Newt Gingrich called the U.S.-Israeli decision to put off joint military exercises scheduled for the Negev Desert "the greatest act of presidential weakness he has seen in his lifetime." He was implying that it was done to appease Iran. As it happens, according to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, the exercises were put off not by the U.S. but at the request of the Israelis. Facts aside, as they often are, the only true weakness revealed by the statement is Gingrich's own. He's desperate. If current polls are to be believed, the remaining shelf-life of his campaign can be measured in hours. And that's a charitable assessment. More gimlet-eyed observers might conclude the campaign hasn't been viable since it collapsed from front runner status to also-ran in Iowa under the weight of the candidate's blustering intemperance.
Gingrich, despite his declining political relevance, does trigger a couple useful thoughts with this latest crudely inflammatory comment. The first is that he reminds us what old-fashioned war mongering is really like. War mongering, like cheese mongering and fish mongering, has a good old-fashioned sound to it. It makes one think of the tub-thumping pols of old, back in the days when war was glorious and generals watched battles from astride white steeds high atop a hillside far from the action. Of course, like all forms of mongering, it's a dirty business and even when it doesn't produce mayhem and tragedy it leaves behind a dirty, smelly residue.
Ron Paul calls Gingrich and the others seeking to tough-talk our way toward confrontation with Iran "chicken hawks." Not only does this have a satisfyingly sleazy allusion to a sexual subculture within it, it also correctly observes that it's no skin off Gingrich's expansive backside to urge America into war with Iran.
The problem is that while Paul's war-avoiding impulse is nobler than Gingrich's posturing, his approach to Iran suffers from a similar flaw. Both are the classic product of political campaigns: they are not so much policies as they are provocations, conceived as much to produce a reaction in the lizard brains of potential followers as they are to actually suggest a way to advance U.S. national interests. All the candidates are guilty of such statements. Romney and Perry have also made over-the-top statements about what they would do if they got their hands on Iran (not to mention over-the-top statements about their devotion to Israel, their anger with the Chinese, their contempt for Eurosocialism, and so on.)
The reason they overdo it is that nuance doesn't show up well even on large-screen HD TVs. In fact, people viewing the world 55 diagonal inches at a time want bright colors, action, drama, 3D foreign policy where all the bits and pieces seem to fly right off the screen and straight into your living room. It's one of the reasons that foreign policy often plays a secondary role in campaigns.
That said, 3D full-color, high-impact nuance is not impossible. And the irony is that nothing illustrates this as well as the Obama administration's smart, multi-layered, tough and often courageous Iran policy. You can tell it's nuanced because so few people are happy with it. Today, for example, on "Morning Joe," Zbigniew Brzezinski asserted that the covert attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists presumably undertaken by the Israelis perhaps with the tacit endorsement of the U.S. "debased" foreign policy. Now, there are few people in the U.S. foreign policy community for whom I have greater regard than Brzezinski. But this remark bemused and troubled me. On the one hand I find the notion that foreign policy can be debased laughable when it so often deals in death, lying, bribery, and other such practices. More importantly, I can't help but think that Brzezinski wouldn't have minded such actions against Soviet enemies during the Cold War. He just doesn't think the threat posed by Iran is comparable (it's not) nor does he, I believe, much like the U.S. working so closely with Israel (a more complicated issue than we can deal with here effectively.) But the boldness of these attacks -- like the Stuxnet cyberattack and the drone activity in that country -- has sent a message that has clearly been received by the Iranians as well as the critics. This president and his allies are not simply going to rely on "soft power" to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, especially when it seems clear that Tehran has such disregard for diplomacy and prescribed international processes. This makes threats to do more credible and the ability to achieve goals while doing less likely.
