Commentary Magazine


Topic: House of Cards

To Play the King: Bibi’s Gamble

The second season of the original House of Cards trilogy revolves around the British prime minister’s open feud with the king of England. The Crown is supposed to be apolitical, or at least nonpartisan, and eventually Prime Minister Francis Urquhart bests the king in the court of public opinion. The plot culminates in Urquhart visiting the king to demand he abdicate the throne.

The plot would be more realistic (though less dramatic) if it took place in a parliamentary democracy that is not a monarchical system, where the ceremonial head of state may very well clash with the head of government because he is likely to come from within the political sphere, not hover above it like a royal figurehead. Such is the case in Israel, where the president–currently Shimon Peres–hasn’t much power except one important decision: his blessing must be sought and received for the formation of a governing coalition.

The general practice is that the party that wins the most seats in the preceding Knesset election gets the nod. But the fragmentation of Israeli party politics has made this less than a sure thing. Peres is retiring after his term is up, and the race to succeed him has taken a strange turn. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to avoid a House of Cards-like situation where he must contend with a political animal. Yet while Urquhart’s ploy was to dethrone a king to “save” the monarchy, Netanyahu had a different idea: get rid of the presidency altogether.

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The second season of the original House of Cards trilogy revolves around the British prime minister’s open feud with the king of England. The Crown is supposed to be apolitical, or at least nonpartisan, and eventually Prime Minister Francis Urquhart bests the king in the court of public opinion. The plot culminates in Urquhart visiting the king to demand he abdicate the throne.

The plot would be more realistic (though less dramatic) if it took place in a parliamentary democracy that is not a monarchical system, where the ceremonial head of state may very well clash with the head of government because he is likely to come from within the political sphere, not hover above it like a royal figurehead. Such is the case in Israel, where the president–currently Shimon Peres–hasn’t much power except one important decision: his blessing must be sought and received for the formation of a governing coalition.

The general practice is that the party that wins the most seats in the preceding Knesset election gets the nod. But the fragmentation of Israeli party politics has made this less than a sure thing. Peres is retiring after his term is up, and the race to succeed him has taken a strange turn. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to avoid a House of Cards-like situation where he must contend with a political animal. Yet while Urquhart’s ploy was to dethrone a king to “save” the monarchy, Netanyahu had a different idea: get rid of the presidency altogether.

This was too clever by half, but there was logic to it. Netanyahu has presided over an unusually stable term as prime minister. Part of that is due to his political instincts and part to the fact that his Likud resides at the precise point on Israel’s ideological spectrum so as to maximize public support. The country is center-right, and so is Likud. The Israeli left has been in freefall since the collapse of the Clinton parameters and the second intifada, and the effort to draft disgraced former prime minister Ehud Olmert–egged on by American journalists who suffer from Bibi Derangement Syndrome far more than the Israelis who would actually have to live under another Olmert administration–collapsed as expected.

That means the main intrigue has been who Bibi’s coalition partners will be. The truth is, he doesn’t care too much, because the Israeli political equilibrium virtually guarantees that his coalition partners will usually include some religious/ethnic minority representation and a secular nationalist party, with some room for token peace processers like Tzipi Livni. All Netanyahu really cares about is that he presides over that coalition, the outlines of which have remained remarkably stable in recent elections.

That leaves one real threat to Netanyahu’s premiership: the president, because theoretically the president could simply offer the ability to form a governing coalition to the head of one of the other major parties. This can be more democratic than it sounds: Livni, after all, bested Netanyahu in the vote count in 2009 but couldn’t form a coalition. Yet the only reason she won the election was because the public assumed Bibi’s Likud had it in the bag and so they shifted some votes to other right-of-center parties to ensure a center-right coalition led by Likud. And that’s what they got.

Netanyahu is apparently concerned that he could be a victim of the right’s own success. That is, there are so many right-of-center vote-getters that it’s conceivable a coalition could be formed without Netanyahu’s Likud at the head of it. It’s probably a long shot, but it’s the one way a restless right wing could get around Netanyahu’s hold on power.

His plan, then, was to find a way to delay the presidential election so he could get through the Knesset a bill that would abolish the presidency and make the leading vote-getter automatically the prime minister. Just a few years ago, such a move would have kept Netanyahu out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Not so today.

But in practice, the plan ran aground. Such a bill would have approximately zero percent chance of passing. So while it’s understandable that Netanyahu would want this, it’s difficult to picture a way for it to happen. It should be noted that an Israeli president meddling in party politics is far from unheard of. This is easily forgotten because the post is currently held by elder statesman extraordinaire Shimon Peres, who is 90 and has been fighting for Israel since before Netanyahu was born. Peres revels in the ceremonial job, and he’s more than earned it. He is also a man of the left.

The primary threat to Netanyahu comes from the right, not the left. That is, if a right-winger with an axe to grind were to win the presidency, he might be tempted to empower one of Netanyahu’s rivals. Peres has no desire to elevate anyone to Bibi’s right. The race thus far has been a bit nasty, with allegations of long-ago misconduct already chasing Likud’s Silvan Shalom from the contest. Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and Hatnua’s Meir Sheetrit are among the candidates for the election, currently scheduled for June 10.

