Last week, the estimable gave its harshest verdict – “Pants on Fire” – to a DCCC ad attacking the Republican plans to privatize Medicare. There are a bunch of exaggerations and questionable assertions in the ad (as in many political ads) but the nub of the issue was the assertion that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.” PolitiFact objected on these grounds:

Yes, the Republican plan would be a huge change to the current program, and seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law. Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have said they are strongly opposed to the plan.

But to say the Republicans voted to end Medicare, as the ad does, is a major exaggeration. All seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal, and the program’s budget would increase every year.

Medicare defenders have objected on the grounds that the GOP changes to the program would render it so radically different in form from the old, and the benefits would fall so far short in various ways, that it effectively means the end of Medicare “as we know it.” PolitiFact alludes to that, saying calling it a “critical qualifier” the ad should have included.

Here’s my problem. This is a semantic thicket, and adjudicating this is a hopelessly slippery distraction. PolitiFact has fallen into a trap that exposes some of the limits of political fact-checking as currently practiced.

There is no fact-based “objective” answer to the question at hand. A binary choice will either favor the biases of Republicans, who stress continuity (disingenuously, in my view, given Medicare as currently constituted is viewed by so many people as virtually sacrosanct), or of Democrats, who stress the discontinuity (overplaying that hand in the TV spot). The Republican plan would replace the current version of Medicare with a radically different program. Is this still “Medicare”? Well, it’s still called Medicare, and still pays for (some) health insurance for the elderly as Medicare does. (That’s the PolitiFact argument.) On the other hand, the reforms would change the program fundamentally. Its nature as guaranteed government-provided social insurance would be lost.

But here’s a test that shows the essential semantic nature of this dispute: If the Republicans called their “new Medicare” program “ElderCare” instead and left everything else the same, PolitiFact would have to concede that Republicans had indeed voted to “end Medicare.”

We crave impartial judges, and fact-check sites such as PolitFact are extremely valuable during a time when the impartiality of basically all media institutions is being questioned. But political arguments have deep roots and resonances – especially those surrounding Medicare. Fact-checkers claiming impartiality owe it to us not just to apply an arbitrary, back-of-the-envelope standard of what makes Medicare “Medicare.” They must take Medicare’s history seriously, and explain the sophisticated  rhetorical stratagems being employed that attempt to elide – or to exploit – that history. Making sense of this requires more explanation of what’s at stake, a narrative, even – not a binary choice and a catchy label. It’s not that either-or choices and labels are never useful in explaining complex topics. But entitlement politics resembles three-dimensional chess.

By announcing its “objective” answer to a question with no objective answer, PolitiFact didn’t clarify this most important of issues, it muddied it. As Josh Marshall points out here, its “pants on fire” ruling has fueled juvenile coverage on the “debate about the debate.” The actual impacts of Medicare retrenchment? Not so much.

I’ve been taking a break from blogging lately to focus on a project. But the weekend’s terrible events move me to comment, briefly.

Jared Lee Loughner’s motives are obscure, but it’s hard to disentangle the shooting of a Congresswoman, and the killing of a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl, and four other people from the political culture that it occurred in, an environment of exaggerated divisions, the demonization of opponents as socialists or traitors, and a lot of gun rhetoric, gun imagery, and … guns. Almost certainly, history will tie the two together no matter what we learn about Loughner in the coming weeks. Political madness is a recurring strain American history in which, on some level, we all take part: “I shouted out/Who killed the Kennedys?/When after all/It was you and me.”

So, this is a collective problem. Pinning blame won’t really work, because we end up back in the workings of Loughner’s mind, which we don’t understand right now, and may never. We’re probably not going to find some triggering phrase in all the millions of nasty political words spoken in the past couple of years, either. See Ken Silber’s reasoned take on rhetoric. Clearly, for instance, Sarah Palin was not inciting violence with her “rifle sights” (or “surveyor’s symbol”) graphic, crass and obnoxious as it was. Sharron Angle, with her “Second Amendment remedies” quote, came right up to that line, however. But it’s doubtful Loughner was paying much attention to a Nevada Senate race.

