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Why Bill Gates Isn't Worried About Washington Dysfunction

Howard Fineman   |   March 13, 2014   12:05 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- The skies were cloudy, gunmetal gray. It was drizzling just enough to make you annoyed at the lack of an umbrella.

Politically, everything in the nation’s capital was just as gloomy. Everyone from the president to congressional backbenchers had abysmal job approval ratings. Everyone complained about “gridlock,” but everyone was making it worse. The Raymond Tusks of the real world were cramming big business bucks down Washington throats. The Russians were up to no good. Hadn’t we gotten past that?

But in a conference room in a Watergate office building Wednesday, the future of the country, the planet and the human race seemed so blindingly sunny.

The bling of science, technology, efficiency and “market signals” was bright. The talk was about how we would basically end infant mortality, cure polio once and for all, devise better ways to educate our children, and enjoy material, biological and digital advances so mind-boggling that most people on Earth, even the poor, would “be able to access better lifestyles than everyone has today.” Science-based technology and commerce would do it all, and soon.

Yes, Bill Gates was back in town.

“Whoever said that innovation was slowing down, that was the stupidest thing anyone ever said,” he told a reverent crowd of about 200 prominent This Town-ers at a gathering hosted by Atlantic Media.

In a cripplingly self-involved city, incapacitated by its own lack of capacity, Gates offered a message of spreadsheet-based effervescence.

The world’s richest man again, with a net worth of $76 billion (despite having given away some $28 billion so far through his Gates Foundation and other vehicles), the 58-year-old Microsoft founder claimed not to be worried about the dysfunction junction that is Washington.

“Fortunately,” he said, the forces of material progress, augmented by the continuing “miracle of software,” do not entirely, or even mostly, depend on “Washington doing something different.”

Sure, you’d like to see more funding for the National Institutes of Health, basic research and education studies, he said, “but a lot of innovation doesn’t depend on Washington.” That innovation will spur “mind-blowing” advances in energy, materials science, medicine, education, virtual recreation and other fields.

The capital, by contrast, is trapped in a self-defeating argument over “less or more” government, Gates said. The real question is how to make government work better.

The lack of common-sense efficiency, he added, can be mind-boggling when examined up close. “You say to yourself, ‘So that’s how they make soup?'”

Gates ducked an invitation to criticize the digital rollout of Obamacare.

Perhaps government’s most important role, he said, was to spur education -- which is why he remains a strong proponent of the increasingly controversial Common Core curriculum.

Gates compared such national education standards to the establishment of global Internet software conventions and the standardized gauge of American railroads and configuration of electrical plugs. Once you set the plug size, he said, people can go about the business of creating appliances to connect to the grid.

It's a logical, if mechanistic and quantified, view of education that gives many dedicated teachers and educational philosophers the willies. But it is the world Gates believes in.

Over the years, the self-described “software engineer” has remained the same focused believer in the use of computers and software to study problems, create efficiencies and propagate research. Only now his focus is on engineering the planet to humanistic specifications.

“I’m basically optimistic that, despite any roadblock, governments will step up and science-based innovation will help us solve problems,” Gates said.

As for politics, he wondered aloud why in China, which has no democracy, the approval rating for government was 80 percent, while in the U.S., which is up to here with democracy, the approval rating for government is less than 20 percent.

“It’s a paradox of democracy,” he said.

Or perhaps flawed data input in China.

'Not A Bromance,' But Two Top GOP Senators Have A Shotgun Marriage Built To Last

Howard Fineman   |   March 6, 2014    7:32 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Jesse Benton was delighted with his handiwork. “Thought it went well,” he told me after the Thursday show he had choreographed for Mitch McConnell.

A former top campaign aide to both ex-Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Benton is now in charge of salvaging the career of Kentucky's senior Republican senator and tea party target.

So the stagecraft on Thursday was important and part of a larger operational agreement between McConnell and Rand Paul, the essence of which is this: Rand helps Mitch win a sixth Senate term this fall; Mitch helps Rand win the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

“Whatever Rand is going to need, we hope Mitch is going to want to do,” Benton said.

First things first. And that meant getting Mitch through an appearance at the annual Woodstock of the Right, the Conservative Political Action Conference, being held this week at a colossal Maryland convention center overlooking the Potomac River near Washington, D.C.

McConnell entered stage right, waving a frontier musket over his head. He seemed to want to evoke the joy of a hunter celebrating the one-shot takedown of a 10-point buck. But with his wan smile, diffident manner and blue patterned suit, he looked more like Elmer Fudd on the way to a meeting with his accountant.

What mattered more than the rootin’ tootin’ imagery was what the Senate minority leader had to say.

Facing a tea party challenger in the Kentucky GOP primary this May, McConnell needs every photo op and rhetorical flourish he can muster to firm up his credentials among hard-line conservatives. After five terms in the Senate, the 72-year-old Republican leader is despised by many tea party types for his longevity, his love of the inside game, and his occasional willingness to do macroeconomic mega-deals in the name of saving the global economy and/or the fiscal credibility, such as it is, of the federal government. This would be statesmanship to some; it's satanic apostasy to the tea party.

So McConnell's strategy at CPAC was to assure that he would receive a good reception on stage by appearing on behalf of the National Rifle Association -- certified, applause-generating good guys at CPAC -- to present an NRA award to retiring Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Once safely at the lectern and riding that wave of applause, McConnell sounded some carefully crafted, tea-friendly populist themes, anti-government and even anti-Wall Street.

“Here’s the truth,” he said. “Under this president and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class have been squeezed like never before.

“Their Wall Street ‘reforms’ have shuttered community banks while the biggest banks on Wall Street have gotten ever bigger,” said McConnell, who has rarely picked a fight with corporate America.

He accused the president of “treating our Constitution worse than a place mat at Denny’s.”

The jaded may smirk at McConnell’s efforts, but the pictures and the rhetoric were aimed straight at wavering GOP voters in Kentucky, whose support the senator needs in this year's elections.

Under the guidance of Benton and longtime McConnell adviser Josh Holmes, the incumbent seems to be keeping his primary challenger, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, at bay in the polls. The current assumption among Kentucky insiders is that McConnell will win the primary, but will then have to spend considerable effort convincing tea party voters to support him in the fall.

That is where Rand Paul comes in. Though Paul won his Senate seat in 2010 by defeating McConnell’s handpicked GOP nominee, McConnell is now depending on Paul to help him keep his own slot.

“Rand has been very careful not to criticize Bevin directly, and he won’t,” said Benton. “Rand will be able to go to those [more conservative] voters and make the case. Will he win back all of them? Probably not, but he’ll get a lot of them for Mitch.”

The two will then join forces to take on likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes. At age 35, Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, doesn’t have much of a track record to attack. But Benton said McConnell and Paul will have plenty of ammo nevertheless, most of it in the form of tying Grimes to Democrats who are unpopular in Kentucky, especially President Barack Obama.

Benton said the senatorial pair have become genuine allies. "It's not mentor and mentee. It's based on respect. They each see how smart the other guy is."

He added, "It's not a bromance, but they've come to appreciate each other and know how to work together."

