Senator Steps In It

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006 10:00 AM

Barack Obama, after leading a charmed political existence, has suddenly become controversial.

The Illinois senator gave a speech at a Washington church the other day in which he talked about the importance of religion in the public square and how Democrats should not be seen as hostile to organized religion. He also talked about the importance of Christ in his life.

Suddenly, the party's golden boy, talked up as part of the 2008 ticket despite having been in the Senate for only about an hour and a half, is losing a bit of his luster.

The comments didn't seem particularly radical or outrageous to me, but they seem to have struck some kind of nerve.

Bill Clinton spoke easily about faith and loved campaigning in churches, but apparently it's still a hot-button issue, particularly for liberal bloggers.

Chris Bowers at MyDD says Obama is helping the other side:

"Obama's comments lend tri-partisan support (Democrats, Republicans and the media) to a narrative that Democrats are hostile toward people of faith. This tri-partisan support will result in a 'closing of the triangle' against Democrats where it become conventional wisdom that Democrats are hostile to people of faith. This has been how the DLC has managed to reify ever anti-Democratic narrative it likes within the national discourse. So thanks Senator Obama, for reifying this Republican-driven talking point about Democrats. Now almost everyone will think that Democrats are hostile to people of faith. Well done. Your mentor, Joe Lieberman, would be proud.

"Being someone who is preoccupied with electoral strategy, I want to focus on how this narrative is perhaps even more dangerous to progressives than the rather simple 'Democrats are hostile to faith' narrative it engenders.

"In a national environment where both parties must focus their electoral strategy on courting the most conservative and pro-Republican voter in the country, we end up with a Congress that is only responsive to the most conservative, pro-Republican voters in the country. In the electoral strategy Obama reifies with his comments, progressive don't matter. Moderates don't matter. Swing voters don't matter. Independents and Democrats don't matter. Many Republicans don't even matter. The only people who matter are the most conservative people in the country."

I Am Vince signals his displeasure with a subtle headline: "Obama Is An Idiot":

"I disagree strongly with everything he said in the article. If this man ever gets to be a presidential or VP nominee I'll change parties. Hell, I'll start my own party. I won't be a member of a party actively trying to get evangelicals into the fold, period."

Not a big-tent man, obviously.

Munguza at Kos is also riled:

"Sen. Barack Obama inexplicably attacked his Democratic colleagues in a contorted speech about religion, accusing them of failing to, 'acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people.' . . .

"Sadly, this once-promising young Senator increasingly appears captive to the DC political culture of pandering and intellectual laziness. In the process, he's damaging Democrats and the religious values he claims to respect."

But Nathan Newman says the liberal reaction is revealing:

"If you read the whole speech, the almost kneejerk response to Obama pretty much illustrates his point of the discomfort by some progressives in any discussion of religion in the public square.

"This was a speech to other progressive religious people and I really find it hard to believe people are trashing it so hard, given that he upholds almost all progressive principles and mostly accuses secular folks of 'avoiding the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands.' Hardly a Republican talking point, just a statement that most liberals don't feel comfortable engaging in this religious debate, which is not inaccurate I think."

Betsy Newmark , taking issue with a WP column on the speech by Dana Milbank , introduces the racial angle:

"When Obama speaks of his faith and uses it to buttress his belief in liberal policies, Democrats swoon. They're talking already about how he should run for president or be Hillary's vice presidential candidate. Of course, the fact that the guy hasn't done anything yet except give some crowd-pleasing speeches is beside the point. Hey, the guy is mixed race, has a good story, and gives a good speech - what more do you need? Not since William Jennings Bryan, has a guy been spoken of for the White House on the basis of a speech.

"If he were white, not one single person would be talking him up as a presidential possibility. We all know that that is true, but, of course, Milbank won't mention that. It would be too crude. Instead, we get Milbank pondering whether this is the right moment for Obama or should he wait and get more experience but also more of a history as a senator, the type of history that, execpt for Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy, has doomed so many ambitious men in the past. As it is, hopes are already being raised so high for this guy that by 2008 if a Democratic presidential candidate does not choose him as a vice presidential running mate, you're going to have a lot of people feeling disappointed that their guy got dissed."

