State of the Union

Death of the West Virginia Democrat

U.S. National Archives
U.S. National Archives

If you didn’t already have enough reasons to find last week’s election results dispiriting, here’s another one to chew on. The wiping out of the Democratic Party in West Virginia appears near-complete—a rather momentous development, though perhaps for not-obvious reasons. Yes, this was a long time coming, and that the Democrats would incur major losses in 2014 was not at all unexpected. Still, the scale of the decimation was staggering. (Natalie Tennant, a white, coal-supporting Democratic Senate candidate, somehow underperformed compared to Obama in 2012. She lost by 27.6 percent)

West Virginia was long home to an idiosyncratic, difficult-to-comprehend ethos that for decades (centuries?) had been somewhat insulated from the transitory, cyclical trends of national politics. Whereas, say, Pennsylvania or Missouri had always been taken as “bellwethers” of sorts, West Virginia perennially marched to the beat of its own drum. The state elected Democrats, and only Democrats, for something like 60 years. Sen. Robert Carlyle Byrd’s name is famously plastered everywhere you look there, because West Virginia sorely needed pork (i.e., infrastructure projects), and Byrd was darn good at bringing home the pork.

But Byrd is dead now. Jay Rockefeller, another legacy Democrat, retired. No one has emerged to carry on the West Virginia populist Democrat mantle; Sen. Joe Manchin, the only remaining Democrat of real repute (perhaps other than Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin), falters in this arena. Unlike Byrd—who spoke out voraciously against the Iraq War, for instance—Manchin doesn’t give the impression of taking populism very seriously. His idea of channelling populist discontent is to position himself as some kind of ill-defined “centrist” with no core convictions other than ostensible “moderation.” (Manchin had been a member of David Frum’s “No Labels” group until quitting last week.) Say what you will about Byrd, but at least he had a relatively discernible political ideology.

“Can you believe that, in anyone’s imagination, they thought that would ever happen in West Virginia?” Manchin said Wednesday. “But things change.”

Well, yes, “things change,” but things also happen because certain actors consciously effect change. The rout of Democrats in West Virginia didn’t have to happen, it was allowed to happen by a combination of fecklessness, poor strategy, and concerted GOP messaging that has successfully “nationalized” politics all over the U.S. Indeed, that was the stated goal of conservative operatives this cycle—to “nationalize” contested races such that they became less about local concerns, i.e., how to best serve the constituents of a particular polity, and instead morphed into nebulous referenda on Obama. (Here’s a video of legendary GOP marketing guru Richard Viguerie explaining how all this went down.)

It’s not simply that Democrats lost and Republicans won. One might imagine a West Virginia political culture that retained its idiosyncrasies and simply elected Republicans instead (after all, West Virginian Democrats tended to be quite culturally conservative.) But I don’t think that is what’s happening here. The incentives presently at work in the American system are truly “nationalizing” politics and thereby negating regional distinctions.

Why the heck should a citizen in Greenbrier County, West Virginia vote for a House member on the basis of aversion to Obama? That calculus makes little sense in terms of his or her own self-interest. However, such a calculus most certainly serves the interests of GOP consultants, who worked diligently and craftily this cycle to “frame the narrative” in a way that would enable them to seize power, and therefore money and influence.

Nick Rahall, a 19-term House incumbent, was ousted last week, even after surviving in 2010, which was widely assumed to have been the absolute low-point for Democrats. (Rahall actually won fairly easily that cycle—by 12 percent. What exactly happened in the ensuing four years? Certainly Obama was unpopular in West Virginia then as well. I don’t know the answer.) Because of his seniority, Rahall was positioned to provide needed resources to his constituents in that very inscrutable area (even relative to other parts of West Virginia) that few understand.

Now, instead of this seasoned Congressman who had held office since 1977, a novice GOP state senator will be representing the district. Is that really going to benefit the Greenbrier Valley? Is that really going to help preserve a very peculiar political culture, which ought to be celebrated in a country that supposedly prizes diversity? Seems doubtful.

And this is all merely on the federal level. Republicans also captured total control of the West Virginia state legislature (including the House of Delegates for the first time in eight decades) on the strength of such candidates as a 17-year-old girl who campaigned on cutting business taxes. (She’s now 18.)

The 2014 elections may have been a sweeping victory for the GOP, but they were a stinging defeat for localism.

Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.

Why Ted Cruz Could Win in 2016

The following assertion may not seem immediately intuitive, but I believe it to be true: Ted Cruz is the current front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

First, I would implore all readers to watch a full Ted Cruz speech if he or she has not already. The man is simply a performative marvel. He manages to strike some sort of preternatural balance between fiery Southern Baptist sermon and stand-up comedy routine, invariably bringing crowds to their feet. In the era of the tweet-sized soundbite, Ted Cruz’s mastery of the one-liner and the pun are not trivial; they are integral to his success.

The only other potential candidate who holds a candle to Cruz in this regard is Chris Christie, who I wrote earlier this year still stood a fighting chance to acquire the nomination. I no longer believe this to be the case. Christie established a national profile early in his gubernatorial tenure on the strength of his attractively brash personality, and was well-positioned to marshal that into an extremely credible bid for 2016. Now, however, it appears he may not even end up running. (Though I don’t discount his chances completely.)

For all the partisan brouhaha associated with “Bridge-gate,” it looks increasingly like there was in fact serious malfeasance involved, and that malfeasance may directly implicate Christie. A report in the Bergen Record from September 4 revealed that low-level Port Authority Police officers, incensed the morning of the bridge lane closures about potentially catastrophic security problems, were ordered over police radio frequencies to “shut up” by high-level Police commanders. David Wildstein—Christie’s longtime ally, childhood associate, and formerly anonymous progenitor of the influential PolitickerNJ gossip website—was also observed surveying the scene that morning in a car driven by another childhood friend of both Christie and Wildstein, Police Lt. Thomas “Chip” Michaels. The idea that Christie had no knowledge of the plot now strains credulity such that he is virtually disqualified for the purposes of 2016.

The establishment Republican donor class seems to have acknowledged this. A clear subtext of Byron York’s Washington Examiner article last week on the new flurry of chatter about a potential Mitt Romney 2016 candidacy shows that the establishment has all but abandoned Christie. (York also conducted an informal poll of his Twitter followers about their favored 2016 candidate, and found that zero—literally, zero—had a preference for Christie).

It would not be a total shock if Christie gets indicted in the near future. It also seems highly likely that his close ally Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democrat of New York, possesses some kind of “smoking gun” evidence implicating Christie in Bridgegate, given their shared jurisdiction over the Port Authority bi-state agency. The Wall Street Journal reported in December 2013 that Christie personally phoned Cuomo for still-undisclosed reasons pertaining to the issue. What was the nature of that phone call? We still don’t know. We do know, however, that at a press conference last week on the alleged terror threat facing the New Jersey-New York region, a reporter asked Christie whether any protocols had been put in place to prevent another dangerous security incident, like what occurred on September 11, 2013 as a result of the bridge lane closures. Comically, Cuomo himself intervened as a salve, rattling off a boilerplate non-answer; the two then walked off without saying anything further. Christie looked like a deer in the headlights.

So by my lights, Christie is basically finished.

Jeb Bush appears somewhat reluctant to run for family-related reasons, although he may well end up doing so, and Romney could feasibly run again if only out of sheer narcissism. In any event, there is currently no clear establishment favorite, and it seems unlikely that one will emerge any time soon.

Which brings us back to Ted Cruz.

In the post-Citizens United landscape, traditional donor class support is becoming less and less important. Multi-billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was able to bankroll Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid as nothing more than a personal vanity project. Gingrich went onto win the South Carolina primary. That unpredictable dynamic will only have been heightened by 2016. Ted Cruz may be disliked by elements of the GOP elite, but he doesn’t have to rely on their support to prevail, as likely would have been the case in years past.

Instead, Cruz can lean on what I’ll term the “para-establishment”—a constellation of advocacy groups, media entities, individual mega-donors, and others who have long ago thrown their lot in with Cruz. The speech I linked to earlier in this piece was actually from the Americans for Prosperity annual conference in Dallas, where Cruz was a featured speaker. The crowd absolutely ate him up. He is admired by salt-of-the-earth Tea Party types, but also by powerful factions of the Republican vanguard.

Cruz’s stunt earlier this month at the gathering of persecuted Middle East Christians doubtless solidified his support among the “pro-Israel” neoconservative cohort orbiting around Bill Kristol. Kristol’s new media outfit, the Washington Free Beacon, gave Cruz a mouthpiece in the form of reporter Alana Goodman. (Cruz met privately with Kristol and other donors in Texas just days before the shameful incident.)

The Americans for Prosperity relationship shows that Cruz has been in the good graces of the Charles and David Koch network for years now. This is almost certainly a more significant courtship than earning support from the Republican National Committee.

