The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Friedman

Mr. Bruni and Mr. Kristof are off today.  The Pasty Little Putz thinks he can tell us all about “A Different Kind of Division.”  He gurgles on about how racial politics have changed since the March on Washington.  I’m sure Putzy must be a real expert on the subject.  After all, he’s white and was born 16 years after the March on Washington…  In “Reindeer Games” MoDo takes a look at a fake Santa who seeks a real impeachment.  It’s probably only because of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, but MoDo has actually called the President Barack instead of Barry or Bambi.  The Moustache of Wisdom considers “Foreign Policy by Whisper and Nudge.”  He says in Egypt and the broader Middle East, the United States can only do so much without the support of the people.  Here’s Putzy:

Three months before the 1963 March on Washington, whose 50th anniversary falls this week, officials in Birmingham, Ala., opened fire hoses and loosed dogs on civil rights protesters. Two months before the march, the civil rights organizer Medgar Evers was murdered outside his home in Jackson, Miss. And a few weeks after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have Dream Speech” echoed down the Washington Mall, a bomb ripped open Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls.

Fifty years later, race is still in the headlines; indeed, the “postracial” presidency of Barack Obama has (predictably) given us more race-related controversy than the last two administrations combined. Some of these debates are essentially trivial, churned up by a “no, you’re the racist” grievance factory that runs day and night on cable news. But others — on voting rights, affirmative action, stop-and-frisk, etc. — are serious and weighty whatever side you take.

So America was divided by race in 1963 and it is divided by race today. But it is not divided in anything like the same way. And the case for optimism about racial polarization starts with what the fire hoses and bombs of ’63 signify about the difference between the civil rights era and our own.

Then, the major issue facing black America was entirely zero sum: for Dr. King to win, Bull Connor had to lose. There was no potential common ground so long as segregation lasted. Jim Crow had to perish outright for African-Americans to move forward as Americans. And their white supremacist oppressors knew it, which is why they turned to state-sponsored violence and state-sanctioned terrorism to defend their system and way of life.

Today our polarized politics may encourage a zero-sum attitude, but the underlying realities do not. George Zimmerman is not a half-Hispanic Byron De La Beckwith. Voter ID laws are not Jim Crow come again. And the thread of white identity politics running through Obama-era conservatism is just that — a sense of resentment and grievance, not a supremacist ideology reborn.

The interests of white and black Americans do not always align, any more than the interests of Ohioans and Californians, or senior citizens and younger Americans, or the college educated and the working class. But there is vastly more room to work through major problems together than there was in the Alabama and Mississippi of 1963.

How so? Well, start with that most reliably controversial of race-related issues: criminal justice, where America’s drug laws and incarceration rates are often cited by civil rights activists as an example of how structural racism threatens to create a “new Jim Crow.”

Except that while the actual Jim Crow invariably pitted white, Southern, conservative politicians against civil rights activists, today criminal justice is a place where many conservative politicians have embraced activists’ priorities instead. Eric Holder’s recent proposals for sentencing reform, for instance, followed a path blazed by Rick Perry in Texas a decade ago. In the Senate, the conservative Republican with the closest ties to the states-rights ideology that once justified segregation, Rand Paul, is also the loudest voice in support of reconsidering the War on Drugs.

Likewise in education policy, another longstanding racial flash point. There the older battles over integration and busing have mostly given way to a debate about competition and teacher standards in which conservative states are often laboratories for reform. From Chris Christie’s New Jersey to Perry’s Texas (which does a better job educating minority students than many liberal states), the politics of education increasingly produces cross-racial alliances and intraparty debates that look nothing like the civil-rights era divides.

Meanwhile, in the broader socioeconomic landscape, the big story of the last generation in American life is that problems that were seen as specifically “black problems” in the 1970s and 1980s — persistent unemployment, especially for men, family breakdown and social disarray — are now problems affecting the pan-ethnic working class.

Neither party currently has an agenda that’s well tailored to this challenge. But because the problems themselves increasingly cut across racial lines, a successful political response from either party would probably tend to reduce racial polarization — winning more minority votes for the Republicans or more working-class whites for the Democrats — and encourage socioeconomic solidarity instead.

Obviously, no such agenda could emerge, and the Obama race wars could continue indefinitely — with the Republican Party as a vehicle for white identity politics and the Democratic Party as a vehicle for ethnic patronage, with voter ID laws and affirmative action as permanent flash points, and with less racially polarizing issues shunted to the side.

But unlike the racial conflict of 50 years ago, there is nothing necessary about this kind of division. And this week of all weeks, it’s fitting to have a different dream.

Next up we have MoDo:

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Kerry Bentivolio, a Michigan congressman, has a dream, too: to impeach the nation’s first black president.

“If I could write that bill and submit it, it would be a dream come true,” the freshman Republican told a local G.O.P. club meeting Monday in Birmingham, Mich., in a video posted on YouTube and reported by BuzzFeed.

Bentivolio graciously conceded that he’d have to come up with some grounds first. “I went back to my office and I have had lawyers come in,” he said. “And these are lawyers, well — Ph.D.’s in history — I said, ‘Tell me how I can impeach the president of the United States. What evidence do you have?’ You’ve got to have the evidence.”

The Tea Party congressman, a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, hopes to find e-mails linking the White House to the I.R.S. examination of groups with a “Tea Party” label seeking tax-exempt status.

“I stood 12 feet away from the guy and listened to him and I couldn’t stand being there,” he said of President Obama, “but because he is president I have to respect the office.”

Bentivolio is the perfect avatar of the impeachment fever gripping a G.O.P. that’s unmoored from reality, given that he once admitted in a court deposition, “I have a problem figuring out which one I really am, Santa Claus or Kerry Bentivolio.” That’s why he sometimes used the pronoun “we.”

He’s been playing Santa Claus — as part of a business he started 19 years ago called Old Fashion Santa — with his own six reindeer. “To project authenticity, he’s even sought clearance from Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Mount Clemens to fly his sleigh in its airspace on Christmas Eve,” Kathleen Gray wrote in The Detroit Free Press.

He told National Review that he takes being called crazy as a compliment, so “it didn’t really bother me when people were saying, ‘That guy’s kooky because he has reindeer.’ No, they’re kooky because they don’t have ’em.”

Bentivolio also had a small role “in a low-budget independent film that seemed to suggest that 9/11 was an inside job,” the magazine said.

The Free Press reported that Bentivolio, no Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street,” left a teaching job in 2011 “after complaints he bullied students, even telling one class on its first day that his goal was to make all the students cry once during the year.” How much more gratifying to bully the president.

Not content with fighting off a popular immigration overhaul or threatening to shut down the government and set off the first federal default, hard-core Congressional Republicans want to nullify the election. Unlike when the Republicans did their nutty impeachment of Bill Clinton — (Newt Gingrich is back, starring in the “Crossfire” reboot) — they don’t even control the Senate. And as David Axelrod told me, there isn’t a “scintilla of justification.”

It’s lucky the president got another dog if Tom Coburn is his friend. At a town hall in Muskogee Wednesday, when an audience member called the administration “lawless,” the Oklahoma senator said his buddy was “getting perilously close” to the standard of high crimes and misdemeanors.

“I wonder what Coburn is saying about his enemies,” Axelrod says dryly.

In Texas recently, another Republican congressman, Blake Farenthold, answered a birther at a town hall. “If we were to impeach the president tomorrow, we would probably get the votes in the House of Representatives to do it,” he said, but added that it would never pass in the Senate.

At another Texas session Monday, someone asked Senator Ted Cruz (R-Canada), why they couldn’t impeach Obama. “It’s a good question,” Cruz replied, before noting that Democrats control the Senate.

Earlier this month, the president’s motorcade pulled into the Orlando Hilton and was greeted by about 50 protesters holding signs saying “Kenyan Go Home,” “Impeach Obama” and “Obama Lies.”

BuzzFeed had a pictorial on the “Overpasses for Obama’s Impeachment” fad, where people hold up homemade signs on overpasses. And they reported on 100,000 preorders for the book “Impeachable Offenses: The Case for Removing Barack Obama from Office,” covering sore points from Benghazi to Obamacare to T.S.A. screenings.

This month has been rife with efforts among the G.O.P. “wise men,” using every channel possible — polls, op-eds, cable, Twitter — to try to talk sense to the goons of August. When Condi Rice is a “wise man,” you know you’re in trouble.

The Democrats never impeached W. and they had real grounds: starting a war on false premises and sanctioning torture. “The Republican Party is in a constant struggle between its ego and its id,” Axelrod says, “and the id has mostly won out lately.”

It isn’t the president who should leave. It’s the misguided lawmakers trying to drive him out.

For some of the rodeo clowns clamoring for impeachment around the country, Barack Obama’s real crime is presiding while black.

And now we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

If you follow the commentary on American foreign policy toward Egypt and the broader Middle East today, several themes stand out: People in the region argue: “Whatever went wrong, the United States is to blame.” Foreign policy experts argue: “Whatever President Obama did, he got it wrong.” And the American public is saying: “We’re totally fed up with that part of the world and can’t wait for the start of the N.F.L. season. How do you like those 49ers?”

There is actually a logic to all three positions.

It starts with the huge difference between cold-war and post-cold-war foreign policy. During the cold war, American foreign policy “was all about how we affect the external behavior of states,” said Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign affairs expert. We were ready to overlook the internal behavior of states, both because we needed them as allies in the cold war and because, with the Russians poised on the other side, any intervention could escalate into a superpower confrontation.

Post-cold-war foreign policy today is largely about “affecting the internal composition and governance of states,” added Mandelbaum, many of which in the Middle East are failing and threaten us more by their collapse into ungoverned regions — not by their strength or ability to project power.

But what we’ve learned in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Egypt and Syria is that it is very hard to change another country’s internal behavior — especially at a cost and in a time frame that the American public will tolerate — because it requires changing a country’s political culture and getting age-old adversaries to reconcile.

The primary foreign policy tools that served us so well in the cold war, said Mandelbaum, “guns, money, and rhetoric — simply don’t work for these new tasks. It is like trying to open a can with a sponge.”

To help another country change internally requires a mix of refereeing, policing, coaching, incentivizing, arm-twisting and modeling — but even all of that cannot accomplish the task and make a country’s transformation self-sustaining, unless the people themselves want to take charge of the process.

In Iraq, George W. Bush removed Saddam Hussein, who had been governing that country vertically, from the top-down, with an iron fist. Bush tried to create the conditions through which Iraqis could govern themselves horizontally, by having the different communities write their own social contract on how to live together. It worked, albeit imperfectly, as long as U.S. troops were there to referee. But once we left, no coterie of Iraqi leaders emerged to assume ownership of that process in an inclusive manner and thereby make it self-sustaining.

Ditto Libya, where President Obama removed Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s top-down, iron-fisted regime, but he declined to put U.S. troops on the ground to midwife a new social contract. The result: Libya today is no more stable, or self-sustainingly democratic, than Iraq. It just cost us less to fail there. In both cases, we created an opening for change, but the local peoples have not made it sustainable.

Hence the three reactions I cited above. People of the region often blame us, because they either will not or cannot accept their own responsibility for putting things right. Or, if they do, they don’t see a way to forge the necessary societal compromises, because their rival factions take the view either that “I am weak, how can I compromise?” or “I am strong, why should I compromise?”

As for blaming Obama — for leaving Iraq too soon or not going more deeply into Libya or Syria — it grows out of the same problem. Some liberals want to “do something” in places like Libya and Syria; they just don’t want to do what is necessary, which would be a long-term occupation to remake the culture and politics of both places. And conservative hawks who want to intervene just don’t understand how hard it is to remake the culture and politics in such places, where freedom, equality and justice for all are not universal priorities, because some people want to be “free” to be more Islamist or more sectarian.

“With the traditional tools of foreign policy, we can stop some bad things from happening, but we cannot make good things happen,” noted Mandelbaum.

For instance, if it is proved that Syria has used chemical weapons, American officials are rightly considering using cruise missiles to punish Syria. But we have no hope of making Syria united, democratic and inclusive without a much bigger involvement and without the will of a majority of Syrians.

And too often we forget that the people in these countries are not just objects. They are subjects; they have agency. South Africa had a moderate postapartheid experience because of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. Japan rebuilt itself as a modern nation in the late 19th century because its leaders recognized their country was lagging behind the West and asked themselves, “What’s wrong with us?” Outsiders can amplify such positive trends, but the local people have to want to own it.

As that reality has sunk in, so has another reality, which the American public intuits: Our rising energy efficiency, renewable energy, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are making us much less dependent on the Middle East for oil and gas. The Middle East has gone from an addiction to a distraction.

Imagine that five years ago someone had said to you: “In 2013, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and Iraq will all be in varying states of political turmoil or outright civil war; what do you think the price of crude will be?” You’d surely have answered, “At least $200 a barrel.”

But it’s half that — for a reason: “We now use 60 percent less energy per unit of G.D.P. than we did in 1973,” explained the energy economist Philip Verleger. “If the trend continues, we will use half the energy per unit of G.D.P. in 2020 that we used in 2012. To make matters better, a large part of the energy used will be renewable. Then there is the increase in oil and gas production.” In 2006, the United States depended on foreign oil for 60 percent of its consumption. Today it’s about 36 percent. True, oil is a global market, so what happens in the Middle East can still impact us and our allies. But the urgency is gone. “The Middle East is China’s problem,” added Verleger.

Obama knows all of this. He just can’t say it. But it does explain why his foreign policy is mostly “nudging” and whispering. It is not very satisfying, not very much fun and won’t make much history, but it’s probably the best we can do or afford right now. And it’s certainly all that most Americans want.


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