Opinion

The Great Debate

Keystone XL’s organizing principle

In October 2011, National Journal surveyed energy experts about whether Obama was likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar-sands oil through the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. Ninety-one percent of the “energy and environment insiders” believed he would.

On Wednesday, Obama proved them wrong.

How could the experts have gotten it so wrong? The answer is twofold: Grassroots environmentalists were stronger, and congressional Republicans dumber, than anyone predicted.

Back in August of 2011, when author and activist Bill McKibben staged the first anti-Keystone rallies around the White House, political observers scoffed. These were, after all, the same environmentalists who had been rendered irrelevant by their cap-and-trade defeat and the stress of economic recession. No way they could stop a fossil fuel infrastructure project with big money behind it.

But McKibben kept at it. The movement he seeded grew, forging strategic partnerships with Nebraska farmers, social-justice groups and unions. Activists staged more rallies, hounded the president everywhere he went and uncovered serious questions about the relationship between the tar-sands industry and the State Department. As the crowds grew, big-money Democratic donors started weighing in on the issue. In November, under intense pressure, Obama announced that the final determination would be delayed until after the election. It was an unexpected display of muscle from the green grass roots.

Still, most observers assumed that Obama was just buying time (and the support of his environmental base) and would approve the pipeline in the spring. That’s where the dumb Republicans came in.

The GOP’s hunt for Latino voters

Jon Huntsman suspended more than just his campaign this week. He also put an end to any hope the GOP had of making strides in the Latino community.

And despite the stereotypes, because of the Obama administration’s policies, there really was hope. The administration has increased the number of deportations to nearly 400,000 people a year since taking office, according to ABC News. Likewise, in Secretary Janet Napolitano’s annual report to Congress, she describes the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to be at “record highs.” President Obama’s first term has featured twice the number of deportations as George W. Bush’s by instituting a systematic approach to immigration enforcement not seen since the infamous days of “Operation Wetback,” a program in which President Dwight Eisenhower deported over a million Mexican nationals, among them American citizens.

One might think this would be an opportunity for the GOP to make inroads with the Latino community, but the Republicans seem confident they can sit idly by as Latinos simply run into their arms. The GOP claims economics are Latinos’ most important issue, but with over half of Hispanics within a generation of the immigrant experience, migration is also a profound issue (and one with profound economic consequences). And on that issue, most of the GOP candidates have done little to distinguish themselves.

from Jack Shafer:

Now that we have dirt on everyone

Has opposition research finally reached a big fat dead end?

Not that there is no fresh dirt to dig up on candidates. Each day, the morning editions bring us additional sleaze, flip-flops, and embarrassments from the candidates' pasts, some of which comes ladled from oppo-researcher notebooks. We learn about our candidates' legislative histories, their leveraged buyout histories (that would be you, Mitt and Newt), their adventures on K Street (take a bow, Newt and Rick #2), the filth and fury discovered in their back pages (hello, Ron!), the casual racism of a parent (Rick #1), and their military resumes (if they have one). And if they've generated any sort of paper trail from tax liens, divorce proceedings, campaign-finance filings, or civil actions—or if there is reusable disgrace from past campaigns—we read and re-read all about it, too.

But how much of this stuff actually sticks anymore? Beyond the undoing of Herman Cain's candidacy by an avalanche of romancing-while-married stories, it's hard to imagine any campaign revelation that, by itself, could burn any of the current candidates out of the current race or remain sufficiently hot to scald them in November's general election. Dirt just doesn't stain like it once did. (Even if some of this dirt sticks, it won’t alter the outcome for candidates like Rick Perry. The worst that could happen for him is to go from 1 percent to 0 percent support.)

That's not how the political operatives feel. Today, Talking Points Memo reports how bummed the Democrats are that Newt Gingrich has already attacked Romney with the Bain story. Democrats had been holding Bain in reserve to use against Romney in the general election—as they did in 1994 in his race against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D, Mass.)—to portray Romney as a vulture capitalist of the most craven sort.

Santorum and the Tea Party crackup

By Michelle Goldberg

The views expressed are her own.


It’s easy to read too much into Rick Santorum’s stunning finish in the Iowa caucuses after months of dismal poll numbers. In some ways he won by default, emerging as the last conservative candidate standing because no one took him seriously enough to attack him. Nevertheless, by virtually tying with Mitt Romney, he has become the leading conservative alternative in the race. And that should put to rest the exhausted conventional wisdom that the American right is primarily motivated by a desire for small government. Because Rick Santorum sure isn’t.

Since the Tea Party burst onto the political scene in 2009, we have heard over and over again that the revolt against president Obama was driven by anxiety about government expansion. Because conservatives told pollsters they were most concerned about fiscal issues, conventional wisdom hyped the belief that the culture wars were passé. In Politico, for example, Ben Smith wrote that the Tea Party had “banished the social issues that are the focus of many evangelical Christians to the background.”

