Reading through the comment threads on my Boy Scouts thing, I notice that many of you who might normally be in my corner took some umbrage at that “go form your own country” business, and, well, obviously I can see why. I’m sure that if I happened to live in Atlanta, I’d hate the thought of being consigned to live in the Reactionary States of America and I wouldn’t like the idea of some smart-ass Yankee pundit (a cousin to Randy Newman’s smart-ass New York Jew) suggesting it.
I know that there are fine, fine people in the South, and lots of progressive-minded people who are repelled by the standard mores and working to change things. I even know that many conservative people are basically fine people when it comes to everything but their political views, and that a person’s political views don’t come close to telling the whole story about him or her.
And I know that the South has its charms. I love "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," for starters. I am actually—hold on to your hats—going to South Carolina, of all lamentable places, on a vacation soon. Entirely of my own volition! There may not be a single state I think worse of, for a range of historical reasons. Not even Alabama. So there you are. We’re all full of contradictions.
Having said all that, the historical fact remains: Since the beginning of this republic, the South has held the country back. A commenter in that thread reminded me that all this goes back a lot farther than the GI Bill and the Ed Sullivan Show. It goes back to the writing of the Constitution itself.
I'm not quite on board yet with the idea that something is going to pass, simply because my basic operating principle is, I will believe sanity out of the Republican Party when I see it.
I refer mainly of course to the House of Reps, and via Greg Sargent, we received this interesting breakdown from National Journal that I think helps explain why one should be circumspect about reform's chances in the House:
With very few exceptions, legislation cannot advance in the House without the support of a "majority of the majority" party. A Senate-passed immigration proposal probably had enough votes to pass the House, too, in 2006, but House Republicans never let it get to the floor, because their caucus didn't support it.
Fully 131 of the 233 House Republicans represent districts that are more than 80 percent white. Not only have many of those members opposed measures beyond improving border security in the past, but there are also no natural pressure groups for immigration reform in their districts. The Democratic Caucus, which is largely unified in support of some sort of immigration-reform proposal, has just 31 members from such very white districts.
More evidence for my thesis below, about how Democrats now represent regular Americans while Republicans are a bunch of cranks, is the very fine news this week that the Boy Scouts of America are going to admit gay troop members and leaders. Yes. Bravo. To most of America it is not a big deal anymore.
But someone is upset, and look who: It's the Southern Baptist Convention. I heard one of their number on NPR muttering something about this making it impossible for Southern Boy Scouts to attend national jamborees and so forth.
There is a long and appalling history in this country of the rest of us having to act like bigots and enforce bigotry because of the South. It has existed in legislation--the GI Bill had to be written in such a way that it wouldn't benefit blacks too much, or the legislators of the South said they would kill it. Before that, much of the New Deal legislation had to be written in the same way.
It's existed in sports, with college bowl games down South that wouldn't take Northern teams that had dirty negroes. It's existed in rock and roll, when integrated road shows couldn't go down there. It existed on television in the 1960s, when Ed Sullivan had to very careful about how much black and white entertainers could mix on his show because sponsors and affiliates from a certain region of the country would howl. Sullivan was very courageous on this front, but variety shows led by hosts less powerful than he had to dumb their shows down to the Southern level.
The Obama-Hillary interview signaled that we have passed an important tipping point in American politics: Democrats are now the regular guys, and conservatives are the weirdos. By Michael Tomasky.
I can actually see, to some extent, the point of conservatives’ complaints about the Obama-Hillary 60 Minutes interview. It was softbally, and Steve Kroft’s one real question—to Clinton, about whether she felt any guilt or remorse over Benghazi—she totally didn’t answer. But here, conservatives, is what you are missing and what you need to reckon with. Americans—except you—like these two people. Most Americans look at the pair of them—this black man who is still remote in some ways and this so-familiar woman who is now aging before us and allowing herself to look just a little frumpy—and feel reassured. Most Americans are cheering for them, and hence, most Americans probably wanted a softball interview. We have thus passed an important portal in American politics: Democrats are now the regular guys. Conservatives are the weirdos.
‘President Obama and Hillary Clinton duck Steve Kroft’s question about 2016.’
First, about the interview. These are not two of your more forthcoming interview subjects. I’ve never sat with Obama, but I have interviewed Clinton on a number of occasions, including one big 90-minute-or-so sit-down back in 2000. She told me some very interesting things: she likes Thomas Hardy, she was overwhelmed by her visit to the Olduvai Gorge, she takes a keen interest in ancient civilizations, she loves the Three Stooges, and she knows the theme song to The Flintstones. But on policy, she gave me nothing. A total Heisman. My heart sank to the floor as I listened back over the tape and realized that answer after answer wasn’t going to make news after all. Obama is no different. Rare is the interview that finds him saying anything genuinely arresting.
But he did say something interesting to Kroft, and she did too, which was this: they were both wholly believable and ingenuous when they were talking about their own political relationship. When Obama said, in reference to repairing the ruptures of 2008, “I think it was harder for the staffs, which is understandable, because, you know, they get invested in this stuff in ways that I think the candidates maybe don’t,” I thought: that rings really true. And I’d bet most Americans did too.
David Mamet’s Newsweek piece on gun control was a bizarre, inaccurate rant, says Michael Tomasky.
I remember reading a profile of David Mamet in the Times Magazine many years ago, about which the only thing I recall is his admonition to his profiler, who had inquired into his method and the matter of what advice he might offer writers. Mamet’s response was: Go through and cut it in half. Then do that again. And then do that again. Something along those lines.
A rudimentary knowledge of mathematics tells us that one can cut in half to infinity and never reach zero, which is too bad in this case, because zero would have been the optimal word count for Mamet’s bizarre rant in Newsweek about how Barack Obama, acting on subliminal instruction from Karl Marx, wants to take away his guns and throw his family to the wolves. But he could at least have gotten it down to eight or, even better, four. “Me really angry man” would have sufficed.
You know you’re going to need your waders when someone kicks things off with Marx. Oy. Mamet: take it from someone who’s written thousands of columns. That’s hoary. Overused. I’m not sure what the thespian equivalent would be. Sending someone out on stage to yell “Stella”? It’s been done.
He gets his Marx wrong, by the way, whatever difference that makes. The famous offending diktat—“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”—would not, per Marx’s formulation in “Critique of the Gotha Program,” be enforced by the state. That social arrangement wouldn’t really kick in until the state had withered away and the proletariat itself was calling the shots. I know that the right’s list of secret Obama evil plans for America is virtually endless, but I don’t think the state withering away is on the list.
Republicans are proposing a radical rule change in swing states—one that would have handed Romney the election. Michael Tomasky on this jaw-dropping outrage.
I’m optimistic about the Republican Party. Does that surprise you? Well, let me qualify that. When I say I’m optimistic about the Republican Party, I am referring of course to the old joke in which the pessimist says, “Geez, things sure can’t get any worse,” and the optimist replies, “Oh, yes they can!” When the subject is today’s GOP and the conservative movement, things can always get worse. Having attempted virtually every dishonest and cynical trick in the book under existing rules, they have decided now that the problem is not their dishonesty or cynicism, but the existing rules, so the new task is to change them.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus rallies volunteers at a Romney campaign office in Arlington, Virginia on October 25, 2012. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call, via Getty)
You’re familiar by now with the broad contours of how the GOP wants to change the Electoral College. OK, in case you’re not: They seek in six states to apportion the electoral vote according to congressional districts won instead of to the presidential candidate who won the state overall. For example, Pennsylvania has 18 congressional districts. Mitt Romney won 12 of them, and Barack Obama six. So even though Obama won the state overall by around five points, Romney would “carry” Pennsylvania, 12 electoral votes (EVs) to six (actually, 12 to eight—every state has two more EVs representing its two Senate seats, and Obama, as the overall winner, would get those; so nice of them!).
The six states, as you might guess, are not Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, and the Dakotas. They are the aforementioned Keystone State along with Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Virginia. The Virginia plan adds the clever wrinkle of giving those extra EVs not to the overall winner, but to the candidate who won the most congressional districts.
This passage, by conservative writer Peter Wehner from the big Commentary issue on conservatism's future, is actually laudable to a degree:
Conservatism, at least as I understand it, ought to be characterized by openness to evidence and a search for truth, not attachment to a rigid orthodoxy. “If there is any political viewpoint in this world which is free from slavish adherence to abstraction,” Ronald Reagan said in 1977, “it is American conservatism.”
What I’m talking about, then, is a conservative temperament, which affects everything from tone to intellectual inquiry to compromise. It champions principles in reasonably flexible ways that include a straightforward evaluation of facts.
To put things in a slightly different way: Conservatives need to reacquaint themselves with the true spirit of conservatism, which is reform-minded, empirical, anti-utopian, and somewhat modest in its expectations. It doesn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. It doesn’t treat political opponents as enemies. And it isn’t in a state of constant agitation. Winsomeness goes a long way in politics.
This Times story this morning about HCA, the for-profit hospital chain, having to pay $162 million to a group representing some Kansas City hospitals it screwed over makes for depressing reading.
HCA bought 11 KC=area nonprofit hospitals looking to convert them. When it made the purchase in 2003, HCA promised that it would spend a certain amount on equipment and physical plant upgrades, and that it would provide certain levels of charitable care to poor patients. It did neither. The foundation set up to oversee things sued, and it went to trial:
After repeatedly asking HCA executives for explanations but receiving none, the foundation sued HCA in 2009. The case went to trial for several weeks in 2011.
HCA argued in the trial that it had met its obligation to spend money on hospital facilities by building two new hospitals at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, rather than repairing older facilities. But Judge John Torrence of Jackson County Circuit Court ruled that the agreement called for improvements to existing hospitals...
Here was GOP Senator Ron Johnson today, via Buzzfeed:
"I'm not sure she had rehearsed for that type of question," Johnson told BuzzFeed Wednesday afternoon, after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. "I think she just decided before she was going to describe emotionally the four dead Americans, the heroes, and use that as her trump card to get out of the questions. It was a good way of getting out of really having to respond to me."
He said it was clear, at other points during the hearing, that Clinton was working off a set of talking points, but that his questions "got under her skin" because "they're just so common sense."
"I just don't think she had an answer to that," he said. "Maybe it embarrassed her. Maybe she hadn't thought of it that way."
Lou Holtz had to be consoled by John Boehner the other day, you may have noticed. This is Boehner talking:
"Last night, I got a three-page text from my good friend Lou Holtz, who must have watched the inaugural and then all that blabber on TV…: 'I'm done, finished, the country's over with -- we're not doing this again!' Now, I had already had this conversation with Lou about nine or ten days after the election. He came in to speak to our 34 new Members. And before he went over to talk to them, he came over to my office, and he was moaning and groaning. I said, 'Lou, would you stop it? We're Americans, we'll figure this out!' And I had to spend 15 minutes giving Lou Holtz a pep talk! I had to do it again last night!"
First of all what is a "three-page text"? A text message consists of at most a few sentences. I guess he means three serial messages. Anyway.
We've known for some time that Holtz (the former college football coach and current ESPN sage for those who don't follow such things) is an arch-conservative; as I recall matters he outed himself sometime in the 1990s, right around the same time as that other ex-coach, you know, the one who never bothered to ask his friend Jerry Sandusky what exactly he was doing with those boys, made his conservative bona fides known to the broader public.
The RNC is meeting this week to talk about how to attract minorities, but Michael Tomasky says that in truth, the party's implacable white base will never let it happen.
What with everything going on these days, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Reince Priebus hasn’t been foremost in your mind lately. Well, this is your opportunity to correct that error, because I deliver tidings that the Republican National Committee is holding its winter meeting right now, starting yesterday, in Charlotte. A-No.1 on Chairman Priebus’s list, say advance reports, is figuring ways the GOP can attract more support among minorities. Well, they could. But they’d have to do things that would make them not the Republican Party anymore, and their base would never permit it.
Priebus may be looking for ways to make the GOP more attractive to minority voters, but that's likely to meet with resistance from the party's base. (Win McNamee/Getty)
Let’s start with African-Americans. Republicans, whatever they might say publicly, won’t actually try to win more black votes. Why? Because the positions the party would have to embrace to win black votes are abhorrent to the GOP base. Which, you may have noticed, is kind of racist. Now, people like me—pundits of the respectable class—aren’t supposed to talk that way. We’re supposed to cooperate in the fiction that the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln and underneath it all yearns to reawaken the great Jack Kemp tradition.
All that is a bunch of rot, I’m afraid, and the rank and file’s racism is just a plain fact. Ever read some of those Fox News website comment threads on race stories, like this rather fascinating thread when Whitney Houston died, or certain Obama articles? It’s like reading Bull Connor’s diary. No, this doesn’t mean every conservative is a racist. But it does mean that if you find yourself at a table with five conservatives and try to break the ice with a watermelon joke, you’re very likely to get somewhere between two and three laughs.
Well, what's the takeaway? They got nothing out of her, that's for sure. The big moment was the "what difference does it make?" quote, when she blew up at Rob Johnson. So let's parse that a bit.
Democratic spin: That was Hillary at her toughest, telling the right wing to go stuff it. She let the mask down and was real, raw, showed her emotional side.
Republican spin: What difference does it make? It makes a hell of a lot of difference! That's the whole point here.
Shameless Commerce Division, as they say: Here you will find me in the new Democracy journal, and here, in the new New York Review, in different ways touting the possibility, which I also touted here in yet a different way, that the second term will be better than the first.
Obama didn’t win a Reagan-style landslide; such is not possible in our age for either party. But conservatism now feels a lot like liberalism did in 1984 and 1985, back when I was futilely shoveling away that snow. The ideas, such as they are, have grown awfully long in the tooth. The positions are not popular. The movement has gotten by on cliché and bluster and Scotch tape. The Tea Party tendency represents maybe a quarter of the population. It is overrepresented in Washington, which is unfortunate and a serious challenge for policy-making, but even with overrepresentation, America is not going to be headed in that movement’s desired direction.
If history is any guide, then, we’ll soon enough see a Republican variant on the Democratic Leadership Council, the group formed in 1985 to pull the party toward the center. We will have ringside seats for extended and highly entertaining battles between this new center-right and the hard-right. We can expect that the GOP will be riven for quite some time over the core questions of taxation, spending, culture, and demography that the 2012 election exposed as its weaknesses.
It's clever from a pr point of view, I'll give them that. Pushing back the debt limit deadline until May makes them seem less nutso. And this "no budget, no pay" wrinkle is bound to be popular. You can read all about it here if you're unfamiliar with the details.
But here's the rub. Paul Ryan is going to draft a new budget that will eliminate the deficit in 10 years. Remember his previous two budgets, the ones that ended up being pretty big political liabilities in the election because of their impact on Medicare and on domestic programs, the ones many middle-ground Americans thought were extreme?
Well, they balanced the budget in 30 years. And now he's going to balance it in 10. How is he going to get there? Good question. Far deeper cuts to domestic programs and Medicare--exactly the probems with his prior budgets, now concentrated.
The whole thing is a substantive sop to the GOP right wing wrapped in a prettier package. So in that sense it's clever. But we're still going to come down to the same old debate we've been having, and if the Democrats handle it properly, Republicans are going to see that while their base supports these drastic cuts (while holding the military harmless, of course), the majority of the American people don't.
Some friends and I were discussing whether we'll ever again have a president with a moustache or beard . We were divagating over this because as it happens 2013 marks the 100-year anniversary of the last facially enriched president, who left office that year. In came Woodrow Wilson, and ever since, we've had not a single moustache, of understanding or otherwise, in the Oval Office. Hardly even at the top of a ticket.
Why? Any theories out there? It could just be a coincidence of course. To begin with, not that many American males wear facial hair. Hard to get a handle on this, but here's one article reporting that 10 to 20 percent of men grow the facial grass. So maybe it's just that.
On the other hand, I think of senators, members of the House, governors...even among this group, almost nothing but razor-faces. Why? There must be something shifty looking about moustaches. It is true that villains often have moustaches, the very phrase "moustachioed villain" having entered the lexicon some years ago, with regard to...uh, Snidely Whiplash, or someone. (Actually, probably with the silent-film baddies on whom Whiplash was based; by the way, what a great name, Snidely Whiplash!)
As for beards, I suppose they must represent either slovinliness or some anti-establish bent. As luck would have it just last night I was watching the 1969 Dick van Dyke vehicle "Some Kind of Nut" on TCM last night, which is about a bank clerk who gets fired because he grows a beard. The hippies take up his cause and he sort of becomes one. Well, I'm not sure what happened. The movie--directed, incidentally, by Garson Kanin--wasn't very good and I turned it off.
In his immigration bill, Marco Rubio introduced a clause stipulating that immigrants become fully proficient in English before becoming American citizens. I guess he didn't realize that there are plenty of homegrown Americans who still haven't quite gotten the hang of it...
The New York mayor is asking Dem donors to stiff four senators who voted against gun control.