Frank Rich on the National Circus: Why Obama Might Just End the ‘Perpetual War’

The MQ
Photo: Getty Images/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: Obama calls for a new terrorism strategy, Michele Bachmann announces her exit, and Anthony Weiner gets back into the fray.

In his major foreign policy address last week, President Obama announced narrowed guidelines for drone strikes, asked Congress to close the Guatanamo Bay detention center, and called for an end to the country’s perpetual war against terrorism. The Times editorial board called the speech “the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks.” Did you see it as a major turning point as well?
Only actions, of course, will determine whether it’s just words we want to hear or the start of a much-awaited deaccession of the Bush-Cheney national security state. We don’t know what, if any, actual limitations will be placed on the post-9/11 executive’s power to take any lethal action he (or, come 2016, possibly she) wants in the name of battling terror. What’s notable is how little this speech satisfied either the left or the right. “Obama talks like a comparative religion professor and acts like a Blackwater executive,” tweeted Eli Lake of the Daily Beast. Those in the neocon bunker, led by the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the reliably hysterical Lindsey Graham, accused President Obama of returning to “a pre-9/11 mentality” and of basically waving the white flag of surrender to Islamic extremists. (This is the same crowd whose post-9/11 ideal of a secretary of Homeland Security was Bernie Kerik, just released from prison this week.) But Boston and Benghazi notwithstanding, most Americans are not panicked about the war on terror right now, which means that the president does have an opening to carry out some of the reforms he talked about so eloquently last week.

Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann announced early this morning that she won’t seek reelection. Bachmann was a standard bearer of the GOP’s tea-party wing. But she barely eked out reelection, faced a tough fight in 2014, and is under federal investigation for campaign finance violations in her short-lived presidential campaign. Does Bachmann’s exit surprise you?
Say this for Bachmann: She did learn to look into the right camera in her eight-minute-plus announcement this morning, and she did last longer in the House than Sarah Palin did as Alaska’s governor. Her exit was not really a surprise, given her sinking support in her own district, but let’s hope she does have a few more surprises in her. My own most profound wish is that she and her lovely husband, Marcus, will not take the obvious, Bristol Palin route and appear in Dancing With the Stars but will instead follow Mama Grizzly’s example and hold out for a reality show of their very own. Somewhat more seriously, Bachmann leaves a legacy that has infiltrated much of the conservative movement, not just the fringiest of the fringe. She may have been, in Jonathan Chait’s apt estimation, the president of Crazyland, but Crazyland keeps expanding its borders. Take Bachmann’s recent claim that Obamacare “literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens.” Well, no lesser a Republican establishment figure than Peggy Noonan wrote a column this month arguing that Obama concocted a Benghazi cover story for politically expedient reasons and would have rather let Americans be slaughtered there than risk blowback to his reelection campaign.  

President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reunited this week, seven months after they formed a political partnership following Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile, some Republican senators have found themselves trying to justify their opposition to the Sandy relief bill while they advocate for aid to Oklahoma tornado victims. Are these guys hypocrites? And is Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who insists on budget cuts elsewhere to pay for a disaster relief bill, any better?
Of course they are hypocrites, and so is Coburn. Instead of looking for a nonexistent loophole, he should have the courage of his convictions and just say no to federal money. As for the rest of them, it’s a long-standing tradition that Republicans who oppose federal spending oppose all of it except that which is spent in their districts, whether for disaster relief, military contracts, or a bridge to nowhere. That Christie at least drops the pretense makes him an outlier in a party whose ideological base is far closer to Michele Bachmann than it is to him. It’s a fascinating indicator this morning that the daily tout sheet of the right, Rupert Murdoch’s Post, remains so flummoxed by the Christie-Obama bromance that it buried the president’s visit to the Jersey Shore on page ten, reducing it to a comic anecdote with a small picture.

Anthony Weiner, New York’s favorite Twitter direct-message enthusiast, entered the mayoral race last week and appears to be climbing in the polls. In the not-so-distant-past, Weiner was considered a favorite for the city’s top job. Does he have a shot at winning? And are there any lessons he should draw from the comeback of another disgraced politician, South Carolina’s Mark Sanford?
If a professed Christian conservative like Sanford can win in deep-red South Carolina, why does conventional wisdom have it that Weiner might make it into the runoff but can’t win in New York? No reason that I can see. As Fran Lebowitz has said, Weiner’s is the rare sex scandal that did not involve any sex. He is the only Jewish candidate in this race. He is running against a field that has yet to set New Yorkers on fire and whose front-runner, Christine Quinn, remains strongly associated with Michael Bloomberg at a time when there is something of a Bloomberg backlash among the Democratic base. And New Yorkers get bored easily: At a certain point (I’d argue we have reached that point already), penile puns wear out their welcome and become dead air. That’s the point at which more primary voters will give Weiner another look.

Frank Rich: Obama Might End the Perpetual War