Slate's Political Gabfest for May 29.

Slate's weekly political roundtable.
May 29 2009 3:49 PM

The Hermit Kingdom Goes Nuclear Podcast

Listen to Slate's review of the week in politics.

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Become a fan of the Political Gabfest on Facebook. We will be updating the Facebook page more frequently and including content that you will only be able to find there, so get your Gabfest fix during the week by joining us there.

Listen to the Gabfest for May 29 by clicking the arrow on the audio player below:

You can also download the program here, or you can subscribe to the weekly Gabfest podcast feed in iTunes by clicking here.Get your free 14-day trial membership of Gabfest sponsor Audible.com, which includes a credit for one free audiobook, here. This week's recommendation comes from listener Cecilia Gaposchkin, who suggests The Help by Kathryn Stockett, read by Cassandra Campbell, Jenna Lamia, Octavia Spencer, and Bahni Turpin. The story of two black women working as help in the homes of two white women in 1960s Jackson, Miss., The Help is a fantastic tale, and this reading of it is mind-blowing, according to Cecilia.

Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz talk politics. This week: Obama makes a Supreme Court nomination, Proposition 8 is upheld by California's high court, and the Hermit Kingdom goes nuclear again.

President Obama announced Sonia Sotomayor, currently a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, as his nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat that David Souter is vacating. The Gabbers think the nomination is a savvy political move, and it isn't clear how Republicans will be able to attack her. Of the two upcoming dramas accompanying the Supreme Court fight, the artificial one will likely be the actual approval of Sotomayor, because in addition to the 59 Democrats in the Senate, eight Republicans currently in the Senate voted for Sotomayor's confirmation to the 2nd Circuit. The interest-group battle will be more spirited, leading to discussions of race, gender, and class. Conservatives are already hyperventilating over Sotomayor's perceived radicalism, while liberals' concern about her minimal record on abortion led to rapid reassurances from the White House. The ruling that may receive the greatest consideration, though, is Sotomayor's opinion in a case recently argued before the Supreme Court: Ricci v. DeStefano. Emily questioned Sotomayor's seemingly perfunctory ruling in an article this week as part of Slate's ongoing coverage of the Sotomayor nomination and continues to explain the case on the Gabfest using terms like disparate impact, reliance interest, and summary judgment. Republicans have also questioned a line in a 2001 speech at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law that Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh have both decried as racist. However, studies have demonstrated that female judges do rule differently in sex discrimination cases, and Sotomayor's statement is more anodyne when taken in context.

California's Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage in California that was passed as a ballot initiative in November 2008. The argument for overturning Proposition 8 in court was rather weak, but supporters of gay marriage won a minor victory with the ruling that the 18,000 marriages already performed would stand. David argues that there will certainly be another referendum in 2010 to legalize gay marriage, and he thinks it will succeed. In the interim, former Bush v. Gore opponents Ted Olson and David Boies have filed suit in federal court in Northern California in an attempt to establish a right to gay marriage, but gay rights groups have labeled that attempt premature. Like commenters on Daily Kos, David believes their joint effort is driven by ego.

North Korea tested a second nuclear weapon, the latest in a long line of provocative action by that country. The test and the subsequent tensions are a major challenge for the Obama administration's policy of engagement with North Korea. However, the alternatives are relatively limited. After seeing rare photographs from North Korea in Foreign Policy, John describes it as a massive human experiment, hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. However, the prospect of nuclear proliferation via North Korean arms sales is a real and more frightening threat.

David chatters about a series of articles to be published in Slatenext week. Daniel Engber will examine how the kidnapping of a Dalmatian in 1965 led to the animal rights movement and the first legislation protecting animal rights. (Update, June 1: Read the first entry of the series here, and discuss it on Facebook here.)

Emily chatters about another Sotomayor decision, Jocks v. Tavernier, in which Sotomayor unexpectedly sided with law enforcement and persuaded a conservative colleague to join her opinion. Emily wrote about this fascinating ruling as part of her exploration of the Supreme Court nominee.

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John chatters about the controversy in Canada, where Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean ate raw seal heart as part of an Inuit ceremony. Her actions outraged animal rights activists and some in the European Union but won her praise from the Inuit.

The e-mail address for the Political Gabfest is gabfest@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Posted on May 29 by Jefferson Pestronk at 3:50 p.m.

May 22, 2009

Listen to the Gabfest for May 22 by clicking the arrow on the audio player below:

You can also download the program here or you can subscribe to the weekly Gabfest podcast feed in iTunes by clicking here.

Get your free 14-day trial membership of Gabfest sponsor Audible.com, which includes a credit for one free audiobook, here. This week there's something even better than a recommendation for a good book: a free copy of Good Book, by David Plotz and recorded by David Plotz. As a special gift from the Gabfest and Audible for both new and existing Audible members and Gabfest fans, everyone can go online and download Good Book from this special URL, active for one week only starting Friday, May 22: http://www.audible.com/goodbook. Download it and enjoy it, and we also hope that Gabfest fans who are not yet Audible subscribers will follow the link at the top of this paragraph and sign up today.

Emily Bazelon, special guest Slate political reporter Christopher Beam, and David Plotz talk politics. This week: President Obama and Dick Cheney square off about torture, Michael Steele celebrates 100 stormy days as head of the RNC, and California faces a budget meltdown.

President Obama and former Vice President Cheney gave back-to-back speeches Thursday outlining their differing views of what keeping America safe entails. Depending on your choice of pundit, Mitt Romney or Andrew Sullivan, President Obama made a laughable argument or was playing the long game. Regardless, by scheduling a speech opposite Cheney, Obama elevated Cheney as a legitimate voice of opposition. The Senate also weighed in, voting 90-6 against funding Obama's plan to close Guantanamo. The NIMBY attitude from most senators about bringing terrorism suspects to American soil belies the fact that security is incredibly tight in supermax prisons, that we currently use facilities of this type to hold dangerous terrorists and other high-priority prisoners, and that much of this debate seems to be fear-mongering as a political tactic (see: the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act). However, some of this controversy is of Obama's own making, as press secretary Robert Gibbs admitted that the decision to close Guantanamo made on Obama's second day in office may have been hasty. President Obama also announced that military tribunals would begin anew even as he tried to assuage the concerns of human rights groups and planned a civilian trial for one accused terrorist.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele recently celebrated his first 100 days in office with a speech before a meeting of the RNC. Prior to the meeting, he narrowly averted a resolution asking the Democratic Party to rename itself the Democrat Socialist Party (despite polling that shows self-identified conservatives believe Obama is a socialist and self-identified socialists declare he is not). RNC members also planned a vote to remove the power of the purse from Steele. Another embattled GOP leader, Gov. Sarah Palin, announced her support for Steele, and fans of the chairman tout his improvements in grassroots efforts and fundraising. Steele also convened the first RNC Tech Summit in an attempt to close the gap in technology use between Republicans and Democrats. He may be looking to emulate Howard Dean's tenure as Democratic National Committee chairman and the success of Democratic candidates across the country in the 2008 election. Meanwhile, other Republican leaders, including Rep. Eric Cantor and Newt Gingrich, have their own plans to rebuild the GOP.

California voters rejected five of six ballot initiatives in a referendum aimed at keeping the state solvent. The budgeting and taxation process in California has produced gridlock, and Proposition 13 has hamstrung the ability of localities to raise revenue, leading to calls for a state constitutional convention to reform these processes. Vexingly, such a convention would have to be approved by voters and a two-thirds legislative majority in the same manner that contributes to current problems. In the short term, this means that California may be next in line for federal assistance in the hope that federal guarantees would allow the state to borrow at reduced rates. Conservatives see this as an opportunity to return to a modicum of fiscal discipline and a repudiation of big government. Regardless of what happens, California faces an uncertain future that will likely include either tax increases or cuts in services.

Chris chatters about the Pro Publica Reporting Network, an exercise in citizen journalism that asks members of the public to become reporters. The first project enlists contributors to monitor a local stimulus project. The Huffington Post used a similar crowd-sourcing model for one of its campaign blogs.

Emily chatters about the Planet Money interview with Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel responsible for monitoring TARP. The passionate exchange between Warren and host Adam Davidson has the blogosphere riled up.

David chatters about the upcoming book Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford. Slate's Michael Agger wrote about the book this week, causing David to consider other career paths. David also recalls Studs Terkel's Working, in which the only person really happy with his job was a stone mason.

The e-mail address for the Political Gabfest is gabfest@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Posted on May 22 by Jefferson Pestronk at 5:30 p.m.

May 15, 2009

Become a fan of the Political Gabfest on Facebook. We will be updating the Facebook page more frequently and including content that you will only be able to find there, so get your Gabfest fix during the week by joining us there.

Listen to the Gabfest for May 15 by clicking the arrow on the audio player below:

You can also download the program here, or you can subscribe to the weekly Gabfest podcast feed in iTunes by clicking here.

Get your free 14-day trial membership of Gabfest sponsor Audible.com, which includes a credit for one free audiobook, here. This week's Audible recommendation, from Sean Oskea, is for a reader rather than a book. His favorite reader is Barbara Rosenblat, whom he says has an incredible vocal range and the ability to make each character in a book instantly recognizable, regardless of gender, age, nationality, or anything else. From Barbara Rosenblat's oeuvre on Audible, Emily selects a favorite novel, Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky (narrated along with Daniel Oreskes), a moving portrait of the experience of the French during the Second World War.

Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz talk politics. This week's Gabfest took place in front of a live studio (actually, synagogue) audience at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. Their topics this week: President Obama reverses course on releasing detainee photos, delays a decision on overturning "don't ask, don't tell," and kills at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.

The White House reversed course this week and announced that it would not release photos of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan that the ACLU has sued for under the Freedom of Information Act. In this instance, the White House ended up on the same side as former Vice President Cheney, who has been arguing against release of torture documents and photos. President Obama emphasized that this set of photos is not especially sensational, especially compared with the images from Abu Ghraib. David says that releasing the photos serves no public benefit, a sentiment echoed in a plea from the top American general in Iraq, but Emily counters that public good is not a classification standard. Liz Cheney claimed that the White House has found it fashionable to side with terrorists, trumping even her father's seemingly paranoid and conspiratorial claims. The shrill criticisms have not dented President Obama's popularity, though, which is now back up to levels not seen since Inauguration Day. Obama's "pragmatism," a common theme in stories about the administration, has contributed to his success. So has the devolution of the GOP into a rump party and a circular firing squad. Ultimately, Republicans may have to choose between the voices of the party—moderate intellectuals in the tradition of David Brooks or Richard Posner or ideological purists like Rush Limbaugh or Pat Toomey. Dick Cheney has chosen his horse in the race.

President Obama's personal letter to a discharged gay soldier, Maine's approval of gay marriage, and New York's first steps towards marriage equality were Page One stories this week. Obama pledged to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act during his campaign, but aides have since backpedaled. Nathaniel Frank argued that Obama learned the wrong lessons from the Clinton White House's failed attempt to end "don't ask, don't tell," and Eugene Robinson wrote that it's time for Obama to spend some political capital on an issue because it's right. Recent polling also suggested that support for gay rights is growing. Yet a coalition of high-ranking military officers wrote that allowing openly gay troops in the military would harm morale, and the leadership change in Afghanistan may make Obama less willing to enact other reforms. The possibility of an openly gay nominee for the Supreme Court also caused controversy this week. Sen. Jeff Sessions, the senior Republican on the judiciary committee, made stilted comments that suggested Republicans are trying out a new "enlightened" stance on homosexuality. Ultimately, this strategy may backfire on Republicans and make them appear bigoted on an issue where the American mainstream is leaving them behind.

David and John both attended the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner this week, joining professional journalists, corporate big shots, and more than the usual number of celebrities for a humor-filled evening that raised money for various charities. In a concession to the economic environment, no dessert was served. President Obama's bit was widely praised, although John says that Obama's performance at the Al Smith Dinner was funnier and more self-deprecating. Still, Obama was definitely funnier than President Bush was when he joked about failing to find WMDs. Obama may have even been funnier than the main act, comedian Wanda Sykes, who was criticized in the conservative press for being too harsh. (Even White House press secretary Robert Gibbs distanced the administration from Sykes.) Emily points out that Obama's reactions are scrutinized closely during the event, while the National Review went so far as to claim that the entire event is beneath the office of the president. David suggests that Obama's reactions may be just the latest manifestation of how much Obama is enjoying himself, from shanghaiing the press corps to Ray's Hell Burger to sitting courtside at a Wizards game.

David chatters about an article in the Atlantic that describes one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of happiness ever conducted. The Grant Study started following members of Harvard's classes of 1942, '43, and '44 when they were sophomores in college and has been tracking them ever since.

John chatters about an article in The New Yorker that examines why children who have self-restraint at a young age prosper later in life. Jumping off from an experiment in which 4-year-old children were asked to wait to eat marshmallows, scientists discovered that the ability to bridle their sweet tooths was more indicative of future self-discipline.

Emily chatters about an article on the recently-launched Slate Group magazine Double X (which she co-edits). The piece chronicles a boy who is probably the country's youngest user of medical marijuana. His mom describes her choice to treat her son's autism and chronic pain by using marijuana after deciding not to use Risperdal, a more common pharmaceutical treatment that carries risks for young children.

The e-mail address for the Political Gabfest is gabfest@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Posted on May 8 by Jefferson Pestronk at 3:22 p.m.

May 8, 2009

Become a fan of the Political Gabfest on Facebook. We will be updating the Facebook page more frequently and including content that you will be able to find only there, so get your Gabfest fix during the week by joining us there.

Listen to the Gabfest for May 8 by clicking the arrow on the audio player below:

Get your free 14-day trial membership of Gabfest sponsor Audible.com, which includes a credit for one free audiobook, here. This week, executive producer Andy Bowers endorses the New York Times Audio Digest, a free benefit of Audible membership. Each morning, Andy has the paper read to him during his extensive shaving regimen, and aside from getting shaving cream on his iPhone, he could not be happier. Andy also recommends How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.

Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz talk politics. This week: speculation on a Supreme Court replacement, Pakistan-Afghanistan crisis week in Washington, and the Elizabeth Edwards tell-all.

David Souter announced his retirement from the Supreme Court after serving more than 18 years. Speculation about whom President Obama will appoint to fill the seat began almost immediately, and identity politics played a major role in the discussion. (The Gabfest's own Emily Bazelon discussed the gender politics of the appointment with Ann Althouse.) The lack of diversity in professional experience among current justices was also a topic of discussion. On the campaign trail, then-Sen. Obama singled out Earl Warren, who was governor of California prior to becoming chief justice, as a model justice. The process of tearing down potential nominees began with Jeffrey Rosen's innuendo-filled article about Sonia Sotomayor and led to a clip on the Late Show With David Letterman. David anticipates a fight from Sen. Jeff Sessions, the new ranking Republican on the Senate judiciary committee, who was denied a seat on the federal bench two decades ago. Emily does not expect the battle to produce a teachable moment a laRobert Bork.

Nearly all news out of Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent weeks was bad news. President Obama held a tripartite summit with the presidents of the two countries, and although Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari provided assurances that the conflict with the Taliban was under control, the Taliban declared its truce with the Pakistani government dead. Most analysts believe that Pakistan's large conventional military minimizes the risk that the Taliban will gain control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons or overrun Islamabad, but the porous and lawless border between Afghanistan and Pakistan may hinder efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

Elizabeth Edwards released a new book, Resilience, and Time published an excerpt. Maureen Dowd questioned Edwards' choice to write about such a terrible moment in her life and her marriage. Edwards' silence enabled her husband, former Sen. John Edwards, to run for president and makes her a complicated public figure. A pending investigation into campaign funds that John Edwards may have used illegally to cover up his affair ensures that questions about this chapter in the Edwardses' life will continue.

Emily chatters about the imminent launch of Slate's sibling site Double X (www.doublex.com). Stay tuned, and until the new site is online, read Emily's "XX Factor" blog posts on Slate.

David chatters about the genesis of America's problem with big cars. A blog post posits that tariffs on foreign trucks, originally implemented in retaliation for tariffs on American chickens, have provided incentives for the Big Three automakers to build SUVs and other large vehicles rather than small, fuel-efficient cars.

John chatters about a recently completed project that asked readers to define baseball in fewer than 150 words. Join the Political Gabfest on Facebook and suggest other terms that need to be concisely defined.

The e-mail address for the Political Gabfest is gabfest@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Posted on May 8 by Jefferson Pestronk at 10:50 a.m.

May 1, 2009

Listen to the Gabfest for May 1 by clicking the arrow on the audio player below:

You can also download the program here, or you can subscribe to the weekly Gabfest podcast feed in iTunes by clicking here.

Get your free 14-day trial membership of Gabfest sponsor Audible.com, which includes a credit for one free audiobook, here. This week, we featured recommendations sent in by two listeners. First, Christopher Proctor recommends Predictably Irrationalby Dan Ariely. Christopher says it is so good that he requires his macroeconomics students to read it, and David heartily endorses the selection. Second, Bill Walthall recommends The Graveyard Bookby Neil Gaiman, a scary children's book that won the 2009 Newbery Medal as the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz talk politics. This week: Swine flu sweeps the nation, Arlen Specter becomes a Democrat, and President Obama celebrates the Hallmark holiday of politics.

Here are articles and other links related to this week's topics:

The outbreak of swine flu grew more severe during the week. For the first time, the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert to Phase 5. John, emboldened by a mysterious public-health source who equipped him with the background facts to explain the outbreak's progression, discusses the concept of "drift versus shift" and how it affects pandemics. A New York Times graphic showed that the first wave of flu during the 1918 pandemic caused relatively few deaths before a second wave hit with a much higher mortality rate. Research conducted several years ago showed that for the influenza virus, it's really not the heat; it's the humidity. Some experts claimed that improved knowledge and public-health approaches will mitigate the severity of a potential pandemic.

Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties to become a Democrat and the potential 60th Democratic vote in the Senate (if Norm Coleman bows to the wishes of a majority of Minnesotans). John reminisces about covering Specter's 1996 presidential campaign as the low man on the Time totem pole. Olympia Snowe and Christine Todd Whitman penned op-eds lamenting Specter's decision to switch parties. Continuing his DiMaggio-like streak of referencing polling data, John reports that only 21 percent of Americans self-identify as Republicans, but the shift has been more toward identification as independents than as Democrats.

Wednesday marked President Obama's 100th day in office. Emily recommends John's piece on the artificiality of the "100 Days" metric and expresses her dissatisfaction with the way the Obama administration has dealt with the financial bailout. David struggles to focus on the milestone given the extant crises the country faces. John calls 100 days a breaking point between inheriting crises and owning the responses.

Emily chatters about David Leonhardt's interview of President Obama in the May 3 New York Times Magazine. At the end of their conversation, Leonhardt asked President Obama what he was reading, and the president replied Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. Emily and David both express their extreme dislike of the novel, leading John to conclude that he will skip reading it (but he could listen to the unabridged version on Audible).

David chatters about a profile of the old "new journalist" Gay Talese in New Yorkmagazine. The piece describes Talese's upcoming book about his relationship with his wife, publisher Nan Talese, with whom he will celebrate his 50th anniversary this June. Reaching that milestone is all the more impressive, according to the article, given Gay Talese's "tendency to take the participant-observer concept to the extreme" while writing about the sexual revolution in Thy Neighbor's Wife.

Also, David has scanned a key page of the New England Monthly article about John Yoo that he chattered about last week. He continues to try to get his hands on a full copy of the article, and if he manages to procure one, we will post the entire article.

John chatters about the new White House Flickr feed. The photos on the feed show views of White House life that most Americans have never seen, including images of the rarely seen family residence and of White House aides eating pizza in the Roosevelt Room.

The e-mail address for the Political Gabfest is gabfest@slate.com . (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Posted on May 1 by Jefferson Pestronk at 4:23 p.m.

Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelon, Chief Political Correspondent John Dickerson, and Editor David Plotz host the Gabfest weekly.

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