Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tim Russert

Tim Russert’s Annoying Hillary Interview: A Case Study in Media Irrelevance

For more than a decade, Tim Russert has been celebrated for his highly confrontational, “gotcha” interviews on Meet the Press. But yesterday’s morning’s interview with Hillary Clinton provides ample evidence that he is among the most superficial and irritating members of the elite Washington press corps.

Whatever you may think of the Democrats, it is impossible to deny that the current race is a fascinating contest pitting core factions of the Democratic base against each other: African Americans versus working-class women, traditional liberals versus New Democrats. But what does Russert do with his exclusive hour with Clinton? He falls back on the sophomoric “oppo research” questions that his staff gleefully gins up, which tell us nothing about the state of the race or the candidate.

He starts by quoting a foolish Bob Herbert column that implausibly tries to paint the Clintons as racist. He follows up with some more ambush clips from African-Americans upset about Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” line regarding Obama’s shifting position on Iraq or Hillary’s line about the importance of Lyndon Johnson in passing the Civil Rights Act. To her credit, Hillary responds to Russert by calling this stuff “an unfair and unwarranted attempt to misinterpret and mischaracterize what I’ve said.”

But Russert, never a good listener, continues to take her words out of context. First he misrepresents an interview Clinton did with Newsweek: “In Newsweek, you gave an interview to Jon Meacham, and you talked about the personal narrative that candidates develop. You seem to compare Barack Obama to, you say, demagogues like Huey Long.” What she said was this: “I have always been a little suspicious, to be honest, with a personal narrative.…There were some of the demagogues, Huey Long and others. For their time, they were unbelievable communicators and they gave people such a feeling of, on the one hand, hitting back against the forces that had undermined their futures or, on the other hand, that it was going to be automatically better if we elected that person I have always been suspicious of that.” This is actually one of the more interesting intelligent things Hillary Clinton has ever said.

Briefly he asked a few “what if” questions about the surge in Iraq, but as soon as Clinton offered a substantive answer, Russert simply retreated to his research file, trying to find some contradictory posture in her vote for the Iraq war she cast more than 5 years ago. Russert put up a video clip from 2002. Then he quoted a New York Times story from the same year. Later in the hour it was  aclip of Bill Clinton from 15 years ago defending his lack of Washington experience as a way of trying to embarrass Hillary on her criticism of Obama’s inexperience.

The sheer smarminess of all this is profoundly irritating. The hour-long interview gave us no new insight into Clinton or the current race. It was intended only to highlight the ability of Russert’s team to run a few Nexis searches. At one point, Russert had nerve to cite an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showing Obama beating Clinton – this from the same Tim Russert who, only a week ago, was intoxicated by all the worthless NBC polls showing Obama winning in New Hampshire.

Russert is lazy because he is still using the tired technique of reading old, embarrassing quotes to politicians that seemed like a novel approach when he started doing it — in 1991. He displays absolutely no interest in current politics, other than the urge to expose politicians (tee-hee) as flip-floppers. He is a case study of why the mainstream media has become so irrelevant to serious political conversation.

 

For more than a decade, Tim Russert has been celebrated for his highly confrontational, “gotcha” interviews on Meet the Press. But yesterday’s morning’s interview with Hillary Clinton provides ample evidence that he is among the most superficial and irritating members of the elite Washington press corps.

Whatever you may think of the Democrats, it is impossible to deny that the current race is a fascinating contest pitting core factions of the Democratic base against each other: African Americans versus working-class women, traditional liberals versus New Democrats. But what does Russert do with his exclusive hour with Clinton? He falls back on the sophomoric “oppo research” questions that his staff gleefully gins up, which tell us nothing about the state of the race or the candidate.

He starts by quoting a foolish Bob Herbert column that implausibly tries to paint the Clintons as racist. He follows up with some more ambush clips from African-Americans upset about Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” line regarding Obama’s shifting position on Iraq or Hillary’s line about the importance of Lyndon Johnson in passing the Civil Rights Act. To her credit, Hillary responds to Russert by calling this stuff “an unfair and unwarranted attempt to misinterpret and mischaracterize what I’ve said.”

But Russert, never a good listener, continues to take her words out of context. First he misrepresents an interview Clinton did with Newsweek: “In Newsweek, you gave an interview to Jon Meacham, and you talked about the personal narrative that candidates develop. You seem to compare Barack Obama to, you say, demagogues like Huey Long.” What she said was this: “I have always been a little suspicious, to be honest, with a personal narrative.…There were some of the demagogues, Huey Long and others. For their time, they were unbelievable communicators and they gave people such a feeling of, on the one hand, hitting back against the forces that had undermined their futures or, on the other hand, that it was going to be automatically better if we elected that person I have always been suspicious of that.” This is actually one of the more interesting intelligent things Hillary Clinton has ever said.

Briefly he asked a few “what if” questions about the surge in Iraq, but as soon as Clinton offered a substantive answer, Russert simply retreated to his research file, trying to find some contradictory posture in her vote for the Iraq war she cast more than 5 years ago. Russert put up a video clip from 2002. Then he quoted a New York Times story from the same year. Later in the hour it was  aclip of Bill Clinton from 15 years ago defending his lack of Washington experience as a way of trying to embarrass Hillary on her criticism of Obama’s inexperience.

