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Today in The Free Press: Nate Silver and James Carville Oliver Wiseman

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Joe Biden could benefit from a third-party RFK Jr. run. (Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP)

Today in The Free Press, we’re thrilled to bring you a double serving of 2024 coverage, courtesy of two rare voices who look at polling data and tell it like it is. 

The first is polling guru Nate Silver, arguably the person the country has looked to more than anyone else to make sense of recent elections. Nate offers the counterintuitive argument that Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s third-party switch isn’t the bad news for Biden that some have made it out to be—and may even boost his reelection chances: 

It’s been an interesting experience getting my feet wet on Substack. The platform really does seem to attract a more politically diverse audience than my old stomping grounds at FiveThirtyEight

I’m sure I won’t agree with every Free Press reader on everything, and vice versa. (The same is true at my Substack Silver Bulletin, frankly.) But one thing I do share with readers of both is a skepticism of mainstream media narratives. Although campaign coverage is much improved from the Boys on the Bus days of a generation ago, politics still begets its share of evidence-free groupthink.

Today’s case in point: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. inching closer to a third-party bid. Media coverage has focused on the downside risks for Democrats. A recent New York Times story, for instance, is full of fretting Biden backers.

One person quoted in that story, centrist Democrat Matt Bennett, is overconfident when he says a Kennedy run would “almost certainly” hurt President Biden. I think the evidence is much less clear, and if anything points the other way: toward a Kennedy bid being a boost for Biden. 

Keep reading Nate’s piece: Why RFK Jr. Probably Doesn’t Hurt Biden

So why is RFK Jr. polling so highly? When Bari sat down with James Carville recently in Austin, that’s one of the questions she asked the straight-talking political veteran, and maybe the country’s best-known Democratic consultant. Simple, Carville said: “Because he’s not Biden!” 

When we asked him whether he agreed with the 73 percent of voters who think Biden is too old to run for president, he had this to say: 

According to the Census Bureau, there are 333,495,611 people currently living in the United States. I think we could find a few to run for president. There’s a lot of things I like about Biden. He’s tenacious. He’s been in politics. He’s been beat up. He survived. He’s come back. But I wish he wouldn’t do this. I think the country is bursting at the seams to get a new generation in there. I think right now, this country is in a period where sometimes you got to give other people a shot at this. We’ve got talent just screaming all over the Democratic Party. And I’d like to see some of it get showcased.

That’s one of a dozen hot takes he offers in today’s episode of Honestly. Stay till the end, where he talks about being in a politically mixed marriage with Mary Matalin and shares what he thinks is his beloved wife’s worst opinion. 

Listen here:

In related political news we’re following: 

→ Republican wishcasting: Establishment Republicans are busy trying to draft someone, anyone, who can stand up to Trump. And all eyes are on a tall man in a red fleece vest from Virginia. Will Governor Glenn Youngkin actually get in the race and battle Trump head-on? In The Washington Post, Bob Costa reports that Youngkin, “while listening to overtures, does not seem particularly keen to take such a risk.”

→ Democratic wishcasting: When Senator Dianne Feinstein died in office last week at age 90, a fantasy plan was supposed to unfold: Governor Gavin Newsom, who promised to appoint a black woman to her seat, would pick current VP Kamala Harris, thus freeing up the spot for a more popular Democrat—maybe Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer or perhaps even himself—to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office and the best positioned candidate should Biden choose not to run.

Alas, this West Wing fan-fiction version of events was not to be. Newsom has picked Laphonza Butler, a former union leader and president of Emily’s List, an organization that helps raise money for pro-choice Democratic women running for office. 

Still, many Democrats insist that Gavin with the good hair is nevertheless waiting for the perfect moment to swoop in. Newsom seems to enjoy the limelight (he showed up at the GOP debate in Simi Valley last week), and a series of recent moves suggests a pivot to the center consistent with presidential ambitions.

McCarthy out: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted on Tuesday and soon after said that he would not seek the speakership again. Tuesday’s “motion to vacate” vote makes McCarthy the first speaker of the House to be booted out in U.S. history. 

Exactly why the Republican troublemakers, led by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, felt they had to take such drastic action isn’t immediately obvious, although McCarthy suggested it was personal in an understandably salty press conference last night. But hey, maybe it’s time for another Floridian with a chip on his shoulder to be drafted as speaker. 

→ Why is the RNC scared of debate? The Republican National Committee had to swoop in to avoid something unconscionable happening yesterday: a debate between two Republican presidential candidates. Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie were lined up to debate one another on Fox News Tuesday evening, but thankfully the powers that be put a stop to this wildcat exchange of ideas by threatening to bar the candidates from the next official debate in Miami next month. God forbid the RNC lose its precious monopoly on primary debates, which it is making such good use of.

We are 397 days away from the 2024 election and well, we find ourselves praying for that giant meteor to run again

But until it arrives, we’ll be here: your home for the politically exhausted, for the moderate majority, for the people who wish there were better options. 

As 2024 heats up, we’d love to hear from you. What would you like from our coverage? What stories do you feel aren’t getting enough attention? Where should we be sending reporters? Let us know in the comments or by writing to us: tips@thefp.com.

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Iran Comes Out of the Shadows Bari Weiss

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Iranians celebrate Iran’s attack against Israel in downtown Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Over the past 24 hours, the war that has raged in the Middle East since October 7 took on a new dimension.

In a historic first, Iran directly attacked Israel from its own territory—launching more than 300 drones and missiles toward Israel.

As Free Press columnist Matti Friedman writes today from Jerusalem: “Like a flash going off in a dark room, the attack has finally given the world something valuable: a glimpse of the real war in the Middle East.”

Tehran’s strike on Israel—who thankfully had defensive help from the U.S., Britain, France, Jordan, and reportedly Saudi Arabia—should make clear, for those still in doubt, that this war is not about Gaza, or even about Israel and a single Iranian proxy in Hamas. It is about Iran.

“The importance of last night’s barrage was that for the first time, the full Iranian alliance gave us a practical demonstration of its scope, orchestration, and intentions,” Matti writes. “If you’d been watching from space, you probably could have seen the lines of this new Middle East etched in orange and red across the map of the region.”

READ MATTI FRIEDMAN HERE.

Some Americans understand that clearly—and aren’t condemning it, but cheering it on. Our Olivia Reingold found herself at a conference of anti-war activists in Chicago on Saturday. Activists were taught how to chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in Farsi. Watch:

And, when news of the attack broke, the crowd cheered and burst into chants of “Hands off Iran.” 

READ OLIVIA’S DISPATCH HERE.

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April 13, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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Michael Oren: How Did the War Begin? With Iran’s Appeasers in Washington Michael Oren

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Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As Iranian provocations have mounted, the Biden administration has refrained from holding Tehran accountable. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Historians writing years from now about the Middle East conflagration of 2024 will undoubtedly ask, “When did it all begin?” Some will point to the Bush administration which, demoralized by its inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rejected Israel’s entreaties to take out Iran’s then-inchoate nuclear program in 2008.

Others might cite Israel’s willingness to play by the mullahs’ rules, retaliating against their Hezbollah and Hamas proxies rather than against Iran itself, enabling it to emerge from each round of fighting utterly unscathed. 

But the bulk of the blame, fair historians will likely agree, will have to fall on the policies of those in Washington who sought to appease Iran at almost any price and ignore its serial aggressions.

Those policies began in the week after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. In one of the forty-fourth president’s first acts of foreign diplomacy, Obama sent an offer of reconciliation to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That June, in his historic Cairo speech, Obama became the first president to refer to Tehran’s regime as the Islamic Republic of Iran—legitimizing the oppressive theocracy—and stood aside while that republic’s thugs beat and shot hundreds of Iranian citizens protesting for their freedom.

Over the next four years, the White House ignored a relentless spate of Iranian aggressions—attacks against U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf; backing for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups dedicated to America’s destruction; and barely disguised efforts to undermine pro-Western Middle Eastern governments.

At the same time, Iran supported Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s mass slaughter—often with poison gas—of his own countrymen. Obama had declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” on America’s involvement in the war. It didn’t.

In Washington, the administration overlooked an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors (including me) and ended a federal investigation of a billion-dollar Hezbollah drug and arms trafficking ring in the United States. Most egregiously, Iran constructed secret underground nuclear facilities and developed an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system that threatened the entire Middle East and much of Europe.

Why would any White House, even one devoted to rebuilding America’s relationship with the Islamic world, seek rapprochement with such a regime? 

At the time, there were multiple reasons. First, there was the desire of the United States, tired of Middle Eastern wars and no longer dependent on Arab oil, to withdraw from the region and focus on the Far East. Next, there was the belief that the U.S. had traditionally relied on its Sunni and Israeli allies only to discover that Sunnis perpetrated 9/11 and Israelis defied American policy in the West Bank. The Iranians, stronger, modern, and open to the West—so many American policymakers concluded—offered a better alternative if only their leadership were assuaged. Lastly, and ultimately most decisively, was the Iranian nuclear program, a burgeoning strategic threat that the White House refused to interdict by military means.

The nuclear agreement reached in 2015 between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, and Iran—euphemistically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—had three major objectives: to block Iran’s path to the bomb, ensure that Iran became what Obama called “a responsible regional power,” and, failing that, to kick the “nuclear can” down the road. The first two goals proved illusory. 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adjusts his eyeglasses after casting his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Rather than block Iran’s path to the bomb, the agreement solidly paved it by allowing Iran to retain most of its nuclear infrastructure and to continue producing ever more advanced centrifuges capable of reducing Iran’s breakout time to mere weeks. The deal put no meaningful restrictions on Iran’s missile delivery systems or its clandestine weapons programs. And even then, the largely cosmetic limitations were set to expire in less than a decade. Well before that time, though, Iran harnessed the deal’s financial and strategic rewards to expand its sphere of influence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. So much for the responsible regional power.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, reinstated punishing sanctions on Iran, and retaliated for Iranian attacks against Americans, indicating a different approach to the issue, but that policy proved short-lived. A centerpiece of Joe Biden’s 2019 presidential campaign was his pledge to restore America’s adherence to the JCPOA. No sooner had the Democrats regained the White House than the Iranians began to violate the agreement on a massive scale, gradually achieving military nuclear threshold capacity.

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Obama’s singular foreign policy achievement.

As the Iranian centrifuges spun, the Biden administration entered into intense negotiations to renew the JCPOA. The talks were headed by Robert Malley, who was evicted from the Obama campaign in 2008 for meeting with Hamas. Under Biden, Malley became America’s special envoy to Iran, but he was recently ousted for mishandling sensitive information. Though the initiative to reinstate the deal eventually failed, the U.S. still provided Iran with at least $10 billion in funds that had been frozen, and reportedly much more than that in quiet sanction relief. 

Meanwhile, the Iranian provocations mounted. An ally of Russia, Iran provided thousands of offensive drones and long-range missiles used to kill America’s allies in Ukraine. Since the start of the war against Hamas, Iranian proxies have launched more than 170 attacks against U.S. military bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, and all but blocked international shipping through the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait. 

Still, the U.S. refrained from retaliating against Iran directly, or even holding it publicly responsible. When, in January, three American soldiers were killed by a drone strike by an Iranian-backed militia, the U.S. struck back at the militia and not at the country—or even the factory—that produced the bomb. 

Then, on Sunday, a historic first: Tehran directly attacked Israel from its territory with hundreds of drones and missiles.

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran to repeatedly assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one. 

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. Press reports about President Biden’s refusal to support an Israeli counterattack against Iran indicate, sadly, that nothing substantial in the U.S. position has changed. He has reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see the coordinated response to the attack as a “win.”

The Iranians, though, will not see things that way. Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity. If Israel follows Biden’s advice it will send one message to the ayatollahs: “You can launch another 350 missiles and drones at Israel or try to kill Israelis by other means. Either way, the United States won’t stop you.” 

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

The story of America can end only one of two ways: either it stands up boldly against Iran and joins Israel in deterring it, or Iran emerges from this conflict once again unpunished, undiminished, and ready to inflict yet more devastating damage.

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset member, and deputy minister for diplomacy in the Israeli prime minister’s office, is the author of the Substack publication Clarity.

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