“Democalypse” or “Ass-Whuppin’?”

Jon Stewart and W. Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, respectively, were both right. The biggest debate in the wake of Tuesday’s Republican victory was what to call it: a wave, a sweep, a tsunami, whatever.

Call it what you will, it was impressive: seven, possibly eight Senate seats, (twice the post-WorldWar II average for a President’s party in the sixth year of a second term,) up to 15 House seats, a working majority in both houses for the first time sine 2,006. Divided government, here we come!

Throw in gubernatorial victories in certifiably blue states like Maryland, and there is a whole lot of shakin’ going on.

What was behind it? Republicans, shrewdly, spent tens of millions on ads demonizing President Obama and tying Democratic candidates to him. News organizations bought into the depiction of Obama’s unpopularity, repeated it again and again, and presto! His poll numbers plummeted and Democratic candidates ran for the exits.

Inexplicably, Democrats failed to fight back, failed to embrace Obama’s accomplishments in the economy and healthcare, failed to stress the things that have gone right in contrast to those that have not. There are two sides to every story but only one was featured on the airwaves.

Instead, many Democratic candidates distanced themselves from the President, floating in a neutral ether that was self-defeating on election day.

What now? In dueling news conferences yesterday, the soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the President laid out their priorities for the next two years. McConnell’s list included energy legislation, trade agreements and corporate tax reform. Obama: jobs, raising the minimum wage, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and early childhood education.

Not identical lists to be sure, but there is significant overlap and real possibilities of progress if House Speaker John Boehner can use his enhanced majority to keep his own caucus in line. Stay tuned on that one.

The President even offered to drink a little Kentucky bourbon with McConnell and lose, again, to Beohner in golf, if that is what it takes to “get stuff done.”

Looking further ahead to 2016: the only real message to presumed candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush or Rand Paul was a cautionary one. The political waters are roiled and dangerous. You’d best get an early start, probably earlier than you would choose, raise vast sums of money and pay attention to a public mood that is grumpy at best. As Tuesday showed, it is not going to be a cakewalk for anyone

Mid-term Madness

Mid-term elections are the constitutionally-mandated pause that refreshes in our political system.

Voters get a chance in the middle of a President’s first or second term to either ratify the status-quo or change it, sometimes dramatically. The 1994 Mid-terms were a classic example of the second type, a seismic political event: Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years and Newt Gingrich gave us the famous Contract with America. It didn’t last: very little of the famous “Contract” was ever put in force, but it shook up the political establishment.

This year could be equally dramatic. With less than three weeks to go, look at what hangs in balance:
–Majority control of the Senate.
–The struggle for the heart of the Republican party, between the centrist establishment, which is more right than ever, and the Tea Party Right, which is more aggressive than ever.
–The fate of President Obama’s final two years in office and his prospects for appointing a new Attorney General and possibly, a Supreme Court Justice.
–Progress — or the lack of it — on major issues like immigration reform, health care implementation, corporate tax reform, just to name three.
–The agenda for a lame-duck session of Congress after the election and, of course, the mid-terms will set the stage for the Presidential election in 2016.

When you consider all that, it is no surprise that the PACs and Super PACs, the so-called “dark money,” have spent record amounts: more than a quarter-billion dollars so far, and still counting. That’s on the right and left combined. That does not count the amounts that the campaigns have raised and spent directly for their candidates.

Some commentators have compared this mid-term election to a Seinfeld episode, that is, about nothing. I don’t think people would be spending all that money if it was about nothing.

Look briefly at what is at stake: Republicans need to pick up six seats to gain a single-vote majority in the Senate. Focusing on the marquee races in key states, like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina, the Republicans have a better-than-even chance of picking up four or five. Six will be a stretch, but it is possible, maybe even likely at this point.

There is a broad, anti-Washington sentiment among the public today that endangers incumbents generally. Congress is down to single digits in the public opinion polls. Little has been accomplished on Capitol Hill and the public knows it.

If the Republicans control both houses, they are going to move to roll back corporate taxes, EPA regulations, defund Obamacare, etc. The President will get out his veto pen and the gridlock will continue.

On the other hand, gridlock is what we have now. We are a divided country these days, so we have divided government.

The House seems certain to stay Republican, very possibly with an increased GOP majority. Earlier in the election season, John Boehner appeared to be in trouble, but his job seems safe now.

The Tea Party has largely failed to dislodge the more centrist establishment candidates in primaries in Mississippi and other states. But in the process, they have moved the whole Republican Party to the right, so the middle isn’t the middle in the GOP anymore, it is to the right of center.

President Obama has already said he would like to pursue immigration reform and other priorities in his remaining two years in office. At this point, it looks as though he will have to fall back on executive orders and actions that don’t require Congressional approval even more than he has in the last two years.

On foreign policy, he may be pushed by a more conservative congress to harden his line against Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But he and Congress are probably closer together on these issues than on domestic topics.

Looking ahead to 2016, the outcome of the midterms will give us a temperature check on the mood of the country and could influence the choice of the Republican candidate. At the moment, Jeb Bush seems to be the choice of establishment republicans, but Marco Rubio represents a younger generation and Rand Paul is a wild card in the GOP picture.

Hillary Clinton seems to be the prohibitive favorite at this point for the Democratic nomination, assuming her health holds up. Imagine: another Bush-Clinton race. Seems odd in a country of 330 million, that we can’t come up with some other names.

The Fire Next Time

For the record books, the U.S. military involvement in Iraq is over.

The last units withdrew from Iraq into Kuwait just before Christmas. The only uniformed American military personnel still in Iraq are the roughly 200 members of an Office of Security Cooperation lodged in the American Embassy that is supposed to coordinate arms sales and supplies to the Iraqi military.

Substantial numbers of ostensibly civilian contractors remain to train Iraqi forces, and the C.I.A. has a significant counter-terrorism presence in-country. The State Department is operating one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world in Baghdad, but the number of American combat forces in Iraq is zero.

How long will it stay that way?

The Iraq that the US. has left behind is unraveling faster than even the skeptics in Washington and European capitals feared. The administration of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki is adopting heavy-handed policies that seem designed to strengthen his position by dividing the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.

The Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, is essentially on the run, accused by al-Maliki of enlisting personal bodyguards to run a death squad. The capital is on fire from suicide bombs and explosions that have killed scores. And on Monday, a group of Iraqi lawmakers associated with the militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for the dissolution of parliament and new elections within six months.

The violence and political infighting that have followed the U.S. withdrawal may have may have predictable, but it is not a pretty picture. And it has already led a chorus of conservative critics in the U.S., led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, to renew their attacks on President Obama for failing to leave a residual force on the ground on Iraq.

The Administration’s response has been to point out that Iraq suffered similar and even worse violence and political chaos while large-scale American forces were there, so it is not logical to expect that a smaller residual force could prevent it now.

The challenge for Iraq is to work its way through this mess, using more political means than military, and to avoid outright civil war.

The challenge for the United States, now that it is out militarily, is to stay out. There are still some 40,000 U. S. military personnel in the Persian Gulf region, including the ground combat unit just across the border in Kuwait that was the last to leave Iraq. If the chaos in Iraq continues or grows, there are going to be calls to go back in to restore order.

President Obama is said to be adamantly against any re-introduction of U.S. forces. Politically, it would seem to be madness for him to even consider it. He got elected on a promise to end the war in Iraq. He could hardly run for re-election reversing that stance. Famously, he argued during the 2008 campaign that it had been “dumb” to go into Iraq in the first place. Surely it would be “dumber” to go back.

The chances that President Obama would re-insert any American troops in the foreseeable future seem slim to none. But the chance that several of the Republican Presidential candidates might call upon him to do so is much greater. They are a bellicose bunch, with the exception of Ron Paul, as evidenced by their calls to attack Iran to prevent it from achieving nuclear weapons. Should a suicide bomber attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, or the U.S. civilian personnel still posted there, the chorus could well arise.  That would be the “dumbest.”


I took a break from the endless debt-ceiling debate over the weekend.

We attended a wedding in Massachusetts, stopped by the wonderful FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park on the way back to Washington and even dug into some family roots around Morristown, NJ. Five days on the road, mostly away from television news and the back-and-forth between Obama and Boehner. It was a relief, frankly.

I fully expected that the crisis would be history by the time I returned last night. But no, the President and the Republican leaders in Congress are still standing firm and the clock is ticking more loudly as default approaches.

What are they thinking?

Politically, this standoff is a loser for both sides. Pubic confidence in that fictional monolith, “Washington, ” has never been lower. Of course the markets are nervous, the dollar is falling and gold is adding value every day.

What are they thinking?

It is sheer folly to believe that voters will reward one side or the other.. All the public opinion surveys show that Americans want a solution that avoids a destructive default, even with a compromise that involves tax increases or spending cuts that they might not fully support. The message to Congress and the President is clear: “Get it done.”

What are they thinking?

Instead, “compromise” has become a dirty word, a sign of political weakness, at least in the minds of those being asked to accommodate. Can they really believe they will be applauded for standing firm? Politically, it seems suicidal.

Never in the 40 years that I have been writing about Washington has the atmosphere been so poisonous, the language so bitter, the vision so blinkered, the concern for the national good so — dare I say it? — compromised. I recognize that the debt and deficit are important issues. Not nearly as important as jobs and the economy, but significant for the much-advertised “full faith and credit” of the United States.

It seems like sheer folly to diddle with dollar. The most creative idea I read over the weekend was to do away with the debt ceiling altogether. There is no requirement in the constitution that we impose one. Many nations do well without one. But that idea is not on the table.

What are they thinking?

TERENCE SMITH is a journalist. His website is terencefsmith.com



There was no way that President Obama could win with his speech last night on Afghanistan.

His compromise drawdown–10,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year, 23,000 more by the end of next summer– was bound to disappoint the McCain School, the military men who want to keep as many boots on the ground as possible, and the Biden School, which wants to sharply reduce the U.S. footprint in favor of targeted, counter-terrorist strikes. The first group wanted a nominal, 3,000-5,000 troop withdrawal over time, the second a major, swift, pullout.

Obama himself may even have been disappointed, since he knows that the 10-year-old Afghanistan war is now inescapably his war.

“Tonight, “ the President said from the East Room, “we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.” His lack of conviction as he delivered that statement was revealing. He must know that under the long goodbye he articulated last night, it will be a very long war indeed.

The President may also privately believe, as so many do, that our Afghanistan adventure is a fool’s errand. He surely recognizes that the outcome will be a disappointment to all sides, most especially the Afghan people. And yet, after a serious, thoughtful, three-month policy review last year, he concluded that he had no choice but to soldier on. Hence, the surge.

He also realizes that even after the withdrawals announced last night, the U.S. will have 70,000 troops in Afghanistan and nearly 100,000 contractors (soldiers-for-hire) in country and involved in an on-going struggle between Afghan factions with no end in sight. No surprise that the President’s demeanor was subdued and serious.

He also knows that the cost, estimated at $10 billion a month, is ruinous. Gamely, he spoke of increasing investment in America’s crumbling infrastructure and creating green energy projects that could lift the economy. But even as he spoke, it was painfully obvious that the country cannot afford guns and butter, not in this economy, not with this debt. Even the Tea Party School has reached that conclusion.

The irony is that this President is the same person who as Candidate Obama, campaigned against the unnecessary, unjustified war in Iraq and was elected on a promise to bring those troops home. He is fulfilling that promise, but replacing one quagmire with another.



“We are a river country,” an Egyptian friend once told me when I marveled at his country’s patience with corrupt, incompetent and repressive regimes. “We go on and on.”

Perhaps. But that legendary patience with the bumbling but stubborn, 82-year-old President Mubarak seems to be wearing out.  Change is coming to Egypt, either very soon or shortly thereafter. And what happens in Egypt matters, to Egyptians, of course, but also to the U.S., Israel and the entire Arab world.

Diminished as it may be today, Egypt remains the centerpiece of the Arab world. With its population of 80 million, it is not only the largest Arab country. It is historically, culturally and intellectually the heart of the Arab crescent from Morocco to Lebanon. An old saying in the region is that there can be no peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors without Syria, and no war without Egypt. It is still true today. No surprise that President Obama chose Cairo for his first major speech on relations between the U.S. and the Arab and Muslim world.

But now Obama confronts the ticklish task of encouraging change in Egypt without seeming to abandon the Mubarak government .  Egypt has served as a crucial counterweight to Syria and Iran. It has received tens of billions of dollars worth of U.S. aid over the years and carved out a cold but diplomatically important peace with Israel. As Egypt goes, so go Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The stakes are enormous.


The announcement today that Robert Gibbs will be replaced as White House spokesman is evidence that President Obama has realized – finally – that he has to upgrade his message machine. The first step in changing the message is changing the messenger. But Obama himself will have to put more effort into communicating what he is doing and why he is doing it. In his post-election press conference, he acknowledged that that task had been neglected in his first two years and that he had paid a price for it. Hence, the famous “shellacking.”
One of the great mysteries of the first half of the Obama term is how one of the best communicators in politics failed to get his message across. We’ll see if that changes now.