No Responsibility

If your brother and his administration bear no responsibility at all [for 9/11], how do you then make the jump that President Obama and Secretary Clinton are responsible for what happened at Benghazi?”

— CNN reporter Jake Tapper,
interviewing Jeb Bush on Sunday’s State of the Union

This week’s featured post is a book review: “How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley”.

BTW, I noticed this cartoon just a little too late include it in the propaganda article:

This week everybody was talking about the Democratic debate

I agree with the media consensus on Tuesday night’s debate (transcript, video — you can skip the first 5 minutes): Sanders and Clinton both did well, while the other three candidates’ performances didn’t launch them into contention. (O’Malley looked wooden and at times seemed to be struggling to recall a memorized line. Webb has too many positions that are out of the Democratic mainstream. Chafee didn’t seem ready for prime time.)

In general, focus groups and online polls said Sanders won while pundits thought Hillary did. I think it comes down to the different goals of a front-runner and a challenger: Sanders produced the most memorable moments and put forward Democratic ideals with the most passion. But strategically, Clinton did what she needed to do. (Similarly in the 2012 cycle, Mitt Romney’s debates never wowwed anybody, but he consistently stayed on track to win the nomination.) However they reacted to Sanders, I think most Democratic viewers came out of the debate with fewer doubts about Clinton as a candidate.

(Better designed polls have just started coming out. In CNN’s, most people say Hillary won, and her support remains stable at 45%.)

I also agree with the upbeat response liberal pundits had to the debate as a whole: It contrasted well with the two Republican clown shows. The candidates were thoughtful and made substantive responses; they talked about issues — affordable college, an increased minimum wage, family leave, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, shifting the country away from fossil fuels — that mean something in voters’ lives, rather than manufactured issues like Planned Parenthood; nobody had to pretend to take seriously ridiculous proposals like Trump’s Great Wall of Mexico or the long-debunked theory that vaccines cause autism; Democrats treated each other with respect, while Republicans insulted each other and then argued about whose insults went over the line.

The highlight, which you’ve probably seen by now, was Bernie Sanders’ backhanding of Anderson Cooper’s question on the Clinton emails. The question was directed to Clinton, and after her answer the discussion went like this:

SANDERS: Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the Secretary is right. And that is, that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.

CLINTON: Thank you. Me too. Me too.

SANDERS: The middle class — Anderson, and let me say something about the media as well. I go around the country, talk to a whole lot of people — the middle class of this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. The American people want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United. Enough of the emails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.

CLINTON (offering a handshake which Sanders accepts): Thank you, Bernie. Thank you.

I think that exchange helped them both, and helped the Party. Sanders established that he cares more about his message than just gaining advantage wherever he can find it. Clinton accepted his support graciously and didn’t look for a sinister underside. And Sanders’ list of “the real issues facing America” was a good summary of what Democrats around the country hope to run on.

Saturday afternoon, Martin O’Malley was speaking at an Irish bar a few blocks from my apartment. He’s much better in front of small groups. In the Q&A he displayed a kind of joyful wonkiness that is hard to imagine in a Republican candidate. The more technical the questions got — FISA courts, sustainable building design, the nitty-gritty of gun control proposals — the happier he seemed. In response to a question on software patents, he said: “You have played ‘Stump the Presidential Candidate’, and you have won.” (O’Malley won all the other rounds.)

I think if you put him alone in a room with Hillary Clinton, they would have the most fascinating conversation and come away totally charmed with each other.

Speaking of “the real issues facing America”, the NYT’s Patrick Healy made a great point: The two parties aren’t proposing different solutions to our country’s problems, they disagree about what the problems are.

Climate change, racism, gun violence, student debt, the concentration of wealth, and the domination of our political process by super-rich donors — Republicans just don’t consider those to be problems, and instead worry that we’re being invaded by Mexicans, Planned Parenthood is selling baby organs, the government is on the verge of bankruptcy, rich job-creators are hogtied by taxes and regulations, and welfare is sapping the will of poor people to make it on their own.

The only problem both recognize is the instability in the Middle East. But even there, Republicans are afraid ISIS will take over the world, while Democrats dread being sucked into another military quagmire.

I find Healy’s observation discouraging. People who care about the same problem can usually find a little common ground and build a compromise around it. But it’s hard to work out anything with people who don’t recognize the problem you want to solve.

