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Sequester Showdown

Washington’s Dangerous Poker Game

Laugh now at the Jedi quips and congressional tantrums—the pain is coming soon for Americans. It’s time for our ‘leaders’ to stop this stupid cycle of high-stakes bluffs.

After 16 months of anticipation, sequestration cuts kicked in today and President Obama called the leaders of Congress to the White House, prompting a well-deserved chorus of “what the hell took you so long?”

Avlon: Obama's Dangerous Game (Sequester)

President Barack Obama addresses the media following Congressional meeting at White House, Mar. 1, 2013. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

The brief meeting failed to make any dent in the impasse and Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell left the White House after just over an hour, joining their congressional colleagues on a not-at-all-deserved long weekend.

The lack of urgency in Washington this week has been startling but not surprising. An aura of impotence has consumed the government, as deep, across-the-board cuts everyone says they oppose set in. The only action in town has been a public blame game that gives sandbox politics a bad name.

“The Buck Stops Here”—that’s what a famous sign on President Harry Truman’s desk read. But today’s Washington gridlock has resulted in a diffusion of responsibility, with President Obama telling CNN’s Jessica Yellin, “I am not a dictator. I’m the president,” explaining that he can’t have the Secret Service block the door if Boehner and McConnell leave and he doesn’t have the power to have a “Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right.”

Predictably, the mangled pop-culture reference preoccupied the Twitterverse, but the president’s protest raised a serious question: what is his plan of action? What’s the point of calling a Friday Come to Jesus meeting on the day sequestration kicks in, while Congress has already high-tailed it home?

Let’s start by giving President Obama the benefit of the doubt—namely that there is a strategy in place. If so, the president is playing a long game, knowing that the sequester cuts are just the first of a series of fiscal cliffs the country is scheduled to face this spring, with the government set to need a continuing resolution at the end of March to avoid shutdown and a debt-ceiling collision set for mid-May.

In other words, by letting the reality of the unpopular sequester cuts start to set in, the president hopes that he can finally pass a grand bargain this spring and stop this stupid cycle of governing by crisis.

In search of wasteful government spending, Eric Cantor sets his pants on fire. John Avlon reports.

Eric Cantor fired off a press release last week titled Mr. President, Spending is Clearly the Problem in Washington, arguing against a grand-bargain solution to sequestration in favor of an all domestic-spending-cuts approach and offering an apparently useful list of waste, fraud, abuse and duplication as prime candidates for the chopping block.

Eric Cantor

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor leaves a news conference in Washington, DC on February 5, 2013. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty)

Much of the Majority Leader’s list, though, was made up of the kind of evidently no-brainer cuts that have bumper-sticker appeal but urban legend-esque documentation. But for a congressional office dedicated to the idea that wasteful government spending abounds, the seven targets listed were thin gruel, including an IRS TV studio that costs $4 million a year to operate; a $47,000 Veterans Affairs expenditure on a “cigarette smoking machine” and this:

Pay to Play Videogames: The National Science Foundation spent $1.2 million paying seniors to play World of Warcraft to study the impact it had on their brains.

If true, this is good stuff – exactly the kind of idiotic expense that makes citizens slap their foreheads in frustration. Cantor tweeted his World of Warcraft find far and wide and 8 congressmen quickly pressed retweet.

But there’s just one problem: it ain’t true.

The good folks over at Politifact.com took a look and gave Cantor a “Pants-on-Fire” rating for the claim, finding instead that a 2009 grant was given to fund studies looking at how to improve seniors' cognitive abilities and World of Warcraft was never involved.

Owen Good, editor of gaming site Kokatu, wrote a blistering slam of the House majority leader’s report, explaining the intricacies in more detail.

Double-Barrel Politics

Joe Biden Shoots Straight

Far from being a gaffe, Biden’s ‘buy a shotgun’ comment undercuts the ‘Obama wants your guns’ crowd—and is another example of the vice president’s important role in selling White House policy, says John Avlon.

In the pop-culture presidency of the Obama administration, Joe Biden plays an outsize role. He’s the goofy white uncle, loose-lipped and earnest to a fault, who recently became the subject of an Onion biography that imagines the teetotaler as a beer-guzzling Trans-Am worshipper eternally fixated on the summer of ’87.

Biden Gun Control

Vice President Joe Biden listens to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter speaks after a round table discussion on gun control last week at Girard College in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

But while Biden has a tendency to shoot from the lip and stray from the script, it is not without strategic political benefit. On the campaign trial, his warmth balanced Obama’s cool—there’s nothing aloof about Biden. He was dispatched to Rust Belt union halls and rallied the base, embodying Bob Shrum’s eternal “fighting for you” formulation without seeming forced. Hell, the man singlehandedly brought the word “malarkey” out of exile. If Obama is among the most self-monitoring of men, Biden is among the least.

But when it comes to policy, conventional wisdom says the headaches that come with Joe Biden outweigh the benefits. There’s no doubt that he has an overwhelming impulse to step on the message and careen in unexpected directions. But sometimes I think that the “slow Joe” stereotype and consequent face-palms obscure a Columbo-like figure who plays dumb but is really playing the crowd.

Case in point, Biden’s recent gun comments that were widely considered unhelpful to administration efforts.

On Tuesday he sat for a Facebook forum hosted by Parents magazine and responded to a question from one “Kate” about whether families would be rendered defenseless in the (unlikely) event of a reinstated assault-weapons ban.

Biden launched into a soliloquy in praise of double-barrel shotguns.

Watch Joe Biden's shotgun comments.

Blame Game

It’s Boehner’s Sequester!

Republicans have taken to calling the deep cuts that could reverse our hard-won economic recovery ‘Obama’s Sequester.’ But a July 2011 PowerPoint obtained by John Avlon shows the opposite may be true.

With deep sequestration cuts just days away, Congress is on vacation. But they’ve still got plenty of time to play the blame game.

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Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

The latest semantic spin is to call the looming $1.2 trillion in cuts, which could throw the whole economy back into recession, “Obama’s Sequester.” House Speaker John Boehner indulged this approach half a dozen times in a floor speech before he went on break, establishing its place in the talking-points firmament.

There are a couple problems with this tactic, as my colleague Michael Tomasky pointed out Tuesday. Congress passed sequestration before the president signed it, and the whole self-defeating exercise was carried out in response to Tea Party Republicans’ insistence that we play chicken with the debt ceiling, which ultimately cost America its AAA credit rating.

But here’s the thing. I happened to come across an old email that throws cold water on House Republicans’ attempts to call this “Obama’s Sequester.”

It’s a PowerPoint presentation that Boehner’s office developed with the Republican Policy Committee and sent out to the Capitol Hill GOP on July 31, 2011. Intended to explain the outline of the proposed debt deal, the presentation is titled: “Two Step Approach to Hold President Obama Accountable.”

It’s essentially an internal sales document from the old dealmaker Boehner to his unruly and often unreasonable Tea Party cohort. But it’s clear as day in the presentation that “sequestration” was considered a cudgel to guarantee a reduction in federal spending—the conservatives’ necessary condition for not having America default on its obligations.

The presentation lays out the deal in clear terms, describing the spending backstop as “automatic across-the-board cuts (‘sequestration’). Same mechanism used in 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement.”

POLITICS OVER NATION

The GOP’s Ugly Hagel Filibuster

GOP senators’ obstruction of a straight vote on the defense-secretary nominee and Rand Paul’s placement of the CIA director nomination on hold amount to a cowardly and cynical political strategy that could compromise national security, says John Avlon.

Since the election, Republican talking points have reflected the fact that they need to reach out beyond their base: to be positive rather than negative; appear more reasonable, less obstructionist. 

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Senate Armed Services Committee members John McCain (left) and Lindsey Graham confer at the start of the committee’s hearing on the appointments of military leaders Thursday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

But how you act speaks more loudly than what you say, and Senate Republicans have doubled down on obstructionism with their shameful filibuster of secretary-of-defense nominee Chuck Hagel. Add to this fresh insult the hold Sen. Rand Paul put on Obama’s nominee to be CIA director, John Brennan, and it looks like Republicans are backing a cynical political strategy that could compromise national security while proliferating hyperpartisanship even further in the future.

Let’s put this in perspective—Republicans decided to filibuster a Republican secretary-of-defense nominee, someone Mitch McConnell once called one of the most respected foreign-policy voices in the Senate, someone John McCain said would make an excellent secretary of state.

The Senate, of course, is entrusted with the ability to advise and consent—but filibustering a cabinet nominee is virtually unprecedented, because it violates the time-honored principle that presidents should be able to pick their cabinet. In the process, Republicans are creating a dangerous precedent that could impact presidents of both parties for decades to come. If this is the new normal for national-security appointees, I’m sure the next Supreme Court nomination will be a model of reason and civility. 

Keep in mind the GOP doesn’t have the votes to kill these nominations. Because Democrats control 55 seats in the Senate—after winning uphill races in states ranging from North Dakota to Montana to Indiana—Republicans can’t hope to win an up or down vote. And so they pulled a cowardly parliamentary move to obstruct a straight vote, imposing a filibuster that breaks with all precedent, simultaneously reminding Americans why we desperately need filibuster reform. 

Reality check: In recent history, there have been only two other instances of cabinet officials needing to meet a 60-vote threshold for cabinet confirmation: Reagan’s second-term Commerce Secretary C. William Verity and George W. Bush’s Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. Paleoconservative Jesse Helms objected to Verity because the nominee favored increased trade with the Soviet Union. Democrat Bill Nelson put a hold on Kempthorne in a protest against Bush administration oil and gas drilling policies off the Florida coast. Ultimately, in both cases, cloture passed with 85 votes, and the cabinet nominees were easily confirmed. Likewise, the Hagel nomination is still likely to eventually pass once the efforts to intimidate have been exhausted. 

The Hagel attacks have been particularly ugly, because they involve Republicans trying to tear down the reputation of a fellow Republican and former senator. Hagel—an enlisted combat vet, two-time Purple Heart winner, and veterans-affairs director under Reagan—is bitterly resented by neoconservatives for opposing the 2007 surge and the Iraq War, in a break with President Bush. But on a deeper level, his sin might be described as collaboration—agreeing to cross party lines to work for this Democratic president—and in this he must be made an example.

Greer’s Plea

A Classic Florida Scandal

The corruption trial of former state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer was going to have it all—big names, allegations of ‘golf carts full of hookers,’ and skimming off the top. Then he had to cut it short by pleading guilty.

Ah, Florida—the land of sun, sand, and scandal.

On Monday, former state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer added his name to the long list of Sunshine State lowlifes when, after years of proclaiming his innocence, he pleaded guilty to five felonies including grand theft and money laundering.

Jim Greer

Jim Greer, left, ousted former Florida GOP chairman, with his attorney Damon Chase, enters a surprise guilty plea to five criminal charges in an Orange County courtroom, February 11, 2013. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT, via Getty)

Legal terminology doesn’t do justice to the crass creativity of the crimes. This is a man who catapulted from publisher of the Palm Bay Party Guide to Oviedo City Council member to chief of the swing state GOP. In three short years, he managed to oversee charges of more than $7 million on the party AmEx card, including nearly $500,000 for personal indulgences like spa treatments, flowers, flights, and fine dining. Greer gave new meaning to the term “party chairman”—and I’m not even counting allegations about golf carts full of hookers on a fundraising trip to the Bahamas.

Greer’s abuse of donors’ money was unethical but not really original—party politics is full of sleazy skimming off the top. His real crime was a scheme to get a 10 percent cut of all major party donations through a corporation called Victory Strategies, of which Greer was the secret majority owner.

Give the man credit for coming up with a con that would make Bebe Rebozo blush.

In Parliament of Whores, P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.” What we see in this scandal is the logical evolution. When donors try to buy access and influence, the party chairman starts thinking he’s a one-man Goldman Sachs, entitled to a cut of every deal.

But as sordid as the money trail might be, the much anticipated main event was cut short by Greer’s plea deal, which came on the morning his trial was set to commence. It had promised to be the kind of political corruption trial that makes you want to break out popcorn and watch the stars fall.

The plea deal represents a precipitous fall from grace, writes John Avlon.

Former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. agreed Friday to plead guilty to charges of misusing campaign funds, in an apparent bid to an end a federal investigation that threatens to also implicate his wife, former Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson. Both had resigned their offices in recent months, reportedly as part of the congressman’s negotiations with prosecutors. 

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Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) speaks to constituents following a town hall meeting at the Sheldon Heights Church of Christ where he discussed the President's health insurance reform plan August 18, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

For the scion of what was once the country’s most influential African-American family, the plea deal represents a precipitous fall from grace that overlaps with the ascent of another African-American Chicago family to the White House.  The Jackson dynasty appears to be done.

“There was a time when Jesse Jackson Jr. saw himself as the first African American president and now he’s probably on his way to jail,” says Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association—a Chicago-based good-government group. “This is a major fall from grace—and a family tragedy.”

The son of the Reverend Jesse Jackson—who mounted two competitive campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s—served 17 years in Congress, representing a seat so safe that he easily won reelection last November despite not campaigning due to a highly publicized hospitalization for bipolar disorder and other ailments.

He resigned two weeks after Election Day. His wife, a city alderman, resigned her office in January after the Chicago Sun Times raised questions about her use of campaign funds from her husband’s congressional accounts, including a $5,000 monthly consulting salary, credit-card charges and the moving of money between accounts.

This practice is apparently epidemic in the corruption-plagued Land of Lincoln. 

“A lot of politicians use political donations as lifestyle enhancements—getting work done on their homes, taking fancy vacations, etc,” says Shaw. “At the very least they’re bending the rules of campaign finance and sometimes they violate them blatantly. Unfortunately the IRS and state election boards are stretched too thin to investigate. But if you end up under the microscope of the U.S. Attorney that all changes … Jesse Jackson Jr. is not an outlier here, but he’s the one who got caught. There are a lot of politicians who are probably saying ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’”

Super Bowl Warning

Rise of the Blackouts

The 34-minute power cut during the year’s biggest sporting event illustrated for 100 million viewers the effects of our aging electrical grid. John Avlon on why we’ll see more blackouts unless Obama invests in a smart grid.

The 34-minute Super Bowl blackout is just the most recent high-profile example of a growing national problem. Blackouts are on the rise across the United States, with major power outages doubling over the past decade.

The problem is an aging electricity infrastructure strained by skyrocketing electricity use and, as in the case of the blackouts following Hurricane Sandy, the increased frequency of superstorms that have knocked out power in some populated areas for weeks.

After Sunday night’s Super Bowl blackout, Newsweek Global editor Tunku Varadarajan tweeted, “Is this New Orleans or New Delhi?”—a reference to the summer subcontinent blackout that affected 600 million. A few beats later, Tunku articulated this widespread anxiety: “Did Chinese hackers trigger the outage?”

The cause of the blackout is still not known. Local energy supplier Entergy is downplaying any suggestions of systemic weakness, stating that a piece of equipment “sensed an abnormality in the system … causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue.” That’s corporate speak for “we don’t have the foggiest idea what happened.”

Nonetheless, the 34-minute hold on the Super Bowl should be sufficient to get broader attention for an issue that is vital to America’s long-term security and economic competitiveness: building the smart grid.

It may be tempting to file the idea under “boring but important,” but building a smart grid is almost as significant as building the transcontinental railroad was in the 1800s.

Here’s the high concept: basically, today’s national energy grid is like the overstretched power strip in your college dorm. It’s a patchwork affair, with networks connecting to networks in ways that are tangential and highly unstable. The grid is held together by the infrastructure equivalent of duct tape and prayer.

R.I.P., HIZZONER

Ed Koch Dies at 88

John Avlon on the mayor whose voice defined New York for a generation.

For a generation of Americans, and especially New Yorkers, Ed Koch was simply “Mayor.”

New York City Mayor Ed Koch

New York City Mayor Ed Koch in his office in 1980. He served three terms from 1978 and 1989. (Express, via Getty)

It was the title of his bestselling memoir, followed by a sequel, Politics, and even an off-Broadway tribute to Hizzonor. With typical talent for good timing, Koch departed this world at age 88, just days after the debut of a new documentary on his three terms at city hall. The news was announced by his longtime spokesman, George Arzt.

Here’s the elevator pitch: At a time when New York City seemed on its knees, inevitably on the decline, decadent, and in debt, Ed Koch’s exuberant common sense revived the City that was his one true love. He willed it back into health by helping New Yorkers believe again in themselves. 

In truth, it was a model based on the Depression-era mayoralty of Fiorello La Guardia, but Koch updated the model with a 1970s style that was simultaneously no-nonsense and infused with showmanship. The Bronx-born World War II vet came of age in Greenwich Village reform politics, taking on the remnants of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine as a self-described “liberal with sanity.”

