Noah Millman

Trump v. Curiel

Pat Buchanan comes to the defense of Trump for impugning Judge Curiel’s impartiality:

He attacked the independence of the judiciary, we are told.

But Presidents Jefferson and Jackson attacked the Supreme Court, and FDR, fed up with New Deal programs being struck down, tried to “pack the court” by raising the number of justices to 15 if necessary.

Abraham Lincoln leveled “that eminent tribunal” in his first inaugural, and once considered arresting Chief Justice Roger Taney.

The conservative movement was propelled by attacks on the Warren Court. In the ’50s and ’60s, “Impeach Earl Warren!” was plastered on billboards and bumper stickers all across God’s country.

The judiciary is independent, but that does not mean that federal judges are exempt from the same robust criticism as presidents or members of Congress.

Obama himself attacked the Citizens United decision in a State of the Union address, with the justices sitting right in front of him.

But Trump’s real hanging offense was that he brought up the judge’s ancestry, as the son of Mexican immigrants, implying that he was something of a judicial version of Univision’s Jorge Ramos.

Apparently, it is now not only politically incorrect, but, in Newt Gingrich’s term, “inexcusable,” to bring up the religious, racial or ethnic background of a judge, or suggest this might influence his actions on the bench.

But these things matter.

Does Newt think that when LBJ appointed Thurgood Marshall, ex-head of the NAACP, to the Supreme Court, he did not think Marshall would bring his unique experience as a black man and civil rights leader to the bench?

Surely, that was among the reasons Marshall was appointed.

There is an obvious difference between saying “your view of the law is shaped by your background” and saying “you cannot be impartial in this case because you are biased against me personally.” The former is a commonplace – and is, indeed, part of the argument for diversity (including ideological diversity) on the highest courts in particular, where part of the job is deciding what the law is, and not merely adjudicating the facts and applying clear precedent.

The latter is a seriously defamatory accusation. And leveling that accusation on no better evidence than a disagreement about politics amounts to the assertion that justice is impossible in a society, like ours, where such disagreements obtain.

I have a hard time believing that Buchanan doesn’t understand the distinction.

Meanwhile, if you want to know my view of why Trump is making such a fuss about Curiel, that’s the topic of my latest column at The Week:

Trump is ranting about Curiel’s bias not because doing so is part of any kind of rational political strategy, but because he is going to lose the case. And if he loses, it must be somebody else’s fault. He’s not just talking about himself instead of something that actually matters to voters. He’s talking to himself, telling himself a story of how big a winner he is, no matter how often he loses. And he’s doing it in front of the entire country.

In a very basic sense, this is the emotional connection that Trump forged from the beginning of his campaign. Trump sees himself as a winner whose occasional setbacks are the result of other people’s unfairness or incompetence. He has connected with a slice of the voting public that sees America’s problems in similar terms: the fault of corrupt, incompetent, and disloyal elites. But successful political leaders — whether they operate within established norms or, like Trump, gleefully flout them — use that emotional connection for something larger. It’s the ground on which they build loyalty to a political program and organization.

Trump isn’t building anything. Indeed, he hasn’t built anything in a good long time; for decades, he’s been a marketer whose only product is his own mystique. And so it is with his political campaign. The purpose of the emotional connection he has forged is entirely personal: to reaffirm his own greatness, his own winningness. “I’ve always won and I’m going to continue to win. And that’s the way it is,” he told supporters on the Monday conference call. The conversation keeps coming back to him because that’s where he wants it to go. Because that’s all his campaign has ever been about.

Read the whole thing there.

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Is Demography Electoral Destiny?

Kevin Drum has a rather strange post up about California and Proposition 187. He argues as follows:

Here’s what California has looked like in presidential elections over the past 35 years:

Unless I made a mistake somewhere, Prop 187 had precisely zero effect. As the non-white population of California rose, the Democratic share of the presidential vote rose in almost perfect tandem. After 1994, it continued growing at the same rate as ever.

This is just the presidential vote, and maybe things are different in other contests. But I’d be interested to see someone take a more detailed look at this. The real lesson here seems to be that Donald Trump’s racist blatherings are likely to have no effect at all on the Republican Party. Non-whites don’t like Republicans, and will go on not liking them.

Bottom line: Extra doses of racism probably don’t hurt Republicans. Minority voters already know the score, so they don’t care much. Until the Republican Party actively goes after the racism in its ranks and actively tries to appeal to non-white voters, it doesn’t matter much what else they do.

I say this is a strange post because Drum is a liberal Democrat, and this is more of a Steve Sailer-ish point to make. Indeed, if Drum is correct, then not only was Prop 187 not the cause of Republican decline in California, but serious immigration restriction remains absolutely essential to saving the GOP nationally. Which it may be! But it’s funny to hear Drum implicitly making that case.

But it’s also strange because, atypically for Drum, he doesn’t look at comparative data. So let’s look at some. Here’s Texas:

ChartGo

 

It looks like perhaps there was nothing inevitable about what Drum observes about California politics. The non-white (including Hispanic) share of Texas’s population grew at a somewhat slower rate than did California’s, but not a dramatically slower rate. But the partisan balance has shifted almost not at all since 1980, bouncing between 35% and 45% Democratic, with the remainder going to the Republicans (except in 1992 and 1996 when iconoclastic Texas native Ross Perot nabbed a chunk of the vote as well).

That doesn’t mean that Proposition 187 made the difference in the trajectories of the two states. I’m inclined to believe that a wide variety of factors are relevant in assessing the different political trajectories of the country’s two most populous states. But all Drum can conclude from his graph of California is that Proposition 187 did nothing to keep California Republican in the face of a monotonically increasing non-white percentage of the population, while something else has worked for the GOP in Texas in the face of a similar demographic tide.

If you look under the hood, what I suspect you’d see is that non-Hispanic white voters in Texas vote overwhelmingly Republican, and that they have trended more Republican over time, while non-Hispanic white voters in California are far more divided between the parties. As a secondary factor, I’d expect you’d see more Hispanic Republicans in Texas than in California. Teasing out cause and effect for both factors is tough, but the “bottom line” is probably just that Texas is a much more conservative state, across the board, than California is. And it was a much more conservative state in 1980 as well. It’s just that the partisan implications of that difference have shifted, such that California, once a Republican state (it voted Republican in every election from 1952 through 1988, except for the 1964 Johnson landslide), has become solidly Democratic at the Federal (and, frankly, state) level, while Texas, once a swing state (it went for the winner in every election from 1948 through 1980 except for the squeaker in 1968) has become solidly Republican (also, at both the state and Federal levels).

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Texas was Trump’s worst large primary state. He got 26.7% of the vote there, versus 45.7% in Marco Rubio’s Florida and 35.6% in John Kasich’s Ohio (not to mention winning pluralities in Michigan, Illinois, Georgia and North Carolina, and majorities in New York and Pennsylvania, just to round out the top 10 states by population). Whatever is working for the GOP in demographically-changing Texas seems to be limiting the appeal of Trumpism.

But the story is different in other states undergoing rapid demographic change – particularly Florida, where, as noted, Trump earned 45.7% of the vote in a vigorously contested multi-candidate primary where one of his opponents was a native son. If you want a state to watch for the medium-term impact of Trump’s campaign, this is the one. Florida has been a swing state for the past 40 years, voting for the winner in every election since 1976 except for 1992, and voting by fairly close margins in every election in this century. Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white proportion of the population has dropped by about 20 points, from roughly 75% to roughly 55%, since 1980.

Florida right now is about where California was in 1994. If, after this election, Florida trends increasingly Democratic, will that validate the thesis of Proposition 187’s critics? Or will it vindicate the immigration restrictionists? How would one know who is right – at least with regard to the politics?

 

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Trumpism Beyond Trump

Tony Webster/Flickr

I’ve been meditating on Frank Rich’s excellent piece comparing the Trump and Reagan campaigns (with side-forays into the Goldwater campaign) ever since I read it. It’s a must-read for anyone coming at the Trump phenomenon from where I do.

Just to reiterate where that is: I think Trump would make, at best, a terrible President, and could be the kind of President who does serious, lasting damage to our political institutions. I won’t vote for him. I don’t dislike Hillary Clinton nearly as much as Alan Jacobs does, but I’m reluctant to vote for her for a number of reasons. Nonetheless, I’ll be rooting for her to win, and to win by a large margin.

But I think the Trump phenomenon is an important one, and that he is exploiting genuinely important issues. Our trade, immigration and industrial policies should aim to promote the long-term competitiveness of the American workforce – not to maximize the profits generated by American intellectual property or American finance. Our foreign policy should aim at promoting peace between states, cooperating with other powers to address common problems and threats, and husbanding American strength to deter potential rivals from challenging our vital interests – not to maximally extend the scope of American hegemony.

I don’t believe Trump actually cares a tinker’s dam about any of the above, even though they are all issues he has brought to the fore in his campaign. Inasmuch as he cares about anything that he’s running on, it’s the right of Donald Trump to say whatever the heck he wants in whatever way he wants. I vigorously defend that right – and am appalled when his often crass, incoherent, insensitive, even disgusting speech, and those who want to hear it, are met with this kind of violence. And if the Trump campaign forces some kind of reckoning with the illiberalism of his opponents, that would be one real service he’s done the Republic.

But I still want him to go down in flames. What I don’t want is for the real issues he has highlighted to go down with him.

Which is why I’ve been meditating on the Frank Rich column. When Barry Goldwater went down to ignominious defeat in 1964, in the short term it meant a setback for his cause. But even in the medium term, to say nothing of the long term, it meant the opposite. It’s hard to imagine a partisan of Goldwaterism looking back and saying: it would have been better if Goldwater hadn’t been nominated in 1964.

But notwithstanding the comparisons Rich makes between Trump, Goldwater and Reagan in terms of how they defeated the GOP establishments of their respective eras – and notwithstanding the ways in which they could be compared as people (Goldwater certainly said a few outrageous, even scary things in his day, and Reagan was rightly accused of being willfully ignorant of policy detail, not to mention presiding over a host of scandals some of which did real damage to our political institutions) – nonetheless, there are two key differences between Trump on the one hand and both Reagan and Goldwater on the other, that make me wonder whether a defeat for Trump could have a Goldwaterish silver lining.

First, both Reagan and Goldwater were widely reputed to be personally decent people, and both were respected for their fidelity to their beliefs even by those who vigorously opposed those beliefs. Their convictions did not, in either case, prohibit compromise, and both evolved over time in ways that the most rabid ideologues often refuse to acknowledge. But they were nonetheless rightly perceived as conviction candidates. Nobody can say that with a straight face about Donald Trump.

Second, and relatedly, both Reagan and Goldwater were the leaders of organized political factions seeking to dominate their political party. Howsoever they may have challenged the preexisting political hierarchy, they were engaged in normal politics. This, again, is not true of Donald Trump, who is a pure cult-of-personality candidate who has built nothing and will build nothing. (Which is a major reason why I expect him, if elected, to jettison every heterodoxy that actually costs anything in favor of the worst version of crony-capitalist Republicanism.)

For both reasons, I really do wonder whether, in the aftermath of a massive loss, there will be any way for what was worth assimilating from the Trump phenomenon to survive.

Or, perhaps a better question is: how could someone who really did care about one or another of Trump’s “issues” ensure that his defeat doesn’t lead to their utter repudiation, but instead to something more productive?

That’s the question I’m chewing on as I root for Hillary Clinton – who bears more than a little resemblance to Lyndon Johnson in both her temperament and her ambition (and, for that matter, her foreign policy) – to crush Donald Trump.

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My Advice To Hillary: Embrace Your Inner Tammy Wynette

Jim Newell has noticed that the Clinton campaign has a problem all-too familiar to me, and to many writers: they can’t decide what story they are trying to tell. More to the point, they can’t figure out how to characterize their antagonist because they haven’t successfully characterized their protagonist:

The Washington Post on Wednesday came out with the big reveal about the Clinton campaign’s plan. If you haven’t already placed your bets, do so now before reading any further.

Clinton’s aides say they have settled on the big story they want to tell about Trump: He is a business fraud who has cheated working people for his own gain, and his ideas, temperament and moves to marginalize people by race, gender and creed make him simply unacceptable as commander in chief.

So they have whittled down the bountiful list of master narratives to … everything. Clinton people! When they say you have to fit your story into a single sentence, that doesn’t mean it can be a run-on sentence with clauses and nested lists and dormer windows and a carport and all.

It could be that the Clintonistas’ inability to settle on an overarching story about Trump is a reflection of their inability to settle on an overarching story about themselves.

As the Post’s Greg Sargent asks, what is Hillary Clinton’s affirmative master narrative for Hillary Clinton? There are a lot of substories floating around that haven’t congealed into an uber-story: a fighter, an advocate for women and children, a sturdy hand, an experienced leader. What does this add up to? It will be plenty easier for Clinton and Co. to settle on what they want Trump to be once they’ve figured out what they themselves are.

