Kevin Drum

Identity and Politics

| Wed May 19, 2010 6:17 PM EDT

Responding to my post last night about what kinds of things we have a right to know about public figures, Andrew Sullivan says:

Drum objects to asking public figures about their sex lives. So do I. I have zero interest — less than zero, actually — in Elena Kagan's sex life or lack of it. I do have an interest in someone's public identity. And how many times can I say this before my straight friends get it? Being gay is not about your sex life. It's about a core element of your identity, one that no gay person can bypass or ignore.

This is right. I made up a list of questions about sexual activity and compared them to the question of whether someone is gay. That was a screwup. But

(You knew there was a but coming, didn't you?)

But — Andrew says he's interested in people's "public identity." And this gets to the core of my disagreement with him. Maybe I'm just mired in a different era, but I believe pretty passionately that people should be allowed a wide latitude to display themselves to the public however they want. There are limits, of course, because lots of aspects of our identities are inherently public — Barack Obama is black, Hillary Clinton is a woman — but this doesn't inescapably mean that we should also be required, as a prerequisite to public service, to make even the less visible parts of our identity visible whether we want to or not. Some of these less visible aspects, it's true, might well affect the way a Supreme Court justice views the law. But that's just logic chopping. Every aspect of identity potentially affects the way a Supreme Court justice views the law. It's the nature of the job. But that doesn't automatically mean that we the public have the right to know every last trace of their personal identities. At some point, you just have to accept that other people are always enigmatic in certain ways and that enigma is part of the human condition. You can never be absolutely sure of what's on their mind or how it will ultimately affect their future conduct.

This is true of more than just sexual identity. Suppose, for example, that Jane Jones grew up in an abusive household. Suppose her father came home drunk every night, beat up her mother, and terrorized the family. And this went on for years. Do you think that would inform her identity as much as growing up gay? If you're not sure, you should probably talk to someone who's been through this before you make up your mind.

Now, does the public have a right to know this if Jane is nominated to the Supreme Court? I don't think so. If Jane chooses to talk about this, perhaps because she's become an advocate for domestic violence causes, that's her right. But if she chooses not to, perhaps because her mother is still alive and she knows that public discussion of this would cause her considerable pain, that's her right too. And this is her right even if domestic violence groups believe their cause would be advanced if more victims told their stories publicly. It's still her right.

Ditto for sexual identity. Like Andrew, I wish there were no such thing as a closeted gay person. When every single one of them lives their lives openly we'll be that much closer to being a decent society. And like Andrew, I'm happy to advocate this in public argument.

But that's a very different thing than badgering a specific person to talk about an aspect of their identity whether they want to or not. That's just not our decision to make. It's theirs. And even if we happily chatter about this stuff endlessly with our friends — because we are, after all, a gossipy species — nothing changes. It's still not right to make this into a public campaign.

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Are Incumbents an Endangered Species?

| Wed May 19, 2010 3:48 PM EDT

Via James Joyner, Republican pollster Glen Bolger thinks the "anti-incumbent" hype is overblown. The real story, he says, is that candidates got punished on both sides of the aisle for not toeing the party line:

Senator Specter’s loss was actually a double defeat. Because he voted for the stimulus package, he baited Pat Toomey into switching from the Governor’s race to the Senate race. Specter’s poll numbers in a GOP primary were far too weak to win a primary – he choose to switch parties rather than retire. However, his previous support for George W. Bush and other Republicans (and GOP policies) meant Democratic voters couldn’t trust him. Specter’s once legendary ability to both annoy and please conservatives, moderates, and liberals caught up to him in this time of hyper polarization.

Lincoln is facing the same traumas from the left — she is perceived by many unions and liberals as not supportive enough of their agenda, and thus not worthy of renomination.

An incumbent all but in name, Charlie Crist should be in that same body count of politicians who “lost” their party’s nomination for not being orthodox enough. His support for the stimulus package made him persona non grata among a GOP primary electorate looking for someone to fight against the framework of bigger government spending more money.

Alan Mollohan is the exception to this trend, says Bolger, and I think I'd add Bob Bennett to that list. Sponsoring the Wyden-Bennett healthcare bill, which was never in play and never went anywhere, doesn't really seem like it would normally count for much, and lots of Republicans ended up voting for TARP. Aside from that, Bennett toed the GOP line pretty strongly and always got high marks from conservative advocacy groups. So I'd have to classify his loss as due at least partly to anti-incumbent fervor.

Still, that's pretty thin to hang a trend on. One of Steve Benen's readers makes a similar argument here and Nick Baumann has some related thoughts here. Overall, I'd say the press should show a little caution on this. A bunch of incumbents will surely lose in November because a bunch of incumbents always lose in midterm elections when the economy is lousy, but beyond that it's not clear that anything all that unusual happened yesterday. Tea parties make good copy, but that's no excuse for swallowing their PR whole. From where I sit, it looks like the anti-incumbent tide is being pretty seriously overplayed.

Some Weak Sanctions on Iran

| Wed May 19, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

The draft resolution imposing UN sanctions on Iran was released yesterday, and sure enough, it's pretty weak tea. The Washington Post summarizes:

Among other measures, the resolution would expand an asset freeze and travel ban against individuals and entities linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps....The resolution would establish an embargo on large weapons systems such as battle tanks, combat aircraft and missiles [...] but would not include the comprehensive arms embargo sought by the United States and France. Iran could continue to buy light weapons.

....The resolution would establish a "framework" for inspections of suspect cargo at sea or in ports....Moreover, financial institutions that establish "reasonable grounds" to believe Iranian banks or other firms are evading sanctions are called upon to block any financial transactions, including the issuance of insurance or reinsurance, related to banned proliferation activities.

....The Obama administration failed to win approval for key proposals it had sought, including restrictions on Iran's lucrative oil trade, a comprehensive ban on financial dealings with the Guard Corps and a U.S.-backed proposal to halt new investment in the Iranian energy sector.

Even at that, though, Turkey and Brazil are pissed because this takes the shine off the pledge they got from Iran on Monday to ship some of its uranium stockpile out of the country for further enrichment. It's not clear how big a deal this is in the long run, especially since UN sanctions aren't generally very effective anyway, but Tehran has certainly played its cards cleverly. The full text of the resolution is here.

Rand Paul, More Than Just Another Nutcase

| Wed May 19, 2010 12:08 PM EDT

This is gonna be a long day. The interwebs basically have nothing except endless dissections of Tuesday's primary races, about which I have nothing new to add, so instead let's take the low road and just gossip a bit. Here's Josh Marshall on tea party crank Rand Paul, son of ur-crank Ron Paul, who won his race against Trey Grayson in Kentucky yesterday:

I couldn't help notice something about his brief acceptance speech and I'm curious to hear whether any of you had a similar take. I don't think I'd ever seen Paul speak at any length. Or if I did I don't have a clear recollection of it. And he came off to me as arrogant, bellicose and even a little messianic in his demeanor. To put it baldly, he sounded like a jerk.

And a bit later:

News came out overnight that Paul allegedly refused to take Trey Grayson's concession phone call last night. I think this last charge requires a little caution. The one making the charge is Grayson's campaign manager, who obviously is far from a neutral observer. And Paul's campaign manager says it wasn't a sleight. He was just "in transit and could not take the call." So who knows?

But I am getting the impression that Paul — aside from just being very unlikeable in personal terms — may be a much more divisive figure than one might from any Tea Party candidate who snatches away a nomination from an establishment party figure....A poll out yesterday showed that Grayson supporters in Kentucky simply hate Rand Paul in a way that goes way beyond the normal aftermath of a contested primary....I get the sense there's a whole issue of personality (and messianism) that's going to be in play in that race beyond quite apart from ideology narrowly construed.

That's what I like to hear: I think it would be great if the tea party cranks lost big in November just because they're a bunch of stubborn, unlikeable, messianic crackpots. It probably won't happen, but I can hope. More like this, please.

UPDATE: And before you say, "Hey, at least Rand Paul is good on civil liberties" — well, it turns out he's not, really.

Greenspan the Partisan Crank

| Wed May 19, 2010 11:16 AM EDT

I have strong memories of Alan Greenspan's bizarro justification in 2001 for insisting that we stop running federal budget surpluses. It was convoluted, it didn't make sense, and it was pretty obvious partisan hackery. But I confess that either I've forgotten, or I never quite realized, just how eccentric it really was. "I've seen theories this convoluted and loopy before," says Jon Chait, after reminding us of Greenspan's concluding flourish, "But they've usually been scrawled in long-hand by random cranks who mail letters to magazines." No kidding.

UPDATE: Just out curiosity, is there anyone around today who actually defends Greenspan's position back then? Maybe Larry Kudlow or Donald Luskin? Anyone?

Glenn Beck's Gold Fetish

| Wed May 19, 2010 1:50 AM EDT

When Glenn Beck tells you that Barack Obama is going to crater the economy and you should buy gold to protect yourself, he recommends that you buy your gold from Goldline. And what kind of gold should you buy? Well, the government might just up and decide to confiscate gold bullion someday, so he says your best bet is collectors' coins. And as Stephanie Mencimer reports, that suits Goldline just fine:

What Goldline doesn't say upfront is that for its own bottom line, collector coins are a lot more lucrative than mere bullion. Profits in the coin business are based on "spread," the difference between the price at which a coin is sold and the price at which the dealer will buy it back. Most coin dealers, including Goldline, will sell a one-ounce bullion coin for about 5 percent more than they'll buy it back for, a figure that closely tracks the price of an ounce of gold on the commodities markets. That 5 percent spread doesn't leave a lot of room for profits, much less running dozens of ads a week on national radio and cable programs, with endorsements by everyone from Beck to Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and Dennis Miller. So, Goldline rewards its salespeople for persuading would-be bullion buyers to purchase something with a bigger markup.

Twenty-franc Swiss coins are a little smaller than a nickel and contain a little less than two-tenths of an ounce of gold. The coins are about 60 to 110 years old and not especially hard to find (though Goldline describes them as "rare"). They are not fully considered collectors' items nor commodities, making their value more subjective than bullion's. Goldline sets a 30 to 35 percent "spread" on the coins, meaning that it will pay $375 to buy back coins it's currently selling for $500. At that rate, gold prices would have to jump by a third just for customers to recoup their investment, never mind making a profit. Investing in Goldline's 20 francs would be like buying a blue chip stock that lost a third of its value the minute it's purchased. It's difficult to think of any other investment that loses so much value almost instantly. So what persuades people to buy anyway?

The short answer is: a hard sell from the Goldline sales force. For the long answer, click the link and read Stephanie's investigation into the tangled and abusive web between Beck, Goldline, conservative talk radio, and their all-too-credulous customers. It's not a pretty story.

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What Can You Ask a Public Figure?

| Tue May 18, 2010 9:29 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan explains why he thinks it's OK to ask public figures if they're gay:

If someone's entire private life is on the table except that, it's a function of homophobia. Period. A gay person is free to adopt such a homophobic veil; but a reporter need not enable it. So when does Benjy Sarlin write a piece on his own magazine's "ethics"?

Look. I get why Andrew feels this way. And if that really were the only thing off the table, he'd have a point. But here's a short sample of other questions that are generally off limits when you're interviewing public figures:

  • So, have you ever had an affair?
  • Do you masturbate when your wife isn't around?
  • Have you ever had a three-way?
  • Do you download a lot of porn from the internet? Or do you prefer buying it old school on the newsstand?
  • I think Asian guys are really hot. How about you?

Notice a trend? They're all related to your sex life. And they're all generally off limits unless (a) you've put it on the table yourself, (b) there's a specific reason to ask about it, or (c) you're part of the gossip circuit where nothing is off limits in the first place. I mean, this is common sense. If you're interviewing Ricky Martin or Silvio Berlusconi, that's one thing. If you're interviewing someone who's obviously eager to talk about their sex life, go to town. But if you're interviewing a Supreme Court justice or the CEO of Goldman Sachs, you just don't bring this stuff up. Come on.

UPDATE: This was poorly worded. I didn't mean to equate sexual identity and sexual activity this baldly or to make it the main point of this post. More here.

George Bush and History

| Tue May 18, 2010 6:52 PM EDT

Jonathan Bernstein takes a crack today at figuring out where George Bush went wrong. He starts out by noting that presidents aren't, themselves, experts in much of anything, and then quotes Richard Neustadt on the big exception: "When it comes to power, nobody is expert but the President." Unfortunately, he says, Bush wasn't:

What Neustadt means here is that presidents can aggressively use the information available to them [...] to sense and avoid policy disasters. They'll do so, he believes, because policy disasters for the nation are political disasters for its president, and what presidents are really experts in is avoiding political disaster....They're suppose to have excellent political antennae. Presumably, they wouldn't have made it to the White House without them.

....Unless, that is, the president isn't an expert. And so back to George W. Bush.

We're still early in the building of the history of the Bush years, but here's my guess. We'll find that what we saw was pretty much what was happening. He didn't act aggressively when faced with potential policy disaster — whether we're talking about the summer of 2001 and terrorism, or 2003-2005 in Iraq, or 2004-2008 and Afghanistan, or 2007-2008 and the economy, or Katrina, or anything else. We're going to find that he strutted around a good deal, but was otherwise passive and indifferent, and easily manipulated by those around him. And my guess is we're going to find the big things that went wrong (terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, the economy) joined by dozens of smaller things that slipped through the cracks for eight years. One last time: I'm not talking about ideology or policy, just the basic skills of the presidency.

I think I'd put this a little differently. The problem isn't that Bush wasn't an expert at sensing the political winds and understanding partisan coalitions. He was. In fact, great political antennae were pretty much all he had, and that was the problem: he seemed to believe that politics and ideology were everything. It's not that he didn't care about policy disasters, it's that he never seemed to believe that policy actually mattered. And if policy doesn't matter, how can it ever lead to disaster?

You can see this in the things that interested him and the things that didn't. When the subject was something simple and ideologically pure, he was genuinely engaged. This list includes things like tax cuts, making war on Saddam Hussein, privatizing Social Security, and Terri Schiavo. But when the subject was something that was inherently more policy heavy, he just went through the motions. This list includes things like NCLB, Sarbanes-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, prescription drugs, and Katrina.

Bush's problem wasn't a lack of appreciation for power and how to wield it. His problem was that he fundamentally didn't believe that policy had any real impact on how things turned out. My sense of the man is that he viewed government as a machine that always ran with the same level of competence, so it was foolish to waste your time worrying about that. Just give the right orders and let the chips fall where they may. They're going to fall about the same way regardless, a mix of good and bad, and the best a president can do is make sure they at least fall in the right direction.

There's an odd myth in Republican circles that presidents should act like CEOs, and the way CEOs act is to hire good people and then get out of their way. But nobody who's been a CEO actually believes that. Different managers have different appetites for hands-on management, but no good CEO thinks that she can just hand out some marching orders and then head off to the links for a quick nine holes. Execution matters. But George bought into the myth as thoroughly as any president in history, and he (and we) paid the price for that.

Birthers vs. Truthers

| Tue May 18, 2010 5:23 PM EDT

Jonah Goldberg thinks the truther movement is every bit as insidious as the birther movement. Responding to a post by Jon Chait suggesting that there really is a difference, here's his case:

Forgetting that a Truther — Van Jones — had a significant foothold within the White House itself, this really isn't that great an argument. I'm willing to concede, at least for the sake of argument, that the Birthers have more prominence in the GOP than Truthers had in the Democratic Party. But let's not pretend that truther-style nuttery wasn't indulged by the Democrats (nor forget that Trutherism is a vastly more evil and pernicious worldview than birtherism). Michael Moore, who sat in Jimmy Carter's skybox at the Democratic Convention, was embraced by the leadership of the Democratic Party. Moore believed 9/11 was an "inside job." Cynthia McKinney first broached the "inside job" thesis while she was still a Democratic congresswoman.

This kind of argument comes up all the time, but it misses the point. There are whackjobs and bomb throwers willing to embrace conspiracy theories on both sides. But there's a profound difference here between right and left: on the left it's mostly just whackjobs and bomb throwers who buy into the truther story. Goldberg can only name one actual Democratic politician who's a truther, and guess what? She lost her seat in Congress almost immediately after her statements about 9/11 — and when she returned in 2005 the Democratic leadership didn't exactly welcome her with open arms. As for Van Jones, he signed a truther petition years ago, disavowed it completely, and was nonetheless bounced from his midlevel job coordinating green initiatives.

Compare that to the birthers. It's bad enough that prominent conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Liz Cheney, and Sean Hannity have flirted with the birthers. But what's worse is that birtherism seems to be a perfectly acceptable belief among actual Republican leaders. Sarah Palin thinks it's a question well worth asking. Roy Blunt isn't sure Obama is a citizen. Dick Shelby thinks it's curious that we haven't seen Obama's birth certificate. Michele Bachmann recently showed up at a tea party event and palled around with birther queen Orly Taitz. My congressman, John Campbell, said that Obama was a citizen "as far as I know" and then, with a wink and a nod, cosponsored a bill requiring presidential candidates to submit a birth certificate. The bill currently has 13 Republican cosponsors.

This is just a huge difference. With the ambiguous exception of McKinney, who's not exactly a big wheel in Democratic politics, there's just no one of any stature on the liberal/Democratic side of the aisle who buys into trutherism. If Paul Krugman and E.J. Dionne and Rachel Maddow took it up, that would be one thing. If Dick Durbin and John Conyers and George Miller and Jerry Nadler were truthers, that would be another. But they aren't. They don't flirt with it, they don't make jokes about it, and they don't pander to their lefty base by delivering clever applause lines about it. But where the birthers are concerned, Republican politicians and significant conservative thought leaders do. That's the difference.

Quote of the Day: Our Demand for Idiocy

| Tue May 18, 2010 2:46 PM EDT

From Maureen Tkacik, the Dr. Jekyll side of former Jezebel writer Moe Tkacik:

What I sensed was that while the laws of supply and demand governed everything on earth, the easy money was in demand—manufacturing it, manipulating it, sending it forth to multiply, etc. As a rule of thumb (and with some notable exceptions), the profit margins you could achieve selling a good or service were directly correlated to the total idiocy and/or moral bankruptcy of the demand you drummed up for it. This was easier to grasp if you were in the business of peddling heroin, Internet stocks, or celebrity gossip; journalists, on the other hand, were at a conspicuous disadvantage when it came to understanding their role in this equation.

Tkacik developed this sense not while she was working for Jezebel, but while she was working for the Wall Street Journal in the early aughts. The rest of the piece is quite interesting too, though I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. But worth a read.