They also share a common enemy: the disruptive Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who wants to oust McConnell in 2014 and best Paul for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

The stakes this year are huge, both in Washington and in Frankfort, Ky.

The GOP already controls the Kentucky state Senate and needs to pick up only five seats to win the House, all the more reason for the Mitch-Rand alliance to work hard. Paul has a specific interest: He wants a bill or a ruling from state officials allowing him to be on the Kentucky ballot in 2016 as a candidate for both the U.S. Senate and the presidency, if he gets that far.

If McConnell holds his seat and the GOP takes the U.S. Senate -- a distinct possibility -- the new majority leader will be in a strong position to help his fellow Kentuckian.

His job then will be the mirror image of the one Paul now must do in Kentucky: McConnell will need to sell Paul to what’s left of the GOP establishment.

Ukraine Crisis Has Been Hiding In Plain Sight

Howard Fineman   |   March 2, 2014    8:04 PM ET

Oddly enough, I know Ukraine. Or as much as one can know the country from spending time traveling there, long ago as a post-graduate student and in recent years as a tourist and writer. Part of my family was from a Ukrainian town, which I have visited.

Amid the standoff in Crimea, observations from this time lend some insight into the tangled roots of the crisis.

  • Vladimir Putin has been hiding his intentions in plain sight. In an infamous 2005 speech, he declared that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the “major geopolitical disaster of the century.” But more to the point, he lamented the fact that “tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.” This was dog-whistle politics in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere. People were listening. Were we or the Europeans?
  • Ukrainian culture is deep and distinctive. When I first traveled to Kiev and Odessa by way of Lvov as a student in the early 1970s, I got lecture after lecture about the universal genius of Taras Shevchenko, the Pushkin/Shakespeare of the country.
  • Even so, independent Ukrainian nationhood has been more of a romantic dream than a political reality. Lithuanians, Poles and Russians have run the country for most of the last millennium. The main avenue of Kiev is lined with Soviet architecture. The Russians designed Ukraine’s most beautiful city, Odessa, as the St. Petersburg of the South. And it is.
  • The crowd on the Maidan, according to an eye witness, was a brave, spontaneous and democratic one. It wasn’t manufactured by higher powers. “They just kept marching forward knowing they would get shot,” said the observer, an American who was in the city on business.
  • But the new ruling group, empowered by the street protesters, won’t necessarily be a total contrast to the rapacious Yanukovych bunch. “Ukraine is basically tribes of billionaires fighting with each other over resources,” said a former U.S. government official who has worked for more than one tribe there as a political and security adviser.
  • Historically and culturally, Crimea isn’t Ukraine. Sevastopol and Yalta, famous spots on the peninsula, feel Russian when you visit. Sevastapol is home to monuments –- literally and operationally –- to Russian military power: the old Russian fleet submarine bays; the dolphin training center (like a shabby Sea World); the stone markers representing Soviet battles in World War II. Yalta, an almost mystical name to the old Russian leisure class, is home to the dachas of famous Russian artists and the World War II meeting of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. When you visit the Czarist summer home that played host to that meeting, there is nothing Ukrainian about the place in any sense.
  • Ironically, and confusingly, old Kiev was the birthplace of Eastern Slavic culture and faith, the place where Vladimir I in 980 decided to adopt Christianity. Evidence of this history is on display to this day, in sacred catacombs that contain rows of skulls of monks from many centuries ago. Russia and Ukraine are yoked together: uncomfortably, sometimes violently, but inevitably.
  • The definition of what is Ukraine has always been elastic around the edges. The first Ukrainian city I visited as a student in a Volkswagen bus in 1970 was Lvov, in what was then called “Western Ukraine.” It had the feel of an Austrian or Polish town, a Middle European city, and for good reason: at one time or another, it had belonged to both. (Under the Austrians it was known as Lemberg.)
  • There is not the same tradition of American-style ideas of freedom -- sometimes glorified in the abstract, and paid lip service to by Putin –- in Russia or Ukraine.

    When I was traveling on a post-graduate fellowship from the Watson Foundation, my carefully limited visa allowed me to drive to Kiev and Odessa, but not to deviate from that route in any way, for any length of time. Well, I wanted to visit Bila Treskva, an hour south of Kiev, where my mother’s ancestors were from. So I drove there without permission. It took the authorities only a few hours to find me, take me into custody and question me for a couple of hours. Before they let me go they made me sign a document admitting my malfeasance. It was in Russian.

Alison Lundergan Grimes Looks Like The Real Thing

Howard Fineman   |   February 25, 2014    2:06 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A jam-packed and almost giddy Democratic crowd at a fundraising event here is the latest sign that the Senate race in Kentucky is for real -- and that 35-year-old Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has a surprisingly good shot at unseating the five-term Republican incumbent, Sen. Mitch McConnell.

The Tuesday event, headlined by former President Bill Clinton at a downtown Louisville hotel, drew an overflow crowd of donors and a scrum of national and local press for what amounted to the kickoff of this year's national battle for control of the U.S. Senate.

Grimes and Clinton entered the ballroom to the loud strains of Katy Perry's "Roar." Surveying the crowd, Grimes said with a grin, "Kentucky is Clinton Country."

She said she would run as a "Kentucky woman" on behalf of women throughout the state, and she vowed to bring youthful optimism and a new spirit of bipartisanship to Washington. Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, compared these times to the dawn of the Clinton presidency, when the country was struggling to climb out of a recession. "It was good-bye, recession, and hello, prosperity," she said of Clinton's tenure.

"Washington today looks just like it did in 1993. It's broken, with hyper-partisan people like Mitch McConnell calling the shots," Grimes declared.

It was almost as though the Obama administration didn't exist -- now or ever.

As she has from the start, Grimes stressed job creation, charging that McConnell had failed to offer his own plan. "My vision begins and ends with the middle class," she said -- though her most-repeated proposal is to increase the minimum wage, an idea that McConnell opposes.

And then the big dog spoke.

His voice reverting to its original, word-swallowing Arkansas drawl (he was, after all, speaking in the South), Clinton played the genial professor as he lectured the crowd.

He heaped praise on Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, for aggressively trying to implement the "health care thing." Rather than defend the philosophy of the Affordable Care Act, Clinton described the issue as a practical one, like repairing a car. The GOP's drive to dismantle the act, rather than fix it and make it work, "is a dumb way to run a country," Clinton said.

He presented the minimum wage issue as a matter of simple decency and fellowship as well as good economics. "In places like rural Kentucky -- or rural Arkansas -- good, hardworking people can't make a living," let alone contribute purchasing power to the marketplace, he warned.

Grimes is following Clinton's 1992 tactic of assembling her jobs-related proposals in a printed booklet, which the former president dutifully waved in front of the audience as a sign of approval. Her jobs plan is an "expression of trust in the people of Kentucky," Clinton said. The ideas in the booklet include the minimum wage increase, more money for early childhood education, adult training and stronger collective bargaining rights.

"I am here to tell you it makes a big difference," Clinton said, "and Alison Lundergan Grimes should win it, and with your help she will."

Neither of them mentioned President Barack Obama or his administration by name.

In an interview with The Huffington Post after the speech, the former president said that the jobs plan booklet was a simple but essential tool and a symbol of the Grimes campaign -- and a reason why she is doing as well as she is in the race.

Struggling to survive in the New Hampshire primary in 1992, Clinton's use of a similar tactic helped save his candidacy, he said. "I was on my way to an event in Keene," he recalled. "They said a crowd of 50 or 100 would be OK, but 400 showed up and the reason was that darn booklet."

Clinton, who is advising the Grimes campaign regularly, read her pamphlet in advance and commented on the contents.

"It's one reason she's doing so well," he said, "because it shows a contrast with Mitch McConnell, who's not for doing anything and just obstructs things."

"Alison is growing as a candidate by the day," Clinton said. "She's getting better and better at this."

Speaking to HuffPost after her speech, Grimes declined to estimate how many jobs her plan would create, suggesting only that the possibilities were "limitless."

The jobs booklet makes no mention of the Affordable Care Act and criticizes Obama administration actions it says have caused the eastern and western Kentucky coalfields to suffer "disproportionate harm." If elected, Grimes said, she would challenge the administration on coal and other topics as necessary.

"I'll be representing the people of Kentucky, not a political party," she said. "And I'm the kind of person -- unlike Mitch McConnell -- who can deal with everyone."

At bottom, Grimes said, she represents change -- in party, gender and generation. "My grandmother has a saying that you can't heat a biscuit twice and make it taste good," she said. "That's Mitch's problem in this race."

It will be a hard-fought Senate contest. McConnell, 72, is a wily and remorseless campaigner with the money, the experience and the upper hand in terms of a traditional Kentucky rural culture that finds Obama repellent, even dangerous. Obama lost the state twice by big margins.

But McConnell faces not only a nettlesome tea party challenger in the primary, but also his own sour image.

According to the latest Bluegrass Poll by The Courier-Journal and other outlets, McConnell is even less popular and respected here than the president. Obama's job approval rating is an abysmal 34 percent. McConnell’s is worse: 32 percent. And the senator's personal popularity clocked in at 27 percent -- a sulphurous rating for an incumbent.

McConnell has spent millions in advertising so far pounding his tea party challenger, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin. “Team Mitch” has kept Bevin at bay, and few expect the challenger to win the May 20 GOP primary.

But the ad campaign has infuriated many Republican voters. Strategists will be looking at two key indicators after May 20: what percentage Bevin won, and what GOP primary voters tell polltakers about whether they'll support McConnell in the fall. If the first number is high (more than, say, 35 percent) and the second number is low (below, say, 50 percent), McConnell’s ability to turn out enough conservative voters in November will be in deep doubt.

The Senate minority leader’s numbers are only one reason why the Democrats in the state are so happy.

The Kentucky Democratic Party has put its history of bitter tribal disputes behind it, for now. Grimes’ father, former state party chairman Jerry Lundergan, has made peace with his longtime rival, Gov. Beshear.

Women activists and voters are excited by Grimes’ candidacy -- and formed about half the audience at the Tuesday fundraiser.

Finally, Kentucky, like many other places, has had it up to here with Washington, Congress and extreme partisanship. In many states, that has put Democratic incumbents on the defensive; in Kentucky, it's hurting McConnell.

For all these reasons, Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, likens Grimes to a jockey riding the great racehorse Secretariat. “All she has to do is not fall off,” he said.

This story has been updated with comments from an interview with Alison Lundergan Grimes.

The Big Dog's Kentucky Game Plan

Howard Fineman   |   February 24, 2014    7:36 AM ET

LOUISVILLE -- As far as most Kentucky Democrats are concerned, the head of the national Democratic Party isn’t President Barack Obama, though they like him enough.

It's Bill Clinton, the former president from Arkansas who is locally (and often nationally) known fondly as “The Big Dog.” He's not running for Senate in Kentucky, but he might as well be.

Bill Clinton is the last Democrat to have won a presidential race here, in 1992 and 1996. His down-home style and moderate politics make him as much a product of Kentucky central casting as of his home state. He's stayed in close touch with Kentucky locals, too.

And it is Clinton who is leading a drive to boost the party -- and his wife Hillary’s White House chances -- by replacing five-term Republican Senate incumbent Mitch McConnell with a close Clinton protégé, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

No one in Kentucky wonders why the state's junior Republican senator, Rand Paul, has been taking wild and crude swings at Bill Clinton's all too well-known personal history. It's because he's playing attack dog in the Bluegrass on McConnell's behalf against the man who stands behind -- and in front of -- the Grimes candidacy.

The former president will headline a Grimes fundraiser here Tuesday, an event being treated not only as a Kentucky story, but also as the launch of Clinton's 2014 effort to pile up as many chits as he can in aid of Hillary's likely run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

That effort began last year, next door to Kentucky in the presidential swing state of Virginia. There, Bill Clinton was both a private and public advocate for the successful gubernatorial race of one of his closest friends, and most prolific fundraisers, Terry McAuliffe.

To no one's surprise, McAuliffe declared last weekend that he would eagerly support Hillary, should she run. Having him in position in a key state -- the Ohio of the South -- will matter both in the nomination race and in the general election in 2016.

The former president is assembling a busy national schedule of fundraising and campaigning on behalf of senatorial and gubernatorial candidates. The aim is not only to help keep the U.S. Senate in Democratic hands, but also to make grassroots contacts and win commitments in red states where Hillary could amass delegates in out-of-the-way primaries and caucuses the way then-Sen. Obama did in 2008.

For the Clintons, an Alison Lundergan Grimes candidacy is a win-win-win.

She is the 35-year-old daughter of another of Bill and Hillary’s closest friends, former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan. The Clintons have known Alison since she was a child, and the political and personal affection is real and longstanding.

If Grimes pulls the upset -- she is neck-and-neck with the unpopular McConnell in most state polls -- she’ll become a key Hillary ally in the Bluegrass State and the Senate. Just as important, Grimes could serve as an appealing national surrogate among a younger generation of women who don’t know the Clinton story.

But even if Grimes loses, the Clintons will have refreshed contacts and won points that will help them collect delegates in the nomination race in 2016.

The Grimes-Clinton partnership is of decades' standing: Jerry Lundergan, who owns a lucrative, Lexington-based catering business, was one of Bill Clinton’s first key fundraisers outside of Arkansas as early as the 1980s. But the current partnership began in 2013.

A year ago this week, Clinton was in Owensboro, Ky., about to leave town after a charity dinner. An important -- but, at the time, obscure -- guest arrived by private plane for a late-night meeting.

It was Grimes. She, her father and Clinton left after the event and met for an extended discussion of her possible run. The former president was encouraging, Jerry Lundergan later said.

At the time, California-born, Kentucky-bred actress, writer and activist Ashley Judd was seriously considering the race, and according to some sources had decided to jump in.

Judd had made her case to the revered patriarch of the party, retired Sen. Wendell Ford, who lives in Owensboro and whose charity event Clinton had come to town to headline.

Ford was mildly supportive of Judd, saying later that he told her to make her own judgment about the race, but sources said that he was worried that her movie and TV career might upset culturally conservative Kentuckians.

It's not known if Ford and Clinton ever talked about Judd or whom the Democrats should put up to run in the tough race. However, Judd eventually announced that she didn't plan to run, saying she wanted to focus on her family. Instead, Grimes -- married, from a devout Catholic family, and born to politics -- did.

Obama's Big-Time Small Ball

Howard Fineman   |   January 28, 2014   11:46 PM ET

WASHINGTON –- The polls say that President Barack Obama is at a low point, but you couldn’t tell it from the tour de force of his State of the Union speech.

He was standing at the podium, but seemed to have a spring in his step. His smile was winning; his enthusiasm for America’s future infectious.

Masking the modesty of his proposals in the energy and confidence of his presence, the president launched the pivotal year of his second term with a shrewdly relentless focus on the use of his own power to change policy and convene, shame and inspire other sectors of society.

With the exception of a few minutes on foreign policy –- the core of which was to declare an end of the era of “permanent war” –- Obama zeroed in on proposals to extend the economic recovery to all Americans, not just to Wall Street investors and CEOs.

Some were merely aspirational: “convening” meetings, “hosting” summits. Others were small tweaks in federal policy, sold on the basis that they would inspire or implore the rest of America –- Republicans in Congress or leaders in the private sector –- to go along.

Facing congressional Republicans poised to say “no” on almost every legislative front –- with the possible exception of immigration reform –- the president made a virtue of necessity by promising to use his own executive powers to raise wages, train workers and entice the private and nonprofit sectors to do their part to create jobs, use new technology and lure investors to the U.S.

“America does not stand still and neither will I,” he declared, and with his broad smile and upbeat delivery he sounded convincing.

Obama eschewed sweeping legislative or ideological proposals on big-ticket items such as tax reform, entitlements, trade or social justice.

For the most part, he avoided any invitations to confrontation with his Republican congressional adversaries, other than to almost teasingly warn them away from trying to dismantle Obamacare.

Even where he did confront the GOP, he did so on issues that lack ideological depth.

He insisted that he wanted Congress to raise the minimum wage and extend long-term unemployment benefits. But both ideas have widespread public support and are essentially pragmatic fixes long considered to be part of the American mainstream.

Obama swung for the fences in his first term, and with success: He got reelected. But he whiffed disastrously last year, his administration reeling from spying controversies, congressional confrontations and a botched rollout of Obamacare.

The result is a job-approval rating in the low-40s, the kind that can cripple a presidency by making the chief executive a political pariah.

So, as Obama laid out his 2014 plans in his State of the Union, he committed to what the major leagues call “small ball”: incremental executive branch maneuvers to aid the economy, with the aim of creating jobs and restoring the president’s standing.

In his State of the Union, he was looking to scratch out runs with singles, bunts and walks.

It’s a game plan borne of necessity, a shrewd assessment of the enemies, and the president’s own personal and political character. He is not a man who relishes confrontation.

Facing implacable opposition from Republicans on the Hill, Obama is choosing to go around them where he can. Knowing how unpopular he is among the GOP base, he will shy away from table-pounding pronouncements that would only inflame the other side.

The White House strategy for 2014 is simple enough: ignore Congress (for the most part); be busy, purposeful, detail-oriented and reasonable; and hope that a rising tide of an improving economy will lift all boats -– including the president’s own.

In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama promised to use 32 executive actions and the example-setting and convening powers of his office to drive in economic runs on behalf of working people.

The goal is a politically indispensable one: to slowly but surely pull the president’s job-approval rating out of the dismal -- and debilitating -– low-40 percent muck in which it has been mired since the fall.

The approval rating number is not just a media plaything, though it is that. It matters greatly to members of Congress -– Republicans and Democrats alike -– and to the Democrats’ shaky chances of holding onto their slim majority in the U.S. Senate.

“We had a terrible fall,” a senior administration official told me before the speech. “We had the NSA and the budget confrontations and the botched rollout of the health care website,” he said.

“What we need to do now is put one foot in front of the other and move forward, and let a stronger economy get us back on track.”

The rest of the president’s strategic reasoning has to do with his assessment of his opposition. He thinks that if he plays things cautiously now –- if he avoids giving GOP adversaries a big target -– they will self-destruct.

“You can always count on them to say something stupid,” he has told his aides.

So that was the strategy in the State of the Union: Speak grandly of relatively uncontroversial things, and hope that the GOP overplays its hand.

Small ball, but runs scored.

A Tale Of Two Chris Christies

Howard Fineman   |   January 14, 2014    5:47 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Two Chris Christies gave the State of the State address on Tuesday.

The first overflowed with weasel words, the very image of an evasive pol trying to tiptoe past a scandal about his staff’s bullying tactics. The second was an earnest, average-guy practitioner of bipartisan governing: a proud but unassuming character who could give his party a real chance to win back the White House.

The political future of the governor of New Jersey -- and perhaps the Republican Party in 2016 -- rests on which Christie ultimately defines the man.

No one, including Christie, wanted the GOP presidential nomination race to begin this early. But because the Republican field is scattered, weak and tilted far to the right, the comparatively moderate Christie was (and still is) the early frontrunner by default.

That, in turn, has transformed the still-emerging Bridgegate scandal into the unofficial launch of the 2016 race. Accordingly, the galleries at the Trenton statehouse were full and the cable network coverage was wall to wall.

In the first portion of his speech, Questionable Christie was on display. He was careful not to repeat his prior assertions that he had known nothing about the deliberate clogging of traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge as a form of retribution for a local Democratic mayor who refused to play ball.

He used the old Nixonian formulations and carefully chosen legal escape hatches. “Mistakes were clearly made,” he said. He was “ultimately” responsible for those mistakes -- a distant form of blame acceptance. The mistakes were anomalies that did not define him. He and his administration would cooperate with all “appropriate” inquiries.

The word “appropriate” was a loophole as large as a six-lane toll plaza. Look for lots of non-cooperation and taking of the Fifth Amendment by his aides.

Pretty much as soon as Christie finished the scandal non-discussion, the cable networks cut away for commentary and commercials. That was too bad, because the second Chris Christie is just as important as the first.

This Christie is utterly conversant with -- and immersed in -- the details of local and state government, and seems both to relish and to find nobility in the prosaic acts of doing things that matter. He has evidently bullied and threatened many politicians and other officials in his state, including many Democrats. But he has also worked with many Democrats on budget, spending, education and other issues in a way that can only be described as can-do conservatism.

On Tuesday, he spoke with true concern about the embarrassing plight of Newark and Camden, two crime-ridden and educationally bereft cities in which new school superintendents have won praise for their efforts.

He talked movingly about the wisdom of combining drug rehab programs with job training, citing as a model a former addict who saw jail at 16 and went on to pass the bar and become a lawyer.

He left the podium to embrace the man, Craig Hanlon, in an enveloping bear hug of the kind that only a man of Christie’s size could produce. Yes, it was theater; it looked great on TV. Because Christie comes across as an unvarnished guy, it seemed very moving, too.

Christie talked about the need to dial back on state pensions and warned that the state could not serve a new generation unless it did. But at least in this speech, his tone was plain and practical, not accusatory or ideological.

Indeed, there was no discussion of hot-button social issues, no attacks on Obamacare, no disparagement of Washington, no philosophizing.

Some conservative analysts think that the lack of such leaves Christie defenseless. “He has no armor of ideology to protect him,” said conservative author and political consultant Craig Shirley.

But for many voters, that is what makes the New Jersey governor appealing.

Unless his real ideology turns out to be that he will try to destroy anyone in his way, even if that means tying up the GW Bridge.

Christie Is No Nixon, And That's Not Necessarily A Compliment

Howard Fineman   |   January 9, 2014    5:06 PM ET

NEW YORK -- The meme of the moment is that “Bridgegate” has turned Gov. Chris Christie into the New Jersey equivalent of Richard Nixon.

On one level, it is an insult to Christie. After all, the Republican governor directly, repeatedly and vehemently professed his innocence in front of the whole world and the New Jersey press corps on Thursday.

Why would he lie openly when he knows that a pack of investigators with subpoena power and Democratic leanings are on his trail? By that logic, he must be telling the truth, and his ballsy decision to take it head on will vindicate him and might save his 2016 presidential chances, however damaged the goods.

Or he is trimming the truth, at least a little, doing what they called back in the Nixon days a “modified limited hangout”? If that is what he's up to, then the comparison to Nixon is an insult -- to Nixon.

The late president never would have done what Christie just did, which was to jettison top aides -- who almost certainly know enough to ruin him -- and then hold a two-hour press conference full of loose ends, contradictions and miles of rope for his enemies.

There was a certain fiendish grandeur to Nixon’s nearly two-year-long, and initially successful, effort to stonewall the Watergate scandal. By the end, voters hated him with a Shakespearean fury. He left a desperate criminal, but of large dimension and consequence.

He made you want to cry for America. Christie makes you want to laugh at New Jersey.

In two hours of phony self-flagellation, mock remorse and ludicrous declarations of his lack of knowledge of the goings-on inside his own administration, Christie managed to shrink himself from a larger-than-life populist bully to a nattering pleader for mercy who had suddenly decided to play the earnest seeker of truth. He came off as a two-bit pol leading a gang that couldn’t shoot straight on a fast ride across the George Washington Bridge to oblivion.

Maybe Christie did not know in advance that the bogus “traffic study” in Fort Lee was designed by his aides as a childish, but dangerous, act of retribution against the town’s Democratic mayor. Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican but no friend of the incumbent, vouched Thursday for Christie’s basic honesty, though he questioned the culture of almost comically petty retribution that Christie had created in his camp.

But a long line of maliciously political moves undercuts the governor's claim that he was shocked and saddened by the tone of the “traffic study” emails among various officials and the actions they describe.

As Thursday's press conference wore on, Christie began to get tangled in his own contradictions. He managed to be both woebegone and a blowhard.

For all he knew, there might actually be a legitimate “traffic study,” he said -- a notion completely rebutted by the emails he said had shocked him.

He knew nothing about the "screw Fort Lee" plan until Tuesday morning -- but he never wondered why two of his top allies in December quit the agency that ran the “traffic study,” which by then was controversial and much covered in the local press.

He was sad but not angry -- though he might get angry at any moment, he said. But he didn’t describe what else he thought he might learn that would then make him go off like a hand grenade, as he is wont to do.

He said that he wanted to join with various investigations (at last count, there were three: state, regional and federal) to find out the whole story. But he also said that he hadn’t talked in recent days with the aide who he implied was most responsible for the Fort Lee caper.

They should all “answer questions” from investigators, he said. But everyone in the press room and watching on TV knew that didn’t mean they should answer all questions about Christie’s Trenton.

He uttered more lame, tweetable lines than a posse of "Daily Show" writers could concoct: that he wasn’t a bully or a micro-manager, that he was blindsided, that he was humiliated, that he had stayed up late worrying, that he was “out of the traffic study business,” that he had “absolutely nothing to hide,” that of course as a former prosecutor he would never tamper with a witness.

Good to know.

Of course, he would never have held this press conference had not those emails been leaked.

Many Democrats in New Jersey -- and most of the national media, let’s face it -- have been laying down for Christie for months, if not years. Now they've been embarrassed into outrage, or they're free to express the outrage they always had but had stifled out of fear. Now a U.S. attorney in New Jersey with close ties to a Democrat whom Christie’s crew had humiliated (the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg) has launched a Bridgegate investigation that he had been leery of initiating.

Christie came this close to dodging the whole thing and taking the next step on the national stage unencumbered. He is the 2014 chair of the Republican Governors Association and was planning to install at the RGA one of the aides he just fired.

The administration of the former prosecutor is about to be infested with prosecutors.

So maybe Christie knew nothing. Maybe none of the aides he has dumped told him anything about Fort Lee or any other similar acts of retribution. Maybe Christie really does want to get to the bottom of everything and let the chips fall where they may. Maybe he really is deeply remorseful and genuinely ashamed of it all.

But even if he is no Nixon, there is one element of the Old Man's saga that Christie needs to study: It’s not the crime, if there even was one; it’s the cover-up that reaches all the way to the top of the chain.

If there is not a cover-up, Christie survives to run for president in 2016. But if there is, he’ll be off the national stage faster than you can say, “I am not a crook.”

Unemployed Americans Are Freezing In The Vortex Of Washington Politics

Howard Fineman   |   January 8, 2014    1:34 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- To save on heating costs, Katherine Hackett of Moodus, Conn., sets her thermostat at 58 degrees and wears a hat and coat in the house. The mother of two military veterans, one who served in Afghanistan, she scrimps on food week by week.

Hackett was in the East Room of the White House Tuesday, beside President Barack Obama, as a representative and a symbol of the more than 1.3 million long-term jobless who have run out of unemployment benefits.

Will she get the money she needs to tide her over as she continues to search for work?

That's far from clear. It’s going to take a change of weather in Congress, where a polar vortex of cynicism, mistrust and hyper-partisanship has frozen compassion and blinded common sense.

If Obama, Democrats and Republicans in Congress can fashion a deal to extend long-term unemployment benefits, the result could presage a welcome -- and surprising -- period of cooperation. For now, though, everyone assumes the worst about everyone else’s motives, and election-year tactical thinking remains the default setting.

Take the issue of whether an extension of benefits needs a budgetary “pay for” -- that is, an equivalent amount of spending cuts (or revenue increases) specifically designated to pay for the benefits. Republicans are demanding just such a pay-for and in the form of spending cuts. Democrats’ refusal, so far, to formally offer any pay-for ideas is evidence, Republicans say, that the president and his party are just looking for a 2014 campaign issue -- and not a real deal on benefits.

“It’s going to be like this all year,” said a top GOP leadership aide in the Senate. “Democrats will be putting up legislation designed to fail.

“The UI [unemployment insurance] vote is a perfect example,” the aide said. “Pay for it, and it passes right away with a lot of bipartisan support. But they don’t even try.

“This is the year of bills designed to fail so that the HuffPost and others will have headlines reading, 'Republicans Block XX ...'”

Democrats counter that Republicans are being disingenuous and hypocritical, feigning concern for the unemployed even though their top priority is to assuage their anti-government tea party base. The Democrats cite history to make their case: President George W. Bush, who claimed to be a “compassionate conservative,” didn’t ask for pay-fors when he successfully sought emergency extended benefits in late 2002. And earlier in the Obama years, budget deals took extended benefits into account on a larger balance sheet, but didn't provide a separate cut of the kind the GOP is demanding now.

Acknowledging as much, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argues that the federal debt and deficit are now a more serious problem.

There's a chance -- faint for now -- that the combatants will back themselves into a benefits deal by posturing for political advantage: Democrats want to appear reasonable on the pay-for issue; Republicans don't want to seem cruel in the middle of winter.

Senate Democrats have offered to consider some pay-fors. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, for example, suggested that extended benefits could be tied to ending tax giveaways to companies that "ship jobs overseas." But he has to know that a tax increase is a non-starter.

Even less seriously, McConnell proposed offsetting the new spending by delaying or repealing the Obamacare individual mandate.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried out for the unaccustomed role of Solomon, briefly.

"Let me start by saying that I am opposed to offsetting the cost of emergency unemployment benefits. The five times President Bush extended emergency unemployment insurance, we never offset the cost. And we should not offset it now, when there is still only one job available for every three people seeking work," said Reid. "That said, Democrats are not unreasonable. We are willing to discuss reasonable ways to pay for a long-term extension of emergency benefits."

But then he went back on offense: "If Republicans are so interested in paying for this measure, they should propose a reasonable way to do so -- one that doesn’t attack the Affordable Care Act or punish American children. They should propose an offset that might actually pass. Instead they proposed a string of political amendments, each more doomed to failure than the last.

Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), have upped the ante by adding pet GOP ideas -- such as approval of the Keystone XL pipeline or delays in Obamacare -- to the unemployment bill.

Democrats “need to show a new openness to GOP bills that actually create jobs,” said a Boehner aide. “And to this point, they have shown no sign of doing that.”

As for the Democrats, they privately express confidence that they have the upper hand on the politics of unemployment benefits, no matter what the GOP does and no matter whether the bill ever passes.

“We have the issue,” said a Democratic consultant advising several 2014 Senate races. “If the Republicans agree, great. That seems unlikely. But either way, unemployment matters to our members -- and our voters.”

In other words, Katherine Hackett should keep the thermostat right where it is, at least for now.

This Pope Disrupts Old Ways With Social Media Savvy

Howard Fineman   |   December 31, 2013    5:01 PM ET

ROME -- On the cusp of the New Year 2014, I went to St. Peter’s Square to see and hear perhaps the only person in the world -- not counting Justin Bieber, Rihanna or the boys in One Direction -- able to draw an eager outdoor crowd of 100,000 on a chilly, drizzly, gray December afternoon.

It was Pope Francis’ first Christmas Day speech to the city and the world, and what I witnessed was a leader aware that he lives in an era of rampant digital disruption.

Here was a media-friendly new guy trying to reform and revivify an old structure of social (in this case, religious) authority by using the same communications media that threaten to “disrupt” not only the Roman Catholic Church, but every other traditional credentialing, validating or sanctifying institution on the planet.

How does a church founded on exclusive (and male) control of access to the Sacraments use the wild, any-to-any open architecture of the Internet to bolster its credibility?

Begin with an unassuming man who knows how to project that very quality and who grasps the paradoxically intimate, personal style demanded of a public figure today.

Framed by the most august of settings -- the crimson-draped balcony of St. Peter’s -- Francis spoke in warm and informal tones, as though your own devout, but worldly, favorite uncle had somehow won the pontifical lottery. Along the streets leading up to the square, vendors sold buttons and refrigerator magnets of Francis giving the thumbs-up.

Second, let the pope speak in simple terms and basic concepts -- what one seminarian who listened to him in the square called “radical simplicity.” No liberal on doctrine, Francis nevertheless tends to speak as if he were addressing the poor parishioners to whom he used to minister in Argentina, emphasizing love for the downtrodden, for economic justice, for pure faith in the redeeming power of Jesus.

Speaking to the adoring and the merely curious on Christmas Day, the 77-year-old Jesuit -- the first pope from his order and the first from the New World -- ad-libbed an invitation to “even nonbelievers” to join in the prayer for peace.

The comment rocketed around the world on the wires, websites and Twitter feeds. The Vatican’s English translation, available later, paved over the line with theologically safer language, quoting the pontiff as having reached out to “the followers of different religious confessions.”

It was a classic media-savvy move: going off-script to highlight the news Francis wished to make. Despite his age, he wants to tell the world that he is a new kind of media pope, who knows how to feed journalists and is also at home with the mechanics of social media, which the Vatican is now beginning to use in earnest.

The pope has a long way to go to reach the Katy Perry-Justin Bieber level. He has just 3.5 million Twitter followers; they have 49 million and 48 million, respectively. He has a mere 463,000 Facebook "likes" and only 16,000 followers on Instagram (and another 20,000 followers on a fake Francis account). On the other hand, he has only been pope since March.

The Vatican is actually far behind other places in the vast domain of the 1.2-billion-member church. Priests, parishes and orders, especially in the United States, have long since adopted aggressive new-media strategies.

The late arrival of the papacy to social media is an anomaly in the history of Christianity. The Catholic Church has always used the sales tools of its day. The earliest Christians carved community-building symbols on walls and streets. The word “icon” for most of its history was associated with pre-Reformation Christianity, not with computer screens. And popes through the ages employed the best artists to fashion masterpieces that would instill a sense of awe and devotion in the hearts of the public.

“I’m glad that the pope is using every communications means he can, and it’s about time,” said Monsignor Anthony Randazzo, the deacon of a seminary in Brisbane, Australia. He was in the square on Christmas Day with a group of his seminarians.

“Francis' message of radical simplicity is perfect for the age of social media," Randazzo said. "He isn’t just offering the message of Christ. He is doing what Christ himself did, which was to take the message to the marketplace, to where the people are.”

True, though there are risks.

There is no way to prevent all the attacks and insults that might attach themselves to papal social media; the threat of unholy hacks is real as well. In the comment section for one Instagram picture of Francis comforting a young boy, a critic wrote, "Poor, innocent boy. He will soon find hell is better." It's not clear how much tolerance the Vatican will have for this kind of thing -- or worse -- especially given that the Catholic Church is not known as an advocate of free and untrammeled speech.

Francis is also raising hopes that must be translated into results on the ground. He made news by giving a major interview to the atheist founder of La Repubblica, a leading left-center newspaper (and Huffington Post partner). It was another savvy move, yet the church will be measured not just by his words but by resources spent, and spent wisely, on poverty around the world.

The interview was one of several moves likely to generate a backlash from conservatives in the church. Francis will have to prove as skillful at the inside game as he has been so far at the outside one.

It all sounds a little familiar to a visiting American: a media-savvy outsider comes to town intent on using his cutting-edge communications skills to turn the capital upside down, only to stumble more than once over the harsh realities of his opponents' power and a general fear of change.

Still, President Barack Obama had to run for reelection. Pope Francis can have his job for as long as he likes and lives.

We Broke Iraq And We're Still Paying For The Damage

Howard Fineman   |   December 17, 2013    8:03 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- In 2002, during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a warning to President George W. Bush about launching a war there. “Once you break it," he said, “you’re going to own it.”

Powell was right.

We broke Iraq when we began dropping "daisy cutter" bombs more than a decade ago. And while we don’t “own” Iraq now, we pay a lot of rent in exchange for our position as its ally, protector and arms supplier. After the Iraqis themselves, we remain the key player in determining that country’s fate.

Today, Iraq's future is in doubt. Renewed sectarian violence and rising attacks from al-Qaeda and its affiliates are threatening to tear a barely reassembled Iraq into pieces.

“The situation is fragile,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke to The Huffington Post anonymously so that he could give frank assessments. “Al-Qaeda is now a very serious threat, and the [Iraqi] government needs to be more active in reaching out to all groups.

“Iraq remains important, a key to the region,” he said. “It is certainly not a 'failed state,' but there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Not that we haven’t invested heavily -- tragically -- for what most Americans regard as a mistake that did not make us any safer.

The Iraq War was one of the longest, most expensive and controversial in our history. It cost the lives of some 4,500 Americans, at least 135,000 Iraqis (some estimates range significantly higher) and, over the long term, more than $2 trillion to drive Saddam Hussein from power and use military means to “stand up” a replacement.

For most Americans, Iraq disappeared from sight and mind once the last U.S. combat troops left two years ago this month. The Gallup Poll has stopped regularly asking about it. President Barack Obama rarely speaks of it. The visit last month of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki caused barely a ripple in the current of cable news.

Yet in some ways, Iraq is more important than ever. If it falls apart -- if it becomes the al-Qaeda global base it never was before (Dick Cheney’s dark fantasies of 2002 notwithstanding) -- the result could dash hopes for a semblance of peace and stability in an oil-rich region stretching from Turkey to the Arabian Sea.

We aren’t stuck in Iraq anymore. But we are stuck with Iraq.

That means, among other things, executing an all-too-familiar, shopworn power move: pushing “our” autocratic strongman toward democracy (usually by threatening to withhold arms), but not leaning so hard that his government and society collapse.

“We support additional arms for Iraq,” the State Department official said. Just not all of them right away.

When Maliki came to Washington last month with a military hardware list a mile long, he got the good cop/bad cop treatment from President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and key foreign policy and defense leaders on Capitol Hill.

Biden, the administration's designated lead player on Iraq, supports the full roster of arms sales, but in a scathing letter to Obama before Maliki’s arrival, a bipartisan group of Senate leaders, including Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), decried the violence and repression they said had resulted from Maliki’s rule. The president played Solomon in the middle.

So, yes, Maliki could buy (or be given money to buy) more Hellfire missiles, and yes, the previously approved sale of F-16s would go forward, but no, he could not -- for now -- get what he really wanted, which was a brace of Boeing-made Apache attack helicopters. (Biden supports selling the helicopters to Maliki.)

Apaches, hovering battleships bristling with ammo, were and remain a potent symbol of counter-terrorism military muscle. Iraq hired as its first postwar paid lobbyists in Washington the Podesta Group, which, perhaps not coincidentally, has done work for Boeing and is known for its ties to the Obama administration.

The Iraqis are also hedging their bets (and strengthening their bargaining position) by talking to the Russians about the purchase of Russian helicopter gunships.

What does Iraq have to do to get the Apaches (which the country doesn't yet have the military sophistication to use anyway)?

Simple. Iraq must master, or at least contain, religious and ethnic conflicts that have raged in the Middle East for millennia. After all, if the country can’t do that, no one else can -- and someone must.

Those conflicts have flared into the worst violence Iraq has seen since 2008, pitting the Shia-led government and its sectarian allies against Sunni insurgents and Kurdish separatists.

According to Obama administration officials and congressional aides, the key is to guarantee Sunnis -- once the ruling faction -- a governing role strong enough to counter the appeal of a Sunni-led jihadist group called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ("Al-Sham" refers to the Levant.)

But the jihadists will do what they can to disrupt the fact and the message of democracy. Many ISIS recruits come from neighboring Syria, where they are fighting the Shia-backed government of President Bashar Assad, and are dedicated to theocratic rule.

The Obama administration sees ISIS as the biggest current threat to stability. It’s a bitter irony, and yet another example of the unintended consequences that stem from any action in the Middle East: Heading to war, the Bush administration was dead wrong when it said al-Qaeda was in Iraq; after the war, a new form of al-Qaeda is a grave threat, according to the Obama administration.

The civil war in Syria is also yanking Iraq back into military calculations for the region: The U.S. needs Maliki's help in avoiding an even bigger explosion in the Levant.

U.S. officials have complained that Iraq is allowing Iran to use Iraqi air space to deliver supplies to the Assad regime. Iraq has complained to Iran half-heartedly, but doesn't have the aviation wherewithal to stop the flights, even assuming that it wanted to.

Perhaps of greater concern, according to U.S. officials, is that the Syrian war has become a magnet drawing Sunni and Shia fighters from Iraq into the conflict across the border. U.S. officials say there is no evidence that the Iraqi government is encouraging the migration. But even if it tried to stop the flow, it couldn't because Iraq's control of its own borders is so flimsy.

U.S. officials told the visiting Maliki that they wanted to see evidence of further political outreach to Sunnis and Kurds at home. Maliki denied, in public and private, that he favored the Shia or that his government was excluding other groups, but since returning to Iraq, he has made a number of gestures -- including one toward better relations with Turkey -- that U.S. officials say they find encouraging.

The Obama administration is hoping -- counting on -- elections in Iraq next spring to create a stable climate. Officials see a favorable straw in the whirlwind: Maliki’s own party lost ground in regional elections earlier this year. That raised hopes for a spirited national election next April 30.

Iraq's problem isn’t elections per se; the country is actually quite good at conducting them. It’s the social and economic fabric that surrounds politics. Though the Iraqi economy is growing, the benefits are distorted by corruption, mismanagement and regional antagonisms.

America's own efforts at rebuilding the country have produced a mixed record at best. An inspector general’s report earlier this year found that more than $8 billion of the $60 billion the U.S. had spent on civilian “reconstruction” in Iraq since 2003 had been flat-out wasted, and that much of the rest of the work was of dubious value or long-term benefit.

Meanwhile, Iraq can’t fully protect or even police its own borders or air space.

“The problem is that the country was so wrecked and destroyed by the war,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq specialist at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. “The infrastructure isn’t there.”

After spending hundreds of billions of dollars on war and reconstruction, the U.S. government is dialing back its support, which this year amounts to perhaps $3 billion, including more than a billion to support diplomatic security and a military mission led by a three-star general.

Iraq’s government has a legislatively approved budget, but the numbers are an election-year fantasy, Knights said. It assumes a much higher rate of production and sale of oil than is technically possible, he said.

Still, Iraq is selling ever-greater percentages of the oil it does produce to China, which is pouring drilling technology and capital investment into areas that American firms have left or not bid on.

Which means, in the long run, that China may end up “owning” Iraq, at least financially, and without having had to fight a war to do so.

'Humbler' Obama Recalls Example Set By Mandela

Howard Fineman   |   December 5, 2013    7:00 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- In mid-afternoon, a somber, reflective Barack Obama sat on a stage here with MSNBC's Chris Matthews, talking about the limits of the presidency as he struggles to “push the boulder up the hill.” Two hours later, Obama was back in the White House, praising the memory of a man who inspired him to enter politics years ago -- and who moved whole mountains.

The death of Nelson Mandela at 95 comes at a time when the once-young American whom Mandela inspired has grown ruefully aware of the limits of what he can do and is searching for the restorative power of first principles of the kind that Mandela championed all his life: justice; mutual human sympathy; a colorblind, not blinded, world.

“I can’t fully imagine my own life without thinking of the example of Nelson Mandela,” a saddened Obama said in the briefing room Thursday. The president recalled that his first political act as a college student was to protest South African apartheid -- the evil against which Mandela for decades had literally staked his own life.

It’s an “example” not only for the youthful Obama, but for the now-beleaguered president, at his lowest point in the polls, facing the ennui of a second term and a botched health care rollout.

“The interesting thing about having been president now for five years,” he told Matthews on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” “is that it makes you humbler -- as opposed to cockier -- about what an individual can do.

“You recognize that you are just part of the sweep of history. And your job is really to push the boulder up the hill a little bit before someone else pushes it up a little further. The task never stops of perfecting our union."

The source of strength for any president, Obama said, was to stay “close to the people.”

“The American people are good and decent,” he told Matthews. “And yes, sometimes we get very divided ... As long as any president stays close to the people, I think they’re going to do all right.”

If the president needed a reminder of how to stay the course -- and stay close to the people -- the story of Mandela provided it for him.

Dick Cheney Thrust Into 'King Lear'

Howard Fineman   |   November 18, 2013    6:43 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Political dramas in the nation's capital usually partake more of "Scandal" or "Saturday Night Live" than of Shakespeare, but we may need the Bard's unrivaled eye for profound family discord to tell the full story of the Cheneys right now.

There are more than a few similarities between former Vice President Dick Cheney and King Lear: old men obsessed with the loss of power, attempting to pass their kingdoms on to ambitious daughters, each served by a loyal Fool for whom he cared to a pitiable degree. Cheney's even had the (White House) court jester's name of "Scooter."

Dick and Lear both are known for erratic behavior as they weather the storms of life. Lear rashly calls the French nobles to his court and ends up wandering in rags on a blasted heath. Cheney shot a friend in the face while hunting and later wreaked havoc on political decorum, calling the current president a "liar."

Each man is surrounded by a raging sea of three women. Lear's wife is gone, but he has his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Dick has wife Lynne and daughters Liz and Mary -- each with her own politics, motives and agenda.

Lear offers to divide his kingdom into three parts if each of his three daughters will testify to her love for him. The false-hearted Regan and Goneril -- spin doctors of their time -- clench their teeth and agree in syrupy, phony language. Honest Cordelia stubbornly refuses to exchange love for money and is banished, and eventually dies in his arms.

So who is who now? It's complicated. I know the Cheneys some, and it is clear to me that Dick Cheney wants to support the careers and lives of both his daughters and dares not judge one over the other. His desire to help both has set them on paths at odds with each other -- just as the daughters of Lear ended up at each other's throats.

Cheney, otherwise a straight-line conservative, has been notably benign in his comments on gay marriage, for the obvious reason that his second daughter, Mary, is a longtime out-of-the-closet lesbian who is married to a woman with whom she has a family. Mary has a consulting company and works on political outreach to gay and lesbian voters.

At the same time, Dick has plunged neck-deep into next year's Wyoming Republican Senate primary, riding ideological and rhetorical shotgun for his older daughter, Liz. She has spent most of her life in the Washington, D.C., area, but is now running as a tea party outsider. The more harshly conservative his tone is the better for winning Wyoming voters -- at least they both seem to think that is the case.

Lynne, the mother and wife, is as tough and remorseless as her daughters. She recently confronted and castigated former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) for his failure to support Liz in his home state. Then she denied the incident ever happened, which Simpson called a "bald-faced lie."

Like Lear, Dick Cheney seems destined to watch his family torn apart by his daughters' ambitions and beliefs -- and his own hubris. He claimed recently that he was too old for more politics -- that it was time for a new generation to take over -- but this one last foray could end badly, even if he doesn't end up on a heath in rags.

Why Democrats Should Hope For More Ted Cruz

Howard Fineman   |   November 6, 2013    3:54 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- No, Obamacare didn’t almost cost Terry McAuliffe his narrow gubernatorial victory in Virginia. But dodging that bullet shouldn’t be much comfort to other Democrats.

For one, it’s not clear that implementation of the Affordable Care Act is going to improve or that, even if it does, the law will become more popular. Plus, McAuliffe was saved by two factors that Democrats won’t necessarily be able to repeat elsewhere in 2014: a monumental cash advantage and a local electorate deeply affected by a federal government shutdown.

So the lesson of Virginia is obvious: What the Democrats really need is another Ted Cruz-led crisis.

First-wave analysis of the closer-than-expected Virginia result accepted the explanation -- rising distaste for Obamacare -- put forward by the losing Republican, Ken Cuccinelli. And it is true that candidate McAuliffe took no chances when it came to the controversial, complex program. He mentioned it only obliquely, focusing just on the expansion of Medicaid the law makes possible. Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden mentioned it at all when they campaigned in Virginia in the final hours.

But a close look at Tuesday's exit polls in Virginia, as well as those in New Jersey, show that the health care issue was essentially a wash.

Voters in both states were significantly split on the question of whether they supported or opposed the law. In Virginia, it was 46 percent for to 53 percent against; in New Jersey it was 48 percent for to 50 percent against.

Virginia voters who named health care as their number one concern leaned somewhat for the Republican candidate -- 49 percent voted for Cuccinelli and 45 percent voted for McAuliffe. But 11 percent of those who said they oppose the law still voted for the Democrat.

McAuliffe, one of the leading fundraisers and bundlers in the modern history of the Democratic Party, was helped in part by an almost 2-1 cash advantage that translated to bigger ad buys across the state and allowed him to carpet-bomb the Washington media market.

Those focused TV attacks on Cuccinelli’s ultra-conservative positions on abortion, gay rights and science left the Democrat, by default, as the “moderate” in the race. Among the 44 percent of Virginia voters who called themselves moderates, McAuliffe won decisively, 56 percent to 34 percent. (Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey won moderates by a 61-37 percent margin.)

But the biggest factor in Virginia was the government shutdown in October, engineered by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. All of Virginia -- not just the D.C. suburbs -- is heavily dependent on federal spending, both in terms of direct employment and government contractors for everything from the military to medical research.

One-third of voters in Virginia said that someone in their household had been “affected” by the shutdown. And those voters -- more than 700,000 of them -- went for McAuliffe over Cuccinelli by a margin of 56 to 37 percent.

That’s McAuliffe’s victory right there.

Obamacare isn’t popular, and it has flaws and drawbacks that Cruz, among others, wants to highlight and exploit. But shutting down the government to make that point ended up costing the Republicans Virginia.

Will Cruz try it again? Democrats have to hope so.