Fortunately, as always I know the answer. They just aren’t going to like it:

So who is she? What is the “best version” of Hillary Clinton, in terms of being able to connect to the public emotionally, establishing a strong and effective contrast with Donald Trump, and also being authentic to who she really is?

I find it useful in doing this kind of exercise to try to distill the answer down to the simplest terms possible. A single sentence — or even better, a single descriptive word.

For my money, Hillary Clinton’s single word is: LOYAL.

Now, I can already hear folks on the left laughing. “Loyal” is your word for the authentic Hillary Clinton? The woman who betrayed her mentor, Marian Wright Edelman? Hey, who do you think she’s loyal to — Goldman Sachs?

But last I checked, welfare reform was signed not by her, but by her husband. Last I checked, Glass-Steagall was repealed not by her but by her husband.

Who do I think she’s loyal to? I think she’s loyal to him.

And that’s the rock on which I propose that she rebuild her emotional connection with married women.

This is from the last of three columns of advice I’ve written to the Clinton campaign, all published at The Week. The first is here, the second is here, and the final one is here.

With free advice, you pretty much get what you pay for. But if anyone in Brooklyn HQ is reluctant to take mine for that reason, I can suggest a very simple solution.

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Four Reasons Hillary Clinton Is So Unpopular

Contra Brooks, it’s not complicated at all.

1. She still has strong and passionate primary opposition. Her general election opponent no longer does. Her net favorability rating among Democrats dropped from 61% in January to 36% in April, and no doubt has fallen further since then. Just eyeballing, this looks like the primary explanation of her dramatic drop in approval in recent months.

That doesn’t mean she’ll necessary recover smartly as soon as the primary is over. It depends on how quickly she can unite her party. If she can do so expeditiously, her approval rating will recover with similar speed – not to wonderful numbers, but at least to middling numbers.

2. She no longer benefits from contrasts with someone disfavored. When she was Secretary of State, she was popular in part because approving of her was one way people who disagreed with this or that about Obama’s policy or tactics could express buyer’s remorse. Maybe Clinton would have gotten a better health care plan through more efficiently; maybe Clinton would have been tougher on Putin; whatever. So she got the approval of those who approved of Obama, plus the approval of some of those who were disappointed in him.

Similarly, when she was First Lady, she was popular in part because approving of her was one way people could express their personal distaste for President Clinton’s behavior without joining the Clinton haters. So she got the approval of those who were loyal to her husband, plus the approval of some of those who were appalled by him but approved of his policies or performance, plus some of those who who had never much liked Bill but thought the Republicans were out to lunch.

Now, because she has for so long been the inevitable nominee, she is the point of comparison, with everyone else being defined as “not Hillary” in this way or that. And, since none of the “everyone else” actually has much of a record that matters, all of these comparisons drag her down, albeit differently with different people.

Again, that may change once we get into the swing of a general election – but it may not. If the election becomes a referendum on Hillary Clinton rather than a choice between alternatives, she’s got a problem.

3. Her husband is not dead, but very much alive, and running what looks like a family scam operation. There are plenty of examples of female politicians inheriting their husband’s or father’s place as party or faction standard-bearer, and even rising to the top of the political heap by doing so. But they usually do so after the man in question is deceased. Hillary Clinton has to define herself as both her husband’s heir and her own person, and she has to do this while Bill is still running around doing whatever he does.

And a bunch of what he does involves his presidential charity. The Clinton Foundation looks to just about everyone like a racket, because it is one, at least in part. It has a thoroughly amorphous mission statement. It doesn’t make grants, instead keeping its money in-house and running its own programs, which for many years were not well-audited. It employs the Clinton family and its cronies. It “convenes global leaders to devise and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” That sounds an awful lot like this kind of mockable nonsense.

And, of course, it pulls donations from wealthy connected individuals, organizations and governments around the world, becoming a walking conflict-of-interest for anyone actually involved in policymaking. As such, it’s a perfect synecdoche for the liberal ruling class’s mode of ruling, the way it gets rich and pats itself on the back for saving the world by doing so, and yet never clearly saves anything.

That, of course, isn’t the whole story about the Clinton Foundation – the organization does run a variety of actual programs – but it’s a big part of the story, and it’s the part that is a PR disaster for Clinton. And it’s a relatively new disaster for her, because only recently has she been both part of the foundation and a candidate for President.

I have no idea how she can fix either part of this – she can’t make her husband go away, and she can’t let herself get into his shadow, and she can’t shake the very negative taint of the family business. And the most amazing thing – to my mind – is that neither of them really seems to see that this is a problem.

4. Nobody likes anybody. Seriously – who is a widely-beloved political figure these days? The last time anybody in national life had that kind of broad popular appeal was the first Obama inaugural, and that honeymoon lasted about five minutes. Trump, like Clinton, is widely-despised – but so is Ted Cruz, and it’s not like there was any love for Jeb Bush. Mitt Romney was only grudgingly accepted by his party, and never managed to connect with the electorate as a whole, despite being an obviously decent and public-minded person. Meanwhile, relative to Congress, Hillary Clinton is downright popular. We may just have to recalibrate to a scale where the baseline level of hatred towards political figures is high relative to historic norms.

The other stuff – personality stuff, bad relationship with the press, lousy speaking style, sexist double-standards – probably all matters, but it doesn’t explain the depths to which she’s fallen.

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Can Anti-Discrimination Be More Discriminating?

jeep2499 / Shutterstock
jeep2499 / Shutterstock

Damon Linker would like it to be.

For far too many contemporary liberals . . . informal, grassroots pressure from civil society never seems to be good enough. Too lazy and impatient to do the hard work of formulating arguments and trying to persuade, and too addicted to sanctimonious displays of moral righteousness, these liberals now prefer to use the ever-expanding edifice of anti-discrimination law to impose edicts from the top down.

Such liberals get to enjoy the satisfaction of reenacting the civil rights movement every few years, holding up victims of ever-new forms of discrimination as heroes of a great moral saga and demonizing those on the other side as bigots. Once the courts accept the narrative, the logic of anti-discrimination locks in, new rights become codified, and the former victims of injustice get to enjoy total victory while decades or centuries of communally based norms, practices, and beliefs get pulverized.

All for the sake of bending the arc of history a few more millimeters toward justice.

This is apropos of the Obama Administration’s decree that schools must allow transgender children to use the bathroom assigned to the gender with which they identify or face a loss of funds and possible legal action. Linker identifies multiple reasons why this action may have been unnecessary: the number of people affected is tiny; the country has far more pressing issues on which to spend political capital; the risk of a backlash against overweening federal authority is real; and there has been little organized opposition to such change where it has taken place voluntarily, and where there has been (as in North Carolina), there has been a robust response from the business community and other segments of society that would likely result in a practical victory without the need for a federal diktat. He concludes, therefore, that the administration made a mistake in taking on the issue as it did.

But I’m puzzled as to how, within the framework of anti-discrimination law, such a political mistake, if it is one, could be avoided? The fact that a small number of people are affected by the issue is irrelevant to the law. Ditto the risk of political backlash. Ditto whether other issues are more important. If this is a legal question, then the only pertinent one is what the law requires, not whether unaffected people think it’s worth spending time on.

Of course, I’m being overly schematic. The government always has a variety of ways of avoiding tackling an issue if it chooses – and so do the courts. The administration could certainly have passed this particular buck around in circles for months without saying anything. But at some point they would have to speak – and answer a question that had been asked. Nothing they could say would magically unask it.

So, however long they hypothetically might have waited to come to a conclusion, to avoid the conclusion the administration did come to, you’d have to accept one or more of the following three propositions:

Either you have to argue that transgender people don’t deserve protection against discrimination because they aren’t a category of people deserving of protection – presumably on the grounds that you can’t “be” transgender, but are only suffering from a delusion. This is, obviously, not a neutral position – it’s an active rejection of the most fundamental claims that transgender people are making about themselves. Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong! Those fundamental claims are very novel, and it would be the height of folly to call them settled and indisputable just because some people feel very strongly about them. But those people are the transgender people themselves, so their claims cannot be casually dismissed either, as many of those alarmed by their novelty seem disappointingly inclined to do.

Or you have to argue that there is a good policy justification for discrimination that has nothing to do with invidious intent. For example, you could argue that biological girls in a locker room might be traumatized by the presence of children who identify as girls but have male anatomy changing with them, and that the protection of their well-being overrides the need to accommodate trans girls in the same locker room. This is an entirely reasonable stance to take – by which I mean it is an appeal to reason, and can be argued against in reasonable terms. But it is also not a neutral position, inasmuch as it affirmatively concludes that discrimination against transgender people (in these narrow circumstances), is rational. If you wonder how such a conclusion would be perceived, at the time or in the light of history, take a look at how “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” played out. Pitched as a compromise and a half-step forward, it was universally understood at the time as a profound setback for gay servicemen and women, and its practical effects fully bear out that negative understanding. Coming to this conclusion, in other words, wouldn’t merely be declining to bend the arc of history a few millimeters toward justice – it would be bending it the other way for a bit.

Or you have to argue that the force of anti-discrimination law in principle can only be brought to bear when the harm exceeds some threshold, and not merely when you can prove that there is discrimination that is invidious. This is also an entirely reasonable stance to take. But to be a neutral position, this higher burden cannot be confined to novel claimants like transgender people. It necessarily implies that racial, religious and other distinct groups would have to clear the same higher hurdle to receive redress for discrimination against them.

Linker says he sees no problem with letting transgender kids use the bathroom they want, so he’s not advocating the first or second position. I doubt he’s spent a lot of time thinking about transgender issues – but neither have I, and so what? Frankly, I doubt that most people on either side of the debate have spent more than a few minutes thinking about these issues. And that’s fine – people should be allowed to think about, and not think about, whatever they want. If a problem presents itself to them directly, then they have to think about it, and we get to find out whether they think about it sensitively or not.

“And what if a given community doesn’t think about it sensitively?” is the question that exercises Linker. He thinks the answer – at least in this case – should be: well, them’s the breaks. Or, rather, that’s the price of subsidiarity, of moral and practical maturity and independence. From the outside, you can complain, and protest, and try to persuade people to change their mind. But if you are a self-governing community, you have the right to get it wrong. And, presumably, you have the right to keep getting it wrong even after time passes and the world changes, if that’s your cussedly stubborn preference.

That’s a habit of mind that went out not in 2016 but in 1964 – for extremely good reasons at the time. If liberals like Linker think those reasons aren’t so good anymore – and there’s certainly a case to be made that they aren’t – then they should argue the case. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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Mansplaining Politics to Hillary Clinton

Meanwhile, over at The Week, I’ve been offering Hillary Clinton some free campaign advice in a series of columns.

In the first column, which you can read here, I focus on the need for Clinton to redefine herself yet again:

On balance, Clinton has the odds in her favor — but nothing is assured. If there’s one thing the Clinton camp surely learned from watching the GOP primaries, it’s that sitting back and waiting for Trump’s inevitable implosion is a good way to lose to him. But if there’s a second thing they surely learned, it’s that running a campaign focused on pointing out the many ways in which Trump transgresses the acceptable bounds of discourse is… a good way to lose to him. And so far, those are the main tacks that Clinton has taken — which is precisely why some of the more politically astute observers are getting nervous.

Clinton should win. But Clinton could lose. So what does she need to do to turn “should” into “will?” . . .

[I]f Clinton can’t be sure to win by sitting on a lead, or by ruling Trump out of order, then she needs to seize the initiative. That means getting the public to pay attention to her, which requires them to believe they will hear something new. But one of Clinton’s problems is that she’s already well-known, and well-known for repeatedly — and unconvincingly — reinventing herself.

And I conclude that the only way to get the country’s attention is by showing that she’s human – which, in Clinton’s case, means showing that she bleeds like the rest of us.

Clinton’s clenched-teeth determination never to show weakness has left her in a place where the only thing that humanizes her is showing her pain and vulnerability. The side voters need to see is the side that gets hurt. It’s the side that gets disrespected, mocked, and — yes — cheated on. That’s the Clinton who voters just might listen to, because they would know, then, that they are hearing from the real her — and they would know, as well, that it was costing her something to tell them whatever she had to say, so she must really want them to hear it.

And that’s the point of showing vulnerability — not to elicit sympathy or a protective impulse, but to get voters to pay attention to her at all. Right now, the biggest risk for Clinton is that nobody is listening. They’re tuning her out, like a teenager tunes out his mother when she tells him to clean up his pigsty of a room. She needs to get the voters in a frame of mind where they are willing to listen. Then she can deliver a message that might persuade.

I don’t think this is generally true of successful female politicians. Margaret Thatcher did not win by showing her vulnerability. But Hillary Clinton isn’t Margaret Thatcher — and, as noted, she has to stop wishing she were a person other than the one she is. In political terms, she’s Coriolanus. She’s seen as haughty, superior, condescending; of acting like she is owed the presidency, like it’s her turn and we should be thankful to have her. She needs to show her wounds, the wounds she received fighting for us, even when we didn’t appreciate it.

Unfortunately, unlike Coriolanus, Clinton can’t just waltz into the marketplace and say, “I have some wounds upon me, and they smart to hear themselves remember’d.” She’ll have to be subtler than that.

Before getting into how she might subtly do that, I wrote another column, which can be found here, going through some of Clinton’s likely objections to such a strategy.

For example:

[S]houldn’t I focus on defining Donald Trump? He’s the new flavor — and most people don’t realize how terrible he is.

Well, let’s consider how that strategy could backfire if deployed in isolation. Let’s say you run a campaign focused on the bigotry of some of Trump’s core supporters, and on the bigoted things Trump himself has said on many occasions. That might well motivate those voters, but Trump’s response — “Hey, I’m not a racist! I’m friends with Mike Tyson; I hired Lynn Patton! You’re just attacking me because I’m not politically correct!” — might motivate his core demographic equally well, depending on which candidate is viewed as more honest.

Moreover, your attacks actually feed Trump’s counter-attack (“you’re attacking me because I’m politically incorrect!”). So the back and forth could wind up building up his narrative, and his appeal, more than yours. You risk defining yourself as the candidate primarily concerned about proper speech and decorum, while Trump defines himself as someone with no time for such niceties because he’s too busy working to make America great again.

I am not arguing that you shouldn’t attack Trump. But you need to think a step or two down the road. If people don’t trust you, then Trump will be in a good position to deflect the actual substance of your attacks, and make the fact that you’re attacking him the real issue. You need to win your audience’s trust first.

Or, for another example:

Who wants to back someone vulnerable and weakWomen support women who roar!

Oh, yes, definitely. You should keep reminding them that you’re a woman, making history, in the face of unfair attacks from men. You should remind them that you are strongly pro-choice and favor a broad interpretation of Title IX. You should stand with Gloria Steinem and Lena Dunham, and you should all sing Helen Reddy together. Right?

Let me make a suggestion. Have Huma put up a picture of Marcia Clark on the inside of the door to your Brooklyn office, to serve as a constant reminder of how to lose a sure thing by misreading your audience. Clark, as you no doubt recall, was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. She thought she had a slam-dunk case and a jury eager to hear it, having stacked it with women who she figured would sympathize with the victim. She failed to account for the possibility that, as African-American women, they might have split sympathies — and that the more she painted Simpson as a cold-blooded killer, and the more she harped on the innocence of his white ex-wife, the more she was pushing their sympathies in the wrong direction, toward standing up for one of their men against a white woman’s defamation.

The 2016 election could present you with a similar problem — even without the explicit racial polarities. Say you focus your energy on attacking Trump and his supporters for being misogynists. You’ll have plenty of fuel for such an attack — but how will the women whose husbands are interested in Trump react? Are they going to let you get between them and their husbands? Or are they going to rally to their defense, and against this insulting, elitist outsider?

To get inside that defense, you can’t rely on female solidarity, or on women’s issues.

The third column should be coming next week. In the meantime, you can find the first two installments here and here.

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What Would a Viable Third-Party Look Like in 2016?

As I fully expected them to, most of the institutional GOP has fallen into line behind their standard-bearer, whatever their private reservations. A handful of intellectuals – mostly neoconservatives who have long had ties to both parties – have openly defected to Clinton, which makes perfect sense since her foreign policy views are largely congenial to them, and foreign policy is what they care about most of all. But most of those who previously expressed disdain or alarm about Trump are being cajoled or bullied into supporting the nominee.

It is still possible that a down-the-line conservative will decide to mount a well-funded third-party campaign, but there is no chance that such a campaign would win any states, with the possible exception of Utah and Idaho, overwhelmingly Republican and Mormon-dominated states where both Clinton and Trump are deeply unpopular. Such a campaign’s only plausible purpose would be to hand Clinton a victory, and thereby demonstrate to Republicans that they dare not in the future nominate anyone who does not have the blessing of the conservative movement.

Whether the GOP would allow itself to be bullied in this manner may be questioned, though Trump’s own success may give the movement ideologues encouragement. But it’s highly doubtful that Trump’s own supporters will be similarly forgiving. And in the worst case, such a bid would, like Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign, permanently discredit the splinter faction. Regardless, a civil war thus engaged would be unlikely to end swiftly, or without malice toward those who launched it.

But is there a third-party challenge that could actually be viable?

The last two viable third-party challenges came from H. Ross Perot in 1992 and George Wallace in 1968. Perot’s opening came from the sullen aftermath of America’s first “jobless recovery,” that followed the recession caused by America’s first modern financial crisis (the collapse of the Savings and Loan industry), and resulting in a ballooning national debt. His main issue was deficit reduction. Wallace’s opening came from the split in the Democrats created by the Civil Rights Act and the surging national crime wave. His main issues were upholding white supremacy and restoring civil order. Both candidacies drew support from both of the major parties’ natural coalitions, and both facilitated the reshaping of those coalitions after their losses.

If the Republicans had nominated a “normal” candidate, then there would be any number of issues that could provide a platform for such a third-party candidate. The most obvious would be in foreign policy. Hillary Clinton may be the single most hawkish Democrat of major stature out there, and if she were facing off against Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or Rick Perry, there would be ample room for a candidate opposed to international military adventures to get traction. Free trade and a relatively liberal immigration policy are two other areas where the candidates would be broadly in agreement – and where there would be room for a third-party challenger.

But Trump, of course, has made those very issues his own. It remains a very real question whether he truly cares about these – or any – issues, but the mere fact that he is running on them means that there is little room for a third party to seize their mantle.

So what could a viable third-party challenger run on? Perhaps the way to get at the answer is to ask: who is being excluded by the current set of major-party choices?

The most obvious answer is: younger voters. Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s primary victories were powered by older voters in their respective parties, and both candidates are distinctly unpopular among voters under 30. Younger voters do have distinct views and interests. They tend to be more dovish, less socially-conservative, more supportive of an active government role in the economy and yet less attached to entitlements that primarily benefit the elderly.

Overall, that sounds mostly like the profile of a part of the Democratic coalition – and, indeed, younger cohorts tend to be the least-Republican-leaning of voters. So a third-party candidacy aimed at winning these voters would just be taking a bite out of Clinton’s hide. Notwithstanding the supposed determination of some of Sanders’s voters never to reconcile with Clinton, I think the appetite for a left-liberal third party among any meaningful number of left-leaning voters is distinctly limited, and hence that such a campaign would never get off the ground.

But there are members of the conservative coalition who would also be sidelined by a Trump/Clinton contest. Anyone with a genuine concern for limited government has no choice that remotely represents their viewpoint. Ditto for anyone primary concerned with defending traditional religious beliefs or the autonomy of local institutions. Trump is a nationalist with authoritarian tendencies, while Clinton is a more traditional Democrat, but one with no particular history of empathy for civil-libertarian causes.

