Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Obama ascendant


THE BATTLE is joined, finally. On Tuesday the dream that Mitt Romney’s heart made years ago took a formal step toward reality. The former Massachusetts governor won the Texas primary, capturing enough of the Lone Star State’s 155 delegates to clinch the 1,144 delegates to become The Republican Nominee for the presidency. The official coronation takes place in August at the convention in Tampa. And while he won’t actually be The Nominee until votes on the convention floor are counted, it’s fair to say this is the done deal Romney’s been waiting for.

“I am honored that Americans across the country have given their support to my candidacy and I am humbled to have won enough delegates to become the Republican Party's 2012 presidential nominee,” Romney said in a statement.

And with this forgone conclusion in the books, the Obama White House can double down on the process it started several primaries ago in April: defining a candidate who’s doggedly refused to define himself. Just as Romney has weathered his own storms during the primary season, President Obama has also mounted his own comeback in recent months. He faces the real presumptive Republican nominee with a confidence that’s been building since late last year, when things looked bleak for the Obama White House.

Now, Team Obama’s mission is straightforward, if not exactly simple: Hammer home the idea that a President Romney would happily lash the economy of the United States to the roof of his administration and go tearing down the road for four years, destination unknown.

Little by little since last fall, President Obama has taken off the gloves. Through recess appointments, executive orders, the power of the incumbency and the power of pressure as communicated in the public discourse, the word’s gone out: This is the bare-knuckled street-fighter summamabitch we’ve been waiting for.

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We’ve had more than flashes of what some called “the new Obama”: In September, addressing a joint session of Congress (and the nation), the president introduced the American Jobs Act, a $447 billion measure intended to “provide a jolt to the economy that has stalled.” Obama all but called out certain Republican leaders from certain beleaguered districts by name.

Earlier, at a Detroit Labor Council rally on Labor Day. Obama gave the crowd just a taste of what was to come in the joint session address. When he introduced the bill, he said, “we’re gonna see if we’ve got some straight shooters in Congress. We’re gonna see if congressional Republicans will put country before party. Show us what ya got!”

All of this was further buoyed by the takeout of Osama bin Laden, a year ago, and the emotionally galvanizing event of the end of the Iraq war, last December.

And it was punctuated by other indicators of a newfound muscularity of the Obama administration. In January, President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new military budget that cut $487 billion in cuts in planned defense spending over 10 years, and includes reduction of troop strength by 10 to 15 percent as well as a delay in production of the deeply expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet. Outlining a new military strategy that puts more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, Obama said the United States would maintain its "military superiority" with the Pacific Rim recalibration, meant to de-emphasize the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those facts of American life and national security since Sept. 11, 2001.

Add to that Obama’s undisputed knockout win with the $144 billion extension of the payroll tax-cut debate, in February, and his full-throated support of gay marriage — a politically risky but societally bold position — and you have a president more confident and pugnacious than we’ve been accustomed to seeing, a president less enamored of sang-froid and more taken with the idea of kicking asses and taking names.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Egypt: The great experiment begins


CANDIDATES. Turnout. Runoff. Three of the words that American voters (and those in other countries) are almost inured to are suddenly, staggeringly new to the voters of a nation whose geopolitical importance can’t be overstated, and whose future couldn’t be more uncertain.

Last week in two days of voting, the people of the Republic of Egypt took their first real steps toward participatory democracy, spurred by the events of the Arab Spring, voting in their first popular election in, seriously, 5,000 years.

Over the weekend, NBC News correspondent Richard Engel confirmed what other news sources reported on Monday: Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafiq, a hardliner from Egypt’s past, would face a runoff vote on June 16 for the presidency of the nation of 81 million people whose citizens’ median age is 24 years old. The contrast between the choices couldn’t be starker.

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Morsi has openly expressed a desire to help transform Egypt from a largely secular nation into an Islamic state, and also to usher in a correspondingly hard line toward Israel in particular and Western nations in general. As articulated, Morsi’s platform would essentially transform Egypt into an Iran-style theocracy, with disastrous consequences for relations with the United States and other world powers.

A Shafiq victory would be just as problematic, but for other reasons. Shafiq is a former prime minister in the service of Hosni Mubarak, the pharaoh manqué who was ousted from power last year. As a politician in the authoritarian mold of Mubarak, and a former head of the Egyptian air force, Shafiq is facing opposition from Egyptians who don’t want a new president who follows in the footsteps of the dictator whose autocratic, repressive style of rule drove them into the streets in the first place.

“We have carried out the revolution against the authoritarian regime, which was run by Hosni Mubarak,” said columnist Ibrahim Mansour, writing in Monday’s edition of the Al-Tahrir newspaper. “And without doubt, Ahmed Shafiq is a natural extension of Hosni Mubarak.”

The resulting uncertainty, destined to last until at least the June vote, and maybe longer, is already making itself felt. “Investors are afraid because now we have two extreme candidates facing one another. No one will invest heavily in Egypt ... until it becomes clear who is president,” said Amr Chamel, a trader at Pharos Securities told Reuters on Monday.

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CALL THIS bad news on top of bad news: In the wake of last year’s bloody unrest, estimates emerged that Egypt — a country heavily dependent on tourism — was losing more than $300 million a day. And unlike other Middle Eastern countries, like Libya or Saudi Arabia, Egypt can’t fall back on oil reserves as a buffer against economic instability.

In many ways, Egypt is a captive of an existential tug-of-war, a pushmi-pullyu scenario distilled in the starkness of the choices for the next president. NBC News’ Ayman Moyeldin grasped this in a Monday analysis on MSNBC.com:

“For 16 months, a debate has raged over the country’s political future. Should it be a presidential or parliamentary system? Should it be an Islamist state? Secular? Capitalist? Socialist? The candidates tried to define themselves assuming these were the metrics the voters used.

“But the results of the first round of voting showed that Egyptians en masse have yet to answer a central question about the country’s future: Do they accept change and the uncertainty and chaos it brings, or will they choose stability and the stagnation it breeds?

“For the past year and four months, everything that has unfolded in this country can be seen through this prism – a choice between change or stability.”

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Ironically, it’s that tug-of-war that reinforces a sense of hope for Egypt’s future; that indecision on the part of the 50 million or so who voted in the first round of elections has distinct parallels with our own participatory democracy in the United States, and others around the world.

No one said the process of deciding free and fair elections has to be as transparent as the outcome of those elections.

Next month the Egyptian people will complete that first step to deciding their own future — the first such step in five millennia. But in taking that bold and necessary move, they’ll discover one of the abiding ironies of democracy: while having a choice of candidates is crucial, sometimes a choice is no choice at all.

Image credits: Morsi and Shafiq: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA via MSNBC.com.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Más change in America


IN A MATERNITY ward in a hospital somewhere in America sometime in the last year, a newborn baby became more of a milestone event than his or her parents could have possibly imagined. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, that’s when the American future arrived. That’s when the future of a nonwhite majority America passed from demographic theory to national fact.

The Washington Post reported (among numerous other news outlets weighing in) reported that Census Bureau population estimates “show that 50.4 percent of children younger than 1 last year were Hispanic, black, Asian American or in other minority groups. That’s almost a full percentage point higher than the 49.5 percent of minority babies counted when the decennial census was taken in April 2010.



“The latest estimates, which gauge changes since the last census, are a reflection of an immigration wave that began four decades ago,” The Post reported on May 16. “The transformation of the country’s racial and ethnic makeup has gathered steam as the white population grows collectively older, especially compared with Hispanics.

“The census has forecast that non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered in the United States by 2042, and social scientists consider that current status among infants a harbinger of the change.”

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As opposed to immigration from other countries — what used to be a prime demographic mover of the national identity — native-born newborns are the emerging canaries in the coal mine of our great national transition. The changes in the national complexion are being driven internally.

The photographs and newsreels we grew up with, the one showing mostly European immigrant families crowding the decks of ships as they approached the Statue of Liberty and America beyond, are suddenly more quaint now than they were before, more obviously the product of another time, and of another kind of America, than ever before.

Interviewed by The Post, Kenneth Johnson, a University of New Hampshire sociologist, grasped the moment of the moment. “The population is literally changing before us, with the youngest replacing the oldest,” he said. “This is the first tipping point. The kids are in the vanguard of the change that’s coming.”

The new immigrant story of the United States is happening within the United States.

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BIG BUSINESS has started to make changes in marketing and advertising to address the coming tidal shift in the American population. Officially launched in March, and most recently seen in ads placed during the NCAA Championship and the NBA Western Conference SemifInals, Taco Bell’s new marketing campaign taps into the rise of the Hispanic market.

In one commercial for its new Doritos Locos Tacos product, we get the customary clutch of young, iPlugged-in Latino teens savoring Locos Tacos. The ad ends with Taco Bell’s new defining tagline: Live Más. “Más” is Spanish for “more.”

The move points to Taco Bell’s decision to finally think outside the “Think Outside the Bun” campaign that it’s had for at least nine years, but in potentially groundbreaking ways.



Other fast-food chains have been making tweaks in their marketing in recent months. “Burger King dethroned its eccentric King mascot and replaced him with luscious images of fresh produce and sizzling meat. McDonald’s Ronald McDonald clown has been absent for a while as the chain brings its farm and ranch suppliers to the fore,” the Los Angeles Times reported in February.

But their changes, at least the ones we’ve seen, double down on the primacy of English as the language of choice. Taco Bell, a California-based chain that’s made Mexican food the focus of its menu and esthetic for 50 years, has just doubled down on its own Latino identity within the United States, coming up with a motto that wires English to Spanish in a visceral, forward-thinking way.

The result: a juxtaposition that boldly (and maybe even provocatively) mainstreams the Latino experience. Taco Bell’s marketing relaunch manages to both anticipate the impact of the Census Bureau figures, and reflect the change that’s already taken place in this country.

Or make that the change that’s taking place in this country ... one maternity ward at a time.

Image credits: American newcomer: NBC News. Taco Bell Live Más video grab: Taco Bell via YouTube.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Oh, Susana:
A GOP governor embraces pragmatism


EVEN THOUGH former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hasn’t officially secured the Republican nomination, the handicapping for Romney’s choice for a running mate has begun. A number of high-profile names has been making the rounds for weeks, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman among the most notable.

There have been others. For example, whispers of the name of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley surfaced a while ago, but her state’s singular style of identity politics may be a problem.

Jake Knotts, a South Carolina Republican state senator, gave some hint of that in June 2010, when he was recorded speaking off the cuff at a Palmetto State bar. As a guest on “Pub Politics,” an Internet talk radio show, Knotts aired his problems with Haley, who is of Indian descent, running for governor. “We got a raghead in Washington, we don’t need a raghead in the statehouse.”

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The name of another possible Romney running mate, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, was floated a while back. Comments made Monday by the governor — pushing back against Romney on the matter of undocumented aliens living in the United States — would seem to rule her out. But maybe not.

In an interview with Newsweek, Martinez discussed Romney’s support for the idea of “self-deportation,” a concept by which state and local governments would find ways to make life so miserable for undocumenteds that they willingly return to their own countries.

“Self-deport? What the heck does that mean?” Martinez said. “I have no doubt Hispanics have been alienated during this campaign. But now there's an opportunity for Gov. Romney to have a sincere conversation about what we can do and why.”

“I absolutely advocate for comprehensive immigration reform,” Martinez said. “Republicans want to be tough and say, ‘Illegals, you’re gone.’ But the answer is a lot more complex than that.”

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THAT LAST sentence may be the deal-breaker for Martinez’s chances in the veepstakes. Conservative philosophy on illegal immigration has long been at odds with complexity; for many of the most visible and influential conservatives on the political scene, “complex” is a code word for “compromise,” and they’ll have absolutely none of that.

But in other ways, Martinez may be (as Newsweek’s Andrew Romano suggests in his interview) the best running mate Romney could possibly choose: a conservative who’s not a drooling captive of every conservative talking point, a politician grounded enough in working-class reality to be accessible to the kind of people Romney has no way to understand, and no inclination to try.

Martinez, 52, has the apostate courage to support Medicare — a line of thinking deeply at odds with the prevailing GOP meat-axe approach to minding the social safety net, typified by the draconian Path to Prosperity budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan. “I believe in providing services to adults and children who can’t take care of themselves,” she told Newsweek. “Sometimes Republicans engage in number-crunching analysis that doesn’t always take the neediest into account. We have to factor them in before we start proposing these cuts.”

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She may well boost her prospects for the vice presidency by denying she’s interested — not with the strategic denial of interest Christie’s adopted, but what seems to be a genuine indifference to consideration for a place on a Romney ticket for the reason everyday Americans can understand: Family.

“Partly it’s my responsibility to my sister,” she told Newsweek, alluding to her sister Leticia, who has cerebral palsy. “Moving to Washington would be devastating to her. But also, I need to finish this job. I have to deliver the results I promised, because as the first Hispanic female governor, I’m going to pave a path of some kind. I want it to be one that little Hispanic girls will want to follow.”

Martinez’s biggest disadvantage may have less to do with who she is and more to do with who she’s not. Recently, there’s been talk that Team Romney — eager to avoid the glittering debacle of John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008 — is inclined to stick with what one Republican insider described for Politico as an “incredibly boring white guy.” God only knows where they’ll find one of those.

But if the Romney campaign is determined to seek victory in November by being everything the McCain campaign was not, they may do themselves more harm than good by overlooking Martinez. She could be precisely the kind of pragmatic conservative that could help Romney’s bid to broaden his appeal in the general election campaign. And she could offer Republicans at least a shot at wooing Latinos eager to vote for someone who’s as much in their interest as in their image.

Image credits: Martinez: Jesse Chehak for Newsweek.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

When the headline becomes the story:
On Newsweek’s gay Obama cover


WHEN AMERICAN presidents make history, the magazines that analyze and report on that history are necessarily never far behind. That’s what they do (with varying degrees of success). The digital world hasn’t been kind to the analog magazine; the steadily declining numbers of subscribers to those magazines, and print periodicals in general, show how the battle for eyeball share and pass-along in the dead-tree media has been a matter of trying to squeeze Dom Perignon out of a rock.

So when President Obama made history last week by endorsing the idea and practice of gay marriage, it made sense that some of the last magazines standing would report and analyze that cultural Richter-scale event, and distill their journalism on catchy, irresistible covers intended to leap from the newsstand into your hands.

Two of them have done just that. With varying degrees of success.

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The New Yorker went first after Obama’s announcement. In its May 21 issue, the celebrated magazine published a cover illustration showing the six columns of the White House rendered in the rainbow colors of gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual America. It was a quietly poignant, tastefully understated way to make the point that the LGBT community had a champion living in “the people’s house,” a president who had their back in their drive for full equality.

Newsweek wasn’t nearly so subtle. On the cover of its May 21 issue, a photo illustration depicts the president adorned with a glowing rainbow halo, all above the headline “THE FIRST GAY PRESIDENT.” (That’s also the title of the cover essay written by Andrew Sullivan).

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Hyperbole is a staple of 21st-century American journalism; you needn’t look any further than the lurid headline compressions of the New York Daily News and, God help us, the New York Post to know that’s true. But no matter who thought of the Newsweek headline, it makes its reach for eyeballs and wallets in a way that’s too disingenuous by half.

First of all, it’s not accurate — the real first gay president was James Buchanan, as Jim Loewen notes in Salon. Newsweek’s willful departure from the truth isn’t an insignificant matter for a magazine struggling to hold on to market share against Time magazine, its better capitalized rival. The second problem is that the very phraseology of “the first [adjective here] president” is a tired, tabloid trope to begin with; its use in the current context sensationalizes a national moment that deserves better.

The third issue, stemming from the second, is just in the tone of the headline. It doesn't even have the good manners to be circumspect and respectful of its own occasion; it’s a blatant scream for attention, like a flasher in a raincoat. The Newsweek headline commits the cardinal sin of journalism: promising more than it knows it can possibly deliver.

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Some in the media were upset, but they focused on the wrong things — in the process advancing their own hyperbolic arguments into the debate. Condemning the Newsweek cover, for example, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell worked himself into one of his ritual righteous lathers on Monday night.



“We live in a wicked stupid country, okay?” O'Donnell said. “This is a country that believes, in a very substantial proportion, that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Huge number, millions and millions of people ... like 30 percent, think he wasn't born American. They think he's Kenyan. Crazy, crazy beliefs. And Newsweek, it seems to me, has to consider the responsibility of sending out into such a collectively stupid country and stupid electorate this thing, which is the only sentence in Newsweek that most people are going to read this week — the sentence on the cover.”

O’Donnell, of course, has to reckon with the fact that the “stupid electorate” he fulminated about was smart enough to elect Barack Obama president, as well as presumably smart enough to be watching O’Donnell’s program in the first place. In his condemnation of the Newsweek cover, O’Donnelll managed to condemn the magazine’s audience, and everyone in the country, at the same time.

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TERRY SHROPSHIRE was more on point. Writing in Rolling Out, an entertainment news Web site, Shropshire employed hyperbole to undercut Newsweek’s hyperbole. “[N]o one dared called Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson the “first black presidents” because they openly supported civil rights. They didn’t call Robert F. Kennedy the “first black attorney general” because he took steps against segregationists from blocking African Americans who sought to exercise their rights to vote, to go to college and to use any public restroom in the South.”


Other criticism was more granular. UiMaine, commenting on The Washington Post Web site, observed: “It's the halo that bugs me. It feeds into the rhetoric that the Right shovels to us that Obama considers himself sainted, messianic, whatever. Saying that you're in favor of allowing same-sex marriage does not make you a saint. It makes you anti-discriminatory in your rendering of marriage being between two people of majority status. That's it.”

Jonathan Capehart of The Post disagreed, suggesting that much of the reaction came from reading nothing more than the headline. “In this 140-character world that substitutes for discourse, people react to headlines and what they’ve heard rather than actually reading the ‘offending’ piece in context.”

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Andrew Sullivan, who wrote the Newsweek piece behind the headline, wrote a truly moving essay, one that puts Obama’s statement against a backdrop of a nation struggling with self-identity. It was an essay that, frankly, deserved better than the title it got.

The division of labor in modern journalism is such that, often as not, the person who wrote the piece may or may not be the one who writes the headline. That challenge of distilling the gist of a story often falls to a desk editor, who may or may not be fully sensitive to the need for nuance — or to the ways that the wrong headline can put more attention on the headline than on the story itself.

The headline — which Newsweek executive editor Justine Rosenthal described as “a collaboration” between herself, Sullivan and Newsweeek uber-editor Tina Brown — was, according to Rosenthal, a play on Toni Morrison’s long-ago observation of Bill Clinton as “the first black president.”

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BUT WHAT was meant wasn’t necessarily conveyed. The headline sought to suggest that, with his stand on gay marriage, President Obama had so allied himself with the quest for LGBT recognition that he was indistinguishable from anyone in that community – a rhetorical leap of faith unsupported by the facts. The Newsweek headline presumes a personal affinity, an emotional connection between Obama and LGBT America that doesn’t exist, at least not yet.

