Five Best Saturday Columns
On Obama's cult, Nixon as role model, and what dinner parties are now like in D.C.
Kurt Anderson on Why Obama Should Be More Like...Nixon. Here's a different presidential comparison for you. Kurt Anderson laments the president's recent performance in the debt ceiling debate and asks: "Since the Republicans were threatening to go nuclear in unprecedented fashion, why didn’t the president at least threaten to use his unprecedented nuclear option to stop them?" He translates this as: "In other words, it’s a pity Barack Obama isn’t more like Richard Nixon." The anniversary of Nixon's resignation is approaching in a few days, which is why Anderson is reminded of Nixon's "Madman Theory," which he used when he tried "convincing the Communists that he might literally go nuclear if they didn’t behave. 'I call it the Madman Theory,' [Nixon] explained to his chief of staff. 'I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.'" While he acknowledges that "a lot of us swooned over Obama partly because he seemed so prudent," at this point we may need "Effective, tough-minded, visionary liberals such as F.D.R., Clinton ... and Nixon." He goes on to observe that the "idea of Nixon — Nixon? — as a de facto liberal provokes cognitive dissonance, especially among people over 50. Facts notwithstanding, they refuse to buy it, as if they’ve been fooled by a parlor trick. But the only trick involved is judging Nixon circa 1970 by the ideological standards of 2011."
Lea Berman on the End of Washington Dinner Parties. Is Washington really a more hostile place, as many surmise from watching the acrimonious partisanship displayed recently? According to Lea Berman, the culture of Washing has become far less sociable: "Washington doesn’t go to dinner much anymore, and it’s bad for the country." She adds that "when I worked in the White House Social Office, I was often surprised at how many officials — some serving in the same agency or in the same house of Congress — had never met." Gone is the day of the Washington dinner party. "Political purists from both sides openly sneer at the idea of going to a dinner party... Politicians say they’re too busy to socialize...[and] fewer government spouses live in Washington means another source of political friend-making is lost." And this change has reached the top levels: "We’ve come a long way from the days when an invitation from one’s president and first lady could be regretted only for a death in the family or travel abroad. And if dinner at the White House isn’t a draw anymore, what is?" To Berman, this is a real loss. "Without dinners, the polite exchange of conversation that may lead to the discovery of similar interests and even the beginnings of camaraderie is lost, and with it the mutual trust essential to governance by two parties. It’s much more difficult to vilify colleagues after you’ve spent an evening together and discovered that they aren’t the living embodiment of evil." So this is her (unusual) solution: "I urge Washington’s politicos to dust off their manners and instruct their schedulers to accept an occasional (non-fundraising) dinner invitation. They might even make a friend."
Paul Krugman on the S&P Downgrade. Krugman writes a short and angry blog post about the S&P's downgrade of the U.S. credit rating. "It’s a strange situation. On one hand, there is a case to be made that the madness of the right has made America a fundamentally unsound nation. And yes, it is the madness of the right: if not for the extremism of anti-tax Republicans, we would have no trouble reaching an agreement that would ensure long-run solvency." But it's not just that: "On the other hand, it’s hard to think of anyone less qualified to pass judgment on America than the rating agencies. The people who rated subprime-backed securities are now declaring that they are the judges of fiscal policy? Really?" Krugman is nothing if not incredulous. "Just to make it perfect, it turns out that S&P got the math wrong by $2 trillion, and after much discussion conceded the point — then went ahead with the downgrade." But even that slip-up aside, Krugman is convinced that the S&P is "talking nonsense" all around: "The agency has suggested that the downgrade depended on the size of agreed deficit reduction over the next decade, with $4 trillion apparently the magic number. Yet US solvency depends hardly at all on what happens in the near or even medium term: an extra trillion in debt adds only a fraction of a percent of GDP to future interest costs, so a couple of trillion more or less barely signifies in the long term. What matters is the longer-term prospect, which in turn mainly depends on health care costs." In short, he argues that "S&P is just making stuff up— and after the mortgage debacle, they really don’t have that right."
Nicole Wallace on What Bachmann Learned from Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin. "I never imagined anyone like Michele Bachmann when I envisioned the country’s first female president," writes Nicole Wallace, a senior advisor in the McCain-Palin effort. But "if the Minnesota congresswoman, who is polling strongly in Iowa, does well in the debate there Thursday and claims victory in that state’s key straw poll on Aug. 13, it will be because she learned all the right lessons from the failed campaigns of Clinton and Palin." Unlike Palin, she "understands, for instance, that making a factual mistake about American history while on the stump is something that a candidate should acknowledge and apologize for." And unlike Hilary Clinton, who, according to Wallace, got "tripped up" by a emphasis on being “tough enough,” Bachmann "appears to accept the fact that female candidates are scrutinized more closely than men." She's also learned from Hilary to couch things in terms of experience: "As a congresswoman, she’s clever enough to use the term 'experience' to include articulating policy positions and hitting the airwaves to defend them." And from Palin's gaffe's in the past, she's learned the importance of "preparation." While Wallace says that she doubts "there are many people out there who believe that Bachmann will become our country’s first female president," Bachmann has, at least, "shown that a laboratory now exists for female candidates who are willing to learn from the women who have come before them."
James Taranto on Liberals Blaming Americans. James Taranto considers a series of articles by Jacob Weisberg, where Weisberg bemoans the state of the economy, blaming Republicans. But according to Taranto, what Weisberg is really saying is that "the failures of the Obama administration prove not only that Republicans are 'intellectual primitives' but that you are stupid."("You" meaning all Americans.) If anything, Weisberg's position is "a lament for democracy. Even if the American people aren't as racist as he suspected you were back in 2008, you aren't up to the challenge of being governed by the handsome, brilliant and cool Barack Obama." Taranto criticizes this argument of liberals who support Obama: "It takes an authoritarian mindset to look at a failed leader and fault the people for failing to follow him. This is not just an ideological authoritarianism, although it does have that element...But [Weisberg] treats Obama not as what he actually is--a human being and a politician--but as a sort of religious figure--a potential savior in 2008, a martyr in 2011." According to Taranto, this is "the Cult of Obama." And this is the result: "Obama refuses to accept personal responsibility, and Cult of Obama die-hards like Weisberg refuse to assign it to him. Too much of their own identity is bound up with their idealized vision of him, so they lash out at those who are not part of the cult. They lash out at you. But try not to take it personally. Anger is depression turned outward."