FIGHTING WORDS (“PAUL RYAN MOVED MY BROCCOLI” EDITION)

Paul Waldman: “…Politicians are allowed to say pretty much anything they want about their policies, no matter how dishonest, without reporters ever saying, “Hey, this guy’s lying over and over again about his policy proposals. What does that say about him? Is it possible he’s, you know, a liar?” But if that same politician should claim to have been first in his high school class, when he was actually third, the reporters will immediately say it “raises questions” about just what kind of guy he is.”

Tim Fernholz: “What that says to me is that the rich get steak, and the poor probably don’t get to eat at all for a few days. People complain about Bai’s failure to use research in his work, but letting Bush describe the plan that way without, apparently, checking into the numbers at all is a bit of professional malpractice.”

Jonathan Chait: “Getting a free pass time and time again because everybody knows your heart is in the right place is the sign of a man who has been fully embraced by the establishment.”

Matt Yglesias: “It seems to me that the 90 percent of members of congress who don’t claim to have a 70-year budget plan are the honest ones. For one thing, they’re not lying!”

JARRING

I think Matt Yglesias is going too easy on Harry Reid when he says

To clarify what I said yesterday it’s the very lack of having really done anything wrong that makes Reid’s situation to sticky. It’s just jarring for those of us under a certain age to think of an old white guy walking around saying “negro” and wielding political influence. But Reid can’t really apologize for being the sort of old white guy who would say that because he is, in fact, just such an old white guy. On the merits, the observation that it’s a political asset for Obama that he doesn’t speak in a manner that’s racially coded as black is pretty much banal conventional wisdom.

First, I’m sure are plenty of senior citizens, including African-Americans, who still find it jarring that the US Senate is run by a guy who uses the word “Negro” in conversation with journalists. Beyond that, I don’t think Matt believes that Harry Reid is just physically incapable of not saying Negro. I’m sure he’s done much harder things in thirty-some years in public life.

There’s a range of readings of what someone could mean by using the word “Negro” to describe the “dialect” Obama doesn’t use, from “the way Black people talk in my racist stereotype,” to “the way Black people talk in the minds of ignorant racists,” and I don’t know any way to discern exactly where Harry Reid’s intended meaning falls on the spectrum. But he was right to apologize.

That said, any comparison between Harry Reid’s comments about his support for a Black man for President and Trent Lott’s support for a White supremacist for President can only make Harry Reid look very, very good. And Republicans’ attempts to conflate the two just leave the impression that they never really understood what was wrong with what Trent Lott said in the first place. On this, I agree with Matt entirely.

BIDEN AND PALIN DEBATE

Matt Yglesias observed earlier this week that Sarah Palin tends to do fine in situations where she can pivot from the question to her own talking points and a cobweb of faux-folksy generalities. She does poorly when the questioner tries to get her to answer the original question. Katie Couric did this. Gwen Ifil didn’t. So Sarah Palin got to respond to a question on Bush’s Israel policy by chiding Joe Biden for talking about George Bush. She got to answer the gay rights question by talking about her gay friends – though she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. She got to handle the economic questions by rhapsodizing about her pretend middle class lifestyle (she must agree with John McCain’s definition of low-seven-figures income as middle class).

Watching tonight’s debate should make it clear for anyone who wondered why the McCain campaign wanted so badly to limit the time each candidate got to talk and the time they got to interact with each other. Palin had shown in the past that she could do a fine job with rules like this; it’s unfortunate that the competent job she did tonight will draw attention away from the ways she’s embarrassed herself over the past couple weeks. Overall, she came off as more polished tonight, but Biden clearly knew better what he was talking about. Biden let himself get somewhat frustrated and flustered, but I think he managed to stay within the lines imposed on him not to sound mean to Palin, and the moments where he vented some of that frustration (“John is no maverick on the issues that people sit around the kitchen table worrying about”) were his best.

For two people who were hold up much of the week practicing, both Palin and Biden had a surprisingly hard time speaking in sentences that someone could read on a page and actually make sense of. Palin kept saying things backwards – global warming causes human beings – while Biden would get partway through one thought and then switch over to a different one.

It’s really maddening that this format allows Palin (and McCain last week) to lie about her opponent, never respond to the refutation of the lie, and then continue repeating it later on.

Biden seemed a bit too concerned with touting his own record rather than Barack Obama’s – he defended his bankruptcy bill that Obama voted against, and towards the end when asked about their accomplishments as a ticket used up his time talking about what Joe Biden had done. He was compelling talking about his experience as a single dad but stepped on his own moment a bit by suggesting Sarah Palin was being sexist.

If Palin really wanted to respond to a question about bipartisanship by just naming the line-up of GOP Convention speakers, shouldn’t she have included George Bush and Cindy McCain?

Call me an East-Coaster if you like, but I think when Sarah Palin leapt on Joe Biden’s explanation of his war vote and attacked him for nuance she sounded nasty, and when she spoke for “America” telling “Government” by name to stop taxing us she did sound like Tina Fey telling Russia to “go shoo.”

Note to the media: Sarah Palin appealed tonight for vigorous fact-checking of what each candidate said. Don’t disappoint her!

FIGHTING WORDS (FISA EDITION)

Matt Yglesias: “It’s almost as if the Republican Party exists to serve the interests of large business enterprises and very wealthy individuals, and tends to use national security and cultural anxieties as a kind of political theater aimed at securing votes so that they can better pursue their real agenda of enriching the wealthy and powerful.”

Russ Feingold: “But, Mr. President, the Senate has once again fallen for Administration tactics that have become so depressingly familiar. “Trust us,” they say. “We don’t need judicial oversight. The courts will just get in our way. You never know when they might tell us that what we’re doing is unconstitutional, and we would prefer to make that decision on our own. Checks and balances, judicial and congressional oversight, will impede our ability to fight terrorism.” And, sadly, these grossly misleading efforts at intimidation have apparently worked.”

Eve Fairbanks: “It’s like writing a story about the Capitol burning down and headlining it, ‘Many Cameramen Gather at Capitol.'”

FIGHTING WORDS

Heather Boushey:”These stories are not only wrong — the reality is that there is no increase in recent years in women, even women with advanced degrees, choosing to be stay-at-home mothers over working mothers — they also imply that most mothers have a choice to work or not. This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Matthew Yglesias: “Insofar as the most extreme right-wing views of national security imaginable — Bill Kristol’s apparent belief that the USA should be perpetually at war with whichever country he was asked about most recently — are treated as respectable elements of the discourse, while the most mild deviations from establishment conventional wisdom are branded as “extremism” then bleating about the need to build bipartisanship in foreign policy only leads us in ever-more-militaristic directions.”

Mark Weisbrot: “The IMF wrote in their country papers on Bolivia that the country would be hurting itself by raising the royalty rates. They were wrong, as were most of the experts in Washington and the US business press.”

Ezra Klein: “To put the contrast another way, where Obama promised to radically change our politics, Edwards promised to radically change our policies.”

GO TO THE PRINCIPLES, OFFICE?

A few days ago, Matt Yglesias made the point that all the talk about how principled Joe Lieberman’s hawkish votes have been should make us think less of principled votes qua principled votes rather than more of Joe Lieberman. Ben Adler, echoing Matt’s point that how elected officials vote should concern us more than why they do, questioned why Matt sees people who call for censorship in order to get votes as any less blameworthy than the ones who call for censorship on principle.

The right, incidentally, deploys both the “Don’t worry, he doesn’t believe it” and “But those are his principles” arguments to great effect to shield its politicians from criticism, depending on which one fits best at the time. The best contemporary examples come to mind around gay rights. Every time a current or historical anecdote emerges about George W. Bush being personally other than hostile towards someone he knows is gay, Bush apologists seize on the story as proof that imputing intolerance to the man just because he pushes policies that make gay folks second-class citizens is the real intolerance. Meanwhile, when Republican judicial nominees are questioned about their records on protecting the rights of gay folks, conservatives pillory the questioners for trying to punish their principles – and being “anti-Catholic” to boot.

Matt responded to Ben that the politicians who hold bad positions on principle are more likely to push them forward in political discourse rather than simply voting for them. Call me cynical (and I’m younger than either of them), but while it’s probably the case all things being equal that politicians devote more energy to the positions closest to their hearts, all things tend not to be equal, and there are a fair number of examples out there of politicians taking stances that seem to have more to do with their sense of political reality than their sense of ethical imperative and then do whatever they can to highlight those issues and those positions.

But testing that hypothesis would require devoting more energy to divining the secret motivations of our elected officials, which only reinforces the narrative of political change as personal psychodrama rather than clash of collective actors. It reinforces the “Great (Elected) Man” theory of history to which too many progressives fall prey, in which progress comes from getting the right visionary leader into office and then keeping him there. Speculating about what Bill Clinton really thought of throwing moms in vocational training off of welfare or denying full faith and credit to same-sex couples makes for good copy and good conversation. But we’re both better equipped and more responsible to consider whether he was right to make those moves, and under what structural circumstances they might not have been as appealing.

Of course when elected officials do the right thing I’d rather think that they believe in it too (if a politician also, say, calls for an end to poverty in hopes of getting elected President, then that sure beats executing a mentally disabled man in order to get elected President). But I’ll choose which Senators to vote for based on how they’ll vote, how they’ll shift which issues capture political discourse and what the margins of that discourse are, and how they’ll affect the partisan breakdown of the body. That said, Lieberman’s people know what they’re doing with their appeal to “principle”: Voters tend to prefer candidates they perceive as acting from principle (Paul Waldman has a great discussion of this in his aptly titled book Being Right Is Not Enough). Hence the quarter of 2004 Bush voters in Wisconsin who also voted for Russ Feingold. Those amongst our elected officials with left opinions that dare not speak their names would do well to keep that in mind.

FIGHTING WORDS

Matt Yglesias: “The difference is that throughout 2002 and 2003 the conventional wisdom in pro-war circles was that the war would turn out well, so the dissembling used to sell it wouldn’t be such a big deal and it was a bit naive of liberals to be obsessed with the lying point.”

David Cole: “It would actually make existing law worse by providing Congressional authorization for cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in certain circumstances. Right now the authority for such action is a highly dubious executive interpretation; the proposed exemptions would give this questionable interpretation legislative approval.”

Jo-Ann Mort: “It says a lot about the state of the Dems and the state of the Republicans that on the same day President Bush bowed to his right wing by nominating a conservative candidate to the Supreme Court, the story broke that Democratic operatives were working out of a ‘war room’ in Arkansas, making Wal-mart and their slash and burn economic strategy palatable to the American people.”

Mark Weisbrot: “The past 25 years have been the worst growth performance in modern Latin American history.”

FIGHTING WORDS

(The first in an intermittent series of round-ups of progressive thought from print and on-line media, with hopes of better contenting the pro-block quote and anti-block quote blocs among our readership)

Jo-Ann Mort: “the fact is that in progressive circles, where it’s considered unacceptable to be racist, homophobic,anti-environment or anti-feminist, it’s been okay to cross picket lines, look down on service and blue collar workers, and frequent anti-union businesses and purchase anti-union goods.”

Matt Yglesias: “Every once in a long while, there comes along a brave white person — employed by other white persons, writing primarily for an audience of white people, in a country dominated by white people — with the courage to demand that national policy be shifted in a manner more favorable to the interests of white people.”

John Lewis: “Some Americans believe that when the founding fathers declared this a democratic republic, our task was done. But democracy is not a state, it is an act.”

WHERE ARE THE CATHOLIC WORKER POLS?

As Matt Yglesias observes, the relative absence of economically liberal social conservative politicians isn’t based on any lack of voters with that set of views. Michael Lind has an interesting take on it in Up From Conservatism. I still don’t know where he got the idea that the number of Americans “who sincerely believe both that abortions should be outlawed and that there should be further massive tax cuts for the rich – is quite small” (maybe he’ll explain it over at TPMCafe). But setting aside Lind’s questionable demographic premises, I think there’s some truth to his argument that the scarcity of politicians who are socially conservative and economically liberal is related to the scarcity of members of the American elite, however defined, who are what Europeans would call “Catholic workers,” libertarians would call “authoritarians,” and Lind would call “national liberals.” Self-identified libertarians, on the other hand, are much better represented amongst the elite than amongst the American public.

FROM MISERY, PAST POVERTY

Spurred by this Washington Post profile in which National Labor Committee Head Charles Kernaghan describes the sweatshop workers for whose rights he advocates as seeking to move “from misery to poverty”, Matt Yglesias makes the classic anti-anti-sweatshop/ anti-anti-child-labor arguments:

people who don’t have sweatshop jobs are miserable. So miserable, in fact, that the terrible conditions in sweatshops are better than their best other alternative. Closing down the sweatship option would seem to just force everyone to stick with misery…as long as the alternative to sweatshops is what anti-sweatship activists concede to be misery, then people will want the sweatshop jobs and it’ll be mighty hard for rich country liberals to stop corporations from making them available.

The assumptions Matt seems to be making here are the same ones for which Richard Rothstein took Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman to task last spring in Dissent. First is the idea that somehow Charles Kernaghan, the National Labor Committee and company are pushing Nike and company to pack up and leave the countries in which their agents are operating sweatshops. Put simply, they’re not. Neither is United Students Against Sweatshops, for that matter. The call is for basic working standards and fundamental human freedoms. The call is for codes of conduct which would be applied around the world, with wage standards based on local costs of living. As Keraghan tells the Post right after describing the aspiration of many in the third world to move from misery to poverty,

he gets angry when he recalls what a worker told him in Bangladesh: “If we could earn 37 cents an hour, we could live with a little dignity.” (As opposed to the 21-cent hourly wage that barely staved off starvation.) Another Bangladeshi worker told him of being smacked in the face by her boss when she worked too slowly. “It just destroys me,” he says.

What’s going to push that worker’s wages up from 21 cents towards 37 cents? Conservatives and neoliberals would have us put our faith in the free market’s grace in rewarding increased productivity with higher wages for low-wage workers as employers compete for the best sweatshop workers. But as Rothstein reminds us, that’s not how the story went in our own country. How did sweatshop workers in this country improve their working conditions and bring themselves real economic freedom? In part through judicious use of government to enshrine common labor standards in laws of the kind the anti-anti-sweatshop crowd tell us would condemn workers of the third world to eternal poverty. And in part through collective action of the kind for which workers around the world are fired or murdered. The anti-anti-sweatshop critics who insist that the eager workers of the third world are being victimized by misguided do-gooders from the first world might better expend their energies advancing the rights of those workers to stand up for themselves and for each other without fear of retaliation. That, incidentally, is exactly what Charles Kernaghan is doing.

FISH IN A BARREL

Matt Yglesias offers some deserved criticism of Stanley Fish’s peculiar Times op-ed. Fish basically argues that the authors’ “original intent” is the only accepted or justifiable grounds for constitutional interpretation, because words have no meaning apart from the ones willfully imbued in them by writers. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s two false conclusions (everyone believes in original intent, and only people who believe in it are right) based on a false premise (all that’s in my writing is what I intend to put there). As Matt writes:

I write, “I went to the store and bought sex toys.” What I meant to say was that I bought six toys. Nevertheless, I wrote “sex toys” which means something else. There are two kinds of meaning here — the meaning I had in my head, and the meaning of the sentence. We certainly wouldn’t conclude that the sentence as written was meaningless simply because it was the result of a mistake. Indeed, the whole idea that typos, malapropisms, and other mistakes are possible depends on the idea that written and spoken words have objective (or at least intersubjective), public meanings that are distinct from the intentions of the writer/speaker. If the world were the way Fish thinks it is, it would never make sense to say somebody “misspoke” because the meaning of what they, in fact, said would, by definition, be what they meant to say.

While Matt effectively shoots down Fish’s premise, he doesn’t mention what seems to me the most fundamental problem with original intent (as distinguished from the practical, logical, and historical ones): it’s inherently and irretrievably undemocratic.

In a democratic society, the role of a constitution which often exerts a counter-majoritarian check on democratic initiatives is safeguarded by the recognition that that constitution has a democratic legitimacy of its own. Looking ahead, we have democratic means to change the nature of that constitution, though through processes made more difficult by the requirements of that constitution itself. And looking back, the short-term restrictions on our democratic options reflect the long-term democratic choice made by our predecessors to accept that constitution and those constraints. In other words, we accept that the constitution stops us from democratically passing a law granting titles of nobility not only because with a supermajority we could democratically ammend that limitation but also because Americans (the white male ones, that is) democratically chose a constitution with that limitation in the first place.

And what did our forebears ratify? The words of the constitution. Not the original (make that contemporary) intent of its authors. As Frederick Douglass argued 145 years ago, to hold the voters who ratified the constitution – and ourselves – to the “secret motives” of its authors, rather than to the text they ratified, is “the wildest of absurdities.” Even if we could determine what exactly the framers had in mind, we would do well to remember that what the framers had in mind never came up for a vote. And that they had many different things in mind, out of which they compromised on a particular text, likely each hoping it would be understood in a somewhat differently shaded way.

If there’s any original intent that should bear on our reading of the constitution, it’s the original intent of the voters. Here too, though, it bears keeping in mind that a constitution is by nature a democratic compromise among people of differing beliefs to set bounds on future majoritarianism. So while there’s no Rawlsian veil of ignorance in play, there’s at least some haze. In ratifying a constitution, we provisionally inhibit our chances of legislating certain of our majority views in exchange for provisional protection against legislation contradicting certain of our minority views. A, B, and C, for example, may all see fit to paly it safe and ratify a constitution forbidding discrimination against a particular letter, each seeing it mainly as a protection for itself and not for others. To point out afterwards that protecting C may not have been the original intent of 2/3 of voters would miss the point.

We should also remember, sadly, that many of the Americans who for several decades were systematically read out of the constitution were left out of the process of drafting and ratifying it in the first place.

AN ECHO, NOT A CHOICE

Faced with the the real possibility of a rejection of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the House, which would mark a significant defeat for George Bush and for the already-cracking “Washington Consensus” on free trade, the Democratic Leadership Council has stepped up to bat in CAFTA’s defense. As David Sirota writes:

As if the DLC is just an arm of the Bush White House, the organization timed this release perfectly to coincide with Bush’s final push for the legislation, as if they are just an arm of the Bush White House. Despite the DLC’s pathetic, transparent rhetoric about wanting to “bring a spirit of radical pragmatism” to the debate, what the DLC is showing is that it is an organization devoted to urging Democrats to sell their souls to the highest bidder. That may sell well with the DLC’s corporate funders in Washington, D.C., but out here in the heartland, that kind of gutless behavior only hurts the Democratic Party over the long run.

Sirota drew some fire from DLC folks after the election for a piece he wrote arguing that the version of “centrism” they promote is well to the right of the average American and thus not only morally but also electorally bankrupt. I’m even less interested now than I was then in trying to evaluate the claims and counter-claims which flew in the wake of the article about which politicians, or talking points have or haven’t gotten gotten the DLC’s approval at what times. As I said at the time, if the DLC wants on board with Elliot Spitzer’s prosecutions of CEOs or Howard Dean’s condemnations of GOP corruption, the more the merrier. We need all hands on deck, and the work is too important to let historical differences avert cooperation where there’s consensus.

About those historical differences though: There’s a constellation of consultants who see class-conscious economic populism as roughly equivalent to racism, see “big government” as a menace to be tamed by technocrats irregardless of the will of the governed, and see the salvation of the Democratic party in policies which fulfill CEOs’ wishlists in the name of liberating their employees. And they have exerted massive, and unfortunate, influence over the direction of the Democratic party over the two decades since their founding, particularly the eight years of the Clinton Presidency. At least for those years, the major proponents of that “business-friendly,” “free-trading” ideological position with the Democratic party, as they themselves would tell you, were the Democratic Leadership Council as an organization and its affiliated thinkers. As Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Geoghegan in Which Side Are You On?, and even self-described “radical centrist” Michael Lind in Up From Conservatism (on DLC: “an echo, not a choice”) demonstrate, the consequences included ceding the support of all too many working class voters and the control of the US Congress.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that there’s a tendency amongst some of us on the left to throw around the term “DLC” liberally (so to speak) in reference to an ideological position we disagree with rather than to the organization itself, at times even in describing policies the DLC, as an existent think tank and not a symbolic construction, may not fully support (they were indeed in favor of weakening class action lawsuits, but I’m still waiting to know what they make of Bush’s bankruptcy bill). I’d like nothing more than to be convinced never to use the acronym that way again – it’s not hard to come up with other epithets for Democrats who vote for Corporate America’s interests over everyone else’s. But there’s a reason that so many of us associate the DLC, judiciously or not, with corporate courtship and not with, say, crusades against corruption. It’s epitomized, sadly, by the choice to come out swinging for a trade agreement even “dogmatic free trader” Matt Yglesias recognizes as “an effort to impose low labor standards and a misguided intellectual property regime on Central American nations.”