Monday, August 29, 2011

If I Were Interviewed by Chris Matthews

by Libby ...Somebody

So, in addition to having opinions, I also have...novels. I'm published in young adult mystery (where I earned an Edgar nomination) and women's fiction. My latest, a comedic novel available for Kindle, Nook and other e-readers, is part romance, part satire of the Ivory Tower, and I'm shamelessly trying to promote it now. 

Every author dreams of sales jump-started by attention from a television or print interview. Here's my nightmare dream of one such TV host talking to me about my latest release:

An interview with Libby Malin, about her new comedy, AEFLE AND GISELA, as if conducted by Chris Matthews on his MSNBC show, Hardball:

Okay, what’s the title of this book about? I mean, AEFLE AND GISELA. How do you even pronounce that?
Ay-fool and Jih-zel-lah is how I would pronounce—

So it’s kind of German, huh? You wrote this thing because you think all academics are Nazis, is that what you’re saying?
No, not at all. I just thought the academic setting, which should be the epitome of open-mindedness, would be perfect for a book that explores an issue like conformity and the pressures that—

Didn’t you hope to upset so-called “liberal elites” with this book?
Well, I’d hoped to spur discussion about conformity and other—

Yes or no—didn’t you just want to stick it to liberal academics?
Actually, I wanted to tell a funny story and also perhaps demonstrate that the pressure to conform occurs everywhere, even—

I’m not interested in your talking points. Okay, let’s try another one—Weren’t you trying to make these professors look like bozos? Isn’t the leading character, this Tommy fellow, a bozo?
Thomas is trying to learn what true courage is.

I mean, here you have this guy, this Tommy—
Charlemagne. Thomas Charlemagne.

--Okay, let's look at this. He's a professor. Medieval history or something. And he wonders if wandering into a Patriot Day celebration by mistake might torpedo his tenure quest? Is that what you really think of college professors—that they're small-minded morons?
Well, there have been instances of conservative speakers shouted off of campuses and…

Sure, sure. Talking points again. But isn’t this Tommy something of a caricature?
Well, yes, the book does creep into caricature territory. It’s a satire, after all.

Okay, satire. Whatever. But you were trying to make some pretty strong political statements here, weren’t you? I mean, you have one of the women—the gender studies professor, I think it was—
Women’s Studies.

You have her wearing a keffiyeh, I think it’s called, I had to look that one up—
Yes, the emblematic scarf associated with the Palestinian struggle.

And you make her out to be a very ugly—I mean not in a physical way, I’m not saying women’s studies professors are ugly, for God’s sake, but you have her ugly in outlook, how she acts—very petty, very passive-aggressive. So you’re kind of saying, aren’t you, that people who support that cause are like her?
I’m writing comedy. I think the reference to her wearing that scarf was extremely peripheral, very tangential.

So you’re saying it had no meaning whatsoever?
No, it does reflect her sympathies, but—

Oh, I see what you’re doing here. Very clever. Very sneaky. You think you can put this angry women’s studies professor in a keffiyeh and just shrug it off, just say, oh, it didn’t mean anything. My fingers just slipped when I was typing that. I get it.
No, I don’t think you do.

And when you say “tangential,” are you trying to make fun of me?

You know, the thrill up the leg thing. You righties all do it. Go ahead, go ahead, I can take it. They all come on this show and mention it. But they say “tingle.” I didn’t say “tingle” up the leg, by the way, but go ahead and say it. It’s part of the right’s talking points.
Well, you did say you got a thrill up the leg when the president spoke—

Uh-huh, that’s right, that’s right. Say it. You all do when you come on the show. Thrill, not tingle. At least you got that right. Are you a racist?

All you conservatives, you have a thing against the president, don’t you, because he’s African-American?
No, I don’t. What on earth does that have to do with my book?

Well, you’re kind of pushing a conservative agenda here, aren’t you? Isn’t this book—how do you say it, AEFLE AND GISELA, yeah, AEFLE AND GISELA—isn’t it really about the struggle of right versus left on American campuses?
It’s really about the struggle of conformity versus open-mindedness that happens to take place on an American college campus.

Sure. I get you. Do you think Michelle Bachmann is open-minded? Yes or no. You obviously have thought a lot about this subject. Yes or no—is Michelle Bachmann open-minded?
I really don’t know.

Are you hypnotized?
You mean like you said Michelle Bachmann was…

Yes or no, is Michelle Bachmann open-minded—is she one of these open-minded folks you want us to think are conservatives?
The book’s not about her. I obviously don’t think about her as much as you do.

Sure, you haven’t thought about her. Yeah, I have a bridge to sell you, too.  Well, I guess we’re out of time. And I guess if people want to read your book, AEFLE AND GISELA, they will buy it.
Let’s hope so. And maybe other books by me, too. You can find them at my website:

If you have an open mind and want a laugh, you can find Aefle & Gisela available for Kindle, Nook and other e-readers. It tells the story of history professor Thomas Charlemagne as he attempts to shed the "Timid Tommy" reputation of his past by stopping a wedding on a dare. When it turns out to be the wrong wedding, legal problems ensue that could wreck his career as the world's leading expert on a poetry-writing medieval monk, Aefle, and his secret love, Gisela.

Some praise for Libby Malin's other comedic novels:
  • Booklist -- Malin creates a world of wit and chaos that is …smart and insightfully written (My Own Personal Soap Opera)
  • Publishers Weekly -- Malin's latest is heavy on humor… (she) coaxes plenty of laughs (My Own Personal Soap Opera).  
  • Jo-Anne Greene Lancaster Sunday News -- Fire Me ...had this reader chuckling out loud.
  • Washington Post -- The love story is charming and will be appreciated by any woman with bad taste in men who somehow inexplicably ends up with Mr. Right. (Loves Me, Loves Me Not) 
  • Publishers Weekly --  A whimsical look at the vagaries of dating... an intriguing side plot adds punch and pathos to the story...(Loves Me, Loves Me Not) 
  • Booklist -- Malin's clever debut toys with chick-lit stereotypes and offers quite a few surprises along the way. (Loves Me, Loves Me Not)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

So You'd Like to Create a Tea Party?

