Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Citizens United: The Sequel

I took the week off from Think Again in honor of our nation’s 236th birthday, but Robert Parmet did a nice review of The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama for the History News Network, here.

I see a talk I gave last year on Kabuki Democracy at the Kennedy school’s Shorenstein Center is up here.

One of my (many) pet peeves in the Internet age is the use of “we” when the “we” does not include me, or, indeed, most people I know. For instance, from Slate, “Why Do Hotels Turn Us Into Monsters?” with the subhed “What is it about hotels that makes us all go so bizarrely and baroquely berserk?” 

Hotels do not turn me into anything other than what I was previously, much less a monster. I do not go “so bizarrely and baroquely berserk” in them, nor anywhere else, for that matter. The rest of the claims in this piece strike is odd, at best, as well. I see this a great deal.

I saw David Bromberg at Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last week. It was a really wonderful show (and was broadcast live on Sirius). I had the blues and as you may know, there’s nothing better for the blues than the blues. Bromberg is one of the world’s great (and most underrated) blues guitarist and he had another guy with him—it was a four piece band—whom he insists plays better than he does. I don’t agree but I’m not the best judge. Anyway, the musical virtuosity was impressive and enjoyable without being ostentatious. The song selection was friendly—a few oldies and bluegrass excursions—but a really funky, somewhat reworked “Sharon” and an absolutely thrilling “I Will Not Be Your Fool.” Go see him if you can and hey, let’s hear it for paunchy old Jewish guys!

Now here’s Reed. 

The Dark Money Rises
by Reed Richardson

Summer has long been the season of the sequel in the movie business. But these days, by the time a blockbuster finally reaches theaters (or, sometimes, even before), the studio behind it is already talking about the next, bigger and bolder installment in the series. And, increasingly, it looks like the pro-corporate conservative movement is taking its cues—marketing-wise, at least—from Hollywood.

In true, big-time movie fashion, hot on the heels of their latest Citizens United expansion, these forces rolled out a schlocky summertime trailer about what's next. Contrasting soaring music and stock images of the D-Day invasion and Tea Party marchers against stark, black-and-white text, it vaguely teases at the Orwellian storyline to come and the momentous stakes involved. The First Amendment, they warn, is under attack by our very own president! (Perhaps COBRA is involved in this White House betrayal? We’ll have to wait till next year to find out, I guess.) But just know that brave Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is leading the charge against this outrage, helped out by some of these supposedly humble servants of the Constitution.

What’s that? You can’t recall President Obama stumping for the revocation of our free speech rights? Well then, you just aren’t paying attention or, more likely, aren’t a vast, multi-national corporation that really doesn’t want its extensive lobbying and political donations aired publicly. But make no mistake, according to conservatives, Obama, by supporting the allegedly heinous DISCLOSE Act and his idle talk about instituting martial law passing a Constitutional amendment to roll back the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United case, is undertaking a “radical” attempt “to expose [his] critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies.”

Hold on, didn't we just see this same campaign finance movie not too long ago? (But as Tobey Maguire can tell you, a few years is “a lifetime in the movie business.” And politics too, apparently.) Back during the George W. Bush administration, Republicans, including one Sen. Mitch McConnell, were precisely challenging the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (otherwise known as McCain-Feingold) on the grounds that rigorous disclosure would act as an antidote against corporate or oligarchic money overwhelming into our political process. That first legal challenge to McCain-Feingold—McConnell vs. FEC­—got shot down by the then Rehnquist Court in 2003, however. But that effort nonetheless offered a sneak preview of the strategy the right-wing plans to employ in the coming months and years.

As explained by this 2004 Brookings Institute analysis of the McConnell ruling—written by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, they of the recent notable book about extremist Republican intransigence, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks—conservatives trotted out a number of myths about the BCRA to discredit it. And what’s more, the Beltway media effectively bought into these talking points and propagated them.

“Throughout the year-plus since BCRA has taken effect, and especially since the Supreme Court’s decision, critics, allied with political reporters who are generally cynical about any institutional reform and with the political consultants who were the conduits for and recipients of much of the soft money in the pre-BCRA era, have pursued a series of themes perpetuating myths about the law and its impact.” (italics mine)

We saw much the same dynamic play out during the run-up to the Citizens United ruling two years ago and once again with the current DISCLOSE Act. To be fair, though, neither the press nor the litigants involved probably ever envisioned the former turning into the landmark ruling it now is. Originally, the case might have been best thought of as a right-wing-funded indie film with modest ambitions, hoping to carve out a small legal victory for big-money conservatives like the Koch brothers. But thanks to Justices Roberts and Kennedy, Citizens United was transformed from a vanity-project bomb (a la Atlas Shrugged) to sleeper mega-hit status (like, say, Paranormal Activity) almost overnight.

Last week’s legal sequel to that case, a kind of Citizens United 2: State Election Boogaloo, was, like many sophomore efforts, uninspiring yet, born along by its predecessor’s momentum, ultimately quite successful. Buoyed by this latest success, the right is now pivoting to a complete the trilogy of its efforts to undermine campaign finance law.

Some might point out that there is a gaping plot point from the original Citizens United case that would seem to throw a big wrench into the plans for a third installment. In that 2010 ruling, a majority of the Court voted—8–1, no less!—that disclosure must be a necessary part of their newly created campaign finance framework. Even Justice Scalia—playing against type here, no doubt—came out in favor of transparency and, in a subsequent decision involving a similar case, wrote:

“There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which…campaigns anonymously…and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”

Undaunted, the right pushes on. This should come as no surprise, though. After dumping $235 million into a two-year, big-budget flop of a campaign to overturn Obamacare (let’s call it “Heaven’s Mandate”), the same people decided this past week to just keep writing seven-figure checks even after the law was ruled constitutional.

In March, the Wall Street Journal leaked the script published an editorial (paywall req.) laying out the intellectual framework of the right’s new antipathy toward open disclosure of corporate political donations. To read it is to peer into an upside-down world where corporate “free speech rights” are threatened by progressive allies and the media (if only it were so!), and where humble companies like ExxonMobil are unfairly discouraged from dumping untold millions of dollars into our electoral system (and other nations') to essentially buy favorable political outcomes. From the WSJ editorial:

“Businesses are arguably taking more risk by trying to dodge policy debates. When government of one kind or another controls 40% of the private economy, a business that doesn't participate in politics either directly, or indirectly through a trade group, is a patsy for the next Congressional or regulatory shakedown. And it is leaving the policy field open to domination by unions, the Sierra Club and billionaires like George Soros and Peter Lewis.

“Corporations are not democracies. They are businesses organized for the purpose of making money to increase value for all shareholders, not to serve the narrow goals of some shareholders.

“The political left is using this disclosure campaign not to serve the interests of shareholders, but to further its own policy agenda. It is an abuse of the proxy process, and companies would be wise to resist it in the interest of their business, their shareholders, and their country.”

So much for that whole ‘marketplace of ideas’ shtick the right likes to crow about all the time. Here, the Journal is essentially saying that consumers and watchdog groups are big meanies because they might hold corporations up for public scrutiny and accountable for their political activities through the likes of public relations efforts and boycotts. Never mind the integrity of our electoral process, such disclosure could hurt their bottom line, so let’s just agree to keep all that stuff hidden instead, OK? You know, for, um, democracy’s sake or something.

Ominously, the establishment press hasn’t really caught on to this ideological reversal. Sure, it made a lot of campaign trail hay out of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s clumsy “corporations are people” gaffe. But few, if any, news organizations connected his ridiculous statement with the broader thinking behind it and how that is now coloring conservative plans for our democracy to function as a kind of unregulated financial free-for-all. (Fox Business, naturally, gave his comments a rave review.)

A notable exception, and one that happens to coincide with my movie business analogy, is the coverage of this issue by the Los Angeles Times. In May, Times reporters Matea Gold and Joseph Tanfani thoroughly documented the secretive archipelago of conservative groups that spent an astounding $55 million in the 2010 midterm elections, yet is run out of a post office box in a Phoenix suburb. Yeah, nothing out of the ordinary there. The pair also put out a handy spreadsheet of the other right-wing front groups that this euphemistically named Center to Protect Patient Rights funnels money to. Then, last week, Tanfani shared a byline with Melanie Watson on an excellent Times story further highlighting the right-wing’s about face on campaign transparency and its nationwide effort to dismantle existing disclosure rules and electoral spending caps.

My only quibble with the Times reporting, though, is that I think it remains too sanguine about the chances of those champions of campaign disclosure winning the day. As proof of their optimism, the pair note the strong Court majority supporting transparency in the Citizens United case and quote Scalia’s strong defense of campaign finance openness from two years ago (see above). But as we’ve learned in the past few weeks, the respect this Court shows for established legal precedent can nonetheless often rest on a knife’s edge, particularly when the right-wing’s long-term political goals are there for the taking.

In a way, the right-wing’s embrace of so-called dark money in our political campaigns reminds me of this classic scene from what may be the best movie sequel of all time. There is an important difference, however. Today’s political godfathers are more than willing to shell out untold amounts of corporate money to influence our political system. But when it comes to how much they think our democracy deserves to know about it, well, then their answer is still the same as Michael Corleone’s: nothing.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

The Judge Sure Is Funky…

My new Think Again column is called “What Howard Kurtz Thinks You Don’t Need to Know” and it is here.

My Nation column is called “On the Other Hand... Nothing,” and it’s here.

I have a longish article in this week’s Nation on the Washington Post's conservative blogger problem focusing on the misdeeds of one Jennifer Rubin and that’s here.

I will be speaking about liberalism and The Cause at Bookhampton on Main Street in East Hampton, Saturday, at 8. More information here.

Two things: John Kenneth Gailbraith once proposed a law that every time an economist made a prediction, his or her previous predictions should be published alongside it. I thought of that wise advice when I received this press notice from Time: “TIME's Mark Halperin: "Republicans Look Like A Very Solid Bet To Retain the House…

But remember when, in the run-up to the 2006 Congressional elections, Halperin predicted that Bush would be "back over 53% any day now" and warned "If I were them [Democrats], I'd be scared to death about November's elections." Well don’t feel bad, neither does Halperin.

Also, don’t ask me why, but we are still waiting for The New York Observer to publish a retraction and apology for misleading its readers with this silly column.

Who does this man look like minus ten years and I’m guessing more beers etc., than I can imagine? Also, why is Southside putting out an album with the same title as an album by Steve van Zandt of about twenty years ago? I dunno. But it’s called “Men Without Women,” and when I caught a show by Southside and the Poor Fools at Stephen’s Talkhouse in Amagansett last week, I had—like everyone else there—a great time. The Poor Fools are a ragtagish looking group of excellent and enormously versatile musicians. Four different people played the drums at one time or another. Three played the trombone. The songs were a mixture of old soul standards, some serious deep cuts and a few Southside numbers, including “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” “The Fever,” “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” I got my request which was “Walk Away, Renee,” and a georgous version it was. (Nobody requested “Into the Mystic,” which would have been number two, unfortunately.) We had a nice little talk after the show (with my nephew Adam) and I put up Adam’s slightly doofusy photo of us both wearing orange shirts after the show on Facebook here.

— Oh wait: here’s the answer to the “Men Without Women” question, thanks to Southside’s site on the Intertubes:

You have a new CD coming out. Can you talk a little about that?
There’s a number of things I’m working on, but [the CD] is based on an album that Stevie Van Zandt … put out in the 1980s with [his solo band] Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. He put that out about 25 years ago and I had forgotten that we recorded a number of those songs as the Jukes, but then we scrapped them and didHearts of Stone[the Jukes’ third album, whichRolling Stonemagazine placed in the top-100 albums of the 1970s and ’80s] instead. Then I heard the record for the first time in years and thought, ‘God, this is great,’ so we did the whole thing live [at Asbury Park’s venerable Stone Pony last July] and we’re going to put out the record. Stevie came down and sang some songs, and kind of gave us his approval of the project. We had six horn players and it just sounded so good I thought ‘We might as well put it out.’ I don’t normally think that way because I’m never really that happy with what I do live. I always think it sounds frantic and crazy, but this really sounds good. It’s 10 songs from his record calledMen Without Women— which comes from a compilation by Ernest Hemingway — and then there’s three that Steve and I do.

Let’s all buy it.

And here are Bruce and Southside doing “Talk to Me” in Madrid.

Also, I wanted to put in a plug for Jonathan Franzen’s new essay collection, Farther Away, to which I’ve been listening to on CD. Ok, so I skip a lot of the bird watching part. But my admiration for Franzen’s prose just grows and grows. His musing on the death of David Foster Wallace is tough-minded and soft-hearted at the same time. There’s nobody writing today I’d rather read, and nobody who captures the various psychological complications of our political moment more accurately to my mind, which is why the final cultural portrait in The Cause—the one after the one on Bruce—is on Franzen.

Now here’s Reed.

Odor in the Court
by Reed Richardson
So it is decided—I, like many others, was wrong about guessing the outcome of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. (Which just goes to show that one doubts Nancy Pelosi’s predictions, if not her exact vote-counting skills, at one’s peril.) Three cheers for that and, in this lone instance, two for John Roberts, who didn’t roll over quite as easy as one thinks. In reality, though, that there was ever even a doubt about Roberts’ vote shows how far the discourse, both in this country and in this current Court, has shifted to the right.

Undoubtedly, it is a victory for the president. More importantly, though, it is a victory for the tens of millions of Americans who might have lost or never gained health coverage due to Obamacare’s repeal. This is especially true since the esteemed opposition party has unceremoniously dropped two-thirds of its three-word health care legislative strategy. But what remains clear from this Court’s legal emanations this past week is that it still has the unmistakable whiff of unabashed, right-wing score-settling about it.

Originally, I was going to entitle this post “When Nino Met Sammy” for two reasons. First, it was to honor the passing, this week, of a great writer. Although I can’t say I was a huge fan of Ms. Ephron’s films, I still have a soft spot in my heart for this hilarious, spot-on scene of hers (“TRI-NI LO-PEZ?!”), one of the few redeeming moments in “Sleepless in Seattle.” But mostly my title's play on Ephron's most famous movie made sense because history will mark the beginning of this current Court’s hard-edged lurch to the right as that moment in 2005 when Samuel Alito joined with Antonin Scalia on our nation’s highest bench.

I mean, just look at what else we got from the Court this past week.

On Monday, we were treated to Justice Scalia’s fire-and-brimstone, anti-Obama rant about the Arizona SB 1070 case. You know, the one where he found salient the 19th-century emigration patterns of freed blacks and appeared convinced that our country was still governed by the Articles of Confederation.

A more modern twist on Scalia’s backward thinking came in the form of Justice Alito’s icy oral dissent(via Pierce) in a case about the propriety of sentencing juveniles to life without parole. That’s the one where Alito complained that the 14-year-old complainant was too sympathetic and not typical of the many murders being committed by "thrill-killing" 17-year-olds, the grisly statistics of which he was all too willing to fearmonger with. That neither of these arguments didn’t win the day in those particular cases are welcome news, but it wasn’t all legal peaches and cream for liberals.

For good measure, the Court’s five usual suspects summarily imposed their money=speech Citizens United dictum onto the states this week and, in that decision, Scalia’s vociferous defense of state’s rights and the Tenth Amendment, somehow, didn’t come into play. To be fair, the conservatives on the court might have been a flummoxed by that case, as it pitted two of their favorite causes against one another. In the end, though, they kept their anti-democratic streak intact by siding with corporations instead of the state legislature of Montana.

Though Roberts has drawn much of the spotlight in recent big cases as the swing vote and author of the majority opinions, Jeffrey Toobin deftly explained a couple of weeks ago in the New Yorker that the Citizens United case became the landmark ruling that it is thanks to the seeds planted by Scalia during oral arguments. Long known for his pugnacious style in grilling respondents, Scalia’s tone has been amped up since like-minded colleague Alito replaced moderate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Then, in the last few months, Scalia has surpassed even that, transforming into something like the Court’s unchecked conservative id, spewing right-wing radio talking points and not so subtly signaling to potential conservative litigants that his ‘originalism’ is nothing but a pretense and his vote for their pet causes is all but assured.

Ordinarily, one would expect this kind of raw partisanship to draw plenty of opprobrium from the Beltway crowd, but since Scalia is a) a conservative, b) on the Supreme Court, and c) enjoys a reputation as a ‘brilliant’ mind, the likelihood of him getting called out for his naked intellectual dishonesty was low. Fortunately, I was wrong again this week.

Indeed, something seems to have gotten into the water over at the Washington Post. Before executive editor Marcus Brauchli gave a mighty stiffarm to the Romney campaign’s mewling about a story on Bain Capital’s fondness for shipping jobs overseas, it was putting some much-deserved rhetorical screws to Scalia. First, liberal Post columnist E.J. Dionne, not known as a bomb-thrower, went all-in on the Court’s reactionary justice. (The no-beating-around-the-bush headline: “Justice Scalia Must Resign.”) Then the Post’s editorial page got into the act, noting that Scalia’s recent “sneer[ing],” “muddled riffs,” and “lapses of judicial temperament,” serve to endanger “the legitimacy of the high court.” Sure, the Post is just playing catch-up to the American people here, but it’s heartening to see nonetheless.

My only fear is that the Roberts Court’s ruling on Obamacare will lull the press back into complacency. But to dismiss Scalia’s increasingly political approach to jurisprudence as the mere rantings of an often-harmless eccentric Justice is to underestimate his broader influence—which he exerts even in cases where he’s in the minority. Scalia is playing to win a long game in the Court in an almost unprecedented way, and which no liberal Justice is trying to match. For the media to go back to blithely ignoring this is to for it be asking to be caught by surprise once again, when, for example, the “Constitution in Exile” folks start taking on the policies of the New Deal. Perhaps most ominously, Scalia has one particular fan whose appreciation for his judicial style could end up re-aligning this nation’s social compact forever. His name? Mitt Romney.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Affordable Care vs., um, Nothing

My new Think Again column is called “Fearmaking, Then and Now.” It was inspired by all the time I spend watching TCM and it’s here.

Kinky Friedman in Concert
I caught one of the twenty-five shows Kinky Friedman is doing in twenty-six days on his current “BiPolar” tour at the always raucous Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend. It was my first Kinky show ever, but I assume most of them are like this one. He plays the old hits (“Sold American,” “They Sure Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus…,” “Asshole from El Paso”), tells some of the worst and most tasteless jokes imaginable, and reads from his latest book. That last part, which turned out to be about his dad, was actually deeply moving. And the shtick, well, it’s a matter of taste. It works better with lots of alcohol—I think Kinky thinks so too, since he was hawking tequila from the stage. Having had a little too much Grey Goose myself, I can’t remember the name of his opener, who was pretty good, but I do remember the woman called Dr. Love, who is apparently an alternative medicinist of some type, but also a terrific singer who accompanies herself on ukulele. She really should have an actual musical career of her own. (The song she sang, which she wrote, was pretty good too.) And yes, while they sure don’t make Jews like Kinky anymore, that’s OK: one is plenty. And he was a friend of Molly’s, so that’s good too. His site is here. (I’ll be seeing my new doppelgänger, Southside Johnny, there this weekend and the great David Bromberg the next.)

Now here’s Reed:

Batten Down the Hatches—the Obamacare Media Storm Is Coming
by Reed Richardson

It’s no secret—the media love a good hurricane.

OK, maybe members of the press don’t really love the whole devastation-and-potential-loss-of-life parts of it. (Although, at times, one kind of has to wonder about this guy.) Still, there’s no denying that a hurricane’s slow-to-develop, varying-in-intensity and stubbornly hard-to-predict nature is practically tailor-made for today’s Twitter-fied and event-packaged news cycles. What’s more, the drama surrounding a major storm making landfall has an almost refreshingly real, newsworthy quality to it in a media landscape otherwise awash in mindless manufactured debates and breathless obsessions over the minutiae of the day.

Of course, just because hurricanes, heat waves and blizzards lack any ideological affiliation doesn’t mean that weather and climate coverage can’t or shouldn’t be viewed through a political prism. Reporting on how our government prioritizes funding for disaster preparedness and plans for climate change are perfectly legitimate, even if the counterproductive and absurd solutions proposed by a certain political party seldom are. Sometimes, however, the public gets nakedly partisan spin—for example, the specious schoolyard logic behind recent right-wing news memes such as “Snowmageddon” and “Snowpocalypse.” (Funny how that same reasoning didn’t occasion wall-to-wall Fox News chyrons decrying “Droughtastations” and “Heat Tsunamis” this past spring.)

Right now, the American public is sitting in the quiet eye of another momentous oncoming storm: the Supreme Court’s imminent Obamacare ruling (which, according to the this Court-tracking blog, is likely to arrive next Monday or Thursday). And though this event is wholly man-made, the two-year build-up, swirling intensity of both supporters and opponents, and difficult-to-pinpoint outcome promises to unleash a similar hurricane-force level of news coverage.

I say "difficult to pinpoint," and it is—if you want to an excellent analysis of the many different scenarios that might play out, check out Jonathan Cohn. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t already have a good idea of what broad ideological grounds the Roberts Court’s ruling will land upon. (And while I appreciate the optimism, Nancy, I just don’t trust your vote-counting skills with these jokers.) For, if the oral arguments weren’t enough of a giveaway, and Scalia and Ginsburg’s public comments since then didn’t clear it up, the intellectual contortionism the former displays in his new book should all but end the uncertainty:

Justice Scalia writes, for instance, that he has little use for a central precedent the Obama administration has cited to justify the health care law under the Constitution’s commerce clause, Wickard v. Filburn.


Justice Scalia’s treatment of the Wickard case had been far more respectful in his judicial writings. In the book’s preface, he explains (referring to himself in the third person) that he “knows that there are some, and fears that there may be many, opinions that he has joined or written over the past 30 years that contradict what is written here.” Some inconsistencies can be explained by respect for precedent, he writes, others “because wisdom has come late.”

Methinks the “wisdom” he speaks of coming late here is something much more mundane. Since the 2005 Gonzalez v. Raich case, where Scalia came out as a firm believer in a strong commerce clause, the Court’s dynamic has tipped noticeably in favor of conservatives thanks to Justice Samuel Alito replacing the much more moderate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. And lest you think Scalia has any judicial self-respect left, he goes a step further, writing that he “does not swear that the opinions that he joins or writes in the future will comply with what is written here.” We’ve got the majority now, in other words, so you ain’t seen nothing yet.

That the news media make little to nothing of such blatant ideological signaling on the part of a Supreme Court justice is troubling. But not surprising, I guess. From the get-go, the press bungled the coverage of healthcare reform, focusing too much on process and horse-race stories, ignoring the policy aspects of the bill, and letting the right-wing distort and hijack the language of the debate. As this Pew Research Center study reminded us once again this week, it was not a proud moment for our nation’s press. From the original 2010 report:

A study of the concepts and rhetoric that found their way into the media narrative from June 2009 through March 2010 revealed that the opponents’ leading terms appeared almost twice as frequently (about 18,000 times) as the supporters’ top terms (about 11,000 times.) Boiled down to its essence, the opponents’ attack on big government resonated more in the media than the supporters’ attack on greedy insurance firms.

Forgive me if I’m not confident the press will do any better the second time around in avoiding superficial, who-wins/who-loses horse-race coverage, since the Court’s decision will come amidst a presidential campaign in full swing. (Here, at least, Politico is completely upfront about it.) I expect we’ll also see a lot of media and pundit hay being made about how a partial or total unraveling of the Affordable Care Act is in keeping with public opinion, in which a majority has consistently favored overturning the law since its passage two years ago. Likely lost in the "Obama is rebuked" deluge, however, will be a number of more nuanced metrics that don’t make for such an easy analysis of Obamacare and what Americans truly think about it. For instance:

Obamacare was not a "job killer"

Most small businesses like Obamacare

If Obamacare disappears, people still want healthcare reform, and they want it now.

That last point should be of particular interest to the press, because it is abundantly clear that the champions of overturning Obamacare still have no serious plan to replace it anytime soon. This is partly because Obamacare is, at its essence, a policy co-opted from Republicans. And it’s no doubt a bridge too far to hope the media would go back and dig into leftover Republican alternative proposals like “selling insurance across state lines” and “medical malpractice reform.” If they did, they might discover what these proposals really are: policy red herrings that, at best, would have a negligible effect on rising healthcare costs and, at worst, would send consumer and employer expenses spiraling upward (along with healthcare companies’ profits, I might add).

The simple but inconvenient truth is that, whatever happens next week, the GOP’s central plan for healthcare reform remains the same: do nothing. Indeed, for right-wing conservatives like Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock and others, the idea that we should return to the status quo, where a pre-existing condition could make you practically unemployable and wreck you financially, is no big deal.

“Does that employer have the right [not to offer coverage for cancer]? I would say yes they do if they want to keep their health care costs down but it also means it’s less likely you’re going to want to work here. If that employer wants to get the best employees coming in the door he’s going to offer the best insurance possible.”

That Mourdock later explains he wouldn't personally support such a move would be cold comfort to the millions of Americans who could once again find their lives permanently upended by an unforeseen health crisis. (Not for nothing, but Mourdock probably owes Rand Paul a first-edition copy of Atlas Shrugged or something for repurposing Paul’s faux-compassionate libertarian shtick on racial discrimination.) And what of those employees who make the stupid mistake of getting cancer after they're already working for a company that chooses not to cover it? Mourdock, conveniently, doesn’t say, but I suspect his answer would be heavy on soaring words like “freedom,” “personal responsibility” and “marketplace,” and light on more pedestrian terms like “forgoing treatment,” “skyrocketing emergency room expenses” and “medical bankruptcy.”

This is perhaps the most important role the press has to play next week and in the weeks that follow: explaining the very real impact that striking down part or all of Obamacare would have on the millions of actual Americans who don’t exist inside the Beltway bubble. Whether it’s college graduates who still can’t find a job and need insurance through their parents, or entrepreneurs who for the first time would be able to purchase care for their employees through a small-business health exchange, or those people (like me) with a loved one who has survived a serious illness such as cancer, which prompts an employer to eliminate that pricey coverage, the Court’s ruling next week deserves much more scrutiny than simply a craven list of political winners and losers and campaign-trail stories packed with dueling soundbites.

Successfully scalping Obama’s landmark achievement will have consequences that reach far beyond his latest standing in the polls or even his prospects in November, and the public needs to see what they are. To allow the notion that this Court ruling against Obamacare is a mere one-off would be tragic; it is, in fact, part of a larger orchestrated campaign by conservatives to redefine our country.

Sadly, I fear that on this most important point, the media will fail yet again to live up to their duty. But it doesn’t have to be this way—for all the hits and misses in their weather coverage, the one thing news organizations can’t be accused of is willfully ignoring the costly, destructive impact that natural disasters leave in their wake. There’s a lesson to be learned here for the rest of the news media's coverage. When the Roberts Court’s Obamacare hurricane finally hits next week, the press needs to stick with the story until all the initial hot air and flood of opinions are gone, to really see what’s left of our democracy.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Poor Boys and Pilgrims

My new Think Again column is called “Government by (and for) Murdoch” and it’s here.

This came out this week, too: “Eric Alterman often ends up the reasonable man in the room. He wears the label “liberal” in full view, but he brings integrity to his positions and confronts his opponents with intellectual honesty. One of the nation’s foremost media critics and a trained historian, he has insightfully diagnosed a chief malaise of contemporary journalism: it’s ignorance of American history. So who better than to acquit liberalism while pulling together a history of its development since Franklin Delano Roosevelt?"

—From the review of The Cause in America (the National Catholic Weekly), June 4-1, 2012, 19-24

Also this fine review in Democracy by Eric Rauchway.

Paul Simon, Graceland 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition Box Set
This deluxe box set will get you lots of bonus tracks (a second CD of them, actually), a concert DVD and video clips from Saturday Night Live and the like, the documentary film Under African Skies (which is also available on Blu-ray separately), a big deluxe book featuring unreleased photos, new liner notes and a replica of Paul Simon's handwritten lyrics pad. The not-quite-deluxe version, for a fraction of the price, will get you the original album, some demos and the documentary. Almost everybody loves this album and it’s not hard to justify the treatment, but the excessiveness of the box is obviously a matter of taste. Many fanatical types will have bits and pieces of the package already, including the 1987 concert film. What can one say? It was a masterpiece when it was released and it remains pretty great today. Amazon’s got some exclusive versions too, so take a look over there.

Heart, Strange Euphoria box set, three CDs, one DVD
There sure have been a lot of Heart “best of's.” This one, curated by Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson, is a mixture of hits, rarities, demos and live performances. Strange Euphoria consists of three CDs and one DVD, though some of the biggest hits are included not in their original versions but in demos or live versions, indicating that this is directed toward people who already have the basics. Personally I think “Magic Man” is one of the greatest rock songs ever, up there with Free’s “All Right Now” as a kind of ur-’70s guitars-and-vocals masterpiece. Anyway, most of the best-of's ended before Heart started up again and did their side and solo projects, and this one collects bits and pieces from everything. The DVD provides a fifty-five-minute live performance recorded in 1976 at Washington State University's television station, KWSU, and the sound quality is not bad at all.

Now here’s Reed.

Plugging the Leak, but Missing the Boat
by Reed Richardson

Forgive me if I find all the current Capitol Hill hyperventilating about leaks to the press of Obama administration foreign policy as little more than just pious posturing. Leaking secrets, after all, is an essential part of human nature—the bigger they are, the more they make demands upon our psyches that we share them with someone. Indeed, I’d wager that only a few moments after Moses came down from Mount Sinai, “senior Israelite officials” or “sources close to the prophet” were already leaking a couple of the juiciest Commandments to the crowd. And in this scenario, I can’t help but imagine the inevitable New York Post front page as something like:


More rules ‘from G-d’ to come

Also: Dick Morris on why this is good news for the Pharaoh

While not exactly on par with biblical Revelations, the recent insider-laden news accounts of the Obama administration’s drone strike “kill list,” cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and double-agent sabotaging of a planned terrorist strike in Yemen are nonetheless revelations of a rather large scale for the purposes of our earthly democracy. Yet in Washington, a lamentable bipartisanship has formed around the idea that more oversight is needed on the leakers than on the disturbing details being leaked. The messages get ignored, in other words, while Congress expends all of its energy trying to shoot the messengers.

Of course, this being a year evenly divisible by four, the motive behind much of this ostentatious outrage on the other side of the aisle is easily identifiable. Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, certainly isn’t about to let a chance for hyperbole slip by him. So he’ll see your outing-of-a-clandestine-agent and selectively-declassified-memos-to-defend-the-rationale-for-war leaks from the Bush administration and counter by going all in rhetorically: “This is 100 times the magnitude of [the Plame affair] and somebody needs to pay a price for this crime.”

Likewise, there’s Texas Senator John Cornyn, who had this to say in 2005 as the Plame scandal swirled around Bush adviser Karl Rove:

“In their eagerness to smear the president and his administration, it has become increasingly clear that the president's opponents jumped out way too far, way too fast,” Mr. Cornyn said in a statement, adding, “I hope that the embarrassing antics will stop, but I'm not convinced they will.”

Seven years later, Cornyn seems to have changed his mind about the dangers of jumping to conclusions, embarrassing antics and claims of conspiratorial tactics:

“It’s all politics, all the time, at the Department of Justice,” Cornyn says. “Now that they’re in cover-up mode, they’re hiring Obama-campaign volunteers to look into the leaks.” […] Cornyn, along with Senator John McCain of Arizona, attempted to introduce legislation that calls for an outside counsel to investigate the leaks. […] He’ll push similar legislation to the floor in the coming days—and he is willing, he says, if necessary, to hold up the Senate’s business to get a vote.

For Cornyn, Rogers and others like them, the real objection to these leaks during a presidential election year can be boiled down to this line in the National Journal: “Republicans, in particular, worry that the leaks are politically motivated to make President Obama look good.” The irony here has to be pretty galling to Republicans (and a source of ever-lasting chagrin for liberals), since leaking confidential "war on terror" details to protect and burnish a sitting president’s foreign policy credentials was so clearly the previous president’s thing. For the current administration to think that leaking the same kind of macho details to make Obama look good as well is a testament to how far off track our national security policy really is.

And let’s not kid ourselves: the Obama administration is trying to get away with having its top-secret cake and leaking it too, as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf explains in his smart take:

[Congress] ought to be insisting that Obama stop taking advantage of a double-standard, whereby he gets to say what he wants about state secrets while people who think differently are stifled.

Instead, Senators Feinstein and McCain and others seem determined to resolve the double-standard in the other direction. They want to stop the leaks that, semi-propagandistic as they often are, account for much of the information Americans have about what their government is doing abroad. This despite the fact that there is no evidence that these leaks have harmed national security.

Here Friedersdorf identifies yet another constituency in this drama, one whose outrage isn’t nakedly political but more structural in nature. Along with folks like Feinstein, McCain and independent Senator Joe Lieberman, one can also count Republican Senator Lindsey Graham as part of this clearly-missing-the-damn-point crowd:

“I’m glad that we have a targeted assassination program against terrorists trying to kill us all, but I’m not sure we need to read blow by blow how it’s done,” Graham said. “I cannot imagine this can continue much longer without seriously undermining our national security.”

One would be hard-pressed to find a better distillation of the national security state mindset that now dominates so much of our political discourse. For his part, Graham rarely sees a foreign policy saber without feeling the need to rattle it. So the fact that the “this” he is so soberly referring to here is not our nation’s policy of global, executive branch death-dealing from 10,000 feet is not much of a shock. Instead, from Graham's upside-down worldview, the greater long-term threat to our national security comes from someone somewhere within the government talking to the media about a drone strike program that, next to the fact that pro wrestling is fixed, is perhaps the worst-kept secret in the world.

Friedersdorf, again, nails the absurdity of it all:

Especially when it comes to the drone program, it's hard to understand how acknowledging something the whole world already knows, classified or not, makes us less safe. In contrast, ample evidence exists that the classified status of the drone strikes makes it more difficult for Congress to debate the issue, for informed bureaucrats to criticize it, or for civil liberties groups to litigate it.

He does leave one other group out of this drama, perhaps intentionally—the press. As we saw after the Times drone strike story broke in late May, the rest of the Beltway media more or less absorbed the article, looked to the usual partisans for a response and, finding little, swiftly moved on. (The conventional wisdom-setting Sunday news shows mostly ignored the story.)

That the press remains broadly uninterested in re-examining the larger implications of these leaks is predictable, since the objective framing of the drone story and others has now coalesced around focusing on the medium and not the message. One can no doubt expect breathless coverage throughout the summer of contentious Senate hearings in search of the sources of these leaks, with nary a mention in the press of why Congress isn’t spending any time debating the administration’s actual drone strike policy.

What’s more, it’s cowardly for the media to stand idly by as one of their key methods of gathering information from a increasingly secretive government is put through the rhetorical wringer. Yes, anonymous leaks to the press are, without question, a kind of Faustian bargain for journalists. All too often, the press—and, by extension, the public—gets a raw deal from the arrangement, trading little in the way of new information in return for being blindly fed a big, precooked political talking point. As the credulous, sometimes fawning tone of the drone program and cyberattack stories made apparent, even the New York Times can still fall victim to letting administration leaks too heavily influence the narrative, despite naïve protestations to the contrary.

 Still, there are times when leaks are the best—or only—means for shaking out the truth. Granted, the press must weigh the gravity of what it learns and the motives of its sources against the public’s right to know what its government is doing. Rare is the case, though, where legitimate national security concerns merit holding off publication. A long exposé about the inner workings of a legally dubious drone strike assassination program that everyone already knows about certainly isn’t worthy of such protection. Nor is it worthy of a Congressional wild goose chase to find the sources that leaked it. And the press shouldn’t blink from pointing all this out, lest it run the risk of missing the bigger story—just like the rest of Washington.


Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa


Two quick points:

1. Reed is always great. Why he is stuck over at Touchpoint Media doing nefarious "executive" editing, I don't know. (Yes, I did a Google search.)

2. Don't you think these Nation Cruises are kind of creepy? I for one do not want to see how John Nichols chews his food. Don't the staff worry about being in a confined space with people who are interested in Nichols's digestive system?

Reed replies:
As to your first comment, I can only respond by saying that whatever magic cosmic truth I uncover or fundamental ontological riddles I try to solve here, I do what I do five days a week somewhere else for same reason Crash Davis decides to play out the season for the Asheville Tourists in Bull Durham.

Regarding your second point, I’d just say that I attended a Nation Cruise in 2004 while an intern for the magazine and, yes, there was definitely a Matthew 9:20-22 element among the cruisers (or the “lefties at sea,” as Calvin Trillin humorously calls them in this video interview). And you can’t overlook the self-interested, fiduciary benefit the magazine gets from the cruise—which was $750 a head the year I attended, according to this story. But as I recall Victor Navasky tenderly pointing out to the cruising staffers before we all embarked, many of the cruisers we would meet are from places in this nation where, sadly, liberals are few and far between. This cruise was that (rare) chance for them to meet and interact with like-minded people. And that, there is nothing wrong with, I think.

More mail:
Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada

This will veer in a couple of directions. First, on Reed's post, why should we expect the Washington Post to publish a logical columnist? I'm surprised they haven't fired E.J. Dionne for making sense. The Post's main requirement in columnists in recent years has been to use only those who ignore reality.

As to Dr. A., I am glad that he rightly points out the wrongheadedness of ignoring culture in connection with liberalism, and I have a classic example from his and my profession. I have a friend and colleague who wrote an article about the importance to the civil rights movement of the artist Ben Shahn. It was very detailed and thoughtful. The response from a history journal? It's "art history." No, it was the history of an artist involved in making history. But tell that to those who already have decided that art is just something you look at on a museum wall and discuss only the colors and textures.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Walker Wins, Money Shouts

My new Think Again column is called “When Labor Unions Were at the Center of Politics” and it’s here.

My Nation column is called “Show Us the Money” and it’s here.

I did a Daily Beast piece for Tuesday morning called “The Downside of Obama’s Decision to Skip Wisconsin” here.

I just finished listening to Robert Caro’s fourth volume of the Lyndon Johnson biography. Having listened to the entire thing on audio, as well as The Power Broker, I believe I hold what would be the Guiness Book of World Records’ record for most time spent listening to a single author by a single individual if there were such a category. Anyway I would like to second this praise for its reader, Grover Gardner, whom I used to see perform at the Source Theater and elsewhere in Washington back when I was still a young man with hopes and dreams. I also wanted to recommend Jeff Himmelman’s nicely nuanced and balanced book on Ben Bradlee called Yours in Truth since it’s gotten slagged in a bunch of places. Himmelman probably made a mistake in allowing New York magazine to make such a big deal over a non-story regarding Woodward and Bradlee which has confused the reception of the project but authors—particularly first-time authors—are desperate for any attention these days and this kind of thing is hard to turn down. Anyway here are some letters.

I also wanted to say something nice about John Cheever. I went to a lovely evening in honor of his 100th birthday at the 92nd street Y a few weeks ago and there’s this nice blog post in The New Yorker (here) but the Library of America version of the collected stories and novels is truly something anyone who loves literature will love to read for decades to come. I’m amazed that Cheever has fallen out of fashion among English professors, and cannot begin to explain it.

My letter to the Times about my book review about The Cause is below. I feel silly kvetching too much. It was a sympathetic assigment by the editors and the Times does a much better job of covering important books than any other institution. Still, it’s deeply annoying to spend eight years on a book and then have it misinterpreted before far more people than will ever see the book. In addition to my primary complaint, which I describe in the letter, it’s fair to say that Sheshol, a professional political speech writer as well as the author of two well-regarded political histories, does not understand the importance of culture to the history of liberalism. He objects to the amount of space devoted to writers and artists, without noticing that cultural liberalism has proven, in recent decades, to be far more powerful and successful than political (or economic) liberalism. What he terms “randomness” in my choices reflects attempts to represent this power, not to argue that Oliver Stone was more important Walter Reuther. (Book reviews by arithmetic are wrong-headed by definition.) Finally, he intends the word “pontilist” as a criticism. But since this is the only time in my life I expect to be compared to George Seurat, I’m afraid don’t mind at all.

‘The Cause’
Published: May 31, 2012
To the Editor:

I found myself nodding in understanding, if not exactly agreement, with many of Jeff Shesol’s criticisms of “The Cause” (May 20), right up until the end, where I actually failed to recognize the argument he attributed to me as my own. Indeed, it is the opposite of what I believe.

Shesol does not take issue with any of the specific points I make about policies and positions adopted by recent Democratic presidential candidates, successful and unsuccessful, but concludes nevertheless that “taken together, they reflect a contempt for compromise.” Yet one paragraph later he correctly notes that Senator Edward Kennedy is “one of the heroes of this book.” As Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is surely aware, no liberal in the past half-century was better known for his ability to compromise with the other side — including the most conservative of Republicans — than Ted Kennedy.

As for the candidates (and presidents) to whom Shesol refers, none of them, including especially Clinton, were willing to embrace the liberal label. By equating “Democrat” with “liberal,” Shesol is buying into the belief, pushed by conservatives but too often adopted unthinkingly by members of the media, that anyone who does not define himself as a conservative is by definition a “liberal.” The purpose of this is to marginalize genuine liberals from responsible discourse regardless of the efficacy or popularity of their ideals.

In any case, in my critiques of the actions of Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama, all of whom campaigned as considerably more liberal than they governed, I am not taking issue with the notion of compromise. Rather, I sought to address the relative weakness of liberalism within a political system that has increasingly governed by the power of money, media manipulation and political dysfunction instead of the democratic desires of its citizens.

To be clear, I think compromise and cooperation to be essential aspects of all successful politics. At the same time, I believe it to be wise for political leaders of all stripes to give voice to the values and beliefs that guide their behavior before sitting down at the table to do the deal. In recent times, the careers of Senator Kennedy and of the former New York governor Mario Cuomo — to name just two — offer eloquent testimony to the respect one can garner from voters who may or may not share those values for a statesman willing to speak his or her mind in unambiguous terms on the one hand, and to compromise as necessary when the right moment arrives. Contemporary liberals might learn a great deal from their examples, and I hope others, illustrated in “The Cause.”

New York

Now here’s Reed, who is particularly good this week, as Chuck Lane’s anti-liberal screeds in the Post have provided regular annoyance of late to those who are forced to pay attention to such things. And let us say a small word of thanks that liberal-hating will no longer be a qualification for the job of editor of The New Republic.

Charles Lane: Pundit with a Capital "D"
by Reed Richardson

As befits a high profile, highly charged political campaign culminating in early June—normally the wasteland of the electoral calendar—the days following the Wisconsin recall have occasioned a torrent of post-election spin. But amongst all the conservatives spiking the football and liberals searching for a silver lining, only the Washington Post’s Charles Lane unleashed a ridiculous scolding about how we “frenz[ied]” members of the left should nonetheless be pleased, not in spite of, but precisely because of Tuesday’s outcome. To wit: “The progressives who are mourning Walker’s win should be celebrating instead.”

This notion is patently ridiculous and whom, exactly, Lane thinks will buy this precious conclusion, I honestly can’t say. Nor can he, I’d wager. But then again, I believe that Lane wasn’t really trying to convince progressives they should reexamine their views of Walker, who has demonstrated nothing but contempt for them and every principle they hold dear since his coming into office. So, let’s call his column’s ginned-up outrage, sneering tone, transparent concern trolling, and careful eliding of salient facts what it really is—douchebag punditry.

Now, I realize this term doesn’t exactly elevate our discourse. But damned if it’s more common cultural definition doesn’t fit Lane’s shtick pretty comfortably. Let me be clear. I’m never met Lane and maybe, in person, he’s a pleasant, reasonable guy. Certainly, he has some sense of moral compass since his most famous moment in journalism was, while editor of the New Republic, to fully expose Stephen Glass as a world-class liar and fabulist. (Another notable, less auspicious claim to fame during his tenure, however, was when he openly gushed: “I know it shouldn't be happening, but it is. I'm falling for John McCain.”) But all this doesn’t change the fact that since moving to the Post’s editorial page three years ago, he’s become a regular dispenser of pugnacious, patronizing editorial smackdowns.

To be sure, Lane takes great pains in trying to be an equal opportunity offender, training his fire across the ideological spectrum. But that these commentaries are unmoored from any fixed partisan point doesn’t make them any less obnoxious or misleading. Indeed, at least other Post op-ed writers, who work from an unambiguous political agenda (like, say, electing Mitt Romney president), offer readers a sense of what they’re all about. But to be a regular purveyor of Lane’s opinion pieces is to encounter an unmistakably arch sense of both-sides-do-it righteousness, of cynicism for cynicism’s sake, and of a context-be-damned mindset. He may not be a douchebag, in other words, but he sure writes like one.

For example, Lane has inexplicably joined with many from the right in developing a longstanding personal vendetta against the Chevy Volt. Evidently, he sees the car as some kind of insidious elitist gimmick, worthy of multiple rhetorical kicks in the fender. Back in March, he went so far as to assail liberals for ignoring the “scientific facts” about alternative energy in their support of the Volt, but then, in almost the same snide breath, he spit out this wholly unsubstantiated claim: “Oh, and how are you supposed to resell your electric vehicle once you’ve driven it five years and the battery is depleted?” It presumably fell to his editor to cut the word “sucker!” from end of this sentence.

Still, Lane’s smugness would be justified if these batteries were nothing more than giant bricks after five years, but they’re not. Why else would GM,Toyota, Nissan, and almost every other major manufacturer of electric and hybrid vehicles—who presumably aren’t in the business of giving away expensive replacement parts for free—offer battery warranties of eight years? And there’s more where this came from, as the malleable logic he employs elsewhere in his preening arguments against alternative energy melts pretty quickly under the hot lights of this throrough rebuttal in Slate.

But latching onto an issue and doggedly not letting go, no matter how untenable the underlying reasoning is a common Lane tactic. Coincidentally, something about Wisconsin’s people-powered uprising has stuck in Lane’s craw and stayed there as well.

For instance, just a few weeks into Walker’s term in 2011, Lane began cranking out blog posts decrying the “tyranny” of public union members protesting the potential loss of their collective bargaining rights and of Democratic legislators walking out of the state Capitol when the Republicans railroaded bills through using legislative gamesmanship. The capper, though, was when Lane tastelessly tried to shoehorn Rep. Gabrielle Giffords—still in a coma just a few weeks after being shot in the head—into the debate as a hypothetical mouthpiece for his anti-liberal screed:

If the brave Gabrielle Giffords could speak normally, what would she say about these events? I hope she would agree with me: This is a sad moment for liberalism, for the Democratic Party, and, really, for the whole country.

The callous self-regard on display here—to presume to speak for someone who literally cannot because they’re fighting for their life—is staggering and surely places itself firmly in the pantheon of high douchebaggery.

A year later, Lane was chewing on Wisconsin Democrats again, proclaiming how Walker was “fighting a good fight” against the “threat” of public union collective bargaining, which “is inherently contrary to majority rule.” He even trotted out the old “both sides of the table” canard about the supposed unchecked power public unions have in negotiating their salary and benefits, a favorite talking point of conservatives (and some of the usual suspects on the left). Lane then tries to land a 180-degree twist of logic by positing that public-sector collective bargaining essentially steals money from other progressive priorities, like education, parks, and aid for the poor. Yet he completely ignores the real policy effects of Walker’s agenda, which would gut these very same programs in service of shoveling more money at the rich.

This week, Lane reprised many of these same flawed points and, once again, omitted those inconvenient facts that didn’t conform to his viewpoint. In the lead-up to his aforementioned fictional finale, he follows a time-tested dodge of implicitly linking public-sector unions to the state’s financial budget problems.

Walker’s reforms ended that. Now, elected officials across the state can actually set work rules and pay rates with their constituents’ interests as the clear top priority.

In short, government in Wisconsin is now not only sounder fiscally than it was pre-Walker, but also more accountable and transparent. Politicians can use resources for parks, libraries, schools and roads instead of perks for politically connected unions.

Frankly, there’s a lot here that’s d-bag worthy. First off, Lane is incredibly deceptive to imply that Walker’s reforms “ended” all public union collective bargaining in the state. More like “selected punished” because, as anyone from Wisconsin could tell you, Walker serendipitously exempted from his principled “reforms” those public-sector unions—like law enforcement and firefigthers—who supported his initial bid for election. As fellow Postcolleague Ezra Klein observes, “Funny, that.” In fact, this shameless political cronyism on the part of Walker gives the lie to the biggest falsehood behind his anti-union push, which Lane seamlessly pivots to next: that rolling back union negotiation power was necessary to repair the state’s red-ink budget.

But don’t just take my word that it’s not true, listen to Gov. Walker himself, who acknowledged as much in a 2011 exchange before a Congressional panel.

“How much money does it save Gov. Walker?” [Rep. Dennis] Kucinich demanded. “Just answer the question.”

“It doesn't save any,” Walker said.

“That's right. It obviously had no effect on the state budget,” Kucinich replied.

Kucinich said it was clear the attack on collective bargaining rights was a choice and not a fiscal issue. “It's a political issue,” he said.

What’s more, the presence of a healthy public-sector union doesn’t have any correlation with a state’s recent budget problems either. But this reality makes it much harder for Walker (and Lane) to scapegoat public workers as selfish and greedy. And as for all those “resources” that Lane cheers as being freed from grubby union hands? Well, the state’s heralded public university system and state Medicaid program certainly won’t be seeing any of them anytime soon.

Still, all of these intellectual transgressions are but venal sins when compared to Lane’s cardinal sin of enthusiastically embracing the increasingly pay-to-play climate of a post-­Citizens United democracy. Dripping with sarcasm, Lane can’t help but snicker at Democratic complaints of being overwhelmed by outside corporate money in the recall election to a tune of ten to one.

But Walker bought the election with corporate money from out of state! Of all the excuses being offered today, this is the most pathetic. Of course Walker exploited existing state campaign-finance law to raise as much money as possible wherever he could. What the heck did his opponents expect him to do? Unilaterally disarm?

The unions and Wisconsin Democrats knew the rules. If they didn’t want Walker to bring a financial gun to their knife fight, they shouldn’t have started it in the first place.

Heck, what I find truly pathetic is any columnist at a national newspaper being so willing to accept that our country’s franchise might soon be at the mercy of the highest bidder. Don’t have the luxury of a few mega-wealthy benefactors backing your campaign? Well, hard cheese, as they say in Wisconsin. Maybe we could save taxpayers the cost of having regularly scheduled elections in the first place, that is, if more than one candidate can’t demonstrate having access to big enough “financial guns?” At this rate, how long will it be before our small “d” democracy turns into a branded, capital “D” Democracy™?

So, the fact that Lane would look back at the recall and conclude Walker’s oligarchic-fueled victory was the side “upholding democratic values,” while middle-class teachers and government employees represented an unholy alliance of “special interests” worthy of defeat is downright frightening. Come to think of it, I think it merits upgrading my earlier assessment of his punditry—to capital “D” status.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Never Drone Alone…

CSPAN II will air bookstore talk of mine on The Cause Sunday at 7, more here. That’s all for now. Here’s Reed.

Droning On, Drowning Out
by Reed Richardson

As it happens, three generations of Richardsons spent this past Memorial Day at the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum on Manhattan’s West Side. Mostly this was to please my father, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and Vietnam veteran, who has a thing for military history, but I can’t deny that my two toddler-age sons enjoyed the experience of being on a ship that was big enough to hold dozens of airplanes. Still, it ended up being a rather swelteringly hot day and after a few hours it became clear that both grandpa and grandsons were ready to head back to Jersey from whence we all came.

On the way out, though, we had to pass by several temporary displays—read recruiting tools—set up by marines in town for Fleet Week. Notable to me was that every one of these glitzy, high-tech displays focused on some new piece of unmanned materiel in the arsenal, from GUSS—essentially a robotic, off-road golf-cart (yes, you read that right)—to the Shrike VTOL—a poster-sized drone reconnaissance helicopter that a young enlisted marine was showing off to everyone with the beaming pride of a brand-new father. After a heavy dose of the very personal tales of the U.S.S. Intrepid’s pilots and crew as well as the kamikaze attacks they endured, the juxtaposition of these new, standoff tools of war struck me as a jarring contrast.

All this is to say that I already had drones on my mind when, mere hours later, two significant news stories about our nation’s top-secret drone-strike policy rolled out into public view. I say rolled out because it’s apparent that these lengthy pieces of reporting enjoyed both the blessing and cooperation of Obama administration. For example, this Newsweek article, by Daniel Klaidman, just so happens to be an excerpt from an upcoming inside-the-White-House book on this very topic that, coincidentally, comes out next week. And while the exhaustive New York Times account doesn’t seem to have grown out of such long-term insider access, one has to be pretty naïve to think that the two bylined reporters would have been able to interview three dozen of Obama’s current and former national security advisers without the White House’s help.

As such, it’s not surprising that, at times, both of these stories read more like campaign trail talking points—portraying a president carefully weighing decisions between life and death, national security and public safety. Even in those rare occasions when the reporters lift back the veil a tiny bit and make an oblique acknowledgement that the White House might have its own less than pure motivations for this getting this story out, there’s still a noticeable whiff of deference to authority. For instance, here Klaidman tries to push back against the political stagecraft but instead appears to fall for a different White House narrative hook, line, and Hellfire missile:

In this overheated election season, Obama’s campaign is painting a portrait of a steely commander who pursues the enemy without flinching. But the truth is more complex, and in many ways, more reassuring. The president is not a robotic killing machine. The choices he faces are brutally difficult, and he has struggled with them—sometimes turning them over in his mind again and again. The people around him have also battled and disagreed. They’ve invoked the safety of America on the one hand and the righteousness of what America stands for on the other.

This is, simply put, bullshit. This kind of gauzy profiling of any president—regardless of party—only serves to gloss over the very real, constitutional problems of undertaking such a violent, secretive policy and the very real, long-term geopolitical unrest it is undoubtedly sowing. Klaidman’s insider tick-tock of the president’s evolution on drone killings is informative, yes, but it lacks for any context. For example, you’ll only find one reference to the constitution in Klaidman’s excerpt (that’s to refer to Obama as a “constitutional lawyer”) and you’ll search in vain to find any voice that offers up a reasoned opposition to targeting foreign nationals and American citizens for airstrikes with no due process and often based on vague threat assessments.

The Times piece, on the other hand, takes a much more skeptical look at the president’s “kill list” and provides more startling revelations about the White House’s de facto take-no-prisoners counterterrorism policy and fudging of the numbers on the civilian death toll. Once again, though, the depth of the anecdotal reporting on the administration’s operational and political debates over how to deploy drones and against whom is not matched by a broader look at the policy itself. What passes for deeper critical context of this controversial position arrives in this rather vague paragraph.

Nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record. His actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the president’s own deep reserve.

Good luck hearing from any of those baffled liberals or conservative critics in this purportedly objective piece of reporting, however. The former’s arguments don’t merit including because, well, no doubt they’re dirty f*king hippies like Medea Benjamin, whose shtick can be tiresome but at least she has the stones to confront the administration publicly when no one in the press seems interested in the task. Of course, examples of the conservative critics of the president’s drone strike policy don’t show up in the piece because, frankly, they don’t exist on this issue.

For example, Obama’s general election opponent, Mitt Romney, quietly ignored the Newsweek and Times stories and a search of his election website turns up not one sentence about his foreign policy views on drone strikes. His only recent public discussion of drone strikes appears to be this brief answer from a GOP primary debate six months ago. There, he essentially endorsed current Obama administration policy, saying he would “continue to do that” in Pakistan because the “right people” in that country are “comfortable” with our launching hundreds of Hellfire missiles within their borders and killing dozens–hundreds–who knows(?) how many innocent citizens in the process.

Indeed, you know the bipartisan fix is in when Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, who has demonstrated his willingness to shamelessly demagogue on terrorism, becomes the Beltway’s go-to GOP guy for comment and he comes across sounding like some conciliatory centrist.

But [Chambliss] added that if it is true, as the Times reported on Tuesday, that Obama has ‘embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties,’ then the administration should have briefed the committee on the change in methodology.

Chambliss emphasized that both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have tried to limit civilian deaths.

Amongst the conservative punditocracy, the silent response to the “kill list” was similarly underwhelming. Rich Lowry, over at the National Review’s blog The Corner, finds the Times story “fascinating,” but basically uses long block quotes from it as proof of the president’s personal foibles and avoid giving any of his own insight into or analysis of the merits of the policy itself. Mocking Obama’s supposed presumptuousness, Lowry snarkily concludes, “A program to kill people without due process is just fine, so long as Barack Obama is making the decisions.” But how does Lowry feel about all this extra-judicial, secretly-justified bombing in our country’s name? Eh, he doesn’t bother to say.

Likewise, longtime Obama critic and supposed defender-of-the-constitution Charles Krauthammer took to a Fox News round table discussion to skewer Obama for hypocritically manipulating the press and for killing by proxy through “remote control.” (And in doing so, I must cynically point out that Obama keeps a 44-for-44 streak alive among U.S. Presidents.) And when it came time to judging a drone policy that allowed our commander-in-chief to bomb a U.S. citizen to death in a foreign country with no regard for due process, he pulled no punches. “He’s going around killing people where he’s judge, jury, and executioner,” exclaimed Krauthammer, before drolly conceding, “I’m not against it.”

Oof. When a Democratic president’s actions start making Krauthammer sound insightful and earning his support, it’s time to seriously consider invoking the Groucho Marx rule of not wanting to join any club that would have someone like that as a member.

Only lonely conservative Joe Scarborough seemed to have misgivings about the whole thing, although, again, these concerns were more procedural than philosophical.

I’m just concerned for some reason, it doesn’t seem right taking that into the Oval Office and having the president of the United States specifically responsible. He says he wants to do it for moral reasons, but specifically responsible for pointing to a picture, they say, of one 17-year-old girl saying, “yes, kill her and let’s kill him” and… It sort of made me flinch. It reminds me of LBJ picking up bombing targets during the Vietnam War.

The notion that what amounts to extra-judicial assassination strikes a world away should get even less executive oversight is almost pathological, but at least Scarborough has the common sense to recognize that, contrary to all the shock-and-awe spin, “drone strikes are not precise.” Of course, he also thinks that “beating down doors and shooting people in the head” is better, but a decade of war has also taught us time and again that such widespread tactics, while more precise, aren’t necessarily any more accurate.

Sadly, that this is the extent of GOP political rhetoric raised in objection to Obama’s drone-strike policy likely means that this newsworthy story will die in its infancy, before any real public debate begins in earnest. This is a tragedy, albeit one that is a perfectly logical outcome of a media environment that now requires partisan fuel to fan the flames of any story long enough for it to catch fire with the public. In a presidential election year, this myopia is only magnified, as the political press’s ability to be easily distracted by meaningless ephemera this week clearly demonstrates. Surely, in 10 years, the idiotic, birther rantings of a modern day P.T. Barnum will have long been forgotten, while the repercussions of nebulous “signature strikes” against foreign nationals and secretive kill orders on American citizens will continue to reverberate.

Certainly, the press’s reluctance to follow through on these stories can’t be for a lack of good angles. For example, I’d want to know if Obama summarily fired former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair after just one year on the job because of objection to drone-strike campaign, as opposed to the original storyline fed to the press. To its credit, the Times story does briefly bring in Blair as a voice of dissent—he calls the strike campaign “dangerously seductive”—but it never directly addresses the real reason for his very abrupt departure from the administration. (Blair’s name doesn’t even appear in the Newsweek piece.)

Similarly, an enterprising reporter might want to ask candidate Romney if he’s recently changed his viewpoint on drone strikes to mirror those of the co-chair of his own campaign’s Counterterrorism & Intelligence Working Group, Michael Hayden. Having briefly served as CIA Director under Obama (after three years with President Bush), Hayden appears in Klaidman’s opening vignette, introducing the details of the drone campaign to the brand-new president (and the strike going badly). But in the past few months, Hayden has had a change of heart, first telling the L.A. Times: “This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that's dangerous.” Then, in this week’s Times article, he’s quoted as saying: “I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret [Office of Legal Counsel] memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”

Except, tragically, right now ours is doing exactly that. And with no discernible effort among either party’s politicians to change that fact, closing the margin between what our democracy is doing and what it should be doing is left to the press. Sadly, we saw this week that even its best efforts are often not up to the task.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Don't Think Twice

My new "Think Again" column is called "Think Again: The Conservative War on Knowledge," and you can read it here.

My Nation column is called “All the Media Money Can Buy” and it’s here

My contribution to The Nation's “OpinionNation: A Forum on Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)” can be found here.

This New York Times review of The Cause has some criticisms I can understand but overall it not only fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the project I intended, it attributes to me a view of politics that is exactly the opposite of my own. Naturally, I’m rather disappointed, but I see no conspiracies afoot. In any case, I’ll have a letter in the June 3 issue of the Book Review explaining and will expand a little bit here once that’s printed. In the meantime, I’m rather liking the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle and The American Prospect more than ever. 

I did a debate on the 2012 election with Hugh Hewitt at Pomona College. It was not the most edifying night of my life and I’m told the audio is not so hot, but here it is anyway. 


Paul McCartney RAM Deluxe Edition: 

First, the music. I would say “it’s not bad” but some of it really is. Tossed off, unworthy of release. Not as annoying or cloying of some of the work that came after it—nothing in all music history could compete with “My Love,” though “Silly Love Songs” is close.  Some of it is awfully good, though, and the songs that aren’t, aren’t so bad that you need to fast forward them or risk a headache or anything. “Too Many People,” the anti-John song is pretty great. “Smile Away,” and “Monkberry Moon Delight” are really fun today.  The remastering is fine too. Overall, it’s minor but not awful McCartney and certainly worth having.  If you get this fancy edition, you are, of course, getting a lot more than the album. For instance: there’s also the bonus CD with some songs that it was a pretty good idea to leave off the album. There’s a mono version of the CD and a big band “Thrillington CD” that McCartney did of the album and never (previously own up to).  There’s the DVD and, a beautiful 112-page book of photos Linda took at the time—which justifies a great deal of the price above--along with facsimiles of Paul’s lyric sheets and some other stuff.  It’s a very generous package in a lovely big box. It will thrill any obsessive fan and bring back memories of 1971, for better or worse. You can read all about it here.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time with a newly unearthed live Bill Evans CD recorded at the much-missed Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate, (which is what it’s called) recorded on October 23, 1968. It includes two complete, never before released shows with Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums. Nice package too, with a twenty-eight-page booklet with essays by Nat Hentoff, Gary Burton, Eddie Gomez, Marty Morell, George Klabin and Art D'Lugoff's son Raphael D'Lugoff, and a bunch of photos.

I’ve also been listening to new CDs by Kevin Gordon (“Gloryland,” it’s terrific), Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jack White, the Decembrists, and Loudon Wainwright. I took my mom to Loudon and family last weekend at Town Hall with Suzzy and Lucy Roche, Martha and Sloane and Rufus Wainwright, and some other people. It was a wonderful show, devoted largely to death and decay and the impossibilities of family, based pretty intently on Loudon’s really fun and smart and moving new album “Older than My Old Man Now.” It was the second time in a single week I had seen Suzzy and Lucy; they played a mother’s day show at City Winery Sunday night with Patti Smith and her (quiet, shy) daughter at the piano. That was fun too. Anyway, listen to Loudon sing about his old man, his fear of death, his regrets and his remembrance of sex on the new CD, or read all about it here, or read Old Rick Hertzberg who was sitting behind me and Mom at the show and worked a lot harder on his post than I did on mine, alas…

Now here’s Reed:

Our Dummied-up Discourse
by Reed Richardson
On June 14, 1911, newly elected Wisconsin Congressman Victor Berger spoke for the first time on the House floor. As the first Socialist ever elected to Congress, Berger quickly demonstrated that his approach to his new job would be more about working for the people and less about delivering stem-winding speeches. So, rather than merely offer up empty platitudes to his colleagues or marvel at his grandiose surroundings, Berger’s initial, hour-long address—on, what else, wool tariffs!—quickly showed him to be something of an early twentieth century policy wonk, albeit one with a deft wit:

“If you will bear with me in patience for an hour…I am told that oratory counts for little or nothing in this House—that you want facts…I am very glad of that, because I hope to convince you within 5 minutes that I am not an orator, and within 10 minutes that I have some facts.”

More than a century later, Berger’s rather dour appraisal of the level of Congressional oration continues to ring true. In fact, according to this latest study by the Sunlight Foundation, it has recently sunk to new rhetorical lows. According to the study’s findings, speeches in Congress have dropped a full grade level—from 11.5 to 10.6—in the past seven years. 

At the forefront of this downward verbal charge the study finds a group of first-term, conservative House Republicans, many of whom barely attain an eighth-grade level when speaking on the House floor. The world’s ‘greatest deliberative body,’ meanwhile, doesn’t really live up to its moniker, as only two of the ten highest rated speakers come from the Senate. And while moderate to extremely liberal Democrats all cluster around an 11.5-grade level average, Republicans display a distinctly pronounced rhetorical tilt based on ideology. As a result, GOP moderates tend to have the highest speech levels in Congress (around freshmen college-level) while extreme right-wing Republicans now consistently score the lowest.

So finally some scientific proof—Tea Party types really are know nothings, right? Certainly, that would be a tempting conclusion to draw, but the reasoning behind it is specious, at best. That’s because the analytical tool used by the Sunlight Foundation—the Flesch-Kincaid formula—is merely designed to assess readability, not intellectual probity. Thanks to its heavy emphasis on textual cues like sentence word count and average syllables per word, it can underestimate the intelligence of simply structured syntax, which the spoken word naturally generates. President Obama himself has been criticized (by the usual suspects) for employing similarly plain, straightforward language in all of his State of the Union addresses. As a result, even the study’s authors acknowledge that to say we’re witnessing a ‘dumbing down’ of Congress based on this one metric is not really justified. (Nevertheless, not everyone in the media could resist such a juicy headline, although—surprise, surprise—placing direct blame on the one political party most responsible for the supposed decline remains a bridge too far.)

Instead, the study proposes another possible cause for the change—a shift in Congress’s presumed audience. In an era of C-SPAN and, more importantly, YouTube, some members of Congress could be increasingly viewing floor speeches as proxy stump speeches for public consumption rather than occasions to persuade fellow colleagues. Politicians speaking directly to their constituents, however, tend to rely upon emotional rather than logical arguments and riff extemporaneously on easy-to-grasp, well-worn talking points. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the unmistakable trend in recent Congressional oratory, and in particular that of extreme right-wing Republicans, has gravitated toward that of the average American, who reads at an eighth or ninth-grade level.

Of course, an easy, populist rejoinder these fringe conservatives can offer up in their defense is that their plain-spokenness just demonstrates their anti-elitist bona fides. Indeed, many of them point to Obamacare’s 2,700-page length and textual complexity as Exhibit A of the flawed, government overreach they were sent to Washington to fix. (Yet, one wonders how these same conservatives square the circle with the fact that all of our nation’s founding documents would classify as unquestionably elitist based on their college- and graduate school-level Flesch-Kincaid scores.) Plus, most major newspapers in the ‘liberal media’ currently write at an anywhere from an eleventh to fourteenth-grade level, and goodness knows no self-respecting conservative would want to emulate anything that they do.

This last point is worth expanding upon and highlighting, though. Right now, a large majority of Congress still formally converses using the same range of language complexity as the establishment print media that covers them. The only real outlier group, which is responsible for dragging down the average of the whole body, is this coterie of mostly new, mostly ultra right-wing Republicans, who just so happen to represent the driving force of the GOP right now. True, this band of conservatives doesn’t actually speak a different language than the press or the rest of their Congressional colleagues, but the growing linguistic disconnect between these groups is symbolic of a much larger gap in worldview, one that can’t help but affect their day-to-day interactions.

Hence, when Democrats offer up countless legislative compromises that amount to giving up a lot to get a pittance in return, these right-wing Republican ensure those appeals are roundly rejected. Likewise, when freshman Tea Party Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, who ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the Sunlight study, talks seriously of being willing to shoot the “hostage” (i.e. wreck the economy) in last summer’s debt ceiling fight in order to advance his conservative dogma, he doesn’t get treated as a reckless firebrand by the press. Instead, he and his reactionary pals are characterized as merely engaging in the same kind of political posturing as the president and Democrats, who warned of the grave damage such a move could cause.

That’s why to focus simply on a change in language level in Congress is to miss the forest for the trees. On issue after issue, whether it’s contraception, climate change, health care, financial reform, economic and tax policy, Medicare or Social Security, it’s clear the current Republican Party has become beholden to a rump minority in the House dedicated to advancing the interests of a few rich and powerful institutions at all costs. And time and again, the press has failed to notice that this rock-ribbed incarnation of the GOP not only speaks differently, it thinks differently as well. (Its benefactors, however, are all too familiar.) 

As for those ‘facts’ that Representative Victor Berger spoke of 100 years ago, they’ve now joined eloquent oratory as being an endangered species among the current House majority and more than just our ears are suffering for it. In other words, the dumbing down of the right’s speech isn’t what should concern us most about our political discourse. Instead, it’s the dummying up of their populist rhetoric to mask their extreme conservative agenda.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail (dot) com.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Off to the Horses...

My new “Think Again” column is called “As a Matter of Fact,” and it’s about how easily these alleged “fact-check” organizations can be manipulated into buying into right-wing propgapanda via “On the One-Handism” and you can find it here.

Thanks very much to Jordan Michael Smith for this thoughtful and generous review of The Cause.

I will be talking about liberalism and The Cause at an event sponsored by Demos and The World Policy Institute in lower Manhattan on Thursday, May 23 at 6:00. Further information should you wish to attend is here.

Also, if you want to know what drives me crazy in this world it’s stuff like this:  

From the PolitickerNJ report:

Rep. Bill Pascrell.Rothman proudly and consistently declared himself the progressive in the race. Responding to a question from Bergen Record columnist Charles Stile, the Bergen congressman admitted, “I’m a liberal.”

“ADMITTED? “ Jesus. Is he also a serial rapist and a cannibal?

Now here’s Reed:

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet
by Reed Richardson

To read Jeffrey Toobin’s long dissection of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling in this week’s New Yorker is to come away more than just a little bit saddened and alarmed about the future of our democracy. Thanks to clever Machiavellian maneuvering two years ago, the Roberts Court’s slim conservative majority brazenly tossed aside any notion of stare decisis in active pursuit of its right-wing agenda, radically rewriting campaign finance laws along the way. And as Toobin’s article strongly intimates (but does not say), to believe that, next month, these same five Justices will choose to uphold decades of settled Commerce Clause law rather than strike a partisan blow against this Democratic president’s landmark health-care achievement is to be as guilty of willfully ignoring precedent as the Court itself.  

These fears for our country’s democratic well-being are rooted in more than just a few individual Supreme Court rulings, however radically tilted toward the powerful though they may be. It’s only by putting the Roberts Court’s sharp rightward turn into a broader political context—something the mainstream press routinely fails to do, but the public is starting to—that the true stakes for this November’s elections become clear. Though it may be obvious to us liberals, it nonetheless bears repeating: a Romney victory this November (and the GOP majorities in the both the House and Senate that would likely accompany it) would mean that conservatives will have now firmly gained control over every branch of our federal government. And if one cringes at the memory of the desolate, middle four years of George W. Bush’s administration (when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor basically kept the right-wing wolves at bay), the prospect of our nation’s political health completely under the care of a President Romney, Chief Justice Roberts, and Rep. Paul Ryan should be enough to trigger full-on heart palpitations.  

Then again, the notion that these three men would lead a Republican triad hell-bent on ushering in a new Gilded Age is likely an exaggeration. Not in the sense that they wouldn’t seek to dismantle the nation’s social compact while reflexively fluffing the rich, but rather in the erroneous assumption that Romney, Roberts, and Ryan would represent the real intellectual impetus behind such an agenda. Instead, they are merely more publicly palatable stand-ins for their more rabidly conservative colleagues. In other words, Roberts really takes his cues from Scalia, Ryan has to satisfy Tea Party types like Rep. Sean Duffy, and Romney has already signaled an abiding affection for former Bush administration neo-cons. That conservatives have positioned less controversial, more moderate-seeming figureheads as the faces of their policy agenda is no happy accident, of course. It’s a canny strategic ploy. But as longtime Washington political watchers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have thoroughly documented, it doesn’t mean the plans they are fronting are any less extreme.

Sadly, but perhaps not unexpectedly, the establishment media has mostly taken a pass at delving into the ramifications of such a potentially seismic shift in the American political landscape. The reticence on the part of the press to even discuss this ‘asymmetric polarization,’ though, simply exacerbates the problem and gives Republicans the political cover they seek. Romney, in particular, seems to be getting the benefit of the doubt from the press about his true moderate principles, when the more salient point is that whatever he personally believes won’t make much of a difference if he’s elected. To firebrand conservative leaders like anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, the value of Romney occupying the White House is simply to act as a rubber stamp for a right-wing Congressional vanguard, and can be summed up thusly: “We just need a president who can sign the legislation…[w]e don’t need someone to think. We need someone with enough digits on one hand to hold a pen.”

Just who the authors of this legislation might be come next January became even clearer this week when Nebraska state Senator Deb Fischer scored a surprising upset victory in that state’s Senate Republican primary. In fact, Fischer might stand as the new prototype of what our democracy can look forward to in this post-Citizens United climate. Hardly given much of a chance in a race against the state’s sitting Attorney General and Treasurer, Fischer eked out a narrow victory thanks, in large part, to a last-minute ad blitz funded by right-wing billionaire patron Joe Ricketts. (Can you guess how else Ricketts is thinking of spending his money this year?) So, instead of her recklessly anti-government views being limited to the coffee shops and feed lots of Cherry County, one man’s money has now propelled Fischer to a better than even chance of joining the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body.’

Over time, this kind of undue concentration of political influence can’t help but perpetuate a vicious cycle for our democracy, one where rich and powerful actors grow even more rich and powerful thanks to payback from the like-minded members of the government that they hand-picked to run it. In state after state, conservatives have already previewed how they plan on rewarding their benefactors and abrogating the rights of the many, whether it’s through ‘voter-ID’ disenfranchisement and right-to-work laws or the de-funding of Medicaid and passage of xenophobic immigration rules. A Republican sweep at the federal level this fall would only serve to supercharge this agenda and possibly cement the GOP’s consolidation of power for a generation or more. Consider, for a moment, the ideological bent of the Supreme Court nominee that Romney would be able to get past a GOP-led Senate populated with more Deb Fischers. (And here’s where, if you’re the praying type, you might offer an extra one that this prediction about Justice Ginsburg doesn’t come true with Romney in the White House.)

One would search in vain, however, to get a sense of this big political picture from most of the current campaign coverage. Horserace reporting, by its very nature, tends to sweat the small stuff and, when it does take off its blinders, still views ascending to office as an end unto itself rather than the means by which one can then exert political power. As a result, the stark choice our nation faces this November—either Obama confronting a divided Congress and a hostile Supreme Court or Romney acquiescing to an assertive Congress and friendly Court—rarely gets explored. But it should. And this may be the biggest story of the election that the press is missing so far—that the Republicans are actually right to warn the public this election could fundamentally distort the nature of our democracy, it’s just that, like Chief Justice Roberts in the Citizens United case, they don’t want to admit that they’re the ones who would be doing it.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

I Just Wasn't Made for These Times

My new "Think Again" column is called "Think Again: A Chronicle of Journalistic Malfeasance" and it’s about the kerfluffle over the coverage of Black studies at the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find it here.

My Nation column is called "Jazz Fest and the Ghosts of New Orleans" and you can read that here.

Joan Walsh reviewed The Cause in The American Prospect at some length here.

And if you ask me, that kind of seriousness is one of the reasons that I strongly recommend that you read this plea from TAP co-founder Bob Kuttner and then perhaps cough up some bucks. 

I’ll be speaking about The Cause, and its foreign policy implications, at a forum sponsored by World Policy Institute and Demos on May 23 220 Fifth Avenue, 5th Floor from 6-7:30.

Petey and I were among the fortunate few who got to see the Beach Boys at the Beacon theater this week. What a joy that concert was. I’ve seen Brian Wilson at least half a dozen times in the past few years and I thought I was doing about as well as one could insofar as Beach Boy songs performed live—he had a crack band—but now that crack band is backing Brian and Mike Love and Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston along with a guy named David Marks who was apparently a member of the band for a while and is a really fine guitarist and the effect was not only musically much more exciting but also quite moving. (So too were the songs performed with videos of Dennis and Carl Wilson.) Anyway, they played an amazing number of songs—at least 40 of them—with no filler and no break and only one of them from the new album, but even that sounded warm and wonderful. (And they dedicated it to Pete Fornatele, which was also nice to hear.) Started with “Do It Again,” ended with “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Heard one after the other, the awesomeness—I hate that word but still—of the band, and particularly Brian Wilson’s achievement—was a wonder to behold and impossible not to love. To be honest, when I read Jon Pareles’ review in the Times, I decided I couldn’t do better than these paragraphs:

“In the concert’s most touching moment Mr. Wilson sang “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” a song from “Pet Sounds” about being an innovator who’s universally misunderstood: “Every time I get the inspiration to go change things around,” he sang, “No one wants to help me look for places where new things might be found.”

The chords and melody climbed, lingered, fell back; Mr. Wilson stayed with them, fighting his limitations, as the Beach Boys sang harmony. It was an aching memory and a heartbreaking vindication.”

Read all about it here.

Now here’s Reed:

The Dog That Ain’t Barking for Conservatives Who Oppose Same-Sex Marriage
by Reed Richardson
Sometimes it’s the arguments your opponents don’t make that do the most to undermine their cause. So, when President Obama finally (and let’s be candid, a bit too carefully) came out in support of same-sex marriage this week, what was most striking about the all-too-predictable gnashing of teeth from conservatives was their complete and utter failure to mention the cornerstone of this administration’s, as they so crudely put it, “homosexual agenda”—the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Indeed, one could pore through the official statements, ominous op-eds, and angry tweets of every alleged family values organization and ‘pro-marriage’ right-winger over the past 24 hours and find nary a mention of something that, up until just six months ago, was being billed as nothing short of the ruination of our military. (If you think I’m exaggerating, I offer up this nicely compiled list of all their apocalyptic predictions.) Now, one would think that the similarities between DADT repeal and same-sex marriage would be a natural talking point for the right. After all, both, at their essence, are about allowing gays and lesbians to equally participate in an institution that has traditionally excluded them. And yet, from the right, nothing.

That the establishment media would miss this and other nuances of Obama’s ‘evolution’ is somewhat to be expected, I suppose. Day-one news stories naturally dwelled on the historic nature of a president endorsing this unprecedented position, especially since it came in the midst of a general election campaign and just one day after this regressive vote in North Carolina. (And while we’re talking about Tuesday, let me just say good-bye and good riddance to ‘moderate’ Republican Senator Dick Lugar, who folded like a cheap suit on DADT repeal.) Likewise, few, if any, in the press also picked up on the states rights’ dodge that Obama subtly pushed in his interview—a notion that is particularly troubling because it relies upon the same flawed, intellectual underpinnings that allowed state miscegenation laws to fester for nearly a century until the Supreme Court struck them down in Loving v. Virginia

Of course, the real reason the right has conveniently forgotten all about the repeal of DADT is because, six months later, it’s been such a clear policy success. All that wild speculation on the part of conservatives about servicemembers fleeing and recruiting shortfalls? Not happening. The dire predictions about the introduction of openly gay personnel corroding military culture? Nope. Even the Commandant of the Marines, who testified before Congress in opposition to the repeal has now come around. In short, conservatives were spectacularly wrong and gay rights supporters (and Obama) have been proven unquestionably right.

But allowing same-sex marriage is a totally different issue, one could argue. Except it isn’t. In fact, one can trace the newly evolved Obama from Wednesday directly back to the repeal of DADT. That’s because by granting gay and lesbian service men and women equal status under federal law, the government’s position vis-à-vis DoMA became untenable. Same-sex partner benefits couldn’t be both equal to heterosexual ones under the highest jurisdiction in the land and moot under another, lower one. Which is what led the Obama administration to take the perfectly logical position of abandoning DoMA’s defense on grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Even the bilious Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins backed into acknowledging this dialectic, although he was careful to leave out any mention of how the gays and lesbians in the military now openly defending his freedoms were the same people whose marriages Obama rightly decided deserve equal treatment under the law: 

The President's announcement today that he supports legalizing same-sex marriage finally brings his words in sync with his actions. From opposing state marriage amendments to refusing to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) to giving taxpayer funded marriage benefits to same-sex couples, the President has undermined the spirit if not the letter of the law.

That “spirit” Perkins refers to is, by any other name, prejudice. As the aftermath of DADT has clearly demonstrated, the justifications for that policy and other ‘pro-marriage’ state amendments policies like it were and are little more than discrimination for discrimination’s sake. And though he’d never admit as much publicly, Perkins is essentially conceding this point by intentionally avoiding what should be the best test case for his same-sex marriage opposition but is instead the most powerful weapon against it. The silence, as they say, is deafening. Let’s hope more of the media begins to hear it.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

The Mail:

Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa

"Wehw!" I said, wiping the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand.

"When you weren't here on Friday, I thought you had abandoned me!"

"No grasshopper," Eric Alterman said. "I would never abandon my reading public."

"Even for a book tour?" I asked.

"Even for a book tour," he said.

And all was calm.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Darn Those Narcissistically Self-Absorbed, Intellectually Intolerant, Ideologically Debased Institutions!

My "Think Again" column is called “Murdoch ‘Unfit?’ Ya Think?” and is described as explaining that “The British Parliament found News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch “unfit” to lead his media empire, but that’s been the case for more than 20 years.” Read all about it here.

My buddy Sam Seder and I can be heard discussing The Cause here.

Michael Kazin and I appeared at the Center for American Progress to discuss “The Past and Future of Liberalism” and you can read about that here

You can still buy the book cheap, here.

Here is a profile of David Horowitz that appeared in Tablet in which he whines about how unappreciated he is and what a total failure his life has been. Let me just say this: I certainly hope that none of my readers take any pleasure whatever at the sorry state of David Horowitz's psyche and since I find schadenfreude to be a contemptible emotion in which I would never even imagine engaging, I am shocked that some of you might not feel the same way.  Perhaps none of you have feelings for your fellow man at all. How else to explain the despicable fact that a few of you take pleasure in reading this:

"[M]ore painfully, no university archive has asked to collect his papers and reminiscences, a failing he understands as ‘a reflection of the ideological debasement of our institutions of knowledge by a movement whose hallmarks are narcissistic self-absorption and intellectual intolerance.’”

Though perhaps this part is even more of a tear-jerker:

“His most deeply felt grievance, however, is a perceived lack of encouragement from mainstream conservative institutions.* (This is not necessarily a financial issue: His foundation, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, is underwritten by the Bradley, Olin, and Scaife foundations.)”

Wait there’s more. The saddest part is not even in the article, so perhaps you might be forgiven for not knowing that poor David had to make do with a mere $452,000 from the Freedom Center not including speech fees and book advances. And the Freedom Center is limping along with a budget that went from $3.7 million in 2009 to $4.3 million in 2010.  Oh the horror, the horror.

(And special shame points to those of you who read the above and thought: I can’t wait until Ronald Radosh reads this. Imagine being Ed McMahon/Sancho Panza to a total no-goodnik whiney-ass self-pitying, self-admitted failure. Really, I don’t think I want you reading my weblog if you are going to have mean thoughts like that.)

The last time I wrote about Horowitz, by the way, is here.

This just in and it is just as wonderful as it sounds (to the tiny number of you to whom it will sound wonderful):

Larry David with the Boston Pops, singing “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max” here.

Talent apparently not entirely dried up after all, and who’da thunk it? Not me, I can assure you, but here it is: “An Envoi For Christopher Hitchens At The Pearly Gates,” by Alexander Cockburn. 

“Does an apt aesthetic response to a fucked-up world begin with getting fucked up?” Excuse me but as an amateur New Yorker historian, I would posit that this is almost certainly the only time in the magazine’s august history that any variation of the word “fuck” has appeared twice in one sentence that is not a) in quotes, or b) in fiction. I would go so far as say that I don’t recall it ever appearing except under those circumstances, but I could be wrong. In any case, congratulations to Richard Brody on sneaking it in. (There is no link, alas.)

Now here’s Reed.

Political Press Gets (Yet Another) Wake-up Call, Will it Listen?
by Reed Richardson

It is somehow fitting that Newt Gingrich’s quixotic presidential quest—which, for the past few weeks, had comically downshifted to a decidedly languid, Sancho Panza-like speed—would stumble to its inevitable, inscrutable end at this particular moment. In doing so, his bombastic campaign’s demise has neatly coincided with the publication of not one but two new books that examine how the kind of poisonous politics that Gingrich rode to the Speakership 18 years ago has transformed the modern Republican Party into little more than a frothing cabal of intransigent, dogmatic, logic-free reactionaries. Indeed, as both books demonstrate, Gingrich, perhaps more so than any other politician alive, can point to the current Republican Congress’ blinkered devotion to ideological purity rather than responsible governance as his lasting legacy.

Nevertheless, the reaction among the Washington press corps to these competing events was starkly different. The former Speaker, having been fatally wounded and separated from the primary election herd, now found himself under attack by the pride of cowardly lions that is the political press. Even Fox News—conveniently freed from the constraints of having to produce “fair and balanced” coverage about the troubles of its parent company’s CEO—found both the time and courage to take critical swipes at its former commentator’s inscrutable behavior and transparently self-serving shtick. The traditional media, it seems, has finally decided that it’s now safe to call out Newt Gingrich for his obvious individual failings—but the extremist Republican Party that he and his progeny have used to immobilize Congress, eh, not so much.

Indeed, the broader reaction within the Beltway to the first of these two new books, Robert Draper’s Do Not Ask What Good We Do, is mostly one of “been there, seen that.” Mined mostly for its juicy details about the Tea Party-fueled freshmen in the current Congress, the coverage of Draper’s book has been long on GOP palace intrigue and short on drawing larger conclusions about how a self-respecting press corps can passively enable such stubborn recklessness. To hear one Texas Congressman express concern, as Draper tells it, that the debt ceiling is a “very possibly a hostage that we’re unwilling to shoot,” is a chilling example of their callous disconnect from reality. And to also learn that, literally from the first day Obama took office, Republican Party leaders were plotting how to obstruct, if not sabotage, any and all of his legislative efforts betrays a press corps that has woefully misunderstood and misrepresented the partisan gamesmanship afoot for these past three-plus years.

Fortunately, the second of these books aimed at exposing the modern Republican Party for what it really is also undertakes a much more frontal assault on the media’s role in enabling their legislative negligence. Written by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, two long-time Congressional scholars, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks fillets the traditional media for perpetuating a principle of false equivalence in its coverage of the two parties, the effect of which, they say, has merely masked the GOP’s unalloyed march toward the fringes of the right wing. In a devastatingly clear-eyed and surprisingly expansive op-ed in the Washington Post— bluntly titled “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,”—learned establishment think-tankers Mann and Ornstein come across sounding like a couple of brash media critics:

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

 Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?

Granted, both Mann and Ornstein have themselves succumbed to the same siren songs that plague objective journalism—the obsession with ‘can’t we all just get along’ bipartisanship and its flip side, the ‘both sides do it’ critique. So, to me, their rather abrupt and thorough epiphany suffers a bit from its belated timing. Indeed, it’s clear that this rightward drift of the part of the GOP has been 30 years in the making. But it wasn’t until the recent Republican Congress’s wholesale defenestration of any attempts at legislative compromise or responsible governance that they finally figured out something quite frightening was taking place and that the Beltway media was by and large ignoring it. Still, better late than never, I guess, so “Welcome to the party.”

Sadly, this insightful book’s impact, even when combined with Draper’s, looks to be of limited reach within the journalism community. This isn’t because of the lack of commendable effort by the Post, however, which gave a long, fairly glowing review to Mann and Ornstein in addition to the providing the pair the lengthy 2,000-word op-ed. Still, the most common response to this call to change conventional wisdom has been silence, even among the conservative bastions of the media there appeared to be little need for pushback. This Lexington column in The Economist tries to brush off the book’s comprehensive indictment with a bit of pseudo-intellectual jiu-jitsu:

But the obvious rejoinder to Mr. Mann and Mr. Ornstein is that they are committing the very sin they decry. That is to say, they question the legitimacy of a party with which they happen to disagree. It is perfectly true that the Republicans have moved sharply to the right since the big-government “compassionate” conservatism of the younger President Bush. But who says a political party is not entitled to change its mind? And what gives a couple of think-tankers the right to specify where the political centre is, or to dismiss as “an outlier” a party that chooses to stray from it?

The answers to these questions, of course, lies in the 100 pages of documentary evidence that Mann and Ornstein provide to back up their claim that the Republican Party has foresworn its legitimacy. But much like the faith-based party that it seeks to excuse, this Economist column likewise sees no need to engage the book’s argument with anything more in the way of opposing facts. Which is precisely the fundamental problem that plagues our national political debate and is exacerbated by a too compliant national press.

The Internet boom and bust, WMDs in Iraq, an exploding housing bubble, a myth and fear-based health care debate: a recent list of our press’s major journalistic failures is embarrassing enough. What’s notable about every one of these debacles, though, was that there were warning signs. This past two weeks, our political press received two more of these wake-up calls, from fairly established and researched sources no less. Whether the media will start to heed this growing claxon of concern about the Republican Party’s dangerous ideological evolution is another matter. Sure, they finally came around to the realization on Newt Gingrich, but it should provide our democracy little comfort that it them a generation to do it.

The mail:
Bill Dunlap
Lake Oswego, Oregon
Hey, Eric:
Hope you'll give a shout out of sorts for the late Pete Fornatale. I knew him, but you probably have better insights on his impact on NYC radio. A really great guy who was just like his on-air persona. Nice obit in the Times.

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