Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
On Wednesday afternoon, as news was spreading that House Speaker John Boehner had surrendered and a no-conditions-attached bipartisan plan to end the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis would be approved later in the day by the Senate and House, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the tea party's disrupter-in-chief, held an impromptu press conference in a Capitol hallway to declare victory, or something like it. The fellow who led the GOP further into a PR abyss hailed the political crisis that was ending (at least for now) as "a remarkable thing" and claimed that it showed that "millions upon millions" had risen up against Obamacare. Then Cruz, the tail that wagged the Republican dog, launched into a diatribe against the Affordable Care Act: "President Barack Obama promised the American people Obamacare would lower your health insurance premiums. I would venture to say that virtually every person across this country has seen exactly the opposite happen, has seen premiums going up and up and up."
About two weeks ago, as tea partiers in the GOP-controlled House were forcing a government shutdown, some House Democrats sent a private and informal message to House Speaker John Boehner: If you need to break with the die-hard conservatives of your caucus to keep the government running and avoid a debt ceiling crisis, we might be able to try to help you protect your speakership, should far-right Republicans rebel and challenge you. This offer was conveyed to Boehner just as he was entering what has turned into the toughest stretch of his speakership, according to two senior House Democratic lawmakers who each asked not to be identified.
Throughout the latest showdown over government spending and the debt ceiling, political observers have noted that Boehner was in a fix because of the stubbornness of a band of 40 or so tea party firebrands within his caucus who have been egged on by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). These lawmakers were committed to a hostage-taking strategy (no government funding or boost in the debt ceiling, unless Obamacare was smashed and/or government spending was further slashed), and they could mutiny against Boehner were the speaker to forge a bipartisan compromise that bypassed them. There are 232 Republicans in the House—with 218 usually required for a majority—and simple math suggested that if 15 or so of the GOP radicals abandoned Boehner, he could lose his cherished top-dog position. Under House rules, a speaker can be challenged any time with a motion to vacate the speakership, and such a motion is privileged, meaning it zooms to the House floor, without winding through any committee, cannot be blocked by a speaker or his allies, and is subject to a full vote of the House.
But on Capitol Hill, math is not always simple. It would take only a single rebellious tea partier in Boehner's caucus to force a vote on a motion to boot Boehner. But such a bill, requiring a majority to pass, would probably need Democratic votes to succeed. If Boehner had the backing of half of his caucus (116 members), the coup-makers would only win if Democrats joined their effort to create a bipartisan, anti-Boehner majority. But if the Dems sat out this fight—by voting present or not showing up at all—Boehner could keep his balcony, as long as the mutinous tea partiers could not enlist a majority of the House GOP. In a much more improbable scenario, Democrats could actively protect Boehner by voting to retain him as speaker (that is, voting against the motion to vacate). If such an unlikely event were to occur, Boehner could lose the support of more than half his Republican comrades and still retain the speakership.
As things look now, a tea party uprising in the House against Boehner would not be a guaranteed success. Boehner appears to have support from much of his caucus, which includes legislators who are angered by the tea partiers' to-the-brink tactics and lawmakers who just like Boehner. There's no clear sign that the Cruz-controlled faction within Boehner's ranks could win over their colleagues for an attempt to oust Boehner. And there would be the tricky matter of finding a successor. The 1997 coup against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich failed partly because the plotters could not agree on his replacement. If the tea partiers did manage to throw Boehner from the train, he could run for speaker again. In that event, Boehner could stage a comeback by obtaining the votes of 201 of his 232 GOP colleagues, enough to overcome the 200 Democratic votes that would presumably go to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. This assumes none of the mad-as-hell tea partiers opposing Boehner would go so far as to vote with the Dems for Pelosi. (The vote for a new speaker is held by all members of the House, and the winner needs an absolute majority of the votes cast.) Or here's a twist: In the vote for a new speaker, the Democrats could take another walk—which would lower the number of votes Boehner would need for restoration.
The bottom line: The tea partiers would not be in full control, if they were to initiate an anti-Boehner effort. Pelosi and her Democrats could have opportunities to affect the outcome. Certainly, Boehner would be loath to accept any assistance—even passive help—from the Democrats. It would compromise him greatly within GOP and conservative circles and dramatically undermine his already diminished ability to control his GOP crew. If it appeared that Boehner had made any common cause with the Ds, a small mutiny could turn into a wider revolt. Instead of retaining his speakership due to Democratic machinations, Boehner might well prefer to skedaddle to days of well-paid lobbying and nights of fine wine.
So how did Boehner respond to the message? "He said, 'I'll get back to you,'" a senior House Democrat says. Asked to comment on this informal offer, Michael Steel, Boehner's spokesman, said, "That's silly."
