Paul Waldman

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Kicking the Iraq Syndrome On the Way to Tehran

It's been an entire 12 years since we started a war, and apparently the American people are getting a little antsy. A new Quinnipiac poll finds that 62 percent of Americans, including 72 percent of Republicans, favors the use of ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. We should be careful about over-interpreting that, because the question was preceded by another question talking about limited, but not long-term operations for ground troops. But there's no doubt that the public's interest in getting some boots back on the ground is gaining momentum; in Pew polls, support for ground troops went up from 39 percent in October to 47 percent in February; in the same poll, 67 percent of Republicans said they supported ground troops.

The reason I focus on the number of Republicans is that I suspect with this increase in support from their constituents, we're going to hear more and more Republican politicians coming out for what we might call a re-invasion of Iraq, and not just Iraq but Syria, as well. And as long as we're in the neighborhood, how about some military action against Iran?

Iran is, of course, a separate story. But it isn't unrelated; once people start advocating a third Iraq war with more vigor than they have been up until now, the idea of bombing Iran won't seem so outlandish. Back in 2002, when the Bush administration was in the midst of its campaign to convince the public that invading Iraq was necessary lest we all be obliterated by Saddam Hussein's fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, a British official described the sentiment among the Bush administration and its allies this way: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran."

It wasn't long ago that the idea of sending ground troops back to the Middle East was widely considered just short of insane. After all, we'd finally gotten out of Iraq, after spending $2 trillion, losing 4,000 American lives, and sending the region into chaos. Why would we want to do it all over again? But now, the idea of doing it all over again seems to be gaining traction.

Just after the end of the first Iraq war, George H. W. Bush closed a celebratory speech by saying: "It's a proud day for America. And, by God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." That syndrome was the reluctance of the public (and military leaders) to countenance enormous military adventures in far-off lands in service of vaguely defined goals. So it may now be time to say that the "Iraq syndrome" is dead, if ever it existed.

At the moment, when the Republicans running for president are asked about whether they'd like to send troops to any of these countries, they inevitably reply that "all options should be on the table." It's essentially a dodge, though not a completely unreasonable one. They want to signal to conservatives that they're ready to use force, but signal to everyone else that they're not eager to do so. But try to imagine what would happen if a Republican wins the presidency next year.

If ISIS isn't completely defeated, he'll be under pressure from his supporters to go in there and get the job done, and not in a wimpy way like Obama. Then think about Iran. With Bibi Netanyahu writing their talking points, Republicans will now insist that any nuclear agreement negotiated by this president is by definition weak and dangerous. The very fact of an agreement limiting Iran's nuclear activities can be the justification for military action. If the talks break down, on the other hand, well that just makes starting a bombing campaign all the more urgent. And of course, they'll assure us that once we take out the Iranian nuclear program, the people will rise up and overthrow their oppressive government.

It's all going to sound quite familiar. War will once again be presented as the only way to prevent a bigger, worse war that they insist is coming no matter what. Don't forget that the Iraq War was offered up by the Bush administration as a pre-emptive strike to prevent the inevitable and not-too-distant moment when Saddam Hussein would launch his war against the United States. While they never said whether the Iraq invasion would come by land, sea, or air, the attack was coming one way or another. In Dick Cheney's immortal words: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

Netanyahu says that the Iranian regime is just a bunch of homicidal lunatics who are determined to re-enact the Holocaust. There's no use negotiating with them, because they're mad. War is the only way to solve the problem. Anyone who saw the way Republicans were like tweens at a One Direction concert at Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday know that if he says it, they'll believe it.

So here's what I think is going to happen. First, the idea that we need to put troops in to fight ISIS—not on the table, but on the ground—is very quickly going to become something that all Republicans agree on (and if you're going to do it, do it big—no half-assed mobilization of a few thousand, but a massive deployment). Then they'll start talking seriously about military action against Iran, sooner rather than later, and that too is going to move rapidly from being a fringe idea, to something that many of them admit should be "on the table," to something they all agree ought to be done. And by God, we'll have kicked that Iraq syndrome once and for all.  

Republicans Still Obsessed With Message-Sending

There was a weird little sidelight to the just-concluded mini-crisis over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which was that the American Action Network, a group allied with John Boehner, was running ads criticizing conservative Republicans for not supporting a clean DHS funding bill, even as Boehner was trying to win them over with a much softer approach. But what really struck me watching this was something about the message itself:

You may have noticed that when the ad says "put real teeth in immigration enforcement," the image is of a Predator drone, presumably because we'll be raining missiles down on people wading through the Rio Grande. Which is...interesting. But here's the text:

"While the threats grow, conservatives in Congress want to beef up our security, enhance cybersecurity, and put real teeth in immigration enforcement. It's the right message to send to our enemies. But some in Washington are willing to put out security at risk by jeopardizing critical security funding. That's the wrong message to send to our enemies. Tell Congressman Tim Huelskamp to fund homeland security. Our safety must come first."

This is a common argument, particularly when it comes to national security policy. "Sending messages" is supposed to be extremely important, and not just to friends and potential supporters, but to adversaries and enemies as well. Indeed, sometimes it seems that victory can be achieved if only we "send the right message."

George W. Bush was particularly fond of citing the importance of proper message-sending. For instance, here are some of the things he said in the first debate he did in 2004 with John Kerry:

"[Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi] doesn't want U.S. leadership, however, to send mixed signals, to not stand with the Iraqi people…I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis?...I know we won't achieve if we send mixed signals. I know we're not going to achieve our objective if we send mixed signals to our troops, our friends, the Iraqi citizens...The way to make sure that we succeed is to send consistent, sound messages to the Iraqi people...I think that by speaking clearly and doing what we say and not sending mixed messages, it is less likely we'll ever have to use troops...But by speaking clearly and sending messages that we mean what we say, we've affected the world in a positive way…[Kim Jong-Il] wants to unravel the six- party talks, or the five-nation coalition that's sending him a clear message...You cannot lead if you send mixed messages. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our troops. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our allies. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to the Iraqi citizens."

Now I don't mean to say that message-sending is never important. Adversaries and allies alike notice both what we do and what we say. But the idea that what matters in defeating ISIS is the message we send them is kind of crazy. There are plenty of reasons why it would have been a bad idea to shut down DHS, but it's not like somewhere in Mosul a bunch of ISIS fighters would be watching CNN and say, "We were prepared to abandon this war, but this sends a message of weakness. The time to strike America is now!"

Photo of the Day, Not Buying It Edition

Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer listening to Benjamin Netanyahu's speech today. They don't look particularly impressed.

Inane Budget Mini-Crisis Comes to Predictable End

While everyone was getting ready for Benjamin Netanyahu's speech (you can read my thoughts on that here), John Boehner took the opportunity to capitulate to Democrats:

It was all but inevitable, and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) finally cut his losses on Tuesday, telling House Republicans he will allow a vote on legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security without any immigration restrictions.

The "clean" DHS funding bill could come up as early as Tuesday. It is expected to pass with overwhelming support from Democrats and enough House Republicans.

Boehner laid out three paths to his members in a weekly meeting, according to a source in the room: shutting down DHS, another short-term stopgap bill, or the Senate-passed clean DHS bill. He said the first two weren't good options.

"With more active threats coming into the homeland, I don't believe that's an option," Boehner said of a shutdown. "Imagine if, God forbid, another terrorist attack hits the United States."

It effectively ends the Republican threat to use a potential shutdown of DHS to overturn President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration, which Boehner promised to fight "tooth and nail" last year with the new GOP majorities in both chambers.

I am so surprised that it ended this way. Who could have predicted? Well, I and a dozen other people predicted exactly this, but anyway, I'm sure the House conservatives feel terribly betrayed.

Some time ago, I heard someone on the radio say that every time she sees "Romeo and Juliet," even though she knows how it ends, she finds herself hoping that Juliet will wake up in time to stop Romeo from drinking the poison, and they'll all live happily ever after. Which is understandable—despite what you know to be true, it's easy to get caught up in the drama. And today, conservatives in the House are kind of like that play-goer, except that they're leaving the theater all angry about how things ended, despite the fact that they've seen the play multiple times already.

There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that, as I've argued before, Boehner has taken a nearly impossible task and made it even harder through incompetence. Another is that, as Jonathan Bernstein argues today, Boehner is actually being quite clever; these mini-crises pass without much public notice, he gives the crazies a chance to vent with a vote or two, and everything works out fine in the end. Maybe. But I still don't think history will be very kind to this speakership.

The Latest Clinton Story: Scandal, Nothingburger, Or Something In Between?

Before we get into the details of the Hillary Clinton email story, note that I'm writing this on Tuesday morning, and with each passing hour the story seems to be getting a little clearer. It may turn out to be significant, or it may turn out to be a big nothing; at the moment things seem to be moving in the latter direction, but that could change. Last night, when The New York Times published this story revealing that when she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton did not have an official email address but instead used her personal email account for official business, people were reacting as though it was a blockbuster, a new scandal in the making. As everyone noted, it plays right into concerns about the Clintons' penchant for secrecy, and the poor staff work that so plagued her 2008 campaign (the assumption being that if her staff were more on the ball, they wouldn't have allowed her to use a private email for official correspondence).

But what a story "plays into" tells us nothing about what's there and what isn't. So was there any actual wrongdoing? According to Anne Gearan of The Washington Post, John Kerry was the first secretary of state to use a .gov email address. That wasn't made clear in the Times story, and it would certainly seem like a mitigating factor; if Clinton wasn't doing anything different from her predecessors, then this looks less like a conspiracy to conceal something.

The State Department says that last year they requested that former secretaries of state give them any work-related emails from their private accounts for preservation; in response, Clinton turned over 55,000 pages of emails. Three hundred of those pages were relevant to requests that the special congressional committee on Benghazi had made, so they were passed along to the committee. This morning, Elijah Cummings, the ranking minority member on that committee, issued a statement saying the committee should release those emails to the public. Of course, if they do release them and they don't contain anything incriminating, some people will say that proves that the real emails detailing nefarious behavior are being hidden.

There's no question that government officials, especially those at the highest levels, should have a .gov email address through which all official business is conducted. Since she used a personal account, we have to rely on Clinton's word that what she passed along to the State Department is complete. While I'm not an expert on these regulations, according to Josh Gerstein of Politico, it wasn't until last year, after Clinton had left the government, that a law was passed requiring officials to forward any official business conducted on personal email accounts. If she wasn't breaking any laws or even breaking with previous practice, it still might not have been the right thing to do, but it wouldn't be scandalous either.

Now let me be clear about one thing, because we have a long campaign ahead of us. My personal feelings about Clinton are complicated, to say the least. Defending her from legitimate criticism is about the last thing I have any enthusiasm for, and there are plenty of people who actually get paid to do that.

If Clinton ends up being the Democratic nominee, there will be about a hundred short-term controversies over things she did or said, whether allegedly or actually. Many of these will be ridiculous. There will be faux outrage over statements on the campaign trail, and enthusiastic conspiracy theorizing over Benghazi and who knows what else. She'll also get some criticism she deserves, whether it's about her tenure at the State Department, her activities outside government, or her policy positions.

This will not be the last time that a story breaks, and in the first few hours people start shouting "Major Clinton scandal!" Then it will turn out that when all the facts are in, it's something else: maybe nothing, or maybe something questionable or even problematic in some way, but not really scandalous. Whether you're disappointed or relieved with the way this story is turning out, don't worry. There will be plenty more.

Photo of the Day, Special Relationship Edition

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking before the Likud lobby, aka AIPAC. Unfortunately, he didn't bring his cartoon bomb

Mikulski Retiring; Could Donna Edwards Be Her Replacement?


Senator Barbara Mikulski announced today that she will not be running for re-election next year, bringing her 30-year tenure in the Senate to an end. This sets up what could be an interesting race to succeed her. The natural candidate might be Chris Van Hollen, the most high-profile of the state's House members. But keep your eye on Donna Edwards, who represents a district centered in Prince George's County (inevitably described as "vote-rich").

The latest Voteview rankings put Edwards as the 11th-most liberal member of the House, but unlike your average passionate liberal, she's also an extremely shrewd politician. In 2006, having spent her career in nonprofit advocacy, she challenged Al Wynn, the Democrat who had been cruising to easy re-elections for years, but had become increasingly conservative. Wynn won by a hair, but two years later Edwards ran again and obliterated him in the primary.

I have no idea if Edwards is interested in running, but she's always had big fans in the progressive community nationwide. If she ran, she'd be able to raise a lot of money from the netroots, and the fact that she'd be only the second black woman ever elected to the Senate means her election would be a pretty big deal.

There's no shortage of ambitious Democrats in Maryland, and I'm sure that at least a half-dozen are gazing out the windows of their offices today, contemplating what it would be like to be a United States senator. Could be a very interesting primary. 

No Rootin'-Tootin' Solution For GOP's Immigration Woes

(Photo: Ron Sachs/CNP via AP Images)

Former Governor Rick Perry (Republican of Texas) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National at National Harbor, Maryland on Friday, February 27, 2015.


If you want to understand the challenge Republicans face in their two goals for the next two years—to keep their control of Congress from turning into a disaster, and to win back the White House—all you have to do is look at the way they've handled the issue of immigration. They've spent the last few years trying to find their way to a coherent policy consensus that helps, not hurts, their electoral fate in the near and far future. It isn't as though no Republicans have any ideas. But every time it comes up, they just seem to be digging themselves into a deeper hole.

The explanation has to do with where the party's center of gravity lies. As Tom Schaller details in his new book The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress But Surrendered the White House, the GOP's agenda, image, and character are now largely determined by its representatives in Congress, and more specifically, its House members. Whereas the Democrats used to have a stranglehold on the House while Republicans had an advantage in presidential elections, we now see the reverse: Republicans hold a structural advantage in congressional districts (a product of both gerrymandering and where Americans of different ideologies choose to live), while Democrats start presidential campaigns with a leg up.

And in the House, the typical Republican is one who hails from a conservative district, has constituents who are overwhelmingly white, and only worries about a challenge from the right. He may understand full well what party leaders mean when they say that the GOP needs to reach out to Latinos, and that comprehensive immigration reform has to be a part of that process. But when he goes home, he gets an earful from constituents who want him to know how ticked off they are about the foreign tide coming across the border and changing the character of their America.

So look what happened just in the last few days. On Capitol Hill, House Republicans demanded that continued funding for the Department of Homeland Security be tied to a reversal of President Barack Obama's executive actions on deferred deportations for undocumented immigrants. Senate Republicans were prepared to fund the Department of Homeland Security and hold a separate vote protesting the president's immigration actions, but that wasn't good enough for Republicans in the House, who want no compromise in their effort to strike back at Obama. Fifty-two of them revolted against Speak John Boehner's attempt to fund DHS for three weeks, evidently believing that was too long to wait for another shutdown showdown; now we'll be doing it again at the end of this week.

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, Republican presidential hopefuls were telling conservative activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference of their unadulterated zeal for "securing the border." Rick Perry, former governor of the Lone Star State, repeated one of his favorite rootin'-tootin' lines, about how he told Barack Obama, "If you won't secure the border, Texas will." (Perry has been saying that for a while, yet he managed to leave office without actually securing the border.) Senator Marco Rubio, who not only used to be a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform but just three years ago proposed his own version of the DREAM Act, has seen the light. He told CPAC the crowd that figuring out what to do about the undocumented immigrants who are already here is all well and good, "But what I've learned is you can't even have a conversation about that until people believe and know—not just believe but it's proven to them—that future illegal immigration will be controlled." So he, too, now says that securing the border first is the most important thing.

Fresh from his successful appearance at CPAC, Scott Walker appeared on Fox News Sunday yesterday, where he was questioned on the fact that he used to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but no longer does. "My view has changed. I'm flat-out saying it," he said, adding, "We need to secure the border."

Walker may be wondering why his change of heart should be a big deal, because the truth is that most of the 2016 candidates have at one time or another said positive things about a path to some kind of legal status for the undocumented. But with one exception, they've now agreed that the answer to any question about immigration is "Secure the border first." Which is a way of saying that we shouldn't actually do much of anything, forever.

You may have noticed that you never hear a Republican describe exactly what a "secure" border would look like. Zero undocumented immigration? Fences across all 1,933 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border? The Border Patrol's budget has doubled over the last decade, even as the number of illegal crossings plunged after the Great Recession. But no matter what happens, Republicans can always say that we can't have comprehensive reform yet, because the border is not secured.

Rubio shouldn't feel alone either, because there's a time-honored tradition of Republican candidates changing their position on immigration once they enter the presidential race. Mitt Romney once supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; by the time his 2012 campaign came around, he was talking about "self-deportation," a euphemism for making life so miserable for them that they'd return to the countries they fled from. Before running for president in 2008, John McCain wrote a comprehensive reform bill; during the campaign, he declared his opposition to his own bill.

The only Republican candidate who seems unwilling to jump with both feet into the quadrennial immigration pander-fest is Jeb Bush. Whether out of conviction or the calculation that he has gone way too far to flip-flop now, Bush still maintains his support for a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. But he, too, has moved right: He once supported a path to complete citizenship, but no longer does.

That doesn't mean his opponents won't go after him on the issue, and hard. All the candidates know that for Republican primary voters, immigration is a cultural issue, every bit as much as abortion or gay marriage. The question is whether the eventual nominee can get through the primary telling Republican voters he sees America the same way they do without telling general election voters—both the growing Latino population and moderate voters as a whole—that his perspective is dramatically different from theirs. Previous nominees couldn't do it, and with congressional Republicans waging an endless battle with the president over the immigration issue, it's going to be hard for the next nominee to fare much better.

Pay Discrimination? Your Fault for Not Suing. (At CPAC, Carly Fiorina Explains How to Talk to Women)

Posted by guest blogger Kristen Doerer

"If you read newspapers—and I hope you don't clutter your mind with such nonsense" is how Chris Doss of the Leadership Institute opened a breakout session “Lies Told to You by Liberals.” Billed as an “activism boot camp,” the session took place on February 27, the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), in National Harbor, Maryland.

I wasn’t there to see this guy—who blabbered on about how Marxists and communists had infiltrated the Democratic Party, and then the civil rights and anti-war movements. People streamed in, and quickly out, while he was speaking. No one was there to hear this guy. They were there for Carly Fiorina.

Fiorina, who made her debut at CPAC yesterday, was leading the following section, “Countering the ‘War on Women’ Lie.” By the time she walked into the room, it was packed to capacity, the seats filled with a noticeably large number of young women.

“The War on Women continues, even though it failed and fell flat for [Democrats] in 2014,” said Fiorina in her opening remarks.

This isn’t the first time Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and potential presidential candidate, has done this talk. She spoke last year at CPAC on the same topic, and, she said, she had young women telling her afterwards that she needs to educate more women about the rhetoric surrounding the War on Women that she contends does not exist.

So Fiorina created the Unlocking Potential Project, with the goal, she said, of engaging women voters in Republican politics by using their personal connections and grassroots strategies.

“Women are most persuaded by women they know,” said Fiorina. It was this notion that led her to equip women with the skills to take apart the "War on Women" rhetoric.

During the campaign for the 2014 midterm elections, Unlocking Potential deployed women—and men who showed interest—to five states, according to Fiorina: Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Colorado.

“The media has taken over the 'War on Women' rhetoric,” said Fiorina. “Women are not single-issue voters,” but the media and Democrats, she said, would have you thinking that reproductive rights is all they care about.

“Our views are as diverse as men’s,” said Fiorina, evoking the conservative notion that Democrats hold back women by assuming they are victims, while conservatives don’t pigeonhole them. “We care about all the issues.”

Carly Fiorina then dove into how the past few years under President Barack Obama—and in California, as represented by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, to whom she lost in 2010—have hurt women. “The real war on women is happening every day,” she said, in the guise of low participation rates in the labor force (forget the economy that is still recovering from the Bush crash), and her claim that, under the current system, women are being denied health-care access in hospitals. (Although Fiorina didn’t specify or elaborate on her claim, the implication was that Obamacare was somehow to blame.)

“Equal pay for equal work—it’s a good idea,” Fiorina continued. “That’s why there was a law passed in 1963” that she sees as having more or less taken care of the problem. Women just need to use the law when paid unfairly, she asserted.

Today, women don’t need another law, she said, but rather “pay-for-performance environments, not the seniority system.”

“You know who supports seniority?” she asked, rhetorically. “Unions.”

I cannot stress how, after spending a full day at CPAC the previous day with people shouting the same things at you over and over, how sane this talk could sound to some.

She then dove into the subject of abortion, and readily made it known that she is proudly “pro-life” (or in other words, anti-choice), but urged a change in demeanor when conservatives address the issue.

“We need to talk about it in a calm and respectful tone and lay out the facts.” It was exactly how she was speaking, calmly engaging her audience. Her tone was open, inviting, leveled.

“Women do not like the tone of politics. They frequently tell us that they do not like to be judged,” she continued, “We need to be empathetic and respectful. Any time a woman is in a difficult situation, she never deserves our condemnation, but she deserves our empathy.”

But when you get into these conversations with other women, she told her rapt audience, don’t assume people will know the facts. One great way to start these conversations, she said, was to ask: “Do you know what the Democratic Party platform is?”

She attacked Democratic opposition to laws that would effectively close a number of abortion clinics for not having “high enough standards.” These are laws, such as those passed in Texas and Mississippi that demand that abortion clinics meet the standards of hospital operating rooms, or that require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges to a local hospitals—a Catch-22 if one’s local hospital is run by administrators who oppose abortion.

“Do we want higher standards for tattoo parlors than for abortion clinics?” she asked, without elaborating on the arbitrary nature of such regulation, state to state.

Armed with new talking points, the women in the room seemed empowered by her speech.

Carly Fiorina may not make it far in a bid for president, but she’s not to be overlooked. It’s likely that the GOP will use her to woo conservative women voters in the run-up to 2016.

In closing, she mixed a metaphor or two: “Women are like a pile of dry tinder, we have to engage them and they’ll stand up.”


Photo of the Day, Live Long and Prosper Edition

Leonard Nimoy passed away today at the age of 83. It's just impossible to overstate what a fantastic and enduring character he created in Mr. Spock. As Charlie Jane Anders writes today, before Spock, that kind of character—the emotionless alien—was a one-note character, but he managed to imbue him with a terrific range and depth, squeezing a tremendous amount out of a raised eyebrow or a single word ("fascinating"). The fact that everyone knows Mr. Spock, whether you've seen the original Star Trek or not, is a tribute to what he created. They don't come any cooler than Leonard Nimoy.