Commentary Magazine


Topic: sitting president

The Obama Primary Challenger Issue and Why It’s Misunderstood

With angry leftists starting to discuss the possibility of a primary challenge to Barack Obama, the general reaction from serious and clever political observers has been that the idea is a preposterous one. Ed Kilgore on the New Republic‘s website (trans-ideological congratulations, by the way, to TNR’s new editor, Richard Just), my former colleague Jennifer Rubin on the WaPo site, Dave Weigel in Slate, and many others have sensibly pointed out that such a challenge would be doomed. Obama’s approval ratings among Democrats is in the 80s and not much lower among liberals (despite the outrage this week about the tax-cut deal).

The fact that Obama can surely depend on nearly universal support from black Democrats makes a primary challenge even more unlikely, they say. And not only unlikely, but pointless. Rather than achieving the near-win Eugene McCarthy scored in the 1968 Democratic primary in New Hampshire against sitting president LBJ or Pat Buchanan’s getting 38 percent against Bush the Elder in 1992, Weigel suggests that the outcome would be more like the foolish bid by Ohio Republican Rep. John Ashbrook against Richard Nixon in 1972 from the right, when Ashbrook got 9 percent there.

All worth considering. But in Kilgore’s case, the wish is father to the thought; he doesn’t want a challenge and is offering an analysis intended to talk interested Democrats and leftists out of attempting one. Weigel is giving voice to the “Oh, come on” school oft affected by those who spend most of their time thinking about politics and can’t imagine why anybody would make a political move that seems fruitless.

But here’s the thing. An Obama primary challenger wouldn’t be getting in the race to win. Pat Buchanan didn’t think he’d win, and I don’t think Eugene McCarthy thought so either. The question is whether a collection of factors next year — continued weakness in the economy and the fact that we haven’t pulled out of Afghanistan — creates the conditions under which a primary challenge will be staged. The point, which I make in my COMMENTARY article this month, is that one would arise in that instance because, in effect, the dynamic of the American political system would demand it. Read More

With angry leftists starting to discuss the possibility of a primary challenge to Barack Obama, the general reaction from serious and clever political observers has been that the idea is a preposterous one. Ed Kilgore on the New Republic‘s website (trans-ideological congratulations, by the way, to TNR’s new editor, Richard Just), my former colleague Jennifer Rubin on the WaPo site, Dave Weigel in Slate, and many others have sensibly pointed out that such a challenge would be doomed. Obama’s approval ratings among Democrats is in the 80s and not much lower among liberals (despite the outrage this week about the tax-cut deal).

The fact that Obama can surely depend on nearly universal support from black Democrats makes a primary challenge even more unlikely, they say. And not only unlikely, but pointless. Rather than achieving the near-win Eugene McCarthy scored in the 1968 Democratic primary in New Hampshire against sitting president LBJ or Pat Buchanan’s getting 38 percent against Bush the Elder in 1992, Weigel suggests that the outcome would be more like the foolish bid by Ohio Republican Rep. John Ashbrook against Richard Nixon in 1972 from the right, when Ashbrook got 9 percent there.

All worth considering. But in Kilgore’s case, the wish is father to the thought; he doesn’t want a challenge and is offering an analysis intended to talk interested Democrats and leftists out of attempting one. Weigel is giving voice to the “Oh, come on” school oft affected by those who spend most of their time thinking about politics and can’t imagine why anybody would make a political move that seems fruitless.

But here’s the thing. An Obama primary challenger wouldn’t be getting in the race to win. Pat Buchanan didn’t think he’d win, and I don’t think Eugene McCarthy thought so either. The question is whether a collection of factors next year — continued weakness in the economy and the fact that we haven’t pulled out of Afghanistan — creates the conditions under which a primary challenge will be staged. The point, which I make in my COMMENTARY article this month, is that one would arise in that instance because, in effect, the dynamic of the American political system would demand it.

First, presume that, if the status quo remains largely unchanged, Obama’s support will decline somewhat among Democrats and liberals. They won’t like the state of things; he’ll start to smell like a loser and people tend to desert losers; and many will be genuinely angry that his ideological concessions on taxes and war have not improved matters from their perspective. Someone would do it at that point because (and this sounds sentimental, but isn’t) he actually does hear the leftist body politic crying out for someone to represent its views. Protest candidacies are not about victory, which is why Hillary Clinton won’t stage one; they’re about protest.

Also remember that the cost of entry for a protest candidate is far lower than people realize. One would get in to make a showing in New Hampshire, which is not expensive to run in — and a protest candidacy that gets any kind of purchase will, in any case, be able to raise money very fast. (If Christine O’Donnell can raise a few million dollars in three days, so can Russ Feingold under the right circumstances, like the Huffington Post’s pushing his campaign.) The question then would be what kind of showing such a person could make in that one state. As it happens, it might well be built to help a leftist protest candidate.

For one thing, African Americans make up less than 2 percent of the population of New Hampshire. (Remember: Hillary Clinton won here in 2008.) For another, independents can vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which could allow some genuinely angry people to cast protest votes just to send Obama a message, even though such people would probably end up voting Republican in November 2012.

I have no idea whether there will be such a candidate, because I have no idea what things will look like next fall. I do know that if a candidate turns out to be less like Ashbrook and more like Buchanan, Obama will be in serious trouble. (Read my piece to find out more.) Right now, it is as foolish to presume there won’t be one, or to argue that such a candidate would be unable to make a bid damaging to Obama, as it would be to presume one will definitely rise up to challenge him.

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A Possible Obama Primary Challenge

Last night, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann interviewed the filmmaker Michael Moore. Both of them are disgusted with the Democratic Party and its leadership. Now Olbermann and Moore inhabit a fantasy world in which Democrats are failing not because they passed ObamaCare but because they don’t have the courage to trumpet their support for it. Democrats, you see, are too spineless and too passive, not willing to thump their chests to celebrate their role in passing incredibly unpopular legislation.

This is what happens to dogmatic people when their grand ideological ambitions fail. It cannot be because of any defects in their ideology; the problem must rest with weak-willed politicians who aren’t aggressive enough to fight on behalf of their ideology. They don’t have the courage of their convictions.

This critique is of course ludicrous. But for President Obama, it highlights a serious threat: in the aftermath of the forthcoming midterm elections, where Democrats are going to suffer enormous losses, liberals will grow more angry, more disillusioned, and more disgusted with Obama and the Democratic Party establishment. They will blame the election losses on them, not on liberalism; and quicker than you can imagine, the defections will begin. And if Obama doesn’t begin to turn things around in 2011, he may well face a challenge from within his own party.

That might seem unthinkable now — but let’s see where things stand on November 3, when the recriminations get really ugly.

Failed presidencies elicit primary challenges. Just ask Jimmy Carter.

