Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2016 presidential election

No More Foreign Policy Amateurs in the White House

Last week, our Seth Mandel wrote an interesting piece about the way radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt might shape the 2016 Republican presidential contest both by hosting a GOP debate and through his probing no-holds-barred interviews with the contenders. Yesterday, as if acting on cue to prove Seth’s point, Hewitt had Dr. Ben Carson on his show in what should be considered one of the first real tests of the likely candidate’s mettle. Rather than lob softballs at the good doctor as most conservative talkers would do, Hewitt not only asked tough questions but paid particular attention to what was likely to be Carson’s weak spot: foreign policy. The results were illuminating and should alert those right-wing populists who think Carson is ready for the presidency that he is anything but.

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Last week, our Seth Mandel wrote an interesting piece about the way radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt might shape the 2016 Republican presidential contest both by hosting a GOP debate and through his probing no-holds-barred interviews with the contenders. Yesterday, as if acting on cue to prove Seth’s point, Hewitt had Dr. Ben Carson on his show in what should be considered one of the first real tests of the likely candidate’s mettle. Rather than lob softballs at the good doctor as most conservative talkers would do, Hewitt not only asked tough questions but paid particular attention to what was likely to be Carson’s weak spot: foreign policy. The results were illuminating and should alert those right-wing populists who think Carson is ready for the presidency that he is anything but.

A famed neurosurgeon, Carson is surely as intelligent as anybody who’s ever run for president. He’s not completely ignorant about foreign policy and seems to be a supporter of a strong America and an opponent of terrorism. But he was soon tripped up by faulty knowledge of some basic facts about the world and history. Though quick to offer opinions about what to do about Russia, Carson didn’t know that the Baltic States are already NATO members. When asked to identify the roots of Islamic terrorism he replied by citing the Biblical conflict between Jacob and his brother Esau, failing to realize that Islam is only 1,400 years old and not “thousands” as he claimed. He also cited the possibility that Shia and Sunni Muslims would unite against the United States when in fact the two factions are at each other’s throats in a conflict that is fueling Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.

Carson says he’s planning on studying the issues more closely in the future and seems to regard this as a minor detail that can be corrected but as Hewitt said:

I want to be respectful in posing this. But I mean, you wouldn’t expect me to become a neurosurgeon in a couple of years. And I wouldn’t expect you to be able to access and understand and collate the information necessary to be a global strategist in a couple of years. Is it fair for people to worry that you just haven’t been in the world strategy long enough to be competent to imagine you in the Oval Office deciding these things? I mean, we’ve tried an amateur for the last six years and look what it got us.

Hewitt is right. Americans elected a man in 2008 with no foreign policy experience. President Obama is an ideologue that thought he could solve problems by virtue of his personality and doesn’t listen to advice. Carson rightly answered that Obama “has been able to accomplish a great deal,” albeit in a negative way. But even he might have made fewer mistakes if he had firmer grip on the issues when he started.

Carson’s defenders will say this is “gotcha” journalism but I’m hoping Hewitt gives the same grilling to every other presidential candidate. The point is, though presidential elections are almost always decided by domestic and economic issues, it’s important to remember that the one government activity that any president has almost unlimited power is on foreign policy. And though the economy is always going to be the issue of greatest concern to most voters, most presidents are inevitably being frustrated by their limited ability to influence domestic affairs and wind up spend most of their time on foreign and defense issues.

That would apply to just about any point in history but it is especially true of our current situation in which President Obama’s feckless policies have helped lead to the rise of ISIS terrorists and his blind pursuit of détente with Iran has increased the likelihood that Tehran will acquire a nuclear weapon. In other words, this no time for a foreign policy amateur in the White House who will be overly dependent on advisors and lacks the knowledge or experience to respond adequately to crises.

Carson isn’t the only one with this problem. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may be the new putative GOP frontrunner but as his recent London interview illustrated, he isn’t prepared to lead on foreign policy issues the way he is on those concerning governance, budgets and taxes.

The point is it’s up to Hewitt and others with access to these candidates to push them hard on the one topic that we truly do hire a president to manage. Nor is it sufficient for those, like Carson, who aren’t up to snuff to claim that the press is targeting them for unfair scrutiny.

Carson and anyone else who won’t know which countries are in NATO or the basic facts about the Middle East need to do more than study. Learning about war and peace issues on the fly is a hit and miss business. Even a policy wonk like Mitt Romney found himself not entirely prepared to answer President Obama in his 2012 foreign policy debate. Whoever wins the nomination will find themselves matched up against Hillary Clinton, a woman with a record of foreign policy failure but who won’t be caught in an obvious mistake, in the fall of 2016. The GOP will have to do a lot better than Ben Carson if they hope to prevail in that contest.

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U.S. Alliance Will Survive Barack-Bibi, Act 3

Though many in the U.S. media are foolishly reporting the expected outcome of the Israeli election as if it was a tie, it’s unlikely that anyone in the White House is in any doubt about the actual outcome. President Obama’s longtime nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu came from behind in the last week to lead his Likud Party to as clear a victory as was possible in Israel’s confusing parliamentary system. Though the haggling with smaller parties is just getting started and the possibility of a unity government with his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog is still possible, the results gave Netanyahu a clear path to a fourth term as prime minister. Yet with Obama and Netanyahu no longer speaking to each other and with the two governments at loggerheads over both the Middle East peace process and the Iran nuclear talks, the question arises as to how much damage the prime minister’s re-election will do to an alliance that is crucial for Israel’s future? The answer is that although relations will be tense until January 2017, the alliance will survive Act Three of the Barack-Bibi standoff.

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Though many in the U.S. media are foolishly reporting the expected outcome of the Israeli election as if it was a tie, it’s unlikely that anyone in the White House is in any doubt about the actual outcome. President Obama’s longtime nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu came from behind in the last week to lead his Likud Party to as clear a victory as was possible in Israel’s confusing parliamentary system. Though the haggling with smaller parties is just getting started and the possibility of a unity government with his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog is still possible, the results gave Netanyahu a clear path to a fourth term as prime minister. Yet with Obama and Netanyahu no longer speaking to each other and with the two governments at loggerheads over both the Middle East peace process and the Iran nuclear talks, the question arises as to how much damage the prime minister’s re-election will do to an alliance that is crucial for Israel’s future? The answer is that although relations will be tense until January 2017, the alliance will survive Act Three of the Barack-Bibi standoff.

The White House will say the right things about applauding Israeli democracy and working with anyone elected by the people of the Jewish state. But the president and his foreign policy team are bitterly disappointed with the prospect of Netanyahu’s re-election. It was always going to take a decisive win for Herzog, such as the four-seat advantage that the last opinion polls published last week before the election predicted, for the Labor leader to have a chance at putting together a coalition and that margin of victory evaporated as right-wing voters came home to Likud in order to save the prime minister. So the odds are, the administration is just going to have to stand by impotently and watch as its least-favorite foreign leader assembles a government for his fourth term in office.

Another 22 months of contention between Obama and Netanyahu will be problematic for the alliance. The president is poised to sign a framework with Iran over its nuclear program that will ensure that the Islamist regime becomes a threshold nuclear power and, just as important, gives U.S. acquiescence if not approval to Iran’s domination of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. That creates a far more dangerous Middle East and the real possibility of nuclear proliferation as Arab nations, which share Israel’s fears about Iran and the president’s feckless pursuit of détente with Tehran, begin thinking of their own deterrent.

Other than a risky and highly unlikely decision to launch a military strike on Iran on its own, there will not be much that Israel can do about this. But it can quietly support efforts by Congress to hold a weak Iran deal up to scrutiny and to hold the president and his new entente partners accountable. Expect a lot more sniping on this score between Washington and Jerusalem but barring Iran walking away from talks in which Obama appears to be giving them everything they could want, Netanyahu can’t be much of an obstacle to the president’s plans

But that won’t be the only issue on which the two governments will clash. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have also indicated that they will try to revive the dead-in-the-water peace process with the Palestinians. If so, we can expect the U.S. to repeat the same behavior that has characterized the first six years of the Obama presidency in which major pressure is brought to bear on Israel to make concessions while the Palestinians continue to refuse to make peace under any circumstances.

This will be difficult for Netanyahu, especially since he repudiated the two-state solution in the days leading up to the election. But Obama’s leverage here is limited. By opposing Israel’s effort to hold onto a united Jerusalem and the settlement blocs where most West Bank Jews live, the president has always been playing on Netanyahu’s turf and where he can turn disputes with Washington to his advantage. Netanyahu will stand his ground and not suffer for it at home while the Palestinians continue to stiff a president who has done everything in his power to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction.

It is true that Obama can up the ante on Netanyahu by abandoning a policy of supporting Israel in the United Nations as the Palestinians continue to violate their Oslo Accords obligation to negotiate rather than to attempt to gain recognition from the world body. But if that happens, it will create as many problems for him and the Democratic Party as it does for Israel.

It should be remembered that the 22-month period during which a re-elected Netanyahu will be forced to deal with Obama will coincide with the 2016 presidential election campaign. It is true that as a lame duck, he needn’t fear the voters even as he attempts to put more daylight between the U.S. and its only democratic ally in the Middle East. But Democrats who will be eager to hold onto the White House will not be happy if the president spends his last year in office alienating pro-Israel voters by venting his spleen at Netanyahu. Even if his liberal base has no affection for the prime minister, an overt tilt against Israel at the UN would probably place Obama at odds with Hillary Clinton who will be eager to demonstrate her pro-Israel bona fides. It will also give Republicans another stick to beat Democrats with as they seek to win back the White House.

What this boils down to is that as much as the president detests Netanyahu and has little love for his country, the infrastructure of the alliance, in Congress and the defense establishment is too strong for him to destroy. As he learned last summer when the Department of Defense was automatically transferring arms to Israel during the Gaza war, it takes more than a spat orchestrated by the White House to derail an alliance that has such broad bipartisan political support. As the president learned during the weeks leading up to Netanyahu’s controversial Iran speech to Congress earlier this month, even when the Israeli plays into their hands, the White House has shown a tendency to overplay their hand in a way that only helps the pro-Israel community.

More than all this, a re-elected Netanyahu will be in a position where time will be on his side. As the countdown for Obama’s exit from the White House begins, the prime minister will know that no matter who wins in 2016, they are likely to be far friendly to Israel than the current incumbent. He can afford to wait until January 2017 when he can count on a new relationship with an Obama successor who will be eager to prove his or her bona fides.

The months ahead will be difficult ones for Israel as Obama seethes about his foe’s victory. But as much as Obama has already undermined Israel’s security, his ability to do more damage is constrained by the realities of American politics than can neither be undone nor wished away.

