Kevin Drum - July 2010

The Shirley Sherrod Affair

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 12:17 PM EDT

Hoo boy. Conservatives apparently aren't going to back down from ever more overt appeals to racial resentment this summer. BigGovernment.com "broke" a story yesterday about a speech given a few months ago by Shirley Sherrod, USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development, at an NAACP Freedom Fund dinner. In it, Sherrod tells a story from 24 years ago about not helping a white farmer as much as she could have because she was "struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farm land."

The point of this story, told in a public venue, was that she quickly realized that she had done wrong. "That's when it was revealed to me that it's about poor versus those who have. It's not so much about white...it is about white and black but it's not, you know...it opened my eyes." This could easily be a heartwarming, three-hankie movie on Lifetime, but no matter:

Sherrod told CNN on Tuesday that she was told repeatedly to resign Monday afternoon after the clip surfaced. "They harassed me," she said. "I got three calls from the White House. At one point they asked me to pull over to the side of the road and do it because you are going to be on Glenn Beck tonight."

Sherrod said the calls came from Cheryl Cook, USDA deputy undersecretary for rural development. "The administration was not interested in hearing the truth. They didn't want to hear the truth," she said.

Sherrod said she and the white farmer she referred to in the video, Roger Spooner, became friends. Spooner's wife, Eloise, confirmed to CNN that she and her husband considered Sherrod friends. "She helped us save our farm by getting in there and doing everything she could do," Eloise Spooner said. "They haven't treated her right."

Sherrod said she told the story to make the point that at the time she thought that white farmers had the advantages because of their race but she learned that was not the case. "The point was to get them to understand that we need to look beyond race," Sherrod said.

In a second video, BigGovernment.com says "Ms. Sherrod confirms every Tea Partier's worst nightmare." Although this is ostensibly a reference to a joke she made about no one ever getting fired from a government job, that's not really every tea partier's worst nightmare, is it? On the other hand, a vindictive black government bureaucrat deciding to screw you over because you're white? Yeah, I'd say that qualifies.

This is just appallingly ugly, and the White House's cowardly response is pretty ugly too. This is shaping up to be a long, gruesome summer, boys and girls.

UPDATE: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who quickly fired Sherrod after the video was posted, stands by his firing. The White House says they had nothing to do with it. The NAACP condemned Sherrod but then mysteriously deleted their statement from their website and announced they were "conducting an investigation." Andrew Breitbart says he doesn't have the entire video, just the edited version he put up. The guy who shot the video says he's sent the whole thing to the NAACP and hopes to post it when he gets permission.

That's the latest for now.

UPDATE 2: The NAACP backtracks: "With regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA Official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias. Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans."

Jeez. Fox News and Breitbart ginning up a phony outrage over some alleged liberal atrocity? Helluva hard thing to believe, isn't it?

UPDATE 3: The full video is here. The segment in question starts at 16:30 and goes for about five minutes. "You know," she starts, "God will show you things, and can put things in your path, so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people." Then, after telling the story of Roger Spooner, she ends with this: "Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't. And they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic."

UPDATE 4: I've already tweeted a bit about this, but it's worth a blog mention, too. The full video of Shirley Sherrod doesn't show that she's a racist. What it shows is her telling a story about how, 24 years ago, she had to overcome her own underlying racial resentments in order to do her job properly. It shows her telling a story about how, with God's help, she learned that her job was about helping the poor, not about whether you're white or black or Hispanic. In other words, it's the exact opposite of what Andrew Breitbart tried to paint it as.

This should go without saying, but Tom Vilsack needs to apologize and rehire Sherrod, and he needs to do it with the same dispatch that he fired her with in the first place. If stories like Sherrod's are out of bounds, we've truly reached a new low in conservative mau mauing and racial cowardice.

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My Great JournoList Cameo

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 11:14 AM EDT

I'm proud to announce that I have finally made a cameo appearance in the great JournoList donnybrook. (Background here if you have better things to do with your life than keep up with stuff like this.) The thousand-point headline at the Daily Caller screams "Documents show media plotting to kill stories about Rev. Jeremiah Wright" — which I suppose is accurate enough if you consider "plotting" to include things like a bunch of liberals composing an open letter to George Stephanopoulos complaining about his moderation of one of the Democratic primary debates. Which, apparently, the Daily Caller does.

Sadly, my role in this drama is small, since I virtually never participated in JournoList in the first place. Still, I guess I'm now officially part of the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. I can die happy.

The GOP Choice: Tea Parties or Independents?

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 1:39 AM EDT

At the risk of embarrassing myself badly if someone points out an obvious mistake, I've stitched together an interesting pair of charts for you to look at tonight. But first some background. As you may know, the latest Gallup generic poll shows a sudden surge of support for Democrats. Why? Gallup suggests it might be related to passage of the financial reform bill, but I'm skeptical of that. Democrats have gone from 2 percentage points down to 6 percentage points up in only two weeks, by far their biggest jump in the past four months. Could a complex and barely understood regulatory bill really have caused that?

Maybe, but here's another possibility. It turns out that the Democratic surge is largely due to a sudden jump in support from independents. So what caused that? Well, I was struck by an unusual correspondence between two of Gallup's charts. It turns out that whenever enthusiasm goes up among registered Republicans, preference for Republicans goes down among independents. The pasted-together chart below — it's a little messy I'm afraid — shows five cases of a jump in Republican enthusiasm (top chart) along with the corresponding drop in Republican support among independents (bottom chart). It's not a perfect correlation, but it's a pretty good one.

Anyway. Here's my guess: every time Republicans do something that gets the tea party base excited, it simultaneously turns off independents. I'm not quite sure what caused the latest jump (NBPP fever? tax cuts pay for themselves? unemployment compensation obstructionism?), but apparently it was something.

So this is the GOP's big problem for November: they need to motivate their base, but their base is so stone crazy that the only way to pander to them is with tactics so outrageous that non-crazies start to turn away. So far this hasn't hurt them too badly because the independents tend to come back until a fresh provocation hits the airwaves a few weeks later, but eventually this might catch up to them. There's obviously no rigorous statistics involved here, just sort of a gut feel. Take it for what it's worth.

SCIF Envy

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 12:00 AM EDT

From Bruce Paquin, owner of a construction business in Washington DC, on the U.S. national security establishment:

In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF. They've got the penis envy thing going. You can't be a big boy unless you're a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF.

This comes from "Top Secret America," a series in the Washington Post by Dana Priest and Bill Arkin. SCIF stands for sensitive compartmented information facility, a special room "encased in metal or permanent dry wall, impenetrable to eavesdropping tools and protected by alarms and a security force capable of responding within 15 minutes." It's where you go if you're important enough to be allowed to read top secret information.

Bellesiles Followup

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 6:52 PM EDT

Just to follow up on the Michael Bellesiles post from last week, it turns out the story he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education about a student whose brother was killed in Iraq was indeed fabricated. But not, apparently, by Bellesiles. For reasons left unexplained in an editor's note, it turns out the student made up the story. Very odd.

Plan B in Afghanistan

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 2:50 PM EDT

Joe Klein last week:

Amazing how David Petraeus can just crash through impasses and get his way. He's even able to do get Hamid Karzai, who has boggled every other American who has dealt with him, to do something he doesn't want to do — set up a system of local militias in rural Afghanistan....We should have some sense whether Petraeus' resort to the tribes, which worked in Iraq, will have similar success in Afghanistan by the time the Obama policy review commences in December. But you have to be impressed by the general's ability to get his way, without much fuss and quickly.

I wonder if this explains Petraeus's success?

The Obama administration is revising its Afghanistan strategy to embrace the idea of negotiating with senior members of the Taliban through third parties — a policy to which it had previously been lukewarm. Negotiation with the Taliban has long been advocated by Hamid Karzai, the Afghanistan president, and the British and Pakistan governments, but resisted by the US.