By Leslie S. Lebl

Last Thursday Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters that organized labor will reduce its funding of Democratic party coffers and instead build up its own grassroots structure. This structure, which sounds a lot like the Tea Party, would pressure candidates to honor promises made during the campaign.

So what would such an organization look like and how might it function? Would it be able to duplicate the Tea Party's success in shaping decisions in Washington? First of all, the similarities:

-- The Tea Party grew out of frustration with both parties. The unions are clearly very frustrated with President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Despite spending over $400 million to help elect Obama, unions were disappointed when the president failed to deliver such things as the card check bill that would facilitate union organizing. And the president is reportedly about to submit three free trade agreements for congressional approval that the unions oppose. (The unions apparently don't give much weight to the passage of ObamaCare.) More importantly, as Trumka puts it, Obama has allowed the Republicans to shift the terms of debate to debt and deficit reduction - definitely not union priorities.

-- In 2010, money that Republican party organizations might have hoped to get went instead to Tea Party groups, and that's likely to happen again in 2012. But in the end, most of it supported Republican candidates.

-- It's hard to think of the unions not supporting Democratic candidates next year, in the final analysis. Like the Tea Party, they're likely to conclude that you're more likely to get what you want by working within the two-party system, rather than outside it.

The differences, though, are more numerous:

-- The Tea Party was a genuine grassroots movement; it wasn't organized top-down, although senior Republican politicians have since taken key Tea Party positions. I'd be very surprised if that's what Trumka is talking about; I suspect he's got "astroturf" -- a movement directed by professionals -- in mind instead.

-- Fairly early on, the Tea Party decided its priorities were reducing government deficits and debt, shrinking the size of government, and strengthening America's foreign and national security policy. Social issues had to take a back seat. But any real grassroots labor group may find such unity elusive.

-- First of all, unions have never controlled the actual votes of their members. Significant minorities have always voted Republican, and there haven't been any reports suggesting that this situation will change. That being the case, grassroots positions on the unions' political agenda are also likely to be split.

-- Second, Trumka said that his members were "working-class people ... looking for three things: jobs, jobs, jobs." But organized labor consists of two different groups: private sector unions, who now represent no more than 6-7 percent of private sector workers; and public sector unions, now including almost one-third of state and local employees. By now, the former have surely realized that stimulus spending doesn't help them; the latter will continue to press for such spending to preserve public sector jobs.

-- Third, new laws in several states no longer require all public employees to pay union dues, so organized labor may find itself with less money in its coffers than before. No matter what, this will translate as decreased influence - hardly an encouraging development. The Tea Party, on the other hand, started from zero so had the encouragement of an upward trend in money available to spend on key issues and on political campaigns.

-- It's also easier to get out activists and voters if you feel like you're on a roll. Unions are famous for their ability to turn out the demonstrators and voters, but that may not be so easy if there's less money to fund those people.

-- And there's one final problem: everything the unions want costs money. Already, unions in many states are battling the public perception that it is their extravagant costs that are running up state and local budget deficits. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is arguing for less spending. That may be unpopular in many quarters, and politically extremely difficult, but at least they're not demanding more resources when the coffers are empty.

So will Trumka find a way to energize his base and build a new organization capable of exerting significant pressure on Obama and Congressional Democrats? It seems unlikely - and he runs the risk that withholding union funding from the Democratic Party will contribute to its defeat in November 2012.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Leaps of Faith

by Libby Sternberg

Over at a New York Times blog, Bill Keller has decided to write about faith.

Scratch that, not faith in general. He's interested in what role religious faith plays in the lives of the presidential candidates.

Nope, scratch that again. He's interested in faith's role in the lives of Republican presidential candidates.

As numerous commentators have pointed out elsewhere (including in the comments section of the blog post itself), Mr. Keller and many in the media were not at all interested in exploring faith's role -- in particular, the role of the candidate's church -- when Senator Barack Obama was seeking the presidency. They only seem interested in it when they're not too keen on the party of the candidates.

Bill Keller believes in...?
Nonetheless, are Mr. Keller's questions out of line? No, not at all! I've come to the conclusion that the more we know about a president's past, including his or her beliefs and how they might have evolved over time, the better able we are to predict what a candidate will be like as a leader. 

Forget listening to candidates' promises. I know it will shock you, but candidates often, well, fudge the truth to get people to like them and vote for them. Yes, I know -- it's disappointing. But it happens.

Candidates also have no crystal balls that will show them precisely what challenges they'll confront in office, challenges that might cause them to rethink a previously stated position or promise. Didn't FDR promise, after all, to keep the country out of foreign wars?

No, the best way to vet candidates, I've decided, is to dig into their characters and what they've said and done in the past. Looking at their religious beliefs is part of that.

The problem with religious belief, though, is that it is intensely personal and often complex. Even for the outwardly ardently religious,  internal debates probably rage about God's mercy and justice, especially when sorrow afflicts one's life.

Listen to any minister's Sunday sermon in any church in America on any weekend in the year, and you hear those complicated issues discussed -- by people who make a living in the church, by people whose faith, one would assume, is secure.  Yet many of them might be hard-pressed to give simple answers to some of the snarky --yes, snarky -- questions Mr. Keller poses.

But wouldn't it be wonderful to have a real and thorough discussion on issues such as faith/Constitution conflicts or the legal ramifications of the Establishment versus the Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, or whether the search for the "missing link" in evolution theory means the theory is flawed, or whether "Dominionism" as a tenet of any faith (not just Christian faith) is a threat to religious freedom?

Let's put it all on the table. Let's have a real rumble over these issues -- including all candidates, the incumbent among them.

But you know what? I'm guessing that Mr. Keller isn't really all that interested in that discussion. I'm guessing that Mr. Keller wants the candidates' thoughts -- wait, the Republican candidates' thoughts -- on his questions not so much because he's really curious about the answers as he's anticipating writing his response to the answers. My guess is that his response will begin with a strongly implied "Aha!" followed by a "now we know so-and-so is...." (insert synonyms for knuckle-dragging cretin here).

The media's role, say some wags, is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." I actually like to think of their role as afflicting the powerful -- no matter who the powerful are, what party they belong to, what business or nonprofit they run.

Mr. Keller's questions indicate he's only interested in afflicting Republicans. As to those whose political views align with his -- including those at the peak of power --he's willing to make a leap of faith.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

When You Strike at a King...

by Libby Sternberg

When you strike at a king, you must kill him.

Wisconsin's  public sector unions and Democrats are surely giving serious thought to this pearl of wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson. They tried to strike at "a king" -- Republicans who had spearheaded budget-conscious legislation that affected collective bargaining and pensions for public employees -- and they failed.

As reported earlier, Democrats and unions did get on the ballot six recall elections for Republican legislators in the aftermath of the debate over changes to public pensions and collective bargaining. But they weren't successful in "killing the king" of GOP dominance. They only took two of the six seats, which means the Republicans still hang on to a hair-thin majority in the state Senate. While the Democrats did hang on to two Democratic seats up for recall, too, this feels more like status quo maintenance than victory, since it didn't result in increasing the Dem percentage in the legislature.

And now they face a big question -- do they proceed with a recall of Governor Scott Walker?

That answer might have been clearer before the recall elections that just took place. In the spring, public polling on this question showed that 50 percent of those polled supported a recall of Gov. Walker, compared to 47 percent who opposed.

However, those numbers flipped exactly after the legislative recall elections. Now, 50 percent of those polled oppose a recall of the governor, while 47 percent support it, according to Public Policy Polling, the firm that did the polling on the question in May, as well.

Taking Gov. Walker out of the governor's seat would be a huge victory for Democrats and union supporters. But if Gov. Walker kept his seat in a recall election, it would be a far bigger victory for Republicans. It would demonstrate that the general Wisconsin electorate is more on their side than on the Democrats' side. It would demonstrate that the Democrats are weak, perhaps just an angry mob (remember those images from Madison?) full of bluster but no bite.

Failing to "strike at the king" successfully in this case would weaken Democrats enormously. And they and their public sector union allies have already been weakened. If I were advising them, I'd suggest they keep their powder dry and look for good candidates to run in the general elections.

But hey, I'm sure they're not listening to me. And if they do decide to "strike at a king" again and fail, all the better for those interested in pubic sector employee reform.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


by Libby Sternberg

So, apparently President Obama didn't show any righteous indignation at those who wanted to vote against raising the debt ceiling because he was trying to avoid the "angry black man trope."

Yes, I know. It's laughable. Are you done snickering?

If so, here's where this pearl came from -- Andrew Sullivan's column over at The Daily Beast. He writes:

"He just knows that the one thing the far right wants - and needs - to do is get into a fight with him, elevating them, diminishing him, and alienating the middle of the American electorate. His approach is the classic civil rights movement approach with a black leader addressing a largely white electorate: non-violence, reasoned argument..."

I'll let that sink in, too.

Okay, ready? Let's analyze this. Sullivan is suggesting that middle America's nascent racism will rear its ugly head should the president of the United States, who happens to be African-American, gets angry.

He's also suggesting that the president also thinks this and therefore tempers his reactions accordingly.

Words fail me. (And trust me, I'm rarely speechless.) Do we really have to go down this road again, Mr. Sullivan?

First, this argument is an insult to the president. Mr. Sullivan is essentially saying the president thinks a large swath of American populace is racist at heart. Now, Mr. Sullivan might think that. But does he really want to attribute that kind of stinkin' thinkin' to the president?

Second, the argument is an obvious insult to the many Americans who disagreed with raising the debt ceiling, a bunch of whom are in the president's own party. Uh, in case you need a refresher, 95 Democrats in the House voted against the bill raising the debt celing. Yeah, I know they didn't like various things in the bill, but the fact remains. They voted against raising the debt ceiling.

The final vote in the House was:  269-161

174 Republicans and 95 Democrats for
66 Republicans and 95 Democrats against

Let me summarize: more Democrats than Republicans opposed the debt ceiling bill in the House.

Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Sullivan, the president didn't open a can of "whup-ass," as you put it, criticizing those who voted in opposition to raising the debt ceiling, because a large number of them were in his own party. Give him some credit for political strategy.You might disagree with his politics and his policies (I do), but don't suggest he was motivated by racial considerations.

The fact that you do tells me who the real racist is.

Call This Number. Now.

by Libby Sternberg

Are you not completely happy with the Republican presidential field right now? Join the club. While pundits and reporters gush about Michele Bachmann winning the Ames, Iowa straw poll, they rarely focus on the fact that she still only snagged 29 percent of that vote. (And the whole thing is more GOP fund-raising event than actual vote anyway.)

Now Texas Governor Rick Perry is joining the fight. But do you cringe, as I do, at the thought of another Texas governor going for the Oval Office? I know, I know -- he's not George W.  But the comparisons will be too easy to make. And, quite frankly, his first weekend out of the gate has him talking more like a cowboy than a serious leader 

Oh, please, oh, please, oh, please, oh, please
There are a few folks still on the sidelines, though,  whom I'd love to see run.

Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is among them. He's serious, articulate, unafraid to tackle the big issues despite ridiculously negative campaigning against him. And today -- glory, hallelujah -- there's news that he might, just might, be considering a run.

Yeah, it's probably a long shot that he'll decide to do it.

But you know what would help? Lots of folks calling his congressional office urging him to get in the race.

Here's the number for his congressional campaign office:


Get Serious, Warren

Now that the ideas from this blog are making cable news, even if Pat Buchanan doesn't realize we beat him to it (Mr. Buchanan suggested, as we did, that if wealthy Warren Buffett wants to pay more taxes, as he indicated in a New York Times article recently, he should just send in the check -- see video embedded below) I feel very strongly that we must help those poor millionaires and billionaires who can't figure out how to pay more taxes.

How about an exclusive club of the very rich who agree to contribute a set percentage of their wealth voluntarily to the Treasury Department? After all, in the same way that some churches encourage all their members to tithe, membership in this club could signal the long-term commitment of its members to rectifying the injustice of their low tax rates. They could lead the way for the political system to catch up by closing tax loopholes until the country's richest citizens actually pay the rates that are supposed to apply to them.

For a modest salary, I hereby volunteer to serve as the Club Secretary.

Just write the check, Warren. We're waiting...but not holding our breath.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Crying Wolf

by Libby Sternberg

You would have thought, watching the protests in Wisconsin months ago, that the sky was falling on the Badger State, due to the draconian budget policies of new Governor Scott Walker. The atmosphere was so steamy that it led to recall elections for six state legislators.

Now the results are in, and Republicans managed to hang on to four of the six seats that were up for recall, which means they also retain, by the slimmest of margins, control of their state Senate.

Is the glass half full or half empty for the Democrats and their union supporters who pushed for the recalls? One could argue that they didn't do poorly. They did, after all, manage to get the recall elections moving, no small feat. And they did win two of the six seats.

But in politics, perception is reality. The Democrats set out to win back control of the state Senate. They didn't get it. They pushed for the recall elections with a passionate cry of "wolf, wolf!" -- Gov. Walker's (and Republicans') policies were set to devour comfort and peace in cities, towns, municipalities, individual homes.

The problem is....there was no wolf. Or, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (no conservative bastion) put it: The "sky isn't falling."

In fact, in an editorial posted online yesterday, the leading grafs were:

So it turns out that the sky isn't going to fall on all local governments in Wisconsin. The numbers now starting to come in show that Gov. Scott Walker's "tools" for local governments apparently will help at least some of them deal with cuts in state aid imposed by the state budget.

That's contrary to the expectation and the rhetoric of critics in the spring, and it's to Walker's credit. It bears out the governor's assessment of his budget-repair bill, although we still maintain he could have reached his goals without dealing a body blow to public employee unions.

The Journal didn't support (and still doesn't) Gov. Walker's policy on collective bargaining, by the way.

So, the Democrats didn't get the state Senate back, and their main point -- that the Republican policies were too extreme -- finds a dissenter in a major editorial.

Even with the two recall wins they did manage to rack up, Democrats still have the whiff of defeat about them. On the Morning Joe show today, even liberal radio host Bill Press acknowledged as much. They lost.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this means the Republicans now have the wind at their back.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

One "Last" Thing...

by Libby Sternberg

I was going to do a funny/snarky post rewriting the president's speech yesterday about the country's credit rating downgrade. It would have involved reposting the entire speech here with strikethroughs and revisions, all aimed at suggesting the president himself shouldn't have used the occasion to snark at democracy (all that "gridlock" is to blame, after all), but to reassure investors and the general public.

But when I went to compose this witty note, my first "revision" made me stop...and gag. You see, the first edit I would have made would have been to move to the front of his speech the president's words about the recent military personnel killed in Afghanistan. After acknowledging their ultimate sacrifice, after speaking on behalf of all Americans in offering condolences to their loved ones, he should have paused and moved on to the news he knew everyone was waiting for him to address, the credit downgrade -- that would have been my suggestion.

Instead, here, at the end of his remarks, is how the president handled the loss of 30 military personnel:

"One last thing.  There is no one who embodies the qualities I mentioned more than the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.  And this weekend, we lost 30 of them when their helicopter crashed during a mission in Afghanistan.  And their loss is a stark reminder of the risks that our men and women in uniform take every single day on behalf of their county.  Day after day, night after night, they carry out missions like this in the face of enemy fire and grave danger.  And in this mission –- as in so many others -– they were also joined by Afghan troops, seven of whom lost their lives as well...."

One last thing? As if this were an aside, an "oh, by the way..."? And why does he refer to their helicopter crashing and not to the reason for the crash -- they were fired upon by the Taliban. The crash wasn't due to faulty equipment or pilot error -- they were killed in battle. By not acknowledging this, by skimming over it with the bland "when their helicopter crashed," he doesn't adequately pay tribute to their sacrifice. They weren't on that helicopter for a jaunt. They were there fighting our enemies.

Yes, I know he talks about their work in the "face of enemy fire," but again, this feels tacked on, the words he knows everyone expects him to use.

I had a lot more to say about the speech, as I mentioned above. But phooey on all that. Pundits from the left and right are covering my main points anyway -- how his remarks once again demonstrate his poor leadership skills during crises that require superlative ones. But for me the "one last thing" coda to his speech is the starkest illustration of his leadership lack.

Forget the Frontrunner

I'm so tired of listening to pundits decry the lack of a credible Republican presidential candidate that I feel moved to proclaim the exact opposite. I think it's a very good thing that we don't have a frontrunner on whom all Republican hopes are pinned, for two reasons.

First, right now the Republican platform is in flux, as shown by how House Speaker John Boehner's position on "revenue increases" changed during the debt ceiling negotiations. At first, he obviously thought he had to give President Obama some kind of concession. Then he discovered that he could get the deal without one.

Obama may think the fall "supercommission" will produce significant tax increases, although I doubt it. But imagine if, as the Republican nominee, you had to offer an opinion - without being at the negotiating table. The perils are extreme: if you say some kind of increase is okay, you look like a wimp if Obama caves. If you refuse to consider any hikes and the package includes tax reform that may involve some increases, you're toast. And if you refuse to say anything, you get painted as a coward -- just ask Mitt Romney, the current leader of the pack.

Second, and conversely, choosing a front-runner for Republican nominee could hurt the evolution of the Republican platform. Just think if criticism of ObamaCare had to be tailored to avoid criticizing RomneyCare. Or if concessions made to Michele Bachmann alienated too many independents.

The truth is that the current configuration has its advantages. Boehner and Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lead the charge for spending cuts, debt reduction -- and bipartisan compromise. They may win fame and glory but, if recent opinion polls are any indication, opprobrium is more likely. However, they can at least do what they see as necessary without worrying about how this will affect their presidential campaign, as neither is running. And the future Republican nominee, whoever s/he is, will profit from any progress they achieve.

Yes, I know: President Obama is out there raising lots of money that no Republican can match. That probably won't change. But if Republican congressional leaders can build consensus among Republicans and independents for real fiscal reform, that may make all the difference.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Chris Matthews as Mr. McGuire

by Libby Sternberg

As mentioned previously, I watch a lot of MSNBC. In fact, I have it on right now. Not liking that color green on you, Mika.

Watching so much of this network means I get to see their own promotional ads a great deal, and they often have me scratching my head wondering why their marketing gurus thought these would be effective enticements to watch their shows.

All the MSNBC promo ads feature their marquee hosts talking about a political or policy topic, ostensibly to demonstrate to the audience the level of discourse you'll find on the various shows, the thoughtful exploration of issues, albeit from a liberal point of view.

The problem is that each ad seems to communicate just the opposite to me. Instead of thoughtfulness, the ads telegraph simplistic misunderstanding of their opponents, and some of the ads, in fact, contain an implicit criticism of those who might disagree with their point of view.

Take the Lawrence O'Donnell spot, for example, which has him talking about immigration, telling viewers that if they understand how "this country was built on immigration," they'll understand the "added value" immigrants bring. He ends by saying something about how if we "close the door," we change who we are.

But who ever said we should close the door on legal immigration? Most of the debates and policy suggestions I've seen have focused on illegal immigration. Nice job, Larry. You insult your audience by ascribing unfair attitudes to them, that they dislike all immigrants.

Then there are Rachel Maddow's spots, which lately have featured her talking about America's past investments and its legacy or....something. My favorite is the one with her in front of the Hoover Dam gushing about how a country, not local towns and states, has to build such mammoth projects. Get with the program, people, she seems to be saying. You've given up on American greatness.

But does anyone seriously believe she would have supported something like the Hoover Dam's construction, a project that probably had profound environmental impact on the area? I don't know about you, but I envision Rachel M in the front lines of protest groups trying to block that kind of big project today.

My favorite spot, however, belongs to Chris Matthews.  He sits on an unidentified Washington rooftop with the White House and Washington Monument in the background, his right hand in his pocket, conveying a sort of avuncular congeniality (the exact opposite of the approach he takes on his show, Hardball -- I mean, c'mon, just read the title of the program and you catch its gestalt).

Matthews talks about President Obama's distinctive background and how those who criticize him for being un-American...or something...are wrong because the president is a living, breathing example of "American exceptionalism." (It's hard to find this ad on youtube, by the way.) At the end of this ramble, Matthews pauses for a beat, then looks at the camera and says with thrill-up-the-leg sincerity: "American exceptionalism" as if those of us who disagree with the president obviously don't get how darn special he is.

Let's leave aside for the moment whether it's wise to use that phrase ("American exceptionalism") to describe Obama, who rejected it as a singular description of his own country in an interview a couple years ago, saying he believes in American exceptionalism, but he suspects the Brits "believe in British exceptionalism and the Greek exceptionalism" (and yes, I'm aware of the arguments from those who think this quote was taken out of context, but unless he goes on to say, "scratch that, what I really meant was..." I'm not sure you can airbrush it out).

Let's instead focus on the chuckle this little bit of theater produces whenever I see Matthews utter those words.

When Matthews pauses, then says "American exceptionalism," I can't stop myself from thinking of Mr. McGuire's exchange with Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock character in The Graduate:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Ben: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes, I am
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Every single time I hear Chris Matthews smugly say "American exceptionalism" to describe President Obama, I'm sorry, I think of Mr. McGuire smugly saying "plastics" to the bewildered Benjamin Braddock.

McGuire completely misreads Ben Braddock, whose thoughts and worries are focused on what to do with himself now that he has graduated. Ben knows there are jobs out there, in plastics or elsewhere. He wants more than a job. He wants a life.

Similarly, Americans know President Obama has a great backstory, an inspirational tale of humble beginnings leading to great accomplishments. I venture to say that story makes most Americans extremely proud and happy. They get American exceptionalism. They embrace it.

But most Americans aren't focused on that right now. They're focused on jobs and an economy that will allow them to lead comfortable as well as meaningful lives.

It's all well and good that their president is a shining example of how anyone in American can rise to the top. They just want to stay afloat.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Twelve Grafs, One "Sorry"

by Libby Sternberg

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera recently called the Tea Party "terrorists" in a column. If the definition of news is any story with a "man bites dog" template, the Nocera name-calling surely doesn't qualify. He was one among many using words like "terrorist" for those whose opinions he didn't share.

Nonetheless, it's noteworthy when people who are paid to give thoughtful opinions end up being, well, thoughtless, so his name-calling column garnered attention.

It wasn't the kind of attention a commentator likes, however, since it focused on style and not substance.

Not to worry -- in his August 5 column, he apologized and said he won't do it again.

But you have to search for those golden words of regret. On second thought, don't bother. Here's the Cliff Notes version of the 12 paragraphs of his column:

Grafs 1 through 4: a summary of Nocera's working-class roots
Grafs 5 and 6: how awful the financial crisis is and how angry it makes people, including himself
Graf 7: how he hates incivility; the money quote -- "I apologize" (that's it in its entirety)
Graf 8 through 11: how awful the economy is and how awful Republicans are for doing things he doesn't like
Graf 12: he promises not to call anyone names again.

I'm sure conservatives weren't holding their breath for an apology, but his column hardly qualifies as one anyway. In it, he seemed to me akin to a child who, when caught with his hands in the cookie jar, says he's sorry but, gosh, darn it, he was so hungry because the dinner you cooked was awful to begin with.

There's something a little, oh, insincere, about the apology in that case. It sounds more like an excuse than a real declaration of contrition.

So, while I, as a conservative, would be happy to accept Nocera's apology for labeling folks terrorists, who, like me, believe the Republicans, while not perfect, are on the right track, I can't grant him absolution.

His confession was too small, too obscured, and too inauthentic.

The "Narcissism of Big Differences?"

by Leslie S. Lebl

I, too, just finished reading the op-ed page of the August 6-7 issue of the Wall Street Journal, and am still scratching my head over
Joseph Rago's interview with Eric Cantor in which he says that both Cantor and President Obama suffer from the "narcissism of big differences."

I think - although I'm not sure - that Rago means both men measure their self-worth by adhering to an all-embracing philosophy. For Obama, it's achieving "social justice" by redistributing wealth and increasing the role of government. For Cantor, it's restoring economic prosperity to America by reducing the government's debt and its role.

Rago explains that "Mr. Cantor's aggressive style has earned him the enmity of liberals and most of the D.C. press corps." This caused me, the great literary connoisseur, to recall the opening chapters of Jane Austin's
Persuasion. The heroine's father and elder sister are spending their way toward bankruptcy, and are only persuaded with great difficulty to change their ways. Needless to say, the heroine's efforts to promote economy earn her no gratitude.

So I find myself agreeing with Claudia Rosett, who praises Standard & Poor's because it "has finally reduced the spending bacchanal of the U.S. government to a sound bite that anyone can understand..."
Eric Cantor: new Jane Austen hero?

Maybe, just maybe, Eric Cantor strikes many people as aggressive because they, like the heroine's father and elder sister in
Persuasion, really but really don't like what he's saying, even though it's true. And they hope that, if they make a big enough noise, the electorate won't catch on that he has a point.

All this might have worked several years ago, but Cantor has the wind of the Tea Party at his back. It will be an interesting fall; a year ago, Obama could convene a bipartisan debt commission and then utterly disregard its recommendations. That's unlikely to happen again.

False Memories

by Libby Sternberg

There have been a lot of references to Ronald Reagan lately, with President Obama quoting him to reinforce his own point of view during the debt ceiling debate, Democrats releasing a video of Reagan seeming to endorse their point of view, and pundits like Joan Walsh declaring that President Obama is the "Reagan" figure in the debate.

Leaving aside the disingenuousness of these comparisons -- yes, Reagan did once support raising taxes to get spending cuts he wanted, but later regretted the move, with one adviser calling it "the greatest domestic error" of the administration. Instead, let's look at this new-found love of a president that liberals loathed back in the 1980s.

I was no political or news junkie back then, but one of the few things that managed to seep into my youth-addled brain was the hatred of Reagan among Democrats. At that time, I was heavily involved in the arts world. I'd gone to a music conservatory, and I was singing with some choirs, opera companies and the like. During breaks, I remember hearing passionate grumbling about Reagan, and even a bitter denouncement of Nancy Reagan when she decided to replace the White House china. I recall her being criticized, too, for her choice of a mastectomy over a lumpectomy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. (Does it get much lower than that?) I'm sure it would be ridiculously easy to find columns, commentary, news articles and more scathingly critical of Reagan during those years.

The point is, Reagan was not beloved at all by those on the left. He was loathed. So this new appreciation for him involves some "false memories."

Among those is one that's seeped into the greater consciousness-- the notion of Reagan, the Great Communicator. Whenever my husband and I would hear that appellation, we'd look at each other and say, "huh?"

We cringed watching Reagan in debates and answering questions from the press. He could give a good speech, sure, but isn't that the minimum standard of communication skill -- being able to read, without stumbling, words someone else has written for you?

We came to the conclusion that the Great Communicator label was, in fact, not praise but veiled insult. It implied that he was able to "sell" his ideas well, not that his ideas (of limited government and strong defense) had merit on their own.

Today, I picked up the Wall Street Journal to discover that Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter, was pretty much saying the same thing, as she discussed the problems President Obama faced during the debt ceiling debate. He famously told Rep. Eric Cantor not to "call his bluff" (a Freudian slip?) because he'd "take this to the American people."

He had used the Reagan analogy enough to actually believe it, I guess, and he also had mistakenly bought into the idea that Reagan prevailed because his speeches connected with the American people.

But taking "this to the American people" didn't work. Whatever his fine attributes, Obama can't be considered a "great communicator" any longer. His rhetoric no longer soars. The teleprompter is a constant reminder that his words are studied and carefully chosen, at least as much to avoid offense as to persuade.

And this brings me to Noonan's final point: "Democrats were sure Reagan was wrong," she wrote, "so they explained his success to themselves by believing that it all came down to some kind of magical formula involving his inexplicably powerful speeches. They misdefined his powers and saddled themselves with an unrealistic faith in the power of speaking." She went on:

 "But speeches aren't magic. A speech is only as good as the ideas it advances. Reagan had good ideas. Obama does not.

"The debt-ceiling crisis revealed Mr. Obama's speeches as rhetorical kryptonite. It is the substance that repels the listener."

I couldn't agree more. By misinterpreting the history of Reagan, President Obama mistakenly believes that rhetoric will win the day. Talk is cheap, though, and a skeptical American public has always known that. If they bought what Reagan was saying, it was because they liked the ideas, not the words themselves.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Leslie and Libby on ...
How to Pay More Taxes

Leslie S. Lebl says:

OK, so Warren Buffett and Matt Damon want to pay more taxes, but mean-spirited Republicans won't let them. Surely those legions of Washington-savvy politicians can find a solution. What about ...

He wants to pay more taxes. Huzzah!
You know that line on your income tax return asking if you'd like to donate $3.00 to the presidential election campaign fund? Well, how much would it cost for the IRS to add a line: "check here if you, or your spouse if filing jointly, want $1,000,000 to go to fund programs Republicans hate"? In fact, why stop there? Why not offer options, like the typical fund-raising letter, in this case for up to $10,000,000?

If you're thinking, oh no, that would require Congressional approval, just remember how creative the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Labor Relations Board have become. They've shown the way; now it's time for the IRS to fall in line.

Just think how much happier all those millionaires and billionaires would be!

Libby Sternberg says:
He wants to pay more taxes. Huzzah!
I have to agree with my fellow traveler Leslie here. But while she makes this suggestion in jest, I'd like to make it in all seriousness. I'm getting pretty tired of hearing rich people complain about not paying enough taxes.

First of all, if they want to pay more, they already can. So, listen up, rich people. Put your ear very, very close to the screen because I'm going to whisper this information so no one else will know. Are you close enough now? Can you still hear me?

Gifts to the United States
U.S. Department of the Treasury
Credit Accounting Branch
3700 East-West Highway, Room 622D
Hyattsville, MD 20782

Here's a link to how you do the deed:

But I think Leslie's on to something with the need to make this process even clearer, more, well, "transparent."

I think Republicans should expedite legislation that requires the IRS to print, in 18-point Times New Roman, boldface italic, the following message at the top of each tax form:


Bah-dah-bing-bah-dah-boom. Done.

I don't know about you, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for checks from Messrs. Damon, Buffett, Zuckerberg, et al to start rolling in.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

S & P, Moody's: Should They Be on the Terrorist Watch List?

by Leslie S. Lebl

The global security situation is disintegrating sharply, yet no one seems to have realized it.

How do I know this? Well, the Tea Party has been condemned as terrorist. As we learned the hard way with regard to Al Qaeda and its friends, terrorism is simply a tactic. The truly dangerous part is the ideology behind it.

The Tea Party's ideology? It believes terrible things will happen if the U.S. government doesn't get its spending under control ...

Uh, wait a minute -- but so do Standard & Poor's, Moody's - in fact, all the rating agencies have considered downgrading our credit rating if we don't do something about debt reduction.

So they're terrorists, too! At least, they subscribe to the same subversive thinking.

And it only gets worse: yesterday's Financial Times cites the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese communist party, as stating: "Although the US has basically avoided a default, its sovereign debt problem has not been solved. It has just received a reprieve and will continue on a worsening trend."

Doesn't that sound just like Michele Bachmann?

This little piece of fun makes a serious point -- those who believe the country's debt problem is grave are acting out of concern for the country's future financial stability and are no more terrorists than the green eye-shade financial experts setting our country's credit ratings.

Leslie S. Lebl is a principal in Lebl Associates.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wealthy People I'd like to Punish with Taxes

by Libby Sternberg

Whenever I hear pols talking about making the wealthy "pay their fair share" or complaining about "tax cuts for the wealthy," even I, a free-market, low-tax kind of gal, can't help feeling a visceral urge to grab a pitchfork and rush for the gates, hoping to bring those greedy, caviar-eating, Rolls-driving, champagne-drinking fat cats to their knees.

Forget about taxing them more. How about forced labor in carnival dunking booths? Mmm...I'm feeling it.

But that's because we all have images of wealthy people we don't like, people we believe don't deserve their riches. Company CEOs who ran their businesses into the ground while floating to safety with platinum parachutes. Athletes who used steroids to pump their way to victory. Heiresses who wear a lot of pink and carry small dogs around with them. Charlie Sheen.

The problem with trying to make these folks pay more, of course, has been pointed out on this blog before. When you go after the undeserving, you often catch a lot of "deserving" folks in the net, too.

So I've come up with a new tax plan. Let’s hike taxes on every wealthy person whom we find, oh, say, irritating. Irritating wealthy people are certainly undeserving. I would dub this tax program the New Income Tax for the Wealthy, Irritating and Troubling (NITWIT, for short).

I would like to start by suggesting new taxes on Porsche owners. One of them nearly dinged my family’s old Buick when we were parking in front of our favorite local Chinese restaurant not too long ago. I don’t know about you, but Buick-denting, safety-hating Porsche owners certainly don’t deserve to keep more of their money, in my book.

Also on the NITWIT list -- those who agree with the “no tax cuts for the wealthy” program, yet who never give any more of their income to the running of government than is currently required by law. Let’s call this the NITWIT-WTT addendum (for “Walk the Talk”).

Nothing’s stopping you, Mark Zuckerberg, from forking over a little extra cash to Uncle Sam all on your own. But if you don’t, under this new plan, you automatically get to pay the taxes advocated by the politician with whom you are standing, figuratively or literally.

Moving along, further down the list in the NITWIT group, are Entertainers Who Annoy Us (EWAU).

Those whose last name, perhaps, is Sheen, and whose first name, perhaps, is Charlie. (Last Charlie Sheen joke. I promise.)

But others can quickly fill up this EWAU list, especially if they happen to fall into the WTT group, as well. In fact, a NITWIT-WTT-EWAU taxee is eligible for a special status --they would qualify for 100 percent taxation on any memoir or tell-all films or media appearances, plus 90 percent of, oh, what the heck, everything else.

They would also have to prepare their taxes themselves under the NITWIT-EWAU-WTT plan and would have to deliver their taxes in person to Washington, DC, paying a special carbon usage tax for every mile from their home (presumably in California) to the capital.

Oh, and they’d have to pay their taxes in…gold coins purchased from a sponsor of the Glen Beck radio show.

This leads us to the HPH -- the High Profile Hypocrite -- category of NITWIT taxees. Onto this list is anyone espousing “green” policies but who does not live in a two-bedroom 900 square-foot house and use only 12 rolls of toilet paper a year.

There would be an additional tax on this group if over 90 percent of their food budget goes to purchasing organic items at stores whose names rhyme with Schmole Schmoods. They must provide grocery store receipts with their extended tax form, something they surely won’t mind since it will create more government jobs (at the IRS).

Their taxes need not be delivered in person--they are, after all, environmentally conscious--but would have to be carried by horses or other non-fossil-fuel-using contrivances to the IRS. In Washington. And the taxes would have to be in the form of…lumps of coal.

Also on the NITWIT list would be any of the housewives from the following shows: Real Housewives of Orange County, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Real Housewives of Miami, and Real Housewives of New York (these women would qualify for extra-high taxes because of how extra obnoxious they are; yeah, I mean you, Ramona. And Sonja. And Alex.). I'm leaving off the ladies of the Atlanta show because I'm not convinced they have that much money to begin with. And the New Jersey Real Housewives -- well, let's just say, they're a big Italian family (not that there's anything wrong with that), and I'd rather not cross them.

The list of NITWITS could go on for pages. But by now, I’m sure readers get the point. Tax policy should aim to be fair and effective, not punishing. In 2009, when the president signed the stimulus bill, he obviously didn’t think corporate jet owners were undeserving. The bill contained a reauthorization of their tax cut, designed to effect expansion of that industry.

So, while we can all think of people on whom we’d love to smack the NITWIT label, wouldn’t it be better to discuss tax policy reasonably and rationally, without ginning up class hatred?

Rants and Warren Buffett and Taxes

by Libby Sternberg

So, yesterday I chose to focus on how media bias manifests itself. Turns out Jonah Goldberg was writing about the same thing, focusing on one particular story -- the fact that so many pundits, commentators, and even politicians have resorted to extreme rhetoric in the debt ceiling debate, labeling Republicans and conservatives everything from terrorists to hostage takers to...whatever.

Mr. Goldberg's particular beef was that during the interviews about Gabby Giffords's return to the House for the debt ceiling vote (And wasn't that a wonderful story after all the squabbling? I thought so!), no journalist bothered to ask "what do you think of those who use words like 'terrorist' to describe Republicans in this debate?"

I understand Mr. Goldberg's anger. So often, the right is scolded about civility while the left gets to paint as many Hitler mustaches as they want (both rhetorically and really) on conservatives without a peep from the press. I'm not so keen on Mr. Goldberg's headline or conclusion. After having been told to "go to hell" on FB the other day for voicing a conservative opinion, I'm not willing to endorse that language.

For those who want to judge for themselves, here's Goldberg's rant.

On to...taxes.

The other day I posited that it's all well and good to talk about getting the wealthy to pay their fair share (what is a "fair share" anyway? Who determines "fair"?), but as long as you have a complicated tax system with deductions and credits and the like, the wealthy will use their money to hire accountants and lawyers, who will then figure out ways to shelter the dough from Uncle Sam.

Such is the case with Warren Buffett who, as I pointed out, complains that he is in a lower tax bracket than his secretary. (Again, I wonder: if this upsets him, he should just write a check to the IRS for what he considers his "fair share" and fire the danged accountants and lawyers).

The problem with Mr. Buffett's complaint is that it leads to talk of raising taxes that might end up capturing revenue from people who deserve to keep their money as they strive to build businesses (there goes the "fair share" argument). In other words, raising tax rates is likely to catch a lot of little fish in that net, fish that are striving to become big fish.

Okay, let's drop the fish metaphor; it's not working for me.

Let's put it this way: there are lots of "strivers" trying to make it big, starting businesses, hiring people, questing after that elusive American Dream. Warren Buffett has achieved it. Raising taxes, however, might make it more difficult for some of those strivers to reach his achievement point.

So today I open the Wall Street Journal to find a really interesting discussion of this issue -- how to capture Warren Buffett's wealth in taxes. No, it wasn't an op/ed or editorial. This discussion was in the letters to the editor page where numerous folks were chiming in to say how you can't capture his wealth in taxes because of it being sheltered, and even when he dies, apparently it goes to charity (a choice he might deny others if some tax policies were enacted).

One letter-writer, however, proposed something that caught my eye and got me to thinking. This fellow, Winston Emmons from Needham, MA, suggested that the federal tax code is wrong because it "focuses on income instead of wealth. If you are rich, it's because of what you have, not because of what you make."

Mr. Emmons goes on to point out that a "true tax on the rich would not take more from aspiring people...It would impose a separate tax only on people who already have a fortune--that is, a tax on high net worth."

And then he proposes eliminating a lot of other taxes that complicate the code without adequately capturing revenue.

I thought it was an intriguing idea. I also like flat tax ideas that treat everyone equally and turn a nonjudgmental eye on whether you "deserve" to keep your own money. And I've found a national sales tax idea interesting as well -- although my sister-in-law points out it can lead to black market problems as people try to avoid it.

As I said in an earlier post, I'm not against the idea of raising taxes at some point if it's a fair plan and we continue to cut spending, so that future generations aren't burdened with the results of our profligacy.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Flat Earthers and Nobel Prize Winners

by Libby Sternberg

On MSNBC's Morning Joe program today, journalist/author John Heilemann, whose views I usually find thoughtful even when I disagree with him, made a remark about the "flat earthers" who voted against the debt ceiling deal in the House.

To call someone a "flat earther" means you think they're stupid and uninformed, even rigidly dogmatic. So I'm guessing he wasn't using the term as a compliment.

Joe Scarborough quickly responded by asking Heilemann if he thought the same of the liberal New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize winner) Paul Krugman who, in his blog yesterday, wrote:

"I guess I have to be explicit at this point: yes, I would vote no (on the debt ceiling vote)."

Scarborough's point, I believe, was this: People who voted "no" might have done so because they were making thoughtful decisions on the future of this country, based on what they believe to be true. You can't say they're stupid for doing that without presenting evidence, especially when you're not willing to say the same about someone like Paul Krugman. In other words, you can say you think they -- the Tea Partiers and Paul Krugman -- are wrong, but you can't say they're stupid unless you're willing to call everyone with that point of view stupid, even those on your side of the ideological divide.

To me, Heilemann's comment was an example of media bias, attributing base motivations to people he disagrees with, but unwilling to attribute the same motivations to those he usually agrees with.

When I tell people the mainstream media is often biased against conservatives, it always feels like such a cliche that I'm almost embarrassed to say it. But it's true. And it's not a nefarious plot. It's just human nature. I've seen numerous polls/surveys over the years that demonstrate most journalists do not identify with conservative viewpoints. Here's some info from one such survey done in 2008 by the Pew Research Center in their annual "State of the Media" report. Take note of how the journalists' views compare with the percentages in the general public:

"As was the case in 2004, majorities of the national and local journalists surveyed describe themselves as political moderates; 53% of national journalists and 58% of local journalists say they are moderates. About a third of national journalists (32%), and 23% of local journalists, describe themselves as liberals. Relatively small minorities of national and local journalists call themselves conservatives (8% national, 14% local).

"Internet journalists as a group tend to be more liberal than either national or local journalists. Fewer than half (46%) call themselves moderates, while 39% are self-described liberals and just 9% are conservatives.

"Among the population as a whole, 36% call themselves conservatives – more than triple the percentage of national and internet journalists, and more than double the percentage of local journalists. About four-in-ten (39%) characterize their political views as moderate, while 19% are self-described liberals, based on surveys conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press."

Now, I don't think you can extrapolate from that survey that journalists who hold "moderate" or "liberal" views deliberately try to skew stories against conservatives. But I do think it's only human nature to try to share information you think is vitally important. And if you're liberal or even moderate, those priorities might often be different from those of conservatives. I often think, in fact, that bias shows itself most acutely in story selection and headline writing.

I have great admiration for journalists who see their job as being a watchdog on the powerful, regardless of who holds that power and what their ideology is.