Knowing What You Know

As everyone knows… no, you really don’t open any argument with those words. No one knows what everyone knows, and maybe no one knows what anyone really knows. It’s presumptuous to say you are just saying what everyone knows, and it’s rather insane to actually believe you know just what people know. How do you know?

But of course that is the essence of political talk. You say you know that everyone hates Social Security and Medicare and anything that smacks of a social safety net and smells like that New Deal stuff from the thirties. And you say you know that everyone loves personal responsibility and rugged individualism and so on and so forth. Life is sink-or-swim all on your own, with no help from anyone, but with no need to support losers and parasites – and that’s what makes life in America wonderful. Everyone knows these things. And you hope they nod in agreement. But that’s only true if you’re speaking to Republicans. If you’re speaking to the other guys everyone knows the opposite.

And that’s what makes our politics so absurd. The Republicans have their debates to choose their candidates, and in the hall everyone knows what everyone knows. It’s just a matter of who expresses that stuff best. And the last time around the Democratic debates were like that. Everyone agrees that they know what they know, and what they know is right. All you need then is a champion to present those things well.

And then we have a general election, with its own debates, where, if you use the as-everyone-knows gambit you get nowhere. There you have to find some sort of meta-level bunch of stuff everyone might know, whether they are Democrat or Republican or Independent, or tuning in out of idle curiosity or in an effort to impress their date that night. But there is no meta-level bunch of stuff everyone that everyone knows, other than the sky is blue and the Yankees are in the World Series again. So our politics are about energizing the base on your side, and messing up the vote of the guys on the other side, suggesting that, for them, there’s no point in voting at all. The only thing to do is outnumber the other folks. Arguing policy positions and governing philosophy is pointless. No one is going to change their minds about that stuff. Everyone knows that.

So you don’t convince the voters that you’re right about this and that – study after study shows that there is no block of undecided independent voters waiting to thoughtfully weigh the merits of the respective policy positions of each, carefully considering the logic of what is presented to them. Those undecided independent voters – tens of millions of them – are those who really don’t follow politics and don’t much give a damn about what is being said. They’ll vote on whim, if they vote at all, and the best you can do is cater to their whims. Photos ops with cute kids and being seen hunting, or at least cheering at a NASCAR race, might help with some of them. But that’s a crapshoot. You mobilize your troops.

Of course everyone also knows The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images) – that 1929 painting by René Magritte. It shows a pipe and below it Magritte painted the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe. Cool. The painting is not a pipe, of course. A pipe is a pipe. Just so look at the painting – René Magritte was right. That’s a painting. And Magritte was messing with us, as everyone knows, or they don’t. There is no telling what passes for common cultural knowledge these days.

But this is not an analytical column about what happened on Thursday, September 22 – another Republican debate. What is there to analyze? They all agreed on what they agreed on, trying to work out who was best at saying what they all know. So this is not a column, or a pipe. It’s just a marker. This happened. It should be noted.

And this is what happened:

The Republican presidential field strayed away from the central 2012 topic of jobs Thursday night to wage a pitched debate over a pair of far more explosive issues: immigration and Social Security.

In the Orlando debate’s most dramatic clash, Rick Perry defended himself from a multi-front attack on his immigration record, struggling to fend off rivals he called heartless for their attitude towards the children of undocumented immigrants.

Three of Perry’s opponents – including his nearest competitor, Mitt Romney – accused the Texas governor of coddling illegal immigrants with a law allowing young people who broke the law by entering the United States to claim in-state tuition benefits in Texas.

“That kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education,” Romney charged. “We have to turn off the magnet of extraordinary government benefits.”

Under fire from Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann on the same issue, Perry said he didn’t believe in punishing children who entered the country illegally through no fault of their own.

To candidates who disagree, Perry said: “I don’t think they have a heart.”

But when Perry said that we need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society he was booed loudly. It was a tough crowd. Save that line about having heart for the general election.

But it was a bad night for the guy:

Though the Texan has rocketed to a high single-digit lead in most 2012 primary polling, Perry has yet to hand in a commanding debate appearance, and on Thursday gave a conspicuously meandering answer on foreign policy that will reinforce questions about his preparedness as a candidate.

But this debate, hosted by Fox News, Google and the Republican Party of Florida, was talking about what they say everyone knows, and although Perry and Romney attacked each others’ views on Social Security, everybody beat up on the Obama. And that was that, with a few variations on a theme:

For the third debate in a row, Romney criticized Perry for saying in his book that “the federal government shouldn’t be in the pension business, that [Social Security is] unconstitutional.”

“There’s a Rick Perry out there” saying Social Security is unconstitutional, Romney told his opponent sarcastically. “You better find that Rick Perry and tell him to stop saying that.”

Perry responded by throwing the flip-flopper label back at Romney, accusing him of tweaking the language in his book for its paperback edition in order to revise his position on the Massachusetts health care law.

“Your hard copy book, you said it was exactly what the American people needed,” Perry said, accusing Romney of backing away from that view.

Romney pushed back by saying he stood behind his book, noting with a hint of contempt: “I actually wrote my book.”

Ouch! And there was this:

A moderator asked Bachmann to account for having erroneously suggested a link between the HPV vaccine and mental retardation.

“I didn’t make that claim nor did I make that statement,” Bachmann insisted, claiming she had merely repeated a story that one voter had told her in Tampa this month about her daughter’s vaccine-related health problems.

“A mother came up to me and she was visibly shaken and heartbroken because of what her daughter had gone through,” continued Bachmann, who has attacked Perry over attempting to mandate the HPV vaccine for young women.

The Minnesota congresswoman didn’t answer a moderator’s question about whether it was responsible to repeat an alarming story like that without verifying the facts.

In what may have been his strongest moment of the night, Perry answered Bachmann by recalling a young woman who urged him to fight cervical cancer by promoting the HPV vaccine in his state.

“I got lobbied by a 31-year-old” woman who had cervical cancer, Perry said. “And the fact is, I erred on the side of life and I will always err on the side of life.”

Ah, her heart was in the right place. You can be dead wrong, and dangerously wrong, but it’s okay if your heart’s in the right place. That’s what we want in a president.

And Andrew Sullivan was live-blogging this thing and offers a few more highlights:

Perry attacks the program “Race to the Top” – widely viewed as reformist even by leading conservatives. Wasn’t it Murdoch’s favorite Obama policy? But anything that can have the name “Obama” attached to it is ipso facto not conservative. Even tax cuts. And tax reform. And Medicare cuts.

Romney describes Perry’s program for in-state tuition as a $100,000 discount for 16,000 illegal aliens attending Texas state colleges. Perry stands by his decision to back in-state tuition for the children of illegal aliens and gets booed. Santorum puts a bigger boot in – describing “preferential treatment” for illegal immigrant children. It’s a brutal pile-on, and Perry is reeling. He doesn’t support a fence for every inch of the border – for perfectly sane reasons, but it sure isn’t playing well with this crowd.

Gary Johnson wants a 43 percent cut in military spending! Wow. And an immediate balanced budget. Can you imagine what would happen if the US government sucked that amount of money out of the economy in twelve months? Jesus.

Santorum claims bizarrely that repealing DADT means permission for sexual activity for gays in the military. This is a lie. The same rules of sexual misconduct apply to gays and straights alike. And a gay service member is booed by this foul crowd. Santorum keeps saying “sex is not an issue.” But that’s the current policy! This has nothing to do with sex, as Santorum surely knows. And again, the crowd reveals itself as hateful – even when it comes to those serving their country in uniform. This is one core reason why I cannot be a Republican. So many are bigots – and no one – no one – stands up against them. They’re a bunch of bullies congratulating themselves on rooting out the queers.

Perry effectively defends his support for the HPV vaccine. But it’s so weird to hear a man who has signed the death warrants of over 200 people say he will always side with “life.” The Catholic Church, for one, would differ. Then he crumbles on the appalling lack of health insurance in his own state. An awful answer. A dreadful performance. He surely will sink further after this.

Santorum just called President Obama King George III. The enemy of the American people. … What I’ve noticed about the crowd is their strongest responses come not when a policy is backed or explained. It’s when someone is attacking Obama or predicting his losing the next election. It’s a team sport.

My take: a horrible night for Perry. Therefore another great night for Romney. Now I want to go somewhere dark and slit my wrists.

But the debate wasn’t for Sullivan. It was for those who know what they know. And much of what they know is about gays and Hispanics for some reason. They don’t like them. And they don’t much like the federal government. There ought not to be one, you see – the states can handle most everything. Everyone knows this, or so they say.

And there were other reactions, like this from David Weigel:

Maybe style shouldn’t matter so much, but Perry sounds exhausted. A direct quote: “Opportunity is very much the word of the day there, if you will, for finding work and what have you.” And because no one is using time to attack anyone but Perry, Romney keeps skating away.

But everyone knew what Perry meant, which is the problem, or so says Kevin Drum:

Cain’s not alone in this (mistaken) belief that the Obama EPA is going to issue fines on dirt. It’s one of the tea party-right’s favorite EPA conspiracy theory. Sadly, it’s not true. Despite much outrage on this subject in Congress, the agency has said repeatedly that it isn’t issuing new rules on dust.

It was fairly random there, as notes Aaron Goldstein:

Perry is swinging and missing. He is clearly not comfortable attacking Romney as evidenced by the fact he’s stumbling over accusing Romney “being for something before he was against it.”

And there’s Adam Serwer:

The problem for Perry is that despite his stated opposition to the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform, the moral arguments he uses to defend his actions in Texas [with regard to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants] double as justifications for policies he says he opposes. And the GOP primary audience knows it.

Yep, they know what they know. And there’s a final assessment from Taegan Goddard:

Perry looked tired and was barely able to finish a two hour debate. He stumbled badly over his attack lines on Romney – almost as if he never practiced them. Not looking at Romney while attacking him was a big mistake. If this was Perry’s chance to convince the GOP establishment he could win the nomination and defeat President Obama, he didn’t come close to sealing the deal.

Yep, as in Fox’s Focus Group Says Romney Won:

Fox is doing its famous Frank Luntz “focus group” after the debate. Interestingly, the majority seem to think that Romney won. They’re describing him as “Presidential,” “decisive,” and “elegant.” Perry, meanwhile, is being called “too much of a waffler” by one woman in the group. The crowd also seem angry about the moment when he turned on his immigration critics and accused them (and Bachmann in particular) of not having a heart.

Yes, orthodoxy matters. But it can get you in trouble:

Former IRS lawyer Michele Bachmann has an interesting approach to taxation: she thinks Americans should get to keep “every dollar” they earn, though she says the government needs to get money somehow.

Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked Bachmann about a question at a previous Republican debate on how much of every dollar taxpayers should get to keep. Bachmann said that she talked to the young man who asked the question at the last debate.

“I said ‘I wish I could have answered that question, because I want to tell you what my answer is. I think you earned every dollar, you should get to keep every dollar that you earned,'” Bachmann said. “That’s your money, that’s not the government’s money, that’s the whole point.”

No taxes? Wonderful! But that would mean, if no one paid any tax or fee ever, and kept their money, there would be no government on any level. It wouldn’t be possible at all. And realizing her enthusiasm for what everyone just knows had led her astray, she backtracked:

Barack Obama seems to think that when we earn money it belongs to him, and we’re lucky just to keep a little bit of it. I don’t think that at all. I think when people make money, it’s their money. Obviously we have to get money back to the government so we can run the government, but we have to have a completely different mindset, and that mindset is: the American people are the genius of this economy, it certainly isn’t government that’s the genius, and that’s the two views.

Was that good enough for this crowd? They know what they know. Taxes are bad. Everyone should keep their money.

And what is there to say about all this? Nothing much – this was just a debate in the hall where everyone knows what everyone knows. And after all, this is not a column. And it’s not a pipe either. But on this day these things happened and these things were said. And we can all move on now – nothing to see here, folks – move along, move along.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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