Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.
There are plenty of good reasons to question Michele Bachmann’s fitness for the presidency, including but not limited to: her thin record of legislative achievement, her blatant hypocrisy in opposing government spending while her family accepts farm subsidies and government grants and her bigotry. Here are two things that have nothing to do with her fitness for office: being prone to migraines and her husband’s supposedly effeminate mannerisms.
And yet, for the last week, the media has put intense focus on those two non-issues. Bachmann’s husband Marcus, a counselor, has been getting a lot of attention for his shockingly homophobic views (he calls gays “barbarians”) and the fact that his clinic has employed “reparative therapy” to wean patients off homosexuality. Marcus Bachmann’s homophobia and unhelpful “therapy” reflect on his wife’s fitness to be president, so they are fair game. What should be off-limits to real journalists is baseless speculation that Marcus Bachmann is gay because of the pitch of his voice or sway of his gait.
And yet, taking their cue from comedians such as Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, reporters have begun openly speculating that Bachmann is a closeted or repressed homosexual. Andrew Sullivan made fun of his voice, comparing it to Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman. Keith Olbermann, perhaps unintentionally, seemed to elliptically reference the speculation in a segment on Marcus' homophobia by calling him "bizarre-sounding" and saying he can't be "kept in the closet" during the campaign. More seriously, Michelle Cottle wrote an article in the Daily Beast in which these jokes about Bachmann transmogrified into full-blown “rumors.” These “rumors” about Bachmann’s sexuality cited no claims of Bachmann having ever actually engaged in sexual acts with another man. Absent such evidence, or even assertion, it is simply irresponsible for journalists (as distinct from comedians) to publicly muse on the subject.
It is also a rather perverse sight to see progressives and gay rights advocates reinforcing retrograde norms of gender conformity by arguing, or even merely implying, that a man with a high-pitched voice must be gay. This does nothing to help us build a society in which a wide spectrum of non-conforming gender identities are respected. Homosexuality should not be mocked as the absence of manliness, a point that Sullivan and Dan Savage -- who has delighted in mocking Bachmann’s “fruity” mannerisms -- would be sure to make if the victim of their innuendo were not a political opponent. Just because the victim of vulgar, unsubstantiated attacks is a bigot does not justify them.
There is also a curious assumption by liberals such as Savage that calling Bachmann gay undermines his homophobia. Is the implication that if Bachmann is perfectly straight then his views are not odious? Or that if the voice delivering his statements on homosexuality were gruff and macho they would be any less hurtful and unprofessional?
Meanwhile, the conservative online tabloid the Daily Caller broke a story last week that Michele Bachmann suffers from migraines. These severe headaches can force her to rest, recuperate or occasionally seek medical treatment. And she takes medications to treat and prevent her migraines. The Caller, as is its wont, oversold the scoop as some dramatic expose of a drug-addled candidate. The headline included the incendiary phrase “heavy pill use alleged.” It used all anonymous quotes to imply that Bachmann has some sort of chemical dependency.
The media feeding frenzy around Bachmann’s migraines was stupendous. Pundits immediately debated whether it is a legitimate story, with many conservatives, such as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, saying it is. Politico followed the Daily Caller with a report confirming the anecdotes. Apparently, Bachmann took longer to recover from surgery because of her migraines and has even lay down with the lights off a couple times. Shocking. On the trail her opponents were asked about the story and rival Tim Pawlenty’s jab that “All of the candidates I think are going to have to be able to demonstrate they can do all of the job all of the time," was breathlessly reported. Then, of course, the media had to analyze whether Pawlenty’s swipe at Bachmann was a sign of desperation on his part, and ask whether his campaign was behind the story in the first place (a charge Pawlenty denies and which there was no evidence to support.)
As Nation contributor Dana Goldstein has explained, this is all nonsense. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain of one sort or another. Whether it’s migraines, acid reflux, a herniated disc or arthritis, the country is filled with people who take pills to prevent or treat their pain and may sometimes be briefly be incapacitated. Plenty of men with medical conditions, including John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and migraine sufferer Thomas Jefferson have served as president with distinction. Just as there is a whiff of homophobia to the implications about Marcus Bachmann, there is a distinct odor of sexism to the suggestion that because of a common, relatively minor, condition that Michele Bachmann might supposedly be too enfeebled or chemically dependent to be president.
In both cases, of course, some pundits say they are not actually interested in the unimportant subject itself but the meta-question of how a candidate handles the political challenge. “While Marcus’s sexuality holds little interest for me,” writes Cottle, “I am interested to see how the Bachmann camp will handle the still-below-the-radar-but-getting-tough-to-ignore buzz.”
This is an excuse -- as flimsy as the sudden Republican obsession in 1998 with perjury in civil lawsuits -- to harp on the underlying issue. Since the real subject is transparently irrelevant to the duties of the presidency, political opponents and media pundits turn it into a question of character or management. Did the candidate lie about the issue in the press? Did he or she do damage control correctly? Just ask Anthony Weiner what the end result of that can be.
It’s all a diversion from the real issues. Michele Bachmann is obviously unfit to be president for reasons that have nothing to do with these bogus kerfuffles. Her views -- such as calling homosexuality “part of Satan” -- are intolerant. Her positions are outside the mainstream and based on factually false premises. Her experience is unimpressive. Her rhetoric is irresponsible and divisive. Those are good subjects for reporters to investigate and pundits to analyze. Some of the same outlets, such as Politico and The Daily Beast, have done excellent reporting on these topics. Let’s hope that in the future we can stick to them.
Update: This article originally stated that Sullivan and Olbermann noted Marcus Bachmann's "gay" manner of speaking. Olbermann did not explicitly do so. I apologize for the error.
We can now all agree that throwing a foam pie at Rupert Murdoch while he and son James were getting nailed during Parliament’s phone-hacking hearings couldn’t have gone better for the moguls had Fox News staged the scene itself. As James Wolcott wrote of the too-smart-by-half activist splatter, “this guy has made Murdoch senior look vulnerable and sympathetic and Wendi heroic.”
Wendi, of course, is Rupert’s 42-year-old wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch. By walloping the pie-thrower, Deng instantly became a worldwide sensation, and is now variously known as Tiger Wife, Ninja Wendi, or, as CNN.com exuded: “It's no longer Wendi the ‘gold digger’—as some called her—who snared the aging boss of News Corp. Now she is being dubbed Crouching Wendi: Hidden Tiger.”
A stereotype is born!
But as media endlessly replayed the footage of Deng punching the pie guy, they never mentioned the obvious, that another woman was actually Rupert’s first responder rescue hero. That woman wearing a gray suit, sitting next to Wendi during the hearings—she’s the one who jumped up and blocked Murdoch from a full-frontal shaving cream assault; then Wendi reached over her to hit the guy—and in the process, she and woman #1 fell to the ground. (Wonder if they glimpsed any floor ads there?) Watch:
Who was that woman in gray, and why were most media—MSNBC, CNN, all but a handful of websites and, of course, Fox News—pretending she didn’t exist? Obviously she was on the Murdoch team. Why not sing her praises too?
Because crediting anyone but Wendi for heroics would have diluted the stereotype and botched the narrative. Which was: strong woman singlehandedly saves her man. And its auxiliary: a Murdoch woman is tougher than any bleeding-heart liberal dude. Fox.com even went all feminist for the occasion with the headline: “She Is Woman, Hear Her Roar.” Whatever the easiest, clichéd, black-and-white interpretation of a conflict is, that’s the corporate media’s first choice, and once set, it sticks.
That most media didn’t acknowledge a whole other person right before their eyes may seem a small thing, but this simple act of omission is a micro version of what much of the MSM do reflexively: if an inconvenient fact gets in the way of a good story, they blind themselves to the fact—whether it’s that tax cuts actually don’t create jobs, or that we need to increase spending to get out of the recession. Or that Rupert had two girls come to his rescue.
As it turns out, soon after the Tuesday attack, the Associated Press did name the first woman; she’s Janet Nova, one of Murdoch’s lawyers. But that piece of info was barely picked up by the rest of the press. Even on Thursday, when the New York Times spelled out Nova’s role—a caption reads, “Before a pie-thrower was ‘Wendied,’ he was ‘Janeted’ ”—most media continued to stick to the tidier and, uh, punchier story of a Solo Superwoman. CNN.com, for example, not only ignored Nova’s presence but figuratively knocked her down a second time by writing of Wendi, “nothing comes between the slap-down sister and her mister.”
And, be warned yet again, nothing comes between the mainstream media and an oversimplified, tabloid tale.
With twelve days left before debt default, lawmakers are rushing to hash out a deal that cuts long-term spending and raises the debt limit. As of today, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are mulling this “compromise,” a deal focused on sharp cuts to discretionary spending and regressive changes to entitlement programs, aimed at saving $3 trillion over the next decade. In addition, the deal would include tax reform that would lower income tax rates while reducing or eliminating tax breaks and expenditures. The actual legislation to lift the debt ceiling wouldn’t include tax increases, and the tax rewrite would be postponed until next year.
Even for those who respect President Obama, this looks like capitulation. Right-wing Republicans will get a grab bag of painful cuts to the social safety net, as well as lower income tax rates on individuals and corporations. Other than the satisfaction of saving the country from a second economic collapse, Democrats get nothing. It’s possible that Obama will let the full Bush tax cuts expire next year, thus raising trillions in additional revenue, but given his unshakeable commitment to middle-class tax cuts, it’s more likely that we lose the tax cuts on the rich, while maintaining the unsustainable tax cuts on middle-class Americans.
Not only is this a deal a disaster for liberal interests, but it’s impossible not to notice the extent to which this process is profoundly undemocratic. In short, the Obama administration and Congressional Republicans have provoked an economic crisis to force unpopular policies that voters would otherwise reject. Indeed, if healthcare reform required nine months of continuous debate, then certainly these cuts—which are three times the size of the Affordable Care Act—warrant more than a few weeks of discussion.
Of course, with a little less than two weeks before default, that’s not possible. Instead, Congress will pass a “deal,” Washington pundits will cheer it, and President Obama will sign the largest cuts to the welfare state in history. So much for liberalism.
On Thursday, it appeared all was over but the kegger. NFL owners, after creating an airport traffic jam of limousines in Atlanta (seriously), voted 31-0 to, as early reports said, “end the NFL Lockout.” They approved a ten-year “global agreement” that would see the game into a glorious new, multibillion-dollar future. We were told that everyone except for Al Davis of the Raiders was happy. which in turn made all the other owners particularly happy. They even gave a standing ovation to their meat-puppet, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The sports media exhaled. Fans rejoiced. Belts were loosened, elastic pants were taken out of storage. Owners crowed that the NFL season, including the $800 million pre-season, looked glitteringly intact.
There was only one problem. The owners had not voted to accept a negotiated, collectively bargained agreement. They were doing little more than voting to approve their own deal. Neither the NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, nor NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, nor any of the player reps had even seen the agreement the owners voted upon. It reportedly includes a series of provisions that hadn’t been discussed or bargained. It was a power play aimed at using the deadline for a settlement to get their wish-list on the player’s backs. Eric Cantor would have been proud.
Mike Silver of yahoo sports wrote, that the owners were doing little more than “daring the players to swallow terms that have not yet been negotiated.” Washington’s player rep Vonnie Holiday tweeted, “Look guys I have no reason to lie! The truth of the matter is we got tricked duped, led astray, hoodwinked, bamboozled!”
Meanwhile, the official sports media turned up the heat, clamoring for the NFLPA to just vote on what the owners approved and get back to work. Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks said that the owners should do their own “Let Us Play” commercial (thankfully Banks doesn’t work in advertising, since, owners don’t actually… you know… play.) Green Bay Packers player rep and Super Bowl hero Aaron Rodgers tweeted, “Media spin on owners position in this lockout is ridiculous. Believe my colleagues tweets tonight about the events of the last 24 hours.”
Despite the awesome weight of ownership, media, and personal financial pressure, the players are holding firm to actually reading and discussing this mammoth ten-year labor agreement before signing off and good for them. I fully expect the lockout to end shortly. There is too much money at stake, too much expectation for football to go forward as planned. But after a 132-day lockout, the players have every right to actually understand in full what it is they’re voting upon. The owners would be lucky if the NFLPA doesn’t look at the number of publicly funded stadiums, look at the star-power of their own players and say to the owners, “Why do we need you again?”
This is bigger than the NFL. This is about the arrogance of Capital in a period of austerity. The actions of the owners are little different from the arrogance of the Republican leaders of Congress, Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Jerry Brown of California, Andrew Cuomo of New York and all who believe that it’s belt-tightening time for everyone but the fat-cats and to hell with democracy, due process or any semblance of thought for the greater good. This is about those at the top of society who want “socialism” for the rich and an apocalyptic Ayn Randian nightmare for the rest of us. As Troy Polamalu, the All-Pro safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers said,
“I think what the players are fighting for is something bigger. A lot of people think it’s millionaires versus billionaires and that’s the huge argument. The fact is its people fighting against big business. The big business argument is ‘I got the money and I got the power therefore I can tell you what to do.’ That’s life everywhere. I think this is a time when the football players are standing up and saying, ‘No, no, no, the people have the power.’ ”
I wish Barack Obama, in his own set of negotiations, had half of their backbone of the NFLPA. We should stand with their basic right to not have their future force-fed to them like animals, but to be treated like men.
As Republicans lament the shortcomings of their eight presidential candidates, efforts to get a more exciting candidate are ongoing. The drum beat for some unlikely options hasn’t ceased, even when the person in question, like Rudy Giuliani, would make a terrible candidate.
Pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and William Kristol have recently said they’d like Texas Governor Rick Perry to get in the race. But since Perry is a theocratic extremist that does little for the party’s moderate moneybags.
Curiously, many socially moderate big GOP donors have continued to sit on their hands even after former China Ambassador Jon Huntsman got in the race with a record and message aimed squarely at them. Some financiers have given to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who attempts to bridge the mainstream/right wing divide by running on a moderate, technocratic record with a platform that consists of flip-flops to outlandish right wing positions. (We are meant to believe, for example, that this former advocate of gay rights and abortion rights wants to amend the Constitution to outlaw gay marriage.)
So who are the Wall Street Republicans pining for? Chris Christie, New Jersey’s belligerent governor. Are you confused? So am I, and so is Jonathan Chait. Christie has become a YouTube sensation with the conservative base because he is prone to angry, blunt and condescending outbursts towards villains like public school teachers at town halls. This has not made him popular in New Jersey. His recent poll numbers are low. According to Public Policy Polling results released Wednesday, 43 percent of New Jersey voters approve of the job Christie is doing while 53 percent disapprove. That’s a negative 13 point swing from the last PPP poll on the question, in January.
The fact that Christie, who only got into office by beating an unpopular incumbent in a strong off-year election for Republicans, might not win re-election in 2013 is, perversely, why his backers want him to run for president now. Strike while the iron is still lukewarm!
And so, despite Christie’s repeated insistence that he won’t run in 2012, top Republicans keep begging him to. In May five Iowa Republican donors flew to New Jersey to personally ask Christie to get in the race. Earlier this week major Republican donors gathered to implore him once again to run. Politico’s Mike Allen reported Wednesday in Playbook:
Fifty of the most prized donors in national politics, including several hedge-fund billionaires who are among the richest people in the world, schlepped to a Manhattan office or hovered around speakerphones Tuesday afternoon as their host, venture capitalist Ken Langone (pronounced LAN-goan), a co-founder of The Home Depot, implored New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to reconsider and seek the GOP presidential nomination.... Langone backed Rudy Giuliani in 2008, and his guests came from both parties, although most were moderate Republicans. Most are uncommitted in the presidential race.... Several of them said: I’m Republican but I voted for President Obama, because I couldn’t live with Sarah Palin.
Why are these moderates attracted to Christie? His record is that of a doctrinaire reactionary. He has made brutal, heartless cuts to nursing homes and facilities for people with special needs, resulting in risks to the health of and diminished freedom for New Jersey residents with disabilities. He opposes abortion rights and cut funding to family planning clinics. He opposes marriage equality and says he would veto a bill allowing it. Christie withdrew from a regional plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and he has proposed cutting support for renewable energy. In short, none of the hallmarks of a moderate Republican, such as support for the environment or abortion rights, can be found in Christie’s record. Just because he is governor of New Jersey doesn’t make him Christine Todd Whitman.
And it isn’t only on issues of moral judgment that Christie parts ways with Wall Street moderates. Christie is by no means a technocratic manager in the Bloomberg mold. As a devastating profile in Philadelphia magazine demonstrated, Christie’s management style can best be described as bombastic, incompetent and dishonest. He cuts questionable deals with New Jersey’s Democratic power brokers. He makes irrational, ideologically driven decisions, such as refusing to build a much needed rail tunnel under the Hudson River, which would pay for itself in economic growth and efficiency. And he fails at simple tasks of governance, such as properly submitting New Jersey’s application for Race to the Top funds.
The only plausible explanation for why moderate Republican donors would pine for Chris Christie to get in the race is that they are desperately seeking someone who can unite the Tea Party and mainstream segments of the party. Christie is a former federal prosecutor and he seems a bit sharper than, say, Sarah Palin. He may be a reliable conservative, but he’s not as extremist and incendiary as Michele Bachmann. He would excite the right-wing base more than Tim Pawlenty. And moderate Republicans fear that their current options—Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman—are too weak among conservatives to win in Iowa and South Carolina. Christie is appealing, in other words, if you are trying to head off a right wing upset of Romney from Bachmann or someone like her.
Of course, if you want a moderate, responsible, pro-business candidate with a real chance of winning in 2012, there is already one in the race. His name is Barack Obama.
If you watched Rupert Murdoch’s weak-sauce testimony in front of the British Parliament Tuesday, you might have felt just a teensy bit sorry for former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who sat directly behind Murdoch the entire afternoon, pouting.
Sure, Klein is probably earning more money than God in his new role as executive vice president at News Corp. But the Justice Department attorney turned data-and-accountability school reformer signed up with Murdoch to get out of the harsh political limelight and help News Corp. make a mint selling educational technology products to school districts. Instead, Klein now finds himself heading up the company’s internal response to the explosive phone-hacking scandal, which has tainted nearly every august institution in British society, from Fleet Street to the Cameron government to Scotland Yard.
The FBI is currently investigating News Corp. to learn if its illegal and unethical activities victimized any American citizens, or penetrated the company’s US holdings, which include Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.
But what’s been less well understood is the impact the scandal might have on Murdoch’s attempt to make a profit off the American public sector, most notably through seeking to provide technology services, such as data-tracking systems and video lessons, to public school districts.
