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Hillary Clinton Grabs Early Lead In The World Primary

Howard Fineman   |   May 29, 2015   12:00 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- This April, London was in the grip of a ferocious campaign for Parliament. But on the morning of April 13, neither Conservative David Cameron nor Labourite Ed Miliband led the front pages of the U.K.'s national newspapers. The big news that day was Hillary Clinton, announcing (to no one’s surprise) that she was running for president of the United States.

And so far, she seems to be winning the race overseas.

A recent YouGov poll found that 61 percent of Britons and 59 percent of Germans have a positive opinion of Clinton, while just 20 percent and 24 percent, respectively, see her in a negative light. Fifty percent of Britons and 51 percent of Germans think it would be good for the world if she were elected president.

The former secretary of state is also a hit elsewhere around the world. In Canada, admirers stood in line for nearly 20 hours last year for signed copies of her book. Her speaking fees may be controversial in the U.S., but she spoke to sold-out crowds Up North who were happy to pay.

A Huffington Post examination of Clinton's reputation -- conducted by the HuffPost editions in the U.K., Canada, India, France, Italy, Germany and Greece -- found that Clinton is both widely known and well-regarded for her life story: a feminist, wife and mother with a decades-long career as a public figure in U.S. politics and global foundation work.

Interviews and media reports in those countries produce a portrait of an experienced, durable, almost obsessively well-traveled member of the U.S. establishment, toughened by hard personal times -- a solid, if not glamorous, figure.

To officials and voters alike in those countries, the possibility of a Clinton presidency doesn't suggest radical policy changes. Rather, they see in Clinton a steady hand and a social inspiration.

She was a "proactive Secretary of State," said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German who is vice president of the European Parliament, "very important experience, especially in the age of globalization and in times of major geopolitical shifts." Her "left-leaning" policies are similar to President Barack Obama's, he said, "but as the first woman in the highest office in the U.S. she would be a great inspiration for women and girls all over the world."

In Spain, Greece, Italy and elsewhere, the move has been toward “scrap-heaping” the aging political classes, said Lia Quartapelle, a younger member of the Italian Parliament. But that impulse doesn’t apply to the 67-year-old Clinton, she said.

“Hillary is considered an extremely experienced politician,” Quartapelle said. “Her candidacy might prove to be a reassuring element for a country that still shows some last signs of crisis. Her candidacy could count on this image of grandmother-in-chief.”

Clinton is admired -- or at least respected -- for her decades of world travel as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state. But officials and regular citizens alike were vague at best, suspicious at worst, when asked to judge her accomplishments and strategic vision as secretary of state.

“As secretary of state, Hillary didn’t make any particular impression in Italy, neither positive nor negative,” said Guido Moltedo, an Italian journalist and essayist. “Her stature was neither heightened nor diminished.”

In America, much of the media and all of her enemies focus on the cash that the nonprofit Clinton Foundation has raised and on the emails that she has (or has not) disclosed. They muse on whether she is too suffocatingly familiar an establishment figure to satisfy the American yen for “change.” They wonder about the benefits and risks of her long, sometimes tumultuous marriage to Bill Clinton.

But the various HuffPost sites found that the same life history that makes her vulnerable at home renders her a credible, popular and even reassuring figure abroad.

Voters around the world may not know the details of Clinton’s State Department emails, but they know -- and remain surprisingly moved by -- the sordid Monica Lewinsky saga of nearly two decades ago. While U.S. feminists have criticized her for standing by her man, that sentiment doesn't seem to be widely shared elsewhere. Indeed, Clinton is more likely to be praised for moving beyond the Lewinsky years.

“Hillary Clinton has a rather favorable image in France based on how she dealt with the Lewinsky scandal,” said HuffPost France’s Maxime Bourdeau, as well as "how she bounced back by following her own political career.” That whole episode, he said, “was seen here as a private matter that should never have become as huge as it did in the U.S.”

In Italy, according to Moltedo, “Italian women recognize that ... she faced down a decidedly complicated situation with courage and maturity.”

Clinton's familiarity with and around the globe may be welcomed in a world weary of surprises from presidents who were either disastrously ignorant (George W. Bush) or precariously naïve (Obama).

Just as Britons readily offer an opinion of her, she knows the U.K. well. Clinton campaign advisers were key players in those recent elections, and she is close to the Milibands.

India is another place where Clinton looks good.

“Hillary Clinton has a positive image in India, mainly because of her engagement with the region,” said HuffPost India’s Anirvan Ghosh. “She is perceived as having a good understanding of the issues facing South Asia.”

A top Clinton adviser, the late Richard Holbrooke, was deeply involved in the region, and the Clinton Foundation's work gives her a different insight into India’s grassroots problems. As a result, Ghosh thinks that a President Hillary Clinton would “continue the recent momentum and push for greater cooperation” with India.

Her familiarity with other areas of the world is a relief to international policymakers. “Hillary has always paid close attention to trans-Atlantic relationships,” said Moltedo. “The same cannot be said for her Republican adversaries.”

Marietta Giannakou, a former member of the European Parliament from Greece, sees Clinton as part of the team that has been moving the U.S. away from Bush’s my-way-or-the-highway approach. Or as Giannakou put it, the Obama administration’s “departure from a less monolithic and unilateral stance towards a more discursive and multilateral approach to global and regional issues.”

Views of Clinton appear to be tempered by views of the U.S. more broadly -- not surprising for an establishment figure.

“Nobody can credibly say whether or not the world and the United States in particular would benefit from another eventual President Clinton,” said Massimo Teodori, an Italian historian, politician and writer. “One thing is for sure: The next president will have to completely redesign the United States’ role in a multipolar world. No one wants us to return to the use of force and 'imperial' arrogance that we’ve sometimes seen come into play during the 20 years following the end of the Cold War.”

A certain degree of skepticism likewise arises in conversations with Greeks. Young professionals and students there seem divided between personal respect for Clinton’s toughness and doubts about her as a politician.

“She is a dynamic woman who seems unstoppable,” said Victoria Alexiou, an architect and interior designer. “But on the other hand, she is a Machiavellist who will do anything to get what she wants. She was keen on the imperialist policies [of the past presidents].”

Maria Chatzianagnostou, a student at the University of Athens, was more upbeat.

“Hillary Clinton is a strong woman who can sustain a political career,” she said. “She managed to comply with the demanding duties of her position. Her election could be a good thing.”

And observers on the left, whether in Athens or Berlin, see one other chief virtue in Clinton: the electoral power to keep the other side out of the the White House.

"All that will happen is that she will be the first woman to occupy the office," said Katja Kipping, chairperson of the Left Party in the Bundestag, "and that, luckily, no Republican will win the election."

Christoph Asche contributed reporting from Munich, Giulia Belardelli from Rome, Maxime Bourdeau from Paris, Anirvan Ghosh from New Delhi, Jennifer MacMillan from Toronto, Marialena Perpiraki from Athens and Ned Simons from London.

Hillary Clinton Is Pitching Herself To Millennials

Howard Fineman   |   May 19, 2015    7:33 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Is Hillary Clinton actually moving left, and if so, why?

The answer is yes, though not on every topic. And the reason is to push young voters' turnout and grassroots organizing enthusiasm as close as possible to the levels that President Barack Obama enjoyed in 2008.

“After two terms of President Obama, it won’t be easy, but our challenge is to again excite the passion of the youngest voters,” Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta told fellow Georgetown Law Center alums at a luncheon last week.

The campaign aims to fire up millennials with both a tailored approach to the issues and innovative use of technology. For the latter, the team recently brought aboard a former high-ranking Google manager to push new initiatives in social media and big data-guided outreach.

As for issues, Clinton advisers and Democrats close the candidate say she will focus on matters of particular appeal to those voters ages 18 to 33. The idea is that she will go strongly to the left on social issues, move somewhat less left on economic issues, and remain a centrist on foreign policy, military affairs and terrorism.

The target areas include climate change and other global environmental concerns, and social issues broadly defined -- including support for same-sex marriage; a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants; and criminal justice reforms such as changing harsh sentencing rules, reducing the current reliance on incarceration and opposing "militarization" of local police forces.

Clinton also plans to take a measured, big-picture approach to dealing with the overbearing influence of corporate wealth and the resulting public cynicism. She will advocate a higher minimum wage and support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. But she's not about to become an all-out, rail-against-the-banks populist in the manner of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). And as she did this week, Clinton will talk up the role of small business and innovation.

Especially on climate and social issues, the calculation is that the entire electorate has rapidly moved left, led by the youngest voters, whose views on the full range of these topics is starkly more liberal than those of the oldest voters. It’s become almost too easy to ridicule Republicans speaking to young audiences as “out of the mainstream.”

“On climate change, some of the Republicans remind me of Alfred E. Neuman,” said Podesta last week. “What, me worry?”

Economics are a closer question among millennials. Their distrust of big-government solutions is robust; their doubts about the efficacy of programs such as Social Security is deep. They believe in entrepreneurship, if for no other reason than that the old pyramid of lifetime hiring is gone.

So far, Hillary Clinton has avoided taking firm stands on the Keystone XL pipeline or the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. If and when she is forced to do so, she’ll flat-out reject the former, one adviser predicts, and look for less-than-sweepingly ideological reasons to temporarily oppose the latter.

If the goal is to instill passion in millennials, however, there is little reason to dwell on foreign policy, or so it seems. A recent poll shows that the current crop of youngest voters is noticeably less worried about terrorism than the previous cohort.

The overwhelming American consensus is that the Iraq War was a mistake and that the bomb-and-drone approach to ending terrorism and making the U.S. safer hasn’t worked. But that doesn’t necessarily mean voters want the U.S. to withdraw from the world. It’s more likely to mean that voters, especially millennials, don’t see the "Global War on Terror" as central to the 2016 contest. So even though Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state is her top official on-the-job experience, she isn’t going to make it the centerpiece of her campaign.

Republicans will still dwell on what she did and didn't do at the State Department. But it’s doubtful young voters will care.

How Barack Obama Led Us Into The Selfie Century

Howard Fineman   |   May 7, 2015    7:43 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- A new era in American politics was only faintly visible when The Huffington Post debuted on May 9, 2005. The changing time manifested itself in two ways. One was the incandescent smile of a freshman senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. The other was an emerging wave of social media -- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and, yes, HuffPost.

Ten years later we're living in the Selfie Century, in which individuals and tribes (some ancient, others assembled virally overnight) contend with traditional institutions (such as nation states, governments, political parties and corporations) for control of public life. The next 10 years will be suffused with that tension.

Other conflicts will also shape the decade ahead: the ever-growing gulf between the richest and the rest; the costly chaos of climate change; the possibilities and pain of creating a truly multiracial, multiethnic society; the threats of belligerent nationalism (China and Russia) and bloodthirsty theocracy (the militant mullahs in Iran, a “state” that falsely claims the banner of Islam).

But winning these other battles will require social and digital media to educate and empower people of good will in the United States and around the globe. How do we reach so many individuals without losing the privacy that makes free thinking possible? How do we push governments and corporations to focus on people, not merely the amassing of money and metadata? How do we disrupt unresponsive leadership and yet still govern ourselves?

Obama did not necessarily set out to start this conversation. In 2004, Howard Dean had been the first presidential candidate to really use the Internet as a medium-is-message organizing tool. But Obama took it from there.

I interviewed Obama several times back then and since. The power of his personality, intellect, energy, biography (biracial, reared by a single mom, international experience) and ease with people he doesn’t know -- all were impressive, marketable and instantly, if somewhat distantly, charming. Anyone who saw the young senator in the corridors of the Capitol in the spring of 2005 knew -- and knew that he knew -- he was going places.

It wasn’t clear when. The Republicans were large and in charge, or so it seemed. President George W. Bush had just won a second term, though barely. The GOP controlled both houses of Congress and was rising in the states. Bush’s war in Iraq (which Obama had utterly opposed) was grinding on, and yet an exuberant economy (irrationally exuberant, in former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan's words) allowed Bush to cut taxes and support some generous new programs, such as added drug benefits for seniors.

But that same year saw the Bush unraveling. The reason was Hurricane Katrina. It produced pictures of an unconnected and seemingly callous president gazing down at a devastated New Orleans from an aircraft. That, plus his lack of granular knowledge of his aides’ actions, crippled him politically.

America wanted a connected president.

So it’s no accident that Obama and social media rose together. They were made for each other. However cool he could be in private -- and the air around him can get frigid -- he and his presidential campaign amassed 20 million “friends” on Facebook. He was the sunny side of a new day to his supporters, while his intimate omnipresence provoked deep fear among foes, who saw him as some kind of Orwellian force. He dug even deeper digitally in 2012, mining mega data to target a get-out-the-vote drive with far greater pinpoint accuracy than ever before.

The conventional wisdom about the Obama decade is that he was a better candidate than he has been a president. But that may be wrong.

Though income inequality has grown on his watch, the United States (and the world) avoided economic catastrophe in 2008 and 2009, and the U.S. economy overall is reasonably strong again. The president had a lot to do with that.

He pushed through an expansion of health care, taking the risk despite an utterly rejectionist GOP. The launch of Obamacare was an unholy administrative mess. But it has become more useful and popular, and Republican candidates won't have much of a target in 2016 -- if they even try to shoot at it.

Obama promised to end the war in Iraq and did so, even if Islamic State militants have filled the void in some parts of that country. He wound down the war in Afghanistan, too -- a war he said was necessary to fight. While the results in that region are mixed at best, U.S. political strife over the conflicts has died down. GOP presidential candidates decry Obama’s alleged foreign policy weakness, yet there is little talk in Republican ranks of pouring troops back in.

There have been glaring failures in the Obama years. His robust use of drones abroad and digital surveillance at home has been unnerving to supporters, who thought his background as a constitutional lawyer would make him more cautious. Only recently, and well after being safely re-elected, has he highlighted the ruinous poverty and neglect of African-American communities in beleaguered cities, where local cops and citizens struggle to find peace.

Once he promised the nation renewed civility, bipartisanship and unity. But he could never overcome or outmaneuver GOP petulance. Their stance shocked and annoyed him, and after a while, he stopped bothering to try. The result: a further decline in trust of leaders and government.

Ironically, the dangerous toxicity in public debate that Obama hoped to calm thrives on the same social media that boosted him. Social media can enable tribalism or worse. Even as it shines a light on public and private misconduct, it can aid those who would respond violently or give tyrants the power to suffocate dissent through constant surveillance.

If social media is to live up to its promise, we have to figure out how to use it to do more than win an election or stage a protest or make a point or sell a product or promote ourselves. We have to use it to help heal the country, find answers to pressing problems and nurture a global community that is suddenly aware of its own existence.

In other words, the next decade is about using social media for the benefit of society. Let’s hope it works.

Can Rand Sell '60s In 2016?

Howard Fineman   |   April 7, 2015    2:05 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, K.Y. -- Jimi Hendrix’s trippy/soul version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" was on the sound system in the Galt House ballroom just before Rand Paul’s campaign kickoff.

The sign behind Rand on the stage as he spoke was too long for a bumper sticker, but it also echoed the 1960s: "DEFEAT THE WASHINGTON MACHINE/UNLEASH THE AMERICAN DREAM." Of course: We are all leashed dogs, enslaved by a relentless, soulless, distant (and warmongering) government. Somewhere, Ho Chi Minh is smiling.

When Rand began to speak about the ills of America, he sounded like a guy with a bullhorn at an Occupy rally.

“Both political parties and the entire political system are to blame!” he shouted.

Personally and philosophically, Rand Paul is (and is selling himself as) a foe of the System. Even though he has trimmed some of his antagonistically libertarian and isolationist views, he is at heart a rage-against-the-machine guy. He likes to argue and fiercely thinks he is right. He likes to take on things that are bigger than he is.

His claim is a barrier-crossing, outside-the-system youthfulness: adept at social media, critical of the war on drugs, outraged at invasions of privacy by the government, skeptical of war as a means of achieving peace and eager to reach out to African-Americans and other minorities.

Kids of the “Facebook generation” don’t want to jail people for victimless crimes, bail out the big banks and allow intrusions into their lives, he told the cheering and largely youthful crowd. They believe that “what happens on your cell phone is none of anyone’s damned business.”

Nor do they want the “droning of American citizens” -- an issue that brought Paul to the U.S. Senate floor for a 13-hour standing filibuster that made him a national figure.

“Stand with Rand” was a hot phrase on Twitter, and is now a campaign slogan. But there are some serious risks in his Jimi Hendrix strategy.

One is whether he can temper and channel his anti-establishment vibe in a time more of sullenness than boiling anger, a time when people fear a rising generation of terrorists and the Republican Party is still more traditional than Rand claims to be.

He punches above his weight. Without his Texas cowboy boots, he can’t be more than 5 feet 6 inches tall, give or take an inch. He has always looked younger than his age, now 52. He grew up as “Randy,” shortening it to Rand on the understandable advice of his wife, Kelley Paul. “When I first met him at a party I thought that he was 18,” she said in a video shown at the event. “He was 26.”

He can be short-tempered, especially when confronted by those who insist on disagreeing with him. “Wait until he runs into some annoying woman in Iowa and she gets in his face,” said one conservative in the crowd, who insisted on anonymity because he wasn’t a Rand supporter. “He’ll have had three hours of sleep. Let’s see what happens then.”

But the biggest risk is that he can’t become -- let alone be seen -- as the same kind of trimming, deal-making politician he denounces.

There are some signs that he is at risk. Tuesday's event was slickly orchestrated -- as slickly as that of any Washington insider.

His hawkish remarks about Iran make him sound like just another Republican. And then there's his deal with GOP insiders in Kentucky to be on the ballot as both a Senate and presidential candidate in March of 2016. There will surely be other deals down the road.

Another obvious risk is that Paul is running what amounts to a general election strategy, with a broad message aimed at swing voters in the middle. But his first early direct sale will have to be in states such as Iowa and South Carolina, where GOP voters are far more traditional, hawkish and religious.

But in the meantime, he got a rousing send-off here. The song they played when he was done was “Break on Through to the Other Side” by the Doors.

Rand Paul Ready To Run As His Own Meme

Howard Fineman   |   April 7, 2015    7:41 AM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rand Paul is Kentucky's junior senator and the son of another GOP politician, but when he launches his presidential campaign here Tuesday, he won't dwell on his regional, party or familial roots.

Louisville is the home of one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has endorsed Paul. But McConnell won’t “Stand with Rand” on Tuesday. He'll be far away in a corner of the state attacking President Barack Obama.

The candidate's father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, ran for president repeatedly as a libertarian Republican and still has a dedicated following. But dad won’t speak at the launch, and it wasn’t clear until the last minute that he would even attend.

None of them would aid the message Rand Paul plans to send.

In his pre-launch video, Paul stands alone in front of the camera, an Ayn Randian figure taking on the crushing Washington “machine.” It’s an image made for the stark symbolism of the Internet, for a generation of young adults reared on digital games. It's an image meant to go viral among American voters.

When he announces his bid for the White House, Paul will present himself as -- and try to become -- the first social media-native, crowdsourced candidate for president. He is candidate as meme.

And so, after his announcement with the reporters and the cameras, Paul will go online to host a Q&A on Facebook.

He and his advisers think that this out-of-the-ether-and-onto-the-net-everywhere strategy is both the medium and the message: a digitally distributed way to “disrupt” Big Government.

It’s about who the candidate is and how his campaign is run, as much as about what he says and the policies he espouses. Just as Barack Obama first campaigned for president on the basis of who he was and wanted to become -- “We are the change we have been waiting for,” he famously said -- Paul will try to make the way he connects with voters the point of his candidacy.

Such a strategy could help him avoid discussing certain inconvenient stands and beliefs, such as his doubts about climate change, gay marriage, historic federal civil rights laws and Israel’s role as a special ally of the United States.

