29 June 2011

Tim Pawlenty's awful foreign policy

Tim Pawlenty is becoming a bad joke.

In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, Pawlenty established himself as the clear ideological heir to John McCain, giving remarks that could have been lifted wholesale from any of McCain's speeches over the last two decades.

That's not meant as a compliment.

First, he continued the outrageous argument, proffered by McCain, that the president should be able to wage war unrestricted by Congress. He seems to believe, as McCain does, that any Congress that attempts to discharge its responsibilities under Article I of the Constitution and exercise its rights under the War Powers Resolution hurts the country, puts our troops in danger and is generally unpatriotic. The plain language of the Constitution and relevant federal law notwithstanding, Pawlenty's argument is strikingly similar to that of the Bush administration, which would have the president alone determine the scope of his Article II power and remain unbound by pesky federal laws. This is at its heart a fundamentally un-conservative position, and one that would have abhorred James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. To argue that the president is somehow above the law, or alternatively, that Congress' power to declare war is meaningless, is absurd. If Pawlenty seriously believes this, that alone should disqualify him from being president.

Second: By a strict application of Pawlenty's metric, we can reasonably assume that a Pawlenty administration would launch military interventions nearly everywhere across Africa and the Middle East beginning in 2013. How America can finance such operations, both in terms of blood and treasure, is something that Pawlenty should probably explain. To examine the last decade's worth of misadventures and conclude, as Pawlenty apparently has, that they have been worth it -- and that the efforts should be replicated in countless other venues across the globe -- requires a suspension of reality that I'm not willing to engage in.

Third: Pawlenty's argument that it is the responsibility of the United States to impose democracy overseas blatantly ignores the effects of democratization in Arab countries. In nearly every place where elections have been liberalized -- Lebanon and Gaza being two examples -- extreme factions deeply hostile toward America have filled the vacuum. In Egypt, neocons like Pawlenty have shrieked about possible rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Does Pawlenty seriously think that a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood would serve America's interests better than did Hosni Mubarak? Does Pawlenty really think that we'd be better off if an elected Islamist party replaced the Saudi royal family? It's one thing to pander, which I seriously hope is all Pawlenty is doing -- but If he genuinely believes that the United States is better off with democratically elected radical Islamists in power across the Middle East, it demonstrates such poor judgment that it again should automatically disqualify him from the presidency.

Finally, as Conor Friedersdorf astutely noted, Pawlenty's logic suffers from an inherent contradiction: According to the governor, the United States has wrongfully backed dictators and despots in the Middle East for the last six decades, and the current U.S. policy is deeply flawed, but only the U.S. has the moral clarity to help the world lead the MIddle East out of darkness. It is a contradiction so blatantly obvious that it's hard to believe Pawlenty's advisers didn't at least alert him to how ridiculous his argument is.

Tim Pawlenty appears to be a nice guy, but the evidence is becoming overwhelming that he is so disconnected from reality, so shamelessly willing to pander, and so fundamentally unserious, that he would be a terrible president.

28 June 2011

Jon Stewart vs. Fox News

With its cable-news competitors disappearing in the rear-view mirror, it appears that Fox's biggest rival is now Jon Stewart's crew at The Daily Show.

Stewart has struck a nerve over at Fox, and I'm glad he has. His recent interview with Chris Wallace is the second time in recent weeks I've seen Stewart face down a Fox News personality and come away unscathed. Both Wallace and Bill O'Reilly claimed that they were asking questions, in part, to "understand" Stewart better. But frankly, the fact that either man can't seem to understand their guest -- especially Wallace, who is probably the best Sunday morning host of the post-Russert era -- demonstrates a thickheadedness as to precisely what role Stewart actually plays in public life, and more critically, a massive blind spot to the shortcomings of their employer.

Not surprisingly, neither Wallace nor O'Reilly has been able to rebut Stewart's charge that Fox is a sharply ideological organization that uses real journalists like Wallace as mere window dressing.

Frankly, it's impossible to view Fox News as simply a news organization. Certainly, Wallace and Shep Smith are tremendous journalists. They are among the best -- if not the best -- at what they do. But Fox's business model is not built around them. Bill O'Reilly consistently has the highest-rated show on cable news. Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are routinely in the top five, and Greta van Susteren is often sixth or seventh. Bret Baier's program (rated #2 behind O'Reilly), a hard newscast for the first half-hour, turns into a hyperpartisan talk show during the last 20 minutes. Fox still gives a massive platform to Mike Huckabee and at one time, employed five potential Republican presidential candidates (Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and John Bolton).

If Fox didn't hold itself out as "fair and balanced," and simply embraced the fact that it is a deeply ideological organization, I doubt Stewart would care much. For instance, MSNBC runs out a comparable lineup of partisan hacks (Schultz, Matthews, O'Donnell, Maddow) every night, and those shows are likewise that channel's biggest draws. Creating a biased product is not itself objectionable, but when that organization goes out of its way to squeal about the bias of other news outlets (how many times a day do you hear the term "mainstream media"?) it's outrageous and hypocritical. To its credit, MSNBC doesn't bother pretending to be objective. This is embodied by its slogan, "Lean Forward," an obvious nod to the term "progressive."

Attempting to rebut Stewart's charge that Fox is a deeply ideological organization, Wallace told Stewart that Roger Ailes gives no marching orders from above. But what Stewart missed when responding to Wallace is that Ailes doesn't need any. The Obama-era Fox News Channel is built on the back of deep-seated partisanship. True, objective journalists -- Wallace, Smith and to a lesser extent, Baier -- are not the moneymakers. Rather, the primetime lineup is where Fox gets its identity and generates its revenue. Hannity was elevated from the co-host of a left/right debate show to arguably the face of the network after his mousey liberal counterpart was given his walking papers. Beck's weepy populist shtick was well-known when Ailes hired him away from Headline News. The "all-star" panels on Baier's show are always, without exception, heavily slanted rightward. And the revolving door of established Republican politicians on Fox's payroll speaks for itself. To Wallace's argument, of course there aren't company-wide memos. Ailes' hiring decisions more than suffice.

Conor Friedersdorf, in writing about the Stewart/Fox battle, pointed out the most glaring difference between Fox and its main antagonist, the New York Times, is that Times publisher Bill Keller will appear anywhere, anytime, to discuss the factual integrity of his reporters' stories. Can anyone imagine Roger Ailes taking to the airwaves to address some of the things Glenn Beck has said?

Certainly, one has to read "mainstream" outlets such as the Times with an eye toward ideological bias of the reporters and editors. There's no doubt about that. But Fox is another animal entirely, fabricating entire storylines -- the Ground Zero "mosque," or rapper Common getting an invite to the White House, or "death panels" -- on purely ideological grounds. The Times doesn't do that. Fox does it regularly.

Whether it started with the Clinton impeachment or the acrimony of the 2000 election, we are simply in a different news era. Each organization has its own biases, and the 24/7 availability of news on both TV and the internet has allowed people to pick and choose their sources. Fox News does journalism a disservice by holding itself out as a purely objective media organization only interested in delivering the hard facts to its customers.

Regardless of what you think of his ideological predispositions -- and frankly, I don't care for them -- Jon Stewart is exactly right.

14 June 2011

The strange case of Tim Pawlenty

At the beginning of 2011, I was convinced that Gov. Pawlenty possessed all the attributes -- social conservative, strong fiscal record, eminently likable -- to secure the Republican nomination. Frankly, after watching snippets of the debate last night, I think Pawlenty is this year's version of Fred Thompson: Conservative and excruciatingly unremarkable.

On Sunday, Pawlenty used Fox News Sunday as a platform to try the "Obamneycare" handle, referencing the obvious similarities between Mitt Romney's healthcare bill of 2006 and what eventually became Obamacare. It was simultaneously clever and accurate, potentially the first real criticism of frontrunner Mitt Romney that would actually stick.

But when John King teed it up for Pawlenty last night, the governor embarrassingly backtracked, saying that he was simply repeating Obama's words, and repeating his "I won't be the first to criticize" shtick, which is already getting plenty old.

Last cycle, Romney dealt with virtually an entire field -- John McCain and Mike Huckabee, in particular -- who openly disdained him. As a consequence, Romney fielded criticism from all sides. If the 2008 candidates had simply played nice as Pawlenty apparently intends to, I have no doubt Romney would have walked away with the nomination. But because politics is inherently bloodsport -- and because Romney is so fundamentally phony -- the criticisms stuck and Romney wound up a distant third.

I've resisted calling Romney a "front-runner," because I believe his core support in New Hampshire is soft and because I think Republican primarygoers can see right through his phoniness, but after last night it's clear there is no one in Romney's league. With Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush and Haley Barbour out of the picture, and Chris Christie still on the sidelines, there isn't a single candidate who should scare him. The nomination is Romney's to lose. Unless he starts to field attacks from serious rivals -- e.g., Pawlenty -- he will win the nomination in a cakewalk.

That brings me to my next point: If Pawlenty doesn't distinguish himself from the field, his modest fundraising portfolio and snooze-inducing persona will keep him buried as others -- Michelle Bachmann? Jon Huntsman? -- zoom by him. Once the great white hope of the anti-Romney movement, Pawlenty is starting to sink, and he has nothing but his own unremarkable candidacy to blame. Romney's organization and fundraising apparatus have him badly outgunned. If Pawlenty does not begin attacking Romney directly -- as McCain and Huckabee did in 2008 -- then he won't win a single state.

Last night was Pawlenty's opportunity -- sharing the stage with Romney for the first time -- to take the fight directly to his opponent. Instead, he cowered and backtracked, suggesting that he doesn't have the stomach for a brass-knuckles campaign. Romney is his principal opponent and a fundamentally dishonest one at that. If Pawlenty can't take the fight directly to Romney, then how can conservatives trust him to stand up to Obama in the general election?

(And by the way, this is a very legitimate concern, the dismissiveness of some pundits notwithstanding. The president is popular enough to survive a Republican opponent who plays nice, especially one like Pawlenty who voters have never seen before. The Republican nominee needs to attack Obama's demagoguery, his statist worldview and his general contempt for the rule of law.)

Every candidate -- even ridiculous ones like Herman Cain and Bachmann -- can articulate the basis for his or her candidacy. Pawlenty hasn't, because it isn't clear that he has anything to offer voters other than the fact that he doesn't offend any of the traditional Republican constituencies. The best thing anyone can say about Pawlenty is that he is a lot of voters' second choice.

At times, Pawlenty's political instincts -- going on the Daily Show, announcing his opposition to ethanol subsidies and Sunday's clever criticism of Romney on national TV -- are very good.

But at his core, Pawlenty appears to be a meek, mousey, conventional politician who can't stomach a fight and has very little to offer voters who are desperately searching for an alternative to his principal rival.

10 June 2011

Pawlenty in Iowa: Win or go home

Many, including yours truly, have assumed that Tim Pawlenty -- a former two-term governor of a blue state who has received high marks from both fiscal and social conservatives, and seems to be eminently likable -- would establish himself as the top alternative to Mitt Romney. While Romney continues to poll reasonably well nationwide, however, Pawlenty remains mired in the mid-single digits, often polling worse than the likes of Herman Cain.

While Pawlenty has a campaign infrastructure in New Hampshire, his partisan pandering won't play well there. Such behavior never does. While Romney (who of course has pandered even more than Pawlenty) lost there in 2008, his second-place finish was due to John McCain capturing the middle. Without a viable candidate running to Romney's "left" -- in quotes because Romney's record demonstrates that he's actually the most liberal candidate in the field -- and because voters in New Hampshire accurately view Romney as a northeastern moderate rather than a red-meat conservative -- I see no scenario in which Pawlenty even comes close to winning the Granite State. In fact, given the emphasis Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman appear to be placing on New Hampshire, and the state's receptiveness to Ron Paul's message, it's entirely possible that Pawlenty finishes outside the top 5.

As a result, the Iowa caucuses are absolutely critical. If Pawlenty doesn't win there, I see no logical path to the nomination. Romney is cunningly ignoring the straw poll so he doesn't become a victim of elevated expectations in the likely event that he wins the straw poll and then underperforms again in the caucuses. In presidential politics, perception is everything.

