Frank Rich on the National Circus: America Is Soft on Domestic Terrorism

By
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17:  A police officer stands guard at the front gate of the Washington Naval Yard September 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. Yesterday a defense contractor named Aaron Alexis allegedly killed at least 13 people during a shooting rampage at the Navy Yard before being killed by police.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Photo: Mark Wilson/2013 Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Congress shrugs off a murderous rampage in D.C., Larry Summers proves he can count, and the GOP out-mavericks James Garner.

After Monday's slaughter at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, members of Congress made it very clear that they had no desire to touch the new third-rail of American politics, gun control. Since that's off the table at a federal level, is there any political step that can be taken — even a small, imperfect one — to stop mass shootings?
Essentially, no. Perhaps the best thing we can do is at least call out the problem for what it is: state-sponsored terrorism. The American people and their elected representatives allow our own homegrown equivalent of suicide bombers — suicide shooters — legal access to weapons with which they can mow down innocents almost anywhere they please. Bloomberg’s money can’t solve this (indeed his political contributions on behalf of gun-law reformers may have backfired) and neither can the blather of a thousand moralizing talking heads. So now, as always happens after these bloodbaths, the real problem is put on hold again and we are back to talking about side issues. Many are calling for keeping a closer watch on government contractors, for instance, but where were they when government contractors at Blackwater, et al, were wreaking havoc on civilians during the Iraq War? That horse is long out of the barn; we have an increasingly privatized government, cheered on by the same anti-government political party that is most in thrall to the NRA. 

That old hobbyhorse of violent entertainment is also back for another run: Hosts at Fox & Friends at Fox News (Elizabeth Hasselbeck) and Morning Joe at MSNBC (Mika Brzezinski) are united in angrily decrying violent video games. No doubt this makes them feel righteous, but if they really believe this is the crux of the matter, and had guts, they’d start by publicly demanding that their own parent companies dump any and all media products trading in violence. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen. Nor are we going to get better mental-health treatment for psychopaths like Aaron Alexis if the opponents of Obamacare (or any national health-care alternative) have anything to say about it. But let’s do talk about it. I remain convinced that the issue of guns in American culture, as hard-wired to our national origins as slavery was, will take every bit as long to rectify as slavery, and can only happen if Americans want it to happen, which most of them don’t now. So let’s at least acknowledge the truth: This country is soft on domestic terrorism.

Larry Summers withdrew his name from consideration from the Federal Reserve chairmanship on Sunday. Summers was widely viewed to be Obama's preferred choice, but key Senate Democrats revolted against him. What do you make of Summers preemptive exit?
No one ever said Summers wasn’t a brilliant economist! The man knows how to count, and he knew he didn’t have the votes to get through the Senate. That President Obama couldn’t keep even some moderate Democratic senators in line is a chastening glimpse into the laissez-faire management style (to be polite about it) that seems to have overtaken his second term. Still, I am all for this result. To me, the single biggest flaw of the Obama presidency has always been his original economic team — an assemblage of Robert Rubin protégés, who, like Summers, enabled the deregulation orgy of the Clinton years, often cashed in on it (Summers, a sometime Wall Street consultant, included), and who were more successful at saving the (still bigger-than-ever) banks than restoring American jobs after the crash. No one tainted by this history should be handed the Fed chair. It’s way past time for the Democrats to move beyond the economic boys’ club of the Clinton and Obama administrations.

House GOP leadership has decided to defer to its base and go for a Hail Mary play to defund Obamacare, setting the stage for a potential government shutdown and another round of debt-ceiling brinksmanship. The last month hasn't been the finest hour of Obama's presidency. Is this the fight he needs right now? Or could it send him into early lame-duck status?
If we are just talking about narrow, selfish politics, this is actually the one fight that could do Obama good. A government shutdown — or default — would be a disaster for the Republicans. The anti-government party would be blamed for the harsh consequences to follow, not the Democrats, and everyone in politics knows that except the radical right base of the GOP. Indeed, this week The Wall Street Journal editorial page has taken to all but begging its own conservative troops to abandon the kamikaze (its word) mission of holding the government hostage to the defunding of Obamacare. If the House revolutionaries are not deterred, Obama may be anything but a lame duck; he’d be handed the same lifeline that the Newt Gingrich threw to Bill Clinton.

Fox News officially announced yesterday that Megyn Kelly, famous for calling bullshit on Karl Rove last Election Night, will take over Sean Hannity's plum 9 p.m. slot. (Hannity will move to 10 p.m.) Kelly is a very different presence from Hannity or Bill O'Reilly or erstwhile Fox star Glenn Beck. What do you think Roger Ailes is up to here?
The thing to remember about Ailes is that he’s a showman who wants to win — ratings even more than elections, arguably. He has an aging, tired prime-time slate — and an aging, tired audience. Fox may be No. 1 in cable news by far, but its actuarial and demographic maladies parallel that of the Republican base it serves. Kelly hardly injects variety into a channel whose Hitchcockian obsession with blonde leading ladies is so entrenched that even the casting of a brunette would constitute a diversity hire. But Kelly did one thing you never see on Fox — the unexpected — when she took down Rove on Election Night. Since everyone knows by rote what Hannity or O’Reilly is going to say on any given night, she may well attract new viewers hoping for at least an occasional element of surprise.