hardline political news and analysis

Month: January, 2016

When Politics Goes Too Far

The welcome release by Iran of Jason Rezaian and several other undeservedly imprisoned individuals offers a stark illustration of how uninformed and yet dangerous the fulminations of hyperventilating politicians can be. It’s no surprise that securing Rezaian’s release won President Obama and his negotiators no accolades from those who have condemned the President for supposedly tolerating his imprisonment, but the nature of the hostile comments bears reviewing.

Members of Congress often pontificate on issues they either willfully distort or on which they are hopelessly ignorant; in the case of the Rezaian capture and release, they got to check both boxes. In addition, the Republican presidential candidates who previously demanded some unspecified action to free the reporter, rather than celebrating his release, have turned this into a moment to shower blame on President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. Donald Trump, who has never negotiated anything more complex than a building lease, dismissed the negotiated outcome as a complete capitulation to Iran since “they get $250 billion [in the nuclear agreement] plus seven [prisoners] and we get four,” overlooking any other benefits to the world from the successful nuclear weapons agreement. “I will tell you it’s a disgrace they’ve been there so long,” Trump raged. No clue on how the Berlusconi of builders might have freed Rezaian and the others, let alone earlier.

The Republicans’ reflexive hatred for Obama was similarly evident in Ted Cruz’ grammatically challenged admonition, “Praise God! Surely bad parts of Obama’s latest deal, but prayers of thanksgiving.” What’s that phrase about “bad parts of Obama’s latest deal?” Cruz evidently also believes the ratio of prisoners was unfair. And of course, Chris Christie declared, as a fellow New Jerseyan should, “We shouldn’t have to swap prisoners; they should have been released without condition.” Yeah! Right! Why didn’t the President think of that?

None of these puffed up blowhards offered any suggestion as to exactly how Rezaian or the others, or the 11 American sailors captured (and quickly released) in Iranian waters last week could have been freed more expeditiously. A fair analysis must conclude that patient negotiations, combined with the good will established in the discussions over the nuclear pact, played a very significant role in securing these releases. On one point we can be incontrovertibly certain: attempting to use bluster or worse, military intervention, perhaps to make Iran “glow” in Cruz’ immortal words, would have produced a lot of dead Americans. One of the great benefits of being a candidate for President, rather than actually being President, is that you get to say ridiculously dumb things to agitate your partisans; OK, fair enough, they all do it, and not just in the United States. But when a candidate makes hyperbolic statements that could jeopardize delicate discussions and force a bad response that might be otherwise avoidable, he or she crosses the line into highly irresponsible and dangerous behavior. The Republicans blew through that line, and one must only conclude they were prepared to risk the lives of the hostages to score a very fleeting political advantage.

The would-be presidents were not to be outdone by Members of Congress like Lee Zeldin, Peter Roskam and Mike Pompeo who sounded like Sopranos-enforcer Furio Giunta, threatening to kick some Iranian butt if they did not immediately release the American sailors. For good measure, the House voted to impose new sanctions on Iran last Wednesday, (although the vote was later vacated because too many Members neglected to vote, suggesting it might not have been quite as high a priority as proclaimed), but not before huffing and puffing about how outraged they were at the Iranian kidnappers and their spineless co-conspirator in the White House.

No one knows how much these congressional malcontents really knew about what was going on to resolve the kidnapping and imprisonment situations. I suppose it is possible that they received detailed, highly classified briefings about the circumstances surrounding the sailors’ wandering into Iranian waters, but they aren’t saying. (Only Pompeo, a Tea Party activist, is on the Intelligence Committee.) One of the dilemmas of congressional intelligence briefings is that once briefed, you cannot discuss what you just learned. With anyone. Which is why some Members choose not to be briefed: so there is no question that they accidentally disclosed highly classified information.

One can only hope these congressional whiners were not briefed; if they were, and had been told of the delicate nature of the negotiations and the possibility of the swift release of the sailors, it would have been absurdly irresponsible for them to castigate the Iranians. If they did not know the status of the discussions, then why were they shooting off their mouths, potentially jeopardizing delicate conversations and endangering those who were in captivity?

This latest brouhaha is a good example of how self-centered bloviating has superseded legislating in the Boehner-Ryan Congresses of the past few years. Lots of noise about ending deficits, and then the GOP leadership proposes hundreds of billions of dollars in unpaid-for appropriations and tax spending. Interminable chatter about TARP giveaways to Wall Street (which were repaid, with interest), while voting for hundreds of billions of dollars in unpaid tax breaks for corporations without blinking an eye. Four dozen votes over 5 years to repeal all or a portion of the health care law, promising to “replace” it with some still-to-be-drafted substitute. It’s one thing to pontificate on something like the ACA when everyone knows you don’t have a clue what else to do; but shooting from the lip when lives of captured Americans are at stake is beyond defensible.

Perhaps the misguided allegations were warranted because they helped keep Americans attuned to the scheming Iranians who were probably using the sailor subterfuge to conceal their failure to comply with the nuclear agreement they negotiated with our dupe of a president. Oh, they did comply? Well, never mind.




State of the Electorate

Late on Tuesday afternoon, the Congress went into recess, the House chamber was cleared, and the security sweep was initiated for the annual State of the Union address – President Barack Obama’s last scheduled speech before a joint session of the Congress. The bomb-sniffing dogs moved up and down the aisles of brown leather seats; the temperature in the massive chamber was lowered to bone-chilling levels in preparation for over 900 participants and the withering television lights used to illuminate the room. The Members had scattered, save the dogged (and predictable) few who, regardless of party, camped out – often for hours – on the center aisle to cement their chances for a fleeting photo op – a handshake, a back pat, a kiss on the cheek – from the President of the United States as he made his way down the crowded walkway, through the momentarily cheering crowd, and up to the center lectern on the massive House dais.

There is something special about a State of the Union. Not only is it one of those rare occasions when the President journeys to Capitol Hill, but it is also a unique gathering of the entire hierarchy of the federal government: Executive, Judicial and Legislative branch members, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Cabinet, the Ambassadorial Corps. One member of the Cabinet is always absent, squirrelled away safely in the event of catastrophe to ensure an orderly constitutional success of power. (Last night, that was Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson.)

Since the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan invited Lenny Skutnik, who had rescued passengers from a crashed airliner in the icy Potomac River, the SOTU has included speculation about whom the President would ask to accompany the First Lady to the speech so that reference could be made to that person (usually described as a “hero”) in the address. This year, the Obamas hauntingly chose to leave a seat vacant, to symbolize the thousands of Americans killed by guns while Congress refuses to enact gun security measures supported by 90 percent of the American people. Surprisingly, the President remained virtually silent about the issue of gun violence, despite the empty seat and the presence of former Rep. Gabby Giffords in the House chamber.

Spoiler alert: Congress is not going to act on most of the proposals recommended by the President. At long last, this inaction and indifference will not surprise even President Obama, who has made it abundantly clear that while neither the Constitution nor he can compel the Congress to act, he alone has the ability to trump (you should pardon the expression) a dysfunctional legislature. Obama, like many presidents before him, will use the Congress’ inaction as a justification for continuing his recent spate of Executive Orders that rely on constitutional or statutory authority already granted to the Executive.

The speech gave short shrift to the President’s major achievements – economic recovery, health care reform, an unprecedented investment in renewable energy, significant expansions in veterans’ benefits: all initiated in the brief period 2009-2010 when he enjoyed substantial congressional majorities that overcame reflexive Republican opposition to all of his initiatives. Obama similarly swept swiftly through the litany of priorities yet to be addressed – immigration reform, equal pay, paid family leave, an increase in the minimum wage, free community college, universal pre-K – that elicited cheers from Democratic loyalists but have no chance of consideration by the current Congress, let alone passage.

Obama clearly has exhausted his efforts at correcting those who show no interest in hewing to facts. He ridiculed the climate change doubters, he dismissed those who refused to acknowledge the strength of the economic recovery, and he chastised those who seek political advantage by falsely claiming that America is less respected or militarily powerful than at the beginning of his Administration. He made it quite clear that rather than continue to knock heads with such blockheads, he will continue to employ his Executive powers to address urgent issues his last year in office, just as Congress has used its constitutional role to ensure legislative inaction.

The portion of the SOTU that will likely be most carefully examined, and certainly will be most discussed on Capitol Hill, is the last quarter of the speech in which Obama shed the role of policy maven and instead reproached both Congress and the American electorate for allowing our political debate to descend into the hysterical and partisan babble that now passes for serious discussion. In perhaps his most pointed slap at Congress, he noted that the legislators sitting before him were among the few Americans who still enjoy lengthy employment and guaranteed benefits in an era of radically changing workplaces. Nice line, but unlikely to win him a lot of friends among the legislators. He invited the saber-rattlers to put their votes where their mouths are and authorize a war against ISIL, and he vowed to continue his offensive against the terrorists even if Congress continues to withhold such an authorization.

Reverting to his professorial best, Obama warned voters that their lack of participation in politics, whether because they were too disgusted or frustrated or indifferent, empowered those who are determined to be engaged, often the more radical fringe and those with large bankrolls. Non-participation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as those with whom you disagree win elections. The trick is to encourage more Americans to participate in a political system in which they have little confidence, and which they have been instructed for several decades to loathe.

The remedies Obama mentioned – congressional districts drawn without regard to partisan advantage, a decreased role for money in politics, a greater degree of public involvement – are all the correct prescriptions, but they are hardly new and are very hard to fulfill. Obama’s opponents, and many in the current crop of his potential successors, have done a great deal to poison the political debate and deflate the interest of vast numbers of potential voters – especially millennials – in political involvement. In a self-critical moment, Obama bemoaned his inability to close the political chasm that separates America and pointed to Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as the kinds of leaders who might have had better luck. He might want to check his history: both leaders were reviled by their political foes not only as proponents of bad policy, but as hostile to traditional American values.

Obama put his finger on a key point: democracy is not easy, and in the current environment, it is an absolute battlefield without mercy. The change he sought to inspire in 2008 did not result from his election, and will not come from the election of any individual: it needs to come from a better informed and more engaged electorate that demands change rather than one that expects it to be delivered to them. The challenge of building such a spirit among disenchanted American voters may well be a greater task than the election of any candidate or the enactment of any piece of legislation.