Perhaps Petraeus offered Karzai a deal: he supports the local militia idea, the United States supports negotiation with the Taliban. Everybody wins a little something, and if this report is correct, the key to success was likely garden variety diplomacy, not Petraeus's superpowers.

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The Rich, Our Newest Old Problem

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 1:15 PM EDT

Ryan Avent writes:

One of the thing that continues to surprise me about Washington, though it shouldn't, is the extent to which those involved in the policymaking process think in terms of interests — almost exclusively. This is a direct reflection of the outsized influence interests have over the policymaking process ("the people" tend not to get all that involved), and it's therefore easily understandable, but it's also pretty pernicious. A politics that seeks to balance interests will consistently give short shrift to the goal of societal good. We can think about this in terms of trade: producing industries may want trade protections, which will be good for their concentrated interest but bad for the economy as a whole. These protections could hurt other industries that use imports as inputs, and which therefore mobilise opposition. Congress subsequently buys off the opposition with subsidies, leaving all interests happy and social welfare clearly reduced.

This is obviously not a new problem. James Madison wrote about it. Mancur Olsen wrote about it. Small, intense interest groups have an advantage over large, diffuse populations, and that advantage is probably multiplied by the modern technology environment, which makes it easier to quickly mobilize communities of interest than ever before.

Still, even taking that into account, it's become worse, hasn't it? Partly this is because the Republican Party has become almost purely driven by specific corporate interests, not free market principles writ large, while simultaneously convincing a lot of ordinary citizens that all these bennies they're handing out are merely a sign of capitalism at work. Likewise, after the grim years of the 80s, Democrats decided their old interest groups were no longer enough to produce electoral victories, and decided they needed to become a party of big business too. That same technology environment that makes mobilization easier also makes campaigning more expensive, and with the skyrocketing growth in income inequality over the past 30 years, there's really only one place to get the money you need to win office: rich individuals and rich businesses. Which are, to a considerable extent, the same things.

There are still plenty of other interests: abortion groups, gun groups, environnmental groups, and so on. But they're all increasingly overshadowed by the rich as a catch-all interest group. The rich, ever since the mid-70s, have gotten ever richer, which gives them more power to push government policies that help the rich. This makes them richer still, which in turn gives them yet more power. Rinse and repeat. If the rich were a little brighter or a little more enlightened, this might not be a huge problem. But they aren't.

The Romans said cui bono. Deep Throat said "follow the money." Today neither one is really an adequate description. We need an update.

I Just Can't Quit You, Sarah Palin

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

This is, I kid you not, a screen shot from the front page of the Washington Post. In case you missed it, Sarah Palin made a mistake in a Twitter post Sunday night, using the word "refudiate" instead of "repudiate."

I repeat: this is front page news. In the Washington Post. I'm reminded of Ari Melber's piece last week about Palin's "Mama Grizzlies" video, which, it turns out, only 2% of her Facebook fans watched. Where did the rest of its 368,000 views come from? Links from the traditional media, it turns out:

It's quite a feat. Palin blasts the "lamestream" media while claiming to commune directly with her base, which draws extensive media coverage for an effort that actually reaches a tiny number of people. Without the media assist, though, Palin would just be sitting on a Facebook page with 2 percent participation and a YouTube video with niche numbers....Some reporters are catching on. "I hope we don't hear from Sarah Palin about media bias anymore," Chuck Todd recently said on MSNBC's Morning Joe, "because it is amazing the ability this woman has to get media attention with as little as she does, whether it's a Twitter or a Facebook update."

In fairness to the Post, Palin's miscue was a huge Twitter sensation among lefties last night. I swear, I think about 50% of the posts in my Twitter feed for a two or three hour period last night were lame jokes about "refudiate." And in further fairness, as long as Palin seemingly has make-or-break endorsement power in Republican campaigns and remains a possible presidential candidate, they have to cover her. But isn't it about time to limit that coverage to actual newsworthy events? If she gives a major speech on the future of national security in a multipolar world, fine. Cover away. But a mistake in a Twitter post? Maybe think twice about that.

The Ground Zero Mosque

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 11:38 AM EDT

Does anyone know of a tick tock that explains how the "Ground Zero mosque" became a sudden cause célèbre among the tea party wing of the conservative movement? Here's a New York Times story from last December, and it doesn't so much as mention any objection to the purchase of the building in question (which is two blocks away from the World Trade Center site). By May, Newsweek was suggesting that plans for the mosque were "prompting outrage in the blogosphere," but not much of anywhere else. At the same time, CNN reported that local residents were divided but that the Community Board of lower Manhattan had approved the project unanimously.

Now, a couple of months later, it seems to have erupted into a full fledged right wing frenzy. So who started it? Hannity? Rush? Sarah P.? Does anyone have a timeline showing how and when the noise machine picked up on this as the outrage du jour?

UPDATE: Here's a start from TPM, which takes the story through May 28. Anybody got something more recent that explains when the big guns started getting involved?

What Happens After November?

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 12:49 AM EDT

Jon Chait has a good post today on a subject that's been in the back of my mind too: what lessons are Republicans taking from the Tea Party takeover of the GOP? As he points out, so far it's been a disaster. Pat Toomey's primary challenge of Arlen Specter brought us healthcare reform, Sharron Angle's victory in Nevada is likely to let Harry Reid keep his seat, and Tea Party darlings Rand Paul (in Kentucky) and Marco Rubio (in Florida) have turned safe seats into nailbiters. And of course there was Doug Hoffman's insurgency last year in New York's 23rd district, which accomplished nothing except to split the conservative vote and hand the seat to a Democrat for the first time since the Civil War:

This is four Senate seats put at serious risk by running right-wing primary challenges, plus one enormous liberal domestic policy accomplishment....I have seen no recriminations whatsoever in hindsight. And yet it seems perfectly clear that the effect of these challenges has been a disaster from the conservative perspective.

....Obviously the conservative movement is intoxicated with hubris right now. Part of this hubris is their belief that the American people are truly and deeply on their side and that the last two elections were either a fluke or the product of a GOP that was too centrist. It's a tactical radicalism, a belief that ideological purity carries no electoral cost whatsoever.

The usual way this stuff works is that a party that overreaches gets pummeled at the polls and then grudgingly moves to the center in order to win back votes. Think Republicans after Goldwater, Democrats after Reagan, and Britain's Labor Party after Thatcher. The main question is, how long does it take?

Republicans have now gotten pummeled for two elections in a row. That's not enough. Three in a row might do it, but unfortunately for the GOP, they're going to win big this year no matter what. Even if Republicans do worse than expected — say, a 20-seat pickup in the House and three or four in the Senate — that's plenty big enough for them to think of it as a resounding public endorsement. In fact, it might be the worst of all possible worlds for them: big enough to keep everyone motivated, but small enough to keep them in the minority, where they can continue to spout the most extreme Tea Party rhetoric with no need to back it up. It's the ideal combination to keep them deluded into thinking that if they just follow the one true path a little more diligently, victory will be theirs.

I haven't been able to figure out how this ends. I guess I'll just have to wait and see like everyone else. One scenario is that they pick up seats but stay in the minority for next decade or so, and that's how long it takes for them to come to their senses. Another is that they win a congressional majority and then — what? It's obvious they have no intention of taking a meat axe to spending, and equally obvious that they know how unpopular this would be no matter what the tea partiers say. Check out Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) on Meet the Press today for comically convincing evidence of this. But what happens then? Is there any point at which the tea partiers will finally figure out that Republicans are willing to talk endlessly about slashing the federal government but are never willing to actually do it?

Or is John Quiggin right? Would Republicans, against all odds, actually try to live up to their rhetoric and end up shutting down the government, as Newt Gingrich did in 1995? And if so, what happens then? Sarah Palin in 2012? Followed by a Goldwater-style election debacle? It's hard to think of any way in which this ends up well for either the Republican Party or for the country.