In “Republicans Place the Wrong Bet” Mr. Blow says conservatives, grasping at straws and straining credulity, paint a picture of a president who is domestically dictatorial but internationally anemic. Mr. Kristof asks a question: “Who’s the Villain Here?” He says when Republicans slam President Obama for Ukraine’s crisis and demand that something be done, it’s childish and dangerous. Ms. Collins considers “Billion Dollar Babies” and finds an oligarch here, an oligarch there, here an oligarch, there an oligarch, everywhere an oligarch. Here’s Mr. Blow:
Republicans may have bet too heavily on the wrong issue going into the midterm elections.
When the health care law’s website wasn’t working, the law itself was at its most unpopular and its most newsworthy, and the president’s poll numbers were cratering, many Republicans made the calculation that they could ride the wave of woe to an overwhelming electoral victory in November.
But betting on stasis is stupid. Things change.
The White House called in the geek squad, and they fixed the site. Last week, the White House also announced that four million people have now enrolled in the health care program. The president’s poll numbers have stabilized, albeit in negative territory. The news winds shifted. And Democrats have found an issue that they can campaign on and that America likes — helping the working class through things like raising the minimum wage.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday found that 50 percent of respondents would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supports increasing the minimum wage, as opposed to 19 percent who said that they were less likely. Twenty-eight percent said that it wouldn’t make a difference.
A closer look at the numbers reveals that 72 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of the all-important independents would be more likely to vote for candidates who support the increase.
The same poll found that 34 percent of respondents are more likely to vote for candidates who support the federal health care law, while 36 percent are less likely to vote for them and 27 percent said it wouldn’t make a difference.
Seventy percent of Republicans were less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the law, while only 35 percent of independents are less likely to vote for a candidate who supports it.
The strength in these numbers is obviously on the side of what the Democrats are for, rather than what the Republicans are against.
This is by no means the determining factor for the midterms, but the sense of impending doom among Democrats is beginning to ease.
To be sure, there are still issues. The health care law remains unpopular, and Obama keeps adjusting the rules that govern it. It remains unclear whether the program will sign up enough young, healthy people to make it work as desired. As CNN put it:
“For months, administration officials embraced CBO estimates anticipating that 18- to 34-year-olds would comprise roughly 40 percent of the total. The current number is about 27 percent.”
And as The New York Times pointed out last week, polls show that Republicans maintain a small electoral edge. But small is the operative word here. As the paper pointed out, “42 percent say they will back Republicans in November, and 39 percent indicate that they will back Democrats, a difference within the poll’s margin of sampling error.”
So now we have Republicans desperately searching for a fallback.
Darrell Issa, the chairman of Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sought to keep the fading I.R.S. “scandal” on life support by once again calling the former I.R.S. official Lois Lerner to testify. He sought a link between how an I.R.S. official managed an avalanche of new applications by politically active groups for tax-exempt status and the White House, or at least a wider anti-Tea Party conspiracy. Once again, Republicans failed. Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right, again. And Issa made himself the chief spectacle in a quixotic partisan scene, again, by cutting off the Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings’s mic when he attempted to speak. Bad form.
Paul Ryan has begun to focus on poverty from a Republican perspective, releasing a report this week that calls for cutting programs designed to help the poor. Only in the Republican house of mirrors does this make sense, but he essentially makes the argument that current programs haven’t eliminated poverty but, in some ways, have made it worse. The mitigating factors at play are given short shrift.
Furthermore, Ryan’s version of Compassionate Conservative 2.0 seems to be built on bad, or at least distorted, math, as is Ryan’s wont. As The Fiscal Times reported Tuesday, “several economists and social scientists contacted on Monday had reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan’s report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research.”
And since President Vladimir V. Putin moved Russian forces into Crimea, Republicans have fallen over one another to be among the first to hang the crisis around the president’s neck.
Senator John McCain said this week that we should care about Putin’s push “because this is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength any more.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, never one to be bettered on the outrage scale, attempted once again to demonstrate that among some Republicans, all roads lead to Benghazi, Libya. In a series of tweets Tuesday, the senator said:
“It started with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression. #Ukraine”
“Putin basically came to the conclusion after Benghazi, Syria, Egypt — everything Obama has been engaged in — he’s a weak indecisive leader.”
