Dealing Out Death

Thou shalt not kill. That seventh Commandment was a problem from the start:

The Exodus narrative describes the people as having turned to idolatry with the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain receiving the law from God. When Moses came down, he commanded the Levites to take up the sword against their brothers and companions and neighbors. The Levites obeyed and killed about three thousand men who had sinned in worship of the golden calf. As a result, Moses said that the Levites had received a blessing that day at the cost of son and brother. On a separate occasion, a blasphemer was stoned to death because he blasphemed the name of the LORD with a curse.

There were exceptions from the first – capital punishment if not mass execution is fine, for what is considered an unforgiveable crime at the time, like worshiping that golden calf, and warfare and self-defense offer exemptions too. The unforgivable crimes, however, do change over time. Lying about virginity (Deuteronomy 22:20-21) and consulting a psychic or spiritualist (Leviticus 19:31) and cursing your parents (Exodus 21:17, Leviticus 20:9) no longer get anyone stoned to death, if they ever did. The Old Testament was softened in the New Testament – many of these matters were politely ignored – as the emphasis shifted from God’s righteous anger with us all to His love for us all, every one of us. He sent us Jesus after all, to die for our sins. Perhaps we should stop killing each other.

That was the general idea, but this called for a whole new subset of theology – Just War Theory – and Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas had a few things to say about that. There must be a just cause for war – not a whim or paranoia or a simple land grab – and comparative justice – the injustice suffered by one party really must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other – and competent authority – a sensible political system deciding to wage war, not a random bunch of jerks – and right intention – the righting an actual wrong – and a probability of success, used as a last resort, and proportionality is nice too. We were told not to kill each other. We had to work out a way we could, one that wouldn’t make Jesus weep. We’re still working on that.

Killing in self-defense is easier. That presents no ethical challenges. The person whose life is in danger has the right to defend his or her life, but of course things are never that simple. The person whose life is in danger has options other than using deadly force to mitigate that danger. Don’t kill the other guy – walk away. Police officers in some places are taught de-escalation techniques, even if many of them, seeing themselves as warriors, hate that sort of thing. Many carry Tasers – there’s no need to blow the other guy’s brains out. And then there’s the matter of interpretation. Was the person who thought his or her life was in danger really in danger, or did they panic, or were they simply overwhelmingly angry at being disrespected, or were they just one more dimwitted jerk with seething cultural or racial resentments, or drunk with the power of the uniform?

That’s speculation. Perhaps their life was in danger. Were you there? They were. Take their word for it. There was just cause, they were a competent authority, this was a last resort, and the response was proportional. Who can say otherwise? The other party is dead.

In these matters, the bias has always been toward sanctioning the use of deadly force, or has been until recently. George Zimmerman – the neighborhood watch wannabe cop – shot and killed an unarmed black kid, who seemed to pose no threat to anyone, after Zimmerman was told by the real police to back off and wait for them. Yes, Zimmerman was not found guilty of anything, but it wasn’t easy for him to get there from the evidence, or lack of evidence. In Missouri, that cop in Ferguson shot and killed an unarmed black kid who also seemed to pose no threat to anyone, and that cop was not indicted for anything, but the country exploded in outrage, and in outrage at the outrage. The matter of that unarmed black man in Staten Island being choked to death by the white cop, for nothing much at all, when there were other options available, was caught on camera, but that made no difference. The local grand jury indicted no one for anything. The use of deadly force is fine. Many thought it wasn’t. Something was changing.

This month, when the inevitable white cop in South Carolina shot and killed the inevitable unarmed black man, who seemed to pose no threat to anyone, the cop was charged with murder – finally, no one believed that stuff about how the officer feared for his life. There was video. That was bullshit. Even the folks on Fox News would not defend this guy. We had a national epiphany. It has become too easy to casually deal out death in this country, under the guise of authority, claiming just cause.

Next up is the death penalty. We’re one of the few nations on earth that still maintains that the state has the right to kill one of its citizens, who did the unforgivable, even if the Innocence Project every few months manages to spring another guy from death row, who didn’t do the unforgivable at all. The system screwed up. Set that against the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 – the federal law that now makes it next to impossible to file a second or third appeal of a death sentence, no matter what has come up. That passed 91-8 in the Senate and 293-133 in the House – after the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings. Bill Clinton signed that with a smile. You get one shot. There can be no multiple appeals. You’re gonna die.

There are ways around that, but we are a bloodthirsty lot, and someone has had enough of this:

Earlier this month, a jury convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on a litany of counts relating to the Boston Marathon bombing two years ago and its aftermath. That same jury is also going to gather in the coming days to decide whether Tsarnaev should be sentenced to death for his actions.

The parents of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy killed in the explosion, do not want to wait. In an open letter, they called on the federal government to stop seeking the death penalty, which they said could lead to years of appeals that would only prolong the case.

“We are in favor of and would support the Department of Justice in taking the death penalty off the table in exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal,” William and Denise Richard wrote in a statement published Friday on the front page of the Boston Globe.

Should the government kill this guy? Should the government not kill this guy? Screw that. They want this over:

In their letter, they outline the brutal situation they have faced since the April 2013 bombing. They described how they grieved for one child while also facing their own injuries and severe injuries to their young daughter, Jane, who lost most of her left leg.

“We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed,” they said. “We were there. We lived it. The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul.”

Isn’t that enough? No, the government wants to play by the rules:

Martin was one of three people killed in the explosions, which also injured more than 260 others. His age is expected to be cited by prosecutors as an “aggravating factor” that the jurors should consider when debating whether Tsarnaev should be sentenced to lethal injection or life in prison without parole.

The U.S. federal death penalty statute lists several potential aggravating factors when considering a possible death sentence, one of which is whether victims were “particularly vulnerable” because of their age. When prosecutors announced that they intended to seek the death penalty, they wrote in their court filing last year that Richard “was particularly vulnerable due to youth.”

While Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. personally opposes capital punishment, he said last year that prosecutors would still seek the death penalty due to “the nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm.”

And so it goes:

Tsarnaev was found guilty on all 30 counts he faced, and 17 of them carried a possible death sentence. Jurors selected for this case had to demonstrate that they could be impartial and they also had to show they were willing to sentence Tsarnaev to death if he was convicted. The penalty phase in the trial begins next week.

The nation will be riveted. Can we kill this guy, please, pretty please? These parents don’t want to have any part of that:

While the Richards say they appreciate “the tireless and committed prosecution team,” they said they just wanted the case to be over. The Richards said that they were speaking only for themselves and not for any of the other survivors or families of the victims.

If the jurors do sentence Tsarnaev to death, that “could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives,” the Richards said. That lengthy process could also lead to their surviving children growing up with an ongoing reminder of what the family lost, they added.

“As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours,” they said. “The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens, is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.”

They are not opposed to the death penalty, or for it. This isn’t a moral issue. They have other concerns, so let the guy live and be done with it.

Fine, but in the Los Angeles Times, Michael McGough says this is none of their business:

It’s a powerful appeal, but federal prosecutors should ignore it. It would be equally wrong for the government to seek the death penalty because the family endorsed it.

If this sounds unfeeling, it’s probably because of the increasingly prevalent view that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to avenge private wrongs and provide closure for crime victims and their families.

That idea has been encouraged by the rise of a victims’ rights movement and the tendency of legislators to portray new criminal laws as responses to individual injustices – the “Megan’s Law” phenomenon.

Ah yes, Megan’s Law:

Megan’s Law is an informal name for laws in the United States requiring law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders, which was created in response to the murder of Megan Kanka. Individual states decide what information will be made available and how it should be disseminated. Commonly included information is the offender’s name, picture, address, incarceration date, and nature of crime. The information is often displayed on free public websites, but can be published in newspapers, distributed in pamphlets, or through various other means.

At the federal level, Megan’s Law is known as the Sexual Offender (Jacob Wetterling) Act of 1994, and requires persons convicted of sex crimes against children to notify local law enforcement of any change of address or employment after release from custody (prison or psychiatric facility). The notification requirement may be imposed for a fixed period of time – usually at least ten years – or permanently. … Megan’s Law provides two major information services to the public: sex offender registration and community notification.

That may be a good thing, but its constitutionality is always questioned, and McGough adds this:

Some of what the victims’ rights movement has achieved is perfectly defensible. The federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act, similar to some state statutes, requires that crime victims be protected from the accused and that they be given timely notice of court proceedings or the release or escape of the accused.

But the law also confers on crime victims the “right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding” – a guarantee some victims’ rights groups want to add to the U.S. Constitution.

This is much more problematic. Obviously, victims of crime should be treated with respect, and they have a legitimate stake in the vigorous prosecution of those who harmed them. True, one purpose of the criminal justice system is to eliminate the need – and the justification – for private vengeance. But crimes are also crimes against society in general.

The prosecutor at a criminal trial represents the public, not just the victim. That’s why criminal cases in California are styled “The People v. [Defendant]” and why the federal indictment against Tsarnaev was captioned “United States of America v. Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev,” not “Bill and Denise Richard v. Tsarnaev.”

When U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced last year that the government would seek the death penalty in this case, he cited the “nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm.” Right or wrong that was his call and not that of the victims’ families.

The state has its death-to-the-bad-guys mechanisms, and those mechanisms have their own momentum now. Don’t get in the way, but this is curious:

Meanwhile, a new poll finds support for capital punishment at 40-year low point: The majority of Americans (56 percent to 38 percent) still support the death penalty, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. That’s a 22-point shift away from support since 1996.

Although support for the death penalty has fallen among Republicans, Democrats and independents, the biggest change has come among Democrats. In 1996, 71 percent of them supported capital punishment, with 87 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents in favor. Just 16 points between Democrats and Republicans then, but 37 points difference now. Support for the death penalty in the latest survey was 40 percent among Democrats, 77 percent among Republicans and 57 percent among independents.

In the last presidential election cycle, at the Republican debate at the Reagan Library when Rick Perry was asked about the two-hundred and thirty or more people he’s executed on death row during his governorship, the audience burst into applause. Andrew Sullivan just didn’t get it:

A spontaneous round of applause for executing people! And Perry shows no remorse, not even a tiny smidgen of reflection, especially when we know for certain that he signed the death warrant for an innocent man. Here’s why I find it impossible to be a Republican: any crowd that instantly cheers the execution of 234 individuals is a crowd I want to flee, not join.

There is this in-depth analysis of the Perry executions, arranged in order of their controversy. Jonathan Chait reported that one of Perry’s admirers was in awe – because it “takes balls to execute an innocent man!” That item clears up that fact that the one man in question was clearly innocent. Perry signed the execution order anyway. Maybe it will be different this time around.

The late Christopher Hitches had said this:

Arthur Koestler opened his polemic against capital punishment in Britain by saying that the island nation was that quaint and antique place, where citizens drove on the left hand side of the road, drank warm beer, made a special eccentricity of the love of animals, and had felons “hanged by the neck until they are dead.” Those closing words – from the formula by which a capital sentence was ritually announced by a heavily bewigged judge – conveyed in their satisfyingly terminal tones much of the flavor and relish of the business of judicially inflicted death.

The last hanging in Britain occurred in 1964. Across the channel in France, the peine de mort was done away with by the Mitterrand administration in the early 1980s.

So the two great historic homelands of theatrical capital punishment – conservative Britain with its “bloody code” and exemplary gibbetings described by Dickens and Thackeray, and Jacobin France with its humanely utilitarian instrument of swift justice for feudalism promoted by the good Doctor Guillotine – have both dispensed with the ultimate penalty.

But Hitchens does point out that reasoning was somewhat different on each side of the Channel:

In Britain there had been considerable queasiness as a consequence of a number of miscarriages of justice that had led to the hanging of the innocent. In France, in the memorable words of Mitterrand’s Minister of Justice, M. Robert Badinter, the scaffold had come to symbolize “a totalitarian concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state.”

And that is the question. The state can execute whomever it wants to execute, for whatever reason the state chooses, in a totalitarian society. And no one wants a totalitarian society, anywhere. Maybe the Brits do, sort of, but no one else does. And of course, in Europe, the French view won:

Since then no country has been allowed to apply for membership or association with the European Union without, as a precondition, dismantling its apparatus of execution. This has led states like Turkey to forego what was once a sort of national staple. The United Nations condemns capital punishment – especially for those who have not yet reached adulthood – and the Vatican has come close to forbidding if not actually anathematizing the business. This leaves the United States of America as the only nation in what one might call the West that does not just continue with the infliction of the death penalty but has in the recent past expanded its reach. More American states have restored it in theory and carried it out in practice, and the last time the Supreme Court heard argument on the question it was to determine whether capital punishment should be inflicted for a crime other than first-degree murder (the rape of a child being the suggested pretext for extension).

And that puts us in the company of Iran and China and Sudan. Hitchens finds that odd. Why is the United States so enamored of the death penalty?

Dahlia Lithwick offered this:

Advances in science and the empirical research on erroneous convictions are only going to create more doubt in the future. There is an almost unlimited supply of prosecutorial error and misconduct to draw on, and as it grows so will public uncertainty. And as the new media and social media broaden the debate about the death penalty, the folks who are leery of that uncertainty are ever more likely to be heard. America’s conversation over capital punishment has long been weighted toward the interests of finality. But there is a growing space for reason and doubt and scientific certainty. It’s hardly a surprise that prosecutors, courts, and clemency boards favor finality over certainty. That – after all – is the product they must show at the end of the day.

That is the problem, and then there’s Matthew Yglesias:

My view is that we shouldn’t execute people. We shouldn’t execute mass murderers. We shouldn’t execute cop killers. We shouldn’t execute child rapists. We shouldn’t execute terrorists. We should be seeking – so far as possible – to minimize the level of officially sanctioned violence and killing in order to promote a healthier, less bloodthirsty public culture. Executing murderers is clearly not in any sense a necessary element of an effective crime control regime, so we should do without it.

Albert Camus in Reflections on the Guillotine put it this way:

But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.

Who needs this? But forget the moral issues. Those parents in Boston just find the whole business of dealing out death pointless. It advances nothing. Perhaps we can move on.

Posted in Capital Punishment, Death Penalty, Use of Deadly Force | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Between the Potency and the Existence

In 1925 – the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby and we had that epic Scopes trial in Tennessee over teaching evolution, or even science, in our schools – T. S. Eliot was in London and in a foul mood. His wife, Vivienne, was having an affair with Bertrand Russell. Or maybe she wasn’t. Or maybe she was. In these matters it’s always best to assume the worst. Things are always what they seem. Only fools kid themselves, and major poets don’t lie to themselves. They don’t lie about anything. They traffic in emotional honesty, so that was the year Eliot published The Hollow Men:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

That’s part of the poem, which ends with the famous chant:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Damn, he was in a bad mood. The poem may not be about the business with his wife at all – larger cultural issues were at play – but as expression of bitter disillusionment, that’s hard to beat. There’s always that damned shadow. Intentions are only intentions. I will love you forever. There will be peace in our time, after that awful War to End All Wars – Mussolini rose to power in Italy in 1925 – and God has a plan. He won’t let bad things happen. Yeah, right – and this year in America, those who have told us that they are running for president, or will soon tell us they are, want to do good things for us, just the ordinary folks, not for the few absurdly rich donors who underwrite their campaigns. Everyone’s a populist these days, and they’ll love us forever, even if we can’t write them a check for ten millions dollars every weekend.

Ah well, it’s the season of intentions, and this was the week for signaling intentions:

Hillary Clinton used Times Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list to pay tribute to Elizabeth Warren – a lawmaker some liberals hope will challenge the former secretary of state for the 2016 Democratic nomination. In the short piece, Clinton touts Warren as a champion for the middle class and nods to the duos interesting relationship when she writes that Warren “never hesitates to hold powerful people’s feet to the fire: bankers, lobbyists, senior government officials and, yes, even presidential aspirants.”

“Elizabeth Warren’s journey from janitor’s daughter to Harvard professor to public watchdog to U.S. Senator has been driven by an unflagging determination to level the playing field for hardworking American families like the one she grew up with in Oklahoma,” Clinton writes. “She fights so hard for others to share in the American Dream because she lived it herself.”

Hillary Clinton is just glad Warren refuses to run – Warren seems convinced she can do more for ordinary folks from her Senate seat – and Warren isn’t buying Clinton’s new-found populism:

“I think we need to give her a chance… to lay out what she wants to run on. I think that is her opportunity to champion issues the senators feels are important,” Warren said on NBC’s “Today” when asked if Clinton was the right messenger for the Democratic Party.

Intentions are only intentions, but Clinton is worried:

Clinton has sought advice from the Massachusetts senator “several times” in the last year, a source with knowledge of Clinton’s plans told CNN in February, a sign of how important Warren’s wing of the Democratic Party is to the foundation of a would-be presidential bid for the former secretary of state.

Clinton must have asked how one does this populist thing. Rand Paul, on the other hand, simply kissed ass:

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also gave tribute to a political force that’s certain to influence his presidential run – Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers behind a network of outside spending groups that are expected to spend nearly one billion dollars in the upcoming election.

But Paul, in his Time 100 blurb on the brothers, downplays their campaign spending and instead highlights “their passion for freedom and their commitment to ideas,” which he says is “underappreciated.”

He wants some of that cash. Running for president is expensive, but the Clinton thing did bother a few folks:

On “Morning Joe” Wednesday morning, host Mika Brzezinski said that Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was onto something with a more economically populist message, but needed make it come across as more organic…

“If this is going to resonate with people, it has to stop sounding like she talked to Elizabeth Warren on the phone and then repeated everything Elizabeth Warren said,” Brzezinski said. “I wish she had said this before the two of them met and people started talking about Elizabeth Warren.”

The rest of the panel pointed out that economic populism had become everybody’s message, even Ted Cruz’s.

“I want to believe it, I guess is my point,” Brzezinski said. “I want to believe this is her message.”

Many do, and Brent Budowsky at The Hill argues that Clinton is doing all the right things:

Clinton is making political reform one of the cornerstone issues in her campaign for the White House. She has begun a frontal assault against the widely unpopular Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which would allow the wealthiest Americans to buy elections and dominate policymaking in Washington by spending unlimited money, often in secret, on political campaigns.

By taking this bold position and calling for a national movement supporting a constitutional amendment to achieve this goal if necessary, Clinton is offering presidential-level leadership to give voice and support to the powerful feeling of a large majority of Americans that dramatic change is urgently needed in the corrupted ways that Washington does business.

I have long argued that the conservative majority of Supreme Court justices has poisoned our politics and corrupted our democracy through decisions that have, on the one hand, given the wealthiest Americans the power dominate our democracy and, on the other hand, taken away from poor and middle-class Americans vital protections for their right to vote – the heart of what truly makes America exceptional.

The Citizens United decision that Clinton will fight to reverse is one of the most unpopular decisions in modern judicial history. Poll after poll has proven that majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents agree with progressives, populists and Clinton that this reprehensible decision should be reversed.

He’s all-in:

By putting these matters at the center of her campaign, Clinton becomes the champion of a better future, a more just society and a fairer and more prosperous economy in which all Americans can move ahead without any being left behind. In her call for change and reform by overturning the heinous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, Clinton is supported by a majority of Republicans, independents and Democrats.

For the Clinton campaign and populist progressives, this cause opens the door to a game-changing national movement that could include grassroots movements in every state that allow ballot initiatives to mobilize, organize and turn out voters to elect Democratic candidates for the House, Senate and statewide office.

Hillary Clinton has had her first big moment of the 2016 campaign. The spirits of progressive populists have been lifted.

But he’s still worried:

I am a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton for president, but here is my warning to her: American voters don’t want to be sold a “new Hillary,” which is reminiscent of an earlier politician whose handlers invented the term “new Nixon.” They want to be trusted enough to be let into the world of the REAL Hillary, informed enough about her vision and plans for America to believe their lives will be made better if she is elected president, and inspired enough to make the metaphysical leap that is the heart of presidential politics and conclude that the first woman president would also be a good and potentially great president. …

The great question about Clinton, which is widely shared and could ultimately derail her aspirations, is this: Clinton has conquered the barriers of sexism, but can she conquer the barriers of calculation, caution and cadres of consultants who appear to endlessly whisper in her ear to tell her who she is and what she stands for?

Politico reports that people are taking bets on that:

Hillary Clinton sounded like a woman on a mission after her long drive into the heartland: “There’s something wrong,” she told Iowans on Tuesday, when “hedge fund managers pay lower taxes than nurses or the truckers I saw on I-80 when I was driving here over the last two days.”

But back in Manhattan, the hedge fund managers who’ve long been part of her political and fundraising networks aren’t sweating the putdown and aren’t worrying about their take-home pay just yet.

It’s “just politics,” said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street, explaining that some of Clinton’s Wall Street supporters doubt she would push hard for closing the carried-interest loophole as president, a policy she promoted when she last ran in 2008.

“The question is not going to be whether or not hedge fund managers or CEOs make too much money,” said a separate Clinton supporter who manages a hedge fund. “The question is, how do you solve the problem of inequality? Nobody takes it like she is going after them personally.”

Indeed, many of the financial-sector donors supporting her just-declared presidential campaign say they’ve been expecting all along the moment when Clinton would start calling out hedge fund managers and decrying executive pay – right down to the complaints from critics that such arguments are rich coming from someone who recently made north of $200,000 per speech and who has been close to Wall Street since her days representing it as a senator from New York.

Everyone knows what’s going on here:

In the words of Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who now advises Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist hedge-fund manager and donor: “The fact is that any Democrat running for president would talk about this. It’s as surprising as the sun rising in the east.”

This sort of thing has ripple-effects:

The liberal group MoveOn, which is working to draft Warren, on Wednesday pointed to an earlier statement insisting that it wouldn’t back down on encouraging Warren to run.

And the calls of hypocrisy came swiftly from the Republican National Committee: “It’s hard to take Hillary Clinton seriously when she charges over four times what the average person makes to give a 90 minute speech, and when the Clintons’ own income has exceeded the CEO pay she now decries. There are clearly no limits on phoniness and hypocrisy for Clinton’s campaign,” said spokesman Michael Short. …

There are persistent doubts, even among past Clinton supporters such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, about whether Clinton will go very far in reining in tax policies and compensation practices that favor the rich. … De Blasio, her former Senate campaign manager, who has so far declined to endorse her for president, will keep his voice in the debate by heading to Iowa on Thursday. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – who is also considering a presidential bid – told Bloomberg he was not convinced by Clinton’s recent language.

And so it goes:

Anyway, say senior financiers, any grumbling comes from those who do not understand political reality or who are predisposed to oppose Clinton. They take refuge in the idea that Clinton’s rhetoric is more reflective of political necessity than some deep-seated animosity toward the wealthy.

“Basically this is a Rorschach test for how politically sophisticated people are,” said one Democrat at a top Wall Street firm. “If someone is upset by this it’s because they have no idea how populist the mood of the country still is. And what she said is just demonstrably true. People at the top have done well and those at the bottom not so well.”

“The fact is,” the Democrat added, “if she didn’t say this stuff now she would be open to massive attacks from the left, and would have to say even more dramatic stuff later.”

Ah, that explains it. This is a test for how politically sophisticated people are, but Matt Taibbi calls her idealist porridge is not too hot, not too cold, but just fake enough:

“There’s something wrong,” she told a crowd of Iowans, “when hedge fund managers pay lower taxes than nurses or the truckers I saw on I-80 when I was driving here over the last two days.”

Oh, right, that. The infamous carried interest tax break, the one that allows private equity vampires like Mitt Romney and Stephen Schwartzman to pay a top tax rate of 15 percent while all of the rest of us (including the truckers Hillary “saw” – note she didn’t say “hung out with Bill and me over chilled shrimp at the Water Club”) pay income taxes.

The carried interest loophole is an absurd, completely unjustifiable handout to the not merely well-off but filthy rich, and it’s been law in this country for about three decades.

Raise your hand if you really think that Hillary Clinton is going to repeal the carried interest tax break.

Still, people buy it:

Newspapers and news sites ever-so-slightly raised figurative eyebrows at the tone of Hillary’s announcement, remarking upon its “populist” flair.

This is no plutocrat who plans to ride to the White House upon a historically massive assload of corporate money, the papers declared – this is a candidate of the people!

“Hillary’s Return: Her Folksy, Populist Re-Entry,” proclaimed Politico. “Populist Theme, Convivial in Tone!” headlined the Los Angeles Times. “Hillary Lifts Populist Spirits,” commented The Hill, hook visibly protruding from its reportorial fish-mouth.

Taibbi expected this and knows what comes next:

In presidential politics, every time a candidate on either the left or the right veers in a populist direction – usually with immediate success, since the American populace is ready to run through a wall for anyone who makes the obvious observation that they’re being screwed by someone up above – it takes about two or three days before the “Let’s let cooler heads prevail!” editorials start trickling in.

These chin-scratching op-eds arrive on time every time, like clockwork. They declare that populism is all well and good, and of course a necessary strategy for getting elected, but the “reality” is that once in office, one has to govern.

And since the people are a stupid, angry mob, these op-eds say, and don’t know how to govern themselves, the politician will have to abandon the populism sooner or later.

Then there’s another kind of “cooler heads” editorial. This one makes note of the candidate’s populist rhetoric, and maybe even applauds it as good solid political strategy.

But then the editorialist quietly reassures us that these speeches are all a pose, and that once in office, the candidate will revert back to being the shamelessly bought-off creature of billionaire interests he or she always has been.

So it was with Hillary this week. Just days after she came out shaking a fist to an announcement routine that transparently read like a medley of Elizabeth Warren’s greatest stump hits, the press started with their “cooler heads prevail” pieces.

Then there was James Kirchick in the Spectator:

Americans, unlike Europeans, do not hate the rich. We want to be them, not soak them. Perhaps the winning strategy for Hillary, then, is to quit the unconvincing pose of being one of the little guys and stop apologizing for and explaining away her wealth. That, after all, would be the American way.

Americans actually like rich people. That’s why we elected Mitt Romney. No, wait… we didn’t? And then there are those folks on Wall Street, who amuse Taibbi:

Yes, back to that, the carried interest issue. Promising, and then failing, to repeal the carried interest tax break is fast becoming a Democratic tradition, so much so that I’m beginning to wonder if not fixing this problem is an intentional move, designed to ensure that Democrats always have something to run on in election seasons.

In both the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, Barack Obama either decried the tax “trick” or overtly promised to close the loophole.

Obama’s remarks about carried interest pretty much always sound exactly like Hillary’s remarks this week. He gave a Rose Garden speech in 2011, in advance of his race against Romney, in which he rejected “the notion that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or teacher is class warfare.”

But Obama and the Democrats never really did anything about the loophole, even when they had the power to do so. And if you go back, you will find “cooler heads prevail” pieces popped up every time the president mentioned carried interest.

“Carried Interest and the Limits of Populism,” an Washington Examiner piece from last year, was typical: it noted that the tax break “sounds” unfair, but that if you look at the details, you’ll find that such incentives are really at the core of capitalism and are what make America work, etc.

Expect more of this:

It doesn’t matter that these op-eds usually come in the conservative or centrist press. They’re part of a psychological cycle, designed to make voters think that the things that they really want, like tax fairness or prosecution of white collar crooks or ends to wars or illegal surveillance or torture or whatever, are just pie-in-the-sky aims that inevitably perish when they run into the “reality” of governance.

And that brings things back to T. S. Eliot:

The campaign season is a time of promises. Election and subsequent rule, we are to understand, are a time of disappointments, coupled with the behind-the-scenes repayment in favors for financial support – usually described to us using more gentle names like “pragmatism” or “reality.”

Editorialists like to talk about the two things, ideals and reality, as totally separate and distinct. Idealism, the stuff of campaign promises, is usually pooh-poohed as “purity politics,” while the cold transactional politics of Beltway deal-making and incremental change are usually applauded as “pragmatism.”

On the campaign trail, reporters (and I’ve seen this with my own eyes) have a clear bias against idealistic candidates, and often bombard them early in the campaign with “This candidate can’t win in the general election” pieces.

So it was with Howard Dean and even Mike Huckabee, where reporters for some reason worried on behalf of voters about the fact that the candidates’ idealistic, populist rhetoric was so sincere that it might turn off the big-money wings of their own parties, making them non-viable and “unserious” going forward.

Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow, and so it is with Hillary Clinton:

At launch she talked a streak of anti-elitist rhetoric that was taken seriously for a few days, until the punditry took the temperature of her populism and declared to it be the right kind: the fake kind, the purely strategic kind.

The cognoscenti even seemed to applaud Clinton for sounding enough like Elizabeth Warren to preclude the necessity of the actual Elizabeth Warren running for president, Warren being the wrong kind of populist, the real kind.

The punditry should embrace the real idealists and hammer the fakes. Instead we get this sleazy process in which the fakes are called smart and yet still allowed to market themselves as the real thing. It would be nice, for once, if we did things in reverse.

Lots of things would be nice, but it’s best to remember how Eliot opened that 1925 poem:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar…

That should have been on the cover of Time this week – but maybe that only applies to politicians. The rest of them are just fine.

Posted in Hillary Clinton, Populist Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Beat Goes On

It’s probably best to forget 1967 – but maybe you had to be there. That was the year that Sonny and Cher were singing The Beat Goes On – one of the most irritating pop songs of all time. It was more of chant, actually, with something like lyrics – stuff happens all the time, and keeps happening. Indeed it does. So what? This was market-tested schlock, but it was a big hit, and Sonny Bono eventually ended up in Congress, as a sour Republican mad at everything. He never did get the sixties, and then he died in office – a skiing accident in 1998. Cher sang that song at his funeral, and those four words are on his tombstone. Visit his grave at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City out here, next door to Palm Springs, if you like irony. The beat didn’t go on.

The song, however, is a bit of an earworm – it’s easy to find yourself humming at as you follow the news, as this is the start of another cycle of folks announcing that they’re running for president. The beat goes on. Ted Cruz announced. He wants to repeal all of Obamacare. The wrong sorts of people are getting government help buying health insurance, and the new insurance standards offend all Christians. In fact, everything Obama has done offends all Christians, and Israel, so Cruz’s notion is to mobilize all the angry white social conservatives in America and get every last one of them to finally vote, to overwhelm the ungodly. They’d elect him. That’s his vision, but a few days later Rand Paul announced. Paul has a libertarian vision – but not as nutty as his father’s musings of course – that government is useless and should do next to nothing, here and abroad. If you elect him to run the government, he’ll get the government out of your hair. He’ll keep it from doing much of anything. That’s freedom. That’s his vision. Jeb Bush will announce soon, as the “good” Bush after two duds. Hillary Clinton announced. She just wants the job, because she wants the job. That’s a much as we know. When Scott Walker announces he’ll present his vision. Everyone knows that already – stupid regulations and greedy, whining American workers (who are lucky they get paid at all, and, by the way, labor unions are no more than terrorist organizations) are ruining things for the rest of us. His vision of America is one where businesses thrive. Elect him and they will.

Others will follow – Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal and perhaps Donald Trump, maybe – but this vision thing does present a problem for those who haven’t jumped in yet. What’s so special about them? What’s their unique vision? Others have grabbed all the good ones already.

That’s the problem that the big guy from New Jersey faced, but Colin Campbell reports that Christie solved it:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is hoping to jumpstart his expected presidential campaign by touching the so-called “third rail” of American politics: cutting Social Security benefits.

Christie, who is facing dismal 2016 poll numbers, made a major speech in New Hampshire on Tuesday about reforming what he repeatedly described as the “entitlement beast.” In his remarks, Christie embraced the potential unpopularity of the idea.

“I mean, there’s no political upside to this, right? Okay, so why would I come here and say all these things if they weren’t true. I’d love to come here and just give you a happy time. Make you feel good,” Christie said. “The only reason I’m here to say this is because it’s an unavoidable truth.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, Christie has a specific plan for cutting entitlement benefits. He wants to raise the retirement age to 69 and eliminate Social Security entirely for seniors making more than $200,000. Seniors making more than $80,000 would also see their benefits reduced.

That’s bold, or nuts:

Because seniors vote in such disproportionately high numbers, the proposal carries obvious political risks.

“I guess [Christie] needs to throw Hail Mary to get into the 2016 mix. But the ‘truth teller’ lane is a path to the political graveyard,” Politico reporter Ben White wrote on Twitter. “Find me people who really LOVE raising the retirement age. I’ll wait here.”

The counterargument:

Christie appears to think directly tackling Social Security and Medicare benefits will burnish his reputation for blunt talk. Christie is famous – or infamous, depending on whom you talk to – for confronting hecklers and other critics at town hall events, sometimes going as far as to tell them, “Sit down and shut up!” Indeed, Christie’s New Hampshire event at Saint Anselm College was billed as part of a “Tell it like it is” tour of the state.

“I will not pander. I will not flip-flop. And I’m not afraid to tell you the truth as I see it, whether you like it or not,” Christie promised in his speech. “We need to recognize that solving our biggest problems, like the growth of entitlements, can be done but only with real leadership that tells people the truth. We need to tell the truth to the very people that some of us aspire to lead.”

Okay, fine – he has his unique hook now – but the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik thinks Christie just doesn’t understand a few things:

Christie’s fundamental premise is wrong. He says, “Washington is afraid to have an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the people of our country.”

Maybe he just hasn’t been listening, but America has been having honest conversations about Social Security virtually since its enactment in 1935. We had an honest conversation in 1982, when the program was facing a genuine crisis. Under Ronald Reagan, the crisis was addressed and fixed.

We had an honest conversation in 2005, when George W. Bush proposed privatizing the program. That conversation showed that Bush’s plan would benefit no one but Wall Street investment brokers, and the outcome was that the plan was scrapped.

We’re having an honest conversation now, with lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), observing correctly that Social Security is the only retirement pillar that still works as designed, and in fact should be expanded. Warren and others have placed on the table details about how to do so, what it would cost, and how it would affect today’s beneficiaries and tomorrow’s.

There’s a conceptual issue here:

Christie imagines that Social Security is merely an anti-poverty insurance program, “there so our seniors, after a lifetime of hard work, don’t fall into poverty.”

He’s wrong. Social Security was designed from the start as a universal program for all workers, regardless of their income. It’s not welfare; it’s not designed to be means-tested. Christie wants to make it into a means-tested welfare program, but that’s the first step toward killing it.

Accordingly, Christie proposes “a modest means test that only affects those with non-Social Security income of over $80,000 per year, and phases out Social Security payments entirely for those that have $200,000 a year of other income.”

This is a truly ancient chestnut, right out of the playbook of hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson, whose campaign to undermine Social Security I described in 2012.

As Dean Baker and Hye Jin Rho of the Center for Economic and Policy Research showed in 2011, the gain from such means-testing would be virtually invisible, amounting to less than a half of one percent of benefits.

If Christie really wanted to achieve savings by means-testing, he would have to start phasing out benefits for people with non-Social Security income of $20,000-$30,000. If he’s not acknowledging that, then it is he who isn’t having an “honest conversation” with the American people.

There’s more:

Christie also proposes raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 from 67 at the rate of two months per year, starting in 2022. He would raise the early retirement age to 64 from 62 on the same schedule.

This is another chestnut, and an especially cynical and damaging one. To begin with, every year’s increase in the normal retirement age is the equivalent of a 7% benefit cut.

As Kathy Ruffing and Paul Van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explain here, that’s because it increases the reduction in annual benefits charged to those who retire early, and reduces the bonus paid to those who defer taking their benefits past the normal age. Raising the retirement age will also prompt older workers to file for disability instead of retirement, which only places more strain on Social Security’s already strained disability program.

Moreover, this proposal overlooks demographic and socioeconomic differences in life expectancy. Put briefly, it will pose a disproportionate burden on black workers and especially on black males. Here are the figures: typical workers who have reached the age of 65 can expect to live to the age of 84. For black males, the figure is less than 81. For all whites, the life expectancy from birth is about 79 today. For black males, it’s less than 72.

If Christie doesn’t acknowledge this, he’s not having an “honest conversation” with the American people.

Other than that, it’s a fine idea, except for this:

He wants to tie Social Security cost-of-living increases to an inflation index known as the chained CPI; we’ve shown in the past that this isn’t a more “accurately” inflation index, as he claims – its only virtue is that it rises more slowly than the currently used index, so it’s a stealth benefit cut.

No voters are going to go for this, but perhaps that wasn’t the point. Jeb Bush has been sucking up all the cash from the big donors, and Rubio has grabbed some of that too. Christie wants to be president. He doesn’t need votes. He needs donors, as Salon’s Elias Isquith explains here:

Now that the Supreme Court has all but annihilated the regulation of campaign finance, U.S. politics – which was already quite plutocratic – is starting to operate according to the logic of oligarchy, not a democratic republic. Candidates of both parties have to spend an obscene amount of their time raising money for the next election; and the number of Americans who make up that bipartisan donor class is, relatively speaking in a nation of more than 300 million, vanishingly small. As you’d expect, one of the consequences is that, unless you’re a member of the 1 percent, most politicians don’t care what you think.

So rather than jockeying over which politician is most likely to make good on their campaign’s promises, candidates in the primaries spend their time trying to persuade donors that they’ve got the best chance of winning the general election. “Someone is going to do what you want them to do,” the candidates say to their party’s donors, more or less, “so here’s the reason that someone should be me!”

This is why every Republican candidate wants to cut social insurance programs, despite the fact that even Tea Party voters would rather they didn’t – because that’s near the top of the 1 percent’s to-do list. The will of the people still calls the shots; it’s just that “the people” are few and far between.

Isquith makes it simple:

Why, for example, would Chris Christie hope to revive his flat-lining presidential campaign by making big promises to slash Medicare and Social Security? Not because that’s the issue GOP primary voters care the most about, I’d argue, but because Jeb Bush, the presumed standard-bearer of the Republican donor class, has failed to convince these moneymen that he can overcome his surname and defeat Hillary Clinton. It’s likely that Christie’s read the same reports of donors giving Rubio a second look; he probably figures that his tough talk about “entitlement reform” may earn him a second appraisal, too.

But the clearest sign that White House campaigns are not about voters (at least during the primary phase) is who most candidates choose to tell the big news first – not the press, not the voters, not even the men and women who occupy influential positions within the infrastructure of the party. No, more often than not, it’s the would-be donors who get a heads up before anyone else.

Chris Christie is doing exactly what he needs to do to become president, in an oligarchy, which is what we have, given this:

The House is gearing up to vote Thursday on repealing the estate tax, an issue that has energized the base in both parties – and that Democrats and Republicans see as a political winner.

On the one side there’s this:

Republicans are making the vote the centerpiece of their agenda during a week when millions of taxpayers face the annual IRS filing deadline and anti-tax groups regularly hold protests. For the GOP, repealing the estate tax – or the “death tax,” as they’ve long called it – is more than just a proposal favored by their supporters in the business community.

Republican leaders insist it’s patently unfair that people pay taxes as they accumulate wealth through the years, only for their heirs to pay additional taxes on that wealth after they die.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Tuesday that it is “morally wrong” for a family’s toughest decision after a death to be figuring out the next steps for their business. “That’s not supposed to be something people have to deal with when they’re grieving for the loss of a loved one,” he told reporters.

Republicans believe that voters agree with them on that point, even as polls have long suggested that most people believe the wealthiest Americans don’t pay enough in taxes.

On the other side there’s this:

President Obama won his second term in 2012 after explicitly campaigning for higher taxes on the wealthy. And Democrats say they’re more than happy to have a debate over a repeal proposal that would add $270 billion to the federal debt over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, while affecting only a small fraction of estates in the U.S.

“I guess when it comes to helping the wealthiest people in the country, it’s never enough,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Tuesday with a laugh.

This is hot, even if this estate tax proposal won’t make it through the Senate – there aren’t quite enough Republican votes for that – and if it did, there’d be presidential veto. But that doesn’t matter:

The messaging from the two parties in recent weeks suggests that both sides could continue to hammer the issue ahead of a 2016 campaign. Under current law, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that 5,400 estates will have to deal with the tax over the next several years, out of the well over 2 million deaths that occur annually.

That’s because individuals with estates valued at less than $5.43 million this year, and married couples with estates worth less than $10.86 million, are exempt. The 2013 “fiscal cliff” deal set the current parameters, which also include a 40 percent rate and linking the exemption parameters to inflation.

Those 5,400 households out of more than two million shouldn’t get special treatment, so there’s this:

Obama and other senior Democrats want to expand the tax, hitting more estates with a higher top rate. White House officials have gone out of their way this week to point out that the president’s proposals to give tax breaks for child care and education and to two-earner families would help far more people than the GOP’s estate tax repeal.

On Tuesday, the administration threatened to veto the House measure, calling it even more extreme than a temporary repeal of the estate tax passed early in George W. Bush’s administration. The White House also noted that the House GOP’s recently passed budget relied on revenues from the estate tax, and that the Republican proposal would also save heirs from capital gains taxes on their relative’s assets.

Obama himself got into the action this month, calling out the estate tax repeal proposal in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s back yard of Louisville, Ky.

“That’s fewer than 50 people here in Kentucky who would on average get a couple million dollars in tax breaks,” Obama said. “For that amount of money, we can provide thousands of people the kind of training they need.”

The other side thinks they have a better argument:

Republicans like Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas) and Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the sponsors of the repeal proposals, say they don’t believe Democrats will be as successful with that sort of rhetoric this time around. Brady argued Tuesday that the wealthiest of the wealthy are often able to avoid paying the tax through the use of complicated estate planning.

Republicans also maintain that many of the heirs that get hit by the estate tax own family farms, ranches or businesses that might sit on valuable land but find it difficult to come up with the cash to pay the estate tax. That’s especially the case, Brady said, for minority- and women-owned businesses.