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Hillary, the Dems’ Inauthentic Irishwoman

Undaunted by the questions that continue to be raised about her use of emails while secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was in full pre-presidential campaign mode yesterday accepting an award from an Irish-American group on the even of St. Patrick’s Day. If that strikes you as a head-scratcher, you’re not alone. Mrs. Clinton has no Irish ancestry. As such, the event, which the Clinton camp hoped would provide at least a temporary respite from queries about her deletions of tens of thousands of emails from a home server that she refuses to turn over to a neutral party to see if official documents were held back or erased rather than turned over to the government as they should have been, was another reminder of her political weakness, not her strengths.

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Undaunted by the questions that continue to be raised about her use of emails while secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was in full pre-presidential campaign mode yesterday accepting an award from an Irish-American group on the even of St. Patrick’s Day. If that strikes you as a head-scratcher, you’re not alone. Mrs. Clinton has no Irish ancestry. As such, the event, which the Clinton camp hoped would provide at least a temporary respite from queries about her deletions of tens of thousands of emails from a home server that she refuses to turn over to a neutral party to see if official documents were held back or erased rather than turned over to the government as they should have been, was another reminder of her political weakness, not her strengths.

The justification for the honor was her role in promoting peace in Ireland. Except, as was amply discussed back in 2008 when she falsely claimed to have “helped bring peace to Northern Ireland,” she had no role in the talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But no matter, as the New York Times reports today, those involved in the event included a number of major donors to the Democratic Party who are, no doubt, hoping that their bundling efforts will eventually be rewarded by being named U.S. ambassador in Dublin, a point that did not go unmentioned in the proceedings. Put it down as just another piece of political nonsense but this minor story once again demonstrates the putative Democratic presidential nominee’s Achilles Heal: her inauthenticity.

To her credit, Clinton didn’t repeat her past claims of being involved in the Irish peace talks. But she did claim that her efforts at reaching out to Irish women had played a role in making peace possible. The notion that a century of Ireland’s “troubles” only came to an end after America’s First Lady took part in staged photo ops during state visits is, to put it mildly, preposterous. Such assertions, framed in feminist rhetoric, are ripe fiction but they are not, strictly speaking, palpable lies, such as her past talk about helping to make the Irish peace or of dodging bullets in during visits to Serbia.

Instead, this sort of thing is more in line with past Clinton fibs such as her claim to have been a lifelong fan of the Yankees when she was running for a New York Senate seat. But the common theme that runs through all of this is the essential fakery of Clinton’s public career that is bereft of actual accomplishments.

After four years as secretary of state when, as opposed to her role on the sidelines as First Lady, Clinton was the American diplomat at the table with foreign leaders, you’d think she wouldn’t think it smart to remind us of her bogus claims about Ireland. But the problem with her supposedly impressive resume is that her time at the State Department gives her little to boast about. During the campaign, I doubt we’ll hear about her much ballyhooed “reset” with Russia. Not only was that effort comically mismanaged, Russia’s aggression in Crimea and the Ukraine leaves her vulnerable to the charge of presiding over a period of attempted appeasement of the Putin regime that encouraged that autocrat to further aggression.

Seen in that light, Clinton’s fake diplomacy in Ireland seems to be an asset or at least not as much of a liability as it was once seen, rather than a reminder of her predilection for embroidering the truth.

Clinton’s lack of accomplishments as secretary of state doesn’t bother Democrats any more than her arrogant refusals to play by the same rules that governed every other government employee when it came to email and document transparency. But they should be bothered by the ongoing signs that her big problem in 2008 — the lack of an authentic identity and the ability to connect with ordinary voters — is still very much in evidence. Last week’s news conference about the emails showed that her political skills — which were never very strong to begin with — are rusty. The Irish story won’t sink her by itself or even be much remembered next year. But the more she feeds the impression of inauthenticity, the weaker she appears. That is something that is making Democratic activists nervous, as they appear stuck with a candidate who shows no signs of having learned from her past mistakes.

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The GOP Needs to Make Inroads in the Big 10 States

Stuart Rothenberg, writing in Roll Call, points out that 10 states–Wisconsin, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio–will deter the next occupant of the White House. The other 40 states aren’t terribly relevant, since their partisan voting habits are so well established. (If a state like Indiana trends Democratic, as it did in 2008, it’s clear that a rout is underway.)

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Stuart Rothenberg, writing in Roll Call, points out that 10 states–Wisconsin, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio–will deter the next occupant of the White House. The other 40 states aren’t terribly relevant, since their partisan voting habits are so well established. (If a state like Indiana trends Democratic, as it did in 2008, it’s clear that a rout is underway.)

According to Mr. Rothenberg:

Successful Republicans in the Big Ten states tend to be conservatives who avoid the extremist label and can appeal to voters on both a personal and political level. They tend to be more optimistic and upbeat than some in their party, and they don’t make it easy for their opponents to demonize them.

These may seem like qualities that every candidate does and should have, but they aren’t.

GOP candidates whose angry, confrontational style and ideological messages play best to the party’s base may find receptive audiences in key presidential primary and caucus states (particularly early ones), but those kinds of candidates will have problems appealing to key voters in the Big Ten states in November.

The argument that there are tens of thousands of conservatives in key states who don’t bother to vote because the GOP doesn’t nominate conservative-enough nominees is unconvincing.

That strikes me as quite right. The issue isn’t simply about content, though that of course matters. The issue is also about tone, disposition, temperament, likeability, and the ability to persuade those who might vote for a Republican but over the last several cycles have not.

Republican live in an era in which, at the presidential level, they are at a disadvantage. Consider: In each of the past six presidential elections, Democrats have carried 18 states and the District of Columbia—which currently total 242 electoral votes—as base states, leaving them only 28 votes short of the 270 necessary to win the White House.  Republicans, on the other hand, have won just 13 states with 102 electoral votes six times in a row—only 38 percent of the needed 270. Which means the Republican Party needs to make inroads into what Rothenberg calls the Big 10.

That’s certainly doable, given the problems the Democratic Party will be facing in 2016, from Obama fatigue and the harmful effects of his two terms in office, to its intellectual exhaustion and reactionary policies, to a likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, who is a mediocre political talent. But it’s still going to take a Republican of considerable skills and unusual appeal to win 20 months from now. And if a Republican does win, it will be because it’s an individual who (among other qualities) is a winsome and principled conservative, not an angry and dogmatic one. Because the latter kind of conservative, while they can win in some states, won’t win in very many (if any) of the Big 10 states.

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Does It Matter That Hillary Broke the Rules?

The latest twist in the Hillary Clinton email saga is one that her allies and apologists are dismissing as a meaningless technicality. But it’s the sort of thing that will allow her critics as well as the House of Representatives’ special committee investigating the Benghazi attacks to continue sniping away at her. More to the point, the unanswered question about whether or not she signed the usual form upon leaving her post at the State Department specifying that she had turned over all documents and materials to the government creates the possibility for legal difficulties that will plague the putative Democratic presidential candidate in the coming months. While Democrats will do their best to ignore the topic, it begs the question as to whether more talk about the Clintons playing by their own set of rules will have any impact on the former first lady’s ability to win the same independent voters that made the difference for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

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The latest twist in the Hillary Clinton email saga is one that her allies and apologists are dismissing as a meaningless technicality. But it’s the sort of thing that will allow her critics as well as the House of Representatives’ special committee investigating the Benghazi attacks to continue sniping away at her. More to the point, the unanswered question about whether or not she signed the usual form upon leaving her post at the State Department specifying that she had turned over all documents and materials to the government creates the possibility for legal difficulties that will plague the putative Democratic presidential candidate in the coming months. While Democrats will do their best to ignore the topic, it begs the question as to whether more talk about the Clintons playing by their own set of rules will have any impact on the former first lady’s ability to win the same independent voters that made the difference for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Those making a meal out of the issue of the emails are not likely to make much of an impression on the base of the Democratic Party. In the absence of a credible challenger—and so long as Elizabeth Warren wants no part of a rumble with the Clinton machine, that remains the case—Democrats are not so much ready for Hillary as stuck with her. And, as with her husband’s White House shenanigans, that will obligate party loyalists to ignore her secretive operating procedures and the question of whether she has played by the same rules that other public officials ignore at their peril.

The point about the exit document is that it puts Clinton on the spot. Either she signed the document and possibly perjured herself because we know that she did not turn over all documents. Or she chose not to sign it and therefore violated standard procedures that apply to all Cabinet officers as well as government employees.

Since all her emails—those that she says were related to official business printed out on 55,000 pages as well as the ones she says were personal and subsequently deleted on the server located in her home—were not turned over to the State Department when she left, the question of the document being signed is a ticklish one. That’s because other officials have gotten into big trouble for violating such pledges. Some of the trouble former CIA director David Petraeus found himself faced with is related to the fact that the classified documents from his public service he gave to his biographer and lover were not technically supposed to be in his home, even though their presence there or even their publication would not have harmed the nation’s security. We are entitled to ask why letting Clinton keep hers on a home server and then delete some of them based on her claim that they were purely personal is kosher while others wind up in the soup for not entirely dissimilar technical violations of the rules?

But like the question of whether Bill Clinton lied under oath, Hillary’s defenders are going to tell us that this is just a detail and a picayune one at that. But even if we do trust that she can be relied upon not to delete emails related to official business, a broken rule or a lie on a document makes it a lot harder to buy the “trust me” defense she is offering in response to the accusations.

Partisan Democrats may not be happy about it, but they are now obligated to react to every revelation about the emails as well as the former secretary of state’s arrogant dismissal of questions by telling us to “move on” the same way they did when it was her husband who was embarrassing his party. But the Hillary Clinton we saw at her press conference on Wednesday has neither the charm nor the political skills to pull off the same kind of escape act that allowed Bill to escape the consequences of his actions. Politicians with his appeal can get away with breaking the rules with impunity. If the next real race Hillary finds herself in is a general election campaign against a battle-tested Republican, she may illustrate the fact that those with far less charisma are unlikely to be so fortunate.

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How Hugh Hewitt Could Shape All the GOP Primary Debates

There were several reasons that Republican primary debates have had such an impact in the last couple of election cycles for those seeking the GOP nomination, including that neither year had a Republican incumbent, the growth in influence of the grassroots, and the participation of non-politicians as candidates. But an additional reason the debates had such an effect was that the mainstream media moderators insisted on asking migraine-inducingly stupid questions. And so the increasing role of conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt is, as Jim Geraghty notes this morning at NRO, an encouraging development. But I wonder: with an adult in the room like Hewitt, will liberal moderators get serious too?

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There were several reasons that Republican primary debates have had such an impact in the last couple of election cycles for those seeking the GOP nomination, including that neither year had a Republican incumbent, the growth in influence of the grassroots, and the participation of non-politicians as candidates. But an additional reason the debates had such an effect was that the mainstream media moderators insisted on asking migraine-inducingly stupid questions. And so the increasing role of conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt is, as Jim Geraghty notes this morning at NRO, an encouraging development. But I wonder: with an adult in the room like Hewitt, will liberal moderators get serious too?

Geraghty points out that Hewitt will not only moderate a debate but he has already stepped into that role by subjecting Republican politicians to tough interviews on his radio show, just as he does to those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. If you go in to an interview with Hewitt unprepared, you’ll be left licking your wounds. Geraghty writes:

An obvious observation: Hillary Clinton will never subject herself to questioning from Hugh Hewitt.

And I contend there is no equivalent to Hugh on the Left. (I’d put Jake Tapper and Chuck Todd somewhere in the center region.) There is not a single liberal media personality who enjoys interviewing prominent Democratic officials, offering them tough, challenging questions, tough follow-ups, and making his interview subjects sweat the details.

Members of the progressive aristocracy don’t treat each other that way.

In truth, conservatives are so naturally suspicious of those seeking power, especially establishment figures, that it’s not easy for aspiring Republican nominees to avoid tough questioning along the way from any number of figures on the right, to say nothing of the questioning they get from the left. To state the obvious: this is not good for Hillary, nor is it particularly healthy for the republic to have power-obsessed pols treated like royalty.

But it’ll be interesting to see the effect of what Geraghty calls “The Hewitt Primary” on two other groups involved in the GOP nominating contest: liberal journalists and conservative firebrands. They might seem to be at odds, but they have in fact had a symbiotic relationship in recent years.

Take the 2012 debates. Mitt Romney may have been the best debater of the bunch—polished, wonky, photogenic, and even-tempered. But the most entertaining man on the stage was usually Newt Gingrich, who has a ready command of history, a combative posture, and an unwillingness to play by the media’s rules. (It inspired the great tumblr, “Newt Judges You.”) And Newt was helped tremendously by the fact that his liberal questioners were so willing to set him up, allowing Gingrich to turn the debates into a bonfire of the inanities.

When Juan Williams suggested that Gingrich’s critique of welfare-state dependency was racist, Newt made mincemeat of the question and the questioner. When John King decided to lead off one debate by invoking tabloid coverage of an ex-wife of Gingrich’s comments, Newt similarly shamed King about the sorry state of the media as evidenced by what moderators considered worthy of debate.

There were others, of course, and it wasn’t only Gingrich. Geraghty quotes Hewitt as saying viewers of debates moderated by him would be “much more likely to hear about the Ohio-class submarine than contraceptives.” It’s a reference to what has become the flagship model of inane questioning of Republican candidates: George Stephanopoulos asking Mitt Romney if states could ban birth control. It was the very definition of a nonsense question, an example of Democratic officials-turned-media personalities steering debates miles away from anything relevant to American voters and into an attempt to partake in the culture wars as an operative and not a journalist.

Republican candidates are also often asked about their views on evolution, though it’s usually clear the journalists asking the question don’t actually understand the topic of evolution in the slightest. Probably the best response to such questions was in 2007 when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believed in man-caused global warming. Fred Thompson appropriately said he wasn’t doing hand shows today.

And that gets at something that has been frustrating to Republicans for years: media ignorance of the issues translates into moderators’ total and utter lack of seriousness in questioning those who would be president. The presence of someone like Hugh Hewitt, who has a strong grasp of the issues and wants an intelligent debate, could encourage his liberal co-moderators to behave like adults and study up on the issues. It could also hurt candidates who are relying on “gotcha” questions and moderator nonsense to build their grassroots credibility as a straight-talking truth teller. But overall, it would be better for everyone involved, and the country at large, if everyone followed Hewitt’s example.

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Conservatives and the Need for an Appealing Governing Philosophy

In the most recent Gallup survey, Americans named the government (18 percent) as the most important U.S. problem, a distinction it has had for the past four months. After that comes the economy in general (11 percent), followed by unemployment/jobs (10 percent), and immigration/illegal aliens (seven percent). We also learned that Americans’ confidence in all three branches of government is at or near record lows, according to a major survey that has measured attitudes on the subject for 40 years.

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In the most recent Gallup survey, Americans named the government (18 percent) as the most important U.S. problem, a distinction it has had for the past four months. After that comes the economy in general (11 percent), followed by unemployment/jobs (10 percent), and immigration/illegal aliens (seven percent). We also learned that Americans’ confidence in all three branches of government is at or near record lows, according to a major survey that has measured attitudes on the subject for 40 years.

This is hardly a surprise. In his book Political Order and Political Decay, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama writes that if “there has been a single problem facing contemporary democracies, whether aspiring or well established, it has been centered in their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth, and quality of basic public services like education, health, and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.”

There are a host of reasons for this, including the fact that many government programs are badly outdated and were fundamentally mis-designed; that there’s very little accountability and transparency in them; and the increasing centralization of power and the inability of those serving in government to manage complex social systems. Government is being asked to do more and more things, the result being that it’s doing almost none of them particularly well.

It doesn’t surprise many of us that confidence in government is so low during the presidency of a committed progressive, Mr. Obama, whose faith in government appears boundless and whose tenure has been marked by rank incompetence and seen the size and reach of the federal government reach unprecedented levels. The temptation for conservatives will be to take advantage of and build on this widespread distrust, to dial up their anti-government rhetoric, and to continue to focus solely on what government should not be doing.

But as I have argued before (here and here), such an exclusively negative approach to the question of the role of government is not only electorally insufficient; it is unbecoming of conservatism and of the deep commitment that conservatives claim to the nation’s founding ideals.

The way to both re-limit and improve government lies with structural reforms–to our tax code; our entitlement, health-care, and anti-poverty programs; our immigration and elementary, secondary, and higher-education systems; and the energy and financial sector. The fact that government is held in contempt by so many Americans ought to trouble all of us, including conservatives; and making our government one we can once again be proud of ought to be our object and aim. Government is, after all, “the offspring of our own choice,” in the words of Washington, and should have “a just claim to [our] confidence and [our]  support.”

Republicans are quite good at explaining why it’s lost that confidence and support; they are not nearly as good at explaining what needs to be done to regain it. If they don’t get that second part right–if their governing agenda is seen to consist mainly of a fierce anti-government fervor and/or boilerplate proposals designed to meet the challenges of a distant past–they are not likely to win the presidency anytime soon.

As Republican primary voters think about the individual they want to be their presidential nominee, they might ask themselves this question: Who is the conservative best able to articulate and implement an appealing public philosophy for life in the 21st century? Answering that question should go a long way toward determining who ought to represent the Republican Party in 2016.

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Jobbers and Crash-Test Dummies Won’t Solve Hillary’s Problems

The Obama administration and its defenders have had the habit of spinning the unpopularity of failing and failed policies by diagnosing the president with a “communications problem.” Now Democrats, horrified by Hillary Clinton’s disastrous press conference and inability to spin away the corruption, secrecy, and national-security scandals related to her time as secretary of state are taking a similar line: she needs to get back in midseason form. Unfortunately for them, their solution isn’t a solution at all.

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The Obama administration and its defenders have had the habit of spinning the unpopularity of failing and failed policies by diagnosing the president with a “communications problem.” Now Democrats, horrified by Hillary Clinton’s disastrous press conference and inability to spin away the corruption, secrecy, and national-security scandals related to her time as secretary of state are taking a similar line: she needs to get back in midseason form. Unfortunately for them, their solution isn’t a solution at all.

Democrats should start with two realizations. The first is that Hillary was unable to offer a good explanation for her decision to jeopardize national security and avoid accountability with her email-server scheme because there isn’t one. What she did was wrong, and dangerous, and smacks of the corruption we’ve all come to associate with the Clintons. There is no excuse for what she did, which is why she’s been unable to offer one–and why she has had to torture language in particular Clintonian fashion to obfuscate the issue.

The second realization is that history suggests this is Hillary Clinton in midseason form. In 1997, upon accepting an ensemble cast award at the Screen Actors Guild awards for Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld stepped up the podium and said: “My name is Jerry Seinfeld and I am a bad actor.” Hillary and her ensemble cast of hacks and spin doctors should take the same approach. Her name is Hillary Clinton, and she is a bad politician. Terrible, in fact. She’s just not good at this. That doesn’t mean she can’t win–of course she can, and she would go into the general election with some structural advantages. But it won’t be on the strength of her political talents.

So Democrats should approach this subject with some practical sense of what kind of changes a talentless politician at the end of her career could possibly be expected to make. And they are, as Jonathan Tobin wrote yesterday, in something of a bind: they’re ready for Hillary and now they’re stuck with her too. The New York Times talked to Democrats and found a more modest rationale for her candidacy:

Congressional Democrats are counting on a strong Clinton campaign to help lift them back into the majority. Party leaders at all levels want her fund-raising help and demographic appeal. And from the top of the party to its grass roots, Mrs. Clinton’s pseudo-incumbency is papering over significant disadvantages: a weak bench, a long-term House minority and a white middle class defecting to the Republican Party faster than the Democrats’ hoped-for demographic future is expected to arrive.

Mrs. Clinton, many Democrats say, is simply too big to fail.

“There is no one else — she’s the whole plan,” said Sarah Kovner, a leading Democratic donor and fund-raiser in New York.

So if Democrats are stuck with Hillary (though in fairness, many are still plenty optimistic about having her as their nominee), they need to make the best of it. And while Democrats would like to believe her recent press conference and her insomnia-curing speeches are just signs of rust, the truth is she’s only slightly worse than she’s been in the past, which is quite dreadful. Can rust rust? If so, then perhaps they’re at least technically right.

The next question, then, is: How do they get her candidacy in better shape? Here it seems pretty clear that the coronation that bestows so many other advantages on Hillary does hold her back in this regard. She needs competition, Democrats agree. But they also agree that she needs–and here’s where this gets comical–“competition” that can’t beat her. She needs jobbers, sparring partners. Stella needs to beat some poor Democrat like a rented goalie to get her groove back.

Not all Democrats feel that way, of course. Some want a real debate over the issues. Over at the Washington Post, Greg Sargent is surely correct when he writes:

The continuing controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails, culminating (for now) in yesterday’s contentious sparring with reporters, is likely to deepen the desire among Democratic activists and voters for a real Democratic presidential primary. That might force Clinton to spend months sharpening her handling of questions such as those swirling around her emails — not to mention her positions on key issues — under questioning from fellow Democrats.

The goal: A real debate pitched to an audience of Democratic voters, rather than an endless, grueling Hillary-versus-the-press death struggle.

But who are Democrats getting instead? Martin O’Malley. The former Maryland governor is not serious competition, and he’s not even trying to be. He’s even pulling punches on the email scandal. Sargent quotes another Post report explaining O’Malley’s approach thus:

His advisers say there’s no benefit to him criticizing Clinton at this point. She’s already on the defensive, they reason, and die-hard Democrats are likely to be turned off if O’Malley sounds too much like Clinton’s Republican critics.

