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THE TAX TRAP! Nancy Pelosi was setting a trap, an Official Dem Guest told the man: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 20, 2009

The tax trap: Few weeks will show our political culture’s inanity as clearly as this week did. In a somewhat related matter, here was Approved Democratic Guest Lawrence O’Donnell on last evening’s Countdown. O’Donnell explained yesterday’s vote to take back 90 percent of those bonuses. We don’t have the slightest idea if O’Donnell’s views are correct:

O’DONNELL (3/19/09): You know, this is, this was a brilliant trap—a tax trap set by Nancy Pelosi.

I agree with [previous guest] Howard Fineman that this is unconstitutional. Chris Matthews had said so. I started saying so yesterday morning on MSNBC.

But it was a brilliant trap and here is why. There are 172 House members who take two oaths. They take an oath of office and then they take an oath to Grover Norquist, who is a Washington—a well-heeled Washingtonian fetishist about tax cuts. And they promised to him that they will never, ever vote to raise any taxes of any kind.

And half of them violated that promise, including Eric Cantor, who, it turns out, voted to do something today he said and promised his electorate he would never do, promised Grover Norquist he would never do. He voted for it—the biggest marginal tax rate increase in history—to take the top tax rate, from 35 percent to 90 percent. We’ve never seen a vote like it. It will never be passed in the Senate; it will never come up in the Senate. Nancy Pelosi trapped all those Republicans into voting for a huge tax increase.

Is O’Donnell’s assessment accurate? We don’t have the slightest idea. But according to O’Donnell, Pelosi crafted an unconstitutional bill to “trap” Republicans into an awkward vote. (She seems to have done this knowing the Senate will never vote on the measure.) With the nation’s economy melting down, a person could even see this as an unflattering claim about Pelosi. But O’Donnell went on to give a silly analysis about what yesterday’s vote shows us about Those Unprincipled Republicans. And in the next hour, on the same topic, Rachel Maddow ran us rubes a bit hard.

By the decades-old rules of her network’s game, the day’s events could only reflect poorly on one particular group. (In the 1990s, all events reflected badly on Dems. In this decade, all events reflect badly on Reps.) Here were her first two questions to Greg Sargent, with whom she discussed this vote:

MADDOW (3/19/09): The Democrats are passing this legislation to get the bonus money back. Do you think that the Republicans just don’t want to see the Democrats be able to take credit for getting the bonus money back?

MADDOW: I understand, I guess, the [Republican] political goal of wanting to be able to continue to complain about this for a long time. But with the Republicans not actually having a policy to respond to it, a policy that they agree on, it seems very awkward that they would want this to keep going. I mean, eventually, people are going to keep asking them, like Eric Cantor was asked, and stumped, this morning, what are you going do about it?

Wait a minute! One hour earlier, O’Donnell had seemed to say that the Democrats don’t “actually have a policy to respond to it”—don’t know what they “are going top do about it.” He said their approach was just a ploy, a trap for the other team—an unconstitutional measure on which the Senate would never vote. But so what? By the rules of modern political culture, tribunes like Maddow are forced to parse their heroes and villains Only One Way. And they’re forced to pretend they know everyone’s motives when, of course, they don’t.

(By the way: The actual merits of such proposals are more important than imagined motives.)

O’Donnell said this was a Democratic ploy. But he and Maddow knew the rules: On this network, only Republicans can be scored as the phonies. Pelosi’s trick showed that Cantor has no real beliefs, O’Donnell numbnuttedly said.

This is the way a modern nation slides to banana republic status. This is the way we American rubes are consistently handed the “news.”

Did Pelosi set a trap? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea; we don’t live inside the minds of either Pelosi or Cantor. But like Jon Stewart scolding Jim Cramer, we don’t want to pretend to know the things we can’t possibly know.

Pelosi was faking, O’Donnell said. And then, he slammed the Republicans for it. But so it has gone for the past several decades, with this one network flipping its rules on how it spots heros and villains.

Identity trap: By happenstance, we’d just watched large chunks of The Parent Trap again, on Movieplex, last weekend. (For some reason, we get it for free.) Earlier, hoping to flee embarrassment, we had decided it had to be pulled from our list of favorite films. But as we watched certain scenes again, we decided it had to go back.

Of course, it’s mainly a children’s film, though some of the humor is really quite droll. But we’ve never seen a remake which breathes so much depth into so inert an original. We always find the remade Trap a weirdly deep study of identity—of the ways we learn who we are. We love the scene where the two girls, thrilled to the soul, figure out that they’re actually sisters. (“Not just sisters! Twins!”) We love the long scene when the California kid flies to London to meet the mother she’s dreamed of knowing. We especially love the scene where she fingers her mother’s perfume and jewels—standing at her mother’s night stand, listening as she speaks on the phone. Cue the Beatles! (“Here comes the sun.”) We were struck, as we always are, by the strange depth that remake achieved.

(And the pleasure of an adjustment from Homer. When the London kid flies to California, it’s the faithful dog—and the doting servant—who first figure out who she is.)

Natasha Richardson played the warm, loving mother. We hadn’t known until this week that she was considered a fine formal actor. “Mother!” the California kid cries, as she throws herself into her arms.

Special report: David Brooks believes!

Read each thrilling installment: When it comes to public schools, David Brooks believes. Read each thrilling installment:

Part 1: David Brooks believes in Obama’s agenda. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/09.

Part 2: David Brooks believes in the power of tests. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/09.

Part 3: David Brooks believes in higher standards. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/19/09.

Today, blessed interlude:

INTERLUDE—HARD ON BROOKS: When we started this week’s report, we didn’t think we’d be hard on David Brooks, who simply repeated established cant about public schooling last week. Brooks believes in the power of tests—and he believes in higher standards. But then again, what pundit doesn’t? These have been Official Established Beliefs for the past twenty-plus years.

That said, it’s annoying to see these beliefs recited, especially when standard heros and villains get conjured in the process. Brooks wasn’t nearly as bad as many scribes are. But he too made the “education establishment” and “liberal orthodoxy” stand opposed to heroic “reformers.” Sorry, it just isn’t that simple—unless we’re just typing up tales.

We’ve decided to wait until Monday to post part 4 of our report. Though we did roll our eyes a smidge when we read Brooks’ new piece this morning:

BROOKS (3/20/09): The president of the United States has decided to address this [world economic] crisis while simultaneously tackling the four most complicated problems facing the nation: health care, energy, immigration and education. Why he has not also decided to spend his evenings mastering quantum mechanics and discovering the origins of consciousness is beyond me.

Wait a minute! Today, Obama gets snarked for tackling education. Last Friday, he’d conquered the world!

On Monday, we’ll return to Arne Duncan’s fascinating statement to Brooks about the way some states “lie to parents.” In the meantime, we’ll advise Obama not to bother trying to “master quantum mechanics” or “discover the origins of consciousness.”

Just a guess: In a thousand years, human beings will look back and snicker at our attempts at cosmology. Our basic concepts will seem like jokes; they’ll be embarrassed by their ties to us, their clueless ancestors. Mr. President! We can perhaps improve our schools a bit faster, if we stop telling ourselves fairy tales. But you even got UCLA/VCU wrong! Brooks believes, correctly we think, that you should leave our biggest puzzles to those who will think we were hopeless.