Commentary Magazine


Topic: George W. Bush

Walter Russell Mead’s Shallow and Misleading Attack on the Bush Legacy

Walter Russell Mead has written a post arguing that the Bush administration was a “first class political disaster” for the Republican Party. The Bush presidency was “not a success,” according to Mead, and Republicans need to deal with the failures, “real and perceived,” and do so “openly and honestly.” 

“Fluency in discussing the disasters of the Bush years is going to be a job requirement for Republican candidates and mandarins for some time to come,” Mead informs us. But having declared the vital role fluency should play in public debate, Mr. Mead proceeds to demonstrate his own ignorance on a range of matters.

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Walter Russell Mead has written a post arguing that the Bush administration was a “first class political disaster” for the Republican Party. The Bush presidency was “not a success,” according to Mead, and Republicans need to deal with the failures, “real and perceived,” and do so “openly and honestly.” 

“Fluency in discussing the disasters of the Bush years is going to be a job requirement for Republican candidates and mandarins for some time to come,” Mead informs us. But having declared the vital role fluency should play in public debate, Mr. Mead proceeds to demonstrate his own ignorance on a range of matters.

The University of Texas’s Will Inboden does a fine job responding to Mead on foreign policy, so I’ll focus on what Mead calls the “multiple policy failures of the Bush years,” which include “two long unfinished wars, a botched hurricane, no significant domestic reform, frozen immobility on immigration, deficits out of control, the middle class in deepening trouble, the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

There’s much to unravel in this litany, starting with Mead’s claim that the Bush deficits were “out of control.” Wrong. The budget deficit during President Bush’s tenure averaged 2 percent, which is well below the 50-year average of 3 percent.

But Bush inherited a surplus, critics will respond. To which the answer is: Yes, but by January 2001, when Bush was inaugurated, the budget surpluses were evaporating as the economy skidded toward recession (it officially began in March 2001). Combined with the devastating economic effects of 9/11, when we lost around 1 million jobs in a little over 90 days, the surplus went into deficit.

And here’s what else Mead fails to mention: In the aftermath of the March 2001 recession, America experienced six years of uninterrupted economic growth and a record 52 straight months of job creation that produced more than 8 million new jobs. During the Bush presidency, the unemployment rate averaged 5.3 percent. We saw labor-productivity gains that exceeded the averages of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Real after-tax income per capita increased by more than 11 percent. And from 2000 to 2007, real GDP grew by more than 17 percent, a gain of nearly $2.1 trillion.

Keith Hennessey, in a data-heavy analysis that contrasts well with Mead’s, concludes:

George W. Bush, a wartime President, had a smaller federal government and lower taxes relative to the economy than each of his three predecessors, historically small deficits, no tax increases, and 5.3% average unemployment. He vetoed a farm bill and two health bills for spending too much. He proposed structural and incremental reforms to Social Security and Medicare that set up the current entitlement reform debate.

Mr. Mead mentions none of this, perhaps because they pose inconvenient facts to his thesis. In any event, it’s hardly a record of failure.

Ah, you might say, but what about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, which happened during Bush’s watch?

The reasons for the 2008 financial crisis were quite complicated, but surely much of the blame–and probably a majority of the blame–rests with those (Democrats) who blocked reforms that would have mitigated the effects of the housing crisis, which led to the broader financial crisis. As Stuart Taylor, hardly a loyal Bush supporter, put it in 2008:

The pretense of many Democrats that this crisis is altogether a Republican creation is simplistic and dangerous. It is simplistic because Democrats have been a big part of the problem, in part by supporting governmental distortions of the marketplace through mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose reckless lending practices necessitated a $200 billion government rescue [in September 2008]. … Fannie and Freddie appear to have played a major role in causing the current crisis, in part because their quasi-governmental status violated basic principles of a healthy free enterprise system by allowing them to privatize profit while socializing risk.

For the record, the Bush administration warned as early as April 2001 that Fannie and Freddie were too large and overleveraged and that their failure “could cause strong repercussions in financial markets, affecting federally insured entities and economic activity” well beyond housing. Bush’s plan would have subjected Fannie and Freddie to the kinds of federal regulation that banks, credit unions, and savings and loans have to comply with. In addition, Republican Richard Shelby, then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, pushed for comprehensive GSE (government-sponsored enterprises) reform in 2005. These efforts at reforming Fannie and Freddie were blocked by Democrats such as Christopher Dodd and Representative Barney Frank, along with the then-junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who backed Dodd’s threat of a filibuster. It’s also important to point out that the steps Bush took to stabilize the financial system–which were made under enormous pressure and increasing turmoil–basically worked, sparing us from even worse consequences.

Now let’s turn to Mead’s claim that Bush achieved no significant domestic reform. Nonsense. The No Child Left Behind Act was among the most important reforms to education in decades. Six years after NCLB became law, 4th-grade students achieved their highest reading and math scores on record, and 8th-grade students achieved their highest math scores on record. African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs in reading and math, and the achievement gap has narrowed.

Then there’s the Medicare prescription drug plan, which allows private drug plans to compete against each other to provide coverage for beneficiaries. Because competition was injected into the system, the average premiums in 2008 were 40 percent lower than the original estimates. Overall, the projected spend­ing for the program between 2004 and 2013 is 37 percent lower than orig­inally expected–a reduction of about $240 billion. During the Bush years free-market principles were also extended to the Medicare Advantage program and Health Savings Accounts. This approach to health care issues, it’s worth noting, is the animating feature behind the bold Medicare reform plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan.

On “a botched hurricane:” Mead makes no mention of the staggering incompetence of then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco, neither of whom ordered a mandatory evacuation in time while the latter (Blanco) actually blocked federal efforts to aid New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Despite this, others have pointed out that we witnessed one of the largest rescue operations in history in which roughly a quarter of a million residents were moved out of a flooded city within a week, which is actually a fairly impressive achievement. But none of this is supposed to matter.

I’m not sure what “frozen immobility” on immigration reform is supposed to mean. President Bush was a strong, vocal champion of immigration reform, which encountered congressional opposition and never became law. But the reform was wise and necessary, and the power of it endures. For example, the core of Bush’s immigration reform (with some amendments) is being resurrected by, among others, Senator Marco Rubio. I suspect that what we’ll find is that Bush was ahead of his time on the matter of immigration.

I’ll now take up the issue of Iraq, which is supposedly an indelible mark against America’s 43rd president. It’s quite true that serious mistakes were made leading up to the war and in the aftermath of major combat operations, and I’ve written about them. So, in fact, has President Bush. But a more sophisticated summary than Mead’s, about the effects of the surge and the state of things in Iraq after the Bush presidency, can be found in this column by Charles Krauthammer:

when [Obama] became president in January 2009, he was handed a war that was won. The surge had succeeded. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

He blew it.

I wonder if Walter Russell Mead understands the irony of his analysis. He’s encouraging Republicans to seriously grapple with the Bush era, which is entirely reasonable. But he does so in a way that is itself deeply unserious. Recapitulating Chris Matthews’s talking point about the Bush presidency doesn’t add to our understanding of anything; it merely gives wings to silly caricatures.

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This Day in History (and Current Events)

Today is the ninth anniversary of one of the key documents in the history of the “peace process”: the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon, reiterating a “steadfast commitment” by the U.S. to “defensible borders” for Israel, and recognizing that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel. In Tested by Zion, his invaluable account of the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elliott Abrams describes how carefully considered the letter was: there were “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and went out.” At the end, “the headline was clear: There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.”

The letter was more than a statement of U.S. policy. It was part of a deal. One of the most troublesome signs of the new approach adopted by President Obama in 2009 was the repeated refusals by administration spokespersons to answer whether the U.S. was bound by the letter. At 22, I stopped counting the number of times the question was asked and not answered, as the administration signaled Israel that the prior U.S. commitment was no longer reliable. But last week, on his return visit to Israel seeking to re-invigorate the “peace process,” Secretary of State Kerry was asked about it again.

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Today is the ninth anniversary of one of the key documents in the history of the “peace process”: the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon, reiterating a “steadfast commitment” by the U.S. to “defensible borders” for Israel, and recognizing that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel. In Tested by Zion, his invaluable account of the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elliott Abrams describes how carefully considered the letter was: there were “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and went out.” At the end, “the headline was clear: There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.”

The letter was more than a statement of U.S. policy. It was part of a deal. One of the most troublesome signs of the new approach adopted by President Obama in 2009 was the repeated refusals by administration spokespersons to answer whether the U.S. was bound by the letter. At 22, I stopped counting the number of times the question was asked and not answered, as the administration signaled Israel that the prior U.S. commitment was no longer reliable. But last week, on his return visit to Israel seeking to re-invigorate the “peace process,” Secretary of State Kerry was asked about it again.

At an April 9 press conference in Tel Aviv, Bow Shapira from Israeli TV (Channel 1) told Kerry he wanted to ask about “a guarantee from the past”–the 2004 Bush letter, which he described as “telling that blocs of settlements can stay, cannot [be] removed from the territory.” His question about the guarantee was straightforward: “well, does it exist?” Kerry responded in part as follows:

I remember that commitment very well because I was running for president then, and I personally have supported the notion that the situation on the ground has changed, and obviously, we’re talking about blocs that are in a very different status. I’m not going to get into telling you what ought to happen with respect to any particular piece of geography today because that’s for the parties to decide in their negotiation. But I have certainly supported the notion publicly myself that we need to deal with the ’67 lines, plus the swaps that reflect some of the changes that have taken place since then.

It is not surprising that Kerry remembered the commitment so well. He appeared on “Meet the Press” on April 18, 2004–four days after the Bush letter was issued–and was asked directly about it by Tim Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, President Bush … said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Completely?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

Kerry’s response to the Israeli reporter last week is significant, because he recognized: (1) that the Bush letter was in fact a commitment, subsequently endorsed by both the Senate (95-3) and the House (407-9) in concurrent resolutions; and (2) that he supported it at the time, in unambiguous terms.

But it is indicative of the continuing problem President Obama created with his refusal in 2009 to endorse the Bush letter that an Israeli reporter felt it necessary to ask whether the U.S. commitment exists. The president has been attempting to assure Israelis with his have-your-back, all-options-on-the-table rhetorical commitments, but they remember that in the past he did not feel constrained to respect even a written commitment to Israel. 

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The Battle Over the Surge

In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

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In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

As Gordon puts it:

Much of the discussion … was dominated by [Secretary of State] Rice’s argument that the United States should abandon a strategy in which “nothing is going right” and instead focus on “core interests” like fighting al Qaeda and contesting Iranian influence. Instead of trying to stop the burgeoning sectarian violence, Rice suggested, the American military might concentrate on averting “mass killings” — attacks on the order of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

But [NSC Advisor Stephen] Hadley and his aides on the National Security Council were pushing in the opposite direction and making the case for sending more troops.

It’s now obvious that those who favored the surge were correct and those advocating the alternatives–whether withdrawal or a “light footprint” counterinsurgency or retreating to bases to “ride out” the sectarian violence–were not. Yet even those who believed at the time that the surge was clearly the correct strategy also had to concede that the arguments marshaled by Secretary Rice and her top aides were serious ones and worth taking into account. Were sectarian demons that had been unleashed now uncontainable? Were we beyond the point when no application of forces was likely to make a discernible difference? Had the Sadirist elements defeated the more moderate Shia ones?  

Which brings me to my second point. When asked by ABC’s William Lawrence to look back over the first two years of his presidency, John Kennedy said this:

I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.  

It is in the nature of things that in America, the president is the individual who has to sort through competing counsel and decide which course of action to take. The surge was, as Gordon points out, a fateful one for George W. Bush, and in this instance Bush embraced a new war strategy in Iraq that required him to jettison the counsel of his most trusted foreign policy advisor (Secretary Rice, who eventually embraced the surge strategy), to say nothing of the views of most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General George W. Casey, Jr., then the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq; John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command; military analysts; the entire Democratic Party; much of the Republican Party; most of the foreign policy establishment; the Iraq Study Group; and public opinion. It was a remarkable moment in presidential leadership. 

It’s also fair to say, I think, that as much of the world seems to be spinning out of control–with ill-advised decisions by President Obama having undone many of the gains in Iraq and worrisome-to-ominous developments occurring in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Georgia, North Korea, Mali, Sudan, Russia and elsewhere–President Bush’s successor is learning the hard way that it’s easier to make the speeches than it is to make the judgments.

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The New York Times’s War on Wolfowitz

The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq unfortunately has provided the occasion for some who ought to know better to propagate bizarre myths about the war. In this regard, the New York Times editorial board is in a class by itself. In an editorial today, “Ten Years After,” the Times casually writes: “In 2003, President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, used the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to wage pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein and a nuclear arsenal that did not exist.”

It is perhaps a sign of how far gone into the land of fantasy the Times editorialists actually are that they could write a sentence like this and not have anyone fact check their assertion. Was it really the case that the Iraq War was the result of a plot by President Bush and, of all people, the deputy secretary of defense? Weren’t there some other, rather more important figures in the Cabinet who supported the invasion too–not only the president but also Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice?

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The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq unfortunately has provided the occasion for some who ought to know better to propagate bizarre myths about the war. In this regard, the New York Times editorial board is in a class by itself. In an editorial today, “Ten Years After,” the Times casually writes: “In 2003, President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, used the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to wage pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein and a nuclear arsenal that did not exist.”

It is perhaps a sign of how far gone into the land of fantasy the Times editorialists actually are that they could write a sentence like this and not have anyone fact check their assertion. Was it really the case that the Iraq War was the result of a plot by President Bush and, of all people, the deputy secretary of defense? Weren’t there some other, rather more important figures in the Cabinet who supported the invasion too–not only the president but also Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice?

More significantly, wasn’t the war authorized by both houses of Congress? Perhaps the Times editorialists have forgotten that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq was approved in October 2002 by a vote of 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate. This was a war that had bipartisan support, winning the backing of 82 Democrats in the House and 29 in the Senate.

Among those who backed this undertaking were, inter alia, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel, former Secretary of State (and possibly future presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton, and then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Their position–that we had to be willing to use force against Saddam Hussein–was overwhelmingly popular, backed by over 70 percent of those surveyed.

The Times is right that, no matter the vote in Congress or the state of public opinion, President Bush ultimately bore responsibility for the invasion because he was commander-in-chief. But, news flash, Paul Wolfowitz was only the No. 2 official in the Department of Defense. Not only was he not in the chain of command (which runs from the president to the secretary of defense to the combatant commander), he was often ignored by his boss, Donald Rumsfeld. So why on earth, out of all the possible candidates in Washington, would the Times ascribe 50 percent of the responsibility for the invasion of Iraq to Wolfowitz?

The obvious explanation, although the Times editorialists don’t use the word, is that this is an attempt to resuscitate the old canard about how the “neocons lied us into war.” That is the kind of nonsense you expect to hear from the likes of Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul. Shame on the Times editors–they should know better.

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Liberal Bias Central to Obama Media Edge

Politico writers Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen are on to something with their feature published today about President Obama’s mastery of the mainstream media. Their conclusion that the president and his staff have broken new ground in manipulating journalists and shaping favorable coverage of the administration is so obvious that it is almost inarguable. As I have argued several times over the past four years, no president since John F. Kennedy has enjoyed the sort of advantage or lack of serious scrutiny that the president has received. Vandehei and Allen are right when they point out that the calculated leaks and softball interviews combined with a command of social media and other methods that limit press access have combined to build the Obama juggernaut that won him re-election as well as give him an edge in any battle with Congress.

Yet Vandehei and Allen’s insistence that this has nothing to do with the conservative belief that “a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated” ignores some of the same facts that they amass in discussing the way the president has played the “puppet master” with the media. No matter how smart the strategies employed by the White House, the president’s ability to skate through four years without getting seriously challenged by the mainstream media would not have been possible if most of those being played were not willing accomplices. Due credit must be given to the administration’s ability to take advantage of technology as well as their brilliant if unscrupulous game playing with journalists. But without the liberal bias of most of the mainstream outlets that let the president play them like a piano, he would come across as a bully and a demagogue rather than the reasonable nice guy seen in those “60 Minutes” interviews he loves to give.

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Politico writers Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen are on to something with their feature published today about President Obama’s mastery of the mainstream media. Their conclusion that the president and his staff have broken new ground in manipulating journalists and shaping favorable coverage of the administration is so obvious that it is almost inarguable. As I have argued several times over the past four years, no president since John F. Kennedy has enjoyed the sort of advantage or lack of serious scrutiny that the president has received. Vandehei and Allen are right when they point out that the calculated leaks and softball interviews combined with a command of social media and other methods that limit press access have combined to build the Obama juggernaut that won him re-election as well as give him an edge in any battle with Congress.

Yet Vandehei and Allen’s insistence that this has nothing to do with the conservative belief that “a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated” ignores some of the same facts that they amass in discussing the way the president has played the “puppet master” with the media. No matter how smart the strategies employed by the White House, the president’s ability to skate through four years without getting seriously challenged by the mainstream media would not have been possible if most of those being played were not willing accomplices. Due credit must be given to the administration’s ability to take advantage of technology as well as their brilliant if unscrupulous game playing with journalists. But without the liberal bias of most of the mainstream outlets that let the president play them like a piano, he would come across as a bully and a demagogue rather than the reasonable nice guy seen in those “60 Minutes” interviews he loves to give.

Any analysis of the president’s media advantage must start with the understanding that his historical status as the first African-American president has given him far more leeway than any of his recent predecessors when it comes to scrutiny from the mainstream press. The broadcast networks as well as the liberal-leaning cable channels have treated Obama and his family as being above criticism. This has created a Camelot effect unseen in Washington since the days when the press was ignoring JFK’s personal immorality while turning his family into national icons.

The White House has ruthlessly exploited that willingness to portray the president in the sort of stained-glass light usually reserved for statesman of the past. But, as Politico rightly points out, they have doubled down on it by limiting access to the working press — even those from generally friendly liberal outlets — and going directly to the public via social media and White House-created content. That has been combined with cleverly staged leaks to journalists who then dutifully do the administration’s dirty work for it on a host of issues. All this allows the president to pose as the voice of reason on domestic issues and to generally avoid any pointed scrutiny on foreign affairs even when — as in the Benghazi fiasco — the duty of the press to focus on his lack of answers would seem obvious.