The sheer smarminess of all this is profoundly irritating. The hour-long interview gave us no new insight into Clinton or the current race. It was intended only to highlight the ability of Russert’s team to run a few Nexis searches. At one point, Russert had nerve to cite an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showing Obama beating Clinton – this from the same Tim Russert who, only a week ago, was intoxicated by all the worthless NBC polls showing Obama winning in New Hampshire.

Russert is lazy because he is still using the tired technique of reading old, embarrassing quotes to politicians that seemed like a novel approach when he started doing it — in 1991. He displays absolutely no interest in current politics, other than the urge to expose politicians (tee-hee) as flip-floppers. He is a case study of why the mainstream media has become so irrelevant to serious political conversation.

 

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Iraq Is The Issue. Iraq Is The Issue. Iraq Is The Issue.

Wasn’t it just last month that we heard how Iraq has faded as an issue, even among Republicans?  Weren’t New Hampshire’s voters instead deeply concerned about taxes, immigration, health care? This was the great misinterpretation of the run-up to last night’s primary.

John McCain won because he stuck to the war in Iraq.

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal, we read that McCain has never stopped talking about the subject:

“The first reason I’m running for president is the war in Iraq,” Sen. McCain said when he took the microphone. “The final reason I’m running is the war in Iraq.”

McCain has never been a conservative favorite because of his “apostasy” on the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, and illegal aliens.  Michelle Malkin expressed typical right-wing antipathy toward McCain when, a month ago, she called him an “immigration drag queen.” This perspective has effectively become conventional wisdom. Even Mickey Kaus, no conservative, as recently as two days ago headlined his Slate column with the question, “Will Amnesty Sink McCain?”

We have been hearing this for a year during which self-identified conservatives have been trying to create a post-Bush, post-Iraq agenda. Last summer, the venerable rightist weekly Human Events listed its top conservative issues.  Illegal immigration was #1. The war on terror was #2.  Iraq was #7.  Before Iraq came federal spending, Supreme Court nominees, tax cuts, and the size of government.

Other groups built other lists. The Club for Growth argued that McCain could not be trusted on economic issues. Mitt Romney tried to capture the conservative mantle with much talk about free market health care and, in the fall, religion. CNN and the Washington Post insisted that immigration was the new driving force for conservatives and Republicans. Mike Huckabee’s surge was interpreted as a return of the social-values agenda. More recently, some assumed that if Romney faltered, Fred Thompson would be the obvious conservative choice with his Reaganesque gravitas and anti-Washington instincts.

In the end, though, the war remains the conservative issue.

For all the noise about amnesty, taxes, and Washington politicians, Iraq remains the most vibrant issue – and the one that distinguishes the GOP most from the Democrats. McCain’s role as Rumsfeld critic but earliest supporter of the Iraq surge gave him his most forceful and principled arguments.  His best stuff with Tim Russert on last Sunday’s Meet the Press was all about Iraq. (Rudy Giuliani, too, has been making this case, but McCain’s detailed criticism of the handling of the war seems to give him more credibility.)

If conservative commentators don’t yet realize that staying power of the war in Iraq as an issue, some Democrats do. Listen to Hillary’s speech last night. She is already drawing a distinction between getting out of Iraq immediately (Obama’s position) and getting out “the right way.” She understands that, despite what everyone else says, Iraq will be an issue in the fall and the Democrats cannot look McGovernite, especially if McCain is the nominee.

Yes, the race is still wide open, etc.  But the most important message emerging from New Hampshire is the re-establishment of George W. Bush’s signal issue as the uniting force of the GOP.  How deliciously ironic that John McCain has become the torch bearer of the Bush legacy.

Wasn’t it just last month that we heard how Iraq has faded as an issue, even among Republicans?  Weren’t New Hampshire’s voters instead deeply concerned about taxes, immigration, health care? This was the great misinterpretation of the run-up to last night’s primary.

John McCain won because he stuck to the war in Iraq.

In this morning’s Wall Street Journal, we read that McCain has never stopped talking about the subject:

“The first reason I’m running for president is the war in Iraq,” Sen. McCain said when he took the microphone. “The final reason I’m running is the war in Iraq.”

McCain has never been a conservative favorite because of his “apostasy” on the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, and illegal aliens.  Michelle Malkin expressed typical right-wing antipathy toward McCain when, a month ago, she called him an “immigration drag queen.” This perspective has effectively become conventional wisdom. Even Mickey Kaus, no conservative, as recently as two days ago headlined his Slate column with the question, “Will Amnesty Sink McCain?”

We have been hearing this for a year during which self-identified conservatives have been trying to create a post-Bush, post-Iraq agenda. Last summer, the venerable rightist weekly Human Events listed its top conservative issues.  Illegal immigration was #1. The war on terror was #2.  Iraq was #7.  Before Iraq came federal spending, Supreme Court nominees, tax cuts, and the size of government.

Other groups built other lists. The Club for Growth argued that McCain could not be trusted on economic issues. Mitt Romney tried to capture the conservative mantle with much talk about free market health care and, in the fall, religion. CNN and the Washington Post insisted that immigration was the new driving force for conservatives and Republicans. Mike Huckabee’s surge was interpreted as a return of the social-values agenda. More recently, some assumed that if Romney faltered, Fred Thompson would be the obvious conservative choice with his Reaganesque gravitas and anti-Washington instincts.

In the end, though, the war remains the conservative issue.

For all the noise about amnesty, taxes, and Washington politicians, Iraq remains the most vibrant issue – and the one that distinguishes the GOP most from the Democrats. McCain’s role as Rumsfeld critic but earliest supporter of the Iraq surge gave him his most forceful and principled arguments.  His best stuff with Tim Russert on last Sunday’s Meet the Press was all about Iraq. (Rudy Giuliani, too, has been making this case, but McCain’s detailed criticism of the handling of the war seems to give him more credibility.)

If conservative commentators don’t yet realize that staying power of the war in Iraq as an issue, some Democrats do. Listen to Hillary’s speech last night. She is already drawing a distinction between getting out of Iraq immediately (Obama’s position) and getting out “the right way.” She understands that, despite what everyone else says, Iraq will be an issue in the fall and the Democrats cannot look McGovernite, especially if McCain is the nominee.

Yes, the race is still wide open, etc.  But the most important message emerging from New Hampshire is the re-establishment of George W. Bush’s signal issue as the uniting force of the GOP.  How deliciously ironic that John McCain has become the torch bearer of the Bush legacy.

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Ron Paul: When Right Meets Left

When someone argues for moral equivalency between the American government and Al Qaeda and suggests Bush is leading America toward fascism, we tend to assume the person is a leftist. But those same views are widely shared by parts of the libertarian right.

This isn’t entirely new: in the 1930’s the pro-communist left and the isolationist right both decried Roosevelt as a fascist war-mongerer. In the 1960’s both the New Right and New Left were sure that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the incarnation of “friendly fascism.” The common thread was that both the anarcho-libertarians of Young Americans for Freedom and the anarcho-socialists of The Students for a Democratic Society saw the compromises of politics and the bureaucracies associated with governments as the spawn of soul-slaying managerialism. They (like Ron Paul) both adored Randolph Bourne, the American critic of WWI, entirely unaware of the appeal German romanticism and proto-fascism had for him. You could hear those common chords in Tim Russert’s interview with Ron Paul on Meet the Press this past Sunday:

MR. RUSSERT: But let me go back to this ad. You do not believe that Mike Huckabee, that ad commercial represents the potential of fascism in the form of a cross.

REP. PAUL: No. But I think this country, a movement in the last 100 years, is moving toward fascism. Fascism today, the softer term, because people have different definition of fascism, is corporatism when the military industrial complex runs the show, when the—in the name of security pay—pass the Patriot Act. You don’t vote for it, you know, you’re not patriotic America. If you don’t support the troops and you don’t support—if you don’t support the war you don’t support the troops. It’s that kind of antagonism. But we have more corporatism and more abuse of our civil liberties, more loss of our privacy, national ID cards, all this stuff coming has a fascist tone to it. And the country’s moving in that direction. That’s what I’m thinking about. This was not personalized. I never even used my opponents names if you, if you notice.

MR. RUSSERT: So you think we’re close to fascism?

REP. PAUL: I think we’re approaching it very close. One—there’s one, there’s one documentary that’s been put out recently that has generated a lot of interest called “Freedom to Fascism.” And we’re moving in that direction. Were not moving toward Hitler-type fascism, but we’re moving toward a softer fascism. Loss of civil liberties, corporations running the show, big government in bed with big business. So you have the military industrial complex, you have the medical industrial complex, you have the financial industry, you have the communications industry. They go to Washington and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s where the control is. I call that a soft form of fascism, something that is very dangerous.

Paul, the provincial, is as blissfully unaware of the history of 1300 years of Jihad as the Daily Kos and most of its readers. Here’s his exchange with Russert on Al-Qaeda:

MR. RUSSERT: It sounds like you think that the problem is al-Qaeda—the problem is the United States, not al-Qaeda.

REP. PAUL: No, it’s both. It’s both—al-Qaeda becomes violent. It’s sort of like if you step in a snake pit and you get bit, you know, who caused the trouble? Because you stepped in the snake pit or because snakes bite you? So I think you have to understand both. But why, why produce the incentive for these violent, vicious thugs to want to come here and kill us.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think there’s an ideological struggle that Islamic fascists want to take over the world?

REP. PAUL: Oh, I think some, just like the West is wanting to do that all the time. Look at the way they look at us. I mean, we’re in a, we’re in a 130 countries. We have 700 bases. How do you think they proposed that to their people, saying “What does America want to do? Are they over here to be nice to us and teach us how to be good democrats?”

MR. RUSSERT: So you see a moral equivalency between the West and Islamic fascism.

REP. PAUL: For some people, some radicals on each side that when we impose our will with force by a few number of people—not the American people—I’m talking the people who have hijacked our foreign policy, the people who took George Bush’s foreign policy of a humble foreign policy and turned it into one of nation-building which he complained about.

But for all the similarities between the heirs of the New Right and the New Left, Paul, a Texan still carries some burden peculiar to right-wing libertarians. Abe Lincoln is a very bad guy, the father of Leviathan state that’s lead to today’s incipient (it’s always incipient) fascism. And while there are and have been card-carrying left-liberal Lincoln haters (Gore Vidal, John Updike, and Edmund Wilson, to name a few) this is largely an affectation of the right. Paul, unaware that Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888 and Saudi Arabia till 1962, had the following exchange with Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. “According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.”

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the—that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We’d still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn’t sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

Still, for all their similarities, the heirs of the New Right and the New Left do have some fundamental differences. In part because the leftists are afraid that we will pollute the world with our capitalist-liberal democratic ideals, while the rightists are worried that the rest of the world will pollute our founding traditions with statist and socialist effects. But the common bottom line is neo-isolationism.

When someone argues for moral equivalency between the American government and Al Qaeda and suggests Bush is leading America toward fascism, we tend to assume the person is a leftist. But those same views are widely shared by parts of the libertarian right.

This isn’t entirely new: in the 1930’s the pro-communist left and the isolationist right both decried Roosevelt as a fascist war-mongerer. In the 1960’s both the New Right and New Left were sure that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the incarnation of “friendly fascism.” The common thread was that both the anarcho-libertarians of Young Americans for Freedom and the anarcho-socialists of The Students for a Democratic Society saw the compromises of politics and the bureaucracies associated with governments as the spawn of soul-slaying managerialism. They (like Ron Paul) both adored Randolph Bourne, the American critic of WWI, entirely unaware of the appeal German romanticism and proto-fascism had for him. You could hear those common chords in Tim Russert’s interview with Ron Paul on Meet the Press this past Sunday:

MR. RUSSERT: But let me go back to this ad. You do not believe that Mike Huckabee, that ad commercial represents the potential of fascism in the form of a cross.

REP. PAUL: No. But I think this country, a movement in the last 100 years, is moving toward fascism. Fascism today, the softer term, because people have different definition of fascism, is corporatism when the military industrial complex runs the show, when the—in the name of security pay—pass the Patriot Act. You don’t vote for it, you know, you’re not patriotic America. If you don’t support the troops and you don’t support—if you don’t support the war you don’t support the troops. It’s that kind of antagonism. But we have more corporatism and more abuse of our civil liberties, more loss of our privacy, national ID cards, all this stuff coming has a fascist tone to it. And the country’s moving in that direction. That’s what I’m thinking about. This was not personalized. I never even used my opponents names if you, if you notice.

MR. RUSSERT: So you think we’re close to fascism?

REP. PAUL: I think we’re approaching it very close. One—there’s one, there’s one documentary that’s been put out recently that has generated a lot of interest called “Freedom to Fascism.” And we’re moving in that direction. Were not moving toward Hitler-type fascism, but we’re moving toward a softer fascism. Loss of civil liberties, corporations running the show, big government in bed with big business. So you have the military industrial complex, you have the medical industrial complex, you have the financial industry, you have the communications industry. They go to Washington and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s where the control is. I call that a soft form of fascism, something that is very dangerous.

Paul, the provincial, is as blissfully unaware of the history of 1300 years of Jihad as the Daily Kos and most of its readers. Here’s his exchange with Russert on Al-Qaeda:

MR. RUSSERT: It sounds like you think that the problem is al-Qaeda—the problem is the United States, not al-Qaeda.

REP. PAUL: No, it’s both. It’s both—al-Qaeda becomes violent. It’s sort of like if you step in a snake pit and you get bit, you know, who caused the trouble? Because you stepped in the snake pit or because snakes bite you? So I think you have to understand both. But why, why produce the incentive for these violent, vicious thugs to want to come here and kill us.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think there’s an ideological struggle that Islamic fascists want to take over the world?

REP. PAUL: Oh, I think some, just like the West is wanting to do that all the time. Look at the way they look at us. I mean, we’re in a, we’re in a 130 countries. We have 700 bases. How do you think they proposed that to their people, saying “What does America want to do? Are they over here to be nice to us and teach us how to be good democrats?”

MR. RUSSERT: So you see a moral equivalency between the West and Islamic fascism.

REP. PAUL: For some people, some radicals on each side that when we impose our will with force by a few number of people—not the American people—I’m talking the people who have hijacked our foreign policy, the people who took George Bush’s foreign policy of a humble foreign policy and turned it into one of nation-building which he complained about.

But for all the similarities between the heirs of the New Right and the New Left, Paul, a Texan still carries some burden peculiar to right-wing libertarians. Abe Lincoln is a very bad guy, the father of Leviathan state that’s lead to today’s incipient (it’s always incipient) fascism. And while there are and have been card-carrying left-liberal Lincoln haters (Gore Vidal, John Updike, and Edmund Wilson, to name a few) this is largely an affectation of the right. Paul, unaware that Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888 and Saudi Arabia till 1962, had the following exchange with Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. “According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.”

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the—that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We’d still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn’t sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

Still, for all their similarities, the heirs of the New Right and the New Left do have some fundamental differences. In part because the leftists are afraid that we will pollute the world with our capitalist-liberal democratic ideals, while the rightists are worried that the rest of the world will pollute our founding traditions with statist and socialist effects. But the common bottom line is neo-isolationism.

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Pundit Accountability

In his column last week in Time, the political columnist Joe Klein continued to offer withering criticisms against views he once held.

To set the stage: a few weeks ago Klein wrote that the Iraq war was “the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American President.” What he didn’t tell us in his blog posting is that on February 22, 2003—before Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced—Klein told Tim Russert (on Russert’s CNBC program) that he thought the Iraq war was probably the right decision and proceeded to explain why. (My comments on Klein’s flip can be found here.)

This time Joe, in a column devoted mostly to Democrats, cannot resist a dig at George W. Bush, “whose naïve support for democracy in countries that aren’t ready for it has destabilized the Middle East.”

Yet during the “Arab Spring”—meaning the early months of 2005—Klein held a different view. In the February 6, 2005 issue of Time, Klein wrote this:

Yes, disentanglement will be difficult. And, yes, we shouldn’t “overhype” the [Iraq] election, as John Kerry clumsily suggested. But this is not a moment for caveats. It is a moment for solemn appreciation of the Iraqi achievement—however it may turn out—and for hope…. This was a symptom of a larger disease: most Democrats seemed as reluctant as Kerry to express the slightest hint of optimism about the elections.

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In his column last week in Time, the political columnist Joe Klein continued to offer withering criticisms against views he once held.

To set the stage: a few weeks ago Klein wrote that the Iraq war was “the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American President.” What he didn’t tell us in his blog posting is that on February 22, 2003—before Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced—Klein told Tim Russert (on Russert’s CNBC program) that he thought the Iraq war was probably the right decision and proceeded to explain why. (My comments on Klein’s flip can be found here.)

This time Joe, in a column devoted mostly to Democrats, cannot resist a dig at George W. Bush, “whose naïve support for democracy in countries that aren’t ready for it has destabilized the Middle East.”

Yet during the “Arab Spring”—meaning the early months of 2005—Klein held a different view. In the February 6, 2005 issue of Time, Klein wrote this:

Yes, disentanglement will be difficult. And, yes, we shouldn’t “overhype” the [Iraq] election, as John Kerry clumsily suggested. But this is not a moment for caveats. It is a moment for solemn appreciation of the Iraqi achievement—however it may turn out—and for hope…. This was a symptom of a larger disease: most Democrats seemed as reluctant as Kerry to express the slightest hint of optimism about the elections.

Two weeks later, Klein wrote this:

And yet, for the moment, Bush’s instincts—his supporters would argue these are bedrock values—seem to be paying off. The President’s attention span may be haphazard, but the immediate satisfactions are difficult to dispute. Saddam Hussein? Evildoer. Take him out. But wait, no WMD? No post-invasion planning? Deaths and chaos? Awful, but…. Freedom! Look at those Shiites vote! And now, after all that rapid-eye movement, who can say the Shiites and the Kurds won’t create a government with a loyal Shiite-Kurd security force? And who can say the Sunni rebels won’t—with some creative dealmaking—eventually acquiesce? The foreign-policy priesthood may be appalled by all the unexpected consequences, but there has been stunned silence in the non-neocon think tanks since the Iraqi elections.

And several weeks later he wrote this:

Under the enlightened leadership of Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the Shiite majority has played the democracy game with gusto. It has acknowledged the importance of Kurdish and Sunni minority rights and seems unlikely to demand the constitutional imposition of strict Islamic law. Most important, it has resisted the temptation to retaliate against the outrageous violence of Sunni extremists, especially against Shiite mosques…. If the President turns out to be right—and let’s hope he is—a century’s worth of woolly-headed liberal dreamers will be vindicated. And he will surely deserve that woolliest of all peace prizes, the Nobel.

From support for the Iraq war to calling it the “stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American President;” from possible vindication and a Nobel Peace Prize for George W. Bush to his “naïve support for democracy in countries that aren’t ready for it;” these are head-snapping turnabouts.

In his preface to The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill wrote, “I have adhered to my rule of never criticizing any measure of war or policy after the event unless I had before expressed publicly or formally my opinion or warning about it.”

Many columnists and commentators suffer from the opposite syndrome—though Klein more so than most. They write with passionate conviction and certitude at The Moment—even when what they believe at that moment is significantly different than, or even the opposite of, what they once said and believed. They are, to amend an observation Michael Kelly made about Bill Clinton, “the existential pundits, living with absolute sincerity in the passing moment.”

Politics has accountability in the form of elections. Punditry, it sometimes seems, is an accountability-free zone.

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Contra Klein

In his blog Swampland, Time magazine’s Joe Klein writes that “We’ve seeing [sic] a fair amount of triumphalism from the usual suspects on the right about the situation on the ground in Iraq,” and he considers it to be “premature.” Klein then goes on to add this:

And yet: The reduction of violence is real. The defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq—sneezed at by some antiwar commentators—is nothing to sneeze at. The bottom-up efforts to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites across the scarred Anbar/Karbala provincial border, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, quite possibly reflect an Iraqi exhaustion with violence that has to be taken seriously as well. There is no question that the performance of the U.S. military has improved markedly under the smarter, more flexible, and creative leadership provided this year by General Petraeus. And the withdrawal of U.S. troops is beginning. The refusal of the antiwar movement—or some sections of it—to recognize these developments isn’t helping its credibility.

Klein continues:

Let me reassert the obvious here: The war in Iraq has been a disaster, the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American President. It has weakened America’s moral, military, and diplomatic status globally. It cannot be “won” militarily. The best case scenario is a testy stability, most likely under a Shiite strongman, who will be (relatively) independent of Iran and (relatively) independent of us. . .

There are fewer votes now in Congress—and less cause—to cut off funding for the war than there were last Spring. A renewed campaign on the part of the hapless Democratic leadership to cut off the supplemental funds will only increase the public sense of Democratic futility. It will also play into the very real, and growing, public perception that Democrats are too busy wasting time on symbolic measures (like trying to cut off funds for the war) and shoveling pork (the water projects bill) to pass anything substantive for the public good. Too much time, and political capital, has been wasted fighting Bush legislatively on the war. I’m sure the President and the Republican Party are salivating over the prospect that Democrats will waste more time and capital over it this month . . . especially at a moment, however fleeting, when the situation on the ground seems to have improved in Iraq. Democrats need to think this over very, very carefully before they proceed.

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In his blog Swampland, Time magazine’s Joe Klein writes that “We’ve seeing [sic] a fair amount of triumphalism from the usual suspects on the right about the situation on the ground in Iraq,” and he considers it to be “premature.” Klein then goes on to add this:

And yet: The reduction of violence is real. The defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq—sneezed at by some antiwar commentators—is nothing to sneeze at. The bottom-up efforts to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites across the scarred Anbar/Karbala provincial border, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, quite possibly reflect an Iraqi exhaustion with violence that has to be taken seriously as well. There is no question that the performance of the U.S. military has improved markedly under the smarter, more flexible, and creative leadership provided this year by General Petraeus. And the withdrawal of U.S. troops is beginning. The refusal of the antiwar movement—or some sections of it—to recognize these developments isn’t helping its credibility.

Klein continues:

Let me reassert the obvious here: The war in Iraq has been a disaster, the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American President. It has weakened America’s moral, military, and diplomatic status globally. It cannot be “won” militarily. The best case scenario is a testy stability, most likely under a Shiite strongman, who will be (relatively) independent of Iran and (relatively) independent of us. . .

There are fewer votes now in Congress—and less cause—to cut off funding for the war than there were last Spring. A renewed campaign on the part of the hapless Democratic leadership to cut off the supplemental funds will only increase the public sense of Democratic futility. It will also play into the very real, and growing, public perception that Democrats are too busy wasting time on symbolic measures (like trying to cut off funds for the war) and shoveling pork (the water projects bill) to pass anything substantive for the public good. Too much time, and political capital, has been wasted fighting Bush legislatively on the war. I’m sure the President and the Republican Party are salivating over the prospect that Democrats will waste more time and capital over it this month . . . especially at a moment, however fleeting, when the situation on the ground seems to have improved in Iraq. Democrats need to think this over very, very carefully before they proceed.

I have several thoughts in response to Klein’s comments. The first is that if the war in Iraq has been “the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American President,” then you wonder why Joe supported it before the war. Here’s what Klein told Tim Russert on his CNBC program on February 22, 2003:

This is a really tough decision. War may well be the right decision at this point. In fact, I think it—it’s—it—it probably is…. [Saddam] has been defying the world for twelve years. It is very clear—I mean, I—I—I haven’t found anybody who doesn’t believe that he’s hiding stuff there. And if there’s going to be a civilized world order, the—the world has to be able to act on its—you know, on—on—on its agreements. And—and there have been now seventeen UN resolutions calling on this guy to disarm, a—something that he agreed to do, and at certain—at a certain point, you have to enforce it.

Now you can quibble with the fact, you can argue with the fact that the Bush administration forced this judgment at this time in this way, but I think—and—but I—but I do believe that it was Bill Clinton’s moral responsibility and responsibility as leader of the country to do it in 1998, as we—as we were saying before. And—and I think that now that we’ve reached this point, where the inspectors are in and it has become absolutely manifestly clear that he’s not going to abide by this—you know, just look at his behavior in the days since the peace protests. All of a sudden, you know, he’s—he’s—you know, he’s defiant again. So I think that, you know, the—the message has to be sent because if it isn’t sent now, if we don’t do this now, it empowers every would-be Saddam out there and every would-be terrorist out there.

I wonder, then: Does Klein’s statement on Russert’s show therefore qualify as the stupidest endorsement of the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American President? In any event, at least President Bush didn’t pretend (as Klein has) that he was against the war after he was for the war.

More important, though, is that Klein, a ferocious critic of the war and the President, is willing to concede that progress is real. He has documented that progress in his reporting, for which he deserves credit.

