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Fear Itself…

     Obama’s response to the attacks also raises a more political question: Why hasn’t a man known for his rhetorical gifts done more to address the fear the attacks instill in ordinary Americans? – Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post


It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, in a harsh world of partisanship and amidst the instant Twitter feed, to answer emotion and fear with facts. Barack Obama, never particularly good at the soft arts of politics, including the basic political skill of clearly and patiently explaining his policies, learned that lesson anew this week.

Senator Cliche

Senator Ted Cruz, (R) Cliche

It must gall Obama, a smart and careful man, even if his legion of opponents and distractors never admit it, to have to confront a smart, calculating and cynical man like Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz taunted Obama in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the mad rush to denounce Syrian refuges to debate him on the issues and “insult me to my face.”

One almost wishes Obama would simply say: “Ted, you’re just not that important. We are talking about bigger things than your ego or campaign.” But that type of putdown is just not the Obama way and you cannot belittle unless you first explain. Obama’s presidency-long inability – or unwillingness – to effectively and consistently confront his critics and explain himself is among his major shortcomings as a leader.

Obama has an off putting tendency when challenged to either adopt the persona of a law school lecturer and make a legal case, or simply embrace, as he did this week, a dismissive tone with his critics. Perhaps an effective strategy when the issues are trivial, but not when the stakes are as high as they are in our post-Paris moment. Obama often seems to float above the circus, aloof and detached and when he does engage, as he did recently on the refugee issue, his dismissive, lecturing tone is counterproductive.

Even with Republicans offering little but recycled talking points – the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank correctly says Republican plans to deal with the so called Islamic State involves “killing them with clichés.” – the Paris attack and the resulting climate of fear call for more from a president who can, if he puts his mind to it, be a supremely effective communicator.

The World Needs…

“The world needs American leadership,” said Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the new House Speaker. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California opined that “we want our homeland to be secure,” while Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana spoke of the need to “go and root out and take on ISIS.” Clichés for sure, but language that speaks to the need to offer leadership, reassurance and perspective.

The latest outrage from the continuing frontrunner Donald Trump, a call for closing mosques and creating a national database of Muslims, once would have been a disqualifying comment in national politics, but Trump will probably ride it higher in the polls. Such are the days of our lives and such is the ability of a demagogue to stir up fear and hatred.

For his part Cruz says “we are at war with ISIS,” but short of calling for greater use of American air power he offers precious little beyond what the Obama Administration is currently doing. Cruz and the others hoping to draft in the wake of Trump’s openly racist appeal to Americans who disdain immigrants (and now refugees) have succeeded, at least temporarily, in shifting the national debate from defeating a radical ideology to closing the borders to the victims of that ideology.

It is craven, cynical and fundamentally un-American, but in the hands of a modern day Joseph McCarthy like Cruz or a political P.T. Barnum like Trump it sells with the voters both need to crawl to the top of the GOP heap. It also resonates with many Americans who are just frightened and confused and seek candid reassurance and common sense. Lindsay Graham, the one true hawk in the Republican field, is so far behind he can speak the truth about the pandering of those higher in the polls.

Senator Lindsey Graham

Senator Lindsey Graham

“Are you willing to do what it takes to destroy ISIL?” Graham said recently referring to Cruz and others who are long on cliché, but short on ideas. “Are you willing to commit American ground forces in support of a regional army to destroy the caliphate? If you’re not, then you’re not ready to be the Commander-in-Chief, in my view, and you’re really no different than Obama.”

This is the crux of the real debate the Congress and the nation needs. What do we do to destroy these violent remnants from the 13th Century? I’m waiting for a Congressional committee to actually have a hearing and call some real experts to testify about real options. That’s old fashioned, I know, but used to be what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did.

Ground troops? Will the American public accept that? What will greater air strikes accomplish? If Syria’s Assad is deposed, which is American policy, who and what replaces him? We thought Iraq was tidied up when Saddam toppled and that didn’t work out so well. Would Syria be different and why? Do we risk a joint effort with Putin to fight ISIS and to what end? If we arm some additional group or groups in Syria are we just doubling down on the less-than-successful Iraq policy that saw us leave millions of dollars worth of military hardware behind in the desert, hardware that in some cases the radicals now use? Are there other options? Let’s hear them.

Explain the Policy….Please 

Obama’s Syrian policy and approach to ISIS have been called “feckless” and his recent comment that the movement was “contained” may well rank with George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” as the silliest thing either man said during his tenure. It is also true that the President fumbled for too long while Syria burned and the refugee crisis has occurred during his watch and will be part of his legacy. Still, unlike his fire-breathing detractors on the right, I am willing to concede that Obama has a real policy for the region, a policy largely informed by what has not worked in the recent past. What has been missing is his patient, repeated articulation of that policy.

By failing to fully take the American people into his confidence and carefully explain the stakes and the real options, Obama contributes to what is truly feckless – the domestic debate about ISIS and Syrian refugees, how to ensure U.S. and European security, and the proper and effective U.S. military and diplomatic response to the mess in the Middle East.

It is a moment that demands calm, reasoned, candid national leadership that only a president can provide. We are waiting.

A Lesson From History…

Churchill: "If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Churchill: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

I am reminded of what leadership in a moment of crisis sounds like re-reading Winston Churchill’s remarkable speech in the wake of the abject British defeat at Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. It was one of the worst moments of World War II and had events or political rhetoric turned even a bit differently we might be living in a very different world.

Thousands upon thousands of British troops had remarkably been evacuated from the French port of Dunkirk following the collapse of the French Army west of Paris. The British troops hauled back across the English Channel escaped with their lives, but not much else. A vast amount of precious material and equipment was left behind in the interest of saving the British Army so that it might fight again. Everyone knew at the time, especially Churchill, that Dunkirk was a military disaster that ironically is now often remembered as a spectacular success.

Churchill, newly the prime minister, had to explain the disaster to the House of Commons where criticism of the government was building amid calls for an investigation of the debacle in France. The moment demanded explanation, painful candor and hope. He confronted the situation directly and brilliantly:

“We have to think of the future and not of the past,” Churchill said. “This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments – and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too – during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.

“Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

There are too many in it…let each man search his speeches…we shall find we have lost the future. One yearns for such talk at moments of national confusion, trial and fear.

…None Whatever for Panic and Despair…

At the end of his Dunkirk speech, Churchill uttered his famous “finest hour” phrase that is the most remembered part of the speech, but a line he spoke earlier seems particularly appropriate for the current moment.

“Therefore, in casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.”

Cheers broke out in the House of Commons.

The rhetoric from the current campaign trail regarding the Middle East is nothing if not panic and despair. It is not a time for a lecture on the law or peevish scolding, but it is time for something more from Barack Obama. He might start by repackaging Franklin Roosevelt because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. A weary and wary nation longing for strength and hope needs to hear that from the top.

Guns and Myths…

     “I can make the case that if there were guns in that room other than his, fewer people would’ve died, fewer people would’ve been so horribly injured.”

                                        Donald Trump on Meet the Press, October 4, 2015              commenting on the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.

– – – – –

One of the challenges in assessing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is that you run out of words that begin to describe his idiocy and cluelessness. I haven’t used despicable for a while, so let’s use that to characterize Trump’s reaction in the wake of the horrific – and most recent – mass shooting last week in Roseburg, Oregon.

Trump: More Myths About Guns

Trump: More Myths About Guns

And, of course, the GOP front runner had to make the unthinkable tragedy of students and their teacher murdered in a writing class all about him. “I have a license to carry in New York. Can you believe that? Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked,” Trump blustered in front of a cheering crowd at a campaign rally in Tennessee.

The Republican clown then completed the trifecta of gun mythology, which includes the old canard that even more guns are the answer to mass shootings and that we should all be armed to make the country safer, when he dismissed the epidemic of mass gun murder in the United States as (and he should know) a mental health issue.

But it is about the guns…

“It’s not the guns,” Trump said. “It’s the people, these sick people.” But in fact, as everyone really knows but few willingly admit, it is about the guns, particularly when there are essentially as many guns in the society as there are men, women and children in the country, vastly more guns by population than any other country on the planet.

It’s also not about the myth of mental illness, although that certainly plays a part. Dr. Paul Applebaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in attacks like the recent one in Oregon, told New York Magazine last week that it is a fool’s errand to attempt to deal with mass murder by attempting to predict who is capable of mass murder.

“When I heard the news of the Oregon shootings, I thought, I’m done talking to reporters about the causes of violence.” Applebaum told the magazine. Rather, he said, he had developed a one-size-fits-all statement for the media that concluded, “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”

Over the next couple of days the horror that unfolded last Thursday at Umpqua Community College will quickly fade away as it always does after the most recent gun outrage in America, while the short national attention span will move on to something else. President Obama is certainly correct when he says mass gun murder has become so routine in America that we have trouble maintaining for more than about two news cycles the outrage that might move us to action. We aren’t just lacking in urgency about gun mayhem we just don’t care.

Police search students at Umpqua Community College last week

Police search students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon last week

The families in Roseburg will be left to attempt to cope with their grief and loss. But we should all grapple with the haunting words in one family’s statement that the loss of their 18-year old child has left their lives “shattered beyond repair.”

Meanwhile, the political class carries on with nary a skipped beat, repeating the old, tired and lame myths about guns. The Oregon victims deserve better – much better – than the perpetuation of myth making about guns from Trump and all the other apologists for mass murder who refuse to face facts about the society’s perverse embrace of the culture of the gun.

Debunking the self defense myth (using real facts), David Atkins wrote in the Washington Monthly that the right wing gun lobby and its slavish adherents have “gone so far off the rails that reality is no longer a relevant boundary on discussion. As with supply-side economics, the benefits of gun culture are taken not on evidence but on almost cultic faith by the right wing and its adherents.”

This mind set, apparently, prompts a state legislator in Idaho to post on his Facebook page that he is “very disappointed in President Obama. Again he is using the tragic shooting in Oregon to advance his unconstitutional gun control agenda.” What a crock, but also what a widely believed crock. When it comes to guns we know what we believe even when it’s not true. Discussions – or arguments – about guns exist like so much of the rest of American political discourse – in a fact free environment. Myths about guns morph into “facts” about guns.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

                                      – Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The entirety of the mythology begins, of course, with the Second Amendment and the decades that the National Rifle Association has devoted to myth making about the twenty-six words of the amendment.

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has brilliantly related in his little book – Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution:

“For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment,” Stevens has written, “federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated Militia.’”

…A Well Regulated Militia…

Stevens says during the tenure of the conservative Republican Chief Justice Warren Berger, from 1969 to 1986, “no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.”

In his retirement Chief Justice Burger bluntly said in an interview that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Only fairly recently, in fact in the last decade as Stevens points out, has the Second Amendment been broadly reinterpreted by the Court – the Heller decision in 2008 and the McDonald case in 2010, both decided by 5-to-4 votes  – to sharply expand its meaning. Of course, powerful political forces, including most importantly conservative politicians and the NRA, helped to propel these changes made by the most conservative Court since the 1930’s. The gun myths grew in direct proportion to the political agenda of the mostly rightwing politicians who benefitted most significantly from the NRA’s pressure and cash.

Nonetheless, “It is important to note,” Stevens writes, “that nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacle to the adoption of such preventive measures” – expanded background checks and bans on assault weapons for instance – that were widely suggested in the wake of the Newtown tragedy that claimed the lives of 20 children in 2012.

Justice Stevens would go farther, as would I, in returning the Second Amendment to its original intent by inserting just five additional words. A revised amendment would read: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

But such a change seems unthinkable when federal lawmakers won’t risk NRA ire by even discussing the kinds of change that the existing Second Amendment clearly permits.

Rather than advancing an “unconstitutional agenda” as gun mythology would have you believe, Obama has suggested – he did again last week and will no doubt do again and again – that “responsible” gun owners should finally support common sense efforts that might begin to roll back the rate of slaughter. You have to wonder if there actually are “responsible” gun owners out there who are as shocked as some of us are about mass murder at a community college, or at a church in Charleston, or at a theatre, a shopping center, at Army and Navy bases, or in a Connecticut elementary school.

Has the NRA so poisoned the political well of reality that no red state Republican can dare say “enough is enough” and something must change? Is there no group of “responsible” gun owners willing to call the bluff of the makers of the gun myths? Does every NRA member buy the group’s more guns, no regulation logic, while blithely sending off their dues to enrich a collection of political hacks in Washington, D.C. whose real agenda is to – wait for it – maintain their influence and, of course, sell more guns?

So, while Roseburg mourns, the gun world turns away and Trump and others get away again with repeating the well-worn myths about guns. What we can be sure is not a myth is that we will be here again soon enough repeating the call for prayers for the victims and the first responders and we will, for a few televised moment at least, be stunned, while we consider the ever mounting death toll.

And so it goes. The cycle repeats. Nothing changes. A society’s inability to deal with its most obvious affliction hides in plan sight. We also quietly hope that the odds are in our favor and unlike the grief torn families in Oregon we’ll not be the next ones shattered beyond repair.


Calling out the False Prophets…

    “The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done…We have got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know, they know are never going to happen.”

                                                                           John Boehner on Face the Nation.

– – – – –

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for John Boehner who served notice last week that he’ll step down in a few weeks from what used to be the second most powerful job in Washington.

John Boeher on Face the Nation. CBS photo

John Boeher on Face the Nation. CBS photo

Boehner always seemed ill cast in the role of shrill partisan. By most accounts Boehner actually thought, unlike the 40 or 50 ultra-right wingers in his caucus that members of Congress are sent to Washington legislate.

You remember legislating? Stuff like passing an annual budget – the fundamental business of the legislative branch – to actually fund the government. Rather Boehner’s House has lurched from one “continuing resolution” to another, from one government shutdown over the latest nutty cause or the latest spiteful desire to put the president in his place.

Boehner’s House, with the largest Republican majority since Herbert Hoover was in the White House, can’t pass a budget, but did vote, unsuccessfully of course, to repeal Obamacare more than 50 times. You get the feeling that Boehner’s tenure as Speaker of the House has been akin to the frisky dog that chased the car and caught it. Once Boehner grabbed the gavel from Nancy Pelosi he was mostly focused on trying to keep it by placating the reactionaries in his own party. But placating is not leading and Boehner will ultimately be remembered, I suspect, as a political non-entity from Ohio who somehow became an ineffective, indeed disastrous non-leader.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein has it right that Boehner and other Republicans who might actually like to engaging in using their majority to govern have been caught between the angry forces of the grassroots and political reality.

“It was inevitable that these two forces—radicals flexing their muscles, demanding war against Obama from their congressional foxholes, and leaders realizing that a hard line was a fool’s errand—would collide violently,” Ornstein writes in The Atlantic.

“The party outside Congress, including at the grass roots, has itself become more radical, and angrier at the party establishment for breaking promises and betraying its ideals. When polls consistently show that two-thirds of Republicans favor outsiders for their presidential nomination, it is not surprising that Ted Cruz would call his own Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor. Even insiders like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have been eager to treat McConnell and Boehner like piñatas.”

Senator Ted Cruz

Senator Ted Cruz

In other words, Boehner’s demise has been building steadily since the day he first gripped the big gavel and, while a certain sympathy for the soon-to-be former Speaker is in order, it’s also worth nothing that he – and other Republicans who know better – generally went along with the increasingly strident agenda of their most angry brethren.

The silliness of Donald Trump completely nonsensical agenda – read the transcript of his recent ’60 Minutes’ interview or try to make sense of his crazy tax plan – didn’t spring, Zeus-like, from his orange head.

Like Trump, Ted Cruz, who Boehner now calls “a jackass,” is a product of the anger and irrationality that many Republican “leaders” allowed to fester among the grassroots, the modern descendants of the “Movement Conservatives,” the Goldwaterites and John Birchers who 50 years ago steered the Grand Old Party off a grand old cliff.

The process that led to John Boehner’s decision to quit was actually set in motion on the evening of January 20, 2009 – Barack Obama’s first day in office – when a core group of radical Republicans met in the back room of a D.C. steakhouse and decided that their guiding principle would be implacable opposition to everything that the new president proposed.

“The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE.

Among those in attendance at this pivotal meeting: Senate power brokers and Tea Party darlings Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan.

Even Frank Underwood would pass on this one

Even Frank Underwood would pass on this one

McCarthy, of course, is the odds on favorite to replace Boehner as speaker and Ryan, the only other member of that group still in Congress, perhaps very wisely decided not to seek the top job in the House. The liberal writer David Corn quips that even Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s fictional, nasty and scheming congressman in the series “House of Cards,” would take a pass on the job of succeeding John Boehner.

The slash and burn strategy hatched by the Republican anti-Obama caucus in January 2009 worked like a charm to create Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, but at what cost? Well, for starters it cost Boehner his job and helped fuel the anger that has given the Republican Party a clownish real estate developer as its front runner and –  I can’t believe I’m writing this – quite possibly its presidential candidate.

One wonders how the fortunes of the country and the GOP might be different had Speaker Boehner back in January 2009 asserted himself against the “no on everything all the time” caucus in his own party. What if Boehner, the golfer who likes to make a deal, had sought a politics of substance and collaboration with the new president? What might have been different if Boehner, the insider who had once worked with Ted Kennedy to pass “No Child Left Behind” had called out the “false prophets” in his own party from day one?

We’ll never know how things might have been different had Congressional Republicans decided to legislate around substance rather than agitate the grassroots through anger. What might have happened if Boehner had reached for a middle ground on health care, the stimulus and so much else rather than buying into the Tea Party mantra that the only way to deal with Obama was to consider him an unworthy pretender?

This much is certain: despite the hard right’s best efforts Obama’s agenda has mostly survived and Boehner and other “responsible” Republicans are tossing and turning at night thinking about a substance free demagogue like Trump or Cruz, both products of the GOP base that loathes Boehner and his Senate counterpart McConnell nearly as much as it hates Obama, leading their party into the next presidential election.

Leadership requires, after all, setting real expectations and occasionally calling a halt to the politics of constantly whipping up a fact free frenzy.

In the end John Boehner will take his permanent tan, his cigarettes, his Merlot and his golf clubs off to a K Street lobby shop and Kevin McCarthy or some other poor soul will be left to try and clean up the mess he has left behind. In order to get the job now, of course, McCarthy must promise to give the radicals in his caucus even more deference. Ironically, Boehner’s finest moment of leadership may have been his decision to quit and at least temporarily end the threat of yet another government shutdown.

But every sixth grader knows you can’t endlessly appease unreasonable bullies. You have to beat them. The political reality of John Boehner is that he couldn’t figure out how to win – and ultimately how to govern. His only answer, and even then short term, was to quit.

As Norm Ornstein say, “In the new tribal world of radical politics, the first constitutional office has lost its luster” and that, unfortunately, will be Speaker Boehner’s legacy.

It is said that without leadership the people perish. John Boehner has now given that old notion a new twist: Without leadership the leaders perish, too.


Deal or No Deal…

There was bipartisan understanding that when the Iranians indicated a readiness to talk the U.S. would lead the negotiations to test Iran’s seriousness. – Statement supporting the Iranian nuclear agreement signed by sixty bipartisan foreign policy and national security leaders.

– – – – –

Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based  – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.

I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.

Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”

Return of “the primitives…”

It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.

John Kennedy signs test ban treaty flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

John Kennedy signs the limited test ban treaty in 1963 flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.

Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.

In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.

Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.

OK…What’s Your Suggestion…

When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.

There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.

There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.

In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”

The Whole World is Watching…

While Congressional Republicans work to overturn the administration’s Iran deal – Mario Rubio has pledged, for example, to undo the deal on his first day in office – much of the rest of the world has moved on. The most impressive leader on the current world stage, Pope Francis, has endorsed the deal and will speak to Congress just days before the vote. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a politician who displays more grit and gumption than the entire United States Senate, strongly backs the deal. Great Britain has re-opened its long shuttled embassy in Tehran and French officials have spoken of a “new era” in its relations with Iran.

iranmapRejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?

Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.

The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.

Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.

Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.

The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.


The Education of the Younger Brother

It’s difficult, no matter your personal politics, to not have some sympathy for Jeb Bush and his efforts to articulate a plausible foreign policy approach for his presidential campaign. Given the wreckage his brother left him – and us – it’s a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallenda Family.

George W. and Jeb  (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

George W. and Jeb (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.

Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.

Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…

WW1centenary_715x195 (1)Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?

The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.

British historian Max Hastings

British historian Sir Max Hastings

Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.

Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.

Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…

In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.

Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book, The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”

Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.

As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”

Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.

“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”

As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.

“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”

Let the Debate Continue…

Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.

Islamic State fighters

Islamic State fighters

In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.

The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.

“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.

History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”

Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.


Advise and Consent…

Years ago I enjoyed a delightful series of conversations with John Corlett, a true old-school newspaper reporter in Idaho who could recall political anecdotes with the sharpness that a gambler brings to counting cards in a Las Vegas casino. John’s career spanned a good part of the last century, from Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency to Ronald Reagan’s. He covered political conventions, wrote about statesmen and scalawags and he relished sharing his storehouse of memories every bit as much as I enjoyed hearing those memories.

Judge Chase Clark

Judge Chase Clark

One of many stories I remember involved former Idaho Governor and U.S. District Judge Chase Clark, the father-in-law of Senator Frank Church. Clark was part of a genuine Idaho political dynasty that featured two governors and a congressman who later became a U.S. Senator. Church married into the dynasty when he wed Bethine, the politically astute daughter of Chase Clark. The Clarks were mostly Democrats, but for bipartisan flavor the family also includes the remarkable Nancy Clark Reynolds, the Congressman’s daughter, and a Ronald Reagan confidante and D.C. power player.

Chase Clark ran for re-election as Idaho governor in 1942 and narrowly lost a re-match election with former Governor C.A. Bottolfson, the man Clark defeated in 1940. But 1942 was a Republican year, the country was at war, Roosevelt was in the second year of his third term and voters everywhere seemed to hanker for change. Corlett remembered that Democrat Clark considered his re-election chances to be less than stellar under those circumstances; so much so that Clark seems to have taken steps to create for himself a soft landing should the election turn out badly from his point of view.

As returns trickled in on election night 1942 it soon became clear that the governor’s race in Idaho would be a cliffhanger. Bottolfson eventually won by 434 votes out of more than 144,000 cast.

The Governor Who Wanted to Lose…

Late on election night as Corlett monitored the vote counting and tried to determine who was winning the very tight contest his phone rang. Governor Clark was on the other end of the line. “John,” he said, “it’s time for you to call the election for Bottolfson.”

Corlett could hardly believe what he was hearing. The incumbent Democrat was effectively conceding the election and doing so hours before it would become clear who the real winner might be. The curious phone call only made sense a few weeks later when Roosevelt announced Clark’s appointment to fill a vacancy on the federal bench in Idaho. A little over a month after leaving office in January 1943, Clark was nominated for the judgeship. He was confirmed by the Senate fifteen days later and served on the federal bench until his death in 1966.

Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt

Corlett was convinced that Clark had made a deal with Roosevelt before the election in 1942, a deal to have the president appoint him to the court should he lose, and John believed Clark actually wanted to lose, maybe even planned to lose. For Corlett, Clark’s election night telephone call concession was a political smoking gun. The governor wanted to be a federal judge a good deal more than he wanted to be a governor.

The life tenure of a federal judicial position (assuming good behavior) is just one attractive aspect of the job. The pay isn’t shabby, the working conditions are typically first rate and the retirement benefits quite nice thank you. As they say, “it’s indoor work with no heavy lifting,” unless you consider hours of sitting, listening, reading and writing strenuous. Done correctly, however, the job really should be demanding. It requires a certain temperament and a scholarly demeanor, experience, perspective, learning in the law and an abiding sense of fairness. It helps, as well, to be a real person with an ego in check, someone who is not overly impressed when everyone refers to you as “your honor.”

Idaho’s Next Judge…

I remembered the old John Corlett tale recently as I read the news of the unfolding and very secret process being managed by Idaho’s two Republican United States senators to fill the vacant judgeship on the federal district court in Idaho. As the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell first reported, Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have been quietly – very quietly – interviewing prospective candidates for the federal court position, but, as Russell also reported, two of the most obvious women candidates have not been interviewed, at least not yet.

The senators subsequently released a short statement to the effect that the confidential process was in everyone’s best interest and that men as well as women would be considered. Russell also reported that the current process is a dramatic departure from that used the last time Idaho had a federal court vacancy. In 1995, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne created a nine-member bipartisan panel made up of five Democrats and four Republicans. The partisan split was in deference to fact that Democrat Clinton would make the appointment. That process ultimately produced three stellar candidates, including current federal District Judge Lynn Winmill, who was nominated and confirmed and continues to serve with great distinction.

Judge Edward Lodge

Judge Edward Lodge

Crapo and Risch could have adopted a similar approach when respected Judge Edward Lodge announced his decision to move to “senior status” in September of last year. That they did not, and that only in the last few days has there been any news about the judicial position, might indicate that the senators aren’t really much focused on producing a candidate that will be both acceptable to them and to the person who under the Constitution actually makes the appointment, Barack Obama.

While its clear under the Constitution that the president “shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” federal judges, it is an unwritten fact of life in the United States Senate that no nominee gets approved by the Senate unless the senators of the state involved green light the appointment. This is particularly true when the Senate is controlled, as it now is, by one party while the other party holds the White House.

This political reality cries out, if indeed Idaho’s senators really want to see a judicial appointment while Barack Obama is still in office, for something like the bipartisan approach Craig and Kempthorne employed twenty years ago. It is entirely conceivable that the process now being used will produce a candidate that will turn out to be unacceptable to the White House and that may be what the senators truly desire. In the hardball of Senate politics the Idaho Republicans may have decided, as an Arizona Congressman actually said recently, that Obama should have not more appointments approved – period.

Idaho’s senators may have simply made the political calculation that they will “run out the clock,” while betting that a Republican wins the White House in 2016. Under this scenario Crapo and Risch will have teed up the candidate they want for early consideration by President Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or someone else.

With no more than seventy working days remaining on this year’s Senate calendar and with the Senate surely going into paralysis mode next year with a presidential election looming time will soon dictate whether an Idaho appointment is even possible. Even if Crapo and Risch were to produce a candidate relatively soon the White House and FBI vetting process could take months and extend into next year’s presidential morass. For the two senators this approach could neatly, if unfairly, place the blame for failing to fill the vacancy on the president’s desk.

The statement from Crapo and Risch last week made much of the need for an “entirely confidential” process. But it’s worth asking why? At least two widely mentioned, not particularly political and eminently qualified female candidates – U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson and federal Magistrate Candy Dale – have publicly acknowledge their interest in the appointment. Idaho, of course, is unique in that the state has never had a woman federal district judge. One suspects it is the senators insisting on the confidentially, since applying to become a federal judge, even if you are not selected, is hardly something most Idaho lawyers would hide under a bushel. Merely applying puts one in rare company.

One can certainly understand senatorial prerogatives and the Constitution wisely provides for “advice and consent” from the Senate, but a vacant federal judgeship that comes around maybe once in a generation really doesn’t belong exclusively to two U.S. senators or even to a president. The important job belongs to Idaho and given the nature of Idaho and national politics shouts out for a high degree of transparency.

Advise and Consent…Not So Much…

As this process stumbles forward the White House might consider these political facts:

Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Idaho’s two senators recently voted against the confirmation of a highly qualified African-American woman to become the first ever attorney general. They based their votes on the fact that Loretta Lynch, a seasoned federal prosecutor, merely said that she agreed with her boss, the president, on his immigration actions; actions admittedly controversial, but also currently under judicial review. Such conservative Senate stalwarts as Mitch McConnell, Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake voted to confirm Lynch as attorney general, but not Crapo and Risch.

Additionally, from health care to Iran, Idaho’s senators have opposed virtually all of Obama’s policy actions. They regularly lambast the administration for everything from underfunding the Idaho National Laboratory to over regulating Main Street businesses. Obama’s budgets, they have said repeatedly, are awful, his foreign policy a disaster and the president regularly engages in extra-constitutional behavior. Little wonder then that Idaho’s senators, as reliably opposed to anything the White House proposes as any two senators in the nation, have shown so little interest in actually working with the president on the rare Idaho judicial appointment.

What Would FDR Do…

As the old story about Judge Clark in the 1940’s proves, being appointed a federal judge is a highly desirable job. Franklin Roosevelt placed the just defeated Chase Clark on the federal bench in 1942 without, near as I can tell, much if any involvement by Idaho’s two senators at the time.

Senator D. Worth Clark

Senator D. Worth Clark

In fact it’s very likely that Roosevelt could have cared less about the opinion of Senator D. Worth Clark, Chase’s nephew and Nancy Clark Reynold’s father, since Worth Clark was an outspoken opponent of FDR’s foreign policy. Coming as it did from a member of his own party, Roosevelt bitterly resented Clark’s harsh isolationist critique and let it be known that he did.

Senator John W. Thomas, a Republican, who was appointed to replace William Borah when he died in 1940, was, with the exception of foreign policy, philosophically far removed from the man he replaced. Roosevelt both liked and respected Borah even though the two men clashed on many things and had Borah, a long-time member of the Judiciary Committee, lived he certainly would have had a say in filling the Idaho judgeship. With a war to run it’s not hard to speculate that the opinions of Clark and Thomas counted for next to nothing in Roosevelt’s White House. While the Senate did “advise and consent” on Judge Clark, it can safely be said that Idaho’s two senators had very little to say about his appointment.

Perhaps in the current case Mr. Obama ought to engage in some of that dictatorial activity he is so often accused of and go ahead and appoint one of the highly qualified and non-political women candidates to the federal bench. Let Idaho’s senators explain why a sitting U.S. attorney already confirmed by the Senate, or a federal magistrate vetted by her peers, or any number of other qualified women aren’t acceptable. The way things look today President Obama has nothing too lose as the clock winds down on his term and he confronts a judicial selection in Idaho vetted and suggested by two senators who can hardly mention his name without a sneer.

Barack Obama might enjoy, just as Franklin Roosevelt often did, seeing some of his greatest opponents in the Senate squirm just a little. At the very least, Mr. Obama could go down in history as the first president who tried to appoint the first women to the federal bench in Idaho.


The Most Important Election…

There is a wide-open field on the Republican side for the presidential nomination, with at least a half dozen serious contenders, while the lame duck Democrat in the White House, one of the most polarizing american-politicsfigures in modern American politics, struggles with foreign policy challenges which have emboldened his fierce critics in both parties and submerged his domestic agenda. The foreign policy challenges involve questions about the effectiveness of military aid in bloody conflicts that may, or may not, involve strategic American interests, as well as the proper response to brutal foreign dictators determined to expand their influence in central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The incumbent in the White House, elected with promises of “hope and change,” has lost his once large majorities in both houses of Congress and, while he remains a profoundly talented communicator and is still popular with many voters, others have grown tired of his aloof manner and the fact that he surrounds himself with a tiny corps of advisors who tend to shut off competing points of view. Even his wife can be a polarizing figure with some criticizing everything from her priorities to her wardrobe.