The above would suggest that there might be an opening for a libertarian candidate. Some libertarians hope for exactly that – and with Koch money behind him, Gary Johnson is about to test the proposition as well as it could possibly be tested. I’m skeptical mostly because libertarianism is generally marketed as a totalizing ideology that is appealing only to a tiny minority, and is frequently represented by cranks more concerned with promoting their pet conspiracy theories (generally involving some aspect of monetary policy) than with accomplishing anything – or even advancing their own purported ideas. Moreover, their backers are typically interested in tax reduction and regulatory relief more than anything, which are the part of the libertarian agenda that is least-likely to pull voters out of the Republican coalition. Inasmuch as most libertarians see themselves as part of that coalition, there is likely little appetite for a serious libertarian challenge that would throw the election to Clinton. To put it another way: the Rand Paul that some people imagined existed might have been an interesting alternative to the two major party candidates. The Rand Paul who actually exists is backing Trump. But we’ll see soon enough.

Is there a third-party perspective that would appeal to the hodgepodge of weirdos who read TAC? From one perspective, Donald Trump, by his victory, has vindicated many of the causes for which this magazine was founded in opposition to the conservative movement. From another perspective, he represents the final nail in the coffin of anything that can be called conservative. And it’s possible for both perspectives to be true.

For myself, I’ll be rooting for Hillary Clinton in November. I don’t like her, and I strongly disagree with her in the area – foreign policy – where she demonstrates the strongest convictions. But while, contra Robert KaganI don’t think Donald Trump actually represents an incipient fascism, I do think he’d make a disastrous president, and far worse than Hillary Clinton. And while I delighted at his destruction of a Republican leadership that most definitely deserved destroying, I kind of don’t want him to do the same to the United States of America.

But, particularly since Clinton is certain to win New York no matter what, I’ll definitely be looking at the other choices. And I would be happy if there were a viable small-is-beautiful voice – clean, devolutionist, tolerant and pacifistic – to throw my vote away on. Even though, really, I want the president to be someone colder and tougher-minded than, I don’t know, Zephyr Teachout.

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What David Samuels Wants: Better Readers

I have to admit, I found David Samuels’s defense of his now-infamous New York Times Magazine article to be delightfully amusing. From my perspective, the important paragraph of his defense is this one:

But why were any of them [Rhodes and his fellow staffers] talking to me? I soon surmised that Rhodes’s motivation in allowing me to peek behind the curtain came from a disquiet he felt at the possibility, or the likelihood, that the machinery he managed so brilliantly would soon be in the hands of his successors, who might use it to do things that he thought could be quite dangerous — like goading the United States into another pointless, bloody foreign war. Rhodes readily admitted to me that the work he does is a potentially dangerous distortion of democracy, but he also felt that it had become a necessary evil, caused by the fracturing of the 20th-century mass audience and the decline of the American press. He expressed a deep personal hopelessness about the possibility of open, rational public debate in a brutally partisan climate. But didn’t the country deserve better? I kept asking him. Over time, our conversations around this point evolved, without either of us directly mentioning it, into a kind of gentleman’s bet: My article would go as hard as I could at the truth as I saw it, The Times would publish it, and one of us would be proved right while the other would be proved wrong.

So, let’s unpack this rich paragraph, with a view to the context of the defense as a whole. Samuels is writing a profile of Rhodes. Rhodes is suspiciously cooperative. Samuels wonders: what’s his motive for cooperating? What message does he want Samuels to get across? His answer: Rhodes is trying to expose his own successful manipulation of the press in order to prevent his successor from doing the same. Samuels, concurring that Rhodes manipulated the press and that this is a problem, basically gives Rhodes the spin Samuels thinks he wants. This, supposedly, is totally different from what the journalists Samuels criticizes do when they give administration officials the spin they ask for.

Meanwhile, Samuels wraps that critique of the press around a fierce indictment of the Iran deal itself – an indictment Rhodes can reasonably expect because he knows Samuels and where he is coming from. Nowhere in Samuels’s self-defense does he acknowledge that this is what he is doing in the piece – on the contrary, he protests that he wasn’t ever really an opponent of the deal, but appeared on a panel about how to fight the deal because he and the organizer share interests in literature and sports. He says that his critics are engaged in “fever-dream caricature” when they call him a neocon, but neglects to note that the neoconservative press has latched on to Samuels’s piece as proof that they were right in their complaints about the Iran deal all along.

In other words, Samuels wrote a sly, sophisticated skewering of a man he calls “the bravest person I’ve ever met in Washington,” and of his boss’s approach to foreign policy, a piece that requires the delicate peeling of multiple onion skin layers to fully appreciate – and, when attacked from all sides for shoddy journalism, defends it by saying, “I wrote a piece about how the press can no longer engage in open debate, which leaves them open to partisan manipulation – and see? These attacks on me prove it.” I can only conclude that Samuels’s real complaint is that his rivals and opponents just aren’t playing the game at a level that can keep him from getting bored. Though, I really can’t blame him for that – they mostly aren’t playing the game at a level that keeps me from getting bored either.

Samuels’s original piece, which is all about the manipulation of narrative to persuade, invites to be read with the sophistication that Samuels brought to his reading of the White House’s sales job. On the surface, Samuels’s indictment is that the Iran deal was sold deceptively to the public – the secret negotiations that pre-dated the Iranian elections were kept secret, and the deal was linked to the promise of internal reform in Iran that the administration never really believed in. These surface indictments are readily refuted – indeed, they are largely refuted in Samuels’s own article.

The deeper indictment, though, is that the deal represents a larger tilt toward Iran in American foreign policy and/or a strategic withdrawal from our existing commitments in the Middle East, and this secret agenda was never explained in public. Moreover, the important people who were deceived, in this reading, were not members of the American press, but the leaders of countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia – and former members of Obama’s own administration like Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta. The deception involved convincing them that the administration was committed to using force to prevent Iran from going nuclear if that proved necessary, and thereby making it unnecessary for Israel to launch a far-riskier strike of their own, when in fact the administration did not have any such commitment.

This indictment is impossible to prove or disprove because what’s being claimed is that the real motive behind the deal is still being kept secret. But it’s certainly possible for Samuels to prove that key players believe they were deceived, because they told him so:

As secretary of defense, he [Panetta] tells me, one of his most important jobs was keeping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, from launching a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “They were both interested in the answer to the question, ‘Is the president serious?’ ” Panetta recalls. “And you know my view, talking with the president, was: If brought to the point where we had evidence that they’re developing an atomic weapon, I think the president is serious that he is not going to allow that to happen.”

Panetta stops.

“But would you make that same assessment now?” I ask him.

“Would I make that same assessment now?” he asks. “Probably not.”

Whether Samuels thinks the Obama administration was honest in its intent with the Iran deal is of secondary importance. Whether the press repeated Obama administration spin is of secondary importance. The story is that Hillary Clinton’s people are now saying that they were duped, and they are going on the record about that. Samuels is doing something very similar to what Jeffrey Goldberg does when he recounts conversations with Netanyahu and Obama and so forth. The only difference is that Samuels believes he knows exactly what he is doing, and believes that Goldberg doesn’t, because he believes Goldberg doesn’t understand the way the world really works.

And how does Samuels understand it? Well, to get a handle on that question, it’s worth actually reading that old Slate piece of his predicting (inaccurately) that Israel was going to bomb Iran. Far from being a piece of advocacy, as is being claimed in some quarters, it is a consummate – and consummately cold – piece of analysis. The argument, with substantiating quotes, runs as follows:

1. The Israeli-American relationship is rooted in Israeli power, and the threat that power poses to stability in the region, and hence to American interests.

By shattering the old balance of power in the Middle East with its spectacular military victory in the Six Day War, Israel announced itself to America as the reigning military power in the region and as a profoundly destabilizing influence that needed to be contained.

2. What Israel gets from the alliance – which truly dates from after 1967 – is American protection in the event they are existentially threatened. In exchange, what they have given up is a degree of freedom of action.

Israel traded its freedom to engage in high-risk, high-payoff exploits like the Suez Canal adventure or the Six Day War for the comfort of a military and diplomatic guarantee from the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. As a regional American client, Israel would draw on the military and diplomatic power of its distant patron in exchange for allowing America to use its control over Israel as leverage with neighboring Arab states.

3. What America gets from the alliance is the ability to threaten other regimes with a more unrestrained Israel if they don’t accede to American demands – demands that mostly relate to . . . making peace with Israel.

With each American-brokered peace move—from Camp David to the Madrid Conference to Oslo and Annapolis—the United States has been able to hold up its leverage over Israel as both a carrot and a stick to the Arab world. Do what we want, and we will force the Israelis to behave. The client-patron relationship between the United States and Israel that allows Washington to control the politics of the Middle East is founded on two pillars: America’s ability to deliver concrete accomplishments, like the return of the Sinai to Egypt and the pledge to create a Palestinian state, along with the suggestion that Washington is manfully restraining wilder, more aggressive Israeli ambitions.

The success of the American-Israeli alliance demands that both parties be active partners in a complex dance that involves a lot of play-acting—America pretends to rebuke Israel, just as Israel pretends to be restrained by American intervention from bombing Damascus or seizing the banks of the Euphrates. The instability of the U.S.-Israel relationship is therefore inherent in the terms of a patron-client relationship that requires managing a careful balance of Israeli strength and Israeli weakness. An Israel that runs roughshod over its neighbors is a liability to the United States—just as an Israel that lost the capacity to project destabilizing power throughout the region would quickly become worthless as a client.

4. To retain America as a patron, Israel must periodically demonstrate its independent strength and capabilities, because if it ever became a docile vassal America would have no more use for the relationship.

A corollary of this basic point is that the weaker and more dependent Israel becomes, the more Israeli interests and American interests are likely to diverge. Stripped of its ability to take independent military action, Israel’s value to the United States can be seen to reside in its ability to give the Golan Heights back to Syria and to carve out a Palestinian state from the remaining territories it captured in 1967—after which it would be left with only the territories of the pre-1967 state to barter for a declining store of U.S. military credits, which Washington might prefer to spend on wooing Iran.

The untenable nature of this strategic calculus gives a cold-eyed academic analyst all the explanation she needs to explain Israel’s recent wars against Hezbollah and Hamas, its assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers, and its 2007 attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor. Israel’s attempts to restore its perceived capacity for game-changing independent military action are directed as much to its American patron as to its neighbors.

5. Therefore, Israel should attack Iran not primarily as a way to permanently end Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but as a way to keep America from taking Israel for granted.

The parallels between Israel’s rise to superpower client status after 1967 and Iran’s recent rise offer another strong reason for Israel to act—and act fast. The current bidding for Iran’s favor is alarming to Israel not only because of the unfriendly proclamations of Iranian leaders but because of what an American rapprochement with Iran signals for the future of Israel’s status as an American client. While America would probably benefit by playing Israel and Iran against each other for a while to extract the maximum benefit from both relationships, it is hard to see how America would manage to please both clients simultaneously and quite easy to imagine a world in which Iran—with its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, its control over Hezbollah and Hamas, and easy access to leading members of al-Qaida—would  be the partner worth pleasing.

Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America’s favor. The fact that this approach may be the international-relations equivalent of keeping your boyfriend by shooting the other cute girl he likes in the head is an indicator of the difference between high-school romance and alliances between states—and hardly an argument for why it won’t work.

This is, as I said, a very cold bit of analysis. I don’t know that Samuels believes only in this – that is to say, he may also believe that America and Israel share important common values, that Israel is a moral cause worth supporting for its own sake, that the alliance benefits America through shared intelligence-gathering, and benefits American defense contractors through the required purchases of American military equipment, and so on. But I find it hard to believe that he wrote the piece entirely as an exercise. It reads as something he actually does believe. In which case, one of the things he believes is that American and Israeli interests diverge profoundly, and that Israel’s grand security strategy is focused on blackmailing their superpower patron.

If you believe that, then surely you believe that it would be irrational for the Obama administration to initiate a war with Iran in order to prevent Iran from going nuclear. On the contrary, the rational course would be to deceive Israel into believing that the administration really would risk doing that if necessary, while, in fact, using a mix of carrots and sticks to get Iran to the table to sign the most restrictive deal that Iran could plausibly agree to (since a nuclear Iran would also be a threat American interests, albeit not nearly as profound a threat to America as it would be to Israel, or the Gulf monarchies), and thereby foreclose the possibility of preemptive military action by either America or Israel. Which is precisely what Samuels believes the administration did.

As I cannot reiterate often enough, what’s interesting to me about the piece is the relationship it reveals between the outgoing Obama administration and a possible Clinton administration waiting in the wings. I’m very skeptical that Rhodes was out to cripple a potential Clinton administration’s propaganda machine, simply because I don’t see how cooperating with Samuels would achieve that objective. (Would Twitter suddenly shut down? Would major newspapers triple their spending on foreign correspondents?) Rather, what seems clearest is that both the President and his former Secretary of State wanted to telegraph to the world their deep mutual distrust when it comes to matters of foreign policy, and they used Samuels’s profile as a convenient vehicle for doing so.

