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“You First, Senator”: The Question John McCain Wants To Ask, But Not Answer

Chuck Hagel was not at all supportive of the 2007 Bush/Cheney troop “surge” in Iraq, and at his confirmation hearing this morning, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seemed to characterize it as a make-or-break issue for the former senator’s confirmation.

For those who can’t watch clips online, McCain noted Hagel criticizing the surge policy at the time as the “most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” McCain demanded to know “Were you correct in your assessment?” When Hagel deferred to “the judgment of history,” McCain continued to hammer away, demanding, “I want to know if you were right or wrong.”

Watching the exchange, it might seem as if Hagel is being evasive, or at least defensive, about a misstep on his record. But the larger context is important.

For McCain, the surge worked, ergo, anyone who questioned the policy is necessarily a fool who lacks credibility on foreign policy, national security, and the use of military power. In reality, conditions in Iraq may have improved in 2008 and 2009, but there were a variety of factors — including the Sunni Awakening, which pre-dated the surge, and a ceasefire announced by Shiite militia leader Muqtada Sadr — that contributed to the decline in violence. To argue that “surge = success” demonstrates a lack of depth.

But more important in this instance is McCain pretending to have credibility. “I want to know if you were right or wrong”? That’s not a bad question, necessarily, but I’d love to hear McCain himself try to answer it.

This guy wants to launch a fight over who was correct about the war in Iraq? Seriously?

I’m reminded of this amazing Frank Rich piece from 2009.

[McCain] made every wrong judgment call that could be made after 9/11. It’s not just that he echoed the Bush administration’s constant innuendos that Iraq collaborated with Al Qaeda’s attack on America. Or that he hyped the faulty W.M.D. evidence to the hysterical extreme of fingering Iraq for the anthrax attacks in Washington. Or that he promised we would win the Iraq war “easily.” Or that he predicted that the Sunnis and the Shiites would “probably get along” in post-Saddam Iraq because there was “not a history of clashes” between them.

What’s more mortifying still is that McCain was just as wrong about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He routinely minimized or dismissed the growing threats in both countries over the past six years, lest they draw American resources away from his pet crusade in Iraq.

Two years after 9/11 he was claiming that we could “in the long term” somehow “muddle through” in Afghanistan. (He now has the chutzpah to accuse President Obama of wanting to “muddle through” there.) Even after the insurgency accelerated in Afghanistan in 2005, McCain was still bragging about the “remarkable success” of that prematurely abandoned war. In 2007, some 15 months after the Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf signed a phony “truce” ceding territory on the Afghanistan border to terrorists, McCain gave Musharraf a thumb’s up. As a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008, McCain cared so little about Afghanistan it didn’t even merit a mention among the national security planks on his campaign Web site.

He takes no responsibility for any of this.

McCain now seems eager to have a conversation about who has credibility on Bush-era wars, even with the benefit of hindsight. It’s one of the more profound examples in recent memory of a politician lacking in self-awareness.

Indeed, as of this morning, McCain actually seems to believe it’s worse to get the surge question wrong than to get the entire war wrong.

“I want to know if you were right or wrong,” McCain said. You first, senator.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 31, 2013

February 1, 2013 Posted by | Iraq War, Secretary of Defense | , , , , | Leave a comment

“NRA”: The National Regulation-Resisters Association

Sometimes common sense isn’t a common trait.

Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, is a shining example of this. He continues to voice resistance to even the most basic kinds of changes in existing gun policy, changes that almost all Americans support, changes that would have little impact on the rights and ability of sane, law-abiding citizens to purchase legal weapons.

First, some background.

The White House released its plan to reduce gun violence two weeks ago, a month after the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The plan covered closing loopholes in the background check system, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as improving school safety and mental health services.

Public opinion polls suggested that people generally supported the president’s plan.

A Gallup poll conducted the day after the president presented his plan found that 53 percent of Americans would want their representatives in Congress to vote for it.

An ABC/Washington Post poll last week found that 53 percent of Americans favored it.

And a Pew Research Center poll last week found that a majority of Americans thought the plan was about right or didn’t go far enough. Only 31 percent thought that it went too far.

In fact, one of the greatest points of agreement among Americans is the need for universal background checks, as the president proposed.

A Gallup poll released last week found that 91 percent of Americans would vote to “require criminal background checks for all gun sales” if they could.

From a public relations perspective, trying to find some common ground on this issue with the public would seem a no-brainer. Not so for the No Brain-ers.

On Wednesday, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence, LaPierre, as is his wont, gave a rambling, twisted argument against, that’s right, universal background checks.

LaPierre said during the hearings:

“My problem with background checks is you are never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks. All the law-abiding people, you’ll create an enormous federal bureaucracy, unfunded, hitting all the little people in the country, will have to go through it, pay the fees, pay the taxes.”

He continued:

“We don’t even prosecute anybody right now that goes through the system we have. So, we’re going to make all those law-abiding people go through the system and then we aren’t going to prosecute any of the bad guys if they do catch one. ”

So LaPierre’s argument, if I can follow this spiral of spuriousness, is that if we don’t prosecute “bad guys,” then there is no use in checking buyers in the first place so that “bad guys” could be identified and prevented from making the purchases. As best I can tell that seems to be it, and if that is it then I say: you can’t be serious.

Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, shot back:

“Mr. LaPierre, that’s the point. The criminals won’t go to purchase the guns because there’ll be a background check. We’ll stop them from original purchase. You missed that point completely. It’s basic.”

The room erupted in applause.

Universal background checks would seem a basic and exceedingly reasonable proposal. I would add that there should also be universal prosecutions for being intentionally misleading during those checks. But LaPierre is a different kind of person. His interests are not the same as most Americans’. His organization and the majority of so-called “pro gun rights” groups are in the business of unfettered gun proliferation as a means of increasing gun industry profit.

This is about money, pure and simple.

Wednesday morning, before LaPierre’s testimony, the Republican Joe Scarborough of MSNBC said on his show:

“You know what the greatest danger to that Second Amendment right and that guarantee is right now? Extremism from the survivalist wing of the N.R.A. that impacts Republicans’ policies nationwide and moves the Republican Party so far away from mainstream America that they lose the House, they lose the Senate again in ’14, and they lose the presidency again. And the next president will be Democratic.”

I would have to agree with that.

LaPierre is fanning paranoia because it helps grow the N.R.A.’s membership rolls and helps the N.R.A.’s friends and benefactors in the gun industry. And the N.R.A. uses its war chest to scare cowering politicians into taking unreasonable positions.

But extreme resistance to change is no longer acceptable with most of the public. People want action. They’re demanding it. Extreme resistance in this climate could prove more politically poisonous, particularly to some Republicans, than upsetting the N.R.A.

At this moment you have an outraged public against the gun profiteers and the gutless politicians. I believe in the end the people will win.

By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 30, 2013

February 1, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence, Guns | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reasonable Expectations”: Why The NRA’s Best Argument Is Still Bunk

Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association was back in the spotlight on Wednesday—this time to appear before a congressional committee contemplating new gun violence legislation. And while LaPierre got emotional at a few points, he spent most of his testimony trying to make a pragmatic argument: “We need to be honest about what works and what does not work,” LaPierre said, in a prepared statement. “Proposals that would only serve to burden the law-abiding have failed in the past and will fail in the future.”

LaPierre didn’t specify which past laws he had in mind, but it’s a safe bet that he was thinking about two high-profile pieces of legislation from the early 1990s. One was the Brady Law, which created a system of background checks for people purchasing guns. The other was the 1994 crime bill, which included a ban on some assault weapons. LaPierre is hardly the only person who thinks those laws demonstrate the futility of gun control. Most experts agree that the cumulative effect of the laws was, at best, modest.1

It’s one thing to say gun laws haven’t significantly reduced gun violence, but quite another to say they couldn’t.

But it’s one thing to say gun laws haven’t significantly reduced gun violence, quite another to say they couldn’t. Both the Brady Law and assault weapons ban had serious, specific flaws. The most conspicuous problem with the Brady Law was that it didn’t affect private sales: You could buy a gun from a non-licensed dealer—say, at a gun show—without anybody checking to make sure you didn’t have a criminal record or some other characteristic that made it illegal for you to have a weapon. The big loophole in the assault rifle ban was that its definition of prohibited weapons, which manufacturers were able to circumvent by making minor modifications to existing guns. But gun control advocates have learned a lot since that time. And that’s one reason to think the proposals now on the table could have a bigger impact than their predecessors did.

To be fair, it’s not as if architects of the Brady Law or assault weapons ban thought either law would have a huge impact on crime. It’s easy to forget now, but enactment of the Brady Law culminated a decade of political struggle against the opponents of gun control, particularly the National Rifle Association. It took the election of Bill Clinton, who had promised to sign such a bill as president, to break the logjam—and even then it was a struggle. “I remember going up to the final day of that vote, we were whipping it for over a month,” says Jim Kessler, who was an aide to then-Congressman Charles Schumer, one of the law’s co-sponsors, and is now senior vice president for policy at Third Way. “We did not have the support of the speaker, we did not have the judiciary chairman, Jack Brooks of Texas, we had to do it on our own—and up to the day of the vote, we felt we might not have the votes to pass.” Given that political reality, the advocates of gun laws knew they would be settling for highly imperfect legislation. One hope was that passing Brady would demonstrate the political viability of gun legislation, making it possible to pass stronger legislation later on. “The NRA had such a stranglehold around the neck of Congress, we knew that if we were going to get anything through, it had to be narrow,” says Richard Aborn, a former prosecutor who was president of the Brady Campaign during the early 1990s.

But advocates of gun legislation in the 1990s didn’t simply lack sufficient political power. They also lacked know-how. At the time, experts didn’t really understand gun shows—and they certainly didn’t grasp the role that gun shows might play in facilitating sales once the Brady Law was in effect. “The notion of private sales and, in particular, gun show leakage was not on ours, or anybody else’s, radar screen,” Aborn says. And even if lawmakers had been thinking about gun shows, it’s not clear how much they could have done to restrict sales, at least in that political environment: Requiring private dealers to run full background checks, cross-checking identifications with criminal records and such, would have been time-consuming and in some cases unwieldy. Tom Diaz, a former Democratic staffer for the House Judiciary Committee and former policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center, explains, “There was no established system to do the background check. It seems easy now, but in the mid-1990s there were no ‘apps’ and the communication among computers was fragile. It was just much easier and more realistic to require federal firearms licensees—i.e., dealers—to do the background check, since they were already regulated under existing law.”

Veterans of the assault weapons ban fight recall facing similar obstacles. Lack of technology wasn’t an issue, but lack of understanding about guns was. Diaz, author of a forthcoming book called The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It, remembers the crafting of that bill as a decidedly amateur exercise:

In the case of the assault weapons ban, it was as inelegant as this: a bunch of politicians (mostly in the Senate, then in the House as the Senate bill became the vehicle) who knew (and some still know) precious little or even nothing at all about guns in general and assault weapons in particular literally sewed together (1) a list of guns, like Uzis and AKs, and (2) a silly list of “features” (bells and whistles) that “defined” in law what an assault weapon was supposed to be. If the gun had two or more of these features, well, it was an assault weapon. The defect was that manufacturers easily just eliminated the bells and whistles, but kept the major design features that make assault weapons so problematic, namely the ability to accept a high-capacity magazine, and a pistol grip to hold the gun for rapid fire.

One sign that the advocates of new gun laws have learned from the past is that their proposals are more sophisticated, and savvy, than the ones they put forward last time.2 Under the assault weapons proposals circulating now, including the proposal from California Senator Diane Feinstein, a gun would be illegal if it had just one criteria of an automatic rifle, rather than two. Lawmakers are also talking about new restrictions on high-capacity magazines. Christopher Koper, a criminologist at George Mason who was co-author of the official Justice Department review of the old assault weapons ban, thinks a stronger law has potential. “Restrictions like the old ones on assault weapons and large capacity magazines probably won’t lower the overall rate of gun crime,” he says, “but they may modestly reduce shootings by reducing gun attacks with particularly high numbers of shots fired. My best estimate is that the impact on shootings would be under 5 percent overall. I wouldn’t consider this trivial, however, given the seriousness and social costs of shootings.”

More important, advocates for gun laws have quietly shifted their priorities. The assault weapons ban continues to get the most publicity, but the real focus—for advocates and the lawmakers they support—is on a better system of background checks. “Universal background checks… would have much greater impacts,” Koper says. “That could be a game-changer, but they also need to make sure the law is accompanied by meaningful penalties and enforcement.” The advocates for new gun laws seem to grasp that last point. And that includes the president. Obama has already ordered law enforcement agencies to trace the history of guns they seize in crimes. It was one of the executive orders he issued when he unveiled his full gun plan.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the new push for gun legislation is destined to succeed—or to have dramatic effects on crime. Lawmakers in more conservative and rural districts remain reluctant to take on the National Rifle Association and its allies. And even the new laws will have loopholes. The more government regulates gun purchases from legal dealers, for example, the more criminals will seek to get them illegally. And the more government limits the manufacturer certain types of weapons, the more criminals will use older, grandfathered versions—or get them from overseas.

But even a modest impact on violence would represent progress. It would create a framework on which future lawmakers can build stronger regulations and, in the meantime, it would save at least a few lives. “Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can,” says Aborn. “Will it stop all gun crime? No. But … we don’t say repeal the murder statutes because it doesn’t stop all murders. There have to be reasonable expectations and a reasonable expectation is that it will make a difference and save some lives.”


By: Jonathan Cohn, The New Republic, January 31, 2013

February 1, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence, Guns | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Enemy Within”: Who’s Trying To ‘Annihilate’ The GOP?

When John Boehner whined last week that Obama’s goal for his second term is to “annihilate the Republican Party” and “shove us into the dustbin of history,” he was working the party into a psychological state much like James Franco had to in 127 Hours: They’re getting ready to accept that they will have to sequester their arm with a dull knife.

Of course, Obama’s War on the GOP is about as real as the liberals’ War on Christmas—both are paranoid, apocalyptic fantasies marketed to drum up fear and self-pity on the right. Obama telling Republicans to “Please proceed” is no more tantamount to annihilating the GOP than chirping “Happy Holidays” is to eliminating Christmas.

Instead, this is a classic case of psychological projection. Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich, Frank Luntz, and senators Bob Corker, Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint, among other right thinkers, actually held a meeting the night of the 2009 Inaugural to plot to undermine Obama’s newborn presidency with nonstop obstructionism. The next year, Mitch McConnell said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” And yet, after these plans failed to block Obama’s re-election and instead cost the GOP a number of House and Senate seats to boot, here is Boehner saying his party is the victim of existential aggression.

Paranoid projection—whether subconscious or deliberate—is part and parcel of the GOP’s broader denial of so much of contemporary reality, whether it’s climate change, demographic change, macroeconomics or polls that don’t go their way.

But mostly, they deny who that black man claiming to be president really is. And so they’ve created an Imaginary Obama, who is just as crazily radical as the Ryan budget would be, if it were passed, or as Bush’s war in Iraq actually was. In one of the funnier attempts to portray Obama’s insidiously well-cloaked but devastatingly destructive nature, wrote that by supporting gay rights in his Inaugural speech, the president had “bullied” the Supreme Court justices on the dais into going gay-friendly in their upcoming decisions.

It’s a short step from believing that Obama wants to decimate your party to believing he’s making your party choose hard-right fringe policies that will alienate voters. And as Jonathan Chait writes, moderate Republicans like David Brooks and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who resent the extremists but won’t break from their party, are particularly susceptible to this “pathological” notion.

The prevalent expression of this psychological pain is the belief that President Obama is largely or entirely responsible for Republican extremism. It’s a bizarre but understandable way to reconcile conflicting emotions—somewhat akin to blaming your husband’s infidelity entirely on his mistress. In this case, moderate Republicans believe that Obama’s tactic of taking sensible positions that moderate Republicans agree with is cruel and unfair, because it exposes the extremism that dominates the party, not to mention the powerlessness of the moderates within it.

Yes, Brooks wrote that Dems think Obama should “invite a series of confrontations with Republicans over things like the debt ceiling—[to] make them look like wackos willing to endanger the entire global economy.”


Worse, argues Brooks, Obama is nastily choosing an agenda intended only to harm Republicans. Obama’s proposals on gun safety and immigration, he writes, are “wedge issues meant to divide Southerners from Midwesterners, the Tea Party/Talk Radio base from the less ideological corporate and managerial class.”

Brooks asserts, but does not actually explain, that Obama chose these issues for the purpose of dividing the opposition—as opposed to trying to cut down on mass murders and fix a huge field of broken policy.

What Obama does do, by being a politically moderate and emotionally calm leader with a beautiful family, is hold a mirror up to the chaotic and hysterical Republican leadership. This strikes them as very mean, and they blame Obama for what they see, Man of La Mancha style.

So now they are struggling to dream an Impossible Dream: taking back the political momentum by simply agreeing to the “poison pill” plan that the sequester was supposed to be, cutting $1.2 trillion from the budget spread equally between defense and domestic spending. The corporate end of the party will scream at those cuts, and fear the economic impact of austerity; the ultra base, now increasingly gerrymandered into scarlet congressional districts with little incentive to compromise, would get, given the $1.2 trillion Obama has already agreed to cut from the budget, something like the Ryan budget’s $2.4 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years. “I think the sequester’s going to happen,” Ryan said today on Meet the Press.

In a game of chicken like this one, the GOP has to convince us all that they mean it in order to win, so there may be a lot of play-acting here. But they also need to concentrate the minds of every Republican in the House to make the threat real. And nothing does that like the threat of “annihilation.”


By: Leslie Savan, The Nation, January 27, 2013

February 1, 2013 Posted by | GOP | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Appallingly Short Sighted”: “Anything Goes” Is The New Normal In Republican Politics

The GOP’s attempt to gerrymander the Electoral College by having a few swing states distribute their electoral votes according to congressional district rather than through the winner of the popular vote seems to be collapsing. The scheme has been voted down (Virginia) or talked down (Ohio, Florida, Michigan), in four of the states in question. Only Wisconsin (where the governor is walking back his initial enthusiasm for the idea) and Pennsylvania still seem to be seriously considering the notion.

The Maddow Blog’s Steve Benen yesterday had a good take on the implosion of the electoral gerrymander movement:

… while the relief of the scheme’s failure is understandable, it’s the result of diminished expectations.

… The “bar has shifted” so far that many of us are delighted, if not amazed, when Republican policymakers voluntarily agree not to crash the global economy on purpose. Our standards for success have fallen so low, we don’t actually expect progress—we instead cheer the absence of political malevolence.

But something’s going on here that’s larger than merely diminished expectations. The electoral vote-rigging scheme was the latest example of the end of norms in our politics. It used to be that certain tactics and certain tools simply were not used or were used only in extremis. But we are currently in an era of no holds barred politics: The end—accruing political power and/or victories—apparently justifies all means. Consider:

The filibuster was once a rarely used tool but has become the order of the day. Now the Senate passing something with less than 60 votes is the extraordinary exception where it was once the rule.

The idea of using the debt ceiling—or more specifically the threat of causing the United States to default on its obligations by not raising it—would once have been inconceivable but is rapidly becoming just another sign of gridlock.

Ditto the idea of intentionally shutting down the government.

Republicans in the Virginia state Senate last week used the absence of one Democratic member (he was attending President Obama’s inaugural) to ram through a mid-decade, partisan redistricting plan. If the new map, which the House of Delegates is slow-walking, is enacted, they are following the trail blazed in Texas by Tom DeLay (preconviction) and his state acolytes a decade ago. Redistricting is meant to take place on a decennial basis after the new census, not where political opportunity presents itself.

So is it any surprise that some conservatives thought the idea of gerrymandering the Electoral College was acceptable?

We’re in the “just win, baby” era of politics. But that attitude is appallingly short sighted because once the new normal takes hold it’s hard to walk back. If Democrats lose the Senate does anyone think they’ll throttle back on the filibuster because it’s the honorable thing to do? Or will they disavow unilateral disarmament while grinding the chamber to a halt?

The problem we all face is that the ends-justify-any-means attitude infecting our politics threatens the system itself. The Founding Fathers were brilliant and created a wonderfully durable system, but not an indestructible one.


By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, January 31, 2013

February 1, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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