Last November, shortly after hiring Klein, News Corp. acquired Wireless Generation, an education technology firm that had worked closely with Klein during his tenure as chancellor on two projects: ARIS, a controversial (and buggy) data system that warehouses students’ standardized test scores and demographic profiles; and School of One, a more radical attempt to use technology to personalize instruction, reorganize classrooms, and reduce the size of the teaching force.
The acquisition put Klein, who was set to supervise Wireless Generation, in an awkward position vis à vis city ethics regulations. The Times reported:
Conflict-of-interest rules set strict limits for city employees, both during and after their tenure, which could make Mr. Klein’s transition a tricky one. City employees are never allowed to disclose confidential information about the city’s business dealings or future strategy, and they cannot communicate with the agency for which they worked for one year after they leave. The rules also bar them from ever working on matters they had substantial involvement in as city employees.
It seemed unlikely Klein would be able to fully follow those mandates when, in May, the city Department of Education renewed its contract with Wireless Generation, asking the company to provide testing materials and software. Last month, New York State moved to award Wireless Generation a $27 million no-bid contact to create a state student data-tracking system similar to ARIS—despite the fact that many New York City principals have decided not to use the $80 million software, which doesn’t track helpful day-to-day information on attendance, behavior or homework completion.
So far, only the teachers’ union and a few New York progressive organizations—including the Working Families Party, Common Cause/New York and New York City Public School Parents—are using the hacking scandal to call attention to what they see as a series of sweetheart deals between New York and News Corp. Wireless Generation Senior Vice President Zachary Silverstein told Education Week that drawing any connection between Murdoch’s UK troubles and his American education business is “is really a stretch and frankly unfair.”
But scrutiny on Murdoch’s school agenda is growing. Aware of the media titan’s relationship with former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, education reporter Alexander Russo tried to find out if Murdoch had donated to StudentsFirst, Rhee’s PAC. The group’s goal is to act as a political counterweight to teachers’ unions.
“After two days of emails and phone calls—they must have been freaking out behind the scenes trying to figure out what to do—a Rhee spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny the Murdoch money,” Russo wrote.
“Our policy doesn't allow me to reveal who our donors are or aren't,” the spokesman said.
It suffices to say that the last several months have been frustrating for liberals. Unemployment hovers at 9 percent and economic growth is anemic, but all of Washington is obsessed deficit reduction and fiscal “austerity.” What’s more, because the Republican Party refuses to compromise—and has actively held the economy hostage to the debt ceiling—the entire policy debate has moved sharply to the right. Moderate ideas, like Senator Kent Conrad’s proposed 50-50 split for deficit reduction ($1 dollar in cuts for every $1 in new revenue), have been pushed off of the table, and liberal ideas, like additional stimulus or a more active Federal Reserve, have been shunned by nearly every participant.
There was early hope that President Obama might use this as an opportunity to take command of the conversation and stress the importance of job creation, but that was discarded as soon as the White House joined the bargaining table. Far from talking about jobs, Obama has emerged as a leading advocate for austerity, adopting conservative rhetoric and chastising liberals for their refusal to join the program, while ignoring their contributions to the debate. As he said in a press conference two weeks ago, in an attempt to explain his position, “If you’re a progressive who believes in the integrity of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, then you have an obligation to make those programs sustainable in the long-term.” Likewise, “If you’re a progressive who believes in Head Start and college assistance, we’re not going to be able to do that if we don’t have our fiscal house in order.”
Obama’s commitment to conservative austerity measures might infuriate the left, but most Americans are huge fans. According to the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 58 percent of Americans prefer Obama’s proposal for deficit reduction—a solution that would cut federal spending, increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy and reduce the level of spending on Medicare—to the Republican proposal, which would slash spending without raising new revenues. Likewise, by a 52-to-38 margin, people say that Democrats shouldn’t compromise on cuts to Social Security and Medicare. By contrast, a whopping 62 percent of respondents say that Republicans should compromise on tax increases. That the public is on Obama’s side is a fact that will help as he works through the poor economy and begins his uphill struggle for re-election against a dangerous and radicalized Republican Party.
Even still, win or lose, we will have to live with a status quo that has moved sharply—and maybe irrevocably—to the right. Even the “moderate” proposal for deficit reduction, produced by the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six,” calls for immediate cuts to discretionary spending, long-term spending caps, tax reform with a focus on lower rates and cuts to entitlement benefits. This isn’t a great time for progressive politics, and it’s hard to see how it gets better.
President Obama endorsed the Senate's Gang of Six deficit reduction plan Tuesday, saying that the proposal “is broadly consistent with the approach that I’ve urged” and “makes sure that nobody is disproportionately hurt from us making progress on the debt and deficits.”
However, an examination of the plan’s specifics reveals that corporations and wealthy Americans won’t feel much pain at all—in many cases, just the opposite. The plan slashes taxes and could bring the top personal income rate down as low as 23 percent—meaning CEOs like Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein could see their after-tax income increase by as much as $3 million, according to Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The corporate tax rate would be reduced from 35 percent to between 23 and 29 percent under the proposal. (Supposedly enough loopholes would be closed to keep total revenue from corporate taxes the same. Even in that scenario, corporations won’t pay an extra penny). Military spending also remains virtually untouched.
Meanwhile, the harm done to seniors, students, working families and others under the Gang of Six plan is unmistakable. Social Security benefits would be reduced, and there are also cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Students and the disabled would lose some federal government support. Here’s a quick look at who would be most harmed under the new most popular proposal in Washington.
Seniors: Americans over age 65 get hit from several directions under the Gang of Six proposal. First, the plan reduces Social Security benefits by 0.3 percentage points per year by tinkering with the formula that adjusts benefits based on inflation. This could lead to annual reductions of over $1,300 for some seniors. Social Security is solvent through 2037 and does not contribute to the deficit, so this change is particularly misguided.
Medicare also would also face serious reductions. The plan directs the Senate Finance Committee to reduce doctor payments by $300 billion and then cut another $200 billion from the program overall. To achieve that, anything from raising the eligibility age to increasing cost-sharing could be considered and would almost have to be in order to find savings of that magnitude.
The poor: Medicaid will no doubt suffer under the Gang of Six plan, though it’s not possible to put a dollar amount on the cuts yet. The proposal says that the government must “spend healthcare dollars more efficiently in order to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid.” That’s obviously code for spending fewer dollars, which means Medicaid recipients can expect to receive less.
The cuts would be negotiated by another bipartisan group of senators over the next six months, but the starting point for Republicans on Medicaid is downright draconian. In the budget passed by House Republicans earlier this year, supported by a vast majority of Republicans when it came up for a vote in the Senate, the program would be cut by a whopping 35 percent by 2021—even as medical costs skyrocket between now and then. It’s not likely the GOP would win that steep of a reduction, but even halfway to that point would be catastrophic for Medicaid recipients. As none other than Sen. Kent Conrad, a key figure in the Gang of Six, told the Huffington Post in June, Medicaid operates on such low overhead that a cut “goes right to medical services.”
The disabled: The Gang of Six plan completely eliminates a disability insurance program created under the 2009 healthcare reform bill. The Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, or CLASS Act, provides in-home care for anyone who becomes disabled, as an alternative to being placed in a nursing home. It provides up to $18,250 annually for these costs, with no lifetime cap. Premiums are $5 per month for students or people under the poverty line, and about $123 per month for everyone else, but it’s also voluntary—anybody can ask their employer to simply opt out.
The elimination of the CLASS Act is another example of sacrificing a valuable program that simply does not contribute to the deficit but rather conflicts with conservative ideology. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the program actually saves the government $70 billion through 2019, because people have to pay premiums for five years in order to qualify for benefits. It also keeps people out of nursing homes, which are a major driver of increasing medical costs.
Students: The Gang of Six blueprint directs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which oversees federal student loan programs, to come up with $70 billion in budgetary savings. Given the somewhat limited scope of what the Committee oversees, in terms of areas that actually create federal expenditures, it’s virtually impossible it could find savings of that scale without serious changes to federal student loans.
One idea popular with the Bowles-Simpson debt commission, and echoed recently by Representative Eric Cantor, would be to end the Stafford student loan program, which subsidizes the interest on loans while students are enrolled in college. An outright elimination of the program would save the government $40 billion over ten years, but would force students to pay interest on their college loans while still in school and likely not drawing much of an income, if any.
Pell Grants, which are federal scholarships for low-income students, are also likely to be on the chopping block. The program is already running an $11 billion deficit, and will no doubt be a juicy target for Senators looking to get $70 billion in cuts.
These are the areas currently identifiable based on the Gang of Six blueprint—but it calls for massive, yet-unspecified spending reductions, and possibly discretionary spending caps down the road. Given the current slant towards reductions for needy Americans in the blueprint, it’s hard to imagine future reductions will be any different.
What did we learn from the Murdochs’ testimony? That, at 80, Rupert Murdoch is losing his grip—or wants to appear that way. The billionaire tyrant’s saurian response to his tormentors on the parliamentary select committee showed a man who struggled with names, dates and details, and who needed to be rescued by his son James (who seemed almost pathetically eager to do so). But the picture that emerged of a father far too busy struggling (and by yesterday’s evidence, failing) to keep track of a global media empire to have any knowledge of what his underlings’ underlings were up to on one lowly British tabloid was profoundly at odds not only with Murdoch’s track record as a manager in total command of every detail of his empire, but even with portions of his own testimony yesterday. When MP Tom Keen tossed him a softball: “You’ve been kept in the dark, Rupert Murdoch,” he blasted it right back: “Nobody kept me in the dark. Anything that’s seen as a crisis comes to me.”
James Murdoch’s portrayal of the dutiful son who arrived on the scene too late to have been involved in any wrongdoing—but just in time to sign off on the multimillion-pound payoffs to a handful of hacking victims—was more convincing. Though here too it is worth noting that the legal opinion from Harbottle & Co., the high-priced London firm that News International used to handle the invasion of privacy claims, which James waved around like a doctor’s note getting out of a particularly unpleasant school trip, has been undercut by the firm’s statement yesterday that its advice had been wrongly summarized, but that the firm’s request to be released from confidentiality to explain exactly how had been turned down by News International.
On the whole, the Murdoch strategy of running out the clock was successful—even before the doubtless unpleasant distraction of wiping a shaving cream pie off Murdoch senior’s face, which cost Murdoch a small portion of his majesty but also kept Tom Watson, by far the most dangerous member of the panel, from being allowed to ask a concluding set of questions. There were two small but genuine revelations: that News International continued paying the legal fees for Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator jailed in 2007 for hacking into mobile phones belonging to members of the British royal family (and who also hacked into the voice messages of the murdered school girl Milly Dowler) long after his conviction, and that Rupert Murdoch himself never even considered resigning or in any way accepting responsibility for the illegal actions of his employees.
What happens next? There are currently at least ten separate British investigations, including an independent inquiry headed by a judge, police investigations into both phone hacking (“Operation Weeting”) and the issue of police corruption and illegal payments to police officers by Murdoch’s newspapers and other British press organizations (“Operation Elveden”), as well as an examination by the media regulator Ofcom about whether the actions of Murdoch employees on the News of the World throws into question the family’s fitness to retain control of its British broadcast operations.
An optimist might think that with so much smoke surely a barbecue is in the offing. But the adage about too many cooks is probably just as relevant. One problem facing any regulator or national legislature genuinely trying to come to grips with Murdoch is that News Corporation is a truly global company. The most recent GAO report shows the company operating 782 foreign subsidiaries—of which 182 are in such notorious tax havens as the British Virgin Islands (sixty-two), the Cayman Islands (thirty-three) and Luxembourg (four). The career of Les Hinton—or indeed James Murdoch—demonstrates the ease with which Murdoch shuffles managers from continent to continent. Tracking the flow of News Corporation assets around the world is far more difficult.
And as I’ve said before, News Corporation is no ordinary business enterprise. The thousands of journalists on the company’s books—and the untold number of private investigators, “blaggers” and other practitioners of journalism’s black arts paid off the books—mean that in addition to men and money, News Corp. also has global reach in amassing information, particularly the kind of titillating personal information that can put a troublesome regulator or meddlesome legislator on Page Six of the New York Post or the front page of the Sun. That’s why the most significant comment on the scandal before Nick Davies managed to get the British public to pay attention was from the anonymous MP who, when asked why Parliament kept allowing Rebekah Brooks to refuse repeated invitations to testify, replied that they felt too intimidated by the threat of what might be done to them by News International journalists if they insisted. Combine that threat with a corporation whose unabashed largesse to its friends—from the £ 5 million Harper Collins paid for Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs to the $4.5 million the company offered to pay Newt Gingrich to the $1.25 million paid to Sarah Palin for Going Rogue—seems to transcend business logic and you have assembled a powerful set of incentives for accommodation.
Really getting to the bottom of News Corporation would require a global effort, with global focus—and far more determination than anything shown either by Attorney General Eric Holder’s tepid assurance that the Justice Department would look at any evidence of phone hacking in the United States or David Cameron’s government, whose links with News Corporation go far beyond sharing the occasional egg nog at Christmas.
So far no government has come close to the commitment of resources by either the Guardian, which heroically and practically single-handedly kept this story alive, or even the New York Times, whose collaboration with the Guardian—a move straight out of the classic muckraking playbook, and used, for instance, by longtime Nation contributor Fred Cook in his battles with Robert Moses—finally gave the story legs.
Even if News Corporation observed an invisible line off the eastern shore of Long Island, and restricted its illegal intrusions solely to the British Isles, Americans have every reason to be concerned with a company that, every day, and in perfect compliance with all relevant laws, serves up via Fox News something far less fragrant than shaving cream into all our faces. Perhaps the most revealing exchange yesterday came on a topic far removed from phone hacking, when Rupert Murdoch, digressing (or showing his sharp teeth) on the recent scandal over MP’s expenses—Will Lewis, the Daily Telegraph editor who led the investigation, is now an executive at News International, Murdoch’s British arm—identified his vision of an ideal democracy: Singapore. Murdoch senior described the country—which, according to Amnesty International, routinely jails government critics and human rights activists “for exercising their right to freed of expression” and whose media “continue to be tightly controlled by restrictive censorship laws”—as “the most open and clear society in the world.”
Still, it would be a huge mistake to personalize the issue. Rupert Murdoch’s personality and prejudices are not the problem; nor are his son’s strengths—or shortcomings. Murdoch’s approach to news has changed little since Robert Sherill’s masterful portrait of a media monopolist in these pages sixteen years ago! Putting Rupert or James Murdoch on trial might be emotionally satisfying. And the fact that the company has lawyered up, adding US antitrust superstar Joel Klein to the board and putting Ollie North’s mouthpiece Brendan Sullivan on retainer, suggests a prudent awareness of just how disliked the Murdochs have become.
But Rupert Murdoch has never been a popular figure. Indeed one newspaper profile noted that “he has inspired a hatred and scorn that have seldom been equaled in the history of press ownership.” That was back in 1995—in the Wall Street Journal, today just another outpost of the Murdoch empire.
In a country with 70 million Catholics, belonging to a church that believes the Pope is the Antichrist would seem like a lliability for any presidential aspirant. But the revelation last week that Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) belonged to the a church affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) until she resigned her membership last year doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact yet. WELS says in its Doctrinal Statement on the Antichrist that “it is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist.” (In essence, WELS sticks carefully to Martin Luther’s teachings and interprets the notion that the Pope is God’s voice in the world as an Antichrist-like attempt to assume the place of Christ.)
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League—which The Atlantic’s Joshua Green, who broke the story, refers to with the overly generous description of a “a national organization devoted to protecting Catholic civil rights”—showed a lot of Christian forgiveness towards Bachmann regarding her membership in WELS. “We never went after Obama for sitting there for twenty years listening to Rev. ‘Goddam America’ Wright. I don’t want to give him a pass, but I saw no bigotry on Obama’s part,” Donohue told Green. “Similarly, I have see [sic] none on Bachmann’s part. But it’s clear that the [synod]’s teachings are noxious and it’s important for her to speak to the issue.” That’s a non sequitur. Rev. Wright wasn’t anti-Catholic, so his statements weren’t in the Catholic League’s purview. But the Catholic League is not really a Catholic civil rights organization, it’s a politically conservative group that seems to exist primarily to get Donohue on Fox News where he can fight the War for Christmas and other ridiculous battles. Viewed in that light, Donohue’s statement should be seen for what it is: a politically hackish attempt to point out that President Obama had a radical black pastor who might make them uncomfortable.
Donohue is faithfully playing his role in the alliance that has developed between conservative Catholics and Protestants. While they once viewed each other with suspicion, in recent years the groups have cooperated over opposition to abortion rights and gay rights. And no one outdoes Bachmann when it comes to opposition to gay rights.
“A lot of things have changed between evangelicals and catholics in last twenty to thirty years,” says Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Whereas conservative white Protestants used to persecute Catholics and Jews, since the 1970s they have made common cause with them politically if not theologically. “The new culture war is conservative Jews, Catholics and Protestants against liberal Jews, Catholics and Protestants,” says Cromartie. “Even Jerry Falwell said that the Moral Majority means that conservatives of different faiths can work together.”
Cromartie predicts that it will take “about one meeting with conservative Catholics to clarify what her thoughts are on the Church. She may have to give a speech like Obama did in Philadelphia [about Rev. Wright]. But it may not go that far. If she meets with leading Catholics in Iowa and New Hampshire and says ‘We are together on the issues,’ that solves it.”
There are, in fact, quite a few Catholics in New Hampshire. But Catholic pride as such is unlikely to cause major problems for Bachmann there. That’s because New Hampshire Catholics are not intensely religious. If anything, ventures Andy Smith, director of the Granite State poll at the University of New Hampshire, New Hampshire voters are more likely to be turned off by Bachmann’s religious extremism than the anti-Catholic views of her former Church. “Even though there are a lot of people in New Hampshire who identify as Catholic, they’re what my wife’s family calls ‘cafeteria Catholics,’” Smith explains. “They pick and choose what they believe and church attendance is very low.” In New Hampshire, according to Granite State poll data, 28 percent of residents identify as Catholic, but only 33 percent of them go to church once per week or more, with 49 percent attending a few times a year or never.
Bachmann may also be given a pass by conservative Catholics because she was unaware of her former church’s doctrine on the papacy. When her membership in WELS first became an issue in 2004 she flatly, and incorrectly, denied the facts of what her church doctrine holds, saying “my church does not believe that the pope is the Antichrist, that’s absolutely false.” According to Cromartie it’s entirely possible that Bachmann really didn’t know about her church’s doctrine because most lay evangelicals who, like Bachmann, converted to evangelicalism as adults are not well-versed on the finer points of theology. “These people know the faith and politics,” says Cromartie, “but they didn’t go to seminary.”
And so, in the primaries at least, Bachmann’s curious religious history is likely to buffered on the right side by what Cromartie calls the “ecumenism of the trenches” of the culture war and on her left by apathy about obscure theological matters.