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Daily Howler: Clinton supported the flag bill, sings Collins. But guess what? Obama did too
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FROM ONE SIDE NOW! Clinton supported the flag bill, sings Collins. But guess what? Obama did too: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 5, 2008

MALLABY’S GHOST: In the past three days, the Washington Post and the New York Times have provided tons of nonsense (and some decent work as well). Yesterday, the Outlook section jumped the shark once again, to cite just one gruesome example. But Sebastian Mallaby won our hearts with this op-ed in this morning’s Post. With apologies again to Brother Foxworthy:

You may be an elitist if: You “reason” like Big Pundit Mallaby.

More particularly, you may be an elitist if: You aggressively name-call the public when their priorities or emphases differ from yours. That’s what Mallaby does today, rolling his eyes–and calling loud names–over the very idea that Barack Obama’s connection to Reverend Wright could create a valid point of concern in the minds of some voters. For ourselves, the Wright affair doesn’t much affect our sense of Obama’s values or world view. (It does affect our view of his political savvy.) But we’re somehow able to make ourselves see how others might react differently.

That’s what separates us from Mallaby, who is very irate–and deeply inane–in this morning’s column.

The name-calling starts quickly. In paragraph 2, Mallaby asserts that “the storm over” Reverend Wright is “an absurd digression.” In paragraph 3, concerns about Wright’s racial views are dismissed as “preposterous.” As we near the end, we’re told that “the elitist label is ridiculous” when applied to Obama. Indeed, as he closes his column, Mallaby says “it will be a travesty” if Obama’s campaign is harmed tomorrow by “the Obama-Wright ‘revelations.’” In short, Mallaby’s column is full of-name-calling. But it’s also full of broken logic, Mallaby’s stock in trade for some time now. You may be an elitist if: You can read this passage without averting your gaze in embarrassment for the pitiful Post:

MALLABY (5/5/08): Which brings us to that other attack on Obama: that his comment about blue-collar voters "clinging" to guns and religion makes him an elitist. The remark may have been untactful, as Obama himself said. But what did it tell us about Obama’s fitness to be president? Would he use his power to discriminate against churchgoers? His own churchgoing suggests not. Would he control guns? One hopes so. After Harvard Law School, Obama could have pursued a career that involved contact only with hypereducated brainiacs like him. But by working as a community organizer and in state politics, he chose a life that put him among ordinary folk. The elitist label is ridiculous.

For various reasons, we think it’s extremely unlikely that a President Obama would make any big effort to “control guns.” Neither he nor Hillary Clinton has made any such proposals; the Democratic Party pretty much gave up on this issue eight years ago. (Mallaby may not have heard that.) But note the foolishness of Mallaby’s reasoning. He hopes Obama will “control guns” (whatever that means), which is his perfect right, of course. But other voters hope that he won’t! It isn’t “ridiculous” if these voters, hearing a dismissive comment about guns, fear that Obama might propose some measure of which they disapprove. Indeed, Mallaby gives them one more reason to think this might happen in the passage we have just cited.

Earlier, Mallaby shows the same clueless impulse when he discusses international affairs. This is his second paragraph:

MALLABY: Start with Obama’s turbulent preacher. Yes, Jerem,iah Wright says some disgraceful things. But can anyone explain how that changes Obama’s qualities as a candidate? Is anyone suggesting that an Obama administration would view AIDS as a government plot to kill African Americans? Or that it would govern from the perspective that the United States is a terrorist nation? Obviously an Obama administration would do no such thing. Which makes the storm over the preacher an absurd digression.

Straw men abound when Insider Pundits fulminate, rant and name-call about the public’s dumbness. No, it isn’t likely that Obama “would govern from the perspective that the United States is a terrorist nation” (whatever that is supposed to mean). But is it possible that Obama might take a stance in the Middle East that tilts away from some voter’s preference? Might Obama’s connection with Reverend Wright raise a concern about this for such voters? In paragraph 3, Mallaby tells us that “Obama’s own views on race and politics were diametrically opposed to those of his pastor.” But why should a voter simply assume that? Oh, wait–we almost forgot. Because Mallaby told them to do so.

(For the record: In Dreams From My Father, Obama quotes Wright making at least one mistaken assertion which he himself has now made on the trail. Indeed, he has been corrected for this mistake by the Post’s own “Fact Checker.”)

Throughout this morning’s name-calling piece, Mallaby’s inability to reason is put on full display. This is the Post on caffeine:

MALLABY: If Obama clearly does not share Wright's views, of what precisely is he guilty? Of befriending someone with repugnant opinions? Anyone who condemns Obama on that basis should examine his own circumstances. Real human beings present one another with complex social choices: The dependable work buddy may be unfaithful to his wife; the salt-of-the-earth neighbor may despise Hispanic immigrants. How many Obama critics have themselves been friendly with someone with misguided views? What about Bill Clinton, who counted the one-time segregationist William Fulbright among his mentors?

The comparisons offered in that passage are so absurd we won’t bother to comment. Suffice to say that Mallaby is soon mouthing the Standard Palaver of his High Pundit Class. “The real character issue, in this campaign as in others, comes down to one thing: Does a candidate have the guts to espouse positions that are not politically expedient?” (Again, they can all type that in their sleep.) And even this time-honored golden oldy: “[R]efreshingly, Obama is not one of those politicians who obsessed about his presidential viability from the moment he entered college.” Let’s be clear: If you’re an Insider Washington Pundit, you are required, by Hard Pundit Law, to recite such bits of High Script.

No, it isn’t “absurd,” “ridiculous” or “preposterous” to have various concerns about Obama–or about other candidates–even if such concerns may truly be unwarranted. Mallaby might do Obama some good if he argued against specific concerns, instead of simply name-calling voters who may hold them (while hiding behind pure inanities). But then, Mallaby has been like this for a very long time. Back in the fall of 1999, he knew that Candidate Bradley was a Very Good Man–and that Candidate Gore was a Very Big Phony. (Everyone in his peer group knew this.) As a result, this dumbest of pundits took to the Post–to applaud a great man’s body language. At the start of a groaning piece, he described the delightful way Bradley had “jabbed himself” as he answered a journalist’s question. He then went on to say this:

MALLABY (10/9/99): The jabbing gesture says a lot about Bradley's surprising progress in the Democratic primaries. It manages, like the candidate, to be both goofy and appealing–clumsy, but wonderfully different from the lecturing, wagging forefinger of the vice president. It manages to dismiss Gore's accusation humorously rather than harshly, as though the vice president were a brash son in need of gentle calming. And it suggests that, although Bradley promises a campaign of big ideas and has sounded bold on health care, the difference between him and the vice president comes down to personal style as much as policy: to things as small but telling as body language.

It is easy, for example, to imagine Gore chairing the same health meeting in Manchester, and even to think of him making the same arguments to the doctors there. But it is not at all easy to imagine Gore looking mildly bored as one of the health center's workers takes a long-winded turn at the microphone, or to imagine him burying chin and mouth in a big hand, slumping slightly forward and studying the tabletop while the prospective voter drones on. Never in a million years would Gore, confronted with a badly worded question, demand sharply, "Whaddya mean by that?"

Bradley does all these things, and people like him for it; the latest New Hampshire poll shows him clearly ahead of Gore. This is partly the effect of Clinton fatigue, which makes goofy candidates seem better than slick ones. It is partly the effect of disgust with the attack ads and assorted dart-throwing of modern campaigns.

But the Bradley bounce reflects more than this. Bradley can seem bored, blunt and therefore appealingly genuine because he has one huge advantage over his Democratic rival. Becoming president is not his life's sole goal. Al Gore is the son of a senator who aspired, passionately, to higher office. Bill Bradley is the son of a disabled bank manager from Crystal City, Mo. Gore seems driven to realize the ambition that eluded his father. Bradley outgrew his parents' world and aspirations very early on.

Is there a way to get dumber than that? If so, it hasn’t yet been invented.

On this day, Mallaby praised Bradley’s willingness to look bored–and perhaps to be a bit rude–when citizens dared ask him questions. (Gore would never do that!) The fact that he gestured a certain way was “wonderfully different” from Gore. He even managed to cite Gore’s “wagging forefinger”–a plot element he weirdly transplanted from his guild’s narratives about Bill and Monica. He offered absurd, brainless bits of mind-reading about why Bradley was (slightly) ahead in New Hampshire. (He ended up losing that state, and all others.) Most amazingly, he recited the point Pundit Law then required: Gore had always wanted the White House. Magnificent Bradley had not.

Recently, we explained the sheer absurdity of that scripted Narrative Point. Quite openly, Bradley had planned a political career ever since his days at Princeton. (By the way: Good for him!) Even when he played for the Knicks, his nickname had been “Mr. President;” he had investigated three possible runs for office by the time he was thirty years old. But people like Mallaby had been handed this narrative by the Bradley campaign (there’s no real doubt where this narrative started), and they were obediently typing it up. No, it didn’t make a lick of sense, about Bradley or Gore. But so what? It was Hard Pundit Dogma.

Mallaby pleases long-term readers by revisiting this nonsense today.

But then, this is by far our dumbest elite. And almost surely, it’s our most arrogant. Preposterous! Ridiculous! Absurd! the scribe cries. But that’s the way this Ship of Fools behaves when confronted with the concerns of average voters. They hand us their Official Approved Narratives, no matter how inane they might be. And, while offering absurd attempts at “argument,” they proceed to tell those average voters that their concerns are just pure dumb-ass poppy-cock.

Mallaby is a real piece of work. You may be an elitist if: You read today’s piece without noticing.

TOO PERFECT: How clueless is our pundit elite? Over the weekend, they even dragged out Michael Bloomberg, a literal billionaire, to tell average voters that $30 isn’t worth worrying about. Next from Bloomberg: A lecture on the timeless theme, Don’t waste your time clipping coupons!

Special report: From one side now!

PART 1–BASED ON AN OLDE PRESS CORPS BALLAD: If you’re the type who likes to believe that our discourse lies in human hands, this was a very bad weekend to read the Post and the Times. We may examine more of the rubble in the next few days, but let’s start with a (familiar) paragraph by the well-scripted noble, Lady Collins. Late in her Saturday column, she warbled the following song, thus expressing a story-line these dullards can recite in their sleep. You can tell that Obama is finer than Clinton because of that flag-burning bill!

COLLINS (5/3/08): All this actually tells us something about the Democratic candidates, which has nothing to do with fuel prices. Obama believes voters want a sensible, less-divisive political dialogue, that the whole process can become more honorable if the right candidate leads the way. Hillary really doesn’t buy that. She has principles, but she doesn’t believe in principled stands. She thinks that if she can get elected, she can do great things. And to get there, she’s prepared to do whatever. That certainly includes endorsing any number of meaningless-to-ridiculous ideas. (See: her bill to make it illegal to desecrate an American flag.)

Barack Obama believes in high principle. Sorry, but Hillary Clinton doesn’t! Indeed, Clinton is willing to do and say anything, much like Vile Candidate Gore before her. To get elected, “she’s prepared to do whatever” Indeed, apparently unlike Obama, Clinton is willing to “endors[e] any number of meaningless-to-ridiculous ideas,” Collins says. Collins’ example? Cue the snoring! “See: her bill to make it illegal to desecrate an American flag.”

Clinton wanted to make it illegal to burn an American flag! As noted, these life-forms know how to type that one up in any type of weather. As we’ll see, they’ve typed it, and typed it, and typed it again; they know this particular novel so well they could just keep typing it as their owners work on their programming. Indeed, they all seem to know this pleasing tale. Here’s Richard Cohen, two months ago, typing it up for the Post:

COHEN (2/5/08): If [her vote on the Iraq war resolution] were the only example of Clinton's voting suspiciously like a presidential candidate, I would not be troubled. But in 2005, she co-sponsored a bill that would make flag-burning illegal. It just so happened that around that time I heard Justice Antonin Scalia explain why he, a conservative so conservative you cannot be more conservative, considered flag-burning a form of political expression. It was therefore, he said, protected. Precisely so.

I was not alone in suggesting that on the flag issue, Clinton was readying herself for a presidential race and trying to blunt her image as a harridan of the political left. The New York Times reached the same conclusion and accused her of pandering. Again, precisely so.

An anti-harridan had been “pandering” with that flag-burning thing. Cohen knew it; the New York Times knew it–and Collins knew it again this past weekend. And Cohen, just like Lady Collins, knew the rest of this new classic script. You just can’t fool a life-form like Cohen. He drew the invidious distinction about Clinton/Obama just as Collins would:

COHEN (continuing directly): Look, I know what Obama was doing when he refused to confront his minister about the latter's embrace of Louis Farrakhan. He was ducking an issue with no upside for him. He will not get my Profiles in Courage award for this, but the rest of his record overwhelms this one chintzy act.

Not so with Clinton. In the first place, you don't get to pander with the First Amendment. It is just too important, too central, not merely an amendment but a commandment: Thou Shalt Not Abridge Speech. In the second place, this ugly lurch to the political right is not outweighed by a spectacular stand on some other matter of principle.

Cohen will give Obama a pass. But not so with vile Clinton, he says; after all, she supported that flag-burning crap! Like Collins, Cohen could tell: This flag-burning folderol showed the difference between these two candidates’ souls.

And then, one week later: Alas, poor Cohen! Yes, he has had to do this sort of thing in the past–but it’s gruesome every time it happens. Seven days after defining Clinton/Obama, the gentleman typed a minor correction. Good God! He’d done it again! This appeared in his next column:

COHEN (2/12/08): My Feb. 5 column was critical of Hillary Clinton for supporting a bill to make flag burning illegal. I have since learned from a reader that Barack Obama also supported that bill.

That’s right, dumb-ass! Clinton supported the flag-burning bill. And Obama supported it too!

But then, more than half the senate’s Democrats supported that bill, in June 2006. It was brought to the floor by Dick Durbin, Obama’s biggest senate supporter. Everyone understands the politics of these bills–everyone but Cohen and Collins, that is. Because they’re two of the world’s biggest androids, they keep singing the same tired songs.

Lady Collins warbled a folk sing this weekend, a folk song based on an olde press corps ballade. At THE HOWLER, we heard her saying this: She’s looked at life from one side now! Tomorrow, a bit more recent history–the type of history great balladeers will sometimes rearrange, fix and fudge.

TOMORROW–PART 2: Even Kornblut knew the facts! But don’t try to tell Lady Collins.