One consistent Republican criticism of the debate has been that the Democratic candidates object to the status quo (inequality, etc.) as if their party hadn’t been in power these last seven years. Two answers:

  • To a large extent, Republicans own the status quo. Other than ObamaCare, President Obama hasn’t been able to get his programs through Congress. Most of the big battles have been about Republican attempts to roll back New Deal and Great Society programs like Social Security and Food Stamps.
  • Democratic complaints about income inequality and the destruction of the middle class aren’t protests against Obama’s policies, they’re protests against the wealth-favoring consensus that has dominated American politics since Reagan. That’s when the middle class began shrinking.

Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump proposed their own theory about why the Democrats had a civil debate: It was a conspiracy orchestrated by CNN and the Democratic National Committee. “CNN did not hit them like they hit us,” Trump complained. “They didn’t make them fight.”

I’m bemused by the idea that somebody “makes” Trump fight. People with self-control issues often put forward such now-look-what-you-made-me-do excuses. Personal responsibility comes up a lot in conservative rhetoric. But actually taking responsibility for your actions … that’s even tougher than running for president.

It’s crazy that Chafee and Webb were in the debate and Lawrence Lessig wasn’t. One reason Lessig didn’t get over the poll threshold is that many polls didn’t list him as an option. Lessig is the leading voice addressing a serious issue — campaign finance — and he should be on the stage next time.

I had the same thought as the 538 round table: Hillary’s debate performance lowers the likelihood that Biden gets into the race. As Farai Chideya put it:

It’s awfully hard to ride in to save the day when the day doesn’t seem to need saving.

And Nate Silver added this thought:

the debate did real damage to another bullshit meme, which is linking the Democratic and Republican races together under the same narrative umbrella. The Democrats are quite … arrayed right now. The Republicans aren’t.

and new attacks on Bernie Sanders

You’ll know that Bernie has a real chance to win when Fox News gives him his own Benghazi. I don’t watch a lot of Fox, but I do channel-scan through it regularly. It has looked to me like Fox has been rooting for Sanders because his success undermines Clinton, who they expect to be the nominee. Tearing down Clinton has been Priority #1 on Fox, and still is.

But Republicans might be starting to hedge their bets. Until recently, in my limited sampling, Fox has been giving Sanders credit for being authentic and honest, and hasn’t been ridiculing him the way they would if they took him seriously. But Wednesday night I saw Bill O’Reilly talking to frequent Fox contributor Bernie Goldberg about Sanders’ socialism. O’Reilly offered that if Sanders thinks socialism is so great, he should take a look at Venezuela. (In the debate, Sanders offered Denmark as an example the U.S. could learn from. The difference between Denmark and Venezuela seems lost on O’Reilly.) Goldberg wondered “if his middle name is Che”.

In a radio interview, Rand Paul couldn’t tell the difference between Denmark and the Soviet Union. “Most of the times when socialism has been tried that, uh, attendant with that has been mass genocide of people or any of those who object to it. Stalin killed tens of millions of people. Mao killed tens of millions of people. Pol Pot killed tens of millions of people.”

AFAIK, neither Bernie nor the Danes have killed anybody for their policy objections … yet. But the thought of Danish gulags reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s cake-or-death routine about militant Anglicans.

In the middle of his how-can-you-be-elected question to Sanders, Anderson Cooper said: “You honeymooned in the Soviet Union.” (At home, I said “Whaaaa?”) Turns out, it’s not like it sounds.

In 1956, that noted Communist sympathizer Dwight Eisenhower tried to cool down the Cold War by negotiating an American/Soviet sister-cities program. In 1988, when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, a 12-person trip to its sister (Yaroslavl) was scheduled right after Sanders’ wedding.

So the real story is that Sanders took his wife along on a mayoral business trip in lieu of an actual honeymoon. Not very romantic, maybe, but not scandalous either.

I love Bill Maher’s bit on what Republicans hear when Bernie says something.

This kind of nonsense begins to test what worries me most about Sanders: his prickly temperament. I’m not sure how he will react if/when he faces relentless unfair criticism like the pseudo-scandals Hillary has been dealing with since 1992. Just because Sanders doesn’t have a Benghazi yet doesn’t mean Fox can’t manufacture one any time it wants. (When Lincoln Chafee bragged that he has never had a scandal in his long political career, I thought: “The Far Right must never have felt threatened by you.”) How he responds will tell us if he has what it takes to win a general election.

and Benghazi

While we’re talking about Hillary’s emails, the House Benghazi Committee continues to lose whatever credibility it may once have had. What House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had previously implied, New York Republican Congressman Richard Hanna admitted directly:

I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton.

And a former committee staff member has blown the whistle:

Maj. Bradley Podliska, an intelligence officer in the Air Force Reserve who describes himself as a conservative Republican, told CNN that the committee trained its sights almost exclusively on Clinton after the revelation last March that she used a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. … Podliska, who as fired after nearly ten months as an investigator for the Republican majority, is now preparing to file a lawsuit against the select committee next month, alleging that he lost his job in part because he resisted pressure to focus his investigative efforts solely on the State Department and Clinton’s role surrounding the Benghazi attack.

In all the attempted defenses of the committee, I have yet to hear a clear statement of what the previous seven Benghazi investigations failed to cover, and what this investigation is doing differently to get to the bottom of whatever-it-is.

Hillary testifies before the Benghazi committee Thursday. I suspect the event will resemble the recent testimony of Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards to a different committee: Republicans will browbeat her in order to look tough for their base, but Clinton will maintain her composure and look like the winner to most of the country.

and Russian intervention in Syria

An article in Thursday’s NYT portrays Russia’s air base in Latakia and its cruise-missile strikes from the Caspian Sea as testing and showcasing Russia’s recently upgraded military hardware. In other words, it makes Putin in Syria sound like Hitler in Spain.

and Congress

Still no apparent progress towards choosing a speaker. The idea that Paul Ryan would satisfy the right-wingers is falling apart. I’m standing by my analysis from last week.

Mopshell on Daily Kos provides a complete census of the various overlapping far-right groups in the House.

Rumor has it that John Boehner will get the debt ceiling raised before he rides into the sunset. But now CNN says Mitch McConnell is making ransom demands:

McConnell is seeking a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security recipients and new restrictions on Medicare, including limiting benefits to the rich and raising the eligibility age, several sources said. In addition, the Kentucky Republican is eager to see new policy riders enacted, including reining in the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean water regulations.

This has to be a bluff. I mean, seriously: Crashing into the debt ceiling is unpopular. Cutting Social Security and Medicare is unpopular. Water pollution is unpopular. Pulling them all together isn’t a political proposal, it’s a Bond supervillain plot.

And the justification is that the deficit is out of control? Keep reading.

but nobody was talking about the incredible shrinking federal deficit

Fiscal Year 2015 ended on September 30, so we can total up. The annual deficit is back where it was before the financial collapse that began at the very end of FY 2008 when Lehman Brothers went broke.

Steve Benen comments:

I don’t necessarily consider this sharp reduction in the deficit to be good news. If it were up to me, federal officials would be borrowing more, not less, taking advantage of low interest rates, investing heavily in infrastructure and economic development, creating millions of jobs, and leaving deficit reduction for another day.

That said, if we’re going to have a fiscal debate, it should at least be rooted in reality, not silly misconceptions. And the reality is, we’re witnessing deficit reduction at a truly remarkable clip. Every conservative complaint about fiscal recklessness and irresponsibility in the Obama era is quantifiably ridiculous.

BTW: Republicans who want to enlarge Obama’s deficit total usually charge him with the record FY 2009 deficit, which rightfully belongs more to President Bush. (That’s why it’s in red in the graph.) Bush wrote the original FY 2009 budget; his early projections were of a $400 billion deficit, but due to the financial collapse, CBO estimates had risen to $1.2 trillion by the time Obama was inaugurated in January, 2009, eventually finishing over $1.4 trillion. So at worst you can blame Obama for that last $200 billion.

and you also might be interested in …

Yet another good-guy-with-a-gun opened fire on escaping shoplifters in a store parking lot. This time in Indiana. (Last week’s parking-lot shooting was in Michigan.) One more example of guns making us all safer.

One thing Trump brings to the Republican race is an occasional voice from outside the bubble. For example, his common-sense observation that Jeb Bush’s claim that his brother “kept us safe” is ridiculous.

When you talk about George Bush, I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time. He was president, O.K.?

Not OK, if you’re inside the Republican bubble. Jeb tweeted his response:

How pathetic for to criticize the president for 9/11. We were attacked & my brother kept us safe.

Which is what you do inside the bubble: If challenged, you just repeat the challenged claim and insult the challenger.

ThinkProgress then posted a wonderful satire “Was George W. Bush President On 9/11? An Investigation Into The Controversy Tearing The GOP Apart“. They review and refute the evidence against: Yes, Bush did get fewer votes in 2000 than Al Gore, but we have pictures of him taking the oath of office on January 20, 2001. A calendar proves that January 20 is before September 11. And even though Bush spent the entire month of August on vacation, memoranda — like the “Bin Laden determined to strike in US” presidential brief presented to him — indicate he did continue to be president.

Weighing it all together, TP concludes:

It seems more likely than not that George W. Bush was president on September 11, 2001.