And before Pawlenty wins the Iowa caucuses, he probably has to win the straw poll.

In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, the press is obsessed as never before with the horse race. Often, policy prescriptions are condensed into insufficient soundbites or ignored altogether. Any poll that is released becomes immediate "Breaking News" and sweeps across the blogosphere. This helps cement the imagine of someone like Romney -- who has high name recognition, despite being merely acceptable, at best, to most conservatives -- as a "frontrunner," while someone like Pawlenty or Huntsman -- who are known by very few voters outside their home states -- as underachievers. Another example of this horrendously stupid process is Donald Trump, who, before he announced he wasn't running, was typically blowing Pawlenty away in the polls, despite the fact that he had no campaign infrastructure, made outlandish statements and wasn't ever considered to be a serious candidate.

As a consequence, the story becomes -- or at least, will soon become -- why Pawlenty, Huntsman and others are struggling so badly in the polls. Eight months away from the Iowa caucuses, this is truly absurd. And it's almost entirely the fault of the national press, who believes that it's more important to discuss the latest poll results rather than exploring the differences between the candidates on issues like Libya or Afghanistan.

But the consequence for someone like Pawlenty is that bad poll results are magnified, because he is widely considered to be a "first-tier candidate" along with Romney and perhaps Sarah Palin. As a result, anything less than an outright win in the Iowa straw poll will be viewed as an enormous disappointment, and feed the narrative that Pawlenty's campaign has severely underperformed.

08 June 2011

John McCain's contempt for the rule of law

Buried deep in George Will's excellent excoriation of President Obama's handling of the Libyan conflict is this remarkable quote from John McCain:

“No president has ever recognized the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, and neither do I. So I don’t feel bound by any deadline.”

McCain was referring to the provision of the WPA that mandates that, if the president does not seek a congressional declaration of war and initiates a conflict abroad, he must provide an explanation of his actions to Congress within 90 days.

Even coming from a man who picked Sarah Palin as his running mate and recently called the Libyan jihadists "my heroes," this is perhaps the most absurd thing McCain has ever said or done.

I wasn't aware that the Constitution -- which specifically endows Congress with the right to declare war -- shields the president from the application of a law if the president or his lackey Congress decides not to "recognize" it. Perhaps the senator would be kind enough to advise us of the constitutional provision upon which he relies.

An avowed opponent of "judicial activism," McCain's position on the WPA is particularly outrageous because -- in McCain's view -- the legislature and the president alone determine the laws that apply and those that don't. McCain urges a sort of extra-judicial congressional activism that is unprecedented and is probably the most extreme theory of checks and balances I've ever read. Under this twisted logic, we may as well scrap the federal judiciary.

On the other hand, McCain's solution is always "more troops" or "more war," so the fact that he isn't bothered by an illegal, unconstitutional war launched in a country where America has no strategic interest at stake isn't surprising.

McCain has an unquenchable, self-righteous thirst for war, which causes him to demand that American troops fight and die solely to fulfill his own lust for foreign adventurism and so he is able to grandstand against "isolationists" on the Senate floor. Perhaps McCain is now coming around to his old rival Obama, who obviously shares his desire for pointless, illegal interventionism abroad and his utter contempt for the rule of law.

From a strictly foreign policy perspective, McCain may well have turned out to be the most destructive president since Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps his 2008 defeat was a blessing in disguise.

07 June 2011

Suspension of reality and the cult of Sarah Palin

We've written here before that Sarah Palin inspires a fervent cult of personality that most resembles the Obamatrons who swept Barack Obama into the White House in 2008. As we've noted with respect to both Palin and Obama, policy rarely matters to their followers -- Palin and Obama are the policy.

In that vein, this piece of Palin-worshipping drivel from a gentleman named AWR Hawkins embodies the worst excesses of the Cult of Palin. It's aptly entitled, "Can Sarah Palin Really Beat Barack Obama? 'You Betcha.'"

Hawkins' thesis boils down to this: The "mainstream media" and the "Republican establishment" are giving Palin short shrift because on her vaunted bus tour, she is spreading a patriotic message and connecting with Americans who can't help but fall in love with her. Hawkins' his piece is typical of the horrendously illogical zealotry that has spread throughout a small, but powerfully vocal, minority of Republican voters.

First: As George Will has repeatedly pointed out, there is no such thing as the "Republican establishment." And if there is such a thing as the establishment, Sarah Palin owes everything to it. She is an elite confection, plucked out of obscurity for no other reason than John McCain's reckless desire for a potential game-changer on his ticket. Without the establishment -- certainly encompassing McCain, Steve Schmidt (McCain's campaign manager and an old Bush/Cheney hand) and Charlie Black (who has spent the last two decades as a Republican lobbyist and kingmaker extraordinaire) -- Sarah Palin is still an unremarkable one-term governor from the smallest state in the union. Other "establishment" figures who have lauded her bona fides include Bill Kristol, Roger Ailes, Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh.

Point 1-A: If there is a "Republican establishment," it is madly disjointed to the point of being woefully ineffective. In the 21st century, the conservative blogosphere writ large carries equal, if not greater, weight than typical establishment-type figures such as the Wall St. Journal editorial board, National Review or John Boehner. Who precisely is the "Republican establishment"? And have Palin disciples forgotten how powerless this "establishment" was when McCain and Mike Huckabee -- both considered apostates by "the establishment" -- combined to win 70% of the primary electorate in 2008?

Second: Carping about the Republican establishment -- or the "mainstream media" -- allows Palin acolytes to avoid addressing very serious concerns about Palin's experience, the myriad ethical complaints that continue to follow her, her poor performance when facing precisely the same hostile press that George W. Bush faced every day for eight years, and most critically, the apprehension that true-blue conservatives seem to have about whether Palin is actually qualified for the presidency. This is the height of intellectual dishonesty, because I have yet to hear a Palin devotee make a compelling case that she is fit for the office.

Third: To address Hawkins' thesis directly, there exists not a shred of evidence that Palin would have a prayer against Obama in the general election.

I've made this point when discussing Mitt Romney's chances against Obama, which, frankly, I believe are well under 50 percent: If Romney had, and continues to have, trouble convincing conservative primary voters that he is an acceptable choice, how can he expect to rally a much more moderate general electorate? Currently -- in a field that doesn't include Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels or Donald Trump -- Palin is polling at approximately 17 percent, this despite the degree to which she dominates nearly every news cycle. In January, Palin's nationwide unfavorables were at 56 percent. She consistently has the highest negative marks even when only Republican voters are polled. And, critically, she is such a known quantity that it will be considerably more difficult for her to swing those numbers versus someone like, say, Tim Pawlenty or Herman Cain. It is difficult to see how she has any path to the Republican nomination should she choose to run, especially since all signs point toward Michelle Bachmann laying the groundwork for a campaign.

In a general election matchup, the evidence is overwhelming that Palin would not be competitive against Obama. While Palin would assuredly win Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming, it is conceivable that she would lose the other 43 states and suffer the worst loss since Ronald Reagan routed Walter Mondale in 1984. In swing states, she polls abysmally -- by far the worst of any serious Republican contender -- against Obama. She would lose by 7 points in Ohio; 9 in North Carolina; 11 in Virginia; 13 in Nevada; 14 in Florida; 16 in Iowa; 19 in Colorado; and a whopping 29 in New Mexico. It's important to note that George W. Bush carried all but Iowa and New Mexico in 2004. Not only would Palin underperform Bush's reelection effort in all eight of those states, but she'd badly outperform McCain's futile 2008 run as well. An ABC News/Washington Post poll -- the most recent on the hypothetical matchup -- has Palin losing to Obama by a 55-40 margin. In fact, the last four polls pitting Palin against Obama in a hypothetical matchup have Palin losing by an average of 18 points.

While Palin may be a culturally familiar, admirable figure to Hawkins and others, her acolytes ignore all evidence when insisting that she could take down an incumbent president whose approval ratings have settled in around 50 percent. Her nomination would assure Barack Obama a second term -- precisely why all conservatives should line up behind her strongest opponent.