Pressing the Imaginary Advantage

Ask Jack Benny, or Jon Stewart. Timing is everything. Wait that two beats, not one or three, and deliver the punch line. That’s where the joke is, the right words of course, but delivered at just the right time, after just the right pause. Let the folks savor the quip by isolating it for maximum effect. Withhold it for a moment. Maybe it’s a great comeback line, long planned, but don’t press the advantage of having that great comeback line on the tip of your tongue. You’ll just come off as a jerk. In fact, you’ll seem like a bully. Know when having the advantage is a disadvantage. Don’t press it. Don’t jump the gun, even if you’re the one who has the loaded gun, not your straight man. Don’t kill the joke.

This sort of thing can’t be taught, and it’s fairly rare. Few know how to tell a joke, even if they know the joke inside and out. That’s their advantage, but somehow they press it when they should pause a beat or two, but that’s human nature when you have the advantage. You want to press it to close things down in your favor, once and for all. Why shouldn’t you? You know things others don’t, or you just won some election and now you have a mandate to do just what you want.

That analogy isn’t really a stretch. In 2004, George Bush won reelection, barely – the issue that time was Ohio, not Florida, and there was some shady stuff going on – and Bush decided he now had a mandate, he had the advantage. He decided it was time to finally privatize Social Security, turning it from an insurance system, with steady fixed returns for retirees, to an investment program, where folks would take what they used to have withheld from the paychecks and be required to buy stocks and bonds and mutual funds, which would return far more to them, and would also blast billions into American corporations, funding them extravagantly. Yeah, the returns wouldn’t be fixed – markets do crash now and then – but the returns would far greater, for the most part, probably – and the money paid in would fund amazing economic expansion.

That was the theory, but everyone balked. Bush was pressing an advantage he didn’t really have. Reporters asked him why he thought he had a mandate to do this, since he never mentioned this Social Security plan even once in the campaign, and he replied that people had voted for him, and thus they had voted for whatever he wanted to do next, and that was that. He wanted this, and he had the advantage of having won that election, and he was pressing that advantage – and it blew up in his face. The Brookings Institute has the details – it wasn’t pretty, and one way to look at it is as a matter of bad timing. Sure, you have the advantage, but press it and it can blow up in your face.

The same thing happened in the last several months with the NYPD after those two policemen were executed by a deranged guy upset about the cops always getting off after killing unarmed black men for no good reason. The NYPD had been getting hammered in public opinion, rightly or wrongly, and now they suddenly had the advantage – that execution was outrageous. No one should kill cops, because these two were good cops, and there are lots of good cops. There was, as they say, an outpouring of sympathy. Suddenly everyone loved New York’s Finest – they now had the advantage – and they blew it by turning their backs on the mayor, and by staging a massive work slowdown with no one doing their jobs, until the mayor apologized to them for saying mean things about them, even if he really hadn’t. There were contract issues too, and part of this was about pay and benefits and working conditions now in negotiation – but they did have the advantage.

Then they didn’t. They came of as jerks and bullies, and the head of the police union, Patrick Lynch, who recommended these tactics, is about to lose his job – the rank and file of New York’s Finest don’t want to be represented by this jerk. Lynch pressed his advantage when he shouldn’t. He should have paused two beats, for effect. He was too eager. He had no sense of timing. He probably can’t tell a joke either. George Bush certainly couldn’t… “There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”

Some people are hopeless. Their timing is always wrong, and now that the Republicans have finally won full control of both houses of Congress, and have the advantage, these guys have pushed that advantage too far too fast:

President Barack Obama and U.S. officials were completely blindsided by the announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will come to Washington to address a joint session of Congress this spring – a move that’s rattled the White House and diplomatic officials.

The announcement from House Speaker John Boehner’s office this week came after several high-level interactions between U.S. and Israeli officials, including a phone call between the President and Netanyahu and a multi-hour meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, a senior administration official told CNN.

Netanyahu’s snub has once again soured relations between the two world leaders…

Boehner does care, as he has the advantage:

The Boehner announcement came just over a week after Obama spoke over the phone with Netanyahu and urged him not to lobby in favor of new Iran sanctions, “asking for some space,” a senior administration official said. But the hawkish Israeli prime minister has a track record of supporting tougher sanctions against Iran and he’s expected to make that case when he addresses Congress in March.

Obama and other world leaders negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program have firmly argued against a sanctions bill from Congress, which they say would unravel a delicate international coalition and tank negotiations.

“We asked the Israelis in private and public to sit tight and the President made clear if a deal wasn’t reached he would be the first in line advocating for more sanctions,” the official said.

That’s what makes Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress a “pretty big deal,” the official added.

And just a day before Boehner’s announcement, Kerry met for several hours with Dermer, who reportedly coordinated the visit between Republican congressional leadership and Netanyahu.

Boehner blew those visits out of the water. His side has control of Congress. They’ll handle foreign policy now – they want new sanctions on Iran, which will end all negotiations on their nuclear program, which will mean they will build nuclear weapons, which means there will be war with them, an all-out war, and we’ll then wipe them out and get a government in Iran that we want, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan – and Netanyahu is fine with that. He’ll deal with the new leaders of the United States, although there’s more to it:

Netanyahu will address Congress just 12 days before the elections after he asked to push back his visit by nearly a month. And in Israel, Netanyahu’s visit will be a boon for him and his party as he plays himself up as the best protector of Israel’s security, of which a relationship with the United States is a key factor.

“Is that the relationship they want to have?” the senior administration official said. “The last thing we want to do is hurt Israel, but if he is able to stiff the U.S. president like that and we still offer him a meeting – that invites him and anyone else to do that over and over.”

That’s the idea. This is kind of a coup on Boehner’s part, although here too there are issues:

This week’s surprise announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Washington to address a joint session of Congress has been framed as yet another showdown between the current Israeli government and the White House, in particular, over their dueling strategies on how to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

But when the prime minister arrives in the United States, he will encounter a broad public consensus that supports the diplomatic approach advanced by the U.S. administration as the best means to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and opposes legislating new sanctions while negotiations are ongoing.

Indeed, within 24 hours of President Obama’s State of the Union address, it became clear that there is far less support for new sanctions than some observers perhaps expected.

This is Obama’s position:

In his speech, the president rightly touted the positive effect of the November 2013 interim agreement with Iran, which rolled back some of the most concerning aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, and noted that world powers now have a chance to negotiate a final agreement that would ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

But he warned that he would not hesitate to veto any new sanctions bill, which would “all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies, and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”

In a matter of hours, the president’s sentiments were echoed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called new sanctions “a very serious, strategic error,” and by top Congressional Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barbara Boxer.

And in the Washington Post, the foreign affairs chiefs of the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany and France wrote together that “rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.” Reports even emerged on Wednesday night – officials from the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad may have gotten involved, informing the White House and Members of Congress that new sanctions would cause the Iran talks to collapse.

And things are changing in Congress:

More and more lawmakers understand that these negotiations have changed the equation. While there may come a time in the future when more sanctions become necessary – if talks fail, or if Iran violates a final deal – moving forward with legislation at this time would be dangerous and counterproductive to our interests.

It would also give the staunchest Iranian hardliners exactly what they want. Just as these negotiations have challenged our own politics, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken testified this week that “Iran is not immune to politics, either.”

Current Iran sanctions succeeded in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, delaying the possibility of military confrontation and creating an opening for a diplomatic resolution of this crisis. This has pitted moderates who support a deal, like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, against more conservative rivals who are looking for any excuse to kill the talks.

Boehner pressed his advantage at just the wrong time. So did Patrick Lynch last month. Some people are hopeless at this, and Josh Marshall notes how this has messed things up:

“Senior American official” as quoted by Haaretz: “We thought we’ve seen everything. But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s office has tried to paper over the confrontation by calling the congressional invitation bipartisan. But Democrats were quick to note that is not true. Even American Jewish groups who seldom allow any daylight between themselves and the Israeli government appear shocked by Netanyahu’s move and are having difficulty defended it.

Yep, there are some things you just don’t do, and Steve Benen is trying to figure out what’s going on here:

I’ve been thinking about why this story strikes me as so important, and I realize that on the surface, it may not seem shocking to everyone. Republicans oppose the diplomacy with Iran; Netanyahu opposes the diplomacy with Iran. Perhaps their partnership was predictable?

Sure, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ignored U.S. protocol by circumventing the administration and reaching out to a foreign leader on his own, but given the degree to which Republicans have abandoned traditional norms in the Obama era, maybe this isn’t that startling, either.

The problem, however, which I fear has been largely overlooked, is that it’s genuinely dangerous for the federal government to try to operate this way.

Boehner should know better:

I’m reminded of an incident from August, near the height of the crisis involving Central American children reaching the U.S. border, when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) traveled to Guatemala. While there, the senator met with leading Guatemalan officials, including their president, and told them that the problem was Obama’s problem, not theirs.

In other words, an American senator visited with foreign leaders on foreign soil, denounced the American president, and undermined American foreign policy. During the Bush/Cheney era, Republicans used to characterize such moves as borderline treasonous.

Five months later, the GOP en masse is working to cut off American-led international talks at the knees.

The point, of course, is that in the Obama era, Republicans have no use for the maxim about politics stopping “at the water’s edge.” For many GOP lawmakers, there is no American foreign policy – there’s the president’s foreign policy and there’s a Republican foreign policy. If the latter is at odds with the former, GOP officials are comfortable taking deliberate steps to undermine the White House.

There is no real precedent for this in the American tradition. The U.S. system just isn’t supposed to work this way – because it can’t.

Benen cites Max Fisher on this:

To be very clear, this is not just a breach of protocol: it’s a very real problem for American foreign policy. The Supreme Court has codified into law the idea that only the president is allowed to make foreign policy, and not Congress, because if there are two branches of government setting foreign policy then America effectively has two foreign policies.

The idea is that the US government needs to be a single unified entity on the world stage in order to conduct effective foreign policy. Letting the president and Congress independently set their own foreign policies would lead to chaos. It would be extremely confusing for foreign leaders, and foreign publics, who don’t always understand how domestic American politics work, and could very easily misread which of the two branches is actually setting the agenda.

Benen:

United States and our allies have reached a delicate stage of diplomacy on a key issue, but as far as congressional Republicans are concerned, the United States isn’t really at the negotiating table at all – the Obama administration is. GOP lawmakers not only disapprove of the process, and they not only have no qualms about trying to sabotage the international talks, they’re even willing to partner with a foreign government to undermine American foreign policy.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I honestly don’t think this has ever happened before, at least not in our country. In effect, Boehner has invited Netanyahu to play the legislative branch of the U.S. government against the executive branch of the U.S. government, and the Israeli prime minister is happy to accept that invitation.

Cynicism about our politics is easy, but this isn’t just the latest outrage of the week. We’re talking about the ability of the United States to conduct foreign policy.

This is not good:

There are things you simply don’t do – and right now, Republicans are doing them.

One wonders why, and at Balloon Juice there’s this:

What’s the win for Netanyahu here? Does Bibi think that Mitt Romney is going to be President (again)? Does he think that he’ll win a tight election by pissing off Israel’s prime benefactor? Maybe there’s some Israel-specific reason why this makes sense, but I sure don’t get it.

Boehner’s win here is obvious: he gets a few days of attention from the DC Press Corpse and some credit from the tea-turd caucus for a symbolic fuck you to Obama. It just shows how weak he is that this wholly symbolic gesture counts as a “win”, but at least he’s getting something out of it. I don’t see what Bibi gets.

Michael Koplow addresses that:

It’s one thing to blame Netanyahu for bad relations with a president who will be out of office in two years; one can argue that this is a problem that will resolve itself with no residual effects. But if you view Netanyahu’s machinations in a larger context, by constantly and openly favoring the Republican Party – either himself or through Ron Dermer’s actions in Washington – he is putting Israel itself at long term risk by helping make it a wedge issue in American politics.

I constantly argue that Israel’s primacy of place in the U.S. is due to popular opinion, but the caveat there is that this only works when it is bipartisan popular opinion. Netanyahu’s actions, where he sides with the Republicans in a very exaggerated manner, are having a serious effect and eroding traditional cross-spectrum popular support for Israel, and once that passes a point of no return, Israel is going to have serious problems.

I don’t place the blame for wavering support in the Democratic Party for Israel solely at Netanyahu’s feet by any means, but he is a big part of the problem and has stoked the fires at many points. The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests.

Who knows? But both Netanyahu and Boehner seemed to have sensed that Obama was in a far weaker position than ever before after the midterms, so they finally had the advantage, and they pressed it. But as with Bush and his sudden announcement that he was effectively going to end Social Security and have everyone buy shares in McDonalds and Halliburton and maybe Enron, they jumped the gun. They delivered the punch line too early and killed the joke – although there’s no joke here. This is deadly serious stuff. The joke’s on us.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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