When Trump started running for president in July, claiming he would finance everything out of his own pocket, I was unconvinced about his willingness to spend money on the scale that a competitive campaign requires:

The kind of money Trump has spent so far — and foregone as business partners run away from him — is a recoverable investment. He’s building the Trump brand, which will net him future earnings in book sales and TV ratings. The campaign — at least the way he’s run it so far — will keep his act fresh for years to come.

By November, though, a serious candidate will have to start putting serious money into Iowa and New Hampshire. Not thousands, millions. TV time on the Boston stations that cover southern New Hampshire is not cheap. The idiosyncratic process of the Iowa caucuses requires a ground game. And if you survive the Iowa/NH/South Carolina winnowing in January and February, you just need more money to compete nationwide in March.

As November approaches, I’m still unconvinced. Politico reports that in the July-September quarter, the Trump campaign had spent just $4 million nationwide, most of it not self-financed by Trump, and much of it spent within the Trump empire.

By contrast Jeb Bush has made a $4.8 million ad buy in New Hampshire. (Believe me, if you watch TV here, you can’t escape him.) It’s not gaining him any ground in the polls, but his outlay marks the start of the big-spending period of the campaign. We’ll soon know whether Trump is serious or just running as a publicity stunt.

When conservatives make up a charge that liberals are doing something sinister, probably the claim will eventually justify conservatives doing that very thing. Here’s an example from Ben Carson: Based on the bogus charge that under Obama “the IRS has systematically targeted conservative nonprofit groups for politically motivated audits and harassment,” Carson calls for revoking the tax exemption of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has criticized his anti-Muslim rhetoric.

My friend Abby Hafer did a wonderful half-hour explanation of why intelligent design doesn’t explain the human body, but evolution does. (Quick summary: The body is kludgy the way evolved things are, not optimized like designed things.) She has a book on the same subject coming out soon, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer.

All the people worrying about Sharia in America might do better to worry about the Christians who want to impose Old Testament law. You’ve probably heard about the folks who want to stone gays to death. But did you know about the ones who want to bring back slavery? On a radio show in Iowa, the host proposed to Mike Huckabee the Old Testament solution for theft:

It says [in Exodus], if a person steals, they have to pay it back two-fold, four-fold. If they don’t have anything, we’re supposed to take them down and sell them. … We indenture them and they have to spend their time not sitting on their stump in a jail cell, they’re supposed to be working off the debt. Wouldn’t that be a better choice?

To his credit, Huckabee’s first reaction was to chuckle at that suggestion. But people on the Right never say “That’s just effing crazy” to each other, so Huckabee answered: “Well, it really would be. … Sometimes the best way to deal with a nonviolent criminal behavior is what you just suggested.”

Offering non-violent offenders a chance to make restitution rather than be punished is actually a progressive idea, known as restorative justice. But forcing convicts to work in jobs mandated by the state has a long, sad history in the United States, as told by Douglas Blackmon in Slavery By Another Name.

and let’s close with a comment on the season(s)

Maybe it’s a little too soon to start seeing Christmas stuff in the stores.

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  • Van Wormer, Laura A.  On October 19, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    No, they are in my hand! Thank you!


    Laura Van Wormer
    Professor and Chair, Department of Physics
    Dual Degree Engineering Liaison
    Hiram College
    Hiram, OH 44234
    Department Web page:

  • Abby  On October 19, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    I’m flattered that you included my video as a part of the Sift. Thank you!

    • weeklysift  On October 19, 2015 at 6:35 pm

      I’ve used your observations about the evolution of the eye before, usually without crediting you. So I kind of owed you.

      • Anonymous  On October 20, 2015 at 9:52 am

        I’ve used observations from the Sift a zillion times, so I owe you huge!! Sane, timely, and well-reasoned with supporting data. Good stuff even when I don’t agree with you.

  • Fedor Manin  On October 20, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    “The two parties aren’t proposing different solutions to our country’s problems, they disagree about what the problems are.”

    Watching Stephen Harper’s concession speech last night, I was struck by the same thing, in Canada. “You think the two things Canadians are missing from their lives are _lower taxes_ and _security_? What planet are you living on?”

  • Josh  On October 21, 2015 at 11:50 am

    Re. the claim that the civility of the Democratic debate was the result of a conspiracy between CNN and the DNC, isn’t that a farcical claim given that the first Republican debate was on Fox and was just as much of a clown show as the one on CNN?

    Re. O’Malley and software patents, I’m a patent attorney and I can’t coherently explain the current unsettled law or put together a reasonable plan for how they should be handled either, so I can hardly criticize him for it.

  • Anonymous  On October 25, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Lessig qualifies for public funding. If we are funding his campaign, we deserve to hear what he has to say.”


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