Archive for category Hillary Clinton

Should Hillary Should Consider Dropping Out?

Hillary Rodham Clinton Signs Copies Of Her Book 'Hard Choices' In New York

It is unfair.  It’s a mix of a GOP witch hunt, as evidenced by statements recently from Rep. Mike McCarthy and a staff member of the committee investigating Benghazi, and modern technology – not yet quite knowing the best way to handle cyber communication.   It is the result of an unwarranted and ugly politicization of the tragedy of the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, but politics is often unfair.  Machiavellian and ruthless, the GOP has weakened the Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton.  Now the question is whether that damage is manageable, or if the Democrats would be better off with someone else.

This leaves democrats in a quandry.   The Democrats have lots of young dynamic talent, but remembering the rise of Obama in 2008 the Clinton team quietly worked to convince them their long term future was better off not challenging the front runner.  This isn’t 2008; at that time the public was angry at an outgoing President and wanted change.  While Republicans are convinced Obama is the worst thing since cholera, most consider him as having had an effective stint in the oval office.

The young guns that wowed the Democratic National Convention in 2012 thus pulled back to let Hillary glide to the nomination, leaving only an aging leftist Bernie Sanders to launch a plausible alternative campaign, with pragmatists Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb withering in the single digits.

Yet Hillary is not a strong candidate.   Her weaknesses helped enable Obama’s rise in 2008, and she’s never shown herself an effective campaigner.   Indeed, her focus seems to be on infrastructure and organization rather than actually campaigning.  If her husband hadn’t been President, she wouldn’t be where she is today – a glaring weakness in that notion that it’s time to elect a “self-made” woman.   Add to that the e-mail scandal – a minor controversy played up by the media and the GOP – and the public finds itself distrusting Clinton, perhaps a bit tired of a family story that’s been in the public eye for almost a quarter of a century.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is running an excellent campaign in almost every aspect – except winning support! He’s stuck at 3% in the polls.

Consider the talk of 74 year old VP Joe Biden entering the race.  Biden has really nothing going for him – and I say that as someone who truly likes Biden and thinks he’d be an excellent President (he’s been especially prescient on foreign policy).  He’s not a good campaigner, has never done well when he’s been in the ring, and given his age and lack of distinguishing characteristics has no charismatic appeal.  Yet many Democrats (and probably more Republicans) hope he’ll throw his hat in the ring.

Simply, Hillary may be too weak a candidate for the Democrats in 2016, yet the way the campaign has been positioned it’s hard to stop her.  Only a maverick like Bernie Sanders had the audacity to mount a front on challenge – and while the 74 year old former Socialist has whipped up the Democratic base, it’s unclear if he could gain broad public support.

Sanders supporters point to polls that show a lot of public sympathy, and his age may help him overcome the claim that his past socialism makes him too extreme.   First of all, “socialism” as a label has lost some of its Cold War era sting – and he’s redefining himself in a way that fits within the US mainstream.  It’s possible that a populist wave could bring Bernie into the White House.  Indeed, his age might exude a wisdom that overcomes his past radicalism.  Still, it’s a long shot.  Though if he were to face a right wing ideologue like Ted Cruz, the smart money would be on Bernie.

Though dismissed as un-electable, Sanders is by far drawing the largest crowds and eclipsing Obama's record for early fund raising

Though dismissed as un-electable, Sanders is by far drawing the largest crowds and eclipsing Obama’s record for early fund raising

If Hillary is wounded, Biden weak and Sanders a bit too much on the fringe, what hope do the Democrats have?  Might O’Malley, or perhaps other candidates like Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb have a chance?  Might one of the younger voices from the 2012 like Julian Castro suddenly emerge?  Or has Hillary kept them out too long for them to jump in at this time?

Tonight’s debate is big for Hillary Clinton.  If she does not come out clearly on top – or worse, if she appears wounded and defensive – she should rethink whether or not it makes sense to continue this campaign.   To be sure, the Democrats have real advantages heading into the fall campaign, and if she can weather this storm she has a good chance to be the next President.  That hope alone will probably keep her in the race.  But is it enough?

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Benghazi is all about Hillary

Why beat a dead issue that most voters don't care about?

Why beat a dead issue that most voters don’t care about?

The weirdest thing about the GOP’s on going obsession with Benghazi is that it plays into the Democrats hands going into the Midterms.   The Democrats will mock Republicans about their obsession with an event from two years ago, trying to manufacture a scandal in defiance of the actual evidence.

The Democrats will talk about jobs, health care, inequality, immigration, education, the economy and issues that actually matter to the public.   Think back – Bill Clinton did give the Republicans a scandal over Monica Lewinsky.   Yet as they obsessed on it and thought that self-evidently this would help them, Clinton’s job approval ratings went up — while Lewinsky investigator Kenneth Starr’s went way down.  In this case, there isn’t even a real scandal!

So why do some on the right fixate on Benghazi in such a self-destructive manner?   There is no evidence of  a cover up, nothing remotely suggesting a scandal.  There is evidence of poor decisions being made, and a State Department slow to understand what motivated the events.   Therein lies the real reason – the State Department.   The Secretary of State at the time was Hillary Clinton.  She is now the leading contender for the Presidency in 2016.  Most Republicans privately concede that it will be very, very, difficult to defeat her.

Clinton angrily defended the State Department before Congress

Clinton angrily defended the State Department before Congress

As Secretary of State, Clinton was taken aback by the way in which Congressional Republicans quickly politicized the Benghazi tragedy.   On September 11, 2012, the US embassy in Benghazi was attacked by 125 to 150 armed insurgents, who were able to kill US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and one other person.   Protests were taking place against an anti-Islamic video that had been released, and initially the CIA thought the two events were linked.   As more information came out, it became clear that it was a planned terrorist raid.  The US has made some arrests, and investigations continue.

So what’s the scandal?  At first Republicans said that Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, had lied in linking the video to the attacks in an interview shortly after the raid.  They claimed she wanted to mislead the public about the true nature of the attacks in order to help President Obama’s re-election.   That claim has been completely debunked, and in fact was absurd on its face.

Susan Rice, who has one of the best foreign policy minds in Washington, is now National Security Advisor; she might have been Secretary of State if not for the unwarranted attacks against her in 2012

Susan Rice, who has one of the best foreign policy minds in Washington, is now National Security Advisor; she might have been Secretary of State if not for the unwarranted attacks against her in 2012

Not only had President Obama called it terrorism, but Susan Rice was acting with the data at the time in a fluid situation, and indeed alluded to the possibility of terrorism.  Much like after 9-11, there was a lot of false information early on, though after a week a clearer picture occurred.   As documents were released, it was clear that various agencies were confused on exactly what happened and why, but that as soon as they put the pieces together, the information was made public.   Not only is there no evidence to support a cover up, but massive evidence to the contrary.

So then they tried to shift the scandal to saying the US didn’t reinforce the mission, or send help fast enough.   Quickly these were debunked.  The critics are left to imagine scandal by fantasy, hoping there is some new information out there.

So why suddenly jump on an innocuous e-mail uncovered, which doesn’t contradict any existing evidence, to bring the scandal back up?   Surely the GOP insiders know that this isn’t a winner for them with the voters – and they have to be smart enough to know that no scandal exists.   They are hoping that Clinton decides not to run for the Presidency, perhaps fearing that questions on Benghazi will haunt her.

In that, it is morphing from a GOP effort to find a scandal against Obama to an attack on Clinton’s competence.    Any hearings that are held will focus on picking apart what the State Department did and finding anything to criticise.  Even the fact she was not consulted on security before the attack is used against her – “in such a dangerous situation why weren’t you more engaged?” But it would be odd for the Secretary of State to be consulted on specific security details.

It won’t work.  The GOP will not convince Clinton to eschew running in 2016.   If anything this will get her more enthused; she’s not the kind of person to back down.   She’s also smart enough to know that if the GOP use this against her in 2016, it gives her openings to fire back in ways that would help, rather than hurt her campaign.

Hillary in 1996 before testifying on the Whitewater scandal.

Hillary in 1996 before testifying on the Whitewater scandal.

She’s also not afraid to confront scandal head on.  In the early years of her husband’s administration the far right tried to drum up a scandal about development deal called “Whitewater.”   They failed.   When she suffered personal loss when her attorney Vince Foster committed suicide, they said she had him killed.    When US Treasury Secretary Ron Brown was killed in a plane crash in Croatia, many said she was behind it.   Hillary’s dealt with the crazies before, and came out on top.

But that’s what this Benghazi side show is about – trying to pressure Hillary not to run.   When she does run, they’ll use it try to tear her down.   It won’t work – she’ll win or lose based on the larger campaign.

Yet it is sad that so many are willing to politicize the attack.   To me the correct response is to try to learn what went wrong and how to prevent a future attack than to use 20/20 hindsight for political gang.  Even more disgusting is the effort to try to turn this into a scandal.   That shows just how dysfunctional the political culture in Washington has become.

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Let Them Eat Cake

The poster image of the elite dismissing the masses – “Let them Eat Cake” – Marie Antoinette, on the eve of the French revolution.

I did not want to do another blog post about Mitt Romney.   In fact, I had already started one that veered away from the world of politics.   But I can’t ignore this.

Here are quotes from a video secretly taken at a Romney fundraiser, unearthed and now publicized by Mother Jones:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…

Our message of low taxes doesn’t connect…so my job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful….”

Despite internal strife, Romney remains close enough in the polls to turn the election around; will this tape do him in?

Get that – Mitt Romney just put down nearly half the population as people who want government to take care of them.  Anyone who doesn’t pay federal income taxes is unworthy of respect, they are not ‘thoughtful.’

In other words, Romney’s embracing the “givers vs. takers” mentality, claiming that he represents hard working Americans who pay taxes, and Obama is the President for moochers:  People who feel “entitled” to health care, food and shelter.

The arrogance of that statement is hard to overstate.   That these words would come out of the mouth of a candidate for the Presidency is astounding.   In Romneyland the working poor and lower middle class are not struggling and needing help, they are the enemy.

I know these people who don’t pay federal income taxes.   Some teach my children, others take classes at the university, work two jobs and still don’t make enough to pay federal income taxes (though they do pay a variety of other taxes).   I know people who have been laid off and desperately want a job.   I know many conservative Republicans who don’t make enough to pay federal income taxes.   The scandal should be that income distribution has become so warped that so many people don’t make enough money to pay federal income taxes.

Now, I expect rhetoric like that from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.   It’s infuriating, but it’s part of the partisan talk show emotional entertainment meme.   But from the Republican standard barer?

Oh, but there’s more.

“My dad, as you probably, know was the governor of Michigan and was the head of a car company. But he was born in Mexico… and, uh, had he been born of, uh, Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot at winning this…But he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico…. I mean I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino.”

Ha ha.    At some point I’ll have to read through the transcript, though already the video is going viral.   And this:

“When I was back in my private equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there,” Romney is heard saying. “It employed about 20,000 people. And they were almost all young women between the ages of about 18 and 22 or 23. They were saving for potentially becoming married.”

He goes on to talk about how wonderful it is for Chinese workers to have this opportunity, and compares that to America where life is “95% settled.”   This makes it hard to accept the hard line on China, or whether American jobs are his number one concern!

Images like this show the reaction of many to Obama’s 2008 comment – it did him serious harm with working class white voters.

To be sure, President Obama has been dinged by leaks from secret fundraisers.   In 2008 he talked about western Pennsylvania saying people there are beaten down and “cling to their guns and religion.”   That did serious damage to Obama’s campaign.  Hillary Clinton was able to frame Obama as an out of touch elitist, and won a series of primary victories before Obama was able to win the nomination on the strength of his early caucus victories.

In this day and age from Abu Ghraib to photos of a topless Duchess of Cambridge there is no true secrecy or privacy.  Candidates cannot let their guard down for fear of saying something embarrassing – the infamous gaffe.   Indeed, the Romney campaign based it’s Republican National Convention theme on a gaffe of Obama’s.    In trying to say “you didn’t build that” about infrastructure he timed it so that it sounded like he said business owners didn’t build their own businesses!    The Romney campaign pounced.

Perhaps this is the reason so few people pay federal income taxes

The reason gaffes become paramount is because campaigns are so scripted.    Candidates say what has passed the test of focus groups and media specialists.  Campaigns fear unscripted moments, and train candidates on how to respond.    Candidates are to only show the public the image the campaign wishes to convey.

So when a glimpse of what they really think comes forth, whether Obama’s disdain for the “guns and God” crowd, or Romney’s contempt for the poor, it’s a big deal.   Obama’s 2008 gaffe was in the primary season, and it took him months to overcome it, with some damage permanent.    What will this one mean for Romney?   The next few days will tell how the media react and if this story has legs.

Given Governor Romney’s lack of connection with voters and the negative image painted this summer by the Obama campaign of Romney as an out of touch elitist, this video has the makings of Marie Antoinette’s famous “Let them eat cake” statement on the eve of the French revolution.


Obama/Clinton in 2012?

If you believe Jonathan Alter, there is a good chance this could happen next year if Obama’s re-election prospects look questionable.   His argument is simple.  Obama, Biden and Clinton all get along well and like each other.    Obama doesn’t want to make a change, but they all agree that the threat of a total conservative take over all three branches is unacceptable.  They will “do what it takes” to win, even if that means what Alter calls a “switcheroo.”

Back in 2008 Joe Biden seriously lobbied to become Secretary of State.  He’s always had a strong interest in foreign policy, and probably had the inside track for the job before Obama offered him the VP slot.   To move from VP to Secretary of State would be something Biden could honestly embrace as a positive career move.   Rather than presiding over the Senate and making speeches at ceremonial events, he’d be in the rough and tumble world of foreign policy.   The Secretary of State position is substantively more important than the Vice Presidency.

Biden's passion has always been foreign policy

Hillary Clinton has already said she plans to retire after the end of Obama’s first term.   The Secretary of State position is especially demanding, and she has been an active and effective top diplomat.    Moving to Vice President would be the one way she’d stay active in the Administration.   First, it puts her a step closer to the Presidency and makes her the odds on favorite in 2016 should Obama win or lose.   In 2012 she turns 65 meaning she’d be 69 if she ran in 2016.    It would probably be her last shot.

Second, it keeps her close to the action without the kind of pace and demands her current job has.  This would allow her more freedom to expand her pursuits yet still be in the center of big decisions.   If Obama loses no one could blame her or the Clintons for any lack of loyalty.  If Obama wins, the odds of her becoming the first woman President increase.

What would it do to the campaign dynamic?   For Obama it could shore up his liberal base and his appeal with women voters.   Women put Obama over the top in 2008 and recent polls show his support in that demographic group is slipping.  If the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney he’ll probably draw a lot of female voters from Obama (Rick Perry or Herman Cain not so many).    Hillary’s supporters, some of whom remain lukewarm to Obama, would be energized even if they remain a bit bitter.

That’s really what Vice Presidential choices are usually about – you try to keep a party united and avoid the kind of collapse that Jimmy Carter suffered late in his campaign.   Carter looked in position to eek out a victory against Reagan in 1980 but a bad debate performance coupled with news that the Iranian hostage situation had no end in sight coming days before the election pushed tepid Democrats to Reagan.  Clinton as VP might be a firewall against that.  Even if Obama loses, the Democrats need to avoid the Senate and House loses that gave the GOP de facto control of all branches of government in the early eighties.    The Democrats lost 33 House seats that year and held a majority — but the conservative southern Democrats sided with Reagan and gave him a working majority.   Hillary as VP candidate might be the best bet at keeping the Senate in Democratic hands.

Beyond keeping the base faithful, the choice of a VP candidate usually doesn’t matter much.   Arguably choosing Sarah Palin hurt John McCain, however, and when McGovern dumped Eagleton in 1972 that hurt him.    This suggests that a candidate can be hurt by a VP choice if it reflects poorly on the candidate’s judgment.    When Roosevelt dumped Wallace in favor of Truman in 1944 that didn’t hurt; Ford was probably helped by replacing Rockefeller with Dole in 1976 (though he narrowly lost the election).

So the big question for Obama is whether or not pulling a switcheroo would make him appear weak or be exercising poor judgment?   The latter would have to be no; very few people would think that Hillary would be a bad Vice President and the fact that Biden would be given his dream job means he won’t be seen as throwing Joe “under the bus.”   But the Republicans would paint that as an “act of desperation” due to Obama’s “failed Presidency.”     He needs Hillary because he’s “in over his head.”

That would be a political problem for Obama, but the people most likely to believe that rhetoric are those who won’t vote for Obama anyway — many of whom still don’t like the Clintons.    Obama could, of course, turn the argument around.  “Given the depth of this crisis, I feel we need to make sure we have the best personnel where they are needed.  The politically easy thing to do would be to avoid criticism and keep things as they are.   I am not afraid to be criticized for doing what is best for the country.”

Praising Hillary profusely, he could argue that her work as Secretary of State has helped guide the US through a dangerous period of draw downs in Iraq, a policy to turn Afghanistan into a success, and on going counter terrorism efforts which netted many top al qaeda targets including Osama Bin Laden.   Now her talents need to be harnessed to address on going economic difficulties.   Biden’s been good in that regard, but his passion is foreign policy.    The subtext would be clear: Bill Clinton’s hand would be present, and we all remember the budget surpluses and low unemployment during his term.

The more I think of it, the more the move makes sense.   If Obama’s team is reasonably confident about the election, they might fear this would muck things up.   President Obama clearly would rather not be seen as being ‘rescued’ by the Clintons, but he’s not the type to let pride get in the way of making a smart decision.    It would certainly bring excitement to the Democratic campaign, especially if this were announced in mid-summer.

At the very least it would bring the bitter 2008 primary feud full circle.   Next year should be entertaining in any event.


Too Early to Predict 2012

At this point in 2007 a few things were virtually certain about the 2008 Presidential race.  First, we knew who the Democratic candidate would be.   Hillary Clinton was the presumptive nominee, a front runner so far ahead in money, endorsements,  “super delegates” and polling support that as long as she didn’t collapse in scandal the race in the Democratic party was to see who might be the Vice Presidential nominee.   Barack Obama was a possibility, though he lacked experience.

John McCain, after appearing to be a darling of the media in the past, had faded.  His support for immigration reform was a nail in his coffin in terms of getting GOP support, and he was all but written off.   Mitt Romney, Rudy Guilliani and Fred Thompson were getting more buzz.

Of course, McCain ultimately cruised to the GOP nomination despite active opposition from talk radio jocks and the right wing of the party.   Hillary Clinton was shocked by upstart Barack Obama, and the two fought a long, sometimes bitter and for political junkies extremely entertaining battle for the Democratic nomination.

In June 2007 most people assumed the Iraq war would be a major issue in 2008.   And while some people were warning that the sub prime debacle and housing bubble could portend a major recession, most thought that the economic slow down might be over by late 2008 and wouldn’t be a major factor.

Well, the world changed tremendously between June 2007 and November 2008!

Right now President Obama looks reasonably strong against a relatively weak Republican field, yet vulnerable due to economic woes.   His success in ordering the assassination of Osama Bin Laden exist alongside an unpopular intervention in Libya and on going conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

By mid 2012, things could be much different.   First, a Republican nominee could emerge that captures the attention and support of independent voters.   Jon Huntsman seems the most plausible choice to fill that role, but if you look way back to June 1979, the Carter White House thought Ronald Reagan would be the weakest candidate they could face, and if you told George Bush in June 1991, still enjoying high post-Desert Storm ratings, that Bill Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, he’d have known his re-election was assured.     The idea that the GOP field is weak is pure speculation, in hindsight it may appear strong.

On the other hand, the economy could bounce back.   Oil prices are dropping, which means gas prices will fall and that will stimulate the economy.   Uncertainty over the debt ceiling and other issues may be slowing the economy, and once resolved, late 2011 could see some good economic news.   If that’s the case, the dark fears of a double dip recession may give way to “Morning in America II,” as Obama cruises on good economic news to victory.   Romney reminds me of Mondale in some ways.

If the economy does slip into double dip recession, Obama’s chances start to decline dramatically, as few Presidents have ever governed during four years of recession and kept their jobs.  You have to go back to Roosevelt for that.   To be sure, Obama didn’t cause this recession, and it’s a stretch to say he’s done anything to prevent recovery.   We’re suffering 30 years of imbalances that can’t be cured over night, or perhaps even over four years.   But that’s a case that will be difficult if not impossible for Obama to make in 2012.   If the economy isn’t looking better, he’s likely to suffer the same fate as Bush the Elder and Jimmy Carter.   The assassination of Bin Laden will be as helpful to him as Desert Storm was for Bush.

I’d be shocked if Gadaffi is still holding out in Libya by the end of this year.   If Libya appears a success — the rebels overthrow Gadaffi and are reasonably successful at creating a government that is neither extremist nor anti-western, what now is a liability for Obama may become an asset.   If the withdrawals from Iraq and  Afghanistan continue with no major setbacks, Obama’s foreign policy could well be a strong point, perhaps enough to keep him competitive even if the economy remains sluggish.

Of course, setbacks in Iraq or Afghanistan, a shocking reversal of fortune in Libya, or crises in Iran and Pakistan could create problems.   The Mideast is unpredictable.   Another terror attack could help or hurt Obama, depending on what it is and how it gets handled.   Instability is a liability for a sitting President.

It does seem unlikely that Obama will face a serious challenge in the primaries.  Still, depending on the economy and foreign policy, even that could change.   Simply, it’s too early to have a real clue on how the election will go.   Obama’s campaign team is proven, can raise money and get out the vote.   That will probably be enough to make it a competitive election, but in and of itself not enough to win.

So at this point predictions are predictable.  Republican leaning pundits will write columns predicting Obama’s demise and try to paint him as the return of Jimmy Carter.   Many will believe it, others are trying to shape the discourse.   Democrats will do the reverse, mock the Republican field and make it sound as if Obama has a relatively easy course ahead.   I suspect fewer of them believe it, until the economy picks up Democrats are worried about the election.

In Congress there is similar uncertainty.   Democrats won the special election in New York that had appeared safe for the GOP, thanks to public reaction to GOP plans to cut medicare.   This is the kind of seat Democrats would have to win a few of to get back the 24 seats necessary to bring Nancy Pelosi back into the office of Speaker of the House.   That is possible — 24 seats aren’t that much, and given the turn out dynamics in a Presidential election, a number of districts are almost certain to shift back to the Democrats.

On the other hand, the Senate could swing to the Republicans if bad economic news persists in 2012 – the Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats, while the Republicans will only be trying to hold on to 10.   Senators don’t go down to defeat often, but the Republicans need only pick up four to get the majority, and that’s the same number of Democratic incumbents who have so far announced their retirement.

A victory for Obama with the Democrats holding the Senate and bouncing back to retake the House?
A victory for a Republican with the Republicans holding the House and taking the Senate?

Both are in my opinion equally plausible.  Statistically the latter is more likely than the former because 24 seats in the House is tough.   But there is so much uncertainty at this point that anyone making confident predictions is either faking it or a bit deluded.     It’s simply too early to have much of a sense of what 2012 will bring.


Libyan End in Site?

As rebel forces take town after town originally held by forces loyal to Gaddafi, a strange dilemma faces the international forces aligned against the dictator: if the rebels threaten Sirte, Gaddafi’s strong hold, would it not be the rebels rather than the Libyan army threatening civilians?   To be sure, Gaddafi’s forces have a track record of violence against civilians while the rebels arguably have had public opinion on their side and opposed the military.   There have been no complaints of rebels targeting civilians as they retook Ajdabiya, Brega, Uqayla, and Ras Lanuf.  Still, in Sirte these differences become problematic, and any video of civilian casualties threaten to undermine the international mission.

So far, those videos and pictures have been scarce to non-existent.  Tours arranged for international media in Tripoli to see civilian damage end up either coming back with nothing (“we couldn’t find the address”) or showing a site where any damage is ambiguous — perhaps it was caused by NATO, but perhaps not.  And with Gaddafi snipers and mercenaries in operation, it’s hard to pin any civilian deaths on the coalition at this point.

That means that right now the UN backed mission in Libya still holds the moral high ground, at least in relative terms.   All that could change if the rebels, not under clear control nor guided by one over-arching ideology or aim, start taking revenge on pro-Gaddafi civilians or turning on each other.

This means that it is imperative that the UN and NATO plan and execute an end game as soon as possible, perhaps in time to be announced Monday night when President Obama addresses the nation.    The end game must include: a) a cease fire on all sides; b) a way for Gaddafi to go into exile with a credible chance at avoiding persecution for war crimes; c) a peace keeping mission including and perhaps dominated by the Arab League and African Union; and d) a clear plan for moving to democratic elections.

If the UN can pull this off, the message to other dictators is clear: the international community will no longer allow an abstract  claim of sovereignty to protect their grip on power.   Even if Libya is sovereign, Gaddafi doesn’t necessarily get to claim the right to sovereignty just because he has power.   That notion of sovereignty is at odds with the principle of the UN charter.

The US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed dictators to breath easy.  The US certainly won’t get involved in another conflict after those have weakened the country and divided the public!  With the American economy still wobbly and still in danger of further decline, the US seems certain to become more isolationist.   Gaddafi certainly was thinking that way when he launched his counter offensive.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates were thinking that way early on too — it’s a rational position, one mirrored by the military establishment.   But French President Sarkozy and ultimately Secretary of State Clinton realized that if a truly international coalition — one without the US as the leader and motivator — were to be able to succeed rather easily, that would have the opposite effect: dictators would realize it’s risky to use force to stay in power.  Decisions like Mubarak’s to leave freely would seem more rational than those like Gaddafi’s to fight for power.   That’s why it was so important that Obama remain relatively on the sidelines and not highlight the US role (even if in practical terms US firepower dominated the response).

This also means that should Gaddafi finally be compelled to leave — and the pressure on him is mounting — a new Libya can be constructed on Libyan terms, without it seeming like the US or the West is imposing a government on the country just to control its oil or engage in neo-colonialism.  If that works it could have a chilling effect on other Arab dictatorships, especially in Syria where the government has already unleashed a crackdown.

The calculation is simple: the US wouldn’t be stupid enough to get involved in anything like Iraq again since once the bombing starts, you have to see it through.    The failures of the US in Iraq cause Syria’s Assad to believe he’s invulnerable as long as he can crack down on his population.   But if Libya proves that the international community can mount an effective low cost counter to dictatorial crackdowns, then the calculation changes.  In a best case scenario, dictators decide early on to leave freely in exchange for a relatively comfortable retirement.

Gaddafi, of course, could still fight to the end, meaning that the intervention becomes costlier and this model of countering dictators fails.   And who knows what kind of government might emerge in Libya after the fighting.  But whatever problems may come, it’s important now that NATO and the UN push for an end game so that this does not drag out.   There is reason to believe the end may be in sight.


Obama has “the right stuff”

I just got finished reading the book Game Change by reporters by John Heileman and Mark Halperin.   It was a typical post-campaign book by reporters, giving inside information about what went on behind the scenes including juicy gossip like Elizabeth Edward’s insufferable behavior, John McCain’s love of the “F” word and constant tirades, and the odd relationship between Bill and Hillary Clinton.    What strikes me most about the book is the clear sense that putting politics aside, and going just from personality and character, the right man won the election in 2008.

Turning first to McCain vs. Obama.   Two incidents from the book stand out as emblematic of why Obama was so much better suited for the job.  First is the choice of Vice President.  Obama leaned towards Biden early, but wanted the process to be thorough.  Even though his staff did not like the idea of Hillary as VP (or even as Secretary of State), Obama kept putting her name out there.   Only when the vetting was complete and the pros and cons of each candidate discussed did Biden get the formal nod.

McCain, on the other hand, was leaning towards Lieberman, and appeared set to choose him before he decided that such a choice would risk a divided GOP convention.  At the last minute he scrambled.   Most people were pointing to Minnesota Governor Pawlenty as a good choice, but McCain and his staff wanted a “game changer.”  Someone to shake up the race and stop Obamamania.   That’s when the name Sarah Palin came up.   They were so enamored with her potential impact on the race that they did a very truncated vetting (they didn’t have time for more), and McCain went from the gut.   He had hardly talked with her, his staff had no idea how little she knew of politics outside Alaska.   It turned into a fiasco.  Palin was loved by the extreme right, but pushed moderates away.   The book gives an example of a focus group of “undecideds” where one woman was calling Obama a socialist and a Muslim.  Puzzled, the Obama aide asked if she thought that why she was undecided.   “Because if McCain dies then Palin becomes President,” was her answer.

Second was the financial crisis.   McCain pressured President Bush to call a summit meeting with him and Obama attending.   He wanted to ride in as the white knight and bring about a deal.  Instead, he was marginal, didn’t really understand what was happening, and went with the flow.   Obama was prepared, talked for the Democrats (the Senate and House leaders talked for the GOP), and was so impressive that one Bush aide decided then and there to vote for Obama.

Simply, McCain was erratic, somewhat lazy, went from the gut, preferred lofty slogans and missions to hard work and detail.  Obama was steady, prepared, willing to compromise, and take his time on making difficult decisions.   Obama focused on process and data, McCain on instinct and action.   Obama’s style has its own weaknesses to be sure — sometimes the President has to act quickly on instinct — but in these two cases McCain’s style lead to disaster.

The case of Obama vs. Clinton is a bit more ambiguous.   Clinton definitely is a driven ambitious politician whose life revolves around policy and politics.    Like McCain, she felt Obama was not ready for the job, and didn’t think he’d be able to survive the GOP campaign of ‘personal destruction’ that would most assuredly be launched.   She was ruthless at times, but seemed to have self-awareness of even her faults, understanding earlier than her husband that she would not be the nominee.   It took her awhile to get why it was that the “superdelegates” weren’t streaming to her, she was so convinced that it was obvious she was the better candidate.   In the end it’s less her faults than Obama’s strengths that make him the better choice.

One of Obama’s best traits in the book was his apparent refusal to hold grudges.    He quickly forgave those who slighted him, and developed genuine respect for Hillary Clinton by the end of the campaign.   At the end the book describes how Obama offered Hillary the Secretary of State job.    She decided to refuse it, and told him.   He responds by giving her one more day and saying that the economy is worse than people realize, and he needs someone big enough to handle foreign policy without a lot of Presidential oversight.   She’s the only one who he believes has the stature to do that.  “I need you, the country needs you,” he told her.   He not only did not hold a grudge, but admitted that he did, in fact, need her help.   The next day, she accepted.

Of all human traits, I have immense respect for the ability to forgive and not hold a grudge.  You need self-confidence to do that.   A confident person doesn’t feel diminished by, for example, telling Hillary he needs her.   A confident person doesn’t feel like slights or insults from others do any real damage.   Holding a grudge is a kind of back handed way of saying “you really hurt my feelings and it still stings.”    This also increases rational thinking.   Grudges are emotional, and create biased reads on the situation, causing the attribution error (if an opponent does something good, it’s the situation, if an opponent does something bad, it’s his nature; if I do something good it’s my nature, if I do something bad it’s the situation).   Grudges cause people to see others in a worse light and themselves in a better light than is warranted.

Now, the policy preferences and politics of the candidates is a different matter than personality.   Ultimately, though, I’d rather have a person I respect and whose personality seems right for such responsibility, then one who agrees with me more on policy.   I come away from reading about Obama the man with increased respect and a sense that in these difficult times, at least we have someone of strong character at the helm.



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