Commentary's Jennifer Rubin is reacting way out of proportion to David Axelrod's tour of the Sunday morning talk shows. That said, she's got a germ of a good point:
David Axelrod — a political operative who now seems at the center of foreign-policy formulation (more on this later) — went on the Fox, ABC, and NBC Sunday talk shows to repeat how insulted the Obami were over Israeli building in Jerusalem and what an affront this was to them....
[I]t might have something to do with the fact that Axelrod and the Chicago pols are running foreign policy. It’s attack, attack, attack — just as they do any domestic critic.
Quibble away with Rubin's characterization of "Chicago pols," but she does raise a decent question: why on God's green earth is the Obama equivalent of Karl Rove talking about foreign policy in public?
Since the VP trip from Hell, it's clear that the Obama administration has ratcheted up the rhetoric in private, in public, in press leaks and through multilateral channels to their Israeli counterparts. Given what transpired, it's entirely appropriate that the Obama administration make its displeasure felt publicly.
Why Axelrod, however? Sure, the Sunday morning talk shows wanted to talk health care as well. And it's true that Axelrod, thought of as pro-Israel, could send a tough signal. Still, couldn't the administration have sent Hillary Clinton to one of the Sunday morning talk shows instead? Wouldn't she have been the more appropriate spokesman.
I've spent enought time inside the Beltway to be leery of the gossipy tidbits I collect when I'm down there. That said, there was one persistent drumbeat I heard during my last sojourn -- that Axelrod and the political advisors were acting as Obama's foreign policy gatekeepers.
Now, I am shocked, shocked, that politicians are thinking about foreign policy in a political manner. That said, there is a balance to be struck between political and policy advisors. Even David Frum admitted that this balance got out of whack during the Bush administration. I'd like to see things return to to the pre-21st century equilibrium. It would be disturbing if the new equilibrium is that someone like David Axelrod becomes the foreign policy czar.
UPDATE: You know what's particularly galling about this? When the political operatives fail to do their job and point out politically useful things to do in order to augment American foreign policy:
As an unusual public showdown between the Israeli and American administrations plays out, Hill sources say leading Congressional Democrats would be with the administration on this but would really like to get a phone call from Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, currently en route back to the Middle East to try to salvage Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks.
As former Senate Majority Leader, Mitchell has credibility with the Senators, one staffer said. It would be really helpful if he makes some phone calls from the plane, to say we really need you to stay with the administration, we are trying to push the peace process forward, and if he would articulate some sort of vision, of where this next sort of piece of tactical fight is going.
This is not the first time one has heard this from Hill Democrats that they are feeling a bit in the dark, but at such a tense moment, it is hard not to be astonished that the administration was not working the phones to the Hill all weekend.
"Same exact mistake of the first two Clinton years with majorities in both Houses," one Washington Democratic foreign policy hand said. "You'd think they would have learned the lesson of 'never take your allies for granted' at least after this year."
Last month, both on this blog and on my Twitter feed, I defended the notion that political scientists would be uber-interested in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. I was generally sympathetic to Jack Shafer's defense of their sourcing methods in Slate. And, in that spirit, I ordered Game Change, ready to dig deep into campaign gossip and the flawed nature of politicians.
Well, I've finished the book -- as well as the 20-minute shower I needed to take after reading the book. And I hereby retract any and all enthusiasm for Game Change-- because I don't know which parts of it are true and which parts are not.
[Um... does anyone care anymore?--ed. This is the
#10 #15 book on Amazon's bestseller list, so I'm going to say yes.]
My problem is not, exactly, with the sourcing -- it's with the gullibility of Heilemann and Halperin when dealing with their sources. So, just to be clear, the political scientist in me doesn't loathe this book because of the narrative structure -- it's because I don't trust Heilemann and Halperin's BS detector.
It was on page 89 that I began to wonder just how much Game Change's authors double-checked their sources. This section of the book recounts entertainment mogul David Geffen's "break" with Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign -- most publicly, in this Maureen Dowd column.
And so, we get to this paragraph in Game Change:
The reaction to the column stunned Geffen. Beseiged by interview requests, he put out a statement saying Dowd had quoted him accurately. Some of Geffen's friends in Hollywood expressed disbelief. Warren Beatty told him, She's going to be president of the United States--you must be nuts to have done this. But many more congratulated Geffen for having the courage to say what everyone else was thinking but was too afraid to put on the record. They said he'd made them feel safer openly supporting or donating to Obama. Soon after, when Geffen visited New York, people in cars on Madison Avenue beeped their horns and gave him the thumbs-up as he walked down the street (emphasis added).
I'm calling bulls**t on the bolded sentence. David Geffen is a powerful mogul, but he's not a photogenic celebrity in his own right. I'm pretty confident in asserting that no one driving down Madison Avenue would recognize Geffen walking down the street. I have complete confidence that no more than one person did this.
Furthermore, even if there was a small chance that someone did recognize Geffen on the street, how would a honking horn indicate sympathy with Geffen's political inclinations as opposed to, say, a sentiment more like, "Yo, David, will you listen to my demo?!"
So, who is the "deep background" source of this little anecdote for Game Change? It has to be Geffen -- he is, after all, so vain. And so we arrive at the first key question: what does it say about the veracity of Game Change that Geffen related a completely implausible, ego-boosting story about himself to Heilemann and Halperin and it gets printed in the book?
This leads to the second key question: what other "telling anecdotes" of dubious provenance got put into this book? The Geffen anecdote is has zero impact on the juicy stories told in the rest of the book -- but how can I be certain that Heilemann and Halperin vetted those sources with greater scrutiny?
I don't doubt that most of Game Change is accurate -- and I couldn't put the book down as I was reading it. I just don't trust what I read.
In a post over the weekend about John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's new book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder makes a very odd closing point:
Political scientists aren't going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say -- a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings -- a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.
I know a lot of political scientists, and let me take this opportunity to assure Marc that most political scientists love good, dishy books full of political gossip -- the uglier, the better. I love Bob Woodward books and all the Making of the **** Campaign tomes as much as the rest of America seems to love John Grisham novels. Many political scientists have similar feelings on this -- before people become political scientists, they're usually political junkies. And anyone who studies this stuff for a living can't only be aware that politicians are flawed beings -- they have to love them just a little for their flaws. As Seth Masket points out, "If we only cared about numbers and probabilities and theories, we'd have become mathematicians."
I suspect that the difference between my profession and Ambinder's is that while I love these canmpaign narratives, I don't always buy their explanations for why things play out the way they do. Structural factors like the economy matter a hell of a lot as well. The chapter in Game Change on the Edwardses, for example, is really gripping stuff -- but it's gripping because of the tawdriness, not because it affected the campaign in any way whatsoever. Even if theirs had been a fairy-tale marriage, John Edwards still wasn't going to be the president.
Ambinder's passive-aggresive attitude towards my profession is not unique to him -- it flares up every once in a while among political journalists. In some ways, this dust-up mirrors the occasional testiness that emerges between traditional baseball writers and sabermetricians. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy's recently complained about "the stat geeks, those get-a-lifers who are sucking all the joy out of our national pastime." Yeah, because the last thing the sport would want is for informed people to be arguing passionately about it.
Shaughnessy's assertion flabbergasted most sabermetricians, who clearly love baseball and all of its facets. They just find it silly not to consider the utility of smart statistics when analyzing the support. But a lot of sabermetricians tend to watch baseball with the television on mute so they don't have to hear broadcasters emphasize points that, to them, are superfluous -- just as many political scientists I know rarely watch the cable news shows.
A good narrative, however? We'll snap that up like popcorn.
Ezra Klein makes an interesting point regarding the health care plan that will likely emerge from Congress: that it pretty much matches what Obama the candidate promised in his health care plan (hat tip: Sullivan).
I bring this up because when you think about Barack Obama's foreign policy, you come to a very similar conclusion. It's a useful exercise to re-read Obama's July 2007 Foreign Affairs essay, "Renewing American Leadership," and compare it to Obama's first year as foreign policymaker-in-chief. In the essay, he emphasized the following:
Not everything has been implemented -- his foreign aid pledges won't materialize, and the Middle East peace process remains an oxymoron. It's nevertheless quite striking how much Obama's first year of foreign policy outputs matches the blueprint he sketched out as a candidate. The only exception I can think of is homeland security.
By the by, it's also the case that the issues he didn't emphasize -- like trade, for example -- have pretty much gone nowhere.
Whether you think this is a good thing or not depends on your view of the policy content. Still, one would be hard-pressed to argue that on foreign policy, Obama the president has deviated from what he set out to do as a candidate.
"It's so built into my system, that it's going to be hard to stop," says Politico's Ben Smith. Smith, who started blogging about New York politics in 2005, is now seriously addicted to the pace and metabolism--a word many invoked to describe the election's rhythms--of the blogger's life. He finds himself especially energized by the intensity of his readers who, by 4 a.m. have posted dozens of comments to a 3 a.m. post and who are now some of Smith's best sources, sending him scoops and stories and snapshots of a far-roaming campaign. His family, however, is eagerly looking forward to November 5th. Smith's wife repeatedly threatens to flush his Blackberry down the toilet; his kids, jealous of his "running conversation" with his readers, regularly squirrel away the device in the off chance they find it unattended. But Smith can't bring himself to stop. Recently, he returned at 2 a.m. from a fishing trip and "couldn't not plug in after being off the grid for an entire day." He stayed up blogging and answering emails until 6 a.m.
"It's really pathological," he conceded.
Alan Abramowitz, a politics scholar at Emory University, has shown that summer head-to-head polls convey almost no information about the forthcoming election. (Subsequent head-to-head polls are not much better.) Instead, he has a simple “electoral barometer” that weighs together the approval rating of the incumbent president, the economy’s economic growth rate and whether the president’s party has controlled the White House for two terms (the “time for a change” factor). This laughably simple metric has correctly forecast the winner of the popular vote in 14 out of 15 postwar presidential elections. The only exception is 1968, when the barometer (calibrated to range between +100 and –100) gave Hubert Humphrey a wafer-thin advantage of +2; he lost, with a popular vote deficit of less than 1 percentage point. The barometer not only picks winners but pretty accurately points to winning margins, too. In 1980, Jimmy Carter had the biggest postwar negative reading (–66); Ronald Reagan beat him by nearly 10 percentage points. President George W. Bush’s net approval rating (favourable minus unfavourable) is currently –40; the economy grew at a 1 per cent annual rate in the first quarter; and Republicans have had two terms in the White House. Plugging the numbers into Mr Abramowitz’s formula gives the Republican candidate a score of –60, about as bad as it gets: second only to Mr Carter’s in the annals of doomed postwar candidacies. The barometer says Mr Obama is going to waltz to victory.Again, this is not a commentary on the intrinsic value of the candidates -- it's just how politics works. [But the closeness of the current polls! Obama's race!!--ed. You'll have to read Crook's column to see the answers to those questions. Let's put it this way, however: if, given the current structural conditions, the Democratic Party fails to win in November, the party should simply disband.] The problem, appropos of a recent post, is that this makes for lousy punditry -- it says that there is little in the day-to-day nature of the campaign that will have any effect. Pundits who say, "it doesn't make a difference" are not invited back to do more punditry.
Most of the core members of his team served in government during President Bill Clinton’s administration and by and large were junior to the advisers who worked on Mrs. Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. But they remain in charge within the campaign even as it takes on more senior figures from the Clinton era, like two former secretaries of state, Madeleine K. Albright and Warren Christopher, and are positioned to put their own stamp on the party’s foreign policy. Most of them, like the candidate they are working for, distinguished themselves from Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy camp by early opposition to the Iraq war. They also tend to be more liberal and to emphasize using the “soft power” of diplomacy and economic aid to try to advance the interests of the United States. Still, their positions fall well within centrist Democratic foreign policy thinking, and none of the deep policy fissures that have divided the Republicans into two camps, the neoconservatives and the so-called pragmatists, have opened.... Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, has a far smaller and looser foreign policy advisory operation, about 75 people in all, and none are organized into teams. In 2004, the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, had a foreign policy structure similar in scale to Mr. Obama’s, but it had limited influence on the candidate, who had spent 20 years in the Senate, former advisers said.Take that for what you will.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.