Monday, April 30, 2012

Mitt Romney & The Republican Party's Impossible Election Year Balancing Act



With the primary season pandering finally behind them, the Republican Party in general and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney in particular face an all but impossible balancing act: Being mindful of the interests of a party base that has evolved into a welter of angry Tea Partiers, self-righteous evangelicals and hard core right-wingers with nutty ideas while trying to court mainstream voters and independent women in particular who have shown little affinity for the GOP's social and economic platforms.
 Some historic perspective here: Romney enters the post-primary campaign season with the weakest favorability rating on record for a presumptive presidential nominee in ABC News/Washington Post polls since 1984 and trails a resurgent Barack Obama in personal popularity by a whopping 21 percentage points in one poll.  This on top of Romney's tepid showings in primaries last week despite the fact that Rick Santorum, his chief challenger, had stopped campaigning.
Other polls have Romney closer to the president and the occasional daily tracking poll shows him ahead by a nose, but none of them take into account his not-so-silent partner -- the House Republican caucus with its coddle the rich and screw everyone else mantra, and that will be an albatross around Romney's neck through to Election Day no matter how hard he flip-flops.
The crux of the balancing act is this: Can Romney appear moderate enough to attract the independents he needs to win without alienating the leaders of the House caucus, who in turn will be hectored by those rebellious freshmen who rode anti-Washington antipathy to victory in 2010?  In other words, is Romney trapped by his base?
Put another way, does Romney really believe in what Nobel prize-winning economist and pundit Paul Krugman calls the confidence fairy.  The confidence fairy rewards policy makers -- in this case House Republicans -- for their fiscal virtue, but in reality and as we know, the confidence fairy is a myth.
Romney has a further handicap that he has shown no sign of overcoming:  Defensiveness over his immense wealth and an inability to break out of the bubble world of the super rich in which he and his wife live.
Had Romney and his advisers been more in tune with how many voters will view him, he would have pulled out funds invested in offshore havens like the Cayman Islands and Switzerland long before that became an issue, as well as put off a $12 million renovation to his La Jolla home, which includes a car elevator, so that didn't become an issue. And a head's up here: With the warmer weather will come May Day and the reincarnation of Occupy Wall Street.  Romney will be squarely in their cross hairs.
Romney doesn't necessarily have to connect with average Joes and Janes to get elected, but in abandoning cultural and economic moderation in hearting the hardcore Republican Party line and surprisingly showing little sign of Etch A Sketching back toward the center, he is extremely vulnerable to attacks from Obama and his surrogates whether it's over something silly like his wife having two Cadillacs or more serious concerns like his support of the Paul Ryan budget plan.
Finally, beyond the balancing act is Romney's character.

I'm with commentator Charles Blow when he say that he has no personal gripe with him: "I don't believe him to be an evil man. Quite the opposite: he appears to be a loving husband and father. Besides, evil requires conviction, which Romney lacks. But he is a dangerous man. Unprincipled ambition always is. Infinite malleability is its own vice because it’s infinitely corruptible by others of ignoble intentions."
There is perhaps no one better at unprincipled ambition in American politics than puppet master Karl Rove, who is back from the dead with a gadzillion dollar super PAC to bankroll Romney in his quest to assault American democracy in much the same way that Rove' star pupil George W. Bush did.

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Monday, April 23, 2012

The 'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' Movies: A Watchable Mess & A Great Remake


ROONEY MARA AS LISBETH SALANDER
Despite Hollywood's penchant for remaking old movies, the remakes are seldom as good as the originals and often worse. Conspicuous exceptions that I especially like include The Magnificent Seven (1960), a remake of Akira Kurosawa's classic samurai epic Seven Samurai, and King Kong (2005), Peter Jackson's reverential remake of the original.

To which can now be added the 2011 American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which hews to Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's posthumous runaway international bestseller -- the first book in the so-called Millennium Trilogy -- but improves on the 2009 Swedish film in almost every way.

Over the years, I've read my way through the great murder mystery writers -- Dashielle Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and P.D. James, to name but a few -- and thought I had pretty much tapped out the genre.

That was until I picked up the English translation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Since then I have been cherry picking my way through Scandinavian murder mysteries -- a genre sometimes referred to as Arctic Noir. They have been a revelation, while the work of
Danish writer Peter Høeg is especially good.

I am prepared to make and defend the argument that the best of these Scandinavian mysteries equal or rival the mystery classics of yore, which is an unusual claim considering that Sweden, Norway and Denmark collectively are just about the most murder-free societies on the planet and seem unlikely to spawn a host of great murder mystery writers. But part of the power of these novels are their deceivingly tranquil settings, which make it all the more shocking when a crime occurs, as well as the powerful psychological dramas woven through them.

* * * * *
Both film versions of Dragon Tattoo hew to the book with a conspicuous exception that I'll get to. They open with investigative reporter Mikael "Kalle" Blomkvist losing a libel case involving allegations he published about a billionaire financier. Lisbeth Salander, a pale and skinny young woman with red hair, which she dyes black, and a dragon tattoo, among others, is a world-class computer hacker whom is contracted to investigate Blomkvist by a lawyer for Hendrik Vanger, an 82-year-old retired industrialist.

Vanger subsequently hires Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet, who vanished from the remote northern Swedish island where he lives on Childen's Day in 1966. Vanger believes that Harriet was murdered by a family member, several of whom are or were Nazi sympathizers.

Meanwhile, Salander's state-appointed legal guardian suffers a stroke and is replaced by Nils Bjurman, a sexual sadist who takes control of her finances and metes out money only in return for sexual favors, which escalate into anal rape.
Blomkvist moves into a cottage on the Vanger estate. Inside Harriet's Bible he finds a list of five names alongside what appear to be phone numbers. Using photographs taken during the Children's Day parade, Blomkvist believes that Harriet may have seen someone that day who may have killed her.  Salander discovers the meaning of the numbers next to the names and together they connect all but one of the names on Harriet's list to murdered women.
And that's just the start.

* * * * *
The challenge for filmmakers has been to adapt Arctic Noir books for the big (and little) screen while retaining the psychodramatic aspects.

The three "Masterpiece Theater" episodes based on Henning Mankell's books about Kurt Wallander, a soul-searching Swedish cop, largely succeeded. Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997), starring Julia Ormond and based on Høeg's 1995 bestseller, largely failed.

Compared to a fuddy duddy like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or a hard-boiled period piece like Hammett's Sam Spade, the eccentric Salander has a steel-trap mind, a penchant for getting back at her enemies, and is positively hip with her arsenal of Mac Books, electronic eavesdropping devices and hacking skills, while Blomkvist digs deeply into the dark side of Sweden's political, corporate and social worlds. Holmes' Victorian parlor society and Spade's Tenderloin district escapades seem positively quaint by comparison.

The 2009 film version of Dragon Tattoo, with Noomi Rapace as Salander and Michael Nykvist as Blomkvist, is a mess but nevertheless eminently watchable.

Larsson's book has too many subplots to count and director Niels Arden Oplev apparently felt compelled to shoehorn every last one of them into 152 minutes. The result is a jumble that only viewers who have read the book will be able to sort out.

This brings us to the David Fincher-directed remake, which is six minutes longer than the Swedish version but hurtles along at a ferocious pace.  Rooney Mara is Rapace's equal as Salander and Daniel Craig a bit better -- which is to say more believable -- as Blomkvist, and my only criticism is that a key plot twist connected to Harriet's fate is eliminated to the movie's detriment.
No matter.  The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is even better the second time around.

Cartoon du Jour

Ted Rall

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Levon Helm (1940-2012)


MORE HERE.
Photography by Susan DeChillo/The New York Times

Monday, April 16, 2012

Barack Obama's Secret Weapon


LILLY LEDBETTER & YOU KNOW WHO
The 2012 presidential campaign, now underway with the withdrawal of Rick Santorum, promises to be a study in contrasts. All presidential campaigns are, of course, but the contrasts between presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney and President Obama are striking and nowhere more so than when it comes to populism, an ideology that I loosely define as contrasting the needs of the people against the entrenched elite in pushing for social change.

Romney is tacking furiously toward the center and away from some of the more reactionary views that he espoused in sucking up to the right-wing GOP base in securing the GOP nomination while at the same time convincing few Republicans that he has the right stuff, let alone any stuff at all.

But even if Romney's advisers told him that he had to do so, it is much too late for him to shed the anti-populism that he espoused during the primary season as represented by Paul Ryan's Reverse Robin Hood budget plan.

Preaching from the populist hymnal comes naturally for Obama, whose first paying gig was as a community organizer in Chicago. He has been riding that horse hard since last December when he
stepped up to a podium in Osawatomie, Kansas, the town where Teddy Roosevelt had delivered his famous New Nationalism speech in 1910 to decry a Republican economic agenda that favored the rich at the expense of the middle class and poor.

Obama delivered a virtually identical message in firing the opening salvo of his re-election campaign. In presenting himself as the defender of working-class Americans and Republicans as defenders of a small elite, the so-called 1 percenters, Obama in effect rolled a grenade into the Republican presidential tent -- and filthy rich Romney's in particular -- that will reverberate all the way to November.


In this Obama has a secret weapon: Lilly Ledbetter, a 70-year-old widow who lives in Jacksonville, Alabama on a small pension and like many Americans worries about losing her home.

Ledbetter filed suit against the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company because, as one of its few woman area managers, it had paid her significantly less than male counterparts with similar seniority. Her case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where a five justice majority led by Samuel Alito fell back on a technicality in dismissing the suit -- that employers cannot be sued under the Civil Rights Act over race or gender pay discrimination if the claims are based on decisions made 180 days ago or more.

The upshot of the defeat was the the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which passed Congress despite ferocious Republican opposition and closed the 180-day loophole.

This brings us back to Romney, who initially refused to be pinned down on whether he supports the act (in a now familiar refrain, his advisers told reporters that "we'll get back to you on that") but at the same time has blamed Obama in claiming that more women than men have lost jobs during and in the aftermath of the Bush Recession. That may be technically correct if a narrow set of parameters are used, but it is a fiction because in reality there are fewer jobs available for men.

Then came the inevitable Romney flip-flop.

Realizing the damage that Democrats had inflicted in pushing back against the candidate's refusal to take a stand on the act, the campaign sent out a spokeswoman who said that Romney supported "pay equity" and is "not looking to change current law," a position that puts him at odds with an overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress.

Then there is the not unimportant matter of whom Romney picks to be his running mate.

Among the current leaders in the veepstakes are Ryan and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Ryan's reverse budget plan doesn't merely discriminate against middle-class and poor women, it discriminates against everyone, while Walker, who faces a June recall, has signed a law making it tougher for women to sue in state court over pay discrimination.

As Talking Points Memo reporter Benjy Sarlin noted, Romney's ham-handed moves over the Lilly Ledbetter Act were a classic example of what is becoming a familiar maneuver: Projecting his own vulnerabilities onto his opponent, in this instance the fact that he is polling extremely poorly among the independent women who will determine whether Obama serves a second term and he goes home to play with his car elevator.

Cartoon du Jour


Jack Ohman/The Oregonian

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rick Santorum's Oh So Cowardly Exit


A semi-respectful period of time has passed since Rick Santorum cited the ongoing illness of Bella, his three-year-old daughter in bowing out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. With wishes for a long and happy life to Bella and with all due respect to the Santorum family, this is about as cowardly an end to a presidential campaign that I can recall.

Bella has been chronically ill since birth and her hospitalizations for Trisoma 18, a sometimes fatal disease with side effects like pneumonia, have been frequent. Santorum was careful to say that he "was suspending" his campaign as opposed to ending it, a nicety that masks the reality that he is toast. But why now? Because at heart he is yet another political coward who could not stand the prospect of being pummeled in the April 24 Pennsylvania primary by Mitt Romney and used little Bella as a convenient prop like Sarah Palin has with her son Trig, who is a special needs child.

Pennsylvania, of course, is Santorum's home state, yet the last time he was on the ballot there he was defeated by a record margin for a sitting U.S. senator and he had no chance of coming close to beating Romney, who is the presumptive GOP nominee. This is because Pennsylvanian voters have done something that many right-wing Republicans and especially Santorum's hard-core evangelical base have not: Figured out that he is a fraud with some extremely strange ideas.

Santorum’s success in the 2012 primary season, of course, had been entirely the function of his being a Republican not named Romney. He was a humorless tight ass whose ideological claptrap and gimmicky ideas were never taken seriously beyond his Bible-thumping constituency, but the news media was game as long as he kept yapping at Romney's heels. Oh, and he stands zero chance of being Romney's running mate because his unfavorables among voters nationally are so high.

I do not question not Santorum's repeated invocations of Bella's serial recoveries as "miraculous turnarounds" that may indeed have been God jobs. But Bella is getting the best medical care money can buy because of Santorum’s lavish Senate retirement benefits and personal wealth, something that he would deny ordinary Americans who cannot afford decent care. In fact, doing a little extrapolating, of the 45 million Americans without health insurance, there probably are at least a million or so three-year-olds in that situation, while about 1,000 children die of pneumonia, which has plagued Bella on and off, in the U.S. each year.

By the way, Bella's most recently hospitalization ended on Monday.

Cartoon du Jour


Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Further On Down The Road: Mitt Romney's Cornucopia Of Big Problems


Although he stands a better chance of beating Barack Obama than his Republican clown car compatriots, Mitt Romney is in a key respect the perfect challenger for the president because he represents all that is wrong -- and then some -- about the distribution of wealth in America at a time when that has belatedly become a pungent social issue.

Romney, who is worth $250 million give or take a few million, has been squirrely about being a card-carrying member of the 1 percent of the 1 percent from the outset of the 2012 campaign although it was obvious that his challengers for the GOP nomination and Obama himself if he won the nomination would exploit that.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

* Romney, like most extraordinarily wealthy people, is predisposed to being hedgy regarding details of his fortune. Yes, even if it is something relatively minor as the car elevator he has installed at one of his mansions.

* Romney still doesn't get it regarding how mere mortals view his wealth and his defensiveness about it. He seems pathologically unable to use that wealth as an asset -- hey, I worked hard and got rich in the finest American tradition, by golly -- and not something to continually run from.

Now comes a report that one pundit calls catnip for Obama -- his exploitation of a loophole in federal ethics laws that enables him to conceal the size and nature of his financial holdings in Bain Capital, which he founded and ran for 15 years.

While we have a pretty good idea about what Bain is doing with its money -- which includes buying a division of a Chinese company that is the largest supplier for the Beijing government's Big Brother surveillance system to watch over university campuses, mosques and movie theaters from centralized command posts -- we don't know how or where his money is invested. And more importantly, whether his policies as president would affect his investments.

Even the lawyer who advises Republican candidates on financial disclosure issues thinks that federal ethics officials are giving Romney a free ride:


"(This exemption) turns the whole purpose of the ethics statute on its ear," says Cleta Mitchell. "I don't know what legal authority exists for the federal ethics office to allow Mitt Romney not to disclose these assets. The statute intends for presidential candidates to publicly disclose underlying assets."

It should be noted that the same officials gave the same exemption in 2004 to Democrat John Kerry in 2004, who had assets in a Bain account held by his wife, Teresa. The Bush re-election campaign, of course, portrayed Kerry as a rich wind-surfer who was out of touch with average Americans.

MAZEL TOV, MR. PRESIDENT
Republicans predicted that this was going to be the year that Jewish voters would abandon Obama and Democrats in general, but a funny thing happened on the way to Passover.

They aren't.

A poll of Jewish voters by the independent Public Religion Research Institute found that 62 percent favor Obama and only 30 percent prefer a Republican. The biggest reason? Israel is not the biggest issue for most American Jews. Economic injustice, the growing gap between the Romneys and everyone else, is a far more pressing concern.

JUST GO BAKE COOKIES, LADIES
In another gift to Obama, Republicans have worked assiduously this election year to alienate women voters, perhaps the key constituency if the party is to retake the White House.

And while Romney is now tacking furiously away from his endorsement of the party's misogyny platform, it may be too late. Polls show him trailing Obama badly among women voters -- by 20 percent in a new Pew poll and 18 percent in a new Gallup poll.

This is a neat trick for a party that had its best overall national result in 18 years among women voters in the 2010 midterm election, but the reality is that the GOP's problems with these voters have persisted so long that they can now be called historic, while the strategies the party has tried to use to close the gender gap, including hiring corporate marketers and communication specialists to craft women voter-friendly language, have flopped.

The reason is as obvious as the trunk on an elephant's face: In their heart of hearts, many influential Republican believe that women are second-class citizens and should be treated as such.

LET THE VEEPSTAKES BEGIN

There are three factors that you can be sure won't be in play when it comes to Romney picking a vice presidential running mate:

* No unvetted candidate a la Sarah Palin has a chance of making Romney's A List.

* The A List will consist of people with deeply conservative bona fides to help counterbalance the reality that
Romney is a moderate in conservative's clothing.

* Unlike Romney, the eventual pick will have a pulse.


Photograph by Yana Paskova for The New York Times

Cartoon du Jour


Chris Britt/Springfield (Ill.) State Journal-Register

Monday, April 09, 2012

Why General Motors' Electric Chevy Volt Is The Wrong Horse In The Right Race

The Driver in Chief behind the wheel of a pricey Volt
Many automakers have been slow to embrace hybrids and for some who have the technology doesn't seem to run a whole lot deeper than a badge with a green leaf on the trunk lid. A conspicuous exception has been Toyota, which introduced the fuel stingy Prius in the U.S. in 2001 and now offers hybrids throughout its Lexus lineup.

There are many ways to skin the hybrid cat and Toyota's approach has been through the ingenious Atkinson cycle gasoline-electric system that optimizes economy while not sacrificing performance. We've had a Lexus CT200h with the system for seven months and are averaging 45 miles to the gallon highway and 50 city -- or about 20 bucks to a fill-up -- at a time when gasoline prices are going through the roof.
Then there is General Motors, which marketed the EV1 electric car in small numbers between 1996 and 1999 but, depending upon who you want to believe, decided that this niche market wasn't profitable enough or self-sabotaged the car despite growing public interest. It was a stupid move in any event, but not the last that the General would make when it came to a hybrid market that is now growing by leaps and bounds.

GM belatedly reentered the hybrid fray last year with the Volt, an electric car with a standby gasoline engine that gets a boffo 94 miles to the gallon but has a puny 39 mile electric-only range and an outrageous $39,195 sticker price, nearly $10,000 more than an entry-level Lexus CT200h that is substantially better equipped. Tax credits apply only to more affluent buyers.

The goal was to sell 45,000 Volts this year, but GM sold a mere 8,000 in 2011 and only 1,000 or so in February and again in March. (Some 15,556 Priuses were sold in its first full year in the U.S., a time when gasoline was a fraction of the price it is today.) One reason for sluggish Volt sales is a recall for potential fires in the car's battery pack, but the biggest reason is that despite its slick engineering GM has priced the Volt out of the market at a time when people want an economical and affordable ride.

Some auto press pundits have suggested the GM lower the cost of the Volt by subsidizing it with the profits from its brisk-selling pickup trucks, but this is a non-starter that arch competitor Ford would use to its benefit.

It probably has not helped -- although it can't hurt that much -- that the Volt has become a whipping boy for Republicans because the Obama administration has used it to tout the resurgence of the American auto industry.

Rush Limbaugh has blasted the car as part of a nefarious White House plot to take away the precious right of Americans to own gas guzzlers, while Newt Gingrich has noted that it is too small for a gun rack.

"As for the Volt, it is emblematic of a larger problem the GOP has: the sense that they are rooting for America to fail," Paul Begala, Democratic strategist and adviser to President Obama's super PAC. "When a good jobs report comes out, Mitt Romney looks sad. When Clint Eastwood makes an unapologetic, patriotic Super Bowl ad for Chrysler, Karl Rove says it makes him sick. They booed a gay soldier at a GOP debate, and didn't even want to give the President his due for ordering the mission that killed bin Laden. One wonders if they will be rooting for communist China during the summer Olympics."

Indeed.

GM has announced that it is halting production of the Volt until sometime this month, so as to maintain "proper inventory levels" (cough, cough), but
sales could improve should gasoline prices continue to go through the roof.

Or not. Toyota has introduced a plug-in version of the Prius in Japan that is selling poorly while its conventional hybrid continues to sell briskly. That has everything to do with the price: A whopping 3,400,000 yen ($41,000), which is more or less that the Volt costs.

Cartoon du Jour


Tony Auth/The Philadelphia Inquirer

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Bend Over & Spread 'Em: It's Now The Law In This Great Land Of Ours


Your daughter is arrested for walking the family dog off its leash at a county park. She is taken into custody and before being jailed is strip searched. A guard instructs your daughter to disrobe. Her mouth, vagina and anus are then inspected for contraband while other guards leer at her and make jokes about how she trims her pubic hair.

Your son is arrested while driving on a county highway for having an unpaid littering ticket. A guard instructs your son to disrobe. His mouth and anus are then inspected for contraband while other guards laugh at him because he has a tattoo above his penis.

Are these the malevolent machinations of an authoritarian state? No, at least not yet, but strip searches no matter how minor the offense may be and strip searches even if officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband are now the law of the land following a Supreme Court ruling on Monday that further erodes the basic liberties that Americans once took for granted.

The ruling was by yet another 5-4 vote with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who joined the court's conservative wing in delivering a body blow to the 4th Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches.

Kennedy's rationale, which gives new meaning to judicial overreach, is that courts should not second guess prison officials who might consider not just the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs, but a suspect's possible gang affiliations and health. This from a court that has no difficulty second guessing other institutions that are a bulwark against violations of personal and civil rights.

Law enforcement arms of the federal government and 10 states forbid strip searches for minor violations, while such searches are in violation of international human rights treaties.

"Every detainee who will be admitted to the general population may be required to undergo a close visual inspection while undressed," Justice Kennedy wrote, noting that about 13 million people are admitted each year to the nation’s jails. His ruling did not address body cavity searches, but neither did it prohibit them.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the four dissenters, said the strip-searches the majority allowed were "a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy" and should be used only when there was good reason to do so."

Obscured in the welter of reactions to the ruling is the fact that it offers a built-in opportunity for those misogynist Republicans who insist on dictating what women can and cannot do with their bodies: Why not have officials give your dog-walking daughter a thorough gynecological workup while she's being strip and body cavity searched.

A perfect twofer for folks on the hard right for whom individual rights are reserved only for them and their ilk.

Cartoon du Jour


Tom Toles/The Washington Post

Monday, April 02, 2012

Nukes Conflict: Of Rogue Men & States

Entire forests have been denuded in recent weeks as pundits speculate whether Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been bluffing about launching air strikes against Iran's nascent nuclear program. If ever an important issue needed a time out this is it, and talks between Iran and the U.S. and five other major powers scheduled to begin next week could provide just that opportunity.

Let's get some stuff out of the way before we dive into the deep end of this superheated situation.

The Islamic Republic is a rogue state that threatens regional stability, as well as Israel's existence. No nation is more responsible for this than the U.S., which is justly viewed by the Tehran government, the ayatollahs who are its puppet masters, and many Iranians as a rogue state itself that propped up the Shah and backed Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war while providing Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons that scarred a generation of Iranian men.

Israel is becoming a rogue state that also threatens regional stability because of its bellicosity toward its enemies real and imagined and an occupation of the Gaza Strip that has gone beyond the humanitarian pale, as well as its insistence on continuing to build settlements across the green line on the West Bank that by any reasonable definition are not only illegal but the reason there probably never will be a two-state solution.

After eight years of counterproductive Bush-Cheney sabre rattling, the U.S. finds itself being in the unusual position of being on the side of reason on the issue of Iranian nukes. The Obama administration has led the charge on tougher sanctions against the Islamic State that are having the desired effect -- compelling Tehran to join in those talks as a prelude to hopefully wind down its program. The U.S. and its allies also have had a welcome assist from the Arab Spring.

A personal note: Like my Jewish grandfather, I believe that Jews are people of the world and did not need to have their own state, but like my grandfather I would spill my own blood to protect its existence. This makes Israeli's devolution from a pillar of democracy into a mockery of its core values painful and deeply depressing. Add to this the fact that Netanyahu, like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is at least a little bit crazy.

My expectations for progress being made during the talks are extremely low. Netanyahu, who leads a nation with a nuclear bomb program that is an open secret, has set the bar too high while the ayatollahs have set it too low. Bluffing or not, the Israeli prime minister speaks in apocalyptic terms while the religious leaders see their nuclear program as an affirmation of Persian pride against the tutelage of the West, as one pundit well put it.

Then there is the reality that airstrikes, with or without the support of the U.S., would not cripple Iran's program. The uranium-enrichment plant at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, is so far underground as to be invulnerable to attack.

Then there is the probability that Iran's nuclear program is nowhere near ready for prime time. This is borne out in most intelligence analyses, and as one Obama administration official put it, "They're keeping the soup warm but they are not cooking it."

Current and former U.S. officials say they are confident that Iran has no secret uranium-enrichment site outside the purview of U.N. nuclear inspections and are confident that any Iranian move toward building a functional nuclear weapon would be detected long before a bomb was made. It was on this basis that Obama has argued that there remains time to see whether sanctions will compel Iran's leaders to halt any bomb-building program.

Finally, there is one scenario that I and others are not taking into account in predicting that President Obama will win -- and possibly win in a landslide -- in November: A unilateral Israeli air strike that would plunge the Middle East into war and rupture relations between Washington and Jerusalem.

This is what would happen in the following days:

* Many of Iran's centrifuges, warhead and missile plants would be destroyed and the nuclear program merely delayed.

* There would be lethal reprisals against Israel although Iran's air force is not particularly strong and its navy is puny.

* The price of oil would spike.

* Communities across the Jewish diaspora, including in the U.S., would be put in danger from Iranian-sponsored terror attacks like recent attacks in India and Thailand.

* Relations between Jerusalem and Washington would end, leaving Israel only marginally safer and without the support of its largest benefactor.

This is not a happy prospect.


Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate