Before we get on with all the politics, we have two unrelated announcements. The first is tomorrow's quirk in the calendar. Actually, today is quirky as well, if you're a friggatriskaidekaphobe, since it's Friday the 13th. But tomorrow is much more momentous, because the convergence only comes once a century. Tomorrow morning will mark an extraordinary moment in time for geeks everywhere, in fact. Know a mathematician? Call him or her up tomorrow morning and wish her or him the happiest of Pi Days!
For the uninformed, Pi Day is a yearly celebration of a date on the calendar, for its numerical significance. It ranks up there among geeky holidays with the fourth of May ("Star Wars Day," since you can go around wishing everyone "May the Fourth be with you!"). The significance is it will be "3/14" (at least in the United States, as Europeans write their dates differently). These are the first three digits in the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, or "pi."
But this year's Pi Day will be the best one for the next 100 years, because a whole bunch of digits will come into play. Pi's value is, to 10 digits: 3.141592653. This year's Pi Day will be 3/14/15. Taking it a step further, just before 9:30 AM tomorrow morning, the date and time will read: 3/14/15 -- 9:26:53. Woo hoo! Best Pi Day of the century!
The admissions office at MIT has taken note, and this year's acceptance letters will all go out tomorrow. How appropriate!
Mathematical geekiness aside, we have one more announcement to make. This column is going on vacation for the next two weeks. Yes, we will be going on hiatus until April 3, as we travel to the Emerald Isle to experience a thoroughly Irish St. Patrick's Day. So don't expect another fresh talking points column for the next two weeks. You have been duly warned.
In an entirely unrelated story, Ireland kind-of, sort-of legalized a whole bunch of drugs this week. A court threw out one of Ireland's main drug laws, on a technicality that rendered it unconstitutional. Whoops! This meant that ecstasy, crystal meth, and magic mushrooms were all suddenly legal (leprechaun sightings must have gone through the roof, one assumes). The Irish legislature scrambled to pass emergency legislation to fix the problem, but it still must have been a pretty psychedelic week for some in Ireland! By the time I get there, however, I will be completely satisfied as long as Sir Arthur Guinness's fine product is still widely available (and legal). So to speak.
But it wasn't all fun and games in the world of international politics last week. Far from it, in fact. Since it is Friday the 13th, a day when many ponder unlucky numbers, we have to wonder what it is about the number 47 that keeps getting Republicans in trouble. First it was Mitt Romney's infamous dismissal of the "47 percent," after which he wound up with exactly 47 percent of the vote in the general election. This week, 47 Republican senators decided it would be a good idea to sign an extraordinarily condescending letter to the leaders of Iran's government. Maybe, in the future, Republicans should try avoiding anything associated with the number 47? Just a suggestion, guys....
The Republicans' effort to hobble President Obama's negotiations with Iran failed spectacularly. That much, everyone agrees upon. Perhaps the best commentary on the letter came from Iran's foreign minister, who dismissed it as an attempt at "propaganda," and went on to school the Republicans in the way international and U.S. laws and agreements actually work.
The only real difference in the reactions to the senators' letter was in the terminology used to condemn it. The New York Daily News ran a gigantic headline that stated: "Traitors." The Wall Street Journal was a little more reserved in its language, but not by much. The New York Times ran an editorial under the headline "Republican Idiocy On Iran." The Washington Post pointed out that Republicans seem to think they're running some sort of breakaway nation of their own (calling it "Republicania").
European leaders soon joined in the chorus of condemnation. Conservative commentators admitted the entire thing was a fiasco. Cartoonists, of course, had a field day (our favorite so far is Jeff Danziger's take on Tom Cotton). One retired general rejected the term "traitors," but didn't exactly mince his own words:
I would use the word mutinous. I do not believe these senators were trying to sell out America. I do believe they defied the chain of command in what could be construed as an illegal act. What Senator Cotton did is a gross breach of discipline, and especially as a veteran of the Army, he should know better. I have no issue with Senator Cotton, or others, voicing their opinion in opposition to any deal to halt Iran's nuclear progress. Speaking out on these issues is clearly part of his job. But to directly engage a foreign entity, in this way, undermining the strategy and work of our diplomats and our Commander in Chief, strains the very discipline and structure that our foreign relations depend on, to succeed. The breach of discipline is extremely dangerous, because undermining our diplomatic efforts, at this moment, brings us another step closer to a very costly and perilous war with Iran. I think Senator Cotton recognizes this, and he simply does not care. That's what disappoints me the most. I expect better from the men and women who wore the uniform.
Remember those halcyon days when all Republicans maintained that "listening to the generals" was the way to deal with questions of war? Ah... memories!
Liberals, of course, were universal in their disgust at the 47 Republicans. A movement quickly began to charge all 47 with violating the Logan Act (a law passed in the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts). The petition to demand charges be brought under the Logan Act at the White House's website currently has over 275,000 signatures. I wrote about this idea yesterday, pointing out the history of the Logan Act, and why bringing charges would probably not be the best idea, but I realize others differ in their opinions.
The universal condemnation of the letter apparently caught Republicans by surprise. Some are now even admitting that it was a "dumb idea." Some tried the old "we were just kidding around" defense, not with any noticeable success.
Really, who could have possibly expected that pulling a political stunt like this would backfire? What could possibly go wrong when Republicans write a letter to a regime that Republicans have been describing as one of the most evil on the planet since 1979, in order to sabotage their Commander-in-Chief's efforts to avoid an all-out war, with absolutely no thought given to their own alternative plan for what America should do? I mean, Republicans can't all be as confused as Marco Rubio when it comes to Iran, can they?
The biggest irony, however, is that Republicans have only succeeded in undermining their own efforts. Senate Republicans have been pushing to pass a bill to force President Obama to get congressional approval for any deal, and by some accounts they had convinced enough Democrats to almost have a veto-proof majority. This is probably no longer the case, as Democrats now see that the entire exercise is nothing more than crass politics -- Republicans putting party before country -- and now it looks like Republicans are losing Democrats' votes they were counting on. So the biggest fallout from the letter is that Republicans sabotaged their own efforts in the Senate. Priceless!
There were a few odds-n-ends stories worth noting this week in the political world as well as the big Senate letter fiasco. President Obama got two pieces of good news this week, both economic in nature and both from the Congressional Budget Office. The 10-year costs of Obamacare are down even from the projections of a few months ago, and the costs are now estimated to be 11 percent less than expected. That is a savings of $142 billion over the next decade, which ain't exactly small change.
The other good news is more abstract. The C.B.O. projected that Obama's proposed budget would shrink the deficit by a whopping $1.2 trillion over the next decade. This is abstract good news, since Obama's budget is never going to pass Congress unscathed (as indeed no president's budgets ever do), but it does lay down a marker for the negotiations to come with congressional Republicans.
Rahm Emanuel seems to be in a bigger political fight than he expected, in the runoff election for Chicago mayor. The third-place finisher has just announced he's throwing his support to the second-place finisher, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. This may make the race far more competitive for Emanuel, so we'll be keeping a close eye on the polling, for now.
Down in Texas, a brave Republican state lawmaker is taking a bold stand in support of Planned Parenthood. Sarah Davis made a very strong statement on why she's bucking her party, who is trying to gut Planned Parenthood's funding:
I don't think it is appropriate to continue to fund the women's health program so that we can make some type of a political statement as Republicans that we care about women, only to chip away at the safety net of the providers. If we don't have the provider network, women cannot be served. And they will die.
This is exactly right, and Davis should be applauded for saying so in such blunt language.
Over in Florida, Rick Scott has solved the problem of climate change, it seems. All the Florida government has to do is to never utter the words "climate change" (or "global warming" or "sea-level rise") and -- Hey, presto! -- these problems will then never happen. Out of sight, out of mind. Fun fact: the highest point in Florida is the lowest high point of any U.S. state, at only 345 feet. That's right -- the entire state sits at a lower elevation than an average hill in San Francisco. So, obviously, that whole "sea-level rise" thing won't be a problem there, or anything.
And finally, Michele Bachmann made a mini-splash this week, by warning of an impending sharknado in front of the White House. Heh. OK, to be fair, she was filming a cameo in the upcoming Sharknado 3, but that doesn't detract from the humor much at all, we find. Her big line: "Congress has to take this seriously because sharknado is a real phenomenon." Even funnier, a woman in the crowd watching the shoot had the perfect summation of the entire Michele Bachmann political legacy. When asked by a friend who that was, she responded: "I don't know. I think it's someone playing a congresswoman."
Perfect! Best description of Michele Bachmann we've ever heard, in fact!
Before we get to the main award, we first have two Honorable Mention awards to hand out. The first goes to President Obama, for a little-noticed announcement this week that he would be overhauling the way people pay back student loans, which will be welcome news for millions of Americans. This wasn't one of the hot topics of the week in the media, and therefore received little attention, but this is (once again) proof that Democrats actually do care about the little guy and try to craft policies to help people out.
Our second Honorable Mention goes to two senators who really should have won the MIDOTW outright this week (and indeed would have, if the whole letter-to-Iran thing hadn't happened). Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand joined with Republican Rand Paul to introduce a bill to begin ending the federal government's costly and futile War On Weed. I wrote about this at length earlier in the week, if you'd like to read my take on it. I have no idea what the bill's chances for passage are, but I encourage everyone to pick up the phone today and call their senators to urge them to sign on as co-sponsors to the bill.
But seeing as how 47 Republican senators saw fit to attempt to weaken not only the president's negotiating position but also the United States of America in world opinion, our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week is none other than Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden -- on the same day the senators' letter was released -- issued a statement of his own. This statement was so impressive and so important, we have decided to run it instead of this week's talking points, in fact.
Joe Biden loves the Senate. He spent over a third of a century there. His disgust at the actions of these 47 senators is on full display in the letter he wrote. His was the best response to the letter from any American politician to date.
For the immediacy of his reaction, and for everything he has to say in his own letter, Joe Biden is easily the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week. Tell it like it is, Joe!
[Congratulate Vice President Joe Biden on the White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
The other gigantic media story of the week in the political world was Hillary Clinton's emails.
Now, most agree that Hillary Clinton actively distrusts and doesn't like the media. There's a reason for this, which Salon helpfully pointed out, offering up some badly-needed historical perspective, pointing out that time when the George W. Bush White House lost a whopping five million emails that they had sent through a non-official server:
Even for a Republican White House that was badly stumbling through George W. Bush's sixth year in office, the revelation on April 12, 2007 was shocking. Responding to congressional demands for emails in connection with its investigation into the partisan firing of eight U.S. attorneys, the White House announced that as many as five million emails, covering a two-year span, had been lost.
The emails had been run through private accounts controlled by the Republican National Committee and were only supposed to be used for dealing with non-administration political campaign work to avoid violating ethics laws. Yet congressional investigators already had evidence private emails had been used for government business, including to discuss the firing of one of the U.S. attorneys. The RNC accounts were used by 22 White House staffers, including then-Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who reportedly used his RNC email for 95 percent of his communications.
This article goes on to compare the media's gigantic yawn over this story, back then, with the frenzy that happened last week over Clinton's emails. No wonder Hillary isn't best buddies with the media, in other words.
The media overreaction was absurd. It sank to such depths as breathlessly reporting about the hardship reporters were facing in getting United Nations press credentials to cover Clinton's press conference -- a bit of navel-gazing that added precisely nothing to the story.
Still, even having said all of that, Hillary Clinton is indeed our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week, for allowing the story to go on for as long as she did. For over a week, Clinton's only response was a single posting on Twitter. That is simply not good enough, and not fast enough. Clinton's press conference itself was pretty thorough, and she released a nine-page document with answers on the same day. This has already gone a long way towards defusing the story politically.
But there was no real reason to wait that week. Hillary Clinton has so far refused to make public her intentions towards the 2016 presidential race, but just about everyone expects her to run. Instead of playing cutesy games over when she will announce her candidacy, she really should consider that doing so means being able to bring a full team on board who can handle damage control exercises much better (and much faster) than the whole email fracas.
So, to be clear, we're not disappointed at Clinton's eventual response. We don't think she's suffered much political damage (the election is a long ways away) among her supporters. But we are indeed disappointed at the length of time it took her to realize she had to publicly address the problem, for which she earns this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.
In fact, we'd go further, and encourage Clinton to go ahead and toss her hat in the ring. Playing coy with the media (and the voters) is, quite obviously, not working well for her. It's time for Hillary Clinton to step up and declare her 2016 intentions. And to hire some competent campaign people to help her out when the next media circus crops up.
[Hillary Clinton is still a private citizen, and we have a long-standing policy not to provide contact information for such. We realize that this is ironic, in the midst of a story about Clinton's email, but that's just the way it goes sometimes.]
Volume 339 (3/13/15)
As mentioned, this week we're going to forgo political talking points, and instead run the full text of Joe Biden's letter responding to the 47 Republican senators. The letter's text was taken directly from the White House website.
There is really nothing we can add to what Biden says, below. He condemns the letter and what it has to say in great depth, for which he should be commended. If you only read one reaction to the senators' letter, this is the one to read.
Statement by the Vice President on the March 9 Letter From Republican Senators to the Islamic Republic of Iran
I served in the United States Senate for thirty-six years. I believe deeply in its traditions, in its value as an institution, and in its indispensable constitutional role in the conduct of our foreign policy. The letter sent on March 9th by forty-seven Republican Senators to the Islamic Republic of Iran, expressly designed to undercut a sitting President in the midst of sensitive international negotiations, is beneath the dignity of an institution I revere.
This letter, in the guise of a constitutional lesson, ignores two centuries of precedent and threatens to undermine the ability of any future American President, whether Democrat or Republican, to negotiate with other nations on behalf of the United States. Honorable people can disagree over policy. But this is no way to make America safer or stronger.
Around the world, America's influence depends on its ability to honor its commitments. Some of these are made in international agreements approved by Congress. However, as the authors of this letter must know, the vast majority of our international commitments take effect without Congressional approval. And that will be the case should the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany reach an understanding with Iran. There are numerous similar cases. The recent U.S.-Russia framework to remove chemical weapons from Syria is only one recent example. Arrangements such as these are often what provide the protections that U.S. troops around the world rely on every day. They allow for the basing of our forces in places like Afghanistan. They help us disrupt the proliferation by sea of weapons of mass destruction. They are essential tools to the conduct of our foreign policy, and they ensure the continuity that enables the United States to maintain our credibility and global leadership even as Presidents and Congresses come and go.
Since the beginning of the Republic, Presidents have addressed sensitive and high-profile matters in negotiations that culminate in commitments, both binding and non-binding, that Congress does not approve. Under Presidents of both parties, such major shifts in American foreign policy as diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China, the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis, and the conclusion of the Vietnam War were all conducted without Congressional approval.
In thirty-six years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which Senators wrote directly to advise another country -- much less a longtime foreign adversary -- that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them. This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America's commitments -- a message that is as false as it is dangerous.
The decision to undercut our President and circumvent our constitutional system offends me as a matter of principle. As a matter of policy, the letter and its authors have also offered no viable alternative to the diplomatic resolution with Iran that their letter seeks to undermine.
There is no perfect solution to the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. However, a diplomatic solution that puts significant and verifiable constraints on Iran's nuclear program represents the best, most sustainable chance to ensure that America, Israel, and the world will never be menaced by a nuclear-armed Iran. This letter is designed to convince Iran's leaders not to reach such an understanding with the United States.
The author of this letter has been explicit that he is seeking to take any action that will end President Obama's diplomatic negotiations with Iran. But to what end? If talks collapse because of Congressional intervention, the United States will be blamed, leaving us with the worst of all worlds. Iran's nuclear program, currently frozen, would race forward again. We would lack the international unity necessary just to enforce existing sanctions, let alone put in place new ones. Without diplomacy or increased pressure, the need to resort to military force becomes much more likely -- at a time when our forces are already engaged in the fight against ISIL.
The President has committed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He has made clear that no deal is preferable to a bad deal that fails to achieve this objective, and he has made clear that all options remain on the table. The current negotiations offer the best prospect in many years to address the serious threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions. It would be a dangerous mistake to scuttle a peaceful resolution, especially while diplomacy is still underway.
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