Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Catch of the Day

To Ed Kilgore Paul Glastris*, who notes that WaPo's Richard Cohen does an impressive job of establishing false equivalency despite having a one-sided set of examples of Palin-like candidates who have succeeded on the national level.

As someone who doesn't care all that much about that particular press bias, what bothered me far more about the column was that for Cohen the Sage of Wasilla appears on the scene "With her selection as John McCain’s running mate" and that, at the end, "Sarah Palin changed the game." That's wrong. Sarah Palin didn't change anything. There have always been unqualified presidential and vice-presidential candidates out there. Hundreds of millions of them, in fact. What changed (if anything did; I'm not as sure about that) was that John McCain selected her, without having bothered to find out whether she was a qualified candidate or not. The passive "with her selection" will not do.

What happened in 2008 was that John McCain chose someone who should not have been on a national ticket; that Republicans of all stripes pretended he hadn't done that through election day; and that all too many Republicans defended the choice not with the white lie of claiming her competence, but by declaring that her apparent weaknesses were actually strengths, thus setting the party up to reward such weaknesses in the future.

Palin is, of course, responsible for her own actions. But no more than that. Her selection in the first place, and the way she was defended before and especially after the election, isn't her doing, and John McCain and various high-visibility Republicans are the ones who deserve the blame for it.

At any rate: nice catch!


*UPDATE and mainly CORRECTION: Very sloppy on my part; I assumed that the post was by Ed Kilgore,  regular WaMo blogger, but it was in fact by Paul Glastris, occasional WaMo blog contributor (and Editor in Chief of the Washington Monthly). My apologies to everyone.

35 comments:

  1. John McCain is a patriot who has sacrificed much for this country. Too bad he stained his reputation permanently and endangered this country we both love by nominating someone totally unqualified to be President, and thereby giving hope and credence to a slew of equally unqualified candidates and the people who love them.

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  2. "There have always been unqualified presidential and vice-presidential candidates out there." For major parties? Some people would say Dan Quayle but I'm not sure I'd go that far. (Being more qualified than the woman Charlie Pierce calls "Princess Dumbass of the North Woods" is no great accomplishment, but I'm willing to concede that Quayle, despite his manifest failings, was a bad but not unqualified choice.) No one else comes close, even on losing tickets, in the post-war period, and I don't think anyone in the 20th century, but maybe that's my ignorance.

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    1. Sorry, that's bad writing on my part, I guess; I mean to say that there are lots of unqualified potential nominees out there. Most of them don't get picked.

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  3. Nice catch, indeed. Cohen appears to deplore what is often called "know-nothing" candidates, and I suspect his false equivalency lay in part in pre-empting leftish snark.

    I think pundits are missing a lot by calling these individuals "know-nothing." What they lack in facts, they often make up in contacts (GWB II, Quayle Jr.). Palin was quick to use her gifts to forge and benefit from her contacts in Alaska, including Sen. Ted Stevens. Moreover, some individuals who lack a solid understanding of how things work will often leap when opportunity is presented. They usually don't overthink it. A lot of consumer advertising campaigns promote this as a virtue.

    Moreover, for a certain segment of the voting population, what you believe is everything. What you know is irrelevant. That group thinks that true believers always make the right decisions when presented with facts, because they know what is "right". That group skews conservative.

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  4. I think it's even worse... it was not the candidate McCain who really wanted Palin, she was the strategists' choice. They thought they could use her as an instrument to get more votes without apparently spending a second thought on the idea that she might become president if anything happens to McCain...

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  5. None of Cohen's 'Palin-like candidates' have 'succeeded on the national level'. They have failed or are in the process of failing.

    Of Herman Cain, there will be those who say he might have won but for the sex scandal, just as for Palin there will be those who say she would have won if she had chosen to compete.

    Cohen's post is incoherent. Politicians have always been liars, and Romney is as brazen as any of the other candidates. Only Perry and Cain have been Palinesque in their ignorance.

    Santorum's criticism of JFK is not uninformed or dishonest AFAIK, and so doesn't support Cohen's thesis. It is true, however, that Palin made a similar criticism of JFK's famous speech in Going Rogue.

    The complaint follows logically from the Religious Right's view of the proper relationship between religion and politics. I doubt Palin was the first to voice it. It would be interesting to know who was.

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  6. I dunno, I think you're basically agreeing with Cohen. He is not trying to exonerate McCain; he says, "McCain didn’t choose her for her intellectual or experiential [sic] qualities, nor because he was geographically or ideologically balancing the ticket. She was an antiabortion woman with a pulse: Enough!" That lays the blame pretty clearly. When Cohen says "she" changed things, he's referring to "the Palin effect," as he calls it, which seems to me to be the same effect you're describing when you say, "all too many Republicans defended the choice ... by declaring that her apparent weaknesses were actually strengths, thus setting the party up to reward such weaknesses in the future." Isn't making a major party more likely to reward weaknesses -- and I agree that Palin did that -- a "change"?

