Leslie Savan | The Nation


Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Ten Years Later, NPR Still Lets War Hawks Make Pathetic Excuses

Richard Perle, the former chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. (Courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute.)

The war hawks are holding their breath: If they can just get through this week—the tenth anniversary of when they lied us into invading Iraq—without answering any “unreasonable” questions, they’ll be home free. And much of the press, in a small reprise of the obsequiousness that allowed the war in the first place, is proving them right.

We can now add a couple of NPR hosts to the list of journalists reluctant to afflict the comfortable. Renee Montagne’s interview of Richard ("the Prince of Darkness”) Perle on Wednesday’s Morning Edition and Jacki Lyden’s talk with Stephen (“Yellowcake”) Hadley on Sunday’s All Things Considered were not terrible, exactly. They each asked questions that expressed skepticism about the war’s justification. But they also repeated the media’s failings in the run-up to the war, especially an unwillingness to contradict authorities on their “facts” while providing a platform for a pro-war spin-job.  

To be fair, Montagne did ask Perle, former chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and one of the war’s most rabid advocates, one direct question that elicited such a twisted answer it made blog headlines.

Montagne: Ten years later, nearly 5,000 American troops dead, thousands more with wounds, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead or wounded. When you think about this, was it worth it?

Perle: I’ve got to say, I think that is not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done in the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation. You can’t, a decade later, go back and say, ‘Well, we shouldn’t have done that.’

But while Montagne did pose that most obvious of questions, she didn’t follow up by saying, for instance, “Why can’t you go back and say we shouldn’t have done that?” or “Come on, after ten years, that’s the most reasonable question anyone could ask you.” Instead, she used just enough of “that anguished NPR-voice” (as Mike Tomasky put it) to suggest that although she knows the war wasn’t worth it, she’s loathe to make her guest squirm.

Montagne began by asking: “We now know that [Saddam] didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. What did you know at that point that made you so sure?”

Perle: Well, we had intelligence assessments from the CIA, from the Defense Intelligence Agency, from the State Department, from German intelligence, French intelligence, [then with a little laugh at just how many folks agreed with him] British intelligence, and they were all in agreement that Saddam possessed at least chemical and biological weapons, and there was debate about what remnant existed of his one-time nuclear program.

Montagne’s question was fine, but rather than state that no, not all intelligence agencies endorsed the WMD charge and what intelligence did support it was manipulated (as the Downing Street memo put it: “the facts were being fixed around the policy”), she simply let Perle’s assertion linger, and moved on to a new question:

Montagne: But at the same time, the connection to the terrorist attacks on September 11th and Al Qaeda, how to make that connection?

Perle: Well, it isn’t a connection in the sense that I think you’ve asked the question. Let me put it this way. When you wake up on September 11 and discover that you were vulnerable in a way that you never understood before and you ask yourself what could happen next? You do the obvious thing, or at least the administration did the obvious thing. [My italics]

At this point, Montagne might have asked, “You mean you panicked?” It would be impolite, and he would of course obfuscate, but it would cut to the chase: You’re supposed to be a leader, why did you and the rest of them react like a bunch of schoolboys in dark room who’ve been handed grapes and told they’re eyeballs?

Perle went on to spin a web to explain the nuanced sense in which he means “connection”:

Perle: [The administration] made a list of potential threats, and on that list, the single most important potential threat was another attack with a weapon of mass destruction. So then you make a list of who has weapons of mass destruction and who might be motivated either to attack or enable someone else to attack the United States, and Iraq was clearly on that list. It’s easy a decade later to say, well, it turned out that this fact or that presumption was wrong…

Montagne didn’t point out that the Bushies, including Perle, did not resort to nuance to connect Saddam and Al Qaeda—they simply asserted a non-truth, that chief 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta met months before the attack with an Iraqi agent in Prague. They connected the two so well, in fact, that in September 2003 nearly 70 percent of all Americans believed Saddam was behind 9/11.

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In short, by not following through, Montagne failed to make the real connections.

You can listen to the whole interview here:

Jacki Lyden’s interview of Stephen Hadley, the Bush national security adviser who took the blame for inserting the phony yellowcake charge into Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, treated Hadley less as a perpetrator of the war than as an expert on the region. She let her neocon guest (now a senior adviser at the United States Institute for Peace, by the way) begin the chat with the same well-rehearsed talking point as Perle: While mistakes were made and the human toll was horrible (“clearly the situation got away from us,” said Hadley), no one’s responsible because everyone agreed that Saddam had WMD.

Hadley: Republicans thought he had them, Democrats thought he had them, the Clinton administration thought he had them. The Bush administration thought he had them.

Nope, again, not true. Lyden could have cited, for just one example, UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, whose request for more time to find those nonexistent WMD was rebuffed by the Bush administration in its rush to war.

But Hadley goes on to dig a deeper hole:

I think the central judgment that [Saddam] was a man who was a national security threat to the region and to us here at home was true. And if you think about what Iran is doing in terms of pursuing nuclear weapons, you can bet Saddam Hussein would not have been left behind.

Rather than contest those dangerously loony leaps, Lyden moved on to ask whether we met our objectives in Iraq. And so on.

The Hadley interview starts at 7:48.

You can argue that Montagne’s and Lyden’s job isn’t to correct their subjects but simply to ask questions and to let them be hoisted  by their own petards. But they weren't hoisted. They got away with it, and they still are, by exploiting the same sins of omission the press committed 10 years ago. (For the many sins of commission—cheerleading the war, putting false intelligence on the front page of The New York Times, etc.—see my colleague Greg Mitchell.)

And that’s the really galling thing about this week. Yes, most supporters of the war now agree, there were no WMD; yes, it cost too much in blood and treasure. But few (with exceptions like Andrew Sullivan) are saying they have blood on their hands—they’re saying they didn’t know, or they couldn’t be expected to know, or But, mom, everybody was doing it!

That’s what happens when the press fails to do something as basic as ask good follow-up questions: It not only encourages war criminals to mumble the same pathetic excuses, it wears further away at fact-based logic itself.

We can only imagine what the neocons will be saying on the twentieth anniversary of the war.

Also read Greg Mitchell on the many excuses that have been made for the unjust war in Iraq.

Fast Times at MSNBC

Last night, Ed Schultz broke one of MSNBC’s biggest scoops ever—revealing the identity of the man who surreptitiously taped Mitt Romney insisting that “47 percent” of the American people were deadbeats. Then, moments after his fascinating interview with 38-year-old bartender Scott Prouty, Ed announced that the last Ed Show will air tonight, and that he’s moving to a new weekend slot on MSNBC in April.

This morning, as many of us were still trying to digest that bit of tumult, the network announced that Chris Hayes, longtime Nation writer and host of the smartest, most stimulating political show on TV, Up w/ Chris Hayes, will replace Schultz in the choice 8 PM weeknight spot.

Although Schultz has been a vociferous champion of labor—indeed, Prouty said he chose Ed’s show to reveal his identity because Schultz has been “speaking up for workers all across America. That’s the reason I’m here today”—Hayes is, if anything, even more progressive. But he’s not quite the picket organizer Ed clearly likes to be. Hayes is a younger, cooler and decidedly more nerdy-in-a-good-way on-air personality. He likes to question issues from every conceivable side and to think outside the two-party box. He not only brings on guests you don’t usually see on TV, but his heady discussions often fire up brain cells you don’t usually use, especially when sitting in front of the tube. The only question is, will Hayes have that sort of latitude in a show half as long.

The New York Times’s Brian Stelter, who in November speculated that MSNBC might replace Ed with the WaPo’s Ezra Klein, posed the shift from Schultz to Hayes as “bluster” vs. wonk. While Schultz’s ratings were quite healthy, Stelter writes:

The change is predicated on the belief that MSNBC can win a wider audience with Mr. Hayes than it did with Mr. Schultz, a champion of the working class whose bluster didn’t always pair well with Ms. Maddow and the channel’s other prime-time program, “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.” Mr. Hayes, on the other hand, is just as wonky as Ms. Maddow and Mr. O’Donnell, and is a regular contributor to both of their programs.

I’ve always liked that MSNBC’s nighttime hosts “didn’t always pair well.” I like that the lineup mixes it up in terms of smooth and rough: There’s the heartfelt activist Al Sharpton, the obsessive politico Chris Matthews, the sharp analytical Maddow, and the Hollywoodish O’Donnell with the insider cheat sheets.

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Then there is the more populist Ed, a sports-loving, gun-owning, non-coastal guy, a self-described former right-wing shock jock who learned how the system crushes the little guy and will have none of it. Sure, he can be hot-headed, but usually only on his popular radio show, where he’ll occasionally yell at right-wing callers. And sure, his show would ask incredibly leading poll questions (like, “Do you trust Republicans to play by the rules with election money?”).

But I thought it was bold of MSNBC to give a show to a lefty who could go head to head, and gut to gut, with right-wing talkers and who is like a rock for workers and unions. And his ratings, second only to Maddow’s on the network in February, seemed to bear out this approach.

Ed says he can put those qualities to better use in a 5 to 7 PM show on Saturdays and Sundays. Others may see it as a demotion, but:

I raised my hand for this assignment for a number of personal and professional reasons. My fight on The Ed Show has been for the workers and the middle class in this country. This new time slot will give me the opportunity to produce and focus on stories that I care about and that I know are terribly important to American families and American workers.

I’m very proud of the work our team has done here at 8 PM, but I gotta tell you, sitting behind this desk five nights a week just doesn’t cut it for me. I want to get out with the people…and tell their stories.

Ed’s defense of the union movement has been all too rare in mainstream American politics, where even using the word “labor” can seem, at best, old-fashioned and, at worst, vaguely commie. Indeed, the media’s avoidance of labor issues parallels how the word “jobs” has disappeared from economic discussions, buried alive by abstract distractions like “deficits,” “fiscal cliffs” and “sequesters.”

Prouty, a registered Independent, chose to come out on The Ed Show, though he was invited on by much higher-rated programs, like The Today Show, because he liked Ed’s advocacy.

The Prouty episode is the perfect summation for Ed’s primetime journey at MSNBC, the exclamation point for his show. We’ll see the next chapter in April.

Unlike the fire-breathers of MSNBC, mainstream talk shows are too corporate and timid to provoke real debate, Leslie Savan writes.

Cognitus Interruptus on the Sunday Morning Talk Shows

This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

The thing that most frustrates me about political speech as a form of marketing—and that’s what most mainstream media Sunday talk shows are, marketing to corporate management—is that it’s always slamming the door on its own logic. Hosts discuss controversial subjects, of course, but they’ll only go so far. This strikes me as, at best, ineffective marketing. It makes me want to see what’s behind the curtain, rather than take the hint that this is as far as polite discussion is to be taken among right-thinking people.

Last Sunday was no exception. First, on This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

The panelists were weighing in on the gay marriage cases the Supreme Court will hear later this month. Even conservative guests Paul Gigot and Mia Love seemed to approve of the Obama administration, prominent businesses and some 130 (and mostly out-of-office) Republicans filing briefs supporting the repeal of California’s Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage.

Matthew Dowd, former George W. Bush senior strategist, was effusive:

The march of history is already moving and Republicans know if they stand in the way on this, this is just like civil rights, women’s rights…. History is now moving. This issue is done. Republicans have to come face to face with the idea, this issue is over.

Wait, did he just say that Republicans have to face the idea that the issue of gay rights—like civil rights and women’s rights—is over? Did he just tell us that Republicans know they can’t stand in the way of “the march of history”?

Dowd may believe that, or maybe in his enthusiasm he overstated it. But why didn’t Stephanopoulos use that moment to, um, at least mention that last week the Supreme Court heard arguments to overturn Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and that Justice Scalia complained that protecting this civil right represents the “perpetuation of racial entitlement”—which pretty much add up to the definition of reversing the march of history. (Meanwhile, the GOP is busy harassing other marchers by closing down women’s health clinics and waving around trans-vaginal probes like nightsticks.) I shouted at the TV, “Why isn’t anyone talking about that!” But George didn’t hear me and moved on to CPAC’s snub of Chris Christie.

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The second Great Ignoring of an Obvious Question came, as it often does, from David Gregory on Meet the Press. He did get some positive notice, even from the left, for calling out John Boehner on sequester politics. Boehner made a ridiculous statement (i.e., he lied) that “there’s no plan from Senate Democrats or the White House to replace the sequester.”

DAVID GREGORY: But, Mr. Speaker, that’s just not true. They’ve made it very clear, as the president just did, that he has a plan that he’s put forward that involves entitlement cuts, that involves spending cuts, that you’ve made a choice, as have Republicans, to leave tax loopholes in place. And you’d rather have those and live with all these arbitrary cuts…

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: Well, David that’s just nonsense. If he had a plan, why wouldn’t Senate Democrats go ahead and pass it?

Good for Gregory—up to a point. As the Daily Kos notes:

Gregory pivoted to tax revenues at that point, missing the very obvious response: [51] Senate Democrats did vote for a plan. But Senate Republicans filibustered it. Just as they’ve filibustered every major piece of legislation that’s come down the pike over the past four years.

So close, Mr. Gregory, so close.

UP with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry are different from these shows not only because they’re lefty, but because they wouldn’t let something like that slip. They try to pursue ideas to their logical conclusions, in order to lay bare the basic political choices each issue poses.

The only way not to be frustrated by the corporate news shows is to accept what they are: talking-point generators for leading the public where management wants it go. It’s like that scene in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where the legion files into Rome, keeping time to the song sung by their commander, Miles Gloriosus, by chanting, “Left, right, left, right…”

When Gloriosus calls out to them, “There’s none of the enemy left, right?” the soldiers start chanting, “Right, right, right…” And walk into a wall.

Meanwhile, in the alternate reality of right-wing talk shows, Sean Hannity got a boost from Bob Woodward—or is he just playing to Woodward’s agenda?

Hannity’s Brand: Slap Ellison, Defend Woodward and Always Mislead

Sean Hannity and Bob Woodward.

Of all the right-wing media’s big guns, Sean Hannity has always seemed the most obtuse and, to me, the least watchable.

With Rush Limbaugh you get to see an intelligent, even subtle, demagogic mind at work. Glenn Beck, in his day, was a marvel of wild whoopee, a rabid dog howling not only at the crescent moon over the Islamic Caliphate but at the Republican establishment. Bill O’Reilly is tough but agglomerated—watching him means catching occasional glints of independent thought, like on gun control or, tardy though it was, the Iraq War.

But Hannity, neither amusing nor original, is the most predictable of the apparatchiks, the hackiest of the hacks; he is, as Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) told him on his Fox News show on Tuesday, “a shill for the Republican Party.” The thick-headed Hannity didn’t contend the shill part, just the “party” part. “Sir, I’m a registered conservative,” he shot back at Ellison, and betrayed his working-class Everyman shtick with a Romneyesque offer: “You want to make a $10,000 bet?”

In fact, Hannity is such a Republican shill that the night before the election, he declared that Romney would win, and take Florida, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire in the process. And what did he get for his troubles? Fleeing audiences. The February Nielsens show that in the 25- to 54-year-old “money demo,” Hannity’s ratings dropped a stunning 35 percent from 2012 (O’Reilly’s fell 26 percent). All cable news numbers tend to sink after the highs of an election, but MSNBC shows fell by smaller percentages, while some on CNN actually increased.

Desperate to seem relevant again, Hannity has been trying his best recently to manufacture news. He had Representative Ellison, the only Muslim in the US House, on his show Tuesday, only to have him sit through a misleading, O Fortuna–themed montage of President Obama campaigning on the sequester, which led to a predictable blowout between the congressman and his smirking host. Ellison called Hannity "immoral" for his many lies and "the worst excuse for a journalist I've ever seen." It got Hannity's show on to the winger blogs, and the video went semi-viral. To keep those hits coming, ever since Hannity has been attacking Ellison's long-ago and since renounced "radical connections" to Louis Farrakhan, and asking, "Do we have somebody then in Congress that is the equivalent on one side what the Klan is?"

But Hannity's big prize last night was Bob Woodward. The buckle-on-the-Beltway journalist wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post that claimed Obama's calling for added revenues to avoid the sequester was "moving the goal posts," an idea so politically dangerous, according to Woodward, that the White House threatened to get even with him for it.

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The Woodward thing was huge in the right-rage media for a few hours, so happy were they to get the former Nixon-slayer spouting their agitprop. Unfortunately for Hannity, however, the whole thing wound up reinforcing his current brand problem: his show is the best place to find faux outrage and fake arguments that make the base feel good, but turn out to be utterly misleading in the end.

