Leslie Savan | The Nation


Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Clinton Tries to Teach Obama a Lesson in Humility

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama

Former President Bill Clinton bows as President Barack Obama walks on stage after Clinton's address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Why did Bill Clinton bow so deeply before Barack Obama after his amazing barn-burner of a speech Wednesday night?

I mean, his bow wasn’t a bob of the head; it wasn’t a slight slump of the shoulders or a passing nod. It was practically a salaam. He bent double at the waist, taking the kind of bow a courtier might make before a king. Did Clinton—right after defending Obama’s policies better than Obama ever has—feel he still had to overcome any lingering doubts about his loyalty?

Probably. But I think in that moment Clinton was also schooling Obama in humility.

The reason politicians find themselves transfixed by Clinton—whether they’re old opponents like George H.W. Bush or longtime allies like Rahm Emmanuel—has to do with the way he understands power as a source of personal struggle. Clinton subscribes to the ancient belief that every leader must give up something, usually something he or she loves, for power—as Odin gave his eye and MacBeth his honor. There’s a great scene in the HBO movie A Special Relationship in which Clinton takes the measure of Tony Blair’s character by asking him what he’d be willing to do to stay close to power under incoming President George Bush. That, as it turned out, was the right question to ask about Blair.

Clinton himself gave up critical parts of the New Deal—signing the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, compromising on welfare reform—to steal victory out of the jaws of defeat when Newt Gingrich took the House in 1994. Clinton can give you chapter and verse on why he gave in and what he got in return for those deals, but there’s little doubt they contributed significantly to the mess we’re in.

But he’d go on to tell you that is what a successful politician has to do: you must have power in order to use it at some critical point you can’t really anticipate, and a great politician’s legacy is all about crucial decisions made under the pressures of the moment. Had 9/11 happened one year earlier, you’d have seen just how important it can be to have someone like Bill Clinton in power.

Unfortunately, it happened when it did. Clinton never faced a truly epochal crisis. He did have to give up his pride over the sex scandals the GOP used to impeach him, and in our celebrified culture, that was no easy thing. But it wasn’t 9/11; it wasn’t even the collapse of the world economy.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has had to give up very little, at least nothing that caused him visible agony, to get where he is—after all, he won the Nobel Peace Prize just for getting elected. A leader forges a bond with his people by seeming to humble himself before them and yet still carry on. Obama needs to grasp the nettle of his humiliation at the hands of the Republican House last year and make it part of his, and our, story of economic and political redemption.

This isn’t about studying hard and coming up with the right answers, or figuring out where the halfway mark is between two opposing philosophies. Obama can’t win this by overachieving (an Obama trait Jodi Kantor described so well). And beating the hideously unpopular Mitt Romney by one or two points won’t do it. He needs other people to win with him. He needs a Senate and a House he can work with, and as a sitting president he needs to do all he can to shape them in his image—we’re all going to hold him responsible for what Congress does anyway, so he’d better bring his party along.

Look at me, Clinton said with his bow, I’m giving up control; would it be so hard for The One to show a little vulnerability out there, maybe admit he’d made a mistake or two? Michelle worked so hard in her speech to underline how much like us her husband has always been, balancing student debts, living with dumpster furniture and driving a car with a hole in the floor; maybe he can give up the suave cool for once and let the world see that now he needs us.

After the bow Clinton and Obama hugged and waved together to the crowd, and then walked backstage as the television cameras followed them. Just as they were about to leave the stage, Clinton saw someone he knew, he smiled, and, well, watch (starting at about :43):

That’s pressing the flesh, and Clinton was virtually grabbing Obama by the scruff of his neck and forcing him to do it, too. Clinton can teach by example, but Obama was still the first one to turn heel and walk away.

The Clint Eastwood Convention

Everybody is still scratching their heads over Clint Eastwood’s rambling, incoherent, eleven-minute warm-up for Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention last night. Most agree it was a debacle, if only because it soaked up so much precious prime-time air (out of the one hour the networks were willing to give up) and allowed Clint Eastwood to bump Mitt Romney’s newly revealed humanity from the headlines the next day. Ann Romney was at least honest enough to suggest she’d have preferred the slickly produced family-scrapbook video in that time slot over the aging action star talking, Harvey-style, to an invisible Obama.

But the debacle was actually perfect for this most fake of conventions, whose main purpose—the eventual redistribution of wealth to the very top—had to be obscured by a fleet of outright lies (so much so that even the traditional media feel forced to point them out). Clint Eastwood is an artist, and the rich moral ambiguities of his movies don’t boil down to simple political agitprop. And that was the biggest truth of the night: the GOP is now running on the fumes of its own nostalgia, and its ideological revision of history can leave even the most ardent partisan deeply confused about what to believe.

Ambiguity is something this party says it abhors, almost as much as it abhors President Obama, but this convention and Clint Eastwood in particular just oozed it. Take the screen grab the RNC used as backdrop for Clint’s performance, from The Outlaw Josie Wales, a movie about a Confederate soldier who refuses to surrender at the end of the Civil War. On one level, it’s a Western, with the flinty theme of the loner who comes to town and resolves conflict by killing everybody on one side or the other. The Republicans clearly wanted that guy to show up last night, and they’d dearly love to just shoot the rest of the New Deal and all the modern realities that go with it.

But Josie Wales winds up protecting a ragtag, multiracial band of bullied misfits. It’s not The Legend of Billy Jack exactly, but it’s not throwing peanuts at an African-American camerawoman for CNN, either.

Clint just can’t help whispering out of both sides of his mouth, as he did in the Chrysler commercial he made for halftime at this year’s Super Bowl. In it, he said we should all overcome political differences and rally behind Detroit’s comeback. Republicans were outraged. They saw the ad as an endorsement of the auto bailout, and therefore of Obama. Clint gave a wry, ambiguous explanation, and seemed to think we should all just get over it.

Last night, when Eastwood put F-bombs in the mouth of an invisible Obama (who seems less likely than, say, LBJ or W to have a potty mouth), it was pretty raw, even for a political convention. But Eastwood’s grievances against Obama were muddled—he seemed to object both to Obama’s announcing a “target date for bringing everybody home” from Afghanistan and to his failing to “bring them home tomorrow morning.” Either way, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the GOP’s appetite for war. He closed by saying, “Whether you are a Democrat or Republican or whether you’re Libertarian or whatever, you are the best.”

Eastwood’s appearance was clearly intended to project an image of manhood and self-reliance that the party likes to say justifies its Social Darwinism. But in the end his almost doddering delivery undermined that very idea.

It’s too bad that the 82-year-old icon had to sacrifice some of the luster of his life’s work to tell this truth, however inadvertently, to a vast national TV audience, but it was an important message to send anyway. It’s the same message sent by a Republican strategist earlier this week when he said this campaign will be “the last time” anyone tries to win the presidency solely with white votes. And it’s similar to the message Lindsey Graham sent when he said, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys” to make the current GOP viable in the long term.

That’s the truth Clint Eastwood told last night, and it’s neither good nor bad; it’s just ugly.

Even GOP Guvs Admit that Romney's Welfare Ads Are False

Governor Rick Snyder (R-MI) as much as admitted that Mitt Romney’s race-baiting claim that President Obama is “gutting” work requirements in the welfare program is a load of manure.

He didn’t use those words, of course, but when Tom Brokaw asked Snyder about the program at the Republican convention this afternoon, the governor had only positive things to say about it.

This is the same program that Romney insists Obama is using to “shore up his base.” (Read: black people.) As one of Romney’s five welfare ads says, “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you a welfare check. And welfare-to-work goes back to being plain old welfare.”

To back up, the Obama administration recently announced that states could apply for waivers from the 1996 welfare reform law in order to find alternative ways to help welfare recipients find work. Nothing is gutted, the work requirement stands, and in fact, in2005, 29 governors—including Governor Romney—asked for even more flexibility in how they applied the welfare law.

What’s not to like? Governor Synder practically said on Andrea Mitchell’s MSNBC show today, from Tampa.

BROKAW: A number of people have looked at [Obama’s] program and have said, ‘Look, he’s responding to what the governors wanted; they wanted more flexibility in how they administer these programs, and he’s really responding to what they asked for. So my question to you is, has what President Obama done for welfare in the state of Michigan—has that given you more flexibility and are you happy with those policies in that regard?

SNYDER: We are still fully analyzing it. The concept of flexibility for governors is a good thing, but I think there should be performance metrics. We should be held accountable for performance, but [with] flexibility on how to do it…

Brokaw didn’t remind him that metrics and accountability are built into the new initiative (if the states don’t move more people into jobs by at least 20 percent, the waiver will be denied or rescinded). Nor did Brokaw exactly ask, Isn’t Romney’s whole welfare ad campaign a big fat lie (that word is not in his MSM vocabulary), but he did approach the subject:

BROKAW: But the real question is, do you think that President Obama, in responding to what the governors wanted in terms of flexibility, in how they administer the welfare program, has sent a signal to the welfare community that you don’t have to work for it anymore? Or has he responded specifically and explicitly to what the governors wanted?

Snyder, aware that he had stuck a toe or two off the reservation, hedged, “Well, that’s one of the things, the message could be read both ways depending on what—”

Luckily for him, Mitchell cut to a Ron Paul sighting on the convention floor, thus blunting the logical conclusion one would have to draw: the only reason to even bring welfare into this campaign, in 2012, is to drum up more white votes. Romney is blowing a trumpet, not merely a dog whistle, to suggest that Obama is taking tax dollars from hard-working white people to give to undeserving, lazy black people.

Synder isn’t the only Republican governor who not so secretly likes Obama’s move but in the Soviet GOP system must pretend otherwise. Two Republican governors who had previously asked for the waiver, Utah Governor Gary Herbert and Nevada Governor Brian Sandova, tried to walk it all back.

Governor Herbert pretended as if he had deep procedural misgivings over the very waiver he requested. Herbert, writes TPM,

stopped short of echoing Romney’s claim that Obama is gutting the essence of the law, and championed the idea of state flexibility.

“Some of the concern was that by executive order, some things were being done that ought to, in fact, be done by Congress,” he told the Huffington Post. “So having the executive run around the Congress is not the right way to do it.”


And lamer:

GovernorSandoval’s office claimed his request for flexibility was not actually a request for a waiver.

“Nevada hasn’t requested a waiver and has no intention of requesting one,” his spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner told the Las Vegas Sun. “The letter was not a request for a waiver; it was a request to explore the possibilities.”

UPDATE: Another GOP governor, Sam Brownback of Kansas, has acknowledged that Romney's welfare ads are false. And Chris Matthews was working away at Ohio governor John Kasich's unthinking defense of the Big Lie, too.

Here’s the Synder interview, in which he also tries to excuse Romney’s birther “joke.”

Tom Edsall does a great take-down of Romney’s oeuvre of race-baiting ads, on welfare and Medicare both.


The GOP’s 'Key Largo' Convention

Mitt Romney and the Republicans are headed down to Tampa next week for what they hoped would be a warm, intimate, dark-wood-framed convention that would reintroduce the scion of Bain Capital as the caring savior of corporate America, wounded as it is by stimulus funding and socialism. It was designed to give us all that feeling of being wrapped in rich, Corinthian leather, but that’s not how it’s working out—it’s more like a Key Largo convention.

Key Largo, of course, is the old Bogart/Bacall movie about a random assortment of people trapped in a Florida hotel with a bullying, misogynistic gangster (played menacingly by Edward G. Robinson) as a hurricane bears down upon them. As their claustrophobic isolation drags on, the gangster reveals himself to be such a cowardly tyrant that his own thugs don’t want him back in charge.

And that’s kind of where the GOP finds itself this weekend, threatened by the biblically named Hurricane Isaac and the biblically informed Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin. Instead of smothering doubts in comfy luxury, the GOP convention—upholstered with the text of 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“Women should be silent in church…”)—is set to reopen old fissures between the religious right and the establishment right. It’s “the regular people” against “the big party people,” Akin says, and the intraparty squabble could be nasty enough to make Key Largo look like a rom-com.

The party is already tearing at its own innards. After Romney told him to pull out of the race, Akin told Romney to get lost: “Why couldn’t he run his race and I run mine?” Mike Huckabee, the de facto leader of the religious right, sent an e-mail to followers, saying, “In a Party that supposedly stands for life, it was tragic to see the carefully orchestrated and systematic attack on a fellow Republican…. [Akin] made his mistake, but was man enough to admit it and apologize. I’m waiting for the apology from whoever the genius was on the high pedestals of our party who thought it wise to not only shoot our wounded, but run over him with tanks and trucks and then feed his body to the liberal wolves.”

Sarah Palin called for a third-party candidate, namely her endorsee Sarah Steelman (who came in third in the Missouri primary). That would be a sure way to hand victory to Claire McCaskill, but Palin doesn’t care. Getting creamed in ’08 wasn’t her fault, either—she was stabbed in the back by the same pros who denied her a speaking slot in Tampa and are now trying to bury Akin. Meanwhile, the true believers heading up the GOP platform are left trying to claim that their absolutist abortion ban (no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother) has some secret flexibility. Sure it does.

Will Akin supporters, who also include Joe (“Deadbeat Dad”) Walsh, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins and thousands of Missourians, turn against Mitt Romney, whom they never trusted anyway? Will some even bail on Paul Ryan for telling Akin to quit and signing on to Romney’s (latest) stance on abortion, which does make exceptions in cases of rape and incest?

Ryan is now trying to deny that he ever pushed for legislation that would limit federal funding for abortions only to victims of “forcible rape.” In fact, he and Akin were two of the bill’s original co-sponsors. But when asked about it, Ryan cowered, echoing the “rape is rape” language of the devil himself, President Obama. Here’s Ryan shutting the whole “forcible rape” thing down in an interview with KDKA, a CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh:

RYAN: Rape is rape, period, end of story.

KDKA: So that forcible rape language meant nothing to you at the time?

RYAN: Rape is rape, and there’s no splitting hairs over rape.

The Republican Party is so infested with Akin-Ryan policies and Romney-Ryan lies about them that their claustrophobic siege next week—assuming it’s not canceled or moved because of the storm—is bound to feel as tense and seething as the following scene. Just think of Edward G. Robinson as the Republican Party, Lauren Bacall as the American woman and the old man as a Medicare beneficiary.

And who’s Humphrey Bogart in this overextended metaphor? Well, he’s the guy who understands that the party can’t afford to wipe out Todd Akin, because it’s all or nothing, see; the GOP simply can’t survive without its anti-abortion radicals. So it’ll be nothing.

How Paul Ryan Makes It Easier for Republicans to Steal the Election

Paul Ryan

Everybody, even the Republicans, is talking about how choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate has made winning the election just that much harder for Mitt Romney. But maybe the choice makes it just a little bit easier to steal.

Sure, some down-ballot Republican candidates are scrambling to distance themselves from Ryan’s plan to strangle Medicare; and behind the scenes, many Beltway GOP operatives worry that with Ryan on the ticket, “Romney has practically ceded the election,” as Politico writes. But these scaredy-cats are forgetting that even issues like Medicare may ultimately prove irrelevant as long as their vast system of voter suppression is up and running. As if to remind them, a Pennsylvania judge yesterday upheld that state’s draconian voter ID law, which could keep hundreds of thousands of registered minority, urban and elderly voters from the ballot box—enough to hand this Obama-leaning state to Romney.

And Paul Ryan is the GOP’s best bet that such a theft would be greeted with a nationwide shrug.

Here’s why:

While the Republicans have the mechanics of voter suppression in place, they still face some psychological challenges in getting the public to accept any victories that are too obviously based on massive voter disenfranchisement.  

First, the campaign has tried hard to banish all memories of Bush/Cheney, and the last thing they need is a reminder of the Brooks Brothers riot at Florida polling places in 2000. That means they must make any election theft look like, at the least, a perfectly legal fait accompli. Illegal voting-machine shenanigans aren’t about to go away, of course, but Republican state legislatures have at the same time been cranking out laws that pre-emptively strip voter rights on all fronts: voter ID laws, voter purges, the abolition or shortening of early voting, making voter registration more difficult and so on. But (as shown by the Ohio secretary of state’s decision to rescind his policy of extending voting hours in Republican-leaning counties but not in Democratic-leaning ones), theft by voter suppression must not only be technically legal, it must also be perceived as fair.

This is where Ryan comes in.

With that likable, smart, charming fella by Romney’s side, a GOP win is more likely to feel fair, to feel right. That’s because we tend to attribute honesty and good intentions to good-looking, charming people. In our national dramatic narratives, amiable good-lookers (like Obama himself) are more likely to be viewed as playing the role of the handsome hero. So even if Romney and Ryan win key swing states only by virtue of suppressing votes, such wins are a little more likely to feel legit, to feel, even, destined—after all, they’ve been achieved with the help of the winsome-eyed, well-exercised, “serious” young man. And that could make it easier to shrug off any post-election, number-crunching, legalistic squabbles as so many sour grapes.

That brings us to the second psychological challenge Republicans face in stealing 2012: polls favoring Obama. A Romney victory made possible by minimizing the Democratic vote would still be hard to swallow if polls near Election Day had the president significantly ahead. Let’s pretend that a stolen national election had been held earlier this month, for instance. How could Fox News have spun its own poll that showed Obama beating Romney by nine points? Or a CNN poll by seven points? We could call them outliers, but if the poll-of-polls were to conflict significantly with election results, Americans might feel they’d been had—pretty-boy Ryan notwithstanding.

And that’s where Ryan’s base comes in:

Any unsightly discrepancies between poll numbers and election results could be explained by the media’s underestimating the depth of conservative enthusiasm for Paul Ryan. It’s happened before. In 2004 pollsters explained discrepancies between exit polls that predicted Kerry would win by saying that voters on the right, particularly evangelicals, avoid talking to exit pollsters. Now, that explanation—that a distrusted mainstream media is too out of touch to ever gauge true conservative enthusiasm—would be harder to pull off with a Pawlenty or a Portman, whose candidacies would have been the sort of middle-road chloroform traps where enthusiasm goes to pass out.

But with Ryan, the Tea Party base really will be enthused, and only too happy to stick it to the lamestream media. Thus, any discrepancies between polls and results will seem less suspect. And easier to bury in the collective memory.

Because polls—and elections—can be canceled out by massive voter suppression, the media should be should be discussing voter suppression every single time they discuss polls. Which means constantly.

That would be one big step toward suppressing the suppression.

The University That’s Eating New York!

Even if you don’t live in New York City, you may have heard (or read in The Nation) about the fight against New York University’s $6 billion  twenty-year expansion plan that would gobble up large parts of historic Greenwich Village and inevitably raise already sky-high tuitions and student debt. Students and college towns face these sorts of problems everywhere, but in NYC the battle has been especially fierce. And despite a City Council vote late last month that approved the project, the fight isn’t over yet.

A very brief primer:

Despite the opposition of the vast majority of faculty, thirty-seven NYU departments, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and the surrounding community, the City Council (led by likely mayoral candidate Christine Quinn in the video) voted 44-1 to approve the NYU 2031 plan, a k a the Sexton Plan, after university president John Sexton.

“It is stunning that the Council would vote to sell off public parkland, overturning long-standing agreements under which NYU was given public land a generation ago, just to satisfy the grandiose schemes of a private university’s super-rich board and president,” Andrew Berman, executive director of GVSHP, said in a press release. “The NYU expansion plan will turn a residential neighborhood into a company town and subject it to twenty straight years of construction.”

The historical society and the NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (NYU FASP) have vowed to keep up the fight by taking legal action and by launching StandUp4NYC, a group opposing “big development schemes” citywide.

A new book edited by my colleague (disclosure: I’m an NYU adjunct) and NYU FASP organizer Mark Crispin Miller puts all this in deeper perspective. While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York compiles pieces by concerned writers, poets and Village legends, including Nat Hentoff, E. L. Doctorow, Jessica Hagedorn, Eileen Myles, John Guare and Philip Levine. (See Fran Lebowitz at the book launch here).

In one piece, author and NYU professor Andrew Ross describes the unholy alliance between Wall Street and academia perfectly:

With mortgage and other credit markets still in the doldrums, universities have become a very attractive option for investors looking for high returns on debt-financed growth. Money capital has poured into construction bonds, student loans, and other financial instruments spun out of the tuition bubble. When FIRE [the finance, insurance, and real estate industries] gets hooked on ICE [the intellectual, cultural and educational industries], the result (which writer could resist?) is a vast pool of melted water, in which the indebted are already half-drowning.”

Buy While We Were Sleeping here, and help raise funds for the legal fight to come.

What Mitt Romney's Body Language Is Trying to Tell Us

Lots of people have talked about how Mitt Romney comes off like a robot. Some, like Chris Matthews, home in on Mitt’s odd way with words (“The trees are the right height”), suggesting that Mitt has yet to master an Earth-based language. Others focus on finding the right metaphor: Is Mitt a “wimp” and a “weenie,” as Mike Tomasky writes in Newsweek, or is he instead a “weasel,” as Chris Weigant maintains in Huff Post?

There’s some truth to each of these approaches to the mystery that is Mitt. But I think Dan Aykroyd got closest to the essence of it when he suggested that we follow the body language: Mitt has “a funny walk,” Aykroyd said. “He wears a girdle, I think.”

This seemed almost literally true during a photo op in Israel earlier this week, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States stood next to the relaxed and voluble Benjamin Netanyahu like an animatronic prop.

OK, ignore if you can the two men’s hilariously prolonged handshake at the beginning of the clip (I assume it went into extra innings for the cameras), and instead check out Mitt’s arms: they’re held stiffly at his sides, hands below the belt; no gestures for him and no self-assertion at all. Maybe the problem was that, even though Romney was trying to talk “tough” about Iran, his body knew that simply parroting whatever Bibi (and Sheldon Adelson) want him to say is anything but tough. So his body tried to shout, “Weak!” Just look at the symbolism of the old chums’ relative body language: Bibi grabs the mic, Bibi grabs Mitt’s hand for the shake; Romney, meanwhile, is all deference and obedient schoolboy, and about as commanding as one.

Is this the sign of a “wimp”? Or of growing up with Mormon modesty? I dunno. But in public, an awkward and passive posture is Romney’s most customary stance. Not only does he have no physical swagger, but he seems to recoil from the very space a swagger might propel him into.

REUTERS/Scott Audette

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

His gait, too, is held back. Often his arms and legs don’t swing fully; they seem to halt an inch or two before their full expression, almost apologetically, almost like the walk is walking itself back, much as he frequently does with his “gaffes.”

Here’s Mitt walking that walk, as he avoids the press at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw this week (as an aide tells reporters asking questions, “Kiss my ass. This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect!”):


Actually, let’s give the guy credit for not walking with the false swagger of, say, George W. Bush. A physically aggressive posture does not a courageous man make. (For that matter, let’s give him credit for daring to let Ann drive the jet ski.) But in Romney’s case, a physically passive posture may reveal instead a false humility.

Romney’s whole face, in fact, often looks oddly passive and humble. Like his limbs, his facial expressions also hold back; instead of jutting forward, his energy seems to go concave. This is especially apparent when he gazes at others. “Mitt Romney loves to look longingly at other politicians,” Karna writes in Buzzfeed, with plenty of photos that can certainly be interpreted that way, like these:

(AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

REUTERS/Mark Makela

This signature Romney pose—eyes softened, mouth closed, sometimes in a Mona Lisa smile, stomach slightly out, shoulders slightly slumped—has always struck me as a benevolent, kindly look. If he’s looking on as other people speak, it seems he’s doing so in admiration, perhaps like a proud pastor letting his flock speak from the pulpit. That would jibe with what Maureen Dowd refers to as “Romney’s image of himself as wise, caring, smart and capable.”

During the Republican debates, Romney, Sarah Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post, would often “lean an elbow on his lectern and, with the mild, slightly wincing smile that is his default expression, he’ll settle in to listen. (Is that the consultant in him, keeping an open mind? Or is it the missionary, hoping to find common ground and then swoop in for the conversion?) .… Stiff, yes. But not cold…. This man wants to be involved. He has the missionary’s tenacity.” (If so, this gives new meaning to “the missionary position.”)

But here’s the problem: Romney had the same look on his face right before he famously and physically laid into Rick Perry for accusing him of hiring “illegals” at one of the debates. Grabbing Perry’s shoulder and refusing to let Perry interrupt him, Romney was no wimp or weenie. He was aggressive, he was bold—as he’s been in other debates and can be on the campaign trail. Yet, when it was officially Perry’s turn to speak, Mitt returned to the same mild mien that I had taken as benevolence and kindness. (See the episode here.)

Mitt may well have vast reserves of both qualities, but they are not necessarily what his passive posture reveals at all. Elspeth Reeve may be right when she writes that when Mitt seems to be making goo-goo eyes at others, he’s really just expressing “boredom and contempt.”

Maybe he’s really saying: “You can’t say I’m not paying attention to you. Look at me: I’m politely wasting my time, feigning interest and positive feelings toward you. I will smother you with my listening power!”

My pop-psych take is that—with some notable exceptions (like grabbing Perry, or tackling a fellow student at prep school to cut off his hair off)—Mitt finds it far safer to express the passive side of his passive-aggressiveness: arms immobile at his sides (the better to not throttle you with); mouth closed (the better to not blurt insults); eyes dreamy (the better to not shoot daggers). It all goes with how he trained himself, consciously or otherwise, to not be as honest as his dad. (George Romney lost the GOP nomination for president when he said that the military had “brainwashed” him into supporting the Vietnam war—a lesson Mitt has not forgotten.) As I wrote of Mitt a few months ago, “Bland on the outside, roiling on the inside, he’s almost the definition of passive-aggressive: expressing ‘negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way.’ Mitt regularly attacks, lies or infuriates people, all the while professing to be blissfully unaware of any negativity.”

Why, he attacked, lied and infuriated people just the other day, when he implied that Palestinian culture is inferior to Israeli culture—and then, as if unaware of any negativity, denied two days later he’d said a thing about culture. Hours later, of course, he reversed himself again and doubled down on the culture explanation in a National Review op-ed.

And none of this even touches on the idea that his lying is beginning to seem not just passive-aggressive but pathological. Rachel Maddow showed Wednesday how Romney probably lied about his tax returns when he was running for governor of Massachusetts. Back then, he refused to show the returns to the Boston press after promising to do so—much as he promised ABC News this week that he’d answer questions about his tax returns, but has since refused.

We may never know the truth about his taxes or his other secrets. But the body knows…]

By Dumping on Mitt, Is the GOP Making a Steal Plausible?

It’s actually good, from a Republican point of view, that party powers like Rupert Murdoch, his Wall Street Journal and Bill Kristol are piling on Mitt Romney as a lousy candidate now, in July. And not just because it gives Romney a chance to shake up his campaign and satisfy his overlords’ demands over the summer. (He’s already begun.) But by squeezing him through the Adjustment Bureau now, the top GOPers can, by November, sing another tune: Romney is a plausible candidate, he can beat Obama. That way, if he “wins” with the help of massive voter suppression, it won’t seem so much like they’ve stolen the election. 

I’m not saying Romney can’t win fair and square; sure, he could, especially if the economy spirals downward. But the Republicans won’t risk giving fair-and-square a chance. This is playing out most nakedly in Pennsylvania, where Obama is up over Romney by a Real Clear Politics average of eight points. No problem, says state House majority leader Mike Turzai. In tallying up the party’s achievements last month, he brayed, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

That’s no idle boast. As the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote yesterday, “More than 758,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania do not have photo identification cards from the state Transportation Department, putting their voting rights at risk in the November election, according to data released Tuesday by state election officials.”

That’s 758,000 already registered voters. They make up 9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million voters. Before these enormous (in both sense of the word) numbers came out, the Governor Tom Corbett (R) administration had repeatedly claimed that a full 99 percent of the state’s voters already had the required photo ID, most of them as their driver’s licenses. (Corbett, if you recall, is the guy who told women objecting to a bill mandating ultrasounds for those seeking abortions, “You just have to close your eyes.”)

The Inquirer continues: “The new numbers, based on a comparison of voter registration rolls with PennDot ID databases, shows the potential problem is much bigger, particularly in Philadelphia, where 186,830 registered voters—18 percent of the city’s total registration—do not have PennDot ID.” Philadelphia, of course, is a Democratic bastion, and those least likely to have a driver’s license are the poor and the elderly.

Could numbers like these swing swing states toward Romney? Easily. Eric Kleefeld crunched the numbers: “[Pennsylvania] voted for Barack Obama by an 11-point margin in 2008—a raw vote spread of about 620,000 votes, less than the new figure of potentially disenfranchised voters. Before that, it went for John Kerry by only 2.5 points in 2004, a spread of about 145,000 votes.”

And Pennsylvania is just one state of many actively suppressing the vote—whether with new restrictions on identification, registration, early voting or, as in Florida, voter-roll purges—all in order to stop the virtually nonexistent “voter fraud.” (This week, Governor Rick Snyder, an extreme conservative, actually bucked the trend by vetoing voter ID bills in Michigan.) In a piece called “UFO Sightings Are More Common Than Voter Fraud,” Mother Jones charts the variety of tactics in the war on voting and who it affects where. (More at the Brennan Center of Justice.)

You might think that mainstream national media would be screaming daily about the threat to democracy posed by these laws. Not so. Even Googling “voter suppression” and “voter fraud,” you can see which concept has the media’s eye, by three to one.

And none of this even begins to count how many votes may be lost or switched by voting-machine shenanigans.

So, better the Republicans grumble about their standard-bearer now in order to puff up the feasibility of his victory later. Because if Romney—and Republicans in Congressional and state races—do win by voter ID laws’ riding to their rescue, the public outcry might be horrific. Or it could be, if major media were truly on the case.

Did Justice Roberts Set Booby-Traps in His Commerce Clause Ruling?

In the months-long media game of predicting how the Supreme Court would rule on the Affordable Care Act, most pundits speculated on every possible outcome except the one that actually happened: that the Court would uphold the law’s individual mandate by renaming it a tax.

The fact that the tax angle was so outside the realm of anyone’s imagination may be one reason (in addition to the usual, stupid urge to rush to judgment) that both Fox News and CNN slapped egg on their own faces by announcing that the Court had struck down the ACA’s mandate, causing viewers (including President Obama) to believe Obamacare was dead. They were jumping to conclusions based on the first part of the ruling—that the individual mandate violated the Commerce Clause—without waiting to get to the next part: that the law is constitutional under Congress’s authority to tax.

But the “tax, yes/Commerce Clause, no” decision is nothing to necessarily celebrate. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, wrote separately, arguing against Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion: “The Chief Justice’s crabbed reading of the Commerce Clause harks back to the era in which the Court routinely thwarted Congress’ efforts to regulate the national economy in the interest of those who labor to sustain it.”

Did, in fact, Roberts lay the groundwork for “gutting the Commerce Clause,” as Tom Scocca writes in Slate?

But the health care law was, ultimately, a pretext. This was a test case for the long-standing—but previously fringe—campaign to rewrite Congress’ regulatory powers under the Commerce Clause

By ruling that the individual mandate was permissible as a tax, he joined the Democratic appointees to uphold the law—while joining the Republican wing to gut the Commerce Clause…

Scocca goes on to quote from Roberts’s opinion (italics in original):

Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority. Congress already possesses expansive power to regulate what people do. Upholding the Affordable Care Act under the Commerce Clause would give Congress the same license to regulate what people do not do.

Scocca continues:

The business about “new and potentially vast” authority is a fig leaf. This is a substantial rollback of Congress’ regulatory powers, and the chief justice knows it. It is what Roberts has been pursuing ever since he signed up with the Federalist Society. In 2005, Sen. Barack Obama spoke in opposition to Roberts’ nomination, saying he did not trust his political philosophy on tough questions such as “whether the Commerce Clause empowers Congress to speak on those issues of broad national concern that may be only tangentially related to what is easily defined as interstate commerce.” Today, Roberts did what Obama predicted he would do.

Roberts’ genius was in pushing this health care decision through without attaching it to the coattails of an ugly, narrow partisan victory. Obama wins on policy, this time. And Roberts rewrites Congress’ power to regulate, opening the door for countless future challenges. In the long term, supporters of curtailing the federal government should be glad to have made that trade.

But not everyone thinks the Clause is in such jeopardy. David Cole of The Nation writes:

When one adds the dissenting justices, there were five votes on the Court for this restrictive view of the Commerce Clause. But that is not binding because the law was upheld on other grounds. And while some have termed this a major restriction on Commerce Clause power, it is not clear that it will have significant impact going forward, as the individual mandate was the first and only time in over 200 years that Congress had in fact sought to compel people to engage in commerce. It’s just not a common way of regulating, so the fact that five Justices think it’s an unconstitutional way of regulating is not likely to have much real-world significance.

Steve Rosenfeld of Alternet concurs:

what is important here—especially when seen through the frame of what the right-wingers lusted after—is that Roberts did not roll back any Commerce Clause powers that Congress currently has. Nor did he create new individual rights that can be used to limit the government’s current powers. In short, he pontificated and telegraphed his inclinations, but the constitutional landscape is largely unchanged….

Roberts may have set a tone by reminding all that there are limits to what the Congress can do under the Commerce Clause, but there have always been constitutional limits on what government can do—that’s the basis of individual constitutional rights. So yes, he threw some red meat to the hard right by saying the Affordable Care Act couldn’t hold up under the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses.

However, what the right-wingers wanted was a precedent to shrink Congress’s authority to act in national economic crises—and they really didn’t get that. Of course, the reality is that the current Supreme Court is very unpredictable—and what appears as a reasonable outcome in one case can be followed by a very unreasonable decision in another.

Back to Justice Ginsburg, who hits on the problem with ACA in the first place: it’s not single-payer:

The provision of health care is today a concern of national dimension, just as the provision of old-age and survivors’ benefits was in the 1930’s. In the Social Security Act, Congress installed a federal system to provide monthly benefits to retired wage earners and, eventually, to their survivors. Beyond question, Congress could have adopted a similar scheme for health care. Congress chose, instead, to preserve a central role for private insurers and state governments. According to the chief justice, the Commerce Clause does not permit that preservation. This rigid reading of the Clause makes scant sense and is stunningly retrogressive.

Media Quiz: Is the Supreme Court Ruling on Arizona's Immigration Law a Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

It depends on which cable news channel you glanced at this morning. Between the CNN, Fox News and MSNBC on-screen headlines, you could interpret the SCOTUS immigration decision as mostly a victory or as mostly a defeat for the Arizona law—or as a confusing knot in which the devil’s in the details.

See if you can match the breaking-news headlines to the cable news outlet. (Answers below.)

1) High Court strikes down most of AZ immigration law

2) Supreme Court upholds part of AZ law allowing police to ask about immigration status

3) High Court strikes down 3 out of 4 provisions in AZ immigration law

4) Supreme Court upholds key part of AZ immigration laws; strikes down other parts

5) Key part of immigration law rejected. Supreme Court upholds most controversial provision

6) Supreme Court rejects parts of law that require immigrants to carry papers, forbid applying to work






(1-MSNBC; 2-Fox; 3-MSNBC; 4-Fox; 5-CNN; 6-CNN)

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