We’re clearly not at this point yet, of course, and a challenge to Obama is still more unlikely than not. And we haven’t seen a sitting president dislodged since LBJ. (Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire primary; Johnson withdrew shortly after that, and Hubert Humphrey went on to win the Democratic nomination.) But you can count on this: to protect liberalism, the left will jettison even Obama if it deems it necessary for The Cause. If Obama remains or becomes increasingly radioactive in 2011, liberals will seek to separate their movement from a deeply unpopular president. And the man who in the past has been so quick to throw others (like Jeremiah Wright) under the bus may find himself suffering a similar fate. The cruelest cut of all, of course, would be for this act to come courtesy of those who were once Obama’s more worshipful supporters.

That is part of the danger of having built a campaign on a cult of personality.

Last night, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann interviewed the filmmaker Michael Moore. Both of them are disgusted with the Democratic Party and its leadership. Now Olbermann and Moore inhabit a fantasy world in which Democrats are failing not because they passed ObamaCare but because they don’t have the courage to trumpet their support for it. Democrats, you see, are too spineless and too passive, not willing to thump their chests to celebrate their role in passing incredibly unpopular legislation.

This is what happens to dogmatic people when their grand ideological ambitions fail. It cannot be because of any defects in their ideology; the problem must rest with weak-willed politicians who aren’t aggressive enough to fight on behalf of their ideology. They don’t have the courage of their convictions.

This critique is of course ludicrous. But for President Obama, it highlights a serious threat: in the aftermath of the forthcoming midterm elections, where Democrats are going to suffer enormous losses, liberals will grow more angry, more disillusioned, and more disgusted with Obama and the Democratic Party establishment. They will blame the election losses on them, not on liberalism; and quicker than you can imagine, the defections will begin. And if Obama doesn’t begin to turn things around in 2011, he may well face a challenge from within his own party.

That might seem unthinkable now — but let’s see where things stand on November 3, when the recriminations get really ugly.

Failed presidencies elicit primary challenges. Just ask Jimmy Carter.

We’re clearly not at this point yet, of course, and a challenge to Obama is still more unlikely than not. And we haven’t seen a sitting president dislodged since LBJ. (Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire primary; Johnson withdrew shortly after that, and Hubert Humphrey went on to win the Democratic nomination.) But you can count on this: to protect liberalism, the left will jettison even Obama if it deems it necessary for The Cause. If Obama remains or becomes increasingly radioactive in 2011, liberals will seek to separate their movement from a deeply unpopular president. And the man who in the past has been so quick to throw others (like Jeremiah Wright) under the bus may find himself suffering a similar fate. The cruelest cut of all, of course, would be for this act to come courtesy of those who were once Obama’s more worshipful supporters.

That is part of the danger of having built a campaign on a cult of personality.

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The Problem with Newt

I suppose Newt Gingrich might thank Rand Paul and Richard Blumenthal, who took up nearly all the political oxygen and the “politicians hang themselves with their own words” stories. Had those individuals not been dominating the headlines, more attention would have been paid to Gingrich’s own comments, comparing liberal Democrats to the Nazis:

“In the 20th Century, America fought and defeated Nazism, fascism, imperialism and communism — four existential threats to our survival,” he wrote. “In this century, America is facing two different kinds of threats, though no less grave.”

The first threat the Gingrich listed was “non-state terrorist networks to kill Americans.”

“But even more disturbing than the threats from foreign terrorists is a second threat that is right here at home,” he wrote. “It is an ideology so fundamentally at odds with historic American values that it threatens to undo the cultural ethics that have made our country great. I call it ‘secular-socialism.’”

Yikes. No, Obamaism isn’t worse than the ideology of jihadist murderers. And the Nazi analogy shouldn’t be bandied about.

It was, alas, a reminder that Gingrich, while creative, smart, and rock solid on many issues that conservatives and Israel’s supporters hold dear, has a penchant for saying wild things. As Steven Calabresi wrote, after praising Gingrich’s ability to unite “economic, social, and foreign policy conservatives”:

The Democrats are not Nazis and socialists, however, and to succeed Gingrich has to show more self control than he did in 1995 right after Republicans took control of the House.

In a very real sense, Rand Paul is a warning to Republicans as they begin to consider 2012 contenders. Freshness, dynamism, and creativity have to be balanced by other qualities. We will — of course — be talking about the presidency, and in order to dislodge a sitting president, the Republican nominee will need to be sober, not prone to gaffes, and project the sense that he or she is worthy of the public’s trust. Americans took a flyer on Obama and, I suspect, will not be in the mood to roll the dice on an unpredictable challenger.

I suppose Newt Gingrich might thank Rand Paul and Richard Blumenthal, who took up nearly all the political oxygen and the “politicians hang themselves with their own words” stories. Had those individuals not been dominating the headlines, more attention would have been paid to Gingrich’s own comments, comparing liberal Democrats to the Nazis:

“In the 20th Century, America fought and defeated Nazism, fascism, imperialism and communism — four existential threats to our survival,” he wrote. “In this century, America is facing two different kinds of threats, though no less grave.”

The first threat the Gingrich listed was “non-state terrorist networks to kill Americans.”

“But even more disturbing than the threats from foreign terrorists is a second threat that is right here at home,” he wrote. “It is an ideology so fundamentally at odds with historic American values that it threatens to undo the cultural ethics that have made our country great. I call it ‘secular-socialism.’”

Yikes. No, Obamaism isn’t worse than the ideology of jihadist murderers. And the Nazi analogy shouldn’t be bandied about.

It was, alas, a reminder that Gingrich, while creative, smart, and rock solid on many issues that conservatives and Israel’s supporters hold dear, has a penchant for saying wild things. As Steven Calabresi wrote, after praising Gingrich’s ability to unite “economic, social, and foreign policy conservatives”:

The Democrats are not Nazis and socialists, however, and to succeed Gingrich has to show more self control than he did in 1995 right after Republicans took control of the House.

In a very real sense, Rand Paul is a warning to Republicans as they begin to consider 2012 contenders. Freshness, dynamism, and creativity have to be balanced by other qualities. We will — of course — be talking about the presidency, and in order to dislodge a sitting president, the Republican nominee will need to be sober, not prone to gaffes, and project the sense that he or she is worthy of the public’s trust. Americans took a flyer on Obama and, I suspect, will not be in the mood to roll the dice on an unpredictable challenger.

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The Women of Afghanistan

In a must-read piece, Valerie Hudson and Valerie Leidl recall the promise by coalition forces to liberate the women of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. It hasn’t worked out that way:

But the current administration, despite its female secretary of State and its new Office of Global Women’s Issues, appears to be ditching the women of Afghanistan like a blind date gone bad. You have to go back 10 months to find any sustained rhetoric from President Barack Obama about the importance of assuring the security of women in Afghanistan. Since then, and especially since last year’s Afghan election, those fine words from a sitting president have all but disappeared. Many of the fine actions are gone, too. Push local shuras into including women in 2002? Yes. Push local shuras into including women in 2010? Forget it.

