WASHINGTON--We spent part of the weekend at the National Review Institute Summit. Less than a week into Barack Obama's second term, you wouldn't expect a conservative conclave in the capital to be a cheery affair, and this one lived up to expectations. Slate's Dave Weigel reports that NRI summits are always like this:
National Review has only held two other post-election summitsâthey save 'em for real debacles. In 1993, William F. Buckley gathered 1,000 conservatives in the nearby Mayflower Hotel, to vent and strategize about the threat of Bill Clinton. In 2007, after Democrats took back Congress, NRI met at the J.W. Marriott up the street to hear from potential 2008 saviors.
Others have already described the main theme of the gathering, so we'll save time by quoting them, starting with Forbes's Maura Pennington (who informed us that the "u" is silent):
Nearly every speaker advised that [conservatives] "make the case" for conservatism, that their leaders find a better way of communicating the superiority of limited government and traditional social values. The country is prepared to hear it, they said, it's only a matter of explaining it--an admittedly difficult task when the latest national election proved that more people are interested in a message of government-provided security and spoils.
Weigel gives some examples:
Conservatives need better messaging. Nearly everybody at the summit agrees. "One of the best slogans that came out of this campaign was, 'You built that!'Â " says Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. "I wish we could take a different tack. That was a slogan that was aimed at the 53 percent. It was aimed at business owners. It was aimed at people who already got there. I think their message should have been: You can build that." It wasn't that Romney's "47 percent" tape was even so bad, says Cruz. It was that it fit into a "narrative" that Republicans are cold-blooded and the poor can never achieve anything without handouts.
Fixing a "narrative" sounds deceptively easy, and fair. Democrats didn't respond to their narrow 2004 loss by nominating an Erskine Bowles-Joe Lieberman ticket. They found a once-in-a-generation political talent, a liberal, black community organizer seen by most voters (until mid-2009) as thoughtfully moderate. No matter what he does, a preponderance of voters let him skate away. No, conservatives need to talk smarter about what they already believe.
Does this sound familiar? It does to us. It sounds just like the left in the summer of 2011.
Do you remember? It was arguably the low point of Obama's first term. He had just been through an ugly fight with Congress over spending and debt, and although the resolution pleased nobody, it especially aggravated the left, which just a couple of years earlier had hailed Obama as a transformational president, another Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Along came Drew Westen, a psychologist cum political tactician, who in a lengthy and much-discussed (including in this column) New York Times op-ed faulted the president for having failed to tell "a story the American people were waiting to hear--and needed to hear." Westen compared Obama unfavorably to FDR, faulting him for failing to single out "villains" including "Wall Street gamblers," "conservative extremists" and George W. Bush and for not beginning his presidency by making clear his intention to steamroll congressional Republicans, back when that was an option.
In response, Time's Joe Klein enthused:
Obama is often eloquent. .Â .Â . But he has never deployed these skills in service of the larger story--never really explained where we are as a country, how we got here and--Westen is spot on here--who the villains have been. He has never gone to war on behalf of the American people.Â .Â .Â .
[Obama and Jimmy Carter] do share a trait: an inability to tell a story. The most popular stories have good guys and bad guys. If he wants to be re-elected, Obama is going to have to start telling us who the bad guys are and what he plans to do about them.
Obama won re-election, but would anyone really describe the 2012 Obama campaign as a clinic in exegetical politics? Did Obama lay out a compelling case for his principles? Far from it. In fact, his clearest ideological statement was "You didn't build that." His supporters spent weeks insisting he didn't say that.
What Obama did do successfully was vilify his opponent ("not one of us") and make narrow, often fear-based appeals to particular interest groups. His campaign also demonstrated a mastery of technology for identifying voters and coaxing them to the polls.
So maybe conservatives should snap out of it. If the left emerged triumphant from the slough of despond in barely a year, there's no reason the right can't do it too. But it's no clearer now than it was then that the answer lies in better "messaging." (Incidentally, maybe if you want to message good, you shouldn't use nouns as verbs.) And talking about the need for better messaging isn't going to win any elections. To be sure, neither is writing about talking about messaging. But we promise never to run for anything.
Also, Those Glasses WereÂ .Â .Â . Interesting
"Bipartisan Praise for Hillary Clinton as She Moves On," reads a CBSNews.com headline:
Even Republicans seemed to go out of their way to praise the outgoing secretary of state.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee and possible future presidential contender himself, lauded both Hillary and Bill Clinton on NBC's Meet the Press, arguing, "Look, if we had a Clinton presidency, if we had Erskine Bowles as Chief of Staff of the White House or president of the United States, I think we would have fixed this fiscal mess by now. That's not the kind of presidency we're dealing with right now."Â .Â .Â .
And Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took to "Fox News Sunday" to run interference on Hillary Clinton's behalf.
Some Republicans aggressively questioned her at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week and tried to blame the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the government's controversial explanation afterwards on Clinton, but Corker absolved her of any culpability in the tragedy, noting, "The deception around the Benghazi issue did not come from the State Department and no doubt emanated from Susan Rice on this program and on others. .Â .Â . It was more of a White House political operative deception that was carried out, not from the State Department."
"I understand the point she was making," he added.
Wow, are those ever backhanded compliments. Also, what department does Corker think the United Nations ambassador works for?
Que Se Amargan
Hugo Chavez "has entered the phase of "complementary treatment" following his cancer surgery in December in Cuba," reports the Bulgarian news agency Focus. The story quotes Vice President Nicolas Maduro as saying the Venezuelan strongman is "clinging to Christ and life."
Wow, just like those white people in Pennsylvania.
A Defense of the Virginia Plan
Reader Jeffrey Sadow, a political scientist at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, writes in with a novel defense of the Virginia Republican plan to change the way the state allocates its electoral votes, which we criticized Friday:
All of this hyperventilation ignores the fundamental facts as they are about current political trends, mischaracterizes constitutional rules, and misunderstands the beneficial impact that more widespread adoption of this method would have on the quality of democracy in America. The analytical troubles begin because of the elephant in the room these descriptions so patently miss--the fact that they misinterpret recent presidential election results as indicative of the preferences of the entire polity.
In the 2012 election, there were only six states where the popular vote winner for the presidency was for the candidate completely out of power in the state capital--all won by President Obama, with legislatures and governorships controlled by Republicans. There is a reason for that, and it's the same reason why nearly twice as many states are under complete Republican control than for their major party opposition--because a majority of voters in state elections prefer Republican candidates when they have the opportunity to vote for them.
Thus, we see political preferences in a split fashion. Democrats have had the upper hand in statewide contests at the national level, for the Senate and presidency, but where politics are less nationalized and more tuned to state and local concerns, the Republicans, and quite decisively, have the upper hand. And we've known for a long time the largest contributing factor that explains this split as it has now so obtrusively manifested--that the elections that favor Democratic victories disproportionately attract low-information, low-interest voters who disproportionately favor Democrats at the voting booth.
So the mistake many make is conflating success by Democrats in presidential national popular vote with the "popular will," assigning this to be a function of whatever dominant national issues emerge in an idiosyncratic fashion every four years. A far more robust and meaningful definition of the "popular will" incorporates policy making at all levels of government. To forget this, places too much weight on that segment of the public that commits the least amount of effort in determining what that will is.
The beauty of having states decide to go the proportional route is that it seamlessly knits together policy making at all levels and produces balance. It more easily infuses public preferences expressed at one level to the other by creating a linkage mechanism. One especially lamentable feature of American politics is that Democrats have ceased to be a meaningful political force in almost every Southern state and in some in the Mountain and upper Midwest states, while the same has happened to Republicans in the majority of Northeastern states. The proportional system can redress this imbalance.
By holding out as a prize the ability to redistrict by a party sweep of state elections, which leads in turn to increased ability to have the state's electoral-vote outcome favor that party, this provides greater incentives for these minority parties to adopt issues and candidates to win enough state elections to stalemate the majority. It means they must become less extreme (which is why, for that state, they are in a seemingly perpetual minority), which in turn means as they come to the center that will pull the majority parties that way as well. Eventually, this percolates to the national level and translates into the Holy Grail so ardently desired by so many hand-wringing analysts and politicians, bipartisanship/moderation, the lack of which we are told has made national politics dysfunctional.