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    1. I don't believe that Palin did it, any more than I think Spiro Agnew made it more likely for a party to reward guys who were accepting bribes of cartoon bags of money with big $$ signs on them.

      But if you want to go with David's argument that Cohen is just incoherent, I'm okay with that.

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    2. I think you're forgetting just how hard it was for McCain to get the evangelical crowd excited about his candidacy. Saying that Palin was just "an anti-abortion woman with a pulse" dismisses the logic of his selection. He had to find someone the base could get excited about and who he could stomach. I mean, how could McCain tolerate sharing a stage with any of the pro-torture chicken hawks? How could anyone expect him to?

      I could be mean and say that he likely has a soft spot for beauty queens, considering his second wife, but would be wrong. To do, I mean.

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    3. I think it's semantics. Speaking in shorthand, people say things like "Hitler brought Nazism to Germany," not because they're unaware that others were involved, but because saying "Hindenberg brought Nazism to Germany" (by appointing Hitler) or "the Junkers brought Nazism to Germany" (by supporting Hitler), while accurate, don't capture the reality as well. Cohen is saying that others will now take their cues from Palin -- not McCain, not Steve Schmidt, but Palin. Which seems right.

      And on that point: It seems to me we're going to get a very interesting look at just how "the Palin effect" works this summer, when Romney chooses a running mate. He's going to be under conflicting pressures: (1) to avoid another unvetted Palinesque fiasco, but (2) to give the base someone who excites them at least as much as she did (as they still vividly recall). Especially if he's trailing at the point, I could see the '08 dynamic repeating itself, with this year's Steve Schmidt telling him, "Governor, you need a bold pick....."

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    4. I quibble with the description of McCain picking Palin to "shore up the base."

      The story I've heard, and that I find plausible, is not just that McCain was hoping to bring conservative voters on the bandwagon, but that his first choices (Ridge and Lieberman) had landed with a resounding wet thud when his folks reached out to RNC delegates. Palin was a last-minute pick; she'd been minimally vetted in the first round (probably only to mollify conservatives in the first place), but they hadn't gone further. Then, confronted with "the floor is going to reject your VP nominee for the first time in modern history", McCain had to scramble. It's still about the conservative wing of the party, it's just more specifically about the convention delegates, which is really interesting to me to think about.

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    5. Well, and: They were trying to close the gender gap. That's how it's presented in Game Change and I think was also part of the buzz at the time. So in that regard, too, it wasn't just about the base.

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  7. So far, the Palin effect has been limited to the GOP. Surely, though, there lurks in the Democratic Party potential candidates who have seen Palin and taken note. Experience, knowledge, accomplishment — these no longer may matter. They will come roaring out of the left proclaiming a hatred of all things Washington, including compromise.

    With that paragraph, Cohen has expressed as clearly than ever the central dogma of the Religion of False Equivalence, the idea that if one party (or one "side" of the political spectrum) does something we object to, then the other party (or "side") must do it too. You never have to prove this belief with, you know, empirical evidence, because it's logically self-evident, and if you don't think so, that's only because you're a damn dirty partisan.

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    1. Trying to look at '08 as an outsider, I would say that both parties picked candidates who were inexperienced and could be called "unqualified." In some ways, the Democrat's choice is more interesting because it was for the top of the ticket. It got me wondering what the qualifications should be [here], and what the exceptions should be (and I definitely think that the parties will make exceptions).

      I couldn't decide on criteria for qualifications, but I conclude that the exemptions will be made for partisan reasons.

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    2. I think you are confusing qualifications with experience. The latter is a part of the former, but it isn't everything. When Palin's selection was first announced, the discussion turned to her inexperience, but after she bombed the Couric interviews and showed a woeful ignorance of policy it became a question of qualifications. That wasn't the case with Obama.

      There's a lot more subjectivity in the definition of "qualifications" than many people are willing to admit. If you don't believe me, find someone today who thinks Lincoln wasn't qualified. But he was unquestionably inexperienced, and people in his day didn't hesitate to point it out. Here is what Charles Francis Adams, who served in Lincoln's cabinet, had to say:

      "The fact is beyond contradiction that no person ever before nominated, with any reasonable probability of success, had so little of public service to show for his reward.... I must then affirm, without hesitation, that in the history of our government, down to this hour, no experiment so rash has ever been made as that of elevating to the head of affairs a man with so little previous preparation for his task as Mr. Lincoln."

      What I find striking about talks of presidential qualifications is that people make it sound like it's easy to define, when in reality the standards are pretty elastic. We usually expect candidates to have served at least one term as a governor or senator or vice president, but then we accept military generals without any political experience (e.g. Eisenhower) as credible candidates. And when you look at the resumes of many of the early presidents, they make almost any candidate today look absurdly underqualified:

      Jefferson: delegate to Continental Congress, Gov. of Virginia, Amb. to France, Sec. of State, Vice President
      Monroe: Senator, Gov. of Virginia, Amb. to France, Amb. to United Kingdom, Sec. of State, Sec. of War
      John Q. Adams: Senator, Amb. to Netherlands, Amb. to Russia, Amb. to United Kingdom, Sec. of State
      Van Buren: Senator, Att. Gen. of NY, Gov. of NY, Sec. of State, Amb. to Great Britain, Vice President
      W.H. Harrison: Congressman, Senator, Gov. of Indiana Territory, Gov. of District of Louisiana, Amb. to Colombia

      It was entirely typical back then for a president to have served both in the legislative and executive branch and to have military experience and an important foreign-policy role in a previous administration. The only modern president I can think of who has a resume even beginning to resemble this is George H.W. Bush. Most of the time, you're considered qualified if you were either a senator or a governor; rarely has a modern candidate been both, partly because the trajectory of political careers today tends to cut against it.

      In a broad sense, I do think the rise of Obama invigorated the right to be more adventurous in their possible selections. I think there's definitely an element that the selection of Palin was an attempt to out-Obama Obama by choosing another fresh-faced and exciting, but inexperienced, newcomer. That it failed didn't stop the right from looking at a range of similarly inexperienced figures in the next presidential race, notably Bachmann and Cain, with outside speculation about Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan.

      Of course the right continues to attack Obama as unqualified, but I think it's mostly an empty talking point, and that most of the people who utter it show no signs of truly valuing experience in their own candidates. Whether they admit it or not, they've been pining for a right-wing version of Obama ever since he captured the nomination.

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    3. @Kylopod, thanks for the interesting factoids. I had looked up the political background on Lincoln (I don't have this information in my head as some may), and was intrigued by his lack of elected experience before his presidential run. If he were to be resurrected and run today, what would we make of him? If only...

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    4. What intrigues me about Lincoln's resume was its eerie similarities with Obama's: both were lawyers who served for eight years in the Illinois legislature, and Lincoln went on to serve for two years in the House and to make an unsuccessful run for the Senate, whereas Obama served four years in the Senate after making an unsuccessful run for the House.

      Nowadays, of course, the Senate is considered a more valuable source of experience for a prospective presidential contender than the House; we haven't had a nominee whose highest office was the House since William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

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    5. For what it's worth, Lincoln wasn't just considered inexperienced; even as president, he was widely thought -- even by political allies -- ineffectual, out of his depth, and unlikely to be re-elected, even as late as mid-1864. "He works hard, and does little," and would go down in history as "a first-rate second-rate man," one sympathetic journalist wrote. The Lincoln cult we're familiar was almost entirely a later construction.

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  8. scott the mediocreMarch 13, 2012 at 10:53 PM

    @kylopod 3:12 pm

    I'm kind of surprised that you didn't include Jackson in your list (general, miltary governor, briefly congressman and twice briefly senator).

    Well, yes, being a politician and being high ranking military (flag officer) are both far more professionalized than they were in the 19th century (i.e. the last generals who were both national political figures and who had held elective office were the result of the huge number of "amateur" generals the Civil War produced, e.g. Hayes and Garfield).

    Similarly, it seems as though the governor and senator career paths are relatively separate now; perhaps you/we should "blame" the 17th amendment (senators seems to spend much longer periods in office :) - the only "serious" presidential candidates I can think of from the the last forty years or so who had been both governor and senator were Bob Graham, Bob Kerrey, and Pete Wilson (Lamar Alexander became a senator long after his presidential aspirations had ended). No doubt there are several that I'm forgetting.

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    1. I didn't include Jackson because he was considered inexperienced at the time, due to his relatively short tenure in political office. He'd been a representative, a senator, and a military governor, but only for short periods of time each--his total time in office before reaching the presidency was less than five years.

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  9. The fascinating thing about these discussions is how universally everyone takes the VPOTUS decision literally, in the sense of an effort to fulfill the 25th Amendment's requirement of a candidate able to be a step-in President at a moment's notice. In particular, the moose on the table: a step-in VP candidate would be The Most Powerful Person in the World but for the continued health of the President. Would you choose such a VP, one having a sense of immediate POTUS urgency?

    Of course not. You'd hedge as much as you could. You'd choose someone too young to have said sense of urgency, such as Al Gore. Or else someone too outsidery to act on such ambitions, like Geraldine Ferraro. Or someone too goofy, like Dan Quayle. Or too personally loyal, like Dick Cheney. And then if you hit the jackpot, you'd get several of these qualities in one, with Sarah Palin.

    I could understand why the Poli Sci professionals don't talk in these terms, for while this topic is the plot of one of the most famous plays about human nature (MacBeth), it probably wouldn't exactly be career-enhancing at the next big conference. But that shouldn't stop the rest of us from thinking in these terms, should it?

    Especially in the case of McCain. That guy routinely parried questions about whether he'd accept a VP consolation during the '08 campaign with the cheesy old saw about the VP having two job requirements: attending foreign funerals and asking after the health of the President.

    Since McCain voluntarily offered that quote on several occasions, I find it noteworthy that virtually no one even suspects that "least threatening to the health of the President" wasn't a major consideration in his VP choice. Instead, essentially everyone treats the Palin choice at face (25th amendment) value. Truly odd.

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    1. I'm inclined to think that if there was ever a VP pick who resembled Macbeth, it was Palin. In fact, come to think of it, Game Change is basically Macbeth in modern dress, another story about overweening ambition leading to nervous breakdowns and ultimate defeat -- with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth rolled into a single character.

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    2. Jeff, I see your point where the last three acts of MacBeth are concerned. I was specifically referring to the first two; the nefarious scheming of MacBeth and his wife.

      If we imagined those schemes played out by Sarah Palin and her spouse, the abominable snowmobileman, there would have to be a couple snippets where the Palins discussed getting around the "The Department of Laws" in the WH. And whether they might enlist the aid of the Russians, since if they can see Russia, Russia can probably see them back. Etc.

      At that point, the tragedy pretty much becomes a comedy, no?

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    3. Yes, historical drama repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce (as I believe Karl Marx once wrote during his little-known stint as a theater critic). Possible ironic twist: After all the plotting to kill the king, the Palins discover too late that the king has no power, and the actual head of government is the prime minister. Oops! (See Game Change if you're not sure what I'm referring to.)

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    4. This is only barely on topic, but what the hey: this subthread has reminded me of the forgotten film Bottle Rocket, which has the dubious legacy of bequeathing to America the careers of Owen and Luke Wilson.

      The movie, perhaps surprisingly given the stars, is actually pretty funny; if the convo Jeff and I are having here paints an amusing picture for you, you may want to check out Bottle Rocket.

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    5. Haven't seen it. I will now, though! Thanks. :-)

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    6. @CSH: at least as significant and as dubious a legacy of "Bottle Rocket" is the career of Wes Anderson.

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    7. Oh classicist did you have to go there? Sure, Anderson has done some incredibly awful movies, but he's also done at least one unforgettably great one.

      To wit, the climactic scene of Rushmore, with all the horrible teen angst poured into that 'Heaven and Hell' play...heck, I was Max Fisher. (Two or three days a week, my wife thinks I still am).

      So Wes Anderson can do another 100 risibly awful Life Aquatics, and he'd still get a thumbs-up from me for the (almost agonizingly) perfect last half-hour of Rushmore.

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    8. @CSH: I'm glad you get more out of it than I have ... I can't even snicker behind my hand at your identification with Max Fisher, myself having been accused of an erstwhile resemblance to Enid in "Ghost World," which is, you know, not more flattering --

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    9. Occurs to me there may be something slightly tacky on my part about defending the quality of a film (Rushmore) based on evocations of memories (male teen angst) that might not apply to everyone.

      Thinking there might be the beginnings of a Jeff Foxworthy "You might be a conservative" bit here....

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    10. No! If it were tacky to recommend art close to one's experience to others who hadn't shared those experiences, how would we come to appreciate experiences without sharing them? I for one am glad to miss out on the extra understanding I would have of Crime and Punishment (for instance) if I understood more vividly what it was like in 1860s Russia.

      That's the justifying reason for my protest. The motivating reason is defensiveness over the number of people I've told to watch "Saved!"/"A Serious Man"/"Wet Hot American Summer" and then pouted when they told me they "just didn't get it."

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  10. You have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a Democratic vice presidential candidate who was as utterly unqualified and incompetent as Palin. That Cohen couldn't think of this one says more about him than about the Democrats.

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    1. David, I think Edwards was a phony, and thought so before the whole marital drama...but I don't think there's any evidence that he was a Palin-scale incompetent.

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    2. That's right, he was nowhere close. Edwards was a senator who knew national policy and was aware of the issues facing presidents. The Kerry campaign didn't have to spend time teaching him why there are two Koreas or what role Germany played in World War II.

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    3. I'm not talking about him being a phony or his incredibly incredibly bad personal judgment. I'm talking about every time he opened his mouth, something cringeworthily dumb was going to come out.

      Edwards didn't understand what the Defense of Marriage Act was, and didn't know (even after supposedly watching Sicko, though it's hard to figure out why you'd need that) that Cuba had a government-run health care system.

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