Sargent is rightfully displeased with this. But what should anybody expect? After all, O’Malley reportedly asked the Clintons’ permission to run. Maybe he’s decided he has to clear all criticism of Hillary with Hillary herself as well. What will O’Malley say about the Clinton scandal? He’ll let you know as soon as Hillary’s staff gets back to him with a list of approved words and phrases.

But even if O’Malley weren’t asking the Clintons’ permission to borrow the car and extend his curfew just this once, he’s still not going to change the dynamics of the race. The concern with Hillary was never that she was going to run literally unopposed. It was that she was not going to have the kind of serious competition who could force her off-message or challenge her in a debate.

Elizabeth Warren could change the dynamics of the race. Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Bernie Sanders can’t. But Warren could also win, and the Clinton team doesn’t want real competition, it wants crash-test dummies. And so that’s what they’ll get.

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Democrats Are Ready for Hillary and Stuck with Her

There was good news and bad news for Democrats yesterday. The good news was that after a week of ominous and politically damaging silence, Hillary Clinton emerged to answer questions from the press about her emails and demonstrated that she had no intention of letting this story deflect her from her goal of winning the presidency. The bad news was that barely-suppressed rage about having to answer those questions and arrogant “trust me” attitude not only failed to defuse this controversy, it also raised serious questions as to whether she had the temperament to run a successful campaign for the presidency. Taken together, it is more or less a perfect storm for a party seeking to hold onto the White House next year without having Barack Obama on the top of the ticket. It’s not just that there are unanswered questions about her conduct and judgment that will linger. It’s that the woman who stood up in front of the press at the United Nations yesterday made Mitt Romney look like a great retail politician.

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There was good news and bad news for Democrats yesterday. The good news was that after a week of ominous and politically damaging silence, Hillary Clinton emerged to answer questions from the press about her emails and demonstrated that she had no intention of letting this story deflect her from her goal of winning the presidency. The bad news was that barely-suppressed rage about having to answer those questions and arrogant “trust me” attitude not only failed to defuse this controversy, it also raised serious questions as to whether she had the temperament to run a successful campaign for the presidency. Taken together, it is more or less a perfect storm for a party seeking to hold onto the White House next year without having Barack Obama on the top of the ticket. It’s not just that there are unanswered questions about her conduct and judgment that will linger. It’s that the woman who stood up in front of the press at the United Nations yesterday made Mitt Romney look like a great retail politician.

An intrepid band of Clinton apologists and rationalizers are out in force throughout the media today telling us to move along because there’s nothing to see here and that any questions you might have about all this has been planted in your brain by the vast right-wing conspiracy that hates the Clintons. But if all Clinton can do is to say that we should trust her, all the spin in the world can’t make this go away.

That a person serving in an administration pledging transparency would think it more “convenient” to merge her work and personal emails together on a home server certainly raises questions about the former secretary of state’s judgment. As Politico reports today, cyber-security experts are having a field day picking apart the notion that her choice was in the best interests of the United States. She may admit now that it would have been smarter to do what everyone else in the government does and use an official email for work. Doing so would have been in keeping with both the letter and the spirit of the regulations that she keeps insisting she didn’t violate.

But it bears repeating that allowing her to decide which emails were private or public is not, despite her assertions, what all government employees must do. To the contrary, she appears to be the only person so empowered. That she then deleted those emails she considers personal is not only troubling; it is inexplicable. As our John Podhoretz writes today in the New York Post, those emails about Chelsea’s wedding are precisely the kind that most people keep. It’s junk that ordinary email users delete, not those concerning important personal events. And blaming it, as she did, on the fact that her husband shared the use of the server won’t wash because he keeps telling us that he doesn’t use email.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy monger or a Clinton hater to realize that this is all very fishy. Even if wrongdoing is not being covered by her absurd decisions, the story makes her appear foolish if not downright stupid.

But, for the moment, let’s leave the question of what’s in those emails that weren’t handed over to the State Department to Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chair of the special House committee investigating the Benghazi attack. Instead, let’s just focus on the former first lady’s performance yesterday.

You’d have to be a devout Clinton loyalist to view her stiff, angry, and arrogant demeanor as anything but off-putting. The sense of entitlement and the resentment at having to explain herself, the basic job of every politician, was palpable. Contempt for the press, even those seeking to fawn on her, is one thing. But what came through most was that she really doesn’t think the public is entitled to answers other than her canned responses about trusting her. And the longer the presser went on, the worse she came across.

It wasn’t merely a bad show. It was a neon sign telling Democrats that they are stuck with a candidate without the kind of appeal needed to win tough elections. But the really bad part of this for her party is that rather than having mellowed or improved in the eight years since Barack Obama snatched the 2008 Democratic Party nomination from her grasp, Clinton’s political skills have actually deteriorated.

As her disastrous book tour last year proved, being in the State Department rather than the Senate seems to have damaged Clinton’s never particularly deft grasp of retail politics. She does well enough when isolated from questions or the public but when put in the cross hairs of a press corps that smells blood, she reveals herself to be a fragile, even brittle personality that has no natural flair for the profession she has chosen. By comparison to the Hillary we saw yesterday, even a stiff like Mitt Romney looks easygoing and natural.

This ought to be an open invitation to other Democrats to jump into the 2016 race against such a weak candidate. But given the strength of the Clinton machine and the poll numbers that illustrate that all possible Democratic alternatives other than Elizabeth Warren are ciphers, there’s no reason to think that she is any less likely to win the nomination. That means that Democrats are not only ready for Hillary. They’re stuck with her. Given their many advantages in any presidential election (a docile media being just the most prominent), they shouldn’t despair of victory especially with a candidate who is seeking to make history. But winning with such a poor candidate is going to be tough sledding, especially if the Republicans put up a plausible alternative.

Rather than putting the email story to rest, yesterday’s press conference wound up illustrating just how hard it’s going to be to elect Hillary Clinton president.

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Sorry Hillary, Presidential Candidates Can’t Get Away With a “Trust Me” Defense

Hillary Clinton may have thought she was defusing the controversy over her exclusive use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state by admitting that it would have been “smarter” for her not to have done it at her United Nations press conference today. But even if you are prepared to accept her excuse that this decision was based on a desire for greater “convenience,” the notion that the nation should simply accept that the process by which she decided which emails could be handed over to the government and which could be deleted amounted to simply telling the country that they were obligated to trust her. Perhaps her many fans will accept that, as will Democrats who feel they have no choice but to sink or swim with their putative nominee for president in 2016. But the resentful tone of her comments during the presser and her adamant refusal to consider any effort to provide some transparency for her private home email server will only fuel more cynicism about her poor judgment. This may be all she has to say about it now, but this story isn’t going away.

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Hillary Clinton may have thought she was defusing the controversy over her exclusive use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state by admitting that it would have been “smarter” for her not to have done it at her United Nations press conference today. But even if you are prepared to accept her excuse that this decision was based on a desire for greater “convenience,” the notion that the nation should simply accept that the process by which she decided which emails could be handed over to the government and which could be deleted amounted to simply telling the country that they were obligated to trust her. Perhaps her many fans will accept that, as will Democrats who feel they have no choice but to sink or swim with their putative nominee for president in 2016. But the resentful tone of her comments during the presser and her adamant refusal to consider any effort to provide some transparency for her private home email server will only fuel more cynicism about her poor judgment. This may be all she has to say about it now, but this story isn’t going away.

Clinton’s attitude was clear. She expected us to simply take her word for it that there was nothing wrong with using a private home email server to conduct government business. That gave her the ability to hold back or delete any work communications that she deemed unflattering, inconvenient or, even worse, indicative of her involvement in her husband’s fundraising abroad for their family foundation.

Though she claimed that she subsequently turned over any email that could “possibly” be work related, the decisions were not made by a third party or even a government official but by her and her faithful staff with no accountability.

When pressed about this practice, she disingenuously claimed that her conduct was no different from that of any government employee who must make a decision about which records are work-related and which are private. But other government employees don’t work exclusively on a private email with a server located in their home.

When asked about the dismissal of an ambassador for offenses that seem suspiciously similar to her own practices, she dismissed it without further explanation. She was never asked about her blistering 2007 denunciations of Bush administration figures for using private emails even though none of them did so exclusively or operated out of a home server to which the government had no access.

But the main takeaway from the press conference wasn’t so much her absolute refusal to allow any neutral party to examine that server or to explain why she provided the emails in printouts rather than electronic form to the State Department to make it harder for them to be examined. Nor is the excuse of “convenience” or even her minor admission of error the real story here.

Rather, it was the barely concealed disdain with which Clinton faced questions about her behavior and the contemptuous demand to be blindly trusted that will be most remembered. Clinton clearly thinks it is beneath her dignity to be held accountable for violating government rules and a practice that runs counter to basic security protocols.

But what Clinton doesn’t understand about what is happening is that while her secretive behavior might have been tolerated while she was married to a serving president or even serving as secretary of state, it won’t wash when you’re running for president.

Instead of simply saying she was wrong and turning over the server to the government archives for it to revisit her decisions, Clinton thinks it is enough to say that her good intentions are enough of a defense for her behavior. Pervading her remarks was a sense of entitlement and impatience with those who don’t take her conduct at face value that is incompatible with the transparency that is expected of prospective presidents. Though she never said the words aloud, it was difficult not to believe that Clinton thought having to fend off 20 minutes of questions about her emails was yet another manifestation of the mythical “vast, right-wing conspiracy” that she still seems to believe is the only reason why Americans don’t trust her or her husband.

Though she answered questions, her lack of good answers and arrogant confidence that she should be trusted were enough to silence the matter seemed more in keeping with the stance of a dowager queen than a presidential hopeful. As long as Elizabeth Warren stays on the sidelines, Democrats may have no viable alternative to Clinton. But even Clinton loyalists watching this performance must now be thinking that she lacks the political instincts required for a successful presidential candidate.

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Are Walker and Rubio the Frontrunners?

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of the 2016 field set out to measure candidates’ support using a slightly different metric and got a very interesting result. If the numbers are right, the poll would go a long way toward answering several important questions about the GOP, conservative primary voters, and the double-edged sword of high name recognition.

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The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of the 2016 field set out to measure candidates’ support using a slightly different metric and got a very interesting result. If the numbers are right, the poll would go a long way toward answering several important questions about the GOP, conservative primary voters, and the double-edged sword of high name recognition.

The poll asked respondents of both parties whether they could see themselves supporting each candidate for the nomination. It would, theoretically, test how close each prospective candidate already is to their own support ceiling. The numbers could change, of course. It’s easy to imagine a misstep or a policy pronouncement causing some voters to write off a particular candidate. It’s less likely early on, but certainly possible along the way, that voters who have already written off a candidate could change their minds. (If their preferred candidate is gone, they’ll need a second or a third choice.)

