To no one’s surprise, a few feverish days of the unprecedented—establishment media organizations beating up on Barack Obama’s leadership—are already giving way to a series of smart, nicely reasoned analyses of why the IRS/DOJ/Benghazi revelations are not genuinely scandal-worthy. (See Ezra Klein and Noam Scheiber for some of the best representative samples, and Charles Blow for one of the more in-the-tank ones). And the early revisionists are right, as I acknowledged in my previous posting, that these fiascoes have little in common with the substance of Watergate, and its nest of garden variety obstructions of justice, as well as the obviously critical distinction that Richard Nixon was caught directing those obstructions from his presidential desk, while Obama is by every account a sidelines bystander.
But it’s worth making several rejoinders to the budding “much ado about nothing” narrative. The first is that if the standard for comparison is not the most discredited president in my lifetime, but a random Fortune 500 company, that Obama’s administration struggles mightily with the threshold concept of accountability.
Three examples: (1) how does a Department of Justice with any measure of historical memory sign off on such a sweeping dragnet of reporter phone records, especially with nothing more at stake than ferreting out how the AP learned an obscure detail that compromised no ongoing investigations? Even allowing for the obvious, that Attorney Generals have no business discussing with presidents the content of secret subpoenas, the presidentially selected leadership at DOJ seemed weirdly clueless about the depth of the breach into reportorial work product. In fact, so clueless that it reflected an indifference to the axiom of any investigation that what is on paper will inevitably surface and have to be defended in a public or judicial context.
(2) When the hierarchy of the IRS learned that lower level bureaucrats were mixing political criteria with scrutiny of tax returns, what is it about the culture of this executive branch that kept that information from filtering up to Congress or to more senior officials at the Treasury Department or the White House? Why didn’t evidence of political censorship by tax officials stand out as the kind of thing Obama, or at least his senior staff or his Attorney General, might want to know?
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Artur Davis: Obama’s Weak “I’m No Nixon” Defense
No, the Obama Administration’s disaster of a week is not Watergate. Not unless Barack Obama is found scheming with his aides about how to pay “hush money” to witnesses. Not unless the foraging of journalists’ phone logs included eavesdropping with wiretaps. No unless revelations surface that Obama ordered a federal agency to shut down a criminal investigation, or that he skimmed campaign funds to build his own private network of thieves and vandals.
But this appalling seven days need not be Watergate to be something lethal and destructive of the public trust, a cascade of events that has hardened and validated the worst characterizations of this White House. The axiom on the political right that Obama’s presidency threatens constitutional freedom could seem overwrought when it was confined to insurance mandates and gun background checks. But from now on, the brief has just gotten appallingly straightforward: it sweeps in elements that are at the core of the First Amendment, in the form of the IRS digging into filers with the wrong politics, and into groups with an unapproved ideological agenda. The case that liberties are being violated—pirating the links between certain reporters and their sources for over two months, and in such an indiscriminate manner that close to a 100 working reporters might have been compromised—no longer seems to the media the stuff of right-wing paranoia.
The supposedly partisan charge that the Obama Administration was covering up details in the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi takes on more plausible colors when a diplomat describes the way he was beaten down by political appointees for asking hard questions. And the vague but toxic insinuation that high level negligence contributed to their deaths now has chilling specific details: one official’s account of a special operations rescue team being bluntly shut down when it was poised to strike, another’s description of an inter-office climate that minimized safety concerns about the American consulate as unseemly griping.
Obama has maddened his adversaries by only repeating his routine for handling public storms: indignation that his White House’s motives are questioned, and an implication that parts of the executive branch, in this case the IRS, are an island beyond his ability to influence. For his political acolytes, the effect is good righteous theater. Never mind the inconvenience that the IRS’ presidentially appointed leadership knew of political targeting, failed to stop it, and may have implicitly blessed it. Forget that the ugliness of his subordinates’ response to Benghazi is a picture supplied by members of his own government, not by his opponents but by professionals, people who until these events were trusted comrades of the appointees who ended up sacking or maligning them.
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Artur Davis: Obama’s Scandalous Seven Days in May
It may be a middle aged man’s perspective, but I recall the 80s as much more vivid and alluring than Joe Weisberg, the creator of FX’s “The Americans” suggests. In this drama about a pair of Russian KGB operatives who masquerade as married American travel agents in the early Reagan years, (Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Phillip Jennings) the decade is not so much MTV slick as gray in the stolid pattern of, say, the late fifties. And it is not just the deliberate pace, or the square personas of the FBI agents, or the fact that the show’s obligatory generational gap between parents and children is so sanitized that it seems to predate the furies of the seventies and sixties: the real source of drabness here is deeper, and rests on Weisberg’s characterization of the penultimate years of the Cold War as a sluggish collision between two exhausted warriors, who are stumbling around each other in a fog of confusion and blunder.
This imagining of the early 80s as one long slog without purpose works its way through every layer of the “Americans”. The Jennings are laboring through a marriage that was conceived as a cover, has run hot and cold over the years, and is complicated by the fact that ensnaring espionage targets in sex traps is part of their modus operandi. Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman, an FBI agent who strains a metaphor by living next door to the Jennings, is fumbling his way through mid-life angst: his own marriage is collapsing from too many years spent chasing criminals during irregular hours, and the affair he falls into with his Soviet informant (Annet Mahendru) seems born out of opportunism and the fatigue from keeping ambiguous moral lines straight. Both the Jennings and Beeman are true believers but they also resemble thrill-seekers, who chose daredevil careers to supply the vibrancy that would have been missing in their lives.
And if the characters are drifting through a moral haze, so are their respective superpowers. In Weisberg’s account, the Cold War is less ideological zeal than bureaucratized routine. The shadow boxing between the FBI and the KGB’s domestic American operations is driven by miscalculations and measured retributions for offenses that themselves were often accidental or hastily improvised. It is noticeable that almost all of the killing is either retaliatory or unplanned, and in its own way, brutal but strategically incompetent. The show is hardly clueless about Soviet cruelty, but in this narrative, it is less the dark soul of totalitarianism, more the emptiness of an amoral enterprise that runs on autopilot.
In other words, the 80s of the “Americans” is far from the idealized political landscape that most conservatives remember. Is Weisberg’s revisionism a sub rosa commentary that the dying throes of the Cold War were just histrionics between adversaries who needed the polarity of the east-west struggle to sustain their fix? To be sure, at moments, the series dabbles with a liberal-leaning perspective: when Elizabeth tries steering their adolescent, and blissfully apolitical, kids toward a leftist view of current events, Phillip later rebuffs her with a tart “This country doesn’t create socialists”, a hard to miss jab at the far right’s insinuations about a certain early 21st century president. The depiction of a black KGB operative named Gregory (Derek Luke) is provocative: he is a disillusioned American, a former 60s civil rights activist who dons a cover as a drug dealer, and in his tortured relationship with his country, there is a hint of a meme that regularly surfaces on the left—the insinuation that the 80s drug war was just the establishment’s counter-insurgency at misunderstood young black men.
Or, Weisberg may only be doing what the best television drama has been honing into a style since, well, the 80s: protagonists who struggle to resolve their ethical dilemmas, good deeds for the wrong reasons and vice versa, and the disconcerting appeal of corrupt figures who are simultaneously charming. Perhaps this familiar enough take only seems jarring when it is exported to the context of the epic global fight of the post WWII era. (and it is fair to conclude that Weisberg’s Russians are more nuanced than “Homeland’s” jihadists or the shadowy right wing conspirators lurking in “24″ or “Scandal”, or any given “NCIS” episode.)
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Artur Davis: “The Americans” — Bad History, Great TV?
It is not news that affluent families extend their advantage of wealth and connections to the next generation in ways more tangible than trust funds: their kids invariably compile better grades and test scores, accomplish more in extracurricular and leadership activities, and win admission to better ranked colleges with the best rates of placing their alumni in well paying jobs.
A recent essay in the New York Times by a Stanford academic, Sean Reardon, (“No Rich Child Left Behind”) has won a lot of praise for its dissection of those trends and its collection of data showing that the gap between children born in affluent homes and their middle and lower income peers is growing. But Reardon’s analysis is also worth examining for a blind spot it reveals in the left’s critique of educational inequality: despite a laundry list of mostly proposals to grow government services, Reardon never mentions two words, vouchers and parental choice. Not even in passing, not even for the purpose of debunking them. It’s as if Reardon is wholly oblivious to the idea that what plagues many parents is not so much an absence of more social welfare, but a lack of capital to buy mobility into better educational options for their children.
And while Reardon captures the extent to which affluent parents are gaining an edge for their kids by pouring cash into extracurricular programs and by devoting more of their own time and knowledge to their child’s life after school hours, he oddly gives no consideration to the most vital thumb these parents place on the scale: they cut the check necessary to enroll their child in the most elite private school they can find, or they buy a home in a neighborhood with a track record of sustaining top flight schools.
Reardon is perceptive in his suggestion that fixating on school quality can shortchange other decisive factors like parental involvement. But that insight does not challenge the obvious: parental support can still be undermined by weak or poorly run schools, and what the most engaged parents bring to the table can be augmented by schools that are exemplary. For those reasons, liberals and conservatives have spent a lot of energy attacking the problem of failing schools, with the right tending to focus on more accountability from teachers and principals, and the left embracing challenges to state funding formulas that disadvantage low income districts in various ways, typically by leaving them too dependent on inadequate local property tax bases.
To be sure, conservatives have sometimes been guilty of seeming more enthusiastic about reining in teachers unions than they are about the plight of under-served minority and low income youngsters. But most left-leaning critics are guilty of a blatant contradiction: they spend enormous energy worrying about the deficit between richer and poorer school districts while seeming unengaged in the even more prevalent reality that richer parents have a considerable edge in maneuvering the menu of school options.
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Artur Davis: Education and the Power of Choice
The world is still waiting for an unpredictable take on George W. Bush, whose dedication of his presidential library has spawned mostly commentary that can be pegged from knowing the writer’s pedigree: liberals who downgrade Bush for a war he could have declined and a recession he arguably could have avoided, but cite his relative moderateness as proof that today’s Republican Party is caught in a fever; hard-core conservatives lamenting that Bush spent promiscuously and short-changed social issues, and appointed the Obamacare-saving John Roberts; and center-right conservatives observing that Bush at least understood the value of a conservatism that appealed beyond the Republican base. (a point that I have made in past columns on Karl Rove and Jeb Bush).
I’ll forego those arguments for now to make another observation that Bush’s admirers and detractors gloss over: Bush happens to be the rare president who made a practice of being indifferent to the legacy building implications of his office. He said as much on several occasions (and was ridiculed for it) and his comments reflected a mindset which governed largely in the moment with no pretense of a signature governing vision. Consider the many plays this ad hoc style played out.
Where Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had specific and in their case diametrically opposed conceptions for the long term relationship between the world’s military superpowers, Bush’s foreign policy was really just a stop-gap. He bought into the intelligence that Iraq was a budding security threat, wiped its leadership out, and spent five years massaging the results with little trace of a broader strategic design (the neo-conservative rhetoric about democratizing the Middle East never got much more than lip service from Bush, who easily accommodated the region’s other autocratic regimes). While Ronald Reagan actively sought to dismantle the framework of liberalism, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama openly attempted to redefine their party and their opposition, Bush seemed notably uninterested in weaving a long term or even distinct short-term ideological blueprint. His signature domestic victory, No Child Left Behind, was technocratic and did not lean hard to the left or the right; the prescription drug benefit was similarly ambidextrous: insubstantial and loophole filled on one hand, the first expansion of Medicare in forty years on the other. And once the drug benefit passed, he barely mentioned it, much less tried to expand it into a template for how a conservative reformer might tackle health care in its broader dimensions.
Even when Bush overreached, as I argued then and would still argue now, in the way he waged the war on terror, it should not be forgotten that the bulk of what he sanctioned happened in the shadows, without Bush ever outlining in any concrete way a new formulation of American interrogation or surveillance policies. When “caught”, the Bush team, more often than is remembered, either reined themselves in or minimized the scope of their departure from preexisting laws. And Obama’s wholesale adoption of those same techniques, only substituting drones for torture, makes them already look more like another chief executive pushing for more authority than some uniquely Bush based doctrine.
It’s worth remembering that Bush actually tried to preserve an assault weapons ban, but never spoke of it; tried to roll back farm subsidies while doling out new oil subsidies; pinched pennies in specific agencies without even faking a grand deficit reduction strategy. The absence of any memorable Bush speeches on domestic policy is not entirely a function of his famous inarticulateness, but reflects the fact that so few Bush initiatives kept his own administration’s attention.
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Artur Davis: Yet Another Way of Looking at George Bush
Give the New Republic’s Adam Winkler credit for laying some of the blame for the collapse of background checks on gun sales not just on NRA sophistry but on a poorly executed, badly timed, overly polarizing campaign by the Obama Administration. As Winkler points out, the over-reach of going after an assault weapon ban boomeranged badly, serving only to galvanize opposition and define even incremental regulations as a wedge to confiscate guns. And the virtues of a go-for-broke strategy, whatever they were, never compensated for the fact that no assault weapons ban had even a remote chance of passing the House.
I would add an additional point that goes much deeper than tactics and the debate over guns. To a degree that could not have been anticipated, and seems doubly odd for a reelected president, Barack Obama smothers his own initiatives. He has the capacity to lend eloquence to his own followers’ views, but no demonstrated ability to organize them behind any cause other than putting him in office. He moves literally no sector of the electorate that didn’t vote for him. His intervention in a legislative fight seems good primarily for preserving gridlock. Obama wins elections but through pathways that close quickly and elevate few specific policy aims: in 2008, a backlash against George Bush’s unpopularity and an airy promise of a post-racial society, and in 2012, a relentlessly negative siege against Mitt Romney. And the country that has elected Obama twice is still split to the core, more so today than when he was a senator signing book contracts. And the deepest splits are more around the country’s perception of Obama than around any singular issue.
None of this means, of course, that there are not a variety of other elements that contribute to the hyper-polarization of the past four years, from the internet’s inevitable pipeline for misinformation, to the continued weight of interest groups like the NRA, to a cable culture that dismisses any efforts by politicians to craft a middle ground as expediency. But it would take an element of willful denial to ignore the fact that Obama occupies the single most divisive space in American politics since Nixon, and that one of the costs is a presidency that is frustratingly weak at persuasion.
It is not too early to wonder if Obama a generation from now looks weirdly like, of all people, Margaret Thatcher: a highly effective campaigner whose victories spun off the unintended consequence of an entrenched cultural opposition, and whose “conviction politics” seem like a relic. Twenty plus years after Thatcherism formally ended, it has been supplanted by a run of center-leaning British prime ministers with a penchant for downplaying sharp ideological rifts. It is not hard to imagine that Obama’s successors won’t be similarly preoccupied with navigating away from the intense divisions of the Obama era.
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Artur Davis: Obama the Polarizer
Who knows what this tortured week in Boston means for the future? After all, the hunting down and killing of Osama Bin Laden hardly lifted America out of the morass that has distorted politics for the better part of five years, not even a little bit. There was agony at the shooting and maiming of a congresswoman while she was attending to her constituents, and the misery of knowing that a child died that day while on an outing to see democracy in action. Those tears haven’t washed any of the anger out of our campaigns, and they haven’t slowed down the denigration of public service.
But permit me one burst of wishful thinking. It goes like this. If only the fanaticism of two brothers who twisted themselves into killers would remind us that America faces threats worse than anything our left or right fear of each other. If only the intensity of the Tsarnaev brothers’ hatred makes the values we clash over, from immigration to gun laws to the weight of government, seem not unimportant but not worth surrendering our civility over, either.
If only both sides of the ideological divide will forego the politics this one time: the fact that one killer turned into a radical under the protection of a student visa, and that another plotted how to sever bodies months after becoming a citizen, tells us much about the unpredictable warp in human souls, but next to nothing about the immigration deal Marco Rubio is trying to save. The agents and officers who wove this case together in four days from thin air can’t be lifted up enough, but spare us any side lectures on sequestration or talking points about the limitations of federalism. Save it for a week that doesn’t keep punching our gut.
If only we could savor one moment, let it be the faces in the crowds gathering in Watertown to celebrate a return to the ideal of being safe in one’s own home. I spent enough time as a student in metropolitan Boston to know that the blacks and whites and browns, and Catholics and Arabs and Jews don’t ordinarily mix so easily on those streets after dark. They often clutch their purses and roll up their car windows, and clench when they see each other. What a striking thing to watch them unclench their mutual suspicions for even a little while. It only took two bad seeds to make those gritty, divided neighborhoods re-imagine the meaning of “us” and “them.”
(A version of this essay was cross-published at Ricochet.com)
Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University yielded about what would have been expected. The media focused on the crowd’s tepid reactions. Various liberal pundits dwelled on Paul’s awkward moments: the senator unwisely choosing a “did you know” riff that assumed his audience’s ignorance about certain historical points of reference, while he blanked on the name of Edward Brooke, a Republican who happened to be the only black man in the 20th Century who won a Senate election; and Paul’s tortured effort to contextualize his criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
If Paul was simply showing up as a token of “courage”, the kind of symbolism consultants push on candidates, he deserved the dismissive results he received. After all, at the root of such a strategy is not really bravery, but a cold willingness to use the kids who attended as props whose indifference lets him demonstrate resilience.
Assuming that Paul had a nobler goal, that of actually winning converts among Republicans’ single hardest to crack demographic, African Americans under 29, I would still call it a missed chance, from his perspective as well as theirs, and a reminder of why the gap between blacks and the political right is such a chasm.
First, there was Paul’s fixation on historical alignments that predate his audience’s grandparents. The men and women who heard Paul could have used a primer not on 19th century history or even pre-Voting Rights Act Dixiecrats, but on the GOP’s contemporary pattern of electing blacks, Latinos, and East Asian Indians to governorships or Senate seats. It would have been worthwhile to tell the many southern born black kids at Howard that it is Republicans who put a black man in Strom Thurmond’s old seat.
Paul devoted a lot of time to the dirty hands another generation of Democrats brought to the debate over race. But it would have been much more relevant for Paul to push his audience on why poverty and inadequately funded black school districts stayed so persistent during the decades of Democratic legislative rule in the South, a run that in the states many of Howard’s students return home to every summer, just ended in the last six years.
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Artur Davis: Rand Paul’s Wasted Day at Howard
It would not surprise me if there were six votes on the Supreme Court for getting and keeping the federal government out of the business of recognizing marriages. That would mean that when federal benefits and tax treatment turn on what is or isn’t a valid domestic union, that Washington has to defer to the state where a couple resides, and that state’s definition of what constitutes matrimony. It would also mean that the Court refused to put the evolving conversation over same sex marriage beyond the reach of actual voters and state legislatures.
That mixed bag, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act but declining to recognize that same sex marriages are a fundamental national right, would be roughly consistent with how the Roberts Court has navigated politically charged battles: upholding the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate under Congress’ taxing power instead of the more sweeping commerce clause; wiping out the most punitive provisions of Arizona’s immigration law but rebuking the Obama Administration for trying to thwart local law enforcement from sorting out whether criminal suspects even have a legal right to be in the country. To be sure, the high court can look suspiciously like politicians searching for a compromise, but their approach has virtues conservatives relish: appropriate skepticism about Washington’s tendencies to grow by swallowing major chunks of state authority, and deference to a public that still prefers the ballot box and the legislative chamber as the deciding grounds for disputes.
The more unpredictable question is how the left, which has been so ascendant on gay marriage, would react to being invited into a state by state contest that, based on the reactions to last week’s arguments, it is hoping to avoid. I will venture two predictions: first, liberals have probably passed through the easiest part of the fight. To date, their strategy has been one of stigmatizing opposition to gay marriage, and guaranteeing a social and professional price in establishment circles to any contrary point of view. It is a course that has built a narrative in the media and run up a string of victories in heavily Democratic states where social conservatives are suspect. National Republicans, who depend on that same media for oxygen and who have to raise cash in New York, Chicago, and Washington boardrooms as much as Democrats do, have been thrown on the defensive.
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Artur Davis: The Next Round on Gay Marriage
Sometimes, a hackneyed, unoriginal argument still has a virtue: in this case, capturing the left’s laziness and mendacity in such an unabashed manner that it provides the perfect occasion for rebuttal. So, consider Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take-down of Ben Carson in the New York Times.
Coates’ theory is that Carson is the latest phase of an eight year initiative, “a Republican plan”, to locate a black conservative to counter Barack Obama. As evidence, the existence of four black men who have flickered in and out of the spotlight during Obama’s ascension: Alan Keyes, Michael Steele, Allen West, and Herman Cain. In pulling together these loose strands, Coates overlooks an array of inconvenient facts—that only one of them, Steele, emerged as the product of any sort of party-wide process; that West openly complains that national Republicans ignored him during his failed congressional reelection; that Cain was about as much a product of a grand Republican strategy as Michelle Bachman, who surged for about as long as Cain did; and that Keyes was not so much hand-picked, more a self anointed sacrifice with a history of parachuting into quixotic races.
The only vague line connecting all four, much less all four and Carson, is their sharing of the same skin color. Coates takes that and runs with it, with the very same snide cynicism that he charges conservatives have practiced in elevating these “Black Hopes of the moment.” It is the left’s usual penchant for dismissing conservatives, with the underlying innuendo that a black conservative’s advancement is a fraud that could never transpire without conspiracy or the hand-out of affirmative action. In other words, the same poison that Coates’ writings routinely suggest is at the root of any right-winger’s skepticism of black accomplishment, from Obama all the way down to the corner office.
I have no doubt that a part of Carson’s appeal is that he is vivid proof that not every black embraces an activist, expanding government. But at the risk of upsetting both Coates’ and Sean Hannity’s narratives, I see Carson more in the vein of, say, a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg, spectacularly successful achievers whose run of success earns them a public policy stage. That makes Carson not a race pawn, but the beneficiary of a common American archetype of making all purpose experts and role models out of gifted people.
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Artur Davis: Taking Ben Carson Seriously