Politico is right that among those most frustrated by this are members of the White House press corps who may be liberals but are still eager to do their jobs. However, the only reason this has worked so well is the willingness of the editors and publishers who employ those frustrated reporters to roll over and play dead for the president. The unavoidable fact that Vandehei and Allen do their best to ignore is that the hamstringing of the working press’s ability to hold the president accountable dovetails nicely with the editorial stands of the vast majority of those outlets. That limits the time and space they are willing to give their staffers who might wish to push harder on an administration that is so careful about limiting access.

Just as important to the success of the White House’s puppetry is the eagerness of much of the liberal press to play ball with the president when given the opportunity to do so. As Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” admitted, the reason why Obama loves to go on the CBS show is that he knows he won’t be “made to look stupid” or be subjected to the same “gotcha” kind of questions for which that television institution was so well known in the decades when it established its long since undeserved reputation as the gold standard of broadcast journalism. Though few other liberal hacks have been as honest about their bias as Kroft, the same rule applies to virtually every outlet that has been granted the same kind of access such as the recent Obama puff piece published in The New Republic.

It barely needs to be said that had the George W. Bush administration tried the same tactics as Obama has employed, it wouldn’t have worked a fraction as well. That is not just because Bush was not as comfortable in playing the role of inaccessible puppeteer as his successor. His administration, like everyone that preceded it, had its own strategies for coping with the press and did its best to outwit those tasked with holding it accountable that were not always unsuccessful. The Obama administration didn’t invent leaks even if it has perfected them into something approaching an art form.

But the difference is that the White House press corps as well as their editors and publishers were never prepared to lie down for Bush in the way they have done with Obama. The Bush team could never look for the sort of softball interviews that Obama’s staffers know to rely upon. They also knew that any tactical victories it might achieve in getting their message across would be countered and often wiped out by the liberal institutional bias of the networks and newspapers that Obama never has to worry about. No matter how much the Bush White House would have leaked to the New York Times, there is no way that would have generated the kind of fawning coverage the Grey Lady has given Obama.

That’s why the lessons of Obama’s press strategies are of only limited utility to Republicans. They can learn from the methods he uses to go directly to the public without the filter of the media. His command of social media and smart use of content created by the White House should be emulated by every politician who wants to win. But no conservative will ever be able to manipulate the media the way Obama does because of the simple fact that the liberal press will not allow it as they do with Obama. This doesn’t mean Republicans are doomed to perpetual defeat, but it does remind them that they have a steeper hill to climb than their Democratic counterparts. As much as the GOP has to get into the 21st century when it comes to technology, the liberal press will never give them the free passes it hands out to the Obama White House every day of the week.

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Should Democrats Always Lead During War? Part Two

As I wrote in part one of this post, liberal hypocrisy about the anti-terror policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has made clear that partisan affiliation seems to play a large role in the way Americans think about the wars the country has become embroiled in over the last half century. Just as anti-war sentiment about Vietnam mushroomed after Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White house, it evaporated about the war on terror when Obama replaced Bush. After 2009, the outrage about Guantanamo and abuse of terrorists was no longer a potent political weapon for Democrats to pound a Republican target and simply faded from view. Four years after Obama first took office, it is now clear that his administration has not only kept most of Bush’s terror war infrastructure in place but has arrogated to itself power that its predecessor never thought to assert for itself. Yet few outside of the far left seem to think it is a problem.

Democrats ought to be ashamed of this but few seem to be blushing about their hypocrisy. Some may rationalize their behavior by saying that only their side can be trusted to lead wars that America should be fighting and that men like Obama can be relied upon to behave responsibly while Bush and Cheney could not. Yet there is nothing in the record of the past two administrations that backs up a conclusion that would draw any broad moral distinction between their records in fighting against Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The slaughter from that the drones have caused is something that conservatives think is justified by the need to fight an ongoing war against Islamists terrorists. But it makes the measures undertaken by Bush and Cheney — that were widely blasted by Democrats as a threat to American liberty — appear restrained. The question is, how will this undeniable pattern impact the chances that the U.S. will use force to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

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As I wrote in part one of this post, liberal hypocrisy about the anti-terror policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has made clear that partisan affiliation seems to play a large role in the way Americans think about the wars the country has become embroiled in over the last half century. Just as anti-war sentiment about Vietnam mushroomed after Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White house, it evaporated about the war on terror when Obama replaced Bush. After 2009, the outrage about Guantanamo and abuse of terrorists was no longer a potent political weapon for Democrats to pound a Republican target and simply faded from view. Four years after Obama first took office, it is now clear that his administration has not only kept most of Bush’s terror war infrastructure in place but has arrogated to itself power that its predecessor never thought to assert for itself. Yet few outside of the far left seem to think it is a problem.

Democrats ought to be ashamed of this but few seem to be blushing about their hypocrisy. Some may rationalize their behavior by saying that only their side can be trusted to lead wars that America should be fighting and that men like Obama can be relied upon to behave responsibly while Bush and Cheney could not. Yet there is nothing in the record of the past two administrations that backs up a conclusion that would draw any broad moral distinction between their records in fighting against Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The slaughter from that the drones have caused is something that conservatives think is justified by the need to fight an ongoing war against Islamists terrorists. But it makes the measures undertaken by Bush and Cheney — that were widely blasted by Democrats as a threat to American liberty — appear restrained. The question is, how will this undeniable pattern impact the chances that the U.S. will use force to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

It should be remembered that George W. Bush punted on Iran during his second term. Bush outsourced Iran diplomacy to America’s European allies but those efforts were a complete failure. But Bush reacted to that fiasco with patience that he had not showed on Iraq. Bush not only was uninterested in U.S. action but also flatly vetoed any Israeli unilateral strikes on nuclear facilities. He appeared to conclude that adding a third conflict to the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was impossible.

Obama doubled down on his predecessor’s outreach to Iran even though he spoke of it as if Bush had never tried diplomacy. But after four years of failed engagement, he now finds himself facing the reality that at some point in the next four years he will have to choose between accepting a nuclear Iran and fulfilling his pledges never to allow Tehran to get a nuke. The Iranians may be forgiven for thinking Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon is a signal that he will never use force against them. But given the dire implications of an Iranian nuke for U.S. security, the stability of the entire Middle East as well as the existential nature of this threat to the state of Israel, it may well be that the president will have no choice but to think about attacking Iran.

Republicans may be skeptical that Obama will ever summon the will to do what needs to be done on Iran but if he does, one part of the equation that will make up that decision is the certainty that he can do so without fear that the much of the mainstream media and his liberal base will oppose him. Unlike any Republican president put in the same predicament, Obama can assess the need to launch strikes on Iran’s nuclear targets without having to worry about his left-wing constituency seeking to paralyze the country with anti-war protests or to defund the war.

If there is any consolation for Republicans in losing the last presidential election it should be this. No matter how obvious the case for force against Iran might be a President Romney would have had a difficult time uniting the country behind an effort to act to forestall the Iranian nuclear threat. The sickening hypocrisy of both the administration and the left makes it clear that if Obama were to strike Iran, he will likely have the support of both parties in a way that neither Romney, George W. Bush or any Republican could ever have hoped for.

That this is so doesn’t speak well for Democrats or liberals. Their partisan prejudices render them incapable of long supporting any war or anti-terror effort when the Republicans are in charge in Washington. Any Republican who starts a war labors under the handicap that the left will view their motives as impure and treat efforts to carry the war against the enemy by all means necessary as somehow illegitimate. Barack Obama has learned that for all of the criticism he has endured from his opponents, outside of libertarian outliers, Republicans will always salute the flag and back just about any war even when they hate the president.

Though this is something that is to be lamented, let us hope that it helps give Barack Obama the confidence to do what needs to be done on Iran once he accepts, as eventually he must, the truth about his feckless diplomatic efforts. 

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Should Democrats Always Lead During War? Part One

Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.

This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.

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Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.

This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.

The idea that partisan affiliation determines an individual’s position on war and peace issues seems to go against the grain in an era in which we have been led to believe that partisan affiliation is declining. Yet there is no way to avoid the conclusion that party labels have more to do with whether there is widespread dissension about American wars than many of us would like to think. Democrats and liberals can only be counted on to support wars that are launched by a member of their party. Yet while Republicans are no slouches when it comes to trashing Democratic presidents, they can generally be counted on to follow the flag and back any war effort no matter who is sitting in the White House.

The roots of the current phenomenon can be traced backed to the Vietnam War. Though the anti-war movement began during the Lyndon Johnson administration and led to his decision not to seek re-election, one of the myths about that conflict is the idea that partisanship had nothing to do with the protests. Throughout Johnson’s presidency and even during the fateful year of 1968 when the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy exploited anti-war sentiments, polls showed that Johnson’s policies and the war were still supported by comfortable majorities of the American public. Campus protests against the war shocked the nation but the idea that most Americans shared their sentiments at that time was untrue even if there was little enthusiasm for the struggle in Southeast Asia. Republicans backed the war as did a sizeable portion if not a majority of Democrats who still saw the world through the Cold War prism of the need to “bear any burden” in the struggle against Communism that John F. Kennedy had articulated.

It was only after November 1968 that most Democrats, who despised the newly elected Richard Nixon, felt free to join in the anti-war movement. After that point, anti-war demonstrations were no longer limited to college campuses but went mainstream in a way that would have been unimaginable a year earlier. What followed was the conversion of the Democrats from a party that was primarily composed of Cold Warriors to one that would cut off funds to South Vietnam even after Nixon had withdrawn U.S. combat troops.

Democrats may argue that the first Gulf War fought by President George H.W. Bush and the initial popularity of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars under his son disproves this thesis. Though many Democrats voted against the authorization of force against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the country was united in support of the troops that won the swift victory in Kuwait. The carping from the left after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was minimal. There were massive anti-war demonstrations against the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 though when Saddam fell quickly and the coalition forces were initially greeted as liberators, there was silence from the anti-war crowd.

But, as was the case in Vietnam, Democratic willingness to go along with a war that could not be easily concluded in days and weeks was limited. The first President Bush avoided this problem when he shut down the conflict and allowed Saddam Hussein to massacre Iraqi Shiites and dissidents while American forces stood by in liberated Kuwait. But George W. Bush’s decision not to cut and run in either Afghanistan or Iraq led most Democrats to oppose those wars.

It’s important to remember that Bill Clinton authorized missile strikes on terror targets and made terrible mistakes about intelligence such as the milk factory in Sudan that was leveled by an American attack because it was thought to be a terror target without so much as a peep of protest from liberals. Clinton even launched an air war in the Balkans to support the cause of independence for Kosovo without fear of much criticism.

It should be specified that there was much to criticize about the administration’s conduct of the Iraq War but the idea that America was swindled into backing the conflict was always more about partisanship than Bush’s alleged deceptions. Most Democrats had believed in the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Many also understood that removing Saddam was in America’s interests for other strategic reasons. But it was only when the war proved costly and messy that they bailed on it as neo-liberals who supported the war on terror soon became its critics. Not even the U.S. victory won by the Iraq surge that liberals opposed, was enough to change the minds of most Democrats about Bush’s war. Though many, including Barack Obama, said at the time that Afghanistan was the “good war” America should be fighting rather than Iraq, the enthusiasm on the left for that war disappeared when it was no longer a useful cudgel to be employed against Bush and Cheney. But the main conclusion to be drawn from the transition from a Republican-led war to one led by a Democrat was that the latter had the latitude to carry out his policies without fear of much criticism from the mainstream media or the left that had taken to the streets to defame his predecessor.

In part two of this post, I will further explore the implications of this partisan divide about war and discuss whether it will impact America’s efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

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The Untold Story of the Illegal Immigration Debate

While I favor a (difficult but achievable) path to legal status and citizenship for illegal immigrants in America, it also seems to me to be a good idea to build a fence/wall on the southern border, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. That is, I believe doing so would make crossing the border to America both more difficult (as it should be) and signal to undocumented workers that America is a sovereign nation that takes its sovereignty seriously.

Still, we need to bear in mind what the facts of the situation are when it comes to illegal immigration. And here Linda Chavez’s recent essay in COMMENTARY is helpful, including this:

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While I favor a (difficult but achievable) path to legal status and citizenship for illegal immigrants in America, it also seems to me to be a good idea to build a fence/wall on the southern border, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. That is, I believe doing so would make crossing the border to America both more difficult (as it should be) and signal to undocumented workers that America is a sovereign nation that takes its sovereignty seriously.

Still, we need to bear in mind what the facts of the situation are when it comes to illegal immigration. And here Linda Chavez’s recent essay in COMMENTARY is helpful, including this:

illegal immigration actually peaked during the boom of the late 1990s, after which it declined almost steadily except for a one-year increase in 2004, after President Bush raised the issue of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. Today, illegal immigration is at its lowest since 1972. Indeed, more Mexican immigrants are now leaving the country than coming here, with net immigration from Mexico below zero for the first time since the racially motivated mass deportations of Mexicans (some of them U.S. citizens) during the 1930s. And, though conservatives are loath to acknowledge it, President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any president in modern history.

The Obama administration in fact deported a record 410,000 people in 2012–an increase of more than a quarter from 2007.

The largely untold story of the immigration debate, then, is that in the last few years–thanks to the efforts first of President Bush and now President Obama, as well as border state governors–we’ve seen a massive increase in border enforcement. The southern border is as protected as it has ever been. That development, along with a weak economy, has led to a net outflow of people from the U.S. to Mexico. That hasn’t happened in 40 years.  

I mention all that because if you listen to some critics of comprehensive immigration reform, they speak as if (a) nothing has been done to secure the border and (b) the flood of illegal immigrants to America has never been higher. That simply isn’t true. The situation, in fact, is more nearly the opposite.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take reasonable steps to do even more to secure our border. But the debate would be helped if it were informed by the reality on the ground, not claims firmly rooted in mid-air.

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Obama and the “Moral High Ground”

In April 2008, during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama criticized John McCain for seeming to favor economic policies of the Bush administration that McCain had once opposed. “Well, they may have stopped offending John McCain’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, but George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience, and they still offend yours,” Obama said.

The Bush tax cuts offended his conscience, and so did the Bush deficits. Well, they may have stopped offending Barack Obama’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, you might say, considering the fiscal cliff deal the Obama White House has agreed to. The reason conservatives enjoy pointing things like this out is not to play “gotcha” so much as to remind people why Obama was always so off-putting to non-liberals. To Obama, those who disagreed with him were cast as immoral. They weren’t simply political opponents of Obama’s; they were, to the current president, opponents of all that is good and righteous.

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In April 2008, during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama criticized John McCain for seeming to favor economic policies of the Bush administration that McCain had once opposed. “Well, they may have stopped offending John McCain’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, but George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience, and they still offend yours,” Obama said.

The Bush tax cuts offended his conscience, and so did the Bush deficits. Well, they may have stopped offending Barack Obama’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, you might say, considering the fiscal cliff deal the Obama White House has agreed to. The reason conservatives enjoy pointing things like this out is not to play “gotcha” so much as to remind people why Obama was always so off-putting to non-liberals. To Obama, those who disagreed with him were cast as immoral. They weren’t simply political opponents of Obama’s; they were, to the current president, opponents of all that is good and righteous.

Obama’s “fiscal cliff” deal to extend the Bush tax cuts comes, ironically, the same week he quietly signed an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act–another source of controversy during the Bush administration. Bush’s national security policies did not escape Obama’s moral judgment. In a 2007 speech, Obama said Bush “decided to take the low road” in its response to military threats: “We did not reaffirm our basic values, or secure our homeland. Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear.”

The fight over FISA was a minor one in the grand scheme of things, but also a symbolic one. Obama staunchly opposed immunity to telecoms that had cooperated with the government–one Bush-era provision of the law. “I am proud to stand with Senator Dodd, Senator Feingold and a grassroots movement of Americans who are refusing to let President Bush put protections for special interests ahead of our security and our liberty. There is no reason why telephone companies should be given blanket immunity to cover violations of the rights of the American people,” Obama had said.

Pretty clear, right? That promise didn’t even make it through to the election.

Immediately upon taking office in 2009, Obama outlined exactly how he would take us from “the low road” to the “moral high ground,” and that included shuttering secret CIA prisons around the globe and ending long-term secret detentions. Upon signing that executive order, the moral preening was rewarded with applause. A new day had dawned. Yet as the Washington Post reported yesterday, Obama has relied on long-term secret detentions “without legal oversight” throughout his first term in office:

Defense attorneys and others familiar with the case, however, said the men were arrested in Djibouti, a close ally of Washington. The tiny African country hosts a major U.S. military base, Camp Lemonnier, that serves as a combat hub for drone flights and counterterrorism operations. Djibouti also has a decade-long history of cooperating with the United States on renditions….

The sequence described by the lawyers matches a pattern from other rendition cases in which U.S. intelligence agents have secretly interrogated suspects for months without legal oversight before handing over the prisoners to the FBI for prosecution.

Perhaps Obama just thinks the “moral high ground” is overrated. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has only the best interests of the country in mind, and that he is not the morally bankrupt, power-hungry, fear-mongering political opportunist he would accuse others of being if they were to follow his path.

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Does Obama’s FEMA Deserve Applause?

As I wrote earlier today, there is little doubt that part of the reason why President Obama got a bounce of some sort from Hurricane Sandy is the perception that his administration did a much better job dealing with the emergency than President Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. This was largely the result of a complacent media that was content to portray the president as the hero of the occasion after his fly through New Jersey and the seal of approval he got from Governor Chris Christie. But Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, someone who knows a thing or two about what happens in a crisis, isn’t buying it.

Giuliani is frustrated not so much by the political spin of this story as by the spectacle of the citizens of his beloved New York City being left in need while the rest of the country “moves on” from the hurricane. As far as Giuliani is concerned, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t deserve the laurels they have received from the media and for which the president is given credit. As Politico reports:

“The response since the time the president got all this praise and credit and press ops has been abysmal,” Giuliani said on Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “FEMA is as much a failure now as at the time of Katrina.”

Giuliani, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that he did not “understand” why New York was facing water, generators and gas shortages.

“It’s quite obvious they didn’t pre-plan for water, they didn’t pre-plan for the generators, they didn’t pre-plan for the gasoline,” he said.

He bashed Obama for losing “focus” on the subject.

“The president getting all this credit so early, maybe the first day or two he was paying attention, but the minute he got his credit, the minute he got his pat on his back, we had the same situation as we had in Benghazi,” Giuliani said. “He loses focus. He goes back to being campaigner-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.”

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As I wrote earlier today, there is little doubt that part of the reason why President Obama got a bounce of some sort from Hurricane Sandy is the perception that his administration did a much better job dealing with the emergency than President Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. This was largely the result of a complacent media that was content to portray the president as the hero of the occasion after his fly through New Jersey and the seal of approval he got from Governor Chris Christie. But Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, someone who knows a thing or two about what happens in a crisis, isn’t buying it.

Giuliani is frustrated not so much by the political spin of this story as by the spectacle of the citizens of his beloved New York City being left in need while the rest of the country “moves on” from the hurricane. As far as Giuliani is concerned, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t deserve the laurels they have received from the media and for which the president is given credit. As Politico reports:

“The response since the time the president got all this praise and credit and press ops has been abysmal,” Giuliani said on Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “FEMA is as much a failure now as at the time of Katrina.”

Giuliani, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that he did not “understand” why New York was facing water, generators and gas shortages.

“It’s quite obvious they didn’t pre-plan for water, they didn’t pre-plan for the generators, they didn’t pre-plan for the gasoline,” he said.

He bashed Obama for losing “focus” on the subject.

“The president getting all this credit so early, maybe the first day or two he was paying attention, but the minute he got his credit, the minute he got his pat on his back, we had the same situation as we had in Benghazi,” Giuliani said. “He loses focus. He goes back to being campaigner-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.”

The push back against the narrative of Obama’s brilliant emergency response may be coming too late to alter the public’s view of events. But if it is coming late it is because, unlike the Democrats in 2005 during Katrina, Republicans have been reluctant to inject politics into a natural disaster. But if the plight of the people of New Orleans was all the fault of George W. Bush — even though most of the problems there were more the result of the complete collapse of state and local authority and the abandonment of their posts by first responders, then it is not inappropriate to ask why Obama gets a pass as residents of New York and New Jersey cope with a crisis that is far from under control.

No president deserves to be blamed for bad weather. But the ability of Obama to avoid responsibility for what remains a terrible mess can be directly attributed to his cheerleaders in the news media.

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GOP Should Blame the Media, Not Sandy

A week ago, as Hurricane Sandy headed up the East Coast, Mitt Romney looked to be consolidating his recent gains in the polls. A week later, with many still suffering from the impact of the storm, Romney’s momentum has ebbed and Democratic optimism is off the charts. Assuming that the Democrats are right and Romney loses, was this all the fault of the storm in which President Obama got to play commander-in-chief and take the credit for what has been depicted in the press as an effective federal response to the crisis?

The answer here is: not really. The storm didn’t hurt the president and certainly didn’t help Romney, as it took the focus off politics for a crucial few days (much as the hurricane that threatened parts of the country during the Republican National Convention at the end of August undermined the GOP’s hopes for pulling off a successful infomercial). But the reason it played so well for the president is directly related to the inherent advantages that have always made Romney’s effort an uphill climb: incumbency and a mainstream media in the tank for Obama and determined to portray him as successful even when the facts don’t justify the cheerleading. Though many conservatives have spent this year assuming the president was toast, this latest setback for Republicans is yet another reminder of how out of touch they were with political reality. The election is by no means the foregone conclusion that many liberals are claiming this morning; unless the Democrat turnout matches that of 2008, the pollsters and pundits predicting an Obama victory will look very foolish on Wednesday morning. But the impact of the hurricane on the race demonstrates that beating Obama required a little luck as well as a good candidate and a competent campaign.

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A week ago, as Hurricane Sandy headed up the East Coast, Mitt Romney looked to be consolidating his recent gains in the polls. A week later, with many still suffering from the impact of the storm, Romney’s momentum has ebbed and Democratic optimism is off the charts. Assuming that the Democrats are right and Romney loses, was this all the fault of the storm in which President Obama got to play commander-in-chief and take the credit for what has been depicted in the press as an effective federal response to the crisis?

The answer here is: not really. The storm didn’t hurt the president and certainly didn’t help Romney, as it took the focus off politics for a crucial few days (much as the hurricane that threatened parts of the country during the Republican National Convention at the end of August undermined the GOP’s hopes for pulling off a successful infomercial). But the reason it played so well for the president is directly related to the inherent advantages that have always made Romney’s effort an uphill climb: incumbency and a mainstream media in the tank for Obama and determined to portray him as successful even when the facts don’t justify the cheerleading. Though many conservatives have spent this year assuming the president was toast, this latest setback for Republicans is yet another reminder of how out of touch they were with political reality. The election is by no means the foregone conclusion that many liberals are claiming this morning; unless the Democrat turnout matches that of 2008, the pollsters and pundits predicting an Obama victory will look very foolish on Wednesday morning. But the impact of the hurricane on the race demonstrates that beating Obama required a little luck as well as a good candidate and a competent campaign.

Sandy’s impact was more than just a diversion from political business as usual. It was a chance for many in the mainstream media to trot out comparisons between the federal response to Sandy to that of the Bush administration to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. While there’s no question that the government was better prepared and was able to do what it could more quickly this time, the assumption that Bush deserved to be blamed for what happened in New Orleans while Obama deserves credit for the situation in New Jersey and New York is a partisan distortion. The bulk of the problems in New Orleans were the result of the abject failure of state and city first responders and officials. Yet the pictures of the devastation and the sufferers are still linked to the general perception of Bush’s incompetence. By contrast, the narrative in which Obama got to be the hero of Sandy doesn’t seem to be affected by the fact that many Americans are still without power or shelter a week after the storm.

Of course, blaming Obama for what’s happening in New Jersey and New York wouldn’t be any more fair than blaming Bush for the collapse of the levees in New Orleans or the fact that most of the police and firemen in that city fled rather than doing their duty. There are some things that really are beyond the scope of any president to control, and the weather is one of them. That’s true even for a president who promised that he could turn back the oceans, as Obama famously did when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. But anyone who thinks the liberal media wouldn’t be blaming a GOP president for the plight of Sandy’s victims doesn’t understand much about American politics.

The point here is not just that the media gave Obama a boost last week, but to highlight the fact that throughout this campaign that is what they have done at virtually every point. Just as most of the mainstream media failed to follow up on the scandalous failure that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and then turned a blind eye to the administration’s politically motivated deceptions about it, there was never much chance that they wouldn’t use Sandy to help Obama.

Beating Obama has always meant overcoming the handicap of media bias as well as the inclination of many Americans not to unseat the first African-American president. If Romney falls short tomorrow, it will not be just the fault of a hurricane, but will also be due to the lack of a level playing field for the candidates on virtually any issue.

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Has Obama Learned From His Mistakes?

The most effective argument for President Obama in tonight’s foreign policy debate is consistent with the one the Democrats have been using as their all-purpose cudgel against Republicans this year: George W. Bush. Bush has been the president’s alibi on the economy as he continues to blame his predecessor for the country’s troubles on his watch. But on foreign policy, naming Bush is an offensive rather than a defensive stance since it allows the president to label his challenger as someone who would repeat the mistakes made by the 43rd president. To a country that is weary of 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan and shudders at the memory of the conflict America left in Iraq, calling Romney another Bush and calling his advisors “neocons” who are his “puppet masters” may be an effective, if somewhat unfair and misleading argument. But the real question on foreign policy is not whether the United States will invade any countries in the next four years, since neither man is likely to do that. Rather, it is whether they can learn from the mistakes made in the last decade made by both of the last two administrations.

Romney’s inherent caution makes him unlikely to be trigger-happy when it comes to foreign interventions that are now seen in retrospect as unfortunate. But invading countries is not the only sort of mistake a president can make. While Romney will be careful not to fall into the traps that undid Bush, it remains to be seen whether President Obama is capable of learning from the mistakes he has made in office, especially in the Middle East.

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The most effective argument for President Obama in tonight’s foreign policy debate is consistent with the one the Democrats have been using as their all-purpose cudgel against Republicans this year: George W. Bush. Bush has been the president’s alibi on the economy as he continues to blame his predecessor for the country’s troubles on his watch. But on foreign policy, naming Bush is an offensive rather than a defensive stance since it allows the president to label his challenger as someone who would repeat the mistakes made by the 43rd president. To a country that is weary of 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan and shudders at the memory of the conflict America left in Iraq, calling Romney another Bush and calling his advisors “neocons” who are his “puppet masters” may be an effective, if somewhat unfair and misleading argument. But the real question on foreign policy is not whether the United States will invade any countries in the next four years, since neither man is likely to do that. Rather, it is whether they can learn from the mistakes made in the last decade made by both of the last two administrations.

Romney’s inherent caution makes him unlikely to be trigger-happy when it comes to foreign interventions that are now seen in retrospect as unfortunate. But invading countries is not the only sort of mistake a president can make. While Romney will be careful not to fall into the traps that undid Bush, it remains to be seen whether President Obama is capable of learning from the mistakes he has made in office, especially in the Middle East.

That apparent incapacity to learn from mistakes was on display this past weekend when the New York Times broke its story about an agreement between the administration and Iran for direct talks following the election. Both sides have now denied it, but the Times isn’t exactly backing down and I can’t entirely blame them for that. The administration’s ambivalence — the sources were all reportedly senior Obama officials — seems based on a justified concern that they were being caught showing some post-election “flexibility” that might undermine the president’s electoral hopes. But no matter how many denials are issued — and the Iranians can always be counted on to talk out of both sides of their mouth on such things — does anyone really doubt that the administration has been begging Tehran for such talks for years and is eager to strike some sort of unsatisfactory compromise with them that would allow the president to claim victory and then move on while the Iranians prepared to emulate North Korea?

This points out the president’s inability to understand that four years of comical “engagement” with Iran followed by years of half-hearted sanctions and futile efforts to persuade them to give up their nuclear ambitions have not worked. Even worse, they have convinced the ayatollahs that the president isn’t serious about stopping their nuclear program and can be counted on to go on allowing them to buy time with pointless negotiations until the day when they can announce they have achieved their goal.

Issuing “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear development would have showed that the president had learned from his mistakes, but his stubborn refusal to do so and his pretense that everything he has done has only strengthened his weak hand with Tehran doubles down on his errors. Though Romney is called a neocon for calling for a tough line on Iran, establishing America’s credibility on the issue is exactly what is needed after four years of weakness.

The Middle East peace process is another example of how the president seems to have no awareness of how his errors in which he undermined Israel helped encourage Palestinian intransigence and make a resolution of the conflict even more unlikely. The president’s inept response to the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist governments in the region also betrays no willingness to reassess a muddled record. As the Libya fiasco showed, merely killing Osama bin Laden is not only a poor substitute for a foreign policy, it also tells us nothing about the administration’s faltering response to a revived al-Qaeda.

Elsewhere, the president’s passionate pursuit of favor with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China yielded nothing but more contempt from these regimes. The president’s hot mic moment in which he promised to be more flexible with Russia stands as a clear warning of what a second Obama administration will do.

Romney is right to assert that America’s military pre-eminence must be maintained and that strength is the best way to avoid conflict, but it is also fair for to ask whether he has learned from Bush’s mistakes. An even better question is whether Obama has learned from his. Based on everything we have seen and heard in the last year, the answer seems to be no.

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It’s Time to Support Iranian Labor

I’ve been off-the-grid in South Carolina for a few days, so I missed this when it originally came out:

For weeks, a manifesto complaining about Iran’s stumbling economy circulated in secret among factories and workshops. Organizers asked for signatures and the pages began to fill up. In the end, some 10,000 names were attached to the petition addressed to Iran’s labor minister in one of the most wide-reaching public outcries over the state of the country’s economy… The rare protest document — described to The Associated Press this week by labor activists and others — suggests growing anxiety among Iran’s vast and potentially powerful working class….

One of the biggest missed opportunities of the George W. Bush administration—thanks in large part to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her policy planning staff—was the decision to ignore the rise of independent trade unions in Iran. Mansour Osanlou’s organization of the Vahid company’s bus drivers in 2005 really was Iran’s Lech Walesa-Gdansk-Solidarity moment. Obama’s team has been little better when it comes to organized labor in places like Iran, remaining silent as the regime’s crackdown accelerates. The Europeans are little better: I’ve had many a meeting with European social democrats and Green Party activists who perform intellectual somersaults to explain why they should not support Iranian workers struggling for the basic rights American workers have for decades, if not more than a century, taken for granted.

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I’ve been off-the-grid in South Carolina for a few days, so I missed this when it originally came out:

For weeks, a manifesto complaining about Iran’s stumbling economy circulated in secret among factories and workshops. Organizers asked for signatures and the pages began to fill up. In the end, some 10,000 names were attached to the petition addressed to Iran’s labor minister in one of the most wide-reaching public outcries over the state of the country’s economy… The rare protest document — described to The Associated Press this week by labor activists and others — suggests growing anxiety among Iran’s vast and potentially powerful working class….

One of the biggest missed opportunities of the George W. Bush administration—thanks in large part to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her policy planning staff—was the decision to ignore the rise of independent trade unions in Iran. Mansour Osanlou’s organization of the Vahid company’s bus drivers in 2005 really was Iran’s Lech Walesa-Gdansk-Solidarity moment. Obama’s team has been little better when it comes to organized labor in places like Iran, remaining silent as the regime’s crackdown accelerates. The Europeans are little better: I’ve had many a meeting with European social democrats and Green Party activists who perform intellectual somersaults to explain why they should not support Iranian workers struggling for the basic rights American workers have for decades, if not more than a century, taken for granted.

There is absolutely no reason why Washington should not support Iranian labor. Because Iran’s Supreme Leader believes that he is the deputy of the messiah on earth and that his sovereignty comes from God, he cares little for what the Iranian people think or what they suffer. But, if Iranian labor unions force the government to be more accountable to the people, then even better; Iranians tend to be far more moderate than their government. If labor discord sparks civil unrest that undercuts the regime’s grasp on power, then that is no reason to shed a tear.

Rather than turn his back on the Iranian people as President Obama did in 2009, perhaps it’s time to channel the current unrest into a real strategy to empower the Iranian people vis-à-vis the regime which has brought nothing but suffering down upon them.

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Bill Clinton’s Disgraceful Comments About George W. Bush

Now that Bill Clinton has been welcomed into the home stretch of a close presidential race in order to help President Obama’s reelection efforts, the public is probably prepared to hear some whoppers. But yesterday, appearing on CNN with Fareed Zakaria, Clinton crossed a line:

ZAKARIA: Is Mitt Romney right that the only thing you can do with the Israeli-Palestinian issue is kick the can down the road?

CLINTON: No, it is accurate that the United States cannot make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. They have to do that. What we need to do is maximize the attractiveness of doing it and minimize the risks of doing it. We can do that.

And if you look at it, President Bush, when he took office, the second President Bush, I’ll never forget he said, “You know the names of every street in the old city and look what it got you. I’m not going to fool with this now.”

And immediately the death rate went up among Israelis and Palestinians because there was nothing going on.

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Now that Bill Clinton has been welcomed into the home stretch of a close presidential race in order to help President Obama’s reelection efforts, the public is probably prepared to hear some whoppers. But yesterday, appearing on CNN with Fareed Zakaria, Clinton crossed a line:

ZAKARIA: Is Mitt Romney right that the only thing you can do with the Israeli-Palestinian issue is kick the can down the road?

CLINTON: No, it is accurate that the United States cannot make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. They have to do that. What we need to do is maximize the attractiveness of doing it and minimize the risks of doing it. We can do that.

And if you look at it, President Bush, when he took office, the second President Bush, I’ll never forget he said, “You know the names of every street in the old city and look what it got you. I’m not going to fool with this now.”

And immediately the death rate went up among Israelis and Palestinians because there was nothing going on.

In reality, what was “going on” when the “death rate went up” at the beginning of the Bush administration? It was actually the Second Intifada, which began under… President Bill Clinton. Clinton is right that the “death rate” went up. Thousands died in the Palestinian terror war against Israelis civilians that began after the failure of the Clinton Camp David peace talks.

Nonetheless, was Clinton’s position that George W. Bush should encourage more peace talks between the Israelis and Yasser Arafat, despite the violence? It most certainly was not; in fact Clinton’s opinion was decidedly the opposite of that—and that’s exactly what he told Bush. From Martin Indyk’s memoir of the Clinton administration’s Mideast diplomacy—a book that is extremely positive toward Clinton:

On January 23, 2001, Bill Clinton was in his final hours as president. There was one piece of unfinished business he was determined to take care of: it was payback time for Yasser Arafat….

Now Clinton wanted to make it clear to the incoming administration just who they would be dealing with. He had already dwelt at length on Arafat’s perfidy while briefing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that morning. Now he called Colin Powell, the secretary of state-designate, who had earlier served as Clinton’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When the phone rang, Powell was dressing for a pre-inaugural concert. He was surprised to hear Clinton’s voice. “I just wanted to wish you all the best in your new position,” the president said. Then he launched into a vituperative, expletive-filled tirade against Arafat. Powell understood the real motive for the call. As he would recount it to me, the president warned him, “Don’t you ever trust that son of a bitch. He lied to me and he’ll lie to you.” Arafat had failed his people and destroyed the chances for peace, Clinton emphasized. “Don’t let Arafat sucker punch you like he did me.”

Clinton called everyone he could get an audience with to tell the administration not to deal with Arafat. The Palestinian chairman was a liar, and he “destroyed the chances for peace.” The Bush administration recognized this as well, but made a push for peace once Arafat was gone and the Palestinians had a chance to recalibrate after the succession of Mahmoud Abbas to Arafat’s place and the Gaza disengagement.

Why is it so important to call Clinton out on this every time he repeats it? Because in his quote to Zakaria he blames the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians during the Intifada on Bush. If that’s not what he meant to say, he should clarify immediately. But either way, he owes George W. Bush an apology.

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Obama “Incomplete” Already Changed to F

If memory serves, when I attended Columbia University only a few years before Barack Obama’s arrival on campus, the rule about “incompletes” was that you had a year to complete the course work before your grade was converted from an “I” to an “F.” That somber warning–given to students who were able to procure a pass for not handing in a term paper, taking the final exam or missing classes for one reason or another–was brought to mind by the statement made over the weekend by the only Columbia grad ever elected president that his grade for handling the economy ought to be an “incomplete.”

Republicans are pouncing on this by pointing out, as the Romney campaign said, that it is absurd to ask the American people to re-elect a man who can’t even give himself a passing grade. Nevertheless, contrary to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an incomplete is not equivalent to failure. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances that ought to mandate extra time for a student to satisfy course requirements. But Obama’s alibi, repeated by Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter–blaming it all on George W. Bush–doesn’t meet the Columbia standard. Asking for an extra year or even two before being held responsible for the state of the nation is not unreasonable. Asking for four or more years before you can be graded gets you an F at Columbia, Harvard, Occidental, the University of Chicago or any other institution the president was associated with.

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If memory serves, when I attended Columbia University only a few years before Barack Obama’s arrival on campus, the rule about “incompletes” was that you had a year to complete the course work before your grade was converted from an “I” to an “F.” That somber warning–given to students who were able to procure a pass for not handing in a term paper, taking the final exam or missing classes for one reason or another–was brought to mind by the statement made over the weekend by the only Columbia grad ever elected president that his grade for handling the economy ought to be an “incomplete.”

Republicans are pouncing on this by pointing out, as the Romney campaign said, that it is absurd to ask the American people to re-elect a man who can’t even give himself a passing grade. Nevertheless, contrary to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an incomplete is not equivalent to failure. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances that ought to mandate extra time for a student to satisfy course requirements. But Obama’s alibi, repeated by Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter–blaming it all on George W. Bush–doesn’t meet the Columbia standard. Asking for an extra year or even two before being held responsible for the state of the nation is not unreasonable. Asking for four or more years before you can be graded gets you an F at Columbia, Harvard, Occidental, the University of Chicago or any other institution the president was associated with.

As I wrote yesterday, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only president ever re-elected on the basis of an “incomplete.” But despite the attempt by Obama and Cutter and the rest of the Democrats to paint the situation in January 2009 as the moral equivalent of March 1933, the analogy falls flat. The downturn of 2008 was bad but it was no Great Depression. And Barack Obama’s stimulus boondoggle and Obamacare didn’t gain the support of the country the way FDR’s New Deal did.

Even an often foul-mouthed radical liberal MSNBC talker like Ed Schultz has admitted “a lot of Americans out there … don’t want to hear about Bush anymore.” Barack Obama can run against Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, but he can’t run on his record. As for that incomplete the president has given himself, after this much time it’s already been changed on his transcript to the “F” that he fears the voters will give him in November.

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Are We Better Off? Democrats Plead Guilty With an Explanation

Heading into their convention this week, leading Democrats are being asked a simple question about the administration they think Americans should re-elect in November: Are we better off today than we were four years ago? The answers have been variable, but they all have the feel of someone in the dock pleading “guilty with an explanation.”

Given the high unemployment rate, the lack of economic growth matched by a startling hike in the deficit fueled by administration spending programs, it’s little wonder that most Americans tell pollsters they are not better off and that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley admitted as much on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday: “No, but that’s not the question.” He amended that answer on CNN to say that we were but the damage was already done. Senior Obama campaign officials weren’t much better than O’Malley.

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Heading into their convention this week, leading Democrats are being asked a simple question about the administration they think Americans should re-elect in November: Are we better off today than we were four years ago? The answers have been variable, but they all have the feel of someone in the dock pleading “guilty with an explanation.”

Given the high unemployment rate, the lack of economic growth matched by a startling hike in the deficit fueled by administration spending programs, it’s little wonder that most Americans tell pollsters they are not better off and that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley admitted as much on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday: “No, but that’s not the question.” He amended that answer on CNN to say that we were but the damage was already done. Senior Obama campaign officials weren’t much better than O’Malley.

David Plouffe, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” tried to finesse it, and just said the country would be worse off if Mitt Romney wins. David Axelrod was similarly vague. But all agree that everything is George W. Bush’s fault and think President Obama should continue blaming his predecessor rather than owning up to the fact that things got worse on his watch and that he doesn’t have a plan for fixing that. All of which sets us up for a week in which Democrats will spend more time damning the 43rd president than extolling the virtues of his successor. That’s an odd strategy but one the Obama campaign feels is their only choice.

It may be that after three days of non-stop Bush-bashing, claims that the Republicans are liars and a defense of the status quo on entitlements, the Democrats will get some sort of a bounce out of their convention. All the while, they will be praying that the monthly jobs report due out on Friday will bring some good news rather than a negative report that might undo any positive vibes earned from the focus on their arguments.

Fairly or unfairly, President Bush is still deeply unpopular and blamed for an economic downturn caused more by a federal intervention in the housing market that was the doing of Democrats than anything he did. But what the Obama campaign is asking the voters to do is not so much to give him a second try as to veto a third term for Bush. That’s a neat trick if they can pull it off, but their claim that Republicans are trying to make voters forget about Bush’s record is complicated by a concurrent request that they also forget Obama’s. The nuanced answers to the “are you better off” queries betray the fact that Democrats understand that few believe a trillion-dollar stimulus boondoggle or the vast expansion of entitlements and government power created by ObamaCare has done anything to improve the nation’s lot.

John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday that, “For liberals, it’s always 1936” because they have never quite absorbed the fact that New Deal liberalism and contempt for conservatives is a relic of a vanished age. But in order to win this election, Democrats are faced with the difficult task of duplicating Franklin Roosevelt’s successful campaign for a second term by running against the man he defeated four years ago.

George W. Bush may not be quite as unpopular as Herbert Hoover was then but, as his absence from the GOP convention proved, he’s still a liability to his party. However, there is no comparison of the economy Obama inherited to the one FDR confronted. As much as Democrats are now retrospectively trying to paint the state of the nation in January 2009 as comparable to the Great Depression, I doubt many will buy it. FDR was the only president re-elected on the proposition that four years was not long enough for him to acquire ownership of the state of the nation. Democrats are betting their political lives that Obama can do the same under vastly different circumstances.

While in 1936 Roosevelt could claim to have at least improved the morale of the American people by giving them the impression that the country was heading in the right direction, Obama can’t.

Guilty with an explanation doesn’t usually work when it comes to evading fines for traffic tickets. We’re about to find out whether it can re-elect a president.

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The George W. Bush Alibi Doesn’t Cut It

The 43rd president is the man who didn’t come to dinner at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Other than a brief video tribute of President George W. Bush with his father President George H.W. Bush, the immediate past Republican president has been conspicuous not only by his absence from the convention but by the way he is never mentioned. There are good reasons for this. When Bush 43 left office he was deeply unpopular due to the Iraq war and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Tea partiers and conservatives also rightly deprecate his profligate spending.

But for all of his faults, George W. Bush doesn’t deserve the egregious abuse to which he has been subjected. And his brother Jeb went off script tonight at the convention to speak bluntly about the way his brother has been treated not only by the public but also by his successor. In paying tribute to his family Bush said, “I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe.” Then he spoke directly to the president and said, “Mr. President it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. You were dealt a tough hand but your policies have not worked.”

He’s right and though George W. Bush is the last person on earth that most Republicans want to talk about this week or during the campaign this fall, they should be taking direct aim at the idea that he can serve as an all-purpose alibi for every failure of the current administration. It’s been almost four years since Barack Obama was sworn into office and he still refuses to take responsibility for the state of the country. The weakness and cowardice of this stand is appalling. Jeb Bush was right to call him out on this. So should the rest of an ungrateful party that doesn’t appear to remember the job W did on 9/11 and its aftermath.

The 43rd president is the man who didn’t come to dinner at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Other than a brief video tribute of President George W. Bush with his father President George H.W. Bush, the immediate past Republican president has been conspicuous not only by his absence from the convention but by the way he is never mentioned. There are good reasons for this. When Bush 43 left office he was deeply unpopular due to the Iraq war and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Tea partiers and conservatives also rightly deprecate his profligate spending.

But for all of his faults, George W. Bush doesn’t deserve the egregious abuse to which he has been subjected. And his brother Jeb went off script tonight at the convention to speak bluntly about the way his brother has been treated not only by the public but also by his successor. In paying tribute to his family Bush said, “I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe.” Then he spoke directly to the president and said, “Mr. President it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. You were dealt a tough hand but your policies have not worked.”

He’s right and though George W. Bush is the last person on earth that most Republicans want to talk about this week or during the campaign this fall, they should be taking direct aim at the idea that he can serve as an all-purpose alibi for every failure of the current administration. It’s been almost four years since Barack Obama was sworn into office and he still refuses to take responsibility for the state of the country. The weakness and cowardice of this stand is appalling. Jeb Bush was right to call him out on this. So should the rest of an ungrateful party that doesn’t appear to remember the job W did on 9/11 and its aftermath.

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Isaac-Katrina Analogies Are Gift to Dems

The danger posed by Hurricane Isaac to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico may soon overtake the Republican National Convention as the top story of the week. The troubles of the GOP are rightly overshadowed by the potential for loss of life and property in the states bordering the Gulf. But while Republicans must sit back and watch and pray along with the rest of the country that the disaster is not as great as some fear, they will also be watching for liberal attempt to rehash the aftermath of the last big hurricane to pound New Orleans. While some in the party are grousing about the way the choice of a Florida city during the season of tropical storms has played havoc with the convention schedule, what they really ought to be worried about is the way the media will use the hurricane to rehearse the alleged sins of George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Though the post-invasion mess in Iraq is still thought of as the George W. Bush administration’s worst problem, the true turning point during his second term was what happened after the levees failed in New Orleans. Bush is staying away from Tampa, allowing Mitt Romney his week of glory without any reminders of his unpopular Republican predecessor. But courtesy of Isaac, the networks and cable TV channels are going to be able to put the 43rd president back in the public eye. More than the Democrats’ unseemly attempts at political guerrilla warfare in Tampa, any media hyping of the Isaac-Katrina analogy will be both a distraction from the GOP convention narrative and a way to bludgeon the Republicans by digging up the canards hurled at Bush back in 2005.

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The danger posed by Hurricane Isaac to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico may soon overtake the Republican National Convention as the top story of the week. The troubles of the GOP are rightly overshadowed by the potential for loss of life and property in the states bordering the Gulf. But while Republicans must sit back and watch and pray along with the rest of the country that the disaster is not as great as some fear, they will also be watching for liberal attempt to rehash the aftermath of the last big hurricane to pound New Orleans. While some in the party are grousing about the way the choice of a Florida city during the season of tropical storms has played havoc with the convention schedule, what they really ought to be worried about is the way the media will use the hurricane to rehearse the alleged sins of George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Though the post-invasion mess in Iraq is still thought of as the George W. Bush administration’s worst problem, the true turning point during his second term was what happened after the levees failed in New Orleans. Bush is staying away from Tampa, allowing Mitt Romney his week of glory without any reminders of his unpopular Republican predecessor. But courtesy of Isaac, the networks and cable TV channels are going to be able to put the 43rd president back in the public eye. More than the Democrats’ unseemly attempts at political guerrilla warfare in Tampa, any media hyping of the Isaac-Katrina analogy will be both a distraction from the GOP convention narrative and a way to bludgeon the Republicans by digging up the canards hurled at Bush back in 2005.

Bush never really recovered from the widespread impression that his appointees were not on top of the crisis and the publicized delays in getting federal help to the stricken city. The collapse of local authority, the way first responders fled and the abdication of responsibility by both the city and state of Louisiana had far more to do with the crisis than anything the federal government did. But it was Bush who got the lion’s share of the blame. The plight of the poor refugees in the Superdome wasn’t merely put on his shoulders but falsely asserted as proof of administration racism.

Should President Obama decide to arrive on the scene of any flooding or damage this week, it will not merely upstage the GOP infomercial. It will also be a not-so-subtle reinforcement of his recurring campaign theme in which he blames everything that’s wrong with the country on his predecessor.

Hurricane Isaac won’t fix the country’s economy or lower unemployment, which are the real obstacles to the president’s re-election. But the timing and the path of the storm may provide the Democrats with an unexpected bonus of campaign fodder that could undermine any GOP hopes for a post-convention bounce. And there’s absolutely nothing the Republicans can do about it except pray that the hurricane proves to be a minor annoyance to the Gulf rather than a full-scale disaster. Residents of the coastal region, both Democrats and Republicans, will be praying along with them.

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The Human Drama of Saving Lives

The Daily Caller links to a video of a speech in which Elton John praises former President George W. Bush and “conservative American politicians” for pledging billions of dollars to “save the lives of Africans with HIV.”

“We’ve seen George W. Bush and conservative American politicians pledge tens of billions to save the lives of Africans with HIV. Think of all the love. Think of where we’d be without it, nowhere, that’s where. We’d be nowhere at all,” John said at the International AIDS conference in Washington on Monday. “Thanks to all this compassion, thanks to all this love, more than 8 million people are in treatment. Thanks to people who have chosen to care and to act, we can see an end to this epidemic on the horizon.”

Elton John is onto something, as this story in the Washington Post makes clear. It reports that leaders in AIDS vaccine research say they may finally be on the cusp of a period of major discovery leading to a vaccine. “The past few years have been a turning point,” said Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve probably ever been in my career.”

As for President Bush, in 2003 he announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest program in history to fight a single disease. The plan included $15 billion over five years to promote prevention, treatment, and compassionate care, mainly in Africa. Many at the time were skeptical that large-scale AIDS treatment was even possible in the developing world. But a study at the University of British Columbia found that PEPFAR saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years.

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The Daily Caller links to a video of a speech in which Elton John praises former President George W. Bush and “conservative American politicians” for pledging billions of dollars to “save the lives of Africans with HIV.”

“We’ve seen George W. Bush and conservative American politicians pledge tens of billions to save the lives of Africans with HIV. Think of all the love. Think of where we’d be without it, nowhere, that’s where. We’d be nowhere at all,” John said at the International AIDS conference in Washington on Monday. “Thanks to all this compassion, thanks to all this love, more than 8 million people are in treatment. Thanks to people who have chosen to care and to act, we can see an end to this epidemic on the horizon.”

Elton John is onto something, as this story in the Washington Post makes clear. It reports that leaders in AIDS vaccine research say they may finally be on the cusp of a period of major discovery leading to a vaccine. “The past few years have been a turning point,” said Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve probably ever been in my career.”

As for President Bush, in 2003 he announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest program in history to fight a single disease. The plan included $15 billion over five years to promote prevention, treatment, and compassionate care, mainly in Africa. Many at the time were skeptical that large-scale AIDS treatment was even possible in the developing world. But a study at the University of British Columbia found that PEPFAR saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years.

It has never been clear to me why this achievement is celebrated more by those on the left (like Elton John and Bono) than on the right. Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the disease and its early association in this country with the gay community. Perhaps it’s because such enormous good was achieved through the instrument of the federal government, which conservatives are instinctively wary of. Or perhaps it’s because the disease has historically afflicted people who have, in different ways and to varying degrees, been marginalized and are not part of the conservative coalition: gays, African villagers, IV drug users, and minorities in America.

To be clear: conservatives haven’t denigrated the global AIDS initiative; it’s simply that it has never really registered with them. It hasn’t touched their moral imagination.

We are all drawn to different things and animated by different causes. But I would have thought that an effort that has so clearly served the cause of human dignity – that has saved so many lives and prevented so much suffering – would be one that people of every political persuasion, including conservatives (particularly social conservatives and those active in the pro-life movement), would be held up far more often than it is. The global AIDS initiative has been an extraordinary human achievement that fits our national character.

I understand that discussing AIDS policy may not make for riveting political theater. But there is also a great human drama in emancipating millions of people from the bondage of fear and the grip of death; and there is great drama, too, in the story of a moral leader who was able to bend history in the direction of justice.

Leave it to Elton John to point that out.

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W’s Self-Imposed GOP Exile

Friday’s announcement that former President George W. Bush would not attend the Republican National Convention came as no surprise to political observers. Less than four years after leaving the White House, the second President Bush remains unpopular and is widely considered a political liability to his party. But the decision is about more than the fact that his presence at the convention might have been considered an unneeded distraction by the Romney campaign even if they would never say so publicly. As much as moving on from Bush is thought to be necessary for a GOP victory this fall, it also reflects a certain distaste for contemporary politics on the part of the former president.

In an interview on National Review Online’s “Uncommon Knowledge” program, Bush said: “I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in.” While his decision to remain aloof from partisanship is praiseworthy in that it shows his respect for the office he held and a belief that interference from past presidents is usually unhelpful, I think Bush’s self-imposed exile isn’t healthy for American political culture.

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Friday’s announcement that former President George W. Bush would not attend the Republican National Convention came as no surprise to political observers. Less than four years after leaving the White House, the second President Bush remains unpopular and is widely considered a political liability to his party. But the decision is about more than the fact that his presence at the convention might have been considered an unneeded distraction by the Romney campaign even if they would never say so publicly. As much as moving on from Bush is thought to be necessary for a GOP victory this fall, it also reflects a certain distaste for contemporary politics on the part of the former president.

In an interview on National Review Online’s “Uncommon Knowledge” program, Bush said: “I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in.” While his decision to remain aloof from partisanship is praiseworthy in that it shows his respect for the office he held and a belief that interference from past presidents is usually unhelpful, I think Bush’s self-imposed exile isn’t healthy for American political culture.

It is true that the last thing Republicans need is to give their opponents a chance to tie Mitt Romney to George W. Bush. Four years after succeeding W, President Obama is still blaming the 43rd president for all of his and the country’s problems. Bush’s second term was a perfect storm of problems that ranged from Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq War and left him politically crippled. It should also be admitted that some of his policies on spending and the expansion of entitlements are deeply unpopular with most Republicans these days.

But the idea that the immediate past president cannot show up at his party’s convention — a distinction he will now share with modern Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — is unfortunate for Bush, Republicans and the country.

For all of the mistakes made during his eight years in the White House, Bush remained to the end a moral voice who reflected the decency and faith of most Americans. It also bears pointing out that the man who entered the presidency vowing to differentiate himself in every conceivable manner from Bush wound up continuing the policies on fighting terrorism that he decried while campaigning in 2008. All this points to what will be Bush’s inevitable rehabilitation in another generation or two, once the hate-filled invective directed at him fades from memory and his achievements can be viewed through a prism that is not distorted by second-guessing about the invasion of Iraq.

Bush isn’t staying completely quiet. He has authored a serious book about policy and recently visited Africa to follow up on the AIDS initiatives and other efforts to help there that he began in the White House (and for which he has not received a fraction of the credit he deserves).

But he’s wrong if he thinks he has nothing to contribute to the political debates of the day. The idea that ex-presidents should, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus, simply go home and resume life as private citizens is noble, but only to a point. Just as no one believes there is anything wrong with Bill Clinton speaking up about issues, the American people would benefit from W’s perspective. He has good reason to think he is well out of the swamp, but like it or not, that is where the nation is governed and where political ideas must be debated.

It was inevitable that Bush would decline to attend the Tampa convention and will probably remain out of sight during the campaign. He’s right when he says Romney can win without him. But let’s hope this is the last presidential election during which W will think it is the better part of valor to go to ground. We would all be better off if his voice was heard more often in the future.

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