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What It Takes to Be Ignored in Washington

The dreary Robert Samuelson, who can always be counted on for a “both sides are ignoring the real issue…” column, complains this morning that both sides in the immigration debate, and the press (except, of course, for his own mustache-of-understanding) are ignoring Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation and his projections that the Senate immigration bill would cost $30 billion a year and allow millions more legal immigrants to enter the country. (“One obvious question is why most of the news media missed the larger immigration story,” Samuelson writes. “On May 15 Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama held a news conference with Heritage’s Rector to announce their immigration projections and the estimated impact on the federal budget. Most national media didn’t report the news conference.”)

He considers various explanations for this neglect, from Rector’s theory that the media has a liberal bias and favors immigration, to his own “more complicated” view that the media tends to follow the story as its been defined, and it has been defined as a question of amnesty.

I mean no disrespect to Samuelson’s obviously nuanced and complex worldview, but perhaps we might consider a simpler explanation for the media ignoring Robert Rector: Perhaps, just perhaps, Rector has finally crossed the line - hard to do in Washington - where he has no credibility. Remember, this is Robert Rector who spent the 1990s arguing that there wasn’t really much poverty in America, because some poor people are fat and many have color televisions, and simultaneously telling the Senate Finance Committee that “we spent $5.4 trillion on the war on poverty and poverty won.” (What about all those televisions? And to come up with $5.4 trillion, at a time when welfare and food stamps together cost less than $50 billion a year, involved throwing in all sorts of programs for health care and education unrelated to welfare or the short-lived “war on poverty,” adding up 30 years of spending, adjusting it all upwards for inflation, and then rounding up.) This is also the Robert Rector who has spent the ‘00s concocting studies trying to show that abstinence education and virginity pledges are something other than a dangerous and nasty bit of social engineering that seems to have demonstrably hurt teens’ health by restoring ignorance and shame to  sexuality. Rector is a political operative.

A specific rebuttal to Rector on immigration is here. Apparently Rector assumes that most legal immigrants will receive “welfare,” but as with the “$5.4 trillion war on poverty,” he has defined “welfare” to include all general costs of education, courts, etc., and disregarded the taxes immigrants - most of whom will work -- will pay.

I say congratulations to the press for ignoring Rector. It’s only 15 years too late.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 31, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (1)

NASCAR Man Goes F1

Peter Beinart -- whose new book I will read as soon as I finish Orhan Pamuk’s Snow  -- has a funny, observant but ultimately weird column in The New Republic this week. It starts out as an "anthropology of one’s own tribe" -- liberals at conferences about liberalism, progressivism, whatever you want to call it, blah, blah. Beinart complains that at these conferences, everyone is too nice to each other (hence, apparently, the odd title of the column -- "Nice Ass," as in, Democrats=donkeys, which another word for is "ass" and they’re too nice, thus "Nice Ass." Very clever, in a Hasty Pudding Club sort of way.) , but what he really proves about such conferences is that almost everyone is half-engaged, if they are there at all. "Name tags lie on tables, seats remain unfilled. ...Someone gets a cell phone call, checks the number, and heads for the exit. Someone else fishes a BlackBerry from his suitcase and begins to tap. The condition of American liberalism is grave, we all agree, but evidently not grave enough to put our cell phones on mute."

(An accurate description, although at the last such conclave I attended, only one name tag was unclaimed, Beinart’s, which sat on a side table serving as a silent rebuke lest any of us lapse into mushy, soft-on-terror thinking.)

Beinart points out that every such meeting is then dominated by someone who makes a long and pointless point, even admitting frequently that "maybe this doesn’t make any sense," but that everyone’s too nice, or too distracted by the Blackberry to stop him or her. (I admit that I’m the Blackberry -- Treo, actually -- guy -- I hope I’m not that other guy also.)

