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“Where Connections Trump Talent”: Is Washington The Worst Place On Earth?

Today we learn that New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich has penned a book called This Town: The Way It Works in Suck Up City, exposing all the awfulness of our nation’s capital. As Politico reports, “Two people familiar with the book said it opens with a long, biting take on [Tim] Russert’s 2008 funeral, where Washington’s self-obsession—and lack of self-awareness—was on full display. The book argues that all of Washington’s worst virtues were exposed, with over-the-top coverage of his death, jockeying for good seats at a funeral and Washington insiders transacting business at the event.” Sounds about right.

In the past, I’ve offered Washington some gentle ribbing, employing colorful phrases like “moral sewer” and “festering cauldron of corruption.” In truth, D.C. is a complicated place, and like any city it has its virtues and flaws. But you don’t find many other cities where the inhabitants regularly write about how despicable the place is. Obviously, there’s “Washington,” an actual city where people live and work, and “Washington,” a rhetorical construct that embodies the things people don’t like about government and politics. But is Washington worse than anyplace else? It’s a tough call, but here are some reasons I think D.C. comes in for more of this kind of criticism:

Washington is small.

Part of the reason D.C. has no representation in Congress is that when it was established, it was thought that while the work of government would be carried out in the District, no one would live here. That may not be true anymore, but it’s still extremely small for the capital of the most important country on Earth, and that increases the extent to which it is defined by politics. There are other cities, like Los Angeles or Detroit, where one industry dominates. But with a little more than 600,000 people, Washington ranks No. 25 in population among U.S. cities, behind places like El Paso, Memphis, and Fort Worth. So even if the entertainment industry dominates L.A., there are still a few million people there whose work isn’t directly connected to it. Because D.C. is so small, it’s more dominated by its dominant industry than anywhere else.

What Washington does affects everyone, and not always in a good way.

To get back to the Los Angeles comparison, even if you think, say, the offerings on the Disney Channel are part of a plot to turn our nation’s tweens into a bunch of morons (I’m convinced this is true, I just don’t know who’s behind it or what they hope to achieve), its dominant industry probably produces things you love, too. Detroit may be a mess, but they make cars there, and you’ve probably had a car you loved. Despite the fact that Washington has produced some terrific things like Medicare and the Clean Air Act, it’s also the fount of a steady stream of misbegotten policies and political nastiness. And D.C.’s most horrible people can have an impact on all of our lives. There are no doubt people just as vile in other places, but it’s easy to just laugh at some Wall Street jerkwad or a despicable Hollywood agent. That disgusting congressman, on the other hand, is making the laws we all live under.

Washington gets more scrutiny.

The fact that politics gets the deserved attention it does means that ordinary people hear a lot not only about the consequences of policy but the ugly process of making it. The production of a movie may involve just as much pettiness, squabbling, and backstabbing as the passing of a law, but it doesn’t get as much attention, because there’s a smaller and more specialized press that covers it, compared to the armies of journalists that swarm Capitol Hill and the White House. That means that most of the ugliness is on full display.

Nowhere else do more people fail upward.

The fact that connections matter more than merit in getting ahead is true to some degree everywhere, but not to an identical extent, and nowhere is it more true than in Washington. Anyone who has worked here has encountered multiple incompetent fools who nevertheless managed to keep getting jobs with more and more authority, where they do an incredibly crappy job, only to be hired for another job at an even higher level, where their lack of talent will be even more apparent. That’s because more than anywhere else, jobs, consulting contracts, and the like are distributed based on who you know. Again, this is true everywhere, but in Washington, connections seem to trump talent every time. That doesn’t mean Washington isn’t brimming with extraordinarily talented people, because it is. But based on my unscientific survey, it has more hacks enjoying undeserved career advancement than anywhere else.

Washington has more short-timers.

OK, I’m not sure this is true, and I don’t know if anyone has the data to establish it. But it does seem that a huge number of people come to Washington, spend a few years working in the politics industry, and then leave to go somewhere else. There are people who love it here, but in my experience, there are few who love it here so much that they can’t imagine living anywhere else, unless it’s because they want to keep working in politics. In contrast, you’ll find lots and lots of people in places like New York or L.A. or San Francisco or Chicago who think it’s the best place in the world and don’t ever want to leave, no matter what they do for a living. That transient population keeps D.C.’s character defined by politics, which is the part that never changes.

That’s my list; you could probably come up with some other things. So is Washington worse than anyplace else? Does it really have a higher concentration of dreadful people doing dreadful things? I can’t say for sure. But maybe.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 27, 2013

April 27, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Are A Nation Of Immigrants”: Immigration Reform Is Both Compassionate And Practical

Marco Rubio, Florida’s junior senator, is pushing immigration reform because he needs a major legislative accomplishment to cement his credentials as a rising GOP star.

Haley Barbour, former GOP governor of Mississippi, is campaigning for an immigration overhaul because he knows that the Republican Party will be doomed if it does not make peace with growing numbers of Latino voters.

John McCain, Arizona’s senior senator and former GOP presidential nominee, is once again advocating a path to citizenship for undocumented workers because, well, his ego won’t allow him to be outdone by a young upstart named Rubio.

Whatever their reasons, they have found the right cause: The time has come to offer an estimated 11 million people living in the shadows a path to citizenship. Political calculations can produce lasting accomplishments, and few issues are more in need of ambitious pols looking to burnish their resumes than immigration reform.

For decades now, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Indians, Koreans, and even a few Irish and Norwegians, among others, have lived and worked among us, paying taxes, buying homes, sending their children to school — all the while without the protections afforded by legal documents.

Their labors are easily exploited by greedy employers. They can’t drive or board airplanes legally. They are not eligible to collect Social Security upon retirement, even if they have paid into the system through fake papers. They live in fear of those routine disruptions that can spiral downward into devastation for those without proper documents: the routine traffic stop, which can lead to deportation; the death of a parent in a distant land, which urges travel across borders; the teenager’s approaching 16th birthday and its shattered promise of a driver’s license, which can’t be obtained.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a former reporter who has become an advocate for immigration reform, wrote about learning of his status as an undocumented immigrant only when he went to apply for a driver’s license as a teenager. His grandparents, who were naturalized citizens from the Philippines, had never told him that they had conspired to bring him into the country illegally in order to give him a better life. He was as American as any other California teenager, so he was shocked to learn he stood on the other side of an invisible line.

But some of the most compelling reasons to put people like Vargas, Americans in almost every respect, on the path to citizenship have to do with the benefits that would accrue to the rest of us. Yes, immigration reform is a compassionate policy. It’s also a very practical one that provides substantial assistance to the economy, which is good news for everyone.

Business executives already know that, which is why so many of them are campaigning for comprehensive immigration reform. They depend on well-educated immigrants for their science and engineering expertise; they also depend on low-skilled immigrants to do the jobs that Americans don’t want to do, including farm work.

In addition, there is a broader benefit provided by immigrants, both legal and illegal: They have helped the United States to remain youthful, in contrast to its rapidly aging peers among industrialized nations.

Just look at Japan, a vast geriatric ward. A stunning 23 percent of its population is 65 or older. A cultural resistance to outsiders has exacerbated its problems: It remains hostile toward immigrants, despite the fact that it needs younger workers.

Several Western European countries haven’t fared much better. In Greece, for example, 19 percent of the population is 65 or older. That helps to explain its dismal economy, which doesn’t have enough younger workers paying taxes to support its retirees.

The United States, by contrast, sees itself as a nation of immigrants (despite the fact that history shows waves of discontent over the issue). Because of more recent waves of newcomers — whether they crossed the border with or without legal documents — this country’s retirees account for just 13 percent of the population. Just imagine how vicious the fights over cuts to Social Security and Medicare would be if we had fewer young workers to pay the tab.

Most of America’s undocumented workers have shown their allegiance to this country. We ought to show our appreciation by putting them on a path to citizenship. After all, we need them.


By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, April 27, 2013

April 27, 2013 Posted by | Immigration Reform | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Everything That’s Rotten About Congress”: Fixing The Part Of Sequestration That Affects Rich People

After a month or so of the sequestration budget cuts only affecting people Congress doesn’t really care about, the cuts hit home this week when mandatory FAA furloughs caused lengthy flight delays cross the country. Suddenly, sequestration was hurting regular Americans, instead of irregular (poor) ones! Some naive observers thought this would force Congress to finally roll back the purposefully damaging cuts that were by design never intended to actually go into effect. Those observers were … sort of right! The U.S. Senate jumped into action last night and voted to … let the FAA transfer some money from the Transportation Department to pay air traffic controllers so that the sequestration can continue without inconveniencing members of Congress, most of whom will be flying home to their districts today. The system works! (For rich people, like I’ve been saying.)

The Washington Post says, “The Senate took the first step toward circumventing sequestration Thursday night,” though in fact what it did was work to ensure that the sequester continues not affecting elites, who fly regularly. I am embarrassed that I did not predict this exact outcome in my column Tuesday morning. The Senate, which can’t confirm a judge without months of delay and a constitutional crisis, passed this particular bill in about two minutes, with unanimous consent. The hope is that the House can get it taken care of today, I guess in time for everyone to fly to Aspen or wherever people whom Congress listens to fly to on Fridays.

After that Congress will be done fixing all the various problems with the design and implementation of the sequestration:

But House action on a broader deal to undo the across-the-board cuts appears remote. House conservatives say much of the impact has been exaggerated by the White House, and they have relished the success of forcing visible spending cuts on a Democratic administration.

“I think it’s the first time we’ve saved money in Washington, D.C.,” said Representative Raúl Labrador, Republican of Idaho. “I think we need to move on from the subject.”

Move on, people who may become homeless! We fixed the airports, what more do you want?

There was a big to-do yesterday about a Politico story insisting — explosively! morning-winningly! — that Congress was trying to exempt itself from Obamacare. Because this is Politico, the story was based on equal parts misunderstanding of policy and desire to create a fuss. The actual story is that Republicans proposed forcing members of Congress and their staffs to only use healthcare plans created by Obamacare or available in the exchanges. Democrats passed the amendment, as a sort of fuck you. But the exchanges are designed for people who don’t have employers who pay for healthcare. Congressional staffers get employer-sponsored health benefits. The exchanges are explicitly not designed for employees of large employers who pay for healthcare, so some people are right now trying to figure out how to make sure staffers continue to get healthcare. It may end up not being a big deal, or it may require a tweak to the law. But it’s not a scandal. (Honestly, it’s all a pretty good argument for ditching employer-based healthcare in favor of universal single-payer but then again everything is.)

But the fuss was already created. The story will live forever, and no amount of debunking in the world will kill the popular myth that Congress attempted to secretly “exempt” itself from Obamacare. So self-serving!

Their staffers are generally the poorest people members of Congress know, and trying to make sure their healthcare is paid for is seriously the closest our legislature gets to altruism. But while the story of Congress working to make sure its staffers don’t have to shoulder the entirety of their premium costs because of Republican political stuntmanship was treated as a scandal and an example of everything rotten about Congress, the story of Congress hurriedly making sure the well-off minority of Americans who fly regularly don’t get briefly inconvenienced — while ignoring the costs of brutal cuts on programs for low-income Americans facing housing or hunger crises — is treated as a wonderful and encouraging display of bipartisanship.

Have a great flight home, senators!

By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, April 26, 2013

April 27, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Sequestration | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Bullhorn Is In The Museum, And So Is The Bull”: Bush’s Long-Shot Campaign To Be Seen As Truman

The dedication this week of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum was more than an opportunity for the five living U.S. presidents to compare notes on what Stefan Lorant called “the glorious burden” of the office.

It also was the beginning of Bush’s campaign for rehabilitation. As Bill Clinton said at the ceremony, all presidential libraries are attempts “to rewrite history.”

Bush’s ultimate goal — already hawked by his former political advisor Karl Rove — is to become another Harry S. Truman, a regular-guy commander in chief whose stock rose sharply about 20 years after he left office.

The superficial comparisons are intriguing. Vice President Truman only became president because Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. The failed haberdasher and product of the Kansas City political machine was unlikely to make it to the top on his own. He was a plain-spoken, unpretentious man who cared enough about racial injustice that he desegregated the armed forces.

Bush became president because he was born on third base, to paraphrase Texas governor Ann Richards’ quip about his father, and because of the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore in 2000; an unexceptional man who drank heavily until he was 40 probably wouldn’t have made it on his own. He’s a blunt, compassionate conservative who, as Jimmy Carter pointed out at the dedication, saw the ravages of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere and did something about it. (Bush also appointed two black secretaries of state.)

Like Iraq in Bush’s era, the Korean War was hugely unpopular when Truman left office in 1953, and his decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan was at least as controversial as Bush’s support for torture.

Still, you don’t have to be Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to know that the differences between Bush and Truman are much greater than the similarities.

In Korea, Truman was responding to communist aggression, not hyping unconfirmed stories about weapons of mass destruction.

While Truman’s “Marshall Plan” (named for his secretary of state, George C. Marshall) produced spectacular results in postwar Europe, Bush apparently didn’t even have a plan for postwar Iraq.

His decision to disband the Iraqi army was catastrophic. Iraq and the simultaneous neglect of Afghanistan are only the best-known Bush administration fiascos that are all but airbrushed out of the museum, though not out of the historical record.

A broader list would include weakening bank-capital requirements and prohibitions on predatory lending that helped pave the way for the financial crisis; botching the response to Hurricane Katrina; gutting federal rules on worker safety, education, veterans’ affairs and other protections; endorsing a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; editing climate-change reports to the specifications of ideologues; reinstating the global gag rule on family planning in deference to right-wing anti-abortion activists, and politicizing appointments to the federal bench and federal law enforcement.

All this is ignored by Bush apologists. Ed Gillespie, a longtime Republican operative who last year helped the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, offered a defense of Bush in National Review that sought to absolve him of any blame for the budget deficit. As if the trillion-dollar wars, unaffordable tax cuts, the $550 billion (unpaid-for) prescription-drug benefit and hundreds of billions of lost revenue in the recession that began on his watch could be erased from history.

The new museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas is cleverly designed to subsume Bush’s record within the burdens of the presidency. It includes a “Decision Theater” that puts visitors in the shoes of a president forced to make tough calls on a variety of pressing issues.

The subtext is that this is an extremely hard job and that you, the visitor, couldn’t do it any better than Bush did.

While this may make for a thought-provoking museum experience, it’s a low bar for presidential performance. Allowing for some mistakes, we should admire our presidents not because they have to face tough decisions but for making the right ones.

The “moral clarity” that is Bush’s claim to presidential respectability is only worth something if it results in clear achievement.

As a sign that even Bush knows his batting average on big decisions was low, the museum barely mentions Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other officials who helped him make them.

Cheney’s churlish behavior and frequent shots at President Barack Obama over the last four years have made Bush, who has refrained from criticism, look restrained and classy by comparison.

But you can’t flush a disastrous war down the memory hole. At the dedication, the word “Iraq” wasn’t mentioned once, and the museum covers the subject in a section devoted to “the Global War on Terror.”

Continuing to conflate Iraq with the Sept. 11 attacks is an insult to truth that historians will never be able to overlook.

On Sept. 14, 2001, I was in the White House press pool and was five feet from Bush as he stood atop a crushed truck as rescue workers at Ground Zero shouted that they couldn’t hear the president speak.

“I can hear you! I can hear you,” Bush said through a bullhorn. “The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” It was a defining moment for his presidency.

The problem that Bush can never get around is that “the people who knocked these buildings down” — namely, Osama bin Laden — didn’t hear from Bush, while others unconnected to the attacks did.

The bullhorn is in the museum. And so is the bull.


By: Jonathan Alter, The National Memo, April 26, 2013


April 27, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Darker Side”: Ron Paul’s Nutty Think Tank Presents A Problem For His Son

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has established himself as one of the Republican Party’s most influential members, and a legitimate early contender for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2016. But the biggest hurdle to Paul’s ascension as a national leader may be the man whose vast political network enabled his improbable rise in the first place: his father, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul.

The elder Paul attracted legions of diehard supporters with his longshot 2012 bid, cementing his role as the public face of the GOP’s libertarian wing — a mantle that was neatly transferred to his son after the latter’s highly publicized filibuster over the Obama administration’s drone strike policy.

But his campaign also shed light on the darker aspects of Paul’s past, such as his series of racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic newsletters, and his close association with white supremacists and neo-Confederates, among other unsavory characters.

Now Paul’s disturbing connections, which he vehemently denied during the 2012 campaign, are on display for all to see at his new think tank, The Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

As James Kirchick reports in The Daily Beast, the institute’s board is stocked with all manner of 9/11 truthers, supporters of authoritarian regimes, anti-Semites, neo-Confederates, and more. Among others, Paul’s associates now include:

—Lew Rockwell, a member of the right-wing fringe whom Paul explicitely disavowed during his presidential campaign, and who recently compared law enforcement after the Boston Marathon bombing to Nazi stormtroopers.

—John Laughland, who denies that the Bosnian genocide ever took place, and maintains that former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was convicted by a “kangaroo court.”

—Eric Margolis, who denies any conclusive proof linking Osama bin Laden to the September 11th attacks, and instead suggests that they may have been “a plot by America’s far right or by Israel or a giant cover-up.”

—Michael Scheuer, a former CIA intelligence officer who has described American Jews as a “fifth column” intent on sabatoging American foreign policy to benefit Israel.

—Walter Block, who believes that the Confederacy should have won the Civil War, and believes that America’s current foreign policy can be blamed on “the monster Lincoln.”

Those five names barely scratch the surface of the unsettling information that Kirchick has uncovered in his must-read article.

Although Ron Paul never had a realistic chance of winning the presidency, he still recognized that he had no choice but to disavow his connection with this rogues’ gallery of lunatics to legitimize his candidacy. But now, while his son has a very serious chance to compete for the Republican nomination in his own right, the senior Paul is drawing these disturbing figures closer than ever.

This presents a very serious problem for Rand Paul, who has presented himself as the man who can reverse the Republican Party’s dismal performance with minority voters, particularly African-Americans. Given his own troubling statements about the Civil Rights Act, the Kentucky senator would have already had trouble convincing voters that “the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights.” With his father openly partnering with neo-Confederates, that mission — along with Paul’s equally critical task of hanging on to the moderate and independent voters who have inflated his poll numbers — may be totally impossible.

Starting with his surprising decision to endorse Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign before his father had ended his own, Rand Paul has taken great pains to present himself as more mainstream than his father, and consequently as a more realistic presidential candidate. But as long as his father persists with his fringe right-wing activity — or unless Rand Paul does the unthinkable, and publicly disavows his father — Rand may never come any closer to the presidency than Ron.


By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, April 26, 2013

April 27, 2013 Posted by | Politics, Rand Paul | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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