His rise to the “second-toughest job in America” was not fueled exclusively by the idealism of Washington Square. Instead, Koch positioned himself as the unexpected champion of the middle class. After climbing from City Council to Congress, Koch’s first campaign for mayor was framed as a repudiation of liberal excess and the ensuing civic decay. “This city is like it has never been before, with people at one another’s throats, suspicious of their neighbors, angry with their government, frustrated that no one in authority seems to care or even wants to listen ... As walking the streets of this city became a lottery of life and death, as business and industry fled to the suburbs or beyond, as corruption has been uncovered at deeper and deeper levels of city government, more and more people have begun to think that perhaps New York really is ungovernable after all.”

He won his first mayoral campaign in 1977, defeating pint-size City Comptroller Abe Beame, who presided over the city’s fiscal failure (commemorated by the Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”) after John Lindsay’s libidinous late-’60s administration. Four years later, Koch was back at it, looking for vindication. It was the season that the Yankees’ playoff appearance was crystallized in the minds of Americans by Howard Cosell gazing at arson flames from the press box of Yankee Stadium and announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

It was not a time of urban optimism. People were fleeing the city for the suburbs, and it was generally accepted that Gotham’s best days were behind it. Koch believed otherwise, making a frank pitch to his would-be constituents: “After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?”

The Hagel Witch Hunt

The Senate’s disrespectful treatment of a man wholly qualified to be secretary of defense is another sign that partisanship trumps patriotism.

The contentious Senate hearing for secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel divided starkly along partisan lines, with Republicans attacking their former colleague with the pitchfork zeal of heretic hunters.

Chuck Hagel

Chuck Hagel arrives to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill on Jan. 31, 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Hagel’s calm recitation of consensus catechism on issues ranging from Iran to Israel to nuclear weapons didn’t seem to make any impression on his conservative critics.

This was personal. John McCain repeatedly interrupted his “old friend” and fellow Vietnam vet with palpable anger, his fury directed at Hagel’s opposition to the Iraq War and the 2007 troop surge. The core offense appeared to be Hagel’s contention that the invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy “disaster” since Vietnam—a parallel that infuriates McCain.          

Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican, reinforced his reputation as possibly the worst U.S. senator with bear-baiting questions like this: “Why do you think that the Iranian Foreign Ministry so strongly supports your nomination for secretary of defense?”

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions doggedly focused on a report by the anti-nuke group Global Zero, which advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. The report was co-authored by Hagel, four generals, and a number of ambassadors. The organization itself has hundreds of international leaders who have signed on to its recommendations, including Reagan’s secretary of defense Frank Carlucci, Carter national security adviser Zbignew Brezinksi, 9/11 Commission co-chair Lee Hamilton, and Gen. Anthony Zinni. Sessions and other Republican senators kept cherry-picking phrases from the report and ignoring substantive subtlety, despite Hagel’s repeated assurance and demonstrated record in opposing unilateral disarmament and support for modernizing the U.S. nuclear program. This clarification by the authors might help calm any genuine concerns, if they exist.

It made me wonder what Sessions would have said to Ronald Reagan, who advocated for nuclear disarmament more than 150 times, according to his aide Martin Anderson, in statements like this: “I believe we’ve come to the point that we must go at the matter of realistically reducing … if not totally eliminating, nuclear weapons—the threat to the world.”

This is not an ironic aside so much as it cuts to the core controversy about the Hagel nomination.

How to Save the GOP

Wanted: Northeast Republicans

Split over immigration, the GOP’s own stalwarts are attacking it as lost, dying, even ‘stupid.’ John Avlon argues that the party can solve its existential crisis by nurturing more politicians like Chris Christie, who have moderate records and wide appeal—including among Democrats.

Bobby Jindal’s calling it “the Stupid Party.” Glenn Beck is showing images of elephants dying while cutting up cake. And David Brooks is calling for a second Republican Party.

Superstorm Aid

Chris Christie speaks at a news conference at New Jersey's State House on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, in Trenton, N.J. (Tim Larsen/AP)

There’s grumbling agreement even among the party faithful that the GOP is facing an existential crisis. The belated embrace of comprehensive immigration reform with nary a scream about “amnesty” by anyone except Rush Limbaugh and the House radicals is just the latest indication that the default formula of anger and obstruction isn’t working anymore.

The 2012 ass-kicking is forcing Republicans to confront their deepest demons—namely, that they cannot simply write off whole regions of the country and remain a viable national party. They cannot afford to alienate the fastest-growing communities of color in the USA. They cannot win a war against modernity.

The big tent has been burnt down but it can still be rebuilt—if the Republican Party is willing to embrace reformers who don’t fit in an ideological straitjacket. 

This ain’t no naïve pipe dream. What if I told you that there was a Northeast Republican who currently enjoys 62 percent support from Democrats, 69 percent support from non-whites, 70 percent support from women, and 72 percent support among independent voters? But wait, there’s more—the Republican is pulling those numbers in a state President Obama won by 17 points, where registered Republicans make up only 20 percent of the electorate.

Coalition

Obama’s Odd New Pals

As the president unveils his vision for immigration reform, an unlikely trio of special interests is standing behind him: the Bible, the badge, and business.

This time it will be different.

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Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) (L) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) confer during a news conference on comprehensive immigration reform at the Capitol, Jan. 28, 2013. (Gary Cameron/Reuters, via Landov)

After repeated failures at the federal level, comprehensive immigration reform finally looks like a real possibility this year. And that’s because a broad bipartisan coalition has been built in the Senate, motivated by both self-interest and national interest. Today in Nevada, President Obama will add his vision to their legislative foundation, officially making immigration reform the core of his second-term agenda. 

Obama’s unexpected ally in this effort is the evangelical community—part of an emerging conservative coalition in favor of immigration reform that supporters describe as “the Bible, the badge, and business.”

Back in 2007, when President Bush tried belatedly to push through a bipartisan immigration bill, the prevailing winds were against progress. The presidential race to succeed him was already underway and the right-wing talk-radio crowd attacked the McCain-Kennedy bill as “amnesty”—providing a pre–Tea Party bandwagon that candidates like Mitt Romney and Tom Tancredo climbed on to beat back McCain’s center-right campaign. Often forgotten in this narrative is the fact that congressional Democrats weren’t particularly in the mood to hand Bush a victory either. 

But six years later, the right-wing talk-radio crowd is receding in relevance as their listeners age out of existence. Many conservatives who opposed the last comprehensive are realizing that failure to win over Hispanic votes represents an existential threat to the Republican Party. 

But perhaps most of all, the attitudes of the Republican rank and file have changed.

“In 2013 you have people who hold the Bible, wear a badge, or own a business who all want broad immigration reform,” says Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum, a D.C.-based policy institution. “From a faith perspective, their faith commands them to treat people humanely. From a law enforcement perspective, they realize that in order to keep the public safe they need to be enforcing criminal law and not federal immigration law. And from a business perspective, immigrants are the workforce of the present and the future. Those three constituencies are realizing that the extreme right wing is not the voice of reason.”

Unavenged

Where’s the Benghazi Justice?

Obama promised to avenge the murders of four Americans. But while Secretary Clinton faced a grilling over the attack, there’s been no retaliation. That sends a dangerous message, says John Avlon.

Benghazi. Algeria. This is the ground where Americans have been killed by Islamist terrorists over the past four months. And so far, nothing has been done to avenge their deaths.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

“Avenge.” That’s the word President Obama used when he spoke to the widow of Sean Smith after his murder in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, as recounted by Michael Hastings in his bracing new book, Panic 2012.

It was a sentiment the president repeated the day after the attack to a campaign crowd in Nevada, saying: “We want to send a message to all around the world who would do us harm. No act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America ... I want to assure you we will bring their killers to justice.”

It is now late January. There has been no justice. There has been no vengeance. There have, of course, been accusations and congressional hearings. Political finger-pointing has been the preoccupation, but action has been lacking.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton more than held her own in the cross-examination from occasionally hostile senators and members of Congress. But one line of questioning revealed the weakness of the administration’s response to date. Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) asked Clinton about the whereabouts of one of the prime suspects detained in Tunisia and even interviewed in the days after the Benghazi attack.

Here is what she said:

“We have been assured that he is under the monitoring of the [Tunisian] court. He was released, because at that time—and [FBI] Director [Robert] Mueller and I spoke about this at some length—there was not an ability for evidence to be presented yet that was capable of being presented in an open court. But the Tunisians have assured us that they are keeping an eye on him. I have no reason to believe he is not still in Tunis, but we are checking that all the time.”

Political Speech

Obama’s Progressive Manifesto

John Avlon breaks down the president’s audacious political speech, which took aim at conservatives’ claim to represent American exceptionalism.

“To form a more perfect union” has always been the core idea animating President Obama’s career, an attempt to bridge old divides, blending the personal and the political.

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President Obama, surrounded by members of his family, listens to the National Anthem during the 57th Presidential Inauguration ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

The president used his second inaugural address to try to demolish the false dichotomies that have defined the overheated political debates of the past four years, implicitly making the case that his Democratic Party’s agenda is squarely in the mainstream of American history—expanding individual freedom through collective action.

It was an audaciously political speech, a statement of personal and partisan principle, rather than the expected broad bipartisan outreach. From the outset, the president took aim at conservatives’ claim to represent the idea of American exceptionalism, arguing instead that it is achieved by the constant struggle to expand equal opportunity.

This is a decidedly Lincoln-ian reading of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, rooted in reality: “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

As evidence, President Obama charted the many times throughout our history when citizen movements were ultimately successful because of government action, making his second inaugural address double as a progressive manifesto.

In the most moving section, the president seamlessly traced the expansion of women’s rights from Seneca Falls to Martin Luther King’s March on Washington to the Stonewall riots. Not incidentally, these groups are all considered core to the Obama coalition—but more important, they are now seen not merely as interest groups but as core parts of the American community. The president’s historic addition of gay rights to this litany of liberation movements marked a moment of permanent legitimacy of this community, now codified in a presidential inaugural address.

This defense of Democratic Party ideals was consistent throughout, especially when the president declared, “The commitments we make to each other—through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security—these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

At The Daily Beast bipartisan brunch, guests give their best advice for President Obama’s big day on Monday. The brunch, in partnership with Credit Suisse at Cafe Milano in Georgetown, was co-hosted by Tina Brown, Pamela Thomas-Graham, Eva Longoria, Harvey Weinstein, and Mark McKinnon.

The Daily Beast bipartisan brunch, in partnership with Credit Suisse, lived up to its billing: Democrats, Republicans, and independents, shoulder to shoulder at Cafe Milano, chowing down and toasting the start of a new term.

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(L-R) David Axelrod, Frank Luntz, and CBS’s Norah O’Donnell attend The Daily Beast bipartisan brunch at Cafe Milano in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2013. (Scott Henrichsen/Newsweek)

With the second inaugural address one day away, I asked some of the assembled what they were hoping to hear from President Obama.

Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and author of Words That Work: The president should say “We’re not Republicans. We’re not Democrats. We’re Americans. And I extend my hand”—as he actually physically does it—“I extend my hand to the speaker, the minority leader of the Senate and their colleagues. Let us make a commitment on this great day to get great things done for great Americans.’”

'Did you miss Obama's first term? Here's everything that happened, in 120 seconds.'

Ray LaHood, Obama administration transportation secretary and Illinois Republican: “We need to really come together here in Washington and work together because that’s what the American people want.” Why should we have any rational hope of that? I asked. “Because we didn’t go over the fiscal cliff. Because the president, vice president, the leaders of Congress came to an agreement. They did it at the 11th hour; now they need to start at the 12th hour and move on and continue to make progress.” Fair enough. My final question: are you going to stay for the second term? “There’ll be more to say about that later.”

Laura D’Andrea Tyson, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Clinton administration: “That we’ve put in place the foundation for a stronger, sounder, fairer economic recovery. I think the administration in the first term did a number of incredibly important things to get the foundation together … A lot of discussion is about the long-term budget. The long-term budget is basically health care. Every single thing that we know how to do about controlling cost is in the health-care-reform legislation. We should speed it up … I’m optimistic we can get the cost turned in a serious way and that’s the most important long-term issue.”

130120-nw-inauguration-brunch-avlon-tease2

Ray LaHood (L) and Eleanor Clift attend The Daily Beast bipartisan brunch at Cafe Milano in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2013. (Scott Henrichsen/Newsweek)

About the Author

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John Avlon

John Avlon is senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and the host of Beast TV. He is a CNN contributor and winner of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ award for best online column in 2012.

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