But at least I know I’m not the guy Beinart pays most attention to

...if liberals must eradicate self-indulgent niceness, they must also confront an even bigger scourge. Let’s call him nascar Man. Nascar Man hovers over every discussion I’ve ever attended. You don’t always notice him at first, but, sooner or later, someone invites him into the room, and he proceeds to suck out all the air. Nascar Man is the guy liberals need to win, but usually don’t. He loves guns, pickup trucks, chewing tobacco, and church on Sunday. He thinks liberals are high-taxing, culturally libertine, quasi-pacifist wimps. And, once liberals have conjured him up, they no longer say what they really believe--even to one another.

The problem starts with the failure to draw a basic distinction: between what liberals believe and what Democrats should say to get elected. Inevitably, in my experience, the two are conflated, and, inevitably, the latter tramples the former. Should liberals invest more power in the United Nations? Should they spend large new sums on the poor? Should they support gay marriage? The propositions are not refuted; they are rarely even raised, because no one wants to incite nascar Man’s wrath. Nascar Man inhibits intellectual inquiry. He’s the bully everyone wants to appease.

That’s very cleverly put. Indeed, the invocation of Nascar Man, or Dobson Man, is a ritual of such discussions, invariably invoked most often by someone who knows the least about the world beyond the Upper West Side. And Beinart is himself too "nice" to point out that it often occurs within moments of the ritual of pointing out that the group sitting around the table is too white, too straight, too old, too secular, etc., which always must be observed as if noting something obvious allows everyone to move forward, "so noted." Thus one can sometimes have, almost side by side, two "America is..." statements: one, implicit, that America Is like us, but more multicultural; the other that America Is totally unlike us, hates us, loves God, Guns and Guts, and we either need to trick them or go home.

And of course the only "America Is" statement that makes sense is that America is a complicated, hugely diverse place with all kinds of attitudes and constituencies, some of which will be open to progressive ideas and others of which will not. And that in such a place, majorities, political power, and public consensus can all be crafted in multiple ways. Beinart is also right that these assumptions of an America that is overwhelmingly hostile to ideas of justice, rights, and international cooperation lead to a stilted conversation in which people easily lose sight of their own moral touchstones -- they convince themselves that what they themselves believe is something that most other Americans don’t -- in favor of electoral strategizing. That’s particularly disturbing in conversation among people who aren’t actually doing anyone’s electoral strategy.

That said, what’s striking about this passage is it’s lack of self-awareness. Hello? Isn’t Peter Beinart himself the original NASCAR man?? Or at least the one who made the most lucrative go of it. What the hell was the point of "A Fighting Faith," his controversial post-Kerry essay, if not to point out that Americans think liberals/Democrats are "quasi-pacifist wimps"?? Or that they are perceived as quasi-pacifist wimps, and need to do all in their power to combat that perception.

At that time, I argued that the essay might have made internal sense (which is not to say that it would have been correct) had it made a defense of the Iraq war -- that is, if he could argue, as the likes of Christopher Hitchens still do, that Democrats were on the wrong side of history for opposing the war. But although Beinart hadn’t yet said, "We Were Wrong,", he couldn’t defend the war either. So the essay ended up basically saying that moveon.org (his main target) might or might not be right about the war but must not be too outspoken in saying so, because America Is a country that thinks liberals are wimpy and we mustn’t do anything to encourage that perception. In other words, forget reality, say what it takes to get elected, including visibly purging those who might also be right about the war but who might -- in theory -- go too far in their pacifism, opposing other, hypothetisized, wiser wars.

My understanding is that Beinart has toned down the attack in his book. And that he now fully acknowledges that he and his colleagues were wrong to support the war. So I’m surprised by the lack of self-awareness in his otherwise very funny satire of the invokers of "Nascar Man." I hope the book resolves the paradox.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 19, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (12)

Parricide at the CIA

Sidney Blumenthal has a fine piece in Salon today that demonstrates that Bush and Cheney have essentially, and quite deliberately, destroyed the CIA.

Others have hinted at this, but the Goss debacle and the Hayden nomination add much to the story, and Blumenthal knits it all together well. But what he doesn’t touch on, and I’ve never seen mentioned in any previous discussion of Bush and the CIA is the element of parricide involved.

We all take it for granted that Bush’s feelings about his father had something to do with the compulsion to invade Iraq. It could have been the genuine loyalty of a loving son -- Bush supposedly said of Saddam, "he tried to kill my father," sufficient proof that Saddam was evil. Or it could be a lot more complicated, such as a desire to prove to his withholding father, after decades as the inadequate older son, that he could accomplish something, something that had eluded the father himself. Or perhaps to stick it to the father for his perceived loss of nerve in not finishing the job. It’s all fodder for the psychobiographer in every one of us.

But why wouldn’t a similar analysis apply equally, or moreso, to the CIA? The elder Bush was director of the CIA when W was in his late twenties, roughly the period when he had the legendary confrontation with his father over his drinking and general loser-ness, and challenged the father to fight him, "mano a mano." The CIA building is named after his father. And I believe there is some reason to think that the elder Bush’s connection to the Agency predates his appointment as director (without buying the LaRouchite theory that places Bush 41 on the grassy knoll in Dallas). The CIA is a presence in the Bush family life in much the way that Yale is, another institution toward which Bush 43 holds a weird hostility -- and, of course, those two institutions are themselves linked.

I don’t have a very specific theory here, but it seems natural to wonder whether this almost inexplicable hostility to the CIA as an institution has some deeper roots in Bush’s complex relationship to his father.


Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 11, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (12)

The Republicans Do Have Bic Ideas


Now that the conventional wisdom happens to coincide with the reality that it is the Republicans who have no Ideas, don’t think for a second that the Republicans aren’t dealing with the problem. Yes, just like liberals, they’ve got their own rich internal debate about finding the deep purpose and public philosophy that will renew their political relevance.

But do they struggle with abstractions like "the common good." NO. They get down to practical things. And so today’s candidate for core conservative principle is:

Be like a really cheap pen.

I’m not joking. A really cheap pen, literally a throwaway Bic from the 1960s. Preferably one with the cap all chewed up and the ink exploded on the inside from going through the laundry.

This comes from RedState.com, where contributor Robert A. Hahn suggests a Harvard Business School case study as a parable for the Republican Party. This is not the stale VHS/Betamax parable, but involves the history of ballpoint pens. In the 1950s, Hahn says, Papermate invented the retractable ball point pen, which was a great success, the first inexpensive ballpoint. Then Bic (a French company) entered the market with the even cheaper 29 cent Bic pen. Papermate decided that it didn’t need to compete, because its niche was in the "medium-price pen market." Bic ate Papermate’s lunch because, according to Hahn, "it turned out there was no medium-price pen market." People either wanted fancy Cross pens or cheap-as-crap Bics, and Papermate should have competed with Bic in the low end.

How is this parable relevant to the Republican situation? Through that impeccable Harvard Business School/McKinsey Consulting logic that cost a few people their pensions, it proves that there is also no "medium vote market," and thus the Republicans must go where the action is -- to the far right.

There’s every indication that the "really cheap, crappy French pen" strategy is exactly what Karl Rove has in mind. We’ll let Harvard Business School assess the results next year.


Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 10, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (7)

Are You What You Eat? Is that all?

The Washington Post today discovered the book/movement known as "Crunchy Cons," which is the term created by Dallas Morning News opinion editor and former New York Post columnist Rod Dreher for the "Birkenstocked Burkeans" who combine their cultural conservatism with a certain measure of environmentalism, living small, no TV for the kids, old-fashioned religion, etc.

I’ve been fascinated by the "Crunchy Cons" because it reminds me of some of the truly fascinating figures in the history of conservatism, among them Karl Hess, who wrote Barry Goldwater’s 1964 convention speech and then moved to a kind of earthy libertarian radicalism that turned him into, of all things, a community organizer in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington. (Hess’s theory was that the far left and far right converged, but he ultimately became a figure of the New Left.)

I don’t expect the careerist Crunchy Cons (who may or may not consist of more that Mr. and Mrs. Dreher) to be undergoing half the crazed odyssey of Hess, but it actually turns out that their movement amounts to basically nothing more than standard conservativism + shopping at Whole Foods.According to the Post, that’s the Crunchy Con difference: they like to eat tasty organic food. And apparently, at least according to the Post, most conservatives don’t: I guess they like their food steeped in petrochemical byproducts, just like they like their baby seals processed, reconstituted and frozen.

This is what passes for a movement or an ideological position these days? First, who doesn’t shop at Whole Foods? A lot of people: people who can’t afford it. But among the minority of us who benefited from the Bush tax cuts, we are all beneficiaries of a great change in the availability and variety of healthier foods. I’m very happy that I can buy a chicken that’s not from Frank Perdue and I’ll pay more for it because I can.

But that is not a political stance. It is the mistaking of a consumer preference -- and a preference that is limited by economic inequality -- to some sort of public action.

My friend Kevin Mattson wrote an essay on the Commondreams website recently, based on his fine new biography of Upton Sinclair. He points out that Sinclair’s expose of the meat-packing industry in The Jungle was intended to be, and was, a spur to public action: passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. But Sinclair, he writes, was disappointed because he hoped for more sweeping change, gave up on reform and instead turned to dietary fads in a personal search for "perfect health." Kevin writes, "Sinclair’s experimentation in lifestyle change has replaced the more public solutions captured in the Meat Inspection Act and Sinclair’s dream for socialized slaughterhouses. This displacement suggests a wider transformation in the American conscience. We seem to have a hard time talking about public solutions for the many problems we face....“Lifestyle” politics – symbolized in the “whole food” markets that dot America’s suburbanized landscape – serve as the easiest means for people to feel that they’re doing something about the politics of food. Buying organic substitutes for considering ways we might improve the way we make and distribute and eat food collectively."

What’s amazing about the "Crunchy Cons" 15 minutes of fame is that we don’t even realize how far this is from a political stance. And if we don’t challenge the idea that your personal shopping preferences are a political act, we really can’t make the case for a politics of "common good" with much substance.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 4, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (13)

"Tested By Fire"

You know, I think right-wing Republicans get a bad rap, when people use words like "chickenhawk," or refer to the "101st Fighting Keyboardists." Some of these folks have shown some real courage. Take Katherine Harris, from her first TV ad. She says she’s "Tested by Fire," and you have to admit, anyone who can stand up to ALAN COLMES probably has an inner core of courage that the rest of us can only envy.

harris colmes

Perhaps a better image to accompany "Tested by Fire" would be Harris the morning after consuming $2500 worth of booze with Mitchell Wade. Here’s the ad, thanks to Crooks and Liars.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 4, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Do the Republicans Have a Candidate?

Here’s my analysis of the Republican presidential field for 2008:

  • John McCain. I’ve said enough about McCain recently. Some people believe he’s the inevitable nominee; others believe it’s impossible, because too many conservatives are just dead-set against him. I’m in the second camp. And if the nominee, he still faces huge problems: age, health, the fact that he gave up the “Straight-Talk Express” persona that made him a plausible cross-partisan character in the first place. (An interesting debate on TAPPED about David Ignatius’s “A Man Who Won’t Sell His Soul” column concludes that the press explains away any behavior by McCain because they just like him. But that’s a double-edged sword in a presidential campaign. As soon as you hit the campaign trail, the reporters aren’t middle-aged guys who want to hang out with you. They’re 25-year-olds looking to make their mark, and they don’t do it by liking a guy. The McCain cult in the press is weird, but it won’t actually save him.)
  • George Allen. We thought he was an amiable dunce, sort of like a guy out of a Budweiser ad. Actually, turns out he’s a preppy Redneck-wanna-be, a type I’ve encountered once or twice in my life and is probably one of the creepiest personality types there is. To be a racist because you were raised in a racist family in the Deep South is one thing, racist by choice is a bit worse.
  • Bill Frist. Revealed as inept and probably a crook. Utterly charmless.
  • Senator Santorum. Soon to be ex-Senator Santorum. This guy could come back some day, like Nixon, but you can’t lose a swing state and then expect to be the 2008 nominee.
  • Mitt Romney. I’ll go with whatever Amy Sullivan says on whether evangelicals will accept a Mormon. Apparently the answer is no.
  • Sam Brownback. I asked Amy the other day - if LDS is a problem for evangelicals, what about a convert to Opus Dei? Apparently Brownback also still attends a Protestant church as well. But he is a pure theocrat, which is appealing in his seamless commitment to human rights, but obviously frightening as well. And I don’t know anything about this, but I can’t help imagine that his life before he found God, which includes much of his political career, might involve some interesting stories.
  • Condoleeza Rice. That whole Black/Woman thing isn’t a problem, I believe. But are they really going to want the 2008 election to be a referendum on Bush’s foreign policy?

So unless I’m wrong about McCain, it looks to me like the Republican Party doesn’t have a candidate. But I did leave one name out: Newt Gingrich. He’s running. He’s known. His personal failings are old news. He hasn’t had to vote on anything in seven years. And if the Republicans need a change, he alone can tell a powerful story: the Republican Revolution was a glorious victory, squandered by the Abramoffs, the DeLays, and yes, even the Bushes. Newt vs. Clinton? Newt vs. Edwards or Warner or Bayh? I wouldn’t put my money on Newt in any of those contests, but - for that very reason - they would be fun to watch.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 3, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (15)

Tax Hikes for Workers

Time last week got the scoop on Josh Bolten’s Five-Point Plan to protect the Bush administration from that which it fears the most -- subpoena power - through the familiar strategy of firing up their base. All of them seem lame or craven, or grotesque, not least the promise to ratchet up tensions with Iran for political reasons. “In the face of the Iranian menace, the Democrats will lose,” says a source described as “a Republican frequently consulted by the White House.” But let’s focus on Point three:

…the Administration will focus on two tax measures already in the legislative pipeline-extensions of the rate cuts for stock dividends and capital gains. … “This is very popular with investors, and a lot of Republicans are investors,” the adviser told TIME.

It’s true, more than half of households are now investors in equities, directly or through funds, and an even greater proportion of Republicans. But here are a few statistics from the Tax Policy Center: 16.8% of taxpayers report dividends. Even for people with income between $100,000 and $200,000, capital gains make up only 12% of their income, and for households in the $50,000-$75,000 range, the heart of the middle class, it’s only about 2%. Capital gains don’t make up more than half of income until you get into the range of people making not just millions, but 10 million dollars or more a year.

But the point is not just that this is a tax cut that benefits principally the super-rich. It discriminates between people based on how they get their income. If you work, and you are fortunate to earn a good living from your labors, you are likely to pay a tax rate more than twice that someone living off the income generated by a trust fund.

Defenders will say that it is an incentive for investment. But it does not reward the act of investing; it rewards the act of taking money out of an investment. Consider this: a trust fund kid could liquidate some stocks his grandpa bought, buy expensive imported luxury goods, and pay only 15% on the capital gains. That is rewarding a net reduction in savings and investment, and if you don’t think it happens, meet some trust fund kids. Meanwhile, a person who works for a living and through careful planning saves or invests some of it gets no benefit today, and only a potential a benefit in the future.

And of course it gets worse. Recently both Greg Mankiw and Glenn Hubbard, two former heads of the Council of Economic Advisors under Bush, pointed out this week that tax rates are going to go much, much higher, as high as a 50% top rate. Actually they said they would go higher unless there were massive cuts to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, which seems to be part of an orchestrated campaign to blame "entitlements" for the budget crisis, rather than tax cuts. But since neither party, for good reason, has the appetite for such cuts, what they really mean is that taxes are going up, up, up. If members of Congress vote to extend the 15% rates, and other rates go up, then in effect, to vote for the continued special treatment of investment income is equivalent to voting for a tax increase for anyone below roughly that $10 million threshold - that is, anyone who gets more of their income from work than from sitting on their butts watching their investments grow.

This is a fight that Democrats should not shy away from. And they shouldn’t muck it up the way Kerry did, saying that he supported restoring taxation of capital gains but only for people making more than $200,000 a year. That mixes a message about rich vs. poor with a very simple message that cannot be called class warfare: treat all income the same and people in the same situation should pay the same taxes whether they are investors or workers.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 2, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack