The Obama Administration

Doesn't Anybody Here Know How to Run a Conspiracy?

Victoria Nuland's actual email.

In case you've forgotten, what took Benghazi from "a thing Republicans keep whining about" to "Scandal!!!" was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn't contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a "scandal" no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They're forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout "Aha!" no matter what.

But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl's source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS's Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).

Let me just explain quickly in case you haven't been following this, and then we'll discuss what it means.

President Obama Will Not Be "Going Bulworth"

Being president is hard, and often downright unpleasant, particularly when there are scandals, legitimate or otherwise, swirling about and distracting your attention from what you'd like to be accomplishing. I'm sure it's particularly frustrating when the opposition party is so intransigent that negotiating with them is pointless. Right now Barack Obama's presidency is at something of a low point, but nevertheless, it was a bit surprising to see this, from a New York Times story this morning: "Yet Mr. Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him."

This is not, it should be noted, a belief on the president's part that if he just gave it to 'em straight, he could transform American politics with the power of honest words. That view is alarmingly persistent among certain members of the punditry, and Obama is plainly contemptuous of it. He understand the constraints he's under, how the institutions of Washington conspire to make change difficult, and where the limits on presidential power lie. But if he really wanted to "go Bulworth," there isn't anything stopping him. What does he have to lose?

Do Drones Work?

AP Images/Eric Gay

Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus hosted an ad hoc hearing on the implications of U.S. drone policy. It was a follow-up of sorts to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April examining the counterterrorism implications of drone strikes.

Of Cover-Ups and Crimes

Richard Nixon and John Ehrlichman (White House photo). These guys knew from cover-ups.

Of all the crazy things people on the right are now saying about Benghazi, I'll admit that the one that most makes me want to scream is that it's "worse than Watergate." I get that much of the time it's just a way of saying "This is a big deal," and maybe there are some of your dumber elected officials (your Goehmerts, your Bachmanns) who actually believe it. But the idea is so plainly absurd that sometimes it feels like they're just trolling, saying it not because any sane person could actually think it's true, but because they just want to drive me nuts.

And as long as they keep saying it, I guess we'll have to keep reminding people with short memories what actual scandals involve. To that end, Jonathan Bernstein has a nice reminder for us about Watergate and what a real cover-up looks like, in the course of which he counters the old "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" aphorism: "I'll stick with what I always say about this: its the crime, not the cover-up, that gets people in trouble. The reason for the Watergate cover-up was that specific crimes had been committed, crimes which could have (had they been confessed to in June 1972) sent much of the senior White House staff, much of the campaign organization, and perhaps the President of the United States straight to prison." I'd add that in the case of Watergate, the cover-up actually consisted of new crimes, added on to the original crimes.

This is an important distinction to make...

Scandal Makers

AP Photo

In case you didn't notice, over the last few days we entered a new phase in the Obama presidency: the scandal phase. What happened? It wasn't evidence of a crime being unearthed, or a confession from a conspirator. There was no sudden revelation, no arrests, no cancer on the presidency. Indeed, just a few days ago it looked for all the world like Benghazi would take its place with Solyndra and "Fast and Furious" as one more wished-for scandal that, despite the best efforts of Republicans, failed to take flight. Yet all it took was ABC News getting passed some emails between the CIA, the State Department, and the White House detailing how the administration argued over how exactly to talk about the attack in Benghazi to get things underway, and now we have calls for special committees and ramped-up coverage. There may not be anything particularly shocking in those emails—just the time-honored tradition of people trying to cover their asses—but some internal deliberations being revealed, no matter what they contain, has given the media enough of a prod to start that scandal train moving, and before you know it everyone's going to jump onboard.

So suddenly it looks like this isn't going away, not because there was appalling malfeasance (or any malfeasance at all), but because once the train is moving, it's almost impossible to stop. Put together the right's desperate longing for an Obama scandal—turn on Fox News or listen to conservative radio, and you'll see eyelids fluttering in ecstasy as this story gains momentum—with congressional Republicans' helplessness in the face of pressure from their base, and the media's inability to resist a presidential scandal story, and this whole thing might not end unless and until Barack Obama is impeached.

Benghazi Fizzles

A New York Post cover from back when Benghazi was hotter.

Conservatives want, so very desperately, for Benghazi to be Barack Obama's undoing. And you have to give them credit for trying. Yesterday's hearing, hyped like it was the Super Bowl by Fox News, wasn't actually the first or the second or the fifth on the topic, and each one is supposed to deliver the blockbuster revelation that will finally show America just how evil the Obama administration really is. But if you look at the way they've been talking about it, you can see some faint glimmers of doubt. Sure, you can always find somebody to come on Fox and take the speculation to an absurd level ("Did Hillary Clinton order the consulate to be unprotected because Ambassador Stevens knew she's an al Qaeda operative and she wanted him killed? We just don't know"). But I think all that speculation is sapping their spirits. After a while it gets tiresome to keep harping on what might have happened or why, when it would be so much more satisfying if there were some actual incriminating facts you could bring to bear. For instance, they know there was a cover-up, because every good scandal has a cover-up, but they can't even say just what was being covered up. That's kind of an important part of the story. For god's sake, they're still going on about Susan Rice's inaccurate Sunday show talking points, not because they feel like that's the heart of the nefarious conspiracy, but because they haven't come up with anything more damning.

I'm not saying conservatives don't believe that something sinister happened, because they surely do...

No, Syria Is Not Iraq

AP Photo/Hussein Malla

For those advocating greater intervention in Syria by the United States, the memory of Iraq has turned into a real inconvenience.

“Iraq is not Syria,” proclaimed the headline of New York Times editor Bill Keller’s op-ed on Monday, by way of arguing for greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Because of Iraq, Keller wrote, “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.”

Let’s grant that it’s possible to over-learn the lessons of Iraq. The Iraq war, as costly a blunder as it was, should not discredit any and all military interventions, but it should—and has—raised the bar for when such interventions are necessary. What appears to persist, however, is the belief that “bold” U.S. moves—nearly always assumed to be military action—can change the situation for the better, and produce the outcomes that we would like to see.

And of those outcomes aren’t produced? Well, then it will be time for even bolder moves.

Underfunded and Under Five

AP Photo/The Hawk Eye, John Lovretta

As we contemplate the possibly bright future of pre-K laid out in Obama’s state of the union address this year, in which the feds work together “with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” along comes a sobering glimpse of what public preschool looks like now. It’s not quite as rosy.

Rather than charting progress toward getting all four-year-olds ready for kindergarten, the National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual survey of programs, just issued last week, shows a system in disrepair—or perhaps even retreat. Even as recognition of the benefits of preschool for four-year-olds has grown, the actual implementation of it has stalled – and, in places, lost ground. Meanwhile state funding for pre-K has gone down by more than half a billion dollars in the last year, according to NIEER. In 2012, state spending per child fell to well below what it was ten years ago.

Schneiderman Strikes Back

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who headed a group of state attorneys general that won homeowners and former homeowners a $26 billion settlement from five mega-banks over their foreclosure abuses, announced yesterday that he’d sue two of the banks—Wells Fargo and Bank of America—for allegedly violating the terms of the settlement.

Bad Flight Plan

Flickr/vmarta, Kent Wein

The decision by Senate Democrats last week to restore funding to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—which was cut when the “sequester” took effect in March and led to flight delays that angered a wide swath of Americans—was a clear loss for Democrats in the ongoing budget wars. Rather than cave and reverse the cuts, Democrats should have used the public discontent about budget cuts as leverage to pressure Republicans. They squandered this opportunity.

A Crossroads for Hillary

Titanic Belfast / Flickr

Hillary Clinton is making all the early moves of someone preparing to run for president, though she has given herself plenty of time to rest, rejuvenate, and review a final decision. How, however, President Obama’s ill-conceived plan to cut Social Security benefits via a “technical” change in the inflation index will force Clinton to make an awkward choice.

Most Democrats in both houses of Congress are not happy with this backdoor cut in Social Security. It is both fiscally unnecessary and spectacularly bad politics. Republican leaders are already bashing Obama for selling out retirees. After Obama released his budget, Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon went on CNN to accuse the president of “a shocking attack on seniors. Resolutely defeneding Social Security in the face of periodic Republican forays at cutting or privatizing America’s most popular program has always been one of the Democrats’ great appeals. Obama gave that away.

On Immigration, Gay Community Should Take One for the Team

Flickr/Phil Davis

In July of 2010, Russ Feingold did the principled thing. After weeks of markup and debate, the liberal Wisconsin senator voted against Dodd-Frank. "My test for the financial-regulatory reform bill is whether it will prevent another crisis," Feingold said at the time. "[The bill] fails that test." Ironically, Feingold's fortitude only served to further weaken the legislation. In order to break a filibuster, Dodd-Frank's sponsors had to appease conservative Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who opposed a "bank tax" that would have made financial institutions pay for the new regulatory regime. The provision was stripped from the legislation, costing taxpayers $19 billion.

Gay-rights advocates should keep this scenario in mind as the Gang of Eight tries to push immigration reform through the Senate. Given that more than a quarter million undocumented immigrants are LGBT, the movement has a broad interest in seeing comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship succeed. But gay-rights supporters have also been pushing for a specific provision in the bill recognizing LGBT families, who under current law are ineligible for family-based immigration. President Obama's immigration proposal, released in February, contained such a provision. But few were surprised that the bill unveiled by the bipartisan group earlier this month contained a legalization program for the undocumented but made no mention of LGBT families. This is no doubt a shortcoming in the current proposal, and one that groups like Immigration Equality, which advocates on behalf of gay and HIV-positive immigrants, should fight to fix. Immigration Equality has already said that the current Senate bill "does not reflect the values or diversity of our country" and that "we are watching—and we will remember—which lawmakers stand with us, and which stand to the side, when this critical vote happens." The Human Rights Campaign and other prominent gay-rights groups have similarly condemned the current Senate bill.

The Frankenstein Foreign-Policy Crisis

AP Images

The last week has been not so much a case of national déjà vu as a Philip K. Dickian time-slip where the past bleeds into the present and transforms it. Syria is potentially the frankenstein of foreign-policy crises, made up of the parts of dead blunders: Vietnam, where we learned that firepower won’t overcome the unquantifiables that make for a quagmire; Iraq, where we learned that intelligence may be faulty or manipulated; Libya, where we learned both the combat possibilities and limitations of no-fly zones; Afghanistan, where a quarter-century ago we armed freedom-fighters who became accomplices in the murder of 3,000 citizens on American soil; Kosovo and Rwanda, where we ignored mass slaughter at the cost of our collective conscience; and Somalia, where we answered the call of conscience to disastrous end. Syria surpasses them all. With a warring population becoming ever more kaleidoscopically sectarian, and an air-defense system as sophisticated as any in the non-Israeli Middle East, it’s an unfolding horror show that morally demands a response from the greatest nation on earth even as we face a void of viable military, political, and diplomatic options. This was true before the looming holocaust that would be wrought by chemical weapons. As the president of the United States noted yesterday in his press conference, Syria was a cataclysm of mind-boggling dimensions before the conversation ever turned to red lines.

Don't Give Up on Green Tech Yet

flickr/Chris Wevers

When in 2008 George W. Bush signed the law creating the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program (ATVM), which gives loans to car companies investing in green tech, conservatives were outraged. They took to talk radio to express their dismay, they introduced bills to dismantle the program, they poured contempt on Bush for trying to "pick winners and losers" with a bunch of hippie-mobiles running on patchouli and idealistic delusions.

Is the U.S. Set to Intervene in Syria?

AP Photo/Jim Watson

The chances of U.S. intervention in Syria just got higher. This morning, the White House released identical letters it had sent to Senators Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, and John McCain. Republican of Arizona, both of whom had written to the administration in March urging “more active steps” to stop the killing in Syria, stating that, “Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale.”