Netanyahu’s gamble will probably not do him any lasting damage. But neither does it seem to have been worth the trouble. Bibi is no Francis Urquhart, and he is not up against royalty. The man most likely to get in Benjamin Netanyahu’s way remains, it seems, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Don’t Mourn the Passing of Robert Strauss’s Washington

The death of Washington fixer extraordinaire Robert Strauss at 95 this week is being noted as a reminder of a bygone era that has vanished from the scene. Strauss was, by any standard, a remarkable figure in 20th century American political history. The Texas-born lawyer founded Akin Gump, one of the capital’s most powerful law firms and played a pivotal role in Democratic Party politics for decades. He helped elect one president—Jimmy Carter—was a friend to several others, including Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and served both Democrats and Republicans in high office.

As the appreciations that have been written about his life have all agreed, he was a unique “character.” His keen political instincts, colorful language, and smooth manner helped him amass great influence and allowed him to play both ends against the middle throughout his career. Strauss was said to have embodied a Washington where partisan differences were muted. His D.C. was the sort of place where Republicans and Democrats might have used some sharp elbows on each other on the floors of Congress and on the campaign trail. But they could always relax with each other and, more importantly, do business and cooperate behind the scenes to advance Strauss’s perennial agenda of “making the government work.”

But while Strauss deserves credit for his rise from obscurity as the lone Jewish boy in a small Texas town to the toast of Capitol Hill, we should not be mourning the passing of his Washington. For all of his gifts, Strauss exemplified a kind of politics that was, at its heart, unprincipled and, above all, self-interested. Pundits lament the hyper-partisan nature of D.C. politics today in which ideologues on both sides of the aisle dominate and often make compromise impossible. But the notion that we were better off in an era when “go along to get along” produced a government that was unaccountable and worked primarily to help enrich political elites at the expense of the taxpayers is the product of a dangerous kind of amnesia.

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The death of Washington fixer extraordinaire Robert Strauss at 95 this week is being noted as a reminder of a bygone era that has vanished from the scene. Strauss was, by any standard, a remarkable figure in 20th century American political history. The Texas-born lawyer founded Akin Gump, one of the capital’s most powerful law firms and played a pivotal role in Democratic Party politics for decades. He helped elect one president—Jimmy Carter—was a friend to several others, including Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and served both Democrats and Republicans in high office.

As the appreciations that have been written about his life have all agreed, he was a unique “character.” His keen political instincts, colorful language, and smooth manner helped him amass great influence and allowed him to play both ends against the middle throughout his career. Strauss was said to have embodied a Washington where partisan differences were muted. His D.C. was the sort of place where Republicans and Democrats might have used some sharp elbows on each other on the floors of Congress and on the campaign trail. But they could always relax with each other and, more importantly, do business and cooperate behind the scenes to advance Strauss’s perennial agenda of “making the government work.”

But while Strauss deserves credit for his rise from obscurity as the lone Jewish boy in a small Texas town to the toast of Capitol Hill, we should not be mourning the passing of his Washington. For all of his gifts, Strauss exemplified a kind of politics that was, at its heart, unprincipled and, above all, self-interested. Pundits lament the hyper-partisan nature of D.C. politics today in which ideologues on both sides of the aisle dominate and often make compromise impossible. But the notion that we were better off in an era when “go along to get along” produced a government that was unaccountable and worked primarily to help enrich political elites at the expense of the taxpayers is the product of a dangerous kind of amnesia.

Even if his ability to enrich himself and his clients by positioning himself at the public trough is inherently unseemly, the tale of Strauss’s gleeful ascent up the greasy pole is nevertheless a good story in which it is hard to root against him. Strauss’s allergic reaction to ideology has caused more than one writer to compare him to the protagonist of House of Cards. That seems a bit extreme (no one has accused Strauss of murder, let alone the kind of political skullduggery that the fictional Frank Underwood commits) but in an era in which we have grown tired of ideologues, perhaps it’s understandable that there is nostalgia for a time when a fixer could sit down with party leaders and make a deal that both sides might profit from. Many of us are weary of people like Ted Cruz, with their uncompromising approach to politics that might, at least occasionally, be improved by a touch of Straussian pragmatism.

Yet a chorus of querulous Cruz clones endlessly bickering on points of principle would far better serve the nation than a new generation of Bob Strausses orchestrating things from the sideline. There was something profoundly wrong about the influence of figures like Strauss and not just because, as Michael Kinsley famously wrote of him, he was “99 percent hot air.” Rather it was because a political system dominated by men and women who clearly believed in nothing and whose primary motivation was to game the system prevented accountability and ultimately undermined democracy itself.