Matthew Yglesias , describing himself as an atheist, argues for more tolerance:

"It's obviously the case that liberals aren't going to be able to improve either our electoral performance or our policy performance if people aren't going to be allowed to criticize what they see as broad tendencies in progressive politics. To make a more specific point, on the particular issue of allowing prayer or other religious gestures in official facilities and at official events, I tend to agree with what Obama is saying here -- that liberals should ease up on this . . .

"To a lot of people, it's quite important that we allow more official acknowledgment of religion in this country. I think that's a bit odd (see my mockery of the 'war on Christmas' controvery). But it's a real sentiment. And I don't honestly see a major cost to giving way on this point. If it's really important to the majority of people in School District X that they hold some kind of prayer before high school football games -- let them."

The Gitmo ruling was obviously the day's dominant story. The Supreme Court delivered "a sweeping rebuke to the Bush administration" (NYT); said Bush "overstepped his authority" (LAT); "a legal defeat" (Philly Inquirer); "a rebuke to the White House" (Chi Trib); "a withering opinion" (WSJ); "a stinging defeat" (NY Daily News); a royal smackdown" (Bill Press).

"Since the 2001 terrorist attacks," says the Los Angeles Times , "President Bush has asserted almost unlimited authority to define the rules of what he calls 'a different kind of war.' And, faced with the Supreme Court's rejection of administration policies on 'enemy combatants' Thursday, the White House signaled that it had no intention of backing down.

"Meeting the Supreme Court's objections required little more than having Congress put its stamp of approval on a system of military tribunals, the White House suggested. And some congressional Republicans quickly agreed."

"Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," says the Chicago Tribune , "President Bush has asserted far-reaching powers enabling him to act without congressional approval as the government detained combatants in an elusive war on terror, wiretapped domestic telephone calls without court orders and collected voluminous phone and bank records.

"But Thursday's Supreme Court decision, with its repudiation of military commissions for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was a rebuke to the White House. It was the latest signal that the high court and Congress, after a long deference to the executive branch, are starting to check or question the Bush administration's attempts to broaden the wartime power of the presidency."

"The Supreme Court's Guant?namo ruling on Thursday was the most significant setback yet for the Bush administration's contention that the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath have justified one of the broadest expansions of presidential power in American history," says the New York Times .

"President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney spent much of their first term bypassing Congress in the service of what they labeled a 'different kind of war.' Now they will almost certainly plunge into negotiations they previously spurned, over the extent of the president's powers, this time in the midst of a midterm election in which Mr. Bush's wartime strategies and their consequences have emerged as a potent issue."

The New Republic's Peter Beinart says the president is defeating himself in Iraq:

"Why doesn't George W. Bush want to win in Iraq? Seriously. The past several weeks have forced him to choose between two big goals: demonizing Democrats to help the GOP retain control of Congress and fostering a domestic climate that gives the new Iraqi government the best chance to survive. And, again and again, he has chosen door number one. This is what ex-Bush officials like Paul O'Neill and John DiIulio warned us about--and what Hurricane Katrina reaffirmed: that what matters in this administration is not policy, but politics. For all his talk about America's historical mission to defeat tyranny and spread freedom, there is only one mission to which George W. Bush has shown consistent devotion: winning elections. He acts less like the president than like the head of the Republican National Committee.

"The situation in Iraq today is desperate but not hopeless. And, in the months to come, avoiding the abyss will require brutal compromises, not only in Baghdad, but in Washington--the kind that require support on both sides of the aisle. The good news is that the basic outlines of a deal to undermine the insurgency, break up the militias, and facilitate U.S. withdrawal are becoming clear. Sunni nationalist (as opposed to jihadist) insurgents seem increasingly willing to lay down their arms--if they are granted amnesty, the constitution is rewritten to accommodate their concerns, and U.S. troops leave. And, if Sunni insurgents stop massacring the Shia, then Shia militias may begin to disband . . .

"From the beginning, Bush has preferred the war on terrorism as a wedge issue to the war on terrorism as a unifying national cause."

Meanwhile, it was spank-the-press day on the Hill:

"The House of Representatives yesterday voted to condemn the decision by several newspapers to publish details of the Bush administration's secret program to track terrorist financing, in a swipe at the media aimed primarily at The New York Times," says the Boston Globe .

"The nonbinding 'Sense of the Congress' resolution states that media organizations 'may have placed the lives of Americans in danger' by revealing details of the classified program. It goes on to say that Congress 'expects the cooperation of all news media organizations' in keeping classified programs secret."

The Wall Street Journal has finally editorialized about its publication of the banking surveillance story, saying officials leaked the paper the information after concluding that the New York Times was about to publish:

"Treasury contacted Journal reporter Glenn Simpson to offer him the same declassified information. Mr. Simpson has been working the terror finance beat for some time, including asking questions about the operations of Swift, and it is a common practice in Washington for government officials to disclose a story that is going to become public anyway to more than one reporter. Our guess is that Treasury also felt Mr. Simpson would write a straighter story than the Times, which was pushing a violation-of-privacy angle; on our reading of the two June 23 stories, he did.

"We recount all this because more than a few commentators have tried to link the Journal and Times at the hip. On the left, the motive is to help shield the Times from political criticism. On the right, the goal is to tar everyone in the 'mainstream media.'"

Sure, but let's not overlook that Simpson, like the Times reporters, was already looking into the matter.

Peggy Noonan goes against the grain in assessing Senator Clinton:

"Media people keep saying, as Hillary gears up for her presidential bid, that her big challenge in 2008 will be to prove that she is as tough as a man. That she could order troops to war. That she's not girly and soft.

"This is the exact opposite of the truth. Hillary doesn't have to prove her guy chops. She doesn't have to prove she's a man, she has to prove she's a woman. No one in America thinks she's a woman. They think she's a tough little termagant in a pantsuit. They think she's something between an android and a female impersonator. She is not perceived as a big warm mommy trying to resist her constant impulse to sneak you candy. They think she has to resist her constant impulse to hit you with a bat. She lacks a deep (as opposed to quick) warmth, a genuine and almost phenomenological sense of rightness in her own skin. She seems like someone who might calculatedly go to war, or not, based on how she wanted to be perceived and look and do. She does not seem like someone who would anguish and weep over sending men into harm's way.

"And in this, as president, she would be deeply unusual. LBJ felt anguish; there are pictures of him, head in hands, suffering. Bush the Elder wept as he talked, with Paula Zahn, about what it was to send men to war. Bush the Younger would breastfeed the military if he could. Hillary is like someone who would know she should be moved but wouldn't be because she couldn't be because . . . well, why? That is the question. Maybe a lifetime in politics has bled some of the human element out of her. Maybe there wasn't that much to begin with. Maybe she thinks that if she wept, the wires that hold her together would short."

By the way, Noonan chides her own paper: "It is kind of crazy that the Times would do two stories that expose, and presumably hinder, the government's efforts [on national security]. But then it strikes me as crazy that every paper that has reported the latest story--that would include The Wall Street Journal--would do so."

Could San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll have discovered another reason for the intensity of the White House assault against the NYT this week?

"The name of the New York Times contains the word 'New York.' Many members of the president's base consider 'New York' to be a nifty code word for 'Jewish.' It is very nice for the president to be able to campaign against the Jews without (a) actually saying the word 'Jew' and (b) without irritating the Israelis. A number of prominent Zionist groups think the New York Times is insufficiently anti-Palestinian, so they think the New York Times isn't Jewish enough."

Oy.

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