“This is an attack on success,” Brady said.

This is also an oligarchy, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank sees it:

A tax cut costing the treasury $269 billion over a decade that would exclusively benefit individuals with wealth of more than $5.4 million and couples with wealth of more than $10.9 million. That’s a tax break for only the 5,500 wealthiest households in the country each year, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. Of those, the 318 wealthiest estates each year – those worth $50 million or more – would see an average windfall of $20 million each, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

And this at a time when the gap between rich and poor is already worse than it has been since the Great Depression? Never in the history of plutocracy has so much been given away to so few who need it so little.

Here again, voters have been left out:

This is the ultimate perversion of the tea party movement, which began as a populist revolt in 2009 but has since been hijacked by wealthy and corporate interests. The estate tax has been part of American law in some form since 1797, according to the advocacy group Americans for Tax Fairness, a shield against the sort of permanent aristocracy our founders fought to rid themselves of.

It had long been a conservative ideal, and the essence of the American Dream, to believe that everybody should have an equal shot at success. But in their current bid to end the estate tax, Republicans could create a permanent-elite of trust-fund babies.

That would be the Republican donor class, but it wasn’t always this way:

The estate tax was a meaningful check on a permanent aristocracy as recently as 2001, when there were taxes on the portion of estates above $675,000; even then there were plenty of ways for the rich to shelter money for their heirs. As the son of a schoolteacher and a cabinetmaker, I’d like to see the estate tax exemptions lowered – so that taxes encourage enterprise and entrepreneurship while keeping to a minimum the number of Americans born who will never have to work a day in their lives. The current exemption of $5.4 million (the current estate tax has an effective rate averaging under seventeen percent, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center) does little to prevent a permanent aristocracy from growing – and abolishing it entirely turns democracy into kleptocracy.

And Milbank smells bullshit here:

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), appearing late Tuesday before the Rules Committee, claimed that the estate tax is “absolutely devastating” to family farms, and he claimed the repeal would remove “an additional layer of taxation” from assets that had already been taxed.

Double taxation? Americans for Tax Fairness, citing Federal Reserve data, notes that 55 percent of the value of estates worth more than $100 million comprises unrealized capital gains that have never been taxed.

Hurting family farmers and small businesses? In the entire country, only 120 small businesses and farms (100 of them large farms) were hit by the estate tax in 2013. And for that tiny number affected, there are all sorts of provisions already in place to soften the blow: low valuation rules, delayed tax payments and other breaks and discounts.

Something doesn’t add up:

GOP leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) have begun to recognize that the vast gap between rich and poor is detrimental – and to blame the problem on President Obama. Their solution, so far, has been to propose cuts of hundreds of billions of dollars from food stamps, Pell grants, Medicaid and other programs for those without means – and, on Tax Day, to give $269 billion to the few who already have the most.

There you have it. As usual, a bunch of Republicans are running for president, president of the oligarchy they’re working, in Washington, to protect. Hillary Clinton is running for president of the democracy, such as it is, but she says she needs to come up with two and a half billion dollars this time, to run effectively against the last Republican hopeful left standing next summer, and that money has to come from somewhere. There are those she will owe, and Chris Christie just said “screw you” to his potential voters – he needs that cash from the wealthy few, who have different ideas about what the government should do. He’ll worry about the voters later. They can be bamboozled easily enough. And the beat goes on. Damn, that’s an awful song.

Posted in American Oligarchy, Chris Christie, Estate Tax, Social Security | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Reason Why

America votes for a new president on November 8, 2016 – at the moment only 573 days from now, roughly eighteen months from right now. Here’s a handy countdown clock – a useful reminder not to take the big news of the day all that seriously. Yes, Hillary Clinton has announced she’s running. This is official now, but everyone knew she would run. She had to. The Democrats have no one else with her name-recognition and résumé – former first lady, former senator, former secretary of state, and so on. No other Democrat can match that. No Republican can. She may have already locked up enough electoral votes to win.

The only issue with Hillary Clinton is that no one is quite sure why she wants to be president, other than that she wants to be president. So far, there’s no grand vision. She has told America that, this time, her candidacy is about them, not her – she’ll be their champion, whatever that means. She’ll stop talking about herself and listen, and at the moment she’s in Iowa, listening, and testing out a bit of that Elizabeth Warren economic populism stuff, to see if that’s what people want. Maybe they do, but her friends on Wall Street, her major donors, don’t seem to mind. Anything that gets her elected will be fine with them. They know she won’t betray them. Her husband deregulated everything in sight back in the nineties. The two of them think alike. Keep the banks and big corporations happy and America will prosper. Use what’s left over to do good things for everyone else – not liberalism but neoliberalism – and her major donors may be right. That Elizabeth Warren economic populism stuff may be for show. In the meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is in Iowa, trying her very best to look authentic. It’s painful to watch. It’s going to be a long eighteen months.

Republicans sense that Hillary Clinton is vulnerable. She is no Barack Obama, the whip-smart but pleasant fellow, gracious and cool under pressure, and above all reasonable, who had a vision of a reasonable government that would finally get a few good things done, if everyone would calm down and think things though and actually talk to each other. That turned out to be beyond naïve, but it was a vision – voters bought into it, twice – and Hillary’s got nothing. She just wants to be president, and the “vision thing” is what the Republicans can offer now.

That’s a work in progress. Ted Cruz announced. He wants to repeal all of Obamacare. The wrong sorts of people are getting government help buying health insurance, and the new insurance standards offend all Christians. In fact, everything Obama has done offends all Christians, as with gay folks and whatnot, so his notion is to mobilize all the angry white social conservatives in America and get every last one of them to finally vote, to overwhelm the ungodly. They’d elect him. That’s his vision, but a few days later Rand Paul announced. Paul has a libertarian vision – but not as nutty as his father’s – that government is useless and should do next to nothing, here and abroad. If you elect him to run the government, he’ll get the government out of your hair. He’ll keep it from doing much of anything. That’s freedom. That’s his vision. Jeb Bush will announce soon, as the “good” Bush after two duds. That’s as much as we know so far. When Scott Walker announces he’ll present his vision. Everyone knows that already – stupid regulations and greedy, whining American workers (who are lucky they get paid at all, and labor unions are no more than terrorist organizations) are ruining things for the rest of us. His vision of America is one where businesses thrive. Elect him and they will.

Marco Rubio announced too – and he brought back the neoconservative vision. We must again assume “the mantle of leadership” for a New American Century of our firm but fair dominance over the whole world, everywhere, through either snarling intimidation or the actual use of massive force. That hasn’t worked out well in the past dozen years, but who else can possibly lead the world? We are it. Rand Paul may roll his eyes, but this matter was settled long ago. That’s his vision.

That’s a curious vision, given the current negotiations with Iran regarding their nuclear program. Rubio is arguing Obama must be stopped. Our president should not be able to reach an agreement with Iran. Congress should decide that sort of thing. The president should be neutered, on principle. He doesn’t speak for America. Congress does, which begs the question. Why does Rubio want to be president? Why not stay in the Senate? That’s where the action is. That’s the seat of power.

David Weigel points out that Rubio is already laying down the terms of any agreement:

In his Monday night interview with Sean Hannity, Florida Senator Marco Rubio became the first Republican presidential candidate to demand a concession from Iran that’s as politically resonant at home as it is untenable in Tehran.

“There should have been a clear recognition on their part that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state,” Rubio said, of Iran’s concessions in negotiations.

“And that has to be a precondition?” asked Fox News’s Hannity. “But in the middle of negotiations, if they’re saying the destruction of Israel is nonnegotiable, is that – should that be a deal killer?”

The answer is yes – no recognition of Israel, no deal – and if that means Iran, with no more talking with us possible, builds bombs, and we have to wipe the whole place off the face of the map, so be it. Obama screwed up by not demanding this, and Weigel notes the obvious:

That was exactly the sort of answer Hannity wanted; he had mentioned the lack of recognition a week earlier, in his sit-down with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. And it was an answer in sync with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On April 3, Netanyahu had demanded that any deal include a “clear and unambiguous Iranian commitment of Israel’s right to exist.” Days later, President Barack Obama told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that the demand was just impossible.

“The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons, in a verifiable deal, on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms,” said the president. “And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment.”

But a new vision is appearing:

By agreeing with Netanyahu, Rubio may have shifted the Overton Window for Republican debate on the Iran deal. If he didn’t, it would only be because Republicans – with the exception of Paul – have opposed the deal with no hint that it could be flavored with anything worth supporting. If Netanyahu’s demand becomes part of the Republican catechism, it might happen two weekends from now, when casino magnate Sheldon Adelson invites Republican presidential candidates to a summit in Las Vegas.

This is a challenge to the presidency, to its primacy, from a bunch of guys who want the job for some reason, and Obama decided it was time to throw them a bone:

The White House relented on Tuesday and said President Obama would sign a compromise bill giving Congress a voice on the proposed nuclear accord with Iran as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in rare unanimous agreement, moved the legislation to the full Senate for a vote.

An unusual alliance of Republican opponents of the nuclear deal and some of Mr. Obama’s strongest Democratic supporters demanded a congressional role as international negotiators work to turn this month’s nuclear framework into a final deal by June 30. White House officials insisted they extracted crucial last-minute concessions. Republicans – and many Democrats – said the president simply got overrun.

“We’re involved here. We have to be involved here,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who served as a bridge between the White House and Republicans as they negotiated changes in the days before the committee’s vote on Tuesday. “Only Congress can change or permanently modify the sanctions regime.”

Fine, let them have a say, for what that’s worth:

The essence of the legislation is that Congress will have a chance to vote on whatever deal emerges with Iran – if one is reached by June 30 – but in a way that would be extremely difficult for Mr. Obama to lose, allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to tell his Iranian counterpart that the risk that an agreement would be upended on Capitol Hill is limited.

As Congress considers any accord on a very short timetable, it would essentially be able to vote on an eventual end to sanctions, and then later take up the issue depending on whether Iran has met its own obligations. But if it rejected the agreement, Mr. Obama could veto that legislation – and it would take only 34 senators to sustain the veto, meaning that Mr. Obama could lose upward of a dozen Democratic senators and still prevail.

This was for show, but at least everyone’s unhappy:

Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Mr. Obama was not “particularly thrilled” with the bill, but had decided that a new proposal put together by the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made enough changes to make it acceptable.

“We’ve gone from a piece of legislation that the president would veto to a piece of legislation that’s undergone substantial revision such that it’s now in the form of a compromise that the president would be willing to sign,” Mr. Earnest said. “That would certainly be an improvement.”

Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and the committee’s chairman, had a far different interpretation. As late as 11:30 a.m., in a classified briefing at the Capitol, Mr. Kerry was urging senators to oppose the bill. The “change occurred when they saw how many senators were going to vote for this, and only when that occurred,” Mr. Corker said.

And the presidency is reduced:

The agreement almost certainly means Congress will muscle its way into nuclear negotiations that Mr. Obama sees as a legacy-defining foreign policy achievement.

The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation this month, and House Republican leaders have promised to pass it shortly after.

“Congress absolutely should have the opportunity to review this deal,” the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said Tuesday. “We shouldn’t just count on the administration, which appears to want a deal at any cost.”

White House officials blitzed Congress in the days after the framework of a nuclear deal was announced, making 130 phone calls to lawmakers, but quickly came to the conclusion that the legislation could not be blocked altogether.

Moreover, officials increasingly worried that an unresolved fight could torpedo the next phase of negotiations with Iran.

“Having this lingering uncertainty about whether we could deliver on our side of the deal was probably a deal killer,” said a senior administration official, who asked for anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

Still, the devil is in the details:

Under the compromise legislation, a 60-day review period of a final nuclear agreement in the original bill was in effect cut in half, to 30 days, starting with its submission to Congress. But tacked on to that review period potentially would be the maximum 12 days the president would have to decide whether to accept or veto a resolution of disapproval, should Congress take that vote.

The formal review period would also include a maximum of 10 days Congress would have to override the veto. For Republicans, that would mean the president could not lift sanctions for a maximum of 52 days after submitting a final accord to Congress, along with all classified material.

And if a final accord is not submitted to Congress by July 9, the review period will snap back to 60 days. That would prevent the administration from intentionally delaying the submission of the accord to the Capitol. Congress could not reopen the mechanics of a deal, and taking no action would be the equivalent of allowing it to move forward.

And so on and so forth, but the young fellow from Florida is still out there:

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, fresh off the opening of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, dropped plans to push for an amendment to make any Iran deal dependent on the Islamic Republic’s recognition of the State of Israel, a diplomatic nonstarter.

But he hinted that he could try on the Senate floor.

“Not getting anything done plays right into the hands of the administration,” Mr. Rubio said.

And he wants Obama’s job? Slate’s William Saletan does wonder why:

President Obama says Republicans are undermining his authority in negotiations with other countries. He gives several examples. One is the letter from 47 Republican senators advising Iran not to trust Obama’s promises in a nuclear deal. Another is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s warning to foreign leaders that Obama’s domestic opponents won’t cooperate in any climate change plan he approves. The last straw was an allegation on Thursday from Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is lying about the terms of the Iran nuclear deal and that Americans should instead believe the contrary account given by Iran’s dictator.

Obama calls these developments a breach of precedent. Last week, he told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman: “I do worry that some traditional boundaries in how we think about foreign policy have been crossed.”

Saletan had news for Obama:

Sorry, but those traditions died long ago. If you study Republican behavior over the past quarter-century, you’ll find that the image of conservative lawmakers standing resolutely for American strength and unity is a myth. Republicans support wars launched by Republican presidents. When Democratic presidents undertake wars or negotiations, Republicans generally attempt to sabotage them. In fact, Republicans often side with our enemies.

This has happened before:

President Clinton faced one big war. In 1999, he sought to enlist the United States in NATO’s air campaign in Serbia. The campaign aimed to stop the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Kosovo. When a resolution authorizing U.S. participation in the war came before the Senate, Democrats voted for it, 42 to 3. Republicans voted against it, 38 to 16. The resolution went through, but it failed a month later with a tie vote in the House. Democrats voted for the resolution, 181 to 25. Republicans voted against it, 187 to 31.

Four of the five Republican leaders in Congress – Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay – voted against the resolution. So did Rep. John Boehner, who had just completed his tenure as chairman of the House Republican Conference. DeLay also voted for a resolution declaring that the House “directs the President to remove United States Armed Forces from their positions in connection with the present operations against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.”

Republican leaders didn’t just try to block the president. They defended Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. When Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Milosevic “had already started his campaign of killing” before NATO intervened, Nickles disagreed. “I would take a little issue with [what] Gen. Ralston said,” the senator retorted. “The number of killings prior to the bombing, I think, has been exaggerated.”

DeLay and Nickles blamed the ethnic cleansing on the United States and NATO. Nickles said NATO’s peace proposal to the Serbs – which Milosevic had rejected, leading to the war – had been “very arrogant.” Lott agreed. He accused the United States of not doing “enough in the diplomatic area” to appease Milosevic – and he urged Clinton to “give peace a chance.” Nickles dismissed NATO’s mission as “ludicrous.”

DeLay functioned as a propaganda minister for Milosevic, bucking up Serbian morale and belittling NATO’s efforts. “He’s stronger in Kosovo now than he was before the bombing,” DeLay said of Milosevic. “The Serbian people are rallying around him like never before. He’s much stronger with his allies.” When U.S. officials suggested that Milosevic was losing strength, DeLay dismissed this as disinformation from “the president’s spin machine.” DeLay concluded that “the bombing was a mistake” and that “this president ought to admit it and come to some sort of negotiated end.”

The Republicans were wrong. NATO’s pressure forced Milosevic to capitulate, and the ethnic cleansing stopped.

Saletan also notes that in 2008, when the Republican lost the White House, their “attitude toward presidential authority turned hostile” once again:

Republicans’ hostility focused not on Afghanistan or Iraq – the wars for which they couldn’t escape responsibility – but on Libya, which they could safely portray as Obama’s conflict. Throughout the 2011 Libya campaign and the 2012 election, they mocked Obama for “leading from behind” in Libya. Many Republicans said we should never have entered the war, since Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi hadn’t attacked the United States and posed no immediate threat to us.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, a presidential candidate and darling of the right, suggested that the U.S.-led NATO strikes in Libya had killed 10,000 to 30,000 innocent civilians. She cited, as her source for this claim, Qaddafi’s regime. In the 2012 presidential debates, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans agreed with much of her criticism. “Two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a lot,” Gingrich argued in an NBC News interview. He accused Obama of going to war in Libya for the United Nations and the Arab League instead of “looking at American interests.” “We could get engaged by this standard in all sorts of places,” Gingrich objected. He concluded: “I would not have intervened.”

While the presidential candidates criticized the war, Republicans in Congress tried to stop it. Two months into the bombing campaign, House Speaker John Boehner sponsored and pushed through a resolution declaring that Obama had “failed to provide Congress with a compelling rationale based upon United States national security interests for current United States military activities regarding Libya.” The resolution forbade Obama from using U.S. ground forces and warned him that “Congress has the constitutional prerogative to withhold funding for any unauthorized use of the United States Armed Forces.” Democrats opposed the resolution, but Republicans passed it, voting 223 to 10 in favor.

Republican efforts to sabotage the U.S. war effort were so persistent and vigorous that Qaddafi sent a letter to members of Congress thanking them. The letter, issued a week after the House adopted Boehner’s resolution, told lawmakers: “We are counting on the United States Congress [for] its continued investigation of military activities of NATO and its allies.”

That, finally, was too much for John McCain, who on the Senate floor, laid into his fellow Republicans with this:

Last week, Qaddafi wrote a personal letter of thanks to the members of Congress who voted to censure the President and end our nation’s involvement in Libya. Republicans need to ask themselves whether they want to be part of a group who are earning the grateful thanks of a murderous tyrant for trying to limit an American president’s ability to force that tyrant to leave power.

McCain had a point, but four years later he and forty-six other Republican senators signed an “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” – the president’s word doesn’t mean a damned thing – that’s not how things work over here – the Senate here decides such things – the American presidency is pretty much ornamental or something. We can and will rescind any concessions made by any president, and certainly this president. Deal with it.

Saletan was amazed by that:

It seemed unimaginable that McCain, a Vietnam War hero, trusted Iran’s theocratic rulers more than he trusted his own president. But on Thursday, McCain suggested precisely that. A conservative radio host – Hugh Hewitt – pointed out to McCain that Iran’s leaders were contradicting what Obama and Kerry (now the secretary of state) had said about the nuclear agreement. “Today, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said that the deal is no deal unless sanctions come off on Day One,” Hewitt told McCain. Hewitt noted that Iran’s defense minister was also ruling out inspections of Iran’s military centers, which were supposedly part of the deal. McCain, referring to Khamenei and the defense minister, replied:

“You’ve got to give them a little sympathy in this respect, in that John Kerry must have known what was in [the deal], and yet chose to interpret it in another way. It’s probably in black and white that the ayatollah is probably right. John Kerry is delusional. … You’re going to find out that they had never agreed to the things that John Kerry claimed that they had. So in a way, I can’t blame the ayatollah, because I don’t think they ever agreed to it, and I think John Kerry tried to come back and sell a bill of goods. … It reveals that a number of things about John Kerry’s negotiating capabilities, and also about his candor with the American people.”

McCain was calling Kerry a liar based on the testimony of Iranian hard-liners, with whom McCain explicitly sympathized.

It was more of the same:

A week before the Republican senators sent their letter to Iran, Boehner used his power as House speaker to bring Israel’s prime minister to Congress, against Obama’s wishes, to speak against the Iran deal. Meanwhile, McConnell launched a campaign to block Obama’s ability to negotiate a treaty on climate change. In a March 31 statement that echoed the tactics of the letter to Iran, McConnell advised foreign leaders not to trust U.S. commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Considering that two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn’t even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it,” he warned them, “our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal.”

And there’s this:

Last week, just before McCain gave his interview to Hugh Hewitt, Cheney appeared on the same show. He said of Obama: “If you had somebody as president who wanted to take America down, who wanted to fundamentally weaken our position in the world and reduce our capacity to influence events, turn our back on our allies and encourage our adversaries, it would look exactly like what Barack Obama’s doing.” When Hewitt played back Cheney’s quote for McCain two days later, the senator agreed with it.

Saletan offers this assessment:

That’s a cold, clear, functional definition of treason. But it could be applied just as easily – and with a better fit – to Cheney, McCain, and their collaborators on the right. If a political party wanted to tear America apart, weaken its position in the world, reduce our capacity to influence events, and encourage our adversaries, it would look exactly like what the Republican Party has done under Democratic presidents.

There is, however, more to it than that. These efforts always undermine the office of the presidency, an office that all of them, at one time or another, seek. They have their visions of how things should be, after all. Once they are president they’ll make it so – or they won’t, because they’ve spent years saying that the office doesn’t matter, and made that so. So, why do they want the job anyway?

At least Hillary Clinton is more honest about such things. She just wants the job, because she wants the job.

Posted in Undermining the Presidency | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Repackaging More of the Same

There used to be a neoconservative think tank in Washington, the Project for the New American Century – the guys who gave us the Iraq war. That was established as a non-profit educational organization in 1997 to teach America how things should be. We were the ones that defeated communism, or Ronald Reagan defeated communism singlehandedly, or it collapsed of its own weight. It didn’t matter which it was. The Soviet Union collapsed, and we were the only one left standing, the only remaining superpower. These neoconservatives, Bill Kristol and Dick Cheney and that crowd, imagined a New American Century of our firm but fair dominance over the whole world, everywhere, through either intimidation or the actual use of massive force. That was their concept of leadership, one that has us still hoping for the best in the Middle East. That didn’t work out well, but who else could possibly lead the world? We were it. The matter had been settled long ago. Of the twenty-five who signed the founding statement of ten principles, ten went on to serve in the administration George W. Bush, most notably Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. George Bush tagged along pretty much working for them – he either bought into this or had no idea what they were talking about – and then 2006 the think tank closed its doors. Their work here was done. They had changed US foreign policy forever.

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected by a nation that had decided those guys were nuts, and dangerous. Obama promised to moderate a bit of that firm-but-fair-dominance-over-the-whole-world stuff. We’d try diplomacy for a change, where we could, as an alternative to snarling intimidation or the actual use of massive force – but many Americans were still uncomfortable with that. The Project for the New American Century did its job far better than anyone thought. There’s Iran. When a country disagrees with us, and does things we don’t want it to do, that’s disrespect. Why talk to them about things? No one disrespects us, period. After all, in everyday life, if someone disagrees with you, you punch them in the face. If they still disagree with you, you kick them in the balls, until they agree with you. If they do something you think they shouldn’t do, you shoot them. You don’t talk things over with them. Everyone knows this.

No, wait – that only applies to a number of white cops and selected unarmed young black men, and to those few guys who shoot abortion providers dead now and then, and to a few white supremacists, and to those who go out and beat the crap out of gay guys for the righteous fun of it, and to Bill O’Reilly in his dreams. There are laws against such things, for a reason. We can’t live in a world like that. We wouldn’t want to live in a world like that.

That’s all Obama was saying. We might want to talk to these people – firmly, without giving up our principles – but talk to them. That’s what civilized people do. That may be what civilization is. We’re talking to Iran. We’re finally talking with Cuba. Thanks to the Project for the New American Century, many are uncomfortable with that and some are absolutely outraged, but others are relieved. Polling shows a majority of Americans agree with Obama here, but Jeb Bush, running for president, even if he hasn’t formally announced that yet, has hired Paul Wolfowitz as a foreign policy advisor. No one will disrespect America, or Israel, and talk is useless. That’s the Republican line. The country may have moved on in 2008, but they didn’t.

That’s why it’s odd that Marco Rubio did formally announce his candidacy on Monday, April 13, while standing in front of a giant graphic with his new motto – Marco Rubio: For a New American Century.

That may have been intentional, although he seems to mean many things by that, and the Los Angeles Times’ Cathleen Decker captures the ambiguities:

Marco Rubio of Florida jumped into the presidential race Monday looking as a 43-year-old first-term senator might be expected to look: a bit nervous, tripping some over his words before he gained momentum. His Miami speech was earnest, his explanation of his Cuban family’s immigrant story evocative.

But his reach for the presidency was something more like a call for generational overthrow of the sort that has ended in presidential victories twice in the last half century, both times by Democrats.

He defined Hillary Rodham Clinton, who entered the 2016 race Sunday, as “a leader from yesterday … promising to take us back to yesterday.”

“But yesterday is over,” he said pointedly, almost quoting from the Fleetwood Mac lyrics – “yesterday’s gone” – that Bill Clinton rode to victory at age 46 in 1992.

He seemed to define his political mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as a beneficiary of a system disdained today by many Americans.

“In many countries the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful,” he said in a jab at the wealthy son and brother of presidents, 19 years his senior. “But I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege.”

Then it was time to tug on those heartstrings:

Rubio’s retelling of his family’s history, its one-generation jump from his father’s job serving drinks in a banquet hall to Rubio himself running for president, was the emotional pillar of the 2012 Republican convention, at which he spoke for nominee Mitt Romney. (His story was so moving that night in Tampa that it only underscored Romney’s upbringing as a child of privilege.)

His family’s story worked again Monday night in Miami, both for its content and its locale: Rubio announced his presidential bid at Freedom Tower, the Ellis Island of Florida, where Cuban refugees were once processed.

It’s an amazing story, but of course all other Hispanics here deeply resent these particular Cubans, because they got preferential treatment – immediate citizenship or a special fast-track to citizenship, no questions asked. But that wasn’t mentioned:

“Well, now the time has come for our generation to lead the way towards a new American century,” Rubio said, as if wrestling the torch from more senior politicians.

Fine, but Decker notes what Rubio didn’t talk about:

He gained national notice for working with Senate Democrats to forge a comprehensive rewriting of the nation’s immigration laws. The measure passed the Senate but when it foundered in the House, Rubio ditched his all-in measure for the piecemeal approach advocated by harder-line Republicans. His first moves irked many conservatives; his second made erstwhile allies question his commitment. On Monday, he mentioned immigration only once, without enough specificity to upset either camp.

“If we reform our tax code, reduce regulations, control spending, modernize our immigration laws and repeal and replace Obamacare, if we do these things … the American people will create millions of better-paying modern jobs,” he said in his sole reference to the emotional issue.

And there was another elephant in the room:

The absence in his speech of more than a passing reference to Cuba spoke to a broader conflict at the heart of his candidacy. Rubio is running as the representative of a new generation, but that generation has moved toward conciliation with Cuba.

Rubio, on the other hand, has been a leading opponent of President Obama’s outreach to the Castro regime. So he risks looking like a man advocating generational change while continuing to embrace the Cold War – which may explain why policy toward Cuba received only a glancing mention, albeit one that drew a roar of approval from the hometown audience.

“And if America once again accepts the mantle of global leadership, by abandoning this administration’s dangerous concessions to Iran and its hostility to Israel; by reversing the hollowing out of our military; by giving our men and women in uniform the resources, the care and gratitude they deserve; by no longer being passive in the face of Chinese and Russian aggression; and by ending the near total disregard for the erosion of democracy and human rights around the world, especially Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, if we did these things then our nation will be safer, the world more stable and our people more prosperous,” he said.

Dick Cheney couldn’t have said it better, but Rubio’s chances are slim:

Bush is looking to overwhelm his rivals in the large field and worm his way into the hearts of Republican voters with the overwhelming fundraising effort he has pressed in recent months. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is seeking the mantle of conservative chief executive who thumped a GOP enemy, organized labor. Several candidates are vying for the evangelical vote.

Rubio has neither Bush’s money, Walker’s executive record, or – as a practicing Catholic – the loyalty of evangelical Christians who play an outsized role in the early voting, especially in the lead-off Iowa caucuses.

Yes, Real Christians™ don’t cotton to any church that has a Pope, and this new Pope is a pain in the ass, with all his calls for social justice and economic justice, and with his making nice with evil sinners – gays and atheists and even Muslims now and then. This Pope seems reluctant to bring down God’s Hammer and smite the wicked. Marco Rubio, however, can’t do anything about that, and he’s lost the Tea Party too:

Six years after the movement’s initial rallies, marches, and demonstrations, Tea Party activists feel let down and betrayed by their native son.

“I’m through with him. He will never get my vote. ‘Disappointed’ would mean that he has an opportunity to restore his credibility, and there is no opportunity for that,” said Kris-Anne Hall, an attorney and Tea Party activist from north-central Florida. “The overwhelming perception is that Marco Rubio is not a Tea Party candidate.”

Some Florida Tea Party supporters still wax nostalgic about the early, hopeful days of the Rubio Senate campaign.

“When he was first running for Senate, I was a big fan… He walked the neighborhood both inside and outside his district, knocked on doors and asked what people’s needs were, what their issues were. I was so impressed with that,” said Lisa Becker, who helped run A Sisterhood of Mommy Patriots, a Tea Party group geared toward mothers.

“Then,” Becker continued, “He got into office.”

That was the problem:

Many Tea Partiers point to Rubio’s work in the Senate as part of the so-called Gang of Eight, who tried to come to a bipartisan consensus on comprehensive immigration reform. It ultimately failed, but many on the right will not forgive what they disdain as the senator’s support for “amnesty.”

At the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, Rubio tried to distance himself from his work on immigration, saying he had learned his lesson—that broad-based reform was only possible after complete border security.

Some libertarian-leaning Tea Party activists also point to foreign policy and national security as issues on which he let them down. Hall, the attorney from north-central Florida, listed off the offenses: Rubio’s support for indefinite detention, support for arming the Syrian rebels, support for the war against ISIS without explicit congressional approval, and support for the NSA.

“If he had been listening when he was knocking on those doors, he would have found out what matters. Being in perpetual war matters to families,” Becker said.

There’s no satisfying some people, and Paul Waldman adds this:

The characteristics of the Republican field could make Rubio everyone’s second choice. If you’re a tea partier looking for the most conservative candidate, you might gravitate to Ted Cruz or Scott Walker. Though the actual policy differences between them and Rubio are somewhere between tiny and non-existent, Rubio’s rhetoric isn’t nearly as belligerent, so many base voters will assume he’s isn’t quite so far to the right. If you’re a Christian conservative looking for the most religious candidate, there are many others (Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal) making more of a direct pitch for your votes. If you’re more of a libertarian, you’ll gravitate toward Rand Paul. If you’re a moderate seeking a safe, traditional candidate, Jeb Bush is your man. Rubio could end up being the candidate everyone feels warmly about but relatively few end up voting for.

That’s just the way things are:

We often describe the GOP primary process as a battle between these factions, with each one settling on their favored candidate, then begrudgingly accepting the results when another faction’s champion prevails. It’s probably a bit overstated – there are going to be at least some people of different types voting for most of the contenders – but the last few years have seen especially bitter conflicts within the Republican Party. I have argued before that the most likely nominee is the one who can bridge those gaps, particularly the biggest one, between the tea party base and the more pragmatic establishment. Even if no candidate can be all things to all factions, you can’t win the nomination without a healthy chunk of all the major Republican groups.

There are some reasons to think Rubio could do that, but much of what makes him compelling is better suited to the general election than the primaries. He’s a smart guy who can be compelling on the stump and charming in small groups. The fact that the Tea Party cast him out when he wrote a comprehensive immigration reform bill could be a benefit in the general, as it would enable him to portray himself as a moderate (even if he eventually reversed himself on immigration and now advocates the same “border security first” position as most every other Republican). …

But in a party at war with itself, Rubio has no natural constituency to build from. In this field, he’s not the most anything: not the most partisan, not the most anti-government, not the most socially conservative, not the most beloved by Republican elites. All of which means he could be setting himself up to be the perfect vice-presidential candidate. At only 43 years old, he could do a lot worse.

And Ed Kilgore notes that the guy does have his appeal:

If his campaign never really takes off, it will be attributed to Bush’s strength rather than Rubio’s weakness. And for a dark horse, he’s very well positioned, with surprisingly strong approval/disapproval ratios in the early states – a sign the “base” is ready to accept his backtracking on immigration reform – and the possibility of replacing either Bush – whose own numbers remain questionable – or Scott Walker – one big gaffe or indictment away from Palookaville – in the first tier of candidates.

On top of all that, he’s the candidate Republican Establishment elites are almost certain to drool over if Jebbie blows up or fades. He’s the symbol of change in the GOP, without really making many concessions that strain conservative orthodoxy.

Rubio did abandon his politically damaging commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, but Brian Beutler points out here that he’s also pre-abandoned his commitment to any kind of even halfhearted conservative anti-poverty strategy:

Nothing captures Rubio’s irreconcilable commitments quite like the evolution of his plan to reform the tax code. From the outset, Rubio never intended to sideline the interests of the wealthy. As originally conceived, his tax plan would’ve paired modest middle class benefits with very large tax cuts for high earners, much like George W. Bush’s first big tax cut in 2001. But when conservatives voiced dissatisfaction with that particular distribution, Rubio responded not by telling them to buzz off, or by eliminating the middle-income benefits and plying the savings into further high-end tax cuts. He kept the benefits, and layered hugely regressive additional tax cuts for the wealthy on top of an already unaffordable plan. What once would have increased deficits by $2.4 trillion over a decade, according to the Tax Policy Center, would now increase them by trillions more. The beneficiaries would be investors, who would no longer pay any tax on capital gains and dividends, and wealthy families, whose enormous bequests would be subject to no tax either.

Unbelievably, this play to have it both ways still doesn’t satisfy supply-siders. “This business side of the plan is pretty darn good and I like it,” Larry Kudlow told Politico’s Ben White. “The personal side of it is a mess and will be politically and economically indefensible and he is going to take tremendous criticism for it and my guess is he will have to back off it very fast.”

Ed Kilgore adds this:

So Rubio has already surrendered to the status quo to the extent that he packages an even larger boon to the wealthy than other Republicans in order to but acceptance for some “family-friendly tax credits.” But conservatives are demanding more, and there are no indications as of yet that Rubio will deny them.

All this dubious maneuvering actually looks worse when you contrast it to Rubio’s impressive lack of nuance when it comes to foreign policy, where he’s a full-on champion of every Neocon position. No matter where you stand on domestic or foreign policy, you get the sense that’s what makes Young Marco’s heart go pitty-pat. Those who are impressed by the heterodoxy of positions he’s already abandoned might want to think about that more carefully.

The blogger BooMan goes further:

Everyone keeps trying to tell me that I need to pay attention to Marco Rubio, but I have no idea why. I understand that the guy doesn’t look like a decrepit old horse and that he’s supposed to have some kind of nominal appeal to Latinos, but he’s about as substantive as Fred Thompson and at least as crooked as Senator Bob Menendez. Furthermore, his one political claim to fame is being a point man on the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform plan…

What Beutler is (too) politely pointing out is that Rubio has managed to propose the biggest, most regressive, most budget-busting tax cuts in history, all while in the guise of standing up to the supply-siders and sticking up for the struggling middle class. Beutler calls him the most ‘disingenuous’ candidate in the race, which would, if true, be something like running a two-minute mile.

So, maybe it is true. Who can really say, though? It’s not like Mitt Romney didn’t set several Guinness Book world records for disingenuousness the last go-round, and look where there that got him.

Anyway, smart people are telling me that I really only need to pay attention to three candidates: Jeb, Scott Walker, and Rubio. I understand the first two, but I’m still not getting the third.

That sounds about right. Marco Rubio, for a New American Century… Someone should tell him that century started fifteen years ago. Maybe he missed it.

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Once More with Feeling

There are lulls. March Madness was over. The college basketball team that simply never lost a game, Kentucky, finally lost one to the young lads from Wisconsin, who then lost to the guys from Duke, the college basketball team that America hates almost as much as they hate the New York Yankees. No one likes inevitable winners, but the matter was settled, and baseball season was only beginning. The playoffs in professional basketball and professional hockey were weeks away too – there were a few more wild card slots to fill. Nothing was happening there. The only big sporting event of the day was the Masters thing down in Augusta, but watching golf, even at its highest levels, is like watching paint dry, with whispered commentary. Golf isn’t compelling, only mildly interesting. America was out of diversions, so it was a good day for Hillary Clinton to announce, finally, that she was running for president, so she did:

Ending two years of speculation and coy denials, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Sunday that she would seek the presidency for a second time, immediately establishing herself as the likely 2016 Democratic nominee.

“I’m running for president,” she said with a smile near the end of a two-minute video released just after 3 p.m.

“Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion,” Mrs. Clinton said. “So I’m hitting the road to earn your vote – because it’s your time. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey.”

So she’s off to Iowa, to fight for everyday Americans, hoping they will see her as their champion. Maybe they will, even with her complex history:

Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign will open a new chapter in the extraordinary life of a public figure who has captivated and polarized the country since her husband, former President Bill Clinton, declared his intention to run for president in 1991. Mrs. Clinton was the co-star of the Clinton administration, the only first lady ever elected to the United States Senate and a globe-trotting diplomat who surprised her party by serving dutifully under the president who defeated her.

She will embark on her latest – and perhaps last – bid for the White House with nearly universal name recognition and a strong base of support, particularly among women. But in a campaign that will inevitably be about the future, Mrs. Clinton, 67, enters as a quintessential baby boomer, associated with the 1990s and with the drama of the Bill Clinton years.

She has a plan to counter that:

This campaign will begin on a small scale and build up to an effort likely to cost more than any presidential bid waged before, with Mrs. Clinton’s supporters and outside “super PACs” looking to raise as much as $2.5 billion in a blitz of donations from Democrats who overwhelmingly support her candidacy. Much of that enthusiasm is tied to the chance to make history by electing a woman to the presidency. But some, too, owes to the lack of compelling alternatives in a party trying desperately to hold on to the White House when Republicans control the House and the Senate.

Mrs. Clinton’s declaration on Sunday is to be followed by a series of intimate but critical campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire. She will use them to reintroduce herself to voters and begin to lay out the central theme of her candidacy: improving the economic fortunes of the middle class, with an emphasis on increasing wages and reducing income inequality.

In the video, she does not appear until after 90 seconds of images featuring personal stories of others, each describing how they are getting ready to start something new.

The video prominently features a black couple expecting a child, a young Asian-American woman, and two men who say they are getting married. It also shows plenty of the white, working-class people who were crucial to her previous White House bid and signals that she intends to make helping the middle class and reducing income inequality major themes of her campaign.

Near the end of the video, Mrs. Clinton finally appears outside a suburban home and says: “I’m getting ready to do something too. I’m running for president.”

That’s the essence of it. She’s a populist now. Tag along for the ride, and Slate’s John Dickerson (who was just named to replace the retiring Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation) sees what’s happening here:

She makes it clear that she is not running for all the people. As she wrote on Twitter, “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.” She is not promising to be the champion of “every American” but rather “everyday Americans.” In that grammatical choice lies the campaign: a fight for the people who have been left out of the economic recovery.

In order to put the voters center stage, Clinton doesn’t appear until more than 90 seconds into the video. By then, all the voters she hopes to stitch into her coalition have seen a version of themselves. In the most recent CBS poll, Clinton gets low marks for honesty – only 42 percent of the country thinks she is honest and trustworthy – and her favorability is low (only 26 percent have a favorable opinion of her). For the viewers who have these chilly views of her, this opening gambit was a warmth-graft, associating her candidacy with superbly shot images of attractive, striving Americans. It was the visual equivalent of motherhood and apple pie wrapped in the American dream.

And she’s learned her lessons:

Clinton promised hard work in her kick-off announcement, a promise her husband often made. Voters like to know a politician will battle for them, but in Clinton’s case the pledge goes beyond that. It sends a message meant to counteract one of the attacks Republicans will make against her. Today on Face the Nation, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus immediately talked about Clinton’s air of “inevitability” when he addressed her candidacy. That word is meant to convey the idea that she thinks she should just be handed the crown and waltz into the White House. Clinton is trying to send a different message. “I’m hitting the road to earn your vote,” she said in her blue windbreaker standing outside what may or may not be a typical middle class home. She’s not “starting a conversation” on a chintz couch, as she did in her 2008 announcement video. The message is that she’s getting after it this time.

Maybe she is, but Bill Curry, who was White House counsel to her husband, is not impressed:

Clinton personifies the meritocracy that to an angry middle class looks increasingly like just another privileged caste. It’s the anger captured best by the old “Die Yuppie Scum” posters and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s on the rise. Republicans love to paint Democrats as elitists. That is how the first two Bushes took out Dukakis, Gore and Kerry – and how Jeb plans to take out Hillary. When she says she and Bill were broke when they left the White House; when she sets her own email rules and says it was only for her own convenience; when she hangs out with the Davos, Wall Street or Hollywood crowds, she makes herself a more inviting target.

She will also get no break in the media:

All political reportage is full of insider tales about how every link of sausage is made. When House Democrats resumed their push for a minimum wage hike, staff framed the initiative not as sound policy but as clever politics. Even if authorized, nearly all such leaks harm the principle. On Friday, Clinton’s campaign let slip its aim to raise $2.5 billion; maybe that’s not the best way to say hello to a struggling middle class. Someone gabbed about the message of Hillary’s planned sit downs with average families, a sure fire way to make the families look and feel like props – and to make the whole, hollow exercise look and feel like a hollow exercise.

That’s harsh, and even harsher because it’s true, and Curry says that doesn’t even account for her campaign’s three big interlocking issues:

The first is how they raise their money. The second is how they craft their message. The third pertains to policy.

To get the money they think they need candidates who crook the knee to moneyed interests. They spend vast sums on polls, focus groups and data mining to find out what messages to send and to whom, and vaster sums to send them. The need to serve their donors keeps them from solving real problems. With so little to show for their service, they must rely even more on paid propaganda. The emptier their ads, the more of them they need.

The first thing to know about this system is how well it works for Republicans, most of whom would back the status quo with or without the money. Since they can’t afford to be too honest about policy anyway, consultants’ metaphors and themes suit them fine, as do the strict limitations of texts, tweets and ads.

The opposite is true for Democrats. When they truckle to the status quo, they break sacred vows. Their base feels most betrayed – but everyone notices and no one likes what they see. Convinced by their consultants that politics is all about metaphors and emotion, they treat issues as landmines and do everything possible to avoid stepping on one. They skip real debates to pursue what Obama consigliere David Axelrod calls ‘the politics of biography.’ Trading real reform for public policy vaporware, they lose all sense of purpose – and eventually stop making sense.

Curry is one unhappy Democrat:

Clinton seems as disconnected from the public mood now as she did in 2008. I think it’s a crisis. If she doesn’t right the ship it will be a disaster. In politics it’s always later than you think. Advisors who told her voters would forget the email scandals probably say this too will pass. If so, she should fire them.

Leaders as progressive as Howard Dean and Barney Frank urge Democrats to circle the wagons and spare the party the bloodshed of a real contest, but this party needs to get its blood moving. Clinton needs a real challenge and a real debate, not just a sparring partner; not some palooka to dance her around the ring for a couple of rounds, but a real fighter. She needs the debate. We all do. But who will bring it?

There’s no one out there, and veteran reporter Michael Tomasky offers some advice about all this:

It’s quite obvious how this Clinton campaign is going to be covered by the media. Most of the visible manifestations will be soap opera, those kinds of mannered, Dowdian questions of which the press never seems to tire: is she connecting, is she being “authentic,” is she acting too “ambitious,” is she wearing the right pantsuit, what’s up with her hair today, how is Bill behaving. There is, certainly, an extent to which questions like these are a legitimate part of the scrutiny of a presidential candidate, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Ben Carson, and I’ll ask them from time to time myself when they seem relevant. But somehow – for reasons that aren’t terribly mysterious – these questions always have been and now will be asked far more often of Clinton than of the others.

Underlying all that, invisible to the naked eye but always present, will be the element of Gotterdammerung that flows from the soap opera, which is to say: When the coverage is so intensely personality-focused as it will be with Clinton, it sets up a reality in which the media are just waiting for her to crack, to break; perched for the moment of downfall. I’m not saying it’s a conscious thing, or that the press will want her to fail for ideological reasons. It’s subtler than that.

In some ways, it’s really just about the narrative structures we’ve all learned and imbibed from television and movies: If the Clintons are a soap opera, coverage of them must by definition include stock soap-opera moments of tragedy and failure. Depending on how the cookie crumbles, it might also include the standard post-failure narrative arc of redemption and renewal, but that’s just a maybe. The other parts are definites.

So how does Clinton navigate these currents?

She should go back her successful 2000 campaign for Senate in New York:

We’ve already heard a few echoes of that race, when she launched her first “listening tour.” That happens to be the campaign I followed really closely, so I know a little about it…

What she did then was to ignore the soap opera to the extent possible and stick to the issues. Issues, issues, issues! But the issues were mostly kind of boring. How to get more airlines to fly to Rochester was surely important to Rochestarians? But it ain’t a question on which the fate of the republic turns. All this played to her advantage over time, because voters read the soap opera in the papers, but then when she showed up in Schenectady or wherever, what they saw was this woman, a little shorter (and thus less intimidating) than they’d imagined, speaking with great knowledge and seriousness of purpose about Medicaid funding formulas and the Northeast Dairy Compact.

She needs to do, I think, kind of the same thing now. Stick to the issues. Except for this – now, the issues aren’t boring. Now, the issues really matter, and we are at a point in history where, if she can win and manage to hold the White House until 2025, a good portion of the rightward drift in this country since 1980 can be reversed for the foreseeable future. Now is exactly the right time for boldness and creativity on wages and middle-class economic security.

It’s a huge opportunity for her to be a president of great consequence, to be the one who finally reversed the flow of the river, got it back moving in the direction it (mostly) did from 1945 to 1979. And there’s only one way to be that president.

Go big, Hillary.

She may be a careful person, having been burnt before, in 2008, but Tomasky is serious:

Go big on social questions, on which public sentiment more and more favors liberal positions on a range of issues. And go big on foreign policy because the world situation demands it. She’s a little to Obama’s right? Fine. But she is not a neocon – that’s a misreading – and she needs to stand up to them and remind voters how much of the current world mess the neocons made.

But most of all she needs to go big on economic questions. The great issues of our time are wage stagnation and middle-class anxiety. …

It’s morally indefensible and economically unsustainable. And everything is teed up for her to be dramatic here. On the Democratic side of the spectrum, it’s not only that Elizabeth Warren has helped put these issues front and center; it’s also that figures like Larry Summers, in the past identified with more centrist positions, had embraced some populist policies of late. It’s also interesting that even Republicans are talking about wage stagnation now. Of course, they’re doing it only because it’s a handy club to whack Obama with – they’ll talk about wage stagnation under Obama, in other words, but not since 1979, which is the reality, because mentioning that would imply a criticism of the sainted Reagan. So they won’t go there. Clinton can.

After all, history is on her side:

The only brief time since 1979 that we’ve had strong wage growth at all income levels was in the late 1990s under Bill Clinton (in fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, wage growth then was strongest for the bottom 40 percent). And by the way, I salivate to see her go up against Jeb Bush on this front: Median household income grew nearly 11 percent under Bill Clinton. Under both Bush presidents, when adjusted for inflation, the median household income shrank; that’s right – shrank.

And this is important: She needs to be clear that she doesn’t want to address the wage problem because of fairness. Fairness is nice. It works with liberals. But it doesn’t work so well with swing voters. She wants to address the wage problem because of growth – inequality is bad for economic growth. Evidence on this point is accumulating, and establishing that link is crucial to the process of persuading voters beyond the base that the Democratic concern with wages isn’t just about fairness, which sounds to a lot of people like “uh-oh, more taxes for me” – raising median wages is a better way than trickle-down economics to grow the economy.

Now is exactly the right time for boldness and creativity on wages and middle-class economic security. More and more workers aren’t employees anymore; they’re contractors. What can be done for them, to ensure they have guarantees of sick days, vacation days? What about student debt and the cost of higher education? It can be curbed; there are ideas out there, they’re just not in the political bloodstream yet in a meaningful way. She can put them there.

And what the hell, go out there and make some enemies:

If one characteristic has marked her as a politician, it’s been her preternatural caution. Ditch it. Take some chances. I wrote last summer that she should embrace paid family and medical leave. I feel it more strongly now. Conservatives will scream nanny state. Wall Street and some parts (though not all parts) of corporate America will say she wants to kill business. Good. Let ’em. Voters will love it. That one issue alone would send a fantastic signal that she’s on the middle class’ side and is willing to take on some big-money interests.

Who is this Hillary Clinton of which he speaks? Michael Tomasky may be imagining an alternative universe, while the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne prefers actual history. Dionne argues that Hillary Clinton is modeling this campaign after the 1988 campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush:

It would help a great deal, of course, if events also flowed her way, as they did for Bush 41. In 1988, gross domestic product grew by 4.2 percent. There’s nothing like rapid growth to incline voters toward keeping the same crowd in power. Relations with the Soviet Union were warming. That helped Bush Sr., too.

But President Ronald Reagan and his vice president also made an arrangement that was vital for the GOP’s success. By the end of the Reagan presidency, the country was not prepared to take the status quo again without some alterations and embellishments. Voters had signaled their desire for something different in the 1986 midterm elections by handing the Senate back to the Democrats after six years of Republican control.

Voters never seem to vote for new a president of the same party, after eight years of those guys running things, but they did in 1988, because Jeb’s father added sweeteners, with Reagan’s approval:

He promised that he would be both an “education president” and an “environmental president,” neatly stamping himself with the new and improved label. Both issues appealed to middle-of-the-road swing voters, many of whom had voted for Reagan but were not hard-core Reaganites.

The key was the Reagan White House’s complicity in Bush’s partial distancing of himself from the Gipper’s legacy. Reagan and his lieutenants were happy to give him some running room because they knew that a Republican victory in 1988 was the surest way to ratify the conservative legacy of the 1980s.

And Bush organized a brutal campaign against Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee… around issues connected to race, crime and patriotism. Bush identified the then-Massachusetts governor with the aspects of liberalism that voters had rejected before. Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, saw how important white working-class voters would be. They will be significant again in 2016.

It’s time to go there again, without the racist dog-whistles. The trick is to hug your party’s hero of the last eight years, but as one who is simply moving on:

She must stay close enough to Obama – and he to her – to rally the large Obama base that will get her most of the way toward a majority. Clinton can’t expect to generate the same enthusiasm Obama did among the young, particularly younger African Americans. But she is likely to get most of them to the polls and supplement their votes with new energy among women. What she cannot afford are signs of awkwardness in her relations with Obama.

But a strategic distance is not the same as estrangement, as long as it’s worked out in advance. David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime adviser, has noted that voters are always looking for the corrective to whatever they didn’t like in the previous administration. Clinton will present herself as both a realist when it comes to the intransigence of the Republican Party – it took Obama time to acknowledge this – but also as someone with a history of working with Republicans. It will be an intricate two-step. “Tough enough to end polarization” may seem like an odd slogan, but something like it will be at the heart of her appeal.

And she will have to go both to Obama’s left and right. Clinton needs to run hard against economic inequality, pledging to get done the things Obama couldn’t on issues including family leave, pre-K and higher education. She will have to be strong on expanding the bargaining power of the lower-paid. Trade will be the tricky issue here.

And then there is what the Republicans say we should all hate about the last eight years:

She cannot break with Obama’s broad direction on foreign policy, but she can signal a personal toughness (that word again) to reassure voters who are somewhat more hawkish than the president. He and she will have to find a way to orchestrate this, and it won’t be easy. The Iran negotiations will be the first, very challenging test.

But if things get dicey, the Republican right will prove to be her best ally. She will ask repeatedly: Does the country really want to give control of both the White House and Congress to a bunch of right-wing ideologues whom most voters mistrust? The elder Bush found that there was one more campaign to run against liberalism. Clinton is ahead in the polls because the country is not looking for a rendezvous with today’s brand of conservatism.

She can pull a Bush. Clinton can win. At least that’s the idea. And that was Sunday’s diversion, if you don’t like golf.

Posted in Hillary Clinton, Populist Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Accepting the Inevitable

Americans really don’t love a winner. That’s why Damn Yankees ran for 1,019 performances in its original 1955 Broadway production and the film version was a big hit in 1958, and why a new version is in the works. When the richest team with the biggest payroll wins year after year, and no one else has a chance, people get pissed off – at least in this tale, where the lowly Washington Senators finally win it all. That’s cool, but in real life the winners always win, and then people just stop going to ballgames. What’s the point? The actual Washington Senators gave up. They changed their name and moved. They’re now the Minnesota Twins, and to the relief of the few remaining baseball fans in America, now the New York Yankees only win it all now and then. Folks do, however, still like to see them humbled. For a while there they were really irritating, because they were inevitable. Inevitable winners are the bad guys.

That’s one reason Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 – he did run a brilliant campaign and most everyone seemed to like what he was saying, and to like him too, but everyone kept hearing that Hillary Clinton was inevitable. She and her husband, the loveable rogue who had presided over eight years of prosperity and peace, and who had left George Bush an actual surplus, controlled the Democratic Party. People owed them. The Clintons had pretty much put them in office, and there was the money thing too. Wall Street loved the Clintons. Bill Clinton gleefully deregulated everything he could, signing the bill that eliminated the Glass-Steagall Act, freeing the big banks to make money in any problematic way they could, and he signed the bill that exempted all futures trading from any oversight at all, which led to the Enron mess and then the credit default swap mess that tanked the economy at the end of Bush’s second term, but he did say from the start that the era of big government was over. He was serious, and there was no reason for the big money guys, who wanted to keep their money, to think Hillary would be any different. Everything was lining up for a Clinton victory, and then it all fell apart. Resentment may have been a factor. No one is “entitled” to win. The party didn’t owe her the nomination. The nation didn’t owe her the presidency.

Obama never said those words. He didn’t have to. The post-war New York Yankees dynasty did that for him. Inevitable winners are the bad guys, and now Hillary Clinton knows better, and is making adjustments this time:

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s long-anticipated entry into the 2016 presidential race took shape Friday, with Democrats saying she will announce her candidacy on Sunday and begin a series of deliberately small discussions with voters next week.

The low-key rollout – no big rallies or lengthy speeches – will end months of speculation surrounding the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination. Clinton intends to begin her second White House bid via social media, probably Twitter, and include a video that introduces her economic-centered campaign message before jetting to Iowa next week for public appearances, according to three Democrats with knowledge of her plans. …

Clinton’s go-slow, go-small start is the opposite of how many Republicans have entered or plan to enter the race. Instead of a splashy launch event, Clinton’s plan is a calculated understatement. She is scheduling a series of small roundtables and other give-and-take sessions with voters, first in Iowa and later in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — the states holding the first presidential primaries and caucuses early next year.

The idea is to showcase Clinton’s abilities as a problem-solver and crusader for the rights of those struggling to climb into or stay in the middle class. The intimate events with voters are also designed to help the former secretary of state connect with ordinary Americans and listen to their concerns, supporters said.

In short, she doesn’t want to come off as a jerk, claiming she’s entitled to anything, that it’s her turn, so shut up and sit down while she becomes president.

This might work:

David Axelrod, who helped lead the insurgent 2008 Barack Obama campaign that eclipsed Hillary Clinton’s first presidential run, welcomed the new approach.

“Humility is the order of the day,” Axelrod said. “Last time, they launched as a big juggernaut cloaked in the veil of inevitability and at 20,000 feet. There was a tremendous backlash to that. It is imperative for her to go out, to meet people where they live, to make her case, to deliver a message, to listen to what they have to say and to ask for their votes.”

Axelrod added that Clinton must also articulate a message about economic mobility during her launch that’s “compelling and authentic,” rooted in her personal biography. “She needs to project what the cause is that she’s fighting for here and give people a sense of where they fit into that vision,” he said.

That’s the plan:

Like the small-scale rollout in Iowa living rooms, Clinton and her advisers are also modulating their fundraising early on to avoid appearing presumptuous and keep the campaign focused on a grass-roots effort. Clinton allies have been tamping down expectations for a massive influx of campaign cash, but her fundraisers anticipate a rush of major donors trying to get checks in the door on Day One.

“All the horses are in the gate just waiting for those gates to open,” said John Morgan, a Clinton fundraiser in Florida. “There’s really nothing to do until the gate opens. But the gate could open Sunday and it could be the flood gate. The only issue they’ll have is how fast they can raise the money, because the money is pent up.”

Ah, but even that is a problem:

Clinton will raise only primary-season money at first, with a cap of $2,700 a donor. That is partly to avoid the appearance that Clinton is taking the nomination for granted. The focus on Internet appeals will free up Clinton to spend time on the trail talking to voters, rather than wooing wealthy donors at glitzy, high-priced fundraisers.

“I don’t think the first thing out of the gate she should be doing is a bunch of big fundraising events,” said one senior party strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. …

“I think she’ll be in Iowa eating corn on the cob instead of clinking champagne flutes with donors,” Morgan said. “She can do this much quicker, much more efficiently because she’s not fighting for donors. Rubio, Bush, that whole crowd is in mortal combat for dollars. She’s not. That’s her advantage.”

Just keep that quiet, and do what Obama did:

One priority is creating an extensive small-donor network similar to the Obama campaign’s much-admired list from his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and Clinton advisers see her announcement period as a ripe opportunity. “We’re not going to take it slow,” said one Clinton fundraiser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the campaign’s internal plans.

The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Barabak adds this:

Clinton is beloved and widely admired. She is also loathed and widely criticized.

She boasts an unprecedented resume – former first lady, New York senator, secretary of State – and enjoys universal name recognition after more than two decades of near-constant presence on the national stage. That familiarity, however, will make it exceedingly difficult for Clinton to present herself as someone fresh and different – qualities voters often crave, especially at the tail end of a two-term presidency.

And this:

She can be warm and engaging in small settings but dull and distant before large crowds. Her speeches are more workmanlike than uplifting. Her relations with the political press corps have been brittle even on the best days and that, in turn, has helped perpetuate a reputation for coldness and calculation.

She’s working on that:

“She seems ready to run for this not like a front-runner but like someone interested in earning every vote because of what she stands for and where she wants to take the country, as opposed to who she is,” said Steve McMahon, a Democrat strategist who is supporting Clinton but not working for her campaign.

It is impossible, of course, to introduce Clinton to voters as though for the first time. But in the days after her announcement, campaign strategists will place her in surroundings they hope will start to refashion some less-than-flattering perceptions.

There will be no splashy rallies, arena-size appearances or major policy speeches, at least to start.

That might work, but there’s that dynasty thing:

Only one time in the last 65-plus years has a political party managed to string together three consecutive White House victories; the candidate who achieved that, Republican Vice President George H. W. Bush, did so in 1988 under a president, Ronald Reagan, who was more popular than Obama is today.

The bias toward stability that often helps incumbents win reelection seems to yield to a hunger for change by the time a party has spent eight years in the White House.

In Clinton’s case, it helps that she is bidding to make history as the country’s first woman president. For all her familiarity, that alone argues against the business-as-usual, more-of-the-same case that Republicans are prepared to make against her for the next many months.

But there again Clinton must be careful, lest her candidacy becomes too much about her and history rather than voters’ more pressing and personal concerns.

This isn’t going to be easy, and Jonathan Bernstein thinks much of it doesn’t really matter:

Everything done by campaigns serves to build a superhumanly wonderful portrait of the candidate. There are those who are inclined to vote for that candidate anyway – partisans who always vote for their party, or swing voters reacting to the economy or other fundamentals. Those not inclined to do so probably won’t believe the hype, no matter how gushing. It may feel as if we’re drawn to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney because we like them. In fact, we’re just very receptive to liking candidates who we are (more or less rationally) likely to support in the first place.

Consider Obama. In 2008, it certainly seemed that he was a once-in-a-generation political force, a candidate who could truly bring new voters to the polls and shake up the status quo. And yet his final results looked a lot like what would happen if the 2004 electoral map were just shifted to the Democrats to account for Iraq and a deep recession – just as predicted by political science models that know nothing about the candidates.

If so, a dud candidate would do just as well as a superstar:

By the time a candidate advances to the general election, he or she has been thoroughly vetted by the press and by the party, so there’s a limit to how bad he or she can really be. Granted, there’s always the possibility something unprecedented will occur; we only have a very limited number of presidential elections to test for effects. It’s not impossible, for example, that the chance to elect the first woman president will matter. But it’s not especially likely, either.

The harsh truth is that especially in a partisan age, the candidates themselves aren’t that big a factor in presidential general elections. Democrats may be wasting a lot of time and energy worrying what they would do if something happened to Clinton, but the truth is that they would do about as well with most replacements. And the odds are that the same will be true on the Republican side, too.

Democrats may be foolishly wasting a lot of time and energy worrying what they would do if something happened to the inevitable Hillary Clinton, but Brian Beutler thinks that worry is justified:

If nobody serious challenges Hillary Clinton, nobody can be her understudy. In the near term that isn’t a problem, but if doubts about her inevitability develop late in the year or early next, the placid silence in the Democratic field will grow eerie.

The GOP’s dominance in last year’s midterms (and the dividends their victory in 2010 keeps paying) exacerbates this risk. The House of Representatives probably isn’t in play next year. The Senate barely is. Hillary Clinton must by now have reconciled herself to the possibility that her first two years, and possibly more, will be gridlocked, or defined by unsatisfying compromises with congressional Republicans. Her imprint on the Supreme Court might be dramatic, or she might end up replacing one liberal justice of particularly advanced age.

The opportunity facing Republicans is precisely the reverse. The current distribution of power on Capitol Hill is such that if a Republican wins the presidency, he will come into the White House with his party in complete control of Congress, confident he’ll be able to alter the balance of power on the Court for a generation. He will have eight-years-worth of Democratic progress on issues like health care, immigration, and climate change to roll back. The nature of our system makes it easier for opposition candidates to ride the political pendulum back toward their ideological comfort zones than for incumbent candidates to keep it aloft.

There’s a lot on the line:

For better or worse, if Clinton becomes president, her greatest accomplishment might be to rescue Obama’s legacy from a bottled up campaign of retribution. That’s an awkward agenda to run on (though if the Supreme Court wipes out billions of dollars in Obamacare subsidies this summer, it will be an easy agenda to dramatize). But it’s an incredibly important objective either way. And there’s no backup plan.

That is a problem, but Ryan Cooper sees a bigger problem:

The question I have for Clinton is whether she is going to play her campaign exclusively for the money seats. Barring some crazy upheaval, she will win the Democratic nomination and certainly have little trouble raising an emperor’s ransom-sized campaign chest. But the general election will not be nearly so easy. And if she’s going to give big donors effective veto over her campaign messaging to keep those dollars rolling in, she could end up losing – especially given the relatively low value of political spending in presidential elections.

The money doesn’t matter. She needs to stop being a Clinton of the past:

I continue to believe that a straightforward reboot of the New Deal with a fresh coat of paint would be a big political winner, if anybody with a national profile cared to make the case consistently and strongly. That’s no surprise, given my substantive preference for such policy.

However, there is precedent for such an idea. Both our economy and our politics are eerily reminiscent of the 1920s, when most economic growth flowed immediately to the hyper-wealthy, who owned both parties wholesale. After that era collapsed, FDR won four consecutive elections with sharply anti-rich rhetoric.

I submit that for any liberal candidate, trying to run a middle-of-the-road campaign in an age of stupendous inequality is highly politically risky. The reason is that not only does this feed the (largely correct, at this point) perception that both parties are owned by the 1 percent, thus depressing left-wing turnout, but it also leaves their most powerful political weapon by the wayside. When the Democrats ran some conservative Wall Street hack in 1924, they got crushed.

That would be the forgettable John W. Davis – no one remembers him now – and this isn’t rocket science:

Wages are stagnant or declining because a tiny minority is stinking rich. The hyper-wealthy and their political allies have jiggered our economic institutions to direct the entirety of income growth towards the 1 percent. Re-jiggering them to cut the rest of the population in on the fruits of productivity growth ought to be a political winner in a democracy.

Instead, so far Clinton is being utterly mealy-mouthed about the issue, talking about the need for “consensus” and equality of opportunity and other such weak tea, probably in part to keep the donor class happy. On the contrary, this is zero-sum class war, and the 1 percent has been winning for 40 years. If the rest of the country is to win, then the rich have to lose. Failing to acknowledge that obvious fact is the kind of timid conservatism that may cost Clinton the election.

This should be obvious:

President Obama and the Democrats made a similar mistake in 2009 when it came to macroeconomic policy. Presented with a gigantic economic collapse, they chose as a party to pass a stimulus that was conservative and small (though it contained much great policy) even by their own internal numbers, which ensured a slow and inadequate recovery.

One can litigate over precisely whose fault that was, but the point is that such a choice was extremely risky for the Democrats as a whole. If initial estimates misjudged the size of the collapse, as it later turned out they had, by a lot, then voters were going to hold them responsible for not fixing the problem. A much better tactical choice would have been a large overshoot – or perhaps a stimulus with built-in triggers dispensing more stimulus if unemployment didn’t come down fast enough (which would have meant abolishing the Senate filibuster right out of the gate, to be clear). …

The point here is that sometimes the timid choice is also a risky one.

And Paul Waldman argues that the money doesn’t matter:

There will be more money spent on the 2016 presidential election than any before in human history. Okay, we don’t know that with absolute certainty, but let’s just say it would shocking if it didn’t turn out to be true. The Koch brothers alone have promised to raise and spend the awfully specific amount of $889 million on the election, and that’s before we even get to the candidates, the parties, and all the other millionaires and billionaires eager to demonstrate their public-spiritedness by pouring buckets of cash on their preferred candidates. Is it horrifying? Absolutely – but this could well be a campaign in which there’s so much money sloshing around that money makes almost no difference in the end.

Just to be clear, in no way am I defending the American campaign finance system, which ought to be an enduring source of national shame. And I’m not talking about all the down-ballot races, where an injection of outside money can determine the results. I’m sure not talking about the fact that we even elect judges in what are now well-funded campaigns, a practice so appalling that it is duplicated almost nowhere else in the world. But if there’s any campaign in which money won’t determine the outcome, it’s the presidential race – precisely the one where money will pour down like a monsoon.

Here are his reasons for saying that:

The first is that money makes its biggest impact when there’s an imbalance, where one candidate can dramatically outspend the other. This is often the case in congressional races and even sometimes in Senate races, where one competitor (usually the incumbent) swamps the other and ends up being the only voice voters hear.

But that won’t be the case in a presidential campaign. What matters is the relative advantage one side might have, not the absolute difference in dollars, and in any presidential race the relative advantage is going to be small. For instance, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, even though Barack Obama raised a quarter of a billion dollars more than Mitt Romney in 2012, Romney’s deficit was overcome by donors to the GOP and outside groups; when you added it all up, the Red Team spent $1.2 billion and the Blue Team spent $1.1 billion. That extra $100 million Republicans spent didn’t make much of a difference.

That’s largely because of the second reason money won’t determine the winner of the presidential race: the more people know about, hear about, and talk about the campaign, the less important campaign spending is. Chances are you’ll know very little about the contenders in your state representative contest next year, so a volunteer chatting you up on your doorstep or a well-timed flyer in the mail could actually sway your vote by telling you something you hadn’t heard or just giving you a warm feeling about one of the candidates. But with the presidential race the focus of so much attention, the things the campaigns and outside groups spend money on end up being a much smaller proportion of everything voters hear about the race.

Look what has happened:

Even in the primaries, the billionaires don’t seem to be able to get what they want, no matter how much they spend. Sheldon Adelson came to wide public attention four years ago when he gave $20 million to Winning the Future, a super PAC attempting to secure the GOP nomination for Newt Gingrich. Adelson’s plan failed when voters realized that Newt Gingrich was, in fact, Newt Gingrich.

Money still matters in primaries, particularly competitive ones with lots of candidates, like we’re seeing on the Republican side. But the realization that lots of money is necessary but not sufficient for victory seems to have sunk in. Jeb Bush planned to blow away the rest of the field with a “shock and awe” fundraising campaign that would prove so formidable that other candidates would skitter away in terror, but in the end it didn’t really scare anybody. That’s not because Jeb won’t raise plenty of money, or even because he won’t outraise the rest of the Republican field (he probably will), but because few people are all that intimidated by a well-funded primary opponent.


So it would be foolish of Clinton to hamstring her political messaging for the sake of a few hundred million bucks she doesn’t even need. But if I had to guess, I’d say that’s exactly what she’s going to do.

She is who she is, and that led inevitably to this:

First came the gnashing of teeth over Hillary Clinton’s private email account, and her soon-to-be announced presidential campaign. Then, with a TED talk, Monica Lewinsky signaled her return to the spotlight. Now a show called “Clinton the Musical” has opened Off Broadway.

A person could be forgiven for wanting to hide under the bed until the 1990s stopped making a comeback.

But cowering would be a mistake. Far better to crawl out from behind that dust ruffle, head over to New World Stages and let “Clinton the Musical” quell your fears.

Smartly silly, hilariously impudent and sneakily compassionate, it is nearly guaranteed to leave you humming a bouncy, exuberant tune called “Monica’s Song” – the lyrics are unprintable – and thinking far more fondly of the eight scandal-plagued years this country spent with a president from a place called Hope.

This will not help Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Everyone knows who she has been and who she is, and they know what she will be – our next president. But we don’t have to like it. No one really likes the New York Yankees after all.

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