Cruz also has a potentially compelling “personal story” which could give his candidacy an air of historical significance. He’d be the first president of Hispanic ancestry, and would absolutely be able to tailor a powerful message to that effect. A Harvard Law graduate whom professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz once described as “off-the-chart brilliant,” Cruz’s intelligence should never be underestimated.

For all his pretensions of down-home, aw-shucks conservatism, Ted Cruz is undeniably a member of the cultural elite. He counts his former Princeton classmate, Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, as a personal friend. Meanwhile, Cruz is winning straw polls at major Evangelical events like the Values Voter Conference. Also, his wife is a managing director at Goldman Sachs.

The idea that Cruz could seize the nomination might seem far-fetched now, but the conditions of the American political system are changing radically, and it would be foolish to discount the idea. What’s the alternative? Jeb Bush? Really?

Rick Perry (also under felony indictment)?

Scott Walker (facing potential criminal charges of his own, as well as a fiercely-contested re-election this November)?

Lastly, does anyone seriously think that Rand Paul will be any match for Cruz’s guile?

People assumed Barry Goldwater in 1964 was far-fetched, too. And Ted Cruz is a lot smarter than Barry Goldwater.

Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.

Chris Christie Isn’t Dead Yet

Chris Christie’s perpetual “town hall meeting” tour across New Jersey subjects the governor to at least a modicum of unscripted public scrutiny. Though held lately on weekday mornings or afternoons in suburban areas, dissension could theoretically erupt without warning at these events, notwithstanding the legions of State Police, municipal police, plainclothes security personnel, and Christie staffers on hand to promote order. Setting the tone of unpredictability is the governor himself, who famously advises prospective questioners that any topic is fair game, and that if necessary he won’t hesitate to put loudmouths, know-it-alls, smart alecks, etc., in their respective places.

Amidst such anticipation, no citizen afforded the opportunity to directly query Christie at recent meetings has asked him any variation of “Will you or won’t you” (run for president). This must bewilder the national political media, as journalists these days lob some variant of The Question at Christie whenever circumstances permit.

Similarly bewildering to them must be how little interest town hall questioners have evinced in what is almost certainly the most famous U.S. political scandal ever to arise as a result of dubious traffic lane closures: “Bridgegate.” Each development in this saga continues to receive copious media coverage, while interest among the general public appears rather less than ardent. Nonjournalists who show up to town hall meetings and get called upon by the governor largely demonstrate concern with the familiar slate of parochial issues: flood preparedness, public employee compensation, and property taxes.

When at an April 24 town hall—after over an hour of placid Q&A mostly related to Superstorm Sandy recovery issues—Point Pleasant Borough resident Len Ludovico finally did pose a question about Bridgegate, journalists suddenly rustled into action and surrounded the 71-year-old. Presenting himself as a staunch Christie supporter in search of effective rebuttals to deploy when friends and family accuse the Governor of wrongdoing, Mr. Ludovico told me it had never even occurred to him that the question could engender such frenzy. But there he was after the town hall meeting, conferring with CNN personnel and displaying a photo of himself posing with the governor at a recent Princeton University football game.

Even if these meetings are demographically unrepresentative of New Jersey, the apparent discrepancy in priorities between political media and the general public is instructive. Consider the narrative propagated by political media since January 2014, when the release of salacious emails triggered national media attention to Bridgegate. The theory went that any potential Christie presidential campaign had been rendered “toast.” Four months later, the vigorous certitude once shown in those heady initial post-scandal days has ebbed—perhaps owing to a steady stream of headlines like this one, from CBS News on April 30: “Could strong fundraising be Chris Christie’s road to redemption?”

Christie’s entrenched support among monied elites affiliated with the Republican Party establishment ought to have been better highlighted all along in the waves of calamitous Bridgegate analyses. The scandal obscured the fact that by January 2014, powerbrokering elements of the party had already exalted Christie for upwards of three years, and there was never good reason to believe this support would totally evaporate as a result of Bridgegate.

For an especially vivid reminder of the depth of Christie’s establishment backing, one need only think back to the night of September 27, 2011, when the governor addressed the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. During the Q&A, a woman rose to beg that Christie seek the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. “Your country needs you,” she pleaded. Then-frontrunner Mitt Romney likely felt at least a tinge of unease when this tearful entreaty led to a thunderous standing ovation. What could constitute a symbolic show of support from GOP establishment actors if not that (melodramatic) episode? Read More…

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“Strange Bedfellows” Are Rolling Back NSA Surveillance

Commentators short on descriptive idioms often deploy the phrase “strange bedfellows” whenever cross-ideological coalitions arise out of mutual concern for civil liberties. Saturday’s “Stop Watching Us” rally in Washington, D.C., endorsed as it was by organizations both left and right, represented the latest such occasion.

Fresh off a leading role in forcing the partial government shutdown, “Tea Party” group FreedomWorks shared billing with (among many others) the ACLU, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the “Anonymous” hacktivist collective. One MSNBC reporter deemed rally-goers a “strange political hodgepodge,” portraying their heterogeneity as a bizarre phenomenon that never would have materialized but for the uniquely broad-based outrage spurred by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s mass unchecked surveillance on American citizens.

The rally’s marquee speaker was Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and though a tad tentative in presentation, he detailed with vigor the quickening movement in Congress to restore Americans’ civil liberties. This summer, an amendment Amash co-authored with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to defund the massive NSA phone record collection program nearly passed the House, much to the shock of the intelligence community and conventional wisdom. “When the vote came down, it was close. It scared people,” he said. “It scared the establishment in both parties.” The crowd exulted. Amash later told me he regarded anti-surveillance activism as an “important” step toward lasting transpartisan cooperation, and reported that the USA FREEDOM Act—legislation to curtail the NSA’s powers—would pass today if brought to the House floor. These developments were buoyed by grassroots activism, Amash emphasized.

Perhaps the burgeoning coalition of technologists, traditional conservatives, stalwart liberals, and myriad others receives scorn precisely because it is starting to get results.

In the run-up to the rally, journalist Tom Watson wrote a widely-circulated essay at Salon positing that the operational involvement of the Libertarian Party and kindred organizations “infected” the event irreparably, and the left should therefore withdraw its support. Progressives and libertarians might occasionally find common cause on narrow issues, this argument went, but establishing anything like a formal alliance is indefensible given the standard libertarian positions against abortion rights, social welfare programs, and so forth.

No office-holding Democrat addressed the crowd, but Dennis Kucinich, the former representative from Ohio and eager forger of counter-intuitive alliances, preceded Amash with a rousing speech. Afterwards, I confronted him with Watson’s challenge: ought the robust presence of libertarian groups, some expressly affiliated with the GOP, taint the rally and its message in the eyes of progressives? Kucinich was unmoved. “The Constitution belongs to everyone, whatever their political party, whatever their ideology,” he said. “Everyone deserves the protection of the first and fourth amendments. I said it today—we’re not here as partisans. We’re here as Americans.”

The modern Democratic Party itself is a diffuse coalition of interest groups and factions bound together by little beyond raw political expediency. Why is it defensible for “progressives” of Watson’s ilk to work within a party structure dominated by pro-military intervention corporatists—yet working with libertarians is considered a nonstarter?

Throughout U.S. history, nascent populist-oriented coalitions have always been cobbled together messily, and the left-libertarian anti-surveillance lobby is of course no exception. “Part of what we’re trying to do is set out a new model,” said rally organizer JJ Emru when asked to react to Waston’s line of thinking. “To say, if we overcome some of our differences, we can definitely achieve this.”

If nothing else, efforts like Stop Watching Us have the effect of scrambling party allegiances and creating room for unorthodox coalition-building that can challenge the status quo. In the world of Washington commentary, bipartisan cooperation is lauded as healthy and serious, if it involves “compromises” to expand the national security state or cut spending on entitlements. An alliance featuring the likes of Amash and Kucinich is little more than a fleeting convergence of “strange bedfellows.”

With today’s formal introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the convergence appears to be more than fleeting. Beyond just reining in the NSA, these “strange bedfellows” are redefining what it means to work across the aisle.

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Will Obama’s Scandals Change Attitudes Toward Government?

According to many Republicans, Barack Obama has been scandal-plagued since sometime shortly after his inaugural parade. But only within the past few days have national political media begun to adopt the same view, as a cluster of controversies—over Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of conservative activist groups, and the Department of Justice’s secret seizure of Associated Press phone records—emerged in quick succession, prompting journalists to announce that a watershed moment for the Obama presidency was at hand. “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a dramatic reversal of the nation’s political narrative,” declared Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg, who wondered whether all this augured a “game changer for 2014.” Continuing the theme, Politico theorized that these scandals will expose the limits of “a growing and activist government” and consequently “bolster the conservative worldview.”