At the same time, the administration's "soft power" tourniquet has also been applied effectively. Not only are have they maintained for many months tireless multichannel diplomatic efforts to nudge the Iranians to an agreement to stop its progress toward the development of nuclear weapons, they have engineered one of the most effective economic sanctions programs undertaken by the international community against any nation in the recent history of the world. "Soft" though this power may be, it is causing real pain and discomfort for Iran's leadership. In a region that has seen plenty of governments totter under economic stresses, the ayatollahs increasingly are seen as wanting a way out from the pressure. (The situation in Iran has reportedly gotten so bad that periodically Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bolts from Tehran to go to his home town far from his enemies in the high ranks of the government...and then must be escorted back to the capital at the emphatic insistence of his bosses in the top tiers of that country's religious hierarchy.)
The point is that the president takes the threat seriously and has for now at least, found a way to very forcefully deliver a message that Iran must cease and desist without actually going to war. Should he have to take that next step, he will be able to honestly say that thing every president should be able to assert prior to putting troops in harms way, that he has tried every other available option. He has also approached this problem in conjunction with the international community thus adding both legitimacy and effectiveness to the undertaking.
The GOP candidates will wave their arms and talk tougher than teen-aged boys in a locker room. Or, in the case of Paul, he will talk tough and wave off serious threats as someone else's problems. But they will all overstate because they think they must...even as the President admirably illustrates that there is another course, one that involves such a complete and energetic use of almost every tool short of open warfare in the national security tool box that I suspect someday if things turn out right (and no foreign policy initiative can guarantee an outcome because, of course, other players and many variables are involved) it will be studied as an example of how to do foreign policy right-big, bold, 3D and nuanced.
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As was explained in part one of this post, following what is said or written about American politics is often difficult for Americans who are actually used to all the dissembling, spinning, deliberate misconstruing, hyperbole and other nonsense that is to spin facts and lies into glittering campaign finery.
But if you are not from the U.S., it's next two impossible to know what's important or what's not. Given the central role America still plays in the world -- G-zeroists notwithstanding -- cutting through the headlines and the soundbites to get to the core truths about what's happening in the world's highest-priced democracy is essential.
That's why I've tried to pick out a few terms and explain what each party means by them. Earlier this week, I visited the Republican lexicon. Today, we'll take a look at a handful of key illustrations of the quirks and curiosities that comprise the Dem dialect, with a special focus on a few that pertain to foreign policy.
The 1 Percent -- This is a perjorative term of art for every rich, spoiled, corrupt, indolent, exploitative millionaire in America who is not a donor to the Obama reelection effort or the Democratic National Committee. Donors are referred to as hard-working, job-creating illustrations of the enduring power of the American dream. (Also understood to refer to those who should be shouldering burden for balancing U.S. budget by paying "their fair share" of taxes.)
The 99 Percent -- This refers to the disenfranchised, struggling victims of Wall Street and corporatist exploitation. All these people deserve tax cuts, to be funded by the 1 percent. The fact that there is no way to address the deficit without a bigger burden falling on most of the members of the 99 percent, too, is just not something that should be discussed in public until we are in the midst of robust recovery lest the truth and arithmetic derail everything.
Bush Tax Cuts -- Source of all problems in the U.S. economy, even though President Obama celebrated extending them as a canny political victory in the middle of his first term. (Also known as the biggest political issue of December 2012.)
Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- The Holy Trinity of American politics. They are sacrosanct and must never be touched -- even if major surgery is the only way to actually save their lives.
Financial Services Reform -- A political mirage allowing the president to seemingly take a tough stand against the 1 percent while not alienating too much the fat cats who are needed to pump money into Dem coffers. Advocate it, sign it, but don't really overdo the enforcement side of it.
Campaign Finance Reform -- Something that is absolutely essential for restoring democracy in America, and which should be implemented just as soon as every currently serving Dem leaves office.
The President's Healthcare Victory -- Shhhh. Please don't mention this. Despite the fact that it actually benefitted millions, it is the Voldemort of Dem politics, "the policy whose name must not be spoken."
Romneycare -- Shhh. Please don't mention this either. Because as Dems, we'll be forced to admit we kinda like it.
The Unemployment Rate -- The president's true running mate (sorry, Joe.) If it dips to around 8 percent or below, the president wins re-election. Interesting fact: the president has almost no ability to impact this outcome and bares only a very limited responsibility for fluctuations in U.S. employment one way or another.
Europe -- Dem heaven. An ability to balance the love of good cuisine with the love for a well-constructed government bureaucracy. Topless beaches. The fact that the eurocrisis probably will have more to do with whether Obama wins reelection than anything he or anyone in the U.S. might do compromises this love affair somewhat.
China -- Growing up, most Dem policy wonks wanted to be European, today they want to be Chinese. And we hate them for that.
India -- China with democracy … really fractious democracy at that, and crazy, over-the-top, outspoken media chaos. A fast growing developing country with an important strategic role and a historical past that gave us Ben Kingsley. In other words, for visionary Dem foreign policy types, even better than Europe or China. The ultimate destination/partner for the Dem wonkocracy.
The Middle East -- Er, nice to know ya, time to go, "yay, democracy," "boo, Iran," "love ya, Israel" ... we're out of here.
"Barack Obama has a good working relationship with Bibi Netanyahu" -- Ha.
"It would be wrong to politicize the successful results of the Bin Laden raid" -- Let's play up this big success at every opportunity that arises. Wanna bet the story of the Navy SEAL who pulled the trigger leaks closer to election day? Best illustration of Dem cojones since Madeleine Albright first raised the possibility they might exist.
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Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Obama administration is its inability to own its successes. While this is hardly a weakness that will be cited by the president's opponents in the upcoming campaign, or even one that they will acknowledge, perhaps, it will impact the outcome next November. Because the Obama track record on many fronts is much better than the administration gives itself credit for.
They could be doing much, much more to tout what is an impressive litany of successes.
While the list of those successes is long and compelling-defeating Bin Laden, getting out of Iraq, helping to oust Qaddafi, restoring our reputation internationally, resetting our international priorities to better coincide with our long term interests (the "pivot" to a focus on Asia), producing meaningful healthcare reform, producing significant financial services reforms, stopping the downward spiral in the economy and laying the foundations of recovery, etc. -- let me focus on three areas that deserve much more attention and appreciation.
The first of these is our international economic policy. I worked for President Clinton on these issues and during our tenure there was always a sense they were front and center among the administration's priorities. But during the first year's of the Obama administration, the domestic economic crisis dominated and beyond the international repercussions of the market meltdown other econ issues couldn't seem to wedge their way up to being front of mind for the president or his top advisors.
That has changed. A couple years ago the president made a bold-seemingly out of the blue-call for the U.S. to double it's exports over the next five years. With growth averaging over 16 percent a year since then, they are on the path to do so. The U.S. Export-Import Bank has broken all records in terms of financing of U.S. exports. Three trade deals got through a divided Congress-against substantial opposition from within the president's own party. The TPP process is moving forward. Trade laws are being enforced more aggressively. U.S. pressure on China regarding its currency is beginning to have an effect. U.S. active involvement in European debt discussions has been forceful and played a meaningful role in moving them forward (admittedly working against strong internal EU headwinds). The U.S. has actively begun a program to attract foreign investment in the U.S., a long-overlooked area of great importance. Exports are contributing heavily to recent growth. The president's Export Initiative is working beyond what anyone had any reason to hope was possible.
So where's the party? Why isn't the president celebrating each of these landmarks and sending his surrogates across America with this message of success? He can prove he is creating jobs and growth and making material progress at getting globalization to work for the U.S. He should be shouting it from the rooftops. (I know we would have been during the Clinton years. Indeed, we celebrated much smaller accomplishments much more aggressively.)
The next of these is our policy with regard to Iran. In recent days it has become clear that the sanctions against Iran are working vastly better than anyone should have expected. The Europeans are now tightening them further with a planned oil embargo against the Iranians -- a display of unity and shared purpose within the Atlantic Alliance that might at one time have seemed as far-fetched as the idea that sanctions could work in the first place. I know I was betting against them having real traction. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Chinese have joined in constructively. Admittedly, they're doing it to finagle lower oil prices. But whatever their motivation, this is the first major Mideast issue that has required their involvement and they have played a useful role. Further, this is no accident. All of these moves have come thanks to purposeful, tireless behind the scenes diplomacy by the United States.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen. First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won't recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new construction beyond Green Line in Jerusalem. Next story: Iranian rattling sabers in the Gulf. Next story: Taliban setting up shop in Qatar thanks to rapprochement with government. Next story: Arab League sham intervention in Syria going nowhere fast.
Seriously. That's how 2012 started for me. So, the question is: what's a guy supposed to think? Is it that 2011 was the year of giddy -- and utterly unfounded -- optimism about the Middle East?
The only person who could possibly read all those stories and be happy is Bibi Netanyahu. With elections expected in Israel this year, nothing could do more for his election chances than to have all his worst predictions about the aftermath of Arab Spring and the increasing Iranian threat appear to be coming true. All the intolerance, abuse, violence, and exacerbation of the country's problems associated with the Israeli far right and all the missteps of the Israeli Prime Minister himself may seem small price to pay if the country feels a vice grip of insecurity tightening around it throughout the year.
That's not to say I actually think that Netanyahu's combativeness and pedantry actually helps anything. I don't. It's actually more a way of saying that as bad as I think this morning's first news dump was for me, I can't help but feel worse is in store.
Beyond the problems that seem certain to deepen between Israel and the Palestinians, within Syria, with the rise of intransigent Islamic political parties, and with Iran, we also have Iraq seemingly heading straight back to the emergency room of geopolitics and, if anything, the deal the U.S. seems likely to cut with the devils we know in Afghanistan promises even less satisfactory outcomes.
Furthermore, none of these pessimistic analyzes actually have to pan out in the long run to actually have really negative consequences. For example, one of the more positive stories of the morning was the announcement that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta was preparing a plan to cut $450 billion in U.S. defense spending over the next decade. This is in line with the very modest 8 percent cuts the administration had planned. And it's an important step in the right direction.
Almost certainly the greatest, most damaging strategic error the U.S. has made during the past couple decades is continuing our over-the-top defense spending. We have spent at many times the level we need to protect ourselves -- indeed, we have spent at a level at which the economic damage we have done the country (both in terms of deficits created and in terms of the opportunity cost of investing in our military rather than in more productive segments of the economy) vastly outstrips any potential security benefits that may have been derived. Certainly, that's been true since the fall of the USSR. In all likelihood it was true long before that.
We could cut the budget five times the level proposed and still be outspending our nearest rival many times over. But, if the Middle East -- which I would argue is not and should not be our primary security focus -- festers and boils this year as today's headlines suggest it might, then it is easy to imagine a central debate of this year's elections in the U.S. being about whether or not we should cut defense spending at all. A President with an exemplary record in terms of combating terror and getting the U.S. out of costly conflicts will suddenly find that Republicans will be able to open a different front on the national security debate where he may appear vulnerable. They will say the world is more dangerous and this is no time to be cutting defense.
And my guess is that means that when the time comes to really cut the budget nothing like these cuts will be made...and the U.S. will continue to pose the greatest danger to itself by over-spending on wasteful, bloated, duplicative defense systems it can't and shouldn't attempt to afford. The Panetta $450 billion plan will be seen as the high bid in terms of cuts and we will negotiate downward from there. The changes will be incremental and we will continue down the path to great power decline long ago limned by Paul Kennedy.
Take that and the real threats posed by the ever changing landscape in the Middle East -- uncertainty in North Korea, the rise of ever more important security challenges in Asia, the problems in the Eurozone, and bird flu (I saw "Contagion"...I know what we're up against! I saw Gwyneth Paltrow's brain!) -- and my newest New Year's resolution is to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and wait for 2013.
OHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Image
And so it came to pass that the Lord God looked down upon the people of the world in the early years of the 21st century (frankly, it had nothing to do with His position: you would look down on them too) and saw they were dissatisfied and unrest filled the parks of their financial districts and their tea parties were no longer festive occasions featuring scones and clotted cream.
And He thought, "I have given them food and they grew fat. I have given them Eden and they paved it over. I have given them the air they breathe and they pumped it full of greenhouse gasses. I gave them life and they turned it into a reality television show. And they're frustrated! If I weren't immortal I'd be on the ledge myself right now."
Now it was Christmastime in America (or, as it was known to God in Heaven, holiday season) and as the Lord was finishing a big plate of latkes he pondered what He might do. "I have even given the Christians my only son," He muttered to Himself, sounding uncannily like Morgan Freeman. "How do you top that?"
And so it was that the Lord created Tim Tebow. And Tebow was a man who had the faith of the prophets, the virtue of the saints, the body of a linebacker, and the ability to run the option. He also was possessed of charm, good looks, and an underrated throwing arm (face it, three or four really good passes were dropped last weekend).
Now for those among the disbelievers who might ask, "How does the deity look down upon the earth, see a problem, and create a full-grown guy to solve it when that really would require some advance planning?" The answer is He's the deity for Christ's sake. Omniscient. All powerful. And for those of you who are non-believers or who believe in science (Democrats), see the recent special issue of Scientific American on the mysteries of time. It has a great explanation of how many physicists believe all instants in time co-exist simultaneously and I'm sure you can work it out from there.
To ensure that Tebow was appreciated and able to deliver to the people the Lord's message of hope, he was made a football player, which guaranteed him far better ratings than he could get were he an itinerant preacher. Indeed, the Lord knew if he had Tebow wandering the Mideast barefoot like some of his prior creations he would probably die, the anonymous casualty of some drone strike. So, going with the NFL, which God had noticed with some frustration was considerably better at marketing than any of the world's major religions, seemed like a good idea.
And so, each week, on the American Sabbath (which is usually Sundays and Monday nights but late in the season also includes Thursdays and Saturdays), the Lord would unfold before America a new Tebow parable for all to behold. In each, Tebow would struggle much as the Jews have through history (constantly on the run, constantly at risk, unfairly perceived as the creators of their own misfortunes). But then, in the last moments, when all hope was lost, fortune would change and, as if by miracle (not entirely a coincidence), Tebow would emerge victorious and even the cynical and the hopeless of America would for a moment believe again.
And thus it came to pass that the lesson of the Book of Tebow was written, clear for all to behold and important for all to comprehend -- even if they thought football was a barbarian entertainment in which hyperthyroid freaks pound one another with the crowns of their helmets until they are insensible, thus dramatically shortening their lifespans and pretty much reenacting the most brutal, bloodthirsty days of Roman gladiators without any of the grace, elegance, or athleticism of soccer.
And that lesson was that in football and in all walks of life, no story is complete until its final sentence is written. This is as true for the average plumber or resident of the Jersey Shore as it is for those whom God has selected, such as Tebow Himself or Tom Cruise. (But this is not the place to get into why God created Scientology. Suffice it to say that it was all part of a bet with another deity from a distant alternative monotheistic universe to see just what kind of ridiculous nonsense they could get people to believe in.)
The message is clear. For 55 minutes of every Tebow game, the story an observer might tell would be one of futility, hopelessness, and misreading the secondary. But everything can be transformed in seconds. Judge not, sayeth the Lord, at least not until the fat lady has sung. Because if you are a mess for 55 minutes but deliver in the final five, people will remember you as a winner and think only of your miracles, and your reputation and your potential to do celebrity endorsements will skyrocket.
There is a lesson in all this for those who are watching American politics. It is not, by the way, that Tebow has a great career awaiting him in Washington. God has no intention of wasting any salvageable soul inside the Beltway. It is that despite impulses to the contrary from pundits, Twitterati, and other shoot-from-the-lip insta-historians, you can't make a final judgment on politicians, campaigns, or even presidencies until the final sentence of their stories has been written.
We have seen it throughout history. Nixon may have been among the most successful presidents of the past 50 years in pure policy terms. But the last sentence of the story determined that he would be remembered for Watergate. Carter was a muddled micromanager but is remembered for a great post-Presidency. Clinton seemed lost to a sullied memory but has similarly redeemed himself in his own professional epilogue.
In this campaign, we have seen that Gingrich -- for whom the Lord God denies any responsibility, attributing him to other malevolent forces in the Universe -- got to enjoy the unusual privilege of reading all his professional obituaries before he got to read stories of his own second coming. (The Lord God is not very happy with that allusion either.) And so it may be that since the Republican nomination won't be locked up until the convention, it is premature now to cast a final judgment on any candidate or his strategy.
Finally, and most importantly, it is also true that judgment must be withheld on Barack Obama's tenure as president. Many people look at his low poll numbers and mid-term assessments of his remoteness, aloofness, and impulse to compromise and say he has frittered away an opportunity. But what if the economy rebounds a little (as it seems to be doing), unemployment slips to around eight percent or a little below, and the president is reelected. What if America actually manages the crisis relatively better than Europe or Japan (it won't be hard) and becomes a safe haven for the capital of a world awash in money seeking a new home? Will he be remembered as aloof? Or will he instead be celebrated as the cool, calm center of reason whose steady hand helped slowly guide America to a recovery -- a man who managed to stabilize markets, ride out unrest, and coax recovery into taking root, all while coolly dispatching al-Qaeda and bin Laden, getting out of two wars, and bringing health care to millions of Americans who didn't have it before?
Think about it.
It's not impossible. And, of course, the fact that nothing is impossible is, to be sure, the other most important lesson of the Book of Tebow.
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If the first several years of any presidency can be characterized as a search by the chief executive for his identity as a leader, then it may be said that Barack Obama's search reached a milestone yesterday. He found a voice in Osawatomie, Kansas. He framed the political debate in America in a way that showed understanding and compassion. Whether this leads to an actual change in his behavior as a leader remains to be seen.
The president gave a powerful and impassioned speech that essentially turned on the idea that is fueling movement on both ends of the political spectrum in America today: that the US is no longer the land of opportunity that it once was, that powerful interests have corrupted the system and tilted the playing field in their direction. He assailed the inequality that has become the system's signature for the past three decades and laid claim to the role of being the champion of the country's forgotten, shrinking, strained middle class. Rebuffing forcefully the central Republican tenet that to speak of these problems is to foment class war, Obama asserted that seeking fairness is not class war but rather is the American way.
Call it canny politics or simply a fair characterization of America's central challenge of the moment, the president stood up for the majority of Americans and effectively if not explicitly turned the argument back on the Republicans: there is class war in America and it has been waged successfully by elites at the expense of Main Street since the Reagan era. The cant that lower taxes for companies and the rich would somehow benefit someone other than companies and the rich was called out for the fraud that it is.
Going further, the president advanced his current agenda -- notably the extension of the payroll tax cut --- as a means of addressing this problem. This was where the speech, for all its promise and the undeniable quality of its delivery, raised the most questions. The problem was well framed. The call to action was clear. But the prescriptive portion of the address was so weak as to make one wonder anew as to whether the president was capable of or inclined to the major adjustments he persuasively argued were necessary.
The speech reminded us both of candidate Obama, the champion of change, and of President Obama, who has been tentative in his challenges to the status quo ... or worse. The speech in Kansas yesterday demanded the end of the Bush tax cuts, a major investment in American infrastructure, the embrace of sweeping changes to ensure economic vitality such as those proposed by the Simpson Bowles Commission, real aid for American homeowners, and Wall Street reforms with far more scope and far sharper teeth than Dodd Frank.
Will the man who delivered yesterday's speech enter a new phase of his presidency in which he is willing to go to the mat for such changes, alienate rich donors, offend some in the Wall Street-Washington establishment with whom he has been close throughout his career? Is he the gutsy guy who broke through racial barriers in America and defied the Democratic political establishment on his way up? Or is he the professor, the man in the bubble at the White House, the world's most conservative liberal? A change agent or a weathervane?
As with many Obama speeches and even with his books, this one was a great source of hope, inspiring even. But at this point in America's existence we don't need a president who sees hope as audacious. We need one who sees it as a risk. We don't need change we can believe in. We need change we can see.
Yesterday could have been a watershed and the beginning of the president's march to a second term. Or ... if in the months ahead we continue to see timidity with regard to the big reforms we need, cat-and-mouse games with the Hill, the White House negotiating with itself before it capitulates to the right on the Hill ... then yesterday might be seen as the last great speech of a man who only had an opening act, a guy who could set the stage, raise expectations, and then have to step aside to let someone else deliver the goods.
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The Republican national security debate made me feel young again. First, there was the audience at Constitution Hall, typically diverse -- old white guys, fat old white guys, really old white guys, prematurely aging middle-aged white guys, and a few understandably unhappy looking women. But more importantly, there was the conversation. It reeked of 2004. All of a sudden I was 48 again.
But moving past that harsh personal reality ... the Republican candidates apparently think that playing the "War on Terror" card is the way into voters' hearts. They promoted torture. They embraced racially profiling Muslims. They feared the spread of terrorists across the Americas. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, they were all about terror. The urgency seemed just as palpable and vaguely crazed as it was back in the day. Amazingly ... stunningly ... the message from most of the Republican candidates, led by front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, reflected the first-hints of nostalgia for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Perhaps that was because some of the most prominent old white men in the audience were actually behind the Bush administration's policies of invasion and violation of basic human rights. There was Paul Wolfowitz. There was David Addington. And then there was Ed Meese. Somewhere out there was John Birch.
Interestingly, in this context, the two standout performers in the debate were Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. Both were willing to step away from the retro-masses of the Republican Party and talk about today's economic concerns and challenge the over-reach and failed policies of the past decade. Paul, of course, once again embracing an end to the war on drugs (about which he is also right, as it happens), is too far out there to win. But Huntsman had a bit of a breakthrough. He is being strategic. He is focused on New Hampshire as the joke on Saturday Night Live had it. And performances like tonight's could very well give him a shot there ... at least more of a chance than he has appeared to have thus far.
Of course, Mitt Romney ... and his deep, unwavering love for spending every possible penny on defense ... remains the most likely candidate. That said, as a very shrewd observer of these things emailed me during the debate, Romney is the Al Gore of the Republican Party. Seems good on paper ... and made of cardboard. Hard to love. Newt Gingrich may have done well, but he is a dog whistle only Republicans can hear. The press loves him because he abuses them and he seems like a more intelligent breed of bad candidate than Cain or Perry.
Big losers tonight were viewers who did not get to hear anyone really address the big issues of our time -- from the uprising in Tahrir Square that was strangely all but ignored to the crisis in the Eurozone to the rise of China and the BRICS. And CNN was also a loser for its hokey staging, game show style opening, and the flaccid if competent moderation that let the conversation remain moored in the past.
Strangely, the big winners were not actually in the room. Barack Obama was one. He won both because he looks so good next to these guys and because they showed him great deference in the degree to which they generally tip-toed around his real accomplishments. But even his triumph was transcended by the night's biggest winner: Bibi Netanyahu. Somehow, he managed to get two of the candidates -- Romney and Santorum -- to publicly state their first trip as president would be to Israel. And Gingrich offered to work with Israel on a conventional invasion of Iran. And these were just a couple of the highlights. Bibi and his diplomatic team have masterfully played the perceived ambivalence of the Obama administration into a competition among Republicans to demonstrate who loves Israel the most. Which was yet another thing that made me feel young again ... like back in the good old days when support for Israel was much more reflexive and, frankly, much easier.
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Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, flip a coin. There are differences between the two to be sure. But in the end, the net dissimilarity between these two establishment politicians is going to end up being considerably less than campaign rhetoric will suggest -- or than you might hope for.
Neither is anything like a transformational figure. Both are responsible, cautious men. Both, like most presidential candidates, are flawed by their ambition. There may be differences in emphasis, of course. One is too cool, a bit of a weathervane, beholden to Wall Street, not well loved within his own party establishment, not trusted by his party's base and the other is ... well, I guess that proves my point. From foreign policy to domestic programs, you can be pretty sure the efforts they lead will look surprisingly similar.
Presidential candidates run to the middle (and winners hail from the mainstream) because the deciding votes are cast in the middle. Usually -- and there are periodic exceptions -- that is what accounts for the fact that most presidents have more in common with the men who preceded or followed them in office than they would care to acknowledge.
This is one of the reasons that there is regular refrain for third party presidential candidates. It is also one of the reasons that such undertakings are typically doomed to failure and counterproductive.
If you want to produce real change in the way the government of the United States functions, the way to do it is to focus on the Congress. And boy, does the Congress ever need changing.
The failure of the stuporcommittee (which as of this writing seems all but certain) to even seriously grapple with the issue of the deficit is one of the grossest examples of dereliction of duty in the U.S. government since, well, since the Congress approved the Bush tax cuts. As Senator Tom Coburn said when presented with the idea that the Congress had an approval rating of only 13 percent, "I want to know who those 13 percent are." The Congressional approval rating has now fallen to just 9 percent. This Congress doesn't deserve an approval rating. They don't deserve another day on the job. They could all go home tomorrow and I bet it would be six months before anyone even noticed. (That is after the celebrations had died down.)
Yet, it is in the Congress that an effective, instantly relevant third party initiative could be undertaken. What this country -- divided as it is -- needs, is a legislative third party. It needs a group of swing votes that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans could pass anything without. And given the current state of things, that means it could be a fairly small group -- a handful of senators, 10 or 20 or 30 congresspeople. And it would be possible to identify districts and states where electing a third party or sworn swing vote candidate would be possible. And it would not cost a fraction of what it would cost to win a presidential election. And the group would immediately hold the balance of power on the Hill.
Presidential campaigns capture the glamour. It's easier to connect change with a single face, a single name, a single personality. But, look at where Washington is dysfunctional today and you have to acknowledge, the problem lies at the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Capitol Hill has become the Boot Hill of ideas, the place initiatives go to die.
Having a third party on a hill that both sides had to work with to get anything done would change the dynamics dramatically. It would force compromise because there literally would be no way to proceed without it. You would think that was true today but the problem with the two political parties is both see compromise as capitulation to the other, it's a zero sum game. With a third party, that was open to reasonable ideas from both sides ... and couldn't succeed without one or the other...that would change things. It would also create a movement that could grow giving people an alternative to the binary choices they face today.
Clearly, something must be done. If the failure of the supercommittee does not convince you of that then you are already resigned to the irreversible decline of the United States. Because that is precisely where this kind of leadership failure will take us. That is why as important as the presidential sweepstakes are, the really important election news story of 2012 will be whether the American people vote for change in a Congress that has sold them out in every way possible. Certainly every member of the supercommittee and the leadership of both parties should be challenged on their record of failure. They should not be allowed to simply blame it on the other side. Just as the president should not be allowed to merely blame this on the Congress. This was important ... and he chose not to engage, not to take the political risk of rolling up his sleeves and working toward a solution, not to threaten and cajole and do what past presidents have done. It -- like his decision to agree to the extension of the Bush tax cuts -- are among the low points of his otherwise quite accomplished presidency. But neither he nor his potential successor will be able to fix Washington from the Oval Office (which is why whomever wins should get out of it and invite more people into it than the president has done this term). The real responsibility for change we can believe in actually resides with the American people ... and the surest sign whether or not they have accepted that challenge will come when the votes are tallied after next year's congressional balloting.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.