Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

President Obama walks out from the White House before leaving to play basketball at the FBI building in Washington Sunday. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Obama's tax rate is 18.4 percent. Is that too low for a millionaire?

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / 04.15.13

Has President Obama been taking advice from Mitt Romney’s tax accountant?

Months after attacking Mr. Romney for his low tax rate, some critics are now turning the tables on the president, saying his 2012 tax rate is too low.

The president paid $112,214 in federal income taxes on an adjusted gross income of $608,611 in 2012, making his effective federal tax rate 18.4 percent. (The Obamas also paid $29,450 in Illinois income tax.)

Apparently, that’s a lot less than some folks at MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” pay.

“The president was talking about how shameful it is that Mitt Romney paid less in taxes than teachers paid in taxes, and yet Barack Obama, reportedly worth $14 million, paid less in taxes than teachers or Warren Buffet’s poor, overworked secretary,” “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough said on Monday's show.  

Is Obama’s tax rate too low?

Well, for starters, it’s still higher than Romney’s 2011 rate of 14.1 percent – though that’s not saying much.

It’s also higher than US taxpayers’ average income tax rate of about 11.8 percent in 2011, according to the Tax Foundation, a tax research group in Washington. And it’s higher than the rate some 46 percent of Americans, mostly poor or elderly, pay – that is, no federal income taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center, a tax think tank.

Then again, Mr. Obama is not your average taxpayer, nor is he poor or elderly (though those gray hairs may fool you).

In fact, the Obamas’ 2012 tax rate is 2 percentage points lower than last year’s, when their rate was 20.5 percent.

There are a few reasons for this. Most obviously, the Obamas made less money in 2012 than they did the previous year – $608,611 in 2012 compared with $789,674 in 2011. That’s largely due to a drop in sales of the president’s two bestsellers, “Dreams From My Father,” and “The Audacity of Hope,” both of which made Obama a millionaire. (Both years Obama made $400,000 from his presidential salary.)

And as the White House likes to point out, they also donated almost a quarter of their income, some $150,034, to 33 different charities, lowering their tax rate.

Nonetheless, almost all of the Obamas’ income was subject to the top tax rate of 39.6 percent in 2012, according to Reuters.

Still, even the president himself appears to think his tax rate is too low, and he’s using his own tax return to promote the Buffett Rule, a minimum tax rate for the wealthy.

The White House’s 2014 budget proposal includes a proposed Buffett Rule, named for billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who has publicly complained that his tax rate is lower than that of his secretary.

"The president believes we must reform our tax system which is why he has proposed policies like the Buffett Rule that would ask the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share while protecting families making under $250,000 from seeing their taxes go up," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a blog post. "Under the President’s own tax proposals … he would pay more in taxes while ensuring we cut taxes for the middle class and those trying to get in it."

If it’s an effort to make those who shoveled vast swaths of their paychecks to Uncle Sam feel better on this most grim of Mondays (à la Obama’s plan to give back 5 percent of his pay in solidarity with government workers affected by the sequester), it’s probably not working. 

A rocket is lifts off from its launch pad in Musudan-ri, North Korea in April 2009. (KRT TV/AP/File)

Why hasn't North Korea fired its Musudan missile yet?

By / 04.15.13

North Korea began observing the major national holiday of founding leader Kim Il Sung’s birthday on Monday. Throughout the country, people waved celebratory banners and flags and lined up to place flowers at statues of the elder Kim and his son, the late Kim Jong Il. But at least one major event predicted by outside observers of Pyongyang did not happen: North Korea has not launched its widely expected test of a new Musudan missile – at least, not yet.

Why not?

Well, first we’ll note that most US officials and experts on North Korean from outside government circles have long used the word “around” when discussing April 15 and the notional missile launch. Satellite imagery has detected the movement of several Musudan models toward North Korea’s east coast, and some reports indicate that at least one of the missiles has been set upright on its road-mobile launcher.

Pyongyang often holds military exercises, parades, and demonstrations around Kim Il Sung’s birthday. But April 15 is not the hard deadline on which these events always occur.

The simple explanation for that is that North Koreans, even high-ranking ones, want to enjoy the holiday. That’s what International Crisis Group East Asia specialist Daniel Pinkston told the website NKNews.org.

“Too many people have to work when they test, especially high-level people who have other responsibilities and priorities on the holiday. The symbolism is important, they have ceremonial responsibilities, and they want a couple of days off,” Mr. Pinkston told NKNews.org.

On his Twitter feed, Pinkston put the chance that a missile test would not occur on the founding leader’s birthday at about 95 percent. It is an optional event that can be scheduled at any time, he noted. To hold it on the holiday would be akin to the pope getting his annual physical on Christmas.

Neither did North Korea hold a full-scale military parade on Monday’s “Day of the Sun.” In the past, such displays of weaponry have included new missiles, or at least new missile mock-ups. Some experts suspect Pyongyang of producing fake rockets in an effort to fool the rest of the world about its capabilities.

In fact, that’s one reason the possible forthcoming test could be so important. The Musudan is thought to be a medium-range weapon that could reach Japan or perhaps even Guam. But some US experts dispute this and consider it nothing but a short-range Scud with a face-lift.

A test could settle this question.

It’s also possible that Pyongyang has chosen not to fire its Musudan yet because of the tension on the Korean peninsula and the open discussion in the United States as to whether the US should try to shoot down the missile if it veered too close to Japan.

If this is the case, North Korea may wait until tensions subside before acting.

Meanwhile, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said Monday that the launch remained imminent, but added that Seoul has detected no troop mobilizations or other signs that North Korea is preparing for full-scale war.

Musician Ted Nugent (l.) was a guest of Rep. Steve Stockman (R) of Texas at the State of the Union this year. (Jason Reed/Reuters/File)

'If babies had guns they wouldn't be aborted.' Is Rep. Steve Stockman serious?

By Staff writer / 04.14.13

Rep. Steve Stockman (R) of Texas touts himself as "the most conservative congressman in Texas." His new bumper sticker should erase any doubts.

On Friday, Representative Stockman's Twitter account unveiled his new campaign bumper sticker: "If babies had guns, they wouldn't be aborted. Vote Pro-Life!"

For Stockman, the bluntness and the desire to shock are nothing new.

It was Stockman who invited gun enthusiast Ted Nugent to be his guest at President Obama's State of the Union address in February. This is the Ted Nugent who once said: "If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year."

Later, in a YouTube video chat with Mr. Nugent, Stockman asked about the victims of gun violence that Mr. Obama had invited to the State of the Union: "Do you feel that the people that Obama have brought forward to hear his speech, do you feel like they are useful idiots or props in this?" (The video has since been removed, the New York Daily News reports.)

Stockman is an agitator, and social media has given him broader scope to portray himself as a "defender of the cause." And like former Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, who once likened his conservative opponent to the Taliban and who said Republicans' health care plan amounted to "die quickly," Stockman apparently relishes in bringing the inflammatory tone of the blogosphere into public discourse.

On Fox News, he once likened Obama to Saddam Hussein. At the time, he was speaking about how he thought Obama should be impeached if he went forward with executive orders on gun control.

Stockman's new bumper sticker, while intentionally over the top, does hint at the mood of some Americans upset by proposed gun control legislation in states and before the Senate. One sheriff in Colorado has vowed not to enforce that state's new gun control laws. Many other sheriffs have vowed not to enforce any new gun laws that come from Washington.

Moreover, many states with legislatures shaped by the tea party revolution of 2010 are embarking on an aggressive campaign to roll back abortion rights. In March, North Dakota banned abortions once a fetal heartbeat could be detected – which could be as early as six weeks.

But the real reason Stockman made his bumper sticker appears to go beyond the current conservative political winds. After all, with a year and a half until his next election, now is hardly the time to fire up a reelection campaign.

Instead, the clue as to why Stockman felt the need to make his bumper sticker comes at the end of his tweet. It is a hashtag that reads: "#gosnell."

Kermit Gosnell is the physician accused of running an abortion clinic that offered late-term abortions. The grand jury report in the case is horrific, depicting a clinic in which viable babies were delivered and deliberately killed in conditions that were unsanitary and unimaginably gruesome.

It is a trial that confirms the worst fears of abortion foes, and Stockman, like many other conservatives, suggests that the media has shown its pro-abortion-rights bias by not reporting on the trial.

A shocking trial deserves a shocking bumper sticker, perhaps.

Tesla founder Elon Musk speaks at his company's factory in Fremont, Calif., in June 2012. Earlier this week Mr. Musk responded to Sarah Palin's Tesla slap, tweeting that he's 'deeply wounded' by Ms. Palin’s words and that some of her assertions about the company are incorrect. (Noah Berger/Reuters)

Sarah Palin Tesla slap: Elon Musk says he's 'wounded'

By Staff writer / 04.10.13

Sarah Palin recently slammed electric car maker Tesla Motors on her Facebook page, referring to it as one of the “losers” of the auto industry. Earlier this week Tesla founder Elon Musk responded, tweeting that he’s “deeply wounded” by Ms. Palin’s words and that some of her assertions about the company are incorrect.

So what’s the background to this online slap fight? Is anybody right here and anybody wrong?

We’ll start with Alaska’s ex-governor. Her post was really about plug-in hybrid vehicle manufacturer Fisker Automotive, not Tesla at all. On April 5 she noted that Fisker, which has received about $200 million in US government loans, was laying off three-fourths of its workforce.

“The Anaheim, CA-based start-up has failed at pretty much every level – especially when it comes to the company’s ultra expensive luxury electric hybrid, the Karma (what a name!),” wrote Palin.

She then went on to hit what she considers other tax-subsidized “losers,” including the Chevy Volt and the Tesla. Palin charged that Tesla’s fancy Model S. turns into a “brick” when the battery completely discharges, requiring a $40,000 repair.

Look, Fisker is low-hanging fruit in terms of criticizing government intervention in the economy. Vice President Joe Biden has attended some company announcements, and now the firm is pretty much belly up. Fully discharged. If there’s a “brick” here, Fisker may be it.

And yes, Volt costs have been subsidized by GM to get sales rolling. But last we looked, Chevy was still in business and Volts were still going out the door. And is California-based Fisker one of President Obama’s “losers”? Elon Musk does not think so.

“Sarah Palin calls Tesla a loser. Am deeply wounded ... btw Model S. warranty does cover ‘bricking’,” he tweeted.

OK, here’s where we really have something to say. Elon Musk is a visionary, the guy behind PayPal, the private SpaceX launch firm, and Tesla. Maybe he’s an Edison for our time, maybe not. But he needs to learn that sometimes the better part of PR valor is keeping your yap shut and moving on.

Tesla was a bystander here at the beginning – Fisker was Palin’s real target. Do we need to add that Mr. Musk’s response on the “bricking” thing would not make us happy if we’d just shelled out more than 60 grand for a Model S? Yes, maybe we can turn our new baby into a brick through inattention! It’s nice the warranty covers it, but we would not want it to happen at all.

Earlier this year Musk had an even more ferocious battle with The New York Times. A Times reporter test-drove a Model S and reported a bad experience – among other things, the car’s battery ran down unexpectedly when parked overnight in low temperatures. Musk responded with a full assault on the reporter’s motives and facts, citing data logs retrieved from the car’s computers.

Eventually the NYT’s public editor concluded that its reporter had problems with “precision and judgment” but not “integrity.”

But sometimes “pyrrhic” and “victory” also go together. Musk himself has said the fight cost the company orders and more than $100 million in revenue. It highlighted that electric cars aren’t yet fully analogous to internal combustion vehicles or even hybrids. Long-distance trips remain a challenge.

That said, have you seen the car? We want one. It’d be cooler than our Honda minivan, even “bricked.”

In this June 27, 2008 file photo, the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear complex is demolished in North Korea. North Korea vowed Tuesday to restart a nuclear reactor that can make one bomb's worth of plutonium a year. (Gao Haorong/Xinhua/AP)

Did North Korea secretly restart work on disabled nuclear reactor? (+video)

By Staff writer / 04.06.13

On Tuesday North Korea said it would restart a shuttered plutonium production reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear facility north of Pyongyang. Experts say this is among the most worrisome of the many threats North Korean officials have made in recent days, as this 5 megawatt (MWe) reactor, if rebuilt, would produce a steady stream of fissile material for new nuclear bombs.

But here’s a question of the day: has North Korea already begun work on this reactor in secret?

That’s the implication of an analysis of overhead photographs posted at “38 North,” a blog on Korean affairs produced by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“Commercial satellite imagery shows that new construction activity started at the 5 MWe reactor in the six weeks between the beginning of February and the end of March 2013, prior to ... Pyongyang’s announcement earlier this week that it intended to reactivate the facility,” write retired US intelligence analyst Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The 5 MWe reactor has been out of commission since 2007. Per agreement between North Korea and the international community Pyongyang destroyed cooling pipes leading to the building and eventually blew up the large wooden cooling tower to which those pipes had led.

Now imagery shows that construction has already begun at the rear of the reactor building and along an adjacent road, according to Hansen and Lewis. It appears the North Koreans are digging a ditch – possibly to lay pipe to replace destroyed sections.

“The water pipes that connected the reactor to the old cooling tower likely followed this road underground,” the pair note.

North Korean engineers would still need to connect this pipe to something that would complete a cooling cycle. Replacing the destroyed tower would take time – perhaps six months. But connecting the pipes to the cooling system of another reactor, an experimental light water reactor under construction nearby, could do the trick much more quickly – allowing Pyongyang to restart the reactor within weeks, rather than months, according to the “38 North” post.

There would still be the question of fuel. And as it happens, the North Koreans have a large stash of 12,000 fuel rods constructed for a much larger reactor project they never completed.

These rods “could be reclad to be used in the 5 MWe reactor if North Korea chose to restart it,” writes Congressional Research Service nonproliferation expert Mary Beth Nikitin in a newly-updated monograph on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

Of course, that’s indoor work that would be much easier to hide than a cooling pipe excavation. It’s quite possible the North Koreans are already doing this.

“It is conceivable that, out of sight of prying satellites, North Korea has already refashioned the fuel rods,” wrote International Institute of Strategic Studies nuclear expert Mark Fitzpatrick in an analysis completed prior to publication of the new satellite imagery of Yongbyon.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles, Nov. 2012. President Obama praised Harris for more than her smarts and toughness at a Democratic Party event Thursday. The president also commended Harris for being 'the best-looking attorney general' during a Democratic fundraising lunch in the Silicon Valley. (Richard Vogel/AP/File)

Uproar over Obama comment on Kamala Harris: political correctness run amok?

By Staff writer / 04.05.13

So President Obama thinks California’s Kamala Harris is “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.” But does he deserve all the grief he’s getting for saying that out loud?

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Friday, usually an Obama-friendly zone, the president came in for some criticism over his comment the day before at a fundraiser near San Francisco for the Democratic National Committee.

“I’m sure he meant to pay her a compliment … but quite frankly, it just divides women and it just divides people up to separate them by looks and probably was a little ham-fisted,” said host Mika Brzezinski. “I think he made a mistake.”

Under the headline “Obama in Need of Gender-Sensitivity Training,” Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine writes: “Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits. Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse.”

Furthermore, for a president who has become a “cultural model” for supporters, Mr. Obama set an example that is “disgraceful,” Mr. Chait adds.

Well.

Was the comment really that bad? Before he weighed in on Ms. Harris’s looks, Obama in fact signaled that he knew he was about to say something politically incorrect.

“You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake,” Obama said. “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country – Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It's true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years.”

It’s also worth noting that before Obama’s shout-out to Harris, he commented on the physical appearance of a member of Congress who was also there.

From the White House transcript: “A good friend of mine, somebody who you guys should be very proud of, Congressman Mike Honda is here. Where is Mike? (Applause.) He is around here somewhere. There he is. Yes, I mean, he's not like a real tall guy, but he's a great guy.”

Basically, this is all taking place at a swanky fundraiser in Atherton, Calif. – at the home of Levi Strauss heir John Goldman – and the president is relaxed and jovial, and just saying what he thinks. The republic will not fall over this. And it’s not as if Obama has a reputation as a skirt-chaser, as did some of his predecessors.

But what about his wife, first lady Michelle Obama? In a TV interview Thursday, Mrs. Obama slipped and referred to herself as a “single mother.”

“Believe me, as a busy single mother – or, I shouldn’t say single, as a busy mother. Sometimes, you know, when you’ve got a husband who is president, it can feel a little single. But he’s there,” Mrs. Obama told Vermont CBS affiliate WCAX.