My question for Samuels is: does he think Clinton and her team are sincere? Or are they spinning him – and us? And if they are sincere, is it because they are more soft-headed about the way the world works, as he thinks Jeffrey Goldberg is, or more hard-headed about the responsibilities of power?

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The Colossus and Ben Rhodes

Ben Rhodes (L) Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Ben Rhodes (L) Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I was fascinated to read the now-infamous New York Times Magazine piece by David Samuels about Ben Rhodes and the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, with special emphasis on the selling of the Iran deal. If you haven’t read it already, you really ought to. It’s as elegantly brutal, nasty and underhanded as you’ve heard – and, precisely for that reason, a superb piece of writing.

Because the Times is getting bludgeoned for not disclosing Samuels’s public opposition to the nuclear deal, nor his longstanding feud with Jeffrey Goldberg, either or both of which might have been relevant to understanding where the piece was coming from, I should begin with a disclosure of my own: David Samuels is a friend, someone I know socially apart from the journalistic world. So I may have brought a somewhat different perspective to the piece than did those who didn’t know Samuels at all, or who knew him solely from his published work.

The first thing that struck me about the piece is that Rhodes and Samuels have an awful lot in common. They are both New Yorkers, both Jewish (half-Jewish in Rhodes’s case), and – crucially – both people who think of themselves as serious writers. Rhodes abandoned plans to become a novelist after 9-11, shifting his focus to international affairs, and gets praised repeatedly by previous bosses for being able to observe and express the narrative of a policy argument; Samuels, meanwhile, is a journalist who is widely praised for his novelistic approach to detail and the acuity and depth of his profiles, and who writes at least as much about cultural phenomena as about international affairs. It is not hard to imagine an alternate universe in which David Samuels got a job working for the CIA after 9-11, or where Ben Rhodes became a notable member of the anti-Iraq-War press (though he’d probably be more like Spencer Ackerman than like Samuels).

Most important, although Samuels plainly wrote the piece in part to eviscerate the narrative of the Iran nuclear deal’s success, Samuels and Rhodes have more compatible worldviews than might first appear. Specifically, they share a contempt for the foreign policy establishment, a group Rhodes refers to as “The Blob.” Samuels opposed the Iraq War in part because he had no faith in the neoconservative plan to remake the Middle East, and in part because he was capable of thinking a couple of moves ahead on the chess board – for example, to wonder what would happen when we removed Iran’s strongest regional competitor. It cannot have failed to make an impression on Samuels that virtually the entire foreign policy establishment was relatively easily swayed to go along with that foolish project. So when he artfully skewers Rhodes with his own words about manipulating the press to push a narrative, it’s Samuels, even more than Rhodes, who shows deep contempt for his journalistic colleagues, and Iraq is in the background of why.

Samuels prizes giving reality a cold, hard look, and then accepting what you see. He prizes that in himself, and in others. This isn’t a partisan thing; he was as scathing about what he saw as Condoleezza Rice’s illusions as he is about what he sees as Obama’s. When Rhodes – or his boss – seem like they are doing serious realpolitik, he has respect for that. When, at the end of the piece, he baits Rhodes about Henry Kissinger, it’s not because he wants Rhodes to recoil from what he is doing, or what he has become. It’s because he wants him to face the responsibilities of power.

That’s what Samuels is not convinced the Obama team were doing when they made a deal with Iran. On the surface, the piece is about how they sold the deal with deceptive happy talk about reform and change in Iran and so forth – a claim that, frankly, isn’t especially damning and whose most damning particulars have been widely debunked. (Fred Kaplan links to many of the best debunking and makes his own contributions to boot.) But underneath the surface, it’s about whether the Obama Administration ever truly reckoned with the potential consequences of an American withdrawal from the Middle East, or whether they allowed themselves to escape that reckoning by saying, in effect, that whatever happens isn’t their fault because the place was irretrievably wrecked by their predecessors.

I want to bracket the question of whether Samuels is right about those consequences, as well as about whether the Obama Administration is really facilitating such a withdrawal (Yemen, anyone?), because that would require a lot more space and would take us off on a considerable tangent. But I think his perspective is something like this. American hegemony, the belief that America is willing to spend considerable blood and treasure to prevent any meaningful changes in the balance of power in the Middle East (and Iran going nuclear would certainly be a meaningful change), is all that has prevented an all-out struggle for supremacy between Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As soon as that commitment comes into question, all bets are off. Iran might go nuclear – or Saudi Arabia might out of fear of Iran. Turkey might make a bid to replace Saudi Arabia as the dominant Sunni power – or Egypt might. Then there’s the risk of an Islamist takeover of any number of regimes in the region, as an American withdrawal prompts a shift in focus to the near enemy, or a turn toward Islamism by one or more regimes in an effort to forestall that outcome. Syria’s Civil War is the Spanish Civil War of the Middle East, the proxy war between the region’s powers that prefigures a much more devastating conflict to come. And we don’t seem to have any idea what we even want to do about it.

One ready response to make to that picture is: yes, but what can we do about it. That’s pretty much exactly what Ben Rhodes says to him. And Samuels’s main retort to this response is: dude, I don’t work for the National Security Council. You do. Own the job. There’s nobody out there to pass the buck to.

That’s what the piece is about.

One last point. There’s been a lot of chatter about how foolish Ben Rhodes was to walk into Samuels’s trap, and how bad he made his boss look. But his boss is on his way out. The person who has something on the line isn’t Obama – it’s Hillary Clinton. It comes as no surprise that her people – like Leon Panetta – proved more than eager to talk to Samuels, more than eager to backpedal on previous support for Obama’s Iran strategy, and barely willing to defend the President by blaming his aides for keeping information from him. By the same token, it’s not terribly surprising to hear Rhodes classify Hillary Clinton as part of “the Blob” that he blames for the catastrophic state of the Middle East.

But we should be surprised. It’s kind of amazing that the President is prepared to let his own former Secretary of State hang out to dry, letting her take the fall for the Libyan debacle and generally impugning her performance in her most significant previous office. Yes, he’s right in a sense, inasmuch as Clinton was the prime proponent of going to war in Libya, not to mention the fiercest advocate of using force to topple President Assad in Syria. But on a purely political level, Obama is clearly trying to protect his own legacy at the expense of his potential successor. And it’s even more amazing that Clinton is this willing to disparage a sitting President of her own party who is far more popular than she is, and in the service of a foreign policy agenda that is not only deeply unpopular but which has no demonstrated record of success, and is implicated with her own worst failures in office.

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