When everyone else goes on vacation, Republicans go to work. As the political squabble over the mosque near Ground Zero continues to stay at a fever pitch, it once again looks like the Democrats are sleeping.
Last Christmas, a young Al-Qaeda sympathizer Umar Abdulmutallab nearly blew up an passenger jet that was landing in Detroit. I was working that week, and I remember watching as Republicans — New York Rep. Pete King, Newt Gingrich, Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, Dick Cheney — piled on.
Democrats were (literally) on vacation as King and friends took control of the cable debate, declaring things, “It’s important for the president or the secretary to be more out there and reminding people just how real this threat was and how deadly it is.” Obama stayed above the fray, entering it with a short speech from Hawaii on how he had everything under control.
But Congressional Democrats continued to take the barrage of attacks on the chin, letting Republicans set the tone. Their only response to South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint’s complaint about “soft talk about engagement, closing Gitmo, these things are not going to appease the terrorists,” was that he had put a hold on Obama’s nominee to run the TSA.
The sluggish, disparate response, the unwillingness to push back was exacerbated by the fact that Democratic Representative and operatives were hard to reach — they were all taking some time off, and Republicans filled the vacuum. A dynamic was set: Republicans could broadly attack Islam or any sort of restraint on interrogation to point up Obama’s weakness, with minimal political cost.
And the cycle repeats itself. Take Harry Reid’s refutation of Obama’s tentative support of the Cordoba center. “Sen. Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else,” his press secretary told POLITICO. “If the Republicans are being sincere, they would help us pass this long-overdue bill to help the first responders whose health and livelihoods have been devastated because of their bravery on 9/11, rather than continuing to block this much-needed legislation.
The New York Senators have also shied away, offering a tepid endorsement of the initiative through their press office and holding back their attacks on Republicans. Senator Charles Schumer’s spokesman person could only say, “he doesn’t oppose it.”
When it comes to dealing with Islam and terrorism and all its political complications, the Democratic strategy seems to be duck, roll, and focus on vaguely related Republican political obstruction. It is August, and all the polls show that people care more about the economy that whatever controversy is dominating the cable cycle. It’s as if the Democrats forgot the riotous town halls last year, which delayed the health reform debate by a couple of months.
As the dog days tick toward fall, and another anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Newt Gingrich is hogging the airwaves with statements like “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington.” It looks like Democrats have decided that hiding is the best strategy.
We’ll see whether they were right in November.
David Paterson is back! Kind of.
As Governor-in-waiting Andrew Cuomo enters what must be the middle stretch of his endless inauguration, the current governor has been trying to stay relevant, in his own way. But, with Paterson, it seems like steps forward must always be matched with a step or two backward.
The state legislature finally passed a budget early last week, just in time for State Senators and Assemblymen to hit the campaign trail and brag about their productivity. It was only 125 days too late.
Then, on Wednesday, Paterson made a bid to solidify his legacy, at least in his backyard of Harlem, by playing MC at Charlie Rangel’s birthday party. This was good for the governor; compared to the embattled Congressman, he’s getting relatively good press these days.
But Paterson’s main stake to the news these days has been his attempt at playing peacemaker, floating a plan to move the proposed “Ground Zero mosque” (which is not exactly a mosque, and not exactly at Ground Zero) to unspecified state land nearby. The compromising— some would say compromised — tone drew a distinction with Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to stand by the plan, but then again, it doesn’t seem as if Paterson has any legal ability to change anything, nor would he be able to loosen up state land for use.
Now, Paterson is on the defensive. In an interview with WOR, he said the opponents of the mosque are merely neighbors, tired of being “badgered.” He added, “How much more foresighted would it be if you were promoting cultural and ethnic understanding if you don’t wait until you build the building to do it and do it right now?”
Paterson, like most of the other participants in the great mosque gabfest, doesn’t live downtown; the badgering seems to exist on a two-way street. However, the content of Paterson’s argument doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we’re talking about his views on something, and not the fact that his former top aide David Johnston was formally charged with assault in the case that basically ended Paterson’s bid for re-election. (Paterson will not be facing charges.)
At least he’s still the governor. For a few more months.
Depending on where you stand, in both senses of the word, the debate is either about the “Ground Zero Mosque,” or the Islamic cultural center named the Cordoba House slated for development on Park Place. (Yes, it’s not actually at Ground Zero, but the Imam behind the center picked the location, about two blocks away, deliberately.)
When Michael Bloomberg addressed it last week, after a near unanimous Community Board vote approving the plan, he was applauded for straightforwardly demanding religious tolerance, it seemed like a New York development story with strong political undertones. As the days have gone by, as Newsweek puts it on its cover, and as every prospective 2012 Republican presidential candidate — from Minnesota, Alaska, Arkansas, and other outer boroughs — comes out against the building, it has taken on a stranger hue. Everyone who is not a prominent Democratic politician seems to have a formal opinion, including John McCain and the two other Senators who publicly called the location of the building an “insult.”
Democrats in the city have been essentially quiet — the best example is Rep. Anthony Weiner, who sent a letter to Bloomberg that was nearly indecipherable: he praised the speech, but used bureaucratic language to hedge what seemed like support, writing, “I feel strongly that the constitutional protection of religion from the overreach of government means that elected officials should endeavor to stay out of the business of deciding where houses of worship may or may not be.’’
The swirling feuds have led to a whole range of public spokesmen and intellectuals staking positions like votes, like Senators in a new legislative body known as the news cycle. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (the organization behind the Museum of Tolerance) said it would be too offensive to victims of 9/11 to build the center in the shadow of the twin towers. That, in part, echoed the concerns of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights organization. Most Jewish groups did not agree with the ADL’s stance. And Fareed Zakaria disapproved so much that he returned an ADL award he received in 2005. And so on.
The situation, overly fraught to the point of dark comedy, is no longer about New York, and especially not downtown development; it’s about what you think about how America sees itself, or how you can get some attention to your cause. Barely anyone complaining has the ability to do anything — and, according to a recent news report, it’s no guarantee that the center would be able to get the necessary financing.
But this confusing, loud argument strikes a nerve that hits harder than Sarah Palin’s twitter feed: The reason the words “Ground Zero Mosque” have so much resonance is because Ground Zero is still a place, a hole in the ground somehow approaching its ninth year of emptiness. (It’s hard to see people caring about “Freedom Tower Mosque,” even if it was actually located in the building itself.) The hope of a higher principle that could trump parochial interests seems sillier by the day — why would a mosque be able to fix things where the Port Authority couldn’t?
The case of Rep. Charlie Rangel seems pretty cut and dry: A Congressional Panel has hit him with 13 ethics violations (mainly for finding new, recreational ways to use taxpayer money), he lost his beloved seat as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee months ago, and even the President has suggested that he ”end his career with dignity.”
There is an undertone of fear as the Democrats limp into midterms and “Rangel” becomes shorthand for “congressional corruption.” Rep. John Boehner, the Republican Minority Leader, has used the charges to launch a broader attack, telling NewsHour last week, “This is about Speaker Pelosi’s most glaring promise that she’s broken, when she said in ’06 that it’s time to drain the swamp.”
The eighty-year-old lion of Harlem faces a primary on September 14, leaving him more then enough time to step down and “pass the torch,” as his four opponents like to say, and take some of the midterm heat off of the Democrats.
But what would his resignation accomplish?
As much as Rangel’s refusal to step down from the seat he has held since 1970 resembles the futile lunge of a fading boxer, the national party has slowly and steadily distanced themselves from him, calling for investigations and stripping him of his power. And Weekly Standard editor and conservative strategist William Kristol pointed out that the corruption charge is distraction — Republican congressmen are held in similarly low regard and their own problems still linger in voters’ minds. He suggested they target their attacks at Democratic policies, where there is more space to draw distinctions. “The idea that Republicans should go around throwing stones at Charlie Rangel is foolish on their part,” he recently told Fox News.
On top of this, it’s not entirely clear that Harlem would be better off if he left now. (One year ago, before he swallowed up campaign support and the available donor money, would have been a different story.) His top challenger, former Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, also has a reputation with some chinks, due to a recent drunk driving charge and a 2004 sex scandal, and, in an interview last week, he demonstrated that he has more passion than policy knowledge. Top Harlem heavyweights such State Senator Bill Perkins and Assemblyman Keith Wright all chose not to challenge Rangel, out of either respect or strategic prudence, and they all have stronger political operations than Powell.
Vincent Scott Morgan, a former Rangel staffer who is a long-shot primary challenger (and short on cash, this time around), told me, “We should have a choice as to who best represents the values of the district in Washington, D.C.” Some might argue that Charlie Rangel denied voters that choice when he chose to run for re-election, but abruptly leaving a void might make a bad situation worse.
We just hired a great new politics blogger. His name is Avi Zenilman, and he will post politics stories in this space every Tuesday and Friday.
A little bit about Avi:
Avi Zenilman is a freelance writer and editor. He previously worked as a campaign reporter for Politico and as the online news editor of The New Yorker. He has also written for Slate, Washington Monthly, VanityFair.com, and the Washington Post‘s Plum Line blog.
Check back next Tuesday for Avi’s first story!
1. Lobbying Albany is big business: The state Commission on Public Integrity corrected a computer error, revealing that lobbying is not in decline — 2009 revenue nearly hit $200 million, an increase of about twenty percent from the year before. [The Business Review (Albany)[The New York Times]
3. If you are friends with the wife of the Chairman of the Independence Party, you’ve won almost $20,000 in fees for “social media consulting!” (Whatever that is.) [New York Post]
4. The Republican Primary for Governor continues to revolve around who has a greater dislike for the mosque near Ground Zero. Carl Paladino, says he’ll fight the “ACLU” and use eminent domain to take over the property. Here’s an excerpt from his new ad:
ANNOUNCER: Andrew Cuomo says it’s about religious freedom and the construction of the Mosque should proceed.
Carl Palaldino says it’s an affront to those murdered on 9-11, it’s an insult to all Americans and it must be stopped.
PALADINO: “This is Carl Paladino. As Governor I will use the power of eminent domain to stop this Mosque and make the site a war memorial instead of a monument to those who attacked our country.”
In the ad, Paladino pretends Republican primary opponent Rick Lazio doesn’t exist. [New York Daily News]
5. Sherra-Una Booker, the women who indirectly brought David Paterson down–she was allegedly abused by his aide David Johnson, was considering her charges, and the governor called her in a clumsy attempt to make the mess go away–speaks to the Daily News and WNBC. She’s refiling charges, and speaking out. [New York Daily News and WNBC]