Obviously “triumphalism” is premature—Iraq remains a very complicated and difficult situation, progress that’s been made can be lost, and the outcome is still uncertain—but it shows that the good news is breaking through and is now undeniable. For example, we read in the Washington Times today that U.S. military fatalities are down from 101 in June to 39 in October; that Iraqi civilian deaths were also down from 1,791 in August to 750 in October; that mortar rocket attacks by insurgents in October were the lowest since February 2006; and that according to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni fighters in Baghdad has dropped 77 percent from last year’s high.

Klein, an excellent political reporter, is also correct in warning Democrats against trying to force the President to pull out prematurely. The Washington Post today reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “declared that Bush will not get more money to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year unless he accepts a plan to complete troop withdrawals by the end of next year.”

This approach by Senator Reid is reckless and will be injurious politically. While the trajectory of events in Iraq is (finally) getting better, and in some important respects events are getting significantly better, Democrats are redoubling their efforts to pursue a policy that can only undermine progress and our chances of success.

This tells us all we need to know about the leadership of the modern Democratic Party. That of FDR, Truman, or JFK it ain’t.

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Why She’s So Angry With Tim Russert

In light of a Drudge story that the Clinton campaign is trying to put the fear of G-d into Wolf Blitzer about not going after Hillary in Thursday night’s debate in the aggressive manner of Tim Russert at the debate two weeks ago, Jonah Goldberg asks: “Can someone please explain to me how asking the junior Senator from New York state whether she agrees with the governor of the state (and a close political ally) on the question of drivers’ licenses for illegals is even remotely wrong, never mind some sort of vicious, Nazi-like, personal assault on truth, decency, and Hillary Clinton’s integrity? I really, really, don’t get it.”

Here’s an answer: There is a history here. Tim Russert moderated the only debate in 2000 between Senate candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival, Rick Lazio. While most remember that debate because Lazio crossed the stage to hand a piece of paper to Mrs. Clinton and was upbraided, preposterously but effectively, for somehow “violating her personal space,” Hillary and her people were enraged at Russert for what they took to be an extraordinarily hostile approach to her.
Here was Russert, opening the debate in 2000:

Mrs. Clinton, you have no voting record as such. People, in order to determine how you will behave as a legislator, look to your principal policy initiative: health care. I want to ask you a couple questions about that.
In 1993-94 you proposed a health care bill that was very controversial in this state. The man that you want to replace, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had this to say…: ‘The administration’s solution was rationing. Cut the number of doctors by a quarter, specialists by a half.” And he went on to say,`Teaching hospitals would be at risk. The finance committee passed a bill in `94 to provide financing for the medical schools and the teaching hospitals. The Clinton administration rejected the committee bill.’ Why did you propose cutting the number of doctors by 25 percent, the number of specialists by 50 percent?

A fair question, to be sure, but very tough and, in fact, asked with more than a soupçon of hostility. To say the Clintons were furious about this would be an understatement. And to say the Clintons have a long memory for things they consider slights would be the understatement of the century. One thing is for sure: Don’t expect Russert to be invited to a state dinner at Hillary Clinton’s White House.

In light of a Drudge story that the Clinton campaign is trying to put the fear of G-d into Wolf Blitzer about not going after Hillary in Thursday night’s debate in the aggressive manner of Tim Russert at the debate two weeks ago, Jonah Goldberg asks: “Can someone please explain to me how asking the junior Senator from New York state whether she agrees with the governor of the state (and a close political ally) on the question of drivers’ licenses for illegals is even remotely wrong, never mind some sort of vicious, Nazi-like, personal assault on truth, decency, and Hillary Clinton’s integrity? I really, really, don’t get it.”

Here’s an answer: There is a history here. Tim Russert moderated the only debate in 2000 between Senate candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival, Rick Lazio. While most remember that debate because Lazio crossed the stage to hand a piece of paper to Mrs. Clinton and was upbraided, preposterously but effectively, for somehow “violating her personal space,” Hillary and her people were enraged at Russert for what they took to be an extraordinarily hostile approach to her.
Here was Russert, opening the debate in 2000:

Mrs. Clinton, you have no voting record as such. People, in order to determine how you will behave as a legislator, look to your principal policy initiative: health care. I want to ask you a couple questions about that.
In 1993-94 you proposed a health care bill that was very controversial in this state. The man that you want to replace, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had this to say…: ‘The administration’s solution was rationing. Cut the number of doctors by a quarter, specialists by a half.” And he went on to say,`Teaching hospitals would be at risk. The finance committee passed a bill in `94 to provide financing for the medical schools and the teaching hospitals. The Clinton administration rejected the committee bill.’ Why did you propose cutting the number of doctors by 25 percent, the number of specialists by 50 percent?

A fair question, to be sure, but very tough and, in fact, asked with more than a soupçon of hostility. To say the Clintons were furious about this would be an understatement. And to say the Clintons have a long memory for things they consider slights would be the understatement of the century. One thing is for sure: Don’t expect Russert to be invited to a state dinner at Hillary Clinton’s White House.

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The Evasive Democrats

At Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Tim Russert asked a very simple question of the major candidates, beginning first with Hillary Clinton:

Senator Clinton, in 1981, the Israelis took out a nuclear reactor in Iraq. On September 6, to the best of our information, Israel attacked Syria because there was suspicion that perhaps North Korea had put some nuclear materials in Syria. If Israel concluded that Iran’s nuclear capability threatened Israel’s security, would Israel be justified in launching an attack on Iran?

Any presidential candidate serious about the American-Israel relationship, who also understands the boon to humanity that was Israel’s 1981 Osirak attack, would answer in the affirmative, preferably just “yes.” A bit verbose, Mayor Giuliani’s answer is nonetheless a good example:

Iran is not going to be allowed to build a nuclear power. If they get to a point where they’re going to become a nuclear power, we will prevent them, we will set them back eight to ten years. That is not said as a threat. That should be said as a promise.

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At Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Tim Russert asked a very simple question of the major candidates, beginning first with Hillary Clinton:

Senator Clinton, in 1981, the Israelis took out a nuclear reactor in Iraq. On September 6, to the best of our information, Israel attacked Syria because there was suspicion that perhaps North Korea had put some nuclear materials in Syria. If Israel concluded that Iran’s nuclear capability threatened Israel’s security, would Israel be justified in launching an attack on Iran?

Any presidential candidate serious about the American-Israel relationship, who also understands the boon to humanity that was Israel’s 1981 Osirak attack, would answer in the affirmative, preferably just “yes.” A bit verbose, Mayor Giuliani’s answer is nonetheless a good example:

Iran is not going to be allowed to build a nuclear power. If they get to a point where they’re going to become a nuclear power, we will prevent them, we will set them back eight to ten years. That is not said as a threat. That should be said as a promise.

Meanwhile, here were Hillary’s responses:

CLINTON: Tim, I think that’s one of those hypotheticals, that is…

RUSSERT: It’s not a hypothetical, Senator.

CLINTON: …better not addressed at this time.

This back-and-forth went on for several minutes.

Russert then asked the same question of Barack Obama, who, after asking to “back up for a second,” replied:

I think what Mayor Giuliani said was irresponsible, because we have not yet come to that point. We have not tried the other approach.

Next, Russert asked Edwards, who, like Clinton and Obama, simply refused to answer a yes-or-no question with a “yes” or “no.” The essence of his response?

Carrots being, we will help you with your economy if, in fact, you give up your nuclear ambitions. The flip side being, there will be severe economic sanctions if you don’t.

Imposing “severe economic sanctions,” is what the Bush administration has been trying to do for years. This effort has been unsuccessful, of course, thanks to our friends the Chinese and the Russians. Senator Edwards has an excellent record of convincing juries in the South to award his clients millions of dollars; perhaps he’s counting on his effortless charm to work in Beijing and Moscow. Either way, it’s unsettling to witness the Democrats’ abject refusal to answer properly a question of critical importance to American security.

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Fiscal Chicken Littles

Some news about the federal budget deficit: the sky still isn’t falling.

It was only a few short years ago that the deficit was held up as evidence of the Bush administration’s fiscal recklessness. From nearly every corner, someone was arguing that the end was nigh. Fortune called the deficit “staggering.” Tim Russert, while interviewing the President, referred to his “deficit disaster.” Andrew Sullivan was convinced that “soaring deficits” necessitated a new gas tax. Even Alan Greenspan went to Europe and told reporters that the U.S. budget deficit was “out of control.”

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Some news about the federal budget deficit: the sky still isn’t falling.

It was only a few short years ago that the deficit was held up as evidence of the Bush administration’s fiscal recklessness. From nearly every corner, someone was arguing that the end was nigh. Fortune called the deficit “staggering.” Tim Russert, while interviewing the President, referred to his “deficit disaster.” Andrew Sullivan was convinced that “soaring deficits” necessitated a new gas tax. Even Alan Greenspan went to Europe and told reporters that the U.S. budget deficit was “out of control.”

Yesterday, with little fanfare, the Treasury Department reported that the federal deficit fell from October to February, down 25.5 percent from the same period last year. This is consistent with the dramatic fall in the budget gap over the past two years. The White House projects the deficit will be $244 billion by the end of the year. The Congressional Budget Office is even more optimistic, forecasting a deficit of $214 billion. If the White House’s more conservative estimate is right, the deficit will be around 1.7 percent of GDP. The average federal budget deficit over the past 40 years has been 2.4 percent.

I won’t pretend that a single quarterly announcement on deficit figures means that much. But surely it’s time for the legions of economic doomsayers to admit that they were wrong. Or maybe it’s simply an evergreen of American politics to talk about budget deficits as if they were a sign of the end of life as we know it. The country was full of such talk during the 1992 election, when the Concord Coalition was predicting all sorts of horrible fiscal scenarios. Four years later, the country was running a budget surplus. And here is an article from Time that does all the usual hand-wringing on the subject. It is a classic of the genre, peppered with generous citations of the Brookings Institution and containing the apparently essential line: “Some economists are frankly afraid that the nation’s budget is out of control.” The article appeared in 1972.

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