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Trumpism Looks Like Mainstream Conservatism — So Far

IMAGE: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) gives a thumbs up sign as he walks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Obama’s Legacy Depends On The 2016 Election

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

President Obama had a pretty good 2015 by most measures. The economy grew and unemployment fell. He achieved a long-sought nuclear deal with Iran, a long-sought trade deal with Asia and a long-sought climate agreement in Paris. He even signed some bipartisan legislation, including an old-fashioned compromise over spending and taxes.

He proved, against widespread expectations, that he’s no lame duck.

“Our steady, persistent work over the years is paying off,” Obama crowed in a pre-Christmas news conference. “I’ve never been more optimistic about the year ahead.”

Obama’s doing especially well by recent historical standards. At this point in their presidencies, Ronald Reagan was mired in a scandal over secret arms shipments to Iran, Bill Clinton was emerging from impeachment, and George W. Bush was presiding over the beginning of a financial crash.

Nevertheless, most Americans don’t seem impressed. The president’s job approval has flatlined at about 45 percent and shows no sign of improving. The Pew Research Center reported last week that most voters don’t share Obama’s optimism: the percentage who expect the economy to improve has fallen since a year ago.

What’s gone wrong?

It’s true that the president got important things done in 2015, but the things he didn’t get done were bigger. Unemployment is down, but wage growth is still painfully slow. Terrorism is still a serious threat; Islamic State is still untamed. And many Americans have concluded sourly that neither Obama nor any other conventional politician can make the federal government effective. (That’s one reason for the rise of antipoliticians like Donald Trump.)

The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, in particular, sent a shock wave through American politics. The Pew poll found that, for the first time, most Americans don’t think the government is doing a good job of reducing terrorist threats. But Obama seemed slow to notice, and his message of “steady as she goes” did little to reassure a jittery public. “He was a little tone-deaf,” his former political aide David Axelrod acknowledged.

Another factor: Not everyone approved of Obama’s accomplishments. Conservatives don’t think the nuclear agreement with Iran was a major achievement; they consider it simply a bad deal. Republicans who don’t think climate change is a serious problem aren’t impressed by a global pact to reduce it.

And, in a polarized nation, there’s not much Obama can do to please his opponents. After seven years, Obama’s standing in the polls increasingly appears to be independent of his job performance. Good news nudges his approval rating up a point or two, bad news nudges it down, but most voters decided what they think of Barack Obama a long time ago. Even the terrorist attack in San Bernardino caused only a barely perceptible ripple. In that sense, Obama may have a floor as well as a ceiling.

But does it even matter whether the public approves of a president in his final years in office? Yes; there’s more at stake than vanity.

Republican presidential candidates are already promising to undo much of Obama’s work if they win the White House and maintain control of Congress. They have promised to repeal Obama’s health insurance law, cancel his climate change regulations, revoke the nuclear deal with Iran, stop the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba and reverse his liberalization of immigration rules.

If Obama wants his work to survive, he needs to have a Democrat succeed him. “I will campaign very hard to make that happen, for a whole variety of reasons,” he said at his news conference.

But his biggest impact on the next election won’t come from campaigning; it will stem from his own popularity, high or low. As Alan Abramowitz of Emory University has pointed out, it’s rare for one party to win the White House three times in a row _ and it has never happened in modern times when the incumbent’s popularity was below 50 percent.

In the year ahead, Obama has little chance of winning legislative battles in Congress. He has no new levers to help the economy grow. He wants to defeat Islamic State, but not at the cost of deploying large numbers of U.S. troops. And he needs, somehow, to persuade voters who once supported him to listen to his voice once more. His legacy depends on it.

ABOUT THE WRITER
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com
(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he leaves his end of the year news conference at the White House in Washington December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Ted Cruz’s Ride On The Obamacare Train Wreck

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

When Senator Ted Cruz, the conservative firebrand from Texas, launched his presidential campaign last week at the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, he earned grudgingly glowing reviews from otherwise skeptical pundits. The very next day he drove straight into a pothole on his already-narrow road to the Republican nomination: Obamacare.

Obamacare was supposed to be one of Cruz’s selling points. When it comes to denouncing the evils of the president’s health insurance plan, Cruz takes second place to no one. Obamacare is “unconstitutional,” he says. It’s “a train wreck.” And, of course, it “puts a government bureaucrat between you and your doctor.”

So, last week, when Cruz said he intended to sign his family up for health insurance coverage through Obamacare, the media had a field day.

“We’ll be getting new health insurance, and we’ll presumably do it through my job in the Senate, and so we’ll be on the federal exchange like millions of others on the federal exchange,” he told Dana Bash of CNN.

“I believe we should follow the law, even laws I disagree with,” he explained.

Liberals charged Cruz with hypocrisy. But that’s not quite right. To quote ethics scholar Rush Limbaugh: “There’s no hypocrisy in Cruz using Obamacare, just like there’s no hypocrisy in people opposing Social Security using it.”

If you’re more comfortable with a left-wing example, when a billionaire like Warren Buffett calls for higher taxes on the rich, that doesn’t obligate him to send voluntary contributions to the U.S. Treasury.

Had Cruz acted on his initial statement, he might have been fine. The real trouble started when his aides said the senator had not, in fact, decided what to do about his health insurance. Thus began a week-long controversy.

“He had a superb announcement,” said a GOP strategist who’s backing former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. “But then his message got thrown off by this Obamacare distraction.”

Cruz’s selling point to GOP voters is that he’s a principled conservative who will never compromise and never back down. His hesitation muddied that otherwise crystal-clear image.

It was also ill-advised for Cruz to suggest that he had no choice other than to sign up for Obamacare through his job at the U.S. Senate — when, in fact, he does.

The reason Cruz suddenly needs health insurance is that, until now, his family was covered by a policy provided by his wife’s employer, Goldman Sachs. Heidi Cruz has decided to go on unpaid leave during her husband’s presidential campaign; the couple have two young daughters.

What are Cruz’s alternatives to buying a policy through the government-run exchange? His wife could ask Goldman Sachs to continue their coverage under the firm’s generous unpaid leave programs, but that might look like a sweetheart deal. She could apply for continued coverage under the federal COBRA law — but since she didn’t lose her job, but is departing voluntarily, she might not qualify.

Or Cruz could buy a policy directly from an insurance company. Blue Cross of Texas, for example, offers policies for a family headed by a 44-year-old beginning at $623 a month, although that comes with a hefty $12,700 deductible.

Finally, Cruz could refuse to buy health insurance at all and pay a penalty to the Treasury on top of his taxes.

He hasn’t done any of those things.

When I asked Cruz’s spokeswoman, Catherine Frazier, about his deliberations, she responded with a version of hemming and hawing. “The senator is looking at the options,” she said.

In Cruz’s view, she said, every health insurance plan on the market now counts as Obamacare, because the Affordable Care Act regulates them all.

“Every plan, no matter what provider, is required to comply with the Obamacare law,” she said. “Obamacare isn’t a plan in and of itself; it dictates what plans have to provide. All plans operate under Obamacare.”

“Any American that wants a healthcare plan, including Senator Cruz, has no choice but to utilize Obamacare — either the Obamacare exchange or much more expensive private coverage that must be Obamacare-compliant,” she said.

That all sounds awfully lawyerly — fittingly, perhaps, since Cruz prides himself on his chops as a constitutional lawyer. If that kind of statement came from anyone named Clinton, conservatives would call it slick.

This kerfuffle is likely to be forgotten by next year’s Iowa caucuses — assuming, of course, that Cruz has settled on an insurance carrier by then.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Photo: Texas Senator Ted Cruz during the Ag Summit in Des Moines. 3/7/2015 (John Pemble, iprimages/Flickr)

Joe Biden Is Democrats’ 2016 Understudy, In The Wings In Case Hillary Clinton Falters

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Joe Biden still wants to run for president. At least, his friends tell me, a big part of him does. He talks about the prospect readily, whenever reporters or voters ask. He doesn’t sound as if the ambition that fired him to run when he was 44 or 64 has diminished at 72.

“What would drive me to do it would be if I thought that I could do it better than anybody else,” he said in December.

“I think this thing is wide open on both sides,” he said in January.

“That’s a family, personal decision that I’m going to make sometime at the end of the summer,” he told reporters in Iowa last month.

After 46 years in politics, Biden’s earned the right to be taken seriously. Despite his gaffes — some of which fall into the “Kinsley gaffe” category of revealing politically unpalatable truths — he’s turned in a solid performance as vice president. He’s negotiated fiscal compromises with balky Republican leaders in Congress. He’s massaged the egos (and, who knows, perhaps the shoulders) of foreign leaders from Iraq to Japan. A CNN poll last week found that 71 percent of Democratic voters think highly of him.

But Biden has one obvious problem: Hillary Rodham Clinton. The same CNN poll found that Clinton was the first choice of 62 percent of Democratic voters, against only 15 percent for Biden and 10 percent for Senator Elizabeth Warren (who says she isn’t running).

The vice president doesn’t want to be seen as a mere understudy in his party’s presidential race. He’s cast his not-quite-impending decision as a matter of his own future, not a choice contingent on Clinton’s fortunes.

“It’s about whether he has a contribution to make,” said Ted Kaufman, one of Biden’s oldest friends and advisers. Not a question of whether Clinton falters? “No,” Kaufman told me.

But it’s too late; whether he likes it or not, Biden is already Clinton’s understudy — the backup player, there to step in only if the first string falters. Biden’s own timetable — his stipulation that he doesn’t need to make a decision before Labor Day — makes that all the more certain.

Clinton is expected to announce her candidacy formally next month. But she’s been building a campaign apparatus — a staff, a strategy, a super PAC, potential donors — for months. She’s already been endorsed by more than half of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate. With every month that goes by, she has added to that juggernaut. That means fewer potential supporters remain on the fence to be wooed by any rival candidate, including Biden.