“I think Putin believes Obama is really all talk and no action. And unless we push back soon, the worse is yet to come.”
Conservatives are painting a picture of a president who is domestically dictatorial but internationally anemic, but that is schizophrenic and strains credulity.
They seem to be grasping at straws now that their best cudgel is splintering.
Next up we have Mr. Kristof:
Shrewd reporting about the Ukraine crisis comes from The Onion, which declared that American reaction is evenly divided — between the “wholly indifferent” and the “grossly misinformed.”
In the latter category, it seems, belong the chest-thumpers who blame the Crimea catastrophe on President Obama.
“We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression,” scolded Senator Lindsey Graham (revealing his own weakness: grammar). “President Obama needs to do something!”
Likewise, Senator John McCain complains that Obama’s foreign policy is “feckless,” so that “nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”
Representative Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, worries that Russia is “running circles around us.” The Washington Post warns in a stinging editorial that “President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy.” The Wall Street Journal cautions that the basic problem is “Obama’s retreat from global leadership.”
Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.
Look, it’s true that Obama’s foreign policy has often been disappointing. Tripling the number of American troops in Afghanistan was a mistake. So was rejecting the advice of Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm the moderate Syrian opposition. The Obama pivot to Asia has stalled, serious engagement with Pakistan ended with the death of Richard Holbrooke, and Obama has appointed some appallingly uninformed campaign donors to be ambassadors.
Then again, Obama’s focus on nation-building at home is a nice change of pace from the Bush years. Moreover, Middle East peace talks are a plus, and talking to Iran is preferable to loose talk about bombing Natanz.
The basic constraint is that there are more problems in international relations than solutions. The critics I cite often rely on two fallacies: first, that Putin is driven by Obama’s weakness; second, that the seizure of Crimea is a great win for Russia.
The Soviet Union didn’t invade Hungary because of President Eisenhower’s weakness, nor Czechoslovakia because of President Johnson’s weakness. Russia didn’t help dismember Moldova because of George H.W. Bush’s weakness or invade Georgia because of George W. Bush’s.
We don’t have much leverage because Putin cares far more about Ukraine than he does about being in the G-8. So, by all means, let’s raise the cost of aggression with banking sanctions (which proved most effective against North Korea and Iran), but let’s also recognize that, in the long run, it’s Putin who has stumbled here.
Russia has just driven Ukraine into the West’s orbit and acquired a long-term headache. Russia is already pouring billions of dollars into the bits of Georgia and Moldova that it pilfered, and now it’ll have to subsidize Crimea (which depends on Ukraine for water and electricity).
Putin’s other problem: If Crimea becomes independent, its pro-Russian population will no longer vote in Ukrainian elections. The upshot would be Ukraine skewing even more to the West.
My father grew up in western Ukraine, near Chernivtsi. Our family house was in better shape in the 1930s than it is today. A highway that my grandfather helped build a century ago was barely passable on my last visit. Corruption is far worse today. The entire system has failed, so, of course, western Ukrainians look across the border at a thriving Poland, now firmly embedded in Europe, and see that as a far better model for the future.
Likewise, in a couple of decades, Russians may well look over the border at a thriving, European Ukraine and want that model for themselves as well. So be strong, Senators Graham and McCain: Putin’s advantage is temporary.
Republicans should be pointing to Obama’s genuine giant foreign policy failure — Syria — and not Ukraine. The right’s demands that Obama confront Putin also seem odd because many on the right have praised Putin and his traditional values. The American Conservative suggested in December that Putin might be “one of us,” and Rudy Giuliani lately hailed Putin’s decisiveness and said: “That’s what you call a leader.”
Giuliani’s proposed solution to the Ukraine crisis: “We push him around. That’s the only thing a bully understands.”
It’s heart-stoppingly brave of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers, singing for courage, to walk toward Russian troops who point machine guns at them and then fire in the air. But idle calls from a television studio for Obama to “do something” or to push Putin around, that strikes me as not brave, just puerile.
Last but not least we come to Ms. Collins:
The Koch brothers are in the news more than Justin Bieber.
This week, the billionaire siblings from Kansas made the top 10 in Forbes’s list of wealthiest people on the planet. In fact, if you lump Charles and David Koch together, they’re No. 1. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid embarked on a rampage of anti-Koch speeches, denouncing the brothers as cancer-causing polluters who pour unlimited money into conservative political campaigns in an “un-American” attempt to subvert democracy.
Then Charles Koch gave an interview to The Wichita Business Journal! I know, I know. But given the supreme lowness of the brothers’ low profile, it was an electric moment.
“Somebody has got to work to save the country and preserve a system of opportunity,” Koch said, explaining his late-life calling as the nation’s premier right-wing megadonor.
My question for today is: Do you think it’s fair to call these guys oligarchs? We have been thinking about oligarchs lately since our attention has been fixed on the former Soviet Union, which is Oligarch Central. In fact, the new Ukrainian government just responded to the tensions in its eastern region by dispatching two billionaires to serve as provincial governors.
“Oligarch” sounds more interesting than “superrich person with undue political influence.” The Koch brothers have a genius for being publicly boring, while plowing vast sums of money into political action groups designed to make it difficult for anybody to make a good estimate of how much they’ve given to promote their goal of, um, saving the country.
Maybe it would help focus the public mind if we started referring to them as the Wichita oligarchs.
We do need to focus. The country has had very rich folks trying to influence national policy forever. But these days they seem to be getting very richer by the moment, and thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s no longer any real lid on what they can spend.
Who would you want to count as an oligarch? I’d definitely vote for any billionaires who underwrite campaigns against environmental regulation while their company shows up as No. 14 on the list of Toxic 100 Air Polluters. We’re looking at you, Kochs. (Thank you for the information, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts.)
Michael Bloomberg? Bloomberg bought himself 12 years as New York City mayor; his final election cost him more than $100 million, or $174 per vote, which sounds pretty darn oligarchic. Although when it comes to promoting a political career, being mayor will get you a good seat at a large number of parades.
Warren Buffett? He’s richer than any individual Koch. But, I’m sorry. I do not see an oligarch running around demanding that the government raise his taxes.
I would definitely have voted for the late Harry Simmons of Texas, who donated $31 million to political action committees in the last presidential election cycle. The collapse of campaign finance laws was a big time-saver for Simmons, whose estranged daughter once said that he gave her $1,000 for each blank political contribution card she signed. But Simmons died last year, as did Bob Perry, a billionaire Texas realtor who shared Simmons’s enthusiasm for that Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry.
“The question we’re asking is: who’s going to fill the oligarch vacuum?” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. “And what do you call the level right under oligarchs? We’ve got plenty of them.”
What comes below oligarchs? I guess mini-garchs. And below them, microgarchs. If you have a chance, try to refer to Donald Trump as a microgarch. It will drive him crazy.
But back to the real money: How about Paul Singer? He’s a hedge fund billionaire who’s sort of famous as the conservative donor who supports gay rights. As oligarchs go, however, he has a troubled track record: Rudy Giuliani in 2008, Chris Christie in 2012, Chris Christie, um, now.
Tom Steyer? This is another hedge fund billionaire. He’s also an environmental activist who’s investing $100 million in a fund to reward politicians who support climate change legislation and punish those who don’t. The Center for Public Integrity, which dubs Steyer’s new fund a “single-issue vanity super PAC,” is not a fan. But at least he’s not crusading for healthier hedge funds.
Sheldon Adelson? You remember Sheldon Adelson. He’s the billionaire casino owner who’s currently funding a campaign to combat online gambling. Adelson claims he’s propelled by a “moral standard,” which apparently involves saving betters from losing money in any venue that does not involve going to a casino. But we will always remember him as the guy who invested more than $16 million in the presidential prospects of Newt Gingrich.
This is truly only the billionaire beginning. Feel free to offer nominees. But don’t get carried away. We want to be selective here. Start calling everybody an oligarch and it won’t be special anymore. It’ll just be like calling them lobbyists.