Commentary Magazine


Topic: strategist

False Hope

It happens about a month out before a wave election. The party about to be washed out sees a glimmer of hope — or thinks it does. The base gets a bit more engaged, but it really doesn’t amount to much. Hotline notes:

Democratic strategists have recently started experiencing a new feeling of optimism. There are indications, they say, that the party is showing the smallest signs of a turnaround, and that rumors of their electoral demise have been premature.

But instead of a comeback, Democrats are only experiencing the benefits of a base that is finally engaging. That base will help some Democratic candidates, but in total, the party still faces serious rehabilitation work with independent voters. The party’s major problems are most evident in three prominent races that are slowly, but inexorably, sliding toward Republicans.

As Stuart Rothenberg points out, trouble abounds for the Dems:

Delaware’s Republican primary may well have lulled Democrats into a sense of complacency about their ability to hold the Senate after November’s elections. They would be wise to wake up if they want to avoid a nasty surprise on election night.

Tea party activists did indeed do Democrats a huge favor in selecting Christine O’Donnell (R) to oppose New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) in the fall. …

O’Donnell’s primary victory notwithstanding, Republicans are still headed for major Senate gains, and a 10-seat gain isn’t impossible. With a month to go until Nov. 2, Republicans have a clear advantage in five seats held by Democrats, with another five seats still in play. Unless things change, Republicans will likely hold all 18 of their seats up this cycle. No GOP incumbent is in any trouble — even Sens. Richard M. Burr (N.C.) and David Vitter (La.), who seemed at some risk early on, look headed for comfortable victories — and Republican open seats appear to be at limited risk.

Rothenberg reels off the same list of at-risk Democratic seats that we and others have noted — West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nevada, etc.

Part of the “Dems’ comeback” meme is pushed by the media, which are anxious to give their Democratic friends a boost and to keep some suspense going. At Conventional Wisdom Central, Dan Balz of the Washington Post, the “comeback” storyline is supported by such concrete evidence as an e-mail from a Democratic strategist. (“I definitely have seen Democrats starting to come home and feel more strongly about the importance of preventing a Republican takeover of the Congress.”) But even his heart isn’t in it. He’s compelled to acknowledge for every pollyanaish Democratic strategist, there is a realist. (“One strategist who was in the thick of the battle in 1994 said nothing the Democrats tried that fall had an impact on the voters.”) And he confesses the false optimism reminds him of 2006. (“What’s eerie is that Republicans then were saying some of the same things Democrats are saying now.”)

Until we see real signs of movement in generic polling and key Democratic races, it’s safe to say that the Dems are in for a shellacking.

It happens about a month out before a wave election. The party about to be washed out sees a glimmer of hope — or thinks it does. The base gets a bit more engaged, but it really doesn’t amount to much. Hotline notes:

Democratic strategists have recently started experiencing a new feeling of optimism. There are indications, they say, that the party is showing the smallest signs of a turnaround, and that rumors of their electoral demise have been premature.

But instead of a comeback, Democrats are only experiencing the benefits of a base that is finally engaging. That base will help some Democratic candidates, but in total, the party still faces serious rehabilitation work with independent voters. The party’s major problems are most evident in three prominent races that are slowly, but inexorably, sliding toward Republicans.

As Stuart Rothenberg points out, trouble abounds for the Dems:

Delaware’s Republican primary may well have lulled Democrats into a sense of complacency about their ability to hold the Senate after November’s elections. They would be wise to wake up if they want to avoid a nasty surprise on election night.

Tea party activists did indeed do Democrats a huge favor in selecting Christine O’Donnell (R) to oppose New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) in the fall. …

O’Donnell’s primary victory notwithstanding, Republicans are still headed for major Senate gains, and a 10-seat gain isn’t impossible. With a month to go until Nov. 2, Republicans have a clear advantage in five seats held by Democrats, with another five seats still in play. Unless things change, Republicans will likely hold all 18 of their seats up this cycle. No GOP incumbent is in any trouble — even Sens. Richard M. Burr (N.C.) and David Vitter (La.), who seemed at some risk early on, look headed for comfortable victories — and Republican open seats appear to be at limited risk.

Rothenberg reels off the same list of at-risk Democratic seats that we and others have noted — West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nevada, etc.

Part of the “Dems’ comeback” meme is pushed by the media, which are anxious to give their Democratic friends a boost and to keep some suspense going. At Conventional Wisdom Central, Dan Balz of the Washington Post, the “comeback” storyline is supported by such concrete evidence as an e-mail from a Democratic strategist. (“I definitely have seen Democrats starting to come home and feel more strongly about the importance of preventing a Republican takeover of the Congress.”) But even his heart isn’t in it. He’s compelled to acknowledge for every pollyanaish Democratic strategist, there is a realist. (“One strategist who was in the thick of the battle in 1994 said nothing the Democrats tried that fall had an impact on the voters.”) And he confesses the false optimism reminds him of 2006. (“What’s eerie is that Republicans then were saying some of the same things Democrats are saying now.”)

Until we see real signs of movement in generic polling and key Democratic races, it’s safe to say that the Dems are in for a shellacking.

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The Cocooned President

The Washington Post tells us that Obama is to be “deprived” within the next six months or so of the services of Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod (who will go run Obama’s reelection campaign, a task indistinguishable from his current role), James Jones, and other advisers. (Before you get excited, remember who is picking their successors.) The Post tells us that the worldly and sophisticated president (the media told us he was, so how can that be wrong?) “doesn’t like new people.” Let’s hope that isn’t right. Because, to be frank, you’d expect more social adeptness and flexibility from a third grader (and I do). Unfortunately, the problem is all too real:

Recent White House hires reflect the president’s desire to surround himself with people he knows well. Elizabeth Warren, recently tapped as the government’s first consumer protection adviser, is someone Obama describes as a “dear friend.” Austan Goolsbee, brought in as the new chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, has been in the Obama orbit much longer than the woman he replaced, Christina Romer.

It seems — really, who knew? — as though the president is too insulated:

“They miscalculated where people were out in the country on jobs, on spending, on the deficit, on debt,” said a longtime Democratic strategist who works with the White House on a variety of issues. “They have not been able to get ahead of any of it. And it’s all about the insularity. Otherwise how do you explain how a group who came in with more goodwill in decades squandered it?” The strategist asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about the president and his staff.

This is not an uncommon view among Democratic political professionals, many of whom share the goals of the White House but have grown frustrated with a staff they see as unapproachable and set in their ways.

The solution? Valerie Jarrett as chief of staff!

Apparently yes men and women, unwilling to challenge Obama’s basic assumptions or deliver inconvenient truths, are in high demand. No hope and change for Obama.

This peek at the White House’s circle-the-wagons mentality suggests that Obama is not one to reassess, clean house, and chart a new course after the midterms. It might take him out of his comfort zone. That’s bad news for the country, but music to the ears of the 2012 GOP presidential contenders.

The Washington Post tells us that Obama is to be “deprived” within the next six months or so of the services of Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod (who will go run Obama’s reelection campaign, a task indistinguishable from his current role), James Jones, and other advisers. (Before you get excited, remember who is picking their successors.) The Post tells us that the worldly and sophisticated president (the media told us he was, so how can that be wrong?) “doesn’t like new people.” Let’s hope that isn’t right. Because, to be frank, you’d expect more social adeptness and flexibility from a third grader (and I do). Unfortunately, the problem is all too real:

Recent White House hires reflect the president’s desire to surround himself with people he knows well. Elizabeth Warren, recently tapped as the government’s first consumer protection adviser, is someone Obama describes as a “dear friend.” Austan Goolsbee, brought in as the new chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, has been in the Obama orbit much longer than the woman he replaced, Christina Romer.

It seems — really, who knew? — as though the president is too insulated:

“They miscalculated where people were out in the country on jobs, on spending, on the deficit, on debt,” said a longtime Democratic strategist who works with the White House on a variety of issues. “They have not been able to get ahead of any of it. And it’s all about the insularity. Otherwise how do you explain how a group who came in with more goodwill in decades squandered it?” The strategist asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about the president and his staff.

This is not an uncommon view among Democratic political professionals, many of whom share the goals of the White House but have grown frustrated with a staff they see as unapproachable and set in their ways.

The solution? Valerie Jarrett as chief of staff!

Apparently yes men and women, unwilling to challenge Obama’s basic assumptions or deliver inconvenient truths, are in high demand. No hope and change for Obama.

This peek at the White House’s circle-the-wagons mentality suggests that Obama is not one to reassess, clean house, and chart a new course after the midterms. It might take him out of his comfort zone. That’s bad news for the country, but music to the ears of the 2012 GOP presidential contenders.

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Doug Schoen Predicts

Here‘s Democratic strategist Doug Schoen:

Not only has President Obama systematically put forward unpopular policies and programs that are not producing real, long-lasting results that reflect the wishes of the American people, he has not generated a sense of competence in the electorate.

Indeed, Obama’s judgment and instincts have been called into question by a series of bad decisions since he has become president. Put simply, rather than emphasizing results and outcomes, he has opted for rhetorical parsing and political gamesmanship every time. Voters have grown disillusioned with the administration’s reactive and seemingly hypocritical governing style, in which the notion of unity of command and a cohesive strategy have proved alien.

Schoen concludes this way:

Obama needs to persuade voters that he did stabilize the economy, the banks, the financial system, and the auto industry-and that he has turned around month after month of massive job losses. Moreover, he must compellingly make the case that there has been a consistent strategy, plan, and consistent policy.

Also he must emphasize that he has clear policy prescriptions going forward to balance the budget, reduce spending, and reduce the national debt, while protecting key social programs, as President Clinton was able to do in the mid-to-late ’90s.

Absent that, the Democrats are facing an electoral defeat of potentially unprecedented magnitude.

Obama won’t be able to do what Schoen recommends; we are well past that point. So the fate Schoen fears will likely be visited upon the Democrats in less than 70 days.

Here‘s Democratic strategist Doug Schoen:

Not only has President Obama systematically put forward unpopular policies and programs that are not producing real, long-lasting results that reflect the wishes of the American people, he has not generated a sense of competence in the electorate.

Indeed, Obama’s judgment and instincts have been called into question by a series of bad decisions since he has become president. Put simply, rather than emphasizing results and outcomes, he has opted for rhetorical parsing and political gamesmanship every time. Voters have grown disillusioned with the administration’s reactive and seemingly hypocritical governing style, in which the notion of unity of command and a cohesive strategy have proved alien.

Schoen concludes this way:

Obama needs to persuade voters that he did stabilize the economy, the banks, the financial system, and the auto industry-and that he has turned around month after month of massive job losses. Moreover, he must compellingly make the case that there has been a consistent strategy, plan, and consistent policy.

Also he must emphasize that he has clear policy prescriptions going forward to balance the budget, reduce spending, and reduce the national debt, while protecting key social programs, as President Clinton was able to do in the mid-to-late ’90s.

Absent that, the Democrats are facing an electoral defeat of potentially unprecedented magnitude.

Obama won’t be able to do what Schoen recommends; we are well past that point. So the fate Schoen fears will likely be visited upon the Democrats in less than 70 days.

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More Obama!

The Washington Post tries to throw Obama and the Democrats a lifeline. It’s understandable that the liberal media — which witnessed a complete repudiation of Obama and his agenda at the polls — would scramble to help him out. After all, they invested so much credibility in helping to elect him. But the advice they offer is simply daft:

Strategists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue say it is now clear that, although Obama’s name will not be on the ballot, it will fall to him to build the case for the activist approach that he has pressed his party to take over the past 16 months. And just as important, they say, he must take the lead in making the argument against the Republicans.

Are they joking? The president who in 17 months could not sell ObamaCare to the American people and whose agenda has shifted the country to the right is now expected to remind the entire populace, when his poll numbers are sliding downward, that Democrats believe in big government, lots of regulation, and higher taxes? The Republican reaction is likely to be: Oh, please do!

And by the way, the reporters identify not a single “strategist” other than David Axelrod and congressional Democrats. So the sentence is misleading. It should begin “Democratic pols at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have convinced themselves, despite evidence of the president’s declining popularity …”

The reporters then bizarrely offer up Mark Critz as an example of how candidates can craft their own message. But wait: that message was anti-Obama. As George Will reminds Post readers over on the op-ed page, Critz is “right-to-life and pro-gun. He accused his opponent of wanting heavier taxes. He said he would have voted against Barack Obama’s health-care plan and promised to vote against cap-and-trade legislation, which is a tax increase supposedly somehow related to turning down the planet’s thermostat.”

And David Broder, who is not exactly a strategist but is also no GOP booster, is even more blunt in the Post‘s opinion section:

We saw the anti-Washington sentiment Tuesday in Kentucky, where Rand Paul, the physician son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, easily defeated Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s handpicked candidate for the Republican nomination for a vacant Senate seat — and credited his win to the Tea Partyers. The same sentiment carried to Arkansas, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff by her labor-backed challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. And it claimed its largest victim of the year so far in Pennsylvania’s Sen. Arlen Specter. Run out of the Republican Party last year by a GOP challenger, he fell embarrassingly to a less-known younger congressman in a bid for the Democratic nomination. His failure showed the Obama White House once again to be a toothless tiger — with its endorsements now having failed in Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. No good news for the president there.

Republicans would dearly love Obama to test the Post reporters’ theory that the Democrats’ problem is not enough big-government cheerleading. And they would be ecstatic if he came to do it in every close district in the country. Then there will be no denying that the results will be a true reflection of the country’s evaluation of him.

The Washington Post tries to throw Obama and the Democrats a lifeline. It’s understandable that the liberal media — which witnessed a complete repudiation of Obama and his agenda at the polls — would scramble to help him out. After all, they invested so much credibility in helping to elect him. But the advice they offer is simply daft:

Strategists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue say it is now clear that, although Obama’s name will not be on the ballot, it will fall to him to build the case for the activist approach that he has pressed his party to take over the past 16 months. And just as important, they say, he must take the lead in making the argument against the Republicans.

Are they joking? The president who in 17 months could not sell ObamaCare to the American people and whose agenda has shifted the country to the right is now expected to remind the entire populace, when his poll numbers are sliding downward, that Democrats believe in big government, lots of regulation, and higher taxes? The Republican reaction is likely to be: Oh, please do!

And by the way, the reporters identify not a single “strategist” other than David Axelrod and congressional Democrats. So the sentence is misleading. It should begin “Democratic pols at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have convinced themselves, despite evidence of the president’s declining popularity …”

The reporters then bizarrely offer up Mark Critz as an example of how candidates can craft their own message. But wait: that message was anti-Obama. As George Will reminds Post readers over on the op-ed page, Critz is “right-to-life and pro-gun. He accused his opponent of wanting heavier taxes. He said he would have voted against Barack Obama’s health-care plan and promised to vote against cap-and-trade legislation, which is a tax increase supposedly somehow related to turning down the planet’s thermostat.”

And David Broder, who is not exactly a strategist but is also no GOP booster, is even more blunt in the Post‘s opinion section:

We saw the anti-Washington sentiment Tuesday in Kentucky, where Rand Paul, the physician son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, easily defeated Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s handpicked candidate for the Republican nomination for a vacant Senate seat — and credited his win to the Tea Partyers. The same sentiment carried to Arkansas, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff by her labor-backed challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. And it claimed its largest victim of the year so far in Pennsylvania’s Sen. Arlen Specter. Run out of the Republican Party last year by a GOP challenger, he fell embarrassingly to a less-known younger congressman in a bid for the Democratic nomination. His failure showed the Obama White House once again to be a toothless tiger — with its endorsements now having failed in Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. No good news for the president there.

Republicans would dearly love Obama to test the Post reporters’ theory that the Democrats’ problem is not enough big-government cheerleading. And they would be ecstatic if he came to do it in every close district in the country. Then there will be no denying that the results will be a true reflection of the country’s evaluation of him.

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Hillary Clinton: Errand Girl for Disastrous Foreign Policy

Michael Hirsh writes a lengthy piece on Hillary Clinton, confirming that she’s not much of a secretary of state. But then we knew that from the results of her handiwork — an unratifiable START treaty, a wrecked relationship with Israel, offended European allies, a Middle East “peace process” that has succeeded only in encouraging Palestinian intransigence, a failed Syrian-engagement gambit, and a dead-end Iran policy. So it’s not surprising that Hirsh focuses on her relationship with Obama — Starsky and Hutch! — and dwells on minutiae. After all, that’s what Hillary does best. The duo’s great accomplishment? Storming a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the ultimately meaningless Copenhagen global-warming conference. That’s the best Hirsch can come up with.

It’s hard to hide the problem, namely that she’s really not up to the job. Hirsh writes:

“She has no real strategic vision,” says an NSC official. “But she’ll get done what she has to do. She’s the good little Methodist girl. In the end she’ll have her list of the nine or 10 things she has to do and check them off one by one.”

Associates bridle at such condescension, and so do many White House officials, including General Jones. Clinton’s former longtime policy chief, Neera Tanden, sees nothing to apologize for: “She definitely has lists. And she really feels a sense of obligation, duty, responsibility, as part of her general outlook; perhaps it is her Methodism. It’s part of who she is.” Clinton herself ridicules the criticism. “At the end of the day, have you solved the problem or haven’t you? Have you crossed it off the list or haven’t you?”

Hmm. Do you suppose “Thwart Iran’s nuclear program” is on the list? What about “Reorient administration away from Israel”? That one gets a check mark.

Outside observers concede the obvious:

Clinton’s and Obama’s various policies do not yet add up to anything like a doctrine on America’s place in the world. Much of the first year was about “rebuilding the brand, rebuilding political capital,” says one official. And blaming George W. Bush for America’s dire situation, of course. Now, however, fewer world leaders care about the mistakes made by the previous administration. Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he doesn’t think Clinton is of the caliber of James Baker, the George H.W. Bush secretary of state who was perhaps the last real superstar in the job. “She’s very smart,” he says. “She understands all these issues. You can have a good discussion with her on almost any [subject]. But she doesn’t pretend to be, nor is she, a strategist. When she goes to the National Security Council, she doesn’t bring that to the table.”

So what does she bring? It seems that Obama found the perfect errand girl for his bizarrely counterproductive strategy of cozying up to despots, shoving democracy promotion aside, dissing allies, and focusing on unilateral grand gestures — which suggests that no one in the administration has a workable strategy for promoting American interests and values. Obama imagines himself a great foreign-policy visionary, but the legacy he is creating is an America more estranged from allies and a Middle East on the tipping point of a deadly nuclear-arms race. Hillary might be just the enabler, but she’ll share in that legacy, which for now promises to be the most dismal of any American president’s since (maybe including) Jimmy Carter.

Michael Hirsh writes a lengthy piece on Hillary Clinton, confirming that she’s not much of a secretary of state. But then we knew that from the results of her handiwork — an unratifiable START treaty, a wrecked relationship with Israel, offended European allies, a Middle East “peace process” that has succeeded only in encouraging Palestinian intransigence, a failed Syrian-engagement gambit, and a dead-end Iran policy. So it’s not surprising that Hirsh focuses on her relationship with Obama — Starsky and Hutch! — and dwells on minutiae. After all, that’s what Hillary does best. The duo’s great accomplishment? Storming a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the ultimately meaningless Copenhagen global-warming conference. That’s the best Hirsch can come up with.

It’s hard to hide the problem, namely that she’s really not up to the job. Hirsh writes:

“She has no real strategic vision,” says an NSC official. “But she’ll get done what she has to do. She’s the good little Methodist girl. In the end she’ll have her list of the nine or 10 things she has to do and check them off one by one.”

Associates bridle at such condescension, and so do many White House officials, including General Jones. Clinton’s former longtime policy chief, Neera Tanden, sees nothing to apologize for: “She definitely has lists. And she really feels a sense of obligation, duty, responsibility, as part of her general outlook; perhaps it is her Methodism. It’s part of who she is.” Clinton herself ridicules the criticism. “At the end of the day, have you solved the problem or haven’t you? Have you crossed it off the list or haven’t you?”

Hmm. Do you suppose “Thwart Iran’s nuclear program” is on the list? What about “Reorient administration away from Israel”? That one gets a check mark.

Outside observers concede the obvious:

Clinton’s and Obama’s various policies do not yet add up to anything like a doctrine on America’s place in the world. Much of the first year was about “rebuilding the brand, rebuilding political capital,” says one official. And blaming George W. Bush for America’s dire situation, of course. Now, however, fewer world leaders care about the mistakes made by the previous administration. Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he doesn’t think Clinton is of the caliber of James Baker, the George H.W. Bush secretary of state who was perhaps the last real superstar in the job. “She’s very smart,” he says. “She understands all these issues. You can have a good discussion with her on almost any [subject]. But she doesn’t pretend to be, nor is she, a strategist. When she goes to the National Security Council, she doesn’t bring that to the table.”

So what does she bring? It seems that Obama found the perfect errand girl for his bizarrely counterproductive strategy of cozying up to despots, shoving democracy promotion aside, dissing allies, and focusing on unilateral grand gestures — which suggests that no one in the administration has a workable strategy for promoting American interests and values. Obama imagines himself a great foreign-policy visionary, but the legacy he is creating is an America more estranged from allies and a Middle East on the tipping point of a deadly nuclear-arms race. Hillary might be just the enabler, but she’ll share in that legacy, which for now promises to be the most dismal of any American president’s since (maybe including) Jimmy Carter.

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Leslie Gelb: We Need Better Advisers Because Obama Is Failing

Leslie Gelb has plainly had it with Obama. He observes: “The negative, even dismissive, talk about the Obama White House has reached a critical point. The president must change key personnel now. Unless he speedily sets up a new team, he will be reduced to a speechmaker.” We can quibble with the tense of that sentence, but he has a point.

Indeed, Gelb provides a list of particulars. On Afghanistan:

It’s even hard to follow his latest Afghan policy. He calls Afghanistan a “war of necessity” and orders more than 30,000 new troops there, coupled with an announcement that he’ll begin withdrawing some of them in a year plus, only to see some of his advisers say he will start withdrawals and some say he won’t.

On the Middle East, Gelb writes:

Obama doesn’t know what’s really going on. Regarding the Middle East, he recently said that “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.” He had to be totally out of it not to realize that the Palestinians and Israelis were nowhere close to sitting down with each other and dealing.

Well, yes. And George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, and everyone else on Obama’s team has enabled this fantasy.

But the strength of the indictment only undermines Gelb’s proposed remedy, which is to move Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod to other positions, fire a bunch of other aides (including Robert Gibbs and James Jones), and get new advisers. I agree that Emanuel and Axelrod have been front and center in many of these debacles and have a hyper-partisan outlook that has proved unhelpful to Obama. I concur that Jones, to put it mildly, “has not emerged as a strategist—perhaps the key requirement of this key position.”

But do we really think a president whose thinking is as muddled as this one’s is going to be set straight by a new crew of aides? Indeed, Gelb concedes that Obama hasn’t proved he’s up for the job:

To lead America and the world, Obama has to grow far beyond his present propensity to treat problems as intellectual puzzles—to collect facts and hear the arguments. The great tasks of governing demand proven intuition in sensing what’s achievable, which buttons to push when, how to buy the time for power to take hold, how to make adjustments without flagrantly foolish rhetoric, how to avoid failures that only diminish power, and how to succeed in small as well as large ways.

Gelb’s argument boils down to the hope that better aides can substitute for a competent president. But we know that’s not how it works. There is one president who must decide between often conflicting advice. There is one president who can connect — or not — with Middle America and roll up his sleeves to make deals with opponents. And only the president can give up the pipe dream of engaging despots. (Then there’s this problem: would any smart people want a job in the Obama administration right now?)

In the end, if the American people chose unwisely in November 2008, there is only one remedy: vote for the opposition party to check the president’s worst instincts. And if that doesn’t work, replace the president, too. If Obama can’t get up to speed and dramatically shift course, I suspect that is exactly what will happen.

Leslie Gelb has plainly had it with Obama. He observes: “The negative, even dismissive, talk about the Obama White House has reached a critical point. The president must change key personnel now. Unless he speedily sets up a new team, he will be reduced to a speechmaker.” We can quibble with the tense of that sentence, but he has a point.

Indeed, Gelb provides a list of particulars. On Afghanistan:

It’s even hard to follow his latest Afghan policy. He calls Afghanistan a “war of necessity” and orders more than 30,000 new troops there, coupled with an announcement that he’ll begin withdrawing some of them in a year plus, only to see some of his advisers say he will start withdrawals and some say he won’t.

On the Middle East, Gelb writes:

Obama doesn’t know what’s really going on. Regarding the Middle East, he recently said that “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.” He had to be totally out of it not to realize that the Palestinians and Israelis were nowhere close to sitting down with each other and dealing.

Well, yes. And George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, and everyone else on Obama’s team has enabled this fantasy.

But the strength of the indictment only undermines Gelb’s proposed remedy, which is to move Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod to other positions, fire a bunch of other aides (including Robert Gibbs and James Jones), and get new advisers. I agree that Emanuel and Axelrod have been front and center in many of these debacles and have a hyper-partisan outlook that has proved unhelpful to Obama. I concur that Jones, to put it mildly, “has not emerged as a strategist—perhaps the key requirement of this key position.”

But do we really think a president whose thinking is as muddled as this one’s is going to be set straight by a new crew of aides? Indeed, Gelb concedes that Obama hasn’t proved he’s up for the job:

To lead America and the world, Obama has to grow far beyond his present propensity to treat problems as intellectual puzzles—to collect facts and hear the arguments. The great tasks of governing demand proven intuition in sensing what’s achievable, which buttons to push when, how to buy the time for power to take hold, how to make adjustments without flagrantly foolish rhetoric, how to avoid failures that only diminish power, and how to succeed in small as well as large ways.

Gelb’s argument boils down to the hope that better aides can substitute for a competent president. But we know that’s not how it works. There is one president who must decide between often conflicting advice. There is one president who can connect — or not — with Middle America and roll up his sleeves to make deals with opponents. And only the president can give up the pipe dream of engaging despots. (Then there’s this problem: would any smart people want a job in the Obama administration right now?)

In the end, if the American people chose unwisely in November 2008, there is only one remedy: vote for the opposition party to check the president’s worst instincts. And if that doesn’t work, replace the president, too. If Obama can’t get up to speed and dramatically shift course, I suspect that is exactly what will happen.

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Brown on Terrorism

We remarked last night that the Christmas Day bombing and the Massachusetts candidates’ differing reactions may have been more telling than political observers imagined. The Scott Brown campaign agrees, as Andy McCarthy notes:

It was national security that put real distance between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley. “People talk about the potency of the health-care issue,” Brown’s top strategist, Eric Fehrnstrom, told National Review’s Robert Costa, “but from our own internal polling, the more potent issue here in Massachusetts was terrorism and the treatment of enemy combatants.” There is a powerful lesson here for Republicans, and here’s hoping they learn it.

Brown’s remarks on national security last night picked up where the campaign left off. They were noteworthy:

And let me say this, with respect to those who wish to harm us, I believe that our Constitution and laws exist to protect this nation — they do not grant rights and privileges to enemies in wartime. In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them.

Now that’s a message, stated simply and matter of factly, which I suspect will resonate strongly with the public in 2010, unless the Obami get off their “not Bush” anti-terrorism approach. Perhaps the Obami will retreat on giving KSM a civilian trial. Maybe they’ll decide to utilize military commissions to try terrorists. But if not, and if KSM’s trial (at the cost of at least $200M per year) moves ahead, expect it to become yet another issue that Republicans will utilize to great advantage. It’s precisely the sort of “What could they be thinking inside the Beltway?” issue that will appeal to both Republicans and independents, as well as many Democrats who can’t figure out why we’d pay hundreds of millions of dollars to provide a publicity platform to those who want nothing more than to recruit more followers to the cause of murdering Americans.

It’s not simply a national security argument, as Brown pointed out, but a financial one too. And most important, it highlights the populist message Brown rode to victory: the ultra-leftists running Washington D.C. are out of touch with ordinary Americans. Obama likes to say he’s defending “our values” when he declares his intention to close Guantanamo, cease enhanced interrogations, and give terrorists the same constitutional rights as common criminals. Brown argued that Obama has it backward. Our values and our Constitution require no such accommodation to butchers; they require we use all reasonable methods at our disposal to defend American lives and destroy the enemy. Brown’s position has the advantage of being right on the merits, and both right and potent on the politics.

We remarked last night that the Christmas Day bombing and the Massachusetts candidates’ differing reactions may have been more telling than political observers imagined. The Scott Brown campaign agrees, as Andy McCarthy notes:

It was national security that put real distance between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley. “People talk about the potency of the health-care issue,” Brown’s top strategist, Eric Fehrnstrom, told National Review’s Robert Costa, “but from our own internal polling, the more potent issue here in Massachusetts was terrorism and the treatment of enemy combatants.” There is a powerful lesson here for Republicans, and here’s hoping they learn it.

Brown’s remarks on national security last night picked up where the campaign left off. They were noteworthy:

And let me say this, with respect to those who wish to harm us, I believe that our Constitution and laws exist to protect this nation — they do not grant rights and privileges to enemies in wartime. In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them.

Now that’s a message, stated simply and matter of factly, which I suspect will resonate strongly with the public in 2010, unless the Obami get off their “not Bush” anti-terrorism approach. Perhaps the Obami will retreat on giving KSM a civilian trial. Maybe they’ll decide to utilize military commissions to try terrorists. But if not, and if KSM’s trial (at the cost of at least $200M per year) moves ahead, expect it to become yet another issue that Republicans will utilize to great advantage. It’s precisely the sort of “What could they be thinking inside the Beltway?” issue that will appeal to both Republicans and independents, as well as many Democrats who can’t figure out why we’d pay hundreds of millions of dollars to provide a publicity platform to those who want nothing more than to recruit more followers to the cause of murdering Americans.

It’s not simply a national security argument, as Brown pointed out, but a financial one too. And most important, it highlights the populist message Brown rode to victory: the ultra-leftists running Washington D.C. are out of touch with ordinary Americans. Obama likes to say he’s defending “our values” when he declares his intention to close Guantanamo, cease enhanced interrogations, and give terrorists the same constitutional rights as common criminals. Brown argued that Obama has it backward. Our values and our Constitution require no such accommodation to butchers; they require we use all reasonable methods at our disposal to defend American lives and destroy the enemy. Brown’s position has the advantage of being right on the merits, and both right and potent on the politics.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Odd that Saudi Arabia isn’t contributing anything to Haiti, or even covering it on English-language state news. “It seems it was God’s little joke to hand the greatest supplies of oil and natural gas to a people who part with their riches for their own ends only.”

House Democrats are saying they aren’t voting for the Senate health-care bill. Maybe they won’t vote again for the House bill.

Democratic pollster and strategist Douglas Schoen: “The defeat of Martha Coakley represents a complete repudiation of President Obama’s domestic agenda, going well beyond health care. Massachusetts voters made it clear tonight with the decisive victory they gave to Republican Scott Brown that they want and expect the administration to pursue a dramatically different approach.” And he’s a Democrat.

Sen. Jim Webb is calling foul on the gamesmanship: “It is vital that we restore the respect of the American people in our system of government and in our leaders. To that end, I believe it would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Senator-elect Brown is seated.” Could it be that the White House has lost control of the process?

Lanny Davis is pleading for sanity: “Liberal Democrats might attempt to spin the shocking victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts by claiming that the loss was a result of a poor campaign by Martha Coakley. Would that it were so. This was a defeat not of the messenger, but of the message—and the sooner progressive Democrats face up to that fact, the better. It’s the substance, stupid! … The question is, will we stop listening to the strident, purist base of our party who seem to prefer defeat to winning elections and no change at all if they don’t get all the change they want. Stay tuned.”

Michael Gerson chides the see-no-danger Democrats: “So, a Republican has convincingly won Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat. After opposing health reform. And supporting the waterboarding of terrorists. And appearing as a nude centerfold. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by three to one. And where Republicans haven’t won a Senate election since 1972. After a high-profile visit by President Obama. Who won the state by 26 points last year. But who now carries no political weight in the bluest state in the country. With vicious, public recriminations starting among Democrats even before election day. Following major losses in Virginia and New Jersey. All of which led one popular Democratic blog to argue: ‘Why Massachusetts doesn’t matter.'”

Hard to argue that: “This is the first time in years that David Gergen has helped elect a Republican.” The line “This is the people’s seat” is going to go down with “I paid for this microphone” in campaign lore.

Chris Cillizza observes: “With the Coakley loss now in the rear view mirror, the attention of the political world will now quickly turn to the question of whether or not congressional Democrats — particularly those in swing areas — will start jumping ship.” I think the only question is how many jump. “Several Democratic operatives acknowledged privately over the past few days that a Coakley defeat could put control of the House in play if enough targeted members head for the hills. It remains to be seen whether those doomsday predictions come to pass but it’s now clear that Democrats must work day in and day out to avoid broad losses outside of the historic norms for a first term, midterm election.”

Hans von Spakovsky looks for clues to White House meddling in the New Black Panther Party case: “Perhaps the single most important question that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the White House are refusing to answer in the growing scandal (for the stonewalling and subpoena violations make it a scandal) is which political appointees were involved in the obviously wrongful decision to dismiss the lawsuit — a civil suit filed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Newly released White House visitor records present strong circumstantial evidence of White House involvement in what should have been an independent and impartial law-enforcement decision.”

Before the returns were in last night, from Stuart Rothenberg: “If Brown wins, and he may, it will be the biggest political upset of my adult life. Some have compared a possible Republican win to Democrat Harris Wofford’s 1991 Pennsylvania special election Senate victory over Republican Dick Thornburgh, who was U.S. attorney general. But to me, a Brown win would be much bigger.” Yes, it is.

Odd that Saudi Arabia isn’t contributing anything to Haiti, or even covering it on English-language state news. “It seems it was God’s little joke to hand the greatest supplies of oil and natural gas to a people who part with their riches for their own ends only.”

House Democrats are saying they aren’t voting for the Senate health-care bill. Maybe they won’t vote again for the House bill.

Democratic pollster and strategist Douglas Schoen: “The defeat of Martha Coakley represents a complete repudiation of President Obama’s domestic agenda, going well beyond health care. Massachusetts voters made it clear tonight with the decisive victory they gave to Republican Scott Brown that they want and expect the administration to pursue a dramatically different approach.” And he’s a Democrat.

Sen. Jim Webb is calling foul on the gamesmanship: “It is vital that we restore the respect of the American people in our system of government and in our leaders. To that end, I believe it would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Senator-elect Brown is seated.” Could it be that the White House has lost control of the process?

Lanny Davis is pleading for sanity: “Liberal Democrats might attempt to spin the shocking victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts by claiming that the loss was a result of a poor campaign by Martha Coakley. Would that it were so. This was a defeat not of the messenger, but of the message—and the sooner progressive Democrats face up to that fact, the better. It’s the substance, stupid! … The question is, will we stop listening to the strident, purist base of our party who seem to prefer defeat to winning elections and no change at all if they don’t get all the change they want. Stay tuned.”

Michael Gerson chides the see-no-danger Democrats: “So, a Republican has convincingly won Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat. After opposing health reform. And supporting the waterboarding of terrorists. And appearing as a nude centerfold. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by three to one. And where Republicans haven’t won a Senate election since 1972. After a high-profile visit by President Obama. Who won the state by 26 points last year. But who now carries no political weight in the bluest state in the country. With vicious, public recriminations starting among Democrats even before election day. Following major losses in Virginia and New Jersey. All of which led one popular Democratic blog to argue: ‘Why Massachusetts doesn’t matter.'”

Hard to argue that: “This is the first time in years that David Gergen has helped elect a Republican.” The line “This is the people’s seat” is going to go down with “I paid for this microphone” in campaign lore.

Chris Cillizza observes: “With the Coakley loss now in the rear view mirror, the attention of the political world will now quickly turn to the question of whether or not congressional Democrats — particularly those in swing areas — will start jumping ship.” I think the only question is how many jump. “Several Democratic operatives acknowledged privately over the past few days that a Coakley defeat could put control of the House in play if enough targeted members head for the hills. It remains to be seen whether those doomsday predictions come to pass but it’s now clear that Democrats must work day in and day out to avoid broad losses outside of the historic norms for a first term, midterm election.”

Hans von Spakovsky looks for clues to White House meddling in the New Black Panther Party case: “Perhaps the single most important question that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the White House are refusing to answer in the growing scandal (for the stonewalling and subpoena violations make it a scandal) is which political appointees were involved in the obviously wrongful decision to dismiss the lawsuit — a civil suit filed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Newly released White House visitor records present strong circumstantial evidence of White House involvement in what should have been an independent and impartial law-enforcement decision.”

Before the returns were in last night, from Stuart Rothenberg: “If Brown wins, and he may, it will be the biggest political upset of my adult life. Some have compared a possible Republican win to Democrat Harris Wofford’s 1991 Pennsylvania special election Senate victory over Republican Dick Thornburgh, who was U.S. attorney general. But to me, a Brown win would be much bigger.” Yes, it is.

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Something New for McCain

Matt Dowd, the former strategist for George W. Bush’s election who later broke very publically with Bush, suggested that John McCain himself needs to break dramatically with the President. Dowd suggested a speech criticizing Bush for the growth of the federal government. Accepting that McCain will need to demonstrate some distance between himself and the hobbled President, Dowd has offered advice with a startling lack of pizzazz. Much as small-government conservatives would like to think otherwise, eliminating chunks of the federal government does not seem to be a winning message, especially with independent voters.

McCain actually has tried a few breaks with Bush — on global warming and on the general subject of competency (Katrina and the management of the Iraq War). But perhaps on the economy he might, if not break with Bush, at least escape his shadow. McCain’s embrace of the “Bush” tax cuts has always been problematic. It raised issues of consistency since he initially opposed the tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. His adherence to them now forever links him to the unpopular President.

So what to do? McCain need not embrace the Democratic position of massive tax increases. But why not a new tax plan as the ultimate goal of a McCain presidency? There are no shortage of ideas. Mitt Romney raised the notion of tax-free capital gains for the middle class. There are interesting “pro-family” conservative tax plans. And there are any number of variations of the flat tax.

If McCain is in fact going to blunt the argument that his election would be a third Bush term there seems to be every incentive to adopt as a central plank of his domestic agenda something other than “retention of the Bush tax cuts.” Global warming proposals, earmark reform, increased managerial competency and some populist flourishes on health care and the housing crisis are all efforts to distinguish McCain from the incumbent administration. But it may be time for something more dramatic and more innovative.

It would require attention and focus on domestic policy development, a communications efforts to explain it and McCain’s commitment to sell it. And, yes, there are doubts about whether those are within the grasp of the McCain team. But the payoff could be great. At the very least, McCain would have his chance to explain why he is a different kind of Republican.

Matt Dowd, the former strategist for George W. Bush’s election who later broke very publically with Bush, suggested that John McCain himself needs to break dramatically with the President. Dowd suggested a speech criticizing Bush for the growth of the federal government. Accepting that McCain will need to demonstrate some distance between himself and the hobbled President, Dowd has offered advice with a startling lack of pizzazz. Much as small-government conservatives would like to think otherwise, eliminating chunks of the federal government does not seem to be a winning message, especially with independent voters.

McCain actually has tried a few breaks with Bush — on global warming and on the general subject of competency (Katrina and the management of the Iraq War). But perhaps on the economy he might, if not break with Bush, at least escape his shadow. McCain’s embrace of the “Bush” tax cuts has always been problematic. It raised issues of consistency since he initially opposed the tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. His adherence to them now forever links him to the unpopular President.

So what to do? McCain need not embrace the Democratic position of massive tax increases. But why not a new tax plan as the ultimate goal of a McCain presidency? There are no shortage of ideas. Mitt Romney raised the notion of tax-free capital gains for the middle class. There are interesting “pro-family” conservative tax plans. And there are any number of variations of the flat tax.

If McCain is in fact going to blunt the argument that his election would be a third Bush term there seems to be every incentive to adopt as a central plank of his domestic agenda something other than “retention of the Bush tax cuts.” Global warming proposals, earmark reform, increased managerial competency and some populist flourishes on health care and the housing crisis are all efforts to distinguish McCain from the incumbent administration. But it may be time for something more dramatic and more innovative.

It would require attention and focus on domestic policy development, a communications efforts to explain it and McCain’s commitment to sell it. And, yes, there are doubts about whether those are within the grasp of the McCain team. But the payoff could be great. At the very least, McCain would have his chance to explain why he is a different kind of Republican.

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Preview

If you want to know what Hillary’s strategist, Harold Ickes, might whisper in the ears of superdelegates if she decides to stay in and fight, here is a good taste. Nothing quite beats Paul Begala lecturing Donna Brazile that Democrats can’t win with a coalition of “eggheads and African Americans.” After that exchange, you can probably add one more superdelegate (Brazile) to the Obama column. Gotta love that Clinton light touch.

But before Republicans get excited about the possibilty of vicious infighting that will torment Democrats, those Republicans should keep in mind two things. First, eventually there will be a nominee (whether May or June or August) and a final night of the convention where everyone will raise hands together and declare undying loyalty. Most of those Clinton supporters, especially ones committed enough to vote in a primary, will vote Democratic in November. And there are a lot more registered Democrats than there used to be.

Second, Obama is a fast learner. His speech last night included a heavy dose of heartfelt appreciation for America, reverence for the land of opportunity and lots of empathy for working class voters. Like a vacuum cleaner, he is sucking up the Clintonian message to blue collar voters and absorbing the rhetoric which has successfully lured a coalition of working class whites, seniors and women. Don’t expect any more Snobgate slip-ups.

In short, the fun for conservatives is at an end.

If you want to know what Hillary’s strategist, Harold Ickes, might whisper in the ears of superdelegates if she decides to stay in and fight, here is a good taste. Nothing quite beats Paul Begala lecturing Donna Brazile that Democrats can’t win with a coalition of “eggheads and African Americans.” After that exchange, you can probably add one more superdelegate (Brazile) to the Obama column. Gotta love that Clinton light touch.

But before Republicans get excited about the possibilty of vicious infighting that will torment Democrats, those Republicans should keep in mind two things. First, eventually there will be a nominee (whether May or June or August) and a final night of the convention where everyone will raise hands together and declare undying loyalty. Most of those Clinton supporters, especially ones committed enough to vote in a primary, will vote Democratic in November. And there are a lot more registered Democrats than there used to be.

Second, Obama is a fast learner. His speech last night included a heavy dose of heartfelt appreciation for America, reverence for the land of opportunity and lots of empathy for working class voters. Like a vacuum cleaner, he is sucking up the Clintonian message to blue collar voters and absorbing the rhetoric which has successfully lured a coalition of working class whites, seniors and women. Don’t expect any more Snobgate slip-ups.

In short, the fun for conservatives is at an end.

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A Kuwaiti Voice Speaks up against Iran

A top Kuwaiti strategist has asserted that the Arab world would be best off if Israel were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Interviewed in the daily Al Siyassah (as reported in Ha’aretz), Sami al-Faraj, a former adviser to the Kuwaiti government, suggested that an attack on Iran would be a good thing--especially if Israel executed it:

Honestly speaking, they would be achieving something of great strategic value for the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] by stopping Iran’s tendency for hegemony over the area . . . nipping it in the bud by Israeli hands would be less embarrassing for us than if the Americans did it.

Iran is a big problem for the entire Arab world, al-Faraj continued, and the last thing the Arab states need is a nuclear Iran. “The question is what would it do if it were a nuclear nation? We have to call a spade a spade and say that burying the military nuclear Iranian project is in the interest of GCC states, and other countries in the area,” he added.

For what it’s worth.

A top Kuwaiti strategist has asserted that the Arab world would be best off if Israel were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Interviewed in the daily Al Siyassah (as reported in Ha’aretz), Sami al-Faraj, a former adviser to the Kuwaiti government, suggested that an attack on Iran would be a good thing--especially if Israel executed it:

Honestly speaking, they would be achieving something of great strategic value for the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] by stopping Iran’s tendency for hegemony over the area . . . nipping it in the bud by Israeli hands would be less embarrassing for us than if the Americans did it.

Iran is a big problem for the entire Arab world, al-Faraj continued, and the last thing the Arab states need is a nuclear Iran. “The question is what would it do if it were a nuclear nation? We have to call a spade a spade and say that burying the military nuclear Iranian project is in the interest of GCC states, and other countries in the area,” he added.

For what it’s worth.

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A Little Worried?

Barack Obama added this to his otherwise rather standard election night speech on Tuesday:

I owe what I am to this country I love, and I will never forget it. Where else could a young man who grew up herding goats in Kenya get the chance to fulfill his dream of a college education? Where else could he marry a white girl from Kansas whose parents survived war and depression to find opportunity out west? Where else could they have a child who would one day have the chance to run for the highest office in the greatest nation the world has ever known? Where else, but in the United States of America?

Could it be that the Obama team is a wee bit concerned that between Michelle’s comments, Barack’s discarding of his flag lapel pin, and all the talk about how positively dreadful things in America are, even Democratic primary voters  might sense he is a bit too disdainful of the country he seeks to lead? (This is to say nothing of general election voters, who will be choosing between him and a war hero whose love for America pours forth with the slightest provocation.)

The comments were no accident, according to this report:

A senior Obama strategist, David Axelrod, acknowledged that he is receiving varied advice from Democrats, including changing Obama’s stump speech to emphasize his American roots and pushing for a second round of changes in the nation’s welfare laws, this time aimed at stray fathers. If Obama finds himself forced to defend his patriotism before a skeptical electorate, he will be in deep trouble, [Iowa Governor Tom] Vilsack warned. But, he added, “what’s the alternative, ignore it? We paid a price in 2004 for thinking the charge wouldn’t stick.” [Alabama Congressman Arthur] Davis said Obama needs to immediately preempt attacks on his patriotism by reprising the theme of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention — that only in the United States of America could the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a woman from a small-town in Kansas aspire to the heights of power. Obama took up that theme last night, but only deep inside his San Antonio address.

The problem, however, is not one easily solved by a throwaway line or two. Obama and his wife have given us every reason to believe that the country is a mess, the average guy gets the shaft, and politicians are corrupt. It’s a fine line to walk between painting a picture of a country in such dire straits that we need Obama and only Obama (or change, or something  different than anything that ever came before him) and saying that, flat out, that you are not proud of your country. I think all of Axeldrod’s advice is right. If there are concerns about Obama’s affection for this country now, just wait until he’s up against a man who considered it an honor to remain in prison for the country he loved.

Barack Obama added this to his otherwise rather standard election night speech on Tuesday:

I owe what I am to this country I love, and I will never forget it. Where else could a young man who grew up herding goats in Kenya get the chance to fulfill his dream of a college education? Where else could he marry a white girl from Kansas whose parents survived war and depression to find opportunity out west? Where else could they have a child who would one day have the chance to run for the highest office in the greatest nation the world has ever known? Where else, but in the United States of America?

Could it be that the Obama team is a wee bit concerned that between Michelle’s comments, Barack’s discarding of his flag lapel pin, and all the talk about how positively dreadful things in America are, even Democratic primary voters  might sense he is a bit too disdainful of the country he seeks to lead? (This is to say nothing of general election voters, who will be choosing between him and a war hero whose love for America pours forth with the slightest provocation.)

The comments were no accident, according to this report:

A senior Obama strategist, David Axelrod, acknowledged that he is receiving varied advice from Democrats, including changing Obama’s stump speech to emphasize his American roots and pushing for a second round of changes in the nation’s welfare laws, this time aimed at stray fathers. If Obama finds himself forced to defend his patriotism before a skeptical electorate, he will be in deep trouble, [Iowa Governor Tom] Vilsack warned. But, he added, “what’s the alternative, ignore it? We paid a price in 2004 for thinking the charge wouldn’t stick.” [Alabama Congressman Arthur] Davis said Obama needs to immediately preempt attacks on his patriotism by reprising the theme of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention — that only in the United States of America could the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a woman from a small-town in Kansas aspire to the heights of power. Obama took up that theme last night, but only deep inside his San Antonio address.

The problem, however, is not one easily solved by a throwaway line or two. Obama and his wife have given us every reason to believe that the country is a mess, the average guy gets the shaft, and politicians are corrupt. It’s a fine line to walk between painting a picture of a country in such dire straits that we need Obama and only Obama (or change, or something  different than anything that ever came before him) and saying that, flat out, that you are not proud of your country. I think all of Axeldrod’s advice is right. If there are concerns about Obama’s affection for this country now, just wait until he’s up against a man who considered it an honor to remain in prison for the country he loved.

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Lots Of Blame To Go Around

This, in the latest of the “what went wrong?” stories, is a helpful guide to the many errors and faults of Clinton campaign guru Mark Penn, famed for perfecting the art of micro-trending (i.e. slicing and dicing the electorate to cobble together a winning coalition of support). Was it that we all “misunderstood” her (i.e., she really did care about big ideas) or that the media was too harsh? That’s Penn’s take. More realistically, the Clinton team utterly missed the biggest “trend” of all: this was a “change” election. And with a candidate who never connected with voters (“Being human is overrated,” Penn joked) they went from inevitable to desperate in less than a year.

But there is a bigger point here than just confirmation of Penn’s ineptitude. (And, yes, the incompetence of Harold Ickes and others who failed to organize and compete in caucus and Red states is equally to blame.) Hillary Clinton has never overseen a large operation successfully. For all of her talk that she would be “ready on day one,” the only instances of her managerial efforts–the health care task force and her own campaign–indicate she is neither a good judge of talent or a savvy strategist. In that regard, her claim to greater “experience” seems weak indeed.

This, in the latest of the “what went wrong?” stories, is a helpful guide to the many errors and faults of Clinton campaign guru Mark Penn, famed for perfecting the art of micro-trending (i.e. slicing and dicing the electorate to cobble together a winning coalition of support). Was it that we all “misunderstood” her (i.e., she really did care about big ideas) or that the media was too harsh? That’s Penn’s take. More realistically, the Clinton team utterly missed the biggest “trend” of all: this was a “change” election. And with a candidate who never connected with voters (“Being human is overrated,” Penn joked) they went from inevitable to desperate in less than a year.

But there is a bigger point here than just confirmation of Penn’s ineptitude. (And, yes, the incompetence of Harold Ickes and others who failed to organize and compete in caucus and Red states is equally to blame.) Hillary Clinton has never overseen a large operation successfully. For all of her talk that she would be “ready on day one,” the only instances of her managerial efforts–the health care task force and her own campaign–indicate she is neither a good judge of talent or a savvy strategist. In that regard, her claim to greater “experience” seems weak indeed.

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Identity Hits the GOP

An article at Politico quotes Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway:

Republicans will need to exercise less deafness and more deftness in dealing with a different looking candidate, whether it is a woman or a black man.

If only I could have exercised more blindness before reading that. Apparently there’s a big GOP plan underway to ensure that Republicans aren’t insensitive to race or gender and don’t succumb to “undisciplined messaging” while campaigning against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. David Paul Kuhn writes: “Many expect to be held to a higher rhetorical standard than is customary in campaigns, in part because of perceptions of intolerance that still dog the party.” Has is not been this season’s Democrats who’ve demonstrated a base reliance on the “perceptions of intolerance”? Frankly, the Republicans would have to go pretty far to match the “undisciplined messaging” displayed by Bill Clinton in his effort to convince White voters that his wife was with them. Here’s more:

Republicans will be told to “be sensitive to tone and stick to the substance of the discussion” and that “the key is that you have to be sensitive to the fact that you are running against historic firsts,” the strategist explained.

What about policy and ability? Must the whole country take part in this obsession with “historic firsts” or can we view the identity-poisoned Democratic race as a cautionary tale and move on? Having watched the Democrats use identity as a deadly weapon while pretending to celebrate diversity, I’ve had enough deftness to last me a lifetime.

An article at Politico quotes Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway:

Republicans will need to exercise less deafness and more deftness in dealing with a different looking candidate, whether it is a woman or a black man.

If only I could have exercised more blindness before reading that. Apparently there’s a big GOP plan underway to ensure that Republicans aren’t insensitive to race or gender and don’t succumb to “undisciplined messaging” while campaigning against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. David Paul Kuhn writes: “Many expect to be held to a higher rhetorical standard than is customary in campaigns, in part because of perceptions of intolerance that still dog the party.” Has is not been this season’s Democrats who’ve demonstrated a base reliance on the “perceptions of intolerance”? Frankly, the Republicans would have to go pretty far to match the “undisciplined messaging” displayed by Bill Clinton in his effort to convince White voters that his wife was with them. Here’s more:

Republicans will be told to “be sensitive to tone and stick to the substance of the discussion” and that “the key is that you have to be sensitive to the fact that you are running against historic firsts,” the strategist explained.

What about policy and ability? Must the whole country take part in this obsession with “historic firsts” or can we view the identity-poisoned Democratic race as a cautionary tale and move on? Having watched the Democrats use identity as a deadly weapon while pretending to celebrate diversity, I’ve had enough deftness to last me a lifetime.

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More Clinton Collapse

ABC News has video of a run-down, rambling Bill Clinton unloading on Barack Obama. When asked about Hillary strategist Mark Penn’s premature claim that Obama got no “bounce” coming out of Iowa, the former President came close to a meltdown.

“Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairytale I’ve ever seen,” he said. Which explains exactly why he and Hillary are so unable to cope with the Obama phenomenon: they had thought they had foisted the biggest fairytale upon the American public. As it turns out, the Clintons are being out-Clintoned. Bill went on:

The idea that one of these campaigns is positive and the other is negative when I know the reverse is true and I have seen it and I have been blistered by it for months is a little tough to take. Just because of the sanitizing coverage that’s in the media doesn’t mean the facts aren’t out there.

Sanitizing coverage? This from the man whose perceived right to perjury launched an entire political force—moveon.org. At some point, the Clintons’ lurid exit from the world stage will cease to be delicious, but not quite yet.

Slate, by the way, has some valuable counterpoints to these Clinton claims.

ABC News has video of a run-down, rambling Bill Clinton unloading on Barack Obama. When asked about Hillary strategist Mark Penn’s premature claim that Obama got no “bounce” coming out of Iowa, the former President came close to a meltdown.

“Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairytale I’ve ever seen,” he said. Which explains exactly why he and Hillary are so unable to cope with the Obama phenomenon: they had thought they had foisted the biggest fairytale upon the American public. As it turns out, the Clintons are being out-Clintoned. Bill went on:

The idea that one of these campaigns is positive and the other is negative when I know the reverse is true and I have seen it and I have been blistered by it for months is a little tough to take. Just because of the sanitizing coverage that’s in the media doesn’t mean the facts aren’t out there.

Sanitizing coverage? This from the man whose perceived right to perjury launched an entire political force—moveon.org. At some point, the Clintons’ lurid exit from the world stage will cease to be delicious, but not quite yet.

Slate, by the way, has some valuable counterpoints to these Clinton claims.

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Power Games in Gaza

I’m with you, David, in thinking that what is going on in Gaza is mysterious. Here’s another way to look at it: Israeli action is constrained by two major factors. On one side, the government must do something in response to the recently increased tempo in rocket fire. On the other, a full-scale ground invasion, at least right now—unless there is a major attack—is off the table. Israel’s maneuvering must take place inside of those parameters. And inside diplomatic parameters, as well, as the NYT’s Steven Erlanger explained in an unusually good piece yesterday:

So long as rockets are fired toward Israelis from Gaza, Israelis will be very reluctant, even unwilling, to make a political deal for a Palestinian state that cannot provide them security. And if the Israelis reinvade Gaza in a serious way, killing many Palestinians, it will put Mr. Abbas and moderate Arab countries in their own dilemma, making it very difficult for them to sanction a political deal with Israel.

So if you’re an Israeli strategist, the bottom line is that you need to keep the rocket fire, at least for now, to an acceptable level, and your only means of doing so is through air strikes. I am a little skeptical of the Israel-Hamas collusion theory, though, but for all I know it could be exactly what’s going on. Here’s what makes me leery: Islamic Jihad functions for Hamas like a proxy militia—in the Middle East, proxies have proxies, and perhaps soon we’ll be hearing that Islamic Jihad has hired out a network of scrap metal scavengers on rented mules to do its dirty work—allowing Hamas to maintain a fig leaf of deniability when it comes to rocket attacks, but also allowing it to take credit among its admirers for the obduracy of its “resistance.” (This is an important bona fide if you’re an Islamist.) Hamas’s complicity in IJ’s destruction would remove one of the primary means by which it keeps itself in the headlines, on Iran’s payroll, politically salient, and in the jihadist dreams of a large number of Palestinians.

But perhaps right now the Hamas leadership believes itself cornered, has decided to bargain away a little bit of its militancy, and is putting Islamic Jihad’s heads on the Israeli chopping block as part of the deal (this could also sow terrible internal division among Gaza’s jihadists, who like to think of themselves as unified in their struggle). But even if true it’ll be a short-lived, and aggressively repudiated, quiescence. Hamas has to keep up appearances.

I’m with you, David, in thinking that what is going on in Gaza is mysterious. Here’s another way to look at it: Israeli action is constrained by two major factors. On one side, the government must do something in response to the recently increased tempo in rocket fire. On the other, a full-scale ground invasion, at least right now—unless there is a major attack—is off the table. Israel’s maneuvering must take place inside of those parameters. And inside diplomatic parameters, as well, as the NYT’s Steven Erlanger explained in an unusually good piece yesterday:

So long as rockets are fired toward Israelis from Gaza, Israelis will be very reluctant, even unwilling, to make a political deal for a Palestinian state that cannot provide them security. And if the Israelis reinvade Gaza in a serious way, killing many Palestinians, it will put Mr. Abbas and moderate Arab countries in their own dilemma, making it very difficult for them to sanction a political deal with Israel.

So if you’re an Israeli strategist, the bottom line is that you need to keep the rocket fire, at least for now, to an acceptable level, and your only means of doing so is through air strikes. I am a little skeptical of the Israel-Hamas collusion theory, though, but for all I know it could be exactly what’s going on. Here’s what makes me leery: Islamic Jihad functions for Hamas like a proxy militia—in the Middle East, proxies have proxies, and perhaps soon we’ll be hearing that Islamic Jihad has hired out a network of scrap metal scavengers on rented mules to do its dirty work—allowing Hamas to maintain a fig leaf of deniability when it comes to rocket attacks, but also allowing it to take credit among its admirers for the obduracy of its “resistance.” (This is an important bona fide if you’re an Islamist.) Hamas’s complicity in IJ’s destruction would remove one of the primary means by which it keeps itself in the headlines, on Iran’s payroll, politically salient, and in the jihadist dreams of a large number of Palestinians.

But perhaps right now the Hamas leadership believes itself cornered, has decided to bargain away a little bit of its militancy, and is putting Islamic Jihad’s heads on the Israeli chopping block as part of the deal (this could also sow terrible internal division among Gaza’s jihadists, who like to think of themselves as unified in their struggle). But even if true it’ll be a short-lived, and aggressively repudiated, quiescence. Hamas has to keep up appearances.

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Huck’s Confused on National Security

It’s something of an understatement to say that Mike Huckabee, now leading polls in Iowa, has a national security problem.

This is from a CBS News story covering the former Arkansas governor in Des Moines last Tuesday:

Now a reporter was asking Huckabee about the National Intelligence Estimate report, which had found that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago. The report had been front-page news, and it seemed likely to transform the rhetoric about Iran coming from the presidential candidates.

Huckabee, to the surprise of the reporters gathered around him, was unfamiliar with the report.

This coming Sunday’s New York Times magazine will feature a cover story by Zev Chafets on Huckabee that offers troubling insight into gaffes like the one above. Asked about his foreign policy credentials, Huckabee’s response sounds more like a puffed up on-line dating profile than the CV of a future commander-in-chief: “In his defense, Huckabee mentioned that as governor, he had visited ‘‘35 or 40 countries,’’ where he sometimes “negotiated trade deals.”

When Chafets asked him what thinkers influenced him on foreign affairs, the first name mentioned was columnist Thomas Friedman—not so much a strategist as a well-meaning hand-wringer, ever-hopeful on the sidelines. (Friedman himself recently admitted, “My Iraq crystal ball stopped working a long time ago. I’m taking this one step at a time.”) Then, in an ideological 180, Huckabee mentioned Center for Security Policy founder Frank Gaffney.

Mike Huckabee is coming out of Iowa riding a policy-free wave. If he keeps trying to do national security every way and no way at once, he’ll roll into McCain-friendly New Hampshire on a mere ripple.

It’s something of an understatement to say that Mike Huckabee, now leading polls in Iowa, has a national security problem.

This is from a CBS News story covering the former Arkansas governor in Des Moines last Tuesday:

Now a reporter was asking Huckabee about the National Intelligence Estimate report, which had found that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago. The report had been front-page news, and it seemed likely to transform the rhetoric about Iran coming from the presidential candidates.

Huckabee, to the surprise of the reporters gathered around him, was unfamiliar with the report.

This coming Sunday’s New York Times magazine will feature a cover story by Zev Chafets on Huckabee that offers troubling insight into gaffes like the one above. Asked about his foreign policy credentials, Huckabee’s response sounds more like a puffed up on-line dating profile than the CV of a future commander-in-chief: “In his defense, Huckabee mentioned that as governor, he had visited ‘‘35 or 40 countries,’’ where he sometimes “negotiated trade deals.”

When Chafets asked him what thinkers influenced him on foreign affairs, the first name mentioned was columnist Thomas Friedman—not so much a strategist as a well-meaning hand-wringer, ever-hopeful on the sidelines. (Friedman himself recently admitted, “My Iraq crystal ball stopped working a long time ago. I’m taking this one step at a time.”) Then, in an ideological 180, Huckabee mentioned Center for Security Policy founder Frank Gaffney.

Mike Huckabee is coming out of Iowa riding a policy-free wave. If he keeps trying to do national security every way and no way at once, he’ll roll into McCain-friendly New Hampshire on a mere ripple.

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If George F. Kennan Met Osama bin Laden

“Did George Kennan know the best way to fight terror?” is the question asked by a New York Times op-ed today. My question in return is: why is so much that appears on the op-ed page of our leading newspaper so fatuous?

In 1947, writes Nicholas Thompson, the author of a forthcoming book about Kennan, the late American strategist published his famous article in Foreign Affairs under the byline of X, setting forth the strategy of containment. The Soviet challenge, as Kennan understood it, Thompson explains, was political and not military, and it required a political not a military response: “The United States should refrain from provoking Moscow, whether through confrontation or histrionics,” Thompson paraphrases. “Patience would lead to success.”

Alas, Thompson continues, containment was massively misinterpreted and militarized by American cold warriors and turned into an instrument of aggression and bellicosity. This in turn led into the horrors of the cold war:

We soon built up our forces to defend Western Europe, created NATO and engaged in a huge arms race. Eventually containment would mean soldiers in Vietnam and thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the Soviet Union.

Has Thompson has given us a fair summary of Kennan’s position? In Foreign Affairs, after all, Kennan offered a strategy of “firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” It is impossible to read this as a call for pacifism or disengagement or even “patience”—try as Thompson might (and, in his later years, Kennan himself did). In fact, as I have argued in COMMENTARY, there were actually two George Kennans, the second of whom waged a life-long war against the writings of the first, grossly distorting his own ideas and the historical record along the way.

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“Did George Kennan know the best way to fight terror?” is the question asked by a New York Times op-ed today. My question in return is: why is so much that appears on the op-ed page of our leading newspaper so fatuous?

In 1947, writes Nicholas Thompson, the author of a forthcoming book about Kennan, the late American strategist published his famous article in Foreign Affairs under the byline of X, setting forth the strategy of containment. The Soviet challenge, as Kennan understood it, Thompson explains, was political and not military, and it required a political not a military response: “The United States should refrain from provoking Moscow, whether through confrontation or histrionics,” Thompson paraphrases. “Patience would lead to success.”

Alas, Thompson continues, containment was massively misinterpreted and militarized by American cold warriors and turned into an instrument of aggression and bellicosity. This in turn led into the horrors of the cold war:

We soon built up our forces to defend Western Europe, created NATO and engaged in a huge arms race. Eventually containment would mean soldiers in Vietnam and thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the Soviet Union.

Has Thompson has given us a fair summary of Kennan’s position? In Foreign Affairs, after all, Kennan offered a strategy of “firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” It is impossible to read this as a call for pacifism or disengagement or even “patience”—try as Thompson might (and, in his later years, Kennan himself did). In fact, as I have argued in COMMENTARY, there were actually two George Kennans, the second of whom waged a life-long war against the writings of the first, grossly distorting his own ideas and the historical record along the way.

But what does any of this cold-war arcana have to do with terrorism?

Thompson acknowledges that today “we face vastly different challenges from those the nation confronted right after World War II.” Al-Qaeda cells plotting attacks with weapons of mass destruction are a far cry from the dangers posed by the Red Army and Communist insurrection. Nevertheless, claims Thompson, Kennan’s pacific version of containment—“the desired but never executed policy from 60 years ago—contains “profound wisdom” for our present circumstances. In particular, we should recognize that, as in the cold war, “[t]ime is on our side—particularly if we act in a way that doesn’t inflame our enemies’ pride and anger and win them new recruits.”

Thus, with respect to Pakistan, where we are spending $10 billion on military assistance and less than $1 billion on health, education, and the promotion of democracy, Kennan “would have wanted the numbers to be closer to the reverse.”

Kennan’s vision of counterterrorism would also involve

the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, an unambiguous renunciation of torture, and an abandonment of the notion that our legal and moral norms don’t apply to the current struggle. Kennan believed we gave our opponents a propaganda victory each time we acted in a manner unfitting of our ideals.

Whatever the merits and demerits of each of these proposals, invoking Kennan’s doctrine of containment in defense of them is both dishonest and illogical.

Even in the cold war itself, as Thompson himself admits, “We can’t know for sure how [Kennan’s] recommended, wholly political version of containment”—assuming he ever adumbrated such a vision—“would have fared.” In the event, and in the face of massive threats to the peace in places like Korea and Berlin, the “militarized” version of the doctrine was a necessity.

Toward the end of the cold war, moreover, it was only America’s willingness to engage in a military competition that enabled the West to prevail; even Thompson is compelled to admit that a “militant foreign policy” eventually helped “bring about the collapse of Soviet Communism.”

So how does it follow from the history of the cold war that we should now abandon military means in the struggle against al Qaeda and simply try to contain it? In fact, we tried something like that approach in the 1990’s, and on September 11, 2001, it led to one of the worst military disasters in American history.

That there are now voices telling us to abandon the military fight against Islamic terrorists and win by setting an example of moral rectitude shows only that there is no limit to the human desire to cut and run.

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