Doing the Nasty

Yes, it was very odd – his Royal Highness Prince Charles, the stiff and goofy sixty-three-year-old Prince of Wales, in giant earphones trying his hand at being a techno-trance DJ – but being a good sport about it. And of course it fits the narrative, as we do like to make fun of the oddly effete Brits, with the fruity accent and that often distant and befuddled look. But the Brits themselves do it too – see Monty Python and the Ministry of Silly Walks for example. And of course the Brits like to make fun of brash and somewhat dimwitted American cowboys, so sure of everything and aware of almost nothing, like George Bush. Self-restraint and a sense of fair play, and courtesy – being a gentleman about things – do matter. It seems those were lost in the trip across the Atlantic long ago. On this side of the pond we ceased to expect such things from those in public life long ago, if we ever did. We prefer Jersey Shore authenticity and get a kick out of Chris Christie and Donald Trump, and Sarah Palin of course. We prefer those who tell it like it is – even if that isn’t what it is at all. The Brits just don’t get it.

And that’s why the British newspaper the Guardian – now that they’ve gotten cheeky and publish an American edition – was the first to break this story:

It really is hard to know where to begin with this one. But let’s start with: “What on earth were they thinking?”

The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based rightwing think-tank notorious for promoting climate skepticism, has launched quite possibly one of the most ill-judged poster campaigns in the history of ill-judged poster campaigns.

There was their press release:

Billboards in Chicago paid for by The Heartland Institute point out that some of the world’s most notorious criminals say they “still believe in global warming” – and ask viewers if they do, too… The billboard series features Ted Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber; Charles Manson, a mass murderer; and Fidel Castro, a tyrant. Other global warming alarmists who may appear on future billboards include Osama bin Laden and James J. Lee (who took hostages inside the headquarters of the Discovery Channel in 2010).

These rogues and villains were chosen because they made public statements about how man-made global warming is a crisis and how mankind must take immediate and drastic actions to stop it.

Why did Heartland choose to feature these people on its billboards? Because what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the “mainstream” media, and liberal politicians say about global warming. The point is that believing in global warming is not “mainstream,” smart, or sophisticated. In fact, it is just the opposite of those things. Still believing in man-made global warming – after all the scientific discoveries and revelations that point against this theory – is more than a little nutty. In fact, some really crazy people use it to justify immoral and frightening behavior.

But there is this disclaimer:

Of course, not all global warming alarmists are murderers or tyrants.

But still:

The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.

Actually, those people who believe in man-made global warming, mostly on the radical fringe of society, are about all those in the scientific community – save for the four or five who repeatedly speak at the Heartland Institute’s yearly conference on the issue. But this is an odd organization – funded by big oil and the Koch brothers and, on the matter of how second-hand smoke isn’t that bad for you and cigarettes are freedom, funded by the big tobacco companies. But sometimes you can go too far:

Now the Heartland Institute has suffered its first major defection in the way of GOP public officials: GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a leading climate “skeptic,” will be pulling out of an upcoming conference sponsored by the group where he was supposed to speak, his spokesperson confirms to me.

They pulled the billboards but the damage was done:

The ultra-conservative Heartland Institute admitted it was in financial crisis on Wednesday, with the flight of corporate donors making it difficult to pay staff or cover the costs of its annual conference aimed at debunking climate science.

In a speech at the close of this year’s climate conference, Heartland’s president, Joseph Bast, acknowledged that a provocative ad campaign comparing believers in human-made climate change to psychopaths had exacted a heavy cost. …

The organization has lost at least $825,000 in funds from corporate donors although Heartland also claims to have attracted 800 new small donors. Heartland also came in for bruising criticism from its own allies – a number of whom faulted Bast for failing to consult Heartland’s colleagues or board members about the ads in advance.

Among ultra-conservative activists, the billboard controversy has shaken confidence in Heartland’s ability to serve as the hub of the climate contrarian network. It has also raised doubts about Bast’s leadership.

The big corporations ran for the hills and their congressional allies walked away, or edged away, slowly. You don’t want to be locked in a room with crazy people, because you know what you’ll have to deal with. Do you like dogs? You know, Hitler liked dogs. What do you say to that?

And Andrew Sullivan puts it succinctly:

In some ways, this is an almost perfect illustration of what has happened to the “right.” A refusal to acknowledge scientific reality and a brutalist style of public propaganda that focuses entirely on guilt by the most extreme association.

Sullivan considers large sections of the American right to be “close to insane as well as depraved” these days. He wishes they had an erudite and forceful William F. Buckley to rein them in – but all they have is Jonah Goldberg and the rest, and these Heartland clowns. But then Sullivan is British, and their conservatives are not ours. Sullivan does miss Edmund Burke. The art of cogent argumentation is a British art. We seem to practice free-association assertion.

And this does not bode well for the upcoming election, as things could turn quite nasty. In fact, Noam Scheiber, in the New Republic, argues that Barack Obama has now pretty much turned into Bill Clinton, with this set-up:

Though it was obvious to almost no one at the time, Thursday, April 5, may have certified a momentous change in contemporary politics. It was that day when Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus was quoted saying that the Republican “war on women,” a favorite liberal talking point, was a creation of Democrats and the media – no more reality-based than a Republican “war on caterpillars.” It probably wasn’t the most outlandish comment a GOP operative uttered that hour. Yet, by lunchtime, Obama Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter had denounced Priebus for suggesting that reproductive-health issues had all the cosmic significance of larva. Soon Cutter’s aggrieved response was all over the Internet and cable television. When I spoke with one strategist close to the White House the next day, he was utterly disbelieving: “The-war-on-caterpillars thing, I’m shocked it’s getting any legs.”

Welcome to the Obama campaign, version 2.0. If, as Mario Cuomo once said, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, then running for reelection may be something akin to grunting at regular intervals. In 2008, Obamaland prided itself on rejecting such brass-knuckle politicking, much of it perfected by Bill Clinton. “We don’t do war rooms,” was a Team Obama mantra, as one veteran of the campaign and the administration recalls. These days, by contrast, there are dozens of operatives raring to pounce on the slightest Republican misstep.

That’s the Clinton model – pounce on anything that’s useful. It doesn’t have to be all that significant. Just get nasty. That is American politics these days:

Far from a badge of dishonor, though, the new ruthlessness is actually a sign of maturity. “It’s not like Bill Clinton created a war room because he had the personality for a war room,” says the Obama administration veteran. “He did it because that’s what you have to do today to respond to the crazy shit that comes your way.” What Obama and his team have accepted is that, while there’s a lot to be said for changing politics and elevating the discourse, your most important job as president is to defend your priorities. And the way to do that is to win.

And Obama tried being conciliatory and courteous and gentlemanly and rational and all that, but he did have to give it up:

With the exception of a tough, high-profile speech that April, his White House consciously avoided flaying Republicans over their proposed cuts to Medicaid and Medicare. He didn’t dwell on their anti-government nihilism until a speech in December, and even then he did so in broad strokes.

The relative civility came to a clear end this month, however, when Obama turned up at an Associated Press luncheon and proceeded to lacerate the GOP over the handiwork of Representative Paul Ryan, whose budget proposal the House had recently passed. Obama talked, Clinton-style, about how the Ryan budget would squeeze seniors who depend on Medicare and bump as many as 19 million poor and disabled Americans off Medicaid. He argued that Ryan’s plan would cut 200,000 children from Head Start, roll back financial aid to ten million college students, and make it harder to “protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food that we eat.” … For good measure, Obama held Mitt Romney responsible for every letter of the Ryan plan, gleefully noting that the presumptive nominee had pronounced it to be “marvelous.”

And that’s where we are now, even if it does somewhat damage the Obama “brand” so to speak. It’s just that you have to deal with reality:

These days, however, some of Obama’s most enthusiastic advocates of bipartisan civility – such as former Chief of Staff Bill Daley -have been exiled, and many of those who remain have come full circle. For example, Daley’s replacement, Jack Lew, was an enthusiastic participant in last year’s deficit talks while serving as Obama’s budget director. But the experience was eye-opening. Lew would reach an understanding with the House leadership and then notice that positions had changed when negotiating with their aides. He concluded that there could be no accommodation prior to the election. (A longtime Democratic wonk who is far more liberal than Daley, Lew also grasps the potential devastation of the Ryan cuts on a more visceral level.)

And you do what you must do:

Perhaps the best way to measure the staying power of the new toughness is to observe how Team Obama responds these days to critics of the approach. During their first few years in office, senior aides would often fret when the paragons of respectable centrism derided Obama’s rhetoric as too harsh or his proposals as too liberal. This time around, as the likes of David Brooks were knuckle-rapping Obama over budgetary hyperbole in his AP speech, the White House doubled-down. Office of Management and Budget staffers mounted a furious behind-the-scenes response, ultimately fighting to a draw with a “half true” rating from the fact-checking site Politifact. Around the West Wing, much was made over this triumph. Hope and change it was not. But sometimes you have to be willing to settle for a small victory instead.

But Jonathan Chait argues that this election won’t get all that nasty, as nastiness is kind of self-limiting:

Two stories have dominated the presidential campaign over the last week. The first was a proposed, and quickly aborted, Republican advertising campaign focused on Jeremiah Wright. The second is an ongoing Obama ad campaign highlighting the human cost of Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. In some ways, these are actually the same story: elites in both parties recoiling at the populism of their own voting bases.

No, you don’t want to be caught arguing about Hitler’s deep love for his dogs in an endless loop. If you like your dog you’re not Hitler – and Eva Braun hated that one dog, Blondi, and was known to kick her under the dining table. What does that prove? You really don’t want to argue with crazy people:

First we had Joe Ricketts, a conservative billionaire, entertaining a wild plan to dump millions on inflammatory ads painting Obama, via Wright, as a kind of alien figure. The Republican base considers the supposition perfectly obvious, but in the milieu in which a figure like Ricketts circulates, it is deeply disreputable. Conservative millionaires may fear and despise Obama, and they will indulge the most radical and crude economic theories, but they are loath to associate themselves with any taint of racial or cultural backwardness. Ricketts’s statement disowning the campaign is instructive: “Joe Ricketts is a registered independent, a fiscal conservative, and an outspoken critic of the Obama Administration.”

Jeremiah Wright just isn’t the issue. As Bill Clinton used to say, that dog won’t hunt. And Chait sees the parallel on the other side:

The same dynamic has made numerous Democrats – most prominently Cory Booker, but also several others – so nervous about criticizing private equity. Many Democratic (and even, as evidenced by the issue’s appearance in the GOP primary, Republican) voters think of private equity as “vulture capitalism.” But if you’re a Democratic member of Congress, especially one from a coastal banking center, private equity is your people. You do not want to be seen as one of those crude, populist Democrats pitting the middle class against the rich. You may be comfortable with a label like “socially liberal,” but you want to be known as a fiscal moderate or a pro-business or modernizing sort of Democrat.

So there’s a lesson here:

Now, the two stories are not perfectly parallel. Obama’s ads are much less inflammatory, and he’s continuing to run them. But the underlying discomfort provoked by both campaigns shows the same thing at work: The Democratic and Republican party elites are much more libertarian than their rank-and-file.

So Chait argues that all the potential nastiness will be tamped down by natural forces, an odd sort of checks-and-balances thing:

The biggest constraint on a campaign’s ability to drive a message is the general sense of what is in or out of bounds. And that sense, in turn, is largely defined by the willingness of members of a party to call out their own candidate for going too far. The socially liberal, economically conservative sensibilities of the party elites are working in tandem to hold back Republicans from attacking Obama on cultural grounds, and to at least complicate Obama’s populist attacks on Romney’s business career.

In short, we may not be British, but there are limits. But, as Noam Scheiber argues in another item, those limits are really about scruples, or disgust about being associated with the mindless yahoos. It’s all about what works:

My sense is that, however crude and embarrassing, GOP elites would be more than willing to paint Obama as an alien force if they thought it would work. (They certainly didn’t have a problem embracing the message that John Kerry was a wine-swilling crypto-Frenchmen.) The reason they’re not going that route is they don’t think it’ll work. And they’re probably right.

As I understand it from talking to various Obama strategists, the data shows that up-for-grab voters went with Obama in 2008 because they liked him, thought he was a trustworthy guy with a nice family, someone genuinely intent on bringing change, etc., etc. Even though they may be disappointed with the country’s direction over the last four years, they continue to have warm feelings toward him personally. That makes the Obama-as-alien argument too hard a sell. It requires persuading these voters not only that what they deem true today is wrong (i.e., that Obama’s a good-enough guy), but that Obama somehow duped them the first time around. Suffice it to say, it’s not something these voters are going to be easily persuaded of.

Karl Rove’s Crossroads Super-PAC did do their careful research after all:

As Crossroads strategists would learn after 18 different focus groups and field tests, from Missouri to Colorado to Ohio to Florida, the harshest anti-Obama jabs backfire with many Americans.

Middle-of-the-road voters who said they thought the country was on the wrong track were unmoved when they heard arguments that the president lacks integrity. And they did not buy assertions that he is a rabid partisan with a radical liberal agenda that is wrecking America.

“They are not interested in being told they made a horrible mistake,” said Steven J. Law, president of Crossroads GPS and the affiliated “super PAC,” American Crossroads. “The disappointment they’re now experiencing has to be handled carefully.”

So Scheiber argues this may be the most civil election in our lifetimes, oddly enough:

As on the right, I think you see Democrats making a pretty sober calculation about which message has the best chance of succeeding. And the problem with portraying Romney as unprincipled and cynical is that it leaves open the possibility that he might really be a moderate, or at least govern as a moderate, which would be reasonably attractive to swing voters. Much better to argue, as Obama has, that there’s no reason to doubt that Romney believed what he said when he took tough stances on immigration and spending and social issues during the GOP primaries. He’s a man of conviction after all – just the wrong kind.

All of which is to say that, while elites may have some leavening effect on the campaign discourse, the relative civility is really a product of each side calculating that the nastiest messages simply aren’t the most effective, if for relatively idiosyncratic reasons.

So we’ve turned British by default. But it gets tricky:

Mitt Romney’s campaign stood by its decision to use Donald Trump as a top surrogate even as the reality television host continues to insist President Obama was not born in the United States.

Romney is scheduled to appear at a Las Vegas fundraiser Tuesday with Trump, who made headlines last year with his “investigation” of Mr. Obama’s birth certificate. …

In a new interview, Trump pointed to a recent report that Mr. Obama’s literary agency listed him in a 1991 booklet as having been born in Kenya.

“He didn’t know he was running for president, so he told the truth,” Trump told The Daily Beast. “Now they’re saying it was a mistake. Just like his Kenyan grandmother said he was born in Kenya, and she pointed down the road to the hospital, and after people started screaming at her she said, ‘Oh, I mean Hawaii.’ Give me a break.”

A former assistant at the literary agency has said the printing was a clerical error.

Today Romney adviser Kevin Madden said the candidate disagrees with Trump, but would continue to campaign with him.

Yes, the Republican presidential candidate is openly courting an unhinged braggart of a conspiracy theorist who claims the first black President of the United States was actually born in Kenya. But then this Trump fellow is also fond of reminding everyone that he himself is the most respected and admired man in America. It seems all the talk about how political nastiness is self-limiting may have something to do with what another Brit said about the triumph of hope over experience. And we’re just not British.

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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