The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 12 to 3 Tuesday in a closed-door meeting to approve John Brennan’s nomination as director of the CIA. The Brennan nomination now moves to the Senate floor, where Democrats believe they have enough votes to win his confirmation.
The Brennan pick had been stuck in the panel for days. So here’s our question: What happened? Specifically, how much information on the secret US drone program was the White House forced to disclose to committee members to get the nomination moving?
The short answer here is that it appears the administration produced some, but far from all, of the documents it has been withholding from lawmakers on this issue. Human rights organizations on Tuesday continued to charge that the White House had not released nearly enough information about the basis for its belief that it is legal for the US to target terror suspects with armed unmanned aircraft.
“President Obama must do more to prove that his administration is serious about human rights,” Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement issued just prior to the Brennan vote.
Let’s step back and explain the situation more fully. In recent days the key barrier to Brennan’s impending promotion has been the desire by many Intelligence Committee members for expanded access to the opinions drafted by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the Justice Department that justify targeted killings of terror suspects in far corners of the world.
“I have reached an agreement with the White House to provide the committee access to all OLC opinions related to the targeted killing of Americans in a way that allows members to fulfill their oversight responsibilities,” Senator Feinstein said in a statement. “I am pleased the administration has made this information available. It is important for the committee to do its work and will pave the way for the confirmation of John Brennan to be CIA director.”
The key phrase there is “opinions related to the targeted killing of Americans.” On its face that appears to mean the White House will make available OLC documents related to the targeted killing of the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Born in New Mexico, al-Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. Committee members indeed have been interested to see the Justice Department’s legal reasoning for the use of such targeted lethal force against an American citizen.
The White House also conceded that committee members needed to bring some staff members in to provide legal analysis of these documents. That’s the likely import of the phrase about providing information “in a way that allows members to fulfill their oversight responsibilities.” Lawmakers depend heavily on expert staff to brief them on issue details.
But there is nothing in Feinstein’s statement about the White House providing lawmakers a glimpse of the OLC opinions on targeted killings that involve non-Americans – which are the vast majority of such actions, after all.
Asked about whether the White House was continuing its close hold on important OLC documents, White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday avoided answering.
“I can simply say that we have worked with the committee to provide information about ... legal advice on issues of concern to committee members and have done that, recognizing that this is a unique and exceptional situation,” Carney said.
It’s possible that the administration has a deal with lawmakers to show them a wider array of material than Feinstein disclosed. That’s not the most likely scenario, however. Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, and it’s possible he’ll get asked about the details of this agreement.
“Attorney General Holder should be pressed to say when members of Congress and their staff will have access to the full spectrum of OLC memos related to targeted killing and when those memos, with as few redactions as possible, will be made public,” said Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First on Tuesday.
With former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) leaving the door open to a 2016 presidential run, the odds appear to be rising that we could be treated – or subjected, depending on your point of view – to something politicos have been speculating about for years: an epic battle between two of the nation's most dominant political families. In other words, with apologies to the Rambo franchise, we may actually get to see "Jeb Bush vs. Hillary Clinton: First Blood, Part 2."
Watching Mr. Bush make the media rounds while promoting his new book on immigration this week, we've been struck all over again by his political skills – a relaxed, unaffected manner on camera, great ease in discussing policy, and the quiet confidence of a man who knows he's already regarded as a leader within his party.
But while a Bush-Clinton matchup in 2016 would be the ultimate battle of heavyweights, Jeb isn't exactly the Republican version of Hillary. For one thing, he's been out of politics since 2006 and has kept a comparatively low profile over the years. His approval ratings are nowhere near the levels she's been posting in recent polls. And he probably wouldn't clear the Republican field the way Hillary would.
Here are some of the factors making his path to the nomination a bit more challenging than hers:
The Bush name
Certainly, being a member of one of America's most famous political families comes with a whole host of advantages – an instant political and fundraising network, universal name recognition, and no stature gap to contend with. On the other hand, the Bush brand comes with a ton of baggage, and Republicans know it.
Former President George W. Bush left office with an approval rating in the low 20s, amid two unpopular wars and a tanking economy (unlike former President Bill Clinton, who left office with the highest approval rating of any modern president). There's a reason President Bush's name was barely mentioned at last summer's GOP convention (unlike President Clinton, who was one of the Democrats' marquee speakers).
While most former presidents, no matter how controversial, tend to be embraced eventually with affection and nostalgia – something that's clearly happened to Mr. Clinton, with the Monica Lewinsky scandal now a distant memory – the Bush years just aren't far enough out yet.
Both Hillary and Jeb would have to contend with "dynasty" charges, but it's likely to be a bigger problem for Jeb, who would be the third, rather than the second, president from his immediate family. Moreover, Hillary would still be able to portray her candidacy as groundbreaking and novel (as she did in 2008), since she'd be vying to become America's first female president. Jeb wouldn't be able to make any such claim.
Republicans are more divided than Democrats
If anyone can unite the Republican Party right now, it may be Jeb. But that's a big "if." Despite recently tweaking his position on immigration reform, he's not a "tea party" politician and may still have to fight to get the support of his party's conservative base. He has taken positions in the past that aren't always in line with those on the right (such as refusing to sign Grover Norquist's "pledge" not to raise taxes), and over the course of the past year has castigated his party repeatedly for alienating minorities and other groups of voters.
Working in Bush's favor is the fact that Republicans seem to realize that the long, drawn-out primary process in 2012 hurt their previous nominee, Mitt Romney, by forcing him to endure too many debates, spend too much money, and adopt too many far-right positions that then hurt him in the general election. But whether they'll change the calendar for 2016 is unclear.
He's facing much stiffer intraparty competition
The biggest problem for Democrats right now, frankly, is what they'll do if Hillary doesn't run. Vice President Joe Biden will be 74 years old in 2016, and the other Democratic names currently being bandied about – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley – aren't remotely in the same league.
By contrast, Republicans have a very strong bench of candidates even without Jeb. Sen. Marco Rubio, Bush's Florida protégé, is a rising star in the party, and is already acting like a candidate (making visits to Iowa, wooing donors on Wall Street). And while many suggest that if Jeb decides to take the plunge, Mr. Rubio will wait – well, we're not entirely convinced of that.
Nor is Rubio the only Republican who seems poised to make a serious 2016 bid. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may not be beloved by conservatives, but he's one of the most popular governors in the country and has enough star power to seize the spotlight. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan is still a hero to many on the right for his willingness to tackle entitlement reform. And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, while more of a dark horse, has the political instincts and media savvy to complicate things for everyone else.
None of this is to say that Bush wouldn't be a favorite to win his party's nomination should he decide to take the plunge. He'd probably become the GOP front-runner upon entering the field – and, who knows, Republicans' bitterness over the 2012 election may lead them to close ranks more quickly than they otherwise might.
Still, we don't think it would be a coronation for Bush, the way it would be for Ms. Clinton. He'd have to fight for it.
If Mitt Romney had won the presidency, would he have headed off the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts commonly known as the “sequester”?
Mr. Romney himself implies that his answer to that question is “yes.” In his big interview Sunday with Chris Wallace on Fox News, Mr. Romney expressed regret at his relegation to the national sideline and said that, if elected, he’d have focused his executive skills on fixing the sequester problem.
“It kills me not to be there, not to be in the White House doing what needs to be done,” he said.
Jeb Bush echoed that sentiment on Tuesday morning, saying in an interview on MSNBC that “I wish Mitt Romney was president right now because I think we’d have someone who would be in the midst of trying to forge consensus,” Bush said. “It breaks my heart that he’s not there, he’s a good man.”
We’re not so sure that President Romney would have succeeded where President Obama has so far failed. But let’s run through his discussion points on the subject, shall we? Maybe you’ll be convinced where we weren’t.
LEADERNESS. In his Fox interview, Romney expressed the common idea that the US chief executive is a lead sled dog pulling the nation in his wake. In the context of an issue of legislative gridlock, such as the sequester, that means the president needs to impose his will on lawmakers, maybe by locking them all in a room until they reach consensus.
“The president brings people together, does the deals, does the trades, knocks the heads together. The president leads. And I don’t see that kind of leadership happening right now,” said Romney.
Yes, but how would knocking a few legislative heads cause the GOP to accept a tax increase? The problem is that there is a deep and substantive divide on fiscal policy between Republicans and Democrats. Invoking “leadership” as a means to close that gap is vague at best.
Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan calls this the “Green Lantern” theory of the presidency, after the fictional superhero.
“In this fantasy world, all legislative obstacles can be overcome through the sheer exertion of presidential will.... If you accept the false premise that the president is all-powerful, it’s totally logical!” Professor Nyhan wrote in his definition of Green Lanternism.
SUBTLETY. Romney also complained to Fox’s Mr. Wallace that Mr. Obama’s response to the sequester crisis has been counterproductive. Obama flew around the country to do public rallies blaming the GOP for economic harm the sequester would allegedly cause, Romney said.
“Now, what does that do?” said Romney. “That causes the Republicans to retrench and then put up a wall and to fight back. It’s a very natural human emotion.”
We’d agree with that – Obama’s pre-sequester public campaign was an attempt to push the GOP towards his position and could well have polarized the issue more than it helped. Presidential public speeches often have that effect. The Republican lawmakers resisting the Democratic position here are doing so due to their own electoral imperatives. Most are from GOP-leaning districts or states and would pay a political price at home if they moved toward Obama.
That said, should legislators base their votes at all on the fact that the president is annoying them?
PERSUASIVENESS. Romney noted that as governor of Massachusetts he’d had to deal with a heavily Democratic legislature. He said that what Obama needs to do in the current context is stop campaigning and work on lawmakers individually.
“He’s the only one that can say to his own party: Look, you guys, I need you on this – and get some Republicans aside and, say, pull them off one by one. We don’t have to have these gridlock settings, one after the other, on issue after issue.”
OK, this sounds great but, again, exactly how does the president change minds about the core fiscal beliefs that are causing the divide between the parties? (See “Green Lantern,” above.) Does he scare them? What? President Lyndon B. Johnson used to accomplish this by liberal use of federal funds – promising Western senators huge water projects to back civil rights, for instance. But Obama doesn’t have the money to do this, and a Republican president would, in any case, likely be philosophically opposed to such an approach.
Here’s our bottom line: President Romney’s ability to handle the sequester would have been entirely dependent on his electoral context. If he’d been elected amid a GOP landslide that flipped the Senate Republican, he would indeed have prevented it, because his party would have had unified control of the government. If Democrats had held the Senate, despite his election, he’d be in the same position as Obama, only the reverse. He’d be trying to convince Senate majority leader Harry Reid and other Senate Democrats to back an all-cut package of deficit reduction.
And that’s why Obama’s in the situation he is. It’s about the balance of American power – not too few meetings and not enough knocked heads.
OK, sequestration is really happening. Monday is the first full workday during which $85 billion in automatic federal budget reductions are in effect. Administration officials from President Obama on down have spent weeks warning about the dire effect of these reductions. So what’s the White House going to do now?
Tone down the rhetoric, for a start. Mr. Obama’s predictions of lost jobs and a slowing economy did not push Republicans into agreeing to a "sequester" avoidance deal containing some measure of increased tax revenues. Given that the effects of the budget cuts will take some time to get rolling, the White House is moving away a bit from dire talk. Democrats don’t want to be portrayed as the budgeteers who cried wolf once too often.
“I think the real issue is that this is, as the president said, a slow grind,” said White House economic adviser Gene Sperling during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.” “When this sequester goes off, yes, it’s not going to hurt as much on Day 1. But, again, every independent economist agrees it is going to cost our economy 750,000 jobs just as our economy has a chance to take off.”
Second, the administration wants to give the appearance of a sadder but wiser organization that’s pivoting to other business.
In remarks for the cameras, Obama prior to the meeting said he and the assembled department secretaries would talk about ways to ease sequester pain on federal employees. But he added that his agenda is “broader” than just preventing budget cuts. Thus the cabinet would also talk about immigration reform, early childhood education, and gun-control efforts, he said.
“So one of the things that I’ve instructed not just my White House, but every agency, is to make sure that, regardless of some of the challenges that they may face because of sequestration, we’re not going to stop working on behalf of the American people,” said the president.
Third, the White House will continue lower-level efforts at negotiating an end to the sequester. Officials note that over the weekend Obama phoned a number of lawmakers in an attempt to see if any movement on the issue was possible. But the point of the calls isn’t exactly clear. It’s not even clear whom Obama spoke to. He does not appear to have contacted House Speaker John Boehner or Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. Without their agreement, any discussion of compromise is just a couple of people shooting the breeze.
“I don’t have a list for you.... It’s not necessarily helpful for, you know, individual senators to have those conversations specifically read out,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday.
Meanwhile, top Republicans continue to describe the sequester cuts as modest. They compare them to the drop in take-home income most workers suffered at the beginning of the year when a payroll tax cut expired.
With no path to compromise visible all that seems certain at the moment is that the United States will indeed find out how the sequester works and whether it damages the economy or not in the weeks and months ahead.
Watch out, Marco Rubio.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – who, by any measure, would instantly become one of 2016's heavyweights should he decide to run for president – is hinting that a campaign might actually be in the cards.
Pressed on NBC's "Today" Monday as to whether he would "rule out" a run, he answered directly: "I won't," adding, "but I'm not going to declare today, either." Sounding like someone who intends to be a significant player, Mr. Bush said that while 2016 is "way off into the future," he's hoping to "share my beliefs about how the conservative movement and the Republican Party can regain its footing – because we've lost our way."
Now, of course, Bush also happens promoting a new book, "Immigration Wars," which is being released Tuesday. (He'll be a guest at the Monitor Breakfast on Wednesday.) And there's nothing like a swirl of presidential speculation to bring extra publicity to such an effort – frankly, he'd be crazy to rule out a run, for that reason.
But his comments, while still leaving plenty of wiggle room, were notably more definitive than anything he's said in the past. In fact, they were more definitive than what most other prospective 2016ers, such as Senator Rubio, have said so far. Most tend to offer something along the lines of, "I'm not thinking about that right now; I'm focused on the job at hand," and leave it at that.
Maybe even more interesting, in the same interview, Bush positioned himself to the right of Rubio on immigration – an issue where he, like his fellow Floridian, is widely seen as a party leader, and where he's generally been considered more moderate, at least in his rhetoric, than much of the party's base.
Bush supports a comprehensive reform bill, but said on "Today" that he would not support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a key plank of the legislation being crafted by the Senate "Gang of Eight," which includes Rubio. Instead, Bush said he would favor granting them permanent legal status.
"If we want to create an immigration policy that's going to work, we can't continue to make illegal immigration an easier path than legal immigration," he said.
As Talking Points Memo's Benjy Sarlin points out, this is a shift from what Bush was saying as recently as last June, when he told CBS's Charlie Rose: “Either a path to citizenship, which I would support – and that does put me probably out of the mainstream of most conservatives – or a path to residency of some kind.... I would accept that in a heartbeat as well if that’s the path to get us to where we need to be, which is, on a positive basis, using immigration to create sustained growth.”
Needless to say, this is all fairly intriguing. Until now, we've tended to regard Bush as a Mario Cuomo-type politician – someone who could become an instant front-runner should he enter the race, but who, for various reasons, we think may not pull the trigger in the end. (Recent reports that he was trying to buy the Miami Marlins baseball team only added to that impression.)
Certainly, the Bush family name brings serious clout and credentials, but it also carries a tremendous amount of baggage. And a Jeb Bush candidacy would inevitably raise questions about whether the party was moving forward or backward.
A Public Policy Polling survey recently found Rubio leading Bush nationally among Republican primary voters, 22 to 13 percent. On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Times ran a poll of more than 100 "Florida insiders" (political operatives, lobbyists, fundraisers, etc.) last December, and found that 62 percent expected Bush to run for president in 2016 – and 81 percent said they believed Bush would be a stronger candidate than Rubio.
For now, Bush sounds an awful lot like someone who's trying to appeal to primary voters in Iowa. In the "Today" interview, Bush – a former governor who had to deal with a number of devastating hurricanes during his time in office, and knows what it's like to rely on federal aid – defended House Republicans for battling New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) over funding for hurricane Sandy.
While saying "look, I love Christie," he said he understood why Governor Christie was not invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC): "I think the issue of [Christie] castigating the House particularly for not going along with a $60 billion spending deal that had very little to do with Sandy recovery ... that's what I think was the critique," he said. Bush will be a featured speaker at CPAC later this month.
On the other hand, he did allow that there "may be" room for additional revenue increases down the road as part of a larger deficit-reduction deal between the White House and Congress – if President Obama is willing to tackle "our structural problems," such as entitlement reform.
That's in line with previous comments Bush has made criticizing antitax advocate Grover Norquist's famous no-new-taxes pledge, something Bush refused to sign during his three electoral campaigns. But he said now is not the time to be talking about revenues, given the tax hikes that came as a result of the fiscal cliff deal.
Did Ann Romney really blame the media for her husband’s loss in the 2012 presidential election? That’s the buzz making the D.C. rounds Monday morning in the wake of Ann and Mitt Romney’s interview Sunday with Chris Wallace on Fox News.
The Ann-blames-the-liberal-Main-Stream-Media idea stems primarily from a quick exchange that she had with Mr. Wallace. At one point, she’s talking about how voters never got to see what a great guy Mitt is, and she says that was the fault of both the campaign and the media.
Wallace then asked her, “What about the media?”
“I’m happy to blame the media,” Mrs. Romney replied, to general laughter in the studio.
As you can see from that context, she was not blaming the media only for the Republican defeat. She wasn’t even blaming the MSM exclusively for the particular problem she was citing.
In fact, we think that Ann and Mitt Romney together on Sunday laid out a pretty accurate three-point description of why the latter today is not president of the United States.
Turnout. Both Romneys said that on Election Day, they thought they were going to win. Mr. Romney said he felt that energy and enthusiasm were with the voters on their side.
But Mrs. Romney points out that this belief was wrong. “I think they had a better ground game,” she said of the Obama campaign.
“I don’t think we were as aware of the passion that was coming from the other side. I think we were a little blindsided by that,” she added to Wallace.
That’s indeed what happened. The Obama team found voters where the Romney campaign did not think Democrats existed. While Romney officials hit turnout targets in many Ohio precincts, they did not count on their Obama counterparts upping the ante in this way.
Image. The media blame surfaced in the midst of a more general discussion of Romney’s image. His wife said that the US never got to see the man she knows – compassionate, real, and so forth. Instead they saw a caricature of a plutocrat.
She blamed their own effort for this, as well as the media. Wallace asked about reports that she and her son Tagg complained that the campaign did not “let Mitt be Mitt.”
“It was partly – it’s true,” Mrs. Romney said in response.
What she didn’t add was that her own husband didn’t help. He declined to advertise his Mormonism, despite the fact that many of his church efforts involved charitable work that put him in a humanizing light. And nobody forced him to say the words caught on the infamous “47 percent” tape.
“It was a very unfortunate statement that I made,” Romney himself said on Sunday.
Minority outreach. As has been extensively documented since the campaign, minority voters flocked to President Obama in unprecedented numbers. This doomed Romney despite the fact that he won a near-record percentage of the white vote.
Romney gets this, apparently. “The weakness that our campaign had and that I had is we weren’t effective in taking my message primarily to minority voters – to Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, other minorities,” he told Wallace.
So in the end Ann and Mitt blamed ... themselves. Plus the media and the opposition. That’s pretty comprehensive, no?
After lying low since losing the presidential election last November, Mitt Romney is inching his way back into the public arena – and taking steps to rehabilitate his reputation within the Republican Party.
First came the news that Mr. Romney is scheduled to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this month. Now, he's granted his first interview (along with his wife, Ann) to "Fox News Sunday," which will air in full this weekend.
In an excerpt released by Fox News on Friday, Romney weighed in on the "sequester," the across-the-board cuts to defense and nondefense discretionary spending that are about to take effect. "No one can think that that's been a success for the president," he told host Chris Wallace. "To date, what we've seen is the president out campaigning to the American people, doing rallies around the country, flying around the country, and berating Republicans. And blaming and pointing. Now what does that do? That causes the Republicans to retrench and then put up a wall and fight back. It's a very natural human emotion. The president has the opportunity to lead the nation and to bring Republicans and Democrats together. It's a job he's got to do, and it's a job only the president can do."
Those are all pretty standard Republican talking points. Still, Romney commenting on what the president should be doing in this crisis is somewhat intriguing, since it inevitably raises the question: "Would this whole mess be playing out any differently if Romney had won?"
Indeed, whether fortuitous or deliberate, Romney's decision to reemerge at a time when Washington finds itself embroiled in a series of never-ending budget dramas may prove helpful in paving the way for some sort of a comeback. As America's fiscal crisis appears increasingly intractable, some may look to the former Massachusetts governor and "fiscal turnaround artist" with something of a newfound appreciation.
Now, let's be clear: We are in no way suggesting he's going to run for office again. In the wake of last November's loss, Romney was pretty much persona non grata within his own party. He was the target of a huge outpouring of Republican frustration, as party leaders and pundits assailed his campaign's competence and his own out-of-touch comments – most notably, the "47 percent" remark and the one about "self-deportation." To many, Romney became synonymous with the GOP of the past.
And certainly, many within the party still hold little affection for the man they see as having blown a very winnable race. Conservative activist Richard Viguerie wrote on his website Friday that Romney should use his CPAC speech to "apologize to the assembled conservative activists, and Americans in general, for running a content-free campaign that inflicted four more years of Barack Obama and his radical secular liberal agenda on a country already being bled white by the wounds inflicted during Obama’s first term."
Still, there appears to be a bit of a détente going on, and a general expectation that Romney may have some sort of Act 2 in the works. There have been rumors about a possible Fox News gig – though, frankly, we have a little trouble envisioning that, since public speaking hasn't been Romney's strong point and when he's tried his hand at political analysis, it's been semi-disastrous (see the above-mentioned "47 percent" comment).
Other speculation has focused on Romney starting a foundation or a political group aimed at helping Republican candidates. Slate's David Weigel has even proposed that Romney become the new emergency manager for the city of Detroit.
Alberto Cardenas, head of CPAC, said in a release that Romney would be speaking on "the current state of affairs in America and the world and his perspective on the future of the conservative movement." While some may dismiss Romney's views as irrelevant, we'd wager that he'll get a more appreciative reception than he would have just a few months ago.
Does the left now have its metaphorical knives out for Bob Woodward? It sure seems that way at the moment. Many Democrats are deeply peeved at what they consider to be distortions in Mr. Woodward’s account of President Obama and the origins of sequestration. They’ve scoffed at reports that the hero of Watergate felt threatened by the White House’s own response to his charges.
“Woodward’s act is getting painfully old, and I don’t plan to pay any more attention to his feverish efforts to stay in the limelight,” writes Ed Kilgore, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, in a typical response.
Conservatives are gleeful about this and count Woodward as a “new hero," according to a headline in Friday’s New York Times. The right-wing website Breitbart.com compiled a list of what it described as lefty-leaning mainstream media types who are now, in Breitbart’s words, “throwing Woodward under a bus."
What’s going on here? Why the partisan divide? As you might expect we’ve got some comments on those questions.
Woodward's never been a liberal. Neither has the man who helped bring down President Nixon ever seemed a conservative. In recent decades he’s been something of an establishmentarian, reflecting the conventional wisdom of Washington insiders with his long, detailed books about policymaking in various administrations.
That means it would be dangerous for the right to anoint him one of their own. Next thing you know he’ll say something that outrages them. During an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show Friday, Woodward was already touting a possible move by Senate Republicans to accept some new tax revenues in a sequester-fix deal. That’s not going to make the House GOP happy.
The White House "threat" was exaggerated by the media. The e-mail exchange between Woodward and White House economic adviser Gene Sperling, which created the “threat” uproar, actually seems fairly mild. Mr. Sperling says Woodward might “regret” his statements, but does so in a context which makes it appear that it refers to a possible future regret on the part of Woodward that he was factually wrong.
Woodward himself now plays this down. “I never said this was a threat,” he said this morning on “Today." He pointed out that it was Politico that used the word “threat” in its lead on a long story reporting his dispute with the White House.
The whole “threat” meme is a sideshow, Woodward said. “This is the old trick in the book of making the press or some confrontation with the press the issue rather than what the White House has done here,” he told host Matt Lauer.
(But is it the White House that’s pushing this “sideshow”? Or is the press, always desperate for conflict to cover? We’d say the latter.)
Woodward is vulnerable on substance. We’ve covered the guts of the substance here more substantially elsewhere, but we’ll just say that Woodward, while mostly technically accurate, may not be telling the full story.
One of his points is that sequestration was the Obama administration’s idea. That’s true. But as the White House says, it was an idea floated in response to the GOP refusal to raise the debt ceiling, and was never supposed to go into effect.
Another of Woodward’s main contentions is that the White House has “moved the goalposts” by insisting on new tax revenue as part of any sequester-fixing deal. This is debatable – the administration has been clear for years that it wants tax contributions from the rich as part of pretty much every fiscal deal it tries to strike. Plus, the sequester is a new problem for a new year. The way we’d describe it is that both sides have moved the goalposts, and they’re playing a new game on a new field.
One last thing: If you’d like to relive the glorious days of Watergate, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, at his “A plain blog about politics,” has updates reflecting day-to-day developments in the scandal 40 years ago.
On Feb. 28, 1973, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened L. Patrick Gray’s confirmation hearing to be director of the FBI. He mentioned that he’d let a White House aide named John Dean see FBI files on the bureau’s Watergate investigation. It was the beginning of the end of the coverup.
[Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated how long ago the Watergate scandal occurred.]
Bob Woodward and the White House have suddenly become embroiled in a very public shoving match over stuff the legendary Washington Post reporter has said about the origin and nature of the "sequester."
Mr. Woodward says the administration is being touchy and aggressive and trying to intimidate him. “They have to be willing to live in the world where they’re challenged,” he told Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei on Wednesday.
President Obama’s supporters in essence say Woodward is a has-been who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Ex-Obama senior adviser David Plouffe on Twitter Wednesday night wrote, “Watching Woodward last 2 days is like my imagining my idol [Phillies 3rd baseman] Mike Schmidt facing live pitching again. Perfection gained once is rarely repeated.”
Who’s right here? This is a squabble for which official Washington is buying popcorn, pulling up a chair, and taking sides, after all.
Both sides have points but we’ll try to sort some things out. Woodward’s basic substantive charges about the sequester are that it was the administration’s idea to begin with, and that the White House has “moved the goal posts” by now insisting on new tax revenue as well as spending cuts to reach further deficit-reduction goals.
The former is true. Administration officials did come up with the sequester idea as a way to try to force Congress to agree to those deficit-reduction figures. The White House pretty much acknowledges this but adds that it is kind of irrelevant, because it was House Republicans who were holding the debt-ceiling increase hostage at the time. If Speaker John Boehner et al had not been doing that there would have been no need for sequestration, Q.E.D. Plus, it wasn’t supposed to ever go into effect.
The latter Woodward charge is more open to debate. Speaker Boehner may have thought that the “grand bargain” deficit-reduction package he nearly struck with the White House back in 2011 was all about budget cuts. But the administration pretty clearly thought more tax revenue would be included as well.
Slate’s Moneybox columnist Matthew Yglesias writes Thursday that the deficit-reduction effort that might hold off sequestration has always been an undefined rough beast that both sides want to shape to their own preferences.
“Either everyone’s moving the goalposts (which I think is tendentious but even-handed) or no one is moving them,” writes Mr. Yglesias.
“I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today ... but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest ... as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim,” wrote Mr. Sperling.
Was Sperling being too pushy here? The word “regret” is used in a context that is open to several interpretations. At first glance, it just seems as if Sperling is saying Woodward will regret his statements because he (Sperling) thinks they will later be proved wrong. But e-mail strips out emotion and nuance. We don’t know what that raised-voice conversation was like.
We’ll say this: If nothing else, it’s spectacularly bad press management by Sperling.
First of all, Bob Woodward is all about trees, as opposed to forests. Nobody is better on trees than he is. Usually, if he says it’s an ash, it’s an ash, even if it’s got needles. It will turn out to be a rare Siberian pointy-leaf variant of an ash. That is how Woodward got to be who he is: picking up details and following their trail. If you want to talk forests, get somebody else. That's why he's a much better reporter than analyst.
So don’t pick at him about details. Try to convince him that you’ve got another detail he needs to add.
Second, he does not respond well to yelling of any sort. If he did he would have left Washington long ago. When was the last time you heard about Carl Bernstein? Woodward thrives on opposition. It makes him, as it does many veteran reporters, feel as if he’s on the right track. Years ago he wrote a book on John Belushi called “Wired,” with the cooperation of many of the actor’s family members and friends. But then Belushi’s widow realized Woodward was set to depict her late husband’s extensive drug use. She campaigned against the book, to no avail. Woodward was adamant and all she managed to do was bring more attention to Belushi’s habits.
That’s the third point here: The White House quite likely will come out on the short end of this, public-relations-wise, especially if it continues to deal with Woodward just by trying to talk louder than he does.
Arguing with a famous reporter about the process that led us into this mess is not going to help the administration push Congress to act. And it gives gleeful conservatives a chance to link Obama with another president who tangled with Woodward.
Chuck Hagel on Wednesday morning was sworn in as secretary of Defense. He took the oath of office in a private ceremony at the Pentagon and immediately set to work at his new and challenging cabinet-level job, preparing an address to department employees.
After a bitter seven-week confirmation fight, will this be an occasion that the Republican former senator from Nebraska treasures the rest of his life? Or will he rue the day he walked into the bureaucratic snake pit that is the E-ring?
To a certain extent, this question is rhetorical, of course. No matter how this turns out, Secretary Hagel will always have the memory of holding one of America’s most coveted political jobs. His office is palatial, his responsibilities extraordinary, his staff vast. When we covered the Pentagon, a friend who worked there would occasionally drag us out to the helipad. We’d stand there and watch the secretary of the time stride out with his military escort and then disappear in a roaring, gleaming US Marine helicopter.
“Now that,” our friend would say as the dust settled, “is American power.”
But for all the glory, it’s also probably the second most difficult job in the executive branch after the presidency itself.
As of now, Hagel is CEO of a $700 billion company. He’s just taken office, yet all his division heads, otherwise known as the “Joint Chiefs of Staff,” have spent their whole adult lives working up through the company’s ranks. He’ll never match their institutional knowledge.
He’ll immediately confront crucial billion-dollar decisions. (“Chief, what should we do about the F-35”?) The Joint Chiefs will have their own opinions on these, which they’ve had lots of time to hone. Oh, and these decisions affect thousands of jobs in congressional districts across the United States, so Congress will weigh in as well. Often.
Did we say these decisions also involve the nation’s very security? And that Hagel is in the nation’s chain of command, meaning he’s also got some responsibility for formulating policy and directing the operations of US troops now in harm’s way, wherever they are?
All this is why some SecDefs appear happy to spend time on morale-boosting visits to foreign bases, while underlings run things back in Washington.
In addition to the weight of the job, Hagel will face a number of problems particular to him.
The 'sequester.' The big automatic budget cuts known as sequestration look almost certain to take effect Friday. That means Hagel could be grappling with a semi-crisis within days as he loses $46 billion of his budget.
The Senate. Part of the job of secretary of Defense is dealing with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and military appropriations subcommittees. Right now, Hagel’s got problems with the Senate part of this equation. His nomination passed SASC by only 14 to 11, and his performance at his confirmation hearing was unimpressive, at best.
Of course, a revenge-minded SecDef might find opportunity in the fact that he’s supposed to rebuild relations with people who came after him in the first place. As former Pentagon official Lawrence J. Korb writes in Foreign Policy, there are lots of ways he can get back at his GOP foes if he chooses.
He could draw up lists of bases in his adversaries' states for possible closure, cancel weapons systems that senators support, move military units out of his foes' states, and so forth.
“His choices could hurt the constituents of the very officials who have done the most to hurt him,” Mr. Korb writes.
The press. Finally, Hagel may face a media primed to cover any misstep. During his confirmation hearing, he hemmed, hawed, and occasionally misstated administration policy. Any similar mistake he makes now will be picked up and magnified.
He doesn’t even have to make them now; it might be enough to newly unearth stuff he said in the past. Witness the latest flap: A 2011 Hagel speech, in which he said India has over the years financed trouble for Pakistan from across the border in Afghanistan, has riled the Indian government.
The remark was published by the Washington Free Beacon, a muckraking conservative journal.
“Such comments attributed to Sen. Hagel ... are contrary to the reality of India’s unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people,” said a statement issued in response by the Indian Embassy in Washington.