The Political Gabfest for July 31, 2009.

Slate's weekly political roundtable.
July 31 2009 6:47 PM

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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 July 31 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. This week's recommendation comes from Kuwait and listener Inderjit Gandhi, who suggests A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. Inderjit read the book a decade ago, and listening to "the dramatization of the epic book … brings back to life vividly all the characters in this story set in 1950s India."

Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and Michael Newman talk politics. This week: disapproval over Obama's plan for health care, racism and beer at the White House, and more on Sonia Sotomayor.

Several polls were released this week showing declining approval ratings for President Obama. Particularly troubling is the slide in support for Obama's economic and health care policies. In an interview with Time, Obama described attempting to communicate the urgency of health care reform as the most difficult political task he has ever undertaken, and the polls suggest he may be losing the battle. Key committees in Congress are in gridlock, as Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate finance committee, announced that his committee's bill will not be marked up prior to the August recess (although he promised to move forward on Sept. 15, with or without Republican support). In addition to corralling reluctant members of Congress, Obama must parry disingenuous attacks from the right, including the latest claim: that the health plans will lead to euthanasia of the elderly and ill. Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, wrote about the concerns about medical rationing and efficiency in a rational manner that has eluded many on both sides of the political aisle. Meanwhile, as John reported in Slate this week, many Americans are concerned that health care reform is moving too quickly for such an important reform.

President Obama and Vice President Biden welcomed professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley to the White House for some "beer diplomacy." Despite enormous press buildup, the event turned out to be a bit of a public dud. The biggest news may have been that Gates switched from Red Stripe to Sam Adams Light—a Boston beer from the largest American-owned brewery—at the last minute. However, Gates and Crowley did announce plans to continue the conversation over lunch (presumably back home in Cambridge, Mass.). And Gates followed up the encounter with a piece in The Root, Slate's sister site, written in a more conciliatory tone than previous commentaries.

The Senate judiciary committee voted 13-6 in favor of Sonia Sotomayor's nomination for associate justice. Lindsey Graham was the sole Republican to vote in favor of Sotomayor, describing her as "left of center but certainly within the mainstream." Both sides of the aisle expressed their belief that the result would help them: Republicans believe that Sotomayor's views on gun rights, racial quotas, and other issues can help them in the 2010 races, while Democrats think that the votes against Sotomayor will result  in low support for conservatives among Hispanic voters, a rapidly growing bloc.

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Michael chatters that the "birther" movement has a point in all its protests, just not the one that many think. Michael says that a way to neutralize the birthers' contention that Obama is not a "natural born citizen" and thus constitutionally ineligible to serve as president would be simply to remove that requirement from the qualifications for the presidency. Emily recommends Jack Rakove's The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independencefor those interested in the debate about the inclusion of that phrase in the Constitution. Still, based on Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, John argues that those who constitute movements like birtherism will always find their cause.

Emily chatters about her recent piece in Slate defending the play date. After reading Mary McCarthy's novel The Group, about the post-college lives of eight Vassar women from the class of 1933, Emily realized that the struggles and feelings of the women portrayed in the book are the same as the ones confronting women 75 years later.

John chatters about the discussion about Sarah Palin that occurred during a focus group he attended and wrote about. When asked about their views on Palin, the participants unanimously criticized her, some in strange and novel ways. Even those who voted for McCain in 2008 had little good to say about his former running mate and putative future presidential candidate.

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 July 31 by Jefferson Pestronk at 6:47 p.m.

July 24, 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 on Facebook.

Listen to the Gabfest for July 24 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. This week we have two recommendations. The first, from listener Robert Johnson, is The Given Day by Dennis Lehane, read by Michael Boatman. Robert describes the story as "a real tour de force, weaving baseball, Tulsa race riots, the Boston police strike, and Attorney General Palmer together." Emily makes the second recommendation: Rikki Tikki Tavi by Rudyard Kipling, read by January Houck. Emily reports that she hadn't heard the story since she was a kid, but it is as riveting now as it was then.

Emily Bazelon and special guests Jacob Weisberg and James Ledbetter talk politics. This week: President Obama and health care; racism and the Cambridge, Mass., police department; and the stimulus package.

President Obama made his case this week for his health care reform agenda with a prime-time press conference—amid recent poll data showing that public support has declined. Obama attempted to address two of the major concerns about reform during the press conference: how a revamped health care system would benefit the vast majority of Americans who already have insurance and how to pay for reform. Obama offered support for a tax on the very wealthy, while Sen. John Kerry recently proposed taxing health insurers' most expensive plans. Obama also reiterated his requirement that any health care legislation begin to rein in the explosive growth of health care costs: The status quo is an option on the table that will ensure increasing tax burdens and growing deficits. Behind the scenes, Obama and his staff have increasingly entered the negotiating fray, speaking with reticent conservative Democrats, among others. Until this point, Obama has taken the anti-Clinton approach by outlining broad principles and then allowing Congress to fill in the blanks, but the result has been three bill outlines that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports would not produce strong cost controls. Obama is trying to avoid the outcome of Massachusetts, where despite health care reform, costs have continued to rise, threatening the solvency of the state's health care system.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his Cambridge, Mass., house on July 16 by an officer responding to a neighbor's report of a burglary in progress. The incident has become an embarrassment for the Cambridge Police Department, which dropped the charges against Gates, and for the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, who has refused to apologize for his actions. This is not an isolated incident of racial tension in Cambridge, and the arrest of one of the most prominent scholars in the country and President Obama's subsequent defense of Gates has pushed race back into the spotlight. The narrative is complicated by Crowley's status as a racial-profiling expert. Gates, the editor-in-chief of Slate's sister site The Root, has publicly expressed outrage about his treatment, but Crowley's union and the Cambridge police chief have both defended his actions. Whether either side is eventually vindicated, the event demonstrates that the idea of America as a post-racial society is overly Pollyanna-ish. With reports that the Cambridge police may release 9-1-1 tapes of the incident and that Crowley is considering a defamation lawsuit, the controversy will not disappear anytime soon. A potential silver lining would be a mature conversation about race in America that uses this experience as a teachable moment.

The six-month anniversary of President Obama's inauguration offered an opportunity to evaluate the success of the stimulus package, one of his signature legislative achievements thus far. Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orzsag has been among the chorus arguing that the nation's economy has stepped back from the brink, joiningSlate's own Daniel Gross. Yet it is difficult to credit too much of the recovery to the stimulus package, which has disbursed only a fraction of the available funds; Larry Summers, the top economic adviser to President Obama, has announced that stimulus spending will peak in summer 2010. This stands in contrast to China, which has aggressively spent its stimulus funds and has experienced improved economic growth as a result. Meanwhile, some prominent liberal economists, including Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong, have called for a second stimulus package to supplement anemic nongovernmental spending. For a portrait of the variety of projects the first stimulus is funding, check out The Big Money's series "Recessionary Road."

Jim chatters about evidence of "green shoots" at The Big Money. TBM's two interns, who have been with the site since the beginning of the year, recently got paying jobs at media companies, which Jim sees as downright astonishing.

Jacob chatters about the  Onion's running gag, that "America's Finest News Source" has been sold to Yu Wan Mei, a Chinese company. Longtime Onion "publisher" T. Herman Zweibel writes that he sold the paper after receiving "what [he's] been assured is an appropriately absurd parcel of riches to take this tiresome publication off [his] feeble hands for good."

Emily chatters about Waltz With Bashir, the animated documentary about filmmaker Ari Folman's service in the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1982 Lebanon War. The film follows Folman's efforts to reconstruct his memories from the war, particularly the events surrounding the Sabra and Shatila Massacre. Emily missed the film when it came out in theaters, but after seeing it on DVD, she describes the film's use of animation as a very effective and seamless way of depicting the events.

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 July 24 by Jefferson Pestronk at 3:52 p.m.

July 17, 2009

Listen to the Gabfest for July 17 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 audio book, here. This week's recommendation comes from listener Gretel Uptegrove, who suggests The Blood of Flowers, written by Anita Amirrezvaniand narrated by Shoreh Aghdashloo. (She played Ben Kingsley's wife in The House of Sand and Fog.) Gretel says that Aghdashloo's "voice is like honey and just amazing to listen to."

Emily Bazelon, Christopher Beam, and John Dickerson talk politics. This week: Judge Sotomayor makes it through a week of hearings, health care moves toward front and center, and Dick Cheney is back in the news.

Sonia Sotomayor started and concluded her testimony in front of the Senate judiciary committee this week, with senators predicting a vote on her nomination in early August. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick wrote that the testimony was a missed opportunity for both parties, and others agree that the "advise and consent" process as it exists is a waste of time. That Judge Sotomayor failed to elucidate a strong liberal judicial philosophy generated satisfaction among conservatives. Whether Sotomayor's temperate performance makes a more traditional liberal nomination less likely for future vacancies is up for debate. What the whole exercise did make clear is that Sotomayor is not the dread "judicial activist" but rather a moderate, as even Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn acknowledged. At this point, the question is mostly how many votes Sotomayor will receive; the Intrade prediction markets think at least 75.

The Senate health, education, labor, and pensions committee passed its health care reform bill out of conference. Progress was slower in the House, however, as conservative Democrats raised contradictory concerns about the cost of the bill and the cost-cutting measures in the bill. President Obama is pushing to have a bill completed before the August recess, but various senators and outside observers have opined that reform is moving too quickly. And even when there was good news for the president's push, such as the American Medical Association's unexpected endorsement of reform schemes including public options, bad news followed: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office announced that it does not expect federal savings from the Democratic bills currently circulating in Congress. Because President Obama has staked much of his long-term fiscal strategy on reining in health care spending ("bending the curve," as John discussed in his exchange with Office of Management and Budget head Peter Orszag), failure puts the rest of his agenda and the nation's fiscal security at risk.

CIA chief Leon Panetta disclosed a secret CIA assassination program about which Congress was never briefed. Reports suggest that former Vice President Cheney ordered the CIA to withhold the existence of the program from the members of Congress whom it is required by law to brief about covert actions. Though the existence of the program is now public, Shane Harris wrote an article for Slate describing the weighty outstanding questions that are stirring Washington. These revelations may vindicate Nancy Pelosi, who claimed that the CIA lies to Congress (or at least withholds information it needs to provide).

Emily chatters about the Gabfest drinking game that was created and sent in by listener Guy Boo. It identifies frequent phrases and verbal tics of the Gabbers as cues for drinking and will undoubtedly make listening to the Gabfest more intoxicating. You can find the rules of the game on our Facebook page.

Chris chatters about Infinite Summer, a global bibliophilic challenge to read David Foster Wallace's epically long Infinite Jest. Participants are blogging the book as the reading proceeds, providing the type of reading community that most listeners probably haven't had since college. If you started reading at the beginning of the summer, you had to knock off only about 75 pages a week; with about one-third of the summer gone now, the pace has climbed to about 110 pages weekly.

John chatters about the woefully short paid maternity leave provided to employees of the U.S. federal government. Federal employees receive only one week paid leave, much less than is provided in some peer nations. (John mentions that Germany provides three months paid leave.)

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 July 17 by Jefferson Pestronk at 11:18 a.m.

July 10, 2009

Listen to the Gabfest for July 10 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 Martha Haynes, who suggests Losing Mum and Pup, written and read by Christopher Buckley. Martha calls it "more than just a memoir, by no means a dirge; this is one of those books that you will love so much you want to buy several copies to give to people you like a lot."

John Dickerson, David Plotz, and Emily Bazelon talk politics. This week: Sarah Palin bows out, an Obama round-up, and so long salon at the Washington Post.

Sarah Palin pulled off a rare political surprise when she announced plans to resign as governor effective July 26, 18 months before the end of her first term. After an announcement alternately described as shrewd and bizarre, Palin tried to clarify her statement using her Twitter and Facebook pages and several follow-up interviews. Despite reports that the decision was the result of months of thought, the shotgun nature suggested that she might have just tired of the job. Palin claimed her celebrity and various ethical and legal challenges hampered her ability to govern, and she insisted that her decision to step down was made on behalf of the state of Alaska. While it is difficult to imagine Palin as a successful presidential candidate following this performance, her resignation somehow made her even more popular among GOP faithful. Her continuing ability to confound the media and the left wing makes her a martyr to her base, but as Slate's Dahlia Lithwick wrote, Palin's cult of personality cannot counter her inability to articulate any big ideas.

 President Obama was in Russia this week for a summit. The primary outcome was a new strategic arms-reduction agreement with the Russians, and while that goal was achieved, reviews of overall progress were mixed. The greatest accomplishment may have been getting the Russians back to the negotiating table after frosty relations during the Bush administration. Among the challenges Obama faced in Russia was deciding whom to focus his attention on, current President Dmitry Medvedev or former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who some view as still the paramount power in Russia. Obama clearly prefers Medvedev and hopes he can build a relationship with the Russian president.

While Obama was in Russia, Congress continued work on the various health care reform packages it is developing. The announcement that hospitals would take $155 billion in pay cuts to help offset the costs of reform was welcome, but the bill in the Senate finance committee stalled nonetheless over concerns about how to pay for it and the inclusion (or not) of a public option. As John wrote in Slate, if Congress is going to get health care reform done before leaving for its August recess, it's going to have to get a move on.

The Washington Post, the newspaper owned by Slate's parent company, was embroiled in controversy this week after a story broke that the paper was soliciting sponsors to pay for "salons" convened by Post publisher Katharine Weymouth. The events promised off-the-record access to members of the news team as well as other power players in the city. While other media organizations such as Atlantic Media have held similar events, the revelation was a public relations disaster for the Post that may damage its reputation. Weymouth's grandmother, longtime Post publisher Katharine Graham, was a prominent hostess who held many salons, but without the pay-for-play connotation. Some have suggested the paper's most notable sin might be getting caught playing the game in public. Or, as Jack Shafer wrote for Slate and as Ezra Klein argued in the Post, if something is worth talking about off the record, isn't it in most cases worth talking about it for public consumption?

Emily chatters about an upcoming movie, Humpday, about two straight men who decide to make an "arty" gay porn film. After reading Jessica Grose's interview of the director of Humpday, Lynn Shelton, on Double X, Emily has decided that she needs to see the movie.

David chatters about his comments during last week's show about D.C. voting rights and clarifies that the Marion Barry experience demonstrates why he thinks D.C. should not have a voting member in Congress. Barry, an important figure in the struggles for civil rights and for D.C. home rule, has made a number of public missteps in recent years, most recently his arrest for stalking an ex-girlfriend. (The charges have been dropped.) The arrest brought to light a contract Barry awarded the woman, a $5,000-a-month sinecure that may be the more problematic allegation. It may finally force D.C. to answer the question of how tolerant it can be of Barry's peccadilloes.

John chatters about a collection of WPA interviews from the 1930s that he recently discovered are available online for easy perusal. John highlighted two particularly interesting interviews: one with an ironworker and another with a stonecutter. The interviews were created as part of the Federal Writers' Project, which supported unemployed writers during the Great Depression.

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 July 10 by Jefferson Pestronk at 11 a.m.

July 3, 2009

Listen to the Gabfest for July 3 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 audio book, here. This week's recommendation comes from listener Duncan MacKenzie, who suggests Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji. The novel tells the story of a 17-year-old boy in Tehran who is in love with his neighbor, but she has already been promised to another man. Duncan says that the story "sheds light on a personal and human Iran few of us know about."

John Dickerson, David Plotz, and Emily Bazelon talk politics. This week: That's Sen. Franken, if you please; Sarah Palin is back; and the Supreme Court rules on the New Haven firefighters case.

More than seven months after Election Day, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled 5-0 that Al Franken defeated incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman by the thinnest of margins, 312 votes out 2.9 million cast. Coleman quickly conceded the election, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the certificate required to seat Franken, a process that will likely occur on July 6 when the Senate reconvenes. Franken will hit the ground running after being named to two committees with looming responsibilities: judiciary, which will handle the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor; and health, education, labor, and pensions, one of two Senate committees tasked with health care reform. His victory also gives the Democratic caucus 60 votes (two independents—Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut—caucus with the Democrats), the minimum number necessary to overcome a filibuster. However, this will not give the Democrats carte blanche to pass legislation—although many conservatives would like the public to believe otherwise—as the party leadership must still corral moderate and conservative members. Democratic leaders may push for all 60 votes to overcome procedural challenges like the filibuster before freeing members to vote differently on the substance of the bill. However, two members of the Democratic caucus, Sens. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, face serious medical problems that have recently prevented them from casting votes. Kennedy and Byrd could enter the Senate in a scene reminiscent of former Sen. Pete Wilson's appearance on the Senate floor via ambulance and wheelchair. But short of such drama, the Democratic total stands at 58 votes present. 

A Vanity Fair article and a Runner's World interview and photo spread kept Sarah Palin in the news this week. The Vanity Fair feature reignited Republican internecine warfare, particularly between former McCain staffer Steve Schmidt and prominent Republican columnist Bill Kristol. Kristol accused Schmidt of being the anonymous staffer who suggested that Palin might be suffering from postpartum depression, setting off a volley of recriminations. Stories following the Vanity Fair piece highlighted tensions between Palin and Schmidt that began on the campaign trail and indicate that, despite his denials, Schmidt may indeed be the leaker. The spitball fight between former candidate and staff put the lie to Newt Gingrich's recent claim that the country would have been better off with McCain and Palin in the White House; even conservatives have begun to doubt that. 

Another GOP luminary received negative press this week, as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford rejected calls for his resignation amid additional juicy revelations of his marital infidelities. Sanford admitted during an interview with the Associated Press that he had "crossed the line" with women other than his Argentinean mistress and is now trying to fall back in love with his wife, even though he calls the mistress his soul mate. The admissions were part of Sanford's new strategy of laying it all on the table, but they may just add to the calls for his resignation.

The Supreme Court wrapped up a term in which it moved incrementally to the right with a 5-4 ruling against the city of New Haven in the Ricci case. The decision weighed two concepts of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, disparate treatment and disparate impact, against each other, concluding that the white New Haven firefighters suffered unacceptable disparate treatment when their promotions were denied. Emily and Nicole Allan's series in Slate about the history of racial disputes within the New Haven Fire Department and the bad facts of the Ricci case demonstrates why this is such a controversial ruling. The ruling does seem to leave New Haven and other cities free to use other types of tests to determine promotions. Similar questions will reappear during the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor, but the 5-4 split shows that Sotomayor is not out at the legal extreme on this issue. However, polling suggests that the Supreme Court reversal may have reduced her public support.

David chatters about a correction that the New York Times issued to a recipe for infused oils. After the recipe, produced by Mark Bittman, was published and appeared online for three days, the Times adjusted the cooking time and the period for which the oil could be stored. Apparently, insufficiently simmering the oil or storing it for too long carries a risk of botulism, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls "a rare but serious paralytic disease." This oversight led witty observers to quip that the Times cannot afford to lose any more readers.

Emily chatters about a case, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, that the Supreme Court chose not to decide this term but instead pushed back to the fall. At issue is a film called Hillary: The Movie that was produced by corporate backers who wanted to show it as an on-demand movie and on cable. However, the Supreme Court indicated in delaying hearing the case that it wants to address two key precedents governing campaign finance, leading to speculation that the court may open the floodgates to unlimited corporate campaign contributions.

John chatters about the busy congressional calendar following the Fourth of July recess. In 25 work days before adjourning for the August recess, both houses will continue to work on health care reform; the Senate will hold hearings on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court; cap-and-trade legislation will face a tough fight in the Senate; and the United States and Russia will attempt to negotiate a new strategic weapons treaty.

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 July 3 by Jefferson Pestronk at 8:24 a.m.

Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelon, Chief Political Correspondent John Dickerson, and Editor David Plotz host the Gabfest weekly. Michael Newman is Slate's politics editor.

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