Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bill Clinton

The Trump-Clinton Connection About More Than Cash

In detailing the four reasons why I think that Donald Trump’s current surge to the top of the Republican nomination race yesterday, I noted that the kind of scrutiny presidential candidates receive is different from that accorded celebrities. The real estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-politician is learning that lesson today as he is forced to endure the Daily Beast’s airing of the dirty linen from his first divorce. The site ran an article based on a gossipy book about Trump’s personal life published 25 years ago alleging that he had raped his first wife Ivana. The fact that the former Mrs. Trump denies the accusations she made at the time and is supporting Trump’s campaign should have taken the air out of the story. But what made it newsworthy were the vulgar threats Trump’s lawyer issued to the publication that the candidate has now walked back. It’s doubtful that anything the Daily Beast publishes will influence Trump’s fans, so perhaps we should simply file this sordid business away as another example of how nasty politics has become in the age of the Internet. But if anyone thinks this is anything but the start of the press’s excavation of his life, they are mistaken. If the last month of our national political life has been given over to the Donald show on the campaign trail, in the coming weeks and months we’ll be getting more information about Trump’s life than most of us will be able to stand.

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In detailing the four reasons why I think that Donald Trump’s current surge to the top of the Republican nomination race yesterday, I noted that the kind of scrutiny presidential candidates receive is different from that accorded celebrities. The real estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-politician is learning that lesson today as he is forced to endure the Daily Beast’s airing of the dirty linen from his first divorce. The site ran an article based on a gossipy book about Trump’s personal life published 25 years ago alleging that he had raped his first wife Ivana. The fact that the former Mrs. Trump denies the accusations she made at the time and is supporting Trump’s campaign should have taken the air out of the story. But what made it newsworthy were the vulgar threats Trump’s lawyer issued to the publication that the candidate has now walked back. It’s doubtful that anything the Daily Beast publishes will influence Trump’s fans, so perhaps we should simply file this sordid business away as another example of how nasty politics has become in the age of the Internet. But if anyone thinks this is anything but the start of the press’s excavation of his life, they are mistaken. If the last month of our national political life has been given over to the Donald show on the campaign trail, in the coming weeks and months we’ll be getting more information about Trump’s life than most of us will be able to stand.

The question of what is or is not the public’s business when it comes to presidential candidates can be a thorny one. There are plenty of reasons not to vote for Donald Trump for president without getting into his personal life. Moreover, the double standard by which Republicans are subjected to the sort of minute scrutiny that is usually not accorded liberals and Democrats also ensures that a lot of people on the right are going to instinctively sympathize with Trump or any other GOP candidate who is given a going over in this manner. The New York Times 2008 hit piece on John McCain alleging an affair that the article didn’t prove is a classic example. When, as in the case of Mitt Romney, there aren’t even hints of scandal in a candidate’s private life, the media will dig something else up like the Washington Post’s “expose” of his high school prank in which he and others gave another kid a haircut.

But when it comes to Trump, that sort of extensive digging won’t be necessary. He has spent most of the last 30 years more or less living on the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column. That won’t make it right, but it also ensures that there is a never-ending supply of embarrassing or undignified quotes or incidents to be brought up whenever possible. While a reality show or billionaire celebrity might want that kind of attention, this won’t help someone running for president. An example came this morning in the New York Times with a feature discussing the vast store of information about the candidate that can be culled from an examination of his testimony under oath in the countless lawsuits in which he has been involved during his decades in business. Compared to the fishing expeditions to put Mitt Romney’s largely exemplary business record under the microscope in 2012, examining Trump’s record will be like shooting ducks in a barrel for the media.

In response to the Beast story, some on the right are chirping about why it is that the same venues that are ready to recycle allegations of rape directed at him during the course of a nasty and expensive divorce battle when they never did the same with the credible evidence and allegations about former President Clinton raping Juanita Broderick. They are right about that. But that also points up a serious problem about Trump. In choosing him, Republicans would be embracing a candidate who is asking us to judge him by the same flexible standards that only a Clinton would demand.

Just as Clinton’s co-dependant claimed that those circulating unflattering information about the 42nd president were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” so now we have Team Trump threatening to ruin journalists for even thinking about writing stories about his past. Having a representative that denies that spousal rape is a crime is an invitation for the Democrats to air out their faux “war on women” meme in a way that would never work against Clinton. Indeed, the connection between Trump and the Clintons goes beyond his contributions to Hillary’s Senate campaigns and the Clinton Family Foundation. In Trump, the Republicans have found their own Bill Clinton, minus the charm and the skill in governing.

For Trump, the rape story was a “welcome to the NFL” moment in which he was reminded that running for president involves the press going over a candidate’s life with a fine tooth comb and airing incidents that all concerned would prefer to keep buried. That won’t deter those of his fans who love him because he is outrageous and not in spite of it. Just as some voters embrace because of his vile comments about John McCain’s time as a POW in Vietnam, others will regard such stories as a reason to back him all the more. But this Trump-Clinton connection chips away at the notion that he is invulnerable or electable. It should also pour cold water on the notion that he is somehow different from politicians. To the contrary, Trump embodies all of the worst aspects of our political life in terms of his gutter attack tactics and a Clintonesque sense of entitlement and belief that he should never be held accountable for anything he does or says.

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The Left’s Self-Conception and Self-Delusion

In my most recent New York Times column, I argued that the Democratic Party has moved to the left compared to where it was during the Clinton presidency. Further, I argued, “in the last two decades the Democratic Party has moved substantially further to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the right. On most major issues the Republican Party hasn’t moved very much from where it was during the Gingrich era in the mid-1990s.” And to demonstrate just how far the Democratic Party has moved to the left, I compared Barack Obama with Bill Clinton. Read More

In my most recent New York Times column, I argued that the Democratic Party has moved to the left compared to where it was during the Clinton presidency. Further, I argued, “in the last two decades the Democratic Party has moved substantially further to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the right. On most major issues the Republican Party hasn’t moved very much from where it was during the Gingrich era in the mid-1990s.” And to demonstrate just how far the Democratic Party has moved to the left, I compared Barack Obama with Bill Clinton.

This sent many people on the left into a tizzy. One of them is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine. Mr. Chait offered up a lengthy criticism of my column, and since he’s a pretty good representative of the modern liberal mind, I thought it might be worth taking a close look at his arguments. Just for the fun of it.

1. According to Chait:

Wehner likewise ignores the studies made by political scientists to answer this question quantitatively. The most commonly used measures, DW-NOMINATE scores, show the precise opposite of what Wehner claims. Republicans have moved extremely far right, and Democrats slightly to the left, and the latter shift is a function of the extermination of its conservative white southern wing. Of course, quantitative measures can be flawed. But Wehner does not explain his disagreements with the quantitative measures, or mention their existence.

My column was focused on the Democratic Party’s shift on issues between the Obama and Clinton presidencies, but since Mr. Chait asked, I’m happy to deal with the matter he raised.

L.J. Zigerell of Illinois State University, in an article that deals with DW-NOMINATE scores, points out that this pattern of “asymmetric polarization” that supposedly proves that Republicans have moved more to the right than Democrats have moved left, is not present in other estimates of ideology. He cites data from Adam Bonica‘s CFscores that “indicates that since 1980 congressional Democrats have moved left slightly more than congressional Republicans have moved right.” He also refers to estimates developed by Michael Bailey that not only don’t show that Republicans have polarized more than Democrats; it shows the opposite. So the assertion of a Republican-caused polarization is not quite as simple and self-evident as Chait and others on the left suggest. As Zigerell puts it, different analyses show different patterns, “complicating recent accounts and inviting reflection about how polarization is defined and measured.”

So how, then, should we think about it and measure it? My column suggested looking at where today’s Democrats are on some key policy issues—and especially some of those that defined Bill Clinton’s “new Democratic” approach.

2. Chait concedes (if only in a parenthetical aside) my point that President Obama has moved to the left of Bill Clinton on some key cultural issues, immigration, and criminal justice. That is hardly a minor concession. But he goes on to write that my claims that Obama is more liberal than Clinton on religious liberties, abortion rights, and drug legalization “lack substantiation.” Fortunately I have more space in a blog post than in a column, so let me provide the substantiation for Chait thirsts for:

  • Earlier this year the Obama White House charged that Indiana’s religious freedom law “legitimize[s] discrimination.” This despite the fact that President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 — legislation championed by Democrats like Chuck Schumer (then in the House) — and there is “nothing significant” that differentiates the federal law from the Indiana law.
  • Bill Clinton was certainly liberal on abortion, but Obama – who as a state legislator opposed a bill protecting infants who survive abortions — has been even more extreme. On abortion, no less of a source than Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of American, has declared, “President Obama has done more than any president in history for women’s health and rights.”
  • On drug legalization, President Obama said in a recent interview, “We may be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side. At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana.” In an interview with The New Yorker, the president said of the two states experimenting with legalized marijuana, Colorado and Washington, “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.” And the Obama Justice Department has hardly taken a strong stance against legalization. President Clinton, in contrast, stated in his 1996 State of the Union address, “Tonight I am nominating General Barry McCaffrey as America’s new drug czar… Tonight I ask that he lead our Nation’s battle against drugs at home and abroad. To succeed, he needs a force far larger than he has ever commanded before. He needs all of us. Every one of us has a role to play on this team.” In the 1992 campaign, during a presidential debate, Clinton declared, “I am adamantly opposed to legalizing drugs.”

3. As for Chait’s assertion that I was wrong to claim the Obama administration loosened welfare work requirements: In fact, the administration proposed to allow waivers of the work requirement (in Section 407 of the Social Security Act). Allowing waivers of work requirements is, I think it’s fair to say, a way of loosening work requirements. (“Waivers granted after the date of enactment may not override provisions of the TANF law that concern mandatory work requirements,”according to a summary of the law published by the House Committee on Ways and Means.)

I understand those in the administration said they wanted to revitalize work requirements by allowing states more flexibility to use more educational and training programs; that they wanted to change the definition of work activities in a way that improves things. But there is a serious case to be made that the administration’s intent was different than its claim. The welfare expert Robert Rector has written, “HHS’s illegal waiver edict repeatedly asserts that the administration seeks to exempt states from the law’s ‘work-participation requirements’ and to replace those requirements with new standards devised by HHS without any congressional input.” The fact that the administration acted in a unilateral fashion to waive work participation rules, in a way that was directly contrary to the legislation, was also a problem. And it certainly doesn’t help Chait’s case that Barack Obama opposed Bill Clinton’s welfare plan at the time and said he would have voted against it. The idea that a liberal who opposed work requirements when welfare reform was being debated and criticized work requirements after they became law would loosen work requirements when he’s president is hardly far-fetched.

4. One of the ploys Chait uses is to imply I said things I never claimed. For example, I never said that Bill Clinton didn’t take steps to address climate change. What I said is that Obama’s approach has been more aggressively liberal. And it has been. Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald argues that Mr. Obama “has probably done more than anyone in the history of the planet to reduce carbon emissions.” President Obama has been praised by some of the most prominent climate scientists. He declared in his State of the Union address earlier this year that “No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” And President Obama even mentioned the threat of climate change in his second inaugural address. This had never been done before. Climate change, then, is a priority for Obama, particularly in his second term, in a way it never was for Clinton. Indeed, it was none other than Jonathan Chait who last year wrote, “When President Obama leaves office three years from now, the major policy story of his second term — barring some kind of unforeseen invasion — is likely to be climate change.” No such claim could be made about President Clinton.

5. According to Chait

Obama, claims Wehner, “has focused far more attention on income inequality than did Mr. Clinton, who stressed opportunity and mobility.” Actually, both Clinton and Obama stressed inequality and mobility alike. President Clinton endlessly promised to make the rich “pay their fair share,” while Obama has stressed opportunity and mobility.

Here we go again. I never said Clinton didn’t address income inequality or that Obama never mentioned opportunity. But Obama has focused on income inequality in a way Clinton never did.

Two examples. In a much-discussed speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in December 2011, Obama argued that income inequality “distorts our democracy.” He spoke about our “gaping inequality” and said that “breathtaking greed” had contributed to America’s economic troubles and that this was a “make-or-break moment for the middle class.”

Extending the theme in 2013, Obama said income inequality “challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.” The liberal Washington Post writer Greg Sargent called it “one of the most important speeches of the Obama presidency… It will likely serve as another touchstone in an evolving argument among Democrats over the need for the party to embody a truly progressive economic agenda, one that will likely continue resonating through at least 2016 and beyond.” Tim Smeeding, an expert on inequality at the University of Wisconsin, put it this way: “This is a major speech on a topic that American presidents normally stay away from. The fact that a sitting president faced with a crowded agenda had the courage to discuss this overarching problem is historic.” [emphasis added].

6. My assertion that Mr. Clinton ended one entitlement program while Mr. Obama is responsible for creating the largest new entitlement (the Affordable Care Act) since the Great Society is true. As is my claim that Mr. Obama is the first president to essentially nationalize health care and that he proposed raising the capital-gains tax rate while Mr. Clinton lowered it. Chait writes that Clinton tried and failed to do the former and agreed to do the latter, but reluctantly. To which I would say: In judging a president’s legacy, results actually matter — and in judging a party’s ideology the views and votes of its Members in Congress matter, too. And note well: Bill Clinton was willing to embrace conservative policies as part of a compromise. That is something Mr. Obama has been unwilling to do, for the reasons my column make clear: He is far more of an ideologue.

7. In response to my statement that Mr. Clinton cut spending and produced a surplus, while under Mr. Obama, spending and the deficit reached record levels, the best Chait can do is to say, “In fact, both Clinton and Obama had similar fiscal policies.”

Let’s stick with the point I originally made and that Chait would like to avoid. Spending under Obama and Clinton was dramatically different, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP. You can look for yourself by going to this OMB document (see in particular Tables 1.2 and 1.3) and the most recent Economic Report to the President (especially Tables B-19 and B-20) to see just how profligate the Obama years have been. But let me summarize: The Obama years have in fact set a high-water mark for the size and reach of the federal government, including a post-World War II record for federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product at 25.2 percent (for comparison, the post-war average has been 19.8 percent). The United States has amassed more than $7 trillion in debt since January 2009. Prior to Obama, no president had submitted a budget with a trillion-dollar deficit; he has submitted four of them. Even as the administration’s projections for the coming years promise smaller deficits, they also promise a larger and more expensive government than Americans have ever seen. Yes, President Obama faced a financial crisis when he took office — but he also used the financial crisis to advance his progressive agenda. That is what his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, meant when he said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” And if you want to see who cut spending more between Obama and Clinton, you might take a look at this. It isn’t a close call.

8. “It is true that Obama, unlike Clinton, has failed to yield a surplus,” Chait says. “Of course, Wehner used to point out that the Clinton surplus was the temporary product of a tech bubble.”

Here’s yet another claim that needs to be untangled. What I wrote was, “The chief reason the nation went from a surplus to a deficit … was that President Bush inherited an economy skidding toward recession (it officially began just a few months after he took office). The dot.com bubble burst — and with it, so did the projected surpluses.” Which is true. It’s also true that I have said on several occasions, including here, that “over the last 40 years and eight presidencies, only two presidents have kept spending below 20 percent of GDP in even a single year: George W. Bush did it in six of his eight fiscal years; Bill Clinton in four.” It’s not inconsistent to say that Bill Clinton kept spending low by historical standards and benefited from the tech bubble.

9. Chait makes this claim:

“In foreign policy [Wehner writes], Mr. Obama has shown himself to be far more critical of traditional allies and more supine toward our adversaries than Mr. Clinton was.” These are the exact same criticisms conservatives made of Clinton during the Clinton administration. The neoconservative Richard Perle in 1996 lambasted “the nearly chronic tendency of the Administration to abandon any policy that encounters even mild opposition, guarantees that adversaries are not deterred — nor are allies assured.”

This is a silly argument. Because Richard Perle was critical of Bill Clinton in 1996 doesn’t mean my claim (or anyone else’s) about Barack Obama in 2015 isn’t accurate. I believe it is, and I’ve made that case here and here. And regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Perle about Clinton, Obama’s policies have led to an unprecedented period of American retrenchment and retreat, at least since World War II.

10. According to Chait, “The centerpiece of the conservative claim that Obama criticizes his allies is Israel, and the actual basis for this is that Israel’s government has abandoned its support for a two-state solution…” The actual basis for this is that Barack Obama has shown a reflex against, and a hostile double standard toward, Israel. Some of us find that quite disturbing. (See here for more.) I’d also point out that tensions with our allies is hardly confined to Israel. They extend to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Turkey, Poland, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada and others.

11. Chait writes

Obama has enacted more dramatic policy changes than Clinton did, but this is not because he had dramatically different goals, but because he had dramatically more success in enacting them. (This, of course, is another reality Wehner has repeatedly denied.)

Actually, if you go to this article that Chait links to, you’ll see that my argument isn’t that President Obama wasn’t successfully in getting his policies implemented. In fact, I have argued the opposite, saying “For the first two years of his presidency, Obama had his way with the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, the GM-Chrysler bailouts, ‘cash for clunkers,’ financial regulations, release of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, credit-card price controls, the endless extension of jobless benefits, and more. As the Wall Street Journal put it, ‘Mr. Obama has been the least obstructed president since LBJ in 1965 or FDR in 1933.’”

The point I was making is that where Obama has most fallen short during his presidency is not in the implementation of his policies so much as in the results of his policies. Where Mr. Obama is most vulnerable is judging him by his own words and promises – on job creation, economic growth, reducing poverty and income inequality, transparency, depolarizing our politics, the Russian “reset”, peace in the Middle East, and on and on. Some years (like 2013) Obama has had more difficulty than other years (2009-2010). But overall Obama has enacted much of what he wanted. And America is paying quite a high price because of it.

The reaction on the left to my Times column revealed how deeply and emotionally invested many progressives are in a particular self-conception and self-delusion. They have constructed a world in which they see themselves as hyper-rational, moderate, reasonable, and empirical. When those assumptions are challenged, and when their own extremism is revealed, they more or less freak out. They have a much higher opinion of themselves than they should.

I should say, too, that it’s rather bizarre to hear people on the left insist that President Obama isn’t a good deal more liberal than Bill Clinton, who after all fashioned himself as a “New Democrat” and chaired headed the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC, remember, was an effort to move the Democratic Party – which had been beaten in five out of six presidential elections (1968-1988) – toward the center on certain key issues. One of Mr. Clinton’s goals, like that of “New Labour’s” Tony Blair, was the ideological renovation of his party. Now and again he showed a willingness to confront ideological excesses within his own coalition in ways that Mr. Obama would never dream of. Which makes sense, since Obama is much more a man of the left than Bill Clinton was.

On many of the issues the New Democrats emphasized, today’s Democratic Party has turned against their ideas and returned to roughly where it was in the 1970s. And there’s no sign things are about to turn around. The Washington Post, in a story about how Hillary Clinton is banking on the Obama coalition to win in 2016 and underscores Obama’s ideological effect on his party, said, “Hillary Rodham Clinton is running as the most liberal Democratic presidential front-runner in decades, with positions on issues … that would, in past elections, have put her at her party’s precarious left edge.” So even Hillary Clinton is running from Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party. As I said,  in the last two decades the Democratic Party has moved substantially further to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the right. For progressives, call this an Inconvenient Truth.

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Fifteen years ago Mickey Kaus, who used to work at The New Republic, wrote that the magazine had been lurching to the left. In citing examples, Kaus wrote this about one of its then-senior editors:

There was Jonathan Chait charging that “today’s GOP remains the most radical political party since World War II” (Barry Goldwater? George McGovern?) while simultaneously arguing that “where [George W.] Bush is given credit for his centrism, he is actually following his colleagues on the Hill.”

Referring to Chait’s colleagues and to Chait himself, Kaus wrote that the “strained, sloppy attacks” were “dispiriting.” As it was then, so it remains today.

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The Mercenary Heart of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Charity

The latest story coming out of the Clinton Cash furor doesn’t involve the serious charges of a conflict of interest that have been revealed by follow-up investigations since the publication of Peter Schweizer’s book. Unlike those shocking instances in which donors to the Clinton Foundation sought and may well have received favors from the Hillary Clinton State Department, today’s New York Times feature about the ex-president’s appearance at a far smaller charity’s fundraising dinner doesn’t involve government action. But it does tell us not only about Bill Clinton’s mercenary approach to philanthropy but the way the former First Family’s slush fund disguised as a charity has profiteered at the expense of actual charities. There is no “smoking gun” of corruption here. But what it does provide us with is insight into their character and the raging hypocrisy at the core of everything they do.

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The latest story coming out of the Clinton Cash furor doesn’t involve the serious charges of a conflict of interest that have been revealed by follow-up investigations since the publication of Peter Schweizer’s book. Unlike those shocking instances in which donors to the Clinton Foundation sought and may well have received favors from the Hillary Clinton State Department, today’s New York Times feature about the ex-president’s appearance at a far smaller charity’s fundraising dinner doesn’t involve government action. But it does tell us not only about Bill Clinton’s mercenary approach to philanthropy but the way the former First Family’s slush fund disguised as a charity has profiteered at the expense of actual charities. There is no “smoking gun” of corruption here. But what it does provide us with is insight into their character and the raging hypocrisy at the core of everything they do.

The story involves Bill Clinton’s appearance at the annual dinner of the Happy Hearts Fund in June of last year. Happy Hearts is a relatively small-scale charity — when compared to the billions raised by the Clinton Foundation — that builds schools in Indonesia and Thailand. It was founded by Czech model Petra Nemcova in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which she nearly lost her life. She had tried to get Clinton to appear at her dinner for years, but it was only last year that she succeeded. How did she do it? By writing a check for $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation.

There’s nothing illegal about that. But it is, as a scholar who studies the world of philanthropy told the Times, “distasteful.”

That’s true. But actually it’s much worse than that.

Happy Hearts is a celebrity vehicle for Nemcova and the transaction between her and Clinton was pretty straightforward. For a half million dollars, she purchased a few hours of the 42nd president’s time and his far greater celebrity appeal. That raised her personal profile and, no doubt, helped make her dinner a greater social and economic success, though it’s hard to imagine that Clinton’s presence brought in enough contributors to make up for the enormous investment in quid pro quo that Nemcova’s contribution to his foundation represents. But it must be admitted that it shows that while the Clinton Foundation is a thinly disguised political slush fund for the Clintons, its fundraising efforts are not based on deception. Donors pay for the privilege of being around the Clintons or having them do favors which can take the form of appearances at charity affairs like that of Nemcova or assisting — or at least not obstructing — the sale of a uranium mine to Russia. None of his big donors are deceived about what they are buying when they give the Clintons money.

