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Dude Look Like an Echo

I’m obsessed, but don’t really know what to say, about the torture bill passing the Senate. But then I come across this, and fortunately for my sanity, I know exactly what to say. This is the third paragraph, the third paragraph of the New York Times’ front-page story about the self-destructing candidacy of Westchester County attorney Jeanine Pirro for attorney general of the state:

But to many people who have been watching the couple for decades, the Pirros look a lot like an echo of that other Westchester power couple, the Clintons, who are also political and financial partners whose fates and fortunes are profoundly intertwined. The Pirros live in Rye, the Clintons in Chappaqua.

"Look a lot like an echo of" is one of the great weasel phrases of modern journalism, even apart from the simple fact that echoes don’t "look" like anything. Here are the "echoes" between the Pirros and the Clintons:

* Apparently they live in towns that are a mere sixteen miles apart.

What are the odds of that? My family lives about two miles from Karl Rove. Echo? You be the judge. We used to live about a mile from Jennifer Connelly. I like that echo better.

* Hillary Clinton is an attorney. Jeanine Pirro? Also an attorney. What are the odds? Not to mention, both are attractive and dress well.

Why don’t we just stop here? The echoes are blinding me.

* Apparently, Mr. Pirro had some extra-curricular dalliances. Well, more than a few, since at least one resulted in the birth of a child, and another one resulted in his wife hiring Bernie Kerik to bug their yacht, pleading, "“What am I supposed to do, Bernie? Watch him f--k her every night?" Mr. Clinton apparently has also been unfaithful to his wife.

Such activity is highly unusual, of course, and to find it in two families living a mere sixteen miles apart, both of them lawyers, is quite obviously something that "looks a lot like an echo." . Or maybe it sounds a lot like a shadow.

* Mr. Clinton has a secretary named Pirro, and Mr. Pirro has a secretary named Clinton.

Holy cow! Oh, never mind, I was thinking of Lincoln and JFK.

Sadly for the perfection of the analogy, there are some very minor notes that don’t quite fit with "look like an echo." For example:

* According to the Times, "Two decades ago [Ms. Pirro] dropped her bid for lieutenant governor in the face of questions about her husband’s ties to a company in the garbage-hauling business, an activity that was often linked to the mob."

Bill Clinton was an extremely successful two-term president of the United States, and presided over a period of near-full-employment and peace in the world. Mr. Pirro was in the mob-run garbage-hauling business.Maybe if we just say that each was near the top of his chosen profession, then "looks like an echo" would still work.

* "In terms of bad publicity, probably nothing compared to Mr. Pirro’s tax evasion case. In 1998, the Pirros paid close to $1 million in back taxes, but Mr. Pirro was indicted the following year, basically for billing personal expenses to his businesses and taking tax deductions on them.

Among the purchases were a portrait of the Pirro children commissioned by Ms. Pirro, the set for her cable television show when she was a judge, furniture for their vacation home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and drivers and maids (in uniforms) to tend to the children, the wine cellar and the family’s pet pot-bellied pigs.

In June 2000, a jury convicted Mr. Pirro on 34 counts of conspiracy, tax evasion and filing false returns. His brother, Anthony, an accountant, was also convicted. Albert Pirro served 11 months in federal prison."

Okay, well, Bill Clinton never did anything like that. Never even came close. His half-brother Roger got into some trouble, though, just like Pirro’s brother. That sure "looks like an echo."

When I read something like that third paragraph, and consider the fact that it can wind up on the front page of the most thoroughly edited paper in this country, I can’t help but think of Michael Kinsley and David Broder and all the others who this week seem to be losing it about "foul-mouthed bloggers" and people getting their news from "some acned 12-year-old in his parents’ basement recycling rumors from the Internet echo chamber" or from "myleftarmpit.com." I wonder not so much what blogs are they reading, but what newspapers?

The byline on this story, by the way, is Leslie Eaton and Mike McIntire.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 29, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

The Pure Centrists of America / Go Crazy

David Broder is a complete head case -- consumed by the convoluted efforts to square the circle of his own conflicting impulses.

Why would I say such a terrible thing? Is it because I’m a “vituperative, foul-mouthed blogger,” as he described people like me in the first of his two columns saluting the “independence party” of Democratic and Republican insiders that he wishes to see reelected?

No, I use that phrase because those are the very words - “a complete head case…” and the rest -- that Broder himself used to describe Rep. Chris Shays in a column a week ago Sunday. Everyone outraged by the dean’s last two columns in which he salutes the “independence” of a set of politicians characterized primarily by their incumbency, should add the one that preceded that pair as well. Perhaps you’ll come away with a little more sympathy for just what’s going on in the minds of the people who think they know how American politics works.

I’m not one to treat Broder with contempt. He’s worn out more shoe leather than I’ll ever see trying to understand American politics. And he’s written a bunch of books that I’ve learned a lot from (the book he wrote with Haynes Johnson about the politics of the Clinton health care plan, The System, is still the best book of the last several decades on the inner workings of Washington.) There are more than enough journalists out there who obviously don’t work as hard and aren’t as open-minded as Broder, many of them a third his age. It’s true, he doesn’t really get what’s going on in American politics right now. But that says less about Broder himself than about the craziness of the situation.

And that was my reaction to Broder’s column about the centrist Shays. Broder recounts a Washington journalists’ breakfast with Shays, at which the congressman tries to say what he really thinks about Iraq: he still supports the war, but thinks we should get out, but not on a timetable (he has a scheme instead whereby every time one Iraqi policeman is trained, one U.S. soldier goes home). He also thinks that the “president has no credibility,” but that Bush’s second inaugural address, in which he promised to make democracy the primary criterion of American foreign policy, was brilliant. And most important to Shays, no one should ever suggest for a minute that these complex positions were influenced in the least by his reelection race.

All Broder’s vituperative invective was well earned: “tortured,” a “self-absorbed soliloquy,” a “bundle of contradictions.” And Shays is, even by politician standards, unusually self-absorbed. But it seemed to me a week ago that Broder was seeing the problem as if it were a mental disorder in Shays’s head rather than a reasonable tortured reaction to the external situation as faced by a centrist Republican in 2006. Sometimes R.D. Laing is right: what we call mental illness might be a rational reaction to the double binds and cognitive dissonance of a situation.

And so I don’t think Broder is a head case, even though his salute-to-incumbency columns are filled with at least as many tortured contradictions as in Shays’ breakfast ramble. There is, for example, his insistence that Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio must be reelected because opponent Sherrod Brown is “a loud advocate of protectionist policies,” followed without a pause by a declaration that the Independence Party incumbents are those who listen to public opinion: “Americans are saying no to excess greenhouse gases and no to open borders; yes to embryonic stem cell research, yes to a path to earned citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants and yes to a living wage.” Needless to say, the “protectionist policies” Brown advocates (such as incorporating labor and environmental standards into trade agreements) are also things that Americans say yes to; it is elite Washington opinion that rejects them. And have any of the conservative Republicans he salutes as independent ever said a kind word about living wage proposals? Of course not; these are provisions championed not just by Democrats, but by the very ultraliberals that Broder thinks must be rejected.

And we could go on. It’s tough out there for a centrist. Like Shays, Broder has to try to fit the world into a paradigm in which each party is driven equally by extremists, in which there are responsible centrists in both parties who can lead us to hope. And yet, just as with Shays, none of the facts - including the more recent datum that his heroes McCain and Lindsay Graham caved on torture - fit this mental model. And the result may be Broder’s madness, or Shay’s, or perhaps the singularity of our current political situation.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 25, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (7)

The Last Refuge

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Republican congressional campaign committees plan to spend "more than 90%" of its funds on negative attacks on Democratic challengers based on local issues and scandals.

I’ve seen two reactions to this. First, the suggestion that it contradicts Republican threats to nationalize the election around security. And, second, that it’s more or less business as usual, because the party in power always wants to treat elections as local fights between individual incumbents and challengers, while the party out of power always wants to use a national tide to give its challengers a boost.

Neither response recognizes quite how unusual this is. And the article doesn’t quite say it either.

The article is missing a key phrase. Cosider the conventional wisdom that the party in control of Congress wants to keep the focus on local races. Usually, the saying goes, it’s because "People hate Congress but they like their own congressman." But the article tells a very different story.

If you take a basic course on congressional politics, you’ll be taught that there are two possible rhythms to a congressional election. In most elections, the national trend, whatever it is, doesn’t quite cross over into local races, and 98% of incumbents are reelected. In 1988, for example, George H.W. Bush won a solid victory but Democrats actually gained two seats in the House.

But every so often, the national trend is so strong that it breaks the back of incumbents who have held on to their districts for years through the usual incumbent advantages: name recognition, constituent service, delivering pork, an advantage in campaign money. 1994 was such a year.

Those advantages of incumbency are typically positive advantages. But not only is the national trend this year strong enough to overwhelm them, most of the natural positive advantages of incumbency aren’t there for Republicans. They can’t count on Americans liking their own congressman, because people don’t like their congressmen. They can’t count on ribbon-cutting ceremonies and pork-barrel spending because large forces have been unleashed that make those things look -- as they are -- trivial. (The ultimate irony of big-government conservatism is that it may have no political payoff.) And they can no longer count on the basic fundraising advantage that incumbents have. And that will get worse as the K Street Project turns on itself. (An acquaintance who runs a sizable trade association PAC told me the other day that their giving up to now had been 70:30 Republican, and her job between now and November was to get it to 50:50, so that they’re not shut out in the next Congress.)

Without the usual local advantages of incumbency, the Republicans’ second choice is to nationalize the election themselves, as the incumbent party, making it a referendum on the Bush-defined "War on Terror." That’s an unusual move, but to some extent it’s what they did to win the 2002 elections. And certainly until the Post article, this is what they promised. But it’s getting old.

And the Post article is an indication that, at least from the point of view of those following congressional races most closely, it’s not working. And so, time for Plan C. There’s nothing new about negative campaigning in congressional races, of course, and nothing per se wrong with it. But if your opponent is unknown and underfunded, and you are a well-liked incumbent, the last thing you want to do is even mention your opponent. You don’t debate, you don’t do anything that brings the challenger into the same zone. And so a systematic negative campaign by incumbents against challengers, across the board, is highly unusual. But it may be the only option available.

And it may well work, at least in just enough congressional districts to avoid a Democratic takeover of the House or at least keep it vanishingly close. The strategy of aggressively disqualifying a challenger before the race even begins, defining the challenger before she can define herself, worked against Kerry and its worked in some Senate races. I wouldn’t write it off. But have no doubt -- it is the strategy of a party and a movement that is on its last legs.

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