Who are Rand Paul’s real allies? That’s a question D.C. political types have been chewing over since the GOP senator from Kentucky's filibuster about his objections to the Obama administration’s drone policies last week.
In particular, Senator Paul wanted clarification about whether the White House thinks it has the power to target with a drone a US citizen within the territorial US who is not engaged in combat. (“No”, said Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter responding to Paul’s public query.) That’s a question about civil liberties that hits the sweet spot where the progressive left wing and the libertarian right meet.
The US ideological spectrum isn’t always a line. Sometimes it’s a circle. Thus Paul was hailed by one of the Tea Party’s favorite new lawmakers, conservative Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow alike.
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Yet only one Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, stood to help Paul during his hours of talking. All his other helpmeets were GOP, including many who support an expansive definition of executive authority when it comes to national security. What explains that?
In a word, partisanship, according to Georgetown University assistant professor of political science Hans Noel.
The proximate issue on the floor was the Obama administration’s nomination of counterterror adviser John Brennan to be director of the CIA.
“Liberals, especially those elected to office, have little to gain from blocking the president’s choice. Conservatives, even those who might have tolerated a drone program run by a conservative, have much to gain,” wrote Mr. Noel on the Mischiefs of Faction political science blog.
That does not mean that “partisanship” and “ideology” are synonyms, however. The antiwar left has been quiet since President Obama was elected but it still exists. The most common GOP criticism of Mr. Obama’s antiterror policies is that he is too soft, not too aggressive.
“It is convenient to think about ideology as a single liberal-to-conservative dimension.... But we would do better to understand the true variety within ideology more than we do. The drone program is just the sort of case that illuminates that variety,” writes Noel.
That said, is it possible that Paul could change the GOP’s mind on this issue? In other words, might the partisanship he sparked alter the very nature of Republican ideology?
Well, maybe. Over at The New York Times opinion page the conservative-leaning Ross Douthat has been arguing that the Paul filibuster presents an opportunity to widen the Republican conversation on national security.
That may be what Paul was really after last week.
“Anyone who listened (and listened, and listened) to his remarks, and put them in the context of his recent speeches and votes and bridge-building, recognized that he was after something bigger: a reorientation of conservative foreign policy thinking away from hair-trigger hawkishness and absolute deference to executive power,” Douthat writes.
It’s possible that Paul has at least broadened the spectrum of permissible GOP national-security opinions. As the conservative Jennifer Rubin writes at her conservative Right Turn Washington Post blog, traditional GOP hawks such as Sen. John McCain have tried to dismiss Paul as someone who does not defend US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and a generally interventionist American foreign policy. But that may misread the opinions of US society at large.
“Paul’s ideological opponents on the right only made him appear bigger and more attractive by their cluelessness as to the war weariness and privacy and civil libertarian concerns to which some have rallied,” writes Rubin.
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Should the Obama administration allow Donald Trump to pay for the resumption of White House tours? That’s an issue today because the popular walk-throughs have been canceled due to the "sequester," and the mogul/TV star has indeed offered to keep the doors open at the nation’s executive mansion.
“It sounds reasonable to me ... why not? It’s not a lot of money,” Mr. Trump said Monday morning on his regular Monday appearance on “Fox & Friends.”
The Secret Service ordered the suspension of the tours to save on agent overtime, according to White House officials. It’s true that the money at issue isn’t that much in the context of the federal budget or a billionaire’s balance sheet: only about $72,000 a week, at most.
This has led to lots of Republicans charging that the White House is playing a variation of the old Washington Monument game by denying school kids their preplanned White House visits. Previously an administration, facing budget cuts, announces with great fanfare that the Washington Monument will be closed until further notice. The White House can’t do that this time because the monument is already shut because of earthquake damage. So they’ve moved on to another popular D.C. symbol, the White House, for the same political effect, in the GOP view.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) of Texas offered an amendment on the floor the other day to ban President Obama’s golf games in the name of restarting the tours. Rush Limbaugh complained that the White House closed the tours, then spent lots of Secret Service money for a caravan that drove the president half a mile to an outreach dinner with GOP lawmakers.
“They wanted people sad and let down, and they wanted people blaming the Republicans for it. And it’s backfiring, not working,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his show.
The “we’ll pay for it” meme started late last week. First Fox host Eric Bolling said he’d pay for a week of tours. Then fellow talking head Sean Hannity said he’d do the same. Newt Gingrich on Twitter suggested Trump could keep the doors open for school kids indefinitely.
Some news reports suggested over the weekend that Trump had agreed – if nemesis Bill Maher chipped in, too. But during Monday’s Fox appearance, Trump said he’d heard about Newt’s suggestion only when the Friends asked him.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal frankly, but it makes us look awfully bad and awfully pathetic,” Trump said.
White House officials have said that in general, they’re not sure they could accept “White House Tours Sponsored by Trump National Golf Club."
“I don’t know if it’s technically possible,” deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest said late last week.
The sequester, Mr. Earnest pointed out, mandates across-the-board cuts that administrators have little flexibility in carrying out. With a political jab, he noted that many of the people calling for private tour funding also called the overall imposition of the sequester cuts a victory for Republicans.
Others note it’s possible that the offer to pay for the tours could backfire.
For one thing, if tours, why not education funds for poor kids? Lots of things are being cut, fairly or not. Democrats might start asking if the GOP’s offers reflect a socioeconomic bias.
And even if (though?) the White House has been overly dramatic about the impact of the sequester, real hardship will eventually occur at federal installations across the country. In the National Journal, national correspondent Jill Lawrence notes that local media across the country are beginning to report on the effects of the cuts on local airports, food banks, parks, and schools.
While the administration has been maladroit, “the barely suppressed GOP glee at the White House fumbles, and the cavalier acceptance of the sequester by some Republicans, is also bound to backfire,” Ms. Lawrence writes.
The 2016 presidential race may be a long way off – but, as NBC's First Read notes, there was a striking amount of maneuvering among potential candidates this past week. While Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky probably "won" the week with his now-famous filibuster, he wasn't the only one who may have helped himself in the run-up to the 2016 campaign.
Here's a look at some of the possible contenders jockeying for position, and how they may have scrambled the race:
The junior senator from Kentucky set the rest of the field on notice that he is a force to be reckoned with by staging an old-fashioned talking filibuster, protesting the Obama administration's drone policy. Critics called it a political "stunt," but as stunts go, this one clearly worked. On a snow day when little else was going on, the unexpected spectacle of a legislator embracing physical discomfort to make a point drew unabashed praise from partisans on both the right and the left, and it put Senator Paul squarely in the media spotlight.
He earned a piece in Thursday's Politico saying that he was now in "the top tier of Republican power players" – and Paul himself "confidently" acknowledged that he was seriously considering a White House run.
Still, we're not sure this really changes things as much as it might seem. We've been saying all along that we think Paul will be a player to watch in 2016, since he has the potential to take his father's campaign apparatus and elevate it to another level. But we still aren't willing to remove the "dark horse" label from Paul – since so many of his views are outside the Republican mainstream, and some may prove deal breakers for GOP primary voters.
The former Florida governor inserted himself into the 2016 conversation in a big way in a series of interviews promoting a new book on immigration, in which for the first time he openly expressed interest in a possible presidential run. While not yet declaring himself a candidate, Mr. Bush's comments were direct enough to set donors and operatives on notice that they might want to wait before aligning themselves with anyone else (like, say, the junior senator from Florida).
But Bush also got into a bit of trouble on the issue of immigration, by appearing to change his position on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He'd previously expressed support for creating such a path – which is a key plank in the bipartisan legislation being hashed out on the Hill – but in his new book, he explicitly opposes it.
It remains unclear whether his positioning on immigration will simply wind up offending both sides or whether, despite charges of inconsistency, it will give him cover on an issue that remains tricky for Republicans (particularly if the legislation currently being crafted fails to pass).
While the most overt maneuvering may be happening on the Republican side, Mrs. Clinton has the ability to make news even when she does nothing. This week, we got a reminder of how formidable a candidate she would be. A new Quinnipiac poll found that Clinton would handily defeat New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (R) in head-to-head matchups (the latter two by double digits).
Maybe even more interesting, she'd beat Senator Rubio by an eye-popping 36 percentage points among Hispanics – a demographic that Republicans know they need to do better with, which is a big reason Rubio, whose parents are Cuban immigrants, has been considered a top-tier candidate.
As for the rest ...
Rubio didn't exactly have a bad week (at least, not compared to his "water break" during his State of the Union response). Yet as the closest thing the GOP has to a "front-runner," he took some hits from his potential rivals. The biggest headache for Rubio was undoubtedly the presidential talk coming from his fellow Floridian, Bush – who could steal donors and supporters and, according to some, potentially even force Rubio to put his own ambitions on hold for another cycle or two (though we're not so sure about that).
Also not great for Rubio was the above-mentioned poll showing that he would lose Hispanics (as well as the vote overall) to Clinton. And while Rubio was quick to jump on the Paul bandwagon, joining his filibuster with a short speech quoting rappers Wiz Khalifa and Jay-Z – well, let's just say at this point, we think he's in danger of overdoing the pop-culture references.
Representative Ryan had lunch with President Obama at the White House, reminding everyone of the crucial role he will play in any deficit-reduction deal that emerges between the White House and congressional Republicans. His profile will rise further later this month when he is set to release a new GOP budget proposal.
Governor Christie had a bigger week last week, with the very public "diss" he received from CPAC (which we'd argue was a net plus for him). Still, in that poll with Clinton, it's worth noting that he performed the best of all the Republicans tested. And he continued to bolster his outsider, blunt-talking credentials this week by scolding Washington over the sequester: "Seems to me it should be pretty easy to fix," he said. "Get everybody in a room and ... don't let them leave until you fix it."
Finally, Vice President Joe Biden didn't get as much attention as some of the other possible contenders, but then again, he was pretty much everywhere this week. Speaking about the administration's commitment to Israel before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Walking across the bridge in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the famous 1965 civil rights march. Quietly stopping by a dinner for hunters in his home state of Delaware. (On the other hand, this week also brought a Roger Ailes interview in which the Fox News chief called Mr. Biden "dumb as an ashtray.")
We agree with most pundits that it's hard to envision Biden and Clinton running against each other. But if she opts out, he appears to be getting ready.
Did Rand Paul in his filibuster this week mischaracterize administration policy on drone strikes, willfully or otherwise? That’s a question raising lots of expert discussion in Washington and the national-security blogosphere at the moment.
The talkathon by the GOP's junior senator from Kentucky won him lots of attention and kudos from libertarians and leftists alike. As we noted Thursday, it could well have boosted his 2016 presidential hopes and made him a rising national political star.
But some experts complain Senator Paul was sounding a clarion warning about a danger that doesn’t exist.
Long story short, Paul’s main point was that he wanted clarification about the administration’s policy regarding use of armed drones against US citizens within the United States. He said that Attorney General Eric Holder had, in essence, said that the administration had no plans to do that but could foresee extraordinary circumstances where it might be necessary.
“I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court,” Paul said at the filibuster’s start. “That Americans could be killed in a cafe in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Ky., is an abomination.”
The cafe reference was what drove some critics wild. The Washington Post editorialized that this was a “paranoid fantasy." Mr. Holder and others had made clear that the exceptional circumstances they were discussing involved a 9/11-like scenario. Given a warlike situation on domestic soil, the US could respond with all the weapons it could muster, in the White House view.
“From that answer, Mr. Paul and allies such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) somehow concocted the absurd notion that Americans 'sitting quietly in cafes' could be blasted by Hellfire missiles. No, they couldn’t be, as Mr. Holder made clear in a letter to Mr. Paul on Thursday,” the Post editorialized.
Worse, by distorting the dangers inherent in drone warfare, Paul missed an opportunity to confront other actual dangers about the nation’s expanding use of unmanned aircraft to target terror suspects, according to other critics.
For instance, what about the administration’s demonstrated willingness to target American citizens overseas with drones? That’s the general issue raised by the targeted killing of radical cleric and US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011, as well as the death of his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, in another drone attack two weeks later. (The US has indicated the teenager was an inadvertent target caught next to more-important Al Qaeda-linked figures.)
The administration apparently has a broad definition of the dangers that terror suspects must pose to be targeted in drone warfare. How is the target list developed? How imminent must suspected terror actions be to warrant a drone response?
“Debate ought to focus on what’s actually at stake, not some implausible parade of horribles involving non-threatening people at coffeehouses or Vietnam-era peace activists. In opting for the later approach, Senators Cruz and Paul needlessly cheapen a worthy and exceedingly important debate,” write legal experts Wells Bennett and Alan Rozenshtein at the Lawfare national-security blog.
Paul’s defenders note that this debate is already occurring – and that what the Kentucky libertarian has done is kick it up a notch, bringing it far more national attention than it has been getting.
Prior to Holder’s Thursday letter, administration policy in this area had been vague, writes The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf. By refusing to settle for imprecise statements, Paul has in fact accomplished something, in Mr. Friedersdorf’s view.
“His success means that it will be harder for any future president to argue that he or she can kill Americans not engaged in combat,” Friedersdorf writes.
This argument is not about the possible behavior of the Obama administration per se, but about limiting all future presidents, according to Paul’s defenders. It may be a “paranoid fantasy” to think that a chief executive might attack an American sitting at a cafe. But at one time, it might also have been a paranoid fantasy to think a president would use the FBI as a tool against personal enemies or to cover up Watergate break-ins done in his name, as did Richard Nixon.
Similarly, Friedersdorf points to the Bush administration’s defense of enhanced interrogation techniques that many label “torture."
“Now I’ll take every specific executive-branch statement of what the law doesn’t permit that I can get,” he concludes.
Is Rand Paul now a rising national political star? It sure seems that’s possible following his 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor.
With his words, the GOP senator from Kentucky blocked a planned vote on the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director. But Senator Paul’s real aim was to force a broader US discussion about the possible domestic use of armed drones. That’s a serious subject that draws interest from both sides of the aisle.
Paul’s still the longest of potential long shots in the nascent race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. His non-interventionist foreign-policy views are outside his party’s mainstream, and many Democrats consider his libertarian principles uncaring. But from Wednesday through the early hours of Thursday, he presented the (rare) picture of a politician willing to become physically uncomfortable in defense of core beliefs.
“By the time the 2016 Republican presidential race rolls around, the Paul filibuster will be a distant memory – even to the grassroots of the party," Washington Post political analysts Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan write on The Fix blog. "But, the motivation behind the filibuster – a combination of genuine conviction and a sense for the dramatic – will still burn strongly in Paul. It’s why we continue to believe no one should underestimate Paul’s ability to have a major impact on the 2016 race.”
Some Republicans saw Paul’s performance as a morale boost for the party. He remained largely on point for hours and talked fluently about what he judges to be the constitutional grounds for a belief that no US president can target an American citizen on US soil without due process.
Attorney General Eric Holder sent Paul a letter earlier this week, saying that under certain hypothetical circumstances a president might indeed have that power. Paul on the Senate floor expressed surprise at this administration position.
“The answer should be so easy. I cannot imagine that [President Obama] will not expressly come forward and say, no, I will not kill Americans on American soil. I can’t understand the president’s unwillingness to say he’s not going to kill noncombatants,” Paul said.
As Paul continued to poke at the administration, some other Republican senators saw an opportunity to get licks in and rushed to support him.
“A lot of things that don’t usually happen in the United States Senate happened tonight, and wherever you stand on the merits, it was pretty cool to watch,” writes Daniel Foster on the conservative National Review’s The Corner blog.
But the fact is that not all Republicans agree with Paul on the substance. Even some of the senators who supported him on Wednesday night may fall into the nonsupport camp. The issue at stake involves questions of executive authority that would have been apropos for opponents of the Bush administration’s efforts against terror suspects, as well.
In some ways, Paul has hit on an issue that unites the libertarian wing of his party with Democratic liberals. It’s a sweet spot where the two ends of the political spectrum bend around in a circle and meet each other.
“Yesterday was quite a spectacle and brought legitimate questions about the scope of executive power to the fore – and the floor – in a way Americans haven’t seen in quite a while,” writes Steve Benen on the blog of liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.
Some political observers of both partisan persuasions were also excited about Paul’s performance of a real, live, talking filibuster. In today’s Senate world, “filibuster” usually just means a threat to talk and talk, as allowed under chamber rules. Both sides accept the threat as reality and look to see if the majority has 60 votes for cloture on whatever issue is at hand.
Thus the liberal Ezra Klein at The Washington Post’s Wonkblog cheered Paul’s action as the highest purpose of a filibuster: a passionate minority slowing down the Senate to make its case to colleagues and the US at large.
“If more filibusters went like this, there’d be no reason to demand [filibuster] reform. And if there is reform, it needs to hold open the possibility for filibusters like this,” he writes.
But Paul’s long-day-into-night might not actually be a usual case, a few scholars note. The underlying issue, Mr. Brennan’s CIA nomination, is not an open question. Paul acknowledged that the administration has 60 votes for Brennan to assume the post. Plus, significant elements of the majority party are sympathetic to the arguments Paul was making. One Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, joined the talkathon.
“The majority seemed unfazed by giving up the day to Paul’s filibuster, perhaps because the rest of Washington was [shut down] for a pseudo-snow storm.... In short, [Wednesday’s] episode might not be a great test case for observing the potential consequences of reform,” writes George Washington University political scientist Sarah Binder.
Donald Trump will speak at next week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Organizers on Tuesday announced that they’d invited the mogul/reality-show host to reprise his 2011 CPAC appearance and that he’d accepted.
“Donald Trump is an American patriot and success story with a massive following among small government conservatives,” said American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas in a statement. “I look forward to welcoming him back to the CPAC stage.”
Hmm. Is this really, you know, a good idea?
We can understand why The Donald himself would want to do it. It’s true that his 2011 speech produced loads of publicity. Of course, that’s back when he was toying with the idea of running for president himself, or at least pretending to think about a run for the Oval Office. Any attention this drew to “Celebrity Apprentice” or the various Trump golf projects around the world was purely incidental, we’re sure.
And as a card-carrying member of the mainstream media (non-elite division), we’re overjoyed to link “Trump” and “politics” in sentences once again. He produces controversy as easily as most humans exhale carbon dioxide. Who can forget his proposal to slap a 25 percent tariff on all Chinese goods? Certainly not US retail chains, which would have seen the prices of all their Chinese-made goods go up by the same amount. And remember when he kept challenging President Obama for his long-form birth certificate? And then Mr. Obama broke into the “Celebrity Apprentice” time slot to announce that the United States had killed Osama bin Laden? That’s in the dictionary now as a usage example for “kismet.”
“CPAC is like an all-star game for conservatives,” sniffed Mr. Cardenas to The Washington Post as an explanation for the move.
Now Mr. Trump? This has driven lots of Republicans in general and conservatives in particular over the edge. Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin – who’s feuded with Trump in the past – tweeted: “Womanizing, property-rights trampling, blowhard Donald Trump. Yep, there’s a face that’ll ‘modernize’ the conservative movement!”
And conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote that conservatives of all stripes have “launched an assault on CPAC” over Trump, Governor Christie, and Governor McDonnell – and what those choices say to the rest of America about where the right wing of US politics currently stands.
“An older generation, tone deaf and out of step with popular sensibilities, needs to hang it up. Had CPAC been in the hands of young, brainy conservatives, it would be the ‘cool’ club and not a punch line,” Ms. Rubin writes in a post titled “10 lessons from CPAC’s debacle.”
Meanwhile, liberals are making fun of the Trump appearance, though the outrage on the right makes it harder for them to portray the pick as emblematic of the Republican Party. Maybe it’s a rare moment of Washington bipartisanship!
We’d like to add one thing in closing: Many of the critics here may have forgotten that when Trump went to CPAC in 2011, he was booed.
It’s true. During his speech, he noted the obvious point that Ron Paul would not win the GOP nomination and was not going to be president of the United States.
The CPAC crowd can skew libertarian, and the many Paul supporters in attendance didn’t like that. Hence the raspberries.
“I like Ron Paul. I think he is a good guy, but honestly, he just has zero chance of getting elected,” Trump concluded back then.
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Should President Obama give up golf for the duration of the "sequester"? That’s what some irritated conservative GOP lawmakers believe. They’re not mad at presidential sports per se as much as annoyed at what they consider to be Mr. Obama’s grandstanding on spending cuts mandated by sequestration. In particular, they’re peeved that the administration, with blaring trumpets, has announced that public tours of the White House have been cancelled pending further notice.
So on Tuesday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) of Texas offered an amendment to the omnibus spending bill that the House is currently considering. None of the money authorized by this continuing resolution “may be used to transport the President to or from a golf course until public tours of the White House resume,” read Representative Gohmert’s amendment.
In a Tuesday floor speech, Gohmert said he hoped this prodding would make the White House rethink tour cancellations. The Texas lawmaker noted that spring break is coming up and tourists of all political persuasions have already made plans for tours of D.C.
“They’ll get their tour of the White House, and all it will cost is one or two golf trips less,” said Gohmert.
Nope. This isn’t happening. House Republican leaders ruled the amendment not relevant to the spending bill, and blocked it from getting a vote on the chamber floor.
But we think Gohmert’s effort was nevertheless indicative. For one thing, it shows that the conservative wing of the GOP remains unhappy with their leadership’s approach to the sequester standoff.
They want more confrontation with the White House, not less. In particular, they want to use the continuing resolution as a club to try to force through even deeper spending reductions, such as cutting money for implementation of some aspects of the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare."
Influential conservative pundit Erick Erickson makes this point Wednesday at RedState. He bemoaned the demise of Gohmert’s amendment and urged GOP conservatives to vote against allowing the continuing resolution to proceed, in the name of trying to force deeper cuts.
“Conservative groups must set a new standard,” Mr. Erickson writes, but he holds out little hope they’ll actually block the bill.
For another thing, the golf-versus-building-tour dust-up shows how the White House has shifted from making big claims about the sequester’s alleged dire effects to implementing small, yet pointed reductions.
“Inside week one of the sequester, we went from workplace deaths and forest fires and airport chaos to ... no more White House self-guided tours? The Obama administration has gone from very big to very small in sequester messaging, brushed back by the fact some early claims turned out to be less than truthful, and that, well, big things aren’t happening yet,” Mr. Klein writes.
The fact is White House tours are popular with voters. Both Republican and Democratic House members are more than happy to procure tour tickets for traveling constituents. But because of security concerns and sheer popularity, this has to be done well in advance – so tourists with spring break tour times are not going to be happy. They’ll have to hit the Smithsonian instead.
Do the tours really have to be cut? That’s another question entirely. Given their visibility, it’s quite possible that the administration is just engaging in a variant of the time-honored Washington Monument budget ploy.
That’s named after an apocryphal story of a Parks Service chief offering to close the Washington Monument as a contribution to budget austerity. The point is to highlight the effect of reductions by doing away with the most visible and well-liked government services.
But the Obama administration can’t close the Washington Monument this time around. It’s already shut to visitors due to repairs needed to fix the effects of the 2011 D.C.-area earthquake.
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.