We sometimes forget that it was the reality of a Washington in which Strauss was not an outlier that gave rise to the revolution on the right led by New Gingrich in the late ’80s and ’90s and then eventually to today’s Tea Party. Americans may not want their government to be shut down over partisan quarrels, but they also understand that a Congress and a D.C. establishment that eschews ideology is one that is in the pockets of the lobbyists rather than working for the people. It’s OK to chuckle at the colorful anecdotes being recounted today of Strauss’s influence peddling and bipartisan deal making. But let’s never be so annoyed with the Ted Cruzes of the world that we think we’ll be better off with a return to his Washington.

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House of Cards? Obama and Democracy

Nobody should blame President Obama for enjoying the Netflix political thriller House of Cards. Indeed, the show’s millions of fans (including me) probably sympathized with the commander in chief when he pleaded for access to advance copies of the series’ second season that is due out next year when high-tech execs (including the head of Netflix) came to the White House to discuss important issues, like how to build a functional website. But I wasn’t quite so amused by the president’s much-quoted remarks in which he purported to envy the ability of the show’s villain Frank Underwood to do what he likes.

 “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked at a meeting with tech CEOs on Tuesday, according to a White House pool report.

We’re supposed to chuckle at this comment and regard it as an understandable expression of frustration by the president at the inability of Congress to do its job. But I’m afraid this crack tells us more about Obama’s way of governing that it does about the fact that neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can teach Frank Underwood much about passing legislation. The fact is, for five years Obama has sat in the White House and acted as if he had as little interest in accommodating the positions of his political foes as Underwood does. The problem isn’t that the West Wing and its congressional allies aren’t as “ruthlessly efficient” as the wicked Underwood, it’s that he has as negative an attitude toward the normal business of democracy as the character played by actor Kevin Spacey.

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Nobody should blame President Obama for enjoying the Netflix political thriller House of Cards. Indeed, the show’s millions of fans (including me) probably sympathized with the commander in chief when he pleaded for access to advance copies of the series’ second season that is due out next year when high-tech execs (including the head of Netflix) came to the White House to discuss important issues, like how to build a functional website. But I wasn’t quite so amused by the president’s much-quoted remarks in which he purported to envy the ability of the show’s villain Frank Underwood to do what he likes.

 “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked at a meeting with tech CEOs on Tuesday, according to a White House pool report.

We’re supposed to chuckle at this comment and regard it as an understandable expression of frustration by the president at the inability of Congress to do its job. But I’m afraid this crack tells us more about Obama’s way of governing that it does about the fact that neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can teach Frank Underwood much about passing legislation. The fact is, for five years Obama has sat in the White House and acted as if he had as little interest in accommodating the positions of his political foes as Underwood does. The problem isn’t that the West Wing and its congressional allies aren’t as “ruthlessly efficient” as the wicked Underwood, it’s that he has as negative an attitude toward the normal business of democracy as the character played by actor Kevin Spacey.

That sounds a little harsh so let me specify that, as much as I disagree with most of his policies, I haven’t joined the tin-foil hat brigade. I am not accusing the president of enacting wicked conspiracies aimed at subverting every notion of decency in a cold-blooded putsch to achieve total power as Frank does. Nor do I think he got to the White House by cheating or sabotaging his opponents as did Francis Urquhart, the protagonist of the far wittier but less darkly thrilling original British version of House of Cards.

But I do think that throughout his presidency he has demonstrated a studied contempt for the business of democracy. Not since Jimmy Carter have we had a president who was as uncomfortable working with members of Congress of his own party, let alone those from the opposition. Even more to the point, this is as top-down an administration as any in recent memory. Foreign policy has been largely dictated from the White House, as have efforts to push priorities in other areas. Partly this reflects the president’s high opinion of himself and his distrust, if not disdain, for the opinions of others. As his cabinet choices have shown (especially in his second term), with a few prominent exceptions (Hillary Clinton being one), this is a president who prefers yes men and women to strong leaders running departments. The echo chamber in the West Wing that has made it insensible to the opinions of Congress or the pubic when it comes to the president’s pet projects is a reflection of this attitude.

It should be noted that in the show, Underwood has shown a dogged talent for negotiation that Obama lacks, even if, in the end, the character gets his way more by underhanded tactics than give and take. But he shares the president’s desire to have his own way at all costs. In the program’s fictional Washington where the anti-hero can do as he likes, “ruthless efficiency” can be achieved. But in the real Washington, Obama’s desire for acclimation of his every ideological whim is always bound to be frustrated by a constitutional system of checks and balances that allows the views of the minority to be heard and even at times to stop those of the president and the majority.

The genius of the American political system is that it is antithetical to “ruthless efficiency” because it was set up to thwart would-be presidential dictators, congressional majorities, and even the fleeting sentiments of public opinion as expressed in the House of Representatives (elected every two years) and not to let them run roughshod over their opponents.

The president may want us to think his talk about envying Underwood was entirely humorous but, contrary to his less comical public statements about Congress, the trouble with Washington in the age of Obama isn’t that too many voices are heard but that we have a president who listens to no one but himself and an inner circle that seems to be afraid to contradict him. While efficiency would be nice, what the country needs is a president more inclined to work with Congress in the normal, non-dramatic manner that gets the best results in the Capitol, not the ruthless fantasy Obama harbors.

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