O’DONNELL LANCES THE PALIN BUBBLE

“I have a roaring fire in the belly, and I struggle with it every day.” An hysterical quote, held up for ridicule by Lawrence O’Donnell.

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Lawrence has held that Sarah Palin will not run for president because no losing vice presidential candidate in recent years has won the presidency (Was FDR the last one who succeeded? Even he had to wait twelve years), but adds some other salient observations:

1. The “re-hires” are not people who run campaigns, but assistant types who are particularly useful on speaking tours, not campaigns.
2. The moment she is confirmed to be not running, her speaking fees will drop considerably.
3. The movie is opening in Iowa because that is the place that will maximize speculation, and her and thus increase her fees and attention.
4. Fox News canceled the contracts of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum on March 2, but did did not cancel the contracts of Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin, which Lawrence takes as plain evidence that Palin and Huckabee told Roger Ailes that they weren’t going to run.

THE BANALITY OF MEN BEHAVING BADLY

Sometimes writing for a weekly newsmagazine means being willing to ask a dumb question. Writing Time‘s cover story this week on the sexual trespasses of Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other powerful who did not happen to specifically get into trouble this week, Nancy Gibbs, one of the best to ever write in this format, asks the Duh-worthy question, “How can it be, in this ostensibly enlightened age, when men and women live and work as peers and are schooled regularly in what conduct is acceptable and what is actionable, that anyone with so little judgment, so little honor, could rise to such heights?”

Good question, Nancy–now why don’t you give us the answer? “By now social commentators have the explanations on auto-save: We know that powerful men can be powerfully reckless, particularly when, like DSK, they stand at the brink of their grandest achievement. They tend to be risk takers or at least assess risk differently — as do narcissists who come to believe that ordinary rules don’t apply. They are often surrounded by enablers with a personal or political interest in protecting them to the point of covering up their follies, indiscretions and crimes. A study set to be published in Psychological Science found that the higher men — or women — rose in a business hierarchy, the more likely they were to consider or commit adultery. With power comes both opportunity and confidence, the authors argue, and with confidence comes a sense of sexual entitlement. If fame and power make sex more constantly available, the evolutionary biologists explain, it may weaken the mechanisms of self-restraint and erode the layers of socialization that we impose on teenage boys and hope they eventually internalize. “When men have more opportunity, they tend to act on that opportunity,” says psychologist Mark Held.”

Delving into the deep secrets of this phenomenon is like delving into the mystery of why people like warm sunny afternoons. Even the most disciplined and moral of powerful people tend to try to get away with doing what they want to do, and because they are powerful, weaker people tend to permit them, if not actively encourage them. And when powerful people find themselves on thin ice, they invent high-minded moral reasons to do what they want to do. Ask Henry VIII, or Hitler, or Jack Kennedy, or Nixon, or Bill Clinton or Charlie Sheen. Everybody has his reasons. I need a son. I fear that I am going to die prematurely. The streets are in turmoil. I am a torpedo of truth.

What restrains them–if anything ever restrains them–are other people saying no. This, of course, is what must be killing Maria Shriver. People have known forever that Schwarzeneggar was a big, slobbering pig. As we reported it in Spy, one of his most effective pick-up lines was “Your bangability is very high tonight.” A lot of the most controversial of Heidi Fleiss’s business with the studios, as John Connolly reported in Us, was about supplying girls for Arnold. This couldn’t have been secret from Shriver, and it was certainly raised when he put himself forward for governor. Surely Shriver was an enormous help to his campaign when she publicly invested not only the credibility she had developed as a newscaster but the imprimatur of the Kennedys. “You can listen to all the negativity, and you can listen to people who have never met Arnold, who met him for five seconds 30 years ago, or you can listen to me.”

The peculiar circumstances of the Schwarzeneggar situation–the counterparty was not an ingenue or a stripper, but a member of the household staff–must be particularly galling to Shriver. The whle thing recalls the entry from the shrewd and perceptive Mary Chesnut, the premier diarist of the southern slavocracy. “Ours is a monstrous system,” she wrote at the start fo the Civil War. “Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad. This only I see: like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children–& every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in every body’s household but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think. . . . Alas for the men! No worse than men every where, but the lower their mistresses, the more degraded they must be.”

