Once More with Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She has a plan to counter that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she’s learned her lessons:

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

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

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

She will also get no break in the media:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curry is one unhappy Democrat:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how does Clinton navigate these currents?

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

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

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

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

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

Go big, Hillary.

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

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

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

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

After all, history is on her side:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Accepting the Inevitable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This might work:

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

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

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

That’s the plan:

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

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

Ah, but even that is a problem:

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

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

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

Just keep that quiet, and do what Obama did:

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

The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Barabak adds this:

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

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

And this:

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

She’s working on that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a lot on the line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This should be obvious:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are his reasons for saying that:

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

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

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

Look what has happened:

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

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

Cooper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marking Time

History hangs heavy in the air here in Hollywood, now that the smog is pretty much gone. We cleaned that up in the eighties, but there’s no cleaning up the curious past. Every corner has a story, and there’s the old Knickerbocker Hotel a few feet north of Hollywood Boulevard, on Ivar Avenue. That opened in June 1929, and on Halloween night, 1936, Harry Houdini’s widow held her tenth séance to contact long-dead her Harry, right there on the roof of that hotel. On January 13, 1943, Frances Farmer was arrested in her room at the hotel after failing to visit her probation officer when scheduled, and she ended locked up in a mental ward for the rest of her life. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio used to meet in the hotel bar, and Elvis Presley stayed in Room 1016 in 1956, when he was out here making his first film, Love Me Tender. William Frawley – the pleasant actor who played Fred Mertz, Lucy’s next door neighbor – lived at the Knickerbocker for years and years, and died on the sidewalk out front. It’s a curious place, and on July 23, 1948, the man who practically invented the way movies would always be made, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on the way to a local hospital, after being discovered unconscious in his room at the Knickerbocker. That would be D. W. Griffith of course. In 1999, a plaque honoring Griffith was placed in the lobby, but now the Knickerbocker is a low-end retirement home, catering solely to the local Russian community. No one there reads the plaque, or can.

That’s too bad. Griffith invented how to tell stories on film – the close-up and the long-shot and medium shots, edited carefully together with quick-cuts or dissolves at just the right time – and his masterwork was released exactly one hundred years ago – The Birth of a Nation – released on February 8, 1915, and presented in two parts separated by an intermission, because this was the first twelve-reel film.

No one had ever tried anything that ambitious before – and it was a racist masterpiece. It was based on the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. The Ku Klux Klan guys were the good guys. There were a lot of protests and the NAACP mounted a campaign to ban the film, which didn’t work and only pissed off Griffith. The next year he came up with Intolerance – throughout history everyone is always picking on creative people and all that. The white man, born in Kentucky, was being defiant, and that was a real spectacle. But the acre where Griffith built the massive Babylon set for that extravaganza, at Sunset and Vermont, is now a giant Vons supermarket with an acre of parking, on black asphalt. There’s no plaque. Few remember Intolerance. They remember Birth of a Nation, the movie that inspired the formation of the “second era” Ku Klux Klan (new and improved) at Stone Mountain down in Georgia that same year, the movie that was used as a recruiting tool for the Klan.

That was one hundred years ago. History may hang heavy in the air here in Hollywood, but because of this film, history hangs heavy everywhere. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb explains that:

In January, 1915, as the Great War raged in Europe and a fraught American public feared its domestic implications, a small group gathered in a Riverside, California, theater for what might best be described as an art experiment. It was the first screening of a film titled “The Clansman,” made by an actor turned director named David Wark Griffith, and it floored the audience that night. Three weeks later, the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures met in New York City and approved the film for showing. In light of the effect that the film had, even in its earliest showings, the director opted to change the film’s title to one more befitting its true ambitions: “Birth of a Nation.”

Griffith had his agenda:

A century after its première, “Birth of a Nation” tends to be seen as a cornerstone of technical achievement tethered to the abominable racialist thinking of the era in which it was produced. It tells the tale of the Stonemans and the Camerons, two families divided by regional animus after the Civil War but ultimately united by the threat posed by emancipated blacks. Delivered on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the power of the film lay not only in Griffith’s effectively inventing cinematography but also in the metaphorical reconciliation its protagonists, offered to a nation still deeply scarred by fratricidal conflict. We think less about its prescience. “Birth of a Nation” envisioned a United States where common racial identity trumped regional affiliation, at least among white people.

There is the context too:

The war in Europe simultaneously choked off the supply of immigrant labor that had transformed American demographics in the preceding three decades and inspired black migration out of the South and into the labor markets of northern and Midwestern cities. Billie Holiday’s classic protest song decried Southern trees that bore strange fruit, but by the twentieth century they had spread far beyond the former Confederacy. Lynchings took place in Oklahoma, Illinois, and California. The Ku Klux Klan, all but resurrected by Griffith’s heroic depiction in his film, developed strongholds in Michigan and Indiana, and northern race riots pockmarked the period immediately following the First World War.

So this was nationalizing the experience of the South:

Historians of the American South have long noted that the region departs from national history in one crucial way: Southerners understood the bitterness of military defeat and vanquished ambition a century before the Vietnam quagmire introduced the rest of the nation to the limits of its power. That legacy of grievance was most profoundly, though by no means solely, articulated by Griffith’s film. Contemporary historians were just as eager to sign on to a version of the past in which the primary victims of the Civil War, and certainly of Reconstruction, were white Southerners.

Robert E. Lee’s surrender, at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 – a hundred and fifty years ago today – was the moment Ulysses S. Grant secured victory for the Union, and also the point at which the very causes and origins of the conflict were recast. Almost immediately afterward, Southerners found it possible to understand themselves as doubly victimized – first by federal tyranny and then by the criminal menace of black supremacy. Griffith played a cameo role in this drama of inverted victimization. …

Already, the resurgent Klan had adapted the fiery cross – a dramatic novelty that Griffith deployed in the film – as part of its official symbolism.

Whatever Griffith was up to, it was working, and as for his next film, Intolerance, Cobb offers this:

It is actually a brief in his own self-defense, a visual metaphor in which his critics, not his racialist acolytes, are in need of a lesson in tolerance. Add to his technical innovations Griffith’s standing as a pioneer in the art of branding victims of racism as the real bigots.

And we were off and running:

In the abstract, these are complicated questions – even many NAACP members felt conflicted about the extent to which freedom of expression should be curtailed to achieve racial egalitarianism. The counterargument is that free speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that propaganda has tangible effects, particularly when it serves to reinforce social relationships that are already inherently violent. The modern debate about the surfeit of violence in American cinema and its societal effects is, in that regard, heir to the battles that surrounded the release of “Birth of a Nation.”

That would mean Griffith is more important that anyone realizes:

The South is recognized as the crucible of the civil-rights struggles of the twentieth century, but strains of Griffith’s version of white reconciliation have animated everything from the riotous resentment of school busing in northern cities in the nineteen-seventies to the inchoate demands to “take the country back” that have echoed through Barack Obama’s Presidency.

D. W. Griffith was the master storyteller, and we’re still telling his story, one hundred years later, and yes, Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, was a hundred and fifty years ago today, and we may still be telling that story too. James C. Cobb, the Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia and a former president of the Southern Historical Association, explains the Appomattox story:

Confederate leaders may have believed they had built a unified nation in 1861, when they framed a new government and sent their troops off to war with hearty assurances of a quick and glorious victory. Amid the centennial observance of those events, however, Robert Penn Warren suggested that this judgement would have been premature; a sense of common southern identity had not actually been “born” at the beginning of the Civil War, but at the end, on April 9, 1865, when “Lee handed Grant his sword” at Appomattox. Indeed, many early enlistees had vowed to fight only “in defense of Virginia” or “my home state,” and some even restricted their allegiances to “the loved ones who call upon me to defend their homes from pillage.”

The challenge of instilling South-wide loyalties loomed even more daunting because Confederate identity would have to be constructed on the fly. Delegates who gathered in Montgomery in early February 1861 managed to draw up the constitutional and governing framework of the Confederate States of America in only five weeks. Scarcely five weeks later their brand new nation-state was plunged into a war that many of them had persuaded their constituents – and perhaps even themselves – would never come.

Reluctant to acknowledge the hard truth of their own Vice-President Alexander Stephens’ declaration that slavery was the fundamental “cornerstone” of their new nation’s existence, Confederate propagandists could devise no more compelling raison d’être than the explanation that, rather than actually repudiating the Union, they were seeking simply to resurrect its founding principles of state sovereignty and federal restraint. Thus, the Confederacy’s identity would be assembled largely from recycled components, appropriated from the nation its people had just abandoned and would soon be fighting. The first was a constitution that basically replicated the one that, as citizens of United States, the Confederates had once sworn to honor and protect.

The whole thing was quite odd:

Although secessionist firebrands like Henry Lewis Benning had led their fellow southerners out of the Union under the banner of “state rights,” their new government was actually no more a decentralized “confederacy” than their old one, but rather the “consolidated Republic” dominated by slaveholders that Benning had envisioned from the start. Even early on, when the military effort was going well, the exigencies of wartime demanded centralized control of production and distribution, leading quickly to complaints over shortages, inefficiency and corruption that would grow increasingly strident as the tide of war turned.

They may not have had that loose confederacy of states after all, but they had their flag, and that would have to do:

From the first, the outmanned but valiant and resilient Confederate fighting men commanded the popular loyalty that the Confederate government had failed to inspire. This transfer of allegiance came through in the common habit of displaying not the national flag, but the starred St. Andrews Cross that had supplanted it on the battlefield, where, General P. G. T. Beauregard noted, it had been “consecrated by the best blood of our country.” Notably, this flag conveyed a sense of commitment to military success, but not to the unpopular government.

Now that flag is everything:

Within days of Lee’s surrender, poet-priest Father Abram Ryan immortalized that now “Conquered Banner,” which, though furled at Appomattox, was both “wreathed around with glory” and destined to “live on in song and story.” Ryan’s weepy ode would be pressed into service repeatedly in the years to come in order to rally white southerners yet again to the defense of their racial institutions. This time, however, instead of the decidedly parochial, localist constituency that had confronted them in 1861, post-bellum southern nationalists could draw on a more regionalized mindset. Its roots lay in the experience of men who had not only fought shoulder-to-shoulder with comrades drawn from distant states, but who had also in many cases traversed a vast geographical area, inhabited by people whose lives and values seemed strikingly similar to their own. These men and their descendants, noted W. J. Cash in his 1941 classic, Mind of the South, were now more likely to respond to the word “southern” with an emotion once reserved solely for “Virginia, or Carolina, or Georgia.”

Cobb argues that that defeat, not victory, is what unified the South, and what actually created the South, as a concept, and David Blight, a professor of American History at Yale, argues that the war isn’t even over:

The Reconstruction era, stretching from 1865 to 1877, was one long referendum on the meaning and memory of the verdicts reached at Appomattox. Differing visions of America’s future were at stake. Well before the war ended, Lincoln proposed a plan of Reconstruction that would be rapid and relatively lenient to former Confederates, and which would include at least the beginnings of black voting rights. Lincoln greatly feared recurrent guerrilla warfare and hoped to keep Reconstruction policy firmly under presidential authority. Hence, his attempts to create new southern state governments with as few as 10 percent of their “loyal” citizens taking oaths to the United States, drafting new constitutions, and then gaining readmission to the Union under executive power. But even before his death, Lincoln faced strong opposition from the “Radicals” in his own Republican party, led by Charles Sumner in the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives. The Radicals fashioned a very different vision of Reconstruction – harsher, longer, and under Congressional control. They treated the ex-Confederate states as “conquered provinces” legitimately taken in war; no state would therefore be readmitted to the Union without federal military occupation, a majority of white voters taking loyalty oaths, and much broader guarantees of black civil and political rights.

Neither Lincoln nor the Radicals, though, conducted treason trials for any ex-Confederates in the wake of this civil war, though millions had indeed committed such offenses by any legal definition. Confederate President Jefferson Davis fled southward after the fall of Richmond in early April, 1865, and after a desperate flight with a small band of aides and cabinet officials, was captured by Union troops near Irwinsville, Georgia on May 10. Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, but he had never been formally indicted or tried, and political pressure eventually led to the Confederate leader’s release on bail, paid largely by wealthy Northerners, in April, 1867. Davis was stripped of his citizenship and could never again hold office, but he lived until 1889, an increasingly public symbol of the Confederate Lost Cause. In a nearly 1200-page memoir, he argued bitterly for the vindication of states’ rights doctrines, for the right of secession, and that the South had never fought to preserve slavery or white supremacy. He also portrayed both systems as wholly justified and natural.

The vindication of states’ rights doctrines, for the right of secession, and that the South had never fought to preserve slavery or white supremacy? Jefferson Davis is on Fox News every evening, one hundred and fifty years later:

As Lincoln implied in his brief address at the Gettysburg cemetery in November, 1863, beginning with “fourscore and seven,” the Civil War, the outcome of which was still far from determined, necessitated a new founding, a re-definition of the United States as a “nation.” Martin Luther King was arguing precisely the same thing for his own era as he delivered the Gettysburg Address of the twentieth century. The civil-rights revolution heralded yet another re-founding, rooted this time more fully in the principle of racial and human equality. King did not reach his “dream” metaphor until the fourteenth minute of a seventeen-minute speech. But in those magnificent moments in the hot summer breeze along the Washington DC mall, King’s rhetoric broke down the segregated gravitational pulls of the two planets – civil rights and Civil War – and brought them into the same orbit. Befitting his role, however, as the leader of a radical, if non-violent protest movement, King’s arguments were hardly mainstream arguments in the Cold War American political culture of 1963. But some of the barriers, at least, around that century-old stream were breaking down.

Much has changed in the fifty years since the crises of 1963 – in law, in schooling, in scholarship, in race relations. But whatever the engines of history actually are, what seems apparent is that the legacies of the American Civil War have tended to subside and reemerge in a never-ending succession of revolutions and counter-revolutions. Indeed, the presidency of Barack Obama might be seen as a robust new chapter in this story. A significant segment of American society hates the President and cannot seem to abide a black family living in the White House.

These things happen:

American society seems to surge forward one moment, and then in the next sink back into polarization over race and ethnicity, over the advent of the nation’s first black president, over the rights of immigrants, over religious tolerance and birthright citizenship, over reproductive freedom, over the use of basic science to understand climate change, over the extent and protection of voting rights, over civil rights based on sexual preference, and over endless and incompatible claims of “liberty” about the possession and use of firearms, taxation, environmental protection, or the right to health insurance. Perhaps above all, America is a society riven by conflict over federalism, the never-ending debate over the proper relation of federal to state power, perhaps the most lasting a legacy of what many nineteenth century Americans called the “secession war” or simply “the rebellion.” In short, despite enormous changes of heart, head and law, Americans still struggle every day to discern and enact that society of equality that the Civil War at least made imaginable.

So we are where we are:

In 1860 and 1861, some Southerners exercised “state sovereignty” as an act of revolution in the interest, as they said over and over themselves, of preserving a racial order founded on slavery. Today, states’ rights claims are advanced by many governors, legislatures, and presidential candidates in the ubiquitous language of “limited government,” or resistance to “big government.” Every now and then, though, these claims are couched in the rhetoric of “secession” or even “nullification” made so infamous during the Civil War era. More often, such claims have manifested in a new Orwellian language etched into laws to protect the “right to work,” or “religious freedom,” or the “integrity of the ballot.” …

History never stops, and although it is an ancient human utopian dream to live above and beyond it, or to ideologically control its pace, only fools think they can turn off its gears. Past and present are always utterly interdependent.

Yes, history never stops. There are just road markers – one hundred and fifty years ago, the end of the Civil War, maybe, and one hundred years ago, the D. W. Griffith movie that let everyone know that the Civil War certainly wasn’t over. Hell, Harry Houdini’s widow is probably still up on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel just down the street, holding another séance to contact long-dead Harry. She’ll probably get D. W. Griffith instead. He’s still hanging around. Everyone is still hanging around. History does hang heavy in the air. There’s no escaping it.

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Before He Disappears

There’s that 1946 sad bar song Angel Eyes – perfect for Frank Sinatra in his rather fine later seen-it-all burnt out years, and a jazz standard because it has great changes – but it’s the narrative that makes the song. There’s the bar, where everyone is loose and happy, except for the guy who feels so out of place. Things aren’t working out for him, and they won’t work out, ever. Somehow the perfect woman got away. He doesn’t know why, nor how that happened, but he knows he shouldn’t be there with all those happy people. Alienation is a bitch, and he does what he must:

Pardon me but I got to run… The fact’s uncommonly clear… I’ve got to find who’s now number-one… and why my angel eyes ain’t here. Excuse me while I disappear.

It’s a song for losers, surrounded by winners, who decide to make a graceful exit. The guy in the song needs to lick his wounds and find out what’s really going on. He misjudged everything. It’s best if he disappears for a while. He needs some time alone. He needs to rethink everything. Who actually is number one, and why isn’t he number one? This is a song that should be Rand Paul’s 2016 campaign song. Sooner or later he will disappear. He should consider doing that gracefully, just slipping out the back door of the bar. He won’t. But he should.

On Tuesday, April 7, 2015, Rand Paul announced he was running for president – and the more he explained his positions on this and that the less anyone knew what he wanted to do about anything – a problem for libertarians who don’t like rules about anything. On Wednesday, April 8, he started campaigning, and things got worse. Ed Kilgore explains the basic problem:

Like most movement conservatives, Paul shares the conviction that the Republican Party lost its way after 1964 – or maybe 1952, or 1932, or 1904 – expert opinions differ – by abandoning its vision of an eternally fixed central government and instead trying to promote what Barry Goldwater mocked as a “dime store New Deal.” But while fellow “constitutional conservatives” like Ted Cruz imagine a winning coalition composed of GOP “base” voters psyched out of their skulls along with nonvoters who have been secretly pining for a rightwing savior, Paul’s electability argument is that his eccentric path back to the policies of the distant past will attract key elements of the other party’s base.

Put simply, Paul offers limited-government conservatives an interesting bargain: They can take America right back to the economic and social policies of the Coolidge Administration – if they give up spying on, imprisoning and sending off to war young people and minorities.

The problem, of course, is that the attractiveness of this bargain depends on how much of the spying, imprisoning and war-making agenda Republicans are willing to give up for electoral victory, and also their assessments of Paul’s credibility as a vote magnet for young and minority voters.

Forget that vote-magnet thing:

Now the conventional wisdom and the public opinion climate among conservatives are demanding that all Republicans more or less support a re-invasion of Iraq, a bellicose posture towards Iran, a blank check for Bibi Netanyahu, and more defense spending. So far Paul is hanging in there, though one can only imagine what Ron Paul thought of his son signing onto Tom Cotton’s letter to Tehran. But the once-fashionable idea that young voters might flock to a Paul-led GOP as the “peace party” in contrast to the “hawkish” Democrats led by Hillary Clinton is becoming increasingly laughable.

Josh Marshall sees that and sees more:

The alleged coalition Paul is striving to create is deeply improbable, if not downright impossible. But quite apart from that, and many other profound liabilities, there’s just one that will inevitably sink him: a long, long history of conspiracy theories which are uniformly whacky and often veer into the rantings of the militia, white supremacist and neo-confederate right. Here’s one that is simply whacky that came to mind as I was reading the Paul coverage this morning.

It goes back to 2008. And Rand Paul is campaigning for his father in Montana. And he’s railing against something called the “NAFTA Superhighway.” As Paul’s father wrote two years earlier, “Proponents envision a ten-lane colossus the width of several football fields, with freight and rail lines, fiber-optic cable lines, and oil and natural gas pipelines running alongside. … The ultimate goal is not simply a superhighway, but an integrated North American Union – complete with a currency, a cross-national bureaucracy, and virtually borderless travel within the Union.”

Haven’t heard of the NAFTA Superhighway? That’s because it doesn’t exist. It never has. It’s not just that it hasn’t been built. The whole thing is a concoction of the Alex Jones, freedomy militia far-right. Even Rand, warning about the dangers understood that people had to be careful talking about it since people might think you’re crazy. “It’s a real thing,” Rand told dad’s supporters, “and when you talk about it, the thing you just have to be aware of is that, if you talk about it like it’s a conspiracy, they’ll paint you as a nut.”

Imagine that.

There’s more here:

A fringe right-wing radio host who believes the government was behind 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and several other catastrophes, has been a key figure in the political rise of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)…

Paul has credited Alex Jones, who heads conspiracy website Infowars.com and an eponymous radio program, for being a vital part of his 2010 Senate campaign. Jones endorsed Paul, turned out followers to his events, and partnered with Paul for fundraising, at one point crashing his website. Since Paul’s election to the Senate, Jones has continued to serve as a key Paul booster, including endorsing him for 2016.

This item goes on and on with details like this:

Paul worried that “martial law” with “mandatory” vaccines could surface. Paul agreed with Jones that Democrats want to start a “shooting war” marked by ammunition confiscation. Paul predicted that an “army of armed EPA agents” would enforce climate regulations. He connected the Obama administration to Nazi Germany. And he promised Jones he would help him fight the “globalist agenda” and help expose a White House adviser’s purported support for eugenics and forced drugs in the water supply.

Rand Paul is not saying those things now – he knows better, or he’s evolved, or he was just kidding – but he wasn’t kidding and those things are out there. It’s what is already out there that’s always the problem, and that was a real problem with his first day of campaigning:

Sen. Rand Paul clashed with Today show host Savannah Guthrie over her line of questioning during an interview Wednesday morning, criticizing her for editorializing over perceived changes in his political views since his election to the Senate.

“You have had views on foreign policy in the past that were somewhat unorthodox, but you seem to have changed over the years,” Guthrie told the Kentucky Republican, who was appearing via satellite from Nashua, New Hampshire. “You once said Iran was not a threat, now you say it is. You once proposed ending foreign aid to Israel, now you support it, at least for the time being, and you once offered to drastically cut … defense spending.”

But before she continues her question, or gets to the actual question, he stops her cold, and he talked over her, louder than she could talk:

“Why don’t we let me explain instead of talking over me, OK?” Paul interjected. “Before we go through a litany of things you say I’ve changed on, why don’t you ask me a question, ‘Have I changed my opinion?’ That would sort of a better way to approach an interview.”

“Is Iran still not a threat?” Guthrie asked in the cross-talk.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Listen, you’ve editorialized,” Paul said. “Let me answer a question. You ask a question, and you say ‘Have your views changed?’ instead of editorializing and saying my views have changed.”

He told her she didn’t know how to do her job. That’s that mansplaining thing – all women know about it. There are certain things you have to explain to women. The pretty little things just don’t know anything, really, and Republicans seem to understand that – let me tell you how your body really works and all that stuff. Let me tell you what you really want. He was just trying to be helpful.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog isn’t so sure about that:

I don’t think the apparent gender condescension will hurt Paul – right-wing women (and men) think feminism means supporting right-wing women exclusively (defending Sarah Palin, yes; defending Sandra Fluke, no), and they think sexism is something only liberals engage in (just as liberals, in their eyes, are America’s only racists). So attacking Guthrie is not a near-term problem for Paul.

What is a problem for Paul is what he was saying as he attacked Guthrie. He’d actually be cheered by the right if he lashed out at a female “liberal media” journalist while passionately defending boilerplate conservative positions. But Paul was defending his past assertions that it would be good to phase out all foreign aid, including aid to Israel. (This at a time when the right is absolutely smitten with Israel.) He does say, in the Guthrie interview, that he doesn’t want to phase out aid to Israel right away, and he’d rather phase out aid to other, more hostile countries first, and he does point out that Benjamin Netanyahu, in a 1996 speech to Congress, proposed a gradual phase-out of U.S. aid to Israel. But it’s nearly twenty years after that speech, and it sure doesn’t look as if Netanyahu wants to revisit that idea anytime soon. In the meantime, Rand Paul is still talking favorably about zeroing out aid to Israel. If you’re getting into beefs with reporters as part of a campaign to win Republican primaries, this is not what you want to be fighting about.

Nor do you want to be defending the assertion you made a few years ago that Iran wasn’t a significant threat to the United States. True conservatives think post-Shah Iran has always been a threat to the United States. (Pay no attention to that Iran-contra action in the Reagan years.) If you’re going to draw attention to yourself by getting into a spat, you don’t want to do it saying that.

Either way this didn’t go well and Salon’s Joan Walsh is not happy at all:

He simplistically and condescendingly walked her through the world according to Rand… What a steaming load of entitlement. Paul interrupts an interviewer, then blames her for talking over him and lectures her on “a better way to approach an interview.” When she accepts his premise, and asks the question the way he suggests she should ask it, he won’t accept it, and berates her yet again.