Of the three controversies, Benghazi is most purely a product of the contemporary “conservative worldview”—Republicans have been promoting the story for eight months, fueled by a barrage of fury on Fox News and right-wing internet outfits. But the outrage has had virtually nothing to do with discontent over “a growing and activist government.” Instead, what seems to animate it is continued suspicion that the Obama administration deliberately lied about the nature of the attack to avoid suffering a potential setback in the heat of a presidential campaign. Last week’s hearing did lend a degree of credence to the theory—progressives are now less inclined to casually dismiss concerns that the post-attack talking points were manipulated—but regardless, recent developments had no bearing on the desirability of “a growing and activist government.” With very few exceptions, Republicans have not used the Benghazi saga as an opportunity to challenge the underlying logic of the Libya incursion, though a considerable swath of voters could be receptive to such a challenge, including disaffected Democratic-leaning folks who object to Obama’s interventionism and militarism.

In the case of the IRS “scandal,” when the news broke, Obama swiftly denounced the agency’s conduct as “outrageous,” and Democrats vowed to fully investigate. Assuming there is no further conspiracy, this issue may harm Obama in the short-term but seems unlikely to effect a broad-based shift in attitudes toward government power other than to intensify feelings among conservatives who already detest the president and the IRS. As the “Tea Party” brand remains extremely unpopular, progressives and independents will generate little sympathy for the self-described “Tea Party” and “Patriot” groups that were targeted.

By stark contrast, Monday’s revelation that the Justice Department seized two months’ worth of phone records from the Associated Press is a veritable “game-changer”—a full-blown scandal in every sense of the word. DOJ officials obtained these highly sensitive records in secret, preventing the AP from seeking judicial review; sources for as many as 100 reporters may have been compromised. Pulitzer Prize winners Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, whose investigative journalism has been indispensable, were among the targets.

The gravity of this “massive and unprecedented intrusion,” as the AP described it, cannot be overstated. Attorney General Eric Holder has claimed that his department carried out the action pursuant to a criminal investigation into a national-security leak that “put the American people at risk,” creating a situation that “required aggressive action” to remedy.

A substantial set of Americans, young people especially, has grown deeply cynical of state officials’ rote invocation of ill-defined “threats” to justify abridging core civil liberties. Ironically, this scandal is by far the most compelling example of what “a growing and activist government” might wreak—yet it also appears to be the scandal in which the GOP has the least interest. It most threatens Obama precisely because it is not tainted by partisan grandstanding. It is a scandal on its face and required no trumpeting from congressional zealots in order to enter the mainstream discourse.

But since the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans have demonstrated a remarkable inability to capitalize on Obama’s many vulnerabilities. Notwithstanding pumped-up “narratives” about the administration’s imminent downfall, there is little reason to expect much will change.

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Occupy Ron Paul

Every four years, the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire serves as a hub for national media activity ahead of the state’s presidential primary. On January 8, 2012, journalists milling about the hotel could occasionally be overheard snickering at the strange melange of street protesters that had flooded Manchester’s downtown area: Ron Paul people, Occupy people, and assorted miscreants. These categories were not mutually exclusive.

Across the street from the hotel, at Veterans Park, the loosely-knit Occupy New Hampshire collective had established their encampment–a kind of outdoor public festival. The first person I encountered there was 21 year-old Manchester resident John Cullen, who wore a green armband signaling affiliation with OccupyNH (though of course there was no formal “membership”). Cullen told me he’d recently been pepper-sprayed by police at the Port of Oakland during a nationwide day of demonstrations. “I was actually trying to get out of there at that point,” he said; by coincidence, his family had been visiting members of their church in the Oakland area, and while Cullen supported Occupy, he wasn’t particularly eager to get doused with painful chemicals for the cause.

When I mentioned I’d be attending a Ron Paul campaign event at the University of New Hampshire in Durham later that evening, Cullen smiled and unzipped his jacket to reveal a classic “Ron Paul reEVOLution” T-shirt. In fact, he announced, it was only several hours prior that he’d participated in a group “sign-wave” outside Murphy’s Taproom, a major gathering point for Ron Paul people in the area. “When Ron Paul gets the Occupiers on his side,” he beamed, “Ron Paul is not going to be stopped. You can’t stop him.”

Cullen had wanted to go to the UNH rally but lacked transportation. So I offered to give him a ride. Traffic that night was surprisingly horrendous; we missed the first bit of Paul’s speech, barely making it in time to hear the congressman remark on Iran sanctions and ask the crowd how they would like it if one day Chinese drones started bombing American targets. Afterwards, hundreds of people waited in line for the candidate, who seemed perfectly happy to oblige all those who desired photos. Cullen waited in this queue and later relayed his interaction with Ron Paul. “You’re a beautiful man,” he reported telling him as they posed for the camera. Ron Paul then inquired about the green armband, and Cullen replied that it stood for Occupy New Hampshire. “Thank you for participating in the democratic process,” Paul commented, cheerfully.

On the very first night of the Zuccotti Park occupation in September 2011, when participants had scant conception of what Occupy would soon become, Ron Paul people showed up and argued with Marxists about whether they were entitled to stay. They stayed. One might say Ron Paul people played a more integral role to the inception of Occupy than conventional Democrats or liberals, many of whom scorned the inscrutable demonstration in its first weeks. The journalist Arun Gupta, who co-founded the Occupied Wall Street Journal in New York City and later embarked on a tour of Occupy sites across America, told me he’d see clusters of Ron Paul supporters and various libertarians virtually everywhere he went. Such folks “tended to be better represented and integrated in red states,” Gupta said–Cheyenne, Boise, Tulsa, Little Rock, Louisville, Charleston, etc.–while in “blue states” they typically formed enclaves that were “tolerated” by the wider group.

A fair number of Occupy people in those days either had no opinion of or actively disliked Ron Paul, but the undercurrents of support were nonetheless noticeable, ranging from individuals who would wield official campaign paraphernalia to others who would concede private support only for narrow aspects of Ron Paul’s platform upon intense questioning. One would more reliably come across vocal Ron Paul supporters at Occupy events than vocal Obama supporters. It was not lost on the Zuccotti Park crowd, for instance, that Ron Paul personally expressed a measure of support for the movement earlier than most any other national U.S. politician–aside from Sen. Bernie Sanders or Rep. Dennis Kucinich. (Gary Johnson, then seeking the GOP nomination, made an appearance at Zuccotti Park and had a generally positive impression.)

Signage bearing the Paul-derived “End the Fed” slogan was common around Lower Manhattan during those frenzied weeks. Stories of Paul-Occupy fusion emerged from around the country: in Los Angeles, a Ron Paul activist successfully added an anti-Federal Reserve amendment to OccupyLA’s working manifesto; an ultimately ill-fated “Ron Paul Tent” was established for a time at OccupyPhilly. Ryan Hirsch, one of the lead Occupy New Hampshire organizers I met last January, described himself more-or-less as a disaffected progressive and was unsure if he’d bother voting in the GOP primary. (Hirsch was the individual pictured here who at a November 2011 campaign event in New Hampshire handed Barack Obama a typewritten note. “Mr. President,” it read, “Over 4,000 peaceful protesters have been arrested…”) But Hirsch ultimately did vote, for Ron Paul. Not because he agreed with everything Ron Paul has ever said, but because Paul spoke on so many critical issues that other candidates systematically neglected: civil liberties, drug prohibition, the military-industrial complex, criminal justice/police problems, Wikileaks, internet freedom.

In October 2011, Paul told journalist Brian Doherty that he viewed the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement as a “tremendous opportunity,” while adding that “it is not necessarily advantageous to overemphasize alliance with people the conservative voters don’t really want to talk about.” Indeed, at the time Occupy was the subject of much derision in right-wing media, with outlets such as Breitbart.com and the Daily Caller propagating endless incendiary anti-Occupy memes, often involving sexual exploitation or human excrement. These were widely circulated on the web and picked up by the talk-radio/Fox News nexus. Republican presidential candidates eagerly piled on: Mitt Romney declared the movement “dangerous,” while Newt Gingrich sneered–to the biggest applause of the night at a Frank Luntz presidential forum–that Occupiers ought to “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.” Ron Paul indicated he was put off by that remark. “I’m not likely to be the one to say, well, ‘Why don’t you get a bath and go get a job and quit crybabying.’ No, I don’t like that at all.”

Paul was probably correct insofar as public outreach to Occupy at the time would have been disadvantageous if his aim was to court registered Iowa Republicans. But Ron Paul’s “affinity” with the movement, as he described it, manifested from the outset. In September 2011 we spoke after a campaign event at a New Hampshire old folks’ home. Some supporters of his, I mentioned, had shown up to Zuccotti Park and were spreading the message of liberty, so to say. “If they were demonstrating peacefully,” Paul reacted, “and making a point, and arguing our case, and drawing attention to the Fed–I would say, good!” Paul drew out his inflection on the word “good,” as if to add–“and it’s about darn time!” In subsequent weeks, he’d go on to speak favorably about Occupy in a variety of venues: rebutting Herman Cain’s criticism during televised debates, extolling the principle of civil disobedience at the National Press Club and elsewhere. As the 2012 campaign dwindled, he started invoking the problem of “police violence” more regularly–of intimate concern to Occupiers–and emphasizing his commitment to “non-coercion,” which is a central tenet of Occupy’s operational ethos.

That a candidate who routinely inveighed against the military-industrial complex, “corporate fascism,” civil liberties infringements, and the George W. Bush administration’s lies about Iraq while championing Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, and the Occupy movement wound up attracting support from elements of the American left is not terribly surprising. But idiosyncratic right-wing elements of the Ron Paul coalition were often quite exercised about those same subjects. What this crossover dynamic suggests about the modern American political landscape remains largely unexplored.

All of these unorthodox elements may be forsaken in coming months, however, as the “Liberty Movement” orients itself to an existence without Ron Paul as its congressional standard-bearer. He retires from office on January 3. Those within the Ron Paul apparatus who insist on merging into the Republican Party infrastructure risk abandoning the legions of young people whose political consciousnesses were enlivened by Ron Paul but who refuse to countenance the machinations and deceptions associated with party politicking. They may have once been willing to work with Republicans to help Ron Paul, but those volunteers were always more “in” the GOP as a matter of practical necessity than “of” it.

During his farewell address to Congress last month, Paul asked, “Why did the big banks, the large corporations, and foreign banks and foreign central banks get bailed out in 2008, and the middle class lost their jobs and their homes?” He then cited the “gross discrepancy in wealth distribution going from the middle class to the rich” as among “the greatest dangers that the American people face today and impede the goal of a free society,” echoing one of Occupy’s central themes–income equality.

Ever the adept politician, Ron Paul understands where public opinion is heading, and he knows how to tailor an argument. He thus wisely plans to continue focusing on youth outreach in post-congressional life. Perhaps the preponderance of eccentric characters in Ron Paul’s own flock made him more inclined to show the maligned Occupy movement a modicum of respect, back when doing so was not an especially advisable tactic. This may not have thrilled members of his campaign operation, but long-term, the goodwill Ron Paul engendered among some unlikely constituencies may prove worth the price.

Michael Tracey is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Reason, Mother Jones, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.

Demographics Don’t Explain the GOP’s Big Sky Problem

An enduring mystery of the 2012 election cycle is how GOP candidates managed to lose senate races in both Montana and North Dakota, states which voted resoundingly for Mitt Romney–by 13.5 and 19.8 percentage points, respectively. Though pre-election polling data was relatively scant, statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver pegged the likelihood of a Republican victory in North Dakota at 92.5% and in Montana at 65.6%. Instead, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp prevailed over Rick Berg by 1.0% to replace the retiring Kent Conrad, while Democrat Jon Tester–long regarded the cycle’s most vulnerable incumbent–defeated Denny Rehberg by 3.9%.

Post-election analyses have generally cited demographic trends as a prime hurdle for Republicans, but such explanations would appear inapplicable to these races. An analysis (PDF) by the Winston Group, a Republican polling outfit, flags the two outcomes as particularly troubling signs for the party because they cast doubt on popular explanations for why the GOP floundered. Relative to the rest of the country, the “Big Sky” region is old and white; the percentage of young voters actually decreased by 7% in Montana between 2008 and 2012. Such factors would seem to work in Republicans’ favor.

Neither Berg nor Rehberg held particularly “extreme” views by his state’s standards, and neither were unexpected victors in heated primary contests, i.e. Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock. Rehberg, who lost to Tester, had represented Montana’s at-large House district since 2001; Berg had represented North Dakota’s at-large House district since 2011–both were the “establishment” choices. Neither candidate attracted national attention for controversial remarks i.e. Akin or Mourdock, and were known commodities in their state.

And yet Berg underperformed Romney by 9.2%, while Rehberg underperformed Romney by 10.5%. Thus, a significant portion of voters in these states “pulled a switcheroo,” opting for Romney plus a Democratic senate candidate.

An inference to be made here is that while Obama was sufficiently unpopular in “Big Sky” country that Romney won easy victories, this dynamic did not translate into broad-based support for Republicans. In other words, many voters sought to signal their discontent with Obama, but not necessarily re-empower the Republican Party. It seems unlikely that a different tack on immigration policy, one widely-suggested post-election remedy, would alleviate the party’s woes in Montana or North Dakota. Rather, for a host of reasons, conservatives in these states have soured on the national GOP’s brand.

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The Case Against Obama, According to Romney Rally-Goers

Anger and paranoia were in the air Monday at Denver’s “Wings over the Rockies Air and Space Museum,” where Mitt Romney held an evening campaign rally. Draped from the hangar rafters was, of course, a massive American flag; miniature American flags were distributed to rally-goers for waving purposes. So, fittingly, Romney mused about “the beauty of the American soul” and related themes. “I love America!” he declared. “I love you.”

The candidate had already been in town preparing for tomorrow’s first presidential debate at the University of Denver. Current polling data and demographic trends suggest that he is highly unlikely to win Colorado, which gave the rally a throwaway feel – as if put on exclusively for the TV cameras and traveling press corps.

Ken Carpenter, 73, and his wife Paula were in attendance; Ken wore a Romney “pilot wings” lapel pin, which were being distributed outside the venue. An Air Force veteran, he contended that Barack Obama is in the process of “systematically destroying America.”

“Have you seen 2016?” Carpenter asked me.

By this, he was referring to “2016: Obama’s America,” the conspiracy propaganda film produced by former Reagan Administration official and “public intellectual” Dinesh D’Souza. Already the fourth-highest grossing documentary of all time, it is a noxious melange of xenophobic conspiracy theories and lies. “I hadn’t considered the anti-colonial stuff,” said Carpenter, remarking on one of the film’s central themes – that Obama seeks to purposefully bankrupt and bring about the downfall of America, thereby fulfilling his estranged father’s anti-Western ambitions, with the ultimate aim of imposing — as Carpenter put it — a “socialist/communist state.”

“Look what he’s done to our Army,” Carpenter said of the president. “No one is scared of us any more!” As a senior citizen, he was also very concerned about the potentially tyrannical impact of healthcare reform. “I’ll be told to take two aspirin and die,” Carpenter said, invoking the age-old “death panels” trope.

But despite the specter of America’s imminent destruction, the rally took on a festive tone. Romney was introduced by John Elway, the two-time Superbowl champion and owner executive vice president for football operations of the NFL’s Denver Broncos — “a pretty darn good football team,” Romney remarked, calling Elway an “extraordinary man.” Both are adherents of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

As Romney’s address proceeded, it became clear that the museum’s sound system was deeply flawed. “I can’t hear a word he’s saying!” exclaimed a woman standing near me. Thankfully, however, occasional phrases and “zingers” were audible. Romney pledged to “help middle income Americans have a better future,” certainly a departure from his assertion back in May that 47% of the voting public, including quite a few “middle income” folks, are not even worth appealing to for support given their indolence and dependence on government.

When Romney made some comment castigating organized labor, the same woman who could not hear shouted, “That’s why I got laid off! Stupid unions.”

“The American people are going to have to make their choice as to what path America takes,” Romney proclaimed, because Obama has “fought for a bigger government.” He then went on to decry upcoming sequestration cuts to the military budget, thereby calling for a bigger government.

Read More…

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As Obama Blunders, Romney Implodes

If Barack Obama wins reelection, as current polling trends predict he will — perhaps resoundingly — we can expect to hear in the weeks that follow endless analytical wisdom from the usual chorus of pundits. Doubtless, they’ll herald the president’s amazing political savvy and tactical brilliance; “No Drama Obama,” his moniker from the 2008 campaign, has done it again! He was always ahead of the curve, they’ll declare — a master of “three-dimensional chess”! Destined to leave the hapless Romney blindsided! Biden was key! Etc.

But as usual with the pundit class, their proclamations from on high will have been total confabulations. Until rather recently, there was every reason to believe that Obama could be defeated. Republicans once regularly basked in the inevitable deposition of his “regime.” If unemployment numbers don’t improve and discontent with healthcare reform remains high, they confidently asserted, the incumbent was toast! Put it in the bank! Recall circa Summer 2011, when elements of the conservative base salivated at the prospective side-by-side chart-based comparison of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s strong economic record with the misery wrought under Obama? Or how about Mitt Romney’s early supporters in elite GOP circles, who appeared certain that their favored candidate’s “Business Experience” would resonate well with undecided general election voters?