As weaker parties respond and become stronger courtesy of this imperative, they also become more capable of policy making responsive to the electorate and able to be held in greater accountability by the electorate, and thereby begs for the stronger party to respond if it wishes to keep its electoral advantage. This mutual strengthening improves the quality of democracy by encouraging greater citizen engagement with political issues and ideas and in the citizenry's involvement. As a result, the days of national elections being skewed by low-information, low-interest voters may come to an end, with some portion of that segment of the population being stimulated to increase their knowledge about, interest in and turnout for elections that run the gamut of levels.
Rather than weaken democracy, the willingness of states to assign a bonus for national elections, if you will, as a result of their success at the state level, has real promise to strengthen it. Keep in mind also that the American system of government is not so much geared to reflect "democracy" as it is to enjoy the benefits of representative democracy. The move to proportional allocation by state choice reflects this core essentiality inherent to the vision the Framers of Constitution possessed in designing American government.
The fact is our governing rules permit this "political" way of determining presidential winners. But the solution presented by its implementation is also "political": win elections. And the pursuit of this solution promises better policy making and government that functions better.
Meanwhile, the New York Times's Charles Blow offers the most ridiculous objection we've seen to the Virginia proposal:
Paul Bibeau, who writes "a blog of dark humor" from Virginia, points out a numerical oddity about the effects of the Virginia law that turns out, upon reflection, to be more stinging than funny: "This bill counts an Obama voter as 3/5 of a person."
That is because, as Talking Points Memo says, "Obama voters would have received almost exactly 3/5 of the electoral vote compared to their actual population--30.7 percent of the electoral vote over 51 percent of the popular vote."
Fractions are racist! What's really ironic is that Blow seems unfamiliar with the history behind the Constitution's infamous (and long since defunct) Three Fifths Clause. It was slaveholders who wanted the federal government to count slaves as full persons for the purpose of congressional representation, since that would increase the political power of slave states; slavery opponents didn't want to count slaves at all.
And Homer nods: Due to a cognitive error, Friday's item (since corrected) misstated the terms of a 2004 Colorado ballot initiative (it would have allocated all the state's nine electoral votes, not just seven, proportionately) and the results of a Puffington Host analysis (it found Mitt Romney would have won the election with 273 electoral votes if every state allotted all but two of its votes by congressional district, not that he carried 273 congressional districts).
Fox Butterfield, Is That You?
- "And, of course, [the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre] offered what he said was the 'only' solution: 'a good guy with a gun.' This attitude has played a large role in the surge in popularity of military-style weapons marketed specifically for home defense. .Â .Â . And it has persisted even as the crime rate in the U.S. has plummeted."--Alex Koppelman, The New Yorker website, Jan.Â 25
- "Prices Are Up, but Homes Are in Short Supply"--headline, USA Today, Jan.Â 25
"The hapless Greeks have managed to keep themselves off the front pages for a few months as they burn through their latest cash infusion, courtesy of the German taxpayer. This is no mean feat considering the dire state of the country's economy and the ever-present threat of a Greek debt implosion that could light the fuse for the unwinding of the euro, the opening act of what would surely become a worldwide economic catastrophe. But the simmering cauldron that is the Greek body politic has not stopped boiling."--Bill Frezza, Puffington Host, Jan.Â 28
What Difference Does It Make?
"Fears Grow That Libya Is Incubator of Turmoil"--headline, Associated Press, Jan.Â 26
In the White House Mess?
"Secret Service Dog Falls to Its Death While on Biden Detail"--headline, WTOP-FM website (Washington), Jan.Â 27
We Shall Overcome
"John Kerry: First White, Male Secretary of State in 16 Years"--headline, Voice of America website, Jan.Â 25
That's Envy, Not Jealousy
"NAACP Chief Ben Jealous: Blacks Are Doing Worse"--headline, Politic365.com, Jan.Â 27
To Serve Man
- "Iranian Officials Purportedly Unveil Machine to Amputate Fingers of Thieves"--headline, FoxNews.com, Jan.Â 28
- "Hot Fried Fingers With Mozzarella and Prosciutto Recipe"--headline, Daily Telegraph (London), Jan.Â 25
Locked in the Cabinet
"Work With China, Don't Contain It"--headline, New York Times, Jan.Â 26
They've Already Gone to Heaven
"Technically Speaking, No One Ever Really Dies on a Plane"--headline, FoxNews.com, Jan.Â 28
They Just Flew In From ORD, and Boy Are Their Paws Tired'
"Rabbits Wreaking Havoc on Cars at DIA"--headline, KCNC-TV website (Denver), Jan.Â 25
Eh, What's Up, Doc?
"Carrots for Doctors"--headline, New York Times, Jan.Â 28
So Much for the War on Drugs
"Enjoying Snow, While We Still Have It"--headline, New York Times, Jan.Â 27
But the Levee Was Dry
"Â 'American Pie' Singer Speeds Through School Zone"--headline, Associated Press, Jan.Â 25
Each One a Dead Giveaway
"13 Signs You Might Be Dating a Zombie"--headline, BuzzFeed.com, Jan.Â 26
Hey, Kids! What Time Is It?
"Haul Out the Haggis, It's Time to Celebrate Burns Night"--headline, NPR.org, Jan.Â 25
Questions Nobody Is Asking
- "Antisemitism: Obsession or Logic?"--headline, JewishIdeasDaily.com, Jan.Â 24
- "Why Does My CatÂ .Â .Â . Meow at Me?"--headline, shine.yahoo.com, Jan.Â 25
- "Could Cyril Ramaphosa Be the Best Leader South Africa Has Not Yet Had?"--headline, New York Times magazine, Jan.Â 27
Answers to Questions Nobody Is Asking
- "Fleetwood Mac's Rumours: Why the Under-30s Still Love It"--headline, Daily Telegraph website (London), Jan.Â 27
- "Why Google Flu Trends Will Not Replace the CDC Anytime Soon"--headline, NationalJournal.com, Jan.Â 25
It's Always in the Last Place You Look
"Where's the Outrage on Morsi's Hate?"--headline, Commentary website, Jan.Â 25
News You Can Use
"Get to Know the Lesbians!"--headline, Salon.com, Jan.Â 27
Bottom Story of the Day
"Nearly 1,000 March in D.C. for Gun Control"--headline, Washington Post, Jan.Â 27
It Started as a Joke. It Became a Nightmare.
A reader reminds us of this item from our column of AprilÂ 21, 2008:
An Anxious Nation Holds Its Breath
Remember Chuck Hagel? He was, and actually still is, a U.S. senator from Nebraska. Last year he announced that he planned to decide whether America was worthy of having him as president. America was nervous. Would it make the grade? In the end, it did not. Six months later, Chuck Hagel declared that not only wouldn't he run for the president, but he wouldn't even defend his Senate seat.
America begged him to reconsider. It promised it would change. But it was too little, too late for Chuck Hagel. Now, columnist Bob Novak reports,Chuck Hagel says he may not even grace America with an endorsement in this year's presidential race:
"Friends of Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Senate's sharpest critic of President Bush's Iraq policy, say there is no chance he will endorse a Democrat for president this year. That doesn't mean, however, that Hagel necessarily will back the Republican candidate, his friend John McCain. That could depend on whether McCain devises an Iraq exit strategy. Hagel and McCain, who occupy offices in the same second floor corridor of the Russell Senate Office Building, have been spotted conferring on two recent occasions."
Hey Chuck, we don't care anymore. You can endorse or not endorse--it doesn't matter to us. We'll get along fine without you, Chuck Hagel.
Oh, who are we trying to kid? Please, Chuck, throw us a bone here! Tell us how to vote. Or at least tell us how you plan to vote, even if you're not endorsing anyone. At least promise that you'll serve as secretary of defense in the Obama administration. America needs you, Chuck Hagel!
Mr. President, would it do any good if we said that secretary of defense thing was a joke? We didn't think so.
Well, we've learned our lesson. Humor is just too dangerous and unpredictable a weapon. We will never use it again.
(Carol Muller helps compile Best of the Web Today. Thanks to Jim Beach, Michael Segal, Dave Ceely, Ken House, Geoff Lyons, Stuart Claghorn, Scott Burgess, Eric Jensen, Bruce Goldman, John Williamson, Rick Wiesehan, Irene DeBlasio, John Bobek, Michele Schiesser, Paul Hughes, Tony Lima, John Gaylord, John Sanders, Monty Krieger, Patrick O'Leary, Michael Smith and Miguel Rakiewicz. If you have a tip, write us at email@example.com, and please include the URL.)