A Hundred Ways Of Looking At Van Jones

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Van Jones is a man who did not censor his political thoughts, did not hesitate to pursue the logical consequences of his beliefs and did not care what others thought of his affiliations. In other words, he is a man who has no business whatsoever serving in government, where such candor knows no quarter, particularly for a man of the left. Mr. Jones resigned on Saturday after it became clear that the White House had no intention of lending its institutional credibility to defend him.


Jones was a mid-level adviser on green energy issues. He was not a critical player; he had no budget authority, nor access to classified information, nor direct access to the president's ear. He wasn't a "czar," although it seems as if the White House was OK with the label as long as admiring environmentalists were applying it. And the stuff of the controversy, regardless of its provenance, was genuinely controversial: even when he was just a former communist with a habit of calling Republicans evil, the White House was OK with him. Then it was revealed that he had (mistakenly?) signed his name to a Truther petition.
And that was that. It may not be fair to Jones, but this is not about Jones -- it's about Obama, and whether defending a guy who used to be a communist, who called George W. Bush a lot of really bad things, and who found himself in close company with people who believe that 9/11 was a government conspiracy was worth whatever Jones was currently contributing to American policy as a member of the White House. And it wasn't.

Jones's sudden departure has occasioned the creation of some pretty deep narratives and a few superficial ones. 

The Politico decided that Jones's departure represents a major political development of some sort. "Beck Up, Left Let Down, And Jones Defiant." Some liberal commentators also believe that Obama caved and that the refusal to fight on Jones's behalf signals weakness in both principle and narrative.

As a general matter, the White House has a history of NOT caving, even when the freak show, to borrow Mark Halperin's term, packs 'em in. Zeke Emanuel may have had some pull with his boss's chief of staff, but the White House hasn't asked Mark Lloyd, an FEC adviser, to step down because Glenn Beck and the Media Research Center have him in their sights. Sonia Sotomayor's remarks about Latina judges and wisdom? The White House defended her stoutly.

The administration hasn't withdrawn the nomination of Cass Sunstein for an important and powerful OMB post, nor did they ask Rosa Brooks to leave the administration when she was subject to loud criticism, nor have they stopped fighting for Dawn Johnsen's nomination to be the key legal adviser in the Justice Department. Or Harold Koh, who is now the State Department's chief legal adviser. Or John Holdren, the chief science adviser, who thirty years ago wrote dispassionately about abortion as a method of population control. Actually, when it comes to defending administration officials in key positions who make daily contributions to policy, the Obama White House defends its own pretty well.  

Jones was a comparatively easy target, the political equivalent of low-hanging fruit. He was barely a "czar" -- his power was nominal, and he was brought into the administration because many Obama advisers on the environment and economic policy admired the way he found a neat way to end the "environmentalism is a job killer" contention. He was a classic policy entrepreneur, and, arguably, the type of person that liberals and progressives want as a presidential adviser. But he was -- and can be -- more influential outside of government than inside of it.

For the same reasons, triumphalism over Jones's exit is misplaced. Jones was many things, but he wasn't the fascist that reactionaries insisted on calling him. And he was never terribly powerful. In fact, his departure makes it easier for the administration to press ahead with its Green Jobs initiative -- no longer do opponents have Van Jones to kick around anymore. That Jones was even the target of vitriol is more evidence of paranoia; the Bush administration used "czar" in a tongue-in-cheek fashion; the Obama press shop was casual in its early descriptions of administration advisers who were given certain portfolios; suddenly, "czar" became czar -- as if these folks had actual power and malevolent influence -- and not only that, as if they worked in concert to take over the government and impose their evil world ways.

Is Jones the victim of a racist conspiracy? There is no evidence that racism motivated opposition to Van Jones. 

Will Jones's departure give ammunition to climate change skeptics? Maybe. The reason why Jones was the target of any attention whatsoever was his ideological entrepreneurialism; David Wiegel of the Washington Independent contends that his "downfall represented a crucial and possibly educational victory for the wing of the conservative and libertarian movement that has tried, without much success, to paint environmental activists like Jones as anti-capitalist radicals less interested in the health of the planet than in a well-disguised radical agenda." Jones had given the Green Jobs meme more than a patina of respect even among Republicans, and because of these sins, he was dangerous to conservative and libertarian anti-environmentalists. Obama has been careful not to alienate environmentalist activists to date, and Jones is a hero to many of them. 

That said, had Jones not given his critics such ammunition, he may have drawn fire, but he probably would not have been shot.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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