Friday Talking Points -- An Alternate Reality to Consider

This week was notable in many respects in the political world, but one subject overwhelmed almost everything else. We're going to address the prisoner swap and Bowe Bergdahl in an unusual way this week, in lieu of our regular talking points at the end of the column. But first, we're going to take a very quick look at what else happened this week, and then hand out the weekly awards.

This week marked the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and the little-remembered 75th anniversary of the United States turning away a refugee ship filled with over 900 Jews fleeing Hitler (the so-called "Voyage of the Damned"). Keeping tight immigration quotas was, politically, more important at the time. D-Day was our nation's finest hour in World War II, but the story of the M.V. St. Louis was perhaps our most shameful hour. Not to detract from D-Day, but both events are worth remembering this week, for very different reasons.

There was a bizarre scandal over at the Drug Enforcement Agency this week, but the media decided collectively to ignore it, even though it has all kinds of exploitation possibilities. A woman who is "still employed by the DEA, according to a Justice Department press release" and her husband staged the fake kidnapping of American children in Columbia, in an effort to defraud the government. Here are the facts, such as they are, from the press release. Now will someone please tell me why this isn't newsworthy? It seems to have all the necessary ingredients for a major scandal, but the mainstream media just yawned.

In other D.E.A. news, doctors in Massachusetts are being threatened with the loss of their federally-administered ability to prescribe medicine, to pressure them not to support medical marijuana in the state. This is about as thuggish and jack-booted as government gets, folks. If your political views aren't the correct ones, we will destroy your career. Someone remind me, why does D.E.A. chief Michele Leonhart still have a job?

Congress is doing what it can to push back, as a law sailed through a Senate committee this week (on a 22-8 vote) which would block the D.E.A.'s ability to crack down on industrial hemp experiments which Congress has already authorized. None other than Mitch McConnell was a co-sponsor of the bill (after a shipment of hemp seeds to Kentucky was briefly blocked), showing how non-partisan an issue denouncing the D.E.A. now is.

Moving along, eight states held a primary election this Tuesday. In San Jose, medicinal marijuana shops were offering free weed for anyone with an "I voted" sticker, which is probably illegal (but then, under federal law, so is their entire business operation). Sooner or later I just know I'm going to see a bumper sticker saying "I smoke pot -- and I vote!" At this point, it's pretty much inevitable.

The biggest news from the primary results is the impending runoff between Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi and his Tea Party challenger. Although, if you dug for it, there was some good news for progressives in this week's contests, too.

In what was the most far-reaching news of the week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new pollution rules. This was overshadowed by all the squabbling going on over the prisoner exchange, but President Obama's legacy as the best president on environmental issues in all our history will indeed be remembered for decades to come. From raising car emissions standards to now doing something about power plants, Obama has made more progress on this than any president since Richard Nixon first set up the E.P.A.

In "Republicans attempt to reach out to voters" news, this week a major Republican gay rights group decided to just close up shop. Yes, sadly, GOProud is no more.

The National Rifle Association released an extraordinary statement about certain people who are demanding the right to carry long guns wherever they want, which included:

Let's not mince words, not only is it rare, it's downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one's cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.

This was way too reasonable for their supporters, and so by week's end they had retracted and apologized for exhibiting any shred of sanity on the issue.

The War On Women progressed in the heartland this week, as three Michigan Republican legislators thought it'd be a great idea to show their compassion for all things women care about by staging a hokey photo-op of them purportedly reading women's magazines like Glamour. One was overheard bragging: "Don't say we don't understand women." Wow, it's just hard to know where to start, with that one. You cannot make this stuff up, folks. This, while the same Michigan lawmakers are forcing all the women in their state to buy separate "rape insurance," because they understand women so dang much. Heading south, Ohio Republicans want to ban all abortions even if the mother's life is in danger. Down in Tennessee, they're attempting to write the power to deny abortions "when necessary to save the life of the mother" into the state constitution. So that's how the Republican outreach to women is going. A few Michigan Democrats sent their own image out, in reply to the Republican magazine photo-op disaster: "Real women read bills." Best political comeback of the week!

And finally, the week ended with more good news on the job front, with over 200,000 jobs created last month. The unemployment rate held steady at 6.3 percent, after a whopping drop of 0.4 percent last month. This meant a milestone was passed, and America now has more people working than at any time in history (we have regained all the jobs lost in the Great Recession, in other words). That's still not good enough -- millions more jobs are needed -- but it is certainly another step on the right path.


The Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week won the award not for making a big splash in the political news, but for not making a big splash. Not unlike Sherlock Holmes's "dog that didn't bark in the night," this award is given because there was barely a ripple in the political news universe while Sylvia Mathews Burwell was confirmed by the Senate to become Secretary of Health and Human Services, by a bipartisan 78-17 vote. This was notable, because Burwell will now take over Kathleen Sebelius's old job. Burwell will now become the point person for implementing Obamacare, to put this another way.

When Sebelius stepped down a few months back, things were quite different politically. Republicans were gleefully anticipating the chance to rake the entire Obamacare program over the coals again, right in the midst of an election year. Their entire campaign strategy for this year's midterms had been "dump on Obamacare, all the time" -- and nothing else. It was their sole strategy for victory.

How times change. What with the continued good news on Obamacare, and what with the public at large really not being interested in rehashing the subject one last time, the Republicans in the Senate didn't even put up a fight in Burwell's confirmation hearings. There was no spectacle. There was no orchestrated attack on all that is Obamacare. The issue is fading, even on the Republican side, as they realize that the public isn't interested in their "repeal it, and then maybe at some future unspecified point we will make changes that we cannot tell you about right now" stance anymore.

Burwell is really winning the MIDOTW by default, because while her own record of accomplishments in public service is indeed impressive, it wasn't because of this that Republicans backed down this week. But, if the "dog had barked" (as Holmes would have put it) and the hearings had been a three-ring circus, she definitely would have been in the center ring.

Avoiding such a spectacle -- the first time Republicans have voluntarily refused to make any sort of political hay over Obamacare -- deserves mention, however. And Secretary Burwell deserves credit for having to prepare for an onslaught that did not, in the end, materialize. Making her our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. The 78-17 vote alone qualifies her for the award, we feel.

[You'll have to wait to congratulate Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, as the Health and Human Services contact page hasn't listed her yet, as of this writing.]


There were plenty of Democrats jumping on the Republican bandwagon over the prisoner swap this week (Dianne Feinstein, I am looking in your direction...), but one very low-level response really stood out from the pack. I'm not even sure the guy's a Democrat, but he does seem to be an Obama appointee, so that's close enough for government work (as they say).

Brandon Friedman, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, sent out a series of five tweets this week on his personal Twitter account. The first of these tweets is simply beyond the pale -- especially as he is doing precisely what he is condemning others for doing. His tweet read (note: we have no idea what "mats" he is talking about):

Here's the thing about Bergdahl and the Jump-to-Conclusions mats: What if his platoon was long on psychopaths and short on leadership?

Without a shred of evidence, a governmental official (no matter how lowly) calling an entire group of soldiers "psychopaths" is beyond disappointing behavior -- it is nothing short of disgraceful. He was trying to make a larger point, but his choice of words to begin this point was unacceptable. He has since apologized, but he never should have made this unfounded accusation in the first place. There has been enough "not supporting the troops" this week already, and this certainly doesn't help the situation one bit.

Which is why, lowly deputy assistant though he may be, Brandon Friedman is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week.

[Contact Housing and Urban Development Deputy Assistant Secretary Brandon Friedman via the H.U.D. contact list page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Volume 307 (6/6/14)

The talking points flying around this week have all been on a single subject -- the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier captured in the war in Afghanistan. He has been held by the Taliban for five years. That's about the only thing everyone agrees upon, at this point.

I wrote my initial reactions earlier this week, if you want my serious take on things so far. Oddly enough (politics certainly does make strange bedfellows), I seem to be largely in agreement on the salient points (if not on all the snarky comments) with none other than the uber-conservative Charles Krauthammer.

The news is everywhere, so I don't feel the need to repeat all the details, I'll just give you a few links if you've been in a coma all week or something: a good timeline of events, the original Rolling Stone article where many of the details people are now talking about come from, and the real problems we still face with Guantánamo prisoners. That should be enough review.

What follows is imaginary. It is fiction. It borrows from reality in two places: the quote from John Bellinger is real and accurate, and the Facebook posting that Ollie North (of all people) put up is also real. Everything else -- every quote, every statement -- is completely imaginary.

Because, all week long, I couldn't help but wondering what everyone would be saying if things had turned out differently. Which is why I had to write this, because if there had been a different outcome, President Obama surely would be in for just as much criticism (from the same people, mind you) as he's getting now. So just for a minute, imagine yourself...


In an alternate universe, just next door...

America got the sad news this week that the only prisoner of war in the Afghanistan war has died in the hands of his Taliban captors. President Obama appeared in the Rose Garden for the solemn announcement, flanked by the devastated parents of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has spent the last five years in captivity.

The political reaction was fierce, and immediate. Senator John McCain led the denunciations of the president, releasing the following statement:

It is nothing short of disgraceful that President Obama has allowed the only prisoner of war in Afghanistan to die in captivity. When I was a prisoner in Vietnam, the one thing that kept all of us hopeful was that we knew that America would never forget about us. We knew that the American military had our backs. We know that the United States would do anything possible to secure our return. Now we have a president who has never worn the uniform of the American military who has sent a devastating message to our troops: we will forget you, we won't do everything possible to get you back, and we will allow politics to trump our country's loyalty to those who proudly serve in our military.

What makes this even worse is that we have actually been in negotiations with the Taliban for years over Bowe Bergdahl's release. We offered them exactly what they asked for -- the exchange of five Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo Bay -- but the Obama administration blew its chance to successfully complete this prisoner of war exchange.

President Obama states that he notified Congress last week that he was in the final process of reaching a prisoner exchange agreement, and he is trying to hide behind the fact that legally he has to give 30 days' notice to Congress before any prisoners are released from Guantánamo Bay. This is nothing but a red herring. After all, if Obama had managed to somehow get Bergdahl home without notifying Congress, I sincerely doubt whether anyone would have complained about such a technicality, when an American serviceman's life is hanging in the balance. That wasn't why we passed this law, and to hide behind it now is nothing short of desperation on the Obama administration's part. For shame, Mister President, for shame!

Several other Republicans expressed support for McCain's statement, as an aide to a Republican leader put it: "If Obama had been president in 1973, John McCain might still be a prisoner in Vietnam today."

Senator Kelly Ayotte agreed: "Just two weeks ago, I had a press release where I urged 'the Department of Defense to do all it can to find Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and bring him home safely.' I can only now bitterly regret that the White House didn't do all it could -- in fact, it seems like they did nothing at all. The tragic loss of Sgt. Bergdahl can be laid directly at the feet of Barack Obama."

Some Democrats pushed back on the Republican outrage, but none would go on the record in doing so. One Democratic politician complained: "The five Taliban prisoners they were trying to swap have been categorized as the worst of the worst in Guantánamo -- are the Republicans really saying we should have let these guys go?"

John Bellinger, former national security advisor to George W. Bush, disagreed with this view in a recent Fox News interview, saying:

Sometime in the next couple of years, whether it's in the beginning of 2015 or shortly thereafter, this conflict in Afghanistan is winding down, and we would be required, at least under the traditional laws of war, to return people that we've detained in that conflict. So it seems in this case, we've gotten -- we traded them for [a] reasonable deal here.

Bellinger pointed out that we'd only be releasing the five prisoners a little earlier than the rest, and some way surely could have been found to make sure they didn't return to the battlefield until after the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan fully ends at the end of this year.

Other Republicans made similar points, that the Taliban prisoners have not been charged with terrorism, and that there were no plans to charge them at all, since there was no evidence against them that would even stand up in a military tribunal. "These were prisoners of war," said one Republican aide, "They would be going home soon anyway -- and refusing to trade them just killed an American soldier."

Senator Lindsey Graham also expressed his outrage that some in the media have been pointing to an old Rolling Stone article which seemed to suggest that Bergdahl was no hero and intentionally deserted his post. Graham responded:

That is disgraceful and un-American. To suggest that America would ever leave a soldier in the hands of the enemy -- even if he was absent without leave -- is nothing short of spitting in the face of everyone who wears the uniform of this country. America leaves no soldier behind. Period. If he broke the rules, then the Army will try him and convict him and punish him -- not the Taliban. There are no caveats -- there are only apologists for a president who let a prisoner of war die on his watch, because he didn't do everything he could to get Bowe Bergdahl home. If the Army truly thought Bergdahl wasn't a soldier in good standing, then they would not have promoted him twice while he was being held in captivity.

There were even some dark rumors concerning the father of Bergdahl, who appeared in the Rose Garden ceremony with Obama. Fox News reported that some were calling into question whether the father was some sort of Islamic terrorist sympathizer, based upon nothing but his looks. They condemned such rumors, stating: "If having a long beard means you're not a good American, then I guess that is news to ZZ Top and the guys on Duck Dynasty."

Republican House member Richard Nugent has led the push to bring Bergdahl home for years. He stated after hearing news of the tragedy, "I have introduced resolutions which called on the United States to do everything possible to bring all servicemembers home from captivity. I meant what I said -- we needed to do everything possible, and President Obama fell well short of that goal." Other Republicans expressed similar views, brushing aside any complaints about the proposed prisoner swap as being nothing more than Democrats playing politics and trying to provide cover for Obama. John McCain pointed to an interview he gave back in February, where he stated that the proposed prisoner swap was "something I think we should seriously consider." McCain further stated that this proved that Republicans would have allowed the president to make such a prisoner exchange without having to pay a political price from his opponents. "I was for it a few months ago," said McCain, "and I would have supported it now -- to suggest otherwise is to question the honor of my own words."

The most scathing words came from none other than Oliver North, who had posted on Facebook back in 2011:

Today, I received from the National League of POW/MIA families, a "Never Forget Bracelet" emblazoned with the name of Sgt Bowe Bergdahl. He was seized on June 30, 2009 in Afghanistan and is being held by the Haqqani Organization -- a Taliban affiliated terrorist group -- in northwest Pakistan. Sgt Bergdahl and his loved ones here at home deserve our prayers and encouragement until he is rescued or released. That's what we do. We're Americans.

After hearing of Bergdahl's death, North stated unequivocally:

Negotiating with terrorists is nothing new to America. I did so myself under Ronald Reagan, proudly. We didn't just trade prisoners, we actually traded missiles to Iran in the hopes of freeing seven Americans held by Iranian-controlled terrorist organizations. When American lives are at risk, you do everything possible to get them back. Period. Especially when the Americans being held wear the uniform of this country. President Obama bears full responsibility for this unnecessary death.

There has been no official reaction to any of these complaints from the White House, to date. But the longer President Obama allows these issues to go unanswered, the more severe the political damage of losing the only American prisoner of war will be for him. Americans deserve to know why Obama did not act, and did not do everything in his power to return Bowe Bergdahl to his family and to his country.


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