More Perfect Union

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America

— the Preamble of the United States Constitution

In this week’s Sift:

  • SOTU: Government as Us, Not Them. President Obama didn’t announce any big new policy agenda, but instead laid out a counter-narrative to the Tea Party’s stop-the-government rhetoric. Obama appeals to national pride by framing government as how We the People act together to do things we can’t do as individuals.
  • Egypt. Whatever government comes out of the current unrest is going to be very difficult for the American media to portray accurately. That’s why I’ve started watching Al Jazeera.
  • Demoting the General Welfare. Rand Paul has given us a Tea Party budget. It’s an opening salvo against the general idea that we are a nation with national interests.
  • Short Notes. House Republicans redefine the rape exemption for Medicaid abortion funding. No more secret holds in the Senate. Rabbis denounce Fox. Clarence Thomas’ ethical problem. Utah gets a state firearm. A territorial turkey. And more.

SOTU: Government as Us, Not Them

President Obama’s State of the Union address (delivered Tuesday night) was a framing speech, not a policy speech. It told us not so much what the administration is going to do over the next two years, but how it is going to present its case to the American people.

As much as I’d like to hear a big policy agenda from the President, I think he made good use of the setting. The central battle of the next two years is going to be a battle of narratives. Republicans want the American people to think of government as a Them; government takes “our” money, and we may need to shut the government down to get it to stop. Democrats need to present government as an Us; in a democracy, government is how We the People do things together that we can’t do as individuals.

When Obama said “We do big things,” the “we” was America — an undivided America where the public and private sectors work together smoothly. By talking about a “Sputnik moment”, he made an analogy between our current economic challenges and the space race (in which we started out behind, but got to the Moon first anyway).

I agree with frame-guru George Lakoff: It’s a brilliant frame if he can make it stick: The space race could not have been won — or even run — by the free market. And it produced one of America’s greatest moments of national pride, the Moon landing. When government and the private sector work together, we do big things indeed.

The government-is-us-acting-together frame exposes the weakness of the conservative message, which can evoke national pride only through war. Conservatives are saying — and should be made to say publicly, again and again — that we can’t have the things other nations have. We can’t have national health care. We can’t have bullet trains. We can’t have clean, well-equipped parks or libraries or schools. We can’t take care of our old people or send our young people to college. We can’t have safe bridges or smooth highways. We can’t have clean energy.

Other nations can, but not us. We’re too poor.

That’s a losing message, particularly at a time when the rich are richer than ever. Americans can see where the money has gone. And we don’t want to be told that other nations are better than we are, that they can do things we can’t. Americans want to do big things.

If you haven’t already seen it, the best place to watch the State of the Union is on the White House web site, which has annotated the speech with appropriate images and graphs.

Then watch President Obama’s speech at the Health Action 2011 conference, where he lets his hair down a little and mocks conservative disinformation about health reform. “Granny is safe,” he pledges.

And this sign is pretty good.

None of the Republicans who responded to Obama did themselves any credit. Rep. Paul Ryan was earnest but dull; his official response was forgotten almost as soon as it was delivered. CNN conservative pundit Ed Rollins lamented: “He’s the one we should be talking about tonight, and yet we’re talking about Sarah Palin saying something very stupid.”

Rep. Michelle Bachmann, representing the Tea Party, was wild and woolly. Among other distortions, she trotted out the long-ago-debunked charge that “16,500 IRS agents [may be] in charge of policing President Obama’s health care bill.”

The biggest flop, though, was Sarah Palin, representing herself. Responding to Obama’s “Sputnik moment” quote, Palin garbled history that is well known to everyone but her:

He needs to remember that, uh, what happened back then with the communist U.S.S.R. and their victory in that race to space. Yeah, they won but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union

So the Soviets won, but that’s why they collapsed in 1991, 34 years after Sputnik? (Maybe that was when the bonds came due.) With generous interpretation, parts of that statement can make sense. (Sputnik won the race to space for the Soviets, but not what is usually called “the space race”, which we won.) But no interpretation pulls it all together into a coherent thought.

Then Palin rolled on to advocate more “Spudnut moments” — a reference to a doughnut shop. I’ll let the WaPo’s Alexandra Petri respond:

President Obama is talking about competing with the rest of the world. He’s pointing out that we need to get our act together and try to commit to education and research that will allow us to make innovative strides comparable to the ones we made after we got that wake-up call from Sputnik. And you are — rambling about bakeries with names that sound sort of similar? I guess? It’s just not a responsible comparison.

Yes, we need more Spudnut moments. We need self-sufficiency, work ethic, and delicious donuts here at home. But if we really want to get the economy back on track, we need a better-educated workforce, one that knows that the Space Race didn’t bankrupt the Soviet Union, understands syntax, and doesn’t just bloviate about bakeries.

I’m reminded of the dogs in the Pixar movie Up. Palin just suddenly yells out “Squirrel!” and is off on something else entirely.

I’ve speculated before that Sarah Palin will not run for president. Well, I think Michelle Bachmann is already running. She spoke to Iowans for Tax Relief in Des Moines on January 21, and if you watch Part I of that talk on YouTube, you’ll see a campaign stump speech. Eventually she gets around to selling her vision, but in Part I she’s selling herself — explaining her connection to Iowa, telling her family’s heroic immigration story, sprinkling in as many Iowa town and county names as she can, and in general looking more charming than I’ve ever seen her. The Iowa Caucuses are a year from Sunday, and she’ll be there.

Bachmann has taken a lot of heat for what she says in Part II (around the 9 minute mark). Anderson Cooper said she flunks history, and “that’s just not true.” But it’s actually more dangerous than that. Bachmann is in that George W. Bush region where her words, if put in their full context and parsed very generously, can be defended. But the listener almost certainly goes away with a false impression.

Here’s what caused the trouble:

And our ancestors when they arrived on these shores — just think of it — they spoke different languages, they had different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions. But unbelievably, they all bound themselves back to this tradition, this covenant that was contained in the Mayflower Compact, this covenant that we re-published in the Declaration of Independence. How unique in all of the world, that one nation that was the resting point for people-groups from all across the world! It didn’t matter the color of their skin. It didn’t matter their language. It didn’t matter their economic status. It didn’t matter whether they descended from nobility or whether they had a higher class or a lower class. It made no difference. Once you got here, we were all the same.

Now, obviously the color of your skin did matter, and even among whites the Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants were not really equal. In a generous context, though, Bachmann is talking about the ideal of America, not the practice. She mentions slavery as a “stain on our history” and then stretches the facts to claim “the very Founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”

Well, maybe Franklin and a couple others, but Washington and Jefferson kept their slaves, and the Founders as a whole worked tirelessly to push the question off to later generations. But the larger point Bachmann is making, that we were “self-correcting” on this issue, is more-or-less true, in the sense that no foreign power had to come in and free our slaves.

It’s a Bush-like 10% truth that easily slides into 1% truth and then into outright fantasy. Dangerous.


Breaking news isn’t something the Sift can do well, so instead I’ll point you to my favorite source for up-to-the-minute coverage of the Egyptian uprising. Sad to say, it’s not any American news organization or even the BBC — it’s Al Jazeera. My cable system doesn’t carry it, so I’ve been watching Al Jazeera live online.

In general, Egypt is a tough issue for the American media to cover clearly, because the reality over there runs perpendicular to a lot of our myths. For example, we think of ourselves as representing democracy and often (especially on the Right) think of Islam as our enemy. But in Egypt (as in many Arab countries) a corrupt dictator has been propped up for decades by America. And (as in any country with an authoritarian government and a religious tradition) many Egyptians look to religion for a moral authority higher than the tyrant, and as a source of values higher than money and power. In Poland, that religious tradition was Catholicism; in Egypt, it’s Islam. (Check out this photo of protestors praying while police stand over them.)

So to the extent that Egyptians ever get a government that truly represents them, that government will be part-secular, part-Islamist, suspicious of America, and cautiously hostile towards Israel — a little like Turkey’s government, only moreso. It’s hard to imagine American media recognizing such a government as democratic, no matter how free the elections might be.

Over here, this situation is making heads explode across the spectrum. The administration sounds unconvincing as it tries to distance itself from a former tyrannical ally without unnerving our other tyrannical allies (like the Saudis). Meanwhile, right-wingers are simultaneously claiming the uprising as evidence that Bush was right about spreading democracy in the Middle East, and saying that we have to support Mubarak. Israeli commentators are already tagging Obama as “the president who lost Egypt”.

The other feature to watch about the uprising is its pan-Arabian nature. It spread to Egypt from tiny Tunisia, and there are already demonstrations in Yemen. Places like Jordan and the Emirates have to be worried. Cairo is the traditional center of thought and learning in the Arab world, and any movement that took hold in Egypt would have strong appeal.

Right now, Americans need to educate ourselves about Egypt and similar countries, so that we’re not easily stampeded by the propaganda that will surely erupt against whatever government replaces Mubarak, assuming he falls. This 2004 article in the New Yorker seems like a good place to start. Send me links as you find them.

Demoting the General Welfare

I am still looking for the source of the quote that goes something like “If you want to know an organization’s values, look at its budget.” Rand Paul’s newly submitted  “A Bill to cut $500,000,000,000 in spending in fiscal year 2011” is the closest thing to a Tea Party budget we have. It says a lot about Tea Party values.

The first thing to note is that Paul is cutting half a trillion out of the current fiscal year, the one that we’re already four months into. (Federal fiscal years start on October 1.) If it were to pass (unlikely), federal agencies already four months into their budgets would get  rude surprise.

The bill itself is only 12 pages, and gives no details beyond naming a piece of the government and then saying how much less money it gets. For example:

Amounts made available to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for fiscal year 2011 are reduced by $1,165,000,000.

To get any kind of explanation, you need to go to Paul’s overview document. At 37 pages, it is also terse. But there are themes: Agencies should return to their original missions, no matter how much the world has changed in the meantime. Any program that is not solving its problem should be eliminated rather than fixed or replaced, regardless of the effect on the underlying problem. And beyond defense, there is no such thing as a national interest; the states are like 50 bison that have clumped together in a herd for safety.

But sometimes you don’t get even that much justification, and the cut seems to be based on little more than an ideological assumption that waste must be in there somewhere. Take the CDC again. It’s our front line against plagues and epidemics, the folks we depend on to helicopter down in astronaut suits if SARS or ebola breaks out or drug-resistant tuberculosis gets out of hand. It has a total budget of $6.342 billion in 2011, so $1.165 billion represents a 28% cut for the final 2/3 of the year (assuming Paul’s bill could be passed immediately).

How should the CDC fulfill its mission with 28% less money? Given how disastrous a mistake could be, you might hope for some kind of expert justification, maybe a new strategy based on a medical study or two. Nope. The overview just suggests “focusing on domestic priorities rather than spending billions on overseas initiatives.” So basically, the CDC should stop worrying about plagues in other countries, and wait until they show up here. In Rand Paul’s world, that kind of thinking saves money.

There’s a lot of nostalgia in Paul’s worldview. The Department of Education should be eliminated because we didn’t have one in the first half of the 20th century, when “America ranked among the most educated population in the world,” while now “the U.S. now ranks far below other economically developed countries.” Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

The National Park Service can be cut 42% by returning public lands “to the states or the private sector”.

In short, there is no national interest in things like education or infrastructure or research, and if Arizona wants to sell off the Grand Canyon (like it sold its state capitol building), that’s no more my affair than if Peru privatized Machu Picchu. It’s a state treasure, not a national treasure.

The people who promote this vision claim to get it from the Founders, but it’s really older than that. It’s the vision not of not the Constitution, but of the Articles of Confederation that the Constitution replaced. The Articles created less perfect union, a “firm league of friendship” more like NATO than a nation. Dissatisfaction with the Articles motivated founders like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to push for a constitution with broad national goals like “promote the general welfare”.

When was the last time you heard the consitution-quoters of the Tea Party talk about promoting the general welfare?

Short Notes

Wild turkeys, it turns out, are territorial. This one wants to drive the Postal Service eagle away.

The latest example of the IOKIYAR (It’s OK If You’re a Republican) principle: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Over five years his financial disclosure forms failed to declare nearly $700K of his wife’s income from conservative groups. It’s a crime, technically lying under oath, and it’s got people wondering if he voted on cases where he had a conflict of interest, most notably Citizens United. I’m not holding my breath until the wage of outrage comes.

400 rabbis put an ad in the Wall Street Journal calling on the Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, to sanction his Fox News employee Glenn Beck for portraying Holocaust-survivor George Soros as a Holocaust-collaborator: “It is not appropriate to accuse a 14-year old Jew hiding with a Christian family in Nazi-occupied Hungary of sending his people to death camps.” More generally:

you diminish the memory and meaning of the Holocaust when you use it to discredit any individual or organization you disagree with. That is what Fox News has done in recent weeks

Jon Stewart also called attention to the frequent Nazi references on Fox, particularly by Beck. Meanwhile, Beck’s ratings are sagging. A year ago he often drew 3 million viewers a night, but lately he has had trouble breaking 2 million. (That’s still high compared to other cable news shows; 1 million viewers is a good night for Rachel Maddow.)

I’ve complained before about essays that get padded out to book length just because there’s a market for books. Well, now there are Kindle Singles: shorter works available for $1-3. With its typical optimism, Wired says this “saves long-form journalism”. Maybe. First let’s see if Nook and iBook follow suit.

Mother Jones explains the House Republicans’ proposed abortion bill: “If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion.” An NYT editorial lists the ways in which this bill would make it harder to find and pay for any insurance policy that covered abortion.

Nicholas Kristof tells the story of St Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, which got stripped of its affiliation with the local Roman Catholic diocese after performing an abortion to save a woman’s life and refusing to repent for it. This was the bishop’s escalation after excommunicating a nun on the ethics board didn’t bring the hospital to heel.

The push to end the filibuster comes to nothing, but at least the Senate got rid of secret holds — a parliamentary maneuver by which a senator could block legislation or nominations without taking a public stand.

Injured pitcher Gil Meche walks away from the $12 million the Royals were contracted to pay him next year. “Making that amount of money from a team that’s already given me over $40 million… it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

In Utah, the state bird is the California gull, the state flower is the sego lilly — and soon the state firearm will be the Browning M1911 pistol.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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