It is convenient to believe that men are different than women, or that rich men are different than the rest of us poor schlubs. It is comforting to think that bad behavior is somehow lodged in an easily idenitifed “other” that we can see and condemn. But the truth is that none of us is perfect. We are all sinners. Most of us do most of what we think we can get away with, and it is only the prospect of getting caught that restrains us. And that includes making up excuses and rationalizations for those people on whom we depend for emotional and financial security.

TAKING OWNERSHIP OF MEDICARE

Rep. Paul Ryan‘s plan to replace Medicare with a voucher plan was killed by the Senate the otehr day when five GOP Senators voted against Ryan’s idea. On most political occasions, this blow would put an end to Ryan’s fifteen minutes of political fame, except for two things: one, the Democrats will now want to keep reminding voters in the 2012 election that Ryan and the Republicans wanted to take away their Medicare, and two, the Democrats are now going to own the damn problem.

Ryan’s effort is already being blamed for a narrow Democratic victory in a safe Republican seat in upstate New York, notwithstanding the presence of a Tea Party candidate who diverted votes from the Republican candidate. Once the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Ryan plan would leave seniors paying nearly twice as much for health care—more than $12,510 a year—than they do under today’s Medicare, this plan was dead on arrival. (More and more, it looks like Newt Gingrich‘s attempt to have a Sistah Souljah moment and denounce Ryan’s plan as right-wing social engineering was not wrong but just premature; if he had waited a couple of weeks, he might not have wounded himself so grievously.) Now forty Republican senators and every Republican in the House is going to have to spend 2012 explaining their support of Ryan’s plan, the politics of which is lousy and the reality of which is dead. With Obama facing a non-entity and the Republican Congress now saddled with this stinking albatross of a vote, things at this moment look swell for the Dems. How early does the early balloting begin?

The problem for the Democrats, of course, is that now they own the problem. The Congressional Budget Office didn’t like Ryan’s idea, but they are also pretty clear that Medicare is not sustainable in its current form. As the brilliantly lucid Matt Miller explains in The Washington Post, there are real problems. “As can never be said often enough, the United States spends 17 percent of GDP on health care, while every other advanced nation spends 10 or 11 percent. Those other nations insure everyone, while we still have 50 million neighbors who lack basic coverage. At the same time, the United States doesn’t have better health outcomes to show for all this extra spending, and it experiences huge regional variations in the utilization of procedures and treatments. Observers of all stripes agree that these facts mean our system is radically inefficient. (And given that mighty Singapore spends just 4 percent of GDP with as good or better outcomes than ours, the “radically” is justified).” But here’s where Miller makes a point that will cause the Democrats to double over: “In any other wealthy nation, a Ryan-sized voucher would more than suffice to ensure high-quality health care for seniors. In Singapore, it would be seen as offering an outrageous bonanza for the Medical Industrial Complex.”

In other words, the real answer is doing something about inefficiency is the American medical system. Curing that isn’t a matter of spending money (which usually comes so easy in Washington); it’s making a change, which is harder, because change usually means somebody’s ox is gored. Some people aren’t going to get the care they want, and some people are going to lose their jobs, and some powerful companies are going to lose their profits. And as we all know, pain, or even the fear of pain, can be demagogued.

WHAT ARE WE SPENDING FOR?

“What are we fighting for?” Country Joe and the Fish memorably queried. The question we need to ask today is “What are spending for?”

In Slate, Fred Kaplan writes about Robert Gates, the departing Secretary of Defense, and a man who deserves his country’s gratitude for the thoughtful and professional way he has conducted his years in charge of a compromised, demoralized, Rumsfeldized Pentagon. Gates, says Kaplan, wants the country to have a real debate about defense spending–how much should we spend in coming years, and on what.

“For instance, the defense budget that Obama and Gates put forth in February includes $24.6 billion for 11 new ships, $4 billion for two new Virginia-class submarines, and $1 billion for a down payment on a new nuclear aircraft carrier. Are all these things really needed? What are the assumptions and scenarios that support the case? How valid are they? Do we need to spend $9.4 billion to buy 32 F-35 stealth fighter planes, when we’re also spending $2 billion to upgrade the older (but still world-class) F-15s? And what about the $1.4 billion for 24 new Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles? Is our nuclear deterrent degraded without them?”

Another way to ask these most excellent questions is this: what have we gotten for our money? How, specifically, have we benefited? What, for example, would the Chinese have done that would have hurt us if we didn’t have a whole much of heavy metal at our immediate disposal? The idea that is implicit in the questions asked above is that we need to stand ready to fight multiple wars at once, but it’s worth noting that other countries do not make this assumption, do not budget for weapons on the scale that we do, and yet do not seem to suffer for the lack. Great Britain, France, Germany, the Scandanavian countries–they seem to be happy and prosperous. How are they impaired by their inability to project massive amounts of force?

As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Perhaps not everything is a nail. One does not wish to be naive and to think that end of the 20th century brought to a complete end all the -isms bent on world domination. And certainly there will be outlaw bands like al-Qaeda who are determined to do us harm. But what exactly do we fear, and what exactly have we deterred with all our might?

Yes, let’s have a real debate. Perhaps we will conclude that we cannot risk any reduction in our preparedness; perhaps we will conclude that we need even more. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we at long last we could beat a few swords into ploughshares?

REPUBLICANS IN FREEFALL

The American economy remains listless, unemployment remains appallingly high, our wars–wars!–meander on their bloody way, and a significant portion of the electorate doesn’t like the president and is angry about his leadership. At eighteen months away from an election, these elements would usually provide more than enough parts for the opposition party to think feel bullish about mounting a competitive campaign. But as one looks at the Republicans in 2011, they seem to lack one key ingredient: a likely candidate.

Haley Barbour is out; so is Donald Trump; so is Mike Huckabee. Newt Gingrich is in, but has almost immediately shot himself in the foot; looking fat and tired, muffing a question on Meet the Press, ineffectively trying to wave away a question about spending a half million dollars at Tiffany’s, taking punches from a GOP foot-soldier in an airport, Gingrich looks like some well-retired athlete who has convinced himself that he can come out of retirement and still play. Mitt Romney raised $10 million the other day, but he has been around long enough that if anybody liked him, he would already have the nomination sewed up. But nobody does; he generates no excitement, no enthusiasm, no allegiance. Some people are saying that things will change if Mitch Daniels gets in the race, and perhaps they will, although it seems like people who saying this are the same one who said that things would be different if Tim Pawlenty would get in the race. Yes, Sarah Palin might still run, and so might Michelle Bachman. But if one of those two starts to seem likely, might this not change the equation for a rising star like Chris Christie or Marco Rubio? Not unless something awful happens that causes Obama to start hemorrhaging support. Why beat your head against an incumbent?

For years the Republican case was a three-legged stool: a sound economy through low taxes, a strong defense, and conservative stands on social issues, including race relations.

It is worth asking whether they have any legs left.

There is no Republican attack on Obama’s defense position. The president is fighting two wars. He’s spending a ton. He killed Osama. He’s maintaining Guantanemo. The only thing a Republican president might do more different is torture, and I don’t think any candidate wants that position to be his bumper sticker.

The conservative position on social issues is a sinking stock, and most Republican office-holders know it. They will continue to run against gay marriage and to take other positions, but these stands do not have the electoral power that they once did.

Which leaves the economy. The Republicans do not want to raise taxes, but everybody who has gotten out of second grade knows that tax hikes are going to have to be part of a deficit-reduction package.

I see neither a candidate nor a rationale for the Republicans on the near horizon.

SORKIN: YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

It feels odd to say, but it may well turn out to be the case that the major literary figure of my generation (or the one right after me, depending how thinly you’d like to slice the generational lines) is Aaron Sorkin. No one seems to have done a better job of capturing the underpinnings of a certain section of the late boomer generation: theoretical idealism mixed with theoretical ruefulness mixed theoretical cynicism mixed with theoretical hipness. Those guys on The West Wing–that’s certainly how I like to see myself, although the distance between myself and Sam Seaborne is chasmic. Regardless–Sorkin was talking to The Atlantic the other day about what he reads and why, and as far as I’m concerned, he makes the defense of Old School journalism brilliantly: it’s all about elitism.

“The upside of web-based journalism is that everybody gets a chance,” he said. “The downside is that everybody gets a chance. I can’t really get on board with the demonization of credentials with phrases like “the media elite” (just like doctors, airline pilots and presidents, I prefer reporters and commentators to be elite) and the glamorization of inexperience with phrases like “citizen journalist.” When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from “BobsThoughts.com,” Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website–something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us. As the saying goes, the problem with free speech is that you get what you pay for. Obviously there are great writers and thinkers publishing on the web and there have also been times when citizen journalists have made a positive contribution to the public discussion, but I think the cost/benefit is way out of whack. Like saying that graffiti is good because somewhere in there is a Banksy.”

TERRORIST REMNANTS

The US Marshals Service and the General Services Administration has begun the process of auctioning off some of the personal effects of Theodore Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber. There are 58 lots in the auction, which ends June 2; the bidding can be followed (and entered) here. The lots include banal items like a hatchet and a scale, more ghoulish pieces like the small tooks that might have been used in bomb-making, and more iconic items, like his famous hoodie and a selection of sunglasses, which are being sold together in a lot (current bid: $5025). For the literary-minded, Kaczynski’s Smith Corona portable typewriter can be had (present bid: $5175), as can a typewritten manuscript of his tome Industrial Society and Its Future (currently $2525), as can the original handwritten manuscript, now selling for $12,025. The item most attractive to my perverse eye: Kaczynski’s diplomas from Harvard and Michigan. I think that would be something I’d like to hang in an office somewhere.

TRUMP: THE ITZHAK PERLMAN OF PUBLICITY HOUNDS

Donald Trump‘s presidential publicity stunt reached its natural and entirely predictable denouement yesterday when, boosted by press coverage generated by yet another pretend flirtation with a political campaign, his reality television show was renewed by a hit-starved NBC.

For a good example of the news media’s maddeningly narcissistic role in our national political life, see Chris Cillizza‘s comment in The Washington Post that “Trump’s Icarus-like rise and fall in the 2012 presidential race is likely to wind up as no more than a footnote in the story of this election. But, that doesn’t mean the Trump saga — and, it was a saga — is without lessons to be learned by the Republican candidates who will run for president in 2012.”

First, “Icarus-like”? No, I don’t think a prideful Trump ignored his father’s wishes and destroyed himself by flying too close to the sun. Trump played a schoolyard bully until President Obama boxed him and mocked him, at which point the thuggish self-promoter withdrew, having met his strategic objective to get his television program renewed. Icarus wished his result was like Trump’s.

Second, “likely to wind up as no more than a footnote”? Why the weasel-word `likely’? The episode was always going to be a footnote, and it is never going to be anything but a footnote. Unless it was left out entirely.

Third, “the Trump saga–and it was a saga”? Not to be pedantic, but in what way does this episode of applied cynicism equate with “a medieval Scandinavian story of battles, customs, and legends, narrated in prose and generally telling the traditional history of an important Norse family” or, more generally, “any long story of adventure or heroic deeds”? Not adventurous, not heroic, not Scandanavian, and not even long. Cillizza might have won style points for using `saga’ as hyperbole, but instead lost them with his dunderheaded insistence on defining this bubble as a saga.

Finally, after three excursions into crap writing, Cillizza finally reaches the point of the sentence, which is that the Trump campaign is not “without lessons to be learned by the Republican candidates who will run for president in 2012. The most important lesson? Confrontation is good. Confrontation works.”

Let us not dignify this banal observation with any adjective even as tepid as “insightful.” Of course, confrontation works, as several thousand years of human history illustrates. Confrontation has worked in every single instant except when it hasn’t. Confrontation worked for Trump in getting him headlines, and it worked for Obama when he first, confronted Trump with his birth certificate, which left Trump revealing a deeper ugliness, boasting like a rooster and issuing more racially-charged demands; second, confronted him with Ali-like jabs at the White House Correspondents Dinner that left Trump bloodied and sniveling; and third, confronted Osama bin Laden with a couple of bullets. How shall we say Trump’s confrontation worked in the aftermath of those events? About as well a gnat’s confrontation with the windshield of an onrushing Buick.

The real lesson here is the narcissism of the news media, which Trump played, at least for a while, with the virtuosity of Itzhak Perlman. The Trump candidacy was a vessel for his own ambition, which the media used as a vessel for its own. It invested the candidacy with meaning so that it could harvest the candidacy of its meaning. Like high priests who discern augers in the entrails of a goat, the media sees meaning in non-events, and then defines itself as the discerners of meaning. Cillizza and others point to Trump’s rise and fall in the polls as proof of his impact, when what this really shows is the limitations of polls, their inherent ephemerality.

I’m so glad that we are past this episode, so the media can begin to explain that the ability of Mitt Romney to raise $10 million is a sign of his power in this system, rather than a sign of the average person’s pathetic weakness.