Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Benghazi and the Republican abandonment of the center

Nicholas Wapshott
May 10, 2013 16:24 UTC

In World War Two, the Libyan port of Benghazi was hard fought over, changing hands five times between Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the Allied forces. Seventy years on, the city has again become the focus of a fierce battle, this time between Republicans and Democrats over the terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.

This week’s House committee resumed the fight, with GOP members eager to show the Obama administration at fault. Because Hillary Clinton has already emerged as the 2016 Democratic frontrunner, determining what exactly happened in Benghazi that day has become the first scuffle in the next presidential election.

In the weeks running up to President Barack Obama’s reelection, conservative commentators thought that in the Benghazi deaths they had found an explosive issue that would shock the nation. Despite their best efforts, which elicited an admission of responsibility from the secretary of state, the Benghazi campaign did not move the pollsters’ needle. The campaign to implicate the president andClinton was long on innuendo and short on facts. There was no smoking gun. As a result, voters did not grasp what they were being urged to be indignant about.

Despite this indifference, Republicans are pressing on. The former presidential hopeful and Fox News host Mike Huckabee has high hopes Benghazi will lead to impeachment. “I believe that before it’s all over, this president will not fill out his full term,” he said. “This is not minor. It wasn’t minor when Richard Nixon lied to the American people and worked with those in his administration to cover up what really happened in Watergate.”

But even after the House revisited Benghazi and took evidence from three State Department whistleblowers, the most alarming front-page headline Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal could come up with was: “Diplomat Airs Attack Details.” And its low-key editorial, “The Benghazi Awakening,” was a quiet plea for more information, not a cry for impeachment. Even the most eager conspiracy theorists may be excused for stifling a yawn. Once again, Republicans have raced off in their own direction, leaving the rest of us wondering what all the fuss is about.

How the NRA hijacked the Republican Party

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 18, 2013 15:38 UTC

There are few better ways of grasping how far the Republicans have abandoned the middle ground, where they used to win elections, than the way their leaders have become agents of the gun industry. Conservatives used to consider themselves law-abiding citizens who put great store by the permanence of institutions, by the rule of law, and by the traditional caution and common sense of the sensible majority. Such devotion to stability, continuation, and moderation explains why so many conservatives were alarmed when the social revolution of the Sixties erupted. Suddenly, it seemed, everything was on the move. Children no longer believed in the wisdom of their elders, nor obeyed the unwritten rules that had guided every previous generation. The days of everyone knowing their place and remaining in it were overthrown and it appeared that anarchy had broken out in America.

Nowhere was this more evident to traditional conservatives than in the way African-Americans responded to the civil rights legislation enacted by Lyndon Johnson. Instead of being grateful for the overdue democratic changes wrested from reluctant Southern lawmakers, a significant number of African-Americans demanded more profound change. There were riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other major cities which were met by calls from conservatives for tighter gun controls. The Black Panthers, dressed as soldiers and carrying guns, as was their right under the Second Amendment, demanded that African-Americans be allowed to live in a separate self-governing state. In May 1967, 30 Panthers took loaded rifles, shotguns, and pistols into the California State Capitol to protest against new gun control laws. The California governor, Ronald Reagan, declared: “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

After John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King were assassinated, Johnson joined with conservatives to pass the federal Gun Control Act that stipulated a minimum age for gun buyers, restricted traffic across state lines to federally registered gun dealers, limited the sale of certain destructive bullets, required guns to carry serial numbers, and added drug addicts and the insane to those, like felons, who were already forbidden to own guns. When it transpired that Lee Harvey Oswald had bought the rifle that killed the president mail order from the pages of the National Rifle Association magazine, the NRA Executive Vice-President Franklin Orth backed an end to mail-order sales. “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States,” he said.

Since when have personal guns been used to defend political liberty?

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 9, 2013 21:23 UTC

Piers Morgan is the most unlikely campaigning journalist. The smooth-faced Morgan, who arrived from Britain to replace Larry King as CNN’s chief celebrity interviewer, can, if pushed, engage with serious guests on serious topics. But, as someone who cut his teeth writing showbiz tittle-tattle for Rupert Murdoch, he seemed more at ease pitching softball questions to boldfaced names plugging their latest products.

What a difference a massacre of children makes. After a frivolous November guest list that, despite the presidential election, included Mike Tyson, Kitty Kelley, Oliver Stone and Tyler Perry, among other gossip column fodder, he turned to a subject that celebrity interviewers keep well away from because, even in the wake of another mass killing, it is so painfully pointless to raise: gun control. And in doing so, Morgan found his voice. Americans have become so weary at the grip the NRA and other gun industry lobbyists have on the gun debate that the simple horror and amazement Morgan expressed on hearing of the Sandy Hook bloodbath came as a refreshing surprise. What sort of country, he asked, cannot defend its schoolchildren from mad people with automatic weapons? What has to be done to bring the repeated slaughter of innocents to an end?

For his pains, Morgan attracted a full magazine of gun nuts, including one Alexander Emerick “Alex” Jones, a self-described libertarian, “paleoconservative” and “aggressive constitutionalist” who once ran as a Republican in Texas House District 48 (facing certain defeat, he withdrew before Election Day). He believes George W. Bush was behind the September 11 attacks and Bill Clinton plotted the Oklahoma City bombings. He was so incensed that Morgan dare use his First Amendment rights to ask an awkward question about guns that he is demanding the president deport the chat show host for sedition. To find a more invidious example of muddle-headed, brazen hypocrisy, you have to go back to 2009, when anti-government Tea Party activists held up placards screaming “Government Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare.” Being a good Fleet Street tabloid editor, Morgan promptly invited Jones to make his case on Piers Morgan Tonight.

The high cost of hating government

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 2, 2013 16:26 UTC

The tourniquet applied by the outgoing Congress to the economy allows a two-month breather before we are consumed by the next deadline. The president and his party can allow themselves a brief moment of celebration for imposing higher taxes on the richest Americans, but the next stage in fixing the nation’s fiscal problems may not be as easy. By the end of February, lawmakers must find enough cuts in public spending to allow the debt ceiling to be raised. Two more months of uncertainty will prevent businesses and consumers from making spending decisions that would bolster the economic recovery.

The devil is not so much in the detail of the arguments to come as the big picture that frames the debilitating running debate. While the difference between the sides is ostensibly over taxes and public spending and borrowing, the more profound division is over where government should begin and end. For many of the Republican Party’s Tea Party insurgents, the choice is even more fundamental: whether there should be a government at all. Their unbending position, demanding an ever-diminishing role for the federal government, has levied an enormous unnecessary cost on everyone else.

Since Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010 mid-terms, when the Tea Party tide was in full force, they have attempted to freeze the size of government, coincidentally putting a brake on economic recovery. They have vetoed attempts at further economic stimulus, encouraged America’s economy to be downgraded by the ratings agencies by threatening not to extend the debt ceiling, and tried to veto any and every tax increase in the fiscal cliff talks. Their aim is to shrink government by starving it of funds. Such uncompromising absolutism has led to the dampening of business confidence and investment that would have created jobs.

After Newtown, guns are one more rift in the GOP

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 19, 2012 18:02 UTC

When political parties lose after a bitterly fought electoral battle, they prefer to lick their wounds in private. The glare of publicity is not helpful in exploring what went wrong and charting a fresh course. The Republicans, however, find their election postmortem taking place in the full public gaze. When it comes to the most urgent issue confronting the nation, the fiscal cliff, they face an invidious choice. They must decide by Dec. 31 whether to persist in the stance they adopted at the election, saving the ultra-rich from higher taxation, or to raise taxes on all Americans. If they hold firm, they will be blamed for levying $1,200 a year on every middle-class family. That is not good news for the party of low taxation.

If their fiscal cliff dilemma were not bad enough, since the slaughter of the schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, Republicans are set to defend a challenge to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Concerned, angry Americans are asking why lawmakers have failed to protect them and their children from arbitrary execution. The Republican leadership must now choose whether to join the president in finding a way to avoid similar massacres or face the electoral consequences. If they get that pivotal decision wrong, they risk being cast as coldhearted villains, out of touch with the moderate voters they need to win back the White House and the Senate.

Little wonder that Republicans backed by the National Rifle Association have made themselves scarce. Finding a Republican legislator to appear on camera to defend the status quo is as hard as finding someone to argue that hard drug dealers perform a valuable public service. NBC’s Meet the Press contacted all 31 NRA-backed senators for comment, and every last one kept his head below the barricade.

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