Sullivan’s essay suggests that the recognition of marriage equality by Obama — our first biracial president — was prompted in some measure by his own grappling with identity in a nation whose intransigent, zero-sum reflexes about race have, for millions of people in this nation, parallels on matters of sexual orientation. A powerful point.

But it’s the disconnect between the specifics of the essay and the broad generality of the headline that’s the problem. Rule #1 in the use of journalistic hyperbole: It has to have more than a casual relationship with the truth of the underlying narrative to be truly effective.

The Newsweek headline is a cautionary tale of the impact of unintended consequences, and shows how overreach, even with the best of intentions, can be problematic.

In today’s viral, rapacious media universe, Newsweek is doing what it can to survive. But the Sullivan essay’s headline has obscured the deeper, more salient points of the trenchant essay it seeks to distill. And it points to the intelligence — maybe even the wisdom — of an old line of thought that couldn’t be more fitting today: Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.

Image credits: Newsweek cover, story excerpt: © 2012 Newsweek/The Daily Beast. New Yorker cover: © 2012 Advance Publications. Buchanan: Matthew Brady via The Library of Congress.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Evolution next:
African Americans, evangelicals and gay marriage


IT'S BEEN a popular truism of American social demographics, and a sad fact of our racial history: African Americans have, in large part because of cultural tradition and the impact of the teachings of Christianity, been historically antagonistic to gay rights in America.

That generalization isn’t too general to quantify. Sixty-four percent of African Americans opposed gay marriage in a Pew Forum poll in 2008, “a significantly higher level of opposition than among whites (51%)”.

And on the same night Barack Obama won the presidency that year, California voters voted to approve Proposition 8, the state measure that banned same-sex marriage. Initial exit polls found that 70 percent of black voters backed Prop. 8.



In January 2009, though, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a more granular analysis of voting data on Prop. 8 from five heavily black-populous counties suggested that African American support for Prop. 8 was closer to 58 percent — “still well above the 52 percent Prop. 8 received from all voters in the Nov. 4 election.”

“The study debunks the myth that African Americans overwhelmingly and disproportionately supported Proposition 8,” Andrea Shorter, director of And Marriage for All, said in a statement. “But we clearly have work to do with, within and for African American communities, particularly the black church.”

But if two snapshot assessments of the mood of African Americans toward President Obama’s Wednesday endorsement of marriage equality for same-sex couples are any indication, that “work” to be done is well underway, with African Americans in recent years having made an evolution of their own.

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FORMER NAACP Chairman Julian Bond was upbeat about the president’s statement on Thursday. “Thrilled and excited,” actually. “This was a position I’d always thought that he had,” Bond told Anderson Cooper on CNN. “I always felt that he felt this way. I was waiting and waiting for him to say so, and I’m just so happy that he finally did.”

Bond’s sense of African American reaction was that of a community coming to grips with the future. “The tide is shifting, people are thinking differently. Younger people are saying, ‘these are old-fashioned ideas …’” And Bond understood the impact of Obama as compass for the nation’s ideals. “When he says that, it sends a powerful signal that the most powerful figure in the land … has spoken out in favor of freedom, justice, rightness and correctness for everybody.”



Rev. Candy Holmes, an African American minister with Metropolitan County Church in Prince George’s County, Md., came at it from a more ecclesiastical perspective, but one that suggested her congregations were no less tolerant. “We are enthused,” she told Bill Press on Current TV’s “Full Court Press” on Thursday. “I recognize that there [is] still diverse thought in the community, but overall we are enthused that the president has come out and made this public stance … we’re encouraged by that.

“The right of marriage, and same-sex marriage, is for all Americans, and protection under the law is for all,” Holmes said. “While there are some that are still evolving, there are many in the religious community, in the black church, that have evolved and are there with the president.”

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These changes within the black church apparently mirror those within the wider evangelical church as a whole; the presumed monolith of evangelical opposition to gay marriage equality may not be a monolith at all.

“The next generation of Christians differs substantially from the previous generations,” said Jonathan Merritt, author of “A Faith of Our Own,” a book that explores evolving changes in American evangelical perspectives. “They’re not resonating with the religious right, not even the religious left,” Merritt told Current TV’s Eliot Spitzer on Thursday.

In his 1859 treatise On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin observed that evolutionary changes don’t happen in a vacuum; the interconnectedness of the ecosystem and the power of irresistible change dictate that evolution happens, fast or slow, to everything in that ecosystem. The celebrated naturalist would be surprised to find that process playing out in American society right now, and faster than he might have imagined.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The evolution of a president


SOMETIMES, in a relative instant, a society of laws makes advances in ways that have nothing to do with the law. In one galvanizing rhetorical moment, things are unmistakably clarified, and we’re called on not to think, but to believe. American society is decorated with a lot of such moments: President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address; Joe Welch’s takedown of Joseph McCarthy; President Kennedy’s moonshot challenge; Martin Luther King’s cri de coeur at the Lincoln Memorial.

We had another of those moments on Wednesday afternoon, but it didn’t happen in a hall or a hearing room or the hallowed ground of a military cemetery. It happened in the White House; it happened when President Barack Obama completed his evolutionary journey on the matter of the rights of gays to the institution of marriage, saying in an ABC News interview what much of the country’s already decided in the real world:

“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”



The president joins a growing number of Americans who feel the same way. “More than half of Americans say they approve of President Obama's stance that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry legally,” a new USA Today/Gallup Poll reported. “Overall, 51% approve of Obama's new position on same-sex marriage, compared with 45% who disapprove.”

The issue of gay marriage, something Obama has grappled with privately for some time, has taken point in the national debate — and the presidential campaign. It’s hardly caught Obama off guard; thanks to a range of policies and executive orders going back years, and the power of the bully pulpit, he’s already the most LGBT-friendly president in American history. Still, his “evolving” on gay marriage took its sweet time in taking place. Leave it to Vice President Joe Biden to turn up the heat on that evolution.



But Biden didn’t corner the president, didn’t put him somewhere he wasn’t already prepared to go. Yeah, the vice president may have affected the timing of what was to come, but it was the president himself who set the tone, delivering a transformative moment in the nation’s sense of itself not by thundering to a vast crowd on a stage, but one on one with Robin Roberts, in a setting that underlined the issue’s importance as a dimension of national persona, rather than national policy.

It’s one of those things presidents are called on to do, to evangelize for the idea of this nation, to pledge allegiance to the charter that makes this country what it is. Obama stepped up to the plate as only he can.

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As lofty and high-minded as the president’s statement was, it also doubled down on political pragmatism. While admitting his own personal preference on the issue, Obama said that state governments and legislatures would have to come to their own conclusions on gay marriage. Disturbingly, this opens the door to nothing less than the process of putting a civil right to a popular vote.

That process has been playing out — most recently in North Carolina, which voted to amend the state constitution to enshrine in law the idea of marriage as a solely heterosexual experience. Sadly, North Carolina is the 30th state to lock that definition down.

The jury’s out on the political fallout Obama faces. Evangelicals are already out in force, opposed to Obama’s announcement. “For the first time this election season, I thought I might send Mitt Romney a check,” said the Rev. David Pinckney, pastor of the River of Grace Church in Concord, N.H., to MassLive.com reporter Shira Schoenberg. “It’s not a civil rights issue, it’s a religious issue,” he said.

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ALL OF WHICH reinforces the political courage Obama demonstrated by taking this stand regardless of the consequences in November. The president has embraced the persuasive powers of his office — the ability to shape opinions and move minds and hearts, if not policies and laws — in a way that was inescapable.

“This is a major turning point in the history of American civil rights,” said New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people -- and I have no doubt that this will be no exception.”

The Kansas City Star concurred: “[F]or the first time, the millions of gay and lesbian Americans who want nothing less than the full privileges of citizenship can claim the president of the United States as an ally.”

So did The Boston Globe: “His commitment to gay marriage puts him on the right side of history, and demonstrates his willingness to embrace the future.”

In one bold stroke, President Obama has enlisted the awesome imprimatur of the American presidency in the service of an idea whose time has come, one whose time has never gone anywhere in the first place: that "marriage" is not implicitly a gender-specific descriptor; that the fact of two human beings finding each other amid the random billions on this planet is something to be celebrated, publicly and officially, regardless of their gender.

Sometimes, in a relative instant, the gradual process of evolution is accelerated by environmental forces no one saw coming, forces that, once deployed, can’t be reversed or ignored. For our president, our society, our nation, this has been one of those times.

Image credits: Obama: ABC News. Gay married couple: greenelent via Flicker.com. Lesbian married couple: Associated Press via Buzzfeed

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

An un-angry man:
Dick Lugar bows out


THE CONCEPT of centrist philosophy in American politics took another hit yesterday, courtesy of the results of the Indiana Senate primary. With the outcome, chronicling a death long foretold, longtime Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, one of a relative handful of Republican centrists in the Senate, was defeated in his bid for re-election by Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock. He goes up against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in the general election in November.

Lugar went down by about 22 percentage points, 61 percent to 39 percent, in a race that many said was a forgone conclusion given his political temperament and the relentless rise of restive younger conservatives eager to flex a more muscular, less tolerant style of leadership in the Senate. You know: What used to be called Tea Party Republicans.



Lugar, the senior-most Republican senator, was loyal to the end. "My public service is not concluded," Lugar told his supporters in Indianapolis. "I look forward to what can be achieved in the Senate in the next eight months despite a very difficult national election atmosphere."

“My health is excellent, I believe that I have been a very effective senator for Hoosiers and for the country, and I know that the next six years would have been a time of great achievement,” Lugar said.

◊ ◊ ◊

The race may have been about a few different things. Lugar has long been under fire for not actually maintaining a home in his home state, something he apparently hasn't done for decades. Mourdock exploited that Lugar vulnerability to great advantage.

In a race like this, you could also, with some legitimacy, make the case that the change in Indiana was a purely generational event. Lugar just turned 80 last month, and he’s been in Congress since 1977. Mourdock is 20 years his junior. If they haven’t already, the Mourdock team will make the point of framing the race to come just this way, reinforcing the meme of Indianans calling for a New Generation of Leadership in the Senate. Chronologically speaking, there’s no way to argue with that.

But lift up that rock and take a look at what else is underneath. Lugar’s real liability was a relative political pragmatism. An expert on arms control policy and a senator with a healthy autonomous streak, Lugar opposed the Bush Iraq war strategy as far back as 2007. He supported President Obama’s nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. He backed Obama’s bid to raise the debt ceiling. He praised the president’s foreign policy strategy. He was even named an honorary co-chair of the Obama inauguration.

On Tuesday, Dick Lugar paid the price for being politically reasonable, rational, accessible. He paid the price for being a practical politician and legislator in the mold of Jacob Javits, for a style of discourse and a willingness to trade partisanship for outreach that certainly inspired Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe.

Not that he didn’t have his bedrock Republican principles. He  voted against the Violence Against Women Act. He opposed Obama on the health-care law. He supported the Federal Marriage Amendment cementing marriage’s definition as a heterosexual experience. He opposed repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. And on Tuesday night, amid his own defeat, he offered full-throated support for Republican victory in November.

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT FOR the Republicans fighting to achieve ascendancy right now, it’s precisely this proven unpredictability that made him dangerous. Dick Lugar was a reasonable man caught up in the undertow of wildly unreasonable times.

Joe Donnelly understands that. The Democrat from the Indiana 2nd who’ll challenge Mourdock for Lugar’s seat in the fall gets the fact that something’s been lost with Lugar's defeat. “For moderate Republicans and independents, and what I call people with Hoosier common sense, Senator Lugar has been someone who’s worked cross the aisle, who’s tried to do what’s right for the country,” he said Tuesday night on MSNBC.

“Richard Mourdock has said — it’s amazing to hear — he said he supports more confrontation. Only in Washington and in Richard Mourdock’s world is more partisanship and division a good thing. Richard Lugar tried to work together, and because of that, in large measure, he lost the primary.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Lugar’s own countenance tells another part of the story. On Tuesday night, speaking to his supporters, Dick Lugar managed to wear the smile that’s long been a part of his political aspect. It’s been as much a part of the senator as any legislation he’s championed, a bright, hopeful mien that reflects the attitude of a man who got through 34 years in the Senate without surrendering to the anger that now infects many in that deliberative body.

He hasn’t even left the Senate yet and won’t for another eight months, but the punditburo is already trial-testing recalibrated perceptions of the man from Indiana. Their basic point is about the same: What people are saying is wrong. Lugar wasn’t really a moderate. He’s only a moderate Republican compared to the Republicans that inhabit the Senate, and the Congress, today.

The imbalance in that comparison is exactly the problem.

Image credits: Lugar: Public domain. Mourdock: MSNBC. Donnelly: Public domain.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Prince Jellyfish II:
Bryan Fischer bites back


IN THIS season of the confederacy of dunces and their surrogates who have animated this presidential campaign, we’d gotten to where we thought we’d heard everything, every dimension of political crazy. Maybe that basically ends now. We can thank a conservative voicebox and radio talk-show host for making it crystal clear over the weekend just how Republican party allegiances can turn somersaults, worms can instantly turn sideways and the presumed party elders are all too happy to eat their young.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and presumptive nominee for the Republican nomination, has lately been taken to task for walking away from his campaign’s appointment of Richard Grenell, a noted expert on foreign affairs and for all of give or take two weeks Romney’s foreign policy spokesman — because the candidate and his staff didn’t want to take the heat from the religious right over the appointment of Grenell, who is openly gay.

Turns out that in this case, the generalized “religious right” can be defined as one man, Bryan Fischer, the director of issue analysis and the firebrand spokesman for the conservative American Family Association, the man who made Grenell’s ouster job one from practically the moment Grenell came aboard.

“I think it's probably going to be a long time before Gov. Romney hires another homosexual activist to a prominent position in his campaign," Fischer told Business Insider after Grenell quit. "And that's good news if you're in the pro-family community.”

But then it got interesting. Fischer, who led the reputation assault on Grenell and gloated heavily when Romney folded, made statements on Friday at his other gig — as Mississippi-based host of the “Focal Point” radio program of the AFR Talk Network — blasting Romney for abandoning the Grenell appointment. You can’t make this up.

Fischer said: “If Mitt Romney can be pushed around, intimidated, coerced, co-opted by a conservative radio talk show host in Middle America, then how is he going to stand up to the Chinese? How is he going to stand up to Putin? How is he going to stand up to North Korea if he can be pushed around by a yokel like me? I don’t think Romney is realizing the doubts that this begins to raise about his leadership.



“I don’t think for one minute that Mitt Romney did not want this guy gone; he wanted this guy gone because there was not one word of defense, not a peep, from the Romney camp to defend him. They just went absolutely stone cold silent, they put a bag over Grenell’s head, they even asked him to organize this phone conference and they didn’t even let him speak at the conference that he organized.”

◊ ◊ ◊

YEA, VERILY, heads is tails in this political season, and wisdom (or at least good, cracking irony) comes from strange sources. We don’t know yet if Fischer realizes that the point he forcefully made on Friday is one that Americans across the political divide have been making about Romney for months.

And Fischer could just be returning in kind the same sort of condemnation that Romney leveled at him when the former governor spoke at the Values Voter Summit in October. “Our values ennoble the citizen and strengthen the nation. We should remember that decency and civility are values too,” Romney said then. “One of the speakers who will follow me today, has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause. It’s never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind.”

It’s just possible this is nothing more or less than payback. It’s been that kind of year, you know.

But still. Despite his steady-as-he-goes approach to securing the nomination, it’s just one more slap upside the head that Romney doesn’t need. And in spite of the glide path he seems to be on, it’s not so much the fact of what was said on Friday talk radio that’s damaging to Team Romney. The source of this latest indictment of Romney’s politics is the problem.

Glide path be damned: It’s more than a mildly curious thing when someone like Fischer — a cellular conservative whom the Southern Poverty Law Center said spouted enough racist rhetoric to get that organization to label the American Family Association as a hate group back in 2010 — gets credit for making what amount to progressive talking points about the likely next Republican nominee for the presidency.
Image credits: Romney: via YouTube. Fischer: AFR Talk Network via YouTube.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Prince Jellyfish:
Mitt Romney and his convictions


DOING his best to shore up his credentials with the real severely conservatives that may still be sitting on the fence, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has performed another foldo grande, capitulating to those religious-right conservatives and walking away from his own campaign’s appointment of Richard Grenell, for all of two weeks the Romney foreign policy adviser, and the campaign’s first openly gay spokesman.

It’s the latest statement-by-silence from the presumptive Republican nominee, someone who you might not want for a foxhole partner in battle. It's the latest evidence that, when standing on moral principles is called for, time and again Romney has more often than not displayed the ethical spine of an invertebrate.

The Grenell episode came to light last week, when reports in The New York Times and by Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast said that Romney campaign officials had told Grenell to stay silent during a call about foreign policy — his whole reason for being with the campaign in the first place. This despite the fact that Grenell helped set up the call. “It’s not that the campaign cared whether Ric Grenell was gay,” a Republican adviser told The New York Times. “They believed this was a nonissue. But they didn’t want to confront the religious right.”

Grenell had enough of that crap on Tuesday. "While I welcomed the challenge to confront President [Barack] Obama's foreign-policy failure and weak leadership on the world stage, my ability to speak clearly and forcefully on the issues has been greatly diminished by the hyperpartisan discussion on personal issues that sometimes comes from a presidential campaign," Grenell said in a statement published by The Washington Post.

Jennifer Rubin of The Post understood the degree to which Grenell's authority was undermined: “During the two weeks after Grenell’s hiring was announced the Romney campaign did not put Grenell out to comment on national security matters and did not use him on a press foreign policy conference call. Despite the controversy in new media and in conservative circles, there was no public statement of support for Grenell by the campaign and no supportive social conservatives were enlisted to calm the waters.”

Romney, of course, did the expected dance, saying the same thing a manager or a CEO says when someone in the company (“the team”) is suddenly absented — making with the praise & sorrow noises, after the fact. “We wanted him to stay with our team,” Romney said in a Friday interview with Gretchen Carlson on Fox News. “He’s a very accomplished spokesperson, and we select people not based upon their ethnicity or their sexual preference or their gender but upon their capability,” Romney said. “He expressed a desire to move on and I wish him the very best.”



It apparently never occurred to the former Massachusetts governor to refuse to accept the resignation, to take a stand that would have reinforced a public perception of Romney as a man of principle, and sent a signal to the broader electorate he needs now and in the fall that those principles weren’t negotiable. Instead, Romney reacted as though the Grenell matter was just another hurdle on the way to his latest acquisition, just another name to be replaced in the org chart on the PowerPoint.

◊ ◊ ◊

IT’S NOT the first time. On Thursday’s “The War Room” on Current TV, Jennifer Granholm itemized some of Romney’s previous acquiescences with the mob. When Romney campaigned in Wisconsin, at the same time a Planned Parenthood clinic in Grand Chute, Wisc., was bombed on April 1, he said nothing.



During the debate season, at a Sept. 22 presidential debate in Orlando, Fla., a gay soldier, Army Capt. Stephen Hill, was booed by the people in the hall after he self-identified as gay and asked a question about tolerance in the post-DADT military. Romney’s response? Crickets. Not a mumblin’ word of objection. No defense of Hill on the basis of his military status, no willingness to stand up for what’s right. Nothing.

What’s so pointedly curious about this is its inconsistency. Romney’s shown in the past that he’s capable of doing the right thing in a full-throated way, regardless of the consequences.

When he addressed the socially conservative Values Voter Summit in October, he criticized the “poisonous language” of Bryan Fischer, a leader of the American Family Association and a conservative with a history of incendiary rhetoric aimed at gays and Muslims in particular.

“Our values ennoble the citizen and strengthen the nation. We should remember that decency and civility are values too,” he said. “One of the speakers who will follow me today, has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause. It’s never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind.”

Fast forward the Etch A Sketch to last Tuesday. Which of these Mitts is not like the other? This latest indicator of situational convictions feeds into a pattern about Romney: passive-aggressively blowing with the wind, playing to the audience or the mob, shapeshifting like Woody Allen’s Zelig, being the “serial windsock” James Carville said he was months ago on CNN.



AS FAR as the philosophical integrity of Romney’s campaign, its ability to send a message of his independence, his intention to stand up for something bigger than he and his money are, Romney’s cave on Grenell also points to a vacancy of courage that could be internally destructive.

Ron Reagan, writer, political analyst and someone in a position to know politics from the inside, said as much on MSNBC on Thursday. “He missed an opportunity and he gave himself a longer-term problem,” he told Chris Matthews. “This was a chance for him to shake up the Etch A Sketch, for him to say to the people he’s been pandering to for the last few months, ‘I’ve got a line I won’t cross’ ...

“In not doing that, he gave himself a long-term problem. These people are now emboldened. They’ve seen that they can now dictate who he has on his staff, and they’re going to be making more numerous, more onerous demands as the convention approaches.”



Andrew Sullivan, writing Wednesday in The Daily Beast, understands this, too:

“The Romneyites are correct when they say they tried to talk him out of it. But they kept and keep their views quiet. The gay-inclusive elements in the elites simply do not have the balls to tackle the religious right. And this is particularly true of Romney, as this case now proves. The Christianists gave Bush a pass on social issues because of his born-again Christianity. They trust Mormon Romney not an inch. And this week demonstrates without any doubt that Romney will therefore not be able to deviate from their wishes an iota. He has no room to maneuver.”

◊ ◊ ◊

He could have stepped up to the plate. Instead, the man who really likes firing people relishes a new role, as the candidate who really likes not having to fire people in order to get them to go away — by effectively letting the reliable flamethrowers on the far right do it for him.

That willingness to outsource the very core of his campaign’s ethical essence is at the heart of what’s deeply wrong with the Romney bid for the presidency. And it suggests what deeply wrong things we could expect from him if he ever made it to the presidency.

Image credits: Romney: Fox News. Grenell: Stephen Hilger, Bloomberg News. Blog title borrowed from the title of an unpublished novel by Hunter S. Thompson. And he'd approve.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Newt’s figment IX: The end


IT HAD become a more or less standing feature of the ill-fated Newt Gingrich campaign for the presidency: the long drumroll, the throat clearing in advance of something important, something Of Great Moment coming from the mouth of the maximum leader in waiting. Gingrich, the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex and former Speaker of the House, announced the start of his campaign this way last May, with the careful construction of anticipation, the preamble to the preamble … followed in short order by the news we knew was coming.

Gingrich did it again yesterday, for the last time in this campaign season. Speaking at the Hilton Hotel in Arlington, Va., at a “press conference to announce suspension of campaign,” Gingrich formally announced the end of his campaign after a week of waxy buildup. It was an endpoint as inevitable as his campaign was quixotic from the start. Faced with mounting campaign debts (something on the order of $4.3 million) and the crushing weight of delegate math against him, Gingrich took the honorable route: Out.

“Today, I'm suspending the campaign but suspending the campaign does not mean suspending citizenship. Callista and I are committed to be active citizens. We owe it to America,” he said.

◊ ◊ ◊

Not that he didn’t go out swinging. Gingrich did, of course, but swinging at President Obama, rather than his primary campaign nemesis, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“I'm asked sometimes is Mitt Romney conservative enough. And my answer is simple: compared to Barack Obama? You know, this is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan. This is a choice between Mitt Romney and the most radical leftist President in American history," Gingrich said.

That response tidily sidesteps the fact of the choice that primary voters made between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. The former Speaker went down after a withering barrage of negative advertising fueled by Romney’s ATM of a campaign operation, and consistently subpar finishes in a number of primary contests.

The timing of the end of Newt’s campaign comes with a grudging respect from analysts, polwatchers and the commentariat; most of them gave up Gingrich’s campaign for dead some time ago. His persistence was a testament to his own historical role in American politics (for good and ill). But it was also proof of the power of personal animosity. For months Gingrich made the battle between he and Romney a personal conflict. And that was much of the problem with much of the campaign.

◊ ◊ ◊

RIGHT FROM the jump, in the heady days of last spring, Newt Gingrich sought to position himself as the Republican with an intellectual difference. Never mind the ethical lapses and personal peccadilloes that trailed him like the animal leavings of a circus parade; Gingrich presented himself as the Man of Ideas: a prolific author of a range of books whose breadth of topics mirrored the expanse of the great man’s curiosity; a conservative intellect with an ability to distill vast concepts and arguments into lapidary rhetoric; a video producer, a deft theoretician, a political polymath of the highest order.

But the thinking of a fellow Southerner was never far away. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner observed in “Requiem for a Nun.” “It isn’t even past.”

Gingrich’s earnest attempt at rebranding confronted the realities of his political and personal biographies: the tumult of his tenure as Speaker; the House Select Committee on Ethics investigation that led to Newt getting a House reprimand — one step below censure in punitive severity — and a $300,000 bill to reimburse the committee; the personal baggage of three marriages, one affair and two divorces; the imperious, mercurial personality; the quasi-racist rhetorical dogwhistles that found him railing generally against “Islamic triumphalism” or offering to go before the NAACP convention and say that black Americans should demand paychecks and not food stamps.

◊ ◊ ◊

The conservative drumbeat against Gingrich started late last year. Columnist George F. Will said on ABC that “Gingrich’s is an amazingly efficient candidacy, in that it embodies almost everything disagreeable about modern Washington. He’s the classic rental politician.”

On Dec. 2, in The Washington Post, Will said Newt’s temperament was “intellectual hubris distilled” and called him “the least conservative candidate,” a man of an “Olympian sense of exemption from standards and logic” who “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive.”

On Dec. 15, the conservative National Review scored Gingrich for “his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas” as House Speaker.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Romney’s bin Laden problem


ONE WEEK ago, in the biggest forgone conclusion in the current presidential campaign, the Republican campaign was effectively over, with or without the shouting. On April 24, with a clean sweep of the primaries in five northeastern states, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney got a clear glide path to the Republican nomination for the presidency. The inevitability he’s claimed from the start is — with 844 delegates of the 1,144 he needs to officially clinch — more or less a given.

“After 43 primaries and caucuses, many long days and not a few long nights, I can say with confidence — and gratitude — that you have given me a great honor and solemn responsibility,” he said In his victory speech that night in New Hampshire (the location being a smart bit of campaign optics, basking in glory in the state where his campaign began).

Romney doubled down on his transition to a general-election stance, going right after President Obama. "Everywhere I go, Americans are tired of being tired, and many of those who are fortunate enough to have a job are working harder for less."

"The last few years have been the best Barack Obama can do, but it's not the best America can do."

"As I look around at the millions of Americans without work, the graduates who can't get a job, the soldiers who return home to an unemployment line, it breaks my heart," he said. "This does not have to be. It is the result of failed leadership and of a faulty vision."

◊ ◊ ◊

Up to right about now, Romney has enjoyed the relative advantage of preaching his bona fides to an audience predisposed to accept them (however reluctantly): Republican primary voters. Now Romney moves to the bigger stage, and the challenge of speaking to a national audience.

Their demands for a deeper, more sensitive and strategic approach to addressing the nation’s problems may call on a skill set Romney doesn’t have. That deficit of nuance has shown up recently in some of Romney’s pronouncements on foreign policy. One issue in particular.

One year ago today, the nation reveled in news that was long-awaited and generally unexpected. The wicked witch was dead. On orders of President Obama, in an operation he personally observed, Osama bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was tracked down and killed by Navy SEAL Team at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.


The anniversary of that game-changer was noted by President Obama, who, in some masterful stagecraft of his own, addressed the nation tonight — not from the Oval Office but from a military hangar at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, Afghanistan — to announce the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan, more than a decade after the U.S. invasion.

In an address heavy with moment and specifics (Current TV’s Eliot Spitzer called it “both a victory speech for the president and an exit strategy”), the president said he’d signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai effectively defining the postwar relationship between the United States and Afghanistan after U.S. forces leave, presumably at the end of 2014.



“We broke the Taliban's momentum,” Obama said. “We've built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set -- to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is within reach. Here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”

◊ ◊ ◊

THE PRESIDENT'S address, and the anniversary it justifiably takes note of, are the latest challenges, optic and material, for the Romney campaign. They’re the latest evidence of what the Romney camp says the president doesn’t have. Romney’s claim of Obama’s “failed leadership” and “faulty vision” on matters foreign and domestic have to confront the unalloyed success of the bin Laden kill, and the ways in which Romney’s own comments have come back to bite him. Again.

It was August 2008 when, speaking in Des Moines, Iowa, about then-candidate Obama’s vow to take out bin Laden even if found within the confines of Pakistan, Romney begged to differ. Inartfully. “I do not concur … in a plan to enter an ally of ours and their country in a manner complete with bombing and so forth,” he said.

The translation of that syntactically mangled sentence is easy given the distinctions of party politics (and Romney’s need, even then, to distance himself from a Democrat’s thinking): Romney would have reflexively respected the territorial rights of Pakistan even if Pakistan was harboring, deliberately or by accident, the world’s master-builder terrorist.

◊ ◊ ◊

Fast forward to today. Romney noted the May 1 bin Laden anniversary at a photo op at a New York City fire station, accompanied by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose national identity is synonymous with 9/11.



This morning, interviewed by Charlie Rose on CBS' "This Morning,” Romney said that “[a]ny American, any thinking American, would have ordered exactly the same thing" as the operation Obama set in motion a year ago.

"Had I been president of the United States, I would have made the same decision as the president made," Romney said to reporters later in the day.

It was a tacit concession to having been outflanked by the president’s address, obviously, but it was more. Romney’s about-face on the 2008 statement was more proof of the, uh, malleability of Romney’s political convictions — and his uncanny ability to be one step (or more) behind reality. This was the man, after all, who went on CNN at the end of March and said, with a straight face, that Russia was “without question our number-one geopolitical foe.”

◊ ◊ ◊

ROMNEY'S 2008 bin Laden position and his abandonment of that position today also point to the bigger problem for the GOP vis-à-vis foreign policy: In one international triumph after another, with a deft blend of diplomacy and effective force, the Obama White House has over three years reversed the axis of the public’s perception of which party will use the big stick when necessary.

“[For] Mitt Romney and the Republicans, it would be very hard for them to attack the president on this front,” said Democratic strategist Krystal Ball, to Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC tonight. “Really, in the last 25 years, at least, Republicans have been the strong ones, they’ve been the ones the populace has trusted on foreign policy and national security. It’s quite remarkable that this president’s policy has been so good and so nuanced and so successful that he has unassailably taken the upper hand on this.”

With his fistful of victories last week, Mitt Romney effectively inherits the leadership of the Republican Party. He also inherits the need to take the lead on creating a cogent, consistent policy on Afghanistan, one he can take before American voters. But with the undeniable success of the bin Laden raid — and the change in national self-perception that success brought about — President Obama’s left Mitt Romney precious little wiggle room on this facet of national security. Romney’s own willingness to be transparently expedient, at the further expense of his own credibility, has left him even less.

Image credits: Romney: via YouTube. bin Laden death celebration in Times Square: Via stuff.co.nz. White House Situation Room, May 1, 2011: Pete Souza/The White House. Bin Laden Ten Most Wanted release: FBI.
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