At this point, the main cheerleader for a Biden presidency is a voluble former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, Dick Harpootlian, who laid out the rationale for a run to the Washington Post this way: “He ain’t got no email problems. He ain’t got no foundation problems. What you see with Joe is what you get.”

There’s also an amateur Draft Joe Biden website, launched last week by a former Obama volunteer named William Pierce. As of Tuesday afternoon, its Draft Biden petition had collected 4,004 signatures and 62 Facebook likes — hardly a tidal wave. Its pitch for the vice president touts “his passion, joy and knowledge.”

All of which Biden undeniably possesses — and none of which adds up to a serious chance against Clinton. He flamed out as a presidential candidate in the 1988 campaign, when he faced charges that his speeches were plagiarized, and 2008, when he didn’t make it past the Iowa caucuses. And, yes, in much of the country — certainly among late-night comics — he’s thought of as an aging liberal goofball, not an imposing statesman. That kind of image isn’t easy to erase.

Once she announces, Clinton plans to launch a series of speeches to build a rationale for her candidacy. Biden will still be confined in the role of the Obama administration’s energetic salesman, an honorable job but one that won’t establish his claim to the nomination.

But if Clinton runs into trouble — if she has health problems, or legal problems, or any other kind of problems — her party is going to need another candidate, and fast. Biden is his party’s natural fallback.

A Quinnipiac poll this month found that with Clinton out of the race, Biden would be the front-runner with 35 percent; Warren polled 25 percent. No other Democrat has attracted significant interest or support, even among political insiders.

Biden’s flirtation with candidacy isn’t delusional. It isn’t just the self-flattery of a politician who long thought he ought to be president. Undeniably, however, he’s the second choice — and there’s nothing wrong with that. By taking on that thankless role, he’s doing his party a big service.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Photo: In Des Moines, Vice President Joe Biden is greeted by Drake University students as he enters a stage with blue curtains at Sheslow Auditorium. 2/12/2015 (John Pemble/Flickr)

That GOP Letter To Iran? Not Illegal, But Not Smart Either

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), a rising conservative star, persuaded 46 fellow Republicans to sign a letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei et al warning that Congress could revoke any nuclear deal that President Obama makes.

But as one of Napoleon’s ministers said of a decision that went awry, it was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.

Notwithstanding yelps from overwrought Democrats, the senators’ letter to Khamenei wasn’t against the law, much less treasonous.

Politics hasn’t really stopped at the water’s edge since roughly the Eisenhower administration. Partisanship infected foreign policy long ago.

Still, writing letters to the enemy — and Cotton emphatically views Iran as the enemy — is bad form. When Democrats communicate with U.S. adversaries, Republicans complain too. And writing the enemy with the avowed aim of disrupting sensitive negotiations is even worse.

In the assessment of distinguished political scientist Daniel W. Drezner of Tufts University, “The Iran letter wasn’t illegal. It falls into the more nebulous category of a (dumb) move.” (He used a term we can’t publish in a family newspaper.)

Cotton and his colleagues have every right to object to the kind of nuclear deal Obama is seeking with Iran, of course. But they should send their complaints to the president, not the supreme leader in Tehran.

As a legal matter, what the senators said was true: Technically, Congress has the right to try to undo any agreement a president makes. The senators pretended (a little pompously) that they were educating the ayatollah on this nuance, but Khamenei’s U.S.-educated negotiators surely knew it already.

But it was still a blunder — which some of the 47 senators were slowly realizing last week after they had time to take a second look at what they had done.

“Maybe that wasn’t the best way to do that,” conceded Senator John McCain (R-AZ), although he reaffirmed the letter’s message.

McCain said he signed the letter quickly on a day when senators were rushing to get out of Washington before a snowstorm hit. “I sign lots of letters,” he said.

The letter was a mistake for reasons both foreign and domestic.

It got in the way of a bipartisan effort led by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) to pass a bill requiring the administration to submit any deal with Iran to Congress. The administration plans to make any deal with Iran by an “executive agreement,” which doesn’t need congressional approval, rather than a treaty, which does. But Congress can still try to block an executive agreement.

With opposition to a nuclear agreement looking like a partisan campaign against Obama, even Democrats who say they’re worried about the deal took a step back from Corker’s proposal.

Indeed, the letter inadvertently strengthened the administration’s argument against submitting an agreement to Congress. If Republicans have made up their minds even before a deal is struck, why bother?

If the letter’s goal was to derail the negotiations, it failed, too — at least in the short run. The wily Khamenei tut-tutted about what he called “the decay of political ethics in the American system,” but said he stood by his negotiators.

“Every time we reach a stage where the end of the negotiations is in sight, the tone of the other side, specifically the Americans, becomes harsher, coarser and tougher,” he complained.

Qom Theological Seminary 1, Harvard Law 0. When an ayatollah sounds more statesmanlike than the U.S. Senate, it’s not a good sign.

Still, as Khamenei’s statement showed, the letter gave the Iranians a reason to stiffen their negotiating posture — and, worse, a useful talking point if the talks fail.

“This is not a trifle,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said last week during a visit to Washington. “All of a sudden, Iran is in a position to turn to us and ask, ‘Are you credible?’ ”

If Iran can convince other countries that the United States is at fault for a breakdown in the talks, it will be harder for any president to maintain economic sanctions that have been the main tool for putting international pressure on Tehran.

That’s a problem for Republican presidential candidates, too, not least because more sanctions is their Plan B for taming Iran’s nuclear program. The GOP contenders already face strong pressure from hawks to renounce the possibility of any nuclear deal with Iran and to promise not to abide by any agreement Obama makes. The moderate position, held by former Florida Governor Jeb. Bush, merely expresses skepticism that a good deal is possible and says a bad deal should be rejected.

And if a deal is reached and one of those Republicans makes it to the White House, what then?

If Iran is complying with an Obama administration deal by January 2017, it’s going to be difficult for the next president — even a President Scott Walker or Ted Cruz — to walk away from that deal.

By then, sanctions will have been relaxed. European allies will have a vested interest in making the agreement work. For the United States to blow the deal up would be a big step; the new president would have to explain why he wanted to alienate the allies and risk war with Iran.

And a new president would face one more constraint: He may not want to confirm the new Cotton Doctrine — the idea that any president’s agreements are good only until the next president shows up. If that were to become the norm instead of the exception, it would only make diplomacy harder for every future president — including Republicans.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry continued his meetings in Montreux March 4 with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. Under Secretary Wendy Sherman and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz attended the meetings. (US Mission Geneva via Flickr)

Republicans Haven’t Quite Worked Out A Foreign Policy Beyond ‘Not Obama’

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Most presidential campaigns focus mostly on domestic issues such as the economy, taxes and health care, not foreign policy. But the 2016 presidential campaign is already shaping up to be an exception to that rule.

For one thing, the world is a mess. The United States is at war in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, even if we don’t have combat troops on the ground, and opportunities for new wars keep cropping up. President Obama hasn’t convinced most voters that his policies are working; in a Fox News poll released last week, a whopping 73 percent of respondents said they didn’t think Obama had a clear strategy in the fight against the terrorist Islamic State.

The likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will need to show how she would do better than the president she served as secretary of State. Her Republican challengers will want to reassert their party’s traditional advantage on national security, a phenomenon political scientists call “issue ownership.”

But Republicans haven’t quite worked out what their foreign policy ought to be, beyond “not Obama.”

That’s partly because it’s still early in the campaign and the GOP boasts a bumper crop of potential candidates, some of them governors who never needed a foreign policy until now.

It’s also because one probable GOP candidate, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), has already broken from the pack and argued for a minimalist foreign policy with lower defense spending and fewer military commitments. Some of Paul’s opponents have charged that his views add up to isolationism; the senator prefers “conservative realism.”

But the debate isn’t only about Paul. Ever since President George W. Bush’s long misadventure in Iraq, his Republican successors have been struggling to refashion conservative foreign policy in a way most voters would embrace.

“I don’t think the debate exists because Rand Paul is there; Rand Paul is there because the debate exists,” said Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “He represents people who are uncomfortable with American global engagement.”

Divisions have emerged over many issues (sanctions in Iran, arms for Ukraine, trade with Cuba) but the crucial question in the campaign will probably be military intervention in the Middle East, the terrain on which the last Republican administration came to grief. If airstrikes alone aren’t enough to defeat Islamic State, should ground troops be deployed? And should the United States do more to dislodge the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria, including aid to Syrian rebels, airstrikes, and ground troops?

Three rough camps among potential Republican candidates can be discerned. There are interventionists, who want the United States to do more. There’s the lone anti-interventionist, Paul. And, in between, there’s a big group of straddlers who say they would be tougher than Obama but, when pressed, don’t offer much in the way of specifics.

The interventionists include Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has called for more U.S. aid to Syrian rebels. Last week, he dismissed Obama’s request for authorization to fight Islamic State as too limited and suggested he would delete Obama’s proposed prohibition on long-term ground combat. “I think we ought to authorize the president to destroy ISIL, period,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

They may also include Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who told ABC News, “We have to go beyond just aggressive air strikes. … We have to be prepared to put boots on the ground, if that’s what it takes.”

The straddlers include Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has demanded that the Obama administration fight its wars more aggressively but has also said he sees no need for U.S. ground troops. Last week, when Obama requested authorization for the air war in Iraq and Syria, Cruz sidestepped the question of limits and said the main defect of Obama’s request was that it failed to identify the adversary as “Islamic terrorists.”

Paul ducked questions last week about Obama’s request — perhaps because it came uncomfortably close to a proposal he made last year that prohibited using U.S. troops in ground combat and carried a 12-month expiration date.

Democrats were divided over the authorization request, too — perhaps even more deeply than Republicans. But their nomination seems all but settled, and Clinton declined to comment on the issue.

It’s not unusual for a political party to divide over foreign policy — not even Republicans.

“This debate has been going on for a century,” Richard Norton Smith, a noted historian of the GOP, told me. “It isn’t snide to suggest that modern libertarians are the heirs of the old isolationists.” The last time isolationists battled internationalists for the soul of the GOP, it was a very different era — around 1950, at the end of the 20-year-long, five-term Democratic presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.

This time, the debate isn’t over how to handle a world transformed by a war the United States and its allies won; it’s about the legacy of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, and a war most people think we lost. So the potential candidate in the most intriguing position is his brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida. He hasn’t spelled out his foreign policy yet, but he’s scheduled to give a speech on the subject this week in Chicago. On national security, Jeb Bush is the candidate to watch.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Mitch McConnell Sings ‘Kumbaya’

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The triumphant Republican class of 2014 formally took control of both halves of Congress last week, and here’s what it has changed so far: not much.

The new GOP majority didn’t vote to repeal President Obama’s healthcare law. It didn’t undo Obama’s decision to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country. (House Republicans proposed a sweeping repeal measure, but it’s unlikely to pass even a GOP-run Senate.) It didn’t try to block the president’s negotiations with Cuba or hold up his nominees for attorney general and secretary of Defense.

Instead, as its first major action, the 114th Congress moved toward approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that won’t create many jobs and, with the price of oil plummeting, may no longer be worth building. And even that measure appears likely to die, because the president has already announced he will veto the bill.

What happened to the boundless hopes of all those conservative candidates, tea party and otherwise, who vowed they’d come to Washington and, in the words of former hog castrator Joni Ernst (R-IA), “make ’em squeal?”

So far, the GOP is playing what baseball fans call “small ball” — and not just because new members haven’t had time to settle into their offices yet.

Instead, the 54-46 majority in the Senate has run into three speed bumps: the chamber’s rules, the president’s veto power, and the innate caution of the new majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

The Senate rules still require 60 votes to move major legislation past a filibuster; that means Republicans need to find six Democrats or independents to help them act. The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to overcome a presidential veto; that requires even more Democratic help.

As for McConnell, 72, he’s spent more than 30 years preparing for this job — and while his mission as minority leader was to frustrate Democrats (and, as he bluntly declared, try to make Obama a one-term president), he now sees himself in a very different role.

“When you’re in the majority, you have more responsibility,” he has said. “We have to be realistic.”

“I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome,” he told The Washington Post this month.

That kind of reassurance — that the GOP isn’t really run by the Tea Party firebrands you see on Fox News — was the main point of McConnell’s inaugural speech on the floor of the Senate last week.

Yes, it took a swipe at Obama: “Bipartisan compromise may not come easily for the president,” he said. “The president’s supporters are pressing for militancy these days, not compromise.”

And yes, it included a silly suggestion that the economy’s recovery should be credited to private-sector elation at the mere thought of a Republican-run Senate.

So to many Democratic ears, it sounded disappointingly like the partisan, polarizing Mitch McConnell of old. But the core of the speech was a decidedly modest assessment of what voters were saying last November, followed by a lengthy appeal for bipartisan cooperation.

“The American people didn’t ask for a government that tries to do everything, and fails; and they didn’t demand a government that aims to do nothing, and succeeds,” McConnell said. “They asked for a government that works.”

“We’re going to have to work together,” he said. “We’re only going to pass meaningful legislation if members from both parties are given a stake in the outcome.”

That, his lieutenants explained, is what McConnell sounds like when he’s trying to be warm and fuzzy.

“We are trying to strike a new tone,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). “There’s a healthy list of issues on which people from both sides can work together.”

As evidence, Portman and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) pointed to McConnell’s decision to allow open amendments and debate on the Keystone XL bill next week — something the last majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), rarely did.

McConnell allies have listed a decidedly non-revolutionary agenda of possible bipartisan legislation: corporate tax reform, infrastructure spending, trade agreements and tweaks to Obama’s healthcare law (not a repeal, which a veto puts out of reach).

They face serious challenges not only in winning support from Democrats, but also from their own right wing. But McConnell, who was once described as having all the charisma of an oyster, may be just the man to thread that legislative needle.

As Alec MacGillis points out in a fiercely critical biography (entitled, tellingly, The Cynic), McConnell isn’t a conservative ideologue; he’s a cold-blooded pragmatist. He began his political career as a liberal Republican who opposed the Vietnam War, sought support from organized labor and even cooperated with abortion rights groups. But as the GOP turned right, McConnell turned with it.

Now he says he wants to prove that despite the rancor and polarization of the last two decades — a process to which McConnell contributed — he can make divided government work again.

OK, Senator, go for it. If you’re serious, that would be a real legacy.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

The Invisible 2016 Primary…Revealed

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

This early stretch of presidential campaigns used to be known as the invisible primary. The action — would-be candidates drawing up strategies, courting donors and recruiting aides — occurred beyond the sight of ordinary voters.

Only it’s not invisible anymore. The sheer cost of winning a nomination — Mitt Romney spent more than $105 million two years ago — means serious candidates need to start early, well before they formally declare their intentions.

Just as in the business world, there’s an advantage that goes to the “first mover,” the first credible entrant in any competition. And by that standard, we already have two winners of the no-longer-invisible primary: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush.

The case for Clinton is straightforward. Without declaring, she’s established a forbidding lead in the polls, with more than 60 percent of Democrats saying she’s their choice.

“Her position is as strong as any we’ve ever seen for a candidate who isn’t already an incumbent president,” said Tad Devine, an advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of Clinton’s potential challengers. “She’s in a much stronger position than she was in 2008.”

So Clinton has opted for a classic front-runner’s strategy: She is delaying a formal announcement, making the campaign shorter — a welcome idea for voters, perhaps, but not for challengers who hope to whittle down her lead.

The landscape in the Republican Party is far more complicated. With at least 12 potential candidates, no one qualifies as a front-runner — not even Bush, who drew the support of 23 percent of GOP voters in a CNN poll released last month (but considerably less in other polls).

Still, Bush has grabbed the first-mover role: He’s “exploring” the possibility of becoming a candidate (and, as is often noted, no politician explores that question without discovering that the answer is yes.)

Then on Tuesday, Bush launched, in English and Spanish, a new political action committee that will allow him to raise money and pay a staff, purportedly to support other candidates and causes. The not-quite-candidate’s next step: releasing an e-book about his tenure as governor of Florida, designed to remind Republicans that he was once considered the most conservative politician in his family.

And he’s announced an audacious strategy: He says he’s going to stick to his long-held positions in favor of immigration reform and Common Core educational standards, whether Tea Party conservatives like it or not. In a television interview last month, he said he was determined not to make the same mistakes as Romney. “Mitt … got sucked into other peoples’ agendas [in the GOP primaries], and I think it hurt him,” Bush said.

“Bush’s moves have jolted the race; it’s been pretty clever,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “Everybody else now has to react to him.”

That doesn’t guarantee Bush an easy road to the GOP nomination, of course. More-conservative Republicans, Tea Party and otherwise, abhor the idea of sending a third Bush to the White House.

“We’re looking for a full-range conservative, and that’s not Jeb Bush,” Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative activist in the early-caucus state of Iowa, told me this week. “I think his candidacy is mostly a Washington fantasy, confined to the 202 area code.”

Think of the Republican nominating process as two contests, not one. The first campaign, the one Bush has already kick-started, is for the votes of the establishment conservatives who have dominated most GOP primaries in the past. The competition in that race may include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

The second campaign is for the votes of conservative insurgents, like Vander Plaats and libertarian supporters of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). That race is already underway, too: On Jan. 24, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) and the conservative group Citizens United are holding a Freedom Summit in Des Moines, with such potential candidates as former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Bush was invited but said he couldn’t attend because of a schedule conflict.)

And there are more who may run: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“There are a lot of high-quality names on those lists,” noted former Rep. Vin Weber (R-MN), a GOP elder. “That’s why this thing is so wide open. We sometimes forget the basics: A lot of how this comes out will depend on how they perform on the trail.”

But the lesson of the invisible primary so far is an old one: In running for president, experience counts. It’s no accident that candidates named Clinton and Bush are on top so far. There’s an irony, of course, in that, at a time when most voters yearn for change (or at least tell pollsters the country is on the wrong track), they’re getting dynastic continuity.

Can Clinton and Bush hold onto their advantages and turn into candidates of change? That’s what the campaign’s next stage is about. The invisible primary is only the first test, not the last.
___

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Photo: Mark Nozell via Flickr

Obama’s Fourth-Quarter Foreign Policy Surprises

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Six months ago, President Obama’s foreign policy looked stymied. Negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians were at a dead end. Russia was gaining ground in eastern Ukraine. U.S. efforts to end the war in Syria were ineffective. A new extremist army, Islamic State, was marching into Iraq.

As misfortunes gathered, Obama’s response was defensive — and earthy. His first principle, he said, was “Don’t do stupid s**t.”

But as strategy, that was so inadequate that it drew a public rebuke from his former secretary of State. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Hillary Clinton told an interviewer.

Today the picture looks different.

Last week, Obama surprised the world by normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba after a half-century freeze. Before that, he struck significant deals with China on climate change and trade. He launched a new war in Iraq, the country from which he had long promised to extricate the United States. And in a little-noted but important move, he extended a limited U.S. combat role in Afghanistan for at least another year, stretching his 2014 deadline for a pullout.

Only recently criticized as passive, Obama suddenly looks hyperactive.

And there’s more to come. Obama still hopes to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran, a diplomatic achievement that will produce major controversy. He plans to lift as many economic sanctions on Cuba as Congress will allow. And aides say they will consider yet another attempt at Middle East peace talks if Israel’s March election produces a receptive government.

What happened?

“My presidency’s entering its fourth quarter,” Obama said at his news conference on Friday. “Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.”

Has he undergone a conversion from a president bent on minimizing foreign entanglements to one who’s actively seeking opportunities for diplomatic boldness? Is he admitting he was aiming too low and risking too little?

Not really. Obama’s foreign policy was never quite as passive as its critics made it out to be — and today, it’s not quite as brilliant and visionary as administration officials try to make it sound.

What we’re seeing, instead, is how circumstance, luck, plus a measure of diplomatic skill, can bring about a run of better-than-average results.

Some of it is the slow ripening of efforts launched long ago. The talks with Cuba took 18 months, plus a push from Pope Francis. The climate deal with China was more than a year in the making. The nuclear talks with Iran have been under way even longer.

U.S. diplomacy has benefited from one huge piece of luck: the increase in North American oil production and the drop in world oil prices. That has made the U.S. and its allies less vulnerable economically and has reduced the running room of adversaries such as Russia and Iran.

The 2014 congressional election played a part, too. The fact that Obama has survived his last campaign has freed him to use his foreign policy powers more freely — as he did in normalizing relations with Havana. A Republican-controlled Senate won’t make his life easy, but he no longer needs to worry as much about the electoral impact on Democrats if, for example, he concludes a nuclear deal with Iran.

And part of Obama’s recent activism hasn’t, strictly speaking, been at his own initiative; he’s been forced to react to unwanted events, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of Islamic State. In Afghanistan, he agreed to continue U.S. combat support for the Afghan armed forces after U.S. military officials warned that without American help, Kabul’s forces could quickly crumble.

In the end, the pillars of Obama’s foreign policy haven’t changed. He’s still avoiding most invitations to employ U.S. military power in foreign conflicts; there’s no appetite for getting more directly involved in Syria or for supplying weapons to Ukraine. He’s still persuaded that diplomatic engagement is most likely to bear fruit with adversaries — hence the talks with Cuba and the widening of discussions with Iran to include the future of Syria and Iraq.

And even though he has revived the Clinton-era slogan of the U.S. as “the indispensable nation,” Obama is still trying to adjust the goals and means of U.S. diplomacy to a world in which the United States has less absolute power, less money and less appetite for military adventures.

And his administration is still capable of diplomatic missteps. David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and author of National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, wrote recently: “It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office.”

I asked Rothkopf last week whether the administration’s recent successes had caused him to revise his assessment. Not yet, he said.

Obama’s fourth-quarter foreign policy looks better than it did six months ago. But for good and ill, a lot can happen in two years — and it will.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Photo: President Obama at a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room on Friday, Dec. 19, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Where Have Ebola’s Fear-Mongers All Gone?

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Remember Ebola?

Only two months ago, many Americans were gripped by fear of the uncontrollable spread of an apparently incurable disease that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected could strike 1.4 million people in West Africa before it came under control.

Amid such reports, it took only one case to touch off near-panic inside the United States: that of Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan after he was misdiagnosed by a Dallas hospital.

In the weeks that followed Duncan’s death, state and local governments reacted — and sometimes overreacted. Several schools barred teachers and children who had visited African countries that were nowhere near the epidemic. In Maine, a teacher was put on leave because she had visited Dallas.

And then election-year politics kicked in.

Members of Congress, mostly Republicans, warned that Ebola could be carried into the country by illegal immigrants or even terrorists, and demanded a ban on travelers entering the United States from the affected countries. Governors scrambled to draft quarantine regulations, producing a showdown between Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and a nurse he tried to confine to a tent. (The nurse won.)

And now? The crisis is all but forgotten. We’ve moved on.

The epidemic is ebbing in Liberia, but still spreading in Sierra Leone. The World Health Organization estimates there have been about 18,000 cases, including more than 6,300 deaths: tragic numbers, but far below the apocalyptic scenario once predicted.

Only four cases of the disease have been diagnosed in the United States, two of them in people who contracted the disease in West Africa. And we’ve learned that when Ebola is identified early, in a country with a functioning healthcare system, the disease is treatable after all.

“What’s the one word you haven’t heard a politician say since Election Day?” Democratic strategist James Carville asked me a few weeks ago. “Ebola!”

I’m not blaming ordinary people for reacting as they did to a deadly epidemic they’d been told was difficult to stop.

I’m not even blaming governors who scrambled to impose quarantines to stop the spread of a disease they didn’t know much about. Their job was to protect their citizens. And when they discovered that their initial reactions might have been too broad, they pared them back — even Chris Christie.

It’s worth remembering, as well, that the Obama administration initially did a ham-handed job of mastering the crisis. Dr. Thomas Frieden of the CDC started out by assuring the country that the situation was under control — even though it wasn’t, at first.

But there is one list of politicians who still deserve a measure of scorn: the ones who fanned fear for fear’s sake.

This week, those politicians shared in an award they probably didn’t want: the annual “Lie of the Year” prize conferred by PolitiFact, the fact-checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times. They won, the paper said, because they deliberately “produced a dangerous and incorrect narrative” about an important global problem.

Before you dismiss that as another liberal media attack on the GOP, consider this: Last year’s PolitiFact winner for “Lie of the Year” was President Obama, for his promise that under his 2010 healthcare law, “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.”

The politicians mentioned in this year’s citation included Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), an ophthalmologist who may run for president.

His advice on Ebola included this warning: “This is an incredibly contagious disease. People in full gloves and gowns are getting it.”

Well, no, as thousands of medical workers in Africa can testify — not when true precautions are in place.

“This is something that appears to be very easy to catch,” Paul added. “If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party, they’re contagious and you can catch it from them.”

Theoretically true — but only if your cocktail party acquaintance is emitting fluids in your direction; Ebola can’t be transmitted by air.

Then there was Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA), another physician, who managed to combine two hot-button issues, Ebola and immigration. Gingrey announced that he had received “reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever and Ebola.”

Other members of Congress speculated that terrorists might infect themselves, sneak into the United States and try to spread the disease in crowded places. PolitiFact carefully said it couldn’t count that as a lie, since it was mere speculation.

But it was surely intended to increase fear. And fear is a powerful emotion, much easier to provoke than to ease.

So now that the acute fear of Ebola has ebbed, we should pause for a moment to thank some Americans who didn’t panic — and, more important, even did something to bring the epidemic closer to an end: the courageous relief workers who went to Africa, not knowing whether they’d be allowed to return home, relief workers that included roughly 3,000 U.S. military personnel who accepted deployment to Liberia as part of their jobs, and whose clinic-building mission will be complete soon. And yes, even those politicians, beginning with President Obama, who didn’t panic.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

The New Rand Paul Vs. The Old Rand Paul

By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Rand Paul, the heretofore libertarian senator from Kentucky, gave a foreign policy speech to Republican grandees in New York last week with a clear message: I’m not an isolationist like my dad.

The senator’s peppery father, the thoroughly libertarian former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, hardly ever saw a U.S. military intervention he liked. He said George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was nuts, suggested that the United States could live with a nuclear Iran and thought stationing U.S. troops overseas was just an expensive way to invite trouble.

On Thursday evening in a Manhattan ballroom, Sen. Paul, a probable GOP candidate for president in 2016, declared himself an advocate of “conservative realism” and named as his models Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower and even (on free trade, not military adventures) George W. Bush.

“The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world,” Paul said. Speaking in a way likely to make Dad shudder, he called military force “indispensable … when vital American interests are attacked and threatened,” and said he supports airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (but not arming Syrian rebels, whom he considers unreliable).

But the most intriguing aspect of the speech wasn’t Paul’s attempt to distance himself from his father; it was his attempt to distance himself from himself.

The old Rand, who ran for the Senate expressing strong libertarian views in 2010, is quite different from the new Rand, who’s gearing up for a possible presidential campaign.

Take the war on terror. A year ago, Paul gained national attention for his filibuster over drone strikes against U.S. members of Al Qaeda. And only a few months ago, Paul said he didn’t see any need to act against Islamic State. “Why should we choose a side?” he asked in a June 19 column in the Wall Street Journal.

But after the group beheaded two American journalists in Syria, the new Rand Paul abruptly turned 180 degrees. “If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS,” he said.

Then there’s U.S. aid to Israel. When he arrived in the Senate in 2011, the old Rand Paul proposed eliminating all foreign aid, including the roughly $3 billion a year that goes to the Jewish state. “Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don’t think so,” he told ABC News.

But when that position provoked fury from pro-Israel Republicans, the new Rand Paul backed down, voted in favor of renewed military aid and insisted that his point had been “misconstrued.”

In domestic affairs, the old Rand Paul, like his father, disliked federal civil rights laws barring racial discrimination by privately owned businesses such as rental apartments, hotels and restaurants.

“I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant. But at the same time, I do believe in private ownership,” he said in a 2010 interview.

When that kicked up a furor, the new Rand Paul issued a hasty clarification. “I would have voted yes,” he said, if he had been in Congress when the 1964 Civil Rights bill came up.

More recently, the new Rand Paul has not only called for reforming federal drug sentencing laws, which he says discriminate against African Americans, he says he would plow some of the money now spent on prisons into federal job training programs.

“I was blown away because I was thinking, this doesn’t sound like libertarianism to me,” the Rev. Kevin Cosby, a Louisville, Ky., civil rights leader who has advised Paul, told the New Yorker. “This sounds like big government.”

And on the social issues dear to a big chunk of the Republican electorate, Paul has been equally difficult to pin down. Like his father, he has vigorously opposed abortion rights, even in cases of rape or incest. He’s introduced the Life at Conception Act, which would guarantee federal civil rights to embryos beginning “at the moment of fertilization.”

But the new Rand Paul roiled the waters by saying he didn’t have a problem with Plan B, the day-after pill that may stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.

All those newfound nuances may make Paul more palatable to a broader cross-section of primary voters if he decides to seek the Republican nomination in 2016.

But he’s also created a problem for himself. Some of his original admirers aren’t sure they like him much anymore. Matt Welch, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, wrote that Paul was guilty of “slipperiness” at best, “flip-floppery” at worst.

Paul gets tetchy when reporters ask him about all those seeming changes in position, insisting that he’s being willfully misunderstood. A politician can get away with that when it’s only reporters who are asking.

But if he runs, the new Rand Paul will face real live opponents like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. They won’t let him sidle away from the exotic positions once championed by the old Rand Paul; they’ll insist that the new Rand Paul recant, rebut or reaffirm them. And that could mean a splendid debate, pitting the two Rand Pauls against each other — on live television, in split-screen.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

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