Politics of the United States

Some Thoughts On New Journalistic Ventures, Internet Time, and Your Media Diet

This man is unstoppable clickbait. (Flickr/Greg Peverill-Conti)

This week, I've been substituting for Greg Sargent at his Plum Line blog at the Washington Post, which has been a lot of fun. I've enjoyed getting exposed to a new and larger audience. But it has also been challenging, particularly since I've tried to keep posting here on the Prospect as well. Greg's blog runs on a pretty strict schedule—his readers expect a post to be there when they get to their desks at 9 am, then a couple more through the day, and finally a roundup of links to other stories at the end of the day. They also expect writing that is pegged to today's events, but gives a broader perspective that will still be relevant tomorrow.

So that's demanding, even if there are people out there who write a lot more than that every day (Bekah Grant, a former writer for VentureBeat, recently wrote how "I wrote an average of 5 posts a day, churning out nearly 1,740 articles over the course of 20 months. That is, by all objective standards, insane." And don't even ask about the demands made on the people who write for sites like Gawker.) In the few moments when I haven't been panicking about whether my idea for the post that's due in an hour will be sufficiently interesting (or when I have no idea for the next post at all), it has given me some perspective on what we do here at the Prospect and how our writing and reporting fits into readers' lives.

Why the GOP Won't Change

Flickr/Rob Chandanais

Exactly one year ago, a committee of Republican party bigwigs issued the report of its "Growth and Opportunity Project," better known as the "autopsy." The idea was to figure out what the party was doing wrong, and how on earth Barack Obama had managed to get re-elected when everybody knows what a big jerk he is. There were some recommendations on things like improving the party's use of technology and its fundraising, but the headline-grabbing message was that the party had to shed its image as a bunch of grumpy old white guys and become more welcoming to young people and racial minorities.

It was always going to be a tricky thing to accomplish, both because the GOP is, in fact, made up in large part of grumpy old white guys, and because "outreach" can only go so far if you aren't willing to change the things you stand for. Mike Huckabee, that clever fellow, used to say, "I'm a conservative, but I'm not angry about it." Which is all well and good, but if, for instance, you say to young people that you don't think their gay friends ought to be allowed to get married, saying it with a smile doesn't really help.

And a year later, it's not just that the Republican party hasn't changed, it's that they don't have much reason to change.

Thinking Small

Flickr/Kevin Gebhardt

There's a discussion starting to bubble up in some corners, one that will grow in intensity as we approach 2016, asking where the left should go as Barack Obama heads for the exits a couple of years hence. In the latest issue of Harper's, Adolph Reed offers a critique from the left of not just Obama but the liberals who support him. Our own Harold Meyerson offered a typically thoughtful criticism, to which Reed responded, but I'll just add briefly that one of the many things I didn't like about Reed's piece was the way he poses a dichotomy for liberals between investing too much in winning presidential elections even if the Democrat is imperfect (not a complete waste of time, but close) and building a movement (much better), but doesn't say what, specifically, this movement-building should consist of.

What Is Left?

A response to Harold Meyerson

I was not surprised by the substance of Harold Meyerson’s criticisms of my recent Harper’s essay (“Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals,” March 2014). I have known for some time that he and I disagree fundamentally on the reasonable scope of a political left in the United States and, correspondingly, whether one actually exists and/or how to go about building one as an effective social and political force. I was somewhat disappointed, however, at the tired hook to which he tethered his criticism.

Daily Meme: Of Ferns and Bellwethers

  • Pity the poor political pundit. We're eight months away from a mid-term election that will likely change nothing in the partisan political balance, the Conservative Political Action Conference and its clown car of presidential contenders has closed up shop, the do-nothing Congress persists in doing nothing—but even so, clickable content must be concocted.
  • And so, today, we have much (much, much) ado about ... ferns and bellwethers.
  • In case you've been in a blissful media-free zone all day, the headline news of the day is that President Obama went on Zack Galifianakis's faux talk show, "Between the Ferns." The commander-in-chief did a respectable job of deadpanning and "droning" on about healthcare.gov. 

This Year’s Moderates

Given the GOP's base, even the party's middle-of-the-road conservatives are pretty extreme.

Flickr/Newshour

For those anxiously awaiting the emergence of a less-extreme Republican Party, 2014 got off to a depressing start. The Bridgegate scandal in New Jersey changed Governor Chris Christie’s image from lovable, gruff straight-talker to retributive, partisan bully. In Virginia, the once-rising star of former Governor Bob McDonnell—who came into office with strong Christian-right credentials but left after granting voting rights to ex-felons and spearheading a bipartisan effort to improve transportation infrastructure—crashed to earth when he was charged on 14 federal corruption counts of taking loans and gifts from a nutrition-supplement mogul and doing favors in return. He’ll be lucky to escape prison time. It’s not quite so bad for Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Many have posited him as a “moderate” possibility for 2016—moderate in that he limits his extremism to demolishing unions and killing government programs. But now he’s damaged goods, with an ongoing investigation of his 2012 recall election after a probe into improper campaign activities in 2010 resulted in the convictions of six Walker aides and allies.

Daily Meme: Three Weeks and Counting

  • President Obama's plot to turn the United States into a paradise for the proletariate is going precisely as planned. According to a survey conducted by the Gallup organization last month, the percentage of Americans without insurance has dropped to 15.9 percent—the lowest rate since 2008. 

CPAC’s Second-Class Gays

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Watching gay conservatives try to make their way in the GOP is like having a friend in an emotionally abusive relationship. Despite the victim's best attempts to placate the abuser, tensions mount until there's a big blowup. Your friend denounces the guy, packs their bags, and resolves to leave. But next you hear, suddenly everything's fine; the abuser has apologized—he's been under a lot of stress lately—and getting out was a bad idea anyway.

Why Does the National Media Get Texas So Wrong?

AP Images/Eric Gay

Tuesday, as Texas primary voters headed to the polls, Politico published an article entitled “The Texas tea party’s best days may be behind it.” Below the headline were photographs of Governor Rick Perry, the state’s junior U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, and Congressman Steve Stockman, who had decided to wage a last minute, barely visible campaign again Texas’s senior U.S. Senator John Cornyn. The article focused on the Cornyn-Stockman race, and mentioned a congressional primary in which incumbent Pete Sessions faced a tea party challenge from Katrina Pierson.

The Citizens United of the Culture Wars

Flickr/Mark FIscher

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Heeding calls from gay-rights supporters, business groups, and Republicans like John McCain and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, on Wednesday Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed a "religious liberty" bill that would have allowed for-profit businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians so long as they were motivated by "sincerely held religious belief.” A nearly identical law failed to advance in Kansas last week. Now, in light of the blowback, anti-gay discrimination bills in conservative legislatures—including Mississippi, Georgia, and Oklahoma—have stalled, and even lawmakers who voted for such measures are stepping back their support.

The Revolt of the Elites

Arizona governor Jan Brewer. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

For the longest time, Democrats were the party of infighting and disunity, whose squabbling never failed to find its way into the news. It's a grim inside joke among liberals that the most common headline in the political media is "Democrats in Disarray." But it hasn't been that way for a while. In fact, perhaps the most important political dynamic of the current era is the conflict within the previously monolithic Republican party. Not that there wasn't always tension between the Republican establishment, whose primary concern was laissez-faire economics, and the conservative foot soldiers spread across the country, who cared much more about social issues. But open warfare between the two was rare.

Not these days, though. And after a couple of years of the establishment running scared, today they can celebrate (if that's the right word) a momentary victory. Yesterday, Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill passed by the legislature there that would have made it legal to deny services to gay people as long as the one doing the discriminating cited their religious beliefs. The veto itself wasn't really a shock—Brewer is much more a malleable politician attuned to public opinion than a Tea Party true believer. But the pressure she was under was truly remarkable

Who Cares About Clarence Thomas's Silence?

AP Images/Michael Dwyer

8 years ago this month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case called Holmes v. South Carolina. Justice Clarence Thomas began to question one of the litigators—"Counsel, before you change subjects..."—and pursued his line of inquiry with a lengthy follow-up. This otherwise ordinary event is now famous, because it represents the last time Justice Thomas has asked a question at oral argument.

The Scourge of the Businessman Politician

This highly successful businessman did not, in fact, become president.

Attentive readers will recall that among my many pet peeves (and being able to complain to a wide circle of people about your pet peeves is one of blogging's greatest fringe benefits) is the candidate who proclaims that you should vote for him because he's "a businessman, not a politician." As though the fact that there are a lot of shady car mechanics out there means that when you need a new timing belt, the best person for the job would be a florist or an astronomer, because they're not tainted by the car repair racket.

I've written at some length about why exactly success in business doesn't prepare you to be a good senator or governor, but the short version is that the two realms are extremely different. So it isn't too surprising that when businesspeople decide to run for office, most of the time they fail. They come in with a lot of money, flush it down the toilet on an overly expensive campaign, and quickly discover that there is a whole set of skills necessary for success that they don't possess. When you try to think of business leaders who got elected, then used their business acumen to do things differently and really made a major impact, it's hard to think of many names other than Michael Bloomberg. Here and there you'll find someone like former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen who did pretty well, but more common is candidates like Ross Perots, or Meg Whitman, or Linda McMahon, or Al Checci (there's a blast from the past for you political junkies). They think, "Sure I can do this better than those empty suits—I've made a billion dollars!" And then they lose.

Not every time, of course, but most of the time. Which is why Democrats should be pleased to hear this:

Roberts Was Wrong on Voter Rights

AP Images/Rex Features

Writing about the Supreme Court's outrageous decision to gut the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder at Talking Points Memo, Amel Amhed of University of Massachusetts Amherst writes that "the court’s decision was correct about one thing: Section 4 — and frankly, Section 5 as well — was obsolete, and it had been rendered inadequate by changing facts on the ground." To be clear, Amhed's intention in making the claim that "Roberts was right" is not that Congress shouldn't protect voting rights—indeed, she advocates going further than the 1965 Act, and I agree with many of her proposals.

Sauce For the Gander

Liberal hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer. (Stuart Isett/Fortune Live Media/Flickr)

Today's New York Times has a story about Tom Steyer, a retired hedge fund billionaire who is planning to spend $100 million ($50 million of his own, and $50 million of other people's) in the 2014 election to support action on climate change, which in practice means electing Democrats. That would put Steyer in the big leagues, though not at the top—the network of donors established by Charles and David Koch spent at least $400 million in 2012—and it raises the question of how liberals should feel about this kind of thing. If you believe that Citizens United has been a disaster for democracy, and spectacularly wealthy people shouldn't be able to swoop in to a House or Senate race with zillions of dollars and change the outcome from what it otherwise would be, then should you be bothered?

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