Ultimately, for various reasons, Perry flailed and Romney (in all likelihood) imploded — discrediting both. Yet neither of those failings bear on whether Obama was in fact vulnerable, as had been previously assumed. Because his vulnerabilities were indeed profound. However, the opposition party is so mired in its own ideological self-destruction — a fixation on conspiracy theories, ultra-nationalism, religious zealotry, and so forth — that its presidential nominee has proven utterly unable to capitalize.

For one thing, the extent to which Obama squandered the massive political capital he’d garnered following the near-watershed 2008 election confounds even today. Democrats won decisively, on a wave of discontent with the existing political order. Obama/Biden swept everywhere from Indiana to North Carolina; soon after, the cover of Newsweek blared “We Are All Socialists Now,” and the Republican Party was deemed dead in the water. America seemed on a collective emotional high. Racial barriers broken, Bush and Cheney finally sent packing. Time to start anew.

And then. Rather than pursue any kind of systemic reform to prevent future crises, Obama further entrenched the underlying weaknesses of the banking system. Aside from a few token denunciations of CEOs for purchasing expensive bathroom fixtures on the taxpayer dime, he did almost nothing to channel populist anger over Wall Street malfeasance into actionable reform. Now, a month out from what was supposed to have been a “referendum” on his job performance, the country feels no better equipped to avert another Lehman-style calamity.

One of Obama’s first acts as president-elect was to stock his Economic Advisory board with such renowned experts as Larry Summers, who had a singular role in crafting policy during the Clinton Administration — policy generally thought to have set the stage for meltdown a decade later. Remember all that fuss back in September 2008? When the world financial system was about to collapse — or so claimed the “experts” — and our only option, allegedly, was unprecedented intervention by the federal government? When very smart people insisted on infusing billions upon untold billions right back into the pockets of their fellow “experts” — many of whom specialized in securitizing fraudulent mortgages during the boom years? (Both Obama and Romney supported TARP, lest we forget.)

Then there’s foreign policy. Good grief! Fatigued after almost a decade of endless war, countless Americans were searching for a viable electoral rebuke to the Bush-era strategy of invade first, ask questions later. And so Obama was propelled to victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. As an early opponent of the Iraq war — though it’s true that he merely labeled it “dumb” — peacenik factions of the liberal base gravitated to him, rejecting the ever-hawkish Clinton. Joined by African Americans, younger voters, and some others, this confluence was enough for Obama to eek out a slim delegate victory.

But almost nothing about his first term in office suggests that Obama took seriously his core supporters’ yearning for less killing, destruction, or invasions of other sovereign nations. Instead, he dramatically expanded many of the most offending Bush-era programs, thereby sanctifying them with bipartisan consensus. He failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised, unleashed a torrent of lethal (and not exactly “surgical,” as the Administration claims) drone strikes on innocent Pakistanis and Yemenis, authorized an attack on Libya in open defiance of Congress, and the list goes on.

Read More…

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Romney and the D’Souza Doctrine

Byron York documents the despair of Mitt Romney’s core supporters, who long that he be “bolder” and “more aggressive” in attacking Barack Obama. The headline of York’s Examiner piece suggests that the entire Republican Party is now in the process of “beg[ging]” Romney for a “tougher campaign.” During a rally in Toledo, Ohio on Tuesday, the candidate seemed willing to temporarily oblige:

“[The president has] a vision of government that is entirely foreign to anything this nation has ever known,” he announced. “That is not the America I know. That is not the America that built Ohio. That is not the America that we’re going to restore.” (Notice the subtle invocation of the infamous “Build That” trope.)

So, what are the features of this America which Romney apparently aspires to “restore”? Does he mean America as it existed under two terms of George W. Bush, wherein middle class incomes stagnated, wars of aggression were launched, backroom deals with megacorporations were routine, and conservative media offered nary a critical whimper? Or is Romney hoping to “restore” the America he knew as CEO of an elite private equity firm, wherein he oversaw billions of dollars sloshing around international markets via complex financial instruments? Is that the America not so “foreign” to ordinary citizens, the America for which he pines?

Perhaps it’s pointless by now to note that the policies pursued under Barack Obama’s centrist-to-liberal (and in some respects verifiably hawkish/right-wing) Administration are certainly not–by any reasonable assessment–indicative of a cataclysmic departure from U.S. governmental norms. Yet Romney simply asserts this as unmitigated truth, without offering much in the way of evidence–aside from the platitudes which have thus far emblematized his campaign. Then on Wednesday, in a fit of schizophrenia, Romney’s operation pivoted without explanation to a far softer critique of the president, releasing a television ad in which the candidate asserts: “President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families…”

So which is it? Either Obama is “foreign” and dangerous and has cynically gamed the system to keep 47 percent of Americans dependent on government so that they’ll vote for him–as Romney strongly implied in the video released last week of his closed-door remarks to wealthy donors–or Obama genuinely does “care” about the American people and is simply misguided. It would seem that these notions are incompatible with one another, yet Romney freely espouses them both near-simultaneously, without compunction.

Why is Romney finding it impossible to offer a consistent, sensible conservative critique of the Obama Administration (one surely exists)? Perhaps because he has marinated for so long in the GOP’s insulated and intellectually-stunted bizarro universe, where facts have fallen out of favor and white-hot demagogic rhetoric is all the rage. He cannot communicate normally with most Americans, who generally do not despise the president on a personal level.

But here’s the most offensive part of Romney’s floundering shtick: In propounding these inflammatory talking points, he echoes the sentiments of none other than Dinesh D’Souza, whose “2016: Obama’s America” propaganda “documentary” has become a smash hit at the box office. The central theme of D’Souza’s film is that deep-down, Obama harbors seething hatred for America, and thus his presidency has been designed to bring about its downfall by a host of surreptitious means. It’s a revolting hour-and-a-half of cinema, targeted at the most angst-ridden and pliable Americans looking for answers–Americans who in turn have certainly provided Mr. D’Souza with a sizable financial reward.

More importantly, however, the film perpetuates this bizarre conspiracy theory that Obama is some kind of radical “Manchurian Candidate” whose agenda–as Romney put it–is “foreign,” and who poses such an imminent danger to Americans’ way of life that he must be replaced at all costs in November. Lacking any coherent critique of the past four years, nor any positive platform of his own, Romney has now adopted this line of argument–a line which was once relegated to the ugly Internet fringes.

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When Democrats Demand War

I stumbled out of the Democratic National Convention on the final night in a disoriented daze. What seemed like every last delegate — the majority of them earnest and well-meaning, presumably — had eagerly joined the vice president’s exhortation to cry out, in unison, “Osama bin Laden is dead!”

This was a major thematic refrain of the convention. Osama bin Laden was dead! Barack Obama deserved all Americans’ gratitude for courageously making The Call! And therefore, the muscular Obama-Biden team deserved a second term (also, Mitt Romney is a big wuss and insufficiently reverent of our military). John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, posed the challenge: “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago!”

Outside the arena, I spotted the Rev. Jesse Jackson — himself a former presidential candidate who once inveighed eloquently against state violence. I thought I would seek spiritual counsel. What guidance could he offer? “The cycle has to be broken. Militarism must subside,” Jackson told me. “But at the same time, we are at war.”

Then I encountered David Brooks, the reliably moderate New York Times columnist. He was in a rush, heading toward a waiting car. “I’m late for something,” Brooks said when I approached. How about just a brief comment? Please? Did he share at all in my revulsion to the bin Laden chant? “I had a little of that reaction,” Brooks allowed, hopping quickly into the vehicle.

I thought of Dennis Kucinich. The previous day, I had interviewed the outgoing congressman, who has long been the brunt of jokes and jabs for being fixated on peace. I asked what it meant that both he and Ron Paul, probably the two most unwavering opponents of war, would no longer be serving in the House come January.

“When you look at some of the issues where my supporters and Ron Paul’s supporters tend to agree,” Kucinich told me, “civil liberties, getting rid of the Patriot Act — when you look at that, you’ll see there’s starting to happen in America an alliance — informal however it is — between liberals and conservatives on issues that are fundamental issues in this country. Such as freedom, civil liberties, war and peace, America’s overreach abroad, monetary policy and the Federal Reserve… these are fundamental issues!”

I noted Kucinich was the only Democrat to vote last month against imposing “crippling sanctions” on Iran. (Paul joined him in doing so, naturally.) “The young people involved with Congressman Paul are real,” Kucinich said. “They come to politics out of principle, and that’s great to see. They ought to be encouraged.”

“How about the militarization and federalization of police?” I asked.

“Well, that’s a problem,” Kucinich opined. “And you know, the privatization of our Army is a problem…”

I interjected: “So you have the Department of Homeland Security giving these huge grants to local police departments so they can purchase SWAT gear, heavy weaponry–”

“Or drones,” Kucinich added. “No, I don’t approve of any of that. We have an increasing militarization of our society. And that really is against the basic freedoms of America.”