But the main point to be gleaned from this incident isn’t just that Clinton has established a lucrative personal appearance business that beggars anything ever attempted by any other retired public official, let alone a former commander-in-chief. The problem is that Happy Hearts is a real charity that does hands-on good works in the Third World. The Clinton Foundation is, at best, a charitable middleman, that funds events where people talk about charity and how best to strategize its implementation. As we’ve learned since Schweizer’s book appearance, the foundation does relatively little actual charity work on its own. Only ten percent of the vast sums it raises from the wealthy and the powerful around the world is spent on charitable efforts. The rest goes to funding conferences where the Clintons and their donors pose as philanthropists and to pay the salaries and travel expenses of those who work for the foundation. That means the money goes to feather the nests of Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and, to a lesser extent, does the same for many of their faithful family retainers such as Clinton attack machine hit man Sidney Blumenthal.

So while the large army of Clinton fans and apologists can say that there is nothing illegal going on here, what they aren’t saying is that the Clintons don’t merely leech off the rich. They also live off of the money they extract from smaller charities that do real good works. That’s not merely “distasteful,” it’s disgraceful and unethical.

It should also be noted that Haitian protesters picketed Clinton’s appearance at the Happy Hearts dinner. His questionable conduct in his role as the gatekeeper for rebuilding efforts since a 2010 earthquake in that country has also gained wider notice since Clinton Cash was published. That effort has done little good for Haitians but others, such as Clinton Foundation donors and Hillary’s brother, have profited from it. As the Times notes, the Haitians jeered the ex-president crying, “Clinton, where is the money? In whose pockets?”

Those are good questions.

This story would be discreditable were it to be the case for anyone involved in such a tawdry affair. But if we have come to the point where such behavior is not considered at least an impediment to election to the presidency then we have come a long way down the road to moral decay even since the Clinton family’s first exploration of what Bill Bennett called “The Death of Outrage.”

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Does Hillary Clinton Think Bill Clinton’s Presidency Was a Disaster?

If and when journalists get the chance to sit down across from Hillary Clinton, they will have a bear of a time picking and choosing the subjects on which to grill her. From her private email server, to her family foundation’s myriad improprieties, to the increasingly deteriorating global security situation that began its backwards slide under her watch as America’s chief diplomat; reporters have an embarrassment of riches in the form of issues on which to press Clinton. But the Steve Krofts of the world like to take a 30,000-foot perspective in the gauzy profile packages to which American television audiences will be privy, and the granular details above might seem to Clinton’s interlocutors minutia that won’t capture the viewer’s attention. In order to sate the press’s desire to both make news and to ensure the viewing audience doesn’t tune out, I’d submit the following question: Does Hillary Clinton believe her husband’s presidency set the Democratic Party back?

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If and when journalists get the chance to sit down across from Hillary Clinton, they will have a bear of a time picking and choosing the subjects on which to grill her. From her private email server, to her family foundation’s myriad improprieties, to the increasingly deteriorating global security situation that began its backwards slide under her watch as America’s chief diplomat; reporters have an embarrassment of riches in the form of issues on which to press Clinton. But the Steve Krofts of the world like to take a 30,000-foot perspective in the gauzy profile packages to which American television audiences will be privy, and the granular details above might seem to Clinton’s interlocutors minutia that won’t capture the viewer’s attention. In order to sate the press’s desire to both make news and to ensure the viewing audience doesn’t tune out, I’d submit the following question: Does Hillary Clinton believe her husband’s presidency set the Democratic Party back?

Of course, Clinton’s reflexive answer would be an emphatic “no.” She might also posture indignantly for effect, a road-worn tactic that nevertheless retains its inexplicable ability to spook reporters into apologetic retreat. But there is precious little evidence that Clinton really does believe her husband’s presidency was a success. In fact, there are many indications that would lead a neutral observer to conclude that Bill Clinton’s presidency is anathema to modern Democrats.

Bill Clinton was elected to office as a Southern Democratic centrist with the aid of the Democratic Leadership Council, a policy shop designed to help rehabilitate a party brand that was at the time still reeling from the Jimmy Carter-era perception that it had become too liberal to represent the nation. Political observers had every reason to believe that, despite his 370 Electoral College vote victory, Clinton’s election was no mandate for Democrats but rather a rejection of George H. W. Bush. Clinton won merely 43 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race, and only won his party’s nomination after a come from behind victory over the more doctrinaire liberals seeking the nomination. If Clinton had a mandate, it was to govern from the center. With the exception of his pursuit of a significant tax hike in 1993, that’s precisely what he did.

Fast-forward to today, and Hillary Clinton has been compelled on a variety of occasions to renounce her husband’s greatest achievements. In the wake of the unrest in Baltimore last month, Clinton delivered a speech in which she advocated for an end to “mass incarceration” in America. Inherent in that address was her contention, one shared by her husband, that the landmark 1994 crime bill was discriminatory.

During his tenure, Bill Clinton signed into law measures that expanded the death penalty, promoted longer prison terms, funded the construction of new prisons, eliminated inmate amenities, barred felons from living in public housing, and discouraged judicial discretion. “We went too far,” Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin lamented on May 1 when reflecting on the Clinton presidency’s approach to crime and justice. “I think that the results,” Hillary Clinton said of the justice reforms that she lobbied for strongly in 1994, “have been an unacceptable increase in incarceration across the board.”

Surely, only a handful of Democrats lamented the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law just weeks before Bill Clinton was easily reelected. In 2013, former President Clinton expressed regrets for signing that law, but not for running campaign advertisements on Christian radio stations in 1996 bragging about that achievement. Moreover, Clinton’s decision to sign into law federal restrictions on allowing HIV-positive travelers to enter the United States, a ban only lifted in 2009 by Barack Obama’s administration, has long been regarded by the gay and lesbian community as a betrayal.

In a contentious interview with NPR host Terry Gross last year, Clinton lashed out when she was asked why she only came out in support of same-sex marriage after both Barack Obama and Joe Biden. In that argumentative interview, Clinton insisted that DOMA was designed to prohibit the Congress from enacting sexually discriminatory laws by kicking the issue down to the states. As The Atlantic’s Connor Friedersdorf noted, however, Clinton had “distorted” the history of DOMA. “I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages,” Bill Clinton said in 1996, “and this legislation is consistent with that position.”

And what of the signature welfare reform bill that Bill Clinton deftly negotiated with a newly GOP-dominated Congress? That measure was presaged when the 42nd President declared in his 1996 State of the Union address that the “era of big government is over,” and, a decade later, was responsible for a marked decline in poverty rates. So what does Hillary Clinton have to say about this landmark reform? No comment. “A Clinton aide declined to answer whether Clinton still supports her husband’s welfare reform law,” Vox’s Jonathan Allen reported after noting that minority Democrats were and remain suspicious of that package of reform laws. A simple “yes” would have sufficed if that is what she believed. Apparently, the answer Clinton would like to give is more complex than that.

Don’t even ask about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That controversial free trade agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico has only grown more controversial for those on the left as progressives condemn President Barack Obama and his pursuit of a similar arrangement with a variety of Asian nations. Clinton once vocally supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but she has since moderated her position on the issue by insisting she doesn’t have one.

But what of Hillary Clinton’s preferred approach to foreign crises? Bill Clinton’s approach to containing Saddam Hussein’s post-Gulf War Iraq was to launch attacks on government targets in 1993, 1996, and 1998. Hillary Clinton now insists it was a mistake to topple that vile regime, and she regrets voting to provide George W. Bush with that authority even if the world is better off without Hussein.

Clinton’s husband pursued a policy of rapprochement with Iran by compensating the Islamic Republic for the deaths of over 250 Iranians who died after an American naval vessel in 1988 shot down their plane and by essentially apologizing for the 1953 CIA-assisted coup that overthrew former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddiq. Today, Hillary Clinton ostensibly supports Barack Obama’s efforts to seal a mutually beneficial nuclear deal with Iran, she is “skeptical that the Iranians will follow through and deliver.” Don’t sweat the cognitive dissonance.

Formerly a vocal supporter of the once vogue academic notion of America’s “responsibility to protect” civilian life (R2P), Clinton justified intervention in the Libyan civil war by noting America has a moral imperative to protect noncombatants when and where it can. This was logic similar to that which her husband applied before committing to multinational foreign intervention in the former Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1998. Clearly, that formerly preferred praxis went out of style the moment Bashar al-Assad began deploying chemical weapons against his own civilian population. While Hillary Clinton has insisted that she would have vetted and armed moderate Syrian rebels faster than the Obama administration, she opposed to introducing American boots into the Syrian conflict as recently as last autumn.

While it takes a fair bit of inference to identify Clinton’s stances on these issues, seeing as she is fond of maintaining vague and amorphous policy positions, it’s clear that Hillary Clinton does not regard her husband’s presidency as one replete with successes. That’s not a personal conviction, of course; you would be hard pressed to identify any sincerely held and necessarily constricting values espoused by the former secretary of state. Her disparagements of her husband’s legacy are solely designed to appeal to an influential subset in the Democratic Party that has veered wildly leftward in the interim 15 years. If Hillary Clinton is to win the White House, it seems that her fellow Democrats will make sure that she is compelled to renounce all her husband’s works in the process.

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Will Americans Elect a President They Don’t Think is Honest?

The prevailing assumption about the 2016 race is that Hillary Clinton’s biggest problem is that she hasn’t a fraction of the political skills that her husband possesses. But it appears that some of that conventional wisdom may be wrong. Not the part about Hillary’s poor political skills. But rather the belief that Bill Clinton is still the master politician. The former president’s NBC interview in which he claimed that he took $500,000 speaking honorariums because he “had to pay the bills” and that he deserves sympathy because he had to “work a couple of hours a day” preparing for them illustrated that his political skills are as rusty as his wife’s. As we learned in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Hillary’s numbers, especially those concerning “honesty,” are starting to plummet in the wake of the Clinton Cash and email scandals. But the question facing Democrats, whose loyalty to the pair seems unshaken, is whether they are hitching their fortunes to a political brand that is becoming seriously tarnished.

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The prevailing assumption about the 2016 race is that Hillary Clinton’s biggest problem is that she hasn’t a fraction of the political skills that her husband possesses. But it appears that some of that conventional wisdom may be wrong. Not the part about Hillary’s poor political skills. But rather the belief that Bill Clinton is still the master politician. The former president’s NBC interview in which he claimed that he took $500,000 speaking honorariums because he “had to pay the bills” and that he deserves sympathy because he had to “work a couple of hours a day” preparing for them illustrated that his political skills are as rusty as his wife’s. As we learned in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Hillary’s numbers, especially those concerning “honesty,” are starting to plummet in the wake of the Clinton Cash and email scandals. But the question facing Democrats, whose loyalty to the pair seems unshaken, is whether they are hitching their fortunes to a political brand that is becoming seriously tarnished.

Only a man of legendary charm and appeal could have risen to the presidency in 1992 the way Bill Clinton despite the less than savory that he dragged along with him to the White House. Nor could a person with lesser political skills have survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal, let alone emerge from his presidency with enormous popularity. The 42nd president parlayed that good will into the creation of a powerful foundation that supported him and his family handsomely while also helping to bolster his wife’s political ambitions. But along the way he seems to have lost his perfect political pitch and replaced it with the same sense of arrogant entitlement that characterizes the public personas of many of the wealthy celebrities that have hooked on to the Clinton Foundation as a way to be seen as philanthropists while also profiting from the Clinton’s political influence.

The former president’s rationalization of the egregious payoffs he’s been getting from foreign donors and others seeking to gain from an association with him and his wife was reminiscent of Hillary’s bogus claim that they were “broke” when they left the White House in 2001. But while Americans love celebrities and probably don’t begrudge the former First Family their current “lifestyles of the rich and famous” existence, they are understandably finding it difficult to trust them.

That’s the upshot of the new WSJ/NBC poll that, among other things, shows that Americans do not regard Hillary as “honest and straightforward” by a 50-25 percent margin. A recent AP poll was even worse as it showed that 61 percent of those surveyed believed the word ‘honest” applied to Hillary only slightly or not at all. Unlike the Journal poll that showed Democrats still trusted Clinton, the AP poll showed that only 40 percent of members of her party considered her honest.

Is it possible to be elected president with those kinds of poll numbers? Maybe. Overall, Clinton’s net favorability — the number of those who view her positively and those negatively — was even. That’s not good but it could be worse. And she still leads all of the leading Republican presidential contenders in head-to-head matchups though not by the same margins that were recorded not that long ago. So perhaps it’s possible to imagine that the usual Clinton response to scandals will work again. That means an avalanche of smears aimed at anyone who dares to question their probity and a steadfast refusal to own up to any problems enabled by destruction of evidence.

But whereas Bill’s charm has always enabled him to survive these kinds of problems while keeping the money thrown at him by wealthy people who wish to profit from the association, Hillary may not be as lucky. The problem goes deeper than one or two polls or even the immediate fallout from the Clinton Cash revelations. It’s the sense on the part of many Americans that we’ve seen this movie before. The Clintons tin-eared utterances betraying their sense of entitlement about the riches thrown their way, whether uttered by Hillary or her equally maladroit husband makes it harder to think of them as unstoppable. So, too, does their arrogant refusal to acknowledge the obvious conflicts of interest involved in running a mega charity dependent on foreign donations while one of the pair serves as secretary of state and prepares a run for the presidency.

The outcome in November 2016 will depend a lot on the matchup with the GOP nominee and the issues that will dominate the news cycle at that time, both factors that are unknown to us now. But anyone who thinks Americans will elect Hillary to the White House if they think she isn’t honest doesn’t know much about American politics. And she isn’t going to be rescued by a husband that is mired in this scandal and not politically adroit enough to avoid fueling it with foolish remarks about profiting from their influence peddling. Though the strength and the viciousness of the Clintons should never be underestimated, neither should we discount the depth of the hole into which their avarice has placed them. That’s especially true as long as they keep making it bigger.

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Clinton Cash Nation

The Clinton Cash scandal has spurred much discussion of the serial misconduct of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But the affair speaks to realities larger and more destructive than the political pathologies of one family. The Clinton Foundation saga marries liberalism’s core grandiosity to the impunity of the new high-flying elite and lays bare a class of global VIP forever celebrating its progressive good works while holding the common citizen in contempt.

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The Clinton Cash scandal has spurred much discussion of the serial misconduct of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But the affair speaks to realities larger and more destructive than the political pathologies of one family. The Clinton Foundation saga marries liberalism’s core grandiosity to the impunity of the new high-flying elite and lays bare a class of global VIP forever celebrating its progressive good works while holding the common citizen in contempt.

Progressive grandiosity was born long ago with the socialist impulse to remake the world. It lives on in the liberal expectation of a savior who will set things right. Such political messianism makes it hard for many liberals to find fault with liberal leaders. While conservatives reject perfection and take human defects as given, many liberals see the shortcomings of a Barack Obama or a Hillary Clinton as a threat to their faith.

It’s easier, then, for liberals to downplay a progressive politician’s record and focus instead on their “meaning.” This goes a long way in explaining both the reelection of Obama and the continued support for Hillary, two liberal politicians stuffed to the gills with meaning and shot through with teleological purpose. They’re not admired for what they’ve done but for simply being objects of admiration—and inevitability.

It follows that liberal and conservative candidates respond to very different incentive structures. Jeb Bush must declare, “I don’t see any coronation coming my way,” lest he seem entitled. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, asks, “Don’t you someday want to see a woman president?” lest we forget her date with destiny. Not only is she already among the elect; it’s her selling point.

Today we recognize the elect by a particular set of associations. The Davostocracy that’s come to include rock stars, politicians, athletes, tech gurus, and CEOs puts out glossy books about charity, inclusiveness, and cooperation. On panels and talk shows they serve up their lives as inspirational tales in which outsize success is always tempered by gratitude and generosity. They build foundations to anchor their personal brands in popular concepts such as globalization and sustainability. The hope—and it seems usually to be fulfilled—is that ordinary folks outsource some degree of their own good sense and moral inclination to these pervasive media superstars. To be a fan of one of the elect is to indicate one’s own probity and sound judgment. Buy into a feel-good brand and you don’t have to worry about all the sticky details.

While pundits fret over the Bush or Clinton Dynasty, the more insidious threat to democracy is a beatified jet-set nobility to whom the rest of us hand over our stake in the culture and the country.

Among this nobility, the Clintons are the perpetual first family. In 1996 Hillary Clinton wrote a book titled It Takes a Village. Disguised as a how-to guide for helping the children of the future, the bestseller was a book-length advertisement for the Clinton brand. In 2007, during Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton put out a bestseller titled, hysterically, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. Disguised as an account of selflessness, it was an advertisement for the now infamous Clinton Foundation.

Even before the Clinton Foundation appeared to be an international clearinghouse for high-stakes influence peddling, it was an opaque and self-serving project of the Davostocracy. According to some accounts, the foundation spent as little as 10 percent of its budget on charity in 2013. The opacity explains how the Clintons could go a decade and a half pulling money from scoundrels, not claiming donations, and misfiling taxes while earning only praise for their efforts.

Liberal messianism and elite-worship enjoy a wholly complementary relationship. Progressives expect to cede large realms of their lives to capable leaders who will deliver a fairer world. The Clintons have traded on both their meaning and their unquestioned elite status to earn pardons for a multitude of sins. While the world looked the other way Clinton Cash happened. Both ideas are there in Hillary’s campaign message: “Everyday Americans need a champion. I want to be that champion.” The Clintons have long thrived in the convergence of these trends. It remains to be seen if they will also be undone by them.

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Must We Ask a Rude Question About the Clintons?

On the surface, it isn’t that hard to understand the Clinton Cash scandal that Democrats are trying very hard to ignore this week. We have a former president making millions giving speeches and doing favors for wealthy foreign entities and nations that give massive sums to the Clinton family charity that subsidizes the lavish lifestyle of the former First Family. He did this at the same time as his wife spent four years as secretary of state where she made decisions that influence the fortunes of those donors. And all this was happening while said former first lady/secretary of state is planning to run for president herself at the next opportunity. No one can deny that this smells to high heaven of impropriety, and the best Billy and Hillary’s court of admirers and apologists can say in their defense is that the evidence of a conflict of interest is circumstantial and that there is no smoking gun proving their guilt. But there is another defense that Politico’s national editor Michael Hirsch hints at in a piece published yesterday: their marriage is so dysfunctional that any alleged coordination between the two is unlikely.

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On the surface, it isn’t that hard to understand the Clinton Cash scandal that Democrats are trying very hard to ignore this week. We have a former president making millions giving speeches and doing favors for wealthy foreign entities and nations that give massive sums to the Clinton family charity that subsidizes the lavish lifestyle of the former First Family. He did this at the same time as his wife spent four years as secretary of state where she made decisions that influence the fortunes of those donors. And all this was happening while said former first lady/secretary of state is planning to run for president herself at the next opportunity. No one can deny that this smells to high heaven of impropriety, and the best Billy and Hillary’s court of admirers and apologists can say in their defense is that the evidence of a conflict of interest is circumstantial and that there is no smoking gun proving their guilt. But there is another defense that Politico’s national editor Michael Hirsch hints at in a piece published yesterday: their marriage is so dysfunctional that any alleged coordination between the two is unlikely.

As Hirsh notes, to discuss the “impenetrable” Clinton marriage is a difficult task. Upon their arrival on the national stage in the 1992 presidential campaign, Americans have on the one hand been deluged with far more information about the Clintons’ relationship than we wanted, as he confessed to having “caused pain,” while never giving us any further explanations. A few years later Bill plunged the nation into a degrading debate about the definition of sex and whether it’s OK to commit perjury about acts of sexual harassment after his dalliance with an intern in the Oval Office. Since then we’ve been asked at one and the same time to sympathize with Hillary as the long suffering wife while also being warned to keep our noses out of their private business.

Would that we could. As Brit Hume recently noted on Fox, one of the key questions about Hillary’s presidential prospects is whether the “American people want another four, eight years of the Clintons and their weird marriage.”

That sounds pretty harsh and uncharacteristically ungentlemanly coming from the courtly Hume. But he’s on to something that can neither be ignored nor swept under the carpet. Having asked us to take them as a two-for-one package in 1992, the ordeal of watching their odd contortions as a couple has become a long national nightmare that, if she wins in 2016, will have no end in sight.

If the questions about them were merely the prosaic ones about whether their continuing union is one primarily of convenience like some royal dynastic pairing rather than a conventional marriage in which two people strive to love and stay together, any queries about their private lives would be rude and even inadmissible. Whether the Clintons are in any sense a romantic couple is none of our business. But if they are still a working political partnership, then we are entitled to know a great deal about their personal interactions. In particular, we deserve to learn about how large a role Bill played as an advisor to her when she was running U.S. foreign policy. We’re also entitled to know more about her role in their charity’s insatiable campaign to raise enormous amounts of cash from individuals, companies, and countries. In classic “pay for play” style, those donors thought they could do themselves quite a bit of good by giving to the Clintons rather than more established philanthropies that were not run by former and perhaps future presidents.

Other than merely claiming that we can’t prove it to a legal certainty without a smoking gun, Mrs. Clinton’s defense against the allegations raised in Clinton Cash rests on a few shaky limbs onto which her defenders can climb. One is to assert that the actions the Department of State took that benefitted Clinton donors were handled below her level. Which is to say she was, shades of Benghazi, not in the know about crucial decisions taking place on her watch. Which is to say she was an incompetent secretary of state.

Another possible defense raised by Hirsh is that Clinton was completely removed from major policy decisions in the Obama administration. This has a ring of truth to it as Obama distrusts the Clintons and runs a top-down administration in which Cabinet secretaries have little say on important matters, though that doesn’t absolve her on issues that the president did not decide. It also further undermines her claim that her experience as secretary of state entitles her to the presidency.

Yet there is an even more credible defense that Clinton’s clique can’t raise. It is that Bill and Hillary are just so disconnected a couple that the idea that they coordinated the family charity business with her foreign-policy ambitions is absurd.

Is this true? We don’t know for sure and, as with so much else about the Clintons, we may never know. Whatever their personal problems might be, their political and business partnership seems to be intact. Moreover, that defense didn’t work for an equally dysfunctional couple, Bob and Maureen McDonnell, when they faced prosecution for pay to play charges for their actions during his time as governor of Virginia.

Whatever form their personal relationship now takes, it’s too late to say that the vast charitable and political web they have woven is none of our business. Both Bill and Hillary have benefitted enormously from their charitable empire and so have those who donated to it.

Getting to the bottom of the Clinton Cash problem may require us, as Hirsh says, to “unscramble the omelet.” The putative 2016 Democratic Party candidate for president has shown no signs of being willing to speak candidly about these questions and a presidential campaign is a bad time for the pair to sort out their marriage for the public. It might be the best defense she can offer, but Hillary is unlikely to try to acquit herself of any involvement in the Clinton Foundation’s dirty business by telling us the truth about how disconnected the two really are.

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Hillary Clinton’s Tangle of Corruption

Hillary Clinton is making her life more difficult than it needs to be.

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Hillary Clinton is making her life more difficult than it needs to be.

I’m speaking in this instance of the donations by foreign governments to the Clinton Foundation. As Jonathan made note of yesterday, a New York Times story on the forthcoming book by Peter Schweizer, Clinton Cash, asserts that “foreign entities who made payments to the Clinton Foundation and to Mr. Clinton through high speaking fees received favors from Mrs. Clinton’s State Department in return.”

When the secretary of state has a policy of pay-to-play, that is bad enough. It reinforces the impression that Mrs. Clinton is a tangle of corruption, dishonest and untrustworthy, and playing by rules that apply to her and her husband but not to others. That has happened time and again with the Clintons; it’s the pattern and habits of a lifetime. And there’s no indication it will change. The portrait of Mrs. Clinton is that of a hardened, brittle, unreflective, and self-justifying individual. Whatever problems she faces are always the result of others, often the “right-wing conspiracy” she has invented in her over-active imagination.

But that’s not the only complicating factor for Mrs. Clinton. The other is that she has badly damaged her ability to wage a culture war/”war on women” campaign against Republicans. Because whatever outlandish charge she makes against Republicans, they will sound positively enlightened compared to the repression of women and gays that occurs in nations (like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, et cetera) that have given millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation. It looks for all the world as if those nations gave money to buy the silence of the Clintons–and their investment paid off.

One can only imagine the political firestorm if the tables were turned and nations that brutally oppress women and gays had funneled money to a foundation of a Republican running for president in order to gain favor while he served as America’s chief diplomat–not to mention the deletion of 30,000 emails on a secret (and inappropriate) server. The coverage would be intense and unremittingly negative.

On top of all that, the Schweizer book says that even as Hillary Clinton is portraying herself as a “champion for everyday Americans,” from 2001 to 2012 the Clintons’ income was (at least!) $136.5 million. Not bad after claiming she and her husband were “dead broke” after they left the White House. During Hillary’s years of public service, the Clintons have conducted or facilitated hundreds of large transactions” with foreign governments and individuals, Schweizer writes. “Some of these transactions have put millions in their own pockets.” (“Of the 13 [Bill] Clinton speeches that fetched $500,000 or more,” Schweizer writes, “only two occurred during the years his wife was not secretary of state.”)

Unlike her husband, Mrs. Clinton is not a naturally likable public figure. Her ethical transgressions make her less so. Which means Republicans are likely to face a person with thoroughly average political skills running with a considerable amount of ethical baggage but also a mountain of cash (estimates are that her campaign will raise up to $2.5 billion). Beating her in 2016 won’t be easy, but it’s certainly doable.

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Are You Poor Enough to Be President?

If you went to central casting looking for someone who could earnestly defend Bill and Hillary Clinton’s shady financial claims, you could hardly do better than Governor Shamwow himself, Terry McAuliffe. And that’s precisely what Meet the Press did yesterday. Yet in the process of trying to substantiate Hillary’s claim to being “dead broke” upon leaving the White House after Bill’s presidency, the Virginia governor, former Clinton campaign manager, and built-for-QVC traveling salesman did end up making a relevant point about the 2016 presidential election.

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If you went to central casting looking for someone who could earnestly defend Bill and Hillary Clinton’s shady financial claims, you could hardly do better than Governor Shamwow himself, Terry McAuliffe. And that’s precisely what Meet the Press did yesterday. Yet in the process of trying to substantiate Hillary’s claim to being “dead broke” upon leaving the White House after Bill’s presidency, the Virginia governor, former Clinton campaign manager, and built-for-QVC traveling salesman did end up making a relevant point about the 2016 presidential election.

Clinton’s insistence she was broke post-presidency was obviously ridiculous, which is probably why McAuliffe rushed out to defend it:

“I cannot tell you the distress in that family at that time, with all the issues and all the legal fees, banks refusing to even give them a mortgage. So listen, people go through tough financial times,” he said.

McAuliffe’s comments came when asked about remarks from Clinton quoted in his book depicting the former first lady saying “we own nothing” and “it was really horrible” when leaving the White House.

“They had nothing compared to a lot of rich friends,” host Chuck Todd pressed.

But it was the next part of the interview that was more interesting:

McAuliffe pointed to Clinton’s upbringing in an attempt to cast the presumed Democratic presidential frontrunner as someone who knows hardship, noting her “middle-class roots” and that her mother was abandoned.

This is the 2016 presidential election in a nutshell, and Hillary is far from the sole offender. Her Republican rivals are, if anything, even more desperate to project the false populism of poverty.

It recalls a classic McDonald’s commercial in which older diners are engaged in an uphill-in-the-snow-both-ways competition over childhood hardships. If memory serves (I can’t find the clip online), it ends with one elderly diner talking about walking barefoot when the diner behind him snaps “Feet? You had feet?”

The major difference between that commercial and the 2016 campaign is that the candidates are competing for most recent poverty, with the trump card being somehow still poor even today and running for president. At this rate we’ll be lucky if a future nominee doesn’t win the primaries on the strength of a biography that consists of still living with his parents. (On the other hand, being a grown adult who isn’t very good with money does seem to be a presidential prerequisite these days.)

This afternoon, CNN posted an article whose headline asked the following question: “Can a Jos. A Bank suit win the White House?” I bet now you wish we could go back to talking about Chipotle.

The story is about Scott Walker:

Presidential hopeful and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker boasted in New Hampshire last weekend that he shops for suits at Jos. A Bank. It’s famous for its huge discount deals. “All suits — Buy 1 get 3 FREE” reads the site’s current promotions.

Walker is using his everyman wardrobe to resonate with middle class voters.

“The shirt is from Kohl’s. The suit is from Jos. A Bank,” Walker, a Republican, told a crowd in New Hampshire over the weekend.

Walker has actually made his shopping at Kohl’s a regular feature of the campaign. In his defense, there is a point: in a January speech he explained how his wife had to teach him how to shop there properly, by waiting for deals, clipping coupons, and using reward points. Lesson learned, Walker finally returned to Kohl’s to buy a shirt and “the next thing you know they are paying me to buy that shirt!” (I’m sure former Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl, whose family started the chain more than a half-century ago, was just delighted to hear it.)

Should we care which candidates shop at Kohl’s? No, we should not. Which is what made encountering the following note in the CNN story a pleasant surprise:

So what suits do other presidential hopefuls wear? Does the suit say anything about them or their policy? We don’t know.

Spokespersons for Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz did not respond for comment. Senator Rand Paul’s spokesperson declined to comment.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that this election is an outlier in this regard. In fact, it’s long been a tradition in American politics to lay claim to the famous American up-from-your-bootstraps work ethic and economic mobility.

And the candidates have perfectly valid reasons to partake in this tradition. Hillary Clinton is doing so because she is very, very rich, a situation made possible partly because the regular rules that apply to “everyday Americans” don’t apply to the Clintons. Hillary would like to shed the image of her as an out-of-touch crony capitalist extraordinaire. The problem is that the image is accurate.

Republicans are doing so both to contrast themselves with the rich and privileged Clintons as well as to continue exorcising the ghost of 2012, specifically Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment. Conservatives hope to banish the image of the country club Republican, and are going out of their way to push back on the perennial media narrative of uncaring right-wingers. If the current string of Clinton scandal revelations continues at this clip, however, they won’t have to do much at all to look more relatable than the Democratic royal family they’re running against.

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‘Clinton Cash’ and an Unprecedented Question

Democratic loyalists are reacting in predictable ways to the flurry of publicity for a new book about the way Bill and Hillary Clinton got rich via donations from foreign governments to their charity due out in a few weeks. Their instincts tell them to dismiss the allegations in Peter Schweitzer’s book as just the latest manifestation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get the Clintons, to use Hillary’s memorable phrase from the 1990s. But the attention being paid to the book by the New York Times and not just Fox News is making it hard to do so. It remains to be seen whether Schweitzer’s charges about foreign entities making massive contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative as well as paying enormous speaking fees to the former president in return for favors from the State Department when the former first lady led it will be substantiated. But what cannot be disputed is that the Clintons have behaved in an unprecedented manner. The real question is whether their pushing of the boundaries of ethical behavior will ultimately be seen as disqualifying or if, instead, be disregarded as just one more set of rules that the once and future first family can ignore with impunity.

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Democratic loyalists are reacting in predictable ways to the flurry of publicity for a new book about the way Bill and Hillary Clinton got rich via donations from foreign governments to their charity due out in a few weeks. Their instincts tell them to dismiss the allegations in Peter Schweitzer’s book as just the latest manifestation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get the Clintons, to use Hillary’s memorable phrase from the 1990s. But the attention being paid to the book by the New York Times and not just Fox News is making it hard to do so. It remains to be seen whether Schweitzer’s charges about foreign entities making massive contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative as well as paying enormous speaking fees to the former president in return for favors from the State Department when the former first lady led it will be substantiated. But what cannot be disputed is that the Clintons have behaved in an unprecedented manner. The real question is whether their pushing of the boundaries of ethical behavior will ultimately be seen as disqualifying or if, instead, be disregarded as just one more set of rules that the once and future first family can ignore with impunity.

On its face, the reports about Schweitzer’s book appear to indicate that what he has done is merely to collate a vast array of material about the Clintons, their charity, and U.S. foreign policy, and to attempt to connect the dots between subjects that Bill and Hillary would like very much for us to keep separate. In response, the Clinton machine is trotting out the gang of usual suspects to put it down as politicized reporting that unfairly attempts to stigmatize the work of a noble charity as well as to besmirch Hillary’s record at the State Department.

Yet however much they huff and puff about the effrontery of those who dare to question the Clintons’ behavior, they can’t entirely squelch concerns about the way the couple has pushed the conventional boundaries of ethical political behavior in ways that are completely unprecedented in American political history. Though this is being viewed as a purely political question, there’s more here than just an opportunity for conservatives and Republicans to throw dirt at the putative 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. Even if you admired the previous Clinton presidency and think Hillary would make an admirable successor to Barack Obama, the facts about the Clinton charity and the way it has solicited donations give even liberals a queasy feeling about the manner in which has operated. More than that, there is simply no previous example of a former president and his family creating such an entity that is dependent in part on foreign riches while one of its principals has been actively conducting American foreign policy and preparing for a future presidential run.

It must be conceded that just because there has never been anything like the Clinton power couple before doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. But in an era when conflicts of interest involving public officials are often justifications for lengthy and costly investigations–and possible prosecution if authorities think they can substantiate a link, however circumstantial, between official behavior and actions from donors that benefit an official and/or his or her family–the most favorable way of characterizing the Clintons’ behavior is to say that it is very fishy. Yet we should probably take it as a given that the Clintons and their lawyers are likely so savvy about how to push the envelope on ethics that they have been careful to avoid breaking any laws or at least that they have done so in ways that will make it difficult, if not impossible for them to be prosecuted.

It is also true that former President Clinton’s conduct seems very much in line with the kind of activity that nowadays we treat as normal from former members of the House and Senate who routinely cash out on their political careers after retirement or defeat at the polls by becoming lobbyists, consultants, or otherwise profiting from their status as former power brokers. Past presidents have often been involved in charity work, though never on the scale of the Clinton Global Initiative before. But even if other former chief executives have made money speaking, those paying them exorbitant honorariums were never before doing so while a presidential spouse was in power or planning to get it, raising issues of quid pro quo transactions that have never before been lodged before against one of our former presidents and their families.

Are the American people are really comfortable with the idea of a former president profiting from the largesse lavished upon him and the charity he runs from foreign sources while his wife presides over the State Department while biding her time before running for president? Clinton’s defenders are anxious that we think it no big deal while their antagonists seem to think that merely pointing out what is already on the record about their behavior is enough to disqualify Hillary from consideration in 2016. But what we don’t know is which of these two possible responses characterizes the thinking of the electorate.

It is possible that just as Bill Clinton broke new ground in violating norms about personal behavior in the White House without forfeiting the support of many, if not most Americans, so, too, the tale of the “Clinton Cash” will similarly be forgiven, if not altogether ignored by enough Americans to ensure their return to the White House. But just as there is no precedent for their behavior and the questions they have raised about the intersection of policy, charity, and speeches for profit, there is also none that can give us an answer to this question about how such hijinks influence presidential elections. All we know is that the Clinton way of doing charity work for profit and power has raised questions about Hillary’s candidacy and her party in ways that not even the sagest pundits can be sure about the people’s response to this mess.

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Historic Hillary? She’s Running for Someone Else’s Third Term

The keyword for today’s launch of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency is a prefix: re. For Mrs. Clinton, it’s all about re-inventing and re-introducing. What is being described as a “low key” and “small scale” announcement via social media is an effort to learn the mistakes from her failed 2008 campaign. There will be plenty of money raised and a fair amount of adulation from the always-compliant mainstream liberal media that will take seriously her claim to be running because she cares about the economic security of middle-class families. She doesn’t have any serious competition for the Democratic nomination and can still count on the energy that will be generated by the possibility of electing of our first female president. Yet the hoopla about the start of her coronation tour can’t conceal the fact that she has no real rationale for her candidacy other than it may finally be her turn. More troubling for the former first lady and secretary of state is the fact that she will be running for Barack Obama’s third term as well as that of her husband Bill. That’s why all that reinventing and reintroducing are bound to fall flat outside of the precincts of Clinton loyalists.

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The keyword for today’s launch of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency is a prefix: re. For Mrs. Clinton, it’s all about re-inventing and re-introducing. What is being described as a “low key” and “small scale” announcement via social media is an effort to learn the mistakes from her failed 2008 campaign. There will be plenty of money raised and a fair amount of adulation from the always-compliant mainstream liberal media that will take seriously her claim to be running because she cares about the economic security of middle-class families. She doesn’t have any serious competition for the Democratic nomination and can still count on the energy that will be generated by the possibility of electing of our first female president. Yet the hoopla about the start of her coronation tour can’t conceal the fact that she has no real rationale for her candidacy other than it may finally be her turn. More troubling for the former first lady and secretary of state is the fact that she will be running for Barack Obama’s third term as well as that of her husband Bill. That’s why all that reinventing and reintroducing are bound to fall flat outside of the precincts of Clinton loyalists.

Mrs. Clinton has demonstrated repeatedly over the last 15 years of her political career as she tried to emerge from the shadow of the 42nd president, she is not much of a retail politician. Though possessed of great intelligence and a keen political mind, she has no talent for charming the masses as her husband did. She is a policy wonk at heart that longs for achieving big things like health-care reform, but always lacked the ability to sell them to the country. Her new pose of affection for the middle class is a stage prop meant to distract us from the fact that she is merely recycled goods, as she attempts to give the American people a chance to right the wrong they did her when they preferred the fresh and charismatic Barack Obama in 2008 to her.

But the inevitable subtext of her campaign launch is Clinton’s struggle to rally Obama’s loyalists while also trying to strike out on her own. That’s an effort that is bound to fall flat.

Whether it is about emails, scandals, or election cycles, the Clintons always like to think the rules of political life don’t apply to them. Their chutzpah and Bill’s charm enabled them to survive some things that would have destroyed less determined politicians. But Clinton’s problem heading into the 2016 campaign isn’t limited to her Nixonian approach to transparency and her conduct in office. Democrats don’t care about her emails or Benghazi. But as she glides her way to her party’s nomination, the electorate understands that what she is essentially asking them to do is to give her party a third consecutive term in the White House with someone who has been a major figure in the last two Democratic administrations.

Clinton can’t evade the fact that she was a major player in Obama’s first term, albeit while serving as one of our most inconsequential secretaries of state in generations. Nor can she pretend that her talk about the middle class isn’t merely recycled campaign rhetoric left over from Obama, albeit shorn of the hope and change electricity that made it sound so good when coming out of the mouth of a man with genuine political talent (although none for governance) and a sense of his place in history.

As someone who could claim a place in history as important as Obama, her effort ought to seem fresh and exciting. But whether it is all glitz, as it was in 2008, or today’s low-key start, the main point about all this is that there’s nothing new or interesting about her.

While the Republicans have a bevy of interesting and possibly flawed candidates, there is no getting around the fact that whether you love them or hate them, with the exception of Jeb Bush, the most likely contenders have a new car smell about them. That’s why Bush has a heavier lift than most of his establishment backers realize. And it’s also why Clinton’s long wait may ultimately lead to disappointment.

It’s possible that Hillary’s willingness to put herself forward primarily as the first woman president will play better than her 2008 decision not to run as if that was the main reason to elect her to the presidency. You can also make a strong argument that the Democrats’ Electoral College advantage and the potential for the Republicans to nominate someone who can never gain the support of a majority of voters will save her from her flaws as a politician and her sense of entitlement.

But running as the standard-bearer of the third Obama or Clinton terms would be a heavy burden for even a more able politician than Hillary. There’s no way to re-sell the public on a person that they haven’t been able to escape for 23 years. At times they have respected her (as a frequent flying though never successful secretary of state) and at other times they sympathized with her (Monica). But they have never really liked her much. Nor, other than her gender, do they see any reason to elect her beyond the notion of rewarding her for hanging around this long. Though she wants to be seen as a feminist avatar this time, next year she’ll just be the stand-in for Barack and Bill. Unless her Republican foes save her from herself the way the cowardice of her potential Democratic rivals has done (and yes, I’m talking about you, Elizabeth Warren), carrying all the baggage of the last two Democratic presidents isn’t a formula for a successful presidential campaign.

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Obama Signals Early Onset of Dems’ Walker Derangement Syndrome

Pundits pricked up their ears earlier this week when President Obama decided to play favorites in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. The president went out of his way to blast Scott Walker for his vow to get rid of the weak deal Obama has struck with Iran, saying that the Wisconsin governor ought to “take some time to bone up on foreign policy.” It wasn’t the first such shot at Walker by Obama, who also singled him out for attack on his signing of a Wisconsin right-to-work bill and even poked fun at Walker in his Gridiron dinner speech for not condemning Rudy Giuliani for saying he didn’t love America. Considering that no other Republican in the crowded GOP presidential field has gotten this kind of attention from the country’s top Democrat, at this point it’s worth asking why. The answer lies in part in the possibility that Walker really is a frontrunner to succeed Obama. But more than that, the governor seems to have what may be a prerequisite for the presidency in this era of hyper-partisanship: the ability to evoke a derangement syndrome among his opponents.

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Pundits pricked up their ears earlier this week when President Obama decided to play favorites in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. The president went out of his way to blast Scott Walker for his vow to get rid of the weak deal Obama has struck with Iran, saying that the Wisconsin governor ought to “take some time to bone up on foreign policy.” It wasn’t the first such shot at Walker by Obama, who also singled him out for attack on his signing of a Wisconsin right-to-work bill and even poked fun at Walker in his Gridiron dinner speech for not condemning Rudy Giuliani for saying he didn’t love America. Considering that no other Republican in the crowded GOP presidential field has gotten this kind of attention from the country’s top Democrat, at this point it’s worth asking why. The answer lies in part in the possibility that Walker really is a frontrunner to succeed Obama. But more than that, the governor seems to have what may be a prerequisite for the presidency in this era of hyper-partisanship: the ability to evoke a derangement syndrome among his opponents.

That Walker, of all Republicans, is the one that seems to have gotten Obama’s attention this year is a curious development. Indeed, the only person the president seems to dislike more than Walker is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But if the current trend continues, Walker, who was subjected to death threats and a campaign of intimidation over his clashes with public-worker unions, may soon be reading about how White House officials consider him to be “chickens*!t too. It’s also interesting that the president would bother to talk about Walker as a critic of the disastrous deal he has made with Iran when many other Republicans, as well as a few courageous Democrats, have also stated their opposition.

The Democratic pushback against Walker must be traced to the polls that have vaulted him from marginal presidential contender to first-tier status in the GOP race. The president has signaled, perhaps to Hillary Clinton’s dismay, that he intends to work hard for the Democrats in next year’s presidential election, so getting started early on Walker makes sense in that context.

But the nasty tone that Obama has employed toward Walker bespeaks something a little more than partisanship. As CNN noted, Walker seems to have gotten under Obama’s skin in a way that even more bitter critics of the president like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul don’t seem to have accomplished.

The answer for this irritation with Walker is a recognizable phenomenon. Over the course of the last 20 years, what we have seen is that each of the men who emerged from the cauldron of presidential politics had one thing in common. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all demonstrated the capacity to provoke extreme reactions from partisan opponents. Clinton derangement syndrome on the right gave way to Bush derangement on the left and then to Obama derangement syndrome. We don’t know how 2016 will play out or who will win the presidency, but the one thing we can be sure of is that whoever does prevail will be someone that will drive the other party crazy.

We already know that Hillary Clinton can do that to conservatives, who not only haven’t gotten over their antipathy to her husband but have already been fed enough material by the putative 2016 Democratic candidate to fuel four or eight more years of that derangement syndrome. But the question remains which of the pack of Republicans are best suited to wreak havoc on liberal sensibilities.

One could argue that a firebrand like Cruz fits that bill. But as we have seen with our last three presidents, derangement syndromes do the most damage to their victims when the object of their dislike is someone that can otherwise be portrayed as an ordinary, even likeable person by their supporters. Walker, with his ordinary-guy, can-do pragmatist persona has that. But more importantly, he has already shown that he can drive Democrats nuts in a way that other Republicans may not be able to do.

At a time when a number of successful Republican governors have made their mark, none has been subjected to as much abuse as Walker. His decision to push through reforms of collective bargaining in order to save his state from bankruptcy provoked an epic struggle in Madison in which Democrats tried to shut down the government by having legislators flee the state while union thugs flooded the state capitol building. Walker was subjected to unprecedented personal abuse and then forced to defend his tenure in a recall election halfway through his first term in office. He survived the storm, got his bills passed, and then easily fended off the recall. He then followed that with a decisive re-election victory giving him three wins in a purple state in four years. Each time, Democrats thought they had him beaten only to see him prevail and get stronger in the process. That’s the same kind of thing that drove Republicans nuts about Bill Clinton.

Walker has a lot to prove before he can really be called a frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Recent gaffes have shown that for all of the attention he got in Wisconsin, the white heat of a presidential contest is another thing entirely. But President Obama and other Democrats seem to be telling us that Walker has that intangible quality that seems to be essential to electoral success at a time when partisanship is getting increasingly bitter all the time. If we’re looking to see which of the GOP candidates is more likely to drive Democrats over the edge, Walker might really be the one who heads into 2016 with a clear advantage.

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What Motivates Iranian Diplomacy?

A major theme of my recent book about the history of negotiating with rogue regimes (a new, paperback edition of which came out last week) is that American leaders’ habit of projecting Western motivations and sincerity onto partners often opens the door for adversaries to outplay the State Department at the bargaining table. It’s important to consider Iranian motivations and how Tehran’s decision-making and strategic goals differ from those of the United States.

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A major theme of my recent book about the history of negotiating with rogue regimes (a new, paperback edition of which came out last week) is that American leaders’ habit of projecting Western motivations and sincerity onto partners often opens the door for adversaries to outplay the State Department at the bargaining table. It’s important to consider Iranian motivations and how Tehran’s decision-making and strategic goals differ from those of the United States.

There’s a certain pattern with regard to Iranian willingness to engage in talks that is deeply troubling: Whenever Iranian leaders demonstrate behavior that, under any honest and dispassionate reading of diplomatic norms or international law would constitute an act of war, those Iranian leaders either solicit or rush to accept offers to engage in a diplomatic process.

Within days of the original Iran hostage crisis, for example, Iranian intermediaries—foreign ministers Abulhassan Bani Sadr and Sadegh Qotbzadeh—accepted offers to negotiate with the Americans, and the Carter administration kept military action off the table. There was absolutely no progress, however, nor did Tehran mean there to be. The only thing that ultimately brought the hostages home was a combination of the Iraqi invasion of Iran—an event that raised the cost to Iran of its international isolation—and the election of Ronald Reagan, who Iranian leaders seemed to fear was stronger and not as indecisive as Jimmy Carter.

In 1983, Iranian-backed terrorist blew up the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut. The Marines, of course, were in Beirut as peacekeepers against the backdrop of Lebanon’s civil war. Once again, the Iranians faced no consequence: Instead, Reagan administration officials did not want to undercut the secret diplomacy which today Americans know as the Arms-for-Hostages scandal.

In 1996, Iranian operatives helped plan and execute the truck bombing of the Khobar Towers, killing 19 American airmen. The FBI investigated the terrorist attack and its report fingered very specific individuals in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian regime. But as momentum grew for a response, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami offered a “dialogue of civilizations,” and Bill Clinton ordered the FBI report withdrawn, and shelved any thought of retaliation. While that dialogue never went anywhere, it did provide space for Iran both to bolster its nuclear program and support logistically the 9/11 hijackers.

The strategy continued under George W. Bush. Despite building a covert enrichment plant and, separately, experimenting with items like nuclear triggers that only had military applications, Iranians defused any serious repercussions by offering an olive branch to the European Union, and offering once again to negotiate. Hassan Rouhani, at the time Iran’s Supreme National Security Council chairman later bragged about how he had played the Europeans and even installed new centrifuges while he was receiving European plaudits for suspending enrichment.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts to negotiate with Iran—an outreach with which Tehran flirted—simply gave Iran a pass from accountability as it smuggled in explosively formed projectiles and funded militias responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.

Never before has a country repeatedly declared its goal was “death to America,” taken clear actions to achieve that aim, and suffered no serious consequences for its actions. The reason for this is Iran’s diplomatic brilliance. They have conditioned successive administrations as easily as Pavlov: They hint at diplomacy, and get a free pass for abusing and murdering Americans.

Secretary of State John Kerry may see himself on the verge of winning the Nobel Peace prize he so passionately desires, but the Iranians are playing him like a fiddle. At the same time, they realize by feigning sincerity they can achieve their nuclear aims, once again bypassing consequence for their illegal activities. How sad it is that the White House is playing into Supreme Leader Khamenei’s hands.

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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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Malley’s Rise and Obama’s Blame-Israel Policy

Back in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was being careful about quashing any notion that he was hostile to Israel or friendly to its foes. So when it was revealed that Robert Malley was a foreign-policy advisor to his campaign, he was quickly canned. But Malley, who served in the Clinton administration and then subsequently acted as an apologist for Yasir Arafat, had met with Hamas, and was a persistent critic of Israel’s governments (those led by Labor as well as Likud), is back. Last year, after President Obama was reelected, Malley joined his National Security Council. This week, we learned that Malley has gotten a promotion and will now head the Middle East desk at the NSC. As much as any of the rumors floating around Washington about the president’s intention to resurrect the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process, this appointment indicates that the administration is not only determined to make another push but that all the pressure and the inevitable blame for its failure will be placed on Israel.

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Back in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was being careful about quashing any notion that he was hostile to Israel or friendly to its foes. So when it was revealed that Robert Malley was a foreign-policy advisor to his campaign, he was quickly canned. But Malley, who served in the Clinton administration and then subsequently acted as an apologist for Yasir Arafat, had met with Hamas, and was a persistent critic of Israel’s governments (those led by Labor as well as Likud), is back. Last year, after President Obama was reelected, Malley joined his National Security Council. This week, we learned that Malley has gotten a promotion and will now head the Middle East desk at the NSC. As much as any of the rumors floating around Washington about the president’s intention to resurrect the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process, this appointment indicates that the administration is not only determined to make another push but that all the pressure and the inevitable blame for its failure will be placed on Israel.

That a veteran foreign-policy hand that served Bill Clinton would get a job in the Obama administration is hardly a surprise. But Malley is no ordinary ex-Clinton staffer.

As part of the White House staff, Malley joined the president at the 2000 Camp David Summit where then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tried, with Clinton’s urging, to bring the conflict to an end. To do so, he offered Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat independence and sovereignty on terms that no previous Israeli government had ever considered. He put on the table terms that would create an independent Palestinian state in Gaza, most of the West Bank, and a share of Jerusalem. But Arafat stunned both Barak and Clinton by saying “no.” He repeated that refusal in the waning days of the Clinton administration in January 2001 even after Barak tried to sweeten the already generous terms. Mahmoud Abbas repeated that refusal when Ehud Olmert offered even better terms in 2008 and again when the Palestinian leader refused to negotiate with current Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Malley understands the reason why the Palestinians refused to make peace. As he admitted in a New York Times op-ed he wrote with Hussein Agha, Palestinians have never let go of their demand for a “right of return” that is incompatible with Israel’s survival as a Jewish state. That’s why neither Arafat nor Abbas is capable of accepting any peace deal that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But the significant thing to remember about this NSC appointment is that in the aftermath of Camp David, Malley defended Arafat. Bill Clinton has spent the years since that disaster publicly blasting Arafat for saying no to a golden opportunity to make peace and costing him a Nobel Peace Prize in the bargain. Malley thought it was “simplistic” to simply blame Arafat because he believed it wrong to expect any Palestinian leader to simply end the conflict on terms that provide Israeli security or grants legitimacy to a Jewish state. To Malley’s thinking, the fact that Arafat replied to Barak’s unprecedented and generous peace offer with not only a “no,” but also a terrorist war of attrition known as the Second Intifada was understandable if not necessarily commendable.

His record makes it clear that Malley isn’t merely unsympathetic to the Jewish state but that he views the quest for a two-state solution on any basis that could provide for Israel’s long-term survival as something that Western leaders should not try to impose on the Palestinians.

Thus, putting Malley in a position of influence isn’t merely harmful symbolism as was the case with the 2008 campaign. Rather, by putting him in charge of the Middle East desk at the NSC, the administration is ensuring that any effort to promote the peace process will be predicated solely on pressure on Israel to make concessions on security and its rights while the Palestinians will not be expected to do anything.

That doesn’t sound very different from the American role during the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative. Despite Abbas blowing up the talks by signing a unity pact with Hamas and ditching the talks to go to the United Nations in violation of the PA’s Oslo commitments to gain recognition for the Palestinians, President Obama still blamed it all on Israel. But now that Malley’s role is even more defined there will be no doubt that U.S. policy will be focused exclusively on pressuring Israel. Rather than it being Israel that lacks real faith in a fair two-state solution, with Malley helping to run our Middle East policy it will be the U.S. that will be undermining the admittedly slim hopes for an end to the conflict.

But Malley’s appointment isn’t merely another indication of the president’s antipathy for Israel’s government. It is also a gesture of contempt for pro-Israel Democrats that defended Obama’s bona fides on Israel in both 2008 and 2012. As the president uses his final two years in office to hammer Israel and further undermines the minimal chances for peace by giving the Palestinians license to stonewall negotiations, those friends of Israel would voted for the president should remember how they were suckered.

Even more importantly, as Americans view the drama of the Middle East over the course of the last 22 months of the Obama presidency, they would do well to remember that in an administration that will be consistently blaming Israel for the lack of peace (whether it is led by Benjamin Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog) the person whispering these conclusions in the president’s ear is the same guy that was offering alibis for a terrorist murderer like Yasir Arafat.

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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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Hillary’s Emails Raise Questions That Require Answers

In case you thought the special House committee investigating the Benghazi attack is a waste of time, think again. It was inquiries from that panel that led to the discovery of the fact that Hillary Clinton only used a private email account during her time as secretary of state. This revelation is, to understate the matter, a very curious business. Though not the first such cabinet official to use a private account, she appears to be the first to only use one, a violation of federal regulations that require all such communications to be preserved. At the very least this is the sort of thing that will fuel the imaginations and the energy of conspiracy theorists. But even those of us who are not afflicted by Clinton derangement syndrome (the forerunner of the syndromes that have popped up since then in reaction to the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama), the existence of untold numbers of emails that may never see the light of day raises some serious questions about her lack of transparency. But in a political career that has always blurred the line between personal and public, Clinton must also be prepared to answer even more worrisome queries about possible connections between her husband’s fundraising from foreign powers and her conduct in office and future plans for the presidency.

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In case you thought the special House committee investigating the Benghazi attack is a waste of time, think again. It was inquiries from that panel that led to the discovery of the fact that Hillary Clinton only used a private email account during her time as secretary of state. This revelation is, to understate the matter, a very curious business. Though not the first such cabinet official to use a private account, she appears to be the first to only use one, a violation of federal regulations that require all such communications to be preserved. At the very least this is the sort of thing that will fuel the imaginations and the energy of conspiracy theorists. But even those of us who are not afflicted by Clinton derangement syndrome (the forerunner of the syndromes that have popped up since then in reaction to the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama), the existence of untold numbers of emails that may never see the light of day raises some serious questions about her lack of transparency. But in a political career that has always blurred the line between personal and public, Clinton must also be prepared to answer even more worrisome queries about possible connections between her husband’s fundraising from foreign powers and her conduct in office and future plans for the presidency.

In addressing Clinton’s violation of the rules, it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, the former first lady and secretary of state isn’t guilty of a host of possible crimes until she can prove herself innocent. But we needn’t raise the ghost of Vince Foster or Whitewater, let alone indict her on charges of sending men to their deaths in Benghazi or selling the country down the river to Persian Gulf oil states, to accept the fact that this highly suspicious.

As an expert in the field told the New York Times:

“It is very difficult to conceive of a scenario — short of nuclear winter — where an agency would be justified in allowing its cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private email communications channel for the conduct of government business,” said Jason R. Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle & Reath who is a former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration.

At the very least, the bizarre decision to forgo a government email while serving as secretary of state is a violation of the rules that apply to all those in high office. The regulations exist since all such emails are government records, much the same as correspondence and dispatches were in the era when snail mail was the only form of written communication. Government accounts are also far more secure than any personal account, a factor that Clinton was irresponsible to ignore in this era of cyber warfare. She was not the only secretary of state to use a personal account. But she’s the only to use it exclusively. As such, none of her emails were preserved during her time in office. It is only subsequent to her leaving her post to prepare for a presidential run that her staff began the process of sorting through her emails and deciding which of them should be sent to the government to be archived.

That the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee would behave in this manner is not all that surprising. The Clintons are legendary for their conspiratorial mindset and lack of transparency. But despite her spokesperson’s claim that she followed the letter and the spirit of the law, we are still left with the question of who got to decide which of her emails were private and which was government business and what were the criteria they used.

But as our Seth Mandel wrote last month when the scandal about foreign governments being solicited for donations by the former president while his wife ran U.S. foreign policy broke, transparency is not a minor concern when it comes to the Clintons. We don’t have to assume that she was personally participating in this highly corrupt practice to be curious about whether the same email account that she used to conduct business was also receiving communications about her husband’s success in shaking down governments for contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative. The mixing of her government business with her family’s private ambitions was bad enough even if one doesn’t take for granted, as we probably must, that all such donations were bribes aimed at winning the good will of a secretary of state, if not a future president. But now that we know that her emails were not automatically being preserved for the archive, it’s not unreasonable to worry that somewhere in this treasure trove of information are some nuggets that may not put her and her affable spouse in a flattering light, if not legal jeopardy.

If Clinton is smart, she will repress her instinctual reflex to stonewall and release her emails as Jeb Bush, one of the people who hope to oppose her in November 2016, has done. At the very least she should choose someone not associated with her family political machine to go through these communications and redact those that are truly personal. If not, she shouldn’t be surprised if this issue haunts her throughout the coming election year. More to the point, if Clinton doesn’t realize how damning this looks and the need to be above board when running for president, she will be disqualifying herself for the job.

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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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Obama Must Explain Why the Iran Deal Isn’t North Korea Redux

As the Obama administration rushes into a nuclear deal with Iran, it pays to remember the last time the United States struck a deal with a rogue regime in order to constrain that state’s nuclear program and the aftermath of that supposed success.

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As the Obama administration rushes into a nuclear deal with Iran, it pays to remember the last time the United States struck a deal with a rogue regime in order to constrain that state’s nuclear program and the aftermath of that supposed success.

Bill Clinton had been president barely a month when North Korea announced that it would no longer allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, followed shortly thereafter by an announcement that it would withdraw from the NPT altogether within a matter of months. If Kim Il-sung expected Washington to flinch, he was right. The State Department aimed to keep North Korea within the NPT at almost any price. Chief U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci and his aides explained in their book Going Critical, “If North Korea could walk away from the treaty’s obligations with impunity at the very moment its nuclear program appeared poised for weapons production, it would have dealt a devastating blow from which the treaty might never recover.” Unwilling to take any path that could lead to military action, Clinton’s team sought to talk Pyongyang away from nuclear defiance, no matter that talking and the inevitable concessions that followed legitimized Pyongyang’s brinkmanship.

As with President Obama relieving Iran of the burden of six United Nations Security Council resolutions which demanded a complete cessation of enrichment, Clinton’s willingness to negotiate North Korea’s nuclear compliance was itself a concession. After all, the 1953 Armistice required Pyongyang to reveal all military facilities and, in case of dispute, enable the Military Armistice Commission to determine the purpose of suspect facilities. By making weaker frameworks the new baseline, Clinton let North Korea off the hook before talks even began.

Just as Israeli (and Saudi and Emirati and Egyptian and Kuwaiti and Bahraini) leaders express frustration with the Obama administration regarding its naiveté and unwillingness to consult, so too did South Korea at the time chafe at Clinton’s arrogance. South Korean President Kim Young Sam complained to journalists that North Korea was leading America on and manipulating negotiators “to buy time.” And in a pattern that repeats today with regard to Iran, the IAEA held firmer to the demand that North Korea submit to real inspections than did Washington. The issue came to a head in September 1993 after the State Department pressured the IAEA to compromise on limited inspections.

In the face of Pyongyang’s defiance, Clinton was also wary that coercion could be a slippery slope to war. Just as President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel instructed U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf not to stand firm but rather to retreat if probed or pushed by Iran, Clinton sought to mollify Pyongyang, for example cancelling the joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise in 1994. Adding insult to injury, the Clinton administration criticized the South Korean government for being unwilling to compromise. Indeed, everything the Obama administration has done with regard to Israel over the past year—with the exception, perhaps, of the classless chickensh-t comment—was ripped right from the Clinton playbook two decades before when the White House sought to silence Seoul.

There followed months of baseless optimism in Washington, followed by disappointment quickly supplanted by denial. At one point, when it looked like Kim Il-sung’s intransigence might actually lead to war, former President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and, whether cleared to or not, made concessions which diffused the situation. It was the diplomatic equivalent of Obama’s voided redlines. Nightline host Ted Koppel observed on May 18, 1994, “this administration is becoming notorious … for making threats and then backing down.”

On July 8, 1994, a heart attack felled Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il, his eldest son, took over. Negotiations progressed quickly. Gallucci and his team promised an escalating series of incentives—reactors, fuel oil, and other economic assistance. They kicked inspections of North Korea’s suspect plutonium sites years down the line.

What had begun as North Korean intransigence had netted Pyongyang billions of dollars in aid; it would go down in history as the largest reward for cheating and reneging on agreements until Obama granted Iran $11 billion in sanctions relief just for coming to the table. Columnist William Safire traced the steps of concessions on North Korea. “Mr. Clinton’s opening position was that untrustworthy North Korea must not be allowed to become a nuclear power,” he observed, but Clinton “soon trimmed that to say it must not possess nuclear bombs, and stoutly threatened sanctions if North Korea did not permit inspections of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, where the CIA and KGB agree nuclear devices have been developed. But as a result of Clinton’s Very Good Deal Indeed, IAEA inspectors are denied entry to those plants for five years.” And Sen. John McCain, for his part, lamented that Clinton “has extended carrot after carrot, concession after concession, and pursued a policy of appeasement based … on the ill-founded belief that North Koreans really just wanted to be part of the community of nations.” Again, the parallels between Clinton’s and Obama’s assumptions about the desire of enemies to reform were consistent.

Clinton wasn’t going to broker any criticism of what he believed was a legacy-defining diplomatic triumph, all the more so when the criticism came from abroad. On October 7, 1994, South Korean President Kim Young Sam blasted Clinton’s deal with the North, saying, “If the United States wants to settle with a half-baked compromise and the media wants to describe it as a good agreement, they can. But I think it would bring more danger and peril.” There was nothing wrong with trying to resolve the problem through dialogue, he acknowledged, but the South Koreans knew very well how the North operated. “We have spoken with North Korea more than 400 times. It didn’t get us anywhere. They are not sincere,” Kim said. His outburst drew Clinton’s ire. He became the Netanyahu of his day. Meanwhile, the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework. Gallucci and his team were “exhilarated.” They later bragged they “had overcome numerous obstacles in the negotiations with the North; survived the intense, sometimes strained collaboration with Seoul and the International Atomic Energy Agency; and marshaled and sustained an often unwieldy international coalition in opposition to the nuclear challenge, all under close and often critical scrutiny at home.”

Today, by some estimates, North Korea is well on its way to having 100 nuclear weapons and is steadily developing the ballistic capability to deliver them. Iran’s nuclear negotiators have cited North Korea’s negotiating strategy as a model to emulate rather than an example to condemn. Meanwhile, Obama has relied on many of the same negotiators to advance his deal with Iran.

The State Department has never conducted a lessons learned exercise about what went wrong with the North Korea deal. Perhaps it’s time. Diplomatic responsibility and national security demand it.

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Call Clinton Foundation Action What It Was: Corruption

So, it’s now become clear that the Clinton Foundation violated its ethics agreement with the Obama administration, which had been drawn up to avoid conflicts of interest when President Obama tapped Hillary Clinton to become his secretary of state. Because the Clinton Foundation often received donations from foreign states and Hillary Clinton didn’t want her tenure in Foggy Bottom to drain the Foundation of the funds upon which it came to rely, Obama administration lawyers hashed out an agreement in which foreign states could donate, but only if they had donated before and only if they did not provide additional money beyond what had been their previous practice.

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So, it’s now become clear that the Clinton Foundation violated its ethics agreement with the Obama administration, which had been drawn up to avoid conflicts of interest when President Obama tapped Hillary Clinton to become his secretary of state. Because the Clinton Foundation often received donations from foreign states and Hillary Clinton didn’t want her tenure in Foggy Bottom to drain the Foundation of the funds upon which it came to rely, Obama administration lawyers hashed out an agreement in which foreign states could donate, but only if they had donated before and only if they did not provide additional money beyond what had been their previous practice.

In 2010, however, the Algerian government, through its embassy in Washington D.C., allegedly gave the Clinton Foundation $500,000 in theory to support earthquake relief in Haiti. Now, the Haitian earthquake was devastating, and Algeria doesn’t have an embassy in Port-au-Prince and so on the surface, a donation is plausible.

But to believe that Algeria chose the Clinton Foundation randomly or because it was best positioned to work in Haiti beggars belief. After all, the Clinton Foundation does not appear to specialize in emergency relief. Its Haiti program page charts activity dating back only to 2010, the year of the Algerian donation. Most countries seeking to donate to Haitian earthquake relief might simply have answered the United Nations’ emergency call for assistance. There was also the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund stood up specifically for the purpose of Haiti earthquake relief and, with its mission completed, now folded.

Now, Algeria is a problematic regime at best. Through the Cold War, it was firmly in the Soviet camp. It has waged proxy war against Morocco, one of the most pro-Western, moderate Arab countries and continues to sponsor the totalitarian Polisario Front. To believe that its aims were humanitarian are belied by its persistent theft—according to Europe’s anti-fraud office—of humanitarian assistance donated by the European Union for the use of refugees in its remote Tindouf province. Rather, it seems that Algiers simply sought to influence the secretary of state with a back-channel donation. Now, let’s assume the Clinton Foundation passed money forward on earthquake relief, but the Foundation is famous for its high overhead, that is, support for the Clintons’ luxurious travel preferences, so a significant portion of the Algerian donation likely never made it to the Haitians in need. And let’s assume that Clinton was simply open to her Foundation taking money from everyone without enabling those donations to influence her decisions. The appearance of corruption is unavoidable.

Now, many states in the Middle East are woefully corrupt. Often, this corruption occurs because of a lack of legal framework defining what would ordinarily be a conflict of interest. There’s the problem of first sons, for example, with Middle Eastern leaders—Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, among others—each engaging in business with their sons acting as business agents. In the United States, we call it corruption, a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the law. It’s a type of business practice with which Algerians are both aware and comfortable. And in Hillary Clinton they seem to have believed they found a kindred spirit. Now, this doesn’t mean Clinton violated the law, but a competent secretary of state understands perception is often more important than reality. Her actions and those of her Foundation have at the very least undercut the ability of future American governments to make serious efforts to undercut corruption abroad, for Algerians and others will simply call American officials hypocritical given Clinton’s favorite charity and namesake accepting the cash. Hillary Clinton can plead that no corruption occurred—perhaps it depends what the meaning of “is” is—but the rest of the world simply won’t buy the spin. Judgment matters.

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