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Harry Reid Hearts Rand Paul, Or So He Says

Howard Fineman   |   July 9, 2014    7:06 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Amidst the nasty partisan torpor that is the U.S. Senate, there are very few Republicans whom Democratic leader Harry Reid likes, or even can stand.

The Nevada senator said these days his favorite is none other than libertarian (and leading GOP presidential contender) Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

"When he came to the Senate, I thought he was going to be the new Jesse Helms," Reid said on Wednesday, referring to the ornery, filibustering conservative who represented North Carolina. "But I like the guy," said Reid. "He's just a super nice guy."

"He and I have spent hours together," Reid added. "At least he tries to find some solutions to things," such as the knotty administrative arithmetic in the new federal highway bill.

Paul has also been working on criminal justice reform with freshman Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Asked by The Huffington Post which other Republicans he likes, Reid mentioned Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Asked for comment, Rand Paul's top adviser, Doug Stafford, responded by email, "Jesus. Stop talking Harry. :)"

"He can't become Rand's 'favorite' Democrat though unless he allows Rand to have a vote on Audit the Fed, which we have been trying to do for three years," Stafford added. (Legislation to audit the Federal Reserve's ledgers has been a Paul family crusade, handed on from father to son.)

What's Reid up to with his laudatory remarks?

In the past he has excoriated Paul over several issues, including the Kentuckian's now-famous 13-hour filibuster over the legality of targeting U.S. drones at U.S. citizens. Reid's current approval seems aimed more at damning the GOP with faint praise -- and highlighting his contempt for Kentucky's other senator (and Paul rival), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Reid doesn't relish talking to journalists. He said that he likes reporters well enough, though he figures that, in the end, they "screw me." But he overcame his fear Wednesday, inviting in a group for an hour around a coffee table in the reception room of his Capitol offices.

His purpose: to explain why the Senate has become a symbol of all that is dysfunctional in American politics, if not life.

Why? The Republicans, of course. Don't blame Harry Reid, said Harry Reid.

"Within three days" of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential election, he said, the GOP had set two goals: to defeat Obama in the next election and to stop any and all of the new president's legislative proposals.

In the first two years of Obama's presidency, Reid said, Democrats had enough Senate votes (at one point it was 60) to pass legislation easily and swiftly. "It was the most productive Congress in the history of the country," he said. Republican gains in 2010 and 2012 changed that calculus. "The last Congress got nothing done, this Congress the same thing," Reid said.

Even when Republicans want to put forward ideas, he said, they are so hampered by their internal divisions that they can't decide how to proceed. In particular, they get stuck on "unanimous consent," which is an arcane Senate procedure by which leaders of both parties agree on which amendments will receive floor votes.

Because senators these days can't decide on which amendments to allow by unanimous consent, Reid said, every amendment to every bill is subject to being filibustered -- a hugely time-consuming process that grinds Senate business to a halt.

Republicans scoff at this explanation. "Harry Reid doesn't want any votes," said Don Stewart, spokesman for McConnell.

"He doesn't want a vote on the Keystone pipeline, for example, because he knows he and the Democrats will lose," said Stewart. Reid shies away from other votes, Stewart said, for fear that red-state Democrats will have to take stands that will cost them at the polls. "Coal is an example," he said.

Reid expressed irritation that as the Senate majority leader, he has become the embodiment of an institution that can't function.

He was able to break one critical deadlock by using an extraordinary parliamentary maneuver (dubbed the "nuclear option") to bar filibusters on most judicial and executive branch nominees. He hinted on Wednesday that he might try to do the same on sub-Cabinet nominations and other judgeships.

The earlier change produced howls from Republicans -- and warnings of what might happen should the GOP win the majority back. It's a real possibility in this fall's elections.

Wouldn't the Democrats then behave the same way the Republicans are now?

"I would hope not," Reid said. But he didn't sound entirely convinced.

Hillary Inevitable? Fading Book Sales Say No

Howard Fineman   |   July 2, 2014    4:30 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- If books can make presidencies -- and Barack Obama proved they can-- then hold the talk about the inevitability of Hillary Clinton.

The Huffington Post has learned that new survey figures show sales of her foreign policy memoir, Hard Choices, are falling fast.

According to authoritative numbers from Bookscan, which monitors sales at 80 percent of bookstores nationwide, retail sales of Hard Choices plummeted another 50 percent in the third week -- down to 26,190 from 48,200 the week before and 85,900 the first week of publication.

Books whose sales drop off by half in successive weeks generally don't become blockbusters, which could be a problem -- a big one -- for Clinton's publisher, Simon & Schuster.

S&S reportedly shipped 1 million copies of the book to stores and is said to have paid Clinton an advance approaching $14 million. At the current rate, it would take many months to sell the million copies -- an unlikely prospect according to industry sources.

"It looks like they are going to be pulping a lot of paper," said a top industry source, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the matter in the industry. A Simon & Schuster spokesman declined immediate comment.

By comparison, Clinton's 2003 book, Living History, sold six times as many volumes in its first week and eventually 1.4 million worldwide in hardback. Obama's Dreams From My Father had sold 4.65 million in hardback, paperback and ebook as of 2010.

Bookscan figures do not count ebooks, but industry sources suggest that most sales of Clinton's book are likely to be hard copies because of the keepsake, for-the-fans nature of such memoirs.

Explanations for the rapidly weakening sales range from the antiseptic cover picture to the edge-of-summer timing. Clinton supporters in the publishing industry say that times have changed for all authors and that nonfiction books of the kind she (and Obama) wrote are not as popular as they once were. They also note that Hard Choices is doing well on a comparative basis, outselling most other nonfiction titles.

But the more urgent question is political.

The sales figures come out amid a war of competing conventional wisdoms, fervently held by pundits and pols.

One says that Hillary is inevitable, that Obama-like lightning can’t strike twice, and that she has sewn up the allegiance of the left with no significant figures on the horizon to challenge her for the nomination -- or even the presidency in the 2016 general election. The New Republic, for example, put her on the cover with the word "Inevitable" just this week.

The other conventional wisdom is just as sure that Clinton is now, as she was in 2008, a heavier-than-air craft. She will never achieve lift-off because she is too establishment, too controlled, too weighed down by her years of association with the rich and powerful -- and too lacking in a clear message of change for younger generations. The rocky rollout of her book tour is evidence of the latter, they say.

At the very least, the book sales seem to confirm the observations of Bill Maher, who advised Clinton to "just go away."

"People say Hillary being out there on her book tour, talking about this stuff, it's going to inoculate her," said Maher, the host of HBO's "Real Time." "You know there's a fine line between inoculate and we're sick of you. So my advice to Hillary is, just go away. Go away for a while. We're going to see each other. In a couple of years, a lot. Just go away. Because otherwise you're going to blow this."

Why Washington Fails The Third Metric And What Some Locals Are Doing About It

Howard Fineman   |   June 30, 2014    8:03 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital is not a happy or well place, Arthur Brooks has concluded.

He should know. A pioneer in "happiness studies," Brooks examines the how and why of human wellness in all its dimensions: physical, mental, moral and spiritual.

