Misunderstanding the Problem

Tuesday, November 17, 2015, President Obama was in the Philippines and still frustrated with the Republicans, who seem to want a new war in the Middle East and are calling for a halt to the entry of any Syrian refugees, because they’re afraid of them, so he lashed out:

“At first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates,” said Obama per the pool report. “Now they are scared of three year old orphans. That doesn’t seem so tough to me.”

Obama also argued that he “cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate” than the idea of discriminating against Muslim refugees.

“ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the West,” Obama said “and when you start seeing individuals in position of responsibility suggesting Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive. And it needs to stop.”

That won’t happen. There is disagreement about what to do about ISIS, and everyone has an opinion, from bombing them out of existence to… bombing them out of existence. Everyone seems to have settled on that, with the Republicans screaming at Obama to bomb them more, like the French and Russians are now doing, and screaming at his pointing out that he really is bombing them more, and their saying no you’re not, and him saying yes I am, and so on and so forth. It’s exhausting. They want a quick fix and he wonders what comes after all the bombing and suggests we think about that very carefully. It’s not that simple. What would follow ISIS? They say it is that simple – and we’ll worry about that stuff later. Either way, bombing is involved.

This is to be expected in an election year. They want to make Obama, and by extension all Democrats, look timid and weak and confused, and not careful but cowardly. They’ll be the “real men” here, and after what happened in Paris they know that’s a winner, because Americans are angry and frightened. The guy who says be careful in what you do, bad things could happen if you get what you want, can be painted as morally reprehensible – something had to be done and he wouldn’t do a damned thing, or wouldn’t do enough of what everyone now thinks he should have done, and the bad guys are going to kill us all. Vote Republican.

This is a useful campaign narrative. Refusing to take in even one refugee fleeing the hell we set in motion over there, unless they’re Christian, will radicalize another generation young Muslims, now certain that white Christian America hates Muslims – but we’ll worry about that later. Get rid of ISIS and then Assad in Syria and you create a power vacuum. Hezbollah will head north from Lebanon and fill that vacuum, or angry young men will form a new ISIS with a different name and then we’ll have to fight them – but we’ll worry about that later. We’ll wipe ISIS off the face of the map. Don’t worry about what comes next. We got rid of ISIS – and that’s that.

Cool, but even late-night comics know better than that. The night before Obama lashed out in the Philippines, on “The Late Show” when Stephen Colbert sat down with Bill Maher, we got this:

Maher began his appearance by arguing the only way to wipe out groups such as Islamic State is to “wipe out the idea” that motivates them – an idea that Maher believes is held by many mainstream Muslims, not just the extremists.

“We have to change those ideas, women as second-class citizens, gay people don’t deserve to be alive,” he said. “These are mainstream ideas unfortunately.”

The remarks, typical of Maher’s anti-religious standpoint, prompted an observation from Colbert.

“They say at a dinner party you should never talk about sex, politics or religion. Have you ever been invited to a dinner party in your life? Are there things you won’t talk about?”

That got a big laugh, but perhaps we should talk about this, because Maher is implying that there’s been a misunderstanding here. Maher is implying that ISIS isn’t that new caliphate being created in the wastes of Syria and Iraq. That’s the secondary effect of an absurd theology. And the terrorists in France and Belgium and everywhere else are not ISIS either. They too are the secondary effect of a warped theology. That’s what you get when people think that way, and the ISIS leaders are not ISIS either. As with al-Qaeda, we use another Hellfire missile from a Predator drone (we do name things well) to take out yet another key ISIS leader, this time a big one, and then there’s another leader the next day. Nothing changes. We haven’t wiped out the idea. We have gone after secondary manifestations of an idea – a very bad idea.

But how do you fight an idea? Late-night comics know. You fight ideas with counter-ideas, and with irony and ridicule – not bombs. You turn a bad idea into a bad joke, and everyone laughs, which makes it a great joke. Nonsense cannot survive the ridicule of logic, but that might not be necessary, because Maher might be wrong about which ideas are mainstream ideas:

Recent attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have once again brought terrorism and Islamic extremism to the forefront of international relations. According to newly released data that the Pew Research Center collected in 11 countries with significant Muslim populations, people from Nigeria to Jordan to Indonesia overwhelmingly expressed negative views of ISIS. …

In no country surveyed did more than 15% of the population show favorable attitudes toward Islamic State. And in those countries with mixed religious and ethnic populations, negative views of ISIS cut across these lines.

In Lebanon, a victim of one of the most recent attacks, almost every person surveyed who gave an opinion had an unfavorable view of ISIS, including 99% with a very unfavorable opinion. Distaste toward ISIS was shared by Lebanese Sunni Muslims (98% unfavorable) and 100% of Shia Muslims and Lebanese Christians.

What we have in ISIS then is a relatively small band of fanatic jerks everyone hates, but a large enough band of jerks to cause mayhem around the world, wedded to a very bad idea, a version of Islam that appalls most Muslims – and ISIS is that idea. To borrow the words of the Catholic catechism, they are the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual… really bad idea. And we need to defeat that idea.

Bill Maher may not be able to help that much – he’s a comic – but there is this woman:

Janine di Giovanni is an author, award-winning foreign correspondent, and current Middle East editor at Newsweek. She is a regular contributor to The Times, Vanity Fair, Granta, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Di Giovanni is also a consultant on Syria for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a Senior Policy Manager/Advisor at the Centre for Conflict, Resolution and Recovery for the School of Public Policy at Central European University.

That’s impressive, and while Maher does the late-night shows, di Giovanni has been making the rounds on the morning cable news shows in their coverage of the Paris attacks, and Heather Parton transcribes what she said to Thomas Roberts on MSNBC the morning after Maher spoke to Colbert:

Di Giovanni: I think we have to understand first of all what ISIS wants more than anything is to provoke retaliation. They don’t like to see unity. The thing they fear the most is a cohesive society of people living together united. So, for instance, the photographs of Germans welcoming refugees into their society to make it more of a mixed society is terrible for them. They want a society, a country, a caliphate that is extreme Islam.

Roberts: When we talk about the country or the territory, they don’t have that. What they have is the territory that borders between Syria and Iraq. If that is stripped from them Janine, do they fall away?

Di Giovanni: Personally, I believe that you cannot destroy their ideology. Even if we took Raqqa tomorrow, if we crushed it, I have to point out there is one thing about the bombing of Raqqa, there are five hundred thousand civilians who are inside Raqqa. It’s not just ISIS who is suffering. It’s civilians that have been overcome by them. But even if we took out Raqqa tomorrow, how do you destroy this ideology which is sweeping so many youth, which is recruiting so many, if they have what is a very sophisticated social media, as we know, and their psychology is very appealing to those who are downtrodden, who are disenfranchised from society.

So what I’m saying Thomas is even if we can stop a caliphate – they’re not going to get to Mecca, which is what they want – we still have to deal with the underlying reasons of where they came from and why they prey on countries like France which they see as weak because there are divisions here between the Muslim populations which is the highest is all of Europe. They saw that as an opportunity and that’s why this operation was horrifically and tragically successful.

In short, take their land, bomb the crap out them, but understand you cannot destroy their ideology. ISIS is the ideology, not the land or the membership – and she points out that if we keep squabbling with each other, about how many bombs to drop and refugees and whatnot, we’re only playing into their hands. We have to have a better idea than they have.

Parton adds this:

If you have even the slightest bit of common sense this is all something you can easily discern by just reading the newspapers. But on cable TV she’s the equivalent of the Oracle of Delphi for pointing out that this problem isn’t just a matter of “taking out those bastards.”

It would be really helpful if these people would not feed the revenge fantasies of the American right wing which is playing into the terrorists’ hand so perfectly they might as well join the jihad and get it over with.

That is, however, the way we’re heading. In the Washington Post, Jeffery Guo writes about the likelihood that the Paris attacks will inspire reprisals against Muslims:

“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for – to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” said Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists. “Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies and the enemies of Islam.'” …

The researchers see the Paris attacks increasing radicalization in two potential ways. First, the killings project power and prestige, burnishing ISIS’s image and attracting those who want to feel potent themselves.

Second, the attacks will escalate tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. They have already led to some anti-Muslim activity, and will likely provoke more. Not only will these events make Muslims in the West feel marginalized, but they will also provide extremist propagandists with examples of Western oppression.

That’s kind of obvious, and Kevin Drum is dismayed:

What really gets me about this is not just that it’s true. It’s that we’ve seen this movie before with Al-Qaeda. We know perfectly well that it’s ISIS that wants to turn this into a war of civilizations, just as Al-Qaeda wanted to do. It’s no secret. Why are so many conservative hawks so willing to play along with this?

More generally, it’s astonishing – or depressing, take your pick – how soon we forget what we learned just a few years ago. Should we send a massive force into Anbar to crush ISIS once and for all? Well, we’ve tried that before. Remember? We sent a massive force into Iraq and, sure enough, we toppled Saddam Hussein’s regular army units pretty quickly. Then, despite a huge military presence, the country fell apart. The Sunni insurgency lasted for years before it was finally beaten back. Then the Shiite government of Iraq decided that fealty to its Shia supporters was more important than uniting their country, and before long Anbar was in flames again, this time with ISIS leading the charge.

And now:

You want to take out ISIS? Me too- but if you want to do it fast in order to demonstrate how tough you are, it’s going to require 100,000 troops or more; it will cost hundreds or thousands of American lives; and the bill will run to tens of billions of dollars. Remember Fallujah? It took the better part of a year and nearly 15,000 troops to take a medium-sized city held by a few thousand poorly trained militants. Now multiply that by ten or so. And multiply the casualties by 10 or 20 or 30 too. This isn’t two armies facing off on the field of battle. It’s house-to-house fighting against local insurgents, which isn’t something we’re especially good at.

Still, we could do it. The problem is that President Obama is right: unless we leave a permanent occupying force there, it will just blow up yet again – especially if we take Ted Cruz’s advice and decide we don’t really care about civilian casualties. Having defeated Al-Qaeda 2.0, we’ll end up with Al-Qaeda 3.0. Aside from a permanent occupation, the only thing that can stop this is an Iraqi government that takes Sunni grievances seriously and is genuinely willing to govern in a non-sectarian way.

This isn’t just a guess. We went through this just a few years ago. But everyone seems to have forgotten it already. Just send in the troops and crush the bastards! That worked great against the Nazis. It doesn’t work so great in Iraq.

It seems no one was reading The Onion back in late 2011:

With the United States facing a daunting array of problems at home and abroad, leading historians courteously reminded the nation Thursday that when making tough choices, it never hurts to stop a moment, take a look at similar situations from the past, and then think about whether the decisions people made back then were good or bad.

According to the historians, by looking at things that have already happened, Americans can learn a lot about which actions made things better versus which actions made things worse, and can then plan their own actions accordingly.

“In the coming weeks and months, people will have to make some really important decisions about some really important issues,” Columbia University historian Douglas R. Collins said during a press conference, speaking very slowly and clearly so the nation could follow his words. “And one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if turned out to be a good idea or not.”

This isn’t hard:

“It’s actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen,” Collins continued. “Did the thing we’re thinking of doing make people upset? Did it start a war? If it did, then we might want to think about not doing it.”

In addition, Collins carefully explained that if a past decision proved to be favorable – if, for example, it led to increased employment, caused fewer deaths, or made lots of people feel good inside – then the nation should consider following through with the same decision now.

Follow closely here:

While the new strategy, known as “Look Back before You Act,” has raised concerns among people worried they will have to remember lots of events from long ago, the historians have assured Americans they won’t be required to read all the way through thick books or memorize anything.

Instead, citizens have been told they can just find a large-print, illustrated timeline of historical events, place their finger on an important moment, and then look to the right of that point to see what happened afterward, paying especially close attention to whether things got worse or better.

“You know how the economy is not doing so well right now?” Professor Elizabeth Schuller of the University of North Carolina said. “Well, in the 1930s, financial markets – no, wait, I’m sorry. Here: A long, long time ago, way far in the past, certain things happened that were a lot like things now, and they made people hungry and sad.”

“How do you feel when you’re hungry? Doesn’t feel good, does it?” Schuller added. “So, maybe we should avoid doing those things that caused people to feel that way, don’t you think?”

It’s too bad this is satire:

While many citizens have expressed skepticism of the historians’ assertions, the majority of Americans have reportedly grasped the concept of noticing bad things from earlier times and trying not to repeat them.

“I get it. If we do something bad that happened before, then the same bad thing could happen again,” said Barb Ennis, 48, of Pawtucket, RI. “We don’t want history to happen again, unless the thing that happened was good.”

“When you think about it, a lot of things have happened already,” Ennis added. “That’s what history is.”

And there’ this:

In Washington, several elected officials praised the looking-back-first strategy as a helpful, practical tool with the potential to revolutionize government.

“The things the historians were saying seemed complicated at first, but now it makes sense to me,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who reversed his opposition to oil-drilling safety regulations after checking past events and finding a number of “very, very sad things [he] didn’t like.” “I just wished they’d told us about this trick before.”

If only these had been real historians six years ago and everyone had said “Oh, so THAT’S how it works! Cool!”

But that’s not how it works, and ridicule cannot fix that. So we’ll bomb what we think is ISIS but isn’t – because ISIS is a bad idea, not the new scattered caliphate or the terrorists – and we’ll probably send in troops, and many will die making sure the others guys die, and then, in a year or two, we’ll get the same thing with a new name – Bob, perhaps. And then we’ll have to bomb Bob, because we misunderstood the problem in the first place. We do need to get better at understanding the actual problem. But that’s not likely.

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Falling Asleep Again

Friday the Thirteenth was the horror movie in Paris – the massive terror attacks that shook the world, because that wasn’t a horror movie at all. That was quite real, and ISIS is a whole lot scarier than Freddy Krueger anyway. Real people died. ISIS is no longer trying to establish a caliphate in the wastes of Syria and Iraq – they’re losing ground there. They’ve shifted tactics. It will be terror attacks in the West, killing lots of civilians. The idea now seems to be to establish a caliphate that’s not geographically specific – it will be a free-floating state of mind, and severely theocratic. Object and you die. It really doesn’t matter where you are.

No one expected this, but then came Monday the Sixteenth – President Obama was in Turkey for a G20 summit. All the world leaders were there, except François Hollande, who stayed back in France to deal with the national crisis there, so this was a chance to hear what they’d say about what everyone was going to do about this new world we seemed to be in. What would America do? America has the resources to do big things, a military ten times larger than everyone else’s combined, and one of the few major economies that is actually working reasonably well. America could fix this, or at least lead in the fix. That’s what everyone always expects. That’s what we always do. Obama held a press conference – he’d explain what it would be this time. All would be well.

Obama did hold the press conference – but this too shook the world. Well, not really – it shook the politic world over here. The hyper-conservative Hugh Hewitt quoted President Obama – “What I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of ‘American leadership’ or ‘America winning.'”

That was outrageous, as Kevin Drum notes:

Goodness! That sure sounds pusillanimous. I wonder how Obama can stand to look at himself in the mirror each – oh, hold on. What’s that? There’s more to the quote?

There is, as Obama said this:

What I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of “American leadership” or “America winning,” or whatever other slogans they come up with, that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and to protect our allies and people like France.

And there’s even more:

My only interest is to end suffering and to keep the American people safe. And if there’s a good idea out there, then we’re going to do it… But what we do not do, what I do not do, is to take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough, or make me look tough. …

We’ll do what’s required to keep the American people safe. And I think it’s entirely appropriate in a democracy to have a serious debate about these issues… But what I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning, or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and to protect our allies and people like France. I’m too busy for that.

Kevin Drum sighs:

I guess this is going to be “You didn’t build that” all over again. I can hardly wait. Elsewhere, Donald Trump is crowing that (a) Obama just told Putin how important the Russian airstrikes against ISIS have been and (b) now we’re attacking the oil, just like he said a long time ago. “I TOLD YOU SO!” he tweeted. Except that (a) Obama actually told Putin he would like Russia to start striking ISIS, and (b) we’ve been attacking ISIS oil convoys all along. According to the Pentagon, we’ve carried out three or four airstrikes per week against ISIS oil infrastructure. And anyway, didn’t Trump actually recommend that we encircle the ISIS oil fields?

Not that it matters:

We’re now entering a period in which conservatives are going to start playing “Can You Top This?” on ISIS. A week ago they talked big but were afraid to actually commit themselves to any serious action. Now, we’re in a war of civilizations and soon they’ll be outbidding each other on how many divisions they’re willing to ship overseas and how best to describe the complete and total inaction that the appeaser Obama has been engaged in.

I think I’m going to go take a nap.

That’s not allowed, and elsewhere Drum says this:

We’re in a war of civilizations. If you won’t say Radical Islam, you aren’t serious. We need to fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here. They hate us for our freedoms.

I really hoped I’d heard the last of this nonsense around 2003, but I guess not. The sensibility of the post-9/11 war-blogs is back, along with all the overweening confidence in amateurish geo-religious belligerence that fueled them the first time around. But at least this time, in the midst of the panic, we have a president who says this when he’s asked about committing more ground troops to the fight against ISIS:

“We would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before: If you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremists, that they resurface unless you’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”

Drum takes that further:

The war against ISIS will be won when Iraq gains the political maturity to provide a working army that’s not merely a tool of the endless Sunni-Shia civil war in the Middle East. We could turn Anbar into a glassy plain, and all that would happen is that something worse than ISIS would crop up.

There’s a lot we can do to defeat ISIS, and most of it we’re already doing. Airstrikes? Check. Broad coalition? Check. Working with Arab allies? Check. Engage with Sunni tribal leaders? Check. Embed with the Iraqi military? Check. There’s more we could do, but often it’s contradictory. You want to arm the Kurds and create a partnership with the Iraqi government? Good luck. You want to defeat Assad and ISIS? You better pick one. You want to avoid a large American ground force and you want to win the war fast? Not gonna happen.

Everyone needs to face reality: This is going to be a long effort, and there are no magic slogans that are going to win it. Unfortunately, they can make things worse.

Obama actually faced that, as Salon’s Jack Mirkinson notes here:

“Why can’t we take out these bastards?” CNN’s Jim Acosta asked President Obama at a press conference on Monday. Acosta’s language may have been rougher than some might have used, but he was speaking for a press corps whose thirst for an apocalyptic confrontation with ISIS has been let loose by last Friday’s attacks in Paris.

Mirkinson sees the establishment reverting to its default position:

The Sunday shows were dominated by such talk. NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton turned up on both CBS and ABC’s Sunday shows, warning darkly that if spy agencies couldn’t monitor cell phone communications, ISIS might be able to attack New York more easily. Unsurprisingly, he was met with little skepticism. ABC viewers were then treated to the sight of Bill Kristol, a pundit who would invade his local grocery store if he had a problem with it, calling for 50,000 American troops to combat ISIS.

On Monday morning, subscribers to Politico’s highly influential Playbook newsletter were greeted with Mike Allen’s pronouncement that the best person to listen to about Paris was former deputy CIA chief Mike Morell, now on the CBS payroll. If they turned on Allen’s favorite show, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” they could have seen Joe Scarborough ask James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, if NATO should go to war with ISIS. Surprise! Stavridis thought that was a great idea.

And it’s not just here:

British viewers watching Sky News on Sunday were treated to one of the more blatantly warmongering interviews you are likely to find anywhere, as anchor Dermot Murnaghan demanded that Diane Abbott, a left-wing member of the opposition Labour party, sign up to British bombing in Syria. “Even if it’s just a gesture, why not join?” he asked – a stunningly casual way to discuss deadly military action – adding later that any strategy to combat ISIS should involve “trying to kill as many of them as you possibly can.”

Mirkinson is not impressed:

Listen to the language being used here. “Kill as many of them as you possibly can.” “Take out these bastards.” This is the hyper-macho language of some two-bit action movie, not a foreign policy strategy. It’s also evidence of the way that a supposedly “objective” press can reinforce one very narrow view of the world through its own ideological insularity.

It has been said many times before, but it’s worth saying again: what do these people think has been going on all this time? Despite the current narrative that paints Obama as some pacifist hippie, the US is currently conducting military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and god knows where else. We have been in Afghanistan for 14 years. We have been in Iraq for 12 years.

What has any of this gotten us? For one, it got us ISIS. It should hardly be controversial to say that the rise of ISIS is directly connected to the American-led destabilization of the Middle East. It didn’t even exist a few years ago. Does Jim Acosta seriously believe that more of the same would stamp it out?

Killing a lot of the bastards isn’t going to work:

It now appears that the overwhelming majority of the people involved in the Paris attacks were Europeans, people whose relative luxury and safety in the world were nevertheless overwhelmed by intellectual and ideological forces whose complexity far outmatches the force of any weapon. Does Bill Kristol think we should pulverize Belgium back to the Stone Age?

It takes ideas and emotions of immense and terrible power to convince someone that they should murder people in a concert hall one by one, or blow themselves up outside a stadium. How many bombs, how many guns, how many troops, how many Orwellian tactics do the hawks now crying out for “something to be done” think will be useful in fighting that ideology, when decades of war has helped to fuel it?

Drum wants to take a nap, but this is like falling asleep again. Killing a lot of the bastards isn’t going to work? Didn’t we figure that out in Vietnam?

Maybe not, and the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has more:

In September, not long after Ben Carson suggested that Islam is incompatible with the Constitution and that he wouldn’t want a Muslim president, GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa – one of the most prominent spokesmen for restrictionist Republicans – opined that Carson’s comments would be the opposite of a liability among Iowa Republican voters. “I wouldn’t expect those remarks would hurt Dr. Carson in Iowa,” King said. “I think they help him.”

It later turned out that King may have been right: A Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll subsequently found that more than two thirds of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers said that it would be unacceptable for a Muslim to be president only on the basis of religion.

This comes to mind, now that Donald Trump has responded to the Paris terrorist attacks by amplifying his previous call for stepped up domestic surveillance of Mosques in the United States.

Trump did say that:

“You’re going to have to watch and study the mosques, because a lot of talk is going on at the mosques,” the GOP presidential candidate said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“And from what I heard, in the old days – meaning a while ago – we had great surveillance going on in and around mosques in New York City,” Trump added… He also suggested that he would consider shutting down some mosques in the U.S. in order to defeat ISIS, reiterating a point he made during an interview last month on Fox Business.

“I would hate to do it, but it’s something that you’re going to have to strongly consider because some of the ideas and some of the hatred, the absolute hatred, are coming from these areas,” Trump said.


The terror attacks, naturally, have inspired a lot of chatter about the impact they will have on the 2016 presidential race. Will this now be a foreign policy election? Are Democrats now going to be on the defensive, since after all Republicans are always presumed to have the advantage on national security issues? Did the Democrats damage themselves horribly by refusing to use the words “radical Islam” at Saturday night’s debate?

Perhaps some religions just cannot be practiced in America, or this particular one, if we want to be safe, and Sargent sees the Republicans pressing their advantage now:

Ted Cruz has warned that “ISIS plans to bring these acts of terror to America,” and he has called for Muslim Syrian refugees to be barred from entering the United States. Jeb Bush has similarly said that our focus should be on Christian refugees. This drew a very sharp response today from President Obama, who decried the notion of a “religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted,” adding that “we don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio now claims that “we won’t be able to take more refugees,” and Ohio governor John Kasich is now calling for an end to their admission, too. This last one is particularly interesting, given that Kasich has defended his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio on the grounds that he wants to be able to defend his treatment of the poor when he comes face to face with St. Peter, which is to say, he’s running as the race’s most unabashedly compassionate conservative.

However, to my knowledge, none of the other candidates has gone quite as far as Donald Trump has now done in suggesting we may need to close down some mosques in the United States.

He is unique, but Heather Parton sees this:

It’s been obvious for some time that the Republicans were gearing up for a national security election. Part of this is simply because they’re desperate and this is one issue on which they are almost always seen as having an advantage. They have portrayed Democrats as weak on defense for decades, often using gendered tropes to drive the point home, so the prospect of facing a woman in the general election offers them an unprecedented opportunity to drive home that theme in ways that feel both familiar and new.

It simply took them a bit to get where they are now:

When Jeb Bush entered the race, it was clear that the establishment believed that enough time had passed for people to forget their last disastrous turn at the helm and they could start beating their war drum once again. Up until this past weekend, they had been nibbling around the edges of the ISIS debate mainly because there just aren’t any simple answers. Sen. Lindsey Graham was the designated hysteric on the issue, pretty much fashioning an entire presidential campaign around repeated warnings that terrorists are coming to America to kill us all. (The fact that his candidacy is mired below one percent might speak to the fact that nobody cared about that – but it’s more likely the messenger than the message.) Most of the field had subsumed their usual fear-mongering over foreign threats into the immigration debate, particularly with the emergence of Donald Trump and his deportation and wall-building scheme. His rhetoric of “criminals and rapists” infiltrating our country hits the same hot nerve as Graham’s handwringing and Trump offers a much more satisfying solution.

And then there was the Friday the Thirteenth in Paris that changed everything:

Republicans were all forced to respond. Graham, naturally, came out with his patented dead-eyed pithy pearl clutching – “If you really want to make a difference, go into Iraq and Syria with an international coalition on the ground and destroy these guys. Every day they’re allowed to survive is a day that we can get hit.” …

There’s no word on how this would make an attack like Paris less likely, but Graham’s not the only one who persists in believing that bombing, invading and occupying Middle Eastern countries is the solution to terrorism around the globe. One might think they would have reevaluated this assumption after our experience with invading Iraq – and the many terrorists it created and acts of terrorism that followed – but they clearly haven’t.

It is like falling asleep again, and she adds this:

From what I’m gathering this morning the press is getting their Prada flak jackets ready and they’re ready to embed for the invasion. In fact, they have completely lost it, particularly since President Obama came out this morning and acted like a sane person instead of bellowing about a clash of civilizations and promising to kill everyone in sight. They are all extremely disappointed that he didn’t join them in their bloodlust.

CNN’s Jim Acosta is, and Parton is puzzled:

Everyone seems to believe that this is a very, very “sophisticated attack” that was put together by mad geniuses who are so lethal that our entire civilization is at risk if we don’t start bombing and invading abroad and turning our own countries into police states immediately. In other words, they are all ready to do exactly what these terrorists want them to do.

Well, Obama addressed that too:

Obama also pointedly addressed the issue of whether the United States and other countries should continue to accept refugees, given the fact that one of the participants in the Paris plot may have come in with Syrian migrants. He said the United States would continue to accept more refugees from Syria and elsewhere, though “only after subjecting them to rigorous screening and security checks.”

“Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” he said. “Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.”

Without directly naming GOP presidential candidates, the president blasted political leaders for suggesting the United States should accept only Christians fleeing Syria. He alluded to the fact that some of these same politicians namely Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), whose father fled Cuba decades ago – had benefited from America’s willingness to accept refugees.

“And when I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims, when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful,” he said, his voice rising. “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

Then he invoked the Big Guy:

The president noted that the world’s most prominent Christian leader, Pope Francis, did not frame the Syrian refugee crisis in the same terms as several Republican leaders.

