Wrong About Everything

Those of us of a certain age – the term has an interesting history but generally means someone who has been around for a long time and now knows a thing or two, but is now irrelevant and rather useless – you know, old farts – remember Dan Quayle – George H. W. Bush’s vice president. Quayle was that earnest young fellow with that vacant look, when he didn’t look bewildered, and he said the oddest things – “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy, but that could change.” – “I believe that I’ve made good judgments in the past, and I think I’ve made good judgments in the future.”

Reporters rolled their eyes. A few friendly reporters cleaned up his quotes as best they could. Everyone knew what he meant, sort of, and he was, after all, harmless. He was only the vice president. It’s not as if he was running the country, but he was an embarrassment:

On May 19, 1992, Quayle gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California on the subject of the Los Angeles riots. In this speech, Quayle blamed the violence on a decay of moral values and family structure in American society. In an aside, he cited the single mother title character in the television program Murphy Brown as an example of how popular culture contributes to this “poverty of values”, saying, “It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice’.”

The “Murphy Brown speech” became one of the most memorable incidents of the 1992 campaign. Long after the outcry had ended, the comment continued to have an effect on U.S. politics. Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family history and the author of several books and essays about the history of marriage, says that this brief remark by Quayle about Murphy Brown “kicked off more than a decade of outcries against the collapse of the family”. In 2002, Candice Bergen, the actress who played Brown, said “I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless, but his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.” Others interpreted it differently; singer Tanya Tucker was widely quoted as saying “Who the hell is Dan Quayle to come after single mothers?”

After that, the Bush administration hid him – the guy picked the wrong fights and said stupid things – but it was too late. George H. W. Bush didn’t win a second term. We got Bill Clinton, and his vice president, Al Gore. Surreal syntax and odd disputes were no longer an issue, until the second President Bush. George W. Bush had the same problems with the English language and with odd arguments. It was as if Dan Quayle had returned, and this time he was running the country. That didn’t go well.

Could that happen again? Brent Budowsky, a columnist at The Hill, does worry about that, wondering if Jeb Bush is the new Dan Quayle:

A longtime friend and wise political sage in Texas asked me this morning: “Brent, do you think Jeb Bush is the new Sarah Palin or the new Dan Quayle?”

That was a frightening question:

Sarah Palin has wit and charm, but I would never vote for her for anything, and if McCain-Palin had won in 2008 and Palin ever became president, I would either have built a bomb shelter or moved to Paris. There were so many great issues of state she knew nothing about, and she had more than one wild and crazy idea when discussing global security. Her finger on the nuclear button is a thought that makes my hair fall out.

On the other hand, after the week from hell that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has just created for himself, I am convinced that there is a great analogy between the Jeb Bush that runs for president in 2016 and the Dan Quayle that ran for vice president in 1988. Quayle was fundamentally a good guy, and a reasonably decent senator – more than was given credit for (even though I usually disagreed with him).

The parallels are there:

Bush, like Quayle, comes from a high-level family pedigree and was a respectable governor in the same way Quayle was a respectable senator. There are many matters that Bush has substantive knowledge of, but how to run for president is not among them.

This week, the Republican debates began in earnest. There were two. The first was Jeb Bush vs. Jeb Bush, which Jeb Bush lost. How many positions did he take on Iraq? Three? Four? A steady hand at the helm he was not.

Then Bush accidentally appeared to announce he was running for president, a statement with great consequence for the nation and serious legal consequence for his fundraising. And then Bush flip-flopped again, retracting his announcement for president, probably after his campaign lawyers found their hair falling out!

The second Republican debate this week involved Jeb Bush vs. George W. Bush, and both Bushes lost that debate. Jeb Bush lost because he appeared incoherent, confused and duplicitous in changing his position on the major war of the last decade, and he had that deer-in-the-headlights look that Quayle had when a certain Democratic senator from Texas blasted him into orbit in a vice presidential debate.

Jeb Bush became Dan Quayle:

This will be seen as the week when Jeb Bush lost credibility as a potential president. Whether his ample supply of donors ask for refunds or not, presidential stature is something that money cannot buy.

Jeb had his Murphy Brown moment, as Slate’s Josh Voorhees explains here:

Jeb Bush on Thursday gave his fourth answer in as many days to the question of whether, with the benefit of hindsight, he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 if he were president then instead of his brother. “If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions: Knowing what we know now, what would you have done?” Bush said at a campaign event in Arizona. “I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”

His remarks capped a week full of stumbles, hedges, and full-on dodges by a candidate who is seen as the closest thing to a front-runner in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls, in no small part because of the massive fundraising advantages provided by his family’s political dynasty.

Jeb picked the wrong fight:

The whole thing started Monday, when Bush told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that he would have authorized the invasion. On Tuesday the former Florida governor backpedaled, saying that he misheard the question and did not know what he would have done. And on Wednesday he went into a defensive crouch, saying he wouldn’t answer such hypotheticals.

The if-you-knew-then question, meanwhile, posed no such problems for the rest of the GOP field. Among those who came out with a definitive answer in the time it took for Jeb to settle on one of his own were: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich. All said that they wouldn’t have authorized the invasion knowing what they do now.

“I don’t know how that was a hard question,” Santorum said following Bush’s final reversal. The former Pennsylvania senator, who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, added: “I’ve been asked that question a hundred times. The answer is pretty clear. The information was not correct and, while there were some things that were true, I don’t think nearly the weight to require us to go to war. Everybody accepts that now.”

That’s why everyone agrees on this:

Bush’s prolonged unwillingness to second-guess the war in hindsight was almost as remarkable as his complete lack of foresight that such a question was coming. The Iraq war – which had an American death toll of more than 4,400 and a U.S. price tag of at least $1.7 trillion – was a defining element of George W. Bush’s presidency, and still hangs over U.S. foreign policy today. Jeb and his army of foreign policy advisers should have known it was something he’d have to address eventually. That the campaign was unprepared to deal with the specter of the faulty intelligence that was used to justify the invasion suggests that Bush still hasn’t figured out whether he wants to run toward his brother’s legacy or away from it. As this week illustrated, he better make up his mind soon, because his GOP rivals aren’t going to allow him to do both.

The New York Times’ Gail Collins puts it this way:

I’m really troubled by his awful performances, and I’m generally a person who takes bad news about politicians pretty well. For instance, a friend just sent me a story about the Texas agriculture commissioner’s vow to bring deep-fried foods back to school cafeterias. (“It’s not about French fries; it’s about freedom.”) I would classify this as interesting, yet somehow not a shocking surprise.

But today we’re talking about Jeb Bush. As a presidential hopeful, Bush’s most attractive feature was an aura of competence. Extremely boring competence, perhaps. Still, an apparent ability to get through the day without demonstrating truly scary ineptitude.

Then, about a week ago, The Washington Post reported that during a private meeting with rich Manhattan financiers, Bush announced that his most influential adviser on Middle Eastern matters was his brother George.

This was a surprise on many fronts. For one thing, Jeb had apparently missed the memo on how everything you say to potential donors at private meetings can wind up on an endless YouTube loop for all eternity.

Also, he had begun his all-but-announced campaign for the presidency with an “I’m my own man” sales pitch. Now he was saying, in effect, “Well, I can always ask my brother.”

This would not go well:

Then, on Monday, Fox News aired an interview in which host Megyn Kelly asked Jeb whether “knowing what we know now” he would have authorized the invasion of Iraq.

“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush replied.

Now no one, including Hillary Clinton’s worst enemy in the entire world, thinks that if she could go back in time to 2002, knowing that the invasion of Iraq was going to be a total disaster and that she would lose the presidential nomination in 2008 to a guy who ran on that very issue, she would still have voted to authorize the use of force.

Given that, we have another Dan Quayle on our hands:

The bottom line is that so far he seems to be a terrible candidate. He couldn’t keep his “I’m-my-own-man” mantra going through the spring. He over-babbled at a private gathering. He didn’t know how to answer the Iraq question, which should have been the first thing he tackled on the first day he ever considered that he might someday think for even a minute about running for president.

This is obviously a problem for the Bush camp, but it’s a big one for the nation’s army of concerned citizens, too. There are lots of Americans who are not going to vote Republican next year, but who nevertheless have found some comfort in the idea that Jeb Bush would almost certainly be the Republican nominee.

They might disagree with him on a lot of issues, but at least he wasn’t Ted Cruz.

That’s over now, but Josh Marshall argues that now Jeb’s problem has become a problem for the other Republican candidates:

Improbably, Jeb Bush’s run for president and painful bumbling have triggered, though by no means caused, a watershed moment in the country’s reckoning with the strategic blunder – and let’s just say it – self-inflicted catastrophe of the Iraq War.

It was one thing when John Kasich and Chris Christie said they would not have invaded Iraq – guys who would run as relative moderates and either aren’t running or don’t realize they’re not running for president. (Rand Paul said the same but that’s no surprise.) But now we have Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz saying they would not have either. Rubio is the big tell here since he among all the 2016 contenders is angling for the support of the neoconservative foreign policy intelligentsia. If he can say categorically that it was a mistake, the debate is probably really finally over.

This had to happen eventually:

From one perspective, this may not seem surprising. With everything that has happened over the last dozen years, including events of just the last year, it’s very hard to say that the invasion was a good idea. But people say lots of things that are either hard or downright ridiculous to say. Indeed, we should note that as recently as two months ago, Rubio was saying just the opposite, that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

Certainly part of this is that everybody in the race has an immediate incentive to inflict as much damage on Jeb Bush as possible. But it goes well beyond that. Iraq has loomed large over every aspect of US politics and foreign policy for more than a decade. But the specific decision to launch the war was submerged for many years. In the years just after the war, support for the war was an article of faith for most Republicans. That fixed much of the public debate in place. Many elected Democrats, meanwhile, were trapped by their own votes in favor of Bush’s authorization to use force.

Later, Republicans moved the debate to the ‘surge’, where they did have a much better argument to make. Even though it didn’t change the big picture, many Democrats didn’t think the surge could work. But in the limited sense of tamping down the out-of-control insurgency through a mix of an intensified troop presence and payola to tribal leaders in Sunni regions of the country, violence did abate significantly. It created an opening for a political solution, which never ended up happening and perhaps could never happen. In the 2008 presidential race, the Iraq ‘debate’ was largely fought over who was right about the surge.

Since then, the fights of the Obama era pushed the Iraq debate to the sidelines. Public opinion has turned decisively against the war. But political fights have largely been fought over ISIS, whether there should have been a full pull-out from Iraq, chaos in Syria, Libya and Yemen and more.

But now, Jeb has left them nowhere to hide:

We all sort of know that the ground has shifted on this issue. We can see it clearly in public opinion polls. But it is as though it’s been years since we actually had a show of hands – especially among national Republicans. Good idea? Bad idea? … What I’ve called that showing of hands seems to show virtually no one of any consequence standing up for the decision to invade. Maybe we all kind of knew that that was where people had gotten to. But seeing people say it is a transformative event.

It’s about time for that transformative event:

Over that time, the ground has shifted not just on the facts of the issue, but on what is in many ways a more consequential front: Time has passed and Republicans simply don’t feel the same sort of partisan responsibility for the conflict. It’s drifting back into history. The sense of ideological and partisan commitment has just loosened – the intuitive reflex that says our guy did it so it must be right and I need to defend it. …

Yes, each candidate has an incentive based on this race. But Cruz and Rubio especially are fighting for base Republicans. If they were still committed to the wisdom of the Iraq War, they wouldn’t be saying this. And yet they are. That is a major watershed in the country’s reckoning with the war. If Republicans running as hawks say it was a mistake, then the debate is really over.

Some folks have finally admitted they were wrong. But Paul Krugman doesn’t see it that way:

Earlier this year Mr. Bush released a list of his chief advisers on foreign policy, and it was a who’s-who-of-mistake-makers, people who played essential roles in the Iraq disaster and other debacles.

Seriously, consider that list, which includes such luminaries as Paul Wolfowitz, who insisted that we would be welcomed as liberators and that the war would cost almost nothing, and Michael Chertoff, who as director of the Department of Homeland Security during Hurricane Katrina was unaware of the thousands of people stranded at the New Orleans convention center without food and water.

In Bushworld, in other words, playing a central role in catastrophic policy failure doesn’t disqualify you from future influence. If anything, a record of being disastrously wrong on national security issues seems to be a required credential.

That was a Bush mistake, but it’s also general mistake:

Voters, even Republican primary voters, may not share that view, and the past few days have probably taken a toll on Mr. Bush’s presidential prospects. In a way, however, that’s unfair. Iraq is a special problem for the Bush family, which has a history both of never admitting mistakes and of sticking with loyal family retainers no matter how badly they perform. But refusal to learn from experience, combined with a version of political correctness in which you’re only acceptable if you have been wrong about crucial issues, is pervasive in the modern Republican Party.

