Pelosi's Dubious Intelligence Test

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Two friends of mine, both Middle East experts, hold divergent views on the rift between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations. This is not surprising: One holds right-of-center views; the other leans to the liberal vantage point.

The conservative fears that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are naïve about Iran’s intentions regarding nuclear arms and do not really understand that nothing uttered in negotiations with the Iranians can be believed. He found Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s speech to Congress bracing and necessary.

My more liberal friend says everyone in the Obama administration knows that Iran is a terrorism-exporting regime, that it cheats on nuclear inspections, and that it has called for Israel’s destruction. But he says tougher economic sanctions against Iran or negotiations that humiliate the regime will only cause Iranians to walk away from the talks and build atomic bombs in secrecy. He also believes Netanyahu lacks a plausible plan to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions—short of war.

I was inclined until last week to give the White House the benefit of the doubt. That’s no longer true, but not because of anything Netanyahu said last Tuesday. What convinced me to distrust the Obama administration on this question is the Democrats’ own behavior before, during, and after the Israeli prime minister’s speech.

For years, unnamed Obama administration officials have denounced Netanyahu to reporters with a variety of personal insults. The most off-putting were the aspersions passed along to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Netanyahu is a political “coward” and a “chicken____.”  That’s sketchy on a couple of levels. First of all, Bibi was a captain in the special forces, known for leading commando raids into enemy territory and being shot and wounded in action. And the idea of a Washington political hack who has probably never been in a fistfight, let alone a war, calling him gutless from behind the protective cloak of the anonymous quote exceeds parody.

Then there were the five dozen congressional Democrats who boycotted the speech on the grounds that only the president of the United States, and not the House speaker, should invite a foreign leader to speak to Congress. These touchy souls fancied themselves defenders of Barack Obama’s honor. Perhaps they should worry more about the Constitutional doctrine of separation of powers—and the prerogatives of their own branch of government.

The petulance preceding the speech wasn’t a lapse, it was a calculated strategy apparently directed out of the White House. It included Obama’s claim that he wasn’t going to watch Netanyahu— Tuesday at 11 a.m. being such an important hour and all. During the speech, literally, White House aides and Capitol Hill political operatives began circulating the Democrats’ talking points, the main three being: (1) “Nothing new here, folks.” (2) Bibi is offering no specifics. (3) His approach will lead to war.

Obama airily repeated talking point No. 1 himself, notwithstanding the fact that it would have been difficult to reach this conclusion if you didn’t actually watch the speech. The president skirted that pothole by claiming he’d scanned a transcript of the address. But the apex of Democratic Party querulousness came from someone who did attend the session—Nancy Pelosi, the ranking House Democrat.

Pelosi pronounced herself “near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech,” on account of what she termed its condescending tone. She also characterized herself as “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 + 1 nations.”

That was a reference to five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, but Washington jargon wasn’t the only curious aspect of Pelosi’s syntactically tortured reaction. Let’s start with this one: Why demonize the leader of an ally because he has a fundamentally different perception about ongoing negotiations? Netanyahu is obviously sincere, even if he is misguided. Why not have Obama or Kerry answer his objections, or if they don’t want to go that far, just politely ignore his speech? Obama and his loyalists didn’t want him to talk, suggesting they are afraid of his arguments. If they have that little confidence in their own position, why should the rest of us believe it?

Or perhaps they don’t trust the American people to understand it, which would make Nancy Pelosi’s assertion about insulting the nation’s intelligence all the more discordant. One problem is that Democrats in power in Washington these days see everything through a political lens. Netanyahu’s motives? In the Democrats’ telling, he was pandering to his conservative base in Israel’s upcoming elections. In psychology, assigning such motives to other people is called “projecting.”

I’ve known Nancy Pelosi since our early days in the San Francisco Bay Area, I as a reporter and she an up-and-comer rising through the ranks of Democratic politics. Then, as now, she came across as both highly principled and hyper-partisan, two traits that rarely mix well. I’d respectfully suggest that many statements have been proffered during the Obama era that an objective observer would characterize as much more insulting to the intelligence of the American voter than anything said by Netanyahu. Many have come from prominent Democrats. Here are seven examples.

--- “I don’t think there’s any ill intent in this,” Pelosi’s fellow San Franciscan, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, told the New York Times in response to revelations about Hillary Clinton’s parallel email system at the State Department.

--- “People have different ways of communicating,” added Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin. “I have a granddaughter who does nothing but text.”

--- “What matters is that my political opinions have never affected my work.” That’s former IRS official Lois Lerner, claiming her liberal ideological views had nothing to do with her hassling of conservative nonprofit groups.

--- “The sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed.” That’s Obama, discussing the across-the-board budget cuts first offered by his budget negotiators.

--- “If you like your doctor and your health care plan, you can keep it.” That’s also Obama, of course, drumming up support for the Affordable Care Act.

--- “This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure [the Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. ... Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.” So said MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, explaining the administration’s strategy for getting Obamacare through Congress. He continued: “Call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

--- “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.” That’s then-speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi five years ago this month.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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