Mrs. Obama was talking about the challenge busy working moms face in feeding their kids healthy food. We’re not sure if she was speaking before or after her husband’s comments on Harris, or if she had heard what he said.

President Barack Obama waves as he walks to board the Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, April 3, as he travels to Denver and San Francisco. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Obama 5% of salary: He'll give it back, in sign of 'sequester' solidarity

By Staff writer / 04.03.13

President Obama has decided to return 5 percent of his salary to the Treasury as a tribute to federal workers facing furloughs under the "sequester," The New York Times reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed administration official.

Let’s see, the president makes $400,000 a year, and 5 percent of that is $20,000. After he leaves the White House in 2017, he can make up that money about five minutes into his first paid speech. So yes, when you’re president, and set for life financially, a $20,000 giveback to Uncle Sam really doesn’t cost you much of anything.

But it became increasingly clear that Mr. Obama had to do this. A bandwagon has been forming, and he had to jump on, especially as the day draws near when some federal workers begin to lose pay with forced days off.

On Tuesday, news broke that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his deputy, Ashton Carter, pledged to return a portion of their salaries to the Treasury, commensurate with the pay that civilian Defense Department employees will lose because of furloughs. Several hundred thousand Pentagon employees are slated to lose 14 days of pay before Sept. 30, owing to the automatic spending cuts in the sequester.

Secretary Hagel and Deputy Secretary Carter are exempt from furloughs, because their positions require Senate confirmation.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney announced that furlough notices had gone out to 480 employees of the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the Executive Office of the President (EOP). In addition, the EOP has reduced costs with hiring slowdowns, delayed back-filling of open positions, scaling back of equipment and supply purchases, curtailed staff travel, and reduced use of Internet air cards, Mr. Carney said.

Such moves at the White House and the broader EOP are similar to measures being taken across the federal government because of the sequester, he said.

The cooling tower of the Nyongbyon nuclear complex is demolished in Nyongbyon, also known as Yongbyon, North Korea, June 27, 2008. North Korea vowed today to restart a nuclear reactor that can make one bomb's worth of plutonium a year, escalating tensions already raised by near daily warlike threats against the United States and South Korea. (Gao Haorong / Xinhua / AP / File)

North Korea's threat to restart shuttered reactor: Bluster or big problem?

By Staff Writer / 04.02.13

North Korea on Tuesday said it will restart a shuttered nuclear reactor capable of producing fissile material for weapons and “readjust” other facilities at its sprawling Yongbyon nuclear facility some 55 miles north of Pyongyang.

Is this just empty rhetoric from a regime trying to test the resolve of South Korean and US leaders? Or is it a genuinely worrisome development in an increasingly tense area of the world?

The answer to that question may depend upon North Korea’s follow-through. It’s possible the warning is just words and that construction at Yongbyon won’t actually accelerate. It’s also possible the Pyongyang regime will now rebuild the facility that produced the plutonium for at least two of North Korea’s nuclear tests. That would not be a good thing.

“Among Pyongyang’s recent inflated threats, the announced intention to ‘readjust and restart’ its nuclear facilities is the most worrisome,” writes International Institute for Strategic Studies nuclear expert Mark Fitzpatrick in his analysis of the event.

The main issue may be what happens to the Yongbyon plutonium production reactor. This facility, which first went critical in 1985, can produce enough dangerous fissile stuff for about one small nuclear weapon per year. It was shut down in 2007 per international disarmament talks (which have since stalled). In 2008 North Korean officials made a show of imploding its aging cooling tower, issuing rare invitations to international journalists to visit and see the destruction.

The reactor has not been ripped up beyond hope of repair, though. Far from it. Restarting this facility would take about six months, according to Sig Hecker, a nuclear expert from Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation who has visited the site.

Mr. Hecker estimates that North Korea has about four to eight bombs worth of plutonium extracted from fuel rods used to power this reactor in the past. A restart obviously would allow Pyongyang to slowly build up this arsenal.

The second issue of “readjustment” might allow this increase to occur more quickly. That’s because this statement suggests that North Korea will do more to produce highly-enriched uranium, the second type of fissile material used in nuclear weapons.

There’s already a centrifuge facility for uranium enrichment operating at Yongbyon. North Korean officials surprised Hecker by taking him on a tour of the previously-undetected plant in 2010. At the time the officials said it was meant to produce fuel for a light-water reactor also under construction at the site. The “readjustment” term implies that Pyongyang may up the ante and openly begin production at bomb-worthy enrichment levels.

The US has long suspected that North Korea was enriching uranium in secret. Centrifuge halls are easy to hide and North Korea’s mountains have many tunnels where they could be stashed. In an address to a South Korean nuclear conference, Hecker expressed doubt that the Yongbyon enrichment facility sprang up from nowhere within months.

“The Yongbyon centrifuge facility could not have been constructed from scratch and made operational in only 18 months, between April 2009 and November 2010, as Pyongyang has claimed,” Hecker said at the conference. “It is likely that the North had one full cascade (about 340 centrifuges) operational at a separate site long before it moved into the renovated Yongbyon fuel fabrication building and revealed their centrifuge program in November 2010.”

Tuning up the Yongbyon centrifuges could produce enough highly-enriched uranium for one bomb per year. Any clandestine facility likely could produce at least that much, if not more. Add in the plutonium production from a restarted reactor, and some US experts see a worrisome trend, if not a nightmare scenario: a North Korea eager to produce a large and workable arsenal of nuclear weapons.

It’s possible Pyongyang isn’t technically good enough to get both these fissile material tracks going. In the Washington Post, Max Fisher writes that the vow to restart the plutonium reactor in fact indicates that North Korea can’t master the difficult art of uranium enrichment.

And again, it’s possible the whole thing is just talk. But if it isn’t, the US and its allies may find it hard to stop the move. Current sanctions are leaky at best due to China’s “inattention,” writes Mr. Fitzpatrick, the IISS nuclear expert. And in any case North Korea is by now almost self-sufficient in nuclear technology.

“Unfortunately, there are not good solutions,” writes Fitzpatrick. “The only glimmer of hope is that North Korea also announced that along with the nuclear weapons work it will simultaneously be pushing forward economic development.”

Caroline Kennedy for a photo session last month at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts. She promoted her new poetry anthology 'Poems to Learn by Heart.' Ms. Kennedy is on the verge of serving as US ambassador to Japan, according to news reports. (Joanne Ciccarello/The Christian Science Monitor)

Caroline Kennedy: Good or bad choice for US ambassador to Japan? (+video)

By Staff writer / 04.02.13

Caroline Kennedy is on the verge of serving as US ambassador to Japan, according to news reports. The Obama administration has apparently asked her to take this major post, and she’s now being vetted for the position.

The last surviving member of President Kennedy’s family, Ms. Kennedy has largely shunned public political life, though she often speaks at quadrennial Democratic National Conventions. She’s spent much of her time working at nonprofit organizations in New York. Her latest book is called “Poems to Learn by Heart.”

Is it a good idea to send someone with so little diplomatic experience as envoy to an important US ally?

Not always. But in Ms. Kennedy’s case, the answer to that question is most likely yes.

The main reason for this is rooted in the hierarchical Japanese political culture. In the US view, Japan prefers well-known American ambassadors, not necessarily because they are more effective, but because they symbolize the importance of Tokyo to Washington.

Thus Walter Mondale was a good choice for US envoy during the Clinton administration. In the United States, he was still somebody who’d lost a presidential bid to Ronald Reagan. In Japan, he was a revered elder statesman to a degree perhaps difficult to fathom back home.

Other Democratic Party elder statesmen who have served as Washington’s person in Tokyo include former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, from 1977 to 1988, and ex-Speaker Tom Foley. Former Republican Senate majority leader Howard Baker was ambassador to Japan from 2001 to 2005.

In addition, Japanese commentators are currently noting that Ms. Kennedy has displayed past interest in Japan. It was one of the stops on her 1986 honeymoon with husband Edwin Schlossberg.

“And in a country still very much captivated by the Kennedys, her celebrity could also provide a subtle antidote to the growing concern among Japanese officials that Japan is being eclipsed in American eyes by its chief regional rival, China,” writes Tokyo-based reporter Coco Masters in Foreign Policy.

Ms. Masters makes another interesting point in her piece: Kennedy would be the first woman in the Tokyo post. This could be a powerful symbol of a different kind for Japan, which remains more male-dominated than almost all other developed countries. Only 12 percent of Japanese management positions are held by females, according to an International Monetary Fund study.

“Kennedy could ... be a powerful example to Japanese women,” Masters writes.

Not every commentator in the US thinks Kennedy-to-Japan is a great idea, though. Conservatives who have long seen the Kennedy family as the avatar of tax-and-spend liberalism are particularly negative.

They point out that Kennedy’s attempt to follow Hillary Rodham Clinton into a New York Senate seat was something of a train wreck. After Mrs. Clinton was named secretary of State, Kennedy angled for an appointment from then-Gov. David Paterson to fill out the term. But her public appearances were stilted and made her appear as if she knew little about New York State politics. Eventually she withdrew her name from consideration, citing unnamed personal matters.

“I realize that the U.S. government can’t function without a Kennedy or two somewhere in the mix, but is there really no lesser diplomatic position to gift Princess? The Koreas are on the brink of war and Japanese tensions with China will be fragile for years to come. This is not a purely ceremonial role. Why not ambassador to Luxembourg instead? I’ll bet the skiing’s great,” writes conservative commentator Allahpundit on Hot Air.

Actress Ashley Judd, seen here in Pasadena, Calif., last year, was considering running for Senate. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File)

Was Ashley Judd sabotaged by rival Democrats?

By Staff writer / 04.01.13

Was Ashley Judd’s Kentucky Senate bid undone by rival Democrats? That’s the charge Judd adviser Jonathan Miller is making today in a piece on The Daily Beast.

Mr. Miller, a former Kentucky state treasurer, writes that Democratic supporters of current Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes kept up a steady stream of sniping at Ms. Judd via a credulous national mainstream media. Furthermore, some unnamed Democrat circulated a false report that Judd, at a private Louisville dinner, said “I have been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.”

“I was at that dinner and never heard her say anything remotely like that,” writes Miller.

The last straw was news stories reporting that former President Bill Clinton had met with Ms. Grimes and was trying to force Judd out of the race. The problem here was that the Big Dog had met with Judd and actually urged her to run against incumbent GOP Senate minority leader McConnell, according to Miller.

ABC News ultimately cleared up the record, but by then the narrative was set – the most popular national figure for Kentucky Democrats was opposed to a Judd candidacy, providing further oxygen to the anti-Ashley conflagration,” writes Miller.

OK, we’re not a Kentucky insider. We did not even put Louisville in our March Madness Final Four. (Go Wolverines!) But it seems pretty obvious to us that Judd’s candidacy unraveled due to larger, basic political forces.

For instance, last time we looked Judd still lived in Tennessee. McConnell ran an ad in February that hit her hard for that, among other things. It had several clips of her saying stuff like, “Tennessee is home!” Yes, Judd was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention – from Tennessee. In a state as proud as Kentucky this was going to be a big problem, however deep her roots. Heck, non-residency would be a big problem in any state, proud or not.

And Judd has made many straightforward comments about policy that would get her in more trouble than the fictional reference linking “rape” and “McConnell.” She’s criticized mountaintop coal mining as “environmental genocide,” for instance. Coal is a powerful industry in her state, and in many parts of Kentucky mountaintop removal mining is popular due to the jobs it represents.

“Ashley Judd is an egotistical brat from California,” said Wayne Rutherford, Pike County judge-executive, back in 2010 after Judd made her mining comments.

And that’s her final problem: the movie industry connection. It could bring her money and recognition and lots of blog-delivered page view publicity. But it also would let McConnell paint her as an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal bent on forcing everyone in America to drive hybrids to their government health care. And Kentucky is a red state: last fall it went for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 61 to 38 percent.

So that’s why we think Judd decided not to run. She took a look at the electoral context and decided she did not want to undertake a race that she would more than likely lose.

That doesn’t mean there’s not some truth to what Miller says. But as Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce notes, complaining that party rivals hit your candidate with sharp elbows and reporters hungry for a story were eager to print whatever they felt like is tantamount to whining about reality. If you can’t take that heat, get back to the film studio.

“Making the argument that her candidacy was doomed at the start because other Democrats did her dirt, or because a bogus ‘narrative’ was created by the national media is the functional equivalent of saying that she didn’t run because she got up one morning, faced east, and found that the sun was in her eyes,” writes Mr. Pierce.

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

 
Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!