The issue for the modern Republican Party goes beyond Iraq, to economic policy:

If you look at the list of economists who appear to have significant influence on Republican leaders, including the likely presidential candidates, you find that nearly all of them agreed, back during the “Bush boom,” that there was no housing bubble and the American economic future was bright; that nearly all of them predicted that the Federal Reserve’s efforts to fight the economic crisis that developed when that nonexistent bubble popped would lead to severe inflation; and that nearly all of them predicted that Obamacare, which went fully into effect in 2014, would be a huge job-killer.

Given how badly these predictions turned out – we had the biggest housing bust in history, inflation paranoia has been wrong for six years and counting, and 2014 delivered the best job growth since 1999 – you might think that there would be some room in the GOP for economists who didn’t get everything wrong. But there isn’t. Having been completely wrong about the economy, like having been completely wrong about Iraq, seems to be a required credential.

Krugman can only explain that this way:

We’re witnessing the effects of extreme tribalism. On the modern right, everything is a political litmus test. Anyone who tried to think through the pros and cons of the Iraq war was, by definition, an enemy of President George W. Bush and probably hated America; anyone who questioned whether the Federal Reserve was really debasing the currency was surely an enemy of capitalism and freedom.

It doesn’t matter that the skeptics have been proved right. Simply raising questions about the orthodoxies of the moment leads to excommunication, from which there is no coming back. So the only “experts” left standing are those who made all the approved mistakes. It’s kind of a fraternity of failure: men and women united by a shared history of getting everything wrong, and refusing to admit it.

Ed Kilgore also comments on that fraternity of failure:

If Jeb Bush was ensnared in this comedy of errors about Iraq as the Republican nominee, he’d undoubtedly have his entire party’s support in fighting off the criticism and laughter and moving on. It’s a very self-forgiving community, after all. But this is happening at the worst possible time for him, when a gigantic presidential nominating field sees an opportunity to take him down several notches before he corners all the money in the world and starts spending it. Krugman’s right, though: the array of reactions might be even more revealing if Jeb was squirming over his brother’s economic policies. How many GOPers are willing to admit that knowing what we know now those were mistaken, too?

That’s a good question. They were wrong about more than Iraq. They were wrong about everything – but the only thing they’ll cop to at the moment is Iraq, and perhaps that’s progress. But that’s not enough. And we don’t need another Dan Quayle. One was enough.

Posted in Republican Fraternity of Failure, Republicans Wrong on Everything | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ambushed by Tolerance

Things used to be easier for Republicans. In their efforts to make all abortions, for whatever reason, illegal again, and then in their efforts to allow employers to opt out of the requirement that all health plans offer contraceptive and family planning services, they always had the Catholic Church on their side. They had the Pope in their hip pocket. He’d side with them – and then there was a new Pope, and Pope Francis’ immense personal popularity became a problem, not an asset. This new Pope said nothing new about abortion and birth control, but he trashed free-market capitalism – he did call how we’ve arranged our economy the “idolatry of money” – so he trashed trickle-down economics in general – and thus our tax code and refusal to regulate much of anything and our pathetic social safety net too. Our Republicans were not happy with any of this, and now this new Pope is about to release an encyclical on the environment that will frame doing something substantial about climate change in terms of an absolute moral responsibility to future generations. This new Pope was no help at all. It’s hard to proclaim the moral authority of your political agenda, claiming all of it is the innately right thing to do, when the Pope says most if it is pretty damned evil.

Then their battles against gay marriage were lost in the courts, because they had already been lost in the court of public opinion. Jeb Bush traveled to Virginia to give the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, to talk about how Christianity was under attack, with folks saying religious freedom isn’t the freedom to refuse to offer goods and services to gays, or even hire them – when clearly religious freedom should exempt Christians from following any antidiscrimination laws. But that was only a curiosity, given the wave of tolerance that has been slowly blanketing the nation, making a surprising number of people accept gays and lesbians as human beings, and non-sinning ones at that. That was discussed here with this insightful comment – as if it matters now. That battle is over. These guys were ambushed by tolerance.

That’s what Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has been saying, recently in this column on Mike Huckabee’s candidacy – the culture wars are over and so is he. The Democratic strategist and blogger Ed Kilgore doubts that:

Bruenig has a different definition of “culture wars” than mine. Maybe for her it means full-on combat against secularism, or conversely, something very narrow like the failing fight against marriage equality. But the faith-based fight against reproductive rights sure isn’t over, by any stretch of the imagination; you can make the argument the bad guys are slowly but surely winning, as a matter of fact, and if a Republican wins the presidency next year, Roe v. Wade will hang by a thread. And if that transpires, and abortion policy is again set at the state level for the first time in more than four decades, we will see “culture wars” in pitched battles all around the country.

Perhaps so, but Bruenig argues that all the “religious liberty” laws represent a massive retreat into self-defense:

These laws aim, in effect, to create enclaves of protection for the practice of conservative Christianity, a far cry from the aspirations of the evangelical politics of yesteryear, which generated enthusiastic support precisely because they sought to rescue America wholesale, and to stop the evils that begin with the cultural ruptures of the 1960s.

Kilgore doesn’t see it that way:

As is clear from the immense controversy over such laws amid claims that their proponents are seeking to turn the “shield” of self-protection into a “sword” against other people’s rights, it’s not at all clear they are defensive in intent or effect. They could, moreover, serve as a strategic position from which to continue to contest “secularist” laws and practices by denying their applicability in broad areas of American life, and thus challenging their acceptance.

But he thinks she’s right about Huckabee:

The fact is that Huckabee is a candidate who has outlived his time. The days of just-kings and their trusty prophets have passed, as has the era of TV pastors achieving influence beyond the (admittedly daunting) reach of the Oprah Winfrey Network. Evangelicals are frightened and angry and looking for the sort of president who will protect them from the onslaught of the world around them, which is still rapidly changing. Huckabee, with his folksy charm and church basement coffee-talk demeanor, was their preferred protector in 2008, and perhaps always will be. But he won’t get anywhere near the White House. …

Maybe Bruenig means the particular kind of appeal Huck offers as an embodiment of Old Time Evangelical Christianity and the era of a confident Moral Majority has come and gone. We’ll see. But even if the culture wars have entered a new phase with the shocking success of the marriage equality movement, the idea that they are “over” strikes me as still quite premature.

In short, there may be a wave of tolerance sweeping the nation, but it’s not a tidal wave. Still, Bruenig keeps at it, now offering The Deterioration of the Christian Right Is Imminent:

It isn’t enough to be overtly Christian anymore, or to represent conservative Christian values. Every GOP candidate will pay the very same lip service to God and family that Huckabee will. Republicans will therefore base their choice of candidate not on Christian values, but on free market street cred. So why does it matter if Huckabee is unceremoniously abandoned thanks to his support for the status-quo in terms of Social Security and Medicare?

It matters because of what it reveals: that business-friendliness has now come into direct confrontation with Republicans’ much-vaunted Christian values, a phenomenon especially visible when it comes to gay marriage.

It is safe, in other words, for GOP candidates to rail against business, so long as their protests remain at the level of frustrated grumbling. What the conservative media machine’s destruction of Huckabee demonstrates is that the free-market, anti-egalitarian wing of the GOP establishment has less patience for the Christian wing than it used to…

Ed Kilgore puts that this way:

Bruenig views the rising conservative attacks on Mike Huckabee for economic policy heresy as a sign the Corporate Wing of the GOP has lost patience with the Christian Right, and is willing to do without it, substituting instead a watery commitment to Christian evangelical rhetoric they can get from any number of less troublesome presidential candidates. Bruenig hopes that in turn that the scales will fall from the eyes of true conservative Christians, who will finally realize they’ve sold their birthright for a mess of pottage and turn elsewhere – where I’m not sure – for vindication of their values.

He’s not buying it:

I wish I could agree with this analysis, but it depends crucially on the belief that support for capitalism is extrinsic to conservative evangelical Christianity, and has been undertaken as part of some sort of bargain – corrupt, perhaps, but still a bargain – between the agents of God and of Mammon. If the bargain is broken by the merchants of greed, then presumably their half-willing Christian allies may bail. But from everything I’ve read and seen, the spirit of capitalism and many of its associated impulses have deeply sunk into the American Christian, and especially conservative evangelical, worldview. And that’s not at all surprising, since the people we are largely talking about have in the meantime traveled from farm to small town to city to suburb, and are living lives fully integrated with the market economy and mentality. They’re as likely to object to Huckabee’s heresies on trade and entitlement as to support them.

So Huckabee isn’t in any conflict:

I don’t know that Huckabee’s (or for that matter, Rick Santorum’s) economic “populism” has any particular religious foundation. He’s trying to exploit a very simple contradiction between the economic views of Republican politicians and of their voters: the GOP “base” is heavily concentrated among older and non-college-educated white folks. Few of them care for “entitlement reform” – if it comes at their perceived expense – and a decent number have never supported “free trade,” either. Huckabee is clearly trying to break out of his conservative-evangelical political ghetto into a broader neighborhood of potential allies against the GOP Establishment people who rejected him back in 2008. Whether or not it works, the Christian Right has no inherent dog in this fight…

In fact, Bruenig cites Kevin Kruse’s recent discussion of his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America – “Post-Depression big business needed a makeover after so many Americans were stung by the implosion of the economy, and a few enterprising Christian leaders figured they could make a few bucks and expand their political influence by forging a friendship with wealthy industrialists. And they were exactly right, for a time.”

Maybe they’re still right, and the blogger BooMan adds this – “The unfortunate reality is that the rise of the Christian Right as a political force cannot be divorced from the corporate interests that financed that rise. As a result, there is no genuine egalitarian or Christian viewpoint that could grow away from business interests.”

They’ll work things out. If the wave of tolerance for gay marriage means that opposition to treating gays with any sort of respect is bad for business, the evangelical right will find a way to be grudgingly tolerant, or lovingly tolerant – and guys like Huckabee and Santorum will be marginalized into obscurity. That’s happening already. No one wants to be ambushed by sudden national outbursts of tolerance. If opposing immigration reform is bad for business, they’ll work that out too – unless Bruenig is right, and those sorts of tacit agreements are no longer possible. The back-and-forth here is about whether the old agreements are still in play.

That, however, doesn’t account for this new Pope, who never entered into any of these agreements with the American right, no matter what they thought. He wants everyone to be tolerant of the poor – the losers who never took any responsibility and made something of their lives – the Takers not the Makers. He’s not impressed with massively successful people who made it big either. He also thinks climate change actually is problem, and a moral issue. He embraces gays and atheists too – we’re all God’s children and all that. He’s just not into shunning and shaming and casting out sinners. He keeps generating more and more tolerance, which ambushes our evangelical Christians time and time again.

The guy is a problem, and now he’s outdone himself:

The Vatican announced Wednesday that it would soon sign a treaty that includes recognition of the “state of Palestine,” lending significant symbolic weight to an intensifying Palestinian push for international support for sovereignty that bypasses the paralyzed negotiations with Israel.

Palestinian leaders celebrated the Holy See’s endorsement as particularly important, given the international stature of Pope Francis. For Israelis, it was an emotional blow, since Francis has deep relationships with Jews dating back decades, and Christians are critical backers of their enterprise.

“The Vatican is not just a state. The Vatican represents hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide, including Palestinians, and has vast moral significance,” said Husam Zomlot, a senior Palestinian foreign-affairs official.

This sort of tolerance cannot be tolerated:

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it was “disappointed” by the Vatican’s decision, and that the recognition would “not advance the peace process.” That echoed similar statements after a wave of European Parliamentary resolutions on Palestinian statehood last fall, but some Israeli analysts said the Vatican’s step hurt more.

“Even this philo-Semitic pope, this pope who cares about the Jews, even he doesn’t get it,” said David Horovitz, editor of The Times of Israel news site. “Every time something like this happens, there’s this sense of anguish. Why don’t you understand? We want to separate from the Palestinians, but on terms that don’t threaten our security.”

The Vatican announcement came as Israel’s new, more conservative government published its official guidelines, which promised to “advance the peace process” and “make an effort to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians” but did not use the term “Palestinian state.”

Yes, the Pope ambushed everyone, with immediate reaction from those who felt ambushed:

“It’s interesting how the Vatican has gotten so political when ultimately the Vatican ought to be working to lead people to Jesus Christ and salvation, and that’s what the Church is supposed to do,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), a hawkish defender of Israel.

It wasn’t just Duncan. Several House conservatives seemed exasperated that Francis, who will address Congress this fall, approved the Vatican’s recognition of Palestine as a state. On Wednesday, critics said Rome needs to leave the question of Palestinian statehood to be sorted out in the Middle East.

“I’m disappointed,” Duncan added. “Now the Pope is legitimizing a Palestinian state without requiring those who get recognition to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”

Some things cannot be tolerated:

“I’m surprised that the pope would recognize Palestine when they’re still haters who want to eliminate Israel off the map and don’t recognize Israel,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a member of the Israel Allies Caucus. “The Pope is the head of his religion, and he makes those calls for himself, but I represent 700,000 people from East Texas and a vast majority agrees with me.”

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who co-chairs the caucus, was even bolder, calling the pontiff’s position into question on Biblical grounds.

“He’s a religious figure and he has every right to have his political viewpoint, but someone of that profile should have strong scriptural foundation for whatever positions he takes that are extensively representing the head of the Catholic Church,” Franks said. “I think this is probably one he should not have expressed.”

There’s much of that, and this:

Several Republicans were more forgiving. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who is Catholic, didn’t seem too worried and said it’s not really in his wheelhouse.

Huelskamp said that, when the Pope comes to Washington, he hopes the Pontiff “focuses on issues [where] he can make a difference – the ‘non-negotiables'” – like abortion, same sex marriage and the like.

“How do you deal with a poverty problem? There’s not a Catholic [fix], contrary to the arguments of certain economists that work at the Vatican,” Huelskamp said, said referring to the pope’s views on economics. “But there’s a Catholic view on life, on marriage, on the rights of parents and education. So I hope he sticks to this.”

They want the old Pope back, a Pope of non-negotiables, who would show no tolerance for gays, and no tolerance for women who want a say in their lives, and would make sure no one ever uses any form of birth control, not one who, out of left field, suddenly says that the Palestinians are God’s people too. An agreement is an agreement, even if there never was one.

Salon’s Patricia Miller wonders about that:

News that the Vatican has officially recognized Palestinian statehood in a new treaty may have less of an impact on the relationship between the Holy See and Palestine than on the already fraught relationship between Pope Francis and an increasingly disgruntled Catholic and evangelical right here in the U.S.

That’s because Rome’s diplomatic recognition of Palestine, while made official on Wednesday, has been proceeding quietly behind the scenes for some time. The Vatican has referred to the “state of Palestine” unofficially since the UN recognized the Palestinian state in 2012. “We have recognized the State of Palestine ever since it was given recognition by the United Nations and it is already listed as the State of Palestine in our official yearbook,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.

This, then, is old news, but then it’s more than that:

The larger significance of the Vatican’s move is the signal it sends to the international community about the recognition of Palestinian statehood. … But equally likely to be disgruntled are conservative Catholics and evangelicals, many of whom are strong supporters of Israel because of what they believe will be its pivotal role in biblical end-times and oppose the recognition of Palestinian statehood and the changing of any borders in the region that that would likely entail.

These religious conservatives have already seen Pope Francis tip the scale in international relations – away from their preferred direction – when he brokered a deal to restore diplomatic relations between the U.S. and still officially communist Cuba. He’s also trashed free-market capitalism, decrying the “idolatry of money” and trickle-down economics. And his soon-to-be released encyclical on the environment is likely to frame tackling climate change in terms of a deep moral responsibility to future generations.

Now, conservatives will feel they’ve lost the support of the Vatican on another issue that has transcended its actual particulars to become a touchstone of conservative identity, potentially furthering the rift that has grown between both fiscal and social religious conservatives and Francis, who they hint has no authority to intervene so prominently in non-doctrinal matters.

But perhaps they should have been paying attention:

As John Allen notes in Crux, like Francis’ pronouncements on capitalism and the environment, people assume a break from tradition has occurred only because they weren’t paying attention to the papacy before rock-star Francis. In reality, it is actually a continuation of long-held papal positions. The Vatican’s support for Palestine isn’t particularly new. Allen writes – “When Pope Benedict XVI travelled to the Middle East in 2009, he pledged support for Palestinian statehood. St. John Paul II made similar statements many times, and was sufficiently fond of former PLO leader Yasser Arafat that he had a set of the Stations of the Cross made out of ivory, presented to him by Arafat as a gift, installed in a small chapel off a Vatican chamber.”

Who knew? And this is just more of the same:

It’s more accurate to view this particular step in the Vatican’s relationship with Palestine both as a continuation of the Holy See’s long-standing support for Palestinian statehood and as an expression of Francis’ overriding interest in fostering international peace – and his unique ability and willingness to put his finger on the scales to do so.

When Francis toured the Holy Lands last year, he made a highly symbolic stop at the wall dividing Bethlehem from Israel and later invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to a prayer summit at the Vatican, where he talked about the “courage to take concrete steps to achieve peace.”

Is that the Christian thing to do? The answer depends on who you ask – but our Christian right was just ambushed by tolerance once again. That keeps happening. They may actually end up being the ones who are left behind – and that would be the final irony.

Posted in Deterioration of the Christian Right | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nowhere to Hide

There never was much of anything in Nevada. Then there was Las Vegas – the glitziest and tackiest place in the world. Las Vegas, however, is not exactly a city. It’s an assemblage of massive casinos, with the necessary infrastructure, in the middle of an absolute desert. It shouldn’t even exist, but when Hoover Dam was built, to gather and redirect the waters of the Colorado River to real places, its massive hydroelectric generators produced massive amounts of dirt-cheap electric power, so an unreal city nearby was possible. Las Vegas was now possible. Hoover Dam also explains all the neon. But the rest of the state is empty.

Then there’s Reno – “The Biggest Little City in the World” – up north, on the California border. That’s the only other “city” in Nevada, but it’s pretty much all casinos too, with better scenery – the high desert at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is rather pleasant. Still, it’s a Gold Rush town that should have disappeared when the gold did, and didn’t, because it could become a cut-rate Las Vegas, with the bad lounge acts that couldn’t cut it in Vegas. That makes it a place to hide out, not to hang out. No one goes there. It’s not what they call a destination city. Nothing much happens there.

That’s probably why Jeb Bush, having a hard time explaining to everyone why he should be the third President Bush, scheduled a stop there to explain that, once again, and to answer a few questions. What could go wrong in this out-of-the-way place?

That might have been wise, but the University of Nevada, Reno has become a rather fine university, and this didn’t go well:

“Your brother created ISIS,” the young woman told Jeb Bush. And with that, Ivy Ziedrich, a 19-year-old college student, created the kind of confrontational moment here on Wednesday morning that presidential candidates dread.

Mr. Bush, the former governor of Florida, had just concluded a town-hall-style meeting when Ms. Ziedrich demanded to be heard. “Governor Bush,” she shouted as audience members asked him for his autograph. “Would you take a student question?”

Mr. Bush whirled around and looked at Ms. Ziedrich, who identified herself as a political science major and a college Democrat at the University of Nevada.

He should have whirled away:

She had heard Mr. Bush argue, a few moments before, that America’s retreat from the Middle East under President Obama had contributed to the growing power of the Islamic State. She told the former governor that he was wrong, and made the case that blame lay with the decision by the administration of his brother George W. Bush to disband the Iraqi Army.

“It was when 30,000 individuals who were part of the Iraqi military were forced out – they had no employment, they had no income, and they were left with access to all of the same arms and weapons,” Ms. Ziedrich said.

She added: “Your brother created ISIS.”

Jeb didn’t need that. He went on to say Iraq was just fine in his brother’s last year in office – no problems at all – but Obama refused to force Malaki and the Iraq government to agree to us keeping ten thousand troops there to keep things perfect. He said we had an agreement that Obama could have signed that would have kept our folks there, to keep things there just fine – but we pulled back. No one has ever heard of this agreement before – his brother had signed an agreement for total withdrawal – but before anyone could ask about that, Jeb was gone. He’d had enough of Reno. He couldn’t hide out there after all.

Josh Marshall adds this:

These moments pop up in campaigns. Sometimes they are more contrived than others. Who knows what this woman’s precise motivations were? But that’s sort of beside the point. Bush is uniquely vulnerable to this not simply because he’s President Bush’s brother but even more because both in spite of and because of that connection he is unable to come to grips with the signature event of his brother’s presidency.

So he’s gone, over a couple days, from saying that after everything that’s happened in the last dozen years he’d invade Iraq all over again, to saying “mistakes were made” and it’s complicated, to saying now that he won’t answer the question because it wouldn’t be fair to the troops.

He radiates pain and awkwardness, which makes and will make every episode like this a spectacle.

That third explanation was awkward, as MSNBC’s Carrie Dann reports here:

Jeb Bush says that he does not want to engage in “hypotheticals” about the Iraq war because it is a “disservice” to individuals who lost their lives during the conflict.

Asked by an audience member during a Nevada town hall about his interview on the subject with FOX News’ Megyn Kelly, Bush reiterated his claim that he misheard her question about whether he would have authorized the invasion of Iraq. But he disputed the questioner’s premise in asking “Don’t you think running for president is hypothetical?”

“If we’re going to get back into hypotheticals, I think it does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot,” Bush said.

On Tuesday, Bush also said that he misheard Kelly’s question but added that he is unsure whether or not he would have made the same decision as his brother to go to war in Iraq.

“I don’t know what that decision would have been, that’s a hypothetical. But the simple fact is that mistakes were made,” he said.

Speaking to reporters after the Nevada event on Wednesday, he said “to delve into [the past] and not focus on the future is where I need to draw the line.”

He should have never gone to Reno – no one else does – and Ed Kilgore piles on:

The whole can’t-criticize-the-war-without-criticizing-the-troops thing is hackneyed, cowardly, and also, like his entire rap here, kind of undermined by the fact that his brother the former president of the United State who supervised the war has been able to say flatly it was a mistake. And at least lately, W. did not, as Jeb incredibly did again today, retreat into the passive construction dodge of saying “mistakes were made.”

But more broadly, the idea that revisiting the past is something he’s just not going to do anymore because it inconveniences him is just astonishing. Does this mean he won’t second-guess the past actions of Bill or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? Does the present pass into the past instantly the moment he lives it, making this whole inquiry into his treatment of the past another thing from the past he won’t talk about?

Maybe so, but the past is always a problem, and for Republicans at the moment, a big problem. They can’t hide there, and Jonathan Chait explores how they are struggling with that:

Yesterday, Chris Moody asked several Republican presidential candidates one of the most revealing questions of the presidential campaign so far: Who is the greatest president alive today? Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump all named Ronald Reagan, notwithstanding the fact that Reagan, at least according to the liberal media, is no longer alive. And if you’re going to cheat a “greatest living president” question by naming a dead one, you could just as easily go ahead and name Lincoln or Washington. But that would amount to a form of blasphemy.

What makes the question so devilish is that the ranks of the living presidents offer no answer to the question that can square with conservative doctrine. Two of the living ex-presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) are eliminated off the bat on account of party affiliation. The other two, George Bush and George W. Bush, have been excommunicated for committing real or imagined ideological heresy. The Reagan answer was not a mistake – it was the reflection of a party lacking a usable past.

Without a usable real past – a safe place to hide – they made up a fake one:

For the last 25 years, Reaganolotry [Chait’s formation] has retained its grip on Republican doctrine. Reaganolotry holds up Reagan as a standard of perfection against which every other president is judged. The Reagan of the Republican imagination bears only a loose relation to the actual man. “Reagan” has come to represent conservative control of the Republican Party. A Reaganesque politician hews to simple precepts, like no new taxes ever, and unyielding hawkishness in foreign affairs. He symbolizes the apparent success of a proposition conservative activists began to make in the 1950s: that the party’s failures were a result of its moderation, and that its success would come if it adopted uncompromising conservative doctrine. That Reagan himself played an important role in that movement in the 1960s, and then presided over a popular two-term administration, makes him a uniquely potent symbol.

In reality, Reagan himself violated conservative precepts flagrantly. As an activist, he warned that the enactment of Medicare would herald the end of freedom in America. As president, he agreed to increase taxes, a progressive tax reform shifting a higher proportion of taxes onto the rich, and arms control with the Soviets – all to massive right-wing dismay. All these deviations were necessary for his political success, but conservatives forgot them to make him symbolically useful.

And he was useful:

In 1990, George Bush agreed to raise taxes in return for spending cuts, as Reagan had done. When Bush lost reelection, this compromise served as the conservative explanation for his failure. He had lost because he had betrayed Reaganism. George Bush took his place in party lore as the anti-Reagan, a cautionary tale of the disaster that would greet a Republican who deviated from the true Reaganite faith. Indeed, when George W. Bush ran for president at the end of the decade, he had to conspicuously disassociate himself from his father and cast himself as a follower of Reagan.

Bush governed in a more consistently conservative fashion than Reagan had. He relentlessly cut taxes, increased defense spending, and opposed regulation. Bush had retrenched on Medicare prescription drugs (much like Reagan had given up his opposition to Medicare) in the face of overwhelming public opposition to the conservative stance, but this failure hardly troubled conservatives at the time. They endorsed his election enthusiastically. The prescription drug failure merited just one sentence in National Review’s enthusiastic endorsement of his reelection in 2004. Even as fanatic a purist as Ted Cruz was a Bush fanboy then. It was Bush’s second-term collapse into deep unpopularity that forced conservatives to retroactively disown him as a heretic.

Bush has never fully recovered his standing with the party faithful.

Chait finds that ironic, because the second Bush was what they really wanted, and as much as they ignore him, they are committed to his Imaginary-Reagan policies:

All the Republican candidates are running on a domestic platform centered on regressive, debt-financed tax cuts as the key to economic growth. With the exception of an increasingly marginalized Rand Paul, all advocate a “muscular,” “Reaganesque” foreign policy that provided the same template Bush followed to his political demise.

And that explains Jeb’s dilemma:

The fealty to Bushian foreign-policy doctrine caught Jeb Bush in a recent flub. Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked Bush whether, knowing what we do today, he still would have invaded Iraq. Bush affirmed that he would. What made Bush’s answer so strange is that the question was posed to him in the easiest way possible. Answering whether he was right to support the invasion given the intelligence available at the time would have been a hard question. Asking if it were right given the benefit of hindsight is simple. As Byron York points out, even Karl Rove and George W. Bush himself have strongly implied that they would not.

Jeb positioned himself as more stubbornly supportive of the Bush administration than even the Bush administration itself. He is oddly more loyal to his brother’s legacy than his brother was to their father’s.

Maybe that’s not so odd. Jeb seems to be loyal to the legacy of the idealized imaginary Ronald Reagan, and his brother came pretty close there, but Chait sees the fatal flaw:

Republicans today embrace George W. Bush’s ideas but not the man himself. This leaves them with no living model of a successful presidency they can publicly identify. The question of which president they would choose is not a trick but a reflection of a stark reality: They have no evidence the demands of conservative ideology and practical governing success can be reconciled.

That specifically leaves them with the evidence that the Iraq war was a disaster, as that persistent student in Reno decided to point out, and that is where the past has to be reconciled to ISIS and the present. That’s not just Jeb’s problem, as Paul Waldman argues here:

Ah yes, mistakes were made. But we’ve also heard from two other Republican candidates, and they’ve been a lot more clear. Says Chris Christie: “I don’t think you can honestly say that if we knew then that there was no WMD that the country should have gone to war.” And when Ted Cruz was asked whether he would have invaded, he answered: “Of course not. The entire predicate of the war against Iraq was the intelligence that showed they had weapons of mass destruction and that there was a real risk they might use them.”

There are few things we in the media love more than an intra-party argument (not to mention a front-running candidate stumbling), so this controversy is already getting plenty of attention and will surely get more. It’s encouraging to see an acknowledgement that the Iraq War was a mistake finally become majority opinion in the GOP, given that it was probably the greatest foreign policy catastrophe in American history.

But before we make too much of that shift, we need to be clear that the actual substantive disagreements between the candidates are much smaller than it would appear if you were just tuning in now. Republicans may be criticizing Jeb Bush, but they aren’t coming at him from the left, and they aren’t actually turning their backs on most of what his brother represented.

There are only minor differences of opinion within the party:

Most former Bush administration officials will defend the invasion to their dying day and insist that it was a grand idea, whether there were any weapons of mass destruction or not. Those who have less of a personal stake in the war vary more in their opinions (of all the actual and potential Republican candidates, only Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum were in the Senate in 2003 and voted for the resolution approving the war).

But opinions don’t actually vary all that much. All the candidates agree that we should increase military spending. With the exception of Rand Paul, all express an unrestrained enthusiasm for military adventurism. That’s one thing Iraq hasn’t changed: Republicans still believe that the application of military force is a great way to solve problems around the world.

The only difference of opinion comes after the first wave of bombing. Ted Cruz explicitly warns against nation-building, but he doesn’t express any reservations about the use of military force. Later today, Marco Rubio will give a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations about his foreign policy views, and they sound an awful lot like George W. Bush’s: increase military spending and spread American values with “moral clarity.”

Scott Walker wants to dump any deal on Iran’s nuclear program the moment he takes office, making military action there far more likely. So does Marco Rubio. None of the GOP candidates will say he wants to occupy Iran. But military action against the country’s nuclear facilities ought to be, as any of them will tell you, “on the table.”

Jeb isn’t way out there all alone:

With the exception of Paul, none of the candidates seems willing to grapple with the possibility that there are unintended consequences to military action that we need to be wary of. At most, they think the problems come only when you stick around too long after reducing a nation to rubble. And when you listen to them talk about Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, the word they use over and over again is “weak.” The problem is never that some situations we confront offer no good options, or that our decisions can backfire, or that there are places where America may not be able to set things right to the benefit of all. The problem is always weakness, and strength is always the solution.

Everyone understands why Jeb Bush is floundering around trying to answer the question of whether the Iraq War was a mistake from the beginning: It was his brother’s war. But neither he nor his opponents seem to have learned much from the experience, whether we’re asking about concocting phony intelligence to sell a war you’ve already decided you want, believing that all the “bad guys” in the world must be in cahoots, seeing every foreign policy question in black and white, or putting blind faith in the idea that “strength” is all you need to succeed.

That’s what the idealized imaginary Ronald Reagan would do. The real Ronald Reagan, in 1983, suddenly pulled all our troops out of Lebanon when an obscure group calling itself ‘Islamic Jihad’ claimed responsibility for the bombings that killed about three hundred of our marines in their barracks in Beirut. That’s all we did. We left. The real Ronald Reagan wasn’t going to start a major war over there, to fix things once and for all. We left and immediately invaded Grenada – that would do to make folks feel better, and it was easily done and over quickly. The real Ronald Reagan would be puzzled by the current Republicans who love him so, and Waldman can only add this:

The George W. Bush years provided an emphatic refutation of the ideas underlying Republican foreign policy, but few in the party seem to have gotten the message, even if they have some minor disagreements today. They might not be looking at the invasion of Iraq in exactly the same way, but few in the party are asking anything but the most superficial questions about what lessons we might learn from it.

But the questions will keep coming, and they won’t be superficial, and there’ll be nowhere to hide, not even in Reno.

Posted in Jeb Bush, Legacy of the Iraq War, Reagan's Legacy | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Those Best-Laid Plans

Robert Burns is really irritating. At midnight each New Year’s Eve everyone sings his Auld Lang Syne – and no one knows what the hell the words mean. Well, a Scotsman would know, but there’s his cute little poem about that intense little critter – To a Mouse – with a line that was easier for the rest of us to figure out. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” That passed into general usage as a useful cliché – the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Clever plans never seem to work out. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is about how the best-laid plans of free-market capitalism didn’t work out for two particular guys, and by extension didn’t work out for America. It was 1937 – the Great Depression was the issue. Steinbeck found Robert Burns useful, but anything that has lasted long enough to become a cliché has lasted that long precisely because it is useful. You have a foolproof plan? Bully for you! We’ll see how that works out.

The Republicans have a foolproof plan to retake the White House. Forget Obamacare. That’s in place and working well enough, and ending it would leave about seventeen million people, who just got health insurance for the first time in their lives, once again without health insurance. Not only would that seem catastrophically cruel, those people vote, as do others who find gratuitous meanness appalling. And forget Benghazi. All the questions have been asked and answered, and Hillary Clinton is still standing. She did the best she could in a chaotic situation. Policies and procedures have been changed. Everyone else has moved on. More and more Republican strategists seem to know that, and opposing all immigration reform is dangerous. Minorities are still allowed to vote in America, for now, and the business community, which funds the Republican Party, wants extensive immigration reform – cheap labor that’s actually legal means far higher profit margins for them. And forget Israel. Obama may have his problems with Benjamin Netanyahu but Hillary gets along with Bibi just fine – and now most Americans think Netanyahu is a total jerk, and a dangerous one at that. Israel is out. None of this can be part of the foolproof plan to retake the White House.

The foolproof plan to retake the White House has to be based on something less ambiguous, and since America is a Christian nation, or at least a nation of Christians, mainly, or nominally, the foolproof plan to retake the White House seems to be to show that they are the party that will defend Christianity, which is under attack, everywhere. Religious freedom is under attack everywhere. Republicans will allow Christians to be Christians once again.

That plan got underway this year. Indiana and Arkansas passed bills that are nothing like the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act or like the subsequent religious freedom restoration acts in many other states – which exist to keep the government from unduly burdening the harmless eccentricities of this religion or that. Indiana and Arkansas decided their versions should set up protections for any party, not just religious organizations and certain corporations, to claim they don’t have to follow any law that makes that party uneasy. Anyone could claim the right to not provide goods and services to gays, or maybe black folks, or maybe Muslims, or maybe Jews, and the right to fire them now and never hire another. These two new religious freedom restoration acts were clever – they gave these folks automatic standing in court. The government would have to prove, on a case by case basis, that there was a compelling and overwhelming public interest in forcing these folks to follow the same laws as everyone else. It was a license to discriminate, not that anyone would, but it was official state permission to do so, with specific protections for anyone who said the law didn’t apply to them.

Everyone saw the implications. This was going too far, and these acts were modified. Others, in other states, were abandoned. But every Republican who wants the party’s nomination has now come out and said they see it this way – Christianity is under attack – and this is about more than pandering to their anti-gay base. A majority of Americans now support gay marriage. No one under thirty has a problem with gays at all. Even a slim majority of Republicans just don’t give a damn. Gay folks aren’t an issue to them. Every Republican who wants the party’s nomination knows the gay issue is over, but these religious freedom restoration acts actually change the issue. This is about everyone picking on good Christians just trying to do the right thing – casting out and humiliating sinners. What would Jesus do? He’d do that.

That’s the message. Now it’s time to be outraged, about the government’s war on Christians, and corporations’ war on Christians, and Hollywood’s war on Christians. The secularists are out there trying to wipe out Christianity. They’re everywhere, and this calls for heroic resistance. That’s the narrative that will win back the White House. There are a lot of Christians out there. Make ’em worry.

That’s the plan, and Paul Waldman notes that Jeb Bush is finally onboard:

While the rest of the Republican presidential candidates were at the South Carolina Freedom Summit this weekend, Jeb Bush traveled to Virginia to give the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. While a speech like that will of course be full of praise for God, Bush’s speech went farther than one might have expected, both in its blunt sectarianism and its embrace of a narrative of victimhood that has grown increasingly popular on the religious right.

Waldman finds this odd:

While lots of people remember Jeb Bush’s brother as an evangelical Christian, he actually isn’t – George W. Bush is a Methodist, a non-evangelical denomination (Jeb himself is a convert to Catholicism). And throughout his presidency, despite some occasional (and probably unintentional) slips like referring to the war on terror as a “crusade,” Bush was carefully inclusive when he talked about religion. It would have been surprising to hear him extol the superiority of Christianity as his brother Jeb did on Saturday. “Whatever the need, the affliction, or the injustice, there is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action,” Bush said.

It seems Jeb went all-out with this:

No place where the message reaches, no heart that it touches, is ever the same again. And across our own civilization, what a radically different story history would tell without it. Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it’s all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence.

Waldman:

That’s a far cry from what Mitt Romney said eight years ago when he gave his big speech on religion – at least in that case, Romney argued for the essential place of religion broadly, and not just his own. I should note that near the end of the speech, Bush did acknowledge that non-Christians can be good people, too. But if you aren’t a Christian, the idea that without Christianity life on earth would inevitably be a nightmare of oppression and meaninglessness is something you might find absurd, or even offensive.

And you might think Bush would step a little more carefully given the trends in religious affiliation in America. While Christians are of course the majority, that majority that is declining steadily. The groups that are increasing their proportion of the U.S. population include Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and most importantly, the “unaffiliated,” people who don’t consider themselves part of any organized religion. According to the Pew Research Center, the unaffiliated were 16 percent of the population in 2010 and will be 26 percent by 2050; over the same period Christians will decline from 78 percent to 66 percent.

That’s a long-term trend; for the moment, Bush seems to think that the way to the hearts of the conservative Christians who make up such a large part of the Republican primary electorate (particularly in Iowa, where over half of GOP caucus-goers are evangelicals) is to embrace a narrative of victimhood that has become so prevalent on the right.

And Jeb went there:

Fashionable opinion – which these days can be a religion all by itself – has got a problem with Christians and their right of conscience. That makes it our problem, and the proper response is a forthright defense of the first freedom in our Constitution.

It can be a touchy subject, and I am asked sometimes whether I would ever allow my decisions in government to be influenced by my Christian faith. Whenever I hear this, I know what they want me to say. The simple and safe reply is, ‘No. Never. Of course not.’ If the game is political correctness, that’s the answer that moves you to the next round. The endpoint is a certain kind of politician we’ve all heard before – the guy whose moral convictions are so private, so deeply personal, that he refuses even to impose them on himself.

The mistake is to confuse points of theology with moral principles that are knowable to reason as well as by faith. And this confusion is all part of a false narrative that casts religious Americans as intolerant scolds, running around trying to impose their views on everyone. The stories vary, year after year, but the storyline is getting familiar: The progressive political agenda is ready for its next great leap forward, and religious people or churches are getting in the way. Our friends on the Left like to view themselves as the agents of change and reform, and you and I are supposed to just get with the program.

There are consequences when you don’t genuflect to the latest secular dogmas. And those dogmas can be hard to keep up with. So we find officials in a major city demanding that pastors turn over copies of their sermons. Or federal judges mistaking themselves for elected legislators, and imposing restrictions and rights that do not exist in the Constitution. Or an agency dictating to a Catholic charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, what has to go in their health plan – and never mind objections of conscience.

Jeb is now with the plan, which Waldman says was the inevitable plan:

It’s been building for years, not only as gay rights have advanced but also as a result of the steady diversification of American society. If you grew up with your religious beliefs being the default setting for society at large – when it’s your prayers being said in public schools, when only people who share your religion are elected president, when your holidays are everyone’s holidays – then a growing inclusiveness can feel like an attack on you. It seems like you’ve lost something, even if you can’t admit that it was something only you and people like you were privileged to possess.

I don’t doubt that there are Christians who are sincerely affronted when they walk into a department store in December and see a sign reading “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” even if I might find their taking offense unjustified. It’s the people who find in “Happy Holidays” the evidence of their oppression that Bush is reaching out to, saying that he’s every bit with them as are the likes of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum.

Waldman does, however, allude to this – the Pew Research Center’s new polling on America’s Changing Religious Landscape – which will screw up the foolproof plan, as Nate Cohn explains here:

The Christian share of adults in the United States has declined sharply since 2007, affecting nearly all major Christian traditions and denominations, and crossing age, race and region, according to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center.

Seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, and a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007.

The Christian share of the population has been declining for decades, but the pace rivals or even exceeds that of the country’s most significant demographic trends, like the growing Hispanic population. It is not confined to the coasts, the cities, the young or the other liberal and more secular groups where one might expect it, either.

“The decline is taking place in every region of the country, including the Bible Belt,” said Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at the Pew Research Center and the lead editor of the report.

No one expected this, and the Republicans certainly didn’t, but it is what it is:

The report does not offer an explanation for the decline of the Christian population, but the low levels of Christian affiliation among the young, well educated and affluent are consistent with prevailing theories for the rise of the unaffiliated, like the politicization of religion by American conservatives, a broader disengagement from all traditional institutions and labels, the combination of delayed and interreligious marriage, and economic development.

Politicize anything and people leave, particularly in an age where people find institutions and label useless and stupid:

The ranks of the unaffiliated have been bolstered by former Christians. Nearly a quarter of people who were raised as Christian have left the group, and ex-Christians now represent 19 percent of adults.

Attrition was most substantial among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, who have declined in absolute numbers and as a share of the population since 2007. The acute decline in the Catholic population, which fell by roughly 3 million, is potentially a new development. Most surveys have found that the Catholic share of the population has been fairly stable over the last few decades, in no small part because it has been reinforced by migration from Latin America.

The number of evangelical Protestants dipped only a tad as a share of the population, and actually increased in raw numbers, but that might not matter. They’re outnumbered, and there’s no stopping this:

There are few signs that the decline in Christian America will slow. Although some might assume that young people will become more religious as they age, the Pew data gives reason to think otherwise.

“It’s not that they start unaffiliated and become religious,” Mr. Cooperman said. “In fact, it’s the opposite.”

At the same time, every new cohort has been less affiliated than the last, with even the youngest millennials proving less affiliated, at 36 percent, than older millennials, at 34 percent.

Cohn points out the obvious political implications:

Mitt Romney received 79 percent support among white evangelicals, 59 percent among white Catholics, 54 percent among non-evangelical white Protestants, but only 33 percent among nonreligious white voters. But others argue that the relationship between politics and religion might work the other way: The declining number of self-identified Christians could be the result of a political backlash against the association of Christianity with conservative political values.

The Republican message was simple – if you love Jesus, you simply have to vote Republican. The growing response is not what they expected – if I simply have to vote Republican, it may be time to rethink the whole Jesus thing. He was a Republican? Who knew? Screw that.

Of course Rush Limbaugh has a different take:

Limbaugh on Tuesday explained that Christianity was facing a sharp decline in the United States because Americans were leaving churches that had not “fallen prey to the dark side” and embraced same-sex marriage. …

On his Tuesday radio show, Limbaugh explained that the drop in self-identifying Christians could be explained by “homosexual marriage.”

Limbaugh noted that many churches already performed same-sex weddings and ordained gay clergy.

“And in some cases female and lesbian ministers, which you might think in some cases could cause people to leave those churches,” he opined. “Those denominations – the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans – dropped a lot of members.”

“They have left their churches because of social issues and the evolution of their churches to social areas they didn’t want to go and don’t feel comfortable being in,” the conservative host continued. “If you look at the evangelical churches, they haven’t lost anything. Their membership is holding pretty steady. Where the message has remained, where the mission has remained the same, where the members of the church don’t think any corruption is taking place. They’re still hanging in there.”

“Some might say, the churches that haven’t fallen prey to the dark side. All of this silly social evolution.”

This is not right:

Limbaugh argued that “less than 1 million gay activists” were able to “bully and steamroll an entire country.”

“How is it that 70 percent of the population can be bullied and silenced and coerced into accepting societal evolution with which they disagree because of their religious beliefs?” he asked.

Mary Elizabeth Williams – whose book Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream is rather interesting, as the housing market in America is a bit of a joke – respectfully disagrees with guys like Limbaugh:

I live my life according my values and spiritual beliefs. I have in my neighborhood a community that includes my local church, a place that gives my family and me support and personal satisfaction, and that I hope we in turn can contribute something meaningful to. We also live in a bigger world, full of people who are different than we are, who believe – and disbelieve – different things. Diversity: it’s just plain common sense.

She’s not happy with the Republican plan:

We at a moment in American history when issues that should be pretty basic rights – you know, like access to reproductive health service and the freedom to marry the person you love – are being thrashed around on entirely religious grounds. As Think Progress reports just this Tuesday, “More than half of Texans have faced at least one barrier to getting the reproductive health services they need.” We are still, right now, dealing with teachers in public schools peddling a Noah’s Ark version of life sciences. That’s all about inserting God, in particular a very narrowly defined vision of God that a diminishing number of people believe in, into public policy. It’s stupid; it’s dangerous and it’s patently unpatriotic.

Williams has that other view of patriotism:

Our constitution is supposed to protect us from living in a theocracy. One of our original founding fathers, Roger Williams, was a deeply religious man – who first espoused the notion of the separation between Church and state. You can totally practice your beliefs without imposing them others. You can – and must – respect and observe the distinction between personal convictions and common good. And the more people who can pipe up and speak to the reality that Jesus did not create the United States of America, the better. Because I am really, really tired of old white dudes hiding behind a cross and to screw over everybody else.

Then she adds her message:

I want those of us who look at the world one way to understand… that we are not the default. I want people who are questioning and skeptical and straight up non-believing to not feel invisible. As Pew points out, “The United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.”

So you know what? We’re fine here. We don’t need to fear being wiped out in some secular apocalypse. And while sure, there are blowhards and bigots on all sides, an America in which people who don’t subscribe to a religion don’t feel the need to pretend they do is a better and more balanced America for all of us. And because I value not evangelicalism but coexistence, today I just want to say, thank God for nonbelievers.

Rush wouldn’t say that. Republicans aren’t saying that. That’s not the plan, but in 1785, Robert Burns was ploughing in his fields and accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest that the wee thing needed to survive the winter, and he got poetically philosophical. Plan all you want, but these things happen to all of God’s creatures, to mice and to men. And it’s going to be a long cold winter for Republicans.

Posted in Christian Victimhood, Politicizing Religion, Religion in America | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Unhappy Families

Someone once said that friends are God’s apology for family. The provenance of clever quips is always problematic, but someone said that – you get to choose your friends, but you’re stuck with your family. God ought to apologize. Every family has that crazy uncle who’s a total embarrassment – some of us are that crazy uncle who’s a total embarrassment – but there are crazy aunts too. Every family has that one black sheep – or several of them – but they’re the exception. They have to be. The family you know is a family of upright solid citizens, good sensible people, all of them. The exception proves that rule. Keep saying that. Pretend that’s so – but carefully explain to your current heartthrob, who is about to meet the family for the first time, that Uncle Festus is going to explain to everyone, once again, that no one ever landed on the moon and global warming is caused by cows farting and Obama was born on the planet Clorox II – he was not born in Kenya after all. She’ll understand. She has the same kind of family. The two of you will be just fine.

The idea, after all, is that the two of you will start your own family. People do get to choose who they marry. The residual eccentrics on both sides will fade into the background, except for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas. That’s manageable, but soon or later each party will discover who they really married. The wife’s friends will begin to ask her why she ever married THAT guy, and she’ll start wondering that too. And John Barrymore actually did say that love is “that delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock” – so this cuts both ways. Face it. You’re stuck with family.

Most people find a way to deal with that, through loving acceptance of what was never expected, or with a tired shrug – life isn’t perfect. Divorce is an option too. But this problem won’t go away in our politics, which has turned dynastic. Jeb Bush wants to be the third President Bush and Hillary Clinton wants to be the second President Clinton. Each will probably receive their party’s nomination. One of them will get what they want, and no one is divorcing anyone. They’ll just have to deal with the family they have.

Philip Rucker, in the Washington Post, reports that Hillary Clinton’s way of dealing with this is to keep her husband from campaigning for her at all, because he is a bit flamboyant:

The scene that unfolded here last week as Bill Clinton convened world leaders for a philanthropic conference was hardly what his wife’s champion-for-everyday-Americans campaign would have ordered up.

Gathered in Marrakesh for a Clinton Global Initiative confab, foreign oligarchs and corporate titans mingled amid palm trees, decorative pools and dazzling tiled courtyards with the former president and his traveling delegation of foundation donors — many of whom are also donors to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.

When daughter Chelsea moderated a discussion on women’s empowerment, the only male panelist was Morocco’s richest person, Othman Benjelloun, whose BMCE Bank is a CGI sponsor. For the week’s biggest party, guests were chauffeured across the city to an opulent 56-room palace that boasts a private collection of Arabian horses, overlooks the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, and serves a fine-dining menu of “biolight” cuisine.

Ahead of that event, Bill Clinton greeted Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal. “See you tonight, Turki,” he told his royal highness.

Hillary was out in Iowa at the time, chowing down at Chipotle. What does her campaign do with Bill? They hide him. Even he knows he’s now the eccentric uncle:

“He’s completely focused right now on the foundation,” said Tina Flournoy, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. “That does not mean that he does not realize his wife is running for president. But he is not directly engaged in the campaign. As he has said before, if his advice is asked for, he’s happy to give it.”

This is a trade-off:

Bill Clinton has many assets. He is universally known and unusually popular; 73 percent of voters approved of his job performance as president in a Washington Post-ABC News poll in March, while his personal favorability rating stood at 65 percent in a CNN-ORC poll in March. He also is considered one of the Democratic Party’s most talented communicators; his 2012 convention speech was a standout moment in support of Obama’s reelection.

“Any conversation about Bill Clinton and his impact on the campaign has to start with the fact that Americans like him and they’ve liked him for a long time,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign who now works for Priorities USA, a pro-Clinton super PAC.

But as Bill Clinton showed in 2008, he can be an undisciplined and rogue surrogate. Some of the ugliest episodes in his wife’s campaign were his making, including his stray remarks about Obama that angered black voters in South Carolina and his behind-the-scenes meddling in the campaign’s strategy.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who feuded with Bill Clinton in 2008 over what he saw as race-baiting, said in a recent interview that the former president should be “a supporting spouse” this time around.

Yeah, Bill Clinton shouldn’t have said that Obama winning the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary didn’t matter. Jesse Jackson had once won that South Carolina primary. Boutique candidates win South Carolina. Everyone knew what he meant by that. Keep this guy in Marrakesh this time, but the New York Times’ Amy Chozick explains that it’s more than this guy’s lack of discipline:

It was a favorite riposte of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s in her 2008 presidential campaign: “I always wonder what part of the 1990s they didn’t like,” she would say about critics who brought up her husband’s administration, “the peace or the prosperity?”

She cannot say that this time:

Now, as the streets of Baltimore erupt in protests, and questions about race, poverty and the prison population suddenly tower over the political landscape, the halcyon years of the tough-on-crime Bill Clinton administration look less idyllic.

Mrs. Clinton delivered a poignant assessment of the cycle of poverty and incarceration on Wednesday in addressing the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers. But the most striking part of her speech was the unsaid but implicit rebuttal of her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which flooded America’s cities with more police officers, built dozens of new prisons and created tougher penalties for drug offenders.

Indeed, in her call to “end the era of mass incarceration,” she appeared to take an important step toward redefining what it means to be a Clinton Democrat.

If the centrist policies of the Bill Clinton years were known for stepped-up policing and prison building, deficit reduction, deregulation, welfare overhaul and trade deals, Mrs. Clinton is steering her early candidacy in the opposite direction, emphasizing economic populism, poverty alleviation and, in the criminal justice system, rehabilitation over incarceration.

She has to say that Bill screwed up, because everything has changed:

Two decades ago, Mr. Clinton urged the poor to take personal responsibility and embraced wealthy corporate leaders, who create jobs, as an important part of the solution to poverty. Now, Mrs. Clinton wants government to help working families with everything from child care to college debt. And though she has long been attacked from the left as overly solicitous of Wall Street, she has not minced words of late in blaming the wealthy for an economy that, she says, has left too many people behind.

“How many children climb out of poverty and stay out of prison?” she asked Wednesday. “That’s how we should measure prosperity.” She added: “That is a far better measurement than the size of the bonuses handed out in downtown office buildings.”

This is not the nineties:

When Mr. Clinton first ran for president, Democrats had lost five out of the previous six presidential elections. Crack cocaine was ravaging American cities, and Democrats were freshly scarred by the Willie Horton ad with which the elder George Bush portrayed Michael Dukakis as soft on violent crime.

Then, the electorate was more than 80 percent white, and Democrats battled a reputation as soft on crime and too willing to give “handouts” to welfare recipients. Mr. Clinton, calling himself a “New Democrat,” promised to put more police officers on the streets and end a cycle of government dependency associated with the poorest Americans.

That didn’t work out, but then, she was part of it, and now she can’t be:

In 1996, for example, Mrs. Clinton angered activists including her friend Marian Wright Edelman, with whom she had worked at the Children’s Defense Fund, when she stood by her husband’s overhaul of the welfare system, which cut federal assistance to the poor by nearly $55 billion over six years.

But while Mr. Clinton’s brand of politics was closely associated with the strategist Al From and his centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Mrs. Clinton’s economic approach in 2016 has tilted discernably to the left. Whether she is being pulled there by Senator Elizabeth Warren and others, or is following her own natural inclinations, Mrs. Clinton is steeping herself in liberal thinking, thanks to advisers like the progressive economists Joseph E. Stiglitz and Alan B. Krueger.

She has to say she is no longer part of that dynamic Clinton family of the nineties. Even after Monica Lewinsky, she never divorced Bill. Now she has sort of divorced him. Sometimes you have to leave the family behind.

Jeb Bush went the other way:

Likely presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said in an interview set to air Monday that he would have invaded Iraq in 2003, like his brother did, if he were President back then.

“Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked Bush in a sit-down interview.

“I would have,” Bush said.

“And so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” he added. “And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

Bush said that the administration of his brother, President George W. Bush, failed to establish security in Iraq after toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. That caused Iraqis to turn against the American invasion, Jeb Bush said.

“By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took place as well? George W. Bush,” he said.

“So just for the news flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those,” he added.

Peter Weber is having none of that:

First, let’s dispatch with that pathetic blame-sharing nonsense. Hillary Clinton – if, for some reason, voters had elected her right after her husband – would not have invaded Iraq, and neither would President Al Gore. Both probably would have invaded Afghanistan, because, after all, that country’s Taliban government was sheltering the terrorist group that had just murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, destroyed a cluster of skyscrapers, and damaged the Pentagon.

But Iraq was a textbook war of choice. There was some faulty intelligence, but it was being pushed and exaggerated by a Bush White House that wanted to invade Iraq already. I don’t think that’s even in dispute anymore.

Nobody named Clinton has ever invaded Iraq – in fact, since Somalia’s “Black Hawk Down” incident, Democrats bomb countries; they generally don’t send in ground troops. Two presidents named Bush have invaded Iraq. Voters remember that.

Weber wonders what Jeb Bush is thinking:

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll from June 2014, 71 percent of respondents said the Iraq war “wasn’t worth it,” including 44 percent of Republicans. A CBS News/New York Times poll from the same month similarly found that 75 percent of respondents said the war was not worth the costs, including 63 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents. Another June 2014 poll, from Quinnipiac, was a bit more favorable with only 61 percent saying that “going to war with Iraq” was “the wrong thing.” In all those polls, the Iraq War disapproval numbers have continued to inch upwards.

This is a family problem:

The biggest obstacle to a President Jeb Bush was always going to be his last name – a polite way of saying his brother. He knows that. He even jokes about it. But because of family loyalty or pride, or the advisers he has hired from his brother’s administration, or core convictions, Jeb Bush isn’t willing to throw his brother under the bus. From a tactical standpoint, it must be helpful having a father and brother who have collectively won three presidential elections, but acknowledging in public that George W. Bush is your most influential adviser on Middle East affairs? That’s something different.

Jeb Bush seems determined to win this or lose this as a card-carrying member of the Bush dynasty.

Weber does admit that Republican voters are fired up about foreign policy – “especially the sort of engaged partisans who vote in primaries” – but this won’t fly beyond the primaries.

It might not even fly there:

Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham dropped the hammer on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) on Monday after the likely presidential candidate said he would invade Iraq again, knowing what we know now.

“You can’t still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do,” Ingraham said on her radio show.

“If you do, there has to be something wrong with you,” she added.

And don’t say that Hillary Clinton would do the same thing:

“No, Hillary wouldn’t!” Ingraham said on Monday. “Hillary wouldn’t authorize the war now, if she knew what she knows now.”

At one point she began laughing, and doubted that Bush was “his own person” capable of breaking with his brother, President George W. Bush.

“That’s just a fun hypothetical, but you have to say no to that!” she said.

The radio host said the exchange did not bode well for Bush if he were to secure the GOP nomination and face off against Clinton and the press.

“You have to have someone who says, look, I’m a Republican but I’m not an idiot! I’m not stupid!” she said. “I learn from the past and I improve myself.”

Sometimes you do have to leave the family behind, and Josh Marshall adds this:

If you watch Bush’s exchange it’s clear he’s trying desperately to nudge the question back from ‘what we know now’ to ‘what we knew then’. As well he should. … I think ‘based on what we knew then’ is a relatively easy one for Bush or other Republican candidates to answer because you have the ‘out’ of flawed WMD intelligence and the reality – for better or worse – that a majority of Americans remember being in that situation twelve years ago and agreeing with the final decision to invade Iraq. It’s hard to criticize someone saying they would have done something at the time that you did do at the time or at least supported.

‘Based on what we know now’ is a considerably dicier question. That takes into account the non-existence of any weapons of mass destruction, the dreadful story of post-invasion Iraq and the more immediate reality that ISIS, a newly empowered Iran and more, all tie back in one sense or another to the destruction of the Iraqi regime and the subsequent US occupation and post-occupation insurgency. By this measure, I think the great majority of Americans would say that it was obviously not a good idea at all. Laura Ingraham seems to agree, for what that’s worth. Say what Bush said (and even more have your enemies repeat it for months) and a lot of Americans are going to say, what? What are you thinking?

It’s that family thing:

This is obviously a much bigger deal for a candidate named Bush – and one who’s already said he relies on his brother for advice on dealing with the Middle East. There’s simply no good way for Jeb Bush to answer this question without seeming really out of touch with where most Americans are on this issue. Saying it was a mistake alienates a significant portion of the GOP base, reopens a weirdly public family drama that the press wouldn’t let go of for years (or until Jeb’s campaign is over) and emphasizes what a lot of voters didn’t like and want to forget about Bush family rule.

Bush is helped slightly by the fact that Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War resolution – but not much. Hillary has already bit this bullet. In her memoir she stated unequivocally that the Iraq War was a mistake and that she was wrong to support it. As a Democrat she’s much better positioned to do this, since the war was never popular with the base of her party and has grown only less so over time. And in fact Bush’s wrestling with this question, though incidental in itself, may serve as a turning point of sorts for public opinion on the entire war.

That’s the odd thing here:

As the Bush presidency recedes into the past, Republicans feel less and less ideological commitment to support the Iraq War. It’s becoming part of history and something most Republicans don’t feel on the line for in partisan terms. There are a decent number of voters who weren’t even adults when the war started. That’s shifted the ground a great deal since the 2008 campaign and even the 2012 campaign. But there are so many other foreign policy challenges and crises today that the actual decision to invade Iraq, as opposed to cleaning up the various messes that the decision created or made possible, gets fairly little attention. Only another Bush can really make the decision to invade Iraq a newly relevant question. And now, loosened up from some of its ideological moorings and seen in its totality, the Iraq War seems a lot more clearly, and to a lot more people, to have been a mistake of truly historic proportions. Indeed, a purely voluntary and self-inflicted catastrophe of staggering proportions.

It had not occurred to me that Iraq could be such a significant issue for Bush or that he couldn’t manage to find a more artful way of squaring the circle. But now I think it will and that he can’t.

In short, the issue was going to go away. It had gone away. Jeb Bush brought it back. He had to. He couldn’t walk away from his family.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has a slightly different take on this:

Bush has to know this is toxic to the general public. Even with the gruesome violence of ISIS, pluralities – and sometimes majorities – of Americans oppose further major involvement in Iraq. Last June, in a poll from Quinnipiac University, 61 percent of Americans said the Iraq war was the wrong thing to do, and that October, in a poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 66 percent of Americans said the war was “not worth it.”

But at this moment in the election, Bush isn’t speaking to the public. He’s speaking to Republicans. And even now, most Republicans think the war was a good idea. Last year, in a poll from USA Today and the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Republicans said it was “right to use” military force in Iraq. And in the aforementioned Quinnipiac survey, 56 percent of Republicans agreed that the war “was the right thing for the United States.” In that instance, Republicans were the only group to show majority support.

Something else may be going on here:

If Bush were running unopposed – or with marginal opposition – there might not be an imperative to embrace the Iraq war. But he’s running in a crowded field of legitimate competitors, where most are hawkish (Sen. Rand Paul is the notable exception) and one, Sen. Marco Rubio, has the belligerent posturing of George W. Bush in his first term. In his 2010 campaign for Senate, Rubio praised the Iraq war for making the world “better off,” and in a 2013 speech in London, he called the war a “vitally important achievement” of America’s relationship with the United Kingdom. He’s pushed interventions in Syria (he would have armed the rebels), opposed withdrawal in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants a more aggressive stance toward Iran. As Eliana Johnson wrote for National Review last year, Rubio is the neoconservative candidate for 2016: “To this group, beating back the rising tide of non-interventionism in the Republican party is a top priority, and they consider Rubio a candidate, if not the candidate, capable of doing so.”

This is about Marco Rubio:

You can chalk up Jeb Bush’s Iraq position to familial loyalty, if you want. But you shouldn’t ignore the politics of it. Bush needs to distinguish himself from a younger, more popular competitor in a congested presidential field. Embracing the Iraq war – and his brother’s legacy on foreign policy – is one way to challenge Rubio on his own turf, at least among donors and elites. Likewise, over on the left, Clinton is rejecting the triangulation of her husband and adopting progressive positions on criminal justice and immigration reform, to bolster her position and preclude a repeat of the 2008 primary.

But that only leads to irony:

Most observers assumed Clinton and Bush would be forced to make some moves because of the political legacy of family members. What’s ironic is that they’ve moved opposite of expectations. Bill Clinton is among the most popular presidents of recent memory, and George W. Bush is among the most disliked. But Hillary, eager to define herself and reconstitute the Obama coalition, has distanced herself from her husband while Jeb, fighting to build stature in a melee of a Republican primary, has pulled closer to his unsuccessful brother.

That is odd, but Tolstoy said it best in Anna Karenina – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And it’s even worse in politics.

Posted in Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Legacy of the Iraq War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sketch Comedy Returns

Yeah, we were going to change the world, but when we graduated from college in 1969, it was clear that the world wasn’t going to cooperate. Richard Nixon, of all people, was now our president, and the Beatles had all gone their separate ways, and many an ex-hippie was selling insurance or working on Wall Street. No one was living in communes anymore. Now girls had that feathered Farah Fawcett hair and guys were wearing polyester leisure suits. Disco thumped away, not angry rock about injustice and foolishness. The sixties really were over – dead and gone – but then, on October 11, 1975, Chevy Chase, with a headset on, popped up on everyone’s television and bellowed out “Live from New York, its Saturday Night!”

That helped. George Carlin hosted the first show and did three of his subversive monologs, and John Belushi did his first sketch. Andy Kaufman stood, silent and weird, beside a record player playing the Mighty Mouse theme song, and then would suddenly strike a heroic pose and mime the words “Here I come to save the day!” Then he’d fall silent and look embarrassed – over and over. This was a cultural critique of some kind. Billy Preston ripped into his hit – Nothing from Nothing – stark existentialism meets pure funk – and Janis Ian sang her proto-feminist song At Seventeen – about the plight of an ordinary woman in an age of the required but impossible ideal woman. The sixties were back.

The next week was even better. Paul Simon was the host and Art Garfunkel was there. They sang their hits from the previous decade and Simon sang the appropriate new song – Still Crazy After All These Years – and the even more appropriate American Tune:

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed…
 

Randy Newman sang his surreal slave song Sail Away:

In America you’ll get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American…
 

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
You’re all gonna be an American…
 

Sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
 

Yeah, well, things didn’t work out like that, did they? Jerry Rubin showed up on that second show too. The whole first season was like that – the sixties were back, more or less. There was a lot of sheer silliness too.

That couldn’t be sustained. The critiques of cultural and social and political issues gave way to general comedy – comedy about what was still absurd, but not terribly important – and then John McCain gave America Sarah Palin, and Saturday Night Live gave America Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. That was devastating. The show got its groove back, and then Sarah Palin was gone. Now what? Mitt Romney was boring, Paul Ryan was even more boring, and Barack Obama had always been too easy and graceful at making fun of his own goofs, leaving the SNL writers nothing to work with. They needed public clowns, clowns who were gloriously unaware that they were clowns. The Republicans had let them down.

That’s been fixed. This was the weekend of the South Carolina Freedom Summit: Getting America Back on Track – and every Republican who wants to be the next president showed up. The Saturday Night Live writers had their clowns, in a clown show, so they imagined that summit as it might be introduced by a with-it DJ introducing the next very cool rock stars:

First there was Mike Huckabee shredding Obamacare and the IRS with his sweet bass riffage. And then there was Ben Carson, who will “blow your mind” with quotes like “Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery.” You might want to “put this guy in prison because he’s gonna steal your vote,” the DJ warned, “but watch out because if sexuality works out the way he says it does, he’s gonna turn gay.”

There’s also Ted Cruz – “hard on immigration and soft on chins” – and he’s about to do what he did to the government, and “shut this mother down.”

Carly Fiorina rode in on a Harley; and Rand Paul skateboarded his way in. “He loves small government and fat blunts,” the DJ said of his mildly pro-legalization stance. Also, he’s “anti-abortion except in the cases where the fetus harshes his buzz.”

And lastly, there’s Marco Rubio, who was all oiled up and tangoing. “Sorry, mamis,” he voted against the Violence against Women Act.

“Won’t it be fun to watch all these guys lose to Jeb Bush?” the DJ closed.

Okay, this was a bit lame. There are too many of them for any clear and unified satiric focus, and the jokes depend on an audience that follows the odd things that they’ve been saying – but it’s a start. It is hard to keep them all straight, but the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza offers his list of the current contenders and how they seem to rank in the polls – with Rick “Oops” Perry dead last. “Perry might not get a second chance to make a first impression.” He barely makes the top ten, and Bobby Jindal is in ninth place. Cillizza says Jindal feels like the “me too” candidate in the field. He tells conservatives to stand on principle, but they already do. And next, Chris Christie is floundering. There are too many issues back in New Jersey. John Kasich, the eccentric Ohio governor does a bit better, but no one knows why. Who is he? And then there’s Ted Cruz:

The senator made a mistake recently when he left Washington before the final confirmation vote on Loretta Lynch as attorney general to make a fundraiser in Texas. Why? Because Cruz’s image is built on being a sort of un-politician – the sort who doesn’t do things like miss votes to go to fundraisers. Does anyone in Iowa make their mind up about Cruz based on this missed vote? No way. But the more he looks just like all the other politicians, the worse his chances of being the nominee become.

Next, in fifth place, but only fifth place, there’s Rand Paul:

The senator from Kentucky might have picked the wrong election cycle to put his non-interventionist foreign policy views forward as he runs for president. National security and terrorism now rank No. 1 on a list of issues that Republican voters say are most important for the country to address. The increased concern about our role in the world, coupled with a new/old hawkishness, could make things very difficult for Paul.

Then there’s Mike Huckabee – his populism plays well, and there’s Scott Walker:

Walker seems to have gone a bit incognito — at least at the national level — since earlier this spring, when he made a few amateur mistakes that robbed him of some of the considerable momentum he was building in the race. But the Wisconsin governor remains well positioned as a top-tier candidate; he has a conservative record as governor, he can raise the money, and he fits the profile (Midwestern, swing-state governor) that Republicans are likely to be looking for.

Marco Rubio is in second place:

The senator from Florida is, without question, the momentum candidate at the moment. He got a major boost from a well-executed campaign rollout last month, and his speaking ability and the figure he cuts – young, Hispanic, charismatic – have combined to catapult him into the top tier. Anyone who has watched politics for more than a few days knows that Rubio’s rise will slow and be followed, inevitably, by a dip. But he has soared higher than many people thought he might, so even some slippage will keep him in the top tier.

But Jeb Bush is the man to beat:

No one will come close to raising the sort of money that Jeb will. It’s rumored that his Right to Rise super PAC will have raised $100 million through the end of May – an eye-popping total even to jaded political watchers like me. That money alone won’t win him the nomination, but it will allow him to weather a poor performance (or two). Bush has problems with the base – on immigration and the Common Core – but the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll had good news for him: The number of Republicans who said they definitely wouldn’t vote for him is declining.

That’s the raw material the Saturday Night Live writers have to work with. Two are not mentioned, for good reason – retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former tech executive Carly Fiorina. We may not have to take them seriously. Fiorina was CEO of Hewlett-Packard and they fired her ass. She got a golden parachute to just go away. She nearly ruined the company, and we remember her out here – HP shed thirty thousand jobs on her watch. With Carson it’s the paranoid style. People are afraid to speak up because the “IRS might audit them.” The government just wants you to “keep your mouth shut.” We can’t trust unemployment statistics because “You can make the unemployment rate anything you want it to be.” And anarchy from “this pathway we are going down” could lead to the 2016 election being called off, as Obama declares “martial law.” He’s compared America under Obama to Nazi Germany and called Obamacare the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” And prison turns men gay, by the way. These two aren’t going anywhere, except to the summit in South Carolina.

That wasn’t what Saturday Night Live imagined, because of what Cillizza identifies in the current polling:

Republicans say that national security/terrorism is the single most important issue facing the country.

More than a quarter of Republicans (27 percent) chose that option, putting it ahead of “deficit and government spending” (24 percent) and, somewhat remarkably, “job creation and economic growth” (21 percent), which has long dominated as the top priority for voters of all partisan stripes.

But there are two other factors to consider:

The first is that Republican voters are twice as concerned as Democrats about national security and terrorism. In the NBC-WSJ survey, just 13 percent of Democrats named national security as the most pressing issue for the government; job creation and economic growth was far and away the biggest concern among Democrats (37 percent), with health care (17 percent) and climate change (15 percent) ranking ahead of national security and terrorism.

The second is that national security is a rapidly rising concern for Republicans. In NBC-WSJ poll data from March 2012, just eight percent of Republicans named it as the most important issue for the government to address.

There’s no single or simple explanation for that threefold increase, although the focus on the Islamic state and its barbaric (and high-profile) killing of hostages has clearly played a major role. In a recent conversation, a savvy Republican media consultant told me that the Islamic State attacks coupled with the release (and subsequent controversy) over “American Sniper,” a film that tells the story of Chris Kyle, has had a profound effect on the average Republican base voter.

That effect amounts to unease about the idea that the Islamic State operates by no rules or common humanity combined with a sort of rally-around-the-flag sentiment occasioned by a belief that some Americans have lost the necessary focus on the threat posed by militant groups.

Somehow this feels like the sixties again. We did need to win in Vietnam, right? That would keep us safe, but Cillizza sees a problem this time:

What remains to be seen is how and whether the eventual Republican nominee can make the case that Hillary Clinton the eventual Democratic nominee is insufficiently committed or able to keep the country safe. That could be a tough sell given the relative thinness of the GOP field’s experience on foreign policy – especially when contrasted with the depth and breadth of Clinton’s resume on those same issues.

That’s what drove that South Carolina summit. This was about going to war:

Ted Cruz bluntly remarked that a police officer who killed two gunmen who were likely inspired by the Islamic State helped them to “meet their virgins.” Bobby Jindal quipped that gun control means “hitting your target.” Marco Rubio quoted the violent action film “Taken” to describe his plan for defeating radical Islam.

One after another, Republicans with an eye on running for president used intensely strong language to describe their hard-liner positions at a conservative summit here on Saturday. Although national security and foreign relations have long been a dominant issue at forums like this, many candidates seem to have greatly intensified their rhetoric as they angle to be seen as the staunchest enforcer and fiercest protector of the country.

No sixties hippies would be welcome here:

Several zeroed in on a shooting in Garland, Tex., this week – including Cruz, a U.S. senator from the state who is running for president.

Cruz praised the Garland police officer who shot and killed two gunmen who on Sunday opened fire outside a conference center that was hosting a cartooning contest and exhibit depicting the prophet Muhammad, which is forbidden in Islam. The men were likely inspired by the Islamic State, U.S. officials say.

“We saw the ugly face of Islamic terrorism in my home state of Texas, in Garland where two jihadists came to commit murder. Thankfully one police officer helped them meet their virgins,” Cruz said, referring to a belief that such martyrs are greeted in heaven by dozens of virgins.

Jindal, the governor of Louisiana who is thinking about running for president, echoed Cruz and said he was “thankful that those two terrorists were sent to their afterlife.” He also remarked that the men were foolish to carry out an attack in a Southern state where many people own guns and know how to use them.

“In our states, we think of gun control – we think that means hitting your target,” Jindal said. He received a thunderous applause.

And there was this:

Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida who is running for president, summed up his strategy for fighting radical Islamists with a quote from a Hollywood blockbuster.

“When people ask what our strategy should be on global jihadists and terrorists, I refer them to the movie, ‘Taken,'” Rubio said. “Have you seen the movie ‘Taken’? Liam Neeson, he has a line – this is what our strategy should be: We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.”

Who says Republicans hate Hollywood? And add this:

Rubio tried last week to burnish his hawkish foreign policy credentials by toughening a bill designed to give Congress oversight of the tentative deal the Obama administration and other nations have reached with Iran to prevent them from building a nuclear weapon in exchange for easing crippling economic sanctions.

The Republicans addressing the crowd bashed the deal and warned that it endangers Israel. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is moving closer to officially entering the presidential sweepstakes, received a standing ovation when he said: “We need a president who is going to back away from that deal In Iran.”

The Wicked Witch of the West had her say too:

Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard who is also running for president, has said several times on the campaign trail that one of the first things she would do in the White House is to stop negotiations with Iran until officials agree to inspections. But on Saturday afternoon she breathlessly fired off the loaded message that she would want to send to the country: “Whatever the circumstances were, the circumstances have changed now, and until and unless you submit to full and unfettered inspections of every single nuclear facility in your country we will exact and enact the most crushing sanctions we can.”

Fiorina added, “We have a lot to do with how easy or how hard it is to move money around the global financial system – and I would ensure that it was very, very hard.”

This particular crowd loved it all:

The remarks played well among the older, mostly white crowd, which was eager to hear the speakers explain why they are tough on national security and well-versed on foreign policy matters. One man sold buttons referring to the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. Another wore a shirt that said “I’d rather be waterboarding.”

Rand Paul didn’t even bother to show up. He was in San Francisco opening an office there. Perhaps he visited the Berkeley campus, the epicenter of the sixties antiwar movement. Perhaps he wore some flowers in his hair. This crowd will never forgive him:

Donald Trump, the celebrity real estate entrepreneur who, like the Republicans who spoke before him, used pointed language. Trump went after Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who left his patrol base in Afghanistan in 2009, was captured by the Taliban and was held for five years until the United States bartered for his release.

“I call our president the five-to-one president,” Trump said of Obama. “We got Bergdahl; they get five leaders, killers that want to kill us all. And they’re all back on the battlefield, by the way, and we got this piece of garbage named Bergdahl, who years ago we would have shot for treason.”

And there was this:

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said Saturday the military should damage the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the point of impotence.

“If these folks want to return to a 7th Century version of Islam, then let’s load up our bombers and bomb them back to the 7th Century,” he argued during the South Carolina Freedom Summit in Greenville, S.C. …

Santorum said President Obama had made the situation worse by disregarding America’s traditional diplomatic relations.

“I would be happy if the president were able to tell the difference between our friends and our enemies,” he said.

“Iran: Enemy. Israel: Friend,” he argued. “Iran will never keep anything that they promise to do.”

The word is he will announce his candidacy in late May, in his native Pittsburgh, and there’s the guy from Wisconsin:

Gov. Scott Walker (R) brought a South Carolina crowd to its feet Saturday during his remarks on national security, a topic generally considered Walker’s Achilles heel as he weighs a run for president. Addressing the South Carolina Freedom Summit, likely GOP candidate Walker used foreign policy as the climax for his speech, framing the issue as a matter of courage and emotion rather than “something you read in the newspaper.”

“On behalf of your children and mine, I want a leader that is willing to take a fight to them before they take the fight to us,” Walker said, referring to ISIS and “radical Islamic” fighters. The line received a standing ovation.

Add this:

Walker also repeatedly referred to his trip to Israel, scheduled for this weekend, where he will undergo what the Washington Post described as a “crash-course in foreign policy.”

Hey, the guy never finished college. He dropped out. He has some catching up to do.

And that’s what Saturday Night Live has to work with. The show can get its antiestablishment groove back, letting us know that the sixties never really ended, because this large Republican crew is calling for war, far away, to keep us safe here, just like old times, even if there are far too many of them at the moment for any clear and unified satiric focus. That will resolve itself and this will be fun, and oddly depressing. Maybe we shouldn’t be laughing.

Posted in Republican Calls for War | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Question of Trust

Structure – that’s what’s missing. After high school for some, and after college for others, and for some of us, after graduate school, it’s a lifetime of work, of things that must be done, on time – about forty-five years of that. Then you pack it in and you’re free to do what you want, or to do nothing much at all, at your own pace, not that it matters. Nothing now depends on what you do, on schedule or not. You’re free – and all the days start to blend together. The mornings are worst, at dawn. Is this Tuesday, or Friday? There’s that bit of residual panic from all those years when that actually mattered, and then it’s time for black coffee and the morning paper, on whatever day it is, with the news on television in the corner – the cable news channels reporting the crises of the moment. Ah, so that’s what everyone will be talking about today. That’s what matters.

That’s the thin tether back to the world of choices and consequences. A few dozen young American men have decided that they want to be part of ISIS – and ISIS is happy with that – so there’s going to be trouble. White cops keep shooting unarmed black kids and black men quite dead, and say they had to, and there’s going to be even more trouble. There will be another Baltimore. Saudi Arabia is going to invade Yemen, further escalating the regional war between the Sunni and Shia folks that we somehow got involved in – this is not good – but we may be able to reach an agreement with Iran on stopping their development of nuclear weapons, but not if our Republicans and Israel have anything to say about it. Agreements are useless? That’s the word. No on mentions the alternative and North Korea now has their nukes, sort of. That too is not good. And twenty or thirty people are running for president already, a year and half out, and they’re all calling each other fools and crooks and whatnot.

Okay, that’s what’s going on out there where people are still doing things. But wait – everyone is talking about Tom Brady, the awesome quarterback who wins Super Bowls again and again. That new report threatens Tom Brady’s legacy and the Patriots’ reputation – because Brady may be complicit in the action of his equipment guys to lower the air pressure in the footballs he used in a key game, just a little bit, so he could get a better grip. He cheated. No one can trust him anymore. It was all a lie – all of it.

Really? The advantage gained was minimal, if there was one. He’s still the best quarterback anyone has seen in ages – and he fudged a bit around the edges this one time, and he’s a self-absorbed overpaid shallow jerk who can be pleasant at times, who is good at his job. The Patriots would have won that game anyway – but everyone seems to be up in arms about this. This is a matter of trust betrayed, and a matter of integrity. Good people don’t cheat, so even if this is far less than a minor matter, this is a matter of principle, and thus the Patriots are worried that he could be suspended for six to eight games – or not. No one knows, but someone understands:

Chris Christie just threw a Hail Mary in New Hampshire. Behind in the polls, with his former staffers facing indictments in one court and his signature pension reform facing implosion in another, the New Jersey governor rushed to defend a scandal-plagued leader Granite State voters can definitely get behind: Tom Brady.

“I think there’s a little bit too much attention on this,” said Christie of reports that the New England Patriots quarterback was probably complicit in a plot to tamper with the footballs he used in games, calling the scandal “way, way overblown” in a Thursday interview…

“I don’t think anybody is really trying to say that Tom Brady won four super bowls or became a future Hall of Famer because the balls were a little under inflated,” Christie added. “I think the media and others love for somebody who is married to a beautiful model, who is richer than you can imagine and who is a future Hall of Famer, to take a couple of shots at him? People like that every once in a while.”

Christie went on to say that people are just jealous of Tom Brady’s almost too perfect life – implying that he understands such things, given his own life and how people are always trying to tear him down. Donald Trump said the same – Tom Brady is “a friend” and a “total winner” – so lesser, jealous people try to tear him down. He too knows. Winners fudge a bit now and then. It happens. They’re still winners.

Admittedly, the anchors on the cable news shows covering all this seemed a bit embarrassed by having to talk for hours about this nonsense – the world is tearing itself apart and we may all die – but they soldiered on. The news is also what people want to know, not only what they need to know, as their advertisers tell them. But under all the nonsense there was an interesting implicit question. Is trust really an issue if someone gets that job done, and does it well? We may be asking too much when we ask for total integrity. Hillary Clinton may be just fine.

The National Journal’s Ron Brownstein explored that – Hillary Clinton’s personal credibility seems linked to the “honesty and trustworthiness” of her husband. His long history is dragging her down, or should be, if you listen to the Republicans, but Brownstein isn’t so sure:

On the day Bill Clinton was reelected by more than eight million votes in 1996, a solid 54 percent majority of voters said in exit polling that they did not consider him honest and trustworthy.

It’s possible that voters have since grown less tolerant of perceived ethical missteps, such as the questions Hillary Clinton is facing over her private State Department email account and the Clinton Foundation’s fund-raising practices. But it’s more likely that empathy, faith in her competency, and ideological compatibility will count more than integrity in shaping voters’ verdict on Hillary Clinton – just as they did for her husband.

Few presidents ever faced as many distinct ethical allegations from their opponents and the press as Bill Clinton did during his two terms. Those charges created persistently high doubts about his honesty and morality. But none of them produced a fatal wound.

There’s a reason for that:

Many factors allowed Clinton to survive questions about his character: satisfaction with overall peace and prosperity, respect for his skill and effectiveness, and distaste for critics who repeatedly seemed to overreach. But his most important shield may have been the belief that he understood, and genuinely hoped to ameliorate, the problems of ordinary Americans. For Hillary Clinton, it’s probably more important to match his strength on that front than to improve on the weak perceptions of his character.

History shows that:

The exit poll conducted the day Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 captured the consistently conflicted American assessment of him, and offers clues about how the country may weigh its similarly ambivalent feelings about his wife. Clinton dispatched Republican nominee Bob Dole that day by a solid 49-41 margin. Yet in the survey, 60 percent of voters said they did not believe Clinton had told the truth about the controversial “Whitewater” investment in Arkansas, and just 41 percent said they considered him honest and trustworthy (far less than the 54 percent who did not.)

Those doubts cost Clinton some, particularly with independents. But according to the exit poll, Clinton won nearly one-fifth of those voters who did not consider him trustworthy and almost one-fourth who doubted him on Whitewater. How did Clinton attract so many voters dubious about his character? The answer is that they placed higher priority on other assessments of him. Almost three-fifths of voters said issues mattered to them more than character – and they backed Clinton by more than a 3-1 margin. And while Dole won by more than 10-1 among those who said honesty most influenced their vote, that group represented just one-fifth of the electorate. Clinton amassed similarly lopsided margins among the combined 35 percent of voters who said their decision was most influenced by the candidate’s vision for the future, being in touch, and caring about people like me.

And it didn’t stop there:

A similar dynamic sustained Clinton through his impeachment ordeal two years later. Public doubts about Clinton’s character skyrocketed after his affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed. But as Stanford University political scientist Richard Brody wrote then, “the public’s view of President Clinton’s compassion and strength of leadership” actually improved through the tumult. The share of Americans saying Clinton “understands the problems of people like you” rose to about 60 percent in ABC/Washington Post polls through 1998. Most Americans, in other words, seemed willing to look past Clinton’s flaws so long as they felt he was looking out for their interests – and capable of advancing them.

That’s the challenge here:

Today, Hillary Clinton is stronger on the second part of that equation than the first. Since the 2008 Democratic primary, she has scored well as a strong and decisive leader. But Americans have consistently given her more equivocal grades for empathy. When the ABC/Washington Post poll last asked in March whether Hillary Clinton “understood the problems of people like you,” just 47 percent said yes, far fewer than for her husband even during impeachment. In this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a comparable 43 percent described her as “compassionate enough to understand average people.”

She has some work to do:

Fewer Americans may view Hillary than Bill Clinton (at least in his heyday) as empathetic partly because she, like most politicians, can’t match his unique ability to convince voters he could “feel your pain.” She may also suffer because the allegations confronting the Clintons now include charges that they have used their contacts to enrich themselves, or because Americans have seen her in powerful positions for so long they can’t easily imagine her relating to their struggles.

Brownstein isn’t sure she up to that. Laughing that he hasn’t driven a car since 1996 was a mistake – and you don’t say that your husband needs those six-figure speeches to “pay our bills” and so on. She doesn’t have the common touch, but that’s one thing she needs to make the rest all go away:

It’s almost certainly more important for Hillary Clinton to persuade Americans that she understands their lives, and has solutions relevant to their challenges, than to dispel the doubts about her integrity. Bill Clinton’s experience suggests that if Americans believe she can walk in their shoes, they will accept plenty of mud on her own.

Forgive him that metaphor. The rest is straightforward enough. If you win one for the team, no one will care if you tamper with the footballs a bit. These things happen. Empathy matters more, but Ed Kilgore offers this:

You could make a pretty good argument that ideological compatibility and its first cousin, partisanship – along with (Democrats hope) some good luck on the economy and the identity of the opposition – will matter as much or more. And in terms of partisanship, it’s important to remember that polarized voting is much more prevalent now than in 1996, and that perceptions of “honesty and trustworthiness” may be an effect as much as a cause of voting preferences.

In the end, perceptions of this or that candidate-characteristic may be like “enthusiasm” as a determinant of voting behavior: it matters at some minimal level, but once a certain threshold is crossed, it may not matter at all.

If so, then “empathy” doesn’t matter. You want to win one for the home team, so empathic policies matter, and Jonathan Allen says that’s what she’s working on:

First there was her embrace of same-sex marriage in a video for the Human Rights Campaign shortly after she left the State Department in 2013. Then she started talking tough on corporate tax dodgers. And in just the past couple of weeks she’s said she would protect more undocumented immigrants from deportation, reverse elements of her husband’s 1994 anti-crime law, and equip police departments across the country with body cameras.

Separately, each item is a small but significant step toward a core Democratic constituency: gays and lesbians, African Americans, Latinos, and unions. Taken together, they’re a giant leap to the left.

But this is not what you think:

The quickly gathering conventional wisdom about Clinton’s hop, skip, and jump to the left is that she’s thinking about the Democratic primary – specifically, how to avoid getting blindsided like she did in 2008, when Barack Obama took her out in the trial heat. But there aren’t any Barack Obamas on the Democratic horizon, and Clinton’s commanding lead in the Democratic primary field – fueled by numbers that are highest among self-described liberals – makes it hard to believe she’s really looking over her shoulder.

The truth is that her move to the left is a general-election strategy that has the benefit of working well in the primary, too.

The idea may be that she’ll never be the mensch her husband was, but policy can stand in for empathy:

The fuller view shows a tactical decision to update her positions in areas where the country has become more progressive since her last run for the White House, and to play up the parts of her agenda that appeal to core Democratic voters. If the moment were right to talk about her muscular approach to US foreign policy – and surely that time will come – there’s little doubt her team would be doing just that.

Here’s the gamble Clinton’s taking: targeted policy shifts will activate key Democratic voting constituencies early in the campaign without alienating swing voters. If it works, African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and straight white men (the group that seems to like her the least among Democrats) will see her as a true champion and remain energized through the general election. Her campaign views the risk of pushing away independents as minimal compared with the advantage of rallying Democrats.

“Over time, the landscape has shifted on so many of these issues that now Democrats don’t have to hide from them,” one campaign official said. “The data is pretty clear: the independent voters are on our side on issues like gay marriage. So leaning into them comes with a benefit, not a cost.”

Meaning that, at least on these issues, the same positions could rally the Democratic base now and appeal to independents in November 2016.

Allen notes that the odds are in her favor:

57 percent of respondents said undocumented immigrants should be able to stay in the country and apply for citizenship, according to a CBS/New York Times poll released this week, while 29 percent said they should be deported.

63 percent told Pew last year that it would be good to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and, according to a December CBS poll, 91 percent of Americans favored universal use of body cameras by police. By comparison, Pope Francis’s favorability rating among American Catholics was at 90 percent at last check.

58 percent of Americans favor a Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, according to an April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Moreover, Republicans have adopted similar positions on some of the issues – and declined to attack Clinton on others. For example, Rand Paul has been on the leading edge of bipartisan congressional efforts to change sentencing laws and has advocated for equipping police with body cameras.

When Clinton announced her support for Obama’s executive action on immigration – and said she would go even further – most Republican candidates didn’t react (a telling indication of the tension between reaching out to Latino voters and satisfying Republican base voters who do not support efforts to give legal status to unauthorized immigrants who are already in the US).

Still, a counterattack is possible:

Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and strategist, said the danger for Clinton isn’t necessarily in the particular policies she’s advocating for now but rather in reinforcing a sense among some voters that she’s too willing to change her position.

“This is precisely what voters don’t like about politicians,” Conway said, adding that Clinton “seems to be incredibly reactive” rather than leading the way on issue.

Fellow GOP pollster and strategist David Winston said Clinton may be placating base constituencies now to make up for centrist positions she’ll take later in the campaign. And, he said, the piecemeal approach undermines Clinton’s effort to create a cohesive narrative for her campaign.

“The problem she’s had overall with her rollout is there’s no theme to this. There’s no sense of what’s the direction, what’s the vision,” Winston said. “As a result, everything seems very isolated in its context. I don’t think that’s a good thing for any candidate.”

Sure, but she may get the last laugh:

The bet is that reaching out to particular constituencies will help energize them for 2016. Obama’s ability to turn out minority voters was a key part of his 2012 reelection victory in a year in which the number of black and Hispanic voters went up by more 3 million from the previous election and the number of white voters dropped by 2 million. Clinton would very much like to sustain or improve on those figures, and taking up causes important to the black and Hispanic communities is one way to try.

The Republicans have no answer to that but… Benghazi! Of course, as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton did use her personal email account when she should have used the state department’s account. And there’s the Clinton Foundation. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, although no one has been able to find any at all.

And Tom Brady has the equipment guys lower the air pressure in those footballs a tiny bit that one time, so he could get a better grip on them, not that it mattered a whole lot. He was going to win anyway. So will Hillary Clinton.

Posted in Hillary Clinton | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments