Ezra Klein writes today about a tension in Ron Suskind's Confidence Men: Suskind apparently thinks Larry Summers is an asshole,1 but at the same time a close reading of the book suggests that Suskind actually takes Summers' side on the merits of an awful lot of policy issues. So what's up with that?

I'm reluctant to say anything specific since I haven't read the book, but I do think this points to something that's a pervasive, and apparently intractable, problem with this genre of book: it relies too much on blind quotes. And in the case of Confidence Men, an awful lot of the sources behind these quotes apparently don't like Summers much.

I know, I know: this is hardly a blindingly original criticism. But it's still a debilitating one, and you could see the same problem at work last year in, for example, Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail. The problem, bluntly stated, is that the world of the West Wing, like the world of Wall Street, is a fantastic snake pit of backstabbing, score settling, blame avoiding, and self-aggrandizement. So whenever you read a narrative about anything, you absolutely need to know who it's coming from. Often you can guess at this just by examining which side a particular narrative seems to take, but guessing is all you can do. The plain fact is that the third-person omniscient storytelling style very strongly encourages you to forget about all this.

Which is odd, of course, since books like this usually spend a ton of time talking about all the personality conflicts at work. And yet, the narrative itself acts as if these conflicts don't matter. Form and content are at war, and in the end, form wins: the reader is encouraged to think of the narratives as truth, rather than as Tim Geithner's side of the story or Christina Romer's side of the story or Rahm Emanuel's side of the story. And not to get all postmodern on y'all, but "truth" is a very, very bad way to think of this stuff. In narratives like this, it really is the case that everyone has their own truth, and unless you know that in your bones the story will never really make proper sense.

1Yes, yes, I know: big surprise. Is there anyone left on the planet who doesn't think Larry Summers is an asshole?

For what it's worth, I just want to highlight this exchange from the debate last night. It's already gotten a fair amount of attention, but I think it was by far the most important exchange of the night. Chris Wallace asked Romney about Perry's support for allowing illegal immigrants to attend Texas universities and pay normal in-state resident tuition:

ROMNEY: To go to the University of Texas, if you’re an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? That’s $22,000 a year. Four years of college, almost $100,000 discount if you are an illegal alien go to the University of Texas. If you are a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn’t make sense to me. That kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break. It makes no sense.

PERRY: For a decade, I’ve been the governor of a state with a 1,200-mile border with Mexico. We put $400 million of our taxpayer money into securing that border. We’ve got our Texas Ranger recon teams there now....But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society.

This really seems like a killer exchange to me. This idea that Perry wants to give a $100,000 subsidy to illegal immigrants is just electoral gold among the Republican primary crowd. And Perry is stuck: not only did he support this, but he's dug himself into a big hole by defending it so uncompromisingly. There's just no way he can back away from it now, and if Romney is smart — and he is — he is going to pound on this over and over and over.

Also note Perry's unusual tin ear here. If you don't see things his way, he said, "I don't think you have a heart." This kind of bluster goes over great when it's aimed at Obama-loving liberals, but it's like waving a red flag in front of an angry bull when it's aimed at fellow conservatives. The audience didn't like it, and I expect Romney to make very good use of this.

Another month, another Kaiser poll about healthcare reform. This month they focused on pre-existing conditions. The Kaiser pollsters found that (a) lots of people have pre-existing conditions, (b) quite a few of them have had trouble getting insurance, (c) a large majority are aware that ACA prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and yet (d) those with pre-existing conditions are pessimistic that ACA will do anything to help them:

Sarah Kliff notes that this is similar to the results last month, when the uninsured were similarly pessimistic about the new law:

The explanation for the two poll results is probably pretty similar: The major parts of the health-reform law — the end to preexisting conditions and health insurance subsidies — don’t start until 2014. Health reform did have a few popular insurance reforms come online early, like the extension of dependent coverage up to age 26 and the end to preexisting conditions for kids. Those, collectively known as the Patients Bill of Rights, actually hit their one-year anniversary today. But even though those reforms are very popular, they haven’t had a wide reach. The health-reform law has yet to impact the vast majority of Americans.

I guess that's right. And yet, this poll showed that 61% of the country knows that ACA will prevent discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions. So it's not just lack of knowledge at work here. It's possible, I suppose, that people with pre-existing conditions tend, on average, to be low-information types, so they're less aware of ACA's provisions than average. We'd have to see some crosstabs to be sure. But one thing is certain: it continues to be the case that people have a pretty poor understanding of just what's in the law. Maybe that's inevitable, but it's hard not to think that it's also due to a pretty lousy sales job from the left to balance out the constant and uncompromising attacks from the right.

A few weeks ago marked my third anniversary with Mother Jones. That's 36 months of fact-based liberal wonkery, 156 weeks of Friday catblogging, and, oh, something like 8,000 blog posts or so.

And, of course, 18 issues of the magazine itself. During that time we've broken stories about the Republican plan to redefine rape, the real long-term damage done by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the nighttime raid that killed a sleeping seven-year-old in Detroit, and much more. If you missed any of these stories, you missed some of the best reporting being done in America today.

But all this reporting is expensive, and this week we're trying to raise $75,000 to keep it humming along—and to keep my blog online and free for everyone at the same time. So if you enjoy what I do every day, please show it by donating a few dollars to keep the entire MoJo operation going. Even $5 or $10 makes a difference, and $50 or $100 makes an even bigger difference. Plus, your donation is tax deductible. So please take a minute right now to give via credit card or PayPal.

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Holy cats. When I wrote earlier about Rick Perry "sounding like a schoolboy" during tonight's debate, I hadn't even seen this clip. I must have stepped out of the room for a minute or something. But he was obviously caught off guard when Bret Baier asked him about Pakistan, stumbled through a positively Palinesque bit of word salad, and then burbled something about the answer being better relations with India. What a train wreck. I humbly apologize to schoolboys everywhere.

From Rick Santorum, answering a question about allowing gays in the armed forces:

I would say, any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military .

Hmmm. Something tells me Santorum hasn't spent a whole lot of time around soldiers. Also of note: this exchange came right after the audience booed a soldier serving in Iraq because he was gay. Classy bunch.

Susan Davis and Major Garrett describe John Boehner's reaction after losing a floor vote because 48 Republicans refused to vote for it:

Boehner was described as "spitting nails" during a closed-door member meeting on Wednesday, and his harsh talk demonstrated that the usually unflappable speaker is reaching something close to a breaking point with his internally divided conference.

Those close to Boehner said there is a growing anger in the leadership that some in the freshman class and other intractable conservatives pay no mind to the legislative dangers of abandoning leadership—especially at a time when Democrats feel as if they and President Obama are fighting for their political lives.

....In private, Boehner has grown tired of what he dismissively calls the "know-it-alls who have all the right answers." Boehner knew what a defeat would mean—a more costly spending bill, one that provides more emergency disaster relief and contains fewer budget offsets.

It was all kind of fun back when these guys were threatening the financial reputation of the country over the debt ceiling, wasn't it? Of course, that's because it seemed like President Obama might get the blame, and wrecking our credit rating was well worth it as long as it cost Obama a few points in the polls. But guess what? People with that kind of glassy-eyed fervor aren't especially reliable allies. I guess Boehner is finally figuring that out.

In one sense, the Republican debate tonight wasn't too interesting: most of the candidates repeated pretty much the same talking points as before. But Perry really stuck to his talking points. He remains completely unable to say anything really substantive, and stumbles badly when he's trying to dredge up a new talking point from the depths of his brain. I know that deep policy expertise isn't his big selling point, but he's really starting to sound like a schoolboy who memorized a few index cards ten minutes before show time, delivers them haltingly when the teacher calls on him, and then tries to joke and grin his way into a passing grade.

So what was interesting was listening to Frank Luntz's focus group after the debate. There were a ton of defectors from Perry to Romney. I don't know if this means anything, but if it does it means that even the Republican base may be getting a little weary of Perry's audio-animatronic good ol' boy schtick. Plus a lot of the focus groupers really bought in to Romney's criticism of Perry's policy of letting illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at Texas universities, and they were really upset at Perry's defense. They did not — not not not — appreciate his suggestion that anyone who disagreed with him about this was heartless. That's the kind of thing they hear from liberals, and they're sick of it.

Perry now has the base firmly upset with him over both immigration and the HPV vaccine; he was unable to really defend himself on either Social Security or the number of uninsured in Texas; and his lack of policy seriousness is starting to go beyond winsome and edging instead into not-ready-for-prime-time territory. So we'll see. I keep thinking that Perry's smugness and lack of depth is eventually going to wear thin even among the faithful, and maybe tonight was the night where that started to happen. Maybe.

Mark Jacobson notes that the Ground Zero Mosque opened yesterday and....nothing happened. No protests, no Fox News cameras, not even so much as an outraged blog post from Pamela Geller:

Standing there, two blocks away from the crews working on the Freedom Tower, it left you wondering what all that business last year was truly about. Was it because finally, after nine years of shock, we had a concrete issue to focus all those pent up 9/11 feelings on? Was it just last year’s version of the Casey Anthony story? Standing amid those pictures of children who managed to smile no matter the odds against them, it was hard to imagine there was ever a problem at all.

I'm hoping this is a rhetorical question, because, I mean, come on. We all know what this was about, don't we? The mosque was introduced to the public in December 2009, Pamela Geller shrieked about it, and no one cared. In May 2010 the project was approved, Pamela Geller shrieked about it, and no one cared. A week later, a New York Post columnist wrote a piece called "Mosque Madness at Ground Zero," Pamela Geller continued shrieking about it, and —

And suddenly Rupert Murdoch's other New York-based news operation took notice. After all, there was an election coming in November, and what better way to rally the troops? It was just one more log for Fox to toss onto its Bonfire of Xenophobia last summer. As I said in August:

You'd have to literally be blind not to notice that the Fox/Rush/Drudge axis has been pushing racial hot buttons with abandon all summer. There's all the stuff Hitchens mentions [Arizona's immigration law, the Ground Zero mosque, and the anchor baby fracas], and you can add to that the Shirley Sherrod affair, the continuing salience of the birther conspiracy theories, the New Black Panthers, and Beck's obsession with Barack Obama's supposed sympathy with "liberation theology." Are we supposed to simply pretend that it's just a coincidence that virtually every week brings another new faux controversy that just happens to appeal to the widespread, inchoate fear of a non-white country that Hitchens writes about?

Anyway, that's all it was about. It was a convenient foil for Fox News during a long, hot, pre-election summer. Now that the election is over, they don't care anymore.

Matt Yglesias takes a look at a recent Gallup poll about perceptions of government waste and says, "I infer from the fact that state/local government is seen as less wasteful than the federal government and that older people have a much higher waste-perception than younger people that this is driven by the fact that people don’t understand Social Security and Medicare." I thought I might write a post about why older people perceive so much waste, but I changed my mind when I clicked through and found this summary table of responses.

First, on the young-old thing: there's actually surprisingly little difference. 30-somethings think 52 cents of every dollar is wasted while seniors think 56 cents of every dollar is wasted. Meh.

In fact, it's pretty surprising how similar everyone's views are. Democrats say 47 cents, Republicans say 52 cents. High school grads say 52 cents, PhDs say 45 cents. Etc.

What I'd really like to know about this is what people are thinking when they hear the word "waste." Are they thinking about conventional waste, money that's just flatly going down a rathole and not doing what it's supposed to be doing? Or are they applying the term to spending they just don't like? Is this a matter of pacifists calling the entire Pentagon budget waste and libertarians calling the entire Medicare budget waste?

There's no telling, but either way this number is astonishingly large, and it's another demonstration of the overwhelming success conservative messaging has had over the past three decades. Perception of waste has gone up slowly but steadily since 1980 (which means the latest numbers aren't due to stimulus spending or anything like that), but the truth is that nothing much has actually changed on the waste front since then: the federal budget looks about the same now as it did in 1980, it's roughly the same size, and the amount of bad management is probably pretty similar. There are really only two big things that have changed: (1) a huge slowdown in income growth, which probably makes people begrudge their taxes more, and (2) three decades of scorched-earth conservative warfare against the very idea of government.

And it's worked. Hell, if I thought 50 cents of every dollar was wasted, I wouldn't support another dime in taxes either. It's insane that people think this, though, and it's a sign of the massive failure of liberal imagination that we've allowed it to happen.