But as a snapshot of where the GOP is right now (the expected coronation of Hillary Clinton makes the Democratic side of this poll pretty boring for the time being), the poll has very good news for some and very bad news for others. The bad news is for Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. First, Jeb:

Mr. Bush, an early favorite for the Republican nomination among GOP donors, faces more resistance within his party. Some 49% of people who plan to vote in GOP primaries said they could see themselves supporting Mr. Bush and 42% said they couldn’t, the survey found. Poll participants view him more negatively than positively, with 34% seeing him in an unfavorable light and 23% viewing him favorably.

Being underwater on the favorability ratings is bad but not fatal for a candidacy. The truth is, if this election is anything like its predecessors in 2012 and 2008, everybody’s negatives are going up. No one’s running ads against each other yet, and they’re rarely taking clear shots at each other either. The early caucuses and primaries plus the debates will fix that.

But the 42 percent of GOP primary voters who say they won’t consider voting for Jeb Bush is a high number to start from, especially since he has high name recognition to go with it. Jeb might find it tougher to change minds than less well-known candidates.

The poll is truly terrible, however, for Chris Christie:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would start the race in a deep hole, the new survey found, with 57% of likely GOP primary voters saying they couldn’t see themselves supporting his candidacy, compared with the 32% who said they could. Only Donald Trump, the businessman and reality television star, fared worse, with three out of four primary voters doubtful they could support him.

As elated as we all should be by Trump’s disastrous polling, no other candidate should ever want his name followed by “only Donald Trump…” Having a majority of the Republican primary electorate say they can’t envision voting for him is a nightmare number for Christie. To overcome that, he’d have to hang around long enough to consolidate establishment support to even have a chance. But he can’t win the establishment primary either, thanks to Jeb Bush’s presence in the race as well as a couple of conservative candidates who could appeal to establishment backers as well.

It raises the question: Does Christie see the writing on the wall? At some point, there is just not going to be a visible path, let alone a realistic path, to the nomination for the New Jersey governor. Even mapping out a longshot strategy becomes a riddle when the numbers and the fundamentals of the race look like this.

What’s just as interesting, however, is which candidates have flipped those numbers. Marco Rubio and Scott Walker are at the top of the list:

The two Republicans who begin the race on the strongest footing in the poll are Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. More than half of GOP primary voters said they were open to supporting Messrs. Rubio or Walker, compared with 49% who said so of Mr. Bush.

Resistance within the party to Messrs. Rubio and Walker is far lower than for Mr. Bush: Some 26% said they couldn’t see themselves supporting Mr. Rubio, and 17% said so of the Wisconsin governor.

The Journal does note that Walker does not have high name recognition, so his numbers might be open to more fluctuation. But the fact of the matter is Walker and Rubio have incredibly high support ceilings for such a wide-open race.

And it’s easy to see why. Walker and Rubio are likely to be quite palatable to establishment voters and donors even while they appeal to the grassroots. Both Walker and Rubio could put together a broad coalition of Republican voters. Both represent states the GOP would like to win in the general, with Rubio representing the all-important Florida. Both are young, and both are reform-minded conservatives.

And both will have their profiles elevated by tussles with the Obama White House, Walker on right-to-work laws and Rubio on foreign policy. It’s that last part that rivals should fear. The president and vice president have both tried to pick fights with Walker this week over union reforms, and Rubio’s opposition to the Cuba deal specifically and foreign policy (he’s on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) more generally is just getting started.

They’ll be in the spotlight, drawing fire from the White House. It’s a great way to build name recognition and conservative support at the same time, and it’s an avenue few other candidates will have so open to them.

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Hiding Hillary’s Emails in Plain Sight

It is an old saying that the best place to hide a book is in a library. And surely the best place to hide an embarrassing email (or thousands of them) is in a vast pile of emails.

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It is an old saying that the best place to hide a book is in a library. And surely the best place to hide an embarrassing email (or thousands of them) is in a vast pile of emails.

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, and almost no one else, noted yesterday a paragraph in Friday’s New York Times story on the ongoing Hillary Clinton email uproar:

In October, the State Department sent a letter to Mrs. Clinton and all former secretaries of state back to Madeleine K. Albright, seeking emails and other documents in their possession that related to their government work.

Finally, in December, dozens of boxes filled with 50,000 pages of printed emails from Mrs. Clinton’s personal account were delivered to the State Department. Those documents were then examined by department lawyers, who found roughly 900 pages pertaining to the Benghazi attacks.

Why, in an age when the push of a single button can produce an electronic copy of even the biggest file, would someone deliver “dozens of boxes” filled with paper copies that had been printed out one by one?

In order to hide a book in a library, that’s why.  At least I can imagine no legitimate reason to do so.

In electronic form, one can quickly search on such key words as “Benghazi” and “Christopher Stevens” to find the relevant documents. On paper they must be read, one by one, by soon bleary-eyed individuals, looking at their watches and wondering how early they can get away with leaving for lunch. After all, 50,000 pages of typing paper make a stack 16 feet 8 inches high.

It is interesting that while Clinton apologists Lanny Davis and James Carville are making fools of themselves trying to justify the unjustifiable, the mainstream media is, for once, not doing its oh-look-a-squirrel routine with this Democratic scandal. Indeed, it has dominated the political news for more than a week. That’s why James Carville accused the New York Times (!) of running with right-wing talking points.

The reason, I think, is that this story has, in spades, the aspect most beloved by journalists: it fits the narrative. The Clintons are perceived as self-absorbed, rules-are-for-little-people edge-skaters. As George Will said on Fox News Sunday, “The Clintons are the sort of people who could find a loophole in a stop sign.” This powerfully reinforces that image, especially with such blasts from the past as Carville and Davis reminding us of the Washington scandals of the 1990s.

Mrs. Clinton has apparently decided to hold a news conference on this, but to take no questions, a sure sign this episode has no simple, justifiable explanation. I doubt it will lay it to rest.

One wonders if more and more Democrats are now wondering to themselves, “If not Hillary, who?”

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Hillary’s Undeserved Reputation as a Champion of Women Is Imploding

Hillary Clinton’s decision to base her 2016 presidential campaign on the fact that she’s a she is running into some problems. DNC vice chairwoman Donna Brazile wrote last week that “This time, Hillary will run as a woman.” Brazile said Hillary spent “much of her 2008 campaign seemingly running away from the fact that she is a woman,” and that this time she’s clearly made the decision to run toward her womanity. Whatever that means in practice, the recent Clinton Foundation scandals have converged with her unimpressive record as secretary of state to complicate the narrative.

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Hillary Clinton’s decision to base her 2016 presidential campaign on the fact that she’s a she is running into some problems. DNC vice chairwoman Donna Brazile wrote last week that “This time, Hillary will run as a woman.” Brazile said Hillary spent “much of her 2008 campaign seemingly running away from the fact that she is a woman,” and that this time she’s clearly made the decision to run toward her womanity. Whatever that means in practice, the recent Clinton Foundation scandals have converged with her unimpressive record as secretary of state to complicate the narrative.

Last week I wrote about Carly Fiorina’s longshot candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, highlighting her CPAC speech and her effective line of attack against Hillary Clinton. We’re now seeing just how effective it is. Two of Fiorina’s sound bites in particular stand out. Of Clinton, she said: “She tweets about women’s rights in this country, and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights.” And: “Like Mrs. Clinton, I too have traveled the globe. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.”

Those attacks have now found their way into a New York Times story on the hypocrisy of Hillary talking up women’s rights while her foundation was accepting hefty donations from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other countries with poor records on women’s rights. And it threatens to turn the Hillary campaign’s entire raison d’être into a liability.

From the Times’s Amy Chozick:

And for someone who has so long been lampooned, and demonized on the right, as overly calculating, playing up her gender as a strength would also allow her to demonstrate her nurturing, maternal — and newly grandmotherly — side to voters whom she may have left cold in the past.

Even her most strident critics could not have predicted that Mrs. Clinton would prove vulnerable on the subject.

But the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation has accepted tens of millions of dollars in donations from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Algeria and Brunei — all of which the State Department has faulted over their records on sex discrimination and other human-rights issues.

The department’s 2011 human rights report on Saudi Arabia, the last such yearly review prepared during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure, tersely faulted the kingdom for “a lack of equal rights for women and children,” and said violence against women, human trafficking and gender discrimination, among other abuses, were all “common” there.

Saudi Arabia has been a particularly generous benefactor to the Clinton Foundation, giving at least $10 million since 2001, according to foundation disclosures. At least $1 million more was donated by Friends of Saudi Arabia, co-founded by a Saudi prince.

I don’t really understand the editorializing comment “Even her most strident critics could not have predicted that Mrs. Clinton would prove vulnerable on the subject,” which doesn’t really sound plausible at all, but everything else is about right. It’s the collision of two critiques of Clinton that make this such a complicated story for Hillary. First, there has been the ongoing (and at times unintentionally comical) attempt by Hillary’s partisans to name any serious accomplishment in her time at Foggy Bottom and coming up emptyhanded. And the second is the rank hypocrisy and influence peddling at the Clinton Foundation.

The first critique makes the second harder to deflect. If Hillary had been able to accomplish anything besides logging lots of miles, she could balance the fact that her foundation was taking cash from the subjugators of women worldwide. At the same time, it’s a problem of Hillary’s own creation, not only because of her role in the scandals but also because she’s apparently chosen to make women’s rights the central plank in her campaign.

That, in its own weird way, makes a great deal of sense. The actual reason Hillary is running for president is because she believes it’s her turn and she’s entitled to it. That’s it, but it’s not a very compelling personal story. Running as the potential first woman president is a way of projecting that entitlement onto half the electorate. She’s entitled to it because you’re entitled to it, or so goes the logic. She’s running as Oprah; look under your seat, ladies: there’s a presidency for each of you.

This would be the moment for Hillary and her defenders to point to all her major accomplishments in the world of women’s rights. But they don’t exist. And the Times story makes this abundantly clear. Here is how the story begins:

It was supposed to be a carefully planned anniversary to mark one of the most important and widely praised moments in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political career — and to remind the country, ahead of a likely 2016 presidential campaign, about her long record as a champion for the rights of women and girls.

Instead, as Mrs. Clinton commemorates her 1995 women’s rights speech in Beijing in back-to-back events in New York, she finds herself under attack for her family foundation’s acceptance of millions of dollars in donations from Middle Eastern countries known for violence against women and for denying them many basic freedoms.

Hillary Clinton is going on tour to remind voters that she made what she considers a great speech in 1995. And instead of unadulterated adulation, she’s dealing with the dawning realization on the voting public that an old speech promoting women’s rights is all she’s got. Once she attained power on the world stage she became not a liberator of women but the beneficiary of largesse from some of the world’s worst oppressors of women.

All Hillary Clinton’s been able to change in the last twenty years is her address. And dredging up an old speech will only serve as a reminder of that fact.