It could help distance him from his father’s sometimes squirrely views on topics such as the evils of “fiat” money.

And it could help him obscure his reliance on the kind of old-fashioned, time-honored political dealing that will ensure he can run simultaneously for president and for re-election to the Senate. (Even John Galt needed a job.)

All of this makes a man named Vincent Harris a key player in the pageantry not only of the presidential announcement but of the entire campaign.

Harris is a social media guru from Austin, Texas. He worked for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), now a presidential candidate too, for three years before switching over to the more purely libertarian world of Rand Paul. Harris' views on the campaign suggest a lot about Paul’s approach to politics and, if he is elected, to governing.

Harris and I talked on the eve of Paul’s announcement:

Are you going to stay based in Austin or, for this campaign, will you be at headquarters?

Austin is one of America's tech hubs. Dubbed "Silicon Hills," it has some of the best entrepreneurial talent in the country. The campaign will be tapping into Austin as well as Silicon Valley talent, and I will travel between the two tech hubs and central campaign.

How do you think that Rand Paul’s campaign is going to break new ground in terms of use of social media, big data, whatever?

It's already been shown that Senator Paul is willing to engage in a different way online. He wants to use digital not to talk at voters but have a two-way dialogue with them. Senator Paul is uniquely positioned in the potential field on both sides of the aisle to be the digital candidate of 2016. I watched him in action at the South by Southwest tech conference. Everywhere he went, people walked up and said they shared his viewpoints. Young, normally complacent 20-somethings were engaged at his speech there.

He is putting together the infrastructure to [break new digital ground] with offices in both tech hubs. Digital will permeate all aspects of the campaign. Fundraising, voter contact, grassroots, all will be driven by digital and a strong centralized database infrastructure.

Around the Super Bowl, the senator asked supporters around the country to print out and create paper footballs called "liberty football" and take a picture with them. People across the country did! And he highlighted them on his social channels. That's the type of digital campaign he will run -- one that empowers supporters and volunteers, who are the most important asset in a campaign after the candidate himself.

So the "launch" of a presidential campaign these days isn't really for the traditional PR, but as a direct organizing tool?

President Obama broke down digital barriers. He blazed a path on how to run a proper digital campaign. Senator Paul will walk down the path and blaze a new one. So much has changed since 2012 and certainly [2008]. Millennial moms are using their smartphones as their primary source of news. How can a politician reach them?

What will be different about Senator Paul is that he wants his supporters to take part in the campaign itself. What objects do people want to buy in a campaign store? Can you help us design graphics? Are you talented at video editing? Here are raw video files -- create your own. Be a brand advocate for the senator. We want to utilize our supporters' talents. That is the modern-day door knocker. That will be Rand Paul's digital volunteer.

Empowering individuals. Decentralization. This is the core of the senator's ideological philosophy and it will play out in this campaign.

The email exchange was edited for length and clarity.

Planet Politics: What The Iran Deal Means For Obama's Foreign Policy Legacy

Howard Fineman   |   April 2, 2015    5:49 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- His hair almost fully gray now, his tone somber but earnestly hopeful, President Barack Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden Thursday and made a case for the centerpiece of his second term, for his vision of how to handle dangerous enemies, and for his own role in history.

This was Obama at his own personal summit, carrying out what he views as his destiny: a coolly practical peacemaker.

Invoking three Cold War presidents -- John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- the 53-year-old Obama, still young by global statesman standards, claimed to have reached, with Iran, a tentative deal for the ages.

In doing so, Obama said, he and his Big Power partners were showing how, in the 21st century, military might is not the only way, or even the primary way, to advance the cause of peace.

At one point, Obama remarked that at the height of an earlier, more dangerous era of confrontation with the Soviet Union, a young President Kennedy had said, “We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate.” Kennedy ultimately negotiated, as did Nixon and Reagan in later years. Arms limitation deals arose. The Soviet Union collapsed.

The Iran deal, if and when finalized, will be to Obama’s second term what the Affordable Care Act was to his first: an unforced, high-risk, presidency-defining choice. Once again he is diving into a complex, seemingly insoluble problem. Once again, he risks not only failure but also further division in an already dysfunctional American political system.

His critics took only minutes to begin denouncing the tentative deal. The Republicans who control Congress will almost certainly try to derail it. And even if they act in good faith, they may well modify the deal so severely that Iran will walk away.

There are many reasons to doubt Iran’s intentions -- not least because, as Obama himself acknowledged, Iran continues to deploy terrorists worldwide, build missile systems and use proxies to control capitals like Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, as well as, now, the country of Yemen.

It’s not just the Israelis who fear Iran. The Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have sectarian and ethnic fears about Shiites and Persians that stretch back a thousand years.

But if there has been one consistent motif to Obama’s public life, it has been his willingness to look for answers that do not begin and end with military force.

It was an anti-war speech about Iraq in 2002 that ultimately allowed Obama to get the inside track on Hillary Clinton in 2008. His pledges to end military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan were key to his victory in the general election.

The American people wanted the opposite of what they had come to see in President George W. Bush -- a bombs-away “decider” who knew little and cared less about other cultures, and who had no imagination for solutions not military in nature.

Will the Iran deal work? Will it fall apart politically in the U.S.? No one knows, but Obama can perhaps take some comfort from the fact that he has already lived the domestic version of this narrative.

Consider Obamacare.

It was complex beyond measure, with so many interrelated parts that even experts had trouble comprehending it all.

Republicans in Congress hated it, and tried to defeat it any way they could.

Obama had staked everything on the deal, seeing it as the crown jewel of his economic and domestic agenda. He was constantly on the phone with the negotiators. He knew the details.

In the end, Obama won. And Obamacare is working much better than its GOP critics claimed it would.

On Iran, the president is arguing, in effect, that he is even more skeptical than Reagan was in his day. While dealing with Soviet leaders on nuclear arms control in the '80s, Reagan vowed to “trust but verify.”

Obama insists that he doesn’t “trust” Iran at all, and he assures us that the world -- specifically, the International Atomic Energy Administration -- can indeed “verify.”

Well, the Iranians have successfully hidden secret nuclear facilities for years. Now Obama is saying that “a diplomatic solution is the best way” to prevent Iran from doing it again.

It may take many years to know whether Obama is right. But no one should be surprised that he has faith in his own strategy.

The Presidential Bid Of Ted Cruz, The Reddest Meat Of The Right

Howard Fineman   |   March 23, 2015    8:32 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- The audience should have belonged to Sen. Rand Paul. After all, the thousand or so clean-cut millennials in the D.C.-area ballroom were members of Young Americans for Liberty, a student group founded by Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul.

