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Monday, December 09, 2019

The Shame Of The 'Where's Nancy?' Republicans -- And How To Stop Them

On Wednesday, President Biden argued that “democracy is on the ballot” this year and he’s right. About 300 heads-we-win-tails-you-lose authoritarian Republican candidates pose, in the words of conservative former Judge J. Michael Luttig, a clear and present danger” to the republic.

Take the Republican candidate for governor of Wisconsin, Tim Michels:

That’s scary enough. What’s less understood is that decency is on the ballot, too, and speaking out against cruel candidates could be a good closing argument for Democrats trying to motivate decent people — many of them independents — who make up their minds about whether to vote at the last minute.

Yes, voters care a lot more about inflation than the way politicians treat each other. And Democratic operatives are concerned that Biden’s speech reinforces the idea that the midterms are a referendum on him, which they don’t want it to be. But the Pelosi story brings Trump’s depravity — a huge motivator in the last two elections — back into the conversation at the right time for Democrats and it helps motivate the hundreds of thousands of volunteers they need for their get-out-the-vote operations by directly connecting January 6 to November 8. As Biden noted, the man who attacked Paul Pelosi used the same words as the insurrectionists: “Where is Nancy?”

But it wasn’t the attack of the nut job that so shook Biden and, arguably, American democracy. It was the reaction to it inside the GOP — the appalling fact that instead of coming together behind common decency, as every Democrat did after the 2018 shooting of GOP Rep. Steve Scalise by a leftwinger at a congressional baseball game, so many Republicans turned the whole thing into a cruel joke. Most important, these “‘Where’s Nancy?’ Republicans” refused to condemn political violence. For them, it’s almost as if they want the whiff of it to be part of their political identity — like support for tax cuts or opposition to mail-in ballots.

The problem is that violence is not just another position or tactic. It’s the gateway to true fascism, which has always had physical menace at its core. When you read accounts of Mussolini’s Black Shirts or Hitler’s Brown Shirts before the dictators took power, the thugs aren’t always beating people up on direct orders. They’re often doing so in the shadows, inspired by propaganda and covered by lies.

Trump peddled a ludicrous lie about the Pelosi attack. Per The New York Times:

“Weird things going on in that household in the last couple of weeks,” Mr. Trump said on the Chris Stigall show, winking at a lie that has flourished in right-wing media and is increasingly being given credence by Republicans. “The glass, it seems, was broken from the inside to the out — so it wasn’t a break-in, it was a break out.

This appeared as a “Political Memo” sidebar on page A14 in the print edition of the Times. In other words, it’s being played as just another “shocked but not surprised” story about Trump and the GOP.

I’ve used the “shocked but not surprised” formulation myself in the past but I now view it as a dangerous evasion of moral responsibility — the equivalent of offering “thoughts and prayers” after a school shooting. Think about all the sins it covers.

Trump, who is heavily favored to be the 2024 Republican nominee for president, is an Orange Alex Jones who peddles sick lies about an 82-year-old man in the ICU and our reaction is: “shocked but not surprised.”

I think we need to redefine major news so that it’s not only what’s new and surprising but also what’s shocking and dangerous to democracy, even if perfectly predictable.

So beyond voting next week, what do we do? Just as America is built on a set of ideas — the rule of law, fair play, the peaceful transfer of power — the road back to decency and democracy begins with ideas that eventually work their way into our thinking. Here’s one to consider, from a formidable public intellectual I always enjoyed interviewing.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died in 2003, will soon be best-known as a train station — well, actually, as Moynihan Train Hall, the spectacular new $1.6 billion dollar transit hub and concourse that he envisioned and that finally opened in the 100 year-old Farley Post Office Building across Eighth Avenue from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan.

In the 20th century, Moynihan was famous as a four-term senator from New York and a combative UN ambassador, but he was also a sociologist who wrote 15 books. In a landmark 1993 article in The American Scholar, titledDefining Deviancy Down, Moynihan built on the work of sociologists Emil Durkheim and Kai T. Erikson in explaining that when a society faces rising crime, it responds by “redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized.”

Moynihan wrote just after murders in New York City had peaked in 1990 at 2,245 — an average of more than seven a day. Last year brought 485 murders — between one and two a day — and that’s up 25 percent from a few years ago. What changed, in New York City and across the country? Possible explanations include more cops, new strategies for community policing, rigidly enforced gun control, and declining birth rates (partly attributable to increased abortions), among others. The larger idea that unifies them is that society should stop being numb to the problem — stop defining it down. Crime was still sky-high in 1993, but Moynihan saw reasons for hope:

I was hugely encouraged by an address which [New York City] Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly gave to the FBI's Second Symposium on Addressing Violent Crime Through Community Involvement. His address was entitled "Toward a New Intolerance" In it, he called for an intolerance of violence, an end to what Judge Edwin Torres describes as our "narcoleptic state" of acceptance….
… If our analysis wins general acceptance, if, for example, more of us came to share Judge Torres's genuine alarm at "the trivialization of the lunatic crime rate" in his city (and mine), we might surprise ourselves how well we respond to the manifest decline of the American civic order. Might.

Moynihan’s analysis did win “general acceptance” and — through the efforts of thousands of people in hundreds of cities — crime rates plummeted and stayed low for years.

Now, with crime ticking up, Republicans have found an issue that works for them politically. But their hypocrisy knows no bounds. After January 6, their position on the Capitol Police was: Back the blue— unless it’s a coup. After the attack on Paul Pelosi, their take is: the police are lying about what happened. The intruder was actually a gay hippie prostitute.

The lying, hypocrisy, and rampant election denying add up to a different kind of “decline of the American civic order.” The broad answer to the present crisis is to stop defining political deviancy down — and work like hell to save decency and democracy. We might surprise ourselves how well we respond. Might.

Jonathan Alter is a bestselling author, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, and a contributing correspondent and political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. His Substack newsletter is OLD GOATS: Ruminating with Friends.

Reprinted with permission from OLD GOATS

Praying For Rain: Why The Democrats Can Do Better Than Expected

Before getting to the encouraging news for Democrats, I want to stipulate a couple of things:

First, while it’s too early to know the full political impact of the violent attack on Paul Pelosi, the vicious MAGA conspiracy-mongering that was present in the assailant’s social media account is certain to change the national conversation in the ten days before the midterm elections. The depressing incident — a reflection of the dramatic increase in violent threats against members of Congress and other officials since Donald Trump’s election — will likely generate pressure on Republicans to denounce the violence on January 6 and explain their blind allegiance to Trump, who has retweeted dangerous QAnon lies for years. And it may highlight Nancy Pelosi’s reminder that “democracy is on the ballot” this fall. But right now, we have no idea if any of this will affect the outcome.

Second, even accounting for the Worrywart Gap — macho Republicans are always more confident about their chances than Debbie Downer Democrats (who use fears of losing to raise money in annoying emails) — holding the House seems increasingly out of reach for Democrats. The only question is whether it’s a blowout or closer-than-expected. The latter — which I anticipate — would put Democrats in a good position to regain control in 2024, after two years of the antics of Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the other creeps and fools who will be in charge of the House.

Why do I think we’ll see a mixed bag on November 8 instead of the full fruitcake? The short answer: Bad GOP Senate candidates, unreliable polls, and a stupid GOP turnout strategy.

I’m betting on Mark Kelly to beat Blake Masters in Arizona and Raphael Warnock to prevail over Herschel Walker in Georgia. Catherine Cortez Masto could go down in Nevada because her opponent, Adam Laxalt, isn’t crazy, though early voting there looks decent for Democrats. If one of those Democrats loses, holding the Senate would require John Fetterman and/or Tim Ryan flipping seats in Pennsylvania and/or Ohio, and I think at least one of them will. I’m not sure Mandela Barnes is going to make it, but don’t underestimate the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s legendary ability to turn out the vote. Cheri Beasley is within striking distance in North Carolina and Mike Franken has a bit of momentum against 89-year old Senator Chuck Grassley in Iowa. Utah is a wild card, with challenger Evan McMullin uniting independents and Democrats against Senator Mike Lee. To recap in a way I haven’t seen in the press, Democrats are having trouble defending seats in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada, while Republicans are having trouble doing so in Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah. Sounds to me like a recipe for continued Democratic control of the Senate.

It’s hard to know for sure, but I’d argue that many polls are over-estimating Republican strength. Like any political junkie, I need my fix of Nate Silver and Real Clear Politics but these numbers we obsess over are nearly useless for any race where the results are within the margin of error. And the MOE is often twice what most people assume. As Pew Research, a reputable name in the survey industry, explains:

To determine whether or not the race is too close to call, we need to calculate a new margin of error for the difference between the two candidates’ levels of support. The size of this margin is generally about twice that of the margin for an individual candidate.

In other words, the true margin of error when you look at polls is not three or four points, but six or eight. Then there’s the dirty little secret of the polling business — that response rates are down from 36 percent at the turn-of-the-century to about six percent in 2020, which means that polls with fewer than 1000 respondents (the experts can argue over that number) are likely to be skewed.

It gets worse: Many “junk polls” with small samples or partisan connections are nonetheless included in the ubiquitous polling averages that so many readers rely on. Cycle after cycle, Rasmussen, for instance, over-estimates support for Republican candidates by as many as 10 points. But that poll remains in the Real Clear Politics average. Garbage in, garbage out.

Even venerable polls have problems. Polls sponsored by news organizations — like the New York Times/Siena College, Wall Street Journal/NBC News and ABC News/Washington Post — are at least partially branding exercises, where the incentive to promote the results can lead to hype. (I know, because for nearly 30 years I had a front-row seat on the Newsweek Poll, administered by the Gallup Organization, which was responsible for the infamous 1988 poll showing Michael Dukakis with a huge lead over George H.W. Bushafter the Democratic Convention).

Of course these polls are among those hiding their response rates, which may be even lower than six percent, given rightwing dislike for the mainstream media. But it’s not just press-haters who don’t answer or hang up. For its June survey, the NYTimes/Siena poll reported that 63 percent of respondents were reached on cell phones.

Who answers calls from unknown numbers on their cell phones? Nobody I know. Younger people don’t even talk on their phones to friends. (They text). That should give us some idea of just how low the response rates are on those calls.

And how about the 37 percent with landlines? Do you know anyone under 40 who still has one? My wife and I are in our sixties and even we recently got rid of ours. That helps explain why raw polls —before pseudo-scientific adjustments — often skew old and thus Republican. Not surprisingly, polls publicly disclose only an overall sample size, not the sample size of each cross-tab (sub group). This suggests that results from younger respondents are based on shockingly small samples.

Given the limitations of both landlines and cell phones, many pollsters are transitioning to online polls. Their claims of success with this relatively new method might be true, but I’m suspicious. By their very nature, participants in online surveys are self-selecting, and not weighted for demographics. When they think their results are unreliable, pollsters make a series complex adjustments to get a representative sample, adjusting for party affiliation and other factors that might help. Of course this “weighting” of polls is as much art as science — junk science.

And small shifts in the samples can render a poll meaningless. After the 2020 election, Pew did a study that showed that a shift of a mere 36 votes out of a survey of 1,000 shrunk Biden’s 12-point lead to the four points he actually won by.

Let’s look at how far off the final polls were in recent elections. They weren’t bad in the 2018 midterms, which Democrats — riding a wave of anti-Trump feeling — won by 8.4 percent, slightly better than predicted by the Real Clear Politics average (which was hampered by a Rasmussen survey showing the Republicans winning by a point). Democrats picked up 41 seats in the House but Republicans won two in the Senate, which suggests (not for the first time) that national trends aren’t especially relevant in Senate contests.

The 2020 presidential election was a disaster for the polling industry, which avoided intense scrutiny only because of all the attention paid to Trump trying to steal the election. The final Real Clear Politics averages had Biden winning by 7.2 percent; he won by 4.5 percent. Quinnipiac, a well-respected poll, had Biden up by 11 and NBC/Wall Street Journal had him winning by 10. Does that mean Republicans have a bigger lead now than it seems from the polls? Maybe, but it also could be that pollsters this year have overcompensated for their 2020 failures by weighting their surveys in favor of Republicans.

I feel sorry for the pollsters assigned to build “likely voter” turnout models. It’s complicated, of course, but I’d argue for an Occum’s Razor approach. The simplest and most telling data point is that overall turnout surged in the last two elections, and it wasn’t a coincidence that Democrats won them both comfortably. The key midterm statistic for me is that youth turnout (18 to 29-year-olds) went from 20 percent in 2014 (a bad year for Democrats) to 36 percent in 2018 — a 79 percent jump. Two years later, new voters (those who voted in 2018 but not in 2016) backed Biden over Trump by about two-to-one.

Which brings us to this year, when early voting is way up from the past. Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network has been consistent — with me and others. No red wave, just a very close election. He thinks the early voting is looking good so far for Democrats:

But could it be that Republicans are just waiting for Election Day, when their anger over inflation and crime and President Biden will send them streaming to the polls? Maybe. In a Suffolk poll, inflation beats abortion by 16 points in the head-to-head matchup over which issue “matters more” in 2022—a disturbing finding for Democrats. Worse, about 60 percent of independents worry more about inflation.

But the Suffolk poll also shows that roughly half of women say abortion matters more, and neither this poll nor any other can truly measure how intensely these voters feel about it. The election could turn not on whether inflation or abortion is a bigger issue, but on which is a bigger motivator.

My sense is that while sporadic voters (the 50 to 60 million Americans who usually avoid midterms) are most concerned about inflation, more than a few may accurately (if cynically) conclude that no politicians in either party have any convincing plans to curb it — so they might as well follow their normal patterns and go to the gym or wherever instead of to the polls. By contrast, women voters most concerned about abortion know exactly where both parties stand and— if high turnout in this year’s special elections is any indication — will have a high likelihood of voting Democratic. My guess is that worries among younger men about their girlfriends getting pregnant could be an under-the-radar motivator. All it takes for Democrats to do well is for their numbers with younger voters to be close to those of 2018 than 2014.

Finally, I find it strange that there hasn’t been more commentary about the self-destructive GOP preference for Election Day voting. Tom Bonier, a Democratic consultant and CEO of TargetSmart, which does a great job tracking early voting, makes a good point about how Republicans will suffer because Trump made them abandon vote-by-mail, which is popular across the country for its convenience.

And that’s not even mentioning the weather. Everyone in politics knows that rain or snow dampens turnout. That maxim should now be revised to: Bad weather on Election Day hurts Republicans. Democrats can adopt the old line of Boston Braves fans about the great pitchers Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain:

“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”

Jonathan Alter is a bestselling author, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, and a contributing correspondent and political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. His Substack newsletter is OLD GOATS: Ruminating with Friends.

Reprinted with permission from OLD GOATS

Criminal Intent: The Select Committee Pointed The Way For Prosecutors

It has been three months sincethe last House Select Committee hearing — a lifetime in the theater of politics — so it was only natural that members opted to use Day Nine to offer a refresher course on how Donald Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election and end American democracy.

In doing so, they finally absorbed a lesson that Trump himself learned years ago: Repetition, which Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama found boring and the press abhors, is essential for imprinting a narrative on the public’s prefrontal cortex. There was a lot of commentary this week that the hearings didn’t move the needle with Republicans. But even if around a third of Americans refuse to accept it, the true story of what happened is now set in concrete—a slab of settled history that won’t be easy to dislodge.

The Select Committee’s surprise ending — a subpoena of Trump — looks like a stunt, a way of staying relevant while members and staff prepare their final report. Trump is so guilty — and his behavior so indefensible — that even in the unhinged 14-page letter he released on Friday he doesn’t try to rebut any of the committee’s findings. The gist of his screed is that he’s upset that Congress won’t investigate the claims of vote fraud dismissed in late 2020 by 60 state and federal courts and his own Department of Justice. It’s better that he wasn’t subpoenaed a long time ago; that spared us months of pointless wrangling that would have interfered with the Select Committee’s compelling presentation of the case against him. But now’s the time for the distraction. The fake drama of whether he’ll comply with the subpoena (he won’t) will keep his name in the news and maybe help drive some Democratic turnout in the midterms.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the committee chair, opened Day Nine by making an important point about the genuine bipartisanship of this investigation, which goes beyond the presence of two Republicans -- Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) on the Select Committee:

When you look back at what has come out through this committee's work, the most striking fact is that all this evidence came almost entirely from Republicans. The evidence that has emerged did not come from Democrats or opponents of Donald Trump. Instead, look at who's written and testified and produced evidence.

As she has throughout the hearings, Cheney got to the essence of what the Select Committee wanted to convey on Thursday:

President Trump knew from unassailable sources that his election fraud claims were false. He admitted he had lost the election. He took actions consistent with that belief. Claims that President Trump actually thought the election was stolen are not supported by fact and are not a defense.
There is no defense that Donald Trump was duped or irrational. No president can defy the rule of law and act this way in a constitutional republic, period.

For those of you scoring at home, there was fresh stuff on Thursday. The most striking was the new video from inside the secure location where congressional leaders in both parties were held. Drawn from an upcoming HBO documentary shot and directed by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of the speaker, it proves Trump was lying when he claimed Pelosi and other congressional leaders in both parties didn’t try to bring in reinforcements for Capitol Police. It also includes this soundbite for the ages:

My two big substantive takeaways: First, the Committee offered new evidence of Trump’s premeditation and criminal intent, a requirement for convicting him in any conspiracy case the Justice Department might bring. Second, it now seems likely that pro-Trump elements within law enforcement downplayed or ignored clear signs that a violent attack on the Capitol was coming. (As outside reinforcement of that impression, NBC News broke a story Thursday of an FBI whistleblower reporting that a “sizable percentage” of the Bureau was sympathetic to the insurrectionists).

The first takeaway fits into the familiar pattern of every revelation about Trump — it’s shocking but not surprising. We learned that October 31, 2020 — nine days before the election — is an important date in establishing that the coup attempt was pre-meditated. That’s when Tom Fitton, the same conservative activist who months later advised Trump that he didn’t need to return any of the purloined documents he kept at Mar-a-Lago, wrote a memo about the strategy for Election Night. Fitton counseled the president to say, “We had an election today - and I won.” He told Trump to insist that no ballots received after the polls closed (i.e. any mail-in ballots) should be counted.

Just after 5 p.m. on Election Day, Fitton spoke to Trump about the plan. (“Sending along again,” Fitton emailed Mike Pence’s staff. “Just talked to him about the draft below.”). In the wee hours, Trump went before the cameras to claim victory and declare that vote-counting should stop, just as Fitton had advised before anyone went to the polls.

Trump was executing a sinister coup plot hatched months earlier. Brad Parscale, Trump’s former 2020 campaign manager, testified that Trump planned as early as July to claim that he won even if he lost. And Steve Bannon, speaking a few days before the election in 2020 to a group of Chinese (!) visitors, said this:

LEAKED AUDIO: Trump planned to falsely claim victory, according to Bannonyoutu.be


Some lawyers have argued that Trump’s state of mind — his belief that he actually won the election —will be a good defense for him in the Georgia case, where he looks terrible in telling Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes.”


Trump Pressed Georgia Official to Find 11,000 Votes in Heated Callyoutu.be


In truth, Trump knew he had lost even if he could not ever accept it. Establishing criminal intent requires the former but not the latter. On Thursday, the Committee revisited the several occasions when Trump discussed having lost the election (“Can you believe I lost to this fucking guy?” he asked White House Former White House Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah), plus Attorney General William Barr’s testimony that he repeatedly informed the president that a thorough DOJ probe had shown there was “zero basis” to the fraud claims in Georgia or any other state and that Trump was “doing a grave, grave disservice to the country” in pushing them.

The Select Committee also drove home the fresh and legally significant point that Trump had not only been told he lost but was acting on his acknowledgment of it. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, in what will likely be his farewell appearance, explained how four days after the election (on the day Joe Biden was declared the victor) Trump signed orders “which would have required the immediate withdrawal of troops from Somalia and Afghanistan, all to be complete before the Biden inauguration on January 20th.” The National Security Council and Pentagon pushed back hard at this rash and unworkable decision, which Trump made so as to get credit for the withdrawal before he left office. “These are the highly conscious actions of a president who knows his term will end,” Kinzinger explained.

Similarly, when Trump lost his final appeal to the Supreme Court on December 11, he was livid that the justices he appointed would do this to him. His “state of mind” was not that he had actually won in the high court; he simply defied the decision and thus the rule of law. Cassidy Hutchinson, the star witness of these hearings, heard Trump tell his chief of staff:

I don't want people to know we lost, Mark [Meadows]. This is embarrassing. Figure it out. We need to figure it out. I don't want people to know that we lost.

Kinzinger summed up Trump’s criminal and seditious intent:

Not only did the courts reject President Trump's fraud and other allegations, his Department of Justice appointees, including Bill Barr, Jeffrey Rosen, and Richard Donoghue did as well. President Trump knew the truth. He heard what all his experts and senior staff were telling him. He knew he had lost the election, but he made the deliberate choice to ignore the courts, to ignore the Justice Department, to ignore his campaign leadership, to ignore senior advisers, and to pursue a completely unlawful effort to overturn the election.
His intent was plain. Ignore the rule of law and stay in power.

Here’s where the plot thickens. Rep. Elaine Luria pointed to mid-December as a turning point: “Even when top law enforcement officials told the president his election fraud claims were false, he still repeated the claims in the days and weeks that followed.” Luria then proved her argument in dramatic fashion by juxtaposing testimony of Trump being told in private that fraud claims in Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere were phony with Trump amplifying those lies in public the very next day.

This was an important moment in Thursday’s hearing. Afterwards, Andrew Weissmann, a former Assistant United States Attorney, explained on MSNBC that “the way you build a case is to show the gap between what he knows privately and what he says publicly. These repeated lies will be devastating if [Merrick] Garland pulls the trigger.”

As if previewing an effective summation for the jury at a criminal trial, Select Committee members reprised some highlights from earlier hearings:

  • Ivanka Trump’s friend Julie Radford in the Oval Office witnessing an irate Trump call Pence “the p-word” on the phone on the morning of January 6th when he learned Pence wouldn’t steal the election for him
  • Pence saying of that plot that “there’s no idea more un-American than the notion that any one man can determine who is president”
  • RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel testifying that Trump was on the call with her and John Eastman when they discussed the fake electors scheme (a subject of great interest to DOJ’s fraud and RICO investigations)
  • Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Donald Trump Jr. and Kevin McCarthy pleading with Trump to tell his followers to leave the Capitol. When he finally did, nearly three hours after first learning about the violence, the video of rioters immediately exiting spoke volumes about his power to stop the assault much earlier had he chosen to do so.

Beyond familiar elements of the coup attempt that still have the ability to shock, my second big takeaway from Day Nine involved the response of law enforcement. Call me naive, but even knowing about the widespread support inside the FBI for Trump in 2016, I was surprised that the Bureau would fail to act on intelligence in December of 2020 about a plot to attack the Capitol. For months, FBI Director Christopher Wray and other officials insisted they had no suspicion anyone was planning anything. Now, with evidence they alerted the Secret Service of violent threats, they got some ‘splaining to do.

And so does the Secret Service. Rep. Adam Schiff said that over the summer the Select Committee had collected more than one million emails, messages and documents related to the Secret Service and possible violence in Washington but apparently none of them are from January 5th or 6th, the only two dates from which everything has been lost or erased. White House and Secret Service witnesses previously testified that they had received no intelligence about violence that could have potentially threatened any of the protectees on January 6th, including the vice president. How conveeeenient.

Schiff was scathing about what the committee had heard from the Secret Service: “Evidence strongly suggests that this testimony is not credible.”

Had they been available, the January 5th and 6th texts might have shed light on why Tony Ornato, the former Secret Service agent serving as White House deputy chief of staff, wanted Pence evacuated from the Capitol to Andrews Air Force Base, where he would have been unable to certify that Biden had been elected. That’s when Pence uttered what Rep. Jamie Raskin famously calls “the six most chilling words in U.S. history: ‘I’m not getting in that car.’”

The Select Committee familiarized the public with “The Donald,” an online message board community that got its start in 2015 as a subreddit. A few days before January 6th, Jason Miller, a longtime senior adviser to Trump, texted Mark Meadows: “I GOT THE BASE FIRED UP.” He included a link to TheDonald.win that featured comments about the joint session of Congress on January 6th: "Gallows don't require electricity." "If the filthy commie maggots try to push their fraud through, there will be hell to pay." "Our lawmakers in Congress can leave one of two ways; one, in a body bag, two, after rightfully certifying Trump the winner.”

This smells like the president politicizing the Secret Service, turning it into a Praetorian Guard. And recent stories about Oath Keepers being in touch with a Secret Service official before January 6th raise a whole set of other questions. If either (or, miraculously, both) chambers of Congress remain in Democratic hands after the midterms, we need hearings next year devoted to the conduct of the FBI, Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security.

In the meantime, the Select Committee is helping DOJ cover the bases on criminal intent. After revisiting how Trump was told that his followers were refusing to go through metal detectors on the Ellipse, Rep. Pete Aguilar said:

Let’s pause at this point to consider President Trump's state of mind, his motivation at this moment. By that point, it was known to Secret Service that members of the crowd were armed. President Trump had been told, and there was no doubt that President Trump knew what he was going to do, sending an angry mob, a number of whom were clad in tactical gear and military garb, armed with various weapons to the Capitol. There's no scenario where that action is benign.

As in prior hearings, Raskin did a good job contextualizing events. When Trump finally told his people to go home, Raskin read his statement aloud, then unpacked it:

“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously, viciously, stripped away from great patriots who have been badly unfairly treated for so long.”
These are the things that happen, he said, giving the whole game away. Trump was telling us that the Vice President, the Congress, and all the injured and wounded cops, some of whom are with us today, got what was coming to us. According to Trump. January 6th should not be a day that lives in shame in infamy in our history, but rather in glory.
Remember this day forever, he wrote proudly, as if he were talking about D-Day or the Battle of Yorktown. Trump did nothing to stop the deadly violence for obvious reasons. He thought it was all justified. He incited it and he supported it.

While the Select Committee will likely reconvene when it releases it’s report, this was almost certainly the last of these terrific show-and-tell sessions that have set a new standard for high-profile congressional hearings. Even when hearings return to the squabbling and preening of the past, they will more often feature a multi-media dimension and a new concern about not boring the audience.

If nothing else, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has provided a vivid historical record and the building blocks of true accountability. Can those blocks be assembled into a convincing criminal case that deters future assaults on the republic? We’re about to find out.

Jonathan Alter is a bestselling author, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, and a contributing correspondent and political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. His Substack newsletter is OLD GOATS: Ruminating with Friends.

Reprinted with permission from OLD GOATS

Biden: To Defend Democracy, We Must Extend Democracy

“You are either with us, or with the terrorists.”

That’s how President George W. Bush framed the challenge just after 9/11. Bush went on to make some terrible decisions, including to invade a country—Iraq—that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack on the United States. But at the time, the clarity of those words was bracing.

Now, 21 years later, President Biden has done something similar in response to today’s threat. He has properly framed the great political challenge of our time, not just for the 2022 and 2024 elections but through at least the middle part of the 21st Century, when Donald Trump’s cult followers will still be roaming the land.

Biden was basically saying, You are either with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that were written just behind me—that’s “us”—or you are with the political terrorists who use fear and threats of violence to get their way. There’s no middle ground.

In parliamentary systems, politics is mostly about building coalitions. American politics requires that, too, but here politicians prevail by invoking our ideals, drawing lines, framing issues, stigmatizing the other side. Biden did all of that in his fine speech. He finally recognized that his gauzy message of unity was obsolete amid the Democracy Crisis (and yes, let’s start capitalizing it). So he jettisoned it in favor of the unvarnished truth.

When Biden first started calling Trumpsters “MAGA Republicans,” I thought it was too soft and abstract. I was wrong. The term simultaneously recognizes that the threat will last longer than Trump himself and leaves room for respecting patriotic Republicans. It will live in the American political lexicon forever.

It doesn’t matter that most TV viewers were watching Press Your Luck, Young Sheldon or a Law and Order rerun, or that much of the press dismissed the speech as a political pep rally, or that the usual rightwing blowhards were projecting again with their nonsense about Biden being the bad guy. The president hammered the new frame into wall, where it will hang just fine:

“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

“MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people.”

“The Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.”

In early August, Biden met with a group of historians. They drew his attention to two other historic inflection points: 1860, when Abraham Lincoln ran for president after warning that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and 1940, a period described by historian Lynn Olson as “those angry days,” when emotions ran so high for and against intervention to stop Hitler that Arthur Schlesinger later said it was the most bitter struggle of his lifetime—worse than McCarthyism or fights over the Vietnam War.

I take no comfort from those historical analogies because both were only resolved by violence. In 1861, Southerners refused to accept Lincoln’s election and launched the Civil War. And in 1941, it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—not FDR’s speeches about the importance of democracy—that ended the acrimony over intervention.

This time, we need to protect democracy peacefully. That means exercising it in the courtroom—by proving that even presidents aren’t above the law—and at the ballot box, where a big turnout can save the day. “We need everyone to do their part,” Biden said. “So speak up. Speak out. Get engaged. Vote, vote, vote.” It’s like the principle of fighting bad speech with good speech. The only way to defend democracy is to extend democracy.

This won’t be easy, and not just because the Orange Menace has the survival skills of a feral animal. As Biden put it, MAGA Republicans believe it’s “either we win or we were cheated.” A crisis that began with one megalomaniac’s refusal before the 2020 election to commit to the peaceful transfer of power has become the animating principle of what was once the party of Lincoln.

Biden’s speech should help Democrats build on their momentum this fall. His aim is not persuasion but mobilization—to place democracy itself on the ballot so that so-called “sporadic” Democratic voters (who usually vote only quadrennially), elusive independents and patriotic Republicans (about 20-30 percent of the GOP are pro-democracy) understand that this is not just another boring midterm election. Even if voters don’t like him, Biden reasoned, they like Trump less, and fear giving MAGA Republicans the keys to the car. In a new NBC News poll, “threats to democracy” passed inflation as the number one issue for voters in both parties—69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans placed it first. Of the latter, it’s hard to know how many are Liz Cheney Republicans and how many are more of the Kari Lake fascist variety, who believe “threats” are indistinguishable from “Democrats.”

A Biden-Trump rematch, in absentia, since neither is on the ballot in 2022, looks good for Democrats. Biden leads Trump by six points in a new Wall Street Journal poll, which also shows independents trending toward the Democrats. That’s because wedge politics—using an emotional issue to energize supporters and divide the other party—works, even in an uncertain economy. It was once a Republican speciality. Now the Big Wedge is wielded by Democrats. It seems that democracy, of all things, has the potential to deliver some stinging losses to the GOP.

An instinct for democracy can also help create unscripted, authentic moments that people remember. When a protester in Philadelphia first started shouting at the president through a bullhorn, I was hoping someone would politely escort him out of earshot. Biden knew better. He deftly incorporated the heckling into his message: “They’re entitled to be outrageous. This is a democracy.” And then he tapped into the sense of decency that powers the pro-democracy movement: “Good manners is nothing they’ve ever suffered from.” Perfect.

Contrast that to Trump shouting at his 2016 rallies, “Get him the hell out of here! Get him out of here! Throw him out!” in Alabama or “I’d like to punch him in the face” in Las Vegas, where he reminisced, “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

Unfortunately, Biden missed a chance to drive home an even sharper contrast. At one point, he said, “They [MAGA Republicans] look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th — brutally attacking law enforcement — not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger to the throat of our democracy, but they look at them as patriots.”

This would have been the perfect place to refer to Trump saying earlier in the day on a rightwing radio show that if he's reelected, he will offer “full pardons with an apology to many” of the insurrectionists. Pardons to people convicted of viciously assaulting Capitol police officers? This will be a great issue for Democrats. It crystallizes Trump’s contempt for law enforcement and lack of patriotism. As Biden explained, ”You can’t love your country only when you win."

The president was right to strike a hopeful tone. Even when it rang false (“I’ve never been more optimistic about America’s future”), he grasped the importance of connecting Americans to our idealized version of ourselves.

For years, Biden has ended his speeches by saying “And may God protect our troops.” Now, with the war in Afghanistan over and a new crisis looming at home, he has amended that. He concluded the most important speech of his presidency this way:

“And may God protect our nation. And may God protect all those who stand watch over our democracy. God bless you all.”

Then one final word:

“Democracy.”

Jonathan Alter, a political analyst for MSNBC, writes the Old Goats newsletter on Substack. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.

Reprinted with permission from OLD GOATS with Jonathan Alter.



O.J. Trump And The Mar-A-Lago 'Plant'

“This is sad, O.J.” That’s what Ron Shipp, a police officer and friend of O.J. Simpson, said on the stand at Simpson’s murder trial when he learned the defense was trying to suggest that the former football player was framed.

Donald Trump has often been compared to Benito Mussolini, George Wallace and Richard Nixon, with the last two, at least, looking a little better than he does on close inspection. Now add O.J., who — like Trump — tried to cover his guilt with the time-honored approach of so many defendants: by blaming the police.

OK, Trump hasn’t killed anyone (unless you count the roughly 200,000 coronavirus deaths that could have been avoided had he urged masks and vaccination.) But if he did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, his cult followers would rally around him at approximately the same decibel level as they have in the days since the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago on Monday.

The torrent of attacks on the FBI and Democrats is not likely to subside much, even after the release of the warrant Friday (a preemptive move by Trump World), which included clear probable cause. We learned that the former president had refused to comply with a subpoena for highly-classified documents that he was hoarding at home. At a minimum, Trump failed to secure nuclear secrets from the prying eyes of the many spies posing as lounge lizards and visiting suck-ups at his club. House Republicans cancelled a press conference after the attack on the FBI office in Cincinnati by a January 6 insurrectionist (later killed by authorities), but they’ll be back on the warpath soon enough, however dangerous their incitement might be. On Friday night, their despicable leader released the names of the FBI agents who searched his mansion, painting a MAGA target on their backs.

Trump’s “Free O.J.!” mob is following a preposterous script. The liars and enablers who make up today’s GOP are trying to cast Attorney General Merrick Garland — the straightest of straight arrows— in the improbable role of Mark Fuhrman, a cop who became more despised during the 1994 O.J. trial than the murder suspect himself. See, Garland is worse than Trump! Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul, Jesse Watters and other Trump lackeys now claiming evidence was “planted” at Mar-a-Lago are doing their best imitations of Simpson’s facile attorney, the late Johnnie Cochran, though that is terribly unfair to Cochran.

Let’s just uproot the “planted evidence” argument for a moment. It’s being spread now by Trump himself, a sign that he’s worried about the evidence the FBI has gathered. It goes without saying that his conspiracy-addled cult followers will keep peddling this lie for years. In the O.J. case, Cochran implied that Fuhrman or some other racist and crooked cop planted a bloody sock and a bloody glove and a bloody footprint from a Bruno Magli shoe at the murder scene and in Simpson’s house. This was far-fetched during the Simpson trial but it’s downright plausible compared to what would be required to plant evidence in the Mar-a-Lago case—evidence, of course, that had already been, uh, “declassified”.

Imagine what the FBI would have to do to frame Trump. It’s a helluva lot harder than, say, planting drugs on an 18-year-old Black kid in a bad neighborhood, a crime that is more common than most people assume. Corrupt FBI technicians would somehow have to forge highly-classified documents about nuclear weapons that would then have to stand up in court as authentic. Easy-peasy!

That’s about as much juice as I can squeeze out of O.J. Fortunately there are many other takeaways from last week’s stunning developments:

On the basic question of what motivated the search, I’m of two minds. Since 2015, I’ve operated on the assumption that whenever you think Trump has touched bottom, he crashes through the floor. Given that everything else about him ends up even worse than it first appeared, this would suggest that the documents will turn out to contain Trump’s hand-written notes on the coup plot, his betrayal of the United States at the 2018 Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin, or (and!) his apparent determination as far back as 2019 to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Now that he’s out of office and his family is making multi-billion dollar business deals with the royal family in Riyadh, the last of these might be the most likely scenario.

At the same time, there’s a lot to suggest this really is just about mishandling classified material—an offense the government has always taken very seriously, and which DOJ argues in the warrant violates not only the Presidential Records Act but possibly the Espionage Act and statutes on obstruction of justice. Trump and his flunkies are already insisting that as president he had the power to issue a “standing order” declassifying even nuclear secrets without going through any “bureaucratic” process. Nuclear secrets—no biggie. Who cares if some deep state types say this release of this information would pose an “exceptionally grave” threat to national security? Expect to hear that fatuous claim about 5,000 times on Fox in the next couple of years, then again in court.

Could Garland, famous for playing it by the book, have merely been enforcing a subpoena from last spring for the boxes of documents belonging to the government that Trump was refusing to hand over? Now that the secrets are safe, might he call it a day on Trump’s failure to protect them? Possibly so, though it’s more likely the still-sealed government affidavit that accompanied the warrant includes something less “stale,” as prosecutors put it.

William M. Arkin, an intelligence expert and great reporter I know and trust, writes that two sources tell him that there was a “mole” at Mar-a-Lago. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that “someone familiar with the stored papers told investigators there may be still more classified documents at the private club after the National Archives retrieved 15 boxes earlier in the year.” That—not a “weaponized” DOJ—is what precipitated the search warrant.

Trump claims to be buoyed by supporters rallying behind him but he’s got to be worried about exactly what’s in those 27 additional boxes removed on Monday. One of them contained material on Roger Stone and his pardon. Might there be something else in Stone’s files that implicates Trump? Michael Cohen, Trump’s onetime fixer, told CNN that his old boss no doubt “feels trapped” and is worried that the source Trump calls a “rat” (spoken like true mobster) has more dirt on him.

Many commentators across the spectrum this week thought that mishandling and withholding classified material was too small a crime to justify prosecuting Trump — as if anything short of the former president committing treason did not justify enforcing the law; as if the Feds in the 1930s should not have prosecuted Al Capone for something as minor as income tax evasion. Really? Law enforcement should retreat in the face of partisan noise and threats of violence?

In my cable news gorging this week, it felt as if many of the same analysts saying that Garland was too aggressive if he didn’t have something earth-shaking were claiming a month ago that he wouldn’t be aggressive enough. The only thing that changed was the simultaneously terrifying and tiresome cannonade from the GOP. It intimidated a surprising number of people into accepting Trump’s frame on the story—until Garland, late in the week, turned the tables.

But of course the carnival of hypocrisy will never close. Trumpsters don’t oppose all law enforcement, only the investigations aimed at them. They’re against defunding the police until they’re for defunding the FBI.

It was only six years ago that Trump got elected in part by harping on Hillary Clinton’s emails, which might have contained classified information unsecured on her private server. He said the issue was disqualifying and delegates to the Republican National Convention — the same people making excuses for him today — chanted ominously: “Lock Her Up!”

Sometimes the hypocrisy is so bald even Trump can’t ignore it. “I once asked [not “once,” about 50 times], ‘If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?’” he said after pleading the Fifth more than 400 times on Wednesday in a deposition in a civil suit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James. “Now I know the answer to that question.”

As it happens, Trump was correct the first time, though no president should trample on any constitutional right. In civil cases, it’s permissible for a jury to infer guilt from a defendant taking the Fifth. Which is why Trump is likely to owe millions in civil judgments stemming from his financial shenanigans.

In the meantime, the braying of the asses continues unabated. “This is the worst attack on the republic in modern history—period,” the powerful radio host Mark Levin thundered on Fox News. How so, Mark? Because it is “unprecedented”? (A word that newscasters this week turned into a pejorative.)

Kevin Williamson, an anti-Trumpist, had a good response to that in the National Review:

“The FBI’s serving a search warrant on Donald Trump’s residence is not — in spite of everything being said about it — unprecedented. The FBI serves search warrants on homes all the time. Donald Trump is a former president, not a mystical sacrosanct being.”
If we really believe, as we say we believe, that this is a republic, that nobody is above the law, that the presidency is just a temporary executive-branch office rather than a quasi-royal entitlement, then there is nothing all that remarkable about the FBI serving a warrant on a house in Florida.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and the others demagoguing the issue all know better. They know the FBI search did not break or even bend the law. It was the temerity of it that they thought, rightly, would be red meat for the base — the very idea that anyone would dare hold their Dear Leader to account. We’re all so inured to rightwing nonsense that Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) comparing the FBI to the Gestapoflies right past us—as if executing a search warrant is the same as executing six million Jews.

Fortunately, Garland is genuinely non-political, which means he won’t let the political assessment of how his prosecution is “playing” impede his efforts. In fact, the most important — and gratifying — conclusion we can draw from the Mar-a-Lago search is that the long debate over the intentions of the attorney general — does he have the intestinal fortitude to prosecute Trump? — is over. He may not be a flashy hard-charger, but his steady, implacable will to push back against outrageous intimidation and uphold the rule of law — wherever that might lead — is now on the display for the whole world.

On Thursday, Garland skillfully called Trump’s bluff that the attorney general would stay silent while the former president controlled the media narrative. All week, it bothered me that even some good reporters and interviewers fell for Trump’s ferocious spin, and imposed a double-standard that conjured 2016 and boded ill for 2024. I wasn’t alone. Ben Rhodes, a former Obama speechwriter, tweeted:

If Garland’s seriousness about holding Trump to account was the best news of the week, the worst news was how Republicans closed ranks around the former guy. I’m not worried about it in terms of the midterms. The Republicans enraged by the Mar-a-Lago “raid” were already certain to turn out for Republican candidates. It’s hard to imagine swing or sporadic voters (those who usually avoid midterms) coming out in droves because Trump is playing the victim card again.

But this episode may make it more likely that Trump will be the Republican nominee in 2024. It gives him something to talk about other than the “stolen” 2020 election, which was boring even some of his ardent supporters. As his cult of personality further solidifies, you’ll see Ron DeSantis’ stock heading south.

It’s scary to watch the Kool-Aid going down the hatch. Here’s Matt Schlapp [Chairman of CPAC]:

“It’s an unshakable bond. People ask the question—Is he the leader? .. Yes, and I think he will be until he takes his last breath.”

His last breath — in the bunker? So even if slam dunk evidence emerges that Trump is a traitor, you wouldn’t criticize him, Matt? There are literally NO circumstances where he is not your leader? This isn’t a smitten insurrectionist saying this. Schlapp was George W. Bush’s White House political director. As head of the American Conservative Union and now CPAC, he’s arguably the leading “conservative” (whatever the hell that means nowadays) in the U.S. today. And all he can say is, “Heil Trump!”

The 2020s are not the 1990s, when peace and prosperity allowed us to distract ourselves with low-stakes melodramas like the O.J. Simpson trial. This is not a drill. I don’t think Trump will be reelected; even before January 6, he never cracked 50 percent approval ratings and had alienated broad swaths of independent voters. But history shows anything is possible when you receive the nomination of a major political party. If Trump is the 2024 GOP nominee and we have a severe recession, he can argue how great his economy was from 2017 to 2020, a misleading but plausible claim, and—with the help of election deniers in key states—slip back into the Oval Office. What would happen next is not a liberal fever dream but, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a mortal threat to American democracy. This time, Trump would know what he’s doing. Within weeks, the FBI would be transformed from a “deep state” enemy into the new dictator’s secret police. Bet on it.

Jonathan Alter, a political analyst for MSNBC, writes the Old Goats newsletter on Substack. Alter's most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.

Reprinted with permission from Old Goats

When Obamacare Polls Are Accurate Without Being True

As Republicans form a circular firing squad, nervous Democrats continue to believe that this is a depressing time when the future of Obamacare is on the line.

There is some reason for worry: the Koch brothers are spending millions trying to get young people to “opt out” of seeking health insurance at the state level, which could wreck the risk pool essential for the program’s success.

But young people, who as a group support President Obama, aren’t likely to buy Koch lies. And Hollywood progressives are about to unveil a strange-bedfellows alliance with insurance companies that will spend tens of millions of dollars telling Americans the truth — that they are better off with Obamacare being fully implemented.

Meanwhile, the chances of the Affordable Care Act being defunded in Washington are between zero and none, as many Republicans are now acknowledging. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) doesn’t have the votes for his strategy of threatening a government shutdown over Obamacare, and everyone but Cruz knows it. Karl Rove wrote an impassioned plea to Republicans not to use this “ill-conceived tactic.” Some analysts believe a government shutdown, which would almost certainly be blamed on the GOP,  could even give Democrats an outside shot at winning back the House in 2014.

So why the jitters on the left? At least part of the explanation lies in polls on Obamacare that have been misunderstood or stripped of context. Over and over, Americans have been told that the public doesn’t support the president’s signature achievement. This is true in only the most literal sense of the word. It turns out that the idea behind the new law — universal coverage — is backed by a strong majority.

To get a sense of how the media are misreporting the story, consider a September 15 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. As David Weigel has noted in Slate, this is one of the most reliable polls around.  It found public widespread ignorance about the law, which will be implemented beginning October 1, and a high level of skepticism about Obamacare’s ability to improve people’s lives The poll reported that 30 percent of respondents thought it would have a negative impact on their families and only 12 percent were convinced it would be positive. More than half felt — accurately — that it would have no impact on their families.

But those weren’t the results that made headlines. It was the overall figure — 43 percent support Obamacare and 54 percent oppose it — that received wide coverage, just as similar poll numbers have in the past.

This is a classic example of something being accurate without being true.

As New York Times columnist Charles Blow has noted, a new CNN/ORC Poll shows that while 35 percent of the public (the conservative base) oppose Obamacare because it’s too liberal, 16 percent oppose it because it isn’t liberal enough

In other words, 59 percent of the American public either supports Obamacare or wants it to go further.

This casts an entirely new light on the health care debate and further isolates the obstructionists. They are now exposed as radicals who believe in extortion rather than elections — a fringe group of what John McCain in another context called “wacko birds.”

More evidence to bolster that point comes from a CNBC poll that shows the public opposed to cutting off funding for Obamacare by 44 to 38 percent. If it meant a government shutdown, nearly 60 percent oppose defunding. Surely if a majority opposed the idea of Obamacare, a similar majority would oppose the funding of it.

Liberals are justifiably upset about the way public opinion has been misreported on this issue, and most of the blame rests with reporters who don’t probe the internals of polls deeply enough.

But progressives have a role to play in changing the way the polling looks.

Longtime supporters of a single-payer system (I am among them) need to stop telling pollsters that they don’t like Obamacare, even if its provisions seem inadequate to them. Otherwise they will continue to be lumped in with Tea Party types and depicted as standing against a landmark achievement that liberals have been seeking since universal coverage first appeared in Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party (Bull Moose) Platform of 1912.

Photo: LaDawna’s pics via Flickr.com

Bush’s Long-Shot Campaign To Be Seen As Truman

April 26 (Bloomberg) — The dedication this week of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum was more than an opportunity for the five living U.S. presidents to compare notes on what Stefan Lorant called “the glorious burden” of the office.

It also was the beginning of Bush’s campaign for rehabilitation. As Bill Clinton said at the ceremony, all presidential libraries are attempts “to rewrite history.”

Bush’s ultimate goal — already hawked by his former political advisor Karl Rove — is to become another Harry S. Truman, a regular-guy commander in chief whose stock rose sharply about 20 years after he left office.

The superficial comparisons are intriguing. Vice President Truman only became president because Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. The failed haberdasher and product of the Kansas City political machine was unlikely to make it to the top on his own. He was a plain-spoken, unpretentious man who cared enough about racial injustice that he desegregated the armed forces.

Bush became president because he was born on third base, to paraphrase Texas governor Ann Richards’ quip about his father, and because of the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore in 2000; an unexceptional man who drank heavily until he was 40 probably wouldn’t have made it on his own. He’s a blunt, compassionate conservative who, as Jimmy Carter pointed out at the dedication, saw the ravages of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere and did something about it. (Bush also appointed two black secretaries of state.)

Like Iraq in Bush’s era, the Korean War was hugely unpopular when Truman left office in 1953, and his decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan was at least as controversial as Bush’s support for torture.

Still, you don’t have to be Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to know that the differences between Bush and Truman are much greater than the similarities.

In Korea, Truman was responding to communist aggression, not hyping unconfirmed stories about weapons of mass destruction.

While Truman’s “Marshall Plan” (named for his secretary of state, George C. Marshall) produced spectacular results in postwar Europe, Bush apparently didn’t even have a plan for postwar Iraq.

His decision to disband the Iraqi army was catastrophic. Iraq and the simultaneous neglect of Afghanistan are only the best-known Bush administration fiascos that are all but airbrushed out of the museum, though not out of the historical record.

A broader list would include weakening bank-capital requirements and prohibitions on predatory lending that helped pave the way for the financial crisis; botching the response to Hurricane Katrina; gutting federal rules on worker safety, education, veterans’ affairs and other protections; endorsing a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; editing climate-change reports to the specifications of ideologues; reinstating the global gag rule on family planning in deference to right-wing anti-abortion activists, and politicizing appointments to the federal bench and federal law enforcement.

All this is ignored by Bush apologists. Ed Gillespie, a longtime Republican operative who last year helped the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, offered a defense of Bush in National Review that sought to absolve him of any blame for the budget deficit. As if the trillion-dollar wars, unaffordable tax cuts, the $550 billion (unpaid-for) prescription-drug benefit and hundreds of billions of lost revenue in the recession that began on his watch could be erased from history.

The new museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas is cleverly designed to subsume Bush’s record within the burdens of the presidency. It includes a “Decision Theater” that puts visitors in the shoes of a president forced to make tough calls on a variety of pressing issues.

The subtext is that this is an extremely hard job and that you, the visitor, couldn’t do it any better than Bush did.

While this may make for a thought-provoking museum experience, it’s a low bar for presidential performance. Allowing for some mistakes, we should admire our presidents not because they have to face tough decisions but for making the right ones.

The “moral clarity” that is Bush’s claim to presidential respectability is only worth something if it results in clear achievement.

As a sign that even Bush knows his batting average on big decisions was low, the museum barely mentions Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other officials who helped him make them.

Cheney’s churlish behavior and frequent shots at President Barack Obama over the last four years have made Bush, who has refrained from criticism, look restrained and classy by comparison.

But you can’t flush a disastrous war down the memory hole. At the dedication, the word “Iraq” wasn’t mentioned once, and the museum covers the subject in a section devoted to “the Global War on Terror.”

Continuing to conflate Iraq with the Sept. 11 attacks is an insult to truth that historians will never be able to overlook.

On Sept. 14, 2001, I was in the White House press pool and was five feet from Bush as he stood atop a crushed truck as rescue workers at Ground Zero shouted that they couldn’t hear the president speak.

“I can hear you! I can hear you,” Bush said through a bullhorn. “The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” It was a defining moment for his presidency.

The problem that Bush can never get around is that “the people who knocked these buildings down” — namely, Osama bin Laden — didn’t hear from Bush, while others unconnected to the attacks did.

The bullhorn is in the museum. And so is the bull.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Congress’s Notorious B.I.G. Agenda Just May Pass

April 12 (Bloomberg) — That sound you’re hearing may be the cracking of gridlock in Washington.

Bipartisan bills on three of the big issues of 2013 — the budget, immigration and guns — could pass Congress this spring. If the B.I.G. agenda goes through, the public will cheer, providing incentives for politicians to do more. It would also go some way toward rescuing our system from being the embarrassment it is now.

The key to getting anything done is the combination of an inside game (cutting deals behind closed doors) and an outside game (rallying supporters, running blistering ads).

This week, Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania showed Washington how to legislate on guns. Both have “A” grades from the National Rifle Association (Manchin was even shown firing a rifle in a 2010 campaign ad) but enough sense to know that requiring comprehensive background checks before gun purchases is an idea whose time has come. More than 90 percent of the public supports background checks; the NRA did, too, back in 1999.

The deal won the enthusiastic support of President Barack Obama and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News). It had the backing of enough conservatives to defeat an attempted filibuster; the Senate voted 68 to 31 to begin debate next week on a measure that would expand background checks to the 40 percent of gun sales that are unregulated.

The measure has a good chance of passage in the Senate. That would be a serious setback for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. When you threaten a filibuster and lose, the next threat is less potent, which means diminished power to obstruct down the road.

Pessimists say background checks will fail in the House, where the NRA has a near-stranglehold on the Republican majority. But that fails to account for the new order of battle. Supporters of background checks have put a couple of dozen swing district House members on notice: If you oppose this bill, winning your primary against a Republican extremist won’t mean much because you’ll be in deep trouble in the general election.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of millions of dollars’ worth of ads featuring the parents of slain Newtown children denouncing you.

After the background-check bill becomes law, get ready for comprehensive immigration reform. It probably won’t face a filibuster or sustained opposition, even from the most right- wing Republicans.

That’s because elections have consequences. All Republicans now know that they must do a better job of reaching out to Hispanics or they will go the way of the Whig Party.

It helps that the national climate is favorable for reform. The fever of U.S. nativism spikes from time to time before subsiding. Right now, it happens to be in check.

After the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the Senate bangs out a compromise between labor and business, McConnell, despite his fears of a Tea Party challenge for his seat in 2014, will have little room to maneuver. And when the bill goes to the House, where no filibusters are allowed, Democrats (who will almost all vote aye) need only about a dozen Republican votes to win.

The hardest nut to crack may be the budget, though there was progress on that front this week, too.

Republicans were sure that Obama was a Paleolithic Democrat who would never touch entitlements. He called their bluff in his budget by proposing $230 billion in savings by recalculating the way cost-of-living adjustments are assessed for entitlement programs, by using the chained consumer price index.

Predictably, progressives denounced the idea. The more intriguing reaction was from the right.

First, Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, who leads the Republicans’ 2014 campaign efforts, told CNN that Obama was “going after seniors.” This aroused Democratic fears that Republicans would once again pander to the elderly, as they did in 2010 by airing misleading ads saying that Obama was cutting Medicare by $500 billion to pay for the Affordable Care Act.

But the politics of entitlements are changing. Even as Walden’s view was endorsed by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, former representative Chris Chocola, president of the influential Club for Growth, asked Walden to “clarify” his opposition to chained CPI, which is politician-speak for “retract it now.”

“Greg Walden doesn’t seriously oppose even the most modest of reforms to Social Security, right?” Chocola asked. “With nearly $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities, the last thing Republicans should attack the Democrats for is for making the most minor reforms to our entitlement programs.”

Republican confusion on entitlements gives Obama an opening for a divide-and-conquer strategy. By making the budget and entitlement debate more fluid — less dependent on whether House Speaker John Boehner can hold his caucus — the president now has more options for finding a “good bargain,” if not a “grand” one, either in the next few weeks or when the debt ceiling has to be raised again later in the year.

Budget. Immigration. Guns. The Notorious B.I.G. agenda could very well become law in 2013, defying our expectations for political paralysis once again.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Meet The Man Who Showed Us Romney’s Hidden Side

History sometimes has a way of tying itself up with a little bow. That’s the way I felt in January when I introduced Scott Prouty, the bartender-turned-videographer who helped sink Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, to Teddy Goff, the 28-year-old director of digital media for President Barack Obama’s re-election.

Prouty was a new source. After scratching at the story for weeks as part of research for a new book, I had convinced him to meet me in Washington in January. I wanted him to tell me everything he could about recording Romney at the now-famous Boca Raton fundraiser where the Republican candidate said that 47 percent of Americans were “victims” who wouldn’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” David Corn of Mother Jones broke the original story; I wanted the back story.

Goff is the kind of young campaign worker whose competence and dedication caused the president to shed tears at his Chicago headquarters the day after the election. The aide had cracked the code on Internet fundraising, helping take the Obama campaign from $15 million a month in online donations in the spring to more than $150 million a month in the fall, with an average donation of just $65.

The night after our first meeting, I ran into Prouty and his girlfriend at an inaugural ball. I asked if he wanted to meet someone from the Obama campaign. He had been given tickets to the inauguration and the ball by friends at the United Steelworkers of America; he had never met or even corresponded with anyone from the campaign or the White House.

Prouty said he wanted to say hello — he had become an Obama fan — but asked that I not reveal his name or that he was the bartender who shot the images in Boca Raton. He was still uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a public figure and worried that his old friends at the Florida catering company where he worked would suffer repercussions.

Goff and his family were floored when they met Prouty, and they promised to keep their mouths shut. Goff’s mother gushed, “You changed the campaign! You changed history!”

Indeed, he did. We’ll never know for sure whether the president would have been re-elected without the footage, which crystallized perceptions of Romney as callous and unconcerned about almost half of the people he sought to lead. Obama was already ahead in battleground states before the feeding frenzy over the video and had a much better digital strategy and field organization.

But a fortnight later, the president lost the first debate to Romney. It could be argued that he needed the cushion of the 47 percent imbroglio (and a good answer about it at the end of the second debate) to regain momentum.

To me, this unanswerable question was less compelling than finding out Prouty’s motivation and how he fit into the “makers versus takers” theme of the campaign. As I researched his past, he seemed to be who he said he was: a blue-collar guy from Quincy, Massachusetts, whose life experiences equipped him with unusual empathy.

Prouty, who looked as if he was straight out of the white, middle-aged male demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Romney, described himself as a registered Independent. Except for attending one demonstration against the Iraq war, he hadn’t been politically active, and his actions weren’t driven by a grudge against Romney. He did put a big memory card in his Canon camera before working the bar at the Boca Raton event, convinced he might hear something different from what he saw on television.

As Romney talked, Prouty wasn’t most offended by the candidate’s comments on the 47 percent that later got all the attention. He was more disturbed by Romney’s retelling of a tour of a Chinese appliance factory that he said was surrounded by barbed-wire fences and guard towers and where young female workers were stacked “12 to a room” and paid “a pittance.”

“I was waiting for him to say, ‘And I knocked down those fences and improved the working conditions and it became more profitable because of it,’” Prouty told me. “But he never did.”

Instead, he said Romney seemed to suggest it was a good investment.

For two weeks, Prouty agonized over whether to post the recording. Finally, he looked in the mirror in the middle of the night and said to himself: “You [expletive] coward.”

The next day, under the assumed identity of a young Chinese female worker and the pseudonym Anne-onymous, he began posting short clips of the China portion of Romney’s remarks, with details darkened so that they weren’t traceable to the $50,000-a-head fundraiser.

Prouty made contact with Corn after the journalist reported that, in 1998, Brookside Capital Partners Fund, an affiliate of Bain Capital Partners LLC, which was run by Romney, bought 6.13 percent of Hong Kong-based Global-Tech Appliances. Prouty thought Global-Tech sounded just like the appliance factory Romney described at the fundraiser, though Romney’s campaign refused to comment.

After the furor last September, Prouty quit his job, delisted his phone number and hid. He wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life.

As I was leaving the inaugural ball that night, I suspected that Prouty wouldn’t stay underground until the publication of my book in June. Sure enough, Ed Schultz scooped me March 13, when Prouty surfaced on his MSNBC show.

My guess is that he went public because he needs a job, and I expect he’ll get one with the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a United Steelworkers-backed nonprofit known for accusing the talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford in 1996 of manufacturing her clothing line in sweatshops.

The institute, which sent undercover investigators to Global-Tech after seeing the clips posted by Anne-onymous, is the perfect place for Prouty, who can move from bartending to helping expose inhumane working conditions around the world.

He’s a humble guy and isn’t looking to cash in. He now takes his rightful place as an important footnote in U.S. history.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. His book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, will be published in early June. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Editor’s Note: Prouty’s interview with MSNBC’s Ed Schultz can be seen below:

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Photo: Screenshot via MSNBC

Why Democrats Must Get Smart On ‘Entitlements’

In a season of depressing budget news, the worst may have been that a majority of U.S. House Democrats signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to oppose any benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements. That’s the last thing we need.

To hold the line on harmful cuts to discretionary spending, Obama and the Democrats must educate the public about the necessity of entitlement reform. Otherwise, the poor and needy — largely spared by the automatic reductions under sequestration — will get hit much harder down the road.

Liberals are right to reject Republican proposals that would slash social-welfare programs even as they refuse to consider closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. And I agree that the sequestration will cut into the bone of important government functions and investments in the future.

That makes two more reasons to start talking seriously about how we will pay for the insanely expensive retirement of the baby boomers.

How expensive? Anyone reaching retirement age in the next 20 years (including me) will take more than three times as much out of Medicare as he or she contributed in taxes. By 2030, the U.S. will have twice as many retirees as in 1995, and Social Security and Medicare alone will consume half of the federal budget, with the other half going almost entirely to defense and interest on the national debt. It’s unsustainable.

If Democrats don’t want to talk about these programs, they can say goodbye to every other pet program. We can preserve Medicare in amber only at the expense of investments in pre-kindergarten programs or cancer research.

To reform entitlements, we should assess what these programs were meant to do in the first place.

For starters, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t call them entitlements. Jimmy Carter’s administration borrowed the term from Anarchy, State and Utopia, a 1974 book by Robert Nozick, a political philosopher. “Entitlement” sounds selfish and at odds with the dignity and peace of mind that Social Security and Medicare are meant to provide.

It distorts the animating idea behind these programs, which is social insurance.

FDR didn’t have strong feelings about benefit levels, retirement ages or eligibility standards. He focused on what he called guaranteed return. By that he meant that having paid into the system through a kind of insurance premium (though in fact it was merely a payroll tax), Americans should rest easy that some money would be there for them if they lived long enough to need it. The whole point was “insurance against need.”

“Guaranteed return” and “insurance against need” should continue to be the two guiding principles of social-insurance reform.

“Guaranteed return” means no privatization or voucher system for these programs. FDR would have strongly opposed President George W. Bush’s plan to allow Social Security contributions to be invested in the stock market. He thought subjecting retirement income to what he called “the winds of fortune” was a breach of the social contract. Imagine what would happen to someone who retired in 1929 or 2008? No guaranteed return.

“Insurance against need” suggests keeping the focus on poor and middle-class recipients who depend on the money most. That means means-testing, giving wealthier retirees less. FDR, who favored high levels of taxation on the rich, would have been fine with taxing their benefits, too, as long as they were guaranteed to get at least something back.

Liberals generally oppose means-testing social-insurance programs. For decades they’ve argued that if the wealthy don’t get a heaping portion of Social Security and Medicare, it will undermine the political support of the programs and turn them into a form of welfare. Once that happens, the theory goes, the programs will be ended.

Like the word “entitlements,” this hoary idea should be retired. Social Security and Medicare are now so deeply in the marrow of the American middle class that they will never be seen as welfare. The question is not whether to reform them, but how.

Roosevelt structured Social Security as an insurance program with “contributions” through the tax code “so no damn politician can ever take it away.” He didn’t specify anything about the level of taxation or cost-of-living increases, which weren’t an issue in the 1930s but would become one shortly after World War II.

Today, only the first $110,000 in income is subject to the 7.65 percent tax that pays for Social Security and Medicare. Lifting the cap to higher income levels (say $250,000 or $400,000) could eventually generate hundreds of billions of dollars.

Republicans consider this a tax increase. That’s only true outside the context of these programs. The change could be structured so that no one paid in more than actuarial tables say they would take out. That would still raise billions and be consistent with the idea of paying for your own retirement if you can afford it.

For lifting the cap to have any chance, it would have to be matched by reforms such as adopting the chained consumer-price index, a new way to measure cost-of-living adjustments that Obama apparently favors. Liberals oppose chained CPI because it would theoretically result in lower benefits. But less frequent cost-of-living increases aren’t the same as cuts, especially if the current system is, as many experts believe, based on an inaccurate assessment of inflation.

Maybe there are better ideas for reforming social insurance. The point is, we better start talking about them. Otherwise, grandpa and grandma and their fellow Grateful Dead fans are going to eat all the food on the table.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo: Donkey Hotey via Flickr.com

‘They Deserve a Vote’ Can Be More Than Rhetoric

State of the Union addresses are traditionally laundry lists of policy proposals. President Barack Obama’s this week started that way, but it ended as the most emotional speech before a joint session of Congress in modern memory.

The theatrics of the event also introduced a new approach to framing the public debate that could yield unexpected victories for the president in the next year or two.

Obama made liberal use of what in Washington are sometimes called “Skutniks.”

This is a reference to Lenny Skutnik, a government employee who in 1982 dove into the icy waters to rescue passengers of an Air Florida flight that crashed into the Potomac River shortly after takeoff from Washington’s National Airport.

Two weeks later, President Ronald Reagan invited Skutnik to sit with the First Lady in the gallery of the House during his first State of the Union Address. A tradition was born.

Skutniks are usually sprinkled throughout the State of the Union. This time, Obama kept his in reserve until the end. This made for a powerful coda that mobilized several of the honored guests on behalf of the president’s agenda without seeming too political or sacrificing any of the emotional punch.

“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” the president said of his measure to reduce gun violence. “But these proposals deserve a vote, because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”

Obama went on to describe the shooting death, only a mile from his home in Chicago, of Hadiya Pendleton, who just three weeks before performed as a drum majorette in his inaugural parade. The president pointed to Hadiya’s parents in the gallery and said, “They deserve a vote.”

Then, as he acknowledged former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, herself a survivor of a shooting, and the families of other shooting victims, “they deserve a vote” became a powerful refrain, which he recited seven more times to rising applause and tears.

When the president, after saluting a nurse who saved children during Hurricane Sandy, got to a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor, the power of the voting idea came into sharper focus. The president explained how “a throng of people stayed in line” to support the 102-year-old woman as she braved a long wait to vote on Election Day and he described the cheers that erupted when she finally put on a sticker that read: “I voted.”

The grandeur of the democratic franchise — the foundation of our system — could be felt in the congressional chamber.

Some analysts said after the speech that the president lowered the bar on gun-safety legislation by stressing only the need for a vote, not passage of a bill.

That criticism ignores that the traditional way to block legislation in Washington is to prevent it from coming up for a vote. This technique allows opponents the satisfaction of successful obstruction without the accountability that comes from a recorded vote.

No vote means not having to worry about negative television ads in the next election for opposing a proposal popular with the public.

Until now, fighting filibusters in the Senate and obstructionist tactics in the Republican-controlled House has been, as they say in Washington, a heavy lift. The assumption has always been that these are “process questions” that bore the public.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to demand filibuster reform when he had the chance last month, and few people outside Washington noticed. Former senator Chuck Hagel, the president’s nominee to be Secretary of Defense, will now face a Senate filibuster, and that’s unlikely to be an issue in the heartland.

Hagel would be the first unpromoted enlisted man to head the Pentagon. If he’s blocked, Obama should rouse audiences of retired enlisted men with the message: “You deserve a vote.”

If voting is framed as a right — as a service that the public “deserves” — the politics of at least a few issues can change in subtle but significant ways.

There’s a big difference between aridly advocating filibuster reform and passionately demanding that members of Congress do what they are paid to do — vote.

Suddenly, when the bright-eyed volunteers from Obama’s new grassroots advocacy group, Organizing for Action, go door to door, their arguments no longer need to be about the confusing and often alienating details of legislation.

These thousands of door knockers (drawn from an email list of 16 million) don’t have to, say, defend an assault-weapons ban to voters who don’t support it or explain why increased border security without a path to citizenship for undocumented workers isn’t an answer to the immigration problem.

They can just ask voters to join them in supporting “a simple vote,” as Obama said.

The administration hopes this common-sense appeal to basic fairness can be applied not just to guns, but to other measures that are bottled up.

This approach provides a unifying theme for the many different policy proposals that the president advanced in his speech. He is telling the Republicans that if they want to reject ideas that the majority of the country supports, they must go on record as doing so.

Now he needs to maintain the pressure and argue that anything short of a roll-call vote violates lawmakers’ oaths to represent the people who elected them.

“They deserve a vote” might not work. It’s much easier to stop something in Washington than to start it.

But casting his program as a struggle for democracy was a smart way for the president to begin his second term.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak, Pool

Obama Replants Goalposts In Political Midfield

In the summer of 2011, when the “Grand Bargain” on deficit reduction failed, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner accused President Barack Obama of “moving the goalposts” — shifting his demands to the left.

After Boehner objected, Obama quickly moved the goalposts back and said he wanted to keep talking. But the Speaker thought it was too late and the deal collapsed.

Goalpost-shifting is back in style. Behind the soaring rhetoric of the inaugural address and his announcement of a bold immigration plan, the president is engaged in a carefully calibrated effort to move the debate away from the right side of the field.

In their interactions over the last two years, a chastened Obama started in the center and the Republicans started on the right, and the never-found compromise lay on the center-right.

Since winning re-election, Obama is starting on the center-left and the Republicans are moving toward the center-right. With any luck, they will find compromise in the center. The real center.

Of course, they won’t get there until they move beyond the bad blood of their end-of-the-year failure to do anything significant about the budget.

The House leadership says Obama delivered boring “I won” lectures to the Speaker and doesn’t have a clue about how to negotiate; the White House says the Speaker can’t deliver his own caucus.

Both sides have blown chances to strike a deal on favorable terms. Republicans should have done so in July, 2011 instead of holding out for a big 2012 electoral victory that never came. Democrats should have accepted Boehner’s December, 2012 offer of a 1-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases instead of taking the risk of allowing fights over budget deadlines to overshadow priorities such as immigration and gun safety.

Even as they lick their wounds after the election, Republicans should take comfort in how far they have shifted the center of gravity in U.S. politics over the last two years.

Consider the coverage of Obama’s second inaugural address. Pundits outdid each other in describing how liberal it was.

It wasn’t. With the exception of its first-ever mention of gay rights, the speech was essentially an eloquent rear-guard action defending the 20th-century consensus on the role of government.

The president celebrated achievements such as Social Security, Medicare, infrastructure, science, education and openness to immigrants that were backed by presidents of both parties for decades. They aren’t liberal ideas, but ones right down the median strip of U.S. politics.

Obama wrapped them in progressive rhetoric to be true to himself and his liberal values and — more pragmatically — to give himself cover with the left for the painful budget compromises to come.

In 2011, he had no such cover. Had he followed through with his plans to bargain away the chained consumer-price index (a different way of calculating inflation that could reduce Social Security benefits) and means-testing for entitlements, his support on the left would have cratered.

Now he has the strong backing he needs from his liberal base for serious compromise on immigration, guns and even entitlements.

Even that expression — liberal base — had been missing from U.S. politics for a long time. Get used to it.

Obama is getting set to pursue the same “base-out” strategy that worked for Ronald Reagan when he compromised on taxes, spending and immigration in the 1980s. The Republican president made concessions that would have been savaged by his party had they come from someone with less-stellar conservative credentials. Look at what happened to President George H.W. Bush when he raised taxes in 1991.

Liberals and moderates need to keep their expectations in check. There will be no progressive nirvana for the left and no Grand Bargain that satisfies the Simpson-Bowles crowd.

With the dip in the economy, long passes downfield aren’t likely. But field goals through some newly positioned goalposts should help the president — and the country — put a few points on the board this year.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, File

Divining Obama’s Next Act From His First-Term Record

Presidential inaugurations are traditionally occasions for stroking one’s chin and offering sober assessments of what the president and the nation can accomplish in the next four years.

This is bound to be an exercise in futility. Four years ago, as Barack Obama took the oath, no one had heard of the Tea Party, Obamacare, the Deepwater Horizon, Abbottabad, the Arab Spring, Sheldon Adelson or the 47 percent. “Sandy” referred to beaches or a legendary pitcher for the Dodgers, not a devastating hurricane or a shooting at an elementary school.

It’s safe to predict that we will continue arguing in 2013 over the debt ceiling, gun violence and immigration. For everything else, the crystal ball for this year — not to mention the next four years — is cloudy.

So let’s look backward instead, to Obama’s record of success and failure. His partial successes — works in progress — offer the best clues to what he may yet achieve.

PolitiFact, a nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning website, has kept track of the 508 promises Obama made when he was running for president in 2008. This week, it released an “Obameter” report that rated more than two-thirds of his promises as “Promise Kept” or “Compromise,” a better average than voters cynical about campaign pledges had any reason to expect.

Remember Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope? Looking back, I was struck by the audacity of his five boldest 2008 promises: universal health care, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, passing comprehensive immigration reform and creating a cap-and-trade system to reduce global warming. The president kept all but the last two promises, and by this time next year, he could be 4-for-5, with only carbon trading still outstanding.

Other, lower-profile “Promises Kept” testify to Obama’s vision of an activist government — not Big Brother, but “my brother’s keeper,” as he put it during the campaign.

Expanding broadband access, a credit-card bill of rights, increasing minority access to capital, closing the “doughnut hole” in the prescription drug plan, rural development grants, a best-practices list for businesses to accommodate workers with disabilities, boosting the Veterans Affairs budget for mental health: Page after page of popular ideas that went from campaign rhetoric to reality.

Most of the accomplishments look better up close than they do when depicted abstractly as merely “spending.” Familiarity with the particulars breeds respect for government, not contempt.

The list is a reminder of the stakes in 2012. Had the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and his party won the 2012 election, hundreds of the “Promises Kept” would have become “Promises Repealed.”

The “Promises Broken” list is also instructive. It consists mostly of Obama initiatives rejected by Congress, including eliminating all oil and gas loopholes, taxing carried interest as regular income, ending no-bid contracts above $25,000 and dozens more.

Obama’s greatest failure was on housing. He pledged to create a $10 billion foreclosure-prevention fund, which he promised to expand to $75 billion. The aim was to help nine million homeowners. So far, fewer than one million have received assistance. The main culprits are the banks, which dragged their feet shamelessly on refinancing mortgages. But the administration never figured out the right incentives to accelerate the process.

The president’s promises on unemployment were made before the economy collapsed, so he can’t rightly be held accountable for them. (The bogus forecast by his economic team in 2009 that joblessness would quickly fall to less than 8 percent wasn’t a promise.) But he failed to fight hard enough in 2009 and 2010 — when he had a Democratic Congress — for the $60 billion infrastructure bank he promised and for small-business initiatives that might have led to more job creation.

The president also failed to lift the cap on payroll taxes for earnings above $250,000, which would raise enough money to secure Social Security for the foreseeable future. And his pledge to reduce health insurance premiums by an average of $2,500 a year per family was pure folly.

The category “In the Works” is more encouraging. Creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, reducing oil consumption by 35 percent by 2030 and closing the gun-show loophole are among the promises that have a real chance of being kept in a second term.

PolitiFact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times, also includes a “Truth-O-Meter” that aims to keep Obama and other politicians and public figures honest.

The president’s honesty scores over the last four years haven’t been perfect, but they are better than the average of politicians assessed by the site. To succeed in a second term, he’ll have to maintain that kind of performance. Straight talk is the only antidote to the arrogance and instinct to overreach that often afflicts re-elected presidents.

Obama won a second term even though he failed to restore strong economic growth. He won because of his vision of a government that tries to solve problems instead of just getting out of the way.

Even a Republican House and recalcitrant Senate won’t stop him from chipping away at his pledge list over the next four years. His success or failure will depend largely on external events we can’t predict.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Jae C. Hong, File

Liberals Nip Obama As He Battles Republicans

You can already hear the rumbling in the distance — a train of noisy liberal Democrats barreling straight for the White House. They should arrive just in time for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

The president already has his hands full dealing with angry and unrealistic Republicans. Now he’s getting reacquainted with their counterparts on the left — a less ideologically inflexible bunch but not necessarily any more susceptible to reason.

Recognizing the enormous stakes in the 2012 election, liberals took the advice of Dr. Evil and “zipped it” during the entire campaign. They refrained from any criticism of the president, lest it help Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

For a party famous for its lack of discipline, that was impressive. So was the Obama campaign field organization. Humorist Will Rogers once said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Lately, given the disarray on the Republican side, Rogers might have swallowed hard and seen fit to declare himself a Republican.

If Democrats are better organized than in the past, they still have their foibles. Recall the crowd at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, loudly booing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as he left the stage.

Villaraigosa, chairman of the convention, had just claimed that two-thirds of the delegates had approved by voice vote the reinstatement in the party platform of a provision supporting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It was more like two delegates and maybe a third — about the same tiny level of support that welcomed Obama’s insistence that “God” be put back in the platform, too.

Before the campaign, liberals were hardly hesitant to express their disappointment with the president. Recall the liberal unrest of 2009 when Obama, bowing to congressional pressure, failed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and neglected to support a public option in the Affordable Care Act.

Liberals crying “kill the bill” came dangerously close to derailing landmark health-care reform for which they had been fighting since the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party Convention of 1912. Obama rightly complained in response that too many of his supporters were letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Now we’re about to see such imperfection under assault again. While Obama won strong Democratic backing for the so- called fiscal-cliff deal in both the Senate and the House, a chorus of liberal critics rose up to condemn his compromises.

They were particularly incensed that he agreed to raise the threshold on income subject to a higher tax rate from his oft- stated preference of $250,000 per family to $450,000 per family. Some news stories reported that Obama broke a campaign promise by abandoning the $250,000 level.

A few liberals even complained that Obama violated his principles by compromising. They must not have listened to him all year. One of his most important — and most frequently stated — principles is that compromise is essential to governing.

Having said that “not everybody gets a hundred percent of what they want” from negotiations, Obama surely would have doomed these and future negotiations by clinging to every jot and tittle of his opening offer.

Perhaps Republicans, too, have now been forced to take the plunge into pragmatism. One achievement of the fiscal-cliff deal was that it violated the “Hastert Rule,” named for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, that required “a majority of the majority” Republican caucus to proceed on legislation. Instead, Republicans split on the vote and the bill passed with Democratic support.

Just as Republicans must learn to live with tax increases, Democrats must learn to live with — and vote for — changes in entitlements. They should keep in mind that reforms such as a chained consumer price index, which alters the inflation calculation applied to Social Security, and means testing the benefits of wealthy retirees, do not threaten the social safety net.

Neither Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security nor Lyndon Johnson on Medicare was wedded to any of the particulars of those programs — only the principle of guaranteed support from the government.

The road ahead is paved with compromises that many Democrats won’t like. The president will stick to his refusal to negotiate with Republicans who want to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to spending cuts. But he will have to negotiate over the sequester — the $1.2 trillion in cuts to defense and domestic programs scheduled to take effect in two months.

Decoupling the debt ceiling from the sequester will be daunting, if not impossible. Even if Obama succeeds, he will have to agree to cuts to entitlements or discretionary programs, a course many liberals oppose. They haven’t forgotten how Obama almost betrayed their interests in the failed “Grand Bargain” talks in July of last year.

If liberals are disappointed in Obama’s fiscal-cliff deal, imagine how they will feel in late February when he starts making tough choices on spending cuts. Liberals need to think harder about what their own long-term deficit reduction plan would be. Raising more revenue is necessary. It’s not sufficient.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak

To Get Better Gun Control, Don’t Use The Phrase

We can now be confident that last week’s massacre of 26 women and children at an elementary school in Newtown, CT, will not be swept under the carpet like so many mass shootings of the past.

President Barack Obama said Dec. 19 that he would act “without delay” after hearing from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force in January. We’ll probably spend much of the winter and spring debating Obama’s anti-violence proposal.

The question now is what the president — and the rest of us — can do to make sure that the National Rifle Association doesn’t once again intimidate enough members of Congress to gut the bill. The only answer is to build a smarter, more effective movement for common-sense gun laws than we have today, which means lots of meetings, marches, TV ads, door knocks and social- media campaigns.

Only the technology of movement-building has changed. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, conservation — every great stride forward in U.S. history has come from ordinary people defying the odds and bringing organized pressure to bear on politicians.

Any movement starts with its core legislative agenda. In this case, that means:

— Banning all assault weapons and high-capacity magazines for everyone except the military.

— Requiring instant background checks on all gun purchases, including those at gun shows and online.

— Providing law enforcement full access to all state and local databases on felons and the mentally ill.

— Making illegal gun trafficking a felony.

Until now, the NRA has disgraced itself by blocking each of these no-brainer reforms, mostly by putting tens of millions of dollars behind its lies. The best thing Obama did in his news conference was his attempt to drive a wedge between NRA members, most of whom favor reasonable gun-safety laws, and their hardline officers and board of directors.

With the NRA’s news conference on Dec. 21, we’re about to see if its tardy response to the Newtown shootings plays with the public. I have my doubts. Once a bully is exposed in harsh daylight, it can be harder to instill fear again.

To break the NRA’s stranglehold, reformers need to shake off the hangdog fatalism of the past. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell often points out that he won three statewide elections against the gun lobby in a state that is second only to Texas in NRA membership.

Democrats are too worried about senators from Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, Louisiana and West Virginia up for re-election in 2014. Even if many rural counties are out of reach, dozens of others in suburban areas are full of moderate and compassionate people who have not been approached imaginatively on the gun issue.

Doing so requires reframing the debate with new language, always an essential weapon in politics. That means retiring “gun control” (the “control” part is threatening to gun owners) and replacing it with “gun safety,” “anti-violence regulation,” “military weapons for the military only” and — on every occasion — “common sense.”

Mom-and-apple-pie appeals always work best. So far, with anti-gun groups starved for money, they haven’t been widely tried.

In the meantime, liberals need to downplay accurate but politically useless arguments. It’s true that violent videogames don’t cause shooting rampages, that state laws allowing concealed weapons are a menace, and that guns in the home are more likely to be used in an accidental shooting than to protect against burglars. But emphasizing these points just exacerbates cultural differences and does nothing to advance next year’s legislation.

What would? The most heartening remarks of the week came from people such as West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who was elected in 2010 with an ad featuring him firing a gun. Now he believes it’s time to rethink some positions. A couple of country stars on his side (hello, Toby Keith) would help. So would anti-violence Super PACs (yet to be formed) airing attack ads in suburban media markets that thrust the NRA on the defensive, where it has never been.

The NRA spent more than $11 million on behalf of candidates in the 2012 cycle, a relatively small sum by today’s standards. Let’s see what happens when it has to respond to a heavy ad barrage next year that includes families talking about their dead children.

The president’s role — better late than never — is to mobilize his base. His 2012 grassroots political organization, the best ever built, raised more than $1 billion, amassed more than 15 million email addresses, contacted tens of millions of voters and recruited a million volunteers in battleground states.

Now the Obama team has the passionate issue it needs to target and organize crucial suburban congressional districts. If all House Democrats vote for the landmark bill next spring — a reasonable supposition — Obama would need the support of 17 House Republicans for it to pass.

The only thing they or other members care about is their own political survival. So the question for them is this: What’s the use of a 100 percent NRA rating in the Republican primary if it’s going to doom you in the general?

I know, I know. This sounds like a fantasy. The gun lobby likes to point to the elections of 1994 and 2000, when several Democrats who backed the assault-weapons ban lost their seats. No federal gun laws have been passed since. New ones at the state level have all been for the worse.

But U.S. politics is in a state of transition. Obama won a solid majority in November. His army — not the NRA’s — is the one that’s on the march. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was so unspeakable that it may yet help a whole new generation of political activists to find their voice.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Help Republicans Rescue Their Party From Itself

Cruelty, fear, cowardice, xenophobia and disrespect invaded the inner sanctum of the U.S. government this week, bringing embarrassment and dishonor to what was once the greatest deliberative body in the world: the U.S. Senate.

On Dec. 4, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, an 89- year-old Republican whose right arm was shattered in combat during World War II, was wheeled into the Senate chamber by his wife to rally support for a United Nations treaty that should have been entirely unobjectionable.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, negotiated under President George W. Bush and signed by more than 150 nations, takes a stand against “discrimination on the basis of disability” and in favor of “respect for inherent dignity.” It’s a largely symbolic document with implementation language that consists mostly of a weak recommendation for “due consideration” of its lofty aims. Even so, with U.S. leadership, it could promote compassion for the disabled in dozens of countries where they are cruelly shunned.

Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who long ago discredited himself as a serious person by championing junk science on climate change, said on the Senate floor, “This unelected bureaucratic body would pass recommendations that would be forced upon the United States if we were a signatory.”

That’s completely false. Not a single clause or phrase in the treaty impinges on national sovereignty, unless one believes — as some xenophobic neo-isolationists do — that the UN itself is a threat to the U.S.

Dole’s dramatic appearance was meant to advance the values of compassion and nondiscrimination, not the UN. He was trying to rally the 13 Republican senators needed to reach the two-thirds supermajority necessary for ratification. All Democrats voted in favor. In the end, only eight Republicans voted “aye,” almost all of them senators who have announced plans to retire or are in safe seats.

Sometimes-reasonable Republicans such as Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee were profiles in cowardice and voted no. They fear primary challenges in 2014 from radicals in their party. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, his common sense and conscience succumbing to right-wing nonsense in real time, changed his vote from “aye” to “nay” when he saw the measure would lose.

As the New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte pointed out, the only impact the treaty would have on Americans would be to make it easier for disabled people to live and work in other countries. Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 — which was signed by Republican president George H. W. Bush — said Dole had come to the chamber because “he wants to know that other countries will come to treat the disabled as we do.”

Imagine that: Taking a stand for basic human decency around the world.

Opposition to the treaty was led by two of the party’s ayatollahs: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and the talk-show host Glenn Beck. None of their arguments made sense even on their own terms. It was especially disturbing that Santorum brought his daughter Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder, into the debate. He argued, preposterously, that under the treaty the UN could order that she be left to die. Lest we forget, Santorum took a credible shot at the Republican presidential nomination this year and could be a contender for 2016.

The big question in U.S. politics is how to stop the Republican Party from sinking into the role of what Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal called “the stupid party.” The negative attention generated by the primary victories of radicals such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana — who both self-destructed this year over ugly comments about rape — might be good for Democrats in the short run. Long-term, though, a healthy two-party system is in everyone’s best interest.

The options for Republicans are simple. They can do nothing and allow the Santorums and Inhofes to hijack the party. Or they can move past the post-election rationalizations and create what might be called a “Real Republican” movement.

One immediate response should be to finance and repurpose the conservative super political-action committees that made such a splash in 2012. Unless the Supreme Court changes, those groups are going to be with us for a while; they might as well be put to good use.

Although Super PACs failed spectacularly in the general election, several shaped the outcome of the Republican presidential primaries. They need to be involved in the 2014 House and Senate primaries on behalf of fiscally conservative candidates, not fringe players badly out of touch with the mainstream of the country.

Eventually, both parties must look beyond their narrow self-interest and get serious about reforming the primary process. California, Washington state and Louisiana now have top-two systems in which the first- and second-place primary finishers, regardless of party, are on the ballot in the November general election.

The top-two arrangement, though it was defeated in a referendum last month in Arizona, has led to some strange repeat matches involving candidates from the same party, such as California Democratic representatives Howard Berman and Brad Sherman running against each other in both the primary and the general. (Sherman won.)

So far, there’s scant evidence of the new approach yielding more moderate candidates in the general election. But it’s early yet — California’s system debuted this year — and experiments in other states could lead to the loosening of the radical-Republican stranglehold on so many primaries.

The U.S. primary system, a product of the progressive movement, is only about 100 years old. It can be changed without messing with the Constitution. If we want to see fewer displays of craven behavior such as the rejection of the disabilities treaty, let’s rescue our politics from the forces of extremism.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo by Civil Rights via Flickr.com

Kerry Is the Right Choice To Lead U.S. Diplomacy

For all the talk of tax increases and debt-cutting, President Barack Obama’s biggest and most revealing decision this year may be which candidate he chooses to be his new secretary of state. It will tell us whether the president allows comfort to trump qualification.

The two candidates are Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both would be impressive, though they bring different strengths.

Rice’s advantage is that she has a closer personal relationship with the president, making her better integrated in the administration’s policy-making apparatus. Kerry’s edge is that he’s a heavyweight who would be more effective representing the U.S. around the world.

Rice has the inside track for now, and she got an unintentional boost last week from Senator John McCain, who was shooting from the hip, as usual. McCain, who is Kerry’s old friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, hounded Rice mercilessly over the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya. Her only sin was that on the Sunday shows in September she conveyed exactly what she was told by the Central Intelligence Agency about the attack on the U.S. consulate.

Just before his first post-election news conference, the president heard that McCain and his Sancho Panza, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, were threatening to block Rice’s nomination with a filibuster. This made the president angrier than he has been in months, according to a senior White House official I spoke with. “For them to go after” Rice and “besmirch her reputation, is outrageous,” Obama said at the news conference.

Appearances’ Sake

Obama says he hasn’t made a decision. But rejecting Rice in favor of Kerry would make the president look like he’s buckling to pressure from McCain, the Republican opponent he defeated in the 2008 election. And yet, if how something looks is the issue — and appearances are critical in diplomacy — then Obama should choose Kerry.

Kerry, a prominent senator for 28 years, would sail through his Senate confirmation hearings. Rice would be pinned down not just by Benghazi but by some of her past statements, in particular these two: In 1994, when she served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, she reportedly asked about the possibility of intervening in Rwanda: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”

In 2011, as European countries were pushing for a UN Security Council resolution creating a no-fly zone over Libya, she reportedly told France’s UN ambassador, Gerard Araud, that the U.S. wouldn’t be pulled into France’s war and she disparaged the conflict with an obscenity. Dredging up the latter incident is especially unfair, considering that Rice joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Council official Samantha Power to push the men in the administration to intervene in Libya. Still, Kerry’s colleagues wouldn’t hesitate to use any ammunition on hand against Rice.

Kerry would be much better received than Rice not just in the Senate, but in the rest of the world — which should be more than a little relevant in this decision. After 27 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he knows every player of consequence. His on-the-job training would be minimal.

Lest we forget, Obama probably wouldn’t be president without Kerry, who asked him to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that started his career.

Loyal Soldier

In 2008, Kerry gave then-Senator Obama critical early support in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. When Obama picked Clinton over him as secretary of state, Kerry was a loyal soldier. He helped persuade Afghan president Hamid Karzai to hold elections, smoothed over tense relations with Pakistan and shepherded the Start treaty through the Senate. He even played Mitt Romney in the mock debates this year.

Gratitude, loyalty and experience shouldn’t be the only factors in the president’s decision, but don’t they count for something?

If Kerry giving up his Senate seat jeopardized Democratic control of the Senate, the appointment would be too risky. But Democrats in the new Congress will have a five-vote margin in the upper chamber, and it’s unlikely a Republican could win a special election next year in Massachusetts.

This decision isn’t as much about Rice and Kerry and the political angles as it is about Obama and how he views governing.

We know that the president is often leery of having other big fish in his administration, less because of ego or insecurity than his insistence on harmonious policy making, free of turf fights. But comfort is overrated; Obama needs more “principals” (officials with their own power bases) to challenge him.

Before the UN, Rice’s experience consisted of being assistant secretary of state for Africa, which is important but not central to U.S. foreign policy. More recently, she won credit for helping to convince Russia and China to back sanctions against Iran and not oppose the bombing campaign against Libya. Yet when Russia and China vetoed a resolution aimed at Syria, Rice called the action “disgusting” and “shameful,” which was stronger than the White House’s “regrettable.” Diplomacy is all about word choice.

Having accompanied Hillary Clinton on international trips, I can testify to how helpful it is to have a woman in charge of public diplomacy. Most of the positive things going on among nongovernmental organizations are spearheaded by women, who would like seeing the third woman in a row (and second African-American by the name of Rice) in the top job.

Still, the next secretary of state may be called on to broker Mideast peace talks between Israel and Hamas or conduct high-stakes talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Wouldn’t it be better to have someone at the table with wide experience and the political clout to make things happen?

In 2008, Obama’s staff was dead set against Clinton getting secretary of state. Finally, Obama broke in sharply and said, “You guys are missing the fundamental point — she’s the most qualified candidate.”

This time, he is.

Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite