Frank Rich on the National Circus: Mitt’s Bleach-Bottle Bimbo

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Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP

Over the past week, Donald Trump has resumed flogging his birther crusade, telling every outlet he can find that “a lot of people are questioning” the president’s birth certificate. What’s his political calculus?
None. There is no more naked celebrity in America than Donald Trump. He doesn’t do subtlety. He doesn’t do “thought.” To say he has a political calculus is a wild overstatement. His strategy amounts to no more than junior high school algebra. The equation is: Trump + infantile public statement x infinite repetitions on TV and Twitter = maximum publicity for flailing Trump products and insatiable Trump ego.

Romney appeared at a fund-raiser in Vegas last night with Trump as host. Is Mitt going to end up regretting this association?
There’s been no better cost-benefit analysis than that from George Will, who, in his now famous Sunday morning fulmination said: “The benefit — what voter is going to vote for him because he is seen with Donald Trump? The cost of appearing with this bloviating ignoramus is obvious.” To spell out the costs in the Trump case, I’d start with the fact that (1) Romney once again brandished his default mode as a coward, running away from the press before the Trump fund-raising event to duck embarrassing questions; it was a resonant replay of his disappearing act during the Limbaugh assault on Sandra Fluke. That he cowered from Trump queries on the same day he was urging increased U.S. bellicosity toward Assad in Syria undercuts any Romney pretense to “leadership”; (2) Romney again revealed his tone-deafness to the America where the hoi polloi live; he really does seem to think that Trump is an A-list celebrity who could serve as the right’s answer to George Clooney, when in fact Trump’s status is roughly that of Bristol Palin during her heyday on Dancing with the Stars; (3) It hands the Democrats another golden opportunity to make an ad mashing up Romney's "I like being able to fire people" with Trump's "You're fired!”; (4) If you will fly to Vegas for a one-night-stand with a bleach-bottle bimbo, you look as if you will do anything for money.

Does it surprise you at all that birtherism is still a campaign issue? If Obama were a Muslim plant from Kenya, don't you think he would have found a moment to launch the nukes sometime over the last three-and-a-half years?
Birtherism is not an issue. It’s a slur that mainly benefits the Democrats. It ties the GOP to a fringe conspiracy theory whose racial animus is transparent: An African-American president must by definition be an alien, no matter what’s on his birth certificate.

If Romney were confronted with a town-hall participant who said Obama was an Arab, as McCain famously was in 2008, do you think he'd correct her?
The Audio-Animatronic Romney is incapable of improvisation in any high-stakes existential political moment, no matter what the subject. He can’t answer questions about his own Mormon ancestors in Mexico, let alone Obama’s origins, unless they are lame enough to trigger a pre-programmed response. 

The Times published a deeply reported story yesterday on Obama's very involved role in counterterrorism operations. You were a big critic of Bush's war on terror, how do you feel about Obama's?
The Times report, seemingly unassailable, offers a chilling snapshot of the president himself poring over “kill lists” of terrorists as if they were baseball cards. More chilling, perhaps, is that he does so with a surfeit of self-righteousness. “A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions,” as one line in the article has it. I have nothing against aggressive counterterrorism. But almost any time an American commander in chief, however patriotic in his national-security intentions, starts to play God, fudge bedrock values by looking for lawyerly constitutional loopholes, and micromanage military targets, we get in trouble — whether it was L.B.J. and Nixon in Vietnam, or Bush’s proxy Cheney in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m glad Obama took out bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. But civilian deaths and botched missions will mint new terrorists no matter how many moles we whack. The more sunlight on what’s going on, the better. Unfortunately, since both of America’s wars have fallen off the map of public consciousness, it’s not clear how much of a ripple the Times report made beyond high-end news consumers.

A number of sources in the Times piece allege that essentially Obama's "war on terror" is the same as Bush's with less boneheaded stagecraft. Do you think that's accurate?
That’s a stretch. The Bush administration heedlessly practiced torture, gleefully flouted the law, and bragged of its “dead or alive” game plan — even as it let bin Laden get away and let the Taliban regroup in Afghanistan. The Bushies were not only an outlaw gang, but a gang that couldn’t shoot straight. As if that weren’t enough, they undermined national security by ginning up a war, catastrophic in length and cost, to prevent a nuclear attack from a country that had no nuclear weapons whatsoever. The focused Obama counterterrorism policy, whatever one’s criticisms of it, is not to be confused with the cornucopia of Bush misadventures and mishaps. And as for counterterrorism itself, there has been no 9/11 on Obama’s watch, knock wood. Let us not forget that there was one on Bush-Cheney’s.

In Texas this week, tea party favorite Ted Cruz won enough of the vote in the Republican Senate primary to go into a run-off with Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Cruz slurred Dewhurst, a former C.I.A. agent supported by Rick Perry, as a "moderate” when in fact he’s only a slightly less rabid conservative than Cruz. Following Indiana (where Dick Lugar went down) and Nebraska, this is the third recent GOP primary where tea party insurgents have put conservatives on the run. Where does this GOP cannibalism end?
No one knows — but certainly not with the 2012 election. Do note that Sarah Palin, while off the national media radar screen right now, endorsed the far-right insurgents in all these races. She and her cadres have no use for Mitt Republicans now any more than they did in primary season. Whether Romney loses or wins in November, the purges have only just begun.