As president of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank devoted to extolling the virtues of capitalism, Brooks argues that free markets are the most efficient means yet devised to give people the chance to be fulfilled. While pursuing that intellectual sales mission, he has also become a student of the city in which he lives, and he sees a Washington wellness deficit wherever he looks.

The gist of the story lies in the numbers. Silicon Valley aside, the Washington metropolitan area is the wealthiest in the nation. Though some New Yorkers and Londoners might disagree, the Pentagon's budget and the Federal Reserve's balance sheet prove that it remains the world's most powerful city.

Yet Washington rarely, if ever, makes the top 10 happiest city lists, while it ranks at or near the top of per capita lists such as alcohol consumption and psychiatrists in residence.

In his six years in D.C., Brooks, a best-selling author, said he has seen too many powerful people valuing the wrong things in their own lives.

"Thomas Aquinas said that there are four substitutes for God," Brooks said during an interview in his sunny, spare AEI office suite. "They are money, power, pleasure and honor. Different places are attached to different substitutes.

"Power and honor are the coin of the realm here," he said. "The problem is that what gets rewarded in centers of power doesn't lend itself very well to spiritual enlightenment of individuals.

"People go for the easy, shiny lure," he said. "And there is just a ton of it around here: people you see who are actually pretty smart, pretty excellent, becoming these self-caricatures and these self-aggrandizing mediocrities.

"If you don't have a moral core," Brooks declared, "it's going to be really hard to stay happy."

The former college professor said that he didn't wish to lecture and that "Washington is full of wonderful people." But he still urges people to look for deeper types of human wellness.

Brooks has always wanted to do what he wanted to do -- and on his own terms.

The Seattle-bred son of college professors is himself a onetime college dropout who eventually earned his bachelor's degree by correspondence course. He dropped math for music and moved to Barcelona to play French horn in an orchestra so that he could be with his rocker girlfriend (now wife).

He's a 50-year-old fitness devotee with the lean torso of a Tour de France biker. He wears argyle socks, jeans and an oversized orange-faced wristwatch given to him by a friend.

Brooks attends Catholic Mass daily, speaks of his own spiritual journey easily, and is given to quoting Johann Sebastian Bach, economists Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith and, of course, Aquinas -- in adjoining sentences in the same paragraph.

Life, Brooks said, needs to be a "self-entrepreneurial venture" to find your own highest and best use. For him, that means "the business of glorifying God and serving others."

Finding your mission is all the more important in Washington, he said, because as a world capital, the stakes are higher here.

"The thing I love about Washington is that it's excellent. Everything is excellent, from the housing stock to the quality of people's minds," he said.

"But that is where human frailty is the most vicious: among people who are the most excellent. That is why virtue is arguably more important here than it is in other places. The Third Metric is more important here than in other places."

With that in mind, Brooks has begun inviting spiritual leaders to speak at AEI, an institution best known for number crunching, free market thinking and military hawkishness.

Last winter the Dalai Lama came; last week it was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar from India. Brooks said that he wants to invite religious leaders of all stripes to speak.

"People know my views, they know my beliefs," he said. "They know that not infrequently I go to Mass in the middle of the day.

"I want people to be able to have that kind of spiritual free expression. And not just religion. Not everybody's into that. I want them to be able to find their path, too," he said.

Openness to spiritual life is just one aspect of a well-lived life. There are others, perhaps more prosaic but no less important to wellness.

For Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one small step for humankind is her Fitbit. Extolling the virtues of the exercise monitor has become a mission. No one on either side of the aisle is immune.

"I know a senator who wears hers in her bra," said Klobuchar, an upbeat, bubbly sort who chairs the Senate Wellness Caucus. "No, I'm not telling you who it is! But I have convinced quite a few others to at least give the Fitbit a try."

The caucus has only nine members and meets rarely, but it has held hearings on best workplace practices to promote health and well-being (the examples tend to come from Klobuchar's home state), and it has worked to encourage such practices in federal health care laws.

Klobuchar also looks for ways to connect with other lawmakers as individuals, apart from politics. One means of doing so are the "women's dinners" that female senators hold once every other month or so.

"We don't talk about policy or politics," Klobuchar said. "We talk about our kids, our families, our lives.

"Real friendships come out of that, and it makes you feel better about life here."

David McCabe contributed reporting.

Bernie Sanders Thinks Hillary Is Eric Cantor

Howard Fineman   |   June 24, 2014    6:18 PM ET

WASHINGTON –- Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, self-described “democratic socialist,” claims he hasn’t decided whether to run for president, let alone whether to seek the Democratic nomination or try a third-party bid.

But in an interview in his Capitol Hill office, Sanders sounded like he was in for 2016, and that his preferred route is the Democratic race, presumably against Hillary Clinton.

He spoke after returning from a trip to Iowa and before heading back to New Hampshire –- the two most crucial early states in the traditional party nominating process. “I wanted to see what kind of response I get,” he said. So far, he said, it's been very good.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, said he is thinking of calling himself an “independent Democrat” for purposes of a presidential campaign.

“That would mean running in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, but acknowledging that I am an independent, and have won every election I have run as an independent.”

He likened his situation -– and Clinton’s –- to the one in the 7th Congressional District of Virginia, where voters in the Republican primary shockingly ousted the incumbent House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in favor of a libertarian college professor.

Sanders slipped out the conditional tense as he talked about the comparison.

“Everyone was shocked by Eric Cantor,” said Sanders. “My guess -– my experience –- is that when you go out and you talk to working people, there’s a lot more dissatisfaction with the status quo and status quo politics than you think.

“And if that if my conclusion is true, we’ll do better than I think people think.

“In terms of Hillary, I respect her. I’ve known her. I like her. So I’m not running to attack Hillary Clinton. I’m running to talk about the issues that impact the working class of this country and the middle class.”

I asked Sanders if he saw Hillary a symbol of an establishment gone awry.

“No question in my mind that if there was a national Democratic primary today, Hillary would win it, and win it handsomely," he said. "She would win it because she is widely respected, she is popular.”

But that is “today,” before a campaign begins in earnest, and amid a crisis.

“What people are dissatisfied with is not Hillary Clinton,” Sanders replied. “People are dissatisfied with the fact that 95 percent of all new incomes go to the top 1 percent. That’s what people are dissatisfied with. And people are dissatisfied that we have billionaires pay a lower tax rate than working families. And those are the issues.

“I think what we need is a new politics -- a different type of politics than Hillary’s," he said. "A politics that is much more grassroots-oriented, much more having to do with strong coalition-building and grassroots activism than I think Hillary has demonstrated over the years, or supported.”

At first glance, a Sanders campaign of any kind would seem to be an improbable venture. He is 72, with wisps of white hair and the inward gaze of the college professor he once was. Given his preference, he would like to pattern the U.S. after cradle-to-grave Scandinavian socialism. Vermont, home to Ben & Jerry and three electoral votes, is hardly a pivotal launching pad for national office.

But these are unusual times, and Sanders is a tougher, cannier and more practical politician than outsiders might realize.

Born in Brooklyn and educated at the University of Chicago, Sanders moved to Vermont and did everything from carpentry to filmmaking before he entered politics in the early-'70s as an anti-war activist and protest candidate.

But he later became a durable winner of House and Senate races, including in 2012 -– which he won with 71 percent of the vote.

He is perfectly willing to cut deals with Senate Democrats, including his fellow native Brooklynite Chuck Schumer of New York. Sanders chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, working with GOP Sen. John McCain on an overhaul of the beleaguered Veterans Affairs health care system.

While he nods in the direction of an independent bid (“I think there’s probably more dissatisfaction with the two-party system than we have seen in our lifetime”), Practical Bernie seems drawn to the more traditional route.

“How do you run a 50-state strategy if there are states where it’s virtually impossible to get on [the ballot]? And in which you have to have to use huge amounts of resources to get on the damned ballot?

“You want to talk about issues; you want to be out talking to people, not spending half your life trying to get on the ballot.

“The other advantage of running within the Democratic Party –- perhaps as an independent Democrat –- is that you are going to get more media attention, you will be in the debates rather than being on the outside,” Sanders said.

And there is the downside risk that running as an independent in the fall of 2016 could cost the Democrats the White House -– as Sanders has said Ralph Nader’s candidacy did in 2000.

Sanders seems destined instead to spend a lot more time in, say, New Hampshire, next door to his own Vermont.

Another piece of evidence that Sanders is in it for real: He is doing an event at a bookstore in New Hampshire even though, unlike many long-shot candidates, he isn’t hawking a book.

Or unlike a frontrunner who has raked in millions for her new book.

“I’m announcing a book tour without a book,” he said. “How’s that?”

Hillary's Bio Is A Hard Slog, But These Political Memoirs Are Well Worth Your Time

Howard Fineman   |   June 10, 2014    8:45 PM ET

NEW YORK -- Hillary Clinton launched her book tour here amid the screeching of partisan spin and the collective yawn of would-be literary critics in the national political media.

On one level, the initial reception is unfair. Most of the spinners, pro and con, and critics, good and bad, haven’t read the book.

But even those who adore Clinton will have admit that, like the genre of pre-campaign “autobiography” itself, Hard Choices is a hard slog. It’s as engaging and revealing as an up-armored Humvee, which isn’t surprising since the book serves essentially the same purpose, protection.

Which raises several questions: Are there any presidential autobiographies worth reading? How about other writings by presidents? How about good autobiographies by other American politicians? Or books about them and their breed?

Fortunately, good literature and good reads are not totally separate from the topic of U.S. presidents and politics.

There's even one pre-campaign autobiography that is not only a terrific read but the true launching pad of a presidency. It is, of course, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama. He presold the entire story of his life as a narrative of why he was the One We Were Waiting For.

That not all of it was literally true, as we have come to find, is another issue. But it's still a good book.

Here, in no particular order, are some others:

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. His two-volume autobiography is widely considered the best by a president. Written as Grant faced death from throat cancer -- and with Mark Twain as its salesman and perhaps its behind-the-scenes editor -- the book is both respected by historians and admired by critics for its lean, spare style. Among its fans: Gertrude Stein.

George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation; The Journal of Major George Washington. The former contains precepts on how to build character, as copied down by a young Washington. The latter was his report to Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie on his explorations of western Virginia and Pennsylvania. His report not only was useful to the powers that be in Williamsburg; it served as Washington’s advertisement of himself as a man of the West.

The Reagan Diaries. Anyone who thinks Ronald Reagan was an empty-headed actor parroting the scripts of others should read these absorbing, thoughtful, yet unaffected ruminations on the great issues of the time.

The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt; Rough Riders. Roosevelt was a journalist by nature, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has shown. The man could write, and he was an omnivore when it came to history and adventure.

Memoirs by Harry Truman. Truman was a ferocious autodidact with a gift of gab in person and in print. He was also a serious man at a serious time whom his foes made the mistake of underestimating all too often. There is a reason David McCullough became famous writing about Truman: He was a colorful, crucial character.

La Follette's Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences. No one reads it now but they should, since Robert La Follette, the great progressive from Wisconsin, was an eloquent writer whose ideas and career are echoing loudly -- or should -- in today’s politics.

Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, by Harris Wofford. As the title indicates, this unassuming but brilliant observer and politician was close to John F. Kennedy (he was a top leader of the Peace Corps at its creation) and to Martin Luther King Jr., whom he served as an aide and adviser. The book is less about Wofford than about what he saw, which was pretty much everything in that decade. He later became a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary. The late Democratic senator from New York was a professor before he became a politician, and he was incapable of writing or speaking a boring sentence. His academic ideas were influential and controversial -- particularly those about the sociology of poverty -- but his real talent was in applying his encyclopedic sense of history to current events. He never wrote an autobiography, but his letters do the trick.

The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. Still the best inside story of a presidential family. Abigail in particular was a pointed, mordantly observant and vastly influential writer.

Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. Not an elected official, Chambers nevertheless was a central figure in the rise of modern conservatism. His book, which centers on the Alger Hiss spy case of the 1950s, mixes the intensity of detective fiction with spiritual, almost theological ruminations.

Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks. The Great Emancipator did not live to write an autobiography, but contemporary journalist Noah Brooks' dispatches, letters, and personal reminiscences constitute a classic that historians and writers have been mining ever since it was published.

The Prince of Darkness, by Robert Novak. Novak was a reporter in Washington who wrote about politicians for 50 years. He was a conservative, and an ideologue as he grew older, but he was also perhaps the best political street reporter the city has ever seen. His brutally candid autobiography is a gem.

Personal History, by Katharine Graham. Graham wasn’t a politician either, but her newspaper, The Washington Post, made and broke politicians and policies for decades. Her autobiography, which she labored over for years, is the real deal. Anyone who thinks there wasn’t a liberal establishment should read it.

More Political Nonfiction: A Good Life by Ben Bradlee, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer.

Political Fiction: Democracy by Henry Adams, The Congressman who Loved Flaubert and Other Stories by Ward Just, Advise and Consent by Allen Drury.

Hillary Clinton's Game Plan Assumes No Second Obama

Howard Fineman   |   June 9, 2014    7:31 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Based on everything Hillary Clinton has done and said since she left the Obama administration last year, her 2016 campaign strategy is as clear as it is simple. The idea is to not run against another Barack Obama.

In 2008, Clinton thought that it was her time, that she had the right (that is, methodical) plan, and that nobody could out-think or outwork her. Instead, a man she regarded as undeserving rode a wave of disgust with war and Washington to a history-making victory.

This time, she hopes, voters will not be distracted, will reward her diligent, earnest toughness, and will see the logic and justice in helping her to break the Final Glass Ceiling.

And the plan might work.

At least it's hard to find another explanation for the book that goes on sale Tuesday.

Hard Choices is a 2.4-pound, 656-page, team-written campaign document designed, as with all things Hillarian, to armor up against political attacks, tout her policy accomplishments, position her with exquisite tactical precision, and provide her fans with carefully polished vignettes of her private life as a wife, mother and soon-to-be grandma.

Unless you are a huge Hillary fan -- and there are, in fact, millions of them -- or a GOP opposition researcher, the book is about as riveting as yesterday's Federal Register.

It lacks detail about where she wants to take the country, how she proposes to do so, or why the person she is at 66 is suited to be the president she wants to be -- whoever that is. The absence of these elements is itself a political calculation. Too much of that kind of talk would make the book tantamount to a declaration of candidacy -- which, of course, it is, no matter how much the gatekeepers, spinners and Friends of Hillary protest to the contrary.

Clinton is a hardheaded realist, yet also someone who yearns to impose her reformist sense of order on everything, from her husband to health care to a presidential campaign.

Behind the scenes, she can be a very gracious, charming and warm person, but Private Hillary is kept out of view of the hated press by Political Hillary. She and her handlers don't even like positive coverage of Private Hillary if it was created without their input or permission.

Her campaign in 2008 had everything figured out in advance except what it was for, besides getting her elected.

Nothing in Hard Choices indicates that this time around anything will be different -- except, perhaps, the result.

Democrats, especially self-described liberal ones, say they would like to see a real contest for the 2016 nomination, but Clinton is lapping the field in the early Democratic polls. The former secretary of state is a hawk who hangs out with campaign cash bundlers and folks from Goldman Sachs, so she is theoretically vulnerable, especially from her left. But it's not clear who will step up.

Vice President Joe Biden, who has done absolutely nothing to prepare any groundwork for a 2016 run -- and who is widely assumed by his own close associates not to be running -- finishes so far behind Clinton in polls as to be invisible.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who mixes faculty lounge charm with populist instincts and a Boston ward leader's sense of when to pounce, says that she isn't going to run if Clinton does -- even though Warren is obviously aching to do so.

There may be an Obama-esque generational wave lurking in the likes of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, but it's hard to sense it.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders may be in, and the 72-year-old semi-socialist from Brooklyn by way of the University of Chicago and Vermont has a certain gravelly retro appeal. But he's probably not another Barack Obama.

As for the Republicans, Clinton for now leads them all by double digits, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz may have the wherewithal to stampede the entire GOP into a demographic box canyon.

Which would leave Hillary. Which is the plan.

Obama Makes Rare Mention Of Tiananmen On 25th Anniversary

Howard Fineman   |   June 3, 2014    9:00 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- In Castle Square in Warsaw, Poland, President Barack Obama eloquently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the dawn of modern democracy in Eastern Europe.

His Wednesday speech was noteworthy as a whole, especially for Europeans. But in China, President Xi Jinping and his Politburo will focus on just one paragraph, added to the speech in final drafts.

Poland is a "wonderful story," Obama said, "but the story of this nation reminds us that freedom is not guaranteed. On the same day 25 years ago that Poles were voting here, tanks were crushing peaceful democracy protests in Tiananmen Square on the other side of the world. The blessings of liberty must be earned and renewed by every generation -- including our own."

The Chinese masses likely won't see that passage, if they are given any news of the speech at all. But dissidents and those interested in the real history will find it. And the leadership in Beijing is sure to be angry -- privately, if not publicly -- after they've read it.

Tiananmen is the Great Unmentionable in China, its memory scrubbed from history books, the mere discussion of it at a dinner party a dangerous act. No Chinese leader dares talk about it except in quick, dismissive terms as he hurries on to economic issues.

American critics don't often note that, for the most part, our own presidents don't mention Tiananmen either. The very word, so fraught in China and elsewhere, rarely passes their lips.

Recent presidents, especially Obama, have complained about Chinese hackers, Chinese "aggression" in the South China Sea, China's voracious trade practices and sundry other matters. But he and his predecessor, George W. Bush, rarely if ever mentioned the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, according to a Huffington Post survey of official statements. Obama's national security staff could not furnish any example of his having brought it up before as president.

On Wednesday, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to have marked the anniversary in at least 14 years.

Politically, China is a contradiction, mixing top-down one-party control with surging forces of economic and social freedom. It's as though the leaders fear that the very mention of Tiananmen could cause that contradiction to explode. And American presidents -- who want to do business in every sense with China, soon to be the biggest economy in the world -- do not care to risk the possibility that their Chinese counterparts are right.

But having decided to "pivot" toward Asia, and confronting China economically and militarily on a rising number of fronts, the White House concluded it was time to mention the unmentionable. Now officials will wait to see if and how Beijing chooses to react.

In China, dissidents have been jailed and websites widely blocked to avoid comment about Tiananmen. That the Chinese leadership is so fiercely antagonistic to any mention -- let alone serious public investigation -- of the events of a quarter-century ago speaks volumes about the fragility of their system.

Like Deng Xiaoping, who "opened" China to the West in the late 1970s and early 1980s, President Xi is a combination of economic liberalizer and hard-headed foe of the idea of universal human rights, such as free speech, freedom of assembly and the rule of law through an independent national judiciary. Since his ascent in 2012, Chinese dissidents and American experts say, the human rights situation in China has worsened, even as the young generation adopt social media and Internet-based life.

"They are going backwards," said Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China and a lifelong advocate of closer ties to that country. "It's very bleak."

The comparison with a quarter-century ago is illuminating.

Twenty-five years ago this week, a genuinely anguished President George H.W. Bush denounced China for "brutally suppressing popular and peaceful" human rights demonstrations.

A student of China and the first U.S. representative to the People's Republic, Bush had predicted the rise of democracy as the Chinese became more prosperous and market-oriented. Instead, economic reformer Deng, who had once been Mao Zedong's political enforcer, ordered the crackdown.

"The United States cannot condone the violent attacks and cannot ignore the consequences for our relationship with China, which has been built on a broad foundation of support by the American people," a chagrined Bush told reporters in 1989.

He ordered a carefully calibrated series of protest measures, including suspension of weapons exports and visits by military leaders, and a "sympathetic review" of requests by Chinese students to extend their U.S. stays. But Bush One also expressed confidence that China would move past Tiananmen, and he counseled -- inevitably for him -- "prudence."

"I believe the forces of democracy are so powerful," he said, "that they are going to overcome these unfortunate events in Tiananmen Square."

We're still waiting.

David McCabe contributed reporting.

This story has been updated to reflect President Obama's comments on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.

9 Ways China Could Blow It

Howard Fineman   |   May 26, 2014    7:03 PM ET

SHANGHAI -- China’s officials and technocrats -- the latter in their 40s, with degrees from schools such as Stanford, Berkeley and Harvard -- exude an impatient confidence about their country’s future.

They see China becoming the world’s dominant economy at a time when the reigning “hegemon” – the United States -- is losing steam economically and trapped by its divisive politics. According leaders here, the next two decades will bring a period of chaos and conflict -- manageable, they hope, without war -- after which China will be in charge, by default if not by grand design. It's not in China's DNA to want to run the world, but the country's ravenous need for resources, labor and markets may draw it in that direction.

But in between here and there -- if there is going to be a there -- China faces an array of challenges and risks. Since nine is the imperial number, it's appropriate for a list of them:

HUBRIS

The Chinese leadership class is forever telling Americans that they need to be “humble,” and, given the faults of our system and our society, to stop lecturing other countries about morality, democracy and human rights. But as China grows in economic might -- and political clout -- the attitude has gained a bit of an aggressive edge. On a weeklong reporting trip, I was struck by the legacy of anger that remains for some about China's last "two bad centuries," and a sense of righting old wrongs and climbing to the top of not just the Asian global mountain that still pervades. The risk here is fear -- and collective opposition -- worldwide.

TRASH TALKING AMERICA

Despite a claim to a history so long it gives them a unique calm and patience on the world stage, China's leaders today are responding tit-for-tat in an escalating war of words with the U.S. over everything from trade to naval exercises to industrial espionage. The U.S. may be as guilty as China when it comes to playing hardball on all counts, but the aggressive sense of grievance on conspicuous display in Beijing feels like overkill. Leaders mentioned things like President Barack Obama's visit with the Japanese emperor, U.S. support for the Dalai Lama, and what they insist are unfounded charges of cyber espionage. The Chinese boast that they know much more about America than we do about China, but that really isn't saying much. And if China is headed to hegemony, its educated leaders need to calm down.

INFLAMING THE NEIGHBORS

The challenge closer at hand for China is to continue investing in and trading with the rest of Asia, without creating resentment and violent backlash. Riots recently exploded in Vietnam over a Chinese oil-drilling rig in the South China Sea, and the Chinese are resented and feared in places like Cambodia -- even though China feels it's doing the locals there a favor with its participation in the economy. As for Japan, the Chinese government is licensing -- and promoting -- a sweeping domestic propaganda campaign that taps into deep-seated hatred of the Japanese. The risk: a hot naval war with Japan that could involve the U.S.

POLLUTION

The foul, dangerous and impenetrable air that usually hangs over Beijing, Shanghai and other cities isn’t just an environmental and medical threat, it is also a political one. Populist resentment of all kinds is real and growing in China, and some of it is caused by and aimed at environmental privilege. In Beijing, talk is rife of well-connected officials and business big shots who manage to get their kids into schools with domed outdoor playing fields. The better-paid managers get to work in offices and buildings with special air purification systems. Not everyone can afford it, and those who can't could someday do what the Politburo most fears: become a public protest crowd, and head for Tiananmen Square.

CORRUPTION AND INCOME INEQUALITY

Technocrats here dismiss the notion that China is vulnerable to Thomas Piketty-type attacks, on the theory that even though the income gap is growing, income growth at the bottom is rising (just not as quickly). That may be true, but perceptions matter, especially in a society obsessed with social rank. That's why President Xi Jinping began his term with a loud and effective attack on the most visible signs of official corruption -- things like lavish, expense account-enabled "gifting exchanges" (I’ll give you a Rolex if you give me a Piaget”), meals at French restaurants and lavish lakeside private parties. There have been warnings to cool it -- even to Xi's family. But having launched his crusade, he can't stop now. The deeper he goes, the more entrenched interests and resentful foes he attacks.

ECONOMY 2.0

China's planners are confident, with good reason, that even if the nation doesn’t grow at double-digit rates, it will maintain its steady upward path by turning to a service economy enabled by ITC, e-commence and social media. They are probably right, but they are also dealing with a revolution of rising expectations: The “90s generation,” iPhones wired to their ears, expect more -- maybe more than the country can provide. And China still needs physical resources and cheap labor, both of which are becoming scarcer. China will be moving increasingly out into the world to fulfill the needs of further growth. The world will want the business; China, which recently bought the United States' largest pork producer, is literally eating our lunch. But when does serious resentment and fear set in? The answer: In the United States, it already has.

UIGHURS AND TERRORISM

For the first time in recent memory, locals say, members of the People's Liberation Army showed up on prominent street corners in Shanghai last week, with rifles at the ready as they surveyed the crowds. The reason, apparently, was concern over terrorists far to the west in the autonomous Xinjiang region, where attackers in the capital of Urumqi killed 31 and injured more than 90 when they drove through a busy market while throwing explosives. The government has launched a huge "crackdown" in the wake of the attack, and it seems to have the backing of the average citizens. The measures are expected to be harsh. But with the response comes a risk: China could turn into something it so far has avoided becoming -- a serious Al Qaeda target.

DEMOCRATIC FREEDOMS

Proudly (though somewhat defensively at times), Chinese intellectuals and officials alike say that American-style democracy is neither a personal right nor a system that would work in China. Indeed, they insist that their top-down system of unelected Socialist control overseeing a thriving market economy is showing itself to be superior when it comes to producing on-the-ground results. But at the same time, these people counsel patience, saying that in a decade or two China will be much freer, more open and more democratic. In other words, critics have a point. China's never going to be a Jeffersonian society, but the skyrocketing growth of the Internet has created a new generation that is used to being able to find information -- real information -- anywhere and at any time. Can the country's leadership balance a Confucianism "know thy place" ethos with the "anything goes" mentality of net-baed consumerism and expanded political expression? It's not clear.

IDENTITY CRISIS

For thousands of years, China has been content to define itself with its written language, its court-based Confucianism, and an inward-looking faith that the Middle Kingdom was the only world the Chinese needed to know. They felt no need to explain themselves to anyone -- even, often, themselves. China just WAS, and it was beyond the ken of leaders and people there that others didn't see its superiority. Today, China can no longer take that attitude. It needs to explain itself to the world if it is to play the global leadership role that may be its destiny. But to do that, the Chinese have to decide who they are in the 21st century. What is their message to and for the planet, other than the clear virtue of an engine of material progress that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty? Speaking from its heart to the world has never been China's strength, but it must now, for the sake of everyone Under Heaven.

China Is Made For E-Commerce

Howard Fineman   |   May 25, 2014   10:26 AM ET

SHANGHAI -- People wonder what China will do for an economic encore after three decades of nuts-and-bolts industrial growth. But all you need to do is look at your smartphone to find the answer.

It’s ITC, e-commerce and social media. This ancient society is an ideal growth medium for all three.

In America, we favor the "genius in the garage" theory of the 21st century economy: Our great universities will churn out a new Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and we will be fine.

But connectivity is the new engine, and China is a monument to it. Profit in this new economy is less a matter of quantum leaps of innovative imagination than of the steady build-out of systems and methods for extending communication. In China, a nation of 1.3 billion people, the historic burden of vast size and population has become what Adam Smith would call a comparative advantage.

The ancient Chinese built a network of transportation canals that in that day were far ahead of anything else in the world. Now, having poured vast sums into physical infrastructure, with more to come, the nation can draw on its supply of labor to handle the fast-delivery requirements of e-commerce.

Companies such as Weibo, WeChat and Huawei -- just to mention three of the dozens rising here -- are creating and riding a wave as China expands its own digital systems and uses the momentum of that growth to expand worldwide.

It’s probably too late for American companies to get a truly major piece of the action on all of this; the Chinese tech companies are now moving too fast, and government restrictions on solo foreign investment remain too daunting. Chinese companies are headed to Wall Street for more backing, and their success so far means that they will get financing from around the world to expand their reach.

With even more money to spend, China doesn’t mind if it relies on “technology transfer” -- purchased legally or otherwise. There's a reputation that some here are not too proud to buy, steal or copy ideas. But, the nation is increasingly relying on home-grown engineering talent to handle the prosaic but essential tasks of building networks, writing code and designing sites and apps to meet the gargantuan needs for a digital society here.

Huawei is an example.

The telecom giant's research headquarters here have the super-secure, vaguely ominous aura of a military contractor -- a kind of Lockheed Martin of the East.

The long, glass-walled corridors are empty, the floors carefully polished, and few people can be found on the crosswalks that traverse an atrium. Nothing is out of place anywhere. You don’t see any of the 10,000 engineers at work when you are invited to a conference room with plush chairs and TV screens.

Huawei isn’t a government contractor, and isn’t even owned by the government in a country described by its new-generation leaders as a “Confucian socialist state.”

It’s a private company, founded by one man, Ren Zhengfei, and owned by its employees, including him. Whether it is truly “private” or not is up for debate, but in the end a meaningless question. Ren is a veteran of China's army, and the company has close ties to the government.

Huawei tried to buy an American company but was rebuffed. No matter. They are moving ahead on their own, with their own.

Meanwhile, the Chinese will buy imagination if they can’t supply it themselves. Here in Shanghai -- a cosmopolitan city that has a Western feel -- planners are hoping to attract creative talent from around the world to live and work.

If they can’t beat Silicon Valley, they can at least try to import a version of it.

China's Love-Hate Relationship With America

Howard Fineman   |   May 21, 2014    9:13 AM ET

BEIJING –- The Chinese love to balance contradictions. They’ve been doing it for millennia. The newest and most compelling one is their intensifying love-hate view of America.
 
This isn’t just a sociological curiosity. Getting beyond simplistic, emotional yin yang to a serious, nuanced and adult relationship is crucial, not only for the two most important economies on earth, but also for the world.
 
Right now the Chinese leadership and much of the population of this country of 1.3 billion are trying to decide just how angry they should be at the United States government.
 
The answer seems to be: a lot.
 
Everyone from top-ranking government officials to the average TV news-watcher in the hinterlands thinks that President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to the East is actually code for trying to “contain,” harass and hem in China -- even as China protests that it doesn't have and never has had expansionist goals.
 
As if by rote, well-informed Chinese people in Beijing can and do tick off the old list of perceived slights that preceded the “pivot”: support for the Dalai Lama, for Taiwan, for Tibet, for Falun Gong. But those are the appetizers.
 
Now they are apoplectic about Obama’s recent high-profile moves to be pals with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whom the Chinese regard as a war criminal by proxy for his refusal to apologize for Japanese atrocities in China before and during World War II.
 
Chinese leaders for some time have been whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment, and now the U.S. has come to be seen as the unindicted co-conspirator with China’s longtime enemy.
 
Leading national television news shows -- think of CNN with an audience 10 times the size -- feature a non-stop diet of anti-Japanese and now anti-American stories and rhetoric.
 
The ratings are through the roof, according to knowledgeable sources.
 
On the Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter (both blocked in China), paid, anonymous supporters of the government line attack critics by referring to them as “American dogs” or “Japanese bastards” -- and they link the two.
 
The Chinese, who tend to think that everything has a complex, hidden explanation, see the recent, deadly anti-Chinese riots as at least in part the product of American instigation. Officials refer vaguely but ominously to unseen “parties and forces” that work in Vietnam these days.
 
Neither do they like the president’s show of support for the Philippines, which has long-running territorial disputes with China over the sea between them.
 
Now comes the unexpected U.S. indictment of five Chinese army members on industrial espionage charges. On one level, the move by Attorney General Eric Holder is a silly exercise; there is no chance the officers will be tried in U.S. courts.
 
The Chinese know this and see it as a legal Kabuki (all makeup and no real blood). Everyone knows their idea of “technology transfer” includes outright theft, and the U.S. and China have been in talks about this -- and what the U.S. does from its side -- for months, if not years.
 
But it would be wrong to dismiss the anger here as entirely for show. They hate to be surprised -- as they were in this case. And they hate even more to be shown up, to lose face.

In person, top Chinese officials project an aura of calm and confidence they regard as appropriate for the operational descendants of emperors. But in fact they can be thin-skinned and, like the emperors, never publicly admit they are wrong.

From the Chinese point of view, the Obama administration was going out of its way to make them look bad, and they hate it.
 
But even as all of this is going on in the world of diplomacy and politics, the Chinese are also becoming evermore enamored of all things American -- and America itself.
 
A new generation is rising that has learned to expect material prosperity, a greater sense of web-enabled freedom (every knows how to get around the censors if they want to), and with parents who themselves grew up after the sacrifices and hardship of the Cultural Revolution.
 
This more freedom-loving and entrepreneurial generation is obsessed, at its more educated levels, with America. 
 
They still listen to Korean pop and follow Korean fashion, but if they are serious about planning their lives to thrive in China, they feel they need to understand and emulate America to do so.
 
At a branch of Ritan High School here, I asked a group of 10 students how many of them wanted to go to college in the U.S. Five of the oldest said they did; some of the others weren’t far enough along to have gotten to the point of deciding.
 
“I want to go because I can get a better education there, and then a better job here,” said one student, who said he hoped to study at Yale University.
 
Legions of "tiger" moms and dads in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong are even deciding to send their kids to American prep schools.
 
Singer and TV host Kelly Cha is launching a show on a popular online channel here that will cover American pop trends every day.

Entrepreneur River Lu, who studied languages at the Monterey Institute before returning to China, is a dedicated fan of Ayn Rand and wants to build a business explaining one culture to the other. The Chinese obsession with "House of Cards" is well-known, but Lu said she doesn’t like the show because it shows too dark a picture of American politics -- and all politics.
 
“I liked 'West Wing' much better,” she said. “It’s more positive.”
 
The younger generation’s interest -- even obsession -- with America isn’t fundamentally about politics, though.
 
Rather, it is about making a living, about entrepreneurship. In part because they know technological ways around it, they don’t for the most part stress about censorship -- and they don’t particularly want to make an issue of it.
 
They want to start their own businesses and live their own lives as they wish.
 
From The Little Red Book to The Fountainhead in three generations: Is this a great country, or what?

What Tiananmen Square?

Howard Fineman   |   May 20, 2014    9:44 PM ET

BEIJING –- Twenty-five years ago, anti-government protesters were gathering force in a movement that would end in a bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square.

Protestors were seeking a more open, Western-style society, with real guarantees of free speech, independent courts and other human rights regarded as universal by much of the world.

They lost, and a still unacknowledged number of them died at the hands of the country’s own People’s Liberation Army.

But a quarter-century later, people in Beijing seem genuinely if somewhat uneasily oblivious to the anniversary, and largely convinced that the China that has arisen in the intervening years justifies the course chosen by the leaders then.

The consensus -– based on interviews with a range of intellectuals, artists, journalists, politicians, government officials and nongovernmental organization leaders –- is that the astonishing economic growth since 1989 was due largely to party leaders, who succeeded in creating and providing Western-level material comforts to hundreds of millions of Chinese.

For now, at least, the material has long since trumped the abstract -– many would say the fundamentally moral. But especially after two centuries of war and turmoil –- everything from foreign invasions to famine and their own Cultural Revolution -– leaders made a bet that what their people most wanted was order, bland politics and prosperity.

They now have all three.

Not taking any chances, a leadership still paranoid about anti-government street movements has taken extra steps to ensure that dissidents are nowhere to be seen, according to numerous press reports in Western media.

But the mood on the streets of Beijing looks to a visitor’s eye and sounds to a visitor’s ear worried not about the issues of Tiananmen, but the more prosaic ones of corporate jobs, quality of schools, the quality of the air and water, the price of rent and new homes and all the other everyday concerns of a modern, prosperous society.

“Frankly, I didn’t even think of the date of June 4 approaching,” said Tara Wang, a successful businesswoman in Beijing who at one point earlier in her life was very much attuned to the issues being raised by the protestors. “I’m too busy.”

As they see their recent history, Chinese officials compare their country's material success and sense of well-being with the chaos, political disorder and rocky economic record of the countries that comprised the collapsed Soviet empire.

As they see it, Communist leaders there did not have the guts to shut down Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform movement. That is the view expressed publicly by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We are not the Soviet Union,” one official said, by way of justifying the tough line on dissent that continues to this day.

But since Tiananmen, the leadership has learned how to mix constant vigilance with more leeway for debate and disagreement in a society that, after all, is worlds away from the days of emperors and the Confucian dictate to “know your place.”

True, the Chinese currently are blocking The New York Times and Bloomberg News websites, and block Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other non-Chinese social media for a mixture of economic and political reasons. Media continue to be censored -– mostly self-censored by a vast and even growing bureaucracy that now not only monitors social media, but also pays citizens to propagandize on it.

But as long as they don’t try to turn their protests into fundamental political movements, the Chinese are free –- increasingly riotously so -– to debate and protest local and even national matters involving everything from taxation to land sales to government corruption to the environment.

“The shape of public debate and media is like a bottle with a big bottom and a tight neck,” said Wang. “The big part is domestic and local; the constricted part is to the rest of the world.”

The new prosperity -– the Chinese are always bragging that they are about to become the biggest economy in the world -– has given them more to talk about at home as they debate the course of a nation that is now a global player.

How they do that without a truly free flow of information from and to the rest of the world is a mystery. They probably can't do it that way.

But they are going to try.

Howard Fineman   |   May 19, 2014    2:19 PM ET

BEIJING -- At lunch, a slightly built man named Ma Jun hunches over his iPad. The screen is cracked, but you can still see what he is showing you: a small but potentially crucial early step in China's monumental struggle with pollution.

With masses of data wrested from government records at all levels, and with reports from and about major companies, Ma has created easy-to-use, simply designed real-time apps that show:


  • A weather map-like display of particulate pollution levels in 300 cities throughout China on an hourly basis
  • A map of the power plants and factories that are prolific sources of pollution of all kinds in China, and how well they are doing in meeting government standards
  • A constantly updated list of companies ranked in order of how transparent and cooperative they are on environmental issues, and how well they monitor their manufacturing processes and those of their suppliers.

The apps are available for Android, and are coming soon to the iPhone.

"We hope that transparency will help people and get them involved," Ma explained. "There are tough environmental laws on the books, but they are not enforced, especially at the provincial and local level. If we can show people what is happening, they can begin to take action."

By his reckoning, some of the best corporate citizens in China include Apple, Walmart and General Electric. Some of the worst include Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria's Secret and J.C. Penney.

Apple used to be one of the worst, he said, in terms of transparency, cooperation and monitoring, but they have had a corporate change of heart that's since vaulted them to the top.

China's environmental problems are obvious and well known, but so gargantuan that they still have the capacity to shock.

The economy's rampant industrial growth is largely powered by coal, which has turned the air in China's cities into a visible soup of carbon and sulfur, mixed with microparticles that are especially dangerous to the lungs and cardiovascular systems of children and the elderly.

The situation is so bad that Ma's first idea was simply to provide what amounted to a health service for city folk: a handy way they could use their smartphones to see whether it was OK for their children to go outside to play soccer.

But the notion was consistent with a larger and more powerful force taking hold in China on environmental and other issues: the Internet's ability to influence a government that is autocratic, but in its own way responsive.

Ma's system is drawing volunteers and data-seekers to his cause. Even provincial governments, though often resistant to change and beholden to the newly thriving corporate manufacturing sector, have decided that it is smart politics to play ball.

Corporate and political corruption is rampant in China. But the country invented bureaucracy millennia ago, and it turns out that it possesses substantial and often valuable data.

Ma says he has amassed 140,000 records of pollution cases and other material.

He began his effort in 2006, but the turning point, for him and the government, came in 2011, after a series of particularly severe air pollution alerts in Beijing and other cities. The leaden air, a thick brownish yellow, forced people indoors for days on end.

At the same time, a series of environmental disasters around the country were getting increasing attention, the news spread by social media word-of-mouth too powerful and too widespread for the government to censor.

And, said Ma, it seems clear that the government itself has realized that pollution is a greater threat to the long-term health and stability of the country than whatever short-term political damage the government might suffer from being more candid.

"This is a long-term issue in so many ways," said Ma. "It is a health issue, and a cost issue. If more people get lung cancer and other ailments, it will cost the state more money in the long run."

And environmental activism is not an obvious and direct threat to the rule of the Communist Party, or to China's sense of how it wants to run things. "It doesn't attack the system directly, so it can be tolerated, even encouraged," a local political activist told me privately this week.

Ma's earlier concern was water pollution, which he sees as a much more difficult problem than air pollution. "If we do the right things we can turn the sky blue again," he said. "But water pollution, especially in aquifers, can be irreversible."

Ma wrote a pioneering book about water pollution in China more than a decade ago, and went on to study at the law and forestry schools at Yale.

He realized that the American system allowed environmentalists and individuals harmed by pollution to sue those responsible, and that the courts were a major enforcement tool.

He says he wants to do the same thing in China, if and when the Chinese court system achieves the kind of independence that would allow it to take on entrenched local and provincial power.

In the meantime, he will work to provide real-time information about pollution and polluters.

Middle Kingdom In The Middle

Howard Fineman   |   May 19, 2014    9:43 AM ET

BEIJING -- Vladimir Putin is coming to China this week. So is Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary general of the United Nations. Not to mention Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran.

Shanghai is the place to be. But does it know where it's going?

Elsewhere in the vicinity, unplanned events are also making news. China is evacuating thousands of its nationals from Vietnam, where they have become targets of attacks after China moved its largest drilling rig into a stretch of the South China Sea that Vietnam regards as its own.

Experts I spoke with here said they see the “hand” of President Barack Obama -- he of the “pivot” to Asia -- behind growing resource disputes with Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines over who gets to drill and fish where in nearby seas.

The sense of flux at home is equally compelling. A leading poll taker in the country, Victor Yuan, says that Chinese millennials -- born after the Cultural Revolution and an era of constant war -- are both intensely nationalistic and uniquely (by Chinese standards) individualistic.

“They don’t accept authority,” he said, “from the government, from their own family, from society as a whole.”

That attitude, in turn, threatens centuries-old social habits in China, which has for eons depended on family ties, respect for elders, and a Confucian sense of community to keep the society together when its political system periodically collapsed.

First impressions matter, and mine -- on my first visit since 1997 -- is of the oldest and in many ways most remarkable, successful culture and country on earth rising in power and wealth, yet having no idea whatsoever of where it is headed.

It has been centuries since the Chinese felt so powerful -- but also so besieged and confused about where their nation fits into the world order. Here in China, they substitute bragging about bigness for a sense of direction. The people, who love moments of demarcation, are obsessed with figuring out the exact moment when their country’s economy will overtake that of the United States in size. Size matters, but can it tell us about China’s place in the world, and what does it mean to be a citizen of China in the 21st century?

China has never been an expansionist power in the Western sense, but its economic and energy needs are turning it into one. Experts here say that within 10 years, China will consume more than 20 percent of the world’s energy resources. And you don’t lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty -- as China has done in the last 30 years -- without causing havoc somewhere.

China’s Asian neighbors, at turns respectful and resentful of the Middle Kingdom, are becoming more fearful even as they become more dependent on Chinese capital and markets. It doesn’t take any cheerleading or scheming by President Obama to turn the other countries in the neighborhood wary.

But when it comes to asserting its dominance, I believe the experts I met here, who said that the last thing that China wants is war -- if for no other reason than after decades of a one-child policy, every Chinese mother has become a silent but dedicated anti-war activist.

“Those mothers don’t want their only sons to go to war,” said Huiyao Wang, the vice chairman of the Western Returned Scholars Association.

At first glance, the alternative to the politically troublesome exploitation of the oil and gas beneath the South China Sea is to rely more heavily on energy resources from Russia. That is why the Chinese will roll out the red carpet -- cautiously -- for the Russian president when he arrives on Tuesday. The expectation is that he and President Xi Jinping will announce a big natural gas deal, one that will lessen Russian dependence on European markets.

But China needs energy from both Russia and the South China Sea -- and elsewhere, too. It needs new sea routes and allies, and will increasingly have to play a role that it has shunned for millennia: aggressive global power.

According to pollster Yuan, young Chinese citizens are eager to see their country take on a more assertive role in the world.

“They are very nationalistic,” he said. They are eager to criticize Japan -- a historic antagonist -- and even respond positively to military generals ranting on TV about the need to build up China's power.

But do these youths know the implications of what they are cheerleading for? Are they serious?

Experts here told me that the government is wary of doing too much to encourage nationalist sentiment among the young, lest it get them too excited and emotional about politics. So bellicose statements for world domination aside, the state-controlled Chinese media are not busy whipping up anti-Vietnamese sentiment at home.

The ruling Communist Party -- now renamed “The Party in Power” -- prefers that young people not think about politics at all. And most don’t, according to Yuan.

In fact, a new militarism could run smack into the new generation’s very un-Chinese sense of individual autonomy. It is more distant, experts say, than any previous generation from a sense of family destiny and communal obligation.

The younger Chinese generation knows that it is headed somewhere important; they just don’t know where that actually is, or quite how to get there.

The GOP Is Headed To Where Trey Gowdy Is From

Howard Fineman   |   May 9, 2014    1:41 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Today’s Republican Party was born in and still pivots around upstate South Carolina, which is why the GOP’s choice of Rep. Trey Gowdy as its congressional poster boy for 2014 explains everything about the party’s midterm election strategy: to burrow into its base, its roots, in an act of mass political cocooning.

Democrats should not assume that this strategy won't work in what is likely to be a low-turnout election.

A former state and federal prosecutor from Spartanburg, South Carolina, the 49-year-old Gowdy has the temperament, credentials and background that fit the angry, accusatory mood of GOP’s conservative faithful, who see the federal government the same way John C. Calhoun saw it two centuries ago: as an evil and a threat to the local way of life.

The Calhoun tradition infused the likes of such fellow South Carolinians as Sen. Strom Thurmond, whose 1948 Dixiecrat campaign presaged Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy”; textile magnate Roger Milliken, who was a founding patron of Bill Buckley's National Review; the late GOP strategist and party chairman Lee Atwater, who played the race-and-culture card to devastating effect against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988; and former Sen. Jim DeMint, who has turned the Heritage Foundation into a tea party agitprop machine.

When Gowdy challenged a GOP incumbent for his congressional seat in 2010, he did so with DeMint’s blessing. Gowdy is now skilled at the inside game: He says nice things about his fellow South Carolina Republican, and tea party bête noire, Sen. Lindsey Graham. But Gowdy himself is a pure tea party thinker: an anti-abortion, tough-on-immigration “constitutionalist” who thinks that President Barack Obama is a lawless, power-mad enemy of freedom.

For nearly two years, he has been the designated legal attack dog on the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi controversies. This week he became chairman of a new Benghazi select committee, making him de facto leader of the GOP’s strategy to whip those issues into an apocalyptic constitutional narrative.

Experts say that Gowdy, a savvy lawyer, has plenty of legal maneuvers to exploit. No one expects him and his GOP colleagues to be done with their work before the midterms -- or even, necessarily before, 2016.

Also this week, the House voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt over her refusal to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Gowdy sits on that committee, too.

The next step is for the House to refer the matter to the U.S. attorney in Washington, Ronald Machen Jr., who must in turn decide whether to bring the matter to a grand jury to seek an indictment. In recent decades the U.S. attorney has been thought to have some leeway in whether to seek an indictment following a congressional contempt holding. But experts expect Machen, a shrewd player, not to attempt to short-circuit the process.

“I think he takes it to the grand jury,” said Stan Brand, a leading attorney practicing at the nexus of congressional investigations and criminal law.

If the grand jury indicts (as would be likely), Lerner would then go to trial on a federal misdemeanor charge of failing to answer the House subpoena when she refused to testify. The issue would be whether she had waived her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when she made opening statements at a House Oversight Committee hearing. Gowdy said that she had.

“That will be up to the federal judge to decide, if Machen does what I think he will,” Brand said.

Throughout that legal process, expect Gowdy and Company to publicly rehash the underlying issue in the matter: the extent to which the IRS did or did not disproportionately investigate the tax-exempt status of tea party groups.

But Gowdy’s main focus going forward will be Benghazi. He will likely issue subpoena after subpoena. Former White House aides will claim executive privilege and refuse to testify about events while they were working for Obama. Gowdy will attempt to test the limits of that argument.

Expect him to try to call a long list of witnesses, from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to current Secretary of State John Kerry, to White House national security adviser Susan Rice, to White House speechwriter and Benghazi talking-points coach Ben Rhodes.

Is any of this going to matter in November?

The so-so economy and weak job growth remain far and away the top issues of concern to American voters. Other polls show that Republicans and independents are already well versed on Benghazi in particular. More partisan polls show the same for the IRS issue.

But the Gowdy Show isn’t only or even so much about polls and the fine points of field strategy.

This is an emotional, even psychological strategy. South Carolina is the political ground zero of a certain way of thinking, and the concentric rings reach out to virtually the entire Republican Party today and the allied media that support it.

And there are just enough loose threads in both issues for a tenacious prosecutor like Gowdy to grab hold of. Who told White House officials that the Benghazi attack was the spontaneous result of anger about a YouTube video? Was Lerner in league with anyone elsewhere in the IRS?

It all makes sense if you know where Trey Gowdy is coming from.