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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.)
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.
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…
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…
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…