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The Congressional Vote on Syria; Brilliance out of Desperation

August 31, 2013 2 comments

msyria

So the President is throwing the issue to Congress. From the White House perspective, it’s so crazy it just might work.

It was looking bad. Like the president had painted himself into a corner with his own words about “red lines” being crossed if there were ever to be proof of chemical attacks in Syria. Astoundingly, the British parted with their American cousins for the first time since Lexington the War of 1812 and refused to go along.

The United Nations, which President Obama generally decried as feckless today, was a dead end with the Russians and the Chinese exercising veto power in the Security Council. Plus, uselessly, the U.N. inspection team that just left Syria is charged only with confirming that a chemical attack occurred, not which party was responsible for initiating it.

The vote in Congress on whether the U.S. will strike Syria in response to the Assad regime’s alleged involvement in the gassing of hundreds of its own citizens is not going to be along party lines. Strange bedfellows will be plentiful as hard core, dovish liberals join forces with folks like Republican, Rand Paul, whose libertarian views render him a foreign isolationist. Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner will be working for the President.

Commanders in Chief don’t have to do this and Mr. Obama, protecting Oval office power as best he can, says he could have moved on his own but insists he has an important moral case to make and that we may as well have a public debate about it. This is a good thing for democracy. Historians may argue Obama has just seriously diluted Presidential authority.

This move also gets the President off the hook. If Congress balks, it was them. More than that- it was the “people.” If they approve, he has the moral high ground he’d never have received from the United Nations anyway. The stunning defeat of a pro-American resolution in the British parliament had to have affected this move by the White House as well. It didn’t look good that the Brits could debate this but our Congress couldn’t. It also didn’t square with Senator Barack Obama’s own views years ago that Congress should have a say on matters involving military action.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle probably doesn’t have the greatest legacy for gravitas, but he was a savvy politician and it was he who suggested to George H.W. Bush that Congress get a vote on approving the use of force in the first Gulf War in the early 1990’s. The resolution passed, the nation was united on the military action and within months President Bush would be sporting a 91% approval rating.

In his response to the President today, Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell said the nation is at its best when President and Congress act together in common voice and he is right. There is much more riding on the coming Congressional vote than just a few surgical cruise missile strikes in Syria. The debate will encompass the totality of American foreign policy; the U.S. as global policeman, the lines that can and cannot be crossed in regard to how we respond to future atrocities- the proof needed to determine they happened and who was behind them.

Impressive throughout the debate has been the prominence of the Iraq experience in coloring the world perception of U.S. intervention in foreign affairs. The blow to American credibility has been severe. It was Iraq and the wild goose chase for weapons of mass destruction that led the Brits to decide that this go round- no thanks.

So the debate to come is also about how we, ourselves, come to terms with Iraq. Does the U.S. become reticent, like in the post-Vietnam period, to project power on the world stage forever more? Can exceptions be supported when there are issues of genocide and crimes against mankind that shock us and shake our consciences. Do we even have an international conscience?

All worthy questions to be debated in the days ahead. For President Obama, good move from a civics lesson point of view. And brilliant move, politically.

The Silly Practice of Attacking Presidential Vacations

Drudge

All partisans do it and, frankly, it’s getting old and predictable and if you think about it, makes no sense whatsoever. Note to those whose favorite politicians are not occupying the White House at any given time: the President does not need to actually be at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to conduct business.

From the screen shot of the Drudge Report website today you can see the “outrage” of it all.

“Unemployment up to 7.8%” screams the headline. Actually joblessness is unchanged at 7.8% from the previous month, so saying it’s “up to” is not accurate, but I digress. There’s no particular news today about the debt, but coupling it with the unemployment report creates a handy feeling of economic panic- which- as you can plainly see- is not being addressed by our lazy, loafing President who is eating sno-cones, body surfing and golfing in HAWAII, of all places (so what if he grew up there, it’s HAWAII, dammit).

Back in the George W. Bush days, Democrats were equally apoplectic about W’s vacation time. In July of 2002, then Maryland Governor, Paris Glendening, who was Chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association, lambasted President Bush for planning to spend his summer vacation in Texas “while the stock market was plunging and foreign affairs were volatile.” Just out of curiosity, has there ever been a time foreign affairs were not volatile? The President should only go on vacation when the Dow Jones Industrial Average is on the upswing?

And Bush really caught it when one of his summer vacations was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. Presidents, apparently, are caped crusaders who can magically fly to natural catastrophes and wave a magic wand and make bad things go away. The problem with Katrina was not that Bush was on vacation, it was that there was a pitiful federal response by people who had been hired long before Bush ever planned his vacation. His political mistake was having his picture taken aboard Air Force One looking down over New Orleans instead of having landed a chopper there and gotten himself on the evening news that night.

And Bill Clinton took hits for where he vacationed. Camp David was not good enough, barked the critics. He’s off in Martha’s Vineyard– at some guy’s house that he’s renting. A house whose property, by the way, “is complete with jogging trails, tennis courts, swimming and boating.” Oh, the humanity.

At the turn of the previous century, Theodore Roosevelt scandalized the nation by taking a vacation at his Oyster Bay home “so soon” after he took office after the assassination of President McKinley.

Harry Truman had the smartest approach. He made the press his vacation accomplices. He was one of the first to take reporters and aides with him on vacations, often leaving wife and daughter behind, presumably because those reporters and aides were willing and able poker players.

Here’s the thing about being President of the Unites States- especially in the modern era. No matter where they go, Presidents are plugged in. There are aides with them. The “football” is in close proximity at all times (the brief case carried by a military officer that contains the nuclear codes). I don’t doubt they can get live video feeds of a drone strike in Pakistan if necessary and they certainly can talk to anyone in the planet they choose to converse with.

But the silliest thing is the implication of all the criticisms of vacationing American Presidents; that our leaders should stay at their house/office in northwest Washington, D.C., with their nose to the grind stone sorting, fixing, repairing whatever the given crisis of the day is. Since there is always a crisis somewhere on the planet, they should never get time off at all. In fact, they should not even sleep lest they get this disturbing headline:

“President Naps with World in Crisis.”

Nate Silver’s Probabilities vs Peggy Noonan’s Feelings

November 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Nate SIlver and Peggy Noonan


As part of the introspection that conservative partisans like Peggy Noonan are engaged in after the resounding reelection victory for President Obama Tuesday, surely one of the aspects of this exercise will be coming to the acceptance of the primacy of facts and research over emotion.

As conservatives started aiming their ire at New York Times numbers-cruncher, Nate Silver, in the closing weeks of the campaign, it is now apparent that all the froth was about what Silver was saying not the way he went about coming to his conclusions.  They were shooting the messenger.  And with every broadside, it seemed Silver would just keep upping Obama’s victory probabilities until by the final day, they had crested above 90%.   And for the second Presidential election in a row, he was spot on, accurately predicting 50 out of 50 states (presuming Florida finishes where it is now).

Over at the Wall Street Journal, former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, seemed to be mocking Silver’s nerdy numbers approach by predicting a Mitt Romney victory based on, among other things,  the size of the Republican candidate’s closing crowds, their decibel levels, even her perception of how Romney lawn signs were outnumbering Obama’s.

There is no denying the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm. The Democrats do not. Independents are breaking for Romney. And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.

She even magically entered the heads of the candidates at the annual Al Smith dinner in New York where she interpreted what she saw as an uncomfortable and distracted Barack Obama as someone who looked like they had just read disturbing data.

But sitting there listening to the jokes and speeches, the archbishop of New York sitting between them, Obama looked like a young challenger—flinty, not so comfortable. He was distracted, and his smiles seemed forced. He looked like a man who’d just seen some bad internal polling. Romney? Expansive, hilarious, self-spoofing, with a few jokes of finely calibrated meanness that were just perfect for the crowd. He looked like a president. He looked like someone who’d just seen good internals.

The remarkable thing about Noonan’s approach to political prognosticating, is that you’d think she’d know better by now.  She’s had her hand in the political game for nearly half a century.  Not that she’s alone in couching her hopes on imaginary factors she thinks she sees, like massive, noisy, huge campaign crowds at Republican rallies, advantages in political lawn signs, or someone’s demeanor sitting at a dais.   It’s natural- it’s human  to hope against hope.

Granted I was all of 16 at the time, but I remember feeling such hope for George McGovern in 1972.  Surely, polls can be wrong.  I mean, wow, 20 thousand people came out for him at one event or another.  How could a decorated World War II Air Force veteran with such strength of character be losing to Richard Nixon, for Christ’s sake.

Not too dissimilar, I suppose, from a conservative partisan thinking how such a good, religious, responsible family guy like Romney could possibly be losing to the likes of Barack Hussein Obama, for Christ’s sake.

Well, McGovern, of course, would go on to win  only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. and Mitt Romney would go on to lose every single swing state in the election except for North Carolina (and again, we await Florida).

The lessons here are obvious.  Not that it really matters, of course, if pundits get their predictions right or horribly wrong- they are paid to bloviate no matter what.  But if one wants to be accurate and be taken seriously again someday- it would be wise to keep emotions out of it.

It would be essential, I think, to not let your observations be colored by your tribal leanings.  It might make sense to understand that 21st century polling, for example, is actually a science and that the study of statistical probability actually has an anchor in reality.

The trick for those who want to be in the business of predicting things, is learning to accept that the facts you see may not be what you wish they were.  It’s human, even endearing to think that wishing can make things happen.  But it’s not very professional.

 

Clinton’s Speech and Obama’s Messaging

September 6, 2012 Leave a comment

It is rare to see such unanimity in the pundit-sphere.  But Bill Clinton managed to unite liberal and conservative commentators last night all of whom acknowledged the nation had just seen probably the single most effective politician in modern American history.

There wasn’t a topic Bubba didn’t address without wonky detail and that aw-shucks “I’m-just-a-country-boy” charm.  There wasn’t a Republican charge he didn’t rebut with specificity and a smile.  And just when you thought he was heading too far into the policy weeds, he’d pause for a second: “Now listen to this part- this is really important.”

The only common criticism heard afterward is that he may have gone on too long.  But this has always been a Clinton trademark that has confounded political analysts for years.  There’s an automatic assumption that the American public has the attention span of a gnat and no appetite for detail.  This is manifestly untrue.  People have always listened to Bill Clinton because he dresses up his wonky statistics and political arguments in masterful story-telling and infectious enthusiasm.

As more than one commentator mentioned in the wake of the Clinton speech, he described the Obama administration’s policies and achievements about a hundred times better than Obama himself ever has.

And the President knows this.  In a recent interview this year he admitted his biggest failure in his first term was his inability to communicate effectively to the American people on issues like health care.

In their riveting speeches this week, Obama has two great examples to go by- Clinton and his own wife, Michelle.   Some are even voicing concerns that the dynamic duo have set a bar impossible for the President to reach in his own acceptance speech.   That’s nonsense.  Barack Obama is one of the most gifted orators in American history.  The communication he needs to work on is not a 40-minute speech on special occasions.  His political challenge is the constant day-to-day  messaging.

I have been stunned sometimes to hear some of my friends and colleagues talk about health care.  They are convinced it’s a government takeover of the health care system.  Republican anti-Obamacare messaging has been sheer genius over the years.   They took all the arguments used against Canadian-style single-payer health insurance plans like Hillary Clinton proposed and failed to win on in the 1990’s and just copy and pasted the government “takeover” charges onto the Obama/Romney style of health care.

Republicans succeeded beyond their wildest dreams attaching socialist and government overreach insinuations to a health care plan that was actually first devised and proposed in the 1980’s by the conservative Heritage Foundation and later emulated in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney and that is entirely based on private-sector not government-delivered insurance.

But after the signing of the Affordable Care Act, the President, his work done, failed to understand he still needed to sell it to the nation at large.  So he stopped talking about how kids aged 19-26 can stay insured on their parent’s plan.  He stopped mentioning that insurance companies could no longer refuse to cover Americans with pre-existing conditions.  He never talked about the fact that annual physicals would now be free- a preventative approach to health care that heads off expensive medical problems down the road.  He stopped explaining why uninsured Americans would have to pay a penalty for not getting coverage- because if you didn’t incent them to get insurance, it wouldn’t be fair for the rest of us who have coverage to watch our health care expenses go up while the uninsured drive up costs by making emergency room visits for routine or minor ailments.

It is widely accepted by now that Obama’s failure to make these kinds of arguments after he had won passage of the health reform bill, was a key factor in the massive Democratic congressional election losses in 2010 that gave footing to the Tea Party movement and control of the House to Republicans.

Obama’s challenge is not in the delivery of soaring oratory.  I have little doubt he’ll probably give the speech of his life tonight.  The real challenge is maintaining his message and pounding away at his vision for the nation- even after he wins re-election- should the American people decide to keep him in the job.

Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton are not on the ballot this November.  Barack Obama is.  Now he has to realize constant messaging and framing of his vision and values and what he sees as his successes on behalf of the public, are the only way his arguments and his policies won’t be framed for him.

Assorted Thoughts: Gas Prices, College Snobs, Cruise Ships

February 28, 2012 1 comment


Gas Prices

Yeah, they’re high and going higher.  It’s been an inescapable trend over the last several years.  Gas prices are low when the economy is reeling.  They are high when economic conditions improve.  Both sides always try to bash the party holding the White House about costly gas prices and both come up with solutions or blame that are just plain silly. 

Really want to have an effect on gas prices?  Convince one billion Chinese to stop buying cars and filling them with gas. 

Collegiate Snobbery

Rick Santorum has been getting a lot of flack from Democrats and Republicans alike for saying this:

President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college.  What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.

Foolish or crazy as a fox?   It may yet resonate with conservative blue-collar voters in Michigan.  And I’ll bet a lot of anti-Obama voters didn’t even hear the college part as much as they heard the “Obama is a snob” part, which some suggest is the GOP version of class warfare.  It may well work- in a primary.  The overall problem with this strategy, of course, is that there’s polling that finds 93% of Americans think it’s a pretty good idea to send your kids to college.

Looking Forward to that Cruise Ship Vacation

First there was the Costa Concordia incident, in which an Italian sea captain trying to show off, came too close to shore, grounded his ship and killed more than 30 passengers and then literally tried to catch a cab and run off into the good night. 

Now you have its sister ship, the Costa Allegra, adrift in the Indian Ocean.  And as if it’s not bad enough that a generator fire knocked out the engines, the radio communications and then the air conditioning, it was adrift in “Pirate Infested Waters.”   I’m not afraid to admit I hate infestations of any kind, but particularly pirate infestations.

In between the two incidents, there were several outbreaks on a number of cruise ships of the Norwalk Virus.

So….if you don’t get killed by a show-off captain, manage to avoid spending three days with a raging fever and massive intestinal distress, and escape marauding pirates in the Indian Ocean- it should be a wonderful vacation experience for all!

My memories of a cruise ship vacation were primarily the tiny, little cabins and the huge bill at the end.  In between, you eat like a depraved Roman Emperor, consuming indescribably large amounts of food in a celebration of decadent gluttony accented with pretty little ice sculptures gently melting on a buffet table of death.

Mitt’s Really Bad Week: The Moment of Truth

January 19, 2012 2 comments

REUTERS/Brian Snyder


All presidential candidates are tested to the breaking point. Bill Clinton endured adultery accusations just days before the New Hampshire primary. Barack Obama, seemingly cruising after an Iowa victory four years ago, found himself losing to Hillary Clinton the very next week in New Hampshire. Both recovered.

Mitt Romney has had a nightmare of a week heading into Saturday’s South Carolina primary. At Monday’s debate, in addition to the little stuff, like confusing the big game he was hunting in Montana, he also gave one of the world’s longest and meandering and confused responses ever about the release of his tax returns. Maybe in April. If that’s the tradition. He was going to release them eventually sometime. It was quite the exhibit of red-faced tap-dancing. Meantime, Newt Gingrich played the conservative and vocal audience in the debate hall like a Stradivarius.

Then Romney hinted his tax return just might reveal he paid a fairly low 15% tax rate and then basically declared that his $350,000 in annual speaking fees was chump change. Which, of course, it is, compared to his estimated $25 million annual income from investments, but still enough to put him in the top 1% of American wage earners.

He then wakes up Thursday morning to find out he may actually have lost the Iowa caucus to Rick Santorum- trailing in the final but incomplete vote count officially released today. Not sure it’ll help Santorum- but it takes the luster off the Romney camp’s brag about being the first non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate in history to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. He is no longer undefeated.

Meantime, recent polling finds a large erosion in Romney’s South Carolina and national leads. As I write, Rich Perry is getting out of the race and apparently headed toward a Gingrich endorsement.

The only bright spot for Romney is anticipating the possible damage that might be done tonight when ABC News releases an interview conducted with Newt’s ex-wife Marianne on Nightline. Careful what you wish for. A “lame-stream” media interview with a surging conservative candidate’s ex-wife 48 hours before the voting- seems to me to be the perfect storm for a voter backlash against the establishment media- and a potential boon for Newt Gingrich if he plays it right.

Mitt Romney is still formidable. He still has a lot of money and the best and deepest campaign organization. He still has a large lead in the Florida primary set for Tuesday, January 31st. History has shown that politicians in a seeming free fall can correct and conquer.

I’m not in the business of advising presidential candidates on tactics, but Jon Stewart offered Mitt some advice on the Daily Show last night that might be his ultimate answer to surviving this critical juncture in the campaign. That advice: stop pretending not to be rich. Embrace your wealth. Embrace your success story. Lose the pretenses about being middle class and once having worried about getting a “pink slip.” Nobody believes that stuff.

Americans strive to be rich no matter what their circumstance or background. They can respect that. What they pick up on fast is phoniness and a lack of authenticity. He ought to release his tax returns, tell people he did everything lawfully available to him to save on his tax bill, and proclaim himself rich and proud of it. “You know what?” the New Romney might say, “I earned everything I have. Maybe it’s time America had a President who knows how to create a little bit of wealth.”

Why, it’s so crazy, it just might work.

Political Scenarios: The Trouble Iowa Could Stir Up

December 14, 2011 Leave a comment


Polls are one thing; votes, even caucus votes, are another.  The time is rapidly approaching that the first set of winners and losers in the Republican presidential race will be officially decided in Iowa. 

The polls (Public Policy Polling) show Newt up by just a single point over Ron Paul with three weeks to go. For all the press about Newt Gingrich’s sudden inevitability, the up-to-the-minute trends as registered by notoriously unreliable polling in the state is that Newt is on the decline. A barrage of negative advertising against him primarily from the Ron Paul camp appears to be doing damage.  Gingrich’s negatives are going up while his Tea Party support has started eroding quickly.  Meantime, more and more evangelical leaders in the state are endorsing Michele Bachmann who is creeping up on Mitt Romney who is currently third. 

How about this scenario for Iowa?  Ron Paul edges out Newt Gingrich.  Michelle Bachmann finishes third, ahead of Romney who comes in a disappointing 4th.  

Now we come to the New Hampshire primary, where Mitt Romney with home field advantage, edges out Gingrich who is nearly caught by a surging Ron Paul.   Totally plausible scenario that leaves today’s front-runner- Newt Gingrich- winless in the first two important political contests of the season.  

Newt’s poll numbers in the next contests in South Carolina and Florida are strong.  Romney is well ahead in Nevada.  As the early contests conclude, we could very well have a three-way donnybrook verging on a 4-way traffic jam if Michelle Bachmann ends up the recipient of coalesced evangelical and Tea Party support.

This thing could go on awhile as the GOP has restructered its process to include fewer winner-take-all states.  Even 4th place finishers get a few delegates in state after state.  It even leaves open the possibility of the wet dream of all political junkies in America-the brokered convention. 

None of the Republican candidates arrive in Tampa with a majority.  All of them are bruised and battered after months of vicious attacks on each other.  None of them have a lead on Obama in head-to-head general election polls.  Movers and shakers in the G.O.P. establishment meet in a smoke-filled room in a non-smoking hotel to hammer out a solution.

To the shock of the nation and stunning the Obama campaign team- it all becomes a Florida nightmare for the Dems.  The Tampa convention, by acclamation, suddenly nominates former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush who crazily enough, chooses Florida Senator Marco Rubio as his VP.  Months of opposition research and ready-to-go TV ads go down the tubes as shocked Obama operatives read their internal polling.  The Florida path is gone. Bush/Rubio is nailing 40% of the Hispanic vote. The men are gone.  The Catholics are gone.

But come January of 2013, it’s Barack Obama taking his second oath of office, saved by the 3rd and 4th party campaigns of Ron Paul and Donald Trump who take just enough votes from Bush and Rubio to put Obama over the top. He reaches his electoral majority Wednesday morning, November 7th as Hawaii comes through at 6am, ET.

I know, I know.  Reads like a bad novel.  But in a campaign in which reality has already been stranger than fiction….