But we can identify some trends that created an atmosphere of exaggerated rhetoric and imagery that portrays political opponents as at best illegitimate and at worst, enemies of America, that suggests tyranny and/or subversion are sources of our current political predicament, demanding some kind of armed response. In a culture where some have viewed spraying gunfire at innocent people as a ticket to immortality, it’s not a healthy trend.

As Paul Krugman points out, the outre rhetoric is at the moment a overwhelmingly a feature of the right. (That doesn’t mean it always was, or always will be. But right now, the notion of left-right symmetry in this area doesn’t hold up.) One source of this is the right’s highly effective media-political complex, in which pro-Republican, anti-Democrat messages are tested, amplified and circulated with efficiency and alacrity. Cable talking heads and radio hosts compete to be outrageous, and are rewarded with attention and piles of cash the more outrageous they are.

Over the past two years, the short-term advantages of stoking the Republican base have created perverse incentives for politicians to go all-in with the outrage derby. Political leaders who are supposed to know better have mostly remained silent because all of this was working. The political media, which worships the appearance of mastery and aggression, mostly went along. It was politics, it was metaphorical, anything goes. In the process, they defined deviancy down.

As with the dysfunctional workings of Congress, this reflects an erosion not just of bipartisan comity and civility but of basic, shared standards that American politics have operated on for decades. It’s a symptom of a deeper breakdown that we’re now grappling with, none too effectively. One way to start to fix it would be to take a deep breath and start thinking before speaking. Maybe this is that opportunity.

Thanksgiving is a time for taking a deep breath and appreciating the under-appreciated. So I thought I would challenge myself this year. Let’s take a moment, reflect, and give thanks that Joe Lieberman is in the Senate.

Bear with me here. In the 1990s, I liked Lieberman. Most of his policy positions were reasonable. He was sometimes sanctimonious, but he also pushed Democrats to speak on moral issues important to Americans that many in his party reflexively considered out-of-bounds. (Today, President Obama can freely, eloquently address religion and morality in politics, in part because Lieberman paved the way.)

Lately, though, like many others I puzzle over what brought Lieberman to his current pass: standing alone, outside a party structure, antagonizing Democrats seemingly just because that’s what he does – and, of course, now threatening to bring down the whole health care reform effort.

I’m not a fan of psychoanalyzing politicians, but Lieberman is a special case. He appears to be motivated in part by pure self-regard, uncontaminated even by loyalty to constituents, interest groups or (of course) party. His drift from hawkishness into full-on neoconservatism, for example, clearly has a strong personal dimension: Lieberman views himself as the one man who sees the truth on national security in a party of cautious temporizers. This has some political advantages (except the most important one, getting re-elected) that also play to his ego: In the Republican Party, he’d be unexceptional. As an Independent caucusing with Democrats, Lieberman stands out.

On health care as well, Lieberman’s self-regard looks to be a strong motivating factor. Yes, he’s protecting the Connecticut insurance industry by threatening to filibuster any bill containing a public option. But there are probably more effective ways to get what he wants, and he clearly relishes being a holdout. The fact that his stance probably hurts his reelection prospects (unlike other Democratic holdouts with more conservative constituencies) only seems to encourage him. As Peter Beinart notes in The Daily Beast, Lieberman is bitter about a series of losses and slights by Democrats – his disastrous showing in the 2004 presidential campaign, the lack of robust party support two years later when he ran for reelection as an independent:

Gradually, this personal alienation has eaten away at his liberal domestic views. His staff has grown markedly more conservative in recent years, and his closest friends in Congress are now Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham. For Lieberman, the personal has become political, and it has pushed him further to the right.

So here’s why we should offer a smidgen of thanks he’s around. Lieberman offers a window into how the Senate really works, and in some sense only Lieberman allows us to see the true capriciousness of those crazy, arbitrary rules on holds and filibusters. Other Senators routinely block and delay legislation on on behalf of party or special interests. That’s just politics. Lieberman shows us how one man’s quirks can hijack an entire national agenda.

As Jon Stewart put it, “so when does ‘hope’ turn into ‘change’?” As Arianna Huffington points out, we still don’t know. To any outside observer it sure looks like Obama has lost his campaign mojo and gotten crushed in the whinging gears of Washington’s political apparatus. But I’m not so sure.

I’ve been in Washington since the early 1990s. During that time, let’s face it: very little happened. Well, that’s not quite right: a lot of things happened, many of them consequential. There was a presidential impeachment, a government shutdown, and several military campaigns and wars. But when you get right down to it, what did all that mean in terms of the way the government ran and its basic priorities? Very little.

The basic structure of American politics – the array of interest groups and party structures, the government’s basic assumptions about what was politically possible and desirable – didn’t change much at all. Mainly, well, it got stupider. Media coverage got stupider. Electoral politics got stupider. And, especially during the Bush administration, government itself got stupider, or at least prone to spectacular breakdowns. With the assent and encouragement of the White House, large swaths of the federal government became hostage to narrow-minded interest groups of one kind or another that simply didn’t have a stake in making it work.

Meanwhile, the world was changing. Fast. Big problems such as global warming and collateralized debt obligations emerged. They were catastrophic and just plain weird, and they didn’t fit any of our usual political paradigms. When the government can’t respond effectively to the real world, it’s going to pile one disaster on another.

Obama clearly recognized this problem – a government adrift in a revolutionary age, with all its constituent parts hardwired to stay that way – and set out to change it.

But there was never going to be a revolution. Obama ran on change, but he also made clear that he is a centrist and an institutionalist. He believes in making things work, in practical results – not in blowing things up and starting from scratch.

As a result, the poetry of the Obama campaign has been transformed into the software users manual of the Obama White House.

Most of the work of actually reforming government is a) politically very, very hard and b) not especially inspiring or even interesting to the media or the public. That includes big stuff like guiding health care reform through Congress. Or lower-profile stuff like staffing scientific agencies with scientists rather than hacks. At every turn, there are obstacles large and small that have been in place for decades and can’t easily be dislodged.

I’m willing to cut Obama some slack. I think his approach is substantive where those of some of his immediate predecessors were variously incremental, empty or dangerous. But I’m still wondering: Can someone who is temperamentally conservative and pragmatic, and who clearly doesn’t relish political combat, ever make truly revolutionary changes? Or in our system, is this the only kind of president who can? That’s the riddle we’re all facing right now.

Conor Friedersdorf has been tireless in pointing out the various hypocrises among conservatives in countenancing rhetoric that is either offensive or just plain stupid. Here he picks apart the odd relationship that many conservatives have with Glenn Beck, who has a lot of nominally conservative opinions, but is not an establishment or movement figure:

On reading Mr. Beck’s defenders, I can’t help but think that their judgment and integrity are being corroded by politics. The ideological battle between conservatives and liberals has become for them the most important struggle in American life — in order to win it, they are willing to defend and count as allies anyone in their insular world who advances the appropriate side in what they regard as a two-sided battle for the country’s soul. The most honest among them are explicit in arguing that their ends justify whatever rhetorical means it takes to achieve them. Even worse, they are using this total political warfare as a litmus test — temperament and political philosophy are insufficient to be a conservative in their minds, because they’ve redefined the term such that it demands loyalty to a political coalition and even the particular tactics it employs.

But shouldn’t this be a “shocked, shocked” kind of situation? People in politics, whether they’re politicians or activists like David Horowitz who are devoted to advancing a particular movement, are often ready to test the outer limits of sense and credibility to advance their goals. For them, the stakes are simply too high, perhaps in the ideological or the wheeling-and-dealing sense, and/or because their livelihoods, reputations, and self-images depend on the fight. And politics is all about ends – hashing out interests, apportioning tax and regulatory burdens and benefits. In some sense the ends are, frankly, all that there is.

This is why politicians and pundits (at least, the partisan ones, which is to say, most of them) lie all the time. That’s what they do, because they must, because it’s a proven method for getting what you want. Thus, Jonah Goldberg and David Horowitz supporting Glenn Beck’s craziness because it supposedly advances conservative interests in the long, twilight struggle against American liberalism strikes me as unremarkable. What else are they going to do?

What’s really striking about the conservative meltdown isn’t the cynicism of right-wing pundits. It’s the degree to which those pundits have become disengaged from the system. When we talk about ends and means in this case, the “means” are of course the American political system itself, which allows for a great deal of crazy behavior. But what if you no longer believe the system is working, that we’re reliving the Weimar Republic, that Obama is a traitor of some kind? These are the kinds of things we’re hearing from Beck and other precincts on the right. If you cynically support that, it’s not just cynicism but a kind of nihilism – you think on some level, the political system has failed and no longer accept its basic premises – i.e., that power changes hands constantly, that policies are crafted by give and take, that the president cannot impose a new system of government by fiat, that your opponents have some claim to legitimacy.

If you don’t believe those things, then you shouldn’t be in politics. Because there can be no politics – at least not in America – without them. If you do believe in them but pretend you don’t to rev up your “base,” well, that’s just as bad, and maybe worse. And on a practical level – again, the ultimate test in politics – this path leads nowhere. In a country where most people don’t pay close attention to politics, behaving like a bunch of nuts isn’t a ticket to electoral or policy success – that is, the normal way that you put your political ideas into effect. And the way political coalitions are built and power is accumulated in a democracy is by engaging the other side. If all you’re able to do is demonize it, you’ll never get anywhere.

The George W. Bush presidency brought both the Republican Party and the conservative movement low, and it’s distressing to watch the GOP base get whipped into a frenzy by cynical demagogues, while its politicians do the only thing they know how to do – pander to the people making the loudest, most aggrieved noises.

Demagoguery and aggrievement are nothing new in American politics. But what’s strange is the scattershot nature and incoherence of the attacks on Obama. Usually, politicians – even demagogues – summon a sense of history, shared experience, and cultural traditions to move people. But there’s little evidence of those things in most of the critiques of Obama’s policies by Republican politicians or tea party activists, little evident understanding of what the president is doing or how it might be improved upon, changed, or replaced. Scare words and phrases have supplanted arguments. Those words have historical meaning. Once, history gave those words power. But now they’ve been shorn of all context. It’s a communist-fascist-socialist word salad.

Czar Nicholas II

Czar Nicholas II

One of the sillier examples of this is the crusade, by Glenn Beck and others, against Obama administration “czars.” They already got the scalp of “green jobs czar” Van Jones, and now the attacks continue. “Czar” sounds scary, I guess, because it’s a Russian word. Communists are taking over the government! Of course, the last real Russian Czar, Nicholas II, was executed by communists in 1918, so the historical reference is nonsensical. So is the substance of the attack. “Czar” is an informal – and semi-ironic – title that connotes a certain policy portfolio. It has been in use since at least the 1970s. As Dave Weigel noted in the Washington Independent, many “czars” actually occupy pre-existing jobs. Some of them been approved by the Senate. Some are mid-level appointees, and don’t require Senate confirmation. A few have been appointed to new positions, such as “Afghanistan czar” Richard Holbrooke – but most of them are well-credentialed.

So: Obama, the president, is appointing people to government positions that have certain policy coordination responsibilities. That’s what presidents do. There may be questions to be raised about their job performance or past activities, but in that respect they are no different from hundreds of other political appointees. Yet, exploiting the notion that Obama must be up to something sinister, Republicans have seized upon the czar issue. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who is running for governor of Texas, attacks the “czars” in today’s Washington Post as an affront to the Constitution. It’s bizarre. (And also sad that the Washington Post provides a forum for a specious argument.)

During the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives had credible, coherent arguments to make about government policies and the nature of government itself. I sometimes agreed, more often disagreed. But their arguments had some heft: the liberal welfare state actually did have a lot of serious problems in the overlapping realms of policy and politics. Now, if I’m looking for a meaningful critique of Obama’s policies and appointments, (with some exceptions of course) I’m just not going to find it on the right. Conservatism has, effectively, gone AWOL from the policy debate – which is a great boon to Obama, but probably not so good for the American system.

I’m reluctant to criticize the work of other journalists, and especially that of investigative journalists, because as a reader I usually don’t know enough about the subject matter, or the sources, or the corroborating work that shaped the story in question. But this Washington Post piece, which makes bold claims about the efficacy of waterboarding, bothered me for various reasons. It burned up the blogosphere over the weekend and was a kind of overture to Dick Cheney’s appearance on Fox News Sunday.

My complaint has more to do with the context, or lack of it, than with the content of the story itself. But in this case, context is everything.

The story is titled “How a Detainee Became an Asset: Sept. 11 Plotter Cooperated After Waterboarding.” And that’s pretty much its only point, gleaned mainly from interviews with anonymous sources and a few lines from CIA reports released last week: waterboarding done on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 plotter, made him cooperate and yield valuable information about al Qaeda.

What happened in KSM’s interrogations is historically and legally significant, and thus politically controversial – hugely so. This story, however, treats its subject matter not from that perspective but as a daily scoop, advancing the story of the week – the release of the CIA’s torture documents and Cheney’s response.

And in that sense, the biggest problem here is opacity. We don’t know who the Post’s anonymous sources are. But we do know what bureaucratic or political agendas they are seeking to advance by talking about this case right now. The CIA is embarrassed and facing a Justice Department investigation. So some elements within the agency – and especially those who participated directly in this program – have a political and legal interest in trying to paint the “EITs” (the official acronym for enhanced interrogation techniques – who knew?) as successful. As do Dick Cheney and his various acolytes. This undermines the story’s credibility, yet the Post basically asks us to take the statements of its anonymous sources at face value.

There’s also the timing. The story appeared the day before a scheduled Cheney interview, and bolstered his arguments (which are not real arguments but demagogic assertions, which in my mind damages whatever actual, utilitarian case might be made for torture). When I saw it I thought instantly of how the Bush administration had played the New York Times with the “aluminum tubes” story. In 2002, “senior administration officials” strategically leaked disputed information about Saddam Hussein’s alleged (and, as it turned out, nonexistent) nuclear program to the Times, then used the NYT’s own story to bolster the case for war. Here’s the NYT’s own retrospective account:

“On Sept. 8., the lead article on Page 1 of The New York Times gave the first detailed account of the aluminum tubes. The article cited unidentified senior administration officials who insisted that the dimensions, specifications and numbers of tubes sought showed that they were intended for a nuclear weapons program.

”The closer he gets to a nuclear capability, the more credible is his threat to use chemical and biological weapons,” a senior administration official was quoted as saying. ”Nuclear weapons are his hole card.”

The article gave no hint of a debate over the tubes.

The White House did much to increase the impact of The Times’ article. The morning it was published, Mr. Cheney went on the NBC News program ”Meet the Press” and confirmed when asked that the tubes were the most alarming evidence behind the administration’s view that Iraq had resumed its nuclear weapons program. The tubes, he said, had ”raised our level of concern.” Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, went on CNN and said the tubes ”are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs.”

After the tubes incident, I never read an intelligence-related story quite the same way again. Did the Post allow itself to be manipulated here in exchange for a scoop? Cheney didn’t mention the Post story in his interview – whew! But clearly, something went wrong here. The scoop here doesn’t tell us anything about the efficacy of torture in producing reliable information – even in KSM’s case, for that matter. If a scoop actually obscures the issue at hand, what good is it?

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