When the Paul-Kucinich tandem is gone, I wondered — while ambling around downtown Charlotte that night — who will stand against the “increasing militarization of our society”? In his speech at the “We are the Future” counter-rally preceding the Republican National Convention, Paul denounced America’s “very violent culture,” including “police violence,” and defended both Bradley Manning and Julian Assange by name.

Earlier that day, I happened upon another outgoing congressman, Barney Frank, who — like Kucinich — has been a regular cross-ideological ally of Paul’s. I asked what Frank made of the plight of the Paul delegates at the Republican National Convention–did they have legitimate grievances?

“Clearly, yeah,” Frank told me. “They won the delegates fair and square and the rules committee denied them.” And what accounted for this, I asked? Why did it happen?

“Why are you asking me why the Republicans do things? I can’t explain anything they do!”

“Because you’re a very insightful man, congressman!”

“But I’m also no abnormal psychiatrist!” Frank quipped.

Since the Ron Paul phenomenon began in 2007, liberals and establishment Republicans have tended to mock the more eccentric characters associated with the movement. They scorned Paul when he denounced Goldman Sachs and the Israeli occupation of Palestine and stood up for Occupy Wall Street protesters while his rivals for the Republican nomination slimed them. Paul’s role in American politics, these sneering critics contend, can be reduced to hackneyed jokes about “Paultards” and Ayn Rand.

Such critics would do well to meet Catherine Bernard, a public defender from Dublin, Georgia, former Democrat, and passionate Ron Paul delegate whom I interviewed in Tampa. I was encouraged to find her by two fellow Ron Paul delegates from Georgia — there were only three — who told me she “stood up, boldly” at an introductory brunch for their state delegation. Sue P. Everhart, the Georgia GOP chairwoman, had desired that all delegates vote as a bloc for Romney on the floor of the convention. Or in other words, Everhart wanted delegates bound to other candidates to suck it up and support the presumptive nominee.

“The Georgia Delegation is a pretty large delegation,” Bernard told me. “Third largest in the country. So Reince Priebus was there. Our governor was there, a bunch of dignitaries….

“Chairwoman Everhart went ahead and had all the delegates stand, all 76 of us, and then she said, ‘Is there anyone here who doesn’t support Mitt Romney?’ That’s when I raised my hand.

“She looked at me and she said, ‘Well–who are you going to support?’ And I said, Ron Paul ma’am.”

People in the room started clattering; somebody yelled, “He’s nuts!”

“Everhart began to question me on why I wanted to vote for Ron Paul,” Bernard recalled, “which in retrospect was inappropriate for her to ask. But I’m a public defender, so I’m used to judges and prosecutors asking disrespectful questions of me all the time.”

She laughed. “Several other people have characterized it as a berating.”

I found Everhart on the Tampa convention concourse and took the opportunity to ask about the “berating” incident. “If you want to ride with the big boys,” the chairwoman told me, “and that’s what this is — if you can’t do it, don’t saddle up!”

Sure enough, the Georgia delegation’s three votes for Ron Paul were registered when it came time for a roll call. Bernard and her colleagues did not back down.

There was no comparable discord at the Democratic National Convention. Everything felt more scripted and predictable. I could not shake the feeling that night in Charlotte, as legions of teary-eyed Democrats chanted about the killing of bin Laden, that we were all in for some kind of reckoning. That we had ignored at our peril the wisdom of Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich (and Ralph Nader), who warned about militarism infecting every facet of society. And now it was too late.

A week later, crisis hit. The American embassy in Egypt was sacked, our ambassador to Libya murdered. Angry protesters took to the streets everywhere from Tunisia to Yemen. The entire region seems teetering on the brink of calamity. Mitt Romney cravenly accused President Obama of “sympathizing” with the Egyptian attackers and of not being aggressive enough in defending American interests; Obama then ominously intoned that “justice will be done” as warships headed for the Libyan coast.

I felt the same sinking feeling as I did the final night of the Democratic convention, like we had finally reached the point of no return. I don’t know that there’s anything left to do — other than, I suppose, pray. But I do know one thing: come November, I will write-in Ron Paul.

Michael Tracey is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Reason, Mother Jones, and other publications.

Democrats Endorse “Crippling Sanctions” on Iran

In his address before the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler mounted a rollicking, bombastic defense of Israel, affirming America’s “unflinching commitment” to that nation’s security. “The speech I delivered was not a typical convention speech,” he told me, reflecting. “It was actually a significantly substantive speech, in terms of foreign policy about a particular country. To my knowledge, it was the first time that a speech of that nature has been made at either a Democratic or Republican convention outlining an Administration’s policy about Israel.”

Since leaving elected office in 2010, Wexler has been president of a Washington, D.C. think tank, the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. Why, I asked, did he feel that Israel deserved a speech dedicated exclusively to it at the Democratic National Convention?

“Because they’re our closest ally in the Middle East.”

“What about Iraq?” I responded. (You know, the country America invaded in 2003, which Wexler voted to authorize?)

“Iraq is not America’s closest ally in the Middle East,” he said. “Hopefully they will become a very strong democracy who aligns themselves with America.”

His speech touted “the most crippling sanctions in history” imposed on Iran under the Obama administration. This was language Wexler’s fellow Democrats were eager to defend.

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told me, “stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons is a vital American national security interest. And the crippling international sanctions that — ”

“Is the word ‘crippling’ appropriate?” I asked.

“I think so, yes,” Richardson responded. “When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapon program, yes.”

Yet the problem is, as we know from a decade of sanctions against Iraq, such measures can’t “cripple” weapons programs without also maiming the civilian economy. Democratic administrations have defended such policies before, however–most famously when “60 Minutes” asked Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” She replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

And now Iran. “They deserve crippling sanctions,” Richardson continued. “We don’t want to go to war, we don’t want military action. But crippling sanctions? Yeah. On the regime.”

“Will sanctions merely foster resentment among the Iranian populace and effectively embolden the regime?” I asked, calling it “the Ron Paul argument.” Read More…

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Valerie Jarrett Threw Me Out of the DNC for Asking about Pakistanis Killed by Drones

CHARLOTTE—Top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett’s staff called the cops to kick me out of a media area last night when I questioned her about drone strikes.

As I sat up in the rafters listening to some Democratic National Convention speech — I don’t even particularly remember which one — Jarrett suddenly appeared to my right. She was being interviewed on camera by some television hack; I don’t even particularly know whom. So I rose from my seat and observed. There was an unnerving coldness about Jarrett’s demeanor — naturally, she laughed and smiled for the camera, bantering obligingly. But callousness underlain this guise of mainstream jocular propriety. I could see it in her eyes.

“Bye John,” she said, wrapping up the interview. I sprung into action.

“A lot of the president’s Democratic critics are very — ” I started.

“Excuse me, Sir. Sorry —” an aide of hers swooped in, attempting to intercept me. “Sir, excuse me. Sir!”

I spoke over the aide. “A lot of the president’s Democratic critics are very upset about the policy of drone strikes,” I stated — did Jarrett have any comment? She initially said nothing, while the aide continued to protest. “Sir, we need to get to another interview.” Then Jarrett broke her silence.

“If you would like to interview me, then Clo is right there — my Communications Officer. I suggest that —”

“Why can’t you comment right now, given that I’m already interacting with you?” I countered.

“I would suggest that you do just what Politico, and just what [inaudible] did, and ask for an interview. And we would be happy to accommodate you. I don’t think it makes sense —”

“So you have no comment on drone strikes?” I interjected. She started for the exit.

“Many Pakistanis are dying, ma’am,” I shouted. No response. By then Jarrett was out of reach.

“Do you have a card?” her aide, Clo Ewing — Director of Constituency Press for the Obama campaign — queried me angrily. (She did not reply to an emailed request for comment.)

“No.”

Ewing looked intently at my credential, seemingly incredulous that I was entitled to be in her boss’s presence. Jarrett’s handlers, alarmed, then joined forces with Convention staff and summoned two uniformed police officers, who informed me I was to leave the area immediately — my duly-assigned credential notwithstanding. (In fairness, the officers themselves were friendly about this, and actually seemed rather befuddled.)

As I gathered my belongings, the guy who had been manning the TV camera whined at me: “Come on man, we’re trying to get people up here for interviews. What you did was not cool.”

“Fuck off,” I told him, and left.

Editor’s Note: Elsewhere in national security denialism, yesterday President Obama wouldn’t confirm or deny the existence of a presidential ‘kill list’ when asked by a reporter, despite his administration leaking knowledge of such a list to the New York Times.

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Ron Paul Stands for Manning and Assange

Photo by Michael Tracey
Photo by Michael Tracey

After Ron Paul’s speech Sunday evening—part of his “We are the Future Rally” held at the University of Florida Sun Dome—I set out to gauge audience reaction. “He hit a lot of the same points he normally hits,” said James Smack, vice chairman of the Nevada Republican Party and a Paul stalwart. “But there was a little more passion, a little more zest…”

This was also my impression. Some observers thought that Paul would strike a conciliatory tone to ingratiate himself (or more likely, his son Sen. Rand Paul) with the GOP establishment. But as Smack noted, “there were some solid shots taken at the RNC—merited shots.” Paul accused party insiders of flouting convention rules to disenfranchise his supporters.

But this was not what stood out most about the address. Over the course of an hour and 15 minutes, Paul was at his most subversive, demonstrating precisely why the Romney campaign offered him a convention speaking slot only under the condition that they be allowed to vet his remarks. (Paul declined.)

“Let me tell you, Bradley Manning didn’t kill anybody,” the Texas congressman declared at around minute 45, speaking of a “soft spot” in his heart for whistleblowers. “Bradley Manning hasn’t caused the death of anybody. And what he has exposed—he is the equivalent of Daniel Ellsberg, who told us the truth about Vietnam!” The crowd exulted. Paul then pivoted to a spirited defense of Julian Assange, chastising the government of Sweden for truckling to alleged American demands that the Aussie be extradited to the U.S. for prosecution.

Paul’s campaign has long touted the fact that he received an outsized percentage of donations from active-duty military. I couldn’t help but speculate that his position on Bradley Manning—who after all has been charged in military court with aiding and abetting al-Qaeda—might not be popular within those ranks. I mentioned this hunch to Kaleb Hornsby, a Paul district coordinator from Augusta, Georgia and Navy veteran. “To maintain good military discipline, order should be followed,” he said. “You make certain agreements when you go into the military. As a soldier, I don’t think Manning should have done it. I wouldn’t have done it.” Even so, Hornsby regarded himself as a supporter of WikiLeaks and admitted to struggling with the issue. Read More…

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NH Report: Food Freedom Brings People Together

Upon my arrival to Lancaster, New Hampshire last week aboard the Newt Gingrich press bus, I spotted an assortment of demonstrators who had congregated to greet (as in, chant directly at) the Speaker as he meandered into a townhall meeting. It was a small group — six or seven — but for way up in the North Country. As was often the case this week throughout the state, Ron Paul supporters and members of the Occupy movement found themselves working in concert.

I asked Jessica Bernier of nearby Sheffield, who wielded a Ron Paul placard, if she felt the Paul campaign and Occupy were fueled by similar anti-institutional energy. “Yeah, I definitely do,” she said. “Because what I’m seeing, with my friends — I’m a Ron Paul supporter. Most of my friends are actually progressives, and are extremely supportive of Occupy. And I have been too, because it’s actually a welling up of the people. It’s an organic thing,” she said.

“We’re sick and tired of being trampled on,” Bernier continued. “One of my big issues is food freedom, and I see a lot of overlap with that — we don’t even have the right to choose the kinds of foods that we eat. Monsanto owns the FDA. They’re all over the place. So in our rejection of these monster corporations that are controlling people, I very much see an overlap.”

At this point in our conversation, a full-fledged Occupier and former Dennis Kucinich campaigner, Roger Hughes of Jefferson, interjected. “Do you think public education should be killed?” he asked Bernier. Read More…

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NH Report: Food Freedom Brings People Together

Upon my arrival to Lancaster, New Hampshire last week aboard the Newt Gingrich press bus, I spotted an assortment of demonstrators who had congregated to greet (as in, chant directly at) the Speaker as he meandered into a townhall meeting. It was a small group — six or seven — but for way up in the North Country. As was often the case this week throughout the state, Ron Paul supporters and members of the Occupy movement found themselves working in concert.

I asked Jessica Bernier of nearby Sheffield, who wielded a Ron Paul placard, if she felt the Paul campaign and Occupy were fueled by similar anti-institutional energy. “Yeah, I definitely do,” she said. “Because what I’m seeing, with my friends — I’m a Ron Paul supporter. Most of my friends are actually progressives, and are extremely supportive of Occupy. And I have been too, because it’s actually a welling up of the people. It’s an organic thing,” she said.

“We’re sick and tired of being trampled on,” Bernier continued. “One of my big issues is food freedom, and I see a lot of overlap with that — we don’t even have the right to choose the kinds of foods that we eat. Monsanto owns the FDA. They’re all over the place. So in our rejection of these monster corporations that are controlling people, I very much see an overlap.”

At this point in our conversation, a full-fledged Occupier and former Dennis Kucinich campaigner, Roger Hughes of Jefferson, interjected. “Do you think public education should be killed?” he asked Bernier. Read More…

Ron Paul’s New Hampshire Scene

When Rush Limbaugh warned last summer that Ron Paul “is going to destroy” the Republican Party, it was not as if he feared Paul had a chance of winning the 2012 GOP nomination. The fulmination was more forward-looking. Rightly, Limbaugh sensed that the success or failure of Paul’s campaign ought not to be measured merely in terms of electoral traction, but rather to what extent his presence could shift the underlying dynamics of conservative politics.

Here in New Hampshire, bushels of Paul supporters are chanting on street corners, merrymaking, and coordinating with Occupy demonstrators to stage actions at Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich events. At a debate-watching party on Saturday night hosted by “RevPac,” a trio of acoustic guitarists belted songs of liberty as college-aged Paulites debated the merits of voluntaryism and Murray Rothbard. As one attendee remarked in amazement: “Think about it … these people have all come out to participate in a Republican primary.”

Yesterday, during an appearance at the Timberland corporate headquarters in Stratham, an employee asked Paul what he’d do as president if Iran closed down the Strait of Hormuz. “What they’re doing is trying to exert themselves, because they’ve been threatened,” Paul said. “They better be ready. In the next few weeks, they’re liable to get bombed.” Read More…

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N.H. Report: Striking Back at Empire

One of the more atypical attendees at Ron Paul’s townhall at the University of New Hampshire on Friday evening was Alan McDonald — a retired high school history teacher from Sanford, Maine, who wielded a custom-made placard that read “Occupy Empire.” McDonald has led teach-ins at Occupy Portland (Maine), and identified himself to me as a single-issue voter — “against empire.”

“Empire is our primary target,” he said of both the “Ron Paul Revolution” movement and the Occupy movement, “because empire is the causal cancer of all other problems — vast inequality of wealth, looting on Wall Street, expanded foreign wars, environmental destruction.”

If McDonald had gotten the opportunity to ask a question that night, he told me, “I would have said, Ron — I have a problem. You’re the only guy in either party that has the brains and the courage to say anything about empire.” For McDonald, wholesale destruction of American civil society was imminent. He likened the National Defense Authorization Act, signed by President Obama — and against which Paul had inveighed during the townhall — to the Nazi enabling acts of the 1930s.

“Ron gave an eloquent address on liberty, and the sworn enemy of liberty is empire,” he said. “Empire wants to crush liberty. He was talking about, we are literally in a short term dangerous situation of empire occurring. I think, and from what I heard, Ron Paul thinks,” continued McDonald, “we could have an internal Blitzkrieg. Empire could come in internet time, not in years and years, but literally in internet time.”

Yes, there has always been a paranoid undercurrent in Ron Paul’s base of support. But with Congress empowering the president to indefinitely detain American citizens, people with home-made placards aren’t the only ones starting to worry.

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New Hampshire Report: Occupy Newt Gingrich

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The Ron Paul campaign’s “media advisory” schedule stated that the congressman would be having “having breakfast” this morning at Moe Joe’s Family Restaurant in Manchester from 8:45 am to 9:45 am. One might have expected to encounter a scene in which Paul set about greeting prospective voters over coffee and eggs. In reality, the candidate stayed at Moe Joe’s for approximately five minutes. The reason for his speedy exit, one photographer relayed to me, was that an aide deemed the situation “too dangerous” on account of the chaotic swarm of reporters who flooded the premises. Disgruntled media were left to settle for interviewing restaurant-goers about their preferences in tomorrow’s primary.

This morning’s events turned out to be an emblem for the overall inanity of campaign-trail reporting, as I’ve observed it thus far in New Hampshire: journalists fly into Manchester from Washington and New York for the quadrennial ritual; there they gossip with other journalists, write color pieces on campaign minutiae, and occasionally feign interest in the consequences of the election. Big name reporters often do not even bother with local color. At a “press avail” after one of Newt Gingrich’s events last week, for instance, Mark Halperin of Time chose to query the candidate as follows: “Use your political experience, and explain… Play out after New Hampshire. How do you stop Governor Romney, with so many opponents in the race?”

Contrast this line of questioning with that of Nicole Brant, an “Occupy the New Hampshire Primary” participant, who attended the same event. She waited to shake hands with Gingrich, then asked him about the influence of corporate money in politics. (I attempted to record the question, but Gingrich’s domineering bodymen made this difficult.) I heard Gingrich state that he favored disallowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from lobbying members Congress and recommend that the young woman read Federalist 10 for a fuller articulation of his view on money in politics.

Recalling that Gingrich himself was paid $1.6 million by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to offer “strategic advice” as an “historian,” I thought I would follow up on Brant’s question. If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had been barred from lobbying at the time he was offering the entities “strategic advice,” would this have precluded Gingrich from receiving such a lucrative payout?

“No, because I didn’t do any lobbying,” he told me. “As I have made clear, and I think everybody understands—the only time I talked to Congress about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the New York Times reported in July of 2008—I said ‘vote against giving them money.’ Which is the opposite of what you would’ve expected.”

Another journalist asked Gingrich whether he felt there was overlap between his view on money and politics and that of Occupy Wall Street. Gingrich said there was “probably some,” in the following sense: “I think a representative system ought to have people in it who are middle class and who work hard, and who aren’t necessarily rich. I think our current electoral process is increasingly biased toward the very wealthy.”

The Mark Halperins of the national press could learn a thing or two from the Occupy movement.

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Ralph Nader’s Grand Alliance

Progressives find hope—in Ron Paul.

It’s no secret that Ralph Nader has held the Democratic Party establishment in low regard for decades now: the marginally more palatable alternative in an ugly duopoly, he claims, is still quite ugly. But lately Nader’s disdain has reached a new high. “It’s gotten so bad,” he tells me, “that you can actually say a Republican president—with a Democratic Senate—would produce less bad results than the present situation. That’s how bollixed stuff has gone.”

Not that he was  ever particularly optimistic about the Obama administration, especially its potential to make headway on curtailing corporate welfare, now Nader’s signature policy objective. But in that, as with so many aspects of Obama’s presidency, the adjectives “disappointing” or “inadequate” don’t even begin to capture the depths of progressive disillusionment. Looking ahead to the 2012 presidential race, one might assume that Nader has little to be cheerful about.

Yet he says there is one candidate who sticks out—who even gives him hope: Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

That might sound counterintuitive. Nader, of course, is known as a stalwart of the independent left, having first gained notoriety for his 1960s campaign to impose greater regulatory requirements on automakers—a policy act that would seem to contravene the libertarian understanding of justified governmental power. So I had to ask: how could he profess hope in Ron Paul, who almost certainly would have opposed the very regulations on which Nader built his career?

“Look at the latitude,” Nader says, referring to the potential for cooperation between libertarians and the left. “Military budget, foreign wars, empire, Patriot Act, corporate welfare—for starters. When you add those all up, that’s a foundational convergence. Progressives should do so good.”

I thought I’d bring up the subject of Ron Paul with Nader after seeing the two jointly interviewed on Fox Business Channel in January. Nader had caught me off guard when he identified an emergent left-libertarian alliance as “today’s most exciting new political dynamic.” It was easy to foresee objections that the left might raise: if progressives are in favor of expanding the welfare state, how well can they really get along with folks who go around quoting the likes of Hayek and Rothbard?

“That’s strategic sabotage,” Nader responds, sharply. “It’s an intellectual indulgence. … If they’re on your side, and you don’t compromise your positions, what do you care who they quote? Franklin Delano Roosevelt sided with Stalin against Hitler. Not to draw that analogy, I’m just saying—why did he side with Stalin? Because Stalin went along with everything FDR wanted.”

There may be an insurmountable impasse between the camps on social-safety-net spending. “But,” Nader says, “you could get together on corporate entitlements, subsidies, handouts, giveaways, bailouts. Ron Paul is dead set against all that. So are a lot of libertarian-conservatives. In fact, it’s almost a mark of being a libertarian-conservative—in contrast to being a corporatist-conservative.”

“Do you read all these right-wing theoreticians?” he goes on. “Almost every one of them warned about excessive corporate concentration. Hayek did, [Frank] Meyer did, even Adam Smith did in his own way.” He leaves the mechanics of a left-libertarian political coalition to be sussed out later.

If the issues around which progressives and libertarians can coalesce, I ask Nader, are the most intractable, deeply entrenched problems, is he proposing that such a coalition would be more tenable than the one currently cobbling together the Democratic Party, with its many Blue Dogs and neoliberals?

“Exactly,” Nader says. “Libertarians like Ron Paul are on our side on civil liberties. They’re on our side against the military-industrial complex. They’re on our side against Wall Street. They’re on our side for investor rights. That’s a foundational convergence,” he exhorts. “It’s not just itty-bitty stuff.”

Nader cites opposition to “the self-defeating, boomeranging drug war” as another source of common ground, in the face of both parties’ indifference—with the scant exceptions of a few House Democrats who favor decriminalizing marijuana—to drug prohibition’s many ills. Ron Paul’s rejection of the very notion that personal drug use should be a criminal offense is something that has resonated with younger supporters, often catalyzing their first moment of political consciousness.

“This is one place where conservatives and liberals can get together,” Paul tells me. “Because it’s sort of a nullification approach—a states’ rights approach.” California attempted to legalize marijuana outright via ballot initiative “because they have millions and millions of people who are using it, yet the federal government’s position—Obama’s position—is still to go after people even if it’s being used for medicinal reasons, and putting sick people in jail.”

“But of course,” Paul goes on, “the conservatives are very weak on states’ rights when it comes to marijuana, which I find rather ironic. Why don’t they just stick to principle and say, ‘Well, we’re for states’ rights. Let the states do this.’ But no, they come down hard and say, ‘We need a federal law’.” He sounds exasperated. “I think both sides should work harder at being consistent.”

Some critics allege that Paul himself has proven inconsistent on states’ rights when it comes to the Defense of Marriage Act, which created federal criteria for the recognition of marital unions. Campaign literature distributed by the Paul campaign, under the header “Barack Obama’s Assault on Marriage,” asserts that the administration has shown “a profound lack of respect for the Constitution and the Rule of Law” by no longer defending one of DOMA’s provisions in federal court. “As President,” the literature reads, “Dr. Paul would enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, stopping Big Government in Washington, D.C. from forcing its definition of marriage on the states.”

The flyer’s aggressive tone suggests it may have been written with an eye towards appealing to Evangelical voters. In our interview, Paul offers a nuanced position. He wasn’t in Congress in 1996 when DOMA was approved, but says he “probably” would have voted for it. “Looking back,” Paul tells me, “I believed it protected the states over the federal government’s dictates.”

How sharp is the divide on social issues between progressives and Paul’s more conservative supporters? I ask for his opinion on the central role religion has seemingly taken in the Republican presidential contest, something that has distressed progressives and libertarians alike. Texas Governor Rick Perry preceded the announcement of his bid with a massive Evangelical prayer rally in Houston, just miles from Paul’s congressional district.

“It certainly is his judgment call,” Paul says of Perry’s decision to convene a stadium-sized worship event. “There’s nothing that says he should not do it. But whether it’s the wisest thing to do? For me, I would consider it unwise.”

Paul is typically demure about his own belief in Christianity—willing to speak about it when prompted, but never ostentatious. “It might be the way I was raised. We weren’t ever taught to carry religion on our sleeves.” He references New Testament admonitions against going “out on the sidewalk” to “make a grandstand.” “You’re supposed to go quietly into your closet to pray,” Paul says, “and not be demonstrating in any particular way. So I think I have followed that more than others.”

I ask him at what point journalists should be entitled to press candidates on their personal doctrinal views. Ordinarily, Paul says, it’s inappropriate. “But if you start using religion precisely to gain political advantage,” he adds, “then I think it’s much fairer to ask those questions.”

Nader takes a grim view of Perry, who polls indicate is the Republican frontrunner. “It’s easy to say he may self-destruct, but he’s starting to get some of that Reagan teflon. The Republican Party is going to self-destruct with Perry. I don’t think he’s like Reagan. He’s too cruel and vicious.”

There are nascent movements underway to bring disaffected progressives into Ron Paul’s fold. A new organization called Blue Republican, advertised on the Huffington Post and elsewhere, urges Democrats to pledge their support for Paul. While Nader isn’t willing to endorse Paul’s candidacy at this point, during our interview his praise grew increasingly effusive. “Ron Paul has always been anti-corporate, anti-Federal Reserve, anti-big banks, anti-bailouts,” Nader says. “I mean, they view him in the same way they view me on a lot of these issues. Did you see the latest poll? He’s like two points behind Obama.”

“That’s where the hope comes from,” Nader continues. “Because the left will reach out. I mean, they’re already reaching out. They want as many allies as possible. It’s the right-wing that is being split, and that’s historically been the case—the corporatists make sure authentic conservatives are vectored in other directions. They’re vectored on the social religious issues, abortion, more recently on raising the debt limit. ‘Keep going after the libs,’ the corporatists say. Because otherwise, authentic conservatives may develop a cooperative effort with the ‘libs’ on other issues, which are our issues,” he concludes. “The big issues.”

Michael Tracey is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Reason, Mother Jones, and other publications.

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