“When Pope Francis came to visit the United States and gave a speech before Congress, he didn’t just speak about Christians who were being persecuted, he didn’t call on Catholic parishes just to admit those who were of the same religious faith, he said protect people who were vulnerable,” Obama said. “And so I think it is very important for us right now, particularly those who are in leadership, particularly those who have a platform and can be heard, not to fall into that trap, not to feed that dark impulse inside of us.”

That won’t fly now:

Ted Cruz, for his part, laughed before telling reporters in Sun City, S.C. what he thought about the president’s comments.

“It is one of the saddest things we’ve seen for seven years, that President Obama has consistently abandoned and alienated our friends and allies and has coddled and appeased our enemies. And that is never more true than with radical Islamic terrorism,” he said. “Both President Obama and Hillary Clinton want to define the enemy as some sort of abstract and ill-defined violent extremism. That means they cannot direct a strategy to defeat it because they cannot acknowledge who they’re fighting.”

That was followed by a headline concerning the Senate – Cruz to offer bill banning Syrian refugees – and one concerning the new Speaker of the House – Huckabee calls on Ryan to prevent entry of Syrian refugees, or to step down – and then this – More than half the nation’s governors say Syrian refugees not welcome:

More than half the nation’s governors – 26 states – say they oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states, although the final say on this contentious immigration issue will fall to the federal government. States protesting the admission of refugees range from Alabama and Georgia, to Texas and Arizona, to Michigan and Illinois, to Maine and New Hampshire. Among these 26 states, all but one have Republican governors.

Funny how that works, except for this:

Authority over admitting refugees to the country, though, rests with the federal government – not with the states – though individual states can make the acceptance process much more difficult, experts said.

American University law professor Stephen I. Vladeck put it this way: “Legally, states have no authority to do anything because the question of who should be allowed in this country is one that the Constitution commits to the federal government.” But Vladeck noted that without the state’s participation, the federal government would have a much more arduous task.

“So a state can’t say it is legally objecting, but it can refuse to cooperate, which makes thing much more difficult.”

Expect that, with Chris Christie saying that not even three-year-old orphans will be welcome in New Jersey, which he said to Hugh Hewitt, which is where we came in.

This really is like falling asleep again. It’s 2003 and the run-up to the Iraq war again. We have to go fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here, even if now they’re here, and over there, there’s no there, there. But we’re hearing the same things, and we’re also getting a version of the white supremacy thing from the late fifties, with the Syrian refugees as the new niggers – dangerous folks, even the three-year-old orphans. Didn’t we wake up from those two bad dreams long ago? We did, we did – but America is getting sleepy again. It happens.

Posted in Paris Terrorist Attacks, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Poison at Work

“Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavor, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned.” ~ Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Gertrude Stein, born in Pittsburgh, grew up out here in Oakland but didn’t like it much – she said there was no there, there – and ended up in Paris, mentoring Hemingway and Fitzgerald and that crowd, and chatting with Picasso and Braque, at 27 rue de Fleurus. But she knew who she was. She said “America is my country and Paris is my hometown” – because there was no separating the two. Those of us born in Pittsburgh, in the same hospital actually, and stuck out here on the West Coast, know what she meant. The yearly trips to Paris, for two weeks of kicking around solo, in the December rain, were a surprise and not a surprise –- it was like coming home, to a place that felt more like home than home ever did. This is how it was supposed to be, where you were supposed to be in the first place. Let the tourists do their thing. To sit quietly and sip cognac and smoke a pipe or two, and chat with that old woman about her cat, was enough. Paris really is America’s hometown. The place just felt right.

Of course there’s the history too. Early on they sent us Lafayette to help us in our revolution, and Cornwallis would not have finally surrendered to Washington had not the French fleet been sitting out there in the Chesapeake Bay that afternoon. We go a long way back. Sure, Charles de Gaulle was a pain in the ass, but all our allies thought he was jerk too – early on Churchill found him insufferable – so that wasn’t specific to us. And yes, France told us, publically, at the United Nations, that they thought going to war in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein was a spectacularly bad idea – we might want to wait and see if there really were those weapons of mass destruction, and even if there were, consider alternatives to all-out war. They’d have no part of our war – and we found that deeply insulting and what’s more, a cowardly betrayal by a key ally – but we eventually forgave them for being right. These things happen. They’re family, and for many of us, Paris really is our hometown.

That may be why the terrorist attacks in Paris seemed so horrific, although the first response was measured, because that was basic police work:

On both sides of the Atlantic, the fast-moving investigation into the deadly Paris terrorist attacks steadily accumulated clues on Sunday: a car discovered in the Parisian suburbs with a cache of weapons. Mounting proof of links between the Islamic State in Syria and the attackers. And intense scrutiny on three brothers, living in Belgium, as crucial suspects in the elaborate plot.

With investigators moving on multiple fronts and a manhunt underway for a suspect described as dangerous, with much still unknown, increasing evidence suggested that at least one of the eight attackers had visited Syria, where the Islamic State has its main stronghold.

Others had been communicating with known members of the group before the horrific assault on Paris, investigators said. Officials were also investigating the possibility that a Syrian citizen may have been sent to join the attackers, slipping into Europe along with thousands of refugees.

French officials said American security services had alerted them in September to vague but credible information that French jihadists in Syria were planning some type of attack.

Answer the questions. Who did what and how did they pull it off? This should not have happened:

The carnage from the attacks in Paris, which so far have claimed 129 lives and left hundreds wounded, has presented France with its second major security breakdown in less than a year, after the terrorist assault in January against the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store.

But the complexity and coordination of the latest attacks suggest a growing and ominous sophistication among terrorist networks…

This is a practical problem, a life-and-death problem to be sure, but this has nothing to with geopolitics and the clash of civilizations. Screw their motives – just stop them – but horrified and outraged people are never satisfied with the merely practical. They want to get to the root cause of what happened, to address those motives, and they want justice, or vengeance, or revenge. The three are hard to separate, but that lead to the second response:

France bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa on Sunday night, its most aggressive strike against the Islamic State group it blames for killing 129 people in a string of terrorist attacks across Paris only two days before.

President François Hollande, who vowed to be “unforgiving with the barbarians” of the Islamic State after the carnage in Paris, decided on the airstrikes in a meeting with his national security team on Saturday, officials said.

Hollande did say this was “war” now, but this was more symbolic than effective:

Warplanes continued to hover over the city close to midnight, according to residents and activist groups. Residents have seen the city bombed by Syrian, American and Russian warplanes. They have been terrorized by public executions by the Islamic State. Now they are wary of yet another power arriving to pummel the city.

Khaled al-Homsi, an antigovernment activist from Palmyra, who uses a nom de guerre for his safety and is the nephew of an archaeologist who was beheaded by Islamic State fighters, issued a plea on Twitter to France, saying not all of the city’s residents were Islamic State members and urging caution for the safety of civilians.

And so it begins. François Hollande is leading France the way George Bush led America after the attacks of September 11, 2001 – someone is going to pay for what happened – and in each case each nation is fine with a bit of justice or vengeance or revenge or whatever this is. It doesn’t fix the problem, the targets may be wrong, but it feels good. As Charlotte Brontë would say, it is an aromatic wine, warm and racy, and then there’s the aftertaste, metallic and corroding. It’s poison.

That poison spreads easily. The night after that Paris attacks, the Democrats had another presidential debate. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza runs down who seems to won and lost that one – not that it matters now – but the poison was spreading:

When asked during the Democratic presidential debate whether she believes that the U.S. is at war with “radical Islam,” Hillary Clinton emphasized that America is not fighting all Muslims, citing former president George W. Bush.

“I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we’re at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists,” Clinton said.

Republicans are always ragging on President Obama for never using the term “radical Islam” – as if he’s afraid to insult all Muslims, the real bad guys, as they see it. The CBS moderator John Dickerson seems to have wanted to see if she’d pick a fight with the Republicans on this, but she turned that around:

Clinton then said it was important not to demonize the Muslim faith, citing former President George W. Bush’s belief that the U.S. was not at war with Islam.

“We’ve got to reach out to Muslim countries,” she said. “If they hear people running for president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam …”

“That was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems, that George W. Bush made after 9/11, when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, ‘We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression,'” Clinton continued. “And yes, we are at war with those people. But I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.”

In short, there’s no need to inject more poison into this mess. Even George Bush knew better, but the Tweets poured in:

Rick Santorum – @HillaryClinton we are at war with radical Islam! You are not qualified to serve if you cannot even define our enemy!

Mike Huckabee – You’re all grown up now. You can do it. Three words. Ten syllables. Say it with me: “Radical Islamic terrorism.”

Carly Fiorina – We need a President who will see and speak and act on the truth… Hillary Clinton will not call this Islamic terrorism. I will.

John Kasich – @HillaryClinton has consistently failed to understand the depth of the ISIS threat. We need @JohnKasich’s leadership.

And of course there was Donald Trump – “When will President Obama issue the words RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM? He can’t say it, and unless he will, the problem will not be solved!”

It’s unclear how that will solve the problem, but it must feel good to say that. Trump was, however, spreading all sorts of poison. He recycled one of his Tweets from the Charlie Hebdo business in January – “Isn’t it interesting that the tragedy in Paris took place in one of the toughest gun control countries in the world?” French ambassador Gérard Araud noticed that and shot back – “This message is repugnant in its lack of any human decency. Vulture.” And then he deleted that – no point in getting down in the mud with this guy, and domestic American politics are none of his business – but lots of Tweets from others followed. “Not every tragedy is an excuse to show the world how truly ignorant you are – but please proceed.” That was a good one.

But things are getting hot. Michael Goodwin in New York Post says it’s time for Obama to make a choice: lead us or resign and Jeb Bush has called for a United States declaration of war against ISIL – as if Congress could agree on anything – and Ted Cruz says Obama ‘”does not wish to defend this country” and so on. The atmosphere is poisonous, as they say.

Against that there was this:

The White House vowed no major shift in U.S. strategy in the fight against the Islamic State on Sunday in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris, despite clamors for change from key Republicans.

Making the rounds on the major Sunday morning news shows, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said there would be an “intensification” of U.S. war efforts against the Islamic State, but no major shift in U.S. strategy, such as sending large numbers of combat troops to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIL.

“We do not believe that there is a solution to the challenge in Syria or Iraq that involves significant numbers of U.S. combat troops going in,” Rhodes said on “Fox News Sunday.”

That wasn’t good enough:

Asked on ABC what he’d do if he were president, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called for stepping up support for the Kurds, whom he called “the best fighters on the ground.” He also said he favored an “increased number of special operations attacks,” targeting leaders of the Islamic State.

Jeb Bush, meanwhile, laid out a detailed set of steps on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he said Obama should take quickly.

“Declare a no-fly zone over Syria,” the former governor of Florida said. “Directly arm the Peshmerga forces in Iraq. Reengage with the Sunni tribal leaders. Embed with the Iraqi military. Be able to create safe zones in Syria. Garner the support of our European allies and the traditional Arab states. Lead. That’s what I want him to do. I want him to lead.”

Bush struck a more aggressive posture than some other Republicans, saying he “absolutely” supporting putting more U.S. combat forces on the ground in Syria.

Does that mean he’d shoot down any Russian plane that popped up over there?. There is an appetite for that sort of thing among that crowd, and that puzzles Andrew Bacevich – the expert of foreign policy and military history at Boston University, who used to teach at West Point – the formal Army Colonel (armored) whose son, also a career Army officer, was killed in action in Iraq. Bacevich knows a thing or two, and he knows poison when he sees it:

President François Hollande’s response to Friday’s vicious terrorist attacks in France, now attributed to the Islamic State, was immediate and uncompromising. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” he vowed.

Whether France itself possesses the will or the capacity to undertake such a war is another matter. So too is the question of whether further war can provide a remedy to the problem at hand: widespread disorder roiling much of the Greater Middle East and periodically spilling into the outside world.

And we tried this already:

The Soviet Union spent all of the 1980s attempting to pacify Afghanistan and succeeded only in killing a million or so Afghans while creating an incubator for Islamic radicalism. Beginning in 2003, the United States attempted something similar in Iraq and ended up producing similarly destabilizing results. By the time US troops withdrew in 2011, something like 200,000 Iraqis had died, most of them civilians. Today Iraq teeters on the brink of disintegration.

We know better now:

Perhaps if the Russians had tried harder or the Americans had stayed longer, they might have achieved a more favorable outcome. Yet that qualifies as a theoretical possibility at best. Years of fighting in Afghanistan exhausted the Soviet Union and contributed directly to its subsequent collapse. Years of fighting in Iraq used up whatever “Let’s roll!” combativeness Americans may have entertained following 9/11.

Today, notwithstanding the Obama administration’s continuing appetite for military piddling – airstrikes, commando raids, and advisory missions – few Americans retain any appetite for undertaking further large-scale hostilities in the Islamic world. Fewer still will sign up to follow Hollande in undertaking any new crusade. Their reluctance to do so is understandable and appropriate.

That may be because, really, we cannot win over there:

The fact is that United States and its European allies face a perplexing strategic conundrum. Collectively they find themselves locked in a protracted conflict with Islamic radicalism, with ISIS but one manifestation of a much larger phenomenon. Prospects for negotiating an end to that conflict anytime soon appear to be nil. Alas, so too do prospects of winning it.

In this conflict, the West generally appears to enjoy the advantage of clear-cut military superiority. By almost any measure, we are stronger than our adversaries. Our arsenals are bigger, our weapons more sophisticated, our generals better educated in the art of war, our fighters better trained at waging it.

Yet most of this has proven to be irrelevant. Time and again the actual employment of that ostensibly superior military might has produced results other than those intended or anticipated. Even where armed intervention has achieved a semblance of tactical success – the ousting of some unsavory dictator, for example – it has yielded neither reconciliation nor willing submission nor even sullen compliance. Instead, intervention typically serves to aggravate, inciting further resistance. Rather than putting out the fires of radicalism, we end up feeding them.

