Last Friday, November 22, 2019, I reached the age of 70 years young. On a personal level, it was a happy day, on which I could thank the Almighty for the great blessings of my family, my health, and my career success and good fortune. For me, hopefully, seventy is the new fifty.
Every day of my life, my principal focus is on my family and Jewish way of life. Politics comes third, with the focus of that being three-fold: New Jersey politics, national politics, and the politics of the State of Israel. Regarding Israel, Zionism is one of my core beliefs and values and is more than a mere intellectual attachment.
I cannot escape on my birthday every year the memory of my 14th birthday, November 22, 1963, on which John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our 35th president was assassinated. A time of hope was over; an era of American cynicism and despair had begun.
From this year on, I will identify as a powerful political memory the week of my birthday, 2019, in which a New Jersey political leader, George Norcross, III, a national political leader, President Donald Trump, and an Israeli leader, Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu each arrived at a critical Rubicon in their political lives. And remarkably, these three leaders have in common a profound self-perception of invulnerability, which could doom each.
The Norcross Rubicon last week was the state Senate Select Committee hearings on corporate tax incentives at which he testified.
For Norcross, the disastrous optics of the hearing consisted of 1) the dragging out of the hearing by state troopers of Norcross political adversary Sue Altman, the Executive Director of the NJ Working Families Alliance 2) the demeanor of insouciance, i.e. smug indifference, that Norcross projected throughout the hearing; 3) the atmosphere of a controlled slanted proceeding characterized by the obsequiousness with which the chair of the committee, Democratic Senator Bob Smith and his fellow committee members treated Norcross and 4) the fact that the seats were largely filled by Norcross acolytes. The battle between Norcross and Altman, for whom he projects total dismissiveness, is now joined.
The Norcross self- perception of invulnerability has been based upon his belief that as long as he did not violate the law, he could continue to maintain political suzerainty and omnipotence in South Jersey, despite any public perception that he was excessively profiting, legally or not, from government largesse. In his case, the government largesse consists of Insurance contracts between local and county governments and his Conner Strong insurance company and tax incentives for entities in which he has an ownership or executive service interest.
By contrast, unlike Norcross, Trump and Netanyahu arrogantly believe that no line of criminality applies to them.
The Trump Rubicon was the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee testimony last week that established beyond any reasonable doubt his commission of the impeachable offense of bribery by virtue of his arms for political dirt proposal to Ukraine. America’s leading constitutional lawyer, Laurence Tribe has described this as “a model case for impeachment.”
Trump’s self-perception of invulnerability has been based upon his belief that his effective demagoguery would guarantee his political survival. He also has felt that is he could commit high crimes and misdemeanors in open sight but would always survive due to the cowardice of the GOP in the House and Senate.
The Netanyahu Rubicon was the announcement of his indictment by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
Netanyahu has believed himself to be invulnerable because he felt that Israelis would always deem him to be the only person whose leadership could enable them to survival in a hostile Middle East. Therefore, the Israeli public, in his view would always forgive any corrupt transgressions on his part. His arrogant corruption stems from his belief that the Israeli electorate will always regard him as the indispensable man for Israel’s survival.
Each of these three political Rubicons warrants a brief separate assessment.
During my years of involvement in Camden County politics, while I never came to know George Norcross personally, I did have a good vantage point to observe his political leadership.
I would describe myself as somewhat agnostic when it comes to George Norcross. I do not regard him as either the Angel of Deliverance or the Devil Incarnate.
There is no question that during his years of Camden County leadership, George Norcross improved the quality of Democratic candidates for state legislature and county offices.
The people he brought into county government appointed positions were certainly of higher caliber than those prior to the Norcross era.
Furthermore, Norcross would not tolerate petty corruption of either his political personnel or county government employees.
It must also be said that for better or worse, George Norcross has been a most consequential individual in the history of New Jersey political campaigns. Norcross was the person responsible for the introduction of network television commercials and high technology into New Jersey legislative contests. These innovations began in 1991 with his stewardship of the upset state senate campaign victory of the late John Adler over four term Republican state Senator Lee Laskin in a year when Republicans were winning veto-proof majorities in the Senate and Assembly races.
I also am skeptical that he will ever fall from power as a result of criminal investigations. I’ve heard these rumors for years. Unlike the Donald and Bibi, who think that no line of criminality applies to them, Norcross knows there is a legal line he cannot cross. In fact, my guess is that he has not committed crimes in the course of securing the aforesaid governmental largesse, although one must await the conclusion of all pending investigations prior to making a final judgment.
The chink in the self-perceived Norcross armor of invulnerability is his belief that since he is not an elected official, he can always maintain his political omnipotence and suzerainty in South Jersey. He is confident that he will prevail over negative public perceptions regarding the fairness of the awarding, legal or not, to him or entities controlled in whole or in part by him of such a large share of the aforesaid insurance contracts and tax breaks. This belief accounts for the aforesaid Norcross insouciance, which makes him an ideal target for Sue Altman.
It is the emergence of Sue Altman, a master of political theater and a local leader in the nationally accelerating grass roots progressive movement that constitutes the greatest threat yet to the continued reign of Norcross as the political warlord of South Jersey.
Within the city of Camden, Altman is also succeeding in making inroads among grassroots entities in the African-American community by emphasizing that 1) Camden is still a food desert, with inadequate existence of food markets; and 2) unemployment among the minority resident population of Camden has not been significantly reduced.
Indeed, Norcross will almost always prevail in political battles based on money and organization. He is not guaranteed success when he confronts a compelling message arising from an increasingly negative public perception of him.
Norcross has as his message formulator Steve Ayscue, a profoundly decent superb family man with brilliant communication skills and outstanding political instincts. I like and respect Steve.
Yet Steve cannot reinvent George Norcross. Like a great racing jockey, a Johnny Longden, an Eddie Arcaro, a Bill Hartack, a Bill Shoemaker, a Ron Turcotte, a Steve Cauthen, Steve is subject to the limitations of the political horse he is riding.
Trump’s self-perception of invulnerability and its accompanying contempt for other individuals and the rule of law led him to believe he could get away with flagrant violations of the Constitution, in particular his unlawful receipt of foreign and domestic emoluments, his violations of campaign laws, and his crafting of his attempted Ukraine bribe of political dirt for arms.
Yet regardless of the outcome of the impeachment and removal process, there has already been one historical consequence: the debasement of the Republican Party by virtue of the adoption by Congressional Republicans of the utterly false narrative that it was Ukraine and not Russia that interfered in the 2016 American presidential election.
The adoption of this narrative by Trump and his Congressional supporters make them, in the words of Vladimir Lenin, “useful idiots” serving the purposes of corrupt authoritarian dictator and leader of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine Vladimir Putin.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Democrat Adam Schiff was right on the money when he said that the real difference between the House Watergate Nixon impeachment hearings of 1974 and the present Trump impeachment hearings has been the change in the Republican Congressional delegation. In 1974, I was so proud of Republican Senators like Hugh Scott, Barry Goldwater, and Howard Baker and House members like Larry Hogan and Tom Railsback, great patriots who put country over party.
This is a direct contrast to the shameful Republican political thugs in the House of Representatives like Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan who are purveyors of excessive partisanship, and practitioners of distortion. When at the end of the hearings last week Schiff said “Where is Howard Baker,” he was speaking for me and other former Republicans throughout the nation who reject the cancer of Trumpism and remain faithful to the memory of the Republican Party of Eisenhower, Reagan, and the Bushes.
In a nutshell, Bibi is Donald Trump with intellectualism. While Donald Trump and his White House Staff are intellectual thimbles, without historical knowledge and intellectual curiosity, Bibi does possess both. Bibi does resemble Trump in his contempt for the rule of law.
During the early 1990s, I had occasion to meet with Bibi Netanyahu three times in private settings with a small group. I found him to be eminently dislikable.
If you are not wealthy, Bibi has no time nor regard for you. That tells you why he slavishly flatters the Donald Trumps and Jared Kushners of this world. He and his wife, Sara, are shameless voluptuaries, openly craving the celebrity lifestyle of the rich and famous and deeming themselves to be entitled to it.
My negative view of Bibi is more due to his polarizing style than his ideological views, which I share in part. My views on Israel and Zionism are largely center-right, and if I lived in Israel, I would be a member of Bibi’s Likud Party.
It must be emphasized, however, that Bibi does not in any way resemble the founder of Likud and its first prime minister, Menachem Begin, the leader of the heroic Jewish revolutionary group, Irgun Tzvei L’eumi, without whose armed resistance prior to 1948 the State of Israel never would have been established. Begin was a person of sterling character, who promoted civil rights for Israeli Arabs and never engaged in racialist appeals against them, which are so typical of Bibi. Begin had a vision of peace and engaged in the politics of unity, unlike Bibi’s politics of polarization.
Despite my personal low regard for Bibi, I supported his initial election to the office of Israeli Prime Minister in 1996. I have various mixed opinions regarding his foreign and domestic policies over the years.
Unlike Trump, an unpatriotic man and physical and moral coward who avoided military service, using a dubious excuse of foot “bone spurs”, Bibi is a genuine Israeli patriot, with heroic service in the Israel Defense Forces, risking his life and bravely fighting in the nation’s most elite military units.
Bibi’s refusal to step down as prime minister while pending trial, however, is an act of putting personal interest over the national interest and is anything but patriotic.
His speech before the nation responding to the indictments issued by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a man Bibi appointed, was nothing less than an attack on the legitimacy of law enforcement structure that has brought Bibi before the bar of justice. His language of “witch hunt” and “coup” was right out of the Trump playbook. As I watched him have a meltdown live on television, I thought I was watching either Humphrey Bogart’s final scene on the witness stand as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny or Peter Finch as Howard Beale in the movie, Network, with his rant of “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”
Beyond the Rubicons….
Bibi will soon be finished as a force in Israel’s politics, whether or not he is convicted. As I have predicted on television appearances and columns over the past year, he will now face a revolt of his fellow Likud members in the Israeli parliament (Knesset) and be eventually forced to resign, to be replaced by fellow Likudnik Gideon Sa’ar. He is now in the midst of his political Gotterdammerung.
The president will be impeached by the House of Representatives. While in the Republican controlled Senate it is unlikely that there will be the necessary 67 votes for removal of the president, it is not impossible.
Current polls show roughly 50 percent of the electorate favor both the impeachment and removal of Trump. If future disclosures of evidence increase this percentage to 60 percent, even dark red state GOP Senators will consider defecting to the side of removal. This would also give rise to a rules change for a secret ballot on the removal issue. Such a rules change would only require the support of 51 Senators (i.e. four GOP senators voting for the rules change).
I am not predicting the winner, nor the duration of the George Norcross-Sue Altman political war.
Full disclosure: As a Never-Trump center-right political columnist, I am not politically sympathetic to the Democratic Party Progressive Left movement, in which Altman is both a leader and advocate. I do acknowledge that in Donald Trump’s America, in which he emphasizes the macro-prosperity of the economy in order to mask and ignore the genuine economic hardships of millions of Americans who are both under-employed and underpaid, the Democratic Party Progressive Left movement has a growing appeal.
There is a scene in the Godfather, Part 2 that may well be a metaphor for the political futures of George Norcross and Sue Altman.
Michael Corleone is visiting pre-Castro Cuba in 1958. He observes a Castroite rebel refusing to submit to an arrest and detonating a grenade, killing both himself and the arresting military Captain of the guard.
When Hyman Roth asks Michael what that tells him, he says, “The soldiers are paid to fight. The rebels are not. The rebels can win.”
Like the Cuban rebel in Godfather, Part 2, Altman is a true believer, not motivated by money. She cannot be pacified with an offer of a political job.
Sue Altman could win.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.