Bobo is off today. In “Dream, Baby, Dream!” Mr. Cohen says Mitt Romney piles on the foreign policy foolishness, and manages to miss the Mideast’s great cultural shift. Mr. Nocera, in “How Not to Pass a Bill,” says forget the hard stuff. This Congress can’t even pass the easy bills like one that would have granted permanent normal trade relations to Russia. In “Ducking the Donald” Mr. Bruni says the big tents of the political conventions can’t fit every clown. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
So now we know: Mitt Romney believes the 13 North American colonies caused needless bloodshed by rejecting British authority, declaring independence in 1776 and waging war rather than encouraging King George III to see the error of his imperial ways, go touchy-feely with the upstarts across the Atlantic and grant freedom to the United States of America.
The revolution could have been a consensual, bloodless glide to liberty if only Washington, Jefferson and their cohorts had taken the time to convince the British monarch that empires were yesterday’s news and their “freedom agenda” the way to go.
That, at least, is what I take away from Romney’s hilarious suggestion that Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi and Saleh — with almost 130 years of despotic rule between them — could have been transformed into democrats and their societies changed “in a more peaceful manner” if President Obama had stuck with his predecessor’s “freedom agenda” and gotten Mubarak “to move toward a more democratic posture.”
We all know what George W. Bush’s freedom agenda was in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere: two vapid words no democrat could count on and every security goon could laugh at. We also know — look at Syria — dictators who have spent decades ruling through fear do not go quietly into the night any more than great powers readily abandon their profitable dominions.
And I thought these finance guys were hard-nosed realists laser-focused on the bottom line. Dream on, Mitt, dream on! Even if your dreams, to use that word you let drop on the Olympics in London and then scrambled to retract, are “disconcerting.”
I know, the presumptive Republican candidate is trying to become president, facing a cool incumbent who does have a laser focus, so his words — I was going to say rhetoric — are less prescriptions for future policy than ploys for gaining power. Still, Romney has been piling on the foreign policy foolishness.
“The Arab Spring,” he reckons, “is not appropriately named.” Does Mitt want a more autumnal, wintry or even polar metaphor for the brave uprising of millions of Arabs against tyrants in the greatest push for freedom since 1989? He will only say that, “It has become a development of more concern.”
Hmmm. Concern to whom? Romney suffers from S.C.I.P.S. — sudden collapse into passive syndrome. As you try to pin him down, the declarative, transitive sentences vanish as fast as vapor trails.
Romney affects a first-person plural form dear to George III. He says that “We’re very concerned in seeing the new leader in Egypt as an Islamist leader.” Well, there’s an alternative, Mitt: See Mohamed Morsi as a president democratically elected by tens of millions of Egyptians who has committed to uphold all his nation’s international agreements (they include the peace with Israel) and declared that, “We as Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, are preachers of civilization and building; so we were, and so we will remain, God willing.”
In Israel, where both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s terms as prime minister have coincided (to his chagrin) with Democratic presidencies in the United States, Romney was rapturously received. As Uri Misgav noted in the daily Haaretz, “Netanyahu doesn’t speak English or even American; he speaks fluent Republicanese.”
Romney went through a de rigueur list of the ways Obama — in Israel he’s often called Barack Hussein Obama — has supposedly failed the Jewish state: public criticism of it, “usurping” Israel’s role as primary peace negotiator, alluding to the 1967 borders as a basis for peace when “they are indefensible.”
In fact, Obama has been a staunch supporter of Israel, vetoing a United Nations resolution that used his own critical words on the settlements, ceding to Netanyahu’s kick-the-can-down-the-road tactics, making clear there can be agreed territorial swaps in any two-state deal, and stating that the United States will not allow Iran to go nuclear.
But the heart of the matter lies elsewhere: Obama actually believes in a Palestinian state. Romney is loved by Netanyahu’s Likud party because he gives signals he does not. In Jerusalem he attends a breakfast fundraiser with Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire American casino mogul and largest donor to the Romney super Pac. Adelson is the man who said Newt Gingrich was right to call the Palestinians an “invented people.”
Romney then suggests Palestinians are culturally inferior, incapable of showing the “economic vitality” of Israel — as if a people under occupation without a port or an airport, controlling neither their territorial nor their air space, facing roadblocks, walls, barriers, fences, labyrinthine bureaucracy and capricious humiliation are somehow deficient in not turning themselves into Singapore.
In fact, Romney missed the great cultural change in the Middle East of which many Palestinians have been part: the shift from a paralyzing culture of victimhood encouraged by exploitive tyrants to a culture of agency in which Arabs are learning — with difficulty — that they can shape their own lives and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a distraction, often cynically used, from their ability to succeed.
That is why the Arab Spring is appropriately named and was needed, just as the American Revolution was appropriately named and necessary.
Next up is Mr. Nocera:
Among the many things the House never got around to doing before shutting down for the summer was holding a vote on a bill that would have granted permanent normal trade relations to Russia.
Please don’t turn the page.
Yes, compared with its inability to pass a farm bill, this may sound like small potatoes. But it is a near-perfect illustration of the way the House Republican leadership has largely abdicated its responsibility to get useful things done — as opposed to, say, conducting votes to repeal Obamacare a few dozen times.
There wasn’t much controversy over the Russia bill. Business supported it because American companies could then take advantage of Russia’s imminent entry into the World Trade Organization. It would have required repealing the old Jackson-Vanik amendment, which links trade to the emigration of Russian Jews. But that’s been a nonissue for decades. The Senate was lined up to pass the bill quickly once the House acted.
Many Russian opposition figures, like Garry Kasparov, supported it for a different reason. It had been paired with something called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. Magnitsky, you may recall, was the young Russian lawyer who tried to expose a huge tax fraud involving a number of high-ranking officials. His efforts led to his imprisonment, where he was grossly mistreated and deprived of medical treatment. And he died. The Magnitsky act would prevent his jailers — and other human rights abusers — from entering the country, and it would have frozen their assets as well.
Not surprisingly, the Russians loathe the Magnitsky act, and the Obama administration doesn’t much like it either. (No administration likes to have its hands tied on foreign policy matters.) For the Republicans, it was a trifecta: they could pass a bill that helps American business, show they care about human rights and stick it to the administration. What could be better?
When I first wrote about the Magnitsky act in April, I was given to believe that it would sail through, so I diverted my attention elsewhere. What got me looking at it again were the recent events in Russia, where the crackdown by President Vladimir Putin against any and all opposition is in full swing.
A few recent highlights: three singers of a punk-rock band called Pussy Riot are on trial for singing an anti-Putin song in a church. The three women could be imprisoned for up to seven years if found guilty. (Late last week, Putin stated that he didn’t think they should be “judged severely” by the courts, which means they almost surely won’t be.)
Alexander Lebedev, a banker and newspaper owner who supported the opposition, said that he was selling his Russia assets after being hounded by the police and regulators. “I give up,” he said.
Most alarming is the recent indictment of Aleksei Navalny, the anticorruption blogger who has become the country’s leading opposition figure. The indictment is transparently bogus. He is accused of embezzling timber in a deal where he acted as an unpaid adviser. He could be facing up to 10 years in prison. The American Lawyer noted that the indictment is causing some lawyers to become “skeptical about the country’s commitment to the rule of law.” (Magnitsky, by the way, is being prosecuted posthumously.)
The Navalny news took place the week before the Congressional recess. One might have thought that it would focus the minds of House Republicans. Instead, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed that normalizing trade relations would be a “concession” to Russia. Could there be a bigger misreading? Russia will be in the W.T.O. within weeks. The question is whether American companies will be able to reap the benefits, like other W.T.O. members.
The rule of law, meanwhile, remains a critical issue for Russia — maybe the critical issue. Citizens who were once able to voice their opposition now face harassment or worse. Businessmen who cross the government find themselves in the cross hairs. The rampant corruption — which is enabled by the lack of a rule of law — only grows worse. “The business community completely understands what is going on,” said Jamison Firestone, whose law firm once employed Magnitsky, “but they are terrified to say anything.”
The Magnitsky act is hardly going to change Russia overnight. It might result in retaliation by Russia. But it has consequences that Russian officials — most of whom park their assets abroad — really care about. It has the potential to make a difference, just as Jackson-Vanik once did. If only Congress could pass it.
Meanwhile, after suggesting last week that the Russian trade bill would be deferred until after the election, the House leadership quickly backpedaled. Now Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, says it will be brought to a vote in September, before Congress departs again to run for re-election.
I’m not holding my breath.
Last up is Mr. Bruni:
Donald Trump and self-doubt: a proper noun and a human reality that have no business in the same sentence.
To be The Donald is to possess The Confidence. It’s to revel in your own appeal. That hair, that birtherism — who could resist? Certainly not the Republican Party, at least not in The Donald’s objective estimation. So when the first round of speakers for the party’s late August convention leaked out Sunday and he wasn’t on it, he fretted not a whit. In due course he would surely get his summons to participate.
“I know they want me to,” he said on Monday on “Fox and Friends.” “I’ll see what happens.”
So will we. The giddy excitement of Convention Season is here.
The Republicans go first, in Tampa, while the Democrats follow a week later, and just as humidly, in Charlotte. In the matter of convention sites, neither party gave much thought to global warming.
But the lineups of speakers: that’s an issue of the utmost deliberation and sometimes consternation and enormous, epic consequence. All party stalwarts agree on that, until they think about it a bit longer and realize that, well, they’re really not so sure.
On Monday I talked to two prominent Republican strategists in a row who said that Mitt Romney’s choice of keynote speaker, not yet determined, was essential. Then they tried to recall who that essential choice from the 2008 Republican convention was, and came up blank.
I myself had to Google it: Rudy Giuliani. There are some things you really do force yourself to forget.
One of the strategists asserted that Romney’s greatest mistake would be to emulate the Democrats in 2004, when the keynoter, a certain Barack Obama, shone brighter than the nominee, John Kerry, perhaps making him look duller in contrast. The strategist did not admit per se that Romney had a luminescence problem. There are some things you really needn’t say.
He recommended that Romney take a page from the Republican grand master of stagecraft, Ronald Reagan, and select a keynote speaker of restrained wattage.
“Do you know who did the 1980 keynote for Reagan?” he asked.
I said I was mortified that I didn’t. I wasn’t being entirely truthful about the mortification part.
“Guy Vander Jagt,” he said.
“Exactly,” he said. “Reagan understood what it meant to be the star, and he had seen ‘All About Eve.’ ”
Has Romney? And does Eve ride in an Escalade with Florida or New Jersey plates?
Those are the home states of the other strategist’s suggested keynoters, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. This strategist said that a real dynamo was just what the convention and Romney needed, and that Rubio and Christie qualified. Bear in mind that everything is relative, and that the dynamo yardstick includes Mitch McConnell and Roy Blunt.
The conventions indeed speak volumes about each party’s anxieties and stratagems, two words that fittingly bring us to Bill Clinton.
He was among the first speakers confirmed for a prime-time slot during the Democratic convention, proving that all is forgiven when everything’s on the line. And he’s meant, clearly, to remind Americans of the sustained prosperity during his administration, a Democratic one.
Another confirmed speaker, Elizabeth Warren, symbolizes the party’s supposed taming of Wall Street, while the chosen keynoter, Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio, underscores the importance Obama places on the Latino vote.
Over recent presidential elections, that vote has grown while the Republican share of it has shrunk. George W. Bush got 44 percent in 2004, John McCain just 31 in 2008. According to a recent poll, Romney is poised to get 23. That’s a dismal projection and disastrous trend line.
And Republicans will try to counter or at least camouflage it with convention staging. The first list of confirmed speakers includes Susana Martinez, the New Mexico governor. There’s not an iota of doubt that Rubio will be added to the roster, and there’s a chance that Ted Cruz, the Republican nominee for the Senate from Texas, will be, too.
Will that help?
“Well,” said one Republican strategist, “Bob Dole chose Susan Molinari as his keynote speaker and proceeded to lose the women’s vote by 16 points.” That was in 1996, the year of Clinton’s re-election, when the health care debacle was receding from memory and Monica Lewinsky had not yet sidled into view.
I’m less heartened by whom the Republicans have included than by whom they haven’t, at least so far: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain. It suggests a limit to the party’s enthusiasm for carnival barkers.
And it doesn’t bode well for The Donald. He may have to make do with the “Statesman of the Year” award that he’s inexplicably receiving from the Republican Party of Sarasota County a day before the convention and an hour’s drive down the road.
Though if he re-emerges as El Donald, with fluent Spanish, all bets are off.
Frank, Frank, Frank… Please. Don’t insult our intelligence with crap like that “global warming” crack. Even you must understand the difference between climate and weather.