A fragile economic recovery continues to sputter along, while memories remain fresh of an economic collapse that rivals anything that has happened in three-quarters of a century. Half the country blames Wall Street, eastern bankers and the well-heeled for the economic troubles, while the other half laments excessive regulation, increasing debt and bloated federal government that is constantly expanding its role in American life. The country is deeply divided by race, class and religious differences.

The year is…2016? No…actually 1940.

The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime…Not Really…

Lincoln and McClellan

Lincoln and McClellan

The claim heard every four years that “this is the most important election in our lifetime (or in our history), it is, of course, nonsense. We don’t have “critical elections” every four years, but in fact have really only had a handful of truly “critical” elections in our history. In my view the two most important were 1864, when Abraham Lincoln defeated George McClellan thereby ensuring that the great Civil War would be fought to its ultimate end and achieve its ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-established political tradition and sought and won a third term. Roosevelt’s election, although it would have been hard to see clearly at the time, sealed the involvement of the United States in World War II and ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.

Those two elections (you could add 1860 to the list, as well) had serious consequences that still echo today, the 1940 election particularly since it does have many parallels with what voters will face when they make a choice about the White House in 2016.

Arguably the field for the Republican nomination hasn’t been so completely wide open since 1940. In that election, as today, the GOP was a divided party between its more establishment wing – represented by New Yorker Thomas Dewey – and an insurgent element represented by the party’s eventual nominee in 1940, Indiana-born, former Democrat Wendell Willkie, a true dark horse candidate. The party was also split into isolationist and internationalist camps, with Willkie the leader of the later and Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan leading the Midwestern, isolationist element.

As Many GOP Contenders as 2016…

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

Ten Republican candidates that year captured at least twenty-eight convention votes, with Dewey leading on the first ballot with 360 votes, still far below the number he would need to win the nomination. The Republican candidates, not unlike today, were a broad and opportunistic bunch ranging from names lost to history – the governor of South Dakota Harland Bushland, for example – to shades of the past like former President Herbert Hoover who amazingly thought he was a viable candidate eight years after losing in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932.

Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey

Dewey lost support on every subsequent ballot, while Willkie and Taft steadily picked up steam. As Charles Peters has written: “To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential,” not unlike the “establishment wing” of the GOP today, which is tentatively coalescing behind Jeb Bush.

Finally on the sixth ballot Willkie commanded the votes needed to win the nomination and face the man who was the real issue in 1940 – Roosevelt.

By the time the Democrats convened for their convention in Chicago on July 15, 1940 (the Republicans met in Philadelphia in June), few besides FDR knew his intentions with regard to the “no third term” tradition. I’m convinced Roosevelt had decided much earlier to seek another terms, but the master political strategist wanted it to appear that his party was “drafting” him rather than as if he was actively seeking the nomination again.

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Roosevelt dispatched his very politically astute wife, Eleanor, to Chicago to subtly, but unmistakably make the case for her husband. It worked and the Democratic Party rushed to embrace FDR – again. This whole story is wonderfully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World.

FDR of course, went on to win the pivotal election of 1940, a rare election in American political history that turned primarily on foreign policy issues. Remarkably, both candidates endorsed the creation of a peace time draft in the middle of the campaign and Roosevelt and Willkie differed only in the most nuanced ways over the big question of whether and how the United States would provide aid to Britain as it struggled to hold off a Nazi invasion and eventually return to the offense against Hitler.

The 1940 campaign, like most political campaigns, had its share of pettiness and overheated rhetoric. Roosevelt was denounced as a “warmonger” and a dictator who would do anything to prolong his willkie buttonhold over the country’s politics. Willkie, a wealthy utility executive who made much of his small-town Indiana upbringing, was derided as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” so dubbed by Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was an open secret that Willkie had a long-time romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, but Roosevelt and the Democrats dare not raise the issue for fear that the “marriage of convenience” between FDR and Eleanor, not to mention the president’s own indiscretions, might become an issue. This would not be a John Edwards or Gary Hart campaign.

The 1940 campaign did involve two talented and serious candidates who openly discussed the big issues of the day and once the voters had spoken, Roosevelt and Willkie put aside personal animosities and linked arms for the good of the country – and the world.

Barack Obama won’t be running for a third term next year. Republicans made certain that would never happen when they recaptured control of the Congress after World War II and adopted the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, but Democrats will be, in effect, seeking a third term with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the party banner.

Perhaps all – or almost all – politicians tend to look better in hindsight than they do when they are grubbing for votes, but it would be hard to argue that any of the contenders in either party today could hold their own on a stage with the major party nominees in that pivotal year of 1940.

The stakes were very high that year and Americans had their pick between two serious, quality candidates. Here’s hoping history repeats next year. Looking at the field I have my doubts.

Reader’s Note: 

There are at least three other recent fine books about the election of 1940 – Richard Moe’s Roosevelt’s Second Act, Susan Dunn’s 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler: The Election Amid the Storm and Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days. All are highly recommended as great political history.


Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”


The Water’s Edge…

“…the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades. – Letter from 47 Republican senators to Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Can’t We Just Agree on This…

Amid the persistent partisan rancor dominating Washington, D.C. you might think that the one issue that would lend itself to a modicum of bipartisanship would be an effort to prevent Iran from developing the ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

In the hands of a regime that since 1979 has proclaimed the United States as its great enemy, a nuclear weapon would represent an existential Iran-map-regionthreat not only to the U.S, but also to the continually troubled Middle East. Indeed, Iranian nuclear capability is a threat to the entire world.

In response to this very real threat, the Obama Administration has attempted to do what former President George H.W. Bush did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 – build an international coalition to confront the threat. In dealing with the Iranian nuclear menace the United States has joined forces with France, Great Britain, Germany, China and Russia, but the U.S. has clearly taken the lead in the talks.

While Republican critics of Obama’s foreign policy often criticize the president for “leading from behind,” in the case of Iran the U.S. is clearly out front pushing hard for a diplomatic agreement. That fact alone, given GOP criticism of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, might argue for Republican cooperation and encouragement that could foster true bipartisanship. In fact, and in a different political world, the circumstances of the coalition led by the U.S. to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon seems like the epitome of a foreign policy issue where Republicans and Democrats might actually cheer each other on in expectation of an outcome that would be good for the country, the Middle East and the world.

Politics is always about fighting over the details, but stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons seems like a fundamental strategic goal that every American could embrace. But not these days. Just when it seems that American politics can’t make me any more discouraged about theCotton future of the country, Arkansas sends Tom Cotton to the United States Senate. Cotton is the architect of the now infamous letter to the Iranian ayatollahs that has both undercut Obama’s international diplomacy, while revealing the depths of blind partisanship in Washington.

Senate Republicans are so dismissive of Obama’s presidency that they are willing to risk blowing up the nuclear talks with Iran and happy to completely jettison any hint of bipartisanship in foreign policy. Ironically the GOP experts also set themselves up to take the blame if the Iranian talks do come apart. At the same time, Republicans offer no alternative to the approach Obama has taken (well, John McCain once joked about his desire to “bomb, bomb Iran,” as if that were a real option).

The GOP’s approach also centers on dismantling a long tradition of bipartisanship regarding Israel and giving encouragement to the current Israeli prime minister – who happens to be fighting for his political life – to take his own unilateral action against Iran. That is a prescription for World War III, but that seems to pale in the face of the Republican compulsion to de-legitimize Obama and show the world just how small and petty our politics have become.

When Country Came Before Party…

The U.S. Senate is a place of great history and great tradition. Some of that history is worth remembering in the wake of the truly unprecedented “open letter” 47 Republican senators directed this week to the leadership of Iran. That letter, of course, has now become controversial and may well mark a new low point in failure of responsibility and leadership by the senators who signed it.

In January 1945, with the end of the Second World War in sight, Franklin Roosevelt was about to set off for an historic meeting at Yalta with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill. The critical subject at that conference was the formation of a post-war organization that might have a chance to prevent another world conflict. Then as now, many senators in both parties distrusted Roosevelt believing him too secretive in his dealings vandenbergwith other world leaders and too dismissive of Congress. An influential Republican Senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, had long been a skeptic of FDR’s approach to foreign policy, but the rapidly evolving world order – a powerful Soviet state, a diminished British Empire, a hugely powerful United States – caused the once-isolationism minded Vandenberg to reassess his thinking. (Something, need I note, that few politicians dare do these days.)

The result of that re-thinking was one of the greatest speeches in the history of the Senate. Famously declaring that, “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Vandenberg re-defined, literally in a single speech, the shape of American foreign policy in the post-war world. Pledging support to the Democratic president, the Republican Vandenberg said: “We cannot drift to victory…We must have maximum united effort on all fronts…and we must deserve, we must deserve the continued united effort of our own people…politics must stop at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg, who desired the presidency as much in his day as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul do now, nevertheless worked closely with Harry Truman to flesh out the creation of the United Nations and implement the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from the ravages of war. It was a remarkable example of bipartisan leadership from a man who, had he wanted to do so, might have created political havoc both domestically and internationally.

Vandenberg was reportedly surprised by the impact of his “water’s edge” speech, modestly saying: “I felt that things were drifting. . . Somebody had to say something, and I felt it could be more effectively said by a member of the opposition.”

Imagine a Republican senator saying such a thing today.

Arthur Vandenberg, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, knew that an American president must have the ability to deal directly and decisively with foreign leaders. The president – any president – is also entitled to a to be free of the constant undertow of partisan politics on the home front, particularly when the stakes are so very high. Vandenberg also knew that the United States Senate has a particular ability to shape the national debate about foreign policy thanks to the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate “advise and consent” on treaties and the appointment of ambassadors.

Imagine for a moment the Senate behaving differently than it does. Imagine for a moment a Senate populated by senators like Arthur Vandenberg. In such a Senate Republican leaders might go to the White House regularly for private and candid talks with the president where they might well express profound concerns about a potential agreement with Iran. They might even make speeches on the Senate floor about what kind of agreement they expect. The Foreign Relations Committee might conduct detailed, bipartisan hearings on the challenges and opportunities contained in an agreement. The Committee might invite former secretaries of state or national security advisors from both parties to testify. (By the way, at least two former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft, a Republican, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat, support the diplomatic effort underway.)

MansfieldMike_DirksenEverett4271964The once impressive Foreign Relations Committee, haunted by the ghosts of great senators like J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield, Frank Church and Howard Baker who once served there, might hear presentations from and ask questions of academics and foreign policy experts from the United States and our foreign partners. They might actually undertake a bipartisan effort to understand the nature and timing of a threat from Iran.

Instead, driven by the hyper-partisan needs and far right wing tilt of the coming presidential campaign, Republicans are making the question of “who can be tougher on Iran” their foreign policy litmus test. The inability to embrace even a hint of bipartisanship seems rooted in the stunning belief that Obama (not to mention former Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry) would literally sell out the country – and Israel – in a potential deal with Iran.

The debate over the now infamous Republican letter to Iran will no doubt continue and time will tell whether it provides Iran an out to abandon any agreement, but at least one aspect of the letter – how it came to be and who created it – deserves consideration in the context of the history of the United States Senate.

Since When Does a Rookie Get to Call This Play...

The letter was the brainchild of the Senate’s youngest member, a senator who ranks 93rd in seniority, a senator who took office less than three months ago. Freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is frequently described as a strong advocate for greater defense spending and a darling of the party’s farthest right wing.

In a different Senate operating under adult supervision the young Gentleman from Arkansas would have been told to file his letter in a recycle bin, but in the Senate we have the Cotton letter was signed by a number of Republican senators with substantial seniority that should have known better, senators like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Arizona’s McCain. After noting that McCain now says the letter “wasn’t exactly the best way to do that,” the New York Times editorialized that the Cotton missive “was an attempt to scare the Iranians from making a deal that would limit their nuclear program for at least a decade by issuing a warning that the next president could simply reverse any agreement. It was a blatant, dangerous effort to undercut the president on a grave national security issue by communicating directly with a foreign government.”

Arthur-Vandenberg---resizedAfter researching the history, the Senate historian says there is no precedent for such a letter. And Alan Hendrikson, who teaches at the prestigious Fletcher School of International Relations, agrees that the Cotton letter “undercuts” the whole idea of American foreign policy. “Neither the Senate nor the House has sought to interfere with actual conduct of negotiations by writing an open letter to the leadership of a country with which the U.S. is negotiating,” Henrikson told McClatchy News.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank joked that perhaps Cotton, who denied that his epistle was one-of-a-kind, would undercover “an open letter from American legislators written to King George III in 1783 warning him that the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams might be undone with the stroke of a quill.” But, of course, no such letter was ever written, just as Cotton’s should not have been.

Give credit to Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who did not sign the letter and may yet help his party lead rather than posture. Against all evidence about what the United States Senate has become, perhaps Corker can channel Arthur Vandenberg, a staunch Republican and a frequent critic of Democratic presidents, who could still put his country above his party.


Not the Party of Lincoln

130205_abraham_lincoln_ap_605_605Abraham Lincoln is the one American president everyone claims, well almost everyone. Lincoln is the model of principled leader, the shrewd strategist navigating through the most severe crisis the nation has ever faced. His writing skills astound. His humor, much of it self deprecating, was a marvel. I can make the case that Lincoln invented the role of commander-in-chief and despite his lack of education in military matters he became a better strategist than any of his generals, including Grant.

Lincoln’s Social and Economic Policy

In one year of his presidency, 1862, Lincoln signed four nation changing acts. One was the Homestead Act, a massive transfer of wealth to thousands of Americans who, without the chance to own and live off the their own land, had little hope of improving their economic status. One of the beneficiaries of was my grandfather, a poor Missouri boy who staked out his homestead in the sand hill country of western Nebraska just after the turn of the 20th Century. He proved up his place and got married to a woman whose husband had abandoned her leaving my grandmother with two young sons to raise on her own. Their marriage produced my dad who would admire to the end of his days the grit and determination of his own father in carving a life out of the land. My grandfather later owned a successful business, became the mayor of his adopted home town and gave his own sons, including my dad, a big leg up on life. It all started with Mr. Lincoln signing that Homestead Act in 1862.

That same year, 1862, the president also put his A. Lincoln on the Morrill Act creating the great system of public higher education – Land_grant_college_stampthe land grant colleges – that helped further transform the country and cemented the idea that everyone had a chance to attain an education and acquire a profession. I graduated from a land grant college, so too members of my family.

In 1862 Lincoln also authorized the transcontinental railroad, a massive windfall for a handful of already very wealthy railroad barons, but also a massive public works project that created wealth from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Many of those who benefited from the homesteads and the education and the railroads were immigrants, Irish and German, Swede and Finn. All came to America looking for opportunity and many finding it thanks to enlightened Republican-inspired public policy created, hard to believe, in the middle of a great civil war. All told the social and economic policy made during that one year of Lincoln’s presidency transformed America.

The fourth great accomplishment of 1862 was, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, an audacious expansion of presidential power that Lincoln’s many critics condemned as executive overreach. One wonders if that executive order will stand the test of time?

In an engaging and provocative new book – To Make Men Free – Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson tells the story of the creation of the Republican Party – Lincoln’s party – as an activist, results oriented movement that was determined to support “a la-la-ca-0919-heather-cox-richardson-087-jpg-20140924strong and growing middle class, whose members had fought to defend the government during the war and now used government money and owned government bonds, paid government taxes and attended government-funded colleges, and gave their wholehearted allegiance to the nation.” Oh, yes, Lincoln’s Republican Party also championed immigration.

It is a curious twist of history that the Republican Party of Lincoln, a party that began as a champion of the middle class and freed the slaves, now so closely identifies with the most privileged among us, while catering to older, white voters, many in the south. Democrats have undergone their own evolution, as well, transforming a white, southern-dominated party that once stood mostly for state’s rights and private privilege into a party that embraced civil rights and now commands the allegiance of America’s growing minority population.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in it’s review of To Make Men Free, “Richardson traces the [Republican] transformation from an egalitarian and broad-minded coalition into a narrow and disappearing one, increasingly trapped in a demographic isolation booth of its own making.” Richardson argues the Republican transformation from Lincoln’s party to the Tea Party has hardly been a straight line progression. Theodore Roosevelt with his efforts to cut monopoly down to size and Dwight Eisenhower with tax policy and the interstate highway system were other Republican presidents who tried to return the party to its founding principles. Those efforts did not last and now the GOP has fully embraced a philosophy that is almost entirely based on opposition to the current man in the White House and tax cuts mostly designed to benefit the Koch Brothers class. One doubts whether Republican icons like T.R. and Ike could get out of an Iowa caucus these days. They simply stood for too much that is foreign to today’s Republican Party.

And…Then There Was Immigration

Now that Barack Obama has finally pulled the pin on the immigration grenade and rolled it across the table to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the country’s poisonous partisanship instantly became even more toxic. As is usually the case with this president he did a masterfully inept job of setting up the showdown.

Six months ago Obama might have given his GOP adversaries a public deadline for legislative action and framed the debate in simple, stark terms. Congressional Republicans have a chance to prove, Obama might have said, that they are not completely captured by the xenophobia of their most radical elements. He could have added the hope that Republicans would chose carefully their approach and then stumped the country for a specific proposal. Of course I know the Senate long ago passed a bipartisan immigration bill, but that recent history is lost on all but the most inside players. Obama’s approach to both teeing up and framing the issue and the predictable Republican reaction just doubles down on do nothing. The political environment grows more heavily seasoned with rancor that breeds hatred.

While Obama remains a maddeningly aloof personality who displays a persistent unwillingness to engage in the grubby details of politics, it is also true that the modern Republican Party has been captured, as Heather Cox Richardson says, by its no-to-everything base and can “no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”

Obama, one suspects, will ultimately win the immigration fight. Facts, logic and demographics are on his side, not to mention an American tradition of fairness and justice. But in the meantime the senseless and petty partisanship rolls on. Congressman Raul Labrador suggests a government shutdown “lite” that would stop confirmation of any Obama appointees and slash some budgets. Others whisper impeachment and House Republicans have sued the president.

The incoming Senate Majority Leader says the new Republican Congress will consider a range of alternatives to deal with the president’s unprecedented power grab, which is not, of course, unprecedented at all. Here’s an idea for Senator McConnell who promises “forceful action” – how about you all pass a bill to fix the immigration mess. What a novel idea. Lawmakers legislating. Almost Lincolnesque.