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Walker, Cruz, Bush and the Iowa Crucible

It is now conventional wisdom that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a first-tier candidate, if not the frontrunner, for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. It is just as much a given that Senator Ted Cruz is not regarded as likely to win the nomination. The reasons why this is so were on display yesterday at the Iowa Ag Summit, a cattle call event that brought leading politicians from both parties to Des Moines to hawk their wares to farm-state voters. As in the past, the agriculture industry and political observers were interested to see which of the potential candidates would show their obeisance to corn farmers by supporting ethanol subsidies and, in particular, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that mandates its use in gasoline. Though Walker has opposed the RFS in the past, as Politico noted, this year he acted like the Iowa frontrunner the polls tell us he is and backed it. By contrast, Cruz launched a frontal attack on it. It’s not clear that such a stand is as sure a guarantee of political death as it has been in the past. But these two stands as well as Jeb Bush’s more equivocal approach provide us with a chance to see how the crucible of principle works these days in Iowa as the rest of the country pays close attention.

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It is now conventional wisdom that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a first-tier candidate, if not the frontrunner, for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. It is just as much a given that Senator Ted Cruz is not regarded as likely to win the nomination. The reasons why this is so were on display yesterday at the Iowa Ag Summit, a cattle call event that brought leading politicians from both parties to Des Moines to hawk their wares to farm-state voters. As in the past, the agriculture industry and political observers were interested to see which of the potential candidates would show their obeisance to corn farmers by supporting ethanol subsidies and, in particular, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that mandates its use in gasoline. Though Walker has opposed the RFS in the past, as Politico noted, this year he acted like the Iowa frontrunner the polls tell us he is and backed it. By contrast, Cruz launched a frontal attack on it. It’s not clear that such a stand is as sure a guarantee of political death as it has been in the past. But these two stands as well as Jeb Bush’s more equivocal approach provide us with a chance to see how the crucible of principle works these days in Iowa as the rest of the country pays close attention.

Given that recent history tells us that winning Iowa requires a candidate to support the ethanol boondoggle that helps support corn farmers, it’s hard to quarrel with Walker’s decision. Walker needs to win Iowa and he feels he can’t afford to antagonize the farmers and the Ag industry groups that will pour millions into the GOP caucus fight to support candidates that back ethanol and oppose those who don’t. Walker is a man who has taken chances in his political life, taking on the unions and left-wing special interests in Wisconsin and winning fights that made him a conservative folk hero. But he sees no great benefit to playing the same game with Iowa farmers. He played it safe at the Ag Summit.

By contrast, Cruz knows that if he is to assume leadership of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, it won’t be by playing it safe. Instead, he chose to take on the ethanol/corn interests head on saying he was there to “tell them the truth.” There was no hedging his bets or resort to nuance. He said he’s against corporate welfare and the government picking winners and losers. Ethanol and the RFS are exactly that and he opposes them.

Does that doom him in Iowa? Maybe. But, then again, maybe not. Corn may be king in Iowa but not everyone who votes in the GOP caucus is looking to the federal government for a handout or hoping that government policies will keep pushing up the value of their land. Moreover, there is a case to be made that what voters want is principle rather than pandering. With many conservatives who talk a good game about small government nevertheless falling over themselves to make an exception for ethanol in order to win in Iowa, Cruz may be able to stand out as the candidate who isn’t willing to sell out.

It also presents an interesting contrast to Bush’s belief that he, too, won’t pander in order to win the nomination. Yesterday in Iowa, the former Florida governor reiterated his support for a path to citizenship for illegal aliens as well as his continued backing for the Common Core education standards. That’s consistent with his theory that seems to hold that in order to win in November 2016, he’s going to have to stand up to his party’s base on issues where he disagrees with it. But he wasn’t willing to extend that principle to ethanol. On that issue, he was all nuance yesterday, floating ideas about eventually phasing out the RFS “somewhere in the future.”

I believe it’s a mistake to think that any candidate can run against his party’s base and win its nomination, though Bush has an opportunity to prove me wrong. But I think it’s hard to take that sort of stance seriously when the same candidate is unwilling to be just as tough on a local GOP constituency whose desires for subsidies runs afoul of the party’s basic principles about the role government in the economy.

Walker appears to have made a powerful impression on the audience in Des Moines yesterday, taking shots at Jeb Bush for having “inherited fame and fortune” and signaling farmers that he will do their bidding. That may ensure that he will hold onto his current lead and follow in the footsteps of past ethanol appeasers like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney and do well in the first-in-the-nation caucus.

It’s a long, hard slog to next winter but if Walker is to be knocked off, I doubt that Bush’s odd combination of challenging the party core on hot-button issues while folding on ethanol will do the trick. Cruz may still be a long shot but I think he’s right in thinking that the only way for him to prevail is to slay all the sacred cows and not just those in states other than Iowa. As much as his well-earned image as an uncompromising zealot may make him an unlikely nominee, sticking to his guns on even this Iowa litmus test will make an interesting experiment in modern politics. Though Cruz is widely accused of debasing our political culture with his take-no-prisoners style, he may actually be enhancing it by giving us an example of what it means to stand on principle. And he may do himself no harm in the process.

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End the GOP’s Iowa Ethanol Panderfest

Wherever Iowa famers gather, presidential candidates are never in short supply. So if you’re planning on attending the annual Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines tomorrow, it may be difficult to avoid tripping over potential Republican contenders. But not all the GOP hopefuls will be there. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are skipping the event. Why? Both oppose the renewable fuel standard, a measure beloved by Iowa corn growers that requires blending corn-based ethanol and other biofuels into the gasoline supply. Rubio and Jindal aren’t the ones who have crossed the Iowa agriculture industry. Other candidates have voted for measures seeking to eventually end ethanol subsidies. But the farm lobby has forced Republicans who believe in the free market to bend to their will before and is determined to punish those who don’t pledge allegiance to ethanol and make them pay at the Iowa Caucuses next year. The question is, will 2016 mark the moment when conservatives prefer their principles to corn-based votes?

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Wherever Iowa famers gather, presidential candidates are never in short supply. So if you’re planning on attending the annual Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines tomorrow, it may be difficult to avoid tripping over potential Republican contenders. But not all the GOP hopefuls will be there. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are skipping the event. Why? Both oppose the renewable fuel standard, a measure beloved by Iowa corn growers that requires blending corn-based ethanol and other biofuels into the gasoline supply. Rubio and Jindal aren’t the ones who have crossed the Iowa agriculture industry. Other candidates have voted for measures seeking to eventually end ethanol subsidies. But the farm lobby has forced Republicans who believe in the free market to bend to their will before and is determined to punish those who don’t pledge allegiance to ethanol and make them pay at the Iowa Caucuses next year. The question is, will 2016 mark the moment when conservatives prefer their principles to corn-based votes?

Ethanol and biofuels sound like a green dream that combines the needs of farmers with the nation’s desire for energy independence and less carbon-based pollution. The clout of the powerful farm lobby might have been enough to ensure that Congress subsidized the ethanol business. But the fact that Iowa becomes the center of the political universe once every four years with the campaign lasting longer every election has made corn king.

But even the outsized influence of the Hawkeye State has not been enough to suppress the growing realization that the massive federal subsidies lavished on corn growers was a boondoggle of epic proportions that has done little to help the environment and a lot for the bank accounts of those connected to this industry. After a long fight, Congress passed a sunset provision on the subsidies, but Iowans who are used to being Uncle Sam’s favored relations aren’t giving up. They are defending the renewable fuel standards against sensible criticisms and seek, as they always do, to use the first-in-the-nation caucuses to bend would-be presidents to their will.

Industry groups are prepared to invest millions in media blitzes backing candidates who conform to their wishes and oppose those who don’t. Given its past success, it’s hard to blame the corn/ethanol lobby for feeling confident that they can intimidate Republicans again.

After all, a free market supporter like Mitt Romney folded like a cheap suit in 2012 in his bid to win the caucus. As it turns out, Rick Santorum, another conservative who discovered how much he loved corn when running for president, edged him. They weren’t alone; that year Michelle Bachmann, the Tea Party favorite candidate who won the Iowa Straw Poll before flopping in the caucus, also dropped her anti-government mantra long enough to embrace ethanol.

Going back to 2008, the caucus was won by Mike Huckabee, another politician who extolled the virtues of small government except when it came to federal largesse being doled out to Iowa farmers. Among the losers in Iowa that year was John McCain, the eventual nominee who largely stuck to his guns when it came to opposing ethanol subsidies.

Will a Republican Party whose mainstream as well as its Tea Party faction have spent the last several years lambasting the Obama administration for its green corruption schemes like Solyndra make an exception for Iowa again? To their credit, Rubio and Jindal say no. As the Journal notes, Jeb Bush has yet to say much about the issue but has in the past backed a Brazilian ethanol scheme that irked Iowans. Libertarian Rand Paul is in no position to genuflect to the corn growers. Tea Party stalwart Ted Cruz is risking the ire of the lobby by co-sponsoring legislation to repeal the renewable fuels standard.

But past Iowa winners Huckabee and Santorum are back to try again in 2016 and appear ready to pander to ethanol if that’s what it takes to get them into the first tier of a race with a huge field.

That leaves Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has an early but commanding lead in Iowa right now. Will Walker, a man who became a conservative folk hero by opposing big government and unions, decide that government handouts to farmers don’t offend his conscience? If not, then perhaps we will have really turned a corner. But until a candidate who spurns corn wins the caucus, Iowa will remain a quadrennial panderfest. Conservatives who are dismayed by the way their would-be standard-bearers check their principles at the state border when they enter Iowa hope 2016 is the year when this will happen.

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Democrats and the Hillary Train Wreck

How can something that is such a sure thing seem so shaky? That’s the question that many supporters of Hillary Clinton are wondering this week as reports about her exclusive use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state prove to be the latest indication of her bad political judgment. Though many Democrats insist that there’s nothing to this story, others speaking off the record to journalist are less sanguine and admit that this just the latest evidence that shows that her apparent coronation as Democratic presidential nominee is only partially obscuring her genuine shortcomings as a candidate. Though Clinton’s loyalists are bravely, if somewhat inadequately, defending her, the email story looks to have legs. The real question many in the part are asking today is whether the former First Lady’s current troubles will be enough to tempt Senator Elizabeth Warren to jump into the 2016 presidential race.

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How can something that is such a sure thing seem so shaky? That’s the question that many supporters of Hillary Clinton are wondering this week as reports about her exclusive use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state prove to be the latest indication of her bad political judgment. Though many Democrats insist that there’s nothing to this story, others speaking off the record to journalist are less sanguine and admit that this just the latest evidence that shows that her apparent coronation as Democratic presidential nominee is only partially obscuring her genuine shortcomings as a candidate. Though Clinton’s loyalists are bravely, if somewhat inadequately, defending her, the email story looks to have legs. The real question many in the part are asking today is whether the former First Lady’s current troubles will be enough to tempt Senator Elizabeth Warren to jump into the 2016 presidential race.

There are some reasons for the Clinton camp to be confident that nothing in the story about her emails will stop Democrats from nominating her for president. The Clintons have always operated under different rules than lesser political mortals and they and their fans probably think there’s nothing to this issue that should cause Democrats to treat them differently than in the past. But the willingness of the New York Times, the flagship of the liberal mainstream media establishment to run with this story rather than treating it as just another minor sidebar generated by Republicans investigating the Benghazi attacks was an indication that Hillary could not count on getting a pass.

Nor did the story die after a day as Clinton’s camp hoped it would because there was more to it. The revelation that Clinton not only refrained from using a government (and therefore relatively secure) email address but used one whose server was located in her home is even more egregious than one would have thought. That raises questions about whether she violated government regulations instituted in 2009. Though much correspondence was subsequently handed over to the government, the decision as to what was public and what private was made by Clinton’s staff leaving open the possibility that anything that might prove embarrassing or troubling — such as Clinton’s knowledge or encouragement for efforts by her husband to raise money from foreign governments for their family foundation — was either erased or held back from archivists or the State Department.

Some Democrats are claiming that conservative critics complaining about Clinton’s emails are hypocrites because various Republican governors have been hounded about some of their own emails. That’s a fair point but only to a point. Anyone running for president is going to have to be transparent about their official conduct, an issue that Jeb Bush got in front of when he released his emails from his time as governor of Florida. But none of those Republicans were in charge of U.S. foreign policy while their spouse was shaking down foreigners for contributions to their family foundation.

Even more to the point, it is important to play the substitution game. Imagine the reaction from Democrats if highly placed figures in a Republican administration were accused of doing far less than what Clinton has done when it comes to emails. Substitute the words Dick Cheney for Hillary Clinton and just imagine the same liberals telling us there’s nothing to see and that this is mere Republican lunacy about Benghazi as their heads explode.

But actually we don’t have to use our imaginations. We can just find the video of Hillary Clinton speaking in June 2007 about accusations about Republicans like Karl Rove using private email accounts some of the time while working in the White House. Rove wasn’t violating any federal regulations as Clinton did but that didn’t stop the then junior senator from New York from decrying those in her sights of “shredding the Constitution” and engaging in corrupt activities.

Nor will this story go away. There’s plenty of exposure for everyone involved here who didn’t follow the rules. But with news organizations like the Associated Press that have already filed Freedom of Information lawsuits to find out what Clinton has been up to now discovering that there is a lot of data it wanted that the government doesn’t have, the fate of those emails that were not given to the State Department could haunt Clinton.

But none of this bothers Democrats as much as the perception that Clinton and her staff were unprepared for this latest land mine in her path and have no clue about defusing it. Though the Clinton political machine is a formidable entity, she currently lacks the kind of staff with the ability to respond immediately to problems. Instead, they bumble around for days doing little to make things better for their candidate. Clinton’s own public statements have also been entirely inadequate. Merely saying that she wants the public to have access to her emails does little to reassure since she didn’t promise to take any steps that would ensure that these communications will be brought forward or that the process by which private emails will be sorted from the official ones will be supervised by anyone but her personal minions.

As with her gaffe-ridden book tour last year, Clinton has done nothing to make it appear that she has acquired the political skills needed to weather a competitive presidential campaign. With no serious Democratic opposition in sight that means she will head into the general election next year with full coffers but unready to mix it up with what might be a strong GOP opponent. At this point the fact that she has no opposition worth the name inside her party starts to look less like a huge advantage and more like a liability.

Will this tempt Warren to run against her? If she has any interest in running for president — a question to which we don’t know the answer — it ought to. At worst, the email story is the sort of thing that will feed cynicism about Clinton among ordinary voters as well as the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. At best, it shows she has poor political judgment ad lacks the ability to comprehend and deal with problems. Either way, this train wreck makes for a poor presidential candidate and an even worse president. The former should scare Democrats who want to win in 2016. The latter should scare all Americans.

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Clinton’s Parallel Government and Obama’s Great Miscalculation

When it was revealed last week that the Clinton Foundation accepted money from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, Fox anchor Bret Baier asked a good question: “How big a problem is this becoming? Now not only for Clinton but for the [Obama] administration?” Now with latest revelations that for purposes of digital communication Hillary essentially ran her own parallel government, it’s clear that Clinton’s ethical lapses should also be a scandal for President Obama. But to understand where Obama went wrong here it’s instructive to remember how he approached the idea of nominating Hillary to be his secretary of state after the 2008 election.

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When it was revealed last week that the Clinton Foundation accepted money from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, Fox anchor Bret Baier asked a good question: “How big a problem is this becoming? Now not only for Clinton but for the [Obama] administration?” Now with latest revelations that for purposes of digital communication Hillary essentially ran her own parallel government, it’s clear that Clinton’s ethical lapses should also be a scandal for President Obama. But to understand where Obama went wrong here it’s instructive to remember how he approached the idea of nominating Hillary to be his secretary of state after the 2008 election.

First, the latest: not only did Hillary Clinton exclusively use private email addresses to avoid transparency and record keeping. She, as the AP reveals today, operated her own server at her home:

The computer server that transmitted and received Hillary Clinton’s emails — on a private account she used exclusively for official business when she was secretary of state — traced back to an Internet service registered to her family’s home in Chappaqua, New York, according to Internet records reviewed by The Associated Press.

Later, the AP explains why she did it, and how great of a security risk it was:

Operating her own server would have afforded Clinton additional legal opportunities to block government or private subpoenas in criminal, administrative or civil cases because her lawyers could object in court before being forced to turn over any emails. And since the Secret Service was guarding Clinton’s home, an email server there would have been well protected from theft or a physical hacking.

But homebrew email servers are generally not as reliable, secure from hackers or protected from fires or floods as those in commercial data centers. Those professional facilities provide monitoring for viruses or hacking attempts, regulated temperatures, off-site backups, generators in case of power outages, fire-suppression systems and redundant communications lines.

As I said, Clinton essentially operated her own parallel government. Several commentators raised the same question with regard to Clinton only using private email addresses to conduct state business: Didn’t President Obama and his staff notice immediately that she was emailing them from a non-government account? The answer is: of course. The Obama White House is certainly implicated in this.

But it’s also worth pointing out that Obama always overestimated the degree to which he could control Clintonworld. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes detail in their admiring book on Hillary’s time at State, HRC, Obama made the classic mistake of trying to coopt a force that would otherwise be disruptive to his agenda. Clinton seemed intent on going back to the Senate, where she could act as a kind of gatekeeper to Obama’s legislative agenda. Understandably, Obama would rather have her on his team.

Obama didn’t think much of Clinton’s experience abroad. HRC notes Obama’s belief that Hillary’s sense of worldliness amounted to “what world leader I went and talked to in the ambassador’s house, who I had tea with.” In Obama’s estimation, Hillary was not up to the task of being a top figure on the world stage.

But Obama wasn’t looking necessarily for competence or experience. His view in piecing together his team has always been about sidelining critics and rivals. So, fully aware that Hillary was unqualified, he asked her to be secretary of state. Allen and Parnes write:

Obama wanted Hillary on his team, and in making the case to his own aides, he knocked down the argument he had made on the trail that her experience was limited to tea parties. As important, having Hillary on the inside would let Obama keep control over perhaps the nation’s most potent political force other than himself.

Except it wouldn’t. Sometimes the Clintons’ parallel government works in Obama’s favor, such as Clinton’s Benghazi disaster. Her independent email server and private addresses enabled her to hide her correspondence on the attack, which also shielded the rest of the administration from that scrutiny. Obama is infamously secretive about his own records and his administration’s unprecedented lack of transparency was a good match for the Clintons.

But it also meant a certain degree of this went beyond his control. Hillary’s family foundation, which essentially became a super-PAC for foreign governments, was supposed to have donations vetted. They didn’t. They were supposed to have Bill Clinton’s paid events cleared. And they did–they were cleared by Hillary’s State Department. They weren’t supposed to accept foreign-government money while Hillary was secretary of state. They did.

Clintonworld operated as a distinct, independent entity for its own purposes while also running American foreign policy. The phrase “conflict of interest” does not even begin to approach the disturbing ethical calculations here. But it can’t be argued that Obama didn’t know what he was getting the country into. He just thought he could control it. He was wrong, and he was wrong to try. And we’re only beginning to see the consequences.

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How Republicans Benefit from Carly Fiorina’s Candidacy

The inability of liberal writers and journalists to hide their intellectual laziness around conservative women has been a recurring theme of the modern political era. As the Obama administration’s “war on women” showed, the left tends to believe women are incapable of thinking independently. And as liberals showed with regard to Sarah Palin in 2008, a certain degree of irrational hatred is an important component of the left’s political agenda when running against conservative women. But what happens when a Republican presidential candidate is a woman who can’t be caricatured? We’re about to find out.

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The inability of liberal writers and journalists to hide their intellectual laziness around conservative women has been a recurring theme of the modern political era. As the Obama administration’s “war on women” showed, the left tends to believe women are incapable of thinking independently. And as liberals showed with regard to Sarah Palin in 2008, a certain degree of irrational hatred is an important component of the left’s political agenda when running against conservative women. But what happens when a Republican presidential candidate is a woman who can’t be caricatured? We’re about to find out.

That’s because the prospective candidacy of Carly Fiorina, while a (very) long shot for the Republican nomination, has given the GOP a valuable voice: a woman unquestionably much smarter than her Democratic adversaries who can mock Hillary Clinton with abandon. Fiorina may be angling for the vice presidency, though she would be an obvious cabinet choice as well. And unlike Jeb Bush, Fiorina’s lack of support from the conservative base is a major asset to the seriousness of her candidacy as it’s perceived by the media. She’s not pandering quite as much, and she’s demonstrating, rather than simply claiming, independence.

And she’s going to force the media to expand their vocabulary beyond the phrases “Sarah Palin” and “Michele Bachmann.” They lean heavily on these parallels. The L.A. Times’s David Horsey wrote the perfect example of this laziness on the occasion of the new Republican Senate majority, headlined “Move over, Sarah Palin; Joni Ernst is the GOP’s new star.” Palin and Ernst are very different, but they’re both women, which was the best Horsey’s mental faculties were capable of.

Palin gets this a lot; two Israeli reporters recently profiled the Likud’s Miri Regev and called her “the closest thing Israel has to Sarah Palin,” without even bothering to build a case for their comparison. It was published in the Daily Beast, which (of course) went with the Palin comparison for the headline as well, plucked from the opening paragraph.

This brand of political “analysis” is familiar to Bachmann too. One of the strangest examples was in a recent New York Times Magazine piece on Russia by the Russian-Jewish novelist Gary Shteyngart. The piece was a nonfiction essay chronicling Shteyngart’s experience sitting in a fancy hotel room and watching Russian television. In the course of this snooze fest we’re treated to the following sentence: “When Conchita won, back in May, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist in Russia’s Parliament who is roughly equivalent to Michele Bachmann, said her victory meant ‘the end of Europe.’” (The essay did have the virtue of demonstrating why Shteyngart is not a political analyst.)

Fiorina won’t attract such lowest-common-denominator attacks. Her executive experience is in the private sector, at Hewlett-Packard and AT&T, and that not only gives her some economic fluency but also infuses her rhetoric and her persona with a non-politician’s accessibility. And of course, she can be condescending to Hillary without coming off as bullying or sexist.

Her CPAC speech contained a few good lines, such as:

  • “Like Mrs. Clinton, I too have traveled the globe. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.”
  • “She tweets about women’s rights in this country, and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights.”
  • “She tweets about equal pay for women but will not answer basic questions about her own office’s pay standards and neither will our president. Hillary may like hashtags but she doesn’t know what leadership means.”

There is only so much mileage to get out of such lines, but when said by a man the media would pounce and change the story to sexism and GOP “overreach.” Coming from Fiorina, the lines are at least allowed to hang in the air for a while.

She also had more substantive things to say, of course, and was able to personalize them in an effective way. Here’s one example from the speech:

When I battled cancer, I needed many helping hands. When my husband, Frank, and I lost our youngest daughter, Laurie, to the demons of addiction, we relied on the strength of our family, the solace of our faith, but we were also lifted up by the prayers and kindness of so many strangers who became blessings in our lives. Everyone needs a helping hand, but no one wants to be trapped in the web of dependence that has been woven over decades in our nation. To fill their potential, people need an education: tools, training, support, and they need a job.

The president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union once said this:

“We cannot be held responsible for the performance of the children in our classrooms because too many of them come from poor and broken families.”

Liberals may be prepared to dismiss and disregard Americans because of their circumstances. Liberals may be prepared to consign some to lives of dependence, while others, who think they are smarter, and they are better, will take care of them. But we, as conservatives, are not. We know that no one of us is better than any other one of us. We know that each one of us has God-given gifts and can live a life of dignity and purpose and meaning.

She’s not simply a one-liner generator, in other words. This is not to overstate her odds of winning the nomination: there does not seem to be a path for her to win, and I don’t think she’ll even amass enough of a following to end up on the veep shortlist. The fact that the base seems generally uninterested in her candidacy helps place her out of the “Tea Party extremist” category that the political press so generously uses. But it also means she doesn’t have the votes to make a run.

Nonetheless, Republicans might end up thrilled that she chose to run despite all that. Her presence in the debates would elevate the discussion and keep the details of policy in focus. And she can utilize a line of attack that most others can’t, and let that line of attack sink in over the course of the next year. And no one is likely to compare her to Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

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Howard Dean and the Elmer Fudd Theory of Economic Policymaking

How powerful is Elizabeth Warren? That question, oddly enough, is a key determining factor in the future of the Democratic Party. That’s not because Warren is set for a long career as a Senate powerbroker. It’s because she probably isn’t. Warren is a 65-year-old freshman who is already being encouraged to run for president and who came to government as an outsider. Warren’s power, then, will not be measured as much by her accomplishments in office (though she may accrue some) as by the growth of her faction within the Democratic Party.

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How powerful is Elizabeth Warren? That question, oddly enough, is a key determining factor in the future of the Democratic Party. That’s not because Warren is set for a long career as a Senate powerbroker. It’s because she probably isn’t. Warren is a 65-year-old freshman who is already being encouraged to run for president and who came to government as an outsider. Warren’s power, then, will not be measured as much by her accomplishments in office (though she may accrue some) as by the growth of her faction within the Democratic Party.

Warren’s power will also be evident in how much Hillary Clinton echoes Warren’s political rhetoric. Although Clinton will not consider herself bound by such rhetoric if she’s elected, the fact that she might believe she needs Warren’s approval will speak volumes about Warren’s influence over a Democratic nominating process that is expected to be a coronation and a cakewalk.

Indeed, the last time voters put the Clintons in the White House, it was Bill Clinton who was leading the party’s rhetoric in a new direction. Democrats followed Bill to the presidency. It will be quite a change of pace if the Clintons are next sent to the White House only after recognizing that they were no longer setting the ideological agenda of their party, but merely following instructions.

And that’s a chance centrist Democrats–who insist they still exist, and you are not imagining them after taking too much NyQuil–aren’t willing to take. According to The Hill, the old New Democrat Coalition is back:

The New Democrat Coalition (NDC), a caucus of moderate Democrats in the House, plans to unveil an economic policy platform as soon as this week in an attempt to chart a different course.

“I have great respect for Sen. Warren — she’s a tremendous leader,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), one of the members working on the policy proposal. “My own preference is to create a message without bashing businesses or workers, [the latter of which] happens on the other side.”

Peters said that, if Democrats are going to win back the House and Senate, “it’s going to be through the work of the New Democrat Coalition.”

It’s the revenge of the mushy middle. The rhetoric seems to be the biggest sticking point for these Democrats. How much does the policy agenda need to break with Warren and her wing to be successful? It depends who you ask.

For some, the aggressive anti-business rhetoric is the point. When The Hill asked one Democratic member of Congress about the two emerging camps, they responded: “There’s no need to get me in trouble … I don’t need an angry phone call from Bill Clinton.”

Comments like that suggest that on policy grounds, some of these Warren wingers are in it for the pitchforks and torches, but if they pipe down, the Clintons won’t even realize they think of Bill and Hillary and their supporters as filthy capitalist pigs. Along similar lines, some centrists seem to think that if you don’t tell businessmen and women you’re confiscating their earned income for redistributive schemes, they won’t notice. “Economic growth is a precondition to reducing inequality,” said Progressive Policy Institute President Will Marshall, another self-styled centrist. “You can’t redistribute wealth that you’re not generating.”

That’s true, but also a bit of a mixed message, to say the least.

That’s about where Howard Dean lands on the spectrum too. He told The Hill: “Our program cannot be soak the rich — that’s a mistake and alienates middle class people. But on substance, the Warren wing is correct.”

So, you can soak the rich, then? That’s the “substance” of the Warren wingers’ economic policy. What Dean seems to be calling the “program” is actually the party’s rhetoric. Of course, you could also follow Dean’s advice by enacting policies that are sold as one thing but accomplish another. You could theoretically design, say, a health-care plan that claims to be about providing access but is really a wealth transfer from the middle class to lower-earning Americans whose votes Democrats would really like to lock in for generations. You could call this policy “ObamaCare.”

The economic populists have the advantage of momentum and a president animated by class warfare. But they are at a disadvantage in another area, which Dean alludes to in what can best be understood as the Elmer Fudd theory of economic policymaking. Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. According to Dean: “The rhetoric about wealth creation needs to be scaled back because Americans like wealth creation.”

You don’t say. Americans like capitalism and economic freedom. What Americans like, in other words, is the system the Warren wingers want to tear down. It’s also a system that has been very good to the Clintons. If the Warren wing can get Hillary Clinton to run on a program that implicitly delegitimizes the Clintons’ own success, the New Democrats will remain irrelevant.

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The GOP Has An Image Problem with the Middle Class

The Pew Research Center’s latest survey paints a very mixed picture for the Republican Party.

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The Pew Research Center’s latest survey paints a very mixed picture for the Republican Party.

The good news for Republicans is the GOP has opened substantial leads on dealing with the terrorist threat at home (20 points), making wise decisions about foreign policy (13 points), and dealing with taxes (11 points). “On each of these issues,” according to Pew, “the GOP’s lead is as wide—or wider—than at any point in the last several years.”

When it comes to which party is better able to handle the overall economy, Republicans have a slight lead (44 percent v. 41 percent). Democrats have a slight lead on immigration (+2), abortion and contraception (+3), and health care (+7).

About half of those surveyed, 52 percent, say the Democratic Party has good policy ideas while slightly fewer than half (48 percent) say the same about the GOP. On who should take the lead in solving the nation’s problems, 40 percent say President Obama while 38 percent say GOP leaders. (President Obama’s job approval is now 48 percent v. 26 percent for the leaders of the new Republican Congress.)

But if Republicans are doing relatively well on issues, they are doing quite poorly in terms of image and public perception. Most Americans see the GOP lacking in tolerance and empathy for the middle class, and half view it as too extreme. To be precise, 60 percent say the Democratic Party “cares about the middle class” while only 43 percent say the same thing about the Republican Party–a 17 point gap. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed say the Democratic Party “is tolerant and open to all groups of people” versus 35 percent for Republicans. And half of those surveyed say the Republican Party is too extreme while only 36 percent view the Democratic Party as too extreme.

Among independents, more say the Democratic Party is tolerant and open (58 percent v. 33 percent for Republicans) and concerned about the middle class (56 percent v. 40 percent), while by a margin of 16 points, 54 percent to 38 percent, independents say the GOP is too extreme. (Majorities of independents say each party has strong principles, with Republicans having a +9 advantage, 63 percent v. 54 percent, over Democrats.)

About these findings, I’d say several things, the first of which is that Republicans would be foolish to ignore the findings or respond defensively to them. Many Republicans will of course feel these impressions are unfair, the product of biased media coverage and so forth. But they need to understand how the GOP is seen by voters, since accepting there’s a problem is the first step toward correcting it.

Second, Republicans need to be aware of how certain actions (e.g., pursuing policies that shut down the federal government and linking childhood vaccinations to autism) reinforce certain perceptions (the GOP is too extreme). Republicans have to realize that tone and disposition in politicians are enormously important, that people of strong philosophical/conservative convictions need to radiate a temperamental moderation. By that I mean they need to come across as not just principle but also as reassuring, as serious-minded and well-grounded, people of equanimity and who prize prudence. The extreme language and apocalyptic rhetoric–comparing America to Nazi Germany, constantly invoking warnings of tyranny–just aren’t helpful.

Third, the Republican Party still has a very significant problem with the middle class. That’s why some of us who are identified as “reform conservatives” put together a publication last year, Room To Grow, which lays out a middle-class agenda, one that applies conservative principles to the challenges and problems of this century, this decade, this moment. The Republican Party right now is seen by too many people as principled but out of touch, as champions of the rich rather than the middle class, as too adamantine, and as pursuing a governing agenda that won’t make the lives of ordinary Americans better.

You may believe those impressions are widely off the mark, or somewhat off the mark, or true in part. But the impressions are there, they are deep and rather durable, and if Republicans hope to win the presidency in 2016, they best nominate a person who has the intellectual and personal qualities to change them.

The opportunity for Republicans to win next year will certainly be there; the question is whether the right person will rise from the ranks.

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