When America Must Fail

America patted itself on the back when we elected our first black president in 2008 – we were finally a post-racial society, and we could finally talk about other things. It was like Blazing Saddles – the hip new black sheriff would catch a lot of crap, initially, but he was cool and smart and gracious and a good listener – and he’d win the townspeople over in the end, because he was a good guy. And really, no one wanted the new sheriff to fail – that would mean that bad guys would get their way. Hedley Lamar would be running everything. That wouldn’t do. The townspeople got over their discomfort with having a guy in charge that wasn’t like any of them at all. They were sad when Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid rode off into the sunset, and then hopped in that stretch Cadillac limo and headed for somewhere presumably less appallingly narrow-minded and stupid. The film was a satire. Everyone knows things don’t work that way. Mel Brooks made that clear. There was one running joke, played in all possible variations – This man cannot be the sheriff! But he was. That was the joke. And that was 1974 – Obama was a seventh-grader in Hawaii at the time. If he saw the Mel Brooks movie, Obama would have had no idea he’d grow up to be Sheriff Bart, and it wouldn’t be mindlessly smug Rock Ridge – it would be mindlessly smug and easily-distracted America. Either way, they wouldn’t like him much.

The American right immediately fell into the role of Mel Brooks’ outraged townspeople. This guy wasn’t like any of them at all. The Birthers knew they could prove he wasn’t born in the United States – so he couldn’t be our president. Glenn Beck announced on Fox News that Obama simply hated white people – and then took it back, sort of. Newt Gingrich said Obama had a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mindset that governed all his actions – no matter where he was born. It was Obama’s father, who even if he abandoned the wife and kid early on, had poisoned the well, or something. Dinesh D’Souza had explained that in his policies, Obama was essentially channeling the soul of his late Kenyan-born father, an African “tribesman of the 1950s” – and Gingrich thought that was a brilliant insight. Others suspected that Mel Brooks had come up with that.

Some of this wasn’t racial. Obama seemed to think that government might actually do some good for its citizens. Ronald Reagan said it never could. Obama had said the unthinkable, and, when the Democrats briefly held both the House and the Senate, Obama got the Affordable Care Act passed – an attempt to use the government to make everyone’s lives a little easier. Ronald Reagan had said that’s not the government’s business – freedom matters more. Obama just didn’t think that way. There was freedom from worrying about how to pay for medical expenses without going bankrupt. Obama redefined freedom. He really was different, and had called the Iraq War the dumb war. He’d get us out of there. We had better things to do – but that meant Obama didn’t think like Dick Cheney. Even if the war makes no sense, fight that war – to project strength and resolve. Obama seemed to think that just shows you’re dumb as a rock. Negotiate to get what you can, without pissing off the whole damned world. That pissed off a lot of Americans who thought that pissing off the whole damned world was exactly what we should be doing. This man couldn’t possibly be the new Sheriff of Rock Ridge.

But he was. This man was President of the United States. All that the townsfolk could do was cheer every time he failed at something, and say see, told ya so – the guy is useless. Since he was doing the work of the United States, however, this meant cheering when the United States failed at something, and in 2009 they did just that:

Conservative media figures have celebrated the International Olympic Committee’s elimination of Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics and used the event to bash President Obama, who flew to Copenhagen to lobby IOC members on behalf of Chicago’s bid. For instance, Glenn Beck called the news that Chicago’s bid had failed “so sweet.” Rush Limbaugh declared himself “happy” and “gleeful” with the results, and Matt Drudge proclaimed: “World rejects Obama.”

Limbaugh, in particular, was on a roll:

For those of you on the other side of the aisle listening in who are upset that I sound gleeful – I am. I don’t deny it. I’m happy. Anything that gets in the way of Barack Obama accomplishing his domestic agenda is fine with me. I stand by – I don’t want Obamacare to succeed. I want national health care, socialized medicine, to fail. I want cap and trade – a national carbon tax emissions policy based on a hoax – I want that to fail. I do not want the government owning car companies. I don’t want the government running banks. I don’t want the government in charge of loans. I don’t want any of it. I want all of that to fail.

And for those things to fail, I’m sorry to say, our president must fail, because they’re his ideas. It is the ideas I want to fail, but the architect of those ideals must, by the same sense of logic, also fail at the same time the ideas do. So anything that weakens and helps people to see the real Obama is a step forward.

Sorry, Chicago, and sorry America, but there are bigger issues at play. Brazil can have the Olympics. America will have to come in last, in many things, to bring this man down. If the world rejects our president, there’s hope for us. In 2009, when the results were announced – we didn’t get the 2016 Olympics – the folks in the offices of the Weekly Standard cheered themselves hoarse, and CNN’s Lou Dobbs was in seventh heaven. It’s all at the Media Matters link and very odd. Obama represents America, but Obama must fail – so America must fail over and over. Then people will know this guy isn’t our president. He’s not one of us.

This was a minor matter – hosting the Olympics really is a pain in the ass (1984 here in Los Angeles was painful) – but at the time some were uncomfortable with those who claimed to be the Real Americans cheering when America lost out, when America failed. Okay, it was only the Olympics, but still, they were cheering. America lost! America lost!

This was a minor matter, soon forgotten, but perhaps these folks could go too far, and this time perhaps they did:

The backlash continued Tuesday after 47 Republican senators sent a signed letter to Iran’s leaders warning them against cutting a nuclear deal with the Obama administration.

The letter, organized by Senator Tom Cotton, a freshman from Arkansas, warned Iran that “we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

The New York Daily News on Tuesday put photos of Cotton, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on its front page along with the boldfaced headline “TRAITORS.”

That’s rather blunt, but there’s more:

The Wall Street Journal took down the letter in an editorial Tuesday calling the deal with Iran possibly “the security blunder of the young century” and saying that Congress should vote on it, “which is why it’s too bad that Republican Senators took their eye off that ball on Monday with a letter to the government of Iran.”

MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski also had harsh words for Cotton, criticizing him a few minutes before he was scheduled to appear on Morning Joe (where he defended the letter).

“If anyone had any reservations that what the Republicans did when they brought Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress to address Congress was not an effort to undercut the president, this then could perhaps seal the deal in your mind that everything they do is focused in almost an obsessive and destructive way to undermine the president and to undermine the president’s effort to get a deal as opposed to going to war,” she said.

And this:

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, said it was highly unusual for a political party to insert itself into a foreign-policy negotiation in opposition to the president.

“Republicans are undermining our commander-in-chief while empowering the ayatollahs,” he said from the Senate floor Monday. “We should always have robust debate about foreign policy, but it’s unprecedented for one political party to directly intervene in an international negotiation with the sole goal of embarrassing the president of the United States.”

They may have gone too far this time, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan offers this:

The letter – which encourages Iran’s leaders to dismiss the ongoing nuclear talks with the United States and five other nations – is as brazen, gratuitous, and plainly stupid an act as any committed by the Senate in recent times, and that says a lot. It may also be illegal.

The banalities begin with the greeting: “An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” By custom, a serious letter to foreign leaders would address them by name. Who is it that the senators are seeking to influence: the supreme leader, the Parliament, the Revolutionary Guards? Clearly none of the above, otherwise it wouldn’t be an open letter. Nor, if this were a serious attempt of some sort, would Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who was among the missive’s signatories) leave the task of organizing it to the likes of Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, an otherwise unknown freshman. As usual, the Republicans’ goal is simple: to embarrass and undermine President Barack Obama.

The idiocies begin with the first sentence: “It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.”

First, I’m curious: How has this come to their attention? Second, the letter writers reveal that they don’t understand our constitutional system either. They point out to the Iranians – in the tone of a teacher addressing third-graders – treaties must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate, agreements need majority approval by both houses of Congress, and executive agreements can be overturned by Obama’s successor “with the stroke of a pen.”

Reading this, one can only wonder if these Republicans ever consult their staffs. As the Iranian leaders know, and as the Obama administration and the other P5+1-governments have made clear all along, the deal being negotiated is not a treaty, nor is it an agreement. Rather, it is a nonbinding international arrangement, to be signed (if it is signed) by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, and Iran.

Others can sign it without us. The letter was pointless, and, yes, it may violate the law:

The Logan Act (1 Stat. 613, 30 January 1799, currently codified at 18 U.S.C. § 953) is a United States federal law that forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. It was passed in 1799 and last amended in 1994. Violation of the Logan Act is a felony, punishable under federal law with imprisonment of up to three years.

The Act was intended to prohibit United States citizens without authority from interfering in relations between the United States and foreign governments.

The “authority” they were talking about is the president, not Congress, as this was confirmed by Supreme Court Associate Justice George Sutherland in a 1936 majority opinion: “The President alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation. He makes treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate; but he alone negotiates. Into the field of negotiation the Senate cannot intrude, and Congress itself is powerless to invade it.”

That’s the law, statute and precedent, and no one has ever really been charged with violating the Logan Act, as a good lawyer points out, for good reason:

The text of the Logan Act makes it a crime for citizens to engage in “any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government … with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government… in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.” The Senators’ letter certainly seems to fall within this language. But, critically, the citizen must act “without authority of the United States.” Although most assume that means without authority of the Executive Branch, the Logan Act itself does not specify what this term means, and the State Department told Congress in 1975 that “Nothing in section 953… would appear to restrict members of the Congress from engaging in discussions with foreign officials in pursuance of their legislative duties under the Constitution.” That doesn’t mean Members would have immunity under the Constitution’s Speech and Debate Clause; it just means the statute would arguably not apply in the first place.

Find another law, and also, forget treason, as UCLA’s Mark Kleiman explains:

Note that the often-misquoted “aid and comfort” clause doesn’t constitute an independent definition of “treason.” The crime is “making war on the United States” or “adhering to their enemies.” “Aid and comfort” clarifies the meaning of “adhering”: merely sympathizing with an enemy doesn’t constitute “treason” unless there is what current law calls “material assistance.” That’s clarified further by the next sentence, requiring eyewitness proof of an “overt act.”

You can think, as I do, that the Senators’ letter was wrong, foolish, and even unpatriotic in its effects; you can think that it helped foreign powers hostile to the United States by weakening American diplomacy and making our government look frivolous to the rest of the world. But even if you think – contrary to any evidence I’m aware of – that Cotton & Co were trying to damage the United States as well as actually damaging the United States – that still wouldn’t amount to “treason” in the Constitutional sense of that term. An “enemy” is the other party to a war (as the Declaration of Independence says, we hold all of mankind “enemies in war, in peace friends”). Arguably we are currently at war with al-Qaeda and with ISIS, and perhaps with the Transnational Criminal Organizations on the Treasury’s asset-control list; with the rest of the world (and yes, that includes Russian and China and Cuba and North Korea and Iran) we are currently at peace.

There’s a good case that the Cliven Bundy crowd was committing “treason” when it pointed loaded weapons at U.S. government employees to prevent them from carrying out their lawful duties. But other than that sort of civil-war activity, or helping the designated transnational criminal and terrorist groups, it’s not actually possible today for an American citizen to commit the crime of treason, for lack of “enemies” to adhere to.

So, the Logan Act doesn’t apply, and “treason” has become a useless term. These guys just want Obama to fail, so they can say see, told ya so – he’s not one of us. Even the townspeople of Rock Ridge weren’t this persistent and obsessive. This cool new sheriff never had a chance. In fact, Jonathan Chait just conducted an exit interview with Dan Pfeiffer, a top presidential advisor who’s been with Obama since the 2008 campaign, and notes this:

The original premise of Obama’s first presidential campaign was that he could reason with Republicans – or else, by staking out obviously reasonable stances, force them to moderate or be exposed as extreme and unyielding. It took years for the White House to conclude that this was false, and that, in Pfeiffer’s words, “what drives 90 percent of stuff is not the small tactical decisions or the personal relationships but the big, macro political incentives.”…

This analysis puts the administration at odds with the reading of American politics that still dominates much of Washington reporting. Many political journalists imagine that the basic tension for the White House lies between Obama’s liberal base and appealing to Americans at the center, who will be crucial for tipping elections.

That turned out to be wrong:

Pfeiffer believes the dynamic is, in fact, the opposite: “The incentive structure moves from going after the diminishing middle to motivating the base.” Ever since Republicans took control of the House four years ago, attempts to court Republicans have mostly failed while simultaneously dividing Democratic voters. Obama’s most politically successful maneuvers, by contrast, have all been unilateral and liberal. “Whenever we contemplate bold progressive action,” Pfeiffer said, “whether that’s the president’s endorsement of marriage equality, or coming out strong on power-plant rules to reduce current pollution, on immigration, on net neutrality, you get a lot of hemming and hawing in advance about what this is going to mean: Is this going to alienate people? Is this going to hurt the president’s approval ratings? What will this mean in red states?” And yet this hesitation has always proved overblown: “There’s never been a time when we’ve taken progressive action and regretted it.”

This was deeply at odds with the lesson Bill Clinton and most of his aides (many of whom staffed Obama’s administration) had taken away from his presidency. But by the beginning of Obama’s second term, at least, the president seemed fully convinced. “As we were preparing for the potential that we would lose the midterms,” Pfeiffer told me, “a lot of the advice we got around town was, you have to show major contrition; heads have to roll; you have to give some sop to the Republicans. The president’s view was, no, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to go out and we’re going to be the opposite of contrite; we’re going to be aggressive in our policies and our politics. And that worked. It caused people to cheer. But that’s the exact opposite of the sort of advice you’d get in this town.”

Digby (Heather Parton) adds this:

Pfeiffer is correct. And it’s exactly what political activists who aren’t in that town had been saying for years. Despite the idealism of the campaign and the genuine excitement and emotion about President Obama, some progressives were queasy about all these promises of “trans-partisan” comity, knowing as they did that it was highly unlikely that any president could single-handedly change this structure much less one who so offended a great swathe of the GOP base. They did not understand how anyone couldn’t see that the modern Republican Party had gone insane and that every incentive and structural political edifice out there made it impossible for them not to be insane.

Progressives knew there was no margin in trying to appease Republicans and that all attempts to try merely moved the political center further to the right. That had been the pattern since the 90s when the Republicans were crazy enough to detonate the nuclear option of impeachment over illicit sex when the president only had two years left on his term. They followed that up by unapologetically using threats and every lever of political power they had, including the Supreme Court, to install George W. Bush even though he’d lost the popular vote in the country. They went to war with a nation that hadn’t attacked us out of sheer opportunism. And yet it took Boehner not being able to deliver on Simpson-Bowles to convince them that maybe these people weren’t quite operating in good faith?

Anyone could have seen that back in 2009, when these folks cheered when we lost the 2016 Olympics to Brazil. This president, because he’s not one of us, must fail. We’ll make sure he fails, and in this case, if that means talks with Iran break off and they go all out and build a nuclear arsenal as fast as they can, as they surely will, and that means our only option is war, a war that will engulf the whole region and then the world, so be it. Obama will have failed. That’s more important.

Ah well, when this sort of thing got Sheriff Bart all depressed, the Waco Kid consoled him:

What did you expect? “Welcome, Sonny”? “Make yourself at home”? “Marry my daughter”? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land, the common clay of the new West. You know… morons.

Does that help?

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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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One Response to When America Must Fail

  1. Ruth Carhuff says:

    This is an excellent blog post. One point you have raised and which I am considering is with respect to the Logan act and the fact that the Senators acted “without authority of the United States.” In my opinion, the Senators did act without authority, as they remain our elected leaders and if even one voter remains opposed to this controversial missive, then it is a mistake. The Logan Act may have been penned in a time without technological communication being what it is today, but think about how brilliant it remains. It addresses a problem unforseen at the time, which has far-reaching consequences today.

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