The kids chuckled appreciatively as Rand unspooled his tart, college-dorm-room disdain for government. But he didn’t fire them up. Neither did Utah Sen. Mike Lee, the thoughtful-sounding son of a Reagan-era U.S. solicitor general.

The man who got them cheering, who got them going, who got them roaring with derisive laughter and bubbling with anger at the depredations of liberals was: Sen. Ted Cruz.

Striding the stage like Elvis (if Elvis had been a college debater at Princeton and a brilliant student at Harvard Law), Cruz was the firebrand whom the conserva-geeks wanted to either meet or become.

That was more than a year ago, when the first-term senator from Texas was still in the hard-right afterglow of his bid to shut down the government in a vain (in both senses) attempt to stop Obamacare.

Much of the rest of the country (including Republican leaders in Congress) viewed Cruz as a vaguely scary renegade, and the GOP establishment’s official grumpy grandpa, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), dismissed him as a “wacko bird.”

But the Young Americans for Liberty loved his loathing of the party elders, and his determination to shove a stick between the spokes of the System.

And it is that emotion -- across-the-board opposition to every “liberal” idea that exists, and disgust with the System in all of its manifestations -- that Cruz hopes to tap for the energy he thinks can somehow lift him to the presidency.

Uncorked anger doesn’t usually win presidential nominations, let alone presidencies. People want hope and uplift in the White House and not just expressions of outrage. The president is the person who is supposed to make things work.

To some, the 44-year-old Cruz gives off a vaguely scary aura of cheerful menace. For now, as Cruz officially announces his 2016 bid, he is nearly an asterisk in the early GOP polls, well behind somewhat less apocalyptic personalities, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But there are several reasons to take Cruz seriously.

The first is that his angry approach may fit the times. Even as the voters depend more and more on government and politics -- perhaps for that very reason -- their regard for the machinery of both continues to plummet to new lows.

Cruz doesn’t like either party, and neither do the American people.

And he has the tools with which to attack.

Cruz is a driven, laser-focused character. Even his liberal law professors at Harvard regarded him with a mix of awe and dread.

He was grown in the intellectual petri dish of second-generation combat thinking about conservative strategy, led by the Federalist Society.

Cruz beat the establishment in Texas like a drum. They hate him for it, but he is also going to raise a lot of cash in, yes, Texas.

He is as pure an across-the-board conservative as it is possible to find in what has to be regarded as the big leagues of politics: culturally, fiscally, in monetary policy, in foreign policy.

Cruz is triple 7s on the slot machine of issues: anti-abortion, a global-warming mega-skeptic, to the right of Likud on Israel, anti-immigration to the max, big on defense spending, etc.

He is a libertarian, traditional conservative, war hawk and evangelical Baptist son of a preacher who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba. There are plenty of philosophical and tactical contradictions in Cruz’s construct, but he ignores them all.

His array of hot-button positions and his hunger combine to make him, on paper, a potential force in the early primary and caucus states, where true believers matter most.

He is an academic star with two Ivy League degrees.

Yet he is making the formal announcement of his candidacy at the Falwell family’s evangelical enterprise, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

At Liberty, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, they don’t teach evolution; they teach what their website calls a “robust, Young-Earth creationist view of Earth history.”

Cruz is an anti-intellectual intellectual, if there is such as thing. And that could be just perfect for the Republican Party of today.

When Wendell Ford Gave A Stemwinder, You Believed

Howard Fineman   |   January 23, 2015    2:56 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- It was decades ago, and I forget whom Wendell Ford had come to Louisville, Kentucky, to stump for. But who the Democrat was mattered less -- it always mattered less -- than that Ford was there to speak on his or her behalf.

"Get ready for a stemwinder," my Courier-Journal colleague Ed Ryan told me. Ryan, who could be a tough character, said this as if talking about a beloved if faintly comical uncle.

The memory rushed back to me Thursday when the word spread that Ford, after a long battle with cancer, had succumbed at the age of 90.

Back then, we gathered in a union hall on a hot autumn day somewhere in Jefferson County. Ford had recently been elected to the first of his four terms in the Senate. Still, it was clear that Washington would never turn this Kentuckian into a sedate, smooth-talking grandee of the Potomac.

He started his speech in a low rumble, making caustic fun of the Republican candidate, whoever that hapless creature was. Then, voice rising, he declared the Democrats’ devotion to the common man. Finally, he let loose a raspy, three-pack-a-day, foghorn blast of testimony in favor of the character and commitment of what’s-his-name.

And he meant every word.

With the faith of a preacher and the urgency of a tobacco auctioneer, Wendell Ford spent a lifetime testifying to the power of politics and government to help ordinary people -- in Kentucky and across America.

He could play nasty, and he could play rough. But one sensed that he never did it to enrich, ennoble, enshrine or empower himself. He did it because he wanted ultimately to do good and do right. And that meant he actually had to accomplish something legislatively and not just talk about it! How rare is that in the spin-drunk politics of today?

This is a case of special pleading, but one of the many reasons I liked Ford is that he always had respect -- strained to near the breaking, I’m sure, from time to time -- for the press. In that sense, I identify him with a time long ago when politicians and reporters were natural antagonists but not mortal enemies, when there was a bond of mutual regard not only for each other’s (sometimes well-hidden) decency, but also for Commonwealth and Country.

I love Kentucky, and Ford had a lot to do with it. Things are more direct there, and openly funnier, and laced with a wry appreciation for the stories you tell on a porch in the late afternoon. Once, journalists and leaders could join in. Not now.

Mitch McConnell is capable of that kind of politics, too. The Senate majority leader is no orator, but the fact that he's from Kentucky gives me hope, perhaps naively, that there is a pilot light of warmth (and perhaps a little Henry Clay-like statesmanship) buried within that frigid character.

My father died young, when I was a young journalist in Kentucky. He was a war vet, a heavy smoker, a Democrat, a lover of politics and history. I saw and heard echoes of him in Ford (which, in retrospect, may have cost me some journalistic distance in covering the senator). Both loved America and believed that the fact they were born and raised here was a blessing beyond words.

The last time I saw Ford give a stump speech was in Lexington in 2010. We were on the steps of the University of Kentucky administration building. The sun was shining on a warm October afternoon. All the local Democratic pols were there, and former President Bill Clinton had made it into town to gin up the crowd for Senate candidate Jack Conway.

After a parade of too-long addresses by other worthies, it was Ford’s job to introduce the former president. Among yellow-dog Kentucky Democrats, this was equivalent to Bach opening for Beethoven, or Patsy Cline for Loretta Lynn.

Frail and stooped but still energetic, Ford got to the podium and began to speak. It was as though nothing had changed in 40 years: the low rumble, the rasp, the foghorn blast -- all bathed in late afternoon sunlight.

Ford reached the crescendo. "When Bill Clinton was president," he thundered, "THE STREETS WERE PAVED WITH GOLD!" Everyone laughed and cheered in unison.

And for a second you believed it, because it was Wendell, and he had just given a stemwinder.

Planet Politics: The U.S. Is Back, But Still Cautious In The World

Howard Fineman   |   January 21, 2015   11:30 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- The speech is, after all, called the State of the Union, not the State of the World. So perhaps President Barack Obama can be excused for dwelling on the American economy in his remarks Tuesday night, and all but ignoring the economic and political crises of the planet.

There was lots of talk about how the U.S. has come back from the Great Recession, and about the president's plan (which the Republican-dominated Congress is likely to reject) to use new government programs and tax cuts to make up for the troubling stagnation of middle-class wages.

But however assertive Obama was about the durability and creativity of the U.S. economy, he had little to say about global matters -- from economics to terrorism to the environment.

And if America is indeed "the indispensable nation" its leaders claim, then Obama needs to be more frank, active and visionary about the world than he was on Tuesday.

There was, to begin with, barely a mention of Paris. The president uttered all the usual boilerplate about tolerance and the essential peaceable nature of religions, but he sounded no new alarms and proposed no new ideas for dealing with a justifiable planetary obsession with terrorism.

This has consequences everywhere, including America, where -- now that the economy is strengthening -- some polls are beginning to show terrorism and national security among the top voter concerns.

The president tiptoed past a lot of topics related to war as we now know it.

Drone strikes are not a foreign policy. No one believes that the U.S. is truly finished with military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. And what evidence is there, really, that Iran is bargaining in good faith to give up the nuclear-power status its leaders clearly covet?

Meanwhile, it's difficult to see how the president's "middle-class economics" proposals will counteract the truly injurious aspect of globalized capital -- the relentless downward pressure on wages.

But the man who joined former President George W. Bush in bailing out and protecting the American financial industry will not suggest systemic global reforms. And he didn't do so on Tuesday.

Instead, he pushed for a sweeping new trade agreement with countries in Asia other than China. He surely has geopolitical reasons for doing so (the U.S. doesn't want a Chinese hegemony in the region). But Obama did not mention what the U.S. unions know, that such a deal would be a mixed blessing at best for the very middle class he wants to save.

Finally, of course, there was talk of global warming. On this score, the president offered as evidence of progress his deal with the Chinese to limit carbon emissions -- a welcome development, to be sure.

But if scientists are correct that the odds of catastrophe are soaring higher all the time, then the president had a duty to propose an urgent, sweeping plan on Tuesday -- and to offer to use his newfound confidence to make it happen.

There was surprising swagger in Obama's step Tuesday night. But it surely seemed more impressive to those within the U.S. than those outside of it.

Planet Politics: America's Bloody Conscience

Howard Fineman   |   December 10, 2014    8:21 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Fourteen years ago, Sen. John McCain took his wife and son with him back to Hanoi, Vietnam, where he had spent six years as a suffering and tortured prisoner of war.

The family stood together in the small concrete cell in which he had lived -- barely -- with broken bones yet unbroken will.

Surrounded by TV cameras and reporters (I was one of the latter), the family gazed solemnly at the scene. The wife and son had tears in their eyes; McCain seemed at times to be fighting back a welling memory of fear, bitterness and fury.

I remembered that scene Tuesday, and wanted to retell it for our readers around the world, as we in Washington tried to digest the contents and deeper meaning of the new report on the U.S. use of torture in the so-called “War on Terror.”

America can be a brutal superpower, especially when -- as rarely happens -- it is attacked. Yet it likes to think of itself as a country with more lofty rules of combat and behavior than the run of imperia that have come before it.

Are Americans really of two minds, one without a conscience and one with?

The answer is yes.

The two sides of the American theory of war-making are etched in McCain’s 78-year-old, battle-scarred face.

He was a daringly cold-blooded bomber pilot, eager to rain down hellfire on Vietnam at the height of a disastrous war there.

The son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals, McCain’s instincts still run toward the making of war and dropping of bombs, whether on Saddam Hussein or al Qaeda or ISIS.

And yet there is another side to the warrior. He was shot out of the sky over Hanoi and spent six years as a prisoner of war. He was tortured. He was beaten within an inch of his life. Under inhuman duress, he did and said things he regrets.

And when the U.S. Senate’s Democrats released the summary of their report on the widespread use and questionable benefits of torture methods during the Bush administration, it was McCain -- conservative, Republican, friend of the Pentagon -- who rose in the Senate to lament the picture painted in the document.

It showed that the Bush-era use of “enhanced interrogation methods” had "stained our national honor," he said. And he meant it.

It’s easy enough to be cynical about what the Democrats were up to in this report. They wanted to heap retrospective blame on Bush and his cronies. Yet at least some top Democrats knew -- or had reason to know -- that their own cry for blood and retribution after 9/11 would lead where it did.

The Democrats wanted to insulate themselves, and by extension, President Barack Obama. The president may not authorize torture, but he nevertheless is raining down drones in Afghanistan -- drones that kill supposed terrorists and innocent civilians alike.

Bush defenders and the Central Intelligence Agency race to defend themselves, and call Democrats complicit. But supporters of the program not only let things get horribly out of hand, they also covered up efforts to find out the truth of what they did.

McCain’s cry was from the heart. His heart is as American as they come, and full of genuine regret for what we did.

Some commentators here are mystified and infuriated by the airing of this report. Why give propaganda ammunition to our enemies, they ask.

But it is in the American grain for us to publicly question -- eventually -- what we do in the name of war and power. If we seem like hypocrites, so be it. The second-guessing is real enough, and the world should encourage us to do more.

St. Louis Blues: An Old Refrain In Grand Jury Decision

Howard Fineman   |   November 25, 2014    1:39 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- If you know St. Louis, or Missouri for that matter, you know that the family of Michael Brown had no chance, and that police Officer Darren Wilson would go free.

St. Louis is a lovely place, but legally it can be a toxic police mixture of the Midwestern love of social order and Border State race-based severity.

The city is in some ways on the most tremulous fault line in the history of race in America: The home of W.C. Handy and the blues, of Chuck Berry and rock 'n roll, of the Dred Scott court decision on runaway slaves.

Not surprisingly, the Missouri state legislature has chosen repeatedly to ignore a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1985, which held that a police officer cannot use lethal force against a fleeing suspect unless the officer has reason to believe the suspect is armed and an immediate threat to public order.

Instead, a police officer in Missouri can shoot a person the officer believes to be a fleeing felon. Period. Not to mention that the officer can shoot one who is moving toward him in a threatening manner.

So the real complaint in Missouri on Monday night should not really be with the county prosecutor, however defensive and cloying he may have been in announcing the grand jury's failure to indict the officer who shot the teenager.

It is with Missouri, and America, for thumbs-on-the-scale state laws that the federal government -- from Abraham Lincoln forward -- has only partly ameliorated.

St. Louis is emblematic of the glory and the tragedy of the racial history of which this case is only the latest example. The city was a licentious, anything-goes river town in which the slave trade flourished, and was run in later years by German-American burghers and scions of the slave-holding South who wanted to preserve order, and the Old Order.

At Mardi Gras in St. Louis, there are still clubs severely limited, shall we say, in racial terms.

Some laws are a holdover from those days. They made it easy for the grand jury to return a "no true bill" -- that is, no indictment on any charges -- against Wilson.

Let's face it: In St. Louis, everyone knows who most of the suspected fleeing felons are. They are black. They are from the north side of St. Louis and similar places. It is the way things have worked since the blues began, and barbecue became a thing, and Michael Brown supposedly swiped some cigars. It was the reported theft of them that made the teen a suspected felon and that sealed his fate.

And let's make no mistake: St. Louis is as American, for better and for worse, as a city can get.

Ferguson Smolders After Night Of Fires | Darren Wilson Not Indicted | Photos Of Darren Wilson's Injuries Released | Shooting Witness Admitted Racism In Journal | Darren Wilson's Statement Doesn't Mention Michael Brown | Reactions To Ferguson Decision | Protesters' Open Letter | Prosecutor Gives Bizarre Press Conference | Obama Address Ferguson Decision | Notable Black Figures React | Politicians React | Jury Witness: 'By The Time I Saw His Hands In The Air, He Got Shot' | Al Sharpton Calls Decision 'Expected, But Still An Absolute Blow' | Ferguson Erupts In Protest | Thousands Protest Nationwide | Oakland Protesters Block Freeway, Set Fires

The Good And The Bad Of Obama's Decision On Immigration

Howard Fineman   |   November 21, 2014    1:46 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- To hear David Axelrod tell it, despite all of the political risks of President Barack Obama's sweeping move to end the threat of deportation for more than 4 million undocumented immigrants, the political pros and cons didn't really matter to the president in the end.

The decision, the former White House adviser told me, was more about principle than politics for the mixed-race son of Kenya and Kansas who reveres Lincoln and wants to build a legacy of a tolerant, welcoming American community. Unburdened by the need to run for re-election and reminded daily by immigration advocates of his many promises of reform, Obama acted out of personal conviction and an acute sense of his own role in American history. Think of it as Lincoln Lite.

"The president wanted to keep faith with these people, and he wanted to do right by them," Axelrod said. "There's no hidden motive."

But even if one accepts that narrative for the president's move -- which supporters are comparing to the Emancipation Proclamation -- the decision is a political depth charge that is already surfacing deep, disruptive emotions across the country. Indisputably, it is one of the most consequential decisions of the Obama presidency.

Here's a look at the political balance sheet.


  • Nearly two-thirds of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are Hispanic, and Obama's decision is outreach en masse. In 2012, Latinos voted more than 2-1 for Obama, and health care reform was one of the top issues. Another was the expectation that he would tackle immigration reform. His latest move isn't "reform" per se, but it has been seen by the community as a step in the right direction.
  • Obama's action now creates new real-world conditions that the GOP will find it difficult to unwind, even if they get serious about passing a new immigration law. Some 5 million "mixed status" families can have the chance to live without fear that their loved ones will be sent away. Would the GOP seriously want to frighten them all over again?
  • The White House can make a compelling argument that it is honoring a long American tradition that the GOP claims to hold dear: the preservation of "intact" families.
  • The group with the clearest claim to legal standing to sue Obama would be undocumented immigrants who are excluded by the new policy. Were they to win in court, the administration would then be forced to extend the policy to more people -- the very opposite of what the GOP would want. "That would be an amusing and, some would say, wonderful result," said political scientist John Hudak of the Brookings Institution.
  • The administration's move seems to be on pretty firm legal ground, with officials citing the recent Supreme Court case in which Arizona had sued to compel the president to enforce federal immigration laws to the letter in the state. The court, with Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority, ruled that the state could not dictate federal "enforcement" decisions.
  • Obama and his advisers have good reason to expect the GOP to overreact with a fury that its leadership could find difficult to control. And that could easily result in raw anti-immigrant -- and anti-Hispanic -- reaction by some. At the very least, the issue is likely to continue to divide his GOP opponents, a division that already shows signs of reaching crippling levels.


  • The president has a weak track record on implementing and explaining his massive new programs. His unsupportable assurances about the Affordable Care Act are infamous, and the website's initial rollout was a shambles. In his immigration speech, he made the new rules sound simple, but the implementation will almost certainly be complicated and confusing. Who will do millions of background checks? And how will they be paid for?
  • Overall public support for this move is low, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. It found that while 74 percent of those polled support passage of an immigration reform law along the lines of what the Senate approved in 2013, voters disapprove of Obama's unilateral action by a margin of 48 percent against to 38 percent in support. "There is a risk that voters are going to regard this as overreach," said a top White House official, who spoke on background so as not to seem to be publicly questioning the decision. "And sympathy for undocumenteds has diminished somewhat. It isn't as clear cut as it was a year ago."
  • Obama's supporters seem to have a 'go ahead make my day' confidence in the face of GOP criticism, noting the deep divisions among their opponents, who have struggled to make the desired inroads among Hispanic, Asian-American and other minority voters. But the pro-Obama camp risks being too cute by half: A government shutdown over the fate of undocumented immigrants would not necessarily be an easy PR battle to win.
  • The move potentially gives a more prominent platform to Sen. Ted Cruz. It may be shrewd strategy for Democrats in the narrow sense. But do they really want to make a star of a man who compares Obama to a Roman tyrant and appeals to the American public's most raw and resentful emotions?
  • Democrats also need to be careful what they wish for. Brookings' Hudak suggests that while Obama's executive action is on firm constitutional grounds, its size and scope could set an undesirable precedent. There was a time when Democrats were the ones denouncing an "imperial presidency." In Washington, it's been proven that what goes around comes around -- again and again.

Dear World: No, America Is Still Not United

Howard Fineman   |   November 6, 2014    7:34 AM ET

NEW YORK -- It would be nice to think that, after years of ever-deeper anger, division and paralysis, the U.S. government would unite -- out of exhaustion, if nothing else.

It would be nice to think that a humbled President Barack Obama and his emboldened Republican foes would join hands to deal with our obvious public problems: Immigration policy, debt, foreign policy, education, infrastructure.

It would be nice, but it would be wrong.

The prospect for the next two years is one of limited substantive progress, but intense political positioning for, yes, the next election.

If the U.S. were a parliamentary democracy, the government would have fallen as a result of Tuesday’s election.

But in America, with its Newtonian clockwork of dispersed authority, the political losers and the winners are supposed to work jointly and earnestly on a governing agenda.

They rarely do that.

Honoring tradition, the president and the new leader of the opposition, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, pledged open minds and hearts and a desire to cooperate.

And there, in fact, may be some new laws on global trade, energy, corporate taxes, and a few other matters. Republicans and Obama may able to assemble a mostly Republican alliance of business-friendly members of Congress.

But on the big, emotional issues -- health care, immigration policy, the seemingly endless “war on terror,” even education policy -- the world should not expect much. The cultural chasms are too deep.

There is no doubt that Obama was sobered, if not humiliated, in this midterm election. One reason is the ebb and flow of American politics. The president’s party almost always loses seats in the sixth year of an eight-year administration.

But this was a drubbing on all levels.

Obama's (liberal) Democratic Party lost control of the Senate to the (conservative) Republicans for the first time in nearly a decade. Republicans strengthened their already strong grip on the House of Representatives. They won governorships in many key states, including Obama’s Illinois. And they won more state legislatures that, among other things, draw the lines for congressional election districts.

There are indeed some factors that favor an effort at cooperation.

The main one is Americans’ collective disgust at the way elections work and the way Washington does not. Voters are smarter than the commercially bizarre way we run elections, and they resent the sloppy, cynical system they live in.

After all, Americans have just survived an election season in which $4 billion -- yes $4 billion -- was spent on TV advertising, in which Republicans tore down Obama as a wimp and a socialist (a confusing combination) and Democrats depicted Republicans as misogynistic predators eager to rip intravenous tubes from grandma’s arm.

Republicans have prospered in the Obama years by trying to block every initiative he has to offer, and then blaming the resulting gridlock on him. This plays into the American myth about the globe-girdling power of the presidency, and it has worked to make Obama look weak.

But they now have an incentive to show that they can be grown-ups as they lay the groundwork for whomever their presidential candidate is in 2016. Successful presidential campaigns don’t win on anger, but on hopeful ideas.

McConnell, soon to be Republican leader in the Senate at age 72, has reason to want a legacy of constructive action.

So those are reasons to think that things will get done.

But there is another side of the ledger.

Republicans have gotten where they are in the last few years by opposing the president at every turn. Why should they stop now?

The activist core of their party remains vehemently antagonistic to Obama, and Republican leaders ignore that at their peril.

The president himself is not the kind of politician who relishes the grimy trading of favors that is at the heart of politics. He thinks in intellectual constructs, and he doesn’t enjoy the game for its own sake.

And American politics as now constructed is a money-drive proposition based on the profits of discord. Campaign consultants make millions; TV stations make hundreds of millions; billionaires are free to throw their weight around like oligarchs in Russia. Parties play to their own extremes to stoke emotion and harvest contributions.

It is as though the seating in the House of Commons were reversed. Instead of facing each other, the parties are facing outward to their most mindlessly steadfast supporters outside the building.

It would be nice to think that that will change, but it won't.

Mitch McConnell Claims To Admire Collegial Leaders, But Can He Be One?

Howard Fineman   |   November 4, 2014   11:50 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- In his Capitol Hill office, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proudly displays an oil painting of his state’s most famous senator, Henry Clay, “The Great Pacificator” and unifying statesman of 19th century America. But as the 72-year-old McConnell prepares to take over as Senate majority leader, a job he’s spent decades plotting to win, it’s not clear whether he can be -- or wants to be -- another Clay.

McConnell has said recently that the past majority leaders he most admires are two Democrats -- Mike Mansfield of Montana, who moved most of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, and George Mitchell of Maine, who was noted for his diplomatic and collegial style.

On Election Day, McConnell staffers referred me to a speech their boss had made in which he vowed to run a more bipartisan and consultative Senate than now exists. He would be Clay, Mansfield and Mitchell all rolled into one.

Many of his critics scoff at the notion. “Mitch is about one thing,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “The accumulation of power.”

McConnell may conclude, however, that he must play the Clay role to consolidate that power.

In philosophy and operating style, the two couldn’t be more different -- at least so far.

Clay was a border-state political diplomat who forged historic deals that held the nation together for decades before slavery and the Civil War tore it apart. He championed an “American system” of federal spending to knit the country together with new roads, canals and other infrastructure. He favored an active role for central government in finance, taxes, banking and tariffs to build the muscles of a continental nation.

If there is a theme to McConnell’s long tenure in the Senate, it’s the contrary: to oppose federal action to deal with domestic social problems, to limit the role of government wherever he can in favor of corporate power, and to feed the fears of those who feel aggrieved by Washington's decisions. On the campaign trail this year, he has vowed to dismantle Obamacare “root and branch,” to unravel environmental regulations on the use of coal and other carbon energy sources, and to curb federal authority over elections, campaign spending, banking and much of the rest of the regulatory state.

But philosophy is just the half of it. Clay was known for his gentle demeanor, his gentlemanly tact and his eagerness to see the world and America from as many sides as possible.

McConnell is personally gruff and aloof, and his syrupy delivery on the Senate floor is often laced with the acid of unremitting partisanship and dismissive scorn for his foes. He makes enemies easily and seems to cherish his resentments. For example, Yarmuth said McConnell refuses to acknowledge him on flights to and from the capital, even though they were once close friends.

Pollster John Zogby recalled an incident years ago when McConnell repeatedly interrupted a polling presentation to the GOP with cries of “Bulls**t!” from the audience. (Zogby’s message, as it happened, was that the Republican Party needed to take a more bipartisan approach to legislating.)

Ironically, McConnell’s partisan ferocity doesn’t impress tea party Republicans, who worked against him in the primary and refused to endorse him. They see him as a fraudulent conservative whose deepest desire is not to pursue an agenda of ideas but merely to defend the establishment he has spent decades trying to control.

McConnell has done his share of bipartisan deals in the Senate, but almost always on his own terms and almost always after he helped create the crisis that he then takes credit for ending.

Now he must keep the peace among potential Republican presidential candidates in the Senate (Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and perhaps Rob Portman), pacify the tea party wing while showing that the GOP is “ready to govern,” deal with the hapless Republican leadership in the House, and even reach out to President Barack Obama, who has reason to be wary.

McConnell has the skill to bridge divides within the GOP in the Senate, and maybe in Congress as a whole. That will be his first challenge. Whether he can speak to the whole country and try to bring Americans together -- and whether he wants to -- will become clear in the months ahead.