In proposing to pour yet more fuel on that fire, Hollande demonstrates a crippling absence of imagination, one that has characterized recent Western statesmanship more generally when it comes to the Islamic world. There, simply trying harder will not suffice as a basis of policy.

It won’t? Don’t tell the Republicans. That’s all they’ve got, but Bacevich has this:

Rather than assuming an offensive posture, the West should revert to a defensive one. Instead of attempting to impose its will on the Greater Middle East, it should erect barriers to protect itself from the violence emanating from that quarter. Such barriers will necessarily be imperfect, but they will produce greater security at a more affordable cost than is gained by engaging in futile, open-ended armed conflicts. Rather than vainly attempting to police or control, this revised strategy should seek to contain.

Such an approach posits that, confronted with the responsibility to do so, the peoples of the Greater Middle East will prove better equipped to solve their problems than are policy makers back in Washington, London, or Paris. It rejects as presumptuous any claim that the West can untangle problems of vast historical and religious complexity to which Western folly contributed. It rests on this core principle: Do no (further) harm.

In short, don’t drink the poison:

Hollande views the tragedy that has befallen Paris as a summons to yet more war. The rest of us would do well to see it as a moment to reexamine the assumptions that have enmeshed the West in a war that it cannot win and should not perpetuate.

But what about justice or vengeance or revenge and all that – where will we turn for emotional satisfaction? Maybe we’ll have to do without. That seems to be what Bacevich was saying in July when Patrick Smith interviewed him:

My thought is hope lies, however faint the hope may be, in the possibility of introducing – reintroducing – into the debate over foreign policy a sense of realism. One of the great obstacles to rethinking U.S. foreign policy is the extent to which both of the major parties buy into, I think for mostly cynical reasons, the premises of American exceptionalism. So here we are, you and I are speaking. We’re in sort of the preliminary stages of the 2016 presidential campaigns, and it is not difficult to predict that from both sides we will hear calls for American leadership. The insistence that there is no alternative to American leadership, the promises of sustaining American strength… And so, the best one can hope for is somehow – not that a critic of foreign policy is going to win a nomination; they’re not – but somehow, someone capable of critical thinking with regard to foreign policy…

But that seems unlikely:

The right wants to use military power to spread freedom. The left wants to use military power to protect the innocent, but both on the right and on the left, proponents of intervention lack a prudent understanding of what military power can do, what it can’t do, and the likelihood of unintended secondary consequences that result from the use of military power.

The righteous, or self-righteous, use of military power is heady stuff. That’s the aromatic wine, warm and racy – and French wine this time – but then there’s the aftertaste, metallic and corroding. You’ve been drinking poison – and as for Paris, it will never be safe. No place ever is, but we can make it a bit safer, and that may have to do. After all, it’s kind of our hometown.

Posted in Paris Terrorist Attacks, Vengeance | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Paris Burning

Is Paris burning? That was the title of the epic 1966 film about the liberation of Paris from the Nazis – an earnest extravaganza with every major star of the day. Kirk Douglas was George Patton and Glenn Ford was Omar Bradley, and look, there was Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Charles Boyer, and Leslie Caron and George Chakiris and Anthony Perkins and Simone Signoret, and Orson Welles too. This should have been a hit. It was directed by René Clément, from a screenplay by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. You can’t do much better than that, but the film is largely forgotten now. It pops up on basic cable now and then, usually in the middle of the night. It’s filler now.

The whole thing was pretty lame – Paramount’s sorry answer to Twentieth Century Fox’s more successful 1962 The Longest Day – the one with John Wayne as Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoort, CO, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, on D-Day. He was still John Wayne. Those were the days when celebrities won wars. That’s what people went to the movies to see, because history itself is always complicated and ambiguous – and the heroes, if there are any, are hardly glamorous. The Paramount movie was spoofed in Mad Magazine in their September 1967 issue – “Is Paris Boring?”

Maybe it was, and telling the story in little vignettes with celebrities playing versions of themselves, not really the actual historic figures, didn’t help all that much – but it did make the history go down easy. And it was seductive. Maybe if we had celebrities running things, even B-list celebrities, we’d win all our wars. That may be why we elected Ronald Reagan president, twice. We got confused, or we were seduced. That may be why Donald Trump is doing so well at the moment. Celebrities are cool.

But on Friday, November 13, 2015, Paris really was burning:

The Paris area reeled Friday night from a shooting rampage, explosions and mass hostage-taking that President François Hollande called an unprecedented terrorist attack on France. His government announced sharply increased border controls and heightened police powers as it mobilized the military in a national emergency.

French television and news services quoted the police as saying that around 100 people had been killed at a concert site where hostages had been held during a two-hour standoff with the police, and that perhaps dozens of others had been killed in apparently coordinated attacks outside the country’s main sports stadium and four other popular locations in the city. But estimates on the total number of dead varied.

The current count is 153 dead, but that will rise, but this seems to be over:

News agencies quoted Michel Cadot, head of the Paris police, as saying early Saturday that all the assailants involved in shootings or bombings were believed to be dead, and the Paris prosecutor’s office said that eight attackers were dead, according to The Associated Press.

That’s good, unless this is just the first wave of what may turn out to be an endless series of coordinated attacks by ISIS, or their rivals, al-Qaeda. It may not be both, because they hate each other, or it might be both. When the United States jumped into the Middle East, to transform the place, lots of folks were pissed off, and France eventually joined us in some of that. Now they’ve paid the price. The name of the bad guys hardly matters – and we may be next, with the worry is that it may not be ISIS or al-Qaeda for us. The Boston Marathon bombers were two guys who had no direct connection to either organization but were sympathetic to both, and good at building small but deadly bombs from spare parts from this and that. They were freelancers. What can we do about that? This is a puzzle.

Straight-talking guns-blazing John Wayne isn’t going to help – he’s dead and his real name was Marion Morrison anyway – and he was an actor, only an actor – but of course he was a celebrity too. People listened to him. Celebrities know things, as least people think they do, and Donald Trump is counting on that. The night before the Paris attacks he launched into an epic ninety-five minute rant, all full of John Wayne straight talk that was supposed to settle matters. It wasn’t John Wayne addressing the troops before D-Day, but it was in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and had that same sort of cut-the-crap feel:

He scoffed at those who have accused him of not understanding foreign policy, saying he knows more about Islamic State terrorists “than the generals do.” He took credit for predicting the threat of Osama bin Laden and being right on the “anchor baby situation,” a position he says “these great geniuses from Harvard Law School” now back. He uttered the word “crap” at least three times, and promised to “bomb the shit” out of oil fields benefiting terrorists. He signed a book for a guy in the audience and then tossed it back at him with a flip: “Here you go, baby. I love you.”

Trump called Republican rival Carly Fiorina “Carly whatever-the-hell-her-name-is,” accused Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton of playing the “woman’s card” and said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is “weak like a baby.” He then devoted more than 10 minutes angrily attacking his chief rival, Ben Carson, saying the retired doctor has a “pathological disease” with no cure, similar to being a child molester.

That was classic, but this was his foreign policy:

Trump described traditional politicians as “stupid” and told the crowd that he is “competent.” That’s why he got so angry when journalists forced him to share his strategy for fighting the Islamic State, even though he wanted to keep such plans secret so as not to tip off the enemy, he said. Journalists, he said, are “scum” and “garbage.”

“I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” Trump said. “Believe me.”

Trump said he would go after the oil fields in Iraq and Syria that he says nets the terrorist group “millions of dollars a week.”

“I would bomb the shit out of them,” he said to raucous applause. “I would just bomb those suckers. And that’s right: I’d blow up the pipes. I’d blow up the refineries. I would blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.”

And then things turned sour:

The applause was nowhere near as strong as Trump launched into a lengthy critique of Carson, who is well-liked in Iowa and has at times beat Trump in polls here. The Iowa caucuses are often dominated by evangelicals, many of whom have been captivated by Carson, who talks endlessly about his faith.

Carson wrote in his autobiography that as a young man he had a “pathological temper” that caused him to violently attack others — going after his mother with a hammer and trying to stab a friend, only to have the blade stopped and broken by the friend’s belt buckle. In recent days, those accounts have come under scrutiny, and Carson has had to clarify or correct some of the details.

Trump said Carson has a “pathological disease” with no cure, comparing it to the incurable mental conditions of child molesters.

“A child molester, there’s no cure for that,” Trump said. “If you’re a child molester, there’s no cure. They can’t stop you. Pathological? There’s no cure.”

With his voice growing louder and louder, Trump questioned what sort of person would attack his mother. He questioned how a belt buckle could stop a blade, stepping away from the podium to demonstrate how such an attack might happen and how his own belt buckle wouldn’t stay in place long enough to stop a knife.

“Anybody have a knife?” Trump asked the audience, which was screened by Secret Service agents who began protecting him this week. “You want to try it on me?”

Then he insulted his audience:

Trump was flabbergasted: “How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?”

And Trump said he doesn’t believe that after just a few hours of reflection, Carson found God and overcame his violent temper.

“He goes into the bathroom for a couple of hours, and he comes out, and now he’s religious,” Trump said. “And the people of Iowa believe him. Give me a break. Give me a break. It doesn’t happen that way. It doesn’t happen that way. … Don’t be fools, okay?”

David Kurtz, the Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo, wonders what Trump was thinking:

Here’s my question: Is calling the people of Iowa “stupid” while at a campaign rally in Iowa the sort of break-all-the-rules move that finally pushes Trump over the edge? Or is that not substantively any different from calling America a bunch of pitiful losers who need a strong man like Trump to make them winners again? Because that message – you’re a chump, but I can lift you up and make you more than a chump – has been the core resonance of the Trump message (along with the dark undertone of a promised revenge against the people – Mexicans, elites, media, Wall Street – who’ve been treating you like a chump.)

Something odd is going on here:

It’s true that when you watch the snippet of Trump fooling around with his belt to cast further doubt on Ben Carson’s stabbing story… it does give you pause. But more than anything, the Trump shtick – I’m a winner and I can make you a winner again! – doesn’t resonate the same way when Trump himself is losing to a Mr. Magoo like Carson. That’s just a hard sell, even for the “stupid” people of Iowa.

At Mother Jones, Keven Drum adds this:

I remember a lot of people wondering how Trump would handle things if the time came when he was no longer leading in the polls. I guess now we know. It’s too much for his ego to stand, and the phenomenal self-discipline he’s been showing recently is utterly shattered. Can you imagine what Trump would be like if he ever had a genuinely stressful job, like, um, you know?

And there were interesting responses like the one from Carly Fiorina on Facebook:

Donald, sorry, I’ve got to interrupt again. You would know something about pathological. How was that meeting with Putin? Or Wharton? Or your self-funded campaign? Anyone can turn a multi-million dollar inheritance into more money, but all the money in the world won’t make you as smart as Ben Carson.

And there was this:

Ben Carson hopes Americans pray for Donald Trump after his GOP presidential rival compared him with child molesters. “When I spoke with Dr. Carson about this yesterday about how we should respond, you know, he was so sad about it,” Armstrong Williams, Carson’s friend and business partner, told CNN Friday.

“He said: ‘Pray for him’ – he feels sorry because he really likes Mr. Trump. To see him just imploding before our very eyes – it’s sad to watch.”

And there was this:

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said Donald Trump’s strategy to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, is “not only immoral but illegal,” and said it would lead to “mass resignations” across the military.

Hertling criticized Trump on “CNN Newsroom with Carol Costello” Friday.

“I’m trying to remain apolitical in this, but it’s increasingly difficult to do that when you hear these kinds of statements of individuals who have not been there, who don’t know more than the generals do, and in many cases, don’t know more than the privates do,” he said.

That was cold, but then CNN played the full clip from Trump:

I know more ISIS than the generals do, believe me. I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers. And, that’s right – I’d blow up the pipes. I’d blow up the refineries. I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left. And you know what? You’ll get Exxon to come in there, and in two months – have you ever seen these guys how good they are – the great oil companies? They’ll rebuild that sucker brand new. It’ll be beautiful. And I’d ring it, and I’d take the oil.

The bit about Exxon was odd, but understandable from a businessman, but the rest was a celebrity playing a general:

Hertling, a CNN military analyst, suggested that Trump “might want to take a visit to Iraq or some of the combat areas and see how things work on the ground. It’s now getting into the scary category.”

“He is talking about things that he knows very little about. It’s not only a little bit scary, but it’s also dangerous, and it’s also immoral. You just don’t do that. Americans don’t fight wars by carpet-bombing nations,” explained Hertling. “And I think if he was on the ground in Iraq or Syria, and he would see the population that is in dire fear of ISIS and how they are intermingling with the population, I think he would have a better perspective. I think it might also be interesting to get him into that country when other organizations like Mobil or Exxon have attempted to try and repair some of the oil works. Because I was there when that occurred, and it’s very challenging, truthfully.”

“I’d remind folks that less than one percent of the American population has served in the military,” he continued. “And even a fewer percentage of the population has served in these kind of areas, so you just don’t know what it’s like. When other countries are under conflict, under siege like this, it’s hard, extremely hard, to re-establish both their economic and their industrial capacity once they are bombed.”

“There are people living there. There are 11 million people in Iraq where the oil fields are, and not all of them are ISIS supporters. In fact, very few are,” said Hertling. “When you’re talking about dropping bombs, first of all, you have got to have targets to drop bombs on. It’s an applause line for people who have never been there and have never seen what it’s like.”

The general doesn’t like celebrities who like to play general in some imaginary movie and would set Trump straight:

“I would react by first of all trying to inform him of the laws of land warfare and Geneva Conventions that are involved in this and how it’s not only immoral but illegal to do that,” Hertling insisted. He continued, “I would not be a partner to these kinds of things, because it would put me as a commander before the Hague Courts.”

“And if he persisted in saying ‘bomb it,’ I think what you would eventually have in the military across the board is mass resignations. And that’s a tough stance to take, Carol, but truthfully, that’s what would occur,” explained Hertling.

“Because the American military studies these kinds of things. They know the moral and the values implications associated with these kinds of decisions. They will attempt to persuade their leaders the right approaches to take and the various options available. But they won’t do things illegally or immorally.”

Of course Trump will now say this general, like all generals, is full of shit. Wait for it. It’s coming, but Ben Carson knows better too:

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson fired back Friday at the White House for dismissing his claims that China is moving into Syria, saying his sources are clearly better than those of the U.S. government.

Carson said his campaign would release “some material on that” before the end of the weekend when asked about National Security Adviser Susan Rice saying there’s no evidence to support his claims that the Chinese are involved in Syria.

“I have several sources that I’ve got material from, I’m surprised my sources are better than theirs,” he told reporters after a town hall event.

Every intelligence agency in the world is now waiting to find out what they, with all their resources, missed. Carson has no resources, but he found out, and yes, both these guys are in their own old war movies from the sixties, when celebrities won our wars, and then there’s Paris:

Ben Carson stumbled Friday evening while responding to a question about how he would respond to the terror attacks in Paris if he were president. Carson said he would employ “things that they don’t know about resources” against terrorists, but struggled to specify what an American response under his leadership might look like.

“I would be working with our allies, using every resource known to man: in terms of economic resources, in terms of covert resources… military resources… things-that-they-don’t-know-about resources… not to contain them, but to eliminate them, before they eliminate us,” Carson told reporters at the Sunshine Summit, a gathering of Republican leaders.

Okay. Donald Trump would bomb the shit out of ISIS in Syria, and then bring in Exxon and take all the oil, and then, presumably, Paris would be safe again. But to be fair, he said all that twenty-four hours before the terrorist attacks in Paris. Would he change his mind now? He never changes his mind, and Ben Carson, who knows amazing things that no government on earth knows, now says we should use our things-that-they-don’t-know-about resources and wipe these guys out, right now – or something. No one knows what the hell he’s talking about, and these two want to be president? Yes, they do.

Perhaps we should wait to see what’s best to do next. The attacks just happened. It’s midnight here in Los Angeles, nine in the morning in Paris, the morning after. Give it time, but don’t give it to celebrities. Paris may be burning, but this isn’t a Hollywood movie. Celebrities aren’t going to fix this. The boring ugly people will. That’s the way real history works.

Posted in Donald Trump, Paris Terrorist Attacks | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stop Making Sense

The first teaching job was in the fall of 1969 – teaching English at a private boys’ boarding school in one of the few rich suburbs of Pittsburgh. It was a sort of a Dead Poets Society thing – well, not really. It was just teaching high school English, but forming a new student jazz group was fun. The drummer was good, a kid named Chris Frantz, but then he and his off-campus girlfriend, Tina Weymouth, were off to the Rhode Island School of Design the next September, and I was off to graduate school at Duke. That year didn’t amount to much – but at Rhode Island, Chris and Tina hooked up with David Byrne and formed that group Talking Heads – they took punk and made it into avant-garde art rock. The collaboration with the producer Brian Eno helped too. They got spacey and ambient, and they were big. At least someone became famous.

But everyone eventually ends up here in Hollywood. Over the course of three nights, down the street here at the Pantages Theater, in December 1983, Jonathan Demme filmed the Talking Heads in concert, and that turned into what Leonard Maltin called “one of the greatest rock movies ever made” – Stop Making Sense – which Pauline Kael described it as “close to perfection.”

Cool – and the old former high school English teacher that no one even vaguely remembers smiled. That’s a great title. Stop making sense. It has a literary ring to it. Or maybe it’s cultural commentary that seems more and more right each year. We do seem to live in a culture where, when you suggest to someone that what they’re saying makes no sense, and this other way of looking at things is what actually makes sense, they’ll tell you to stop making sense. Just stop it. Forget the evidence, believe the other thing – you know, like global warming is a total hoax, or the idea that big tax breaks for the rich create endless well-paying jobs for everyone else, or that Mexico is going to pay for that giant wall we’re going to build to keep people like them out. Stop making sense. That’s cowardly, or unpatriotic, or something. Believe what doesn’t seem to make sense. You have to believe.

That’s what we have now. Donald Trump could borrow that concert film’s title for his campaign slogan. So could Ben Carson. So could Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal. Trump would say that making sense is for losers, losers like Barack Obama:

President Barack Obama ridiculed Donald Trump’s proposal to use a “deportation force” to expel millions of undocumented immigrants from the United States, calling the proposal unrealistic as well as costly.

“The notion that we’re gonna deport 11, 12 million people from this country – first of all, I have no idea where Mr. Trump thinks the money’s gonna come from,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos at the White House. “It would cost us hundreds of billions of dollars to execute that.”

He was told to stop making sense:

Trump, appearing on “Morning Joe” this week, told co-host Mika Brzezinski he would have a deportation force to carry out his controversial immigration proposal. “You’re going to have a deportation force, and you’re going to do it humanely and you’re going to bring the country – and, frankly, the people, because you have some excellent, wonderful people, some fantastic people that have been here for a long period of time,” Trump said.

That didn’t make a lot of sense, but if this deportation force was made up of all volunteers, with their own guns and uniforms and whatnot, and there were minimal supervision – supervision and administration does tend to get expensive – this could cost very little, but Obama said it still didn’t make sense:

Obama challenged the humanity of Trump’s plan. “Imagine the images on the screen flashed around the world as we were dragging parents away from their children, and putting them in what, detention centers, and then systematically sending them out,” Obama said. “Nobody thinks that that is realistic. But more importantly, that’s not who we are as Americans.”

Obama seems to think that’s what makes the least sense:

The president said some Americans back the billionaire real estate mogul’s proposal because there has always been some anti-immigrant sentiment in this country – ironically, he said, from people who have immigrant roots. “It’s the job of leaders not to play into that sentiment,” he said. “We don’t want, I think, a president or any person in a position of leadership to play on those kinds of fears.”

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton attacked Trump on his deportation plan Wednesday, calling it “absurd, inhumane, and un-American.”

But later there was an answer to this:

Trump said his proposals will not be expensive or difficult if they’re “managed properly.”

“Mine is not mean-spirited, it’s business,” Trump said. “It will be done in a humane way, it’ll be done professionally.”

Anyone who has ever lost their job in a downsizing or to offshoring has heard that before – sorry, it’s just business – nothing personal – no one’s being mean here, just professional.

That kind of “boss talk” only makes matters worse, even if it is professional, but others aren’t even that professional:

The immigration squabble among the Republican presidential contenders has turned into an all-out brawl between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, with the two senators challenging each other’s conservative credentials on the hot-button issue.

While they were by no means the only GOP candidates throwing around immigration accusations on Thursday, the intensity was the highest between Cruz and Rubio, seen as two of the strongest ascending members of the Republican field, especially after Tuesday’s fourth debate.

“They fought tooth and nail to try and jam this amnesty down the American people’s throats,” Cruz said in an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham on Thursday, speaking about the “Gang of Eight” senators. Rubio’s membership in the group, which unsuccessfully shepherded a comprehensive immigration reform effort in 2013, has haunted him since.

“Talk is cheap,” Cruz continued, saying Rubio’s actions disprove any claim that he’s as conservative as Cruz on the topic.

The riposte:

Rubio, in roughly the same bracket of hours Thursday morning, took a few shots at Cruz while campaigning in South Carolina, hitting the Texas senator from the right.

“Ted is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally. In fact, when the Senate bill was proposed, he proposed legalizing people that were here illegally,” Rubio said during a campaign stop in Hilton Head, according to a read-out from his campaign. “He proposed giving them work permits. He’s also supported a massive expansion of the green cards. He supported a massive expansion of the H-1B program, a 500% increase. So, if you look at it, I don’t think our positions are dramatically different. I do believe that we have to deal with immigration reform in a serious way, and it begins by proving to people that illegal immigration is under control.”

A Cruz aide shot back that Rubio’s comments were not an accurate indicator of where the Texas senator stands on immigration.

That’s just a taste of it, and neither is proposing we do this, that, or the other thing about immigration policy. They had stopped making sense long ago, but Donald Trump is the master of that:

Donald Trump said Thursday that Ben Carson’s self-described “pathological temper” is incurable – adding that it’s like the sickness of a “child molester.”

“It’s in the book that he’s got a pathological temper,” Trump told “Erin Burnett OutFront,” speaking about Carson’s autobiography. “That’s a big problem because you don’t cure that … as an example: child molesting. You don’t cure these people. You don’t cure a child molester. There’s no cure for it. Pathological, there’s no cure for that.”

In his 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” Carson attributes violent behavior in his youth to his “disease,” a “pathological temper” that the Republican presidential hopeful said caused him to strike one friend with a rock and attempt to stab another. In subsequent accounts of his violent youth, Carson said he once attempted to attack his mother with a hammer.

“I’m not bringing up anything that’s not in his book,” Trump told Erin Burnett. “You know, when he says he went after his mother and wanted to hit her in the head with a hammer that bothers me. I mean, that’s pretty bad. When he says he’s pathological – and he says that in the book, I don’t say that – and again, I’m not saying anything, I’m not saying anything other than pathological is a very serious disease. And he said he’s pathological, somebody said he has pathological disease.”

It went on and on:

Asked by Burnett if he were satisfied by Carson’s assurances that he left his anger long behind, Trump demurred.

“I just don’t know,” he said. “You’ll have to ask him that question. Look, I hope he’s fine because I think it would be a shame. What he’s saying is these things happen. It’d be nice if he said none of these things did happen. He’s saying these things happen and therefore I have credibility. And what I’m saying is, I’d rather have them if they didn’t happen. I don’t want somebody who hit somebody in the face with a padlock.”

Carson’s campaign on Thursday night responded sharply to Trump’s comments, saying the real estate mogul was bitter and “rambling.”

Of course he was. What, you want sense? You’re not going to get it:

Donald Trump said on Thursday that Marco Rubio favors “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants because the Florida senator and his parents are Hispanic.

“That’s why he wants amnesty,” Trump told Erin Burnett… The billionaire repeatedly pointed to Rubio’s efforts in support of a 2013 bipartisan immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate but stalled in the House, as evidence against his Republican primary rival.

“He was always in favor of amnesty, he was always in favor of letting people pour into the country,” Trump said, “and then what happened is, when people found that out, he sank like a rock in the water.”

Maybe that’s so and maybe it isn’t – many factors are always in play as folks assess candidates – but Donald Trump is excellent at lashing out. It doesn’t have to make sense. It only has to be immediately devastating, until later, when you think about it a bit, which most people never do.

But as David Weigel points out, others can play that game:

In his first campaign stops after a well-received performance in Fox Business’s “undercard” GOP presidential primary debate, Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) mixed raw talk about addiction with even rawer criticism of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Asked about the protests at the University of Missouri and Yale University, where complaints of racism or racial insensitivity have pitted students against administrators, the Republican presidential contender said that President Obama had created an atmosphere of “lawlessness.”

“I think part of this is a product of the president’s own unwillingness and inability to bring people together,” Christie said in a short interview… “When people think justice is not applied evenly and fairly, they take matters into their own hands. The lawlessness that the president has allowed to exist in this country just absolutely strips people of hope. Our administration would stand for the idea that justice is not just a word, but it’s a way of life. Laws will be applied evenly, fairly, and without bias to everyone.”

The president’s own unwillingness and inability to bring people together is the issue here, and many don’t see that. They see conservative Republican unwillingness to even talk to him, which is what the Tea Party stuff was about from the beginning. Who keeps saying no compromise, ever? But no matter, Christie had a second thing on his mind:

Earlier, at a town hall further up the Mississippi River, Christie had chastised the Black Lives Matter movement on similar terms. “Don’t call me for a meeting,” he said, according to reporter Claude Brodesser-Akner. “When a movement like that calls for the murder of police officers… no president of the United States should dignify a group like that by saying anything positive about them, and no candidate for president, like Hillary Clinton, should give them any credibility by meeting with them, as she’s done.”

The evidence:

The claim of “calls for the murder of police officers,” which Christie has made in other forums, is based on an isolated incident after a grand jury failed to bring charges against the police seen on video putting Eric Garner in a chokehold, which led to his death. One group of people in a massive march chanted “What do we want? Dead cops!” That rhetoric has been absent from most Black Lives Matter protests, which partly inspired the university uprisings.

Weigel obviously should stop making sense, but of course Ben Carson had to do his thing too:

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s business manager and adviser Armstrong Williams attempted to support Carson’s bizarre debate claims on Syria during a Wednesday interview with MSNBC by assuring the anchor that the Chinese are, in fact, in Syria.

When MSNBC’s Tamron Hall told Williams on Wednesday that the Chinese are not in Syria, Williams remained steadfast.

“From your perspective and what most people know, maybe that is inaccurate,” Williams told MSNBC. “From our own intelligence and what Dr. Carson’s been told by people who are on the ground who are involved in that region of the world, it has been told to him may times over and over, that the Chinese are there.”

Carson and Williams have not been briefed by the CIA or the NSA or the Pentagon, or by the intelligence agencies of any other country, but they have their sources. They know this guy, see:

“Just because the mainstream media and other experts don’t want to see any credibility to it, does not mean some way down the line in the next few days that that story will come out and will be reinforced and given credibility by others,” Williams said. “But as far as our intelligence and the briefings that Dr. Carson’s been in and I’ve certainly been in with him, we’ve certainly been told the Chinese are there.”

So stop making sense. Carson knows what our government doesn’t, and Kevin Drum notes this:

In a typical election, candidates move from the extreme to the middle as the campaign progresses. If you’re a Republican, for example, you start out as a fire-breathing conservative in order to win the early primaries, and then slowly move to the center to win the later primaries and the general election.

Donald Trump has flipped the script, though. Now, you start out outrageous in order to get some attention, and then slowly become more sober-minded in order to appear more plausibly presidential. Will it work? Wait and find out! But it sure looks like Ben Carson has been taking lessons from the master.

Okay, this was an attempt to look sober-minded and serious, but as with denying any global warming, there is the matter of evidence:

Carson – or Williams – really ought to tell us who these experts are that keep briefing the campaign on foreign policy issues. Are these the same guys who told him that seizing the Anbar oil fields in Iraq could be done “fairly easily” and that ISIS could then be destroyed in short order? I mean, I like the can-do attitude here, but I’m still a little curious about what the exact battle plan would be. Maybe Carson will share that with us in the next debate.

Or maybe he won’t. He seems to have been advised to stop making sense. Maybe he’s a fan of the now-disbanded Talking Heads. Maybe his campaign, noting how well Donald Trump has done, has decided that to stop making sense is to win over the current Republican voters.

In the Washington Post, Philip Rucker and Robert Costa cover the panic this has caused:

Less than three months before the kickoff Iowa caucuses, there is growing anxiety bordering on panic among Republican elites about the dominance and durability of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and widespread bewilderment over how to defeat them.

Party leaders and donors fear that nominating either man would have negative ramifications for the GOP ticket up and down the ballot, virtually ensuring a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency and increasing the odds that the Senate falls into Democratic hands.

The party establishment is paralyzed. Big money is still on the sidelines. No consensus alternative to the outsiders has emerged from the pack of governors and senators running, and there is disagreement about how to prosecute the case against them. Recent focus groups of Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire commissioned by rival campaigns revealed no silver bullet.

This is getting urgent:

“The rest of the field is still wishing upon a star that Trump and Carson are going to ­self-destruct,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a former adviser to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. But, he said “they have to be made to self-destruct. … Nothing has happened at this point to dislodge Trump or Carson.”

Fehrnstrom pointed out that the fourth debate passed this week without any candidate landing a blow against Trump or Carson. “We’re about to step into the holiday time accelerator,” he said. “You have Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, then Iowa and a week later, New Hampshire, and it’s going to be over in the blink of an eye.”

And they don’t know what to do:

According to other Republicans, some in the party establishment are so desperate to change the dynamic that they are talking anew about drafting Romney – despite his insistence that he will not run again. Friends have mapped out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight, according to the Republicans who were briefed on the talks, though Romney has shown no indication of reviving his interest.

That’s how desperate they are, because of this:

The apprehension among some party elites goes beyond electability, according to one Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the worries.

“We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job,” this strategist said. “It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”

This is the Sarah Palin problem on steroids:

Angst about Trump intensified this week after he made two comments that could prove damaging in a general election. First, he explained his opposition to raising the minimum wage by saying “wages are too high.” Second, he said he would create a federal “deportation force” to remove the more than 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.

“To have a leading candidate propose a new federal police force that is going to flush out illegal immigrants across the nation? That’s very disturbing and concerning to me about where that leads Republicans,” said Dick Wadhams, a former GOP chairman in Colorado, a swing state where Republicans are trying to pick up a Senate seat next year.

The blogger BooMan sees where this could go:

Another way of putting this is that the political concern is in jeopardy of getting trumped by a basic responsible concern for the welfare of the country. I think we saw some of this back in 2008 when Barack Obama was able to capitalize on a combination of the complete implosion of the Bush administration on every level and concerns about the temperament and suitability of both McCain and Palin to peel off traditionally right-leaning elites. It wasn’t just Colin Powell that defected, but William Buckley’s son and the offspring of Dwight Eisenhower and many big-name investors and capitalists.

There’s a point where folks will actually give up on the GOP and vote for the Democrat, and it’s really not that big of a leap to put your trust in the Clintons. You kind of know what you’re going to get and they’ve got a record of basic competence.

What you’re going to get is someone making sense. But we now have millions of Americans who are gleefully shouting “don’t make sense” – because they’re fed up with that. What good has that done them? So it finally happened. The Talking Heads were onto something. There are a whole lot of people who would rather not think about it, whatever it is. Sometimes rock music does capture who we are. Those kids from way back when were alright.

Posted in Republicans in Disarray | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Upon Further Consideration

A good insult is a stealth insult – the recipient doesn’t realize what totally devastating thing you said to him, to his face, until much later, when he’s alone and suddenly realizes what those words actually meant – and he can’t do a damned thing about it. No come-back is possible – and many a young man has realized, the next day, that that sweet young thing was offering him a bit of paradise. Oh my God, THAT was what she was saying – but by then she’s long gone and she’s probably joking with her friends about how you were a total dweeb – and there’s nothing you can do about that. Damn, maybe you are a dweeb. And of course politicians say things that sound reasonable or even stirring, and folks nod their heads in agreement – that’s really how things are, or should be – and then the next day, when you think about it, you’re appalled at what they actually said. They got the basic facts wrong, and that’s the least of it. They want to do WHAT?

That sort of thing got us into a useless eight-year war in Iraq that only made things worse in the Middle East, but that’s not a Bush-and-the-neocons problem. What didn’t actually happen in the Gulf of Tonkin got us into Vietnam with everything we had. Lyndon Johnson said we had to do something. That’s sounded reasonable at the time, until the next day, more or less, when we were appalled. No one attacked us in the Gulf of Tonkin, and of course Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 and really didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction – but in both cases it was too late. Upon further consideration we saw what was what. That didn’t do us much good, but next time… Next time we’ll get quicker at understanding what was really being said.

That takes practice, and the recent fourth Republican presidential debate might provide that. People are examining what was actually said, with such conviction, and are getting appalled early. Give it a day. Jonathan Chait did, and in New York Magazine he noted what was actually being said:

Early in the fourth Republican debate, Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker, one of the debate moderators, asked Carly Fiorina a question that cut at the heart of the rationale of every candidate onstage. Under Barack Obama, Baker noted, the United States has added an average of 107,000 jobs a month. Under Bill Clinton, it added an average of 240,000, and under George W. Bush, just 13,000 jobs a month. Economic growth is the ultimate basis for the entire Republican economic program – the inducement they can offer to explain why Americans should give up things like cleaner air, a higher minimum wage, and more generous social programs.

Fiorina’s reply had no point of contact with the question whatsoever. Indeed, she said, “Yes, problems have gotten much worse under Democrats” – the exact opposite of what the question had stated – before launching into a generic denunciation of the evils of big government. The basic case for changing parties turned out to pose an obstacle that all the candidates had difficulty surmounting.

They didn’t even hear the facts that hung there in the air, and Kevin Drum adds this:

This is a brand new technique. Normally, when candidates are faced with a tough question, they ignore it and answer a different question. Fiorina tried to do this at first. But then she decided on new tack: answer the exact opposite question. Baker cites numbers to show that Democrats are great at job creation, so Fiorina acknowledges that yes, he’s right – things have gotten much worse under Democrats.

What? Did anyone notice? Drum thinks that might not matter:

Will this bold ploy catch on? Baker certainly didn’t challenge her on it. I expect to see other candidates give this a shot in future debates.

Perhaps they will, but Chait has more:

Neil Cavuto told Marco Rubio that he had called the last Democratic debate “a night of giveaways, including free health care, free college, and a host of other government-paid benefits.” Cavuto asked which of those giveaways he would take back. Rubio did not name any, instead launching into the story about his immigrant parents and his standard stump speech, portions of which he managed to repurpose for every question posed to him.

Likewise, Jeb Bush answered a question about how he would bring about his absurd target of 4 percent annual economic growth, and – after reiterating that 4 percent growth would be really great – promised to “repeal every rule” Obama has imposed on the economy. But if that would work, why didn’t we have 4 percent growth under the previous administration?

And when a moderator pointed out to Rand Paul that energy production has boomed under the current administration and asked for his policy response, Paul replied that he would repeal the regulations that have hampered energy production.

Granted, this was a debate hosted by the Fox Business Channel, a subset of Fox News, so when each of these Republicans said up was down, there wasn’t going to be a challenge. These moderators were not going to ask the obvious question – “Did you actually hear what I said?” Still, Chait doesn’t blame Fox:

All the candidates prefer to live in a world in which big government is crushing the American dream, and all of them lack even moderately credible specifics with which to flesh out this harrowing portrait. The most successful efforts were made by the candidates who did not even try and, in their different ways, used personal symbolism in place of policy detail. The two candidates who do this the best are Rubio and Donald Trump. Rubio answers the question about changing America by framing the problem in generational terms. What’s wrong with America, he explains every single time he is asked, is that it is old, and what’s needed is something new, i.e., him. Trump has the exact same approach, only in his telling, every problem is a matter of losing, and the solution is to bring in a president who wins, i.e., him. Both the Rubio and the Trump themes can be adapted to any subject, and can be stretched to cover up for a lack of policy substance or even ideological coherence. The lack of socialist horrors to have materialized under Obama is not a problem when your promise is to be new or to win.

That may not be a problem for them. But Chait thinks it actually is one:

The candidates who found themselves trapped were those who attempted to connect Republican dogma to concrete economic conditions. Fiorina wound up her concluding remarks by stating ominously, “Imagine a Clinton presidency,” before unspooling a litany of horrors. But of course we don’t have to imagine. We had a Clinton presidency. And, as Baker pointed out to Fiorina at the outset of the debate, the economy thrived.

That may not matter, until it does:

Presumably, the general election will intrude, and the nominee will be forced to make a stronger case against what looks, at the moment, like peace and prosperity.

But do they want to argue against peace and prosperity? This gets tricky, and Greg Sargent in the Washington Post argues a more arcane point:

One of the most significant moments in last night’s GOP debate came when Ted Cruz took a subtle shot at Marco Rubio over the latter’s support for Big Sugar. Cruz attacked the idea of “corporate welfare,” citing “sugar subsidies” as an example of the problem, noting that sugar farmers supply 40 percent of the funds spent on lobbying in exchange for such government giveaways.

Who cares? But this could heat up:

Rubio had previously been targeted on this topic by a blistering Wall Street Journal editorial, which argued that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sugar subsidies program amounts to crony capitalism for big sugar producers that are allied with Rubio, and that Rubio’s support for it exposes “a tendency to hedge” on his “limited government conservatism” when he thinks it’s “politically beneficial.”

Rubio is not a real conservative, you see, but Sargent notes that on ABC News, Rubio was asked by George Stephanopoulos to respond to that editorial, and we got this:

I’m prepared to get rid of the sugar program. The problem is every country in the world that grows sugar has a program, a subsidy – a program that assists their industry. So when they get rid of theirs, I’m prepared to get rid of ours… I’m not going to wipe out an American industry that happens to have a lot of workers in Florida, by unilaterally disarming. I want us to be able to compete with other countries.

But it has to be fair. They already have huge advantages. They don’t have an EPA and they don’t have labor unions, in those countries. If we could just even the field – if other countries that we’re competing against get rid of their programs, I’ll be the first one working to get rid of ours. But I am not going to destroy an American industry that employs people in my state by unilaterally disarming.

That also sounds reasonable, but Sargent says Rubio might as well be a Democrat:

Reading this in the most charitable possible way, Rubio is solely interested in keeping the sugar subsidy program because it keeps people employed in his state. Thus, Rubio is in effect acknowledging a legitimate role for government interference in the economy for the purpose of protecting people’s jobs. Sure, Rubio puts a conservative spin on this argument by claiming that the subsidies are necessary to restore a competitive advantage for American companies that are already laboring under distortions produced by environmental regulations and labor unions. Nonetheless, Rubio is willing to allow a role for government in furthering “crony capitalism” or in “picking winners and losers,” to employ two phrases often used by conservatives, as long as it will preserve jobs for people in his state.

One must listen to what’s actually being said:

The larger context here is that Rubio (like other Republicans) has been arguing that the Democratic agenda constitutes little more than a vow for government to give away as much “free stuff” as possible. At last night’s debate, a moderator confronted Rubio with one of his previous quotes, in which he said that the last Democratic debate was a contest between liberals “about who was going to give away the most free stuff” – adding that their answer to every problem is a “government program.” Asked which of these “giveaways” he would “take back” as president, Rubio said he’d repeal Obamacare, but segued into the argument that the way to ensure prosperity is not through government intervention but through liberating the private sector.

Yet it’s hard to square that argument with Rubio’s willingness – in this one case, at least – to intervene in the economy to help his own state’s workers.

You cannot be against government if you’re for it:

Liberals believe that such government intervention in the economy is justified – even if some select private sector interests benefit from it – if there is a broader public interest justification. Thus their support for policies from the Ex-Im Bank to subsidy programs to regulating the health insurance market to the minimum wage. Libertarian conservatives, particularly those in the Ted Cruz mode, see a dramatically scaled back role for government in the economy, so they oppose most or even all of these policies, and don’t believe the public interest is genuinely served by them in a broad sense, even if large numbers of Americans (as opposed to corporate interests) do immediately benefit.

How pure is your anti-government thinking? Are you willing to hurt a whole lot of Americans with your purity? What were these guys actually saying? It took at least a day to figure that out, but no one knows what Ben Carson is saying. Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times is finally figuring that out:

I don’t really mind that Ben Carson thinks the pyramids in Egypt were used to store grain; that’s a folk belief that’s been around since the Middle Ages. At least he dismisses the theory that the pyramids were built by space aliens.

And I don’t really mind that Carson’s autobiography, by his own admission, isn’t precisely accurate on every detail. He still insists that he tried to kill a classmate with a knife, an unusual claim for a presidential candidate. But even if that story was an exaggeration, it’s harmless myth-making – a dramatization of how low the teenage Carson had sunk before God intervened to shape him up. Barack Obama’s autobiography used creative license to make him sound like a juvenile delinquent, too.

But McManus does mind this:

Even though Carson considers himself brilliant, he doesn’t seem to care much about the actual duties of a president. His speeches, interviews and books betray a shaky grasp of economic and foreign policy, to put it kindly – and when a candidate is tied for first place for the Republican nomination in most polls, that’s no laughing matter.

There’s the federal budget:

Carson has proposed turning the income tax into a 15% flat tax on rich and poor alike – a massive tax cut for the wealthy (and tax increase for the poor) that would reduce federal revenue by more than half a trillion dollars, according to most estimates.

But more than a year after he began running for president, the good doctor still hasn’t explained how he would fill the yawning budget gap his tax cut would produce.

Indeed, this week he appeared to make the problem worse. Previously, Carson said he would cut federal spending by 3% to 4% across the board (except for the military, which he would grow). Now he says the cuts would amount to only 2% or 3% – a more realistic target, but one that would only widen the deficit.

Where are the details? There aren’t any available; none of these plans has been reduced to paper. A Carson spokesman told me that the campaign hopes to release specific proposals by the end of the year.

I don’t envy Carson’s aides; the candidate often sounds confused.

And there’s this:

In his book, Carson argues that federal judges shouldn’t be allowed to rule on the constitutionality of state ballot initiatives like California’s Proposition 8, which the Supreme Court overturned in 2013.

“Having a ballot referendum on an important issue is a farce if a federal judge can throw out the results,” he writes. He suggests, as a remedy to this problem, that Congress simply impeach any judge who “ignores the will of the people.” So much for the Constitution…

And there’s foreign policy:

Carson thinks the U.S. military should be taking the lead in ground combat against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. “I would commit everything to eliminating them [Islamic State] right now,” he said. That’s a controversial position, but a defensible one. Here’s where Carson goes off course: He argues that U.S. forces shouldn’t be bound by the laws of war.

“There is no such thing as a politically correct war,” he told Fox News. “If you’re going to have rules for war, you should just have a rule that says ‘no war.’ Other than that, we have to win.”

So much for the Geneva Convention and any notion of war crimes at all, but McManus thinks he sees what’s going on here:

In his books, he often mentions incidents in which God intervened in his life. When he neglected to study at Yale, God showed him the answers on a chemistry exam. When he fell asleep while driving home one night, God spared his life. When he used new surgical techniques on children’s brains, God saved some of his patients. And when he was on a safari in Africa, God answered his prayer for plenty of photogenic wildlife.

Now that he’s running for president, Carson sounds as if he’s counting on divine intervention to pull him through again. There can be no doubt about the sincerity of Carson’s Christian faith or his belief in the power of prayer. But voters – even the most devout – deserve more earthly evidence that he’s up to the job.

Heather Parton isn’t so sure about that:

GOP primary voters don’t just mistrust government anymore, they have lost faith in their party and the system of government set forth in the constitution. They desire a president who will “get the job done” without succumbing to all that folderol of congress, the courts, elections etcetera. In other words they no longer believe in democracy.

The Trump people want a strongman. The Carson people want a religious figure. Everyone acknowledges that his inspirations life story is the basis upon which his entire campaign is based, and he says that explicitly. From his ill-tempered youth to his career as a neurosurgeon depending on God to guide his hand during brain surgery that life story is a story of divine intervention.

He doesn’t need to know anything. His followers believe he is the vessel through which God himself will be the president.

Given the preponderance of evangelicals and closet theocrats in the Republican base, that might get him the Republican nomination – that’s working well so far – but implying that he’s the one, the only one, that God actually wants to be president, might not fly in the general election. People who think that way are generally considered kind of nuts, and he doesn’t know much about anything.

That became obvious in the fourth debate. Gerard Baker asked Carson if he approved of President Obama’s decision to send special ops teams into Syria and we got this:

Well, putting the special ops people in there is better than not having them there, because they – that’s why they’re called special ops, they’re actually able to guide some of the other things that we’re doing there. And what we have to recognize is that Putin is trying to really spread his influence throughout the Middle East. This is going to be his base. And we have to oppose him there in an effective way.

We also must recognize that it’s a very complex place. You know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians, and you have all kinds of factions there. What we’ve been doing so far is very ineffective, but we can’t give up ground right there. But we have to look at this on a much more global scale. We’re talking about global jihadists. And their desire is to destroy us and to destroy our way of life. So we have to be saying, how do we make them look like losers? Because that’s the way that they’re able to gather a lot of influence.

And I think in order to make them look like losers we have to destroy their caliphate. And you look for the easiest place to do that? It would be in Iraq. And if – outside of Anbar in Iraq, there’s a big energy field. Take that from them. Take all of that land from them. We could do that, I believe, fairly easily, I’ve learned from talking to several generals, and then you move on from there.

Kevin Drum helps us out with this:

Translation: I have no idea what to do in the Middle East. And even though I’ve been running for president for a year, I’m too lazy to learn even the first thing about it.

And then there was Donald Trump’s response to how he’d handle Russia:

Well, first of all, it’s not only Russia. We have problems with North Korea where they actually have nuclear weapons. You know, nobody talks about it, we talk about Iran, and that’s one of the worst deals ever made. One of the worst contracts ever signed, ever, in anything, and it’s a disgrace. But, we have somebody over there, a madman, who already has nuclear weapons we don’t talk about that. That’s a problem.

China is a problem, both economically in what they’re doing in the South China Sea, I mean, they are becoming a very, very major force. So, we have more than just Russia. But, as far as the Ukraine is concerned, and you could Syria – as far as Syria, I like – if Putin wants to go in, and I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates, and we did very well that night. But, you know that.

But, if Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100%, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it… They blew up a Russian airplane. He cannot be in love with these people. He’s going in, and we can go in, and everybody should go in. As far as the Ukraine is concerned, we have a group of people, and a group of countries, including Germany – tremendous economic behemoth – why are we always doing the work?

I’m all for protecting Ukraine and working – but, we have countries that are surrounding the Ukraine that aren’t doing anything. They say, “Keep going, keep going, you dummies, keep going. Protect us…” And we have to get smart. We can’t continue to be the policeman of the world. We are $19 trillion dollars, we have a country that’s going to hell; we have an infrastructure that’s falling apart. Our roads, our bridges, our schools, our airports, and we have to start investing money in our country. …

I don’t like Assad. Who’s going to like Assad? But, we have no idea who these people are, and what they’re going to be, and what they’re going to represent. They may be far worse than Assad. Look at Libya. Look at Iraq. Look at the mess we have after spending $2 trillion dollars, thousands of lives, wounded warriors all over the place – who I love, okay? All over!

We have nothing. And, I said, keep the oil. And we should have kept the oil, believe me. We should have kept the oil.


Translation: Russia! North Korea! Iran! Ukraine! Syria! ISIS! Germany! Ukraine again! Assad! Libya! Iraq! Oil! Keep the oil! But we should let other people handle all this because our roads are falling apart.

Republicans can’t seriously be thinking about nominating either of these guys, can they?

They are thinking about it, but at least Lindsey Graham is polling at zero, because he reminds us why creating a “no-fly zone” in Syria is a horrible idea:

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham says he would shoot down Russian planes in Syrian airspace in order to protect U.S.-backed forces in the region.

Daniel Larison at the American Conservative comments on that:

The good news is that Graham will never be in a position to give such an order, but unfortunately almost all of the other Republican candidates for president share his position, and Clinton’s position is virtually indistinguishable from his. Rubio, Christie, and Kasich have been the most explicit about their willingness to court war with Russia for the sake of ineffective Syrian proxies, but any candidate that supports a “no-fly zone” in Syria has already committed to risking armed confrontation with Russian forces there. …

Graham complains that it isn’t right “to entice people to come to a fight, train and equip them, side with them on their cause, and sit back and watch them being slaughtered.” I agree that it isn’t right to do that, but then the responsibility for that error lies with the people such as Graham that urged the U.S. to do the enticing and taking sides. The U.S. blundered by taking sides in Syria, but it would be guilty of a far greater wrong if it used that blunder to justify risking a war with a major power. In a sane foreign policy debate, the people agitating for a clash with a nuclear-armed great power as Graham is doing would be met with derision and scorn, but unfortunately in our debate he and others like him, such as Rubio, are feted as supposed experts.

Ted Galen Carpenter adds this:

There is nothing at stake in Syria that warrants the United States risking such a dangerous confrontation with Russia. Imposing a no-fly zone under the current circumstances is utterly reckless. Anyone who embraces such a scheme should be disqualified automatically from occupying the Oval Office.

And Heather Parton picks on Donald Trump:

While Ronald Reagan also used the slogan “Make America Great Again” when he ran for president, his vision was much more upbeat and optimistic than Trump’s, which harkens back to paleoconservative candidates like Pat Buchanan and his “Pitchfork Brigade”. Indeed, it centers around “getting rid of bad people” – which is not what most people think of as morning in America. Last week he even explicitly went back to the 1950s and evoked the Eisenhower era program “Operation Wetback,” which he characterized on “60 Minutes” as “very nice and very humane.” (It wasn’t.) He said “Did you like Eisenhower? Did you like Dwight Eisenhower as a president at all? He did this. He did this in the 1950s with over a million people, and a lot of people don’t know that… and it worked.”

Parton notes Trump has been saying this:

You know, Dwight Eisenhower was a wonderful general, and a respected President – and he moved a million people out of the country, nobody said anything about it. When Trump does it, it’s like “whoa.” When Eisenhower does it, “well that was Eisenhower, he’s allowed to do it, but we can’t do it.”

That was also in the ’50s, remember that. Different time, remember that.

That’s when we had a country. That’s when we had borders; you know, without borders you don’t have a country, essentially. We don’t have a country. Without borders, you just don’t have it.

But Dwight Eisenhower, this big report, they used to take them out and put them on the other side of the border and say, “you have to stay here.” And they’d come right back, and they’d do it again and again, so they said “Wait a minute, this doesn’t work.” And they took them out and moved them all the way South; all the way. And they never came back again; it’s too far. Amazing!

And I’m not saying this in a joking way – I’m saying this happened. It wasn’t working, they were coming back, and then they literally – literally – moved them all the way. A lot of the politicians – they never came back, it was too far. They’d put them on boats and move them all the way down South, and that was it.

Parton notes that the Washington Post wrote about this a month ago:

In Mexicali, Mexico, temperatures can reach 125 degrees as heat envelops an arid desert. Without a body of water nearby to moderate the climate, the heavy sun is relentless – and deadly.

During the summer of 1955, this is where hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were “dumped” after being discovered as migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Unloaded from buses and trucks carrying several times their capacity, the deportees stumbled into the Mexicali streets with few possessions and no way of getting home.

This was strategic: the more obscure the destination within the Mexican interior, the less opportunities they would have to return to America. But the tactic also proved to be dangerous, as the migrants were left without resources to survive.

After one such round-up and transfer in July, 88 people died from heat stroke. At another drop-off point in Nuevo Laredo, the migrants were “brought like cows” into the desert.

Among the over 25 percent who were transported by boat from Port Isabel, Texas, to the Mexican Gulf Coast, many shared cramped quarters in vessels resembling an “eighteenth century slave ship” and “penal hell ship.”

These deportation procedures, detailed by historian Mae M. Ngai, were not anomalies. They were the essential framework of Operation Wetback – a concerted immigration law enforcement effort implemented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954 – and the deportation model that Donald Trump says he intends to follow.


It’s a small thing, but it’s disheartening that the GOP front-runner is running on this policy in 2015 and reporters wouldn’t be aware of what he’s saying.

But that’s not true. The Washington Post brought this up, and others are pointing out, upon further consideration, what the other Republicans also seem to be actually saying this time around. Give it a day. It may be too late for Vietnam or Iraq, but these things do take practice. We may be getting better at this.

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The Fourth One

Tuesday, November 10, 2015 – the fourth Republican presidential debate – hosted by the Fox Business Channel, a subset of Fox News. Of course Fox News is run by Roger Ailes – Richard Nixon’s former media consultant – the job was to humanize Nixon – and the man who worked with Lee Atwater to get George H. W. Bush elected with the nastiest ads they could pull off – so this would be a debate where none of the candidates would be made to feel uncomfortable. This was a Republican debate. No one would be challenged. America’s culture of dependency, our crushing federal debt, and our out of control taxes – those were the premises. Those would not be questioned. Tell us how awful those are, why don’t you?

The Republican National committee was happy. Note the pre-debate Fox News headline – RNC: Fox Business debate format a ‘huge win’ for candidates – so it was almost as if Ailes was writing those Willie Horton ads again. There are those very bad guys out there, and then there are the Republicans. That was what this debate was about, and Josh Marshall didn’t like it much:

This debate is the logical outcome of the blow up after the CNBC debate. CNBC is a generally right leaning network on economic issues. But simply pressing the candidates to answer questions or noting when they’re making demonstrably untrue claims made them liberal. So now we have a debate structured around letting candidates say absolutely anything – because scrutinizing candidates is liberal. This leads to having half the debate framed around how strong financial regulation leads the biggest banks to get bigger and bigger and how we need to put in place new policies to prevent banks from getting this big. And the best place to start is to repeal Dodd-Frank. … It’s impossible to find any way into this conversation because it’s all theology and self-referencing assertions.

It was frustrating:

Whatever you can say about the CNBC debate, it was tight, with sharp exchanges and memorable moments. There was very little of that tonight. Trump lacks energy and punch when he’s not the center of attention. Jeb Bush was better than he was in the last debate but not nearly enough to shift the balance in what seems like a dying campaign. Carson seemed fine by Carson standards but mainly because it’s not permitted to ask him any real questions or press him for an answer.

In the post-game Ben Carson just told moderator Neil Cavuto he and the rest of the candidates were very happy with the moderators. That pretty much tells the whole story.

Marshall thinks the whole thing was boring – like watching serial infomercials – but that’s getting ahead of things. There was the undercard, the pre-debate debate for the hopeless, and Chris Christie won that one:

At the risk of seeing his campaign slipping away, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey used an appearance in the second-tier Republican debate on Tuesday to seize center stage and project himself as above intraparty conflict while inviting the Republican Party to view him as its warrior against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Christie was demoted to the early evening forum because of poor polling numbers, but he came to life on the less crowded stage in Milwaukee and had many moments in the hour-long four-candidate debate that seemed likely to leave a lasting impression.

He repeatedly hijacked efforts by his three rivals to criticize him or one another, steering the debate into who would be the strongest opponent against Mrs. Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee.

He was focused:

When Mr. Jindal criticized Mr. Christie for “liberal” policies in New Jersey, he simply said he had no interest in contrasting himself with the Louisiana governor.

“I want to talk about what’s going to happen to this country if we have another four years of Barack Obama’s policies,” Mr. Christie said, adding that his success in a blue state qualified him to run strongly nationally.

“Wait a minute, records matter,” Mr. Jindal interjected. He criticized Mr. Christie for expanding food stamps and Medicaid in his state.

Again, Mr. Christie refused to engage.

“Who’s going to be able to beat Hillary Clinton and keep their eye on the ball,” he said.

It went on like that:

At another point, Mr. Christie interrupted an internecine spat between Mr. Jindal and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas over who had cut government more as a governor to attack Mrs. Clinton.

“The bottom line is Hillary Clinton is coming for your wallet, everyone,” Mr. Christie said. “Don’t worry about Huckabee and Jindal. Worry about her.”

And no one worried about Rick Santorum. Yes, he was there, but nobody noticed, and Slate’s Josh Voorhees notes this:

Carly Fiorina dominated the first undercard debate in August, a showing that helped push her into the GOP’s top tier and secure her a spot on the main stage at the following debate. With the novelty of the format gone, though, neither of the two debates that followed offered a second golden ticket. Lindsey Graham was generally considered to have been the strongest performer in the second undercard – though not nearly as strong as Fiorina had been in the first – but never saw the same post-debate bump. The senator from South Carolina had reached 1 percent in two of the 10 major polls that preceded that debate; he managed to hit that mark in three of the 10 that followed. Graham was again the closest thing there was to a winner on CNBC’s undercard stage. His reward for another strong showing: Failing to qualify for the Fox Business debates altogether. (Fellow debate understudy George Pataki, the former governor of New York, was also shut out.)

There’s no reason to suspect Christie will be more Carly than Graham. The New Jersey governor was also one of the stronger performers in the three primetime debates – although that didn’t seem to impress the conservative constituency he needed to woo. He has continued to slip in the national polls ever since the first GOP debate, and has likewise failed to make any headway in New Hampshire, which was always going to be his best chance at a win in an early nominating state. Things aren’t much better in his home state: A new poll out Tuesday shows him running a distant fourth in the Garden State. A full 40 percent of New Jersey Republicans – and a majority of all voters in the state – meanwhile want him to throw in the towel. His performance in Tuesday’s debate should do absolutely nothing to change that.

Voorhees suggests dropping the whole thing – these folks aren’t going anywhere – but then we’d miss things like this:

Republican presidential candidate Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal pulled out a bit of bathroom humor Tuesday to make a point during the Fox Business debate. …

“We’ve got four senators running, they’ve never cut anything in D.C.,” Jindal said. “They give the long speeches called filibusters, they pat themselves on the back, nothing changes when they go to relieve themselves, their cause and the toilets get flushed at the same time and the American people lose.”

Jindal’s line was met with murmurs from the audience.

Bobby Jindal has turned into a bit of an embarrassment, but then no one was watching this debate. They were waiting for the main event, and that went like this:

“Wages are too high,” Trump said, while explaining why he did not support hiking the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour.

“We are a country that is being beaten on every front: economically, militarily. There is nothing that we do now to win. We don’t win anymore,” Trump said.

The real estate mogul added that the country should dramatically lower its taxes but keep wages as they are to be more competitive economically with the rest of the world. The crowd applauded. Ben Carson quickly agreed when the question was tossed to him.

“Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases,” Carson asserted, and said he was glad he was able to work low-paying jobs as a young man to gain experience. “I would not raise it,’ Carson said, to applause.

Sen. Marco Rubio joined his two rivals, saying tax reform would be more effective than raising wages.

The billionaire started it – wages are too high – people should accept low wages, to make America great again. Businesses would thrive – they could compete around the world again and so on. This made sense to everyone else. Millions more would be employed if all Americans would just suck it up and work for far less – but one assumes that excludes senior management and corporate officers and professional athletes. And the audience cheered – the angry white blue-collar folks who feel they’re getting nowhere and being screwed by the system, who hate the government paying out welfare to the wrong people and so forth, seem to love being told they should actually work for far less. No one knows why.

There were, however, disagreements on other matters:

A lengthy discussion of immigration stood out as a proxy for a debate over how Republicans can win back the White House after eight years in the wilderness: under the banner of pure and principled conservatism, or with a moderated platform designed to broaden the GOP’s appeal to Latinos and other minorities.

Trump forcefully defended the controversial proposal that has ­fueled his candidacy since summer, in which he would deport all undocumented immigrants and construct a wall along the border with Mexico to keep them out.

“We are a country of laws, we need borders, we will have a wall, the wall will be built, the wall will be successful, and if you think walls don’t work, all you have to do is ask Israel,” said the former reality-television star. “The wall will work, properly done. Believe me.”

That drew a quick retort from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who had been spoiling for a fight and repeatedly interrupted the questioning of other candidates to give his opinions.

“For the 11 million people, come on, folks, we all know we can’t pick them up and ship them across the border,” Kasich said. “It’s a silly argument. It’s not an adult argument.”

Trump then interjected with a taunt at Bush: “You should let Jeb speak.”

And the former Florida governor did just that, arguing that deporting illegal immigrants is in conflict with American values and would tear families and communities apart. Bush warned of the electoral consequences should the GOP nominee campaign with Trump’s position.

“They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” Bush said. “That’s the problem with this. We have to win the presidency, and the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans.”

Soon after, Brian Fallon, a Clinton campaign spokesman, tweeted, “We actually are doing high-fives right now.”

Cruz, however, sided with Trump. “If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose,” the senator from Texas said.

Yeah, but when Mitt Romney went down in flames in 2012, when maybe only thirty-seven Hispanics, in Utah, voted for him, you guys were worried about losing again, because Hispanics had come to see you as nasty bastards who thought they were scum. You’re still trying to work out a solution to that problem, are you? Do we have to watch while you argue about it, again, three long years later? Why don’t you let us know when you work something out? It’ll be easier for everyone.

And this argument sounds familiar too:

Later in the evening, an extended series of questions about the candidates’ tax plans sparked a fight between Rubio and Paul over the size of the military and defense budget.

“I know Rand is a committed isolationist. I’m not,” Rubio said, earning loud cheers from the crowd. “I know that the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest military power in the world.”

Paul persisted, warning that the country could ill afford to spend more money on the military: “I want a strong national defense. But I don’t want us to be bankrupt.”

Cruz interjected, siding with Rubio: “You think defending this nation is expensive? Try not defending it. That’s a lot more expensive.”

Former business executive Carly Fiorina also delivered tough lines about the military and the United States’ role in Syria, but she also accused Trump of bluster when he talked about his past associations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At one point, Trump snapped: “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?”

The crowd booed loudly, but unlike in previous debates, Fiorina did not respond to Trump.

This was a bit embarrassing to watch, but at least one thing was cleared up:

Meanwhile, Ben Carson – who has built a powerful following among grass-roots conservatives with his soft-spoken approach – faced virtually no scrutiny from the moderators or fellow candidates over the veracity of his personal narrative, which has been the subject of recent media investigations.

When Cavuto asked Carson whether the scrutiny was engulfing his campaign, Carson seemed pleased to have the chance to clear the air.

“Thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade,” Carson said. “We should vet all candidates. I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about and then putting that out there as truth.”

He added: “People who know me know that I’m an honest person.”

And that settles that. Case closed. Roger Ailes did well. No one came off looking like a complete fool, at least in the main debate, although, in the Los Angeles Times, Noah Bierman notes this:

Donald Trump has played 2016 titan for months, and most attacks from fellow candidates ended up hurting the attacker. But as Trump fights to maintain his lead, he has appeared more defensive.

And on Tuesday, fellow candidates seemed to get the better of him a few times, winning over the crowd by mocking him.

When Trump started complaining that President Obama’s Pacific trade pact is a trap laid by the Chinese, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul drew laughs when he pointed out that China was not a party to the deal.

When Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin could do America the favor of knocking off the Islamic State extremist group, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, lectured him as naive: “That’s like playing Monopoly,” he said. “That’s not how the world works.”

And when Trump bragged that he formed a friendship with Putin in the green room when they both appeared on “60 Minutes,” Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard chief executive, drew laughs when she said she had also met Putin, “not in a green room for a show, but in a private meeting.”

That had to hurt, but the debate is probably best appreciated in small snippets, like these from Kevin Drum:

10:46 – Question to Carson about big banks. This ought to be good. Answer: shouldn’t allow banks to “just enlarge themselves at the expense of smaller entities.” Low interest rates are bad. We need less regulation. That hurts the poor and middle class because it raises the cost of a bar of soap by ten cents. Follow-up: OK, but would you break up the big banks? Carson: I wouldn’t allow them to get big in the first place. But, no, I wouldn’t tear down banks that already exist.

10:48 – Kasich: too much greed on Wall Street.

10:50 – Cavuto: Would you go after Wall Street crooks like Bernie Sanders? Freudian slip, I guess. Cruz would “absolutely” go after them. We need less cronyism.

10:51 – Cavuto: Just to be clear, if Bank of America were on the brink, would you let it fail? Cruz: Yes. Also: we need fewer philosopher kings at the Fed. And the gold standard would be great for working men and women!

10:54 – Kasich: Put a sock in it, Cruz. Real executives need to make decisions, not philosophize. Kasich says he wouldn’t bail out banks, but would help the hardworking folks who put money in the bank. Big boos!

10:58 – Fiorina: Dodd-Frank is socialism. Freddie Mac was responsible for housing bust. Etc.

That’s how it went on all issues:

10:14 – Paul thinks Congress should have the ability to amend treaties. This would, of course, make it impossible to negotiate treaties.

10:18 – Carson: we have to oppose Putin in Middle East. But it’s very complicated. Carson’s plan for ISIS: We have to make them look like losers. We do that by taking their oil fields and then destroying them. “We could do this, I believe, fairly easily.” Carson says he learned that from “several generals.” Names, please!

10:22 – Bush says America needs to lead in the Middle East. But his plan is distinctly small-bore: no-fly zone, support the rebels, think about the refugees.

10:24 – Trump is now in full ADD mode on foreign policy. Syria! China! Putin! Ukraine! Germany! But we can’t be policeman of the world.

10:26 – Bush says Trump is full of shit. Trump says we have no idea who the rebels are. Look at Libya. Look at Iraq. He almost sounds like a Democrat. Almost.

None of this was terribly inspiring, and Amanda Marcotte adds this:

Rand Paul had a momentary and clearly unwelcome brush with reality. After hours of hearing one candidate after another indulge the childish fantasy that we can cut taxes and balance the budget, apparently only by cutting food stamps, Paul broke every rule in the Republican playbook and pointed out that military spending is a huge sinkhole for taxpayer money.

“How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures?” Paul sniped at Marco Rubio during one particularly heated moment in the debate. “You cannot be a conservative if you’re going to keep promoting new programs that you can’t pay for.”

Rubio, facing a clearly unexpected challenge to the widespread Republican notion that you can cut taxes and eliminate the debt without cutting a dime on Republican-cherished budget items like the military, got flustered and tried to deflect with fifth grade debating tactics. “We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe,” he whined. “There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading people and crucifying Christians.” Luckily, we were all spared him whipping out an American flag and a cross and asking us to pray for him, but you could feel it was probably coming if Paul kept pressing his point.

That’s cool, but there were few other brushes with reality:

Republicans haven’t changed their economic views over the decades. They continue to be the party that wants to enrich the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, economic or social consequences be damned… so the theme of the night was pretending that Republicans are here to protect the working Joe against the decadent elite as well as the vampiric poor.

Rubio … made it sound like opposing higher wages for working class people will somehow stick it to the educated elite: “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers.”

He meant “fewer” philosophers, not that it mattered:

The audience, stoked by years of right wing media telling them to hate pointy-headed intellectuals, ate it up. But this clearly practiced talking point really crystallized the strategy that nearly every candidate employed on stage, implying that the poor and the wealthy are somehow in cahoots to screw over the middle class. And so the next two and a half hours were spent listening to a bunch of rich Republicans who want to cut taxes for even richer Republicans all pretend that they are fighting for the little guy against those rich bad guys.

Did anyone expect anything else? This was a debate run by conservatives for conservatives, and the premises were not to be questioned. It was a closed loop. The candidates finally got what they wanted. No one else was allowed in – but in the general election everyone is allowed in. These folks haven’t changed all the voter-ID laws yet. Be careful what you wish for.

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