Frank Rich on the National Circus: America Yawns at Obama’s Assassination Policy

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Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Obama's assassination memo, Karl Rove's attempted GOP purge, and Tim Geithner's new non-banking job.

Earlier this week, NBC News reported on a confidential Justice Department memo spelling out the legal justification for assassinating U.S. citizens affiliated with Al Qaeda. During the Bush years, you were very critical of administration lawyers like John Yoo and Jay Bybee who gave legal cover for torture. Does this new memo concern you? 
The good news is that the NBC scoop increased pressure on the White House to do what it should have done long ago — the Justice Department will now permit the Congressional Intelligence Committees to examine documents laying out a fuller legal justification for these assassinations. Of course it’s been a concern that the Obama administration, having promised more transparency than its predecessor, had reneged on that vow. If there are going to be targeted killings of American citizens abroad (or anywhere, for that matter) who are charged with no crimes, there must be a legal rationale, and needless to say, a constitutional one. Like many, I was chilled by that Times investigation last year essentially saying that President Obama and John Brennan took the position that since they were moral, Bible-reading guys, their assassinations were above reproach (or the law). Today’s Senate confirmation hearings for John Brennan as CIA director must be tough.

In your essay in this week's magazine, you noted the "quiet acquiescence of most Americans, Democrats included, to the Obama administration’s embrace of drone warfare." Has that acquiescence surprised you?
Not really. Of course many in the party’s liberal base, and many investigative journalists and liberal commentators, have been tracking the Obama administration on this, and in some cases vehemently protesting its actions. These are the same voices that have been debating the movie Zero Dark Thirty. But as I wrote in my piece in the magazine, there are few signs the broader public, Democrats included, shares that op-ed/blogging outrage. Why? Part of it is partisanship: Some Democrats are willing to give Obama a pass on issues that were enraging in the Bush years — they like their president. But I’d argue two other factors are more significant: (1) Obama doesn’t advertise what he’s doing with the “dead or alive” cowboy rhetoric of Bush and Cheney; (2) Americans turned away from almost all national security issues, from domestic surveillance to the war in Afghanistan, during the Great Recession. Neither the alarming rise of Islamic terrorism in northern Africa nor the Republicans’ ceaseless attempt to transform Benghazi into a crisis of 9/11 proportions has made the public pay any more attention to any related issue, from drone warfare to rendition to targeted assassinations.

The Karl Rove–affiliated American Crossroads super-PAC announced that it will be diving into GOP primaries in 2014 in an effort to prevent tea-party insurgents from knocking off more electable Republicans. The far right, unsurprisingly, howled bloody murder. Does the American Crossroads plan have a chance of working? Or is the Establishment fighting a losing war against its own base? 
Your last question answers itself: No, because the base of the GOP is a radical right-wing base, and it is going to keep voting for right-wing candidates that share its views in Republican primaries no matter what alternative candidates Rove puts his super-PAC’s ad money behind. Besides, there’s some Todd Akin even in the candidates favored by the Establishment; Mitt Romney’s novel concept of “self-deportation” for undocumented immigrants did at least as much damage to the national GOP last year as Akin’s novel theory of “legitimate rape.” There’s no evidence that Rove knows the difference between a winning and losing candidate, in any case. In 2012, he spent some $100 million of his donors’ money on various races and not a single one of his American Crossroads candidates won. Rove was so certain of victory for Romney that even actual returns on election night couldn’t convince him that Mitt had lost. So why would he do better at picking winners in 2014? This latest stunt is just an attempt to fleece his disheartened investors out of more cash. Dick Morris — newly jettisoned by Fox News — must be killing himself that he didn’t think of it first.

Tea-party insurgent turned Hope of the Party Marco Rubio was chosen to deliver the Republican rebuttal to Obama's State of the Union. These addresses haven't always been kind to the opposition speaker (see Jindal, Bobby). Was it wise of Rubio to accept the slot?
It was inevitable the GOP would turn to Rubio for this spot. Realizing that its radical base will not get behind bipartisan immigration reform even now, the Republican leadership has turned to Plan B: try to persuade Hispanic voters that the GOP is on their side by putting Rubio on TV as much as possible (speaking Spanish as well as English, as he will on State of the Union night). This is the same thinking that led the GOP to throw gospel singers and break-dancers onstage at its 2000 national convention to try to disprove the (accurate) national perception that the party is all white. Rubio will give a far better performance than Jindal’s riotous impersonation of Kenneth the Page, but there’s no way he’ll accomplish the mission of fooling the fastest-growing demographic in the electorate that the Republican party is on its side.

The Twittersphere was sent into a tizzy yesterday when former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner accepted a position at the Council on Foreign Relations instead of taking a high-paying job at a Wall Street bank. Are you surprised that Geithner didn't immediately cash in on his public service? And what does it say about the Wall Street–Washington revolving door that we're shocked when a Treasury secretary doesn't immediately move into a banking job?
I’m not surprised. Geithner is not stupid, and if he were to follow the example of his mentor, Robert Rubin, and quickly trade in public service for a job at, say, Citigroup, it would confirm every theory about how Wall Street got away with murder when he was at the New York Fed and continued to when he was at the Treasury after the financial meltdown. That said, the Council is a holding pen for public officials choosing future career options. Let’s check in on where Geithner is a year from now.