On Monday, I took a shot at Sarah Palin after she wrote, "To suggest that raising the debt limit doesn't incur more debt is laughably absurd. The very reason why you raise the debt limit is so that you can incur more debt. Otherwise what's the point?" In a tweet, I noted, "No, you do it so you can pay the debt you accrued." That is, the government's debt is not created by the extension of borrowing authority; it is created when Congress establishes entitlements or passes spending bills that require government borrowing. If you sign a tuition contract with a college for your kid and need to take out a loan to cover all or part of it, you assume a debt when you enter into that agreement, not when you go to the bank and ask for an extended line of credit. Put another way, raising the debt ceiling does not change the amount of money the US government owes.
Nevertheless, a mass of conservative trolls rushed to Palin's defense and howled about my tweet. Looking for further edification on this matter that I could share with the Palinites, I sent her quote to Mark Zandi, the prominent economist who was one of the policy advisers to the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008, and asked him to evaluate it. Zandi, who is now chief economist of Moody's Analytics, emailed back with a bigger message:
The point is that with each passing day the debt limit is not increased the more damage it will do to our economy. If lawmakers don’t raise the debt limit by November 1, the economy will fall back into recession. If they can't raise it by the end of November, we will be dooming our economy and the entire global economy to a wrenching economic downturn with implications for years if not decades to come.
Whoa. This is a rather dire prediction, suggesting the very real possibility of global economic catastrophe. While the email doesn't address Palin's description of the debt limit, it does undercut her charge that President Barack Obama is shamefully "scaremongering the markets with his talk of default." More important, Zandi's note is a reminder that all those tea partiers who have pooh-poohed the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling—including Palin—are risking the country's future by continuing their always-fervent crusade against Obama.
In March, the Republican Party released a 97-page report on its future prospects that chairman Reince Priebus had commissioned following the 2012 election. The party called the study its Growth and Opportunity Project report, but most members of the politerati referred to it as an autopsy. The hard-hitting study—authored by Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, former Bush II press secretary Ari Fleischer, and a few other prominent GOPers—fingered what had gone wrong for the Rs and provided a roadmap for the coming years. But the party's recent excursion into the government shutdown/debt ceiling quagmire shows that few members of its national wing absorbed the lessons the party's coroners had assembled.
After convening in-depth focus groups of voters in Iowa and Ohio who used to call themselves Republicans, polling Republican Hispanic voters, consulting assorted pollsters, and surveying political practitioners at the local and national level, the group made some obvious conclusions. Noting the nation's changing demographics, it maintained that the GOP had to reassess its relationship with Latinos: "If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence." Ditto concerning young voters: "A post-election survey of voters ages 18-29 in the battleground states of Virginia, Ohio, Florida, and Colorado found that Republicans have an almost 1:2 favorable/unfavorable rating. Democrats have an almost 2:1 favorable rating." And the members of the GOP's morgue brigade asserted that GOP governors had been doing a better job in promoting a positive image of the party than congressional Republicans. The party's "messaging," they observed, was hurting it.
Clearly, this point has been ignored by the Republicans who have pushed the party toward a government shutdown and a possible default. (Ted Cruz, this means you.) As Republican leaders on Capitol Hill—read: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell—scurry to prevent a tea party-caused default if the debt ceiling is not lifted later this week, here's a look at five key passages of the report that have gone unheeded by the Republican radicals in the House and Senate who have positioned the GOP as the party of hostage-taking.
THEN: "The GOP today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future….Public perception of the Party is at record lows."
NOW: Since the report came out, these record lows have become lower. Last week, Gallup reported that the Republican Party was viewed favorably by only 28 percent of Americans, down 10 points from the previous month. The polling company noted, "This is the lowest favorable rating measured for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992."
THEN: "At the federal level, much of what Republicans are doing is not working beyond the core constituencies that make up the Party."
NOW: While tea partiers have cheered on Cruz and House Republicans who have demanded ransom for funding the government or preventing default—be it thwarting Obamacare or insisting on more spending cuts—this strategy has not played well with the general public. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 24 percent approve of the performance of Republicans in Congress and 70 percent disapprove. (Democrats had a 36/59-percent split.)
THEN: "The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.
"Instead of driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac, we need a Party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us. We need to remain America’s conservative alternative to big-government, redistribution-to-extremes liberalism, while building a route into our Party that a non-traditional Republican will want to travel. Our standard should not be universal purity; it should be a more welcoming conservatism."
NOW: The shutdown was pursued by the Republicans who consider themselves conservative purists—and who have been supported and encouraged by outside groups seeking more conservative purity within the GOP. This political crisis occurred because a faction of the GOP in Congress was reinforced by far-right activists and advocates.
THEN: "Our job as Republicans is to champion private growth so people will not turn to the government in the first place. But we must make sure that the government works for those truly in need, helping them so they can quickly get back on their feet. We should be driven by reform, eliminating, and fixing what is broken, while making sure the government’s safety net is a trampoline, not a trap.
"As Ada Fisher, the Republican National Committeewoman from North Carolina, told us, 'There are some people who need the government.'"
NOW: In recent weeks, several congressional Republicans pressing for a shutdown and for leveraging the debt ceiling have celebrated the shutdown and given the impression they see government as the enemy. That NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported that 52 percent of Americans believe government "should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people." Forty-four percent said government "is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals."
THEN: "As part of the Growth and Opportunity Project’s effort, focus groups were conducted in Columbus, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa, to listen to voters who used to consider themselves Republicans. These are voters who recently left the Party.
"Asked to describe Republicans, they said that the Party is 'scary,' 'narrow minded,' and 'out of touch' and that we were a Party of 'stuffy old men.' This is consistent with the findings of other post-election surveys."
NOW: In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 53 percent blamed the GOPers for the shutdown. (Only 31 percent pointed the finger at Obama.) Seventy percent said they believed the Republicans were "putting their own political agenda ahead of what is good for the country." Given that most respondents believed the shutdown was causing harm to the nation, it's a fair bet that the actions of the GOP are seen by many as "narrow minded" or "out of touch."
When the GOP autopsy was released seven months ago, conservatives—especially those who oppose immigration reform—howled that Priebus and establishment Republicans (including Karl Rove) were trying to neuter right-wingers and dilute the core ideology of the Grand Old Party. But it turns out they had little reason to worry. The report that Priebus hailed at the time—and its primary message about messaging: Don't let extremists drive our bus—has had no discernible impact on House Speaker John Boehner, the tea partiers in his House Republican caucus, Sens. Cruz (R-Tex.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Rand Paul (R-Ken.), and other GOPers who have pressed for ideologically-fueled conflict. Yet given that the current polls show Republicans have fallen deeper into the Mariana Trench of public opinion, it seems that the morticians were right. It's too bad for them that their autopsy turned out to be DOA.
There was a fair bit of huffing when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, less than eight months after Obama had moved into the Oval Office. Too soon, declared critics and skeptics, who had a point. The president had not earned the award through any particular action. And he recognized that in his initial remarks about winning the prize: "Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations. To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize."
But Obama may well deserve a smidgen of credit for the Nobel Peace Prize that was handed out this week. The winner is the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based body created to enforce the UN Chemical Weapons Convention that bans such arms. The OPCW is now busy overseeing the cataloging and destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal. Hence, the Obama connection.
It seems fair to argue that the OPCW is destroying chemical weapons equipment in Syria because Obama took a stand after the regime of Bashar al-Assad presumably attacked a suburb of Damascus with chemical weapons in August and killed about 1,400 people. After Obama threatened to launch a retaliatory attack on Syria with the aim of deterring Assad from again using these horrific weapons—a threat that resulted in a political kerfuffle in Washington—Russian leader Vladimir Putin brokered a deal under which Assad acknowledged he possessed chemical weapons and agreed to place them under international control. The subsequent negotiations are still under way, but, at least for the time being, Obama did achieve his aim—preventing the further use of chemical weapons in Syria. Moreover, he placed Putin on the hook for Assad's chemical weapons.
Partly as a result of Obama's actions, Assad's use of chemical weapons became a top-line priority of the global community, and the work of the OPCW received far more notice. As Thorbjoern Jagland the chairman of the award committee, noted, "Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons."
In trying to build support for a strike on Syria, Obama cited the importance of supporting the global ban on chemical weapons and echoed his previous calls for steps toward nuclear disarmament. Recognizing the OPCW award is a boost for international disarmament endeavors. After it was announced, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute made this point:
SIPRI warmly welcomes the award of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the OPCW, an organization closely aligned with the aims and work of SIPRI. The world is a safer and more peaceful place as a result of the work of the OPCW.
Achieving disarmament is a long-term, incremental process and implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention has not always been a high-profile activity. Awarding the prize to the OPCW at this time is also a recognition of the hard work of chemical weapons inspectors now working in Syria under dangerous conditions.
The achievements of the OPCW show that, thanks to international cooperation, it is possible to rid the world of chemical weapons. Indeed, they demonstrate that a world free of weapons of mass destruction is politically and technically feasible.
This Nobel Peace Prize is hence a reminder that the reduction and abolition of nuclear weapons are possible, and that it must be tackled as well. And once states have completely abandoned all nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, they must work together to prevent their re‑emergence, whether in the hands of states or non-state actors. The work of the OPCW—and its dedication to peace and security to help to form a safer world for all—will thus remain important for many years to come.
Don't expect Obama to claim any credit for this award. But perhaps the leaders of OPCW can send him a thank-you card.