In a nutshell, Woodward took a mild e-mail by Obama economics adviser Gene Sperling (sent, it read, "as a friend") suggesting that Woodward would "regret" his sequester assertion, and hyped it into a threat to his person and the First Amendment itself. Once Politico had published the full e-mail, however, it became pretty clear that Woodward was either laughably thin-skinned or just another partisan GOP tool. Last night, Woodward made it all worse by first telling Sean, accurately, that he himself had never used the word "threat"—but within minutes, encouraged by Hannity's full-throated huff, he characterized Sperling's "regret" as a "coded 'you better watch out.'"

Woodward knew that if you're having a problem getting a sketchy conservative political line over with the public, the Fox News show most likely to help you bootstrap it together with some sense of aplomb is Hannity's. But by the time Hannity had the big fish on his show, many other conservatives were already worried that Woodward was a trap, or, at the least, a clever way to sell more establishmentarian books. "Looks like we were played," The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis wrote.

Hannity's show is still number four among the cable news shows, and there's always the chance that his dramatic drop in ratings is temporary. But then again, maybe Hannity, who at heart is still a 1990s, padded-shoulders kind of conservative—a bully boy adapted for the early days of the financial boom—is just terribly out-dated. Lately his "Mission Accomplished" swagger seems less like a mark of certainty than a reminder that he's so often wrong. Even when he tries to reform, as he did days after the election by claiming he "evolved" on immigration and promised to quit describing undocumented immigrants as "illegal aliens," the temptation to backslide must be almost irresistible.

It's hard for him. Hannity is the bubble inside the right-wing media bubble, the drill sergeant who keeps everyone in line. When he finally pops, you'll know the GOP is changing.

Read Leslie Savan on the sequester and some conservatives’ change of heart.

More Than the Sequester Clock Is Ticking

Florida Governor Rick Scott, who recently shocked fellow Republicans by agreeing to the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon.)

Last night, I underwent an unintentional thought experiment: My husband noticed there was no clock in my home office and offered to buy me one as a gift. That would be great, I said, just please don’t get one of those battery-driven clocks with their annoyingly loud tick-tock. No sooner had I said that than I heard the battery-driven tick-tock that had been pounding away in my office for a couple of years.

The ticking was coming from my kid’s alarm clock, which I’d shoved onto a bookshelf after he’d complained about it. I spend most of my waking hours in this room, so how was it possible that I didn’t notice the ticking for years? Is the power of the mind so strong that it can block out sound—and was the power of suggestion (in this case, the mere mention of a clock) so strong that it could instantly unblock those sounds? I don’t want to get all tell-tale heart about it, but, once reminded of it, I couldn’t stop hearing the damn tick-tock, tick-tock. Forget Edgar Allen Poe—I was as on-edge about that ticking child’s alarm clock as Captain Hook was about his crocodile’s. (Needless to say, I moved the contraption.)

And if my mind can play this trick, what sort of tricks are our millions of minds playing on us in concert? It’s a fundamental personal and political problem: The inattentive brain and its tendency to function on auto-pilot can lead surgeons to sew up instruments in their patients’ guts, Joe Biden to say the silliest things, and the punditocracy to repeat, despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, that austerity will pave the toward economic growth.

As we get ready for next week’s sequesterribilis, brought on by massive groupthink (and one accepted by only a minority among us), it’s made me think about how important it is to act as an individual at times like these. As Tommy Lee Jones said in Men in Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.” Somebody has to turn the herd.

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And that made me think about Florida governor Rick Scott, a sworn enemy of Obamacare, who shocked the right-wing rage-world Wednesday by agreeing to accept the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act. Political pressure obviously played a role, but one of Scott’s own explanations for his 180 is that when his mother died, in November, his compassion was suddenly unblocked. “Losing someone so close to you,” he said, “puts everything in a new perspective, especially the big decisions.”

Glad he’s aboard, but it’s rather disgusting that Scott was numb to the losses and suffering of his state’s uninsured citizens until he experienced a deep loss himself. But he’s not the first politician, or human, to change a belief only when a personal experience busts an otherwise impermeable bubble—Dick Cheney supports gay marriage because he has a gay married daughter; former senator Pete Domenici, one of his era’s more prominent deficit hawks, fought, alongside Paul Wellstone, for parity in mental health coverage, in large part because he has a daughter diagnosed with schizophrenia. (Domenici, of course, is in the news today for completely unrelated reasons.)

But I understand. It’s all too easy to be oblivious to what’s going on around you until you are reminded, one way or another, that there’s a tick-tock in a croc somewhere for us all.

Marco Rubio's now-infamous water lunge could be a sign of the Republican agenda's fundamental unsoundness, Leslie Savan writes.

Does Marco Rubio's Lunge for the Water Bottle Matter?

It wasn’t the slurp; it wasn’t the sudden downward lunge to grab a water bottle, as unique in the history of very important speeches as that maneuver was. It was the furtive look on Marco Rubio’s face as he tried to keep his eyes facing the camera between each of his quick-sneak glances off-stage—as if he were a kid playing peek-a-boo, and we weren’t supposed to notice him when he couldn’t see us.

The Poland Spring moment is going to be the only thing remembered about the Republican response to Obama’s 2013 State of the Union speech because it confirms a larger impression: First, Rubio seems really young, with that soft voice and those baby-fat cheeks. Especially when compared to the graying, emphatic Obama. Republicans who try to appeal outside the rock-ribbed base seem to have a recurring Kenneth the Page problem.

And Rubio’s furtive back-and-forth with the camera mirrors the trouble the GOP has as it oscillates between the image it wants to project and reality. A young fogy like Rubio is supposed to exemplify the new, youthful, Latino- (and even Tupac-) friendly face of the party, even as he spouts the same old soak-the-poor economics that his Latino-, black- and youth vote–suppressing base just can’t quit.

For all the elders’ (and the media’s) hopes that Rubio will be the GOP’s Obama, Obama never had to bridge a chasm that deep.

Still, you couldn’t help but feel for the guy. Time magazine did Rubio no favors by slapping him on the cover and declaring him the “The Republican Savior,” only to have party handlers push him out in front of a camera with no podium and a tempting bottle of water just out of easy reach. (Where are all those overpaid, high-production-value political consultants this time of the year?)

Maybe Rubio was nervous because he was speaking words that (1) he may not really believe, and (2) even if he does believe them, are so contradictory as to make no sense at all. “More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them,” he said—while several breaths later he admitted that he couldn’t have gone to college without government assistance and that retirees in his own working-class neighborhood “depend on Social Security and Medicare.” That’s like trying to walk and chew gum with your knees.

Dry mouth and flop sweat don’t always indicate that one isn’t telling the truth, of course. But consider the magnitude of Rubio’s assignment. As Paul Krugman puts it:

Faced with overwhelming, catastrophic evidence that their faith in unregulated financial markets was wrong, [Republicans] have responded by rewriting history to defend their prejudices.

This strikes me as a bigger deal than whether Rubio slurped his water; he and his party are now committed to the belief that their pre-crisis doctrine was perfect, that there are no lessons from the worst financial crisis in three generations except that we should have even less regulation.

The only hopeful sign is that—unlike Rand Paul, who gave the Tea Party response without a glitch—Rubio did the oral version of a blink. He gulped.

McCain, Scarborough and What 'Everyone Knows'

Wow. John McCain has had his tantrums before, but rarely has one revealed how intertwined his personal feelings and the Republican Party’s political tactics have become.

During Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings for defense secretary, McCain went Captain Queeg on his former BFF and fellow Vietnam vet for daring to question the wisdom of the surge in Iraq, which just happened to be the centerpiece of McCain’s argument that he’d make a better president than Barack Obama in 2008. McCain expressed shock that anyone anywhere could possibly fail to grasp what everyone knows—that the surge “worked” and the war needed to be won.

The tactic was to preemptively limit Hagel’s testimony to a single tree, so the forest could stay camouflaged. But McCain’s barely suppressed note of senior-officer outrage made Thursday’s exchange into a continual rerun right through the Sunday morning talk shows:

McCAIN: I want to know if you are right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.
HAGEL: The surge assisted in the objective. But—but, if we review the record a little bit…
McCAIN: Will you please answer the question—were you correct or incorrect when he said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect? Yes or no?
HAGEL: My reference to the surge being…
McCAIN: Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That’s a straightforward question. I would like to answer whether you are right or wrong and then you are free to elaborate.
HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer.
McCAIN: Well, let the record show he refuses to answer the question. Now please go ahead.
HAGEL: Well, if you would like me to explain…
McCAIN: No, I actually would like an answer, yes or no.
HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no on a lot of things today…. As to the comment I made about the most dangerous foreign policy decision since Vietnam, that was about not just the surge, but the overall war of choice going into Iraq.

McCain doesn’t want to hear about the “overall war,” of course, much less if it was one of choice or necessity. He wants to put Hagel in the position of sounding unpatriotic, or at least out of the can-do military mainstream, for refusing to salute a command decision. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to do that.

But at the same time, McCain is burning with personal frustration because Hagel was disloyal—to John McCain. Although Hagel was one of McCain’s most stalwart supporters against George W. Bush in 2000, he refused to endorse McCain in 2008 because of their differences over the Iraq war; Hagel’s wife quite publicly endorsed Obama. Because he lost to Obama, the Maverick is never going to rise higher than senator from Arizona, but here was another Republican senator, one elected a full ten years after McCain joined the club, moving up to head the most powerful military force the world has ever known. If McCain’s hysteria winds up leaving his legacy as small as his grudges, well, so be it.

But beneath McCain’s anger was a brittle and increasingly common form of argument. As Andrew Sullivan put it:

What’s striking to me is not McCain’s fury or douchiness (what’s new?)—but his complete assumption that he couldn’t possibly be wrong, his insistence that this debate is already over, and his refusal to allow for the notion that this question may only eventually be resolved by a more distant historical judgment.

This tightly sealed close-mindedness is a tactic rightwing pols and pundits seem to be deploying more frequently lately as their actual policies—on taxes, guns, women’s rights, gay rights, immigration—are rejected by the public.

In fact, right now we have a glaring parallel to the neocon hawks like McCain: austerity hawks who insist that it’s absolutely urgent that we attack Iraq to get rid of WMD entitlements to get rid of the deficit.

And in both cases, the media, ever fearful of diverging from the conventional wisdom, has feathered the hawks’ nests.

Joe Scarborough’s screed for Politico last week, called “Paul Krugman vs. the world,” is a good example. Scarborough tried to paint Krugman as the only economist on the planet who advocates focusing on jobs and growing the economy rather than cutting the deficit (though he couldn’t help letting a note of personal resentment creep in, writing that Krugman’s “worldview runs counter to almost all mainstream economists and he got a Nobel Prize for his efforts”). Actually, as Joe Weisenthal shows, there’s no dearth of mainstream economists—conservatives, liberals and Wall Streeters among them—who agree with Krugman. But Scarborough’s (and his Morning Joe crew’s) insistence that everyone knows cutting the deficit should be our chief priority is a way of quashing dissent by invoking an imaginary overwhelming majority. The sneer about the Swedes is supposed to rally red-blooded patriots against the surrender monkeys in Europe.

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Whatever you call the process that conjures make-believe consensus—group think, an echo chamber, Bill Maher’s inside-the-bubble, or Greg Sargent’s Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop—it is powerfully seductive, and it exists across policy debates. Krugman writes:

Back during the early days of the Iraq debacle, I learned that the military has a term for how highly dubious ideas become not just accepted, but viewed as certainties. “Incestuous amplification” happens when a closed group of people repeat the same things to each other—and when accepting the group’s preconceptions itself becomes a necessary ticket to being in the in-group.

It’s as old as high school, and it’s a kind of bullying. But it’s also aimed at quelling the least bit of doubt in the bully’s own mind, a way of squeezing out negative thoughts that threaten his in-group status.

And that’s why it can be so infuriating when someone questions the assumptions of the official line. About three weeks ago, Scarborough had his own McCainian meltdown as he tried to drive home the putative chauvinism of President Obama revealed by a White House photo showing an all-male Oval Office crew (except for a glimpse of Valerie Jarrett’s leg). For about a week there, Republicans offered the photo as dispositive proof that Democrats hate women, too. When Mika Brzezinski and Katty Kay pooh-poohed Scarborough’s charge of sexism, he began to lose it, snarking audibly while Kay tried to speak. Brzezinski, accurately enough, told him he was “being chauvinistic.”

“You’re calling the wrong guy a chauvinist,” Joe burst out. “You’re calling the wrong guy a chauv—. And seriously, hold on”—he actually snapped his fingers, three times, at Brzezinski—“Do you want to call me a chauvinist?…. Am I a chauvinist? Am I chauvinist? Let’s just settle that question RIGHT NOW!”

Scarborough later apologized, saying he’d been “in a dark place,” and vowed to interrupt Mika “less.” Scarborough, who’s evolved on issues like guns, climate change and the wars, is more flexible than McCain. But it’s true, right now, McCain, Scarborough and their party are in a dark place and it’s hard to keep your temper when people simply refuse to fall in line. Everyone knows that.

Another case of conservative groupthink has been the delusion that Barack Obama is waging a "War on the GOP."

Who’s Trying to 'Annihilate' the GOP?

John Boehner and Barack Obama in 2011. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)

When John Boehner whined last week that Obama’s goal for his second term is to “annihilate the Republican Party” and “shove us into the dustbin of history,” he was working the party into a psychological state much like James Franco had to in 127 Hours: They’re getting ready to accept that they will have to sequester their arm with a dull knife.

Of course, Obama’s War on the GOP is about as real as the liberals’ War on Christmas—both are paranoid, apocalyptic fantasies marketed to drum up fear and self-pity on the right. Obama telling Republicans to “Please proceed” is no more tantamount to annihilating the GOP than chirping “Happy Holidays” is to eliminating Christmas.

Instead, this is a classic case of psychological projection. Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich, Frank Luntz, and senators Bob Corker, Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint, among other right thinkers, actually held a meeting the night of the 2009 Inaugural to plot to undermine Obama’s newborn presidency with nonstop obstructionism. The next year, Mitch McConnell said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” And yet, after these plans failed to block Obama’s re-election and instead cost the GOP a number of House and Senate seats to boot, here is Boehner saying his party is the victim of existential aggression.

Paranoid projection—whether subconscious or deliberate—is part and parcel of the GOP’s broader denial of so much of contemporary reality, whether it’s climate change, demographic change, macroeconomics or polls that don’t go their way.

But mostly, they deny who that black man claiming to be president really is. And so they’ve created an Imaginary Obama, who is just as crazily radical as the Ryan budget would be, if it were passed, or as Bush’s war in Iraq actually was. In one of the funnier attempts to portray Obama’s insidiously well-cloaked but devastatingly destructive nature, Breitbart.com wrote that by supporting gay rights in his Inaugural speech, the president had “bullied” the Supreme Court justices on the dais into going gay-friendly in their upcoming decisions.

It’s a short step from believing that Obama wants to decimate your party to believing he’s making your party choose hard-right fringe policies that will alienate voters. And as Jonathan Chait writes, moderate Republicans like David Brooks and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who resent the extremists but won’t break from their party, are particularly susceptible to this “pathological” notion.

The prevalent expression of this psychological pain is the belief that President Obama is largely or entirely responsible for Republican extremism. It’s a bizarre but understandable way to reconcile conflicting emotions—somewhat akin to blaming your husband’s infidelity entirely on his mistress. In this case, moderate Republicans believe that Obama’s tactic of taking sensible positions that moderate Republicans agree with is cruel and unfair, because it exposes the extremism that dominates the party, not to mention the powerlessness of the moderates within it.

Yes, Brooks wrote that Dems think Obama should “invite a series of confrontations with Republicans over things like the debt ceiling—[to] make them look like wackos willing to endanger the entire global economy.”


Worse, argues Brooks, Obama is nastily choosing an agenda intended only to harm Republicans. Obama’s proposals on gun safety and immigration, he writes, are “wedge issues meant to divide Southerners from Midwesterners, the Tea Party/Talk Radio base from the less ideological corporate and managerial class.”

Brooks asserts, but does not actually explain, that Obama chose these issues for the purpose of dividing the opposition—as opposed to trying to cut down on mass murders and fix a huge field of broken policy.

What Obama does do, by being a politically moderate and emotionally calm leader with a beautiful family, is hold a mirror up to the chaotic and hysterical Republican leadership. This strikes them as very mean, and they blame Obama for what they see, Man of La Mancha style.

So now they are struggling to dream an Impossible Dream: taking back the political momentum by simply agreeing to the “poison pill” plan that the sequester was supposed to be, cutting $1.2 trillion from the budget spread equally between defense and domestic spending. The corporate end of the party will scream at those cuts, and fear the economic impact of austerity; the ultra base, now increasingly gerrymandered into scarlet congressional districts with little incentive to compromise, would get, given the $1.2 trillion Obama has already agreed to cut from the budget, something like the Ryan budget’s $2.4 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years. "I think the sequester's going to happen,” Ryan said today on Meet the Press.

In a game of chicken like this one, the GOP has to convince us all that they mean it in order to win, so there may be a lot of play-acting here. But they also need to concentrate the minds of every Republican in the House to make the threat real. And nothing does that like the threat of “annihilation.”

Is Obama in denial about Republican obstructionism? Read Rick Perlstein's take on the president and how his upbringing in Indonesia might have affected his personality.

If at First You Don’t Secede…

…then grab your gun, run for the hills, and hole up in a right-wing paranoid paradise, complete with post-Waco lifestyle amenities like condos, media centers, and arms factories.

The secessionist movement may have peaked, what with the White House last week rejecting petitions from eight states to leave the union. But just in time comes word of two new planned communities that offer a kind of internal secession: You’d get to retain your citizenship and the benefits it confers (like the right to chant “USA! USA!”), but you could at least feel free from liberals, socialists and other vermin as you defiantly stand your ground with like-minded folks who fear the thumb of the feds.

The most radical of these far-right utopias, each still in the planning stage, is the Citadel, a gated (and turreted) community strictly for “Patriots” with a survivalistic bent. The Citadel is “a martial endeavor designed to protect Residents in times of peril (natural or man-made),” according to its website, iiicitadel.com. “If Liberty has been missing from the life of your family,” the sales pitch tempts, “consider the Citadel for your new home.”

Funded by a gun manufacturer, III Arms Company in West Virginia, the Citadel has purchased twenty acres on a mountaintop in Idaho and hopes to expand to at least 2,000 acres in the Obama-resistant “American Redoubt.” Thousands of families would live within its defensible walls and towers, and each tower, in fact, “will house condos.” The Citadel, not to be confused with the military college in South Carolina, would include a fortified castle, a firearms museum and “a modern firearms company that would employ residents.” Although “all of the company’s profits would be donated to the Citadel,” none dare call it a commune.

Indeed, the site warns: “Marxists, Socialists, Liberals and Establishment Republicans may find that living within our Citadel Community is incompatible with their existing ideology and preferred lifestyles.”

Being white and Christian is not a requirement for Citadelians, but packing heat is. The Idaho Statesman writes that residents would have to agree to conditions such as:

— Being able to shoot a man-sized steel target at various distances with a handgun and a rifle….

— Keeping on hand an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle variant, at least five magazines, 1,000 rounds of ammunition and other supplies….

— Being armed with a loaded sidearm whenever visiting the Citadel’s town center.

The FAQ page handles any funny feelings you may have, like: “Are You a Bunch of Wackos/Cultists/Racists… etc.?” (“Actually, quite the opposite,” it answers) and “Won’t The Federal Government or Military Simply Blow Up Your Town?”

Why would they? We are a law-abiding group of people minding our own business. We are conducting our affairs in an open and transparent manner. The Citadel Community is designed to be a safe haven and a major tourist destination. The US Government does not make a habit of blowing up law abiding citizens and tourists on American soil.

Glenn Beck seems to think otherwise. In introducing his planned, $2 billion “city-theme park hybrid,” called Independence USA, he explained why he’s going big, really big: “I believe that if we’re ever going to build something like this, I believe it needs to leave the message, ‘You will literally have to wipe us off the face of the earth and wipe us off the map before you can erase the truth that is America.’ ”

The most likely setting for the apocalyptical city-state of Beckistan is Texas, the heart of the secession movement (the nearly 126,000 signatures on its petition to secede far outnumber those of other states). Like the Citadel, Independence would aim to be self-sufficient, providing its own food and energy, but its object of worship is less the gun than the utterly unfettered free market. (Though not really: no Gaps or Ann Taylors allowed, and cars—cars!—will be banned in some areas.)

The architectural love child of Walt Disney and Ayn Rand, Beck’s dream is based on “Galt’s Gulch,” the community inspired by John Galt, capitalist superhero of Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. The libertarian mecca, entered through an Ellis Island–like gate, would include a ranch, a media center (from which Beck would run his communications/agit-prop empire), a multidenominational church “modeled on the Alamo,” and the Marketplace, where “owners and tradesmen could hold apprenticeships and teach young people the skills and entrepreneurial spirit that has been lost in today’s entitlement state.”

“At the center—in the middle of the lake that is itself larger than all of Disney Land,” Rightwing Watch writes, “Beck (with the help of [Christian nationalist pseudo-historian] David Barton) will create a massive ‘national archive’/learning center where people can send their children to be ‘deprogrammed’ and elected officials can come to learn ‘the truth.’ ”

There are, of course, lesser forms of internal secession: shutting down the government, impeaching the president for unimpeachable offenses, states arresting federal officers in pursuit of their duties, and the whole Tenther movement itself.

But only by retreating into a well-regulated right-wing community can you achieve the next best thing to true secession: a state within a state-of-mind.

Banned From TV on Conventional Wisdom's Holy Day, Ornstein and Mann Briefly Return

It was a small victory in the battle against false equivalency in the media: pundits Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann were on a Sunday morning talk show.

That may not sound like a big deal—after all, Ornstein used to be a Beltway media fixture, and he and Mann have for years been among the “most quotable” sources for media on the Hill. But last weekend CNN’s Reliable Sources became the first mainstream Sunday news program the two have appeared on since their op-ed “Let’s Admit It: The Republicans Are to Blame” was published nine months ago in The Wash Post. Their crime? They “came out” from years of straight-down-the-middle political opining to point out that not only are Republicans threatening the economy and democracy itself, but the mainstream media enable them by refusing to notice.

Despite hoots and hollers from the sidelines, the MSM continue to pretend that the GOP emperor wears the finest of clothes, even as his parade of reality-denying, gun-toting, hostage-taking supporters do a striptease for the nation every filibusterin’ day. In the name of “balance” (and keeping advertisers), the media blame the country’s problems on a generic “Congress” or “Washington.” Or they cry, as Ornstein and Mann write, “’Both sides do it’ or ‘There is plenty of blame to go around,’ ” mantras that “are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias.”

After their op-ed and the book it’s adapted from, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, came out in April, Ornstein (of the conservative American Enterprise Institute) and Mann (of the centrist Brookings Institution) went missing from Big Media.

“It’s hard to exaggerate just how popular Mann and Ornstein were with the press before their apostasy,” Dan Froomkin writes in the Huffington Post. “They were quite possibly the two most quotable men in Washington.”

But quoting them on how the media creates symmetry where there is none hits a little too close to home. “We know from some of the most prominent journalists in America that [false equivalency] is a main point of contention,” Ornstein told me by phone. “And to have radio silence” after the book came out means it “clearly touched a nerve.”

Behind the scenes, however, the media and the rest of Washington were buzzing with Mann and Ornstein’s thesis. Their article went viral within hours.

“It was the topic people were talking about in political circles,” says Ornstein, adding that the political director of one network told him colleagues were asking themselves whether they “were doing false equivalency, and all that. It opened up a conversation in the newsroom.”

Ornstein and Mann were not completely absent from the media. They were (and still are) in print and on the Internet; they did Jon Stewart, radio, and weekday television, mostly on MSNBC. But until Reliable Sources last weekend, their sole sighting on a Sunday public affairs program was on MSNBC’s decidedly non-mainstream “Up w/ Chris Hayes,” back in June. Otherwise, they’ve been virtually banned from TV on conventional wisdom’s Holy Day.

“The whole point of the Sunday show panels is to talk about what people are talking about,” says Ornstein. “You can have me on or someone else, but how can you not talk about what people are talking about? You have to make a conscious decision to not do it.”

Ornstein, who in the past had appeared on Meet the Press and This Week with George Stephanopoulos, shows that have also used his and Mann’s articles to launch discussions, says: “I sent George the book and I know he got it, and we communicated a couple of times, but I haven’t been invited to the show. We got the book to David Gregory,” but they didn’t hear back.

“It has been brought up on a couple of Sunday shows, but not by the hosts,” he adds. “David Corn [of Mother Jones] brought it up on Face the Nation. And when he mentioned it, Peggy Noonan said, ‘Boo hoo,’ and that was that.”

Reliable Sources, a show on media issues hosted by Howard Kurtz, isn’t big league like MTP, but it's definitely mainstream. Ornstein believes the show finally had him and Mann on because of Froomkin’s piece last month. It shamed the press for ignoring their work “expos[ing] how fabulists and liars can exploit the elite media’s fear of being seen as taking sides.”

On Reliable Sources, Ornstein offered a particularly clear description of false equivalency. Too many journalists, he said, figure that

if we’re like the law and we present advocates from one side and advocates from the other, then everything is fine.

So, if you represent 99.5 percent of scientists on climate change with one person and a half a percent with the other side, you’re fine with that.

Kurtz obviously gets their argument, but even then he struggled not to appear to take sides:

KURTZ: But at the same time, I just have to wonder, maybe you just don’t like where the Republican Party has gone…. And so this is more of an ideological message on your part as opposed to calling out the press for supposed bias.

MANN: It could be, but I don’t believe it is. We don’t do that kind of analysis and —

KURTZ: You do it right here. “The Republicans are extremists. Republicans are radicals.”

MANN: But look to see how we back it up. I mean, we really look at arguments made and there’s no truth content to them.

It’s just stunning what Republicans have said and been willing to do that’s simply aren’t true, not in a little fact-checking way, but in broad arguments about what America’s about, where we’ve come from, why we have deficit problems now, what government spending does to jobs, and the like.

Mann and Ornstein are not unsympathetic to the news media. “Journalists are struggling with this dilemma, on how they’re reporting both sides,” Ornstein told me. “They’re caught in the crosshairs, where they can be pounced on for showing bias” by bloggers, politicians, and advertisers. “But the consequences are very significant for the political process.”

Especially over the next few months, when the GOP-created debt-ceiling “crisis” will be sucking all the air out of political media. They will no doubt treat the political party that bows before Wayne LaPierre and Grover Norquist as equal to the one that, for all its faults, does tend to want to improve life for most Americans.  

Hey, journos: find a hook—intransigence on the debt ceiling, gun control, climate change, whatever—but sometime before the Republicans crash the economy, arm third graders, and fry the planet, get this discussion out in the open and, as Ornstein says, “report without fear or favor.”

Previously, Leslie Savan discussed how conflicted Mitt Romney was over his presidential run.

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