Monday, March 8, 2010


I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five [people] that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department. -- Senator Joseph McCarthy, 9 February 1950

So who did President Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder hire? Nine lawyers who represented or advocated for terrorist detainees. Who are these government officials? Eric Holder will only name two. Why the secrecy behind the other seven? Whose values do they share? Tell Eric Holder: Americans have a right to know the identity of the Al Qaeda 7. -- from "Who Are the Al Qaeda Seven?" video by Liz Cheney's "Keep America Safe", 2 March 2010

In this week's Sift:
  • The Party that George Built. Conservative writer Jonathan Rauch uncovers the original source of today's Republican message: Not Ronald Reagan or even Barry Goldwater, but George Wallace. (Except that "racism ... is marginal in today's GOP." Thanks for clearing that up, Jonathan.)
  • The Power of One Senator. Jim Bunning blocking an important piece of legislation is just the latest example of how much power a lone senator can wield. How does that work exactly?
  • Health Care and Public Opinion. Republicans are shocked that President Obama would continue pushing a bill that polls badly. But ignoring the polls was a virtue when Bush was president. Or, as Dick Cheney summed it up: "So?"
  • Changing the Tone. Those who say Obama hasn't changed the tone in Washington have forgotten what the old tone was. Liz Cheney reminds them.
  • Short Notes. Breaking news from Tom Friedman: Intel execs want tax breaks and subsidies. Obama gets a midnight visit from all the SNL presidents. National Grammar Day. Creationists join up with global-warming deniers. Stephen Colbert pimps up an interview with Sean Hannity. Same-sex marriage is legal in two more North American capitals. And more.

The Party That George Built
An important article in the National Journal discusses George W., the guy nobody talks about any more, the one who made the Republican Party what it is today. No, not George W. Bush -- George Wallace. 

In It's George Wallace's GOP Now, conservative Jonathan Rauch cuts "the history of the modern Republican Party" down to one sentence:
Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.
What disturbs Rauch is that Wallace was not a conservative at all, but rather a "right-wing populist". He describes Wallace as exploiting "a deep sense of grievance" against "elites", but notes that
What Wallace did not do was frame a coherent program or governing philosophy.
He cites parallels between Wallace's rhetoric and Sarah Palin's, while noting that Palin is typical of today's GOP. 
like Wallace and his supporters 40 years ago, today's conservative populists are long on anger and short on coherence. For Wallace, small-government rhetoric was a trope, not a workable agenda. The same is true of his Republican heirs today, who insist that spending cuts alone, without tax increases, will restore fiscal balance but who have not proposed anywhere near enough spending cuts, primarily because they can't.
Two comments: First, this rhetoric works because most voters have a very distorted idea of what the government spends money on. Angry tea-partiers would happily cut foreign aid to countries that hate us, bureaucrats who do nothing all day, social services to illegal aliens, grants that support blasphemous art exhibits, welfare for able-bodied men too lazy to work, and all those $500 screwdrivers at the Pentagon. They've convinced themselves that stuff like that adds up to about half the budget.

Second, the ideas in Rauch's article are all cribbed (without attribution) from Ron Perlstein's Nixonland, which I reviewed a year ago. The real significance of Rauch's article is to launder Perlstein's liberal insights for use in conservative conversations.

A big piece of that laundering is to dismiss the racism that figures prominently in Perlstein's analysis. Getting racism out of the discussion is so important that Rauch does in it the second paragraph: "racism ... is marginal in today's GOP." This style of laundering was summarized by conservative strategist Lee Atwater in a 1981 interview with Bob Herbert:
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff.
Today's conservative says "English only" or "illegal immigrant" or "Obama's a Muslim" or "Where's his birth certificate?" or reserves the word terrorist for Muslims, preferably swarthy ones. But they don't say "spick" or "nigger" or "camel jockey" in public, and they don't stand up and yell "Segregation forever!" like Wallace did, so they're not racists or any other kind of bigot. (Among themselves, though, they still think racism is funny. Still.)

Seriously, if you're building your appeal on the fears and resentments of whites -- and make no mistake about it, the Tea Party rallies are almost entirely white -- you have to be blind not to see that a lot of those fears and resentments concern race.

Matt Yglesias critiques Rauch, saying that right-wing populism's place in the conservative movement is not some new trend.
When the prejudices of the sociocultural minority clash with the interests of economic elites, as they do on immigration, then we see splits inside the movement. But ordinarily business conservatism and right-wing populism work together extremely comfortably and always have.

Politico got its hands on a slide show prepared for Republican National Committee fund-raisers. On the Motivations to Give slide, #1 on the list is "fear". Another slide asks: "What can you sell when you do not have the White House, the Senate, or the House ... ? Save the country from trending toward Socialism!" Politico comments:
Manipulating donors with crude caricatures and playing on their fears is hardly unique to Republicans or to the RNC – Democrats raised millions off George W. Bush in similar terms – but rarely is it practiced in such cartoonish terms.
My reaction: It's a real shame that the RNC can't "sell ... the White House" any more.

The best response I saw was from WaPo's Kevin Huffman. (Maybe that's why he won the "America's Next Great Pundit" contest.) He offers the RNC genuinely constructive advice that is so obvious as to become satire:
[I]n the context of donor targets that are visceral, reactionary and motivated by fear, it makes sense to portray your opponents as scary, cartoonish radicals. Nonetheless, my suggestion, based on some grainy footage I saw recently of Ronald Reagan, is to consider a more optimistic frame. This might be off the wall, but hear me out: What if the RNC developed a couple of serious policy initiatives and then messaged them as concrete reasons for people to support you? I'd be happy to look at any ideas, if that'd be helpful.
Rachel Maddow's response to the RNC slides was pretty funny too. The whole idea that portraying Harry Reid as Scooby Doo is scary ... well, that's scary in a different way. Or, as Rachel put it in her teaser for this segment, "Roo?"

North Carolina Republican Rep. Sue Myrick faced her Muslim constituents last week and answered questions about why she wrote a positive foreword for a Muslim-bashing book, describing its author as "a great American". Like the Republicans who aren't racists, Myrick isn't anti-Muslim. She's just against (as the book's subtitle puts it) "the secret underworld that's conspiring to Islamize America." In the past she has raised suspicion about the Middle Easterners "who run all the convenience stores across the country." But she can't be a racist because, as she notes, "I've got Arab friends."

The Power of One Senator
In Terry Prachett's Discworld novels, he describes the semi-benevolent dictatorship of his capital city as a one-man one-vote system: "The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote." 

Sometimes the Senate seems that way, like last week when Senator Jim Bunning single-handed delayed a bill to extend certain emergency economic measures. Tuesday, Bunning backed down and the bill passed by a wide margin (78-19) -- but not before 100,000 Americans saw their unemployment benefits interrupted, 2000 workers had to stop working on transportation projects, and doctors temporarily faced a 21% drop in Medicare reimbursements. (The WSJ editorial page loved this bit of obstruction, calling it Jim Bunning's Finest Hour.)

If you're like me, you heard the what of the story, but you're still a little fuzzy on the how. How can one senator stop something that 78 other senators want to vote for? Ditto for the holds Senator Shelby put on about 70 Obama nominees who still had not been approved by the Senate. How did he do that? (Shelby also backed down on February 9, and 27 nominees got confirmed by unanimous consent on February 11. Other confirmations have trickled in since, usually by wide margins.)

Filibusters may not make a lot of sense from a democracy standpoint, but at least I understand the rules: The Senate can keep debating a bill until 60 senators support a resolution calling for an immediate vote. So any 41 senators can keep a bill in the Never-Never-Land of endless debate. But one senator? How does one senator get so much power?

The mainstream media has been almost totally remiss in covering how this works, but fortunately David Waldman explained it all on DailyKos nearly two years ago, when Senator Coburn had holds on 100 bills. The key is timing. Long-term, one senator can't prevent the Senate from doing what 60+ senators want, but the machinery for working around a hold takes about a week and is a big headache for the majority leader (who is supposed to keep the Senate's business running smoothly). So if a bill is coming down to the wire and requires immediate action (as the Bunning bill did), one senator can guarantee that the Senate will miss the deadline. 

Here's the main idea: The Senate's formal rules are unbelievably cumbersome, but most of the time they're not used. Instead, other than the major votes on contentious issues, most Senate business gets done by unanimous consent. Essentially, the majority leader suggests to the Senate: "If nobody objects, let's just skip all the rigamarole and cut to the chase." Usually nobody does object, because (as I explained last week) the Senate traditionally has worked by gentlemen's agreement rather than according to its formal rules.

hold happens when a senator informs the majority leader that s/he plans not to go along with unanimous consent on some piece of business. The senator could have a legitimate reason. For example, maybe the majority leader has made a mistake by treating this item as routine business, because some serious issue is lurking under the surface. Or maybe there is no hidden issue, everybody knows exactly what's going on, and the senator is just being a jerk -- as Bunning, Shelby, and (to a lesser extent) Coburn all were. Then the majority leader has to decide whether it's worth his (and the Senate's) time to blast through the hold via the official procedures. Often it isn't.

None of this is in the Constitution, which says only: "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings." Early on, the Senate set up its rules to give each senator a lot of consideration, with a corresponding gentlemen's agreement that senators would use their individual power responsibly. That unwritten agreement was enforced by the small size and clubbishness of the Senate. (Originally there were only 26 senators. By contrast, a single committee in today's House of Representatives might be twice that size.) Every senator had a one-on-one relationship with every other senator, and they all understood that it was a bad idea to annoy the other club members for no good reason.

Senate rules have been amended at various times since, but the basic idea -- individual power exercised under a gentlemen's agreement of good behavior -- has stuck. Sadly, that's all breaking down now, and has been for decades. Eventually the rules are going to have to change, because more and more senators don't care about their relationships with other senators and enjoy the attention they can get by being jerks. (Bunning hasn't had this much publicity since he pitched a perfect game in 1964.) Changing the rules is hard, though, because it means that individual senators of both parties are going to have to yield some of their power to the Senate leadership. They are understandably reluctant to do that, especially since they know that this could all work if senators would just behave themselves.

Health Care and Public Opinion
As the Democrats move towards final passage of health-care reform, Republican objections are getting more shrill. I find it particularly odd how horrified they are that Democrats might ignore polls (especially this one by Fox News) showing that a majority of the public doesn't want the bill passed. This constitutes "ramming" the bill "down the throats" of the American public.

When they were in power, Republicans thought that ignoring polls was a virtue. In March of 2008, when ABC's interviewer pointed out to Dick Cheney that the American public overwhelming thought the Iraq War was not worth fighting, Cheney famously replied: "So?" During the 2000 campaign, Bush said:
I really don't care what the polls and focus groups say. What I care about is doing what I think is right.
In those days that was considered Leadership, and Republicans cheered it as courageous and principled. But when President Obama does it, it's "a defiant 'screw you' to the nation."

I'm with Nate Silver on this. I think the public does oppose the bill, but they do so because they think it raises the deficit, is a government takeover of health care, funds abortion, and creates death panels that will pull the plug on your grandmother -- all of which are false.

Here's the thing about getting people not to do stuff by lying about it: If you succeed, you're never caught in the lie. If I tell you that Sesame Street is a nasty, violent, horrible show, and as a result you never watch it -- then you'll never find out that I lied to you. 

That's what happened to the Clinton health care program. Republicans and the insurance industry told amazing lies about it, and they paid no price for those lies because the public avoided the experience that would have proved them wrong. To this day, what the public remembers about Hillarycare are the false reasons why they didn't like it.

If health-care reform doesn't pass this time, the same thing will happen -- and in November the voters will punish all the Democrats who voted for those horrible death panels. But if it does pass, then media coverage will swing from the he-said/she-said stories about funding abortion to stories about what the bill actually will do. People will find out how the bill affects them, and most of them will like it.

And that's why the Republicans are getting so shrill.

Senator Byrd, widely considered the Senate's foremost expert on its own history and procedures, explains why the plan to use reconciliation in health-care reform passes muster.

Check out Jon Stewart's take on the health-care debate and its coverage.

Changing the Tone
President Obama's pledge to "change the tone in Washington" is usually interpreted as a commitment to bipartisanship, and then judged to be a broken promise: Either Obama was naive to think he could work with Republicans, or he hasn't tried hard enough. 

That framing only works, though, if you forget what the tone was during the Bush administration, when critics of Bush policies routinely had their patriotism questioned. Obama really has changed that tone: He treats Republicans like loyal Americans, even when they won't compromise with him.

If you want to remember what the old Bush-Cheney days were like, check out this new ad by Liz Cheney, in which Justice Department lawyers who previously represented detainees in Guantanamo are referred to as "the Al Qaeda 7" -- an attack that even many conservative blogs say is unfair.

I'm glad the TPM article on this brought up John Adams, who defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre and called it "one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country." That's the true American tradition. Liz and her father can have Joe McCarthy on their team; I'll take John Adams. 

Short Notes
Something struck me wrong about Tom Friedman's column Wednesday, but it took Matt Yglesias to nail it down for me:
it’s really remarkable that we live in a world where talking to the CEO of a large company [and then] reporting that the CEO wants tax breaks and subsidies for his firm counts as serious political commentary. Read today’s Tom Friedman piece and watch in amazement as he doesn’t even consider the possibility that [Intel CEO] Paul Otellini’s ideas might be motivated by anything other than a disinterested concern for the welfare of the American people.

Funny-or-Die assembles all the presidents since Ford (well, their Saturday Night Live equivalents, anyway) to buck up Obama's courage for taking on the banks and re-regulating finance.
Thursday was National Grammar Day, with a music video and everything. That got Kevin Drum talking about the related subject of punctuation, which we take very seriously here in New Hampshire. Punctuation is the only difference between "John Lynch, the governor" and "John! Lynch the governor!"

The last thing I edited out of last week's Sift (to keep the word-count down) was an article about how creationists and global-warming deniers are getting together in one big anti-science coalition. I was just 48 hours ahead of the New York Times, which covered the same subject Wednesday.

This fits very well into the Perlstein-Rauch analysis I was describing above, because both creationism and global-warming denial depend on populist resentment of the scientific "elite" and a corresponding conspiratorial view of how the scientific community works: Scientists look down their noses at ordinary people while they push their own God-denying world-socialism-promoting agenda.

Scientists have a hard time responding to this populist resentment, because they can't honestly claim to respect the people who advocate it. Concerning both evolution and global warming, the anti-science lobby wants to force public schools to "teach the controversy". But from a scientific point of view, both issues are part of the eternal controversy between Knowledge and Ignorance. The whole point of having schools is to help Knowledge win that argument.

Stephen Colbert follows up on the revelation that the ACORN-pimp-advising video was edited by doing an edited interview with Sean Hannity.

Same-sex marriage became legal in two new capitals this week: Washington D.C. and Mexico City. Officials at the National Weather Service report that the sky has not fallen.

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