If all this sounds familiar, it should: Paul had a similar tantrum with another female interviewer, CNBC’s Kelly Evans, just two months ago. You’ll recall: Evans asked Paul about his odd statements questioning vaccine policy in the wake of a dangerous measles outbreak. The Kentucky senator not only bristled, he rudely shushed the news anchor, literally, with a finger to his lips. “Let me finish. Hey, Kelly, shhh. Calm down a bit here, Kelly. Let me answer the question.”

At least he didn’t tell her what her question should be.

Walsh adds this:

There’s a lot going on here. To be fair, Guthrie hit Paul with the toughest challenge for his campaign. He has, in fact, moderated some of his foreign policy views, which risks losing him his father’s passionate, anti-intervention base of support. Yet the neocon hawks hate him anyway, and they’re spending millions to derail his candidacy before it gets off the ground.

And Paul’s entitlement may not only be an issue of gender. I’ve written often about Randy Paul the pampered princeling, who acts as though his every uttering is genius, who clearly wasn’t shushed enough at the dinner table growing up.

On the other hand, it’s hard to leave gender out of it, since I can’t think of a time when Paul treated a male interviewer so poorly. Not just poorly, but contemptuously, and with an evident irritation at the shocking spectacle of a journalist doing her job.

Here’s her theory about this:

Paul either gets his buttons pushed in these situations and he just can’t control himself, or he’s deliberately insulting female journalists to play to the GOP base’s distrust of a) journalists and b) uppity career women. I’m not sure which is worse, that he’s got a remarkably short fuse, or that he’d insult a female journalist to play to his party’s caveman base.

But I know one thing: It would be a lot of fun to see him in a debate with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

He won’t get there at this rate, but he has his explanation:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) denied on Wednesday afternoon that he has a problem with female journalists – just hours after he got into a testy exchange with NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie.

Paul was asked during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the accusations from his critics that his interactions with journalists have a sexist bent.

“I think I’ve been universally short tempered and testy with both male and female reporters. I’ll own up to that,” Paul said. “And it’s hard sometimes. As you know, like during our interview right now, I’m looking only at a camera and it’s hard to have a true interaction sometimes, particularly if it’s a hostile interviewer and so I do think that interviews should be questions and not necessarily editorializing.”

Paul said if he’s been interviewed by someone who’s editorializing “you feel somewhat at a loss on the other end. You can’t see the person who you think is mischaracterizing a position and not really asking a question.”

And to be fair, he has a problem with male journalists too:

Later on Wednesday, Paul got into it again, this time with a male journalist, the Associated Press’s Philip Elliot, when pressed to explain his stance on abortions. Paul, according to Elliot, “grew testy” and said at one point “I gave you about a five-minute answer. Put in my five minute answer.”

Paul told CNN that he “will have to get better at holding my tongue and holding my temper, but I think it is pretty equal-opportunity, not directed towards one male or one female.”

Fine, but Steve M brings up the technology question:

First of all, news organizations don’t put Rand Paul and only Rand Paul in this special sensory-deprivation situation. Every satellite interviewee has to go through the same I-can’t-see-the-interviewer thing. And oddly enough, quite a few of them manage it with a degree of politeness and civility, even when asked tough questions by an unseen interviewer (or fellow interviewee).

But beyond that, I just want to remind Senator Paul that ordinary people frequently have to deal with a similar technology that deprives us of the opportunity to look into the eyes of the person talking to us. That technology is called “the telephone.” Many of us deal with bosses, clients, businesses we have disputes with, doctors’ offices, customer service representatives, and others over the telephone – all without seeing the faces of the people we’re talking to. Just like Rand Paul in those interviews that make him so cranky! And sometimes our interactions make us cranky too! And yet many of us manage not to lash out at bosses or service techs or the seventh so-called customer service person to transfer our call.

(There’s another technology called “email” that also deprives us of face-to-face contact. And there’s “texting.” We use these technologies, and most of the time we somehow manage not to fly off the handle, despite not seeing a human face while using them. I don’t know how the heck we do it!)

Steve M sees the real problem here:

Rand Paul is a spoiled brat and a whiner. He thinks he’s the most put-upon person who ever lived – this despite the fact that he chose to run for the Senate and then the presidency, and did so as a politician who deliberately courts controversy. Want to avoid all this pain, senator? Get a real job. Go back to being a full-time ophthalmologist. Stop demanding sympathy because you went into politics and it turned out not to be beanbag.

Rand Paul should stick with Fox News, and David Weigel notes what happened when Rand Paul did that:

After Tuesday’s announcement in Louisville, Paul (flanked by security, some of it from Fox News) strolled over to a square platform where the Fox News host was waiting. While Texas Senator Ted Cruz had given Hannity an in-studio interview, Paul was meeting the host in his home state, with a backdrop of supporters waving pre-approved signs and new 2016 campaign swag. At commercial breaks, Paul spokesman Sergio Gor would signal the crowd; it would break out in cheers. …

The result was a largely friendly interview that allowed Paul to advance his message and settle scores – and to bracket off anything related to Ron Paul as irrelevant. Hannity began a series of questions about Iran by mentioning a new ad from the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, a 501(c)(4) that played a 2007 clip of Rand Paul telling radio host Alex Jones that it was “ridiculous” to think that Iran posed a threat to American security. (The ad did not mention the age of the quote; it is currently on the air on New Hampshire.)

“You know, things do change over time,” Paul said. “I also wasn’t campaigning for myself; I was campaigning to help my father at the time.”

Hannity let that slide. He allowed Paul to frame his opposition to new sanctions that would scuttle the Iran negotiations as his way of telling Obama he’d “have to bring a deal back to” Congress.

These Fox News journalists know how to do their jobs:

Paul had mostly remained quiet about the Iran deal until his launch speech and this interview. He’d also totally avoided discussing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Hannity brought it up in the nicest possible way:

“What is your take on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and – and the Indiana bill, the 1993 bill signed by Hillary Clinton’s husband?” he said, furthering the false notion that the federal RFRA was just like the one Indiana had passed.

“I think our founders would be aghast that anyone would think that they could tell you what do something – to perform a ceremony or be part of a ceremony that’s against your religious beliefs,” Paul said. “You know, that being said, though, I think the law ought to be neutral and I don’t – I don’t think we ought to treat people unfairly and, you know, I’m all for treating people with respect and tolerance … people ought to understand that people’s opinions change through persuasion. And if I really want to convince you to come to my political way of beliefs or my religious beliefs, you know, I don’t go to evangelism, like if I go to Africa, I don’t evangelize by forcing you to accept my religion.”

Hannity took that answer, whatever the hell it meant, and went to a commercial break, and Weigel notes this about Hannity:

He’d actually given Paul more trouble with another question, about a video that showed him asking whether Dick Cheney’s ties to Halliburton made him evolve from a skeptic of invading Iraq to the biggest advocate for war.

“You took a shot at Dick Cheney back in 2007, saying that maybe…”

Paul interrupted him. “Once again,” he said, “before I was involved in politics for myself.”

“Oh, OK,” said Hannity.

“That was a long time ago,” said Paul.

This was not true. The video was shot in April 2009, shortly before Rand Paul declared his successful campaign for U.S. Senate. Hannity had a golden opportunity to call out the candidate, to argue that he was not so far from Ron Paul as he claimed.

But the Fox News host whiffed. He let Paul walk back the 2009 comments about Cheney.

“That was probably over the top and mean-spirited,” said Paul. “I shouldn’t have questioned his motives or his patriotism.”

Everything is fine on Fox News, but not everyone in America relies on Fox News to know everything that’s going on in the world, at least not yet. Rand Paul may end up like that guy in the song in a room full of loose and happy people, wondering who actually is number one, and why it isn’t him – the guy who slips out. Excuse me while I disappear…

Rand Paul, given his unshakable self-regard, may never say those words, but he could get tossed out of that bar for being a cantankerous jerk. Of course that would be a different song.

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Another Political Curiosity

It’s odd to have been born in Pittsburgh and to have done graduate work at Duke University and to end up elsewhere, but life here in Hollywood, just off the Sunset Strip, is pleasant enough. And really, lots of people were born in Pittsburgh and ended up elsewhere – Gertrude Stein and Andy Warhol, and Billy Strayhorn, and Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant, and Henry Mancini (Aliquippa actually) and the current Republican governor next door in Ohio, John Kasich (from McKees Rocks, actually) and so on. The current first-term senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, was born in Pittsburgh, in 1963, but in 1968 the family moved to Texas.

Everyone leaves. His father, Ron Paul, the goofball libertarian, settled the family in Texas, where he ended up representing various congressional districts from 1976 through 2013 and ran for president off and on. The Libertarian Party nominated him in 1988. The Republican Party never would. They found him alternatively amusing or alarming. No one took him seriously, but he was fine with that. He didn’t take them seriously, and he had a day job anyway. He was a gynecologist with a medical degree from Duke University. His son Rand has a medical degree from Duke University too, in ophthalmology. After his residency, Rand Paul went into practice in Kentucky. No one goes back to Pittsburgh.

The odd thing is that Rand Paul is like his father. In 1995, he passed the American Board of Ophthalmology boards on his first try, so he was officially a board-certified ophthalmologist for ten years, but he got in a pissing contest with the American Board of Ophthalmology over their rules. Along with two hundred other ophthalmologists, he formed the National Board of Ophthalmology – they’d certify themselves. Rand Paul ran that organization, which was incorporated in 1999, but he allowed it to be dissolved in 2000 after not filing the required paperwork with the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office. He doesn’t like rules, but he recreated the board in September 2005, three months before his certification from the official American Board of Ophthalmology lapsed. Now he certifies himself, and he’s the organization’s president, his wife is the vice-president, and his father-in-law is the organization’s secretary. None of this is officially recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties, but he doesn’t much care, and his National Board of Ophthalmology was dissolved on September 10, 2011, anyway. Apparently he is a fine ophthalmologist, but he’s doesn’t like other people’s rules about what he does. He’s a libertarian, like his father.

Rand Paul doesn’t have an undergraduate degree either. He was an honors student at Baylor – Biology and English – but at the time the medical school at Duke didn’t require an undergraduate degree, so he skipped all that nonsense and moved on. He goes his own way, and now he’s running for president:

U.S. Senator Rand Paul accused his fellow Republicans on Tuesday of contributing to Washington’s dysfunction, launching a 2016 White House bid with a vow to shatter the status quo and defend individual freedoms.

The first-term senator from Kentucky, a libertarian with a reputation for challenging party orthodoxy, criticized both Republicans and Democrats for helping to drive up the federal debt and reduce personal liberties.

He cast himself as an anti-establishment reformer who could break partisan gridlock and win new converts to the party, saying his fellow Republicans fall prey to the allure of special interests in Washington.

“The Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives must be stopped,” he told cheering supporters while standing on a flag-draped stage in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Both parties and the entire political system are to blame,” he said. “Too often, when Republicans have won, we’ve squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine. That’s not who I am.”

Paul is the second Republican to jump into the 2016 race after Ted Cruz, and he’s a long shot too, but he says it’s his time:

In a speech that kicked off a four-day campaign trip to the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the 52-year-old former eye surgeon took a shot at unnamed Republican foes, warning against nominating someone from the party who is a “Democrat-lite.”

He’s not like anyone else. That’s his thing, but that may not fly:

Paul is now in the second tier of Republican candidates, drawing the support of 8.4 percent of Republicans, according to a March Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll. He is behind former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has said he is exploring a bid, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He is in a statistical tie with four other Republicans: Cruz, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

That doesn’t bode well, and the Washington Post’s editorial board immediately pounced:

Not satisfied to follow his father, a politically marginal ideologue with a small but fervent following, Mr. Paul has tried to polish the rough edges of his father’s extreme views over the past four years. In fact, his central pitch is that he is more in touch with more Americans than anyone else running, capable of uniting them across parties in the cause of personal and economic freedom. “The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor,” he said Tuesday.

In some cases, Mr. Paul’s efforts have led him in good directions; he has spoken to diverse audiences from Bowie State to Berkeley and championed causes that other Republicans tend to neglect: ending overly harsh punishments for drug crimes, allowing felons to vote, reenergizing inner-city communities.

But there’s a lot to worry about in Mr. Paul’s platform and history. In seemingly constant fear of government “tyranny,” he indulges in right-wing populism that’s counterproductive when it’s not plain scary. He has stoked overwrought anxieties that the Obama administration wants to use drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil; demanded to audit the already closely monitored Federal Reserve, which is independent of politicians such as Mr. Paul for a reason; and railed against bank bailouts that prevented economic calamity.

A key piece of his plan to revitalize poor urban communities involves ending clean air, clean water and land conservation rules.

Yeah, he doesn’t like rules:

During his 2010 Senate run, he criticized the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it regulated private businesses. When he got to the Senate, he failed the closest thing to a test of legislative sanity, refusing to raise the federal debt limit despite the risk of crippling damage to the world economy. He also proposed ravaging cuts for almost every service Americans expect the government to provide.

But then there’s foreign policy:

People should not believe that “a government inept at home will somehow succeed in building nations abroad,” he said Tuesday. In the past, he has called for deeply scaling back State Department and Pentagon spending. He has since distanced himself from his proposed defense cuts but hasn’t repudiated his goal to cut foreign aid and curb U.S. involvement in a world that would look much worse absent U.S. leadership.

What is he proposing? Who knows? Slate’s Jamelle Bouie says it may not matter anyway:

For four years, Rand Paul has been running for president. And for those four years, he’s tried be a different kind of Republican.

He went to Howard University to win over black Americans, to Silicon Valley to win the technology set, to Detroit to tout criminal-justice reform, and to other colleges across the country to win over young voters with a message of privacy and drug reform. At the same time, he’s made a pitch to evangelicals, tried to appeal to conservative business interests, and continued to cultivate his base of right-wing libertarians.

But, as everyone who runs for president eventually learns, the party doesn’t want a different kind of anything. The party wants someone acceptable – someone who seems electable and who has the support of other factions and interests in the coalition. Paul’s goal is to bring his brand of Republicanism to a broader group of Americans across the political spectrum, to show that there’s something for everyone. The Republican Party’s goal, by contrast, is to choose a nominee who best represents the party as a whole.

There’s no getting around that, except by tap-dancing:

“This message of liberty is for all Americans, Americans from all walks of life. The message of liberty, opportunity, and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform, or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor,” he said in his speech, before turning to language favored by more traditional Republicans. “Self-esteem can’t be given; it must be earned. Work is not punishment; work is the reward.”

A few lines later, he seesawed back to his priorities, denouncing the so-called crony capitalism of Washington and the Obama administration – “Politically connected cronies get taxpayer dollars by the hundreds of millions and poor families across America continue to suffer” – and then sliding to a rhetorical place in which rank-and-file Republicans could feel comfortable. “I want to see millions of Americans back at work. In my vision for America, we’ll bring back manufacturing jobs that pay well. How? We’ll dramatically lower the tax on American companies that wish to bring their profits home.”

He’s being careful, but that’s dangerous too:

More difficult is Paul’s long-standing opposition to Republican and Democratic foreign policy, which he sees as too militant and interventionist. “A more restrained foreign policy is the true conservative foreign policy,” he said in 2011, marking a position at odds with most Republicans and making him anathema to conservatives with strong, aggressive views on national security.

Paul seems to know he’s alienated the foreign-policy establishment, and for the past year, he’s tried to move closer to the pack, most prominently with a muddled call for action against ISIS. “ISIS is now a threat. Let’s get on with destroying them,” he said on the Senate floor in 2014. “But make no mistake – arming Islamic rebels in Syria will only make it harder to destroy ISIS.”

Since then, Paul has continued to refine his message by slowly abandoning his prior commitments, or at least subordinating them to more bellicose rhetoric. Hence the part of his announcement speech in which he declares that “the enemy” to the United States is “radical Islam” and promises to “do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind,” following up with a hawkish jab at Obama’s approach to diplomacy. “I believe in applying Reagan’s approach to foreign policy to the Iran issue. Successful negotiations with untrustworthy adversaries are only achieved from a position of strength. … I will oppose any deal that does not end Iran’s nuclear ambitions and have strong verification measures.”

At this rate he won’t get the nomination:

Paul came off muddled, with a mishmash of positions that couldn’t congeal into a coherent vision; if this is how he’ll approach the primary, he may earn a little ground everywhere, but he won’t build a foundation (at least outside of his father’s supporters). After all, every other faction of conservatism has a champion. If you want a permissive business environment and wide deregulation, you can choose Scott Walker. If you want electability and potentially broader appeal, you can choose Jeb Bush. If you want evangelical fervor, there’s Ted Cruz, and if you want a hawkish foreign policy, there’s Marco Rubio.

Rand Paul’s “Have It Your Way” approach seems destined for failure even before we consider the positions – specifically, his history on foreign policy – that make him radioactive to important parts of the Republican primary electorate. There’s simply nothing that sets him apart from the crowd.

Joshua Keating also notes the opposition in Paul’s own party:

Two years ago, in the days of Snowden and Benghazi, Paul’s isolationist (though he rejects the description), anti-militarist foreign policy might have been less of an electoral liability. His best-known action on foreign policy, a 13-hour filibuster against the use of drones to target U.S. citizens, polled well with voters. But with the focus on ISIS, Iran, and a seemingly ever increasing number of destabilizing Middle East conflicts, you can expect Paul’s rivals to cast his foreign policy views as dangerously naïve.

Sen. Lindsey Graham gave a preview of how rivals will attack Paul earlier this week when Graham discussed the Iran deal on CBS’ Face the Nation. “The best deal, I think, comes with a new president. Hillary Clinton would do better. I think everybody on our side, except maybe Rand Paul, could do better,” he said.

In building the case that Paul is to the left of the Democrats on foreign policy, the centerpiece of the argument will be Israel.

That could be deadly, but it’s his fault:

The perception of Paul as anti-Israel is due mainly to his proposed federal budget from 2011, shortly after he entered the Senate, which would have entirely eliminated U.S. foreign aid. Sensing an opening, Democrats pounced on the fact that this would entail ending support for Israel. (No one seemed all that concerned about the other 30-odd countries that would lose assistance, but that’s another issue.) Paul not very convincingly tried to argue that Israel would be “strengthened” by this development and that it was in line with the views of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has since, even less convincingly, tried to argue that he never proposed cutting aid in the first place. …

In any case, pro-Israel Republicans don’t seem that convinced by Paul’s change of heart on support for Israel. It’s gotten to the point that Paul was mocked by right-wing media outlets for clapping with insufficient enthusiasm during Netanyahu’s speech to congress last month.

Democrats would also certainly relish a chance to retake the pro-Israel mantle in this race should Paul win the nomination.

None of that is good, but Keating would like Rand Paul to be just Rand Paul:

Paul’s current strategy seems to be to argue that he never deviated from the party line on Israel and Iran in the first place. In general, once the campaign gets into full swing, his foreign policy and national security views will probably come out sounding a lot less distinctive from those of the other Republicans (and Democrats) in the race than they did back in 2011. This is a shame.

An unfiltered Paul in the race might have served as a foil for the other candidates to prove their hawkishness (the role his father Ron played in the last two elections), but there would have been at least a chance of a debate on how America should approach its role in the world with multiple points of view represented.

That won’t happen. The man will be tamed by the process, which will make him even less distinctive, but for now, Justin Raimondo offers this:

At a January forum with fellow Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Paul challenged his colleagues’ hawkish showboating on Iran: “Are you ready to send ground troops into Iran? Are you ready to bomb them? Are you ready to send in 100,000 troops? I’m a big fan of … trying the diplomatic option as long as we can. If it fails, I will vote to resume sanctions and I would vote to have new sanctions. But if you do it in the middle of negotiations, you’re ruining it.'”

Two months later, he was “ruining it” by putting his signature on an open letter to the Iranian leadership. Authored by arch-neoconservative Sen. Tom Cotton, the letter basically told Tehran that a Republican in the White House would nullify any deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

His explanation for this complete reversal was baffling. He told Glenn Beck that it is “kind of crazy” for anyone to question his decision to sign: “Do I have any regrets about informing another country of how our Constitution works?”

He told a different story at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Claiming to support the diplomatic talks, he said: “I want the president to negotiate from a position of strength, which means that he needs to be telling them in Iran, ‘I’ve got Congress to deal with.'”

How is it helpful to tell the Iranians that any agreement they sign may expire in two years? Cotton is nothing if not forthright: He has said he wants to “blow up” the negotiations, and certainly his letter aimed at doing just that. For Paul to join in this sabotage attempt was intellectually indefensible – and entirely in character.

He’s the guy that simply goes his own way and no one ever knows what to expect:

As a U.S.-backed movement seized power in Kiev, Paul called for “respectful relations” with the Kremlin: “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time, and I don’t think that is a good idea.”

A few months later he was demanding that President Vladimir Putin be “punished,” invoking “our role as a global leader to be the strongest nation in opposing Russia’s latest aggression.” Putin, said Paul, was guilty of “violating the Budapest Memorandum and Russia must learn that the U.S. will isolate it if it insists on acting like a rogue nation.” Here’s the thing: The Budapest Memorandum was never ratified by Congress. It was signed by President Clinton, who didn’t bother to consult the Senate. It’s kind of crazy – as Paul would say – that it’s necessary to inform the senator how our Constitution works.

You may not remember that Budapest Memorandum – but no else remembers it either – and Raimondo isn’t finished:

Here’s one last example. In June, Paul wrote an op-ed piece on the Islamic State crisis for the Wall Street Journal, asking: “What would airstrikes accomplish? We know that Iran is aiding the Iraqi government against ISIS. Do we want to in effect become Iran’s air force? What’s in this for Iran? Why should we choose a side, and if we do, who are we really helping?”

Good questions, and yet it wasn’t long before the senator was advocating airstrikes and calling for a formal declaration of war against Islamic State.

I’m a libertarian and I was, as recently as a few months ago, enthusiastic about Paul.

He started out as “a different kind of Republican” – a characterization his campaign never tires of invoking. But Paul’s response to the barrage of attacks unleashed by GOP mandarins has been to deny this difference.

The guy is useless, and Bill Schneider puts this in perspective:

Paul is more of a curiosity than a contender. He’s trying to maintain his libertarian creds and at the same time reassure conservatives that he really is one of them. His explicit objective is to change the Republican Party so that it can be competitive in the New America. Paul’s goal is to bring in more minorities, more young people and more poor people. “Those of us who have enjoyed the American dream must break down the wall that separates us from the other America,” Paul said on Tuesday. The problem is that conservatives have spent a lot of time building that wall.

Rand Paul doesn’t get it:

Nominations are controlled by partisans, and you’re not likely to win their favor by telling them what’s wrong with their party. John McCain tried to do that when he first ran for the Republican nomination in 2000. It didn’t work.

Paul calls himself a conservative, but his views on a number of issues are suspect to the conservative establishment. Like military intervention and government surveillance and criminal justice reform. Paul has tried to mend fences with conservatives, but the more he does that, the more he alienates the libertarian base he inherited from his father. He has reassured Christian conservatives that he is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. That won’t sit well with many libertarians and may limit his appeal to women and to young people.

The only way Paul can get the Republican nomination is by bringing in huge numbers of new primary voters to overwhelm Republican regulars. And the only way to do that is by stirring their passion. Diluting the message won’t help.

This is a doomed effort:

Suppose Paul shakes up the GOP as Pat Robertson did in Iowa in 1988 and Pat Buchanan did in New Hampshire in 1996. The empire will strike back. Establishment Republicans don’t want loony libertarians in their board rooms or their country clubs. …

Here’s a prediction. In the unlikely event that Rand Paul wins the Republican nomination, John McCain will endorse Hillary Clinton for President.

There you have it. This guy is going nowhere. He’s the political curiosity of the day, but he’s just another guy from Pittsburgh who did graduate work at Duke, even if he never graduated from anywhere, who eventually ended up someplace else, and is of no significance whatsoever. It happens, said the blogger from Pittsburgh, who did graduate work at Duke, from Hollywood, at midnight.

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Selling the Thing

Back in the sixties there was that anti-Nixon poster – Would You Buy a Used Car from This Man? At the time, and probably still, the least respected occupations in America were that of car salesman and, of course, politician. Those professions, or careers, were always at the bottom of this list, and they’re related. With the car salesmen, part of that had to do with the product. Remember the Pinto, the Gremlin and the Vega? But that was only part of it. In both cases the problem was really the process – no one likes getting jerked around by a smooth-talker in a cheap suit, pretending to be your friend. Car salesmen are bad enough, but politicians promise things that everyone knows they can’t deliver – Peace with Honor, or prosperity for all, or both at the same time, or that very bad things will happen to other Americans you and your friends don’t particularly care for, and everyone else will pay taxes but you. No one believes a word of it. Our political system doesn’t allow for any of that. People simply vote for the smooth-talker whose heart is the right place. They don’t expect much, but the other guy was just a smooth-talker in a cheap suit, or for some, Hillary Clinton is just a smooth-talker in a cheap pants suit.

Politics is sales. There’s something sleazy about it – or it’s tragically sad. Arthur Miller wrote that famous play about the tragic sadness of that clueless committed salesman – but someone is always trying to sell us something. In early March this year it was the Republicans. They brought the “real” leader of the free world to the United States to address Congress, to upbraid and shame our young and hopelessly naïve president – invited to do so by the few remaining Real Americans – those who prefer war to diplomacy, and don’t like gays, and who prefer minorities stay in the background, quietly, and like their women modest and generally silent. That would be the Republicans of course.

Everything had been arranged. Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to come and to set things straight, behind that hopelessly naïve president’s back. There was no need to tell him what was up – and those few remaining Real Americans would thus show the rest of the other whining and useless Americans, who voted the wrong way, twice, what a real leader does, or at least what a real leader says. That seemed to be the general idea. After this, no one would ever vote for a Democrat again, not even for dogcatcher. The big guy would show Americans the mistake they had made, twice. This was a political sales job, and the smooth-talker did his thing:

With dark warnings and a call to action, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel used one of the world’s most prominent venues on Tuesday to denounce what he called a “bad deal” being negotiated with Iran and to mount an audacious challenge to President Obama.

In an extraordinary spectacle pitting the leaders of two close allies against each other, Mr. Netanyahu took the rostrum in the historic chamber of the House of Representatives to tell a joint meeting of Congress that instead of stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Mr. Obama’s diplomatic initiative “would all but guarantee” that it does, in turn setting off a regional arms race.

This was not well received – here many thought this guy had no business telling us our president was a fool, and that our president’s constitutional authority to negotiate treaties, and to be the one person to speak for America to the world, should be ditched for the idea that the 535 voting members of Congress – 435 Representatives and 100 Senators – should be the ones to speak for America in one voice.

How the hell was that supposed to work? Was this guy calling for coup that would rid us of this president, by making him pretty much a ceremonial figurehead? Would that apply to future presidents? What if the next one is a Republican? Meanwhile, back in Israel, many worried that this was going to ruin things with the one nation that had always supported Israel. Israel was telling America how to behave, or else. Or else – what was Israel going to do? Were they going to find someone else to send them three billion dollars a year, and arms and technology, like that Iron Dome system, and veto any move against them at the United Nations? Would that be Putin, or the Chinese? Or were they simply waiting for the Republicans to put Obama in his place, to completely neuter him, any day now?

None of it worked. Obama reached his framework agreement with Iran – a far better agreement than anyone imagined – so this sales pitched failed spectacularly. The Republicans changed no minds either – those who thought this was a brilliant move preened. Everyone else seemed to think they had been real jerks, and now there is this:

The number of Americans who view Israel as an ally of the United States has sharply decreased, according to a new poll published Thursday. Only 54% of Americans polled said that Israel is their country’s ally, a decline from 68% in 2014 and 74% in 2012.

Rasmussen Reports, who conducted the poll, said Israel had “tumbled down the list.” By contrast, 86% and 84% see Canada and Britain respectfully as the US’s allies.

When broken down along party political lines, 76% of Republicans view Israel an ally of the US compared to only 45% of Democrats and 47% of Independents.

David Atkins is not surprised:

Republicans will no doubt jump on the fact that most of the weakening of support for Israel as an ally comes from Democrats, and accuse Democrats of anti-Semitism and the usual even more scurrilous charges.

But the reality is that Netanyahu and the far right in Israel have partisanized the relationship and become cheerleaders for Republicans. The Israeli far right desperately wants to bomb Iran, and they explicitly reject a two-state solution for Palestine. Those positions are detrimental to Israel’s security and immoral on their face – and they run explicitly counter to world opinion and mainstream Democratic policy in the United States.

Given how politically divided the U.S. has become, it’s not surprising that an Israel that aligns itself in a strongly partisan way with extreme policy positions would find itself rapidly losing support from the citizens of the country it needs most for aid and defense.

Atkins notes that with Netanyahu’s new and solid electoral victory at home, this is how it going to be for the next several years or beyond. Netanyahu made his sales pitch. America needs to change its ways, and needs to neuter this dangerous president, or they’ll no longer be our best friends forever. Most Americans said fine. We have other friends.

That’s not what Benjamin Netanyahu expected, so it was time for a new sales pitch:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says there’s “still time to get a better deal” as he slammed last week’s Iranian nuclear framework agreement.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Netanyahu said the preliminary agreement struck between Iran, the United States and five other world powers failed to allow the destruction of any of Iran’s centrifuges or dismantle its nuclear facilities. And he was skeptical that Iran would submit to the inspections included in the deal.

“I wouldn’t bet the shop on inspections because totalitarian regimes have a way of cheating,” Netanyahu said.

It’s not too late to change everything, and really, honest, he has nothing against the skinny black guy:

Asked if he trusts Obama, Netanyahu said: “I trust the president is doing what he thinks is good for the United States.”

That was a bit of damning with faint praise, but it was a shift, and he was just trying to be reasonable:

After the deal was announced, Obama said this is a “good deal,” and the alternative was war with Iran.

Like many Republicans who have criticized the agreement, Netanyahu disagreed, arguing that sanctions against Iran should be ratcheted up further to get more concessions from Tehran.

“The alternatives are not either this bad deal or war,” he said. “There’s a third alternative, and that is standing firm, ratcheting up the pressure until you get a better deal.”

Later, on ABC’s “This Week,” Netanyahu argued further sanctions could press Iran into accepting conditions it’s currently rejecting.

“What they don’t accept today, they can accept tomorrow,” he said. “With the drop in oil, those sanctions have become even more effective. That’s what got Iran to the table in the first place. And then, once they’re at the table, why let up on those sanctions? In fact, that’s the time to increase the pressure and to get tomorrow what you can’t get today.”

In his address to congress, Netanyahu said this better deal would include dismantling all nuclear gizmos of any kind in Iran forever, and a complete change in Iran’s foreign policy, so they’d no longer support any bad guys anywhere and that Iran recognize Israel’s right to exist, with the implicit suggestion Iran recognize Israel, officially and diplomatically. He wasn’t that specific this time, but we do have a Jewish grandmother out here who was not impressed with young Bibi:

Appearing after Netanyahu on CNN, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the prime minister wasn’t presenting a real alternative to the deal with his opposition.

“This can backfire on him, and I wish that he would contain himself, because he has put out no real alternative,” she said. “I think this is the best that’s going to get done.”

And young Bibi is not the only one making a sales pitch:

President Barack Obama says he is “absolutely committed to making sure” Israel maintains a military advantage over Iran.

His comments to The New York Times, published on Sunday, come amid criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the deal that the United States and five other world powers struck with Iran. Tehran agreed to halt the country’s nuclear ambitions, and in exchange, Western powers would drop sanctions that have hurt the Iran’s economy.

Obama said he understands and respects Netanyahu’s stance that Israel is particularly vulnerable and doesn’t “have the luxury of testing these propositions” in the deal.

“But what I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them,” Obama said.

That, he said, should be “sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table,” he said.

And he hopes this sounds reasonable:

Obama said even if Iran can’t be trusted, there’s still a case to be made for the deal.

“In fact, you could argue that if they are implacably opposed to us, all the more reason for us to want to have a deal in which we know what they’re doing and that, for a long period of time, we can prevent them from having a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.

And it’s time to get serious:

President Obama says it would be a “fundamental misjudgment” to condition a nuclear deal with Iran on the country’s recognition of Israel.

Obama made the comments Monday during an interview with Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep.

Here’s the sales pitch:

“The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms,” Obama said. “And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment. I want to return to this point: We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing. That’s exactly why we don’t want to have nuclear weapons. If suddenly Iran transformed itself to Germany or Sweden or France then there would be a different set of conversations about their nuclear infrastructure.”

In short, what is Bibi thinking? What’s this “better deal” he imagines? Samuel Berger, the national security adviser to President Clinton from 1997-2001, says it’s imaginary:

No one can argue that a better agreement wouldn’t be better – 3,000 Iranian centrifuges is better than 5,000; a 20-year deal is better than 10. The tough question is: How do you get there? Putting aside what the Iranians might do in response to additional pressure – dig in deeper, speed up their program – and looking just at our side of the equation, the notion of a better deal is unachievable.

One really should not do stupid stuff:

According to critics, seeking a better deal starts with increasing sanctions on Iran. If tough sanctions brought them to the table, tougher sanctions will bring them to their knees. At some point their economy will be in tatters from the intensified sanctions, and they will be forced to return to the bargaining table and agree to better deal. With a closer look, however, this scenario unravels.

First, it is highly unlikely that even our allies in Europe would join us in further sanctions against Iran in the wake of a nuclear agreement they believe is sensible and positive. That is even truer for other countries – like India, Japan, South Korea and China – that were pulled into the existing sanctions regime quite unwillingly. The support of these countries for the oil sanctions in particular has been critical to the sanctions’ effectiveness. They will not willingly sign up for more.

Second, if a deal falls through, it is likely that the existing multilateral sanctions regime will begin to crumble. As noted, countries like India and South Korea, who don’t feel threatened by an Iran nuclear weapon, will be only too happy to find a pretext to break out of the sanctions – perhaps tentatively at first but in a rush as others do. It will be hard to argue the rationale for sanctions, which, from the perspective of nearly every nation, will have achieved their purpose – bringing Iran to the table to negotiate serious limitations on its nuclear program.

Indeed, the proponents of tougher sanctions to get a “better” deal have misunderstood the nature of the Iranian sanctions. The fact is that the United States does not own or control the multilateral sanctions regime. The effectiveness of the sanctions is based on how the international community views the perceived threat and therefore the legitimacy of coercive actions to stop it.

We are not the only players here, and there’s the “long game” to consider too:

The framework does not – nor by itself is it likely to – fundamentally alter the other threats Iran poses in the region, including its ongoing efforts to exert control in Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sanaa, and its continuing threat to Israel. That is why it is important to embed this agreement in a regional strategy that bolsters concrete cooperation with our friends in the region and reassures them that we are there for the long haul. President Obama’s summit with regional partners at Camp David will be an important opportunity to look not only at the hot spots, but at the bigger picture.

The Iran nuclear agreement is important not despite other troubles in the region but because of them. Each challenge would be more difficult and dangerous if Iran’s nuclear program was unconstrained and unmonitored, let alone if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon and spark others in the region to follow. Under the agreement that is emerging, we will have a high degree of confidence – as will others in the region – that Iran’s nuclear program is seriously constrained. Walling off the nuclear threat does not extinguish the fires that are burning in the region. But it does remove what would be the most combustible fuel.

We really shouldn’t screw that up:

Enacting new, tough sanctions in an effort to force Iran toward a “better” deal would mystify and alarm the rest of the world, isolating and weakening us. Such sanctions would crumble under their own weight…

That has its logic, but Greg Sargent offers this:

Can we please stop pretending that a good “sales pitch” from President Obama is what is required to get Congressional Republicans to support any final nuclear deal with Iran? Yes, Obama’s effort to “sell” any Iran deal could shape public opinion towards it. But Republicans will likely oppose a final deal no matter what is in it or what the public thinks of it. The real reason Obama’s “sales pitch” – and its impact on public opinion – might matter is due to its impact on Congressional Democrats.

Obama is making a sales pitch to them:

There has now been some movement in favor of the White House position among Democrats. On CNN yesterday, Senator Dianne Feinstein – who has good “hawkish” credentials – confirmed that she would vote against the current version of the Corker-Menendez bill, which would suspend Obama’s authority to lift sanctions, pending a Congressional vote to approve or disapprove the deal. The Corker bill could undergo changes before it is voted out of committee in mid-April. But in its current form, it could scuttle the whole process by unnecessarily holding a vote before any deal is finalized. If Feinstein opposes the final Corker bill it could perhaps help staunch Dem defections just enough to prevent it from getting a veto-proof majority.

Meanwhile, Senator Chris Murphy – a rising star of sorts within the party – is bluntly warning fellow Democrats that if they support the Corker bill, they will “own responsibility for the failure of negotiations.” As of now, at least eight Senate Dems have signed on to it.

The movement from Feinstein and Murphy suggests that supporters of a deal have a chance of preventing Corker-Menendez from passing over a presidential veto.

Fine, but that doesn’t solve everything:

Republicans may hold some kind of post-deal vote to restrict the president’s authority to suspend sanctions and carry out our end of the bargain. The question then would become whether enough Democrats would support that to override a veto. If not, Obama would continue to insist he has the authority to temporarily lift the sanctions; Republicans would insist he doesn’t. The deal would presumably continue amid GOP objections, and things would then get extremely contentious.

Then we get down to the essential question of whether or not Obama has the authority to temporarily lift sanctions without Congress:

And it may not be resolvable. No “sales pitch” from Obama will resolve it, either; it’s very hard to imagine this Congress voting to affirmatively give Obama that authority in the context of a deal. You can see an endgame where Republicans and Obama agree to some kind of legislation that doesn’t resolve that argument, but does provide a role for Congress in toughening up the mechanism that would re-impose sanctions if Iran breaks the deal.

They do want a role, and Slate’s Joshua Keating sees the problem here:

In an interview with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, President Obama makes a not-all-that-convincing claim that he wants Congress to play a role in implementing the nuclear deal with Iran—just so long as that role doesn’t involve preventing him from doing anything he wants to do.

“I do think that [Tennessee Republican] Sen. Corker, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, is somebody who is sincerely concerned about this issue and is a good and decent man, and my hope is that we can find something that allows Congress to express itself but does not encroach on traditional presidential prerogatives—and ensures that, if in fact we get a good deal, that we can go ahead and implement it,” Obama said.

But critics in Congress – mostly Republicans, but also a few Democrats – who are not happy about the deal, and really not happy about the White House conducting foreign policy without their oversight, don’t seem convinced.

A month earlier, Netanyahu told them that they should have a say, and they believed him, as the man who knows how America should work, but that’s not how things work here:

The White House can’t actually lift the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran without Congress, but the president has considerable authority to waive them or suspend them. A report by Larry Hanauer of the RAND Corp. lays out Congress’s options for responding to the deal, ranging from passing legislation to facilitate it by relaxing sanctions (don’t hold your breath) to passing legislation that would impose new sanctions or limit the president’s ability to suspend. Congress could also prohibit the executive branch from using federal funds to implement the agreement or even pass an authorization for the use of military force against Iran should the country not comply with the terms of the agreement. The last option is unlikely – Congress doesn’t seem to be in the mood to grant the administration new war powers these days, even powers it hasn’t actually asked for. And it’s not clear that opponents of the deal have the votes to overturn a presidential veto on the other options.

Even Corker’s comparatively mild bill – it would block the lifting of sanctions for only 60 days and require another joint resolution to make the block permanent – is still short of the votes it needs for a veto-proof majority. Even skeptical Democrats who might favor congressional oversight would probably be more wary of actually blowing up the president’s negotiated agreement.

As the RAND report argues, “Political gridlock makes it highly likely that Congress will be unable to take any legislative action at all.” This would mean that for now, the White House could selectively lift sanctions through executive action.

The original idea that Netanyahu floated a month ago, that only Congress should speak, as one voice, for America, not the president, is as an absurd idea as ever, and Josh Rogin adds a twist:

In an interview with me last week, before the Obama administration announced the breakthrough between Iran and six major world powers, Republican Senator Bob Corker said he had figured out the overarching objectives of the president’s various moves in the Middle East, including not just Obama’s drive to get a deal with Iran but also his reluctance to get involved in Syria and his treatment of Arab allies and Israel. Corker said Obama just wants to get out of the region.

“It’s become very evident as to what the administration is doing relative to the Middle East,” Corker said. “The administration’s view is that in order to extract ourselves in the Middle East, we need to move away from our relationship from Israel and we need to more fully align ourselves with Iran, so we create this balance in the Middle East between Iran and its influence and the Arab Sunni influence in the region.” He added: “That seems to be our strategy. And that’s what’s creating all of this turmoil in the region.”

According to Corker, the Iran deal is the lynchpin of Obama’s drive to change the balance of power in Iran’s favor and then remove America’s role from the region.

But that’s not exactly what Obama is selling:

Obama defined his own doctrine as: “We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.” American core concerns in the region no longer include oil or territory or strategic interests, the president said. “Our interests in this sense are really just making sure that the region is working,” he said. “And if it’s working well, then we’ll do fine.”

Is that what Obama is selling – make sure no one has nukes and step back, and let them work out their problems among themselves? Would you buy a used car from this man? Ah, yes.

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Easter

Commentary will resume Monday evening.

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