Certainly, Tea Party voters wanted to shrink government spending and lower taxes. That’s perfectly in line with the ideology of the religious right, which holds that families and churches should provide the social safety net. According to Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition’s main legislative goals in 1994 and 1995 were tax cuts for middle-class families with children and balancing the budget. And fifteen years later, polls showed that the Tea Party was largely the old Christian right in a new guise. A September Public Religion Research Institute survey found that three quarters of Tea Partiers describe themselves as Christian conservatives, while only a quarter identify as libertarians. The Tea Party-inspired House prioritized anti-abortion legislation even when it meant raising taxes, championing a bill that would have ended current tax breaks for individuals and small businesses buying health care plans that cover abortion, as the vast majority of plans now do. Nevertheless, the notion of the Tea Party as a libertarian force endured.

Michele Bachmann’s glass house

By Amanda Marcotte
The views expressed are her own.

Of all the candidates who rose and fell during the prolonged Republican primary campaign going into Iowa, Michele Bachmann took the wildest ride. Bachmann won the 2011 Ames Straw Poll in August, taking 28 percent of the vote, mainly due to conservative evangelicals who supported her strong anti-abortion views and her ease in speaking Christianese. But a mere five months later, after a disastrous showing in Iowa where she only took 5 percent of the vote, Bachmann is dropping out of the race.

The campaign has blamed sexism for her precipitous fall. It’s an accusation that hasn’t done her any favors with defensive voters, but this may be one of those rare occasions when the Bachmann camp has correctly assessed reality. As a conservative female politician with an evangelical base, Bachmann was forced to hang her ambitions on voters who believe in traditional gender roles. It’s a strategy—a woman who rejects feminism who also wants to use feminism to gain serious power–that causes cognitive dissonance for voters, like fruit-flavored beer. The novelty will generate some sales, but at the end of the day, people will return to the half-dozen other beer-flavored beers available.

The sustained culture war that has created modern conservatism has many aspects to it: homophobia, racialized resentments, hostility to immigration. But anger about feminist gains surely rises to the top, with a special anger reserved for reproductive rights that free women from the kitchen and allow them to compete with men in the workplace. Bachmann herself gloated frequently about her love of traditional male power, noting publicly that she submits to her husband and strictly forbids her daughters to take the lead with boys, forcing them to adopt a strictly passive role in dating. Unsurprisingly, her belief that women should not control when they give birth has been a major platform for her, one she routinely describes as her number one priority.

A caucus-goer’s community

We think of caucus-goers as unduly politically active. But the data suggests they care far more about something closer to home.

By Eitan D. Hersh

The views expressed are his own.


With its endless primetime debates, strange delegate rules, and state-by-state sequential elections, the Presidential nomination season stimulates both intrigue and dismay at the peculiarities of the U.S. election system. And for those of us who reside in states where casting a primary ballot is procedurally identical to casting a general-election ballot, the caucus system used in about a quarter of the states seems particularly odd. What kind of person, we primary-voters might ask, is willing to spend several hours on a winter night voting in a public setting and listening to neighbors bicker about politics?

Pundits (and supporters of candidates who lose caucuses) answer this question in a familiar refrain: extreme political activists dominate the caucuses, which makes them unfair, unrepresentative, and even undemocratic institutions.

from Jack Shafer:

OTUS and the golden age of political reporting

Just what the country needed: Another political Web site.

At the beginning of the week, ABC News launched OTUS, its political news supermarket with its top political reporters (Jake Tapper, Jonathan Karl, Amy Walter, and George Stephanopoulos) hunkering on the site's home page. OTUS threatens to dice, grind, sieve, and aerosol the complex business of campaigns and the affairs of the state into inhalable powder.

As Tapper says in this promo, OTUS (short for of the United States as in, POTUS, president of the United States, or SCOTUS, supreme court of the United States) is all about the "power moves, the mini-dramas, the scheming" in politics. Tapper promises that OTUS will flag both the "urgent and the ridiculous," offer games, display correspondents' Twitter feeds, and create a stock market-style ticker that assesses the rising and falling worth of candidates with social media.

ABC News has expanded its Web efforts at what is obviously a late date. SalonSlateTalking Points MemoYahoo PoliticsPoliticoRealClearPoliticsRed StateHuffington Post PoliticsFiveThirtyEightMother JonesNational Review OnlineDaily BeastDaily CallerRoll CallThe HillCNN Politics, NBC's First Read, Time 's SwamplandNational Journal, specialty sections at the Washington Post, the New York TimesNew York magazine, the Associated PressBloomberg News, and Reuters, as well as numerous other sites already cover the beat, and cover it well.

The Fox in the Tea Party

By Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson

The views expressed are their own.


Many observers of the role of U.S. media in politics as of the early twenty­-first century are alarmed that partisanship has crept in. This rarely bothers very conservative pundits, of course, because (even if they constantly com­plain about “liberal media bias”) they know that the elephants in the room are on their side. Liberals and self-styled nonpartisan critics engage in constant tut-tutting about the horrors of partisan media. They forget that American democracy was born and flourished through the nineteenth cen­tury in an environment where major newspapers, the mass media of the day, were all closely aligned with political parties. “Objective news” was not to be found; nineteenth-century editors and reporters alike presented highly se­lective versions of the facts, often in luridly emotional ways.

Only in the twentieth century, as sociologist Michael Schudson explained in his ground-breaking book Discovering the News, did professional journalists gain a degree of autonomy. Journalists developed norms of objectivity and “bal­ance,” which leading newspapers and, later, television networks tried to follow, more or less. Norms of objective journalism led to the convention of looking for quotes from sources on “both sides of the issue”—a practice more reflective of the fact that there were two major parties roaming the U.S. political tundra than of any law that major questions have only two possible answers. Social movements and protest efforts outside the two major parties found it harder to get a hearing in the objective-and-balanced media regime.

Given the impressive scope of conservative media, American democracy is, in an important sense, caught betwixt and between in the new media world. The frank, exuberant, all-around partisanship of the nineteenth century is not quite what we now have. True, there are both liberal and conservative bloggers, and on the tube, the Fox political slant is weakly countered by liberal-slanted shows on MSNBC. But mostly what America has right now is a thousand-pound ­gorilla media juggernaut on the right, operating nineteenth-century style, coex­isting with other news outlets trying to keep up while making fitful efforts, twentieth-century style, to check facts and cover “both sides of the story.”

Fed up with Bernanke

By Nicholas Wapshott
The views expressed are his own.

There is one thing every Republican candidate agrees on. Once in the White House, the first thing they’d do is fire Ben Bernanke. His crime is to follow the legal brief of the Federal Reserve to maximize jobs and keep prices stable. To this end he has been printing money to keep interest rates low to boost business confidence to invest and thereby create more American jobs. For many conservatives and libertarians, who dominate the early GOP caucuses and primaries, Bernanke’s cheap money policy has dangerously devalued the dollar’s worth.

Guaranteeing cheap money is a Keynesian way of restoring health to an economy in recession, though Keynes himself was aware that low interest rates do not automatically lead to jobs. However cheap money is, you can’t force people to invest. Or, as he put it, “You can’t push on a string.” He compared it to buying a bigger belt to gain weight. The fact that Keynes backed easy credit is enough to make the policy treacherous in the eyes of many con-libs. (They are far more tolerant of another Keynesian remedy–slashing taxes.)

Bernanke, however, owes his allegiance not to Keynes but to Milton Friedman. To encourage growth without hyper-inflation, Friedman prescribed gradually increasing the money supply. That way, prices would rise slowly and predictably. Bernanke is also an expert on the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression, catastrophes he, like Friedman, attribute to the 1920′s Fed keeping money too tight for too long. As Bernanke told Friedman on the father of monetarism’s 90th birthday, “You’re right. We did it. We’re very sorry. But, thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”

Gingrich’s anger management

By Michael A. Cohen

The views expressed are his own.

WINDHAM, N.H.—Newt Gingrich is flying high these days – on top of national Republican polls and currently leading in three of the first four Republican primary and caucus states. He hasn’t been this relevant in American politics since Bill Clinton sat in the White House and Titanic was the biggest movie in America. But while the new Newt is clearly enjoying himself, seeing him on the campaign trail brings back familiar glimpses of the old Newt, defined far more by his acid tongue than he was by his policy acumen.

On Monday night, Gingrich took his frontrunner status on the road to New Hampshire, where he spoke at a packed town hall in Windham to crowds that were as ecstatic for him as they would have been for Leo and Kate. More than a thousand Republican partisans were there to greet him. What they got was the sort of grandiose ideas and red-meat political attacks against liberals – and in particular President Obama – that have been the hallmark of Gingrich’s political career, the key to his recent political rise, and perhaps his best hope for winning the Republican nomination. In a year in which Republican voters are angry with Obama and angry with Washington, all the GOP wannabes are cultivating conservative ire – but no one quite does it as effectively and as gleefully as Newt.

For Gingrich then, New Hampshire is a win-win state. The state is generally seen as Mitt Romney’s fail-safe; the place where he must—and should be able to—win in order to keep his election hopes alive. Moreover, the state GOP tends to be less socially conservative than their Iowa brethren; more attuned, it seems, to a Romney rather than Newt candidacy. Nonetheless, Gingrich’s numbers in New Hampshire are beginning to tick up, becoming Romney’s top rival and within shouting distance of first place. If he loses, the world won’t come to an end – and if he wins it could be the killer blow to Romney’s campaign. All the more reason, it seems, for Gingrich to play up his frontrunner credentials and critique Romney.

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