National Security

Musical Chairs in National Security Leadership

Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
June 27, 2011, 4:45 p.m.

A sur­vey of 90 Dems and 93 GOP­ers on Na­tion­al Journ­al’s Pol. In­siders pan­el (10/9 is­sue).

Which Party Cmte Is Do­ing A Bet­ter Job In The Run-Up To The Midterm Elec­tions?


- Dems GOP­ers DNC 78% 73% RNC 17 15 Tie/neither 6 12


- Dems GOP­ers DSCC 66% 13% NR­SC 31 85 Tie/neither 3 2


- Dems GOP­ers DCCC 58% 15% NR­CC 40 78 Tie/neither 2 7

I have be­come an ex­cel­lent tea-leaf read­er this spring. As I watch col­lege gradu­ates cross the stage on com­mence­ment day—tee­ter­ing in new heels, arms out­stretched to grasp their hard-earned dip­lo­mas—I study the ter­ror in their eyes.

And as I watch two party nom­in­ees stride onto their stages—theme songs blar­ing, huge Amer­ic­an flags be­hind them—I study the am­bi­tion in their eyes.

On col­lege cam­puses and on the cam­paign trail, the prin­cipals think they have a plan but also know it could eas­ily be knocked off course by events al­most en­tirely out of their con­trol. If you are a gradu­at­ing seni­or this spring, that might in­clude the dreaded pro­spect of mov­ing back home, burdened with stu­dent-loan debt. If you are Pres­id­ent Obama, that could mean mov­ing back home to Chica­go.

But will this be a sober stan­doff over eco­nom­ic stress and solu­tions? Or are we just as likely to spend the rest of this year con­sumed with the latest ut­ter­ances of Jeremi­ah Wright and Don­ald Trump?

This elec­tion has been plagued with dis­trac­tions that, for a day or a week at a time, have con­spired to knock two nor­mally well-dis­cip­lined can­did­ates off course.

Do not be­lieve for a mo­ment that the can­did­ates’ camps in Bo­ston or Chica­go do not have grand plans. They do. And they in­clude pub­lic maps of win­nable states, secret maps of win­nable states, ex­traordin­ary mi­cro-tar­get­ing strategies, and me­tic­u­lous grass­roots mo­bil­iz­a­tion plans. But be­cause each fears that the oth­er will raise more money, deep pock­ets will al­ways be wel­come.

Wel­come, Shel­don Ad­el­son and Don­ald Trump. Wel­come, Anna Win­tour and Sarah Jes­sica Park­er. Elit­ism has its priv­ileges. No one will turn down the cash as long as the Su­preme Court says that it’s leg­al, so the celebrity mud-throw­ing is largely be­side the point. So too, mostly, is the end­less hand-wringing about vice pres­id­en­tial picks. Each can­did­ate knows voters mostly view the No. 2 as a re­flec­tion on the No. 1.

But this cam­paign is this close. On an al­most weekly basis, the un­ex­pec­ted and the un­con­trol­lable have threatened every well-laid plan. The trouble is, no one knows what will mat­ter and what won’t, so they have to re­spond to everything.

Seni­or Rom­ney ad­viser Ed Gillespie, a vet­er­an of many GOP cam­paign war rooms, calls these dis­trac­tions “shiny ob­jects.”

“I have not worked in a cam­paign with more shiny ob­jects than this one,” he told a small group of re­port­ers this week. “It’s pretty re­mark­able to me the kind of things that flare up and people start chas­ing. We’ve dis­cip­lined ourselves on the Rom­ney cam­paign to, as best we can, not chase the rab­bits or get dis­trac­ted by the shiny ob­jects.”

This is ac­tu­ally kind of vir­tu­ous, as far as it goes. Rom­ney has largely man­aged to avoid the muck of the dis­cred­ited birth­er de­bate, but he doesn’t mind shar­ing the stage with some of the folks who keep it alive.

The Demo­crats, of course, are no less likely to take a sharp poke when they can. When asked this week about wheth­er the pres­id­ent was vul­ner­able to Re­pub­lic­an charges that he was spend­ing too much time hob­nob­bing with celebrit­ies—earn­ing the Rush Limbaugh la­bel “Barack Kar­dashi­an”—White House spokes­man Jay Car­ney told re­port­ers trav­el­ing on Air Force One (to one of those glit­tery parties),”Two words: Don­ald Trump. Next ques­tion.”

It’s not that the cam­paigns don’t know how to avoid po­ten­tial potholes when they see them. Neither Pres­id­ent Obama nor Rom­ney was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested, for in­stance, in ty­ing him­self too closely to the out­come of Wis­con­sin’s failed, par­tis­an ef­fort to re­call Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Scott Walk­er.

“I don’t know if at the end of the day, it helped or hurt or made any dif­fer­ence at all,” Gillespie said on Wed­nes­day morn­ing as the mar­gin of vic­tory be­came clear. “They are tea leaves, but at the end of the day, the elec­tion yes­ter­day was about Gov­ernor Walk­er, his agenda, his re­forms, the uni­on ef­forts to over­turn them, and about Wis­con­sin.”

On this par­tic­u­lar morn­ing at least, Car­ney and Gillespie were on the same page. “I cer­tainly wouldn’t read much in­to yes­ter­day’s res­ult,” the White House press sec­ret­ary said, “bey­ond its ef­fect on who’s oc­cupy­ing the gov­ernor’s seat in Wis­con­sin.”

But Obama signaled this week that he is more than aware of the po­ten­tial that his first four years in of­fice will be boiled down to the dregs of the tea leaves.

“What they’re go­ing to do is they’re go­ing to say, “˜Well, you know what, you’re still not sat­is­fied and it’s Obama’s fault,’ “ he told sup­port­ers at a Cali­for­nia fun­drais­ing event. “That’s the es­sence of their cam­paign. It’s very easy to put on a bump­er stick­er: ‘It’s Obama’s Fault.’ “

His sup­port­ers laughed. Obama looked stern. He ought to in a year when bright and shiny ob­jects rule.

What We're Following See More »
Trump To Rescind Trans Protections
55 minutes ago

Donald Trump is planning to reverse an Obama-era order requiring that schools allow students to use the bathroom that coincides with their gender identity. Trump "has green-lighted the plan for the Justice Department and Education Department to send a “Dear Colleague” letter to schools rescinding the guidance." A case is going before the Supreme Court on March 28 in which Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student, is suing his high school for forbidding him to use the men's room.

Russia Compiling Dossier on Trump’s Mind
2 hours ago

Retired Russian diplomats and members of Vladimir Putin's staff are compiling a dossier "on Donald Trump's psychological makeup" for the Russian leader. "Among its preliminary conclusions is that the new American leader is a risk-taker who can be naïve, according to a senior Kremlin adviser."

Trump Addresses Threats On Jewish Community Centers
3 hours ago
Trump Set To Issue New Travel Ban
4 hours ago

Donald Trump is set to issue a new and more focused executive order clarifying the scope of his travel ban, hoping that the order will survive legal challenges. The new order would focus on the same seven countries, "but would only bar entry to those without a visa and who have never entered the United States before. Unlike the original order, people from those countries who already have permanent U.S. residency (green cards) or visas would not face any restrictions." Some lawyers believe the government will now have much stronger standing, though lawyers who challenged the initial order see the same core problems with the forthcoming ban.

Trump Taps Lt. Gen. McMaster as NSC Head
4 hours ago

"President Donald Trump announced Monday that Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster will serve as his next national security adviser, filling the void left last week by the sudden dismissal of Michael Flynn. ... Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who had been serving as the acting national security adviser since Flynn's exit, will return to his role as chief of staff of the National Security Council." The pick was widely praised on both sides of the aisle.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.