Those who can are impressive. They’re also rare.

 

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Why Did Peace Talks Fail? Abbas Wouldn’t Take the Pen and Sign

The New York Times is reporting today that former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s memoirs confirm what has long been known to be true: that in September 2008, Mahmoud Abbas walked away from a peace agreement that would have guaranteed a Palestinian state in virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem.

Excerpts from Olmert’s memoirs were published yesterday in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, and his recollections, along with the Palestinian documents released by Al Jazeera this week, provide a fairly comprehensive picture of what went on in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2008. This week we have been hearing a great deal about how accommodating Abbas was in “conceding” that Jews would be allowed to stay in their homes in Jerusalem and that Israel would not allow millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees to transform the Jewish state into one more Arab one. But the real concessions were, as has consistently been the case since the Oslo process began in 1993, made by Israel.

Olmert’s 2008 concessions were unprecedented. He not only was prepared to give the Palestinians their state; he also gave in on the question of an Israeli security presence along the Jordan River (that border would be patrolled by an international force with no Israelis present); he was prepared to allow Jerusalem’s holy places to be placed in the hands of a multinational committee; and he was even prepared to allow a symbolic number of refugees to settle in Israel while “generously compensating” all others who claimed that status. Read More

The New York Times is reporting today that former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s memoirs confirm what has long been known to be true: that in September 2008, Mahmoud Abbas walked away from a peace agreement that would have guaranteed a Palestinian state in virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem.

Excerpts from Olmert’s memoirs were published yesterday in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, and his recollections, along with the Palestinian documents released by Al Jazeera this week, provide a fairly comprehensive picture of what went on in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2008. This week we have been hearing a great deal about how accommodating Abbas was in “conceding” that Jews would be allowed to stay in their homes in Jerusalem and that Israel would not allow millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees to transform the Jewish state into one more Arab one. But the real concessions were, as has consistently been the case since the Oslo process began in 1993, made by Israel.

Olmert’s 2008 concessions were unprecedented. He not only was prepared to give the Palestinians their state; he also gave in on the question of an Israeli security presence along the Jordan River (that border would be patrolled by an international force with no Israelis present); he was prepared to allow Jerusalem’s holy places to be placed in the hands of a multinational committee; and he was even prepared to allow a symbolic number of refugees to settle in Israel while “generously compensating” all others who claimed that status.

These concessions represented grave setbacks to Israeli security and Jewish rights. Israel’s past experience with international security forces along its borders are mixed, though the horrible record of United Nations forces in Lebanon — which allowed terrorists free access to the frontier — is a reminder of the cost of relying on foreign troops to guarantee Israeli security. Similarly, it should be noted that the only period during which Jews — and members of other faiths — have had full access to sacred spots has been since 1967. Prior to that, Jewish access to the holy places was virtually nonexistent. Olmert’s reliance on the goodwill of an international community that has never been particularly concerned with Jewish rights was extraordinary. And as for the refugees, his willingness to allow some back into Israel and to compensate the others completely ignores the fact that the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries who were forced out of their homes after 1948 seem to have been completely forgotten in his pact with Abbas.

Olmert would have had a difficult time selling such a terrible deal to Israelis, but the odds are they would have accepted it if it meant that the Palestinians were truly willing to end the conflict. But it never came to that. Why? It was simply because Abbas couldn’t bring himself to take yes for an answer. For all the chatter about how many concessions the Palestinians were willing to make, when it came to actually making peace and taking the best deal possible, Abbas was no different from his old boss Yasir Arafat, who turned down Bill Clinton and the Israelis at Camp David in 2000.

As Olmert tells it, on Sept. 16, 2008, in a meeting at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, the Israeli handed Abbas a map showing his Palestinian state including parts of Jerusalem.

“Abu Mazen [Abbas] said that he could not decide and that he needed time,” Mr. Olmert writes. “I told him that he was making an historic mistake.

“ ‘Give me the map so that I can consult with my colleagues,’ he said to me. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘Take the pen and sign now. You’ll never get an offer that is fairer or more just. Don’t hesitate. This is hard for me too, but we don’t have an option of not resolving this.’”

Abbas and Olmert never met again. Faced with an opportunity to end the conflict and create the Palestinian state that has supposedly been his movement’s goal, Abbas couldn’t take the pen and sign because he knew that the culture of Palestinian politics was such that he could not persuade his people to compromise. The essence of Palestinian nationalism has always been and remains the negation of both Zionism and the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Concede that and there is no Palestinian nationalism. So once again, the Palestinians walked away from peace.

Yesterday Abbas’s top negotiator, Saeb Erekat, claimed in an article in the Guardian that the Al Jazeera documents show that the Palestinians had no partner for peace. We will continue to hear more big lies from the Palestinians and their Western cheerleaders in the future. But the truth is, as Abbas’s refusal to take the pen proves, even the most moderate Palestinian leaders still can’t make peace.

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