Yes, we are trying to win a war. But we were supposed to be winning hearts and minds, too. It’s hard to see how that is happening:

[W]omen have taken a back seat to realpolitik and the exigencies of a coalition exit strategy. But their suffering is real, as Afghanistan’s poverty and chaos affect women possibly most of all. Maternal mortality in Afghanistan still makes the world’s top three list, nine years after the U.S. invasion, resulting in a life expectancy for women of 46. In the countryside, Taliban zealots spray acid into girls’ faces for going to school — and only 27 percent of them do so in the first place. According to a recent survey by the U.N. Development Fund for Women, 87 percent of Afghan women report being beaten on a regular basis.

The writers suggest that Obama “instill in all military personnel and senior diplomats the necessity of fully protecting women’s rights. Key to that is educating them about how gender equality furthers Western interests and security.” They argue for a full-court press:

[T]he coalition needs to support “regime change” through the building of democratic institutions that will groom a moderate, educated middle class of young women and men to eventually take over. Over two-thirds of the Afghan population is under the age of 25, which is either a real opportunity for social change — if they are educated and given a chance to shape their society in a progressive way — or a major obstacle, if they find themselves without jobs, unable to marry, and burdened with retrograde attitudes of what it means to be male and female.

We must hold Afghanistan responsible for its treaty obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security. Afghanistan signed CEDAW without reservations (the United States interestingly, has not), and that means that it has committed to passing whatever legislation is necessary to implement the wide-ranging principles of gender equality enshrined in that treaty.

And most important, we need to stay in Afghanistan: “Withdrawing at this critical juncture would doom Afghanistan and the entire region to instability and effectively consign one half of the population to premature death and an existence not fit for animals.”

The recommendations are hard enough to implement with an administration dedicated to and enthusiastic about human rights, but one can’t help but be glum given the Obama team’s utter lack of regard for human rights and reticence to speak out on behalf of the oppressed women and girls of the “Muslim World.”  It was a heavy lift to get Obama to commit troops for 18 months, and now he needs to start speaking forcefully about the abuse of women in the “Muslim World”? Yes, there is reason for pessimism. Nevertheless, there is no more productive or necessary undertaking.

A sage observer wrote earlier this year:

If through the good offices of our military—especially our women soldiers—we could help Afghani women unravel themselves from centuries of complicity in their own oppression and see themselves not as defiled, unclean, perpetually wanton creatures to be hidden away as if they were carriers of plague, but rather as noble members of the human race endowed with greatness and blessings: the giving of life, the tending to it mercifully and lovingly, and, most important, the imparting of lessons in real virtue—self-acceptance to their daughters and just plain acceptance to their sons—that would be gaining hearts and minds indeed.

Indeed.

In a must-read piece, Valerie Hudson and Valerie Leidl recall the promise by coalition forces to liberate the women of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. It hasn’t worked out that way:

But the current administration, despite its female secretary of State and its new Office of Global Women’s Issues, appears to be ditching the women of Afghanistan like a blind date gone bad. You have to go back 10 months to find any sustained rhetoric from President Barack Obama about the importance of assuring the security of women in Afghanistan. Since then, and especially since last year’s Afghan election, those fine words from a sitting president have all but disappeared. Many of the fine actions are gone, too. Push local shuras into including women in 2002? Yes. Push local shuras into including women in 2010? Forget it.

Yes, we are trying to win a war. But we were supposed to be winning hearts and minds, too. It’s hard to see how that is happening:

[W]omen have taken a back seat to realpolitik and the exigencies of a coalition exit strategy. But their suffering is real, as Afghanistan’s poverty and chaos affect women possibly most of all. Maternal mortality in Afghanistan still makes the world’s top three list, nine years after the U.S. invasion, resulting in a life expectancy for women of 46. In the countryside, Taliban zealots spray acid into girls’ faces for going to school — and only 27 percent of them do so in the first place. According to a recent survey by the U.N. Development Fund for Women, 87 percent of Afghan women report being beaten on a regular basis.

The writers suggest that Obama “instill in all military personnel and senior diplomats the necessity of fully protecting women’s rights. Key to that is educating them about how gender equality furthers Western interests and security.” They argue for a full-court press:

[T]he coalition needs to support “regime change” through the building of democratic institutions that will groom a moderate, educated middle class of young women and men to eventually take over. Over two-thirds of the Afghan population is under the age of 25, which is either a real opportunity for social change — if they are educated and given a chance to shape their society in a progressive way — or a major obstacle, if they find themselves without jobs, unable to marry, and burdened with retrograde attitudes of what it means to be male and female.

We must hold Afghanistan responsible for its treaty obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security. Afghanistan signed CEDAW without reservations (the United States interestingly, has not), and that means that it has committed to passing whatever legislation is necessary to implement the wide-ranging principles of gender equality enshrined in that treaty.

And most important, we need to stay in Afghanistan: “Withdrawing at this critical juncture would doom Afghanistan and the entire region to instability and effectively consign one half of the population to premature death and an existence not fit for animals.”

The recommendations are hard enough to implement with an administration dedicated to and enthusiastic about human rights, but one can’t help but be glum given the Obama team’s utter lack of regard for human rights and reticence to speak out on behalf of the oppressed women and girls of the “Muslim World.”  It was a heavy lift to get Obama to commit troops for 18 months, and now he needs to start speaking forcefully about the abuse of women in the “Muslim World”? Yes, there is reason for pessimism. Nevertheless, there is no more productive or necessary undertaking.

A sage observer wrote earlier this year:

If through the good offices of our military—especially our women soldiers—we could help Afghani women unravel themselves from centuries of complicity in their own oppression and see themselves not as defiled, unclean, perpetually wanton creatures to be hidden away as if they were carriers of plague, but rather as noble members of the human race endowed with greatness and blessings: the giving of life, the tending to it mercifully and lovingly, and, most important, the imparting of lessons in real virtue—self-acceptance to their daughters and just plain acceptance to their sons—that would be gaining hearts and minds indeed.

Indeed.

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Obama Tied with GOP Contenders

Public Policy Polling reports:

Our monthly look ahead to the 2012 Presidential race finds Barack Obama more or less tied with all four of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination. He trails Mike Huckabee 47-45 and Mitt Romney 45-44, ties Newt Gingrich at 45-45, and leads Sarah Palin 47-45. This is the weakest performance Obama’s posted in these 13 monthly surveys and a pretty clear indication that passing health care has not done anything to enhance his political standing, at least in the short term.

