Politics, media and the politics of media.
No one thought that Stephen Colbert, the character, would last this long. His right-wing, self-regarding, bloviating pundit was a shtick, a bit, good for a year or two, tops.
As Colbert said Monday of the soon-to-retire Michele Bachmann, “Godspeed, Michele, Godspeed. I cannot believe you kept up that crazy conservative character for eight years.”
But for nine years now Colbert has been reminding us that politics, and the right-wing shtick in particular, is a performance.* For his last show, tonight, the Grim Reaper will reportedly be taking him out. But we can thank his longevity in part to the still longer reigns of his sources of inspiration—“Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly, of course, but also Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Steve Doocy, and the Fox News mindset itself.
We can also thank these last nine years to the very thing that made them seem improbable: as a character, and not merely a critic, of the right, Colbert held a unique key to the riddle of modern conservatism: How do they keep getting away with it? Why have so many conservatives turned into such small-minded haters and deniers of science, of reality? Voters tend to disagree with their actual policies, so why do they keep voting for them?
We liberals keep banging our heads against the wall of their illogic, and in frustration sputter out the only explanation we can think of: “They’re… they’re… they’re INSANE!”
Instead of trying the key from the outside, as most critics of the right must, Colbert jiggled it from the inside, counterfeit though his key was. By inhabiting their heads via a character, Colbert could demonstrate, four nights a week, how right-wing psychology works.
And so in his last “Formidable Opponent” segment, the rabid-right Stephen said that America would never torture. The more moderate Stephen countered that the Senate report proves it does. To which the first Stephen replies, “Oh, I’m not talking about the actual country. I’m talking about the idea of America. The idea of America would never torture….And that, my friend, is why I choose to live in the idea of America.”
You can’t stick with that kind of truthiness-based character (and play him in public appearances off the show) without some sympathy for him, and even for conservatism itself.
Colbert expressed that sympathy by showing that beneath his character’s assertion of omnipotence and certitude, there’s a fragility, one that’s also buried in most of the real-life blowhards and their dittoheads.
If they stop clapping, Tinker Bell will die. If they stop nodding in agreement, or step off the reservation of Tax Cuts, Guns, and Built It Myself, they could get Other-ed. If you stop stampeding in one direction, you get trampled.
Every night, Colbert’s character would steel himself to stay on the straight and narrow and path out of fear.
His braggadocio disguised the fact that he was a coward and a big baby. (In that, the character closest to Colbert would be Lawton Smalls, Marc Maron’s old right-wing foil who’d break down and sob when he could no longer maintain his political delusions.) Every now and then Colbert would come apart at the seams, hiding under the desk, or going off on how we have to wipe bears off the face of the earth! Conceivably, bears stood for Russia, as in the Reagan “Bear in the Woods” commercial, or maybe for Papa Bear. But more likely, Colbert’s bear fear was fear itself, an irrational dread of something he’d never encounter, like death panels or jack-booted government thugs coming to take his guns. Were they going to take “Sweetness,” the pistol he’d caress and which was, as far as we know, Stephen’s only serious love interest?
More frequently, though, Colbert would ride fearlessly straight through his absurdities, oblivious to any problems at all. That was the Inspector Clouseau aspect of Colbert. It’s the character’s odd innocence and the real person’s heart that combine, I think, to create so much affection and outright love for Colbert.
I’ve always said that I appreciate Jon Stewart (and I really, really like John Oliver), but I love Stephen. I laugh so hard I cry, and in crying, I swoon.
It’s commonly thought that Stewart does the harder-hitting political satire. But Colbert, softly sheathed in fiction, can actually bite much deeper. Colbert is in fact more of a threat to O’Reilly—who seems to actively dislike him—while O’Reilly and Stewart are mutually supportive buds.
On occasion, Colbert shared in Stewart’s left-and-right false equivalencies—as he did by co-hosting the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010. But Colbert also does things closer to the activism that Stewart tends to find so uncool. Like when he testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee about the plight of migrant farm workers, or when, in one of the most brilliant, ballsy moments in comedy ever, he hosted the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Standing just feet from President George W. Bush, Colbert, the character, said:
We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir?…
The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.
But Colbert bit most deeply into the attending Beltway journalists, who famously found him unfunny:
Over the last five years you people were so good—over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.
But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions. He’s the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you’ve got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know—fiction!
It’s hard to imagine that the nonfiction Stephen Colbert would say anything like that to a guest on The Late Show. But you never know. He’s amazed us before.
*I was on the O’Reilly show years ago, arguing in defense of Martha Stewart, who was then headed to prison. After our joust, as I was getting up to leave, O’Reilly said to me, “The audience loves this stuff.” As if he was admitting it was all for show.
Al Sharpton’s all over the media lately, and the media are all over him. With his front-stage involvement in the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests and this Saturday’s march on Washington against police brutality, the Rev is, once again, the target of pop parody and right-wing hysteria. But now that he’s hosting the MSNBC show Politics Nation, he’s also the target of some perfectly valid scrutiny of his potentially conflicting roles of activist and cable news anchor.
In a Sharpton spoof last Saturday, Saturday Night Live didn’t touch on any conflicts of interest; its cold open simply reprised the image of Sharpton as a bombastic fool—but softly enough that Al ran a clip of it on his Monday show. Per usual for SNL, the skit was more flat than funny, but it did catch that exceedingly rare moment when—largely because of the Eric Garner case—most of the world actually agreed with Al Sharpton. “Folks are high-fiving with me, inviting me places,” says Al, played by Kenan Thompson. “This must be what it feels like to be Beyoncé.” (SNL also caught his mangled pronunciations, but it mistakenly showed him talking so much that his guests could barely get in a word. At MSNBC, that’s Chris Matthews’s job.)
The right wing, however, doesn’t do Al softly. They won’t forget his handling of the Tawana Brawley case (and for his part, Sharpton won’t admit it was a hoax, which is like Governor Chris Christie’s refusing to admit there was never a traffic study), and maybe they shouldn’t. But the right also refuses to see that Sharpton has mellowed or changed at all: they need him to forever be a radical and a race hustler. Glen Beck virtually called him a terrorist, saying, “He’s a dangerous, extremist cleric.” To Sean Hannity, Sharpton is one of the “racial arsonists,” along with Barack Obama and Eric Holder, responsible for the rioting in Ferguson (“Are those three people responsible,” Jon Stewart wondered, “or did you just name the only three black guys you could think of?”).
Because he’s the best-known single figure in the growing protest movement, the right will blame him for any violence, when, in fact, as New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton told Don Imus last week, Sharpton has been helping to promote the peace, as he did in Staten Island rallies earlier this year. In any case, this new grassroots civil rights movement has grown far beyond Sharpton, and perhaps any one leader.
The more relevant question about Sharpton is the one asked by Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s media-watch show, Reliable Sources. Given his prominence as an activist and newsmaker himself, “Are there ethical issues for MSNBC to have Sharpton anchor every night?”
It’s not just that Sharpton’s wearing both the anchor and the activist hats. “It’s more complicated than that,” Stelter said. “He’s wearing like seven hats,” including those of preacher, fundraiser, adviser to Obama, confidant of NYC mayor Bill De Blasio, and “importantly,” said Stelter, “a grief counselor to families in need like [Michael] Brown’s family. And, finally, he seems to be coordinating their media appearances.”
Sharpton has handled his haberdashery habit well enough since he got his MSNBC gig in 2011 until now, but has Ferguson somehow changed all that? “I think for the first time it’s probably gotten a little bit sticky,” NY1 anchor Erroll Lewis told Stelter. “When you see him interviewing somebody who he’s also representing and then he goes to the Justice Department or to the White House, you have to wonder, who in all of this is he really speaking to and for?”
Stelter said that in a phone conversation, Sharpton “pointed out that Jesse Jackson had a show on CNN in the 1990s, while heading up the Rainbow Coalition,” but Stelter implied that Jackson’s Saturday show, Both Sides, was somehow less transgressive than Sharpton’s daily show at “6 pm, almost prime time.” But that would seem to make only a quantitative, not a qualitative, difference.
It is complicated, indeed, as are most conflicts of interest involving media and political cross-dressers. Fox News hands out shows and/or lucrative contributor deals to any politico it wants to—Mike Huckabee, Scott Brown, Sarah Palin—until and if they run for office, when, maybe, they gotta go. MSNBC made Keith Olbermann return money he donated to two candidates (including Gabby Giffords, before she was shot).
I have friends on the left, though, who find Sharpton’s many roles endlessly irritating. “Is he making the news or delivering the news?” one of them asks. “Sharpton takes an hour away from a professional journalist who might possibly do some good by reporting. He’s not a professional, he’s a showman, as all good advocates in society need to be. But it almost says anyone can be a network news person. It’s a cheapening and a celebrification of the news.” This friend feels the same way about Ronan Farrow, another non-journalist activist with an MSNBC show. Back when Sharpton first took over Politics Nation (from “Young Turk” Cenk Uygar), St. Petersburg Times television critic Eric Deggans, a former officer of the National Association of Black Journalists, also gave MSNBC flak for not handing its valuable real estate to a black journalist.
Personally, I’m not bothered by Sharpton’s other roles. When you have twenty-four hours of cable to fill, why not mix it up? As long as a news or an opinion show is backed up by good journalism, why not extend diversity to include other professions and backgrounds? Comedians like Jon Stewart and John Oliver are doing a kind of journalism, as much as Stewart tries to deny it, and doing it well. The lines, they are a-blurrin’.
As National Urban League president Marc Morial told Stelter, in the “age of opinion journalism…TV anchors write blogs, lead or participate in organizations” and “wear different hats along the way. In that regard, I don’t think Reverend Sharpton is a lot different. He’s better known.”
Watch the Sharpton segment on Reliable Sources:
In one of his last shows, Stephen Colbert goes to Washington, and insists he could do a politician’s job but no pol could ever handle his… when out walks Obama. In his best Colbert imitation, POTUS does “The Word,” but Emperor that he is, he dubs it “The Decree.”
“Nation, as you know, I, Stephen Colbert, have never cared for our president,” Obama begins. “The guy is so arrogant, I bet he talks about himself in the third person.”
(It’s telling that Obama chose to use most of the segment to sell Healthcare.gov. Will new sign-ups surge overnight?)
It’s brilliant even beyond the usual and a must-see. (For the rest of Colbert’s thirty-five minutes with the prez, click here.)
The right-wing media are confused. After a grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, they felt the rush of vindication and could finally voice their full-throated disgust at black “thugs” like, in their eyes, Brown and the Ferguson protesters. But within hours after a grand jury refused to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the same pundits and pols—shocked at video showing Garner repeatedly pleading for his life—had to make an arthritic 180-degree turn to give Garner and the “I can’t breathe” demonstrators a moral pass. That hurt.
Of course, there are major differences in the Garner and Brown cases—in the deadly weapon used, the men’s alleged crimes, the tone of the demonstrations and, in the Garner case, the presence of videotape. For the right highlighting the differences is the easy part. The hard part is, first, to ignore the similarities—white cops killing unarmed black males, including 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, armed with only a toy pellet gun. And, second, to maintain the all-important narrative that liberals are reverse racists for unfairly charging conservatives with racism.
The pain of pivoting from “Mike Brown, bad” to “Eric Garner, acceptable” has perhaps been most evident in Joe Scarborough, whose Morning Joe show is as much about the struggle within his own psyche as about real-world events.
On Monday, before the Staten Island grand jury decision came down on Wednesday, Scarborough was exploding at Mike Brown and the whole “Hands up, don’t shoot” crowd. Scarborough insisted (video below) that the left had made Brown a “hero,” and he likened the slain teenager not to Trayvon Martin but to George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Martin in 2012 and who Scarborough called a “thug.” (“No one has said Mike Brown was a hero,” NBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom tweeted in response. “What we have said was that we don’t give the death penalty to shoplifting teens.”)
The next day, Scarborough unleashed more of his considerable fury at the whole Ferguson movement and at anyone who dared to make the “Hands up” gesture, as three Democratic congresspersons did on the floor of the House and five Rams players did on the football field. They lie, said Joe, all of them!
But these players can suggest that the St. Louis cops shoot black youth with their hands up in the air? That’s cool with the NFL? That’s cool with the St. Louis Rams? That’s cool to suggest that St. Louis police officers in the town, probably a lot who go to the games and watch the games and are fans, the St. Louis Rams think it’s cool for them to suggest that St. Louis cops shoot young black men who had their hands up in the air when we know that was a lie? It’s a lie. And what was that gesture on Capitol Hill? More people like going, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth or not, I’ll suggest cops shoot people with their hands up in the air. What is wrong with this country?!
Co-hosts Mika Brzezinski sat by silently and Willie Geist chimed in, “These are elected officials”; only Thomas Roberts had the nerve to later say that, um, the gesture is not a “lie.” It “might be more symbolic,” he said, of the “deadly force” used by white cops on black people all over the country.
But for Joe, “this Ram thing” was “the final straw,” he said. “I have sat here quietly and listened to BS being spewed all over this network and all over other networks. I cannot take it anymore!” (My emphasis on his self-perception.)
After the announcement of Pantaleo’s non-indictment, however, Scarborough was positively grateful to have one of those presumed MSNBC spewers, the Rev. Al Sharpton, on the show to, in essence, vouch that Joe was not one of the bad guys on race.
“I don’t want to give people watching vertigo,” Joe said. “Obviously, [Sharpton and I] agreed on Trayvon. We talked a lot about that. We disagreed on Ferguson…. We disagree, but even when we disagree, we do it respectfully. We agree more than we disagree.”
The Reverend agreed to that. And in turn, Joe declared that Sharpton, who’s been organizing around Ferguson and Garner, “does not go out looking for these people—it’s not like a trial lawyer. The families call him and ask him to come.”
To his credit, Joe is at least struggling with these issues. Much of the rest of the right wing is more kneejerk. As a TPM headline put it, “The Right Channels Its Outrage In Eric Garner Case Toward The ‘Nanny State’ ” Garner, whom the cops were trying to arrest for selling single, untaxed cigarettes, or “loosies,” may or may not have been the victim of excessive police force, goes this argument, but he was definitely the victim of big government taxing us to death. “Whereas many conservatives said Wilson was simply doing his job, some on Wednesday said Pantaleo was enforcing a punitive big government policy,” TPM’s Tom Kludt wrote. “And while Brown was nothing more than a ‘thug,’ Garner was the victim of the dreaded nanny state.”
Fox News analyst and former judge Andrew Napolitano, Senator Rand Paul and radio talk show host Dana Loesch are among those using versions of this argument, with Loesch tweeting: “The results of big government, #
As much as some conservatives also seem authentically appalled at the sight of Garner being killed while gasping eleven times that he couldn’t breathe, many appear to be chomping at the bit to somehow, anyhow, turn this against Obama and the Dems.
In addition to attacking the nannies, there’s the old blame-the-victim tactic, pushed most notably Representative Peter King (R-NY). He said of Garner on Fox yesterday, “If he had not been obese, if he had not had diabetes, if he had not asthma, this probably would not have happened.” He also cited Garner’s many previous arrests, for likewise small infringements of the law.
As in the Mike Brown case, the most important thing for the right is to inoculate the police (and thus themselves) from charges of racism. Yesterday, Fox’s Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum had Kevin Jackson, the black author of Race Pimping: The Multi-Trillion Dollar Business of Liberalism, on their morning show, where he said of Garner’s death, “to make this racial is patently ridiculous.” The real profiling problem in the black community, he added, was the “profiling of police. Has anyone talked about that level of profiling?”
By last night, Megyn Kelly was all over her black guests to prove—with hard evidence—that Garner’s death had anything whatsoever to with race.
And if any of those arguments fail to convince the public that race matters, there’s still the distraction method: if you talk enough about blacks killing blacks you can magically make the issue of cops killing blacks disappear. Many are reacting with that default canard to President Obama’s and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s calls for more police training. Sure, fine, train the police, Rudy Giuliani told Fox & Friends, “but you should spend 90 percent of your time talking about the way they’re actually probably going to get killed, which is by another black. To avoid that fact, I think is racist.”
And so it goes.
This might sound odd, given all the Sturm und Drang from the right over Obama’s executive order to temporarily allow up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to stay in America without the threat of deportation. But I think that some of the Fox News hosts might be going a little soft on immigration.
Seven years ago, Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly had an epic, screeching, flesh-tearing brawl (a true must-see, below). The Geraldo v. Tucker Carlson bout on Fox & Friends this morning, however, was by comparison a gentlemen’s duel.
The cringe-inducing chryon of “Bamnesty” set the tone. After Geraldo, an informed and strong proponent of immigration reform, made an impassioned plea to accept the people who “clean our houses, mow our lawns, take care for our children, start businesses, and raise families,” Tucker was reduced to saying, with a bow-tie squareness, “I like immigrants. They are very hard working.”
Another bit of unexpected Fox softening came from Megyn Kelly shortly after Obama’s speech. She admitted that what Obama was ordering was not “amnesty,” as she and most Fox hosts have insisted in the past. As Media Matters puts it, she
acknowledged that the president is not actually pursuing “amnesty,” because “amnesty is citizenship and that’s not what [Obama] is talking about.” Kelly also explained how conservatives purposely misuse the word “amnesty” for political gain: “That’s a hot-button term that the right uses to sort of get people upset.”
But don’t think that Fox is going to actually have to re-write its glossary. Obama’s order might not legally be that dirty, bad A-word, she said, but “it amounts to amnesty.”
And here’s Geraldo and O’Reilly:
Retiring Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, in an interview with USA Today’s Susan Page yesterday, seemed to both warn about and threaten white violence against President Obama’s executive action on immigration reform, saying the president’s speech Thursday night could provoke “violence” and “anarchy.” He even suggested that the reaction could parallel the demonstrations and violence in Ferguson, Missouri.
Page asked what will be the reaction of Republicans in Washington, and Coburn acted as if it’s not the GOP that will be upset (‘cause, you know, they’re such a even-keeled bunch: Alabama Representative Mo Brooks actually thinks Obama could end up in jail, as well as impeached). Rather, it’s all those regular folks out there who will be terribly disappointed that the president isn’t working with Congress.
“Oh, I don’t think it’s so much a Republican reaction here,” Coburn said. “The country’s going to go nuts. Because they are going to see it as a move outside of the authority of the president. And it’s going to be a very dangerous situation. You’re going to see—hopefully not—but you could see instances of anarchy.”
“You could see violence,” Coburn continued. “This is a big step, to not work with Congress, now that he’s got a new Congress, to go completely around it.”
Then, oddly, Coburn cited the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, saying that Obama’s immigration action could invoke similar concerns about injustice: “Well, here’s how people think—if the law doesn’t apply to the president, and it’s not affirmatively acted on for us as a group, like you’re seeing in Ferguson, Missouri, then why should it apply to me?”
As Josh Marshall pointed out at TPM, Coburn’s warnings about street violence over allowing the parents of American-born citizens to stay here without fear of deportation were logically challenged in the first place. The protesters in Ferguson are outraged by a direct government action, the shooting to death of an unarmed black teenager. Any violence over Obama’s executive order would mean people taking to the streets in anger over a government inaction—its refusal to actively deport people already living in the US for years.
But logic is never a strong component of American conniptions over race. You could also see what Coburn said as implying a sort of good-for-the-goose, good-for-the-gander equivalency: if blacks get to riot over a perceived injustice, so should whites. That plays directly into the right’s sense of victimization and “reverse racism.”
Coburn’s remarks should also be seen in the context of the 2016 elections. Obama’s immigration reforms, modest as they are in reality, would further the perception driven home by Fox News, hate radio, and millions of dollars of GOP advertising that Obama only helps the poor and minorities. Obama saying that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon” Martin, Eric Holder’s intervention in Ferguson, and even Obamacare, which actually helps more whites than blacks but is believed to do the exact opposite by many whites—all are grist for that mill of resentment. Add to that changing immigration practices by executive order, and the right may be able to orchestrate a backlash of epic proportions against a Democratic nominee.
In politics, what is true is never as important as what works.
See the Coburn interview here:
UPDATE: This is even more hysterical, in both senses. Anti-immigrant and voter-suppression superhawk Kris Kobach, the GOP Kansas secretary of state, says that once Obama replaces “American voters with newly legalized aliens,” gets “a locked-in vote for socialism,” and does away with the rule of law, we could be in for a spate of “ethnic cleansing,” presumably by Latinos of Americans—though he didn’t quite specify what that “American” ethnicity might be.
Finally, the right wing has found what Susan Rice was to Benghazi and Lois Lerner was to the IRS, but better—a human face to represent all that they believe is deceitful, illegitimate and downright evil about Obamacare and, indeed, about the entire last six years.
That face belongs to MIT economist Jonathan Gruber who, after helping to write Romneycare in Massachusetts, moved to advise the Obama administration on the design the Affordable Care Act. Lately, Gruber has been popping up in video clips telling gathered academics that the bill was written to obscure its redistribution of costs from healthy enrollees to sick ones. He somehow managed to call all the American people “stupid,” which is considered far worse than accusing a mere 47 percent of the population of being dead weight on the rest. In his most infamous clip (watch it below), Gruber says:
This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay? So it’s written to do that.
In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said healthy people are gonna pay in—if it made explicit that healthy people are gonna pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed. Okay—just like the—people—transparen—lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get anything to pass.
“What happens to Obamacare now that we’ve all been called stupid?” Fox News’s Bill Hemmer asked this morning, practically licking his chops. In case there’s any doubt that Gruber is Fox’s most useful villain since the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Politifact found that Fox mentioned Gruber at least 779 times between November 10 and November 18 (MSNBC clocked in seventy-nine instances and CNN just twenty-seven in the same period).
Democrats like Nancy Pelosi have only made things worse by trying to distance themselves from Gruber, even though tapes show they knew and respected his work in the past.
And it doesn’t help that in the various tapes, Gruber seems to always be boasting, looking a little too full of himself and his clever tricks. To some, his apparent sneakiness has undercurrents of “shyster.” And they’re not always undercurrents. This disgusting headline from a racist, neo-Nazi website references Rich Weinstein, the man who unearthed some of the Gruber tapes: “Jew Mad About Getting Jewed By Obamacare Finds Clip Of Jew Jonathan Gruber Bragging About [How] He Helped Jew America With Obamacare.”
Surely for most of the Republican base, the stereotype Gruber evokes is more benign. Gruber, says Jon Stewart, is a “super egghead” nerd, what with the academic background, the eyeglasses, and, in Stewart’s estimation, the “pinched nasal tone.” He ran a clip of Eddie Deezen, the actor specializing in nerds, and discovered that his voice is uncannily like Gruber’s.
That’s funny, but Gruber-as-nerd is only an introduction to the essential GOP complaint about Gruber, Obama, scientists and, really, anyone suspected of being less than all-American: the elitist. “It’s the smug, arrogant, elitist attitude heard around the world,” Tea Party radio host Tammy Bruce writes in The Washington Times. “In MIT professor and Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber’s case, you can hear his attitude even before he enters a room.”
However you brand Gruber, he has become, for Obama, an Other from another mother. The professor now so personifies the interloper taking advantage of innocent Americans that he’s become a word onto himself. “On issue after issue,” Kyle Wingfield writes in an Atlanta Journal Constitution blog, “the Obama administration has gone Gruber.”
To Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who’s expected to chair the Senate Budget Committee next year, this “strategy…to hide the truth from the American people” is nothing less than “a threat to the American republic.”
Republicans are calling for, what else, congressional hearings. But like the IRS and Benghazi “scandals” and most things the GOP deems hearings-worthy, “Grubergate” is mostly hot air and bubbles.
If you look behind his braggadocio and the media’s outrage, Gruber wasn’t really saying anything we didn’t already know about how health insurance works (healthy people subsidize sick people; that’s the nature of insurance) or how legislation is written (it ain’t pretty, and never was).
Jonathan Chait did one of the best jobs unpacking this nothingness, and it’s worth repeating. On Gruber’s statement that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” for instance, Chait writes:
Here is where media reports have most badly bungled Gruber’s point. They have treated his line about transparency as if he were describing the entire process of writing and passing the law.
….But Gruber was not talking about passing the law in a non-transparent fashion. Conservatives believe the law was passed non-transparently, but nobody who supported it considers this anything but a bizarre description of one of the most drawn-out public and legislative debates in the history of Congress. Gruber was surely referring to the non-transparent mechanism of regulating insurance companies, causing them to charge less to the sick and more to the healthy, without Congress having to carry out those transfers through direct taxes….
The Washington Post reports that Gruber was caught admitting Obamacare “was crafted in a deliberately deceptive way in order to pass Congress.” That is not what Gruber said in the video. He was trying to explain how the law’s architects had to compromise the simple technocratic purity they might use to design the law in an academic setting to account for an irrational political system in which tiny bits of fact can be decontextualized and manipulated by demagogues. The reaction to Gruber’s comments this week is fitting punishment for his obnoxious phrasing, but only serves to vindicate his underlying beliefs. [Emphasis mine]
Some of those 779 Gruber mentions on Fox News were neither decontextualized nor demagogic, particularly those by Juan Williams on Fox News Sunday:
It’s a feast for critics of Obamacare who suddenly are saying, you know, “Oh, this is why we are upset.” Look, are you kidding me? In Washington, we package, we merchandise just like Procter & Gamble and anybody else that’s selling soap….
In fact, I would say it’s much ado about nothing with Gruber except that the critics of Obamacare are having a field day. The act is working. The uninsured rate in the country has dropped by 25 percent. This is something that Republicans should be celebrating. We have more competition. We’ve done away with the Medicare doughnut hole. We have no lifetime caps and limits, we have no conditions about preexisting illnesses, we have preventative medicine. It’s just incredible to me, though, Republicans persist.
There is, however, one thing Gruber said that could have real consequences. In another video, he seems to say the ACA subsidies are meant only for people enrolled in state exchanges, not for those in the thirty-six states that allow only the federal exchange. But, as Sarah Kliff at Vox explains, “Gruber has since said he spoke “off-the-cuff” and made a mistake. And there’s reason to believe him: Gruber spoke regularly to dozens of reporters during this period, and never mentioned this idea to any of them, and his modeling software always assumed that federal exchanges could use subsidies.” In what amounts to a typo, one clause in the ACA itself also seems to make this mistake, in contradiction to the rest of the entire bill. But it was enough for the Roberts Supreme Court to take up the case, King v. Burwell, which could destroy Obamacare, with or without help from Gruber’s misspeaking tongue.
As usual, the GOP’s persistence is paying off. Gallup released a poll on Monday showing that approval of Obamacare hit a “new numerical low,” of 37 percent.
But another Gallup poll, released last Friday, shows something different and far more important: among people who are actually enrolled in Obamacare, 74 percent rate it as “excellent” or “good.” Joe Scarborough said that poll “took me by surprise.”
Makes sense. With all the bad press over Obamacare since 2009, and now with Grubergate, reality—you know, real people’s real experiences—is often surprising.
Within one day’s time, the defeated, lame-duck Senate Democrats did one very smart thing—they created a new leadership position for Elizabeth Warren so that she can help shape messaging and policy and serve as a liaison to progressive groups—and they did one very stupid thing: they reversed their position and decided to allow a long-delayed vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, next week. It’s an attempt to save pro-energy industry Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu in her in December 6 runoff against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, and it’s worse than futile.
Harry Reid and company are apparently trying to compensate for all the Party money that’s dried up for Landrieu since the midterms (you can barely find her ads on TV, while Cassidy’s are flooding the state). By debating and co-sponsoring the Senate’s Keystone bill, Landrieu will get lots of free media time. But barring a miracle, there’s no way she can win. In the midterm, the third candidate, Republican Rob Maness, won nearly 14 percent of the vote, the vast bulk of which will now go to Cassidy. Who, not coincidentally, was made the lead sponsor of an identical Keystone bill in the House.
Rachel Maddow did a terrific piece (below) on the Dem’s Keystone crap-shoot last night, and summed it up like this:
It will not help Mary Landrieu now anyway, but it will kind of screw the environment, give the Republicans what they want, upset the Democratic base, set the president up for a painful presidential veto, and split the Democratic Party in Congress, and depress Democratic donors….It will win Democrats nothing, at great cost.
Landrieu was on TV today saying that her last-minute push for a Keystone vote “is not about the credit, this is not about the glory, it is not about politics.” That’s ridiculous. It has as much to do with politics as did her brave statement before the election that “the South hasn’t always been the friendliest place for African-Americans” or for women. No doubt she said that to appeal to the black and female electorates, but it was also the obvious and true thing to say, and she took a lot of disingenuous flack for it. But in oil-happy Louisiana, pushing for the pipeline is politics pure and simple, without the truth-to-power garnish.
We’ll be seeing a lot of grandstanding over the next week from the GOP, the right-wing media, and the newly emboldened cluster of conservative Democrats about all the jobs that the toxic tar-sand-carrying Keystone pipeline will create. So a little reminder: after the construction phase, according to Politifact, Keystone will create only about thirty-five permanent jobs. We’re not even talking about the high two digits.
Maddow on Keystone and Landrieu starts at about 1:50:
Now that the Republicans will control the House and the Senate, they’re free to strut their stuff and start governing. Anyway, that’s what some GOP boosters in the media are urging. But Rush Limbaugh as well as National Review Online understand that making laws—ostensibly what the politicians were elected to do—is a dangerous political strategy. In a post the NRO editors actually called “The Governing Trap,” they reasoned thusly:
If Republicans proclaim that they have to govern now that they run Congress, they maximize the incentive for the Democrats to filibuster everything they can—and for President Obama to veto the remainder. Then the Democrats will explain that the Republicans are too extreme to get anything done.
….A prove-you-can-govern strategy will inevitably divide the party on the same tea-party-vs.-establishment lines that Republicans have just succeeded in overcoming. The media will in particular take any refusal to pass a foolish immigration bill that immediately legalizes millions of illegal immigrants as a failure to “govern.”
….If voters come to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are doing a fine job of governing together, why wouldn’t they vote to continue the arrangement in 2016?
Stephen Colbert (who will be the blowhard Stephen ColBER for only several weeks more!) took the governing trap to its logical, absurd conclusion.
The media are spending enormous amounts of time and energy speculating over who’s responsible for the Democratic midterm rout—Obama, the Dems running from Obama, angry voters, apathetic voters—and clearly they all play a significant role. But barely a blip has been devoted to the one thing we actually do know diminished the Democratic, and especially the African-American, vote: the various forms of voter suppression that have been enacted into law in twenty-one states. As Ari Berman writes, based on number-crunching by the Brennan Center for Justice, “The number of voters impacted by the new restrictions exceeded the margin of victory in close races for senate and governor in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida…”
But you won’t hear a lot about voter suppression; it doesn’t fit the dominant media narrative, which largely revolves around the personality of Barack Obama. In fact, in MSM circles it’s considered downright impolitic to link voter restrictions to election results.