New WH advisor thinks Republicans are "a cult worthy of Jonestown"; Update: Apologizes

This piece from Politico on the man brought in by Barack Obama to rescue his second term from hubris and incompetence contains no small amount of irony, especially coming within hours of Barbara Walters’ admission that the media saw Obama as “the Messiah” in 2008.  John Podesta, who founded and chaired the Center for American Progress until the White House called, wasn’t ever going to be a voice for moderation and outreach.  However, calling Republicans the equivalent of a murderous cult is just a little sharp-elbowed for an administration whose leader claims not to be “particularly ideological”:


According to interviews in recent weeks with an array of Obama insiders and a dozen current and former senior aides, Podesta’s hire is explicitly meant to shake things up inside the White House. In effect, I was told, it represents the clearest sign to date of the administration’s interest in shifting the paradigm of Obama’s presidency through the forceful, unapologetic and occasionally provocative application of White House power. Podesta, whose official mandate includes enforcement of numerous executive orders on emissions and the environment, suggested as much when he spoke with me earlier this fall about Obama’s team. “They need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” he told me.

“I think [White House officials] were naturally preoccupied with legislating at first, and I think it took them a while to make the turn to execution. They are focused on that now,” Podesta added. “They have to realize that the president has broad authority, that he’s not just the prime minister. He can drive a whole range of action. They always grasped that on foreign policy and in the national security area. Now they are doing it on the domestic side.”

How Podesta chooses to execute is not a settled question, and how his formidable personality meshes with Obama’s no-drama palace guard—led by gatekeeper-in-chief McDonough—remains to be seen. Genial, wonky and self-effacing in calm times, Podesta is also known for having a short fuse; subordinates in the Clinton White House even had a name for angry Podesta—“Skippy”—a sulfuric evil twin so fearsome that even the brash Rahm Emanuel scrambled for cover. “It will be culture shock,” said one Democrat close to the White House. “But I guess Skippy will be the bad cop, and Denis will be the good cop.”


Hey, look, sometimes I’m no fan of GOP and grassroots strategies, either, and have argued that they’re self-destructive politically. No one’s committing mass murder by dictated suicide, though, and the comparison is both outrageous and ridiculous.  Arguing by analogy is also a legitimate tactic for debate and criticism. However, at a certain point, hyperbole says more about the wielder than it does about the target, and Podesta’s viewpoint here makes it clear that he’s an extremist — which says volumes about the President who hired him, and about his plans for the next three years.

Rory Cooper, a GOP strategist, reminds people that Jonestown was a lot more than a political analogy — especially for Democrats:

National Journal’s Ron Fournier wants the White House to explain Podesta’s approach:


Don’t expect much better from Pfeiffer, though.  This was the same White House adviser that compared a Senate filibuster to a suicide bombing back in October. This isn’t a new turn at the White House as much as it is a shrugging off of the false veneer of moderation. That’s why they turned to Podesta in their moment of crisis.  Their own cult of personality is failing as the incompetence of this administration becomes fully exposed, and their answer isn’t to clean house but to find a meaner True Believer to attempt a strategy of projection.

New tone, huh? By the way, a judge yesterday threw quite a wrench into Podesta’s governing strategy yesterday, at least in terms of carrying it out quietly:

Chastising what she called “the government’s unwarranted expansion of the presidential communications privilege at the expense of the public’s interest in disclosure,” U.S. District Judge Ellen Seal Huvelle ruled the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development is not exempt from FOIA.

Judge Huvelle’s 20-page decision took a shot or two, or three, at the Obama administration’s penchant for secrecy.

“The government appears to adopt the cavalier attitude that the President should be permitted to convey orders throughout the Executive Branch without public oversight, to engage in what is in effect governance by ‘secret law,'” Huvelle wrote.

The Center for Effective Government, formerly known as OMB Watch, filed a FOIA request in 2011 for the document. It is not classified, and has been widely distributed within executive agencies. The Obama administration nonetheless sought to keep the document to itself, claiming an executive communication privilege under FOIA.

This is an important case; as Huvelle noted, it’s the first time an administration sought to apply the executive communication privilege to an executive directive. The administration’s legal posture, Huvelle declared at various time, was “limitless” and “unbounded.”


That’s the same perception they have of executive power, too. Hopefully Podesta & Co. will find themselves disappointed in that area as well.

Update: Our new Salem colleagues at Twitchy have more reaction.

Update: Podesta apologized to John Boehner on Twitter (via the Washington Post):

Yeah, he’s “always respected” that cult leader. Riiiiiight. At least Podesta offered a real apology rather than the non-apology “sorry if that offended anyone” apology.

Update: Speaking of snark, my friend Olivier Knox at Yahoo News drops the snark hammer on Podesta and his apology:

In a notable de-escalation of the White House’s rhetorical war on its critics, an incoming senior adviser to President Barack Obama has compared House Republicans and the tea party to the infamous Jonestown cult that was behind one of the worst mass-murders of civilians in history. And then apologized. …

Still, how is that first comment a de-escalation, you ask, quite reasonably? Well, it really wasn’t that long ago that the White House was unrepentantly comparing the House GOP and the tea party to terrorists with bombs strapped to their chests. This is arguably a little less inflammatory. The United States isn’t waging a global military campaign against cults, after all. Or that could just be my snark getting in front of my judgment.


Olivier makes a good point, though, about the ubiquity of the phrase “drink the Kool Aid” as criticism in politics.  That’s a direct reference to Jonestown, too, but it’s a bit more oblique and isn’t quite as directly referential to the mass murder/suicide thanks to decades of use in criticism across the political spectrum.

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