Indeed it suggests the opposite — that it has cemented opposition to Obama and elevated candidates thought to be “unelectable” to parity with the sitting president. We’re years away from the presidential election and even the primary season, but it’s a far cry from where we were 15 months ago. It is remarkable how far Obama’s stock has fallen. Could the economy come roaring back and unemployment sink to low single digits? Perhaps. Could the deficit be significantly lowered, calming the fears of independent voters? Unlikely. In short, it’s far from certain that Obama’s political fortunes will necessarily improve over the next few years.

Public Policy Polling reports:

Our monthly look ahead to the 2012 Presidential race finds Barack Obama more or less tied with all four of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination. He trails Mike Huckabee 47-45 and Mitt Romney 45-44, ties Newt Gingrich at 45-45, and leads Sarah Palin 47-45. This is the weakest performance Obama’s posted in these 13 monthly surveys and a pretty clear indication that passing health care has not done anything to enhance his political standing, at least in the short term.

Indeed it suggests the opposite — that it has cemented opposition to Obama and elevated candidates thought to be “unelectable” to parity with the sitting president. We’re years away from the presidential election and even the primary season, but it’s a far cry from where we were 15 months ago. It is remarkable how far Obama’s stock has fallen. Could the economy come roaring back and unemployment sink to low single digits? Perhaps. Could the deficit be significantly lowered, calming the fears of independent voters? Unlikely. In short, it’s far from certain that Obama’s political fortunes will necessarily improve over the next few years.

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Hiding Behind the Bushies

Bill McGurn notices that the Obami are now seeking to hide behind the skirts of George W. Bush and his national-security team — the very people the Obami excoriated, investigated, and vilified as virtual war criminals. He writes:

Barack Obama defending his war policies by suggesting they merely continue his predecessor’s practices. The defense is illuminating, not least for its implicit recognition that George W. Bush has more credibility on fighting terrorists than does the sitting president.

Mr. Obama’s explanation came in an interview with Katie Couric just before the Super Bowl. Ms. Couric asked about trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York. After listing some of the difficulties, the president offered a startling defense for civilian trials: “I think that the most important thing for the public to understand,” he told Ms. Couric, “is we’re not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush administration handled them all through 9/11.”

This is a far cry, as McGurn points out, from all the insults hurled by Obama at the Bush team. (“You know—all those Niebuhrian speeches about how America had gone ‘off course,’ ‘shown arrogance and been dismissive,’ and ‘made decisions based on fear rather than foresight,’ thus handing al Qaeda a valuable recruiting tool.”)

And then there are the facts: you see, it’s not true. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey says that the decision to Mirandize the Christmas Day bomber and classify him as a criminal defendant wasn’t predetermined by any Bush-era policy or guideline: “And there is nothing—zero, zilch, nada—in those guidelines that makes that choice. It is a decision that ought to be made at the highest level, and the heads of our security agencies have testified that it was made without consulting them.”

It is political cowardice plain and simple to pass off on a prior president what is indisputably a policy judgment of this administration. Indeed, the entire episode personifies the core failings of this president — a misguided view of our enemies and the requirements of fighting a war against Islamic fascists, a willingness to employ leftist slogans in place of reasoned policy, a refusal to take responsibility for grievous errors, and an inability to get stories straight when everything goes haywire. The stakes are very high, yet the Obami persist in treating the public as gullible and a near-calamitous national-security failure as a mere PR problem. In that regard, they certainly are very un-Bush.

Bill McGurn notices that the Obami are now seeking to hide behind the skirts of George W. Bush and his national-security team — the very people the Obami excoriated, investigated, and vilified as virtual war criminals. He writes:

Barack Obama defending his war policies by suggesting they merely continue his predecessor’s practices. The defense is illuminating, not least for its implicit recognition that George W. Bush has more credibility on fighting terrorists than does the sitting president.

Mr. Obama’s explanation came in an interview with Katie Couric just before the Super Bowl. Ms. Couric asked about trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York. After listing some of the difficulties, the president offered a startling defense for civilian trials: “I think that the most important thing for the public to understand,” he told Ms. Couric, “is we’re not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush administration handled them all through 9/11.”

This is a far cry, as McGurn points out, from all the insults hurled by Obama at the Bush team. (“You know—all those Niebuhrian speeches about how America had gone ‘off course,’ ‘shown arrogance and been dismissive,’ and ‘made decisions based on fear rather than foresight,’ thus handing al Qaeda a valuable recruiting tool.”)

And then there are the facts: you see, it’s not true. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey says that the decision to Mirandize the Christmas Day bomber and classify him as a criminal defendant wasn’t predetermined by any Bush-era policy or guideline: “And there is nothing—zero, zilch, nada—in those guidelines that makes that choice. It is a decision that ought to be made at the highest level, and the heads of our security agencies have testified that it was made without consulting them.”

It is political cowardice plain and simple to pass off on a prior president what is indisputably a policy judgment of this administration. Indeed, the entire episode personifies the core failings of this president — a misguided view of our enemies and the requirements of fighting a war against Islamic fascists, a willingness to employ leftist slogans in place of reasoned policy, a refusal to take responsibility for grievous errors, and an inability to get stories straight when everything goes haywire. The stakes are very high, yet the Obami persist in treating the public as gullible and a near-calamitous national-security failure as a mere PR problem. In that regard, they certainly are very un-Bush.

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It Can’t Be 2012 Thune Enough

In a typically informative and original column today, my friend David Brooks takes up the 2012 cause of John Thune of South Dakota, the handsome face of small-town non-Alaskan Republicanism. Thune is not too hot, not too cold, just right. That may be, but then David offers this observation regarding the contention that the political tide has turned against the president:

Obama remains the most talented political figure of the age. After health care passes, he will pivot and pick some fights with his own party over spending. He’ll solidify his standing with independents, and if the economy recovers, he could go into his re-election with as much momentum as Ronald Reagan enjoyed in 1984.

Perhaps, but if that is so, then why does it matter whether the face of Republicanism is John Thune or Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee? Reagan won 49 states in 1984; Walter Mondale couldn’t even draw 40 percent of the vote. Perhaps Mondale ran a problematic campaign, promising tax increases and the like, but a victory like Reagan’s was so overwhelming that the world’s greatest candidate could have run against Reagan and only won a few more states.

Thune may indeed have a pleasing mien and an appropriate demeanor for 2012. But to face down a sitting president and unseat him, a party is going to need more from its candidate. It’s going to take the ability to explain why the country has gone wrong, why what’s wrong is his opponent’s doing, and what he will do to set it right. That requires passion, animation, and a profound sense of the rightness of his views and the wrongness of the views of his rivals. To judge from David’s summary of Thune’s virtues, he may be the best person to lead the GOP if it stays in the wilderness — on “first do no harm grounds” — but not to lead it to a victory that reverses the country’s ideological direction:

Republicans are still going to have to do root-and-branch renovation if they hope to provide compelling answers to issues like middle-class economic anxiety. But in the meantime, people like Thune offer Republicans a way to connect fiscal discipline with traditional small-town values, a way to tap into rising populism in a manner that is optimistic, uplifting and nice.

Optimism, uplift, and niceness are … nice. But they are minor components in a victory strategy — they are there to file off the rough edges of the party. They cannot be its leading edge.

In a typically informative and original column today, my friend David Brooks takes up the 2012 cause of John Thune of South Dakota, the handsome face of small-town non-Alaskan Republicanism. Thune is not too hot, not too cold, just right. That may be, but then David offers this observation regarding the contention that the political tide has turned against the president:

Obama remains the most talented political figure of the age. After health care passes, he will pivot and pick some fights with his own party over spending. He’ll solidify his standing with independents, and if the economy recovers, he could go into his re-election with as much momentum as Ronald Reagan enjoyed in 1984.

Perhaps, but if that is so, then why does it matter whether the face of Republicanism is John Thune or Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee? Reagan won 49 states in 1984; Walter Mondale couldn’t even draw 40 percent of the vote. Perhaps Mondale ran a problematic campaign, promising tax increases and the like, but a victory like Reagan’s was so overwhelming that the world’s greatest candidate could have run against Reagan and only won a few more states.

Thune may indeed have a pleasing mien and an appropriate demeanor for 2012. But to face down a sitting president and unseat him, a party is going to need more from its candidate. It’s going to take the ability to explain why the country has gone wrong, why what’s wrong is his opponent’s doing, and what he will do to set it right. That requires passion, animation, and a profound sense of the rightness of his views and the wrongness of the views of his rivals. To judge from David’s summary of Thune’s virtues, he may be the best person to lead the GOP if it stays in the wilderness — on “first do no harm grounds” — but not to lead it to a victory that reverses the country’s ideological direction:

Republicans are still going to have to do root-and-branch renovation if they hope to provide compelling answers to issues like middle-class economic anxiety. But in the meantime, people like Thune offer Republicans a way to connect fiscal discipline with traditional small-town values, a way to tap into rising populism in a manner that is optimistic, uplifting and nice.

Optimism, uplift, and niceness are … nice. But they are minor components in a victory strategy — they are there to file off the rough edges of the party. They cannot be its leading edge.

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No Golfgate Here

Yesterday, the following exchange occurred between President Bush and someone interviewing him from the Politico:

Q Mr. President, you haven’t been golfing in recent years. Is that related to Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, it really is. I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the Commander-in-Chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as — to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.

Q Mr. President, was there a particular moment or incident that brought you to that decision, or how did you come to that?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I remember when de Mello, who was at the U.N., got killed in Baghdad as a result of these murderers taking this good man’s life. And I was playing golf — I think I was in central Texas — and they pulled me off the golf course and I said, it’s just not worth it anymore to do.

Now, Presidential historian Robert Dallek is claiming Bush’s remarks “speak to his shallowness.” And added, “That’s his idea of sacrifice, to give up golf?”

Just imagine if Bush had said the opposite: “I think it’s important for the Commander-in-Chief to be able to take a break from the seriousness of war, to unwind and get some distance from the day-to-day challenges of leading a nation in combat. And golf is how I do that.” Think of the firestorm.

The most curious aspect of this incident is how anachronistic if feels to be analyzing the sitting President’s remarks about the war. With all-campaign-all-the-time media coverage, it’s easy to forget that the President is still there. It’s also easy to forget how flimsy were the objections to his every gesture and utterance. For what it’s worth, the President’s comments demonstrate compassion and moral seriousness. Dallek’s critique (echoed, unsurprisingly, in Iran) is shallow.

Yesterday, the following exchange occurred between President Bush and someone interviewing him from the Politico:

Q Mr. President, you haven’t been golfing in recent years. Is that related to Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, it really is. I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the Commander-in-Chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as — to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.

Q Mr. President, was there a particular moment or incident that brought you to that decision, or how did you come to that?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I remember when de Mello, who was at the U.N., got killed in Baghdad as a result of these murderers taking this good man’s life. And I was playing golf — I think I was in central Texas — and they pulled me off the golf course and I said, it’s just not worth it anymore to do.

Now, Presidential historian Robert Dallek is claiming Bush’s remarks “speak to his shallowness.” And added, “That’s his idea of sacrifice, to give up golf?”

Just imagine if Bush had said the opposite: “I think it’s important for the Commander-in-Chief to be able to take a break from the seriousness of war, to unwind and get some distance from the day-to-day challenges of leading a nation in combat. And golf is how I do that.” Think of the firestorm.

The most curious aspect of this incident is how anachronistic if feels to be analyzing the sitting President’s remarks about the war. With all-campaign-all-the-time media coverage, it’s easy to forget that the President is still there. It’s also easy to forget how flimsy were the objections to his every gesture and utterance. For what it’s worth, the President’s comments demonstrate compassion and moral seriousness. Dallek’s critique (echoed, unsurprisingly, in Iran) is shallow.

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The Clinton Defense

In last night’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton addressed Barack Obama about her historical stance on giving driver’s licenses to illegals:

I just have to correct the record for one second, because, obviously, we do agree about the need to have comprehensive immigration reform, and if I recall, about a week after I said that I would try to support my governor, although I didn’t agree with it personally, you were asked the same question and could not answer it.

What other politician would simply claim hypocrisy in defense of a policy?

Why, her husband, of course. On November 28 of last year, Bill Clinton made the first of a long string of soundbyte gaffes that would haunt Hillary’s campaign. This was when he was in Iowa and blurted out that he “opposed Iraq from the beginning.” He was immediately and ubiquitously called out on it. According to the New York Times, here was his defense:

Advisers to Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he did oppose the war, but that it would have been inappropriate at the time for him, a former president, to oppose—in a direct, full-throated manner—the sitting president’s military decision.

This is a couple who wants credit for thinking things they’re too cowardly to act upon. One has to marvel at the anti-serendipitous force that brought the two of them together . . .

In last night’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton addressed Barack Obama about her historical stance on giving driver’s licenses to illegals:

I just have to correct the record for one second, because, obviously, we do agree about the need to have comprehensive immigration reform, and if I recall, about a week after I said that I would try to support my governor, although I didn’t agree with it personally, you were asked the same question and could not answer it.

What other politician would simply claim hypocrisy in defense of a policy?

Why, her husband, of course. On November 28 of last year, Bill Clinton made the first of a long string of soundbyte gaffes that would haunt Hillary’s campaign. This was when he was in Iowa and blurted out that he “opposed Iraq from the beginning.” He was immediately and ubiquitously called out on it. According to the New York Times, here was his defense:

Advisers to Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he did oppose the war, but that it would have been inappropriate at the time for him, a former president, to oppose—in a direct, full-throated manner—the sitting president’s military decision.

This is a couple who wants credit for thinking things they’re too cowardly to act upon. One has to marvel at the anti-serendipitous force that brought the two of them together . . .

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Down the Memory Hole in New Hampshire

“Have you ever seen crowds like this in New Hampshire? Ever?” Joe Scarborough of MSNBC asked a representative of the Obama campaign, who, unsuprisingly, answered that Gee, no, he never ever had seen crowds like these, ever. Strange. I seem to remember in 2000 that there were crowds like these in New Hampshire for John McCain, who walked on water in exactly the same fashion Obama is walking on water these days. He had young people all excited, independents loved him, he offered a message of reform (the 2000 version of “change”), blah blah blah. McCain won 49 percent of the vote to George W. Bush’s 30 percent. It will be interesting to see if Obama’s expected victory matches McCain’s 19-point triumph, which clearly did not guarantee McCain the nomination he did not ultimately win. (I do think, for the record, that a huge Obama victory here is far more devastating to Clinton’s ambitions than the McCain victory was to George W. Bush’s, for Bush had at least won Iowa.) Oh, and in 1992 we heard a lot of the same blather about Pat Buchanan’s challenge to the sitting President Bush, when he got a stunning 38 percent of the vote against an incumbent in the White House. And yet, every single time, the media fall for the spin. And why not? They invent it anew for themselves every four or eight years.

“Have you ever seen crowds like this in New Hampshire? Ever?” Joe Scarborough of MSNBC asked a representative of the Obama campaign, who, unsuprisingly, answered that Gee, no, he never ever had seen crowds like these, ever. Strange. I seem to remember in 2000 that there were crowds like these in New Hampshire for John McCain, who walked on water in exactly the same fashion Obama is walking on water these days. He had young people all excited, independents loved him, he offered a message of reform (the 2000 version of “change”), blah blah blah. McCain won 49 percent of the vote to George W. Bush’s 30 percent. It will be interesting to see if Obama’s expected victory matches McCain’s 19-point triumph, which clearly did not guarantee McCain the nomination he did not ultimately win. (I do think, for the record, that a huge Obama victory here is far more devastating to Clinton’s ambitions than the McCain victory was to George W. Bush’s, for Bush had at least won Iowa.) Oh, and in 1992 we heard a lot of the same blather about Pat Buchanan’s challenge to the sitting President Bush, when he got a stunning 38 percent of the vote against an incumbent in the White House. And yet, every single time, the media fall for the spin. And why not? They invent it anew for themselves every four or eight years.

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Not-So-Slick Willie

Slick Willie is at it again. This time it comes in the form of his assertion that he opposed the Iraq war from the start. You can see new contributor Abe Greenwald’s post below for details about Clinton’s claims.

What ought we to make of this?

First, if it’s true that Bill Clinton opposed the war but held his tongue because it would have been “inappropriate at the time for him, a former President, to oppose—in a direct, full-throated manner—the sitting President’s military decision,” one might ask: Why then would it be appropriate to criticize now—in a direct, full-throated manner—the same sitting President’s military decision? In fact, it would have been more responsible to voice his objections before the war, when it was being debated, rather than now, when the decision has been made.

Beyond that, Bill Clinton, unlike George H.W. Bush, has not been shy about criticizing the actions of the President who followed him. Bill Clinton has been a constant critic of President Bush, on a range of issues, including the Kyoto Treaty, the withdrawal of U.S. support for the International Criminal Court and the ABM Treaty, tax cuts, education funding, homeland security, and more.

The core point, of course, is that Bill Clinton did not oppose the war from the beginning; if he had, he would have made his views clear. He didn’t, and it’s no surprise he didn’t. Remember that support for the war at that time was quite high—and there have been few politicians in our lifetime who are less principled and less willing to take an unpopular stand than Bill Clinton. If at that point the country was for the war, he simply would not have been against it.

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Slick Willie is at it again. This time it comes in the form of his assertion that he opposed the Iraq war from the start. You can see new contributor Abe Greenwald’s post below for details about Clinton’s claims.

What ought we to make of this?

First, if it’s true that Bill Clinton opposed the war but held his tongue because it would have been “inappropriate at the time for him, a former President, to oppose—in a direct, full-throated manner—the sitting President’s military decision,” one might ask: Why then would it be appropriate to criticize now—in a direct, full-throated manner—the same sitting President’s military decision? In fact, it would have been more responsible to voice his objections before the war, when it was being debated, rather than now, when the decision has been made.

Beyond that, Bill Clinton, unlike George H.W. Bush, has not been shy about criticizing the actions of the President who followed him. Bill Clinton has been a constant critic of President Bush, on a range of issues, including the Kyoto Treaty, the withdrawal of U.S. support for the International Criminal Court and the ABM Treaty, tax cuts, education funding, homeland security, and more.

The core point, of course, is that Bill Clinton did not oppose the war from the beginning; if he had, he would have made his views clear. He didn’t, and it’s no surprise he didn’t. Remember that support for the war at that time was quite high—and there have been few politicians in our lifetime who are less principled and less willing to take an unpopular stand than Bill Clinton. If at that point the country was for the war, he simply would not have been against it.

The attempt to persuade us that Clinton was in favor of the authority to go to war but opposed President Bush’s decision to use that authority is not credible—but it is entirely predictable. After all, it is part of a well-known pattern when it comes to William Jefferson Clinton.

Bob Woodward put it this way:

People feel, and I think rightly, that they’re not being leveled with. . . . There is this tendency in Clinton which you see all through his life of, “How do we spin our way out of it? How do we put out 10 percent of the truth? How do we try to conceal or delay or obfuscate?” And that is a profound problem.

Michael Kelly, then of the New York Times, summarized things this way:

Mr. Clinton’s tendency to make misleading statements, renege on promises, and waffle on difficult questions has been a part of the story of his record in matters of public policy and politics, not just in personal terms.

Former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey put it more bluntly:

Clinton’s an unusually good liar. Unusually good.

One can imagine that Bill Clinton, if asked under oath about this matter, would say something like: “It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘the beginning of the war’ is.”

Bill Clinton’s comments cannot help Hillary Clinton, if only because it reminds people of some of the worst aspects of the Clinton presidency: the mendacity, the reckless disregard for the truth, the self-justification, self-indulgence, and shamelessness of the man. Hillary Clinton has enough negatives to last her a lifetime; her husband, in trying to rewrite history, is simply adding to them.

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A Star Is Worn

Hillary Clinton’s sending her husband on the stump has long been thought of as a no-brainer. Where she fights each potentially incriminating syllable as it escapes her lips, Bill glides through every exchange with a kind of post-moral ease.

So what happened yesterday? At an Iowa campaign stop, Bill Clinton claimed he “opposed Iraq from the beginning. . .”

Never mind that Clinton practically birthed “the beginning” with the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. The bald lie is nothing new. But his failure to finesse the gaffe is.

The New York Times reports:

Advisers to Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he did oppose the war, but that it would have been inappropriate at the time for him, a former president, to oppose—in a direct, full-throated manner—the sitting president’s military decision.

Ohhh, so he didn’t lie yesterday: he lied four years ago when it mattered.

With advisers like that, who needs Ken Starr? Watching the old Clinton machine go through the motions yesterday was a bit like watching a first season episode of Saturday Night Live: one’s forced to admit it hasn’t aged well. Charm, like humor, depends on context. The post 9/11 universe is a more serious place than the, um, “full-throated” Clinton 90’s. With the advent of consequence, fool’s paradises tend to vanish. As Senator Clinton’s numbers continue to drop she’ll find herself in the real world, and the old no-brainers may not be so consequence-free anymore.

Hillary Clinton’s sending her husband on the stump has long been thought of as a no-brainer. Where she fights each potentially incriminating syllable as it escapes her lips, Bill glides through every exchange with a kind of post-moral ease.

So what happened yesterday? At an Iowa campaign stop, Bill Clinton claimed he “opposed Iraq from the beginning. . .”

Never mind that Clinton practically birthed “the beginning” with the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. The bald lie is nothing new. But his failure to finesse the gaffe is.

The New York Times reports:

Advisers to Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he did oppose the war, but that it would have been inappropriate at the time for him, a former president, to oppose—in a direct, full-throated manner—the sitting president’s military decision.

Ohhh, so he didn’t lie yesterday: he lied four years ago when it mattered.

With advisers like that, who needs Ken Starr? Watching the old Clinton machine go through the motions yesterday was a bit like watching a first season episode of Saturday Night Live: one’s forced to admit it hasn’t aged well. Charm, like humor, depends on context. The post 9/11 universe is a more serious place than the, um, “full-throated” Clinton 90’s. With the advent of consequence, fool’s paradises tend to vanish. As Senator Clinton’s numbers continue to drop she’ll find herself in the real world, and the old no-brainers may not be so consequence-free anymore.

		

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November Surprise

In spite of what the polls supposedly tell us, I strongly suspect that the Democrats may already have blown the 2008 election. Unlike the late Senator Aiken of Vermont, who proposed that we declare victory and get out of Vietnam, the Democrats want us to declare defeat and get out of Iraq. This, they imagine, is what the American people were demanding in the congressional election of 2006.

But it seems far more likely that the message of that election was not “Get out,” but rather “Win, or get out.” In any case, the position the Democrats are now taking can only have the effect of revivifying and reinforcing the sense of them as weak on national security. And this was the very factor that led to the ignominious defeat of their presidential candidate, George McGovern, in 1972, when they also misread the public temper by paying too much attention to the left wing of their party.

Furthermore, reading the first volume of Bill Bennett’s America: The Last Best Hope, I am reminded that the American distrust of defeatist political parties goes back beyond 1972—all the way back, in fact, to the War of 1812. Like Iraq, it was an unpopular war that its Federalist-party opponents called “Mr. Madison’s war,” just as the Democrats today call Iraq “Bush’s war.” In addition, just as the Democrats today keep threatening to cut off funds for Iraq, a number of state governments controlled by the Federalists “refused to supply militia troops for the war effort.” The end result, says Bennett, was that the Federalists would “never again seriously contend for the presidency.”

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In spite of what the polls supposedly tell us, I strongly suspect that the Democrats may already have blown the 2008 election. Unlike the late Senator Aiken of Vermont, who proposed that we declare victory and get out of Vietnam, the Democrats want us to declare defeat and get out of Iraq. This, they imagine, is what the American people were demanding in the congressional election of 2006.

But it seems far more likely that the message of that election was not “Get out,” but rather “Win, or get out.” In any case, the position the Democrats are now taking can only have the effect of revivifying and reinforcing the sense of them as weak on national security. And this was the very factor that led to the ignominious defeat of their presidential candidate, George McGovern, in 1972, when they also misread the public temper by paying too much attention to the left wing of their party.

Furthermore, reading the first volume of Bill Bennett’s America: The Last Best Hope, I am reminded that the American distrust of defeatist political parties goes back beyond 1972—all the way back, in fact, to the War of 1812. Like Iraq, it was an unpopular war that its Federalist-party opponents called “Mr. Madison’s war,” just as the Democrats today call Iraq “Bush’s war.” In addition, just as the Democrats today keep threatening to cut off funds for Iraq, a number of state governments controlled by the Federalists “refused to supply militia troops for the war effort.” The end result, says Bennett, was that the Federalists would “never again seriously contend for the presidency.”

Then, too, there was the Mexican war, into which a Democratic President (the “mendacious Polk,” as he was described by his Whig opponents) led the country in 1846. The Whigs, Bennett writes, were mindful of the damage done to the Federalists by their position on the War of 1812, and therefore they “made sure to vote to supply the troops.” Even so, the Whigs did themselves no political good by acting as though it was Polk’s war and not the nation’s. Although this was not the only or even the main reason they eventually followed the Federalists onto the ash heap of American political history, it surely played a part.

I am not predicting that the Democrats of today will suffer the same fate as the Federalists and the Whigs did. But I do think that they are in the process of ensuring their defeat in the next presidential election. In many respects, of course, the people of this country are very different from their forebears of 1812 and 1846. But I suspect that most of us are not all that different from them in how we view politicians who conspicuously fail to root for American troops fighting in the field, and who seem to think that they can get away with it by sticking the responsibility for the war on the sitting president of the other party. In 1972, this deeply ingrained American attitude still had enough life in it to give Richard Nixon, unpopular though he was, an overwhelming victory against George McGovern. Unless the American leopard has changed his spots since then, the Democrats are in for a very big surprise in November 2008.

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The Libby Verdict, Take Two

Under what circumstances is it right to lie to federal investigators or to a grand jury? There is only one answer: none. If that is what Scooter Libby did–and it is what a jury of eleven concluded he did by convicting him of four of five counts–then he is guilty as charged. But Libby is still maintaining his innocence. The legal burden now falls on him, not on the government, to show why his conviction should be overturned.

Nevertheless, this case represents a terrible injustice, which was the point of my posting here yesterday that has stirred so much controversy in the comments section. Comparison with the investigation of Bill Clinton, and the perjury charges that were leveled by the House of Representatives when it voted to impeach him, is instructive.

To begin with, both cases featured the familiar phenomenon of runaway special counsels. Although the independent-counsel statute under which Clinton was endlessly investigated and ended in his impeachment has expired, it was a recipe for mischief. By vesting executive authority in a prosecutor not subject to the control of the executive branch, Congress had created a constitutional anomaly, one with unintended and destructive effects that plagued Democratic and Republican administrations alike. True, Fitzgerald’s appointment was the result of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s self-recusal, and he was endowed with a different set of powers from those granted to Kenneth Starr, but he operated every bit like a one-case prosecutor, effectively unchecked by line-authority in the executive branch.

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Under what circumstances is it right to lie to federal investigators or to a grand jury? There is only one answer: none. If that is what Scooter Libby did–and it is what a jury of eleven concluded he did by convicting him of four of five counts–then he is guilty as charged. But Libby is still maintaining his innocence. The legal burden now falls on him, not on the government, to show why his conviction should be overturned.

Nevertheless, this case represents a terrible injustice, which was the point of my posting here yesterday that has stirred so much controversy in the comments section. Comparison with the investigation of Bill Clinton, and the perjury charges that were leveled by the House of Representatives when it voted to impeach him, is instructive.

To begin with, both cases featured the familiar phenomenon of runaway special counsels. Although the independent-counsel statute under which Clinton was endlessly investigated and ended in his impeachment has expired, it was a recipe for mischief. By vesting executive authority in a prosecutor not subject to the control of the executive branch, Congress had created a constitutional anomaly, one with unintended and destructive effects that plagued Democratic and Republican administrations alike. True, Fitzgerald’s appointment was the result of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s self-recusal, and he was endowed with a different set of powers from those granted to Kenneth Starr, but he operated every bit like a one-case prosecutor, effectively unchecked by line-authority in the executive branch.

As it happens, there is no evidence that Kenneth Starr, appointed under the independent-counsel law, behaved improperly in his investigation of Clinton–although, as Richard Posner argued in An Affair of State, he did throw details into his report that gratuitously damaged the President and the presidency. By contrast, there is considerable evidence that Fitzgerald stepped out of bounds, primarily by insisting both to the public and to the jury that the disclosure of Valerie Plame’s identity–the underlying action that he was appointed to investigate–was in fact a crime. This is a point that has never been established, but Fitzgerald’s overreaching on it colored the jury’s thinking about the gravity of the issues at stake, suggested a motive for lying that did not reside in proven facts, and conflicted with the judge’s ruling that the case would not hinge on Plame’s status. All this will undoubtedly form the essence of any appeal.

In retrospect, it is clear that the Clinton case, despite the President’s obviously perjured statements, should not have been permitted to move forward. Indeed, as Posner has also argued, the Supreme Court erred grievously when it ruled in 1997, unanimously, to allow a sitting President to be caught up in civil litigation involving sex.

There is another more ominous point of comparison as well. Though the unfolding Monica story made 1998 a year of endless entertainment, that was also the crucial year in which American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up by al Qaeda, and the year in which Clinton’s ineffectual response–bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and unleashing a fusillade of cruise missiles on an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan–led to authority-sapping charges that he was reenacting a scenario from the 1997 film Wag the Dog.

We obviously cannot know whether the feckless Clinton would have acted more vigorously abroad had he not gone to sleep every night that year thinking about how to escape from the legal consequences of his own tawdry conduct and lies, and been thinking instead about how to protect the country from its enemies. But all of us have paid a price for having a President distracted from his duties by an unbounded investigation of his private life in a year that his Secretary of State came to call “all Monica, all the time,” but should have been all counterterrorism, all the time. The bill for Clinton’s fun and frolic, and for our own, was only to come due on September 11, 2001.

Now, unlike in the 1990’s, we are at war. We do not yet know what the price tag will be for the Libby distraction, just as we do not know if his conviction will be tossed out on appeal or result in a presidential pardon. But in its broadest ramifications, the case, which arose out of an internecine dispute about the quality of foreign intelligence, augurs ill for any President’s ability to gather and evaluate the intelligence provided by subordinate agencies like the CIA, to formulate foreign policy, to defend what it has formulated from bureaucratic warfare waged by such subordinate agencies, and to keep our country secure.

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Franken’s Shtick

The comedian Al Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, recently announced that he is running for Senate from Minnesota, where he grew up. An alumnus of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Franken made his name satirizing conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and National Review’s Rich Lowry, whom he challenged to a fist fight in his garage.

His candidacy has been greeted with predictable enthusiasm. As Time gushed, “Enter the clown, who’s ready to play not Hamlet but Disraeli.” But is Franken really ready? Obviously, Americans have taken a political chance on ex-entertainers before, most notably with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Franken’s case poses special difficulties because his work has always been so harshly political and partisan.

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The comedian Al Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, recently announced that he is running for Senate from Minnesota, where he grew up. An alumnus of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Franken made his name satirizing conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and National Review’s Rich Lowry, whom he challenged to a fist fight in his garage.

His candidacy has been greeted with predictable enthusiasm. As Time gushed, “Enter the clown, who’s ready to play not Hamlet but Disraeli.” But is Franken really ready? Obviously, Americans have taken a political chance on ex-entertainers before, most notably with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Franken’s case poses special difficulties because his work has always been so harshly political and partisan.

In the final episode of his program on Air America, the now-bankrupt liberal radio station, Franken announced his candidacy with old-fashioned American optimism. “I know I have an awful lot to learn from the people of Minnesota,” he declared. I want “to help our country become everything I hope it can be and everything I know it can be.”

But reconciling aw-shucks populist rhetoric with the well-established cynicism of Franken’s public persona won’t be easy. After all, this is a “comedian” who once ironically raised the possibility that George Bush and Dick Cheney should be executed for treason, quickly adding that “we should never ever, ever, ever execute a sitting President.” He has also made snide comments about McCain’s POW experience: “I don’t understand why all this war hero stuff. I mean, anybody can get captured. Isn’t the idea to capture the other guy? As far as I’m concerned, he sat out the war.”

There are many who find humor in Franken’s shtick, and his candidacy can’t be judged solely on the basis of his stand-up routine and the books he has written. But episodes like the one at a Dean fundraiser in 2003, when Franken went on an expletive-laced, demagogic rant about Brit Hume and Fox News, are among many troubling instances when he has seemed authentically malicious–and out of control.

At Franken’s official campaign website, you can listen to him talk about middle-class values and his hardscrabble family history; you can even hear this Harvard grad use the expression “guv’ment.” But his attempts at folksy spontaneity seem flat and scripted. After ten minutes of self-mythologizing, he finally gets to a subject he can warm to: his agenda, which sounds like leftovers from a 2003 John Kerry press release.

Franken is clearly an intelligent man. He knows that rural-style charm and meat-and-potatoes liberalism play well in Minnesota. But unless he is a preternaturally gifted politician, his humble-pie charade will not survive the extreme rhetoric and partisan titillation in which he has always trafficked. In the